Daniel Innerarity, professor of political and social philosophy at the University of the Basque Country
One of the unprecedented questions raised by this involuntary social experiment posed by the pandemic is whether we are entering a period of deglobalisation or whether globalisation will continue as before. There is a bit of unreality in this question, as if globalisation were a process that could be stopped, and we had started it with an express decision at some point. Human beings did not decide, at a sort of AGM, to enter the Iron Age or to abandon the Renaissance. Why are people now asking this question, which seems to attribute to us a sovereignty that we do not have? Probably because we allow ourselves to be carried away by the idea of having a high degree of control over reality since we have just done something very similar to deciding to stop the world: the lockdown and halting a good part of the economy. It has not been similar to the recessions or economic crises that we have suffered, which we now have considerable experience of, but a halt to our usual mobility and a hibernation of the economy that result from decisions we adopted, we may have been forced to do so by the health threat, but nonetheless we took these decisions voluntarily. The radical nature of the measures taken to combat the pandemic can fool us into the illusion that we are capable of controlling everything, including something very similar to stopping the world.
The flip side of thinking that there are sovereign actors is that there must be culprits whose incompetence or evil explains everything. We love to find culprits for crises, and we should curb this urge if we want to make good diagnoses (which will undoubtedly include identifying irresponsible parties). Globalisation now appears to us as the wild card in all our explanations. That the coronavirus has spread globally leads us to think that it has something to do with globalisation, but de-globalisation is not easy, nor is it clear what it might mean. For a start, the virus seems to have spread mainly not through trade, but through tourism. Should we ban pilgrimages to Mecca or tourism in Florence? The idea that the virus is now passing us the bill for disorderly globalisation is a half-truth. There were plagues as early as the fourteenth century and growing interdependence also has very positive aspects when it comes to combating these pandemics (such as scientific cooperation, the agility of information or the communication of successful experiences). If the virus came from China and had such devastating effects, it was not because of excessive globalisation, but because the virus was globalised while information was nationalised. It is necessary to properly diagnose what type of political constellation the coronavirus comes from and what interactions it obeys. To maintain that it is a virus of globalisation would be a simplification that does not correspond to the fact that we live in a more complex world, in which there are dimensions to our existence that have been globalised a lot, others not so much and some that have even experienced a retraction. The point is that we must balance the risks we are running by sharing the information, technologies and institutions that we need to face them. The goal is a balanced globalisation, something that is within our reach, and not a deglobalisation that is totally out of touch with reality.
As a consequence of the jolt caused by the pandemic, the big issues have returned to the political agenda, even with a touch of grandstanding, I would say, as if the future of the world were in our hands in a way that does not correspond to our limitations. A debate has arisen between two camps, which we might call the contractionists and the expansionists, the former arguing that this crisis calls for de-globalisation and the latter maintaining that globalisation must be promoted by providing it with the appropriate political structures.
The management of the crisis has initially followed a contractionary logic: closing borders, reserving resources for national citizens, confinement, greater demand for protectionism from governments, interruption of global supply chains and mobility. At the same time, after the instinctive withdrawal reaction, there were phenomena that implied a greater openness: configuration of a more unified world public opinion that discusses the same things, advance of digitisation, telework and online education, demands for intervention by the EU, a desperate race to find a vaccine through international scientific cooperation, a comparison of the strategies implemented by various countries that placed us in a framework of good practices or global benchmarking.
The fact that both positions appear to be right, based on the examples given and the perspective from which they are observed, tells us a lot about the nature of globalisation; it is something inevitable, a destiny, but ambivalent and even contradictory, with movements that contradict each other, although the result is an increase in interconnection. The mention of globalisation also evokes its opposite, like our shadow that goes with us. Sometimes, for the globalists to be right again, a step back needs to be taken, in what could be interpreted as a concession to those in favour of blocking their way. A quick glance at the history of globalisation is enough to see that it has always fluctuated between expansion and contraction.
There is a case in the current debate that is adduced as an example of the success of deglobalisation. The economic downturn has had immediate beneficial effects on the quality of the air, rivers and seas, for obvious reasons deriving from the closure of industries and decreased mobility. While it is true that the confinement, the hibernation of many economic activities and the decrease in international trade due to the pandemic have led to a decrease in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it would be a mistake to think that this contraction reduces the risks of climate change beyond the immediate horizon. Emissions will rise again when activity recovers and if the pandemic causes a serious economic crisis, a lot of money and a lot of political will be diverted from the fight against the climate crisis. The situation could even worsen because attention to the immediate threats of the pandemic would distract us from climate threats, which are more latent and long-term. Let us also not forget that companies will find it difficult to invest in the transition to sustainable projects; that lower oil prices will make electric vehicles relatively more expensive (as partly indicated by the fall in Tesla shares); the supply chain for renewable energy, which is highly dependent on the production of certain elements in China, could be interrupted; the widespread fear of health and financial risks will focus all the attention and concerns about climate change will be relegated to second place. In any case, the fact that the climate has improved during the pandemic because many people died and work decreased does not seem to be the best procedure for solving the problems of the climate crisis. We should find solutions that make it possible to reconcile all the goods at stake (life, the economy, the planet), beyond the sacrificial promise that stopping the world necessarily fixes the problems associated with its movement.
My conclusion to this debate is that globalisation is not going to stop because we decide to stop it or because governments so decree. However, a set of decisions are in our hands that in fact amount to driving or slowing down globalisation. It will be something similar to the experiment of repairing a ship while it is under way. We do not have a long pause or an intentional interruption to the story and we are forced to reflect while we are in motion. Quarantine is the elimination of contacts for a certain period, but the concept of “deglobalisation” suggests that we must suppress the relationships we have established or at least the way they have been configured since we have been talking about this phenomenon. We should distinguish between those we should limit, those that should be modified and those that it does not seem reasonable to give up.
This collective reflection will not make us deliberate about an emergency lever to stop the world, but instead encourages us to think about its resizing. The great debate consists of resizing the decision areas according to the nature of the risks that threaten us. We have to redefine the scales and appropriate levels of management and production: local, national, international, supranational, transnational, global. This health crisis has mainly revealed the fragility of global openness, both in terms of the mobility that has favoured the spread of the pandemic and certain difficulties in dealing with it when it was necessary to stock up on masks or ventilators, and we realised our enormous dependence on the supply of basic goods and services (things for which we had delocalised production and which did not seem to have a special added value or had less relevance to security than sophisticated military equipment). Our first reaction is to favour regional markets, disrupt global supply chains, go back to classic protections and the local scale; but the cosmopolitanism of the scientific community, the strengthening of a global public opinion and the advantages of digitisation have also come into their own, precisely to avoid everything coming to a halt. Nervous globalisation must be followed by sustainable “glocalisation”.
The coronavirus is not going to end globalisation (if this idea makes any sense). The question is, which form of organisation is the most appropriate to rebalance a world that already had many imbalances that this crisis has merely thrown into relief. Even if it were possible, the return to closed worlds would not contribute to providing the world with better governance, but would leave it without counterweights of authorities and actors to balance its uncontrolled dynamics. We will have to distinguish advantageous or unavoidable interdependence from dependencies that pose serious security threats. Instead of lurching between discipline and disorder, regression and acceleration, what this globalisation needs is more regulation. Before and after the pandemic, it remains true that public goods require global institutions, cooperation and global solutions.