ANU: The winners and losers of economic globalisation

Take a Rubik’s cube. Twist. Twist again. And twist once more for good measure.

What was once six sides of smooth, uniform blue, green, orange, red, white or yellow is now an explosion of colour almost impossible to unpick.

Now imagine that the cube is economic globalisation, and how it is viewed today.

Not just a mess of colour but a hotbed of furious debate and contested ideas about whether it is a force for good or evil.

How you disentangle this chaotic kaleidoscope of views about economic globalisation, and its winners and losers, is the subject of a major new book co-authored by Professor Anthea Roberts from the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet).

Written with Associate Professor Nicolas Lamp and published by Harvard University Press, Six faces of globalization takes a deep dive into the virtues and vices of globalisation and the way it is embraced, rejected or even merely tolerated in today’s world.

“When it comes to economic globalisation, the incoherent mix of arguments and concerns about trade, inequality, disintegrating communities, corporate power, public health and environmental catastrophe are like the jumbled colours on each face of a Rubik’s cube,” Roberts says.

Lamp, from Queen’s University in Canada, says: “As we disentangled the debates that had been playing out in the Western media, six prominent narratives about the winners and losers from economic globalisation emerged, which we conceptualise as existing on the faces of a Rubik’s cube.”

Now that you have your rebuilt cube in hand, those debates are a lot easier to follow.

On the top face of the cube sits the idea that “everybody wins” – the dominant view of globalisation after the Cold War ended. If this colour were a force of nature it would be the tide that lifts all boats. It’s what Roberts and Lamp call the establishment narrative.

“In this view, the pushback against economic globalisation by people who feel that they have lost out is simply a natural reaction to the creative destruction that necessarily accompanies progress,” Roberts says.

“The appropriate response is to help individuals adjust to the competition unleashed by globalisation by offering them retraining and allowing them to share in the gains from trade.”

This is the view held by the “guardians” of today’s global economic order – the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization – and many other powerful actors.

The problem is the sheen of this dominate narrative is fading fast.

From rust belts in the First World to those eking out a living below the poverty line in the Third, and even our ever-increasingly fragile planet, globalisation has left behind a long line of sorry losers – battered and bruised by its unfulfilled promises.

These also-rans, and their opposites, the hardly rans (hello one percenters!), occupy the four sides of Roberts’ and Lamp’s cube, in what they call the “winners and losers” set of narratives.

According to Roberts, these narratives have become central to current debates about globalisation, “besieging the establishment narrative from all four sides”.

“On the first of these four sides we can see the left-wing populist narrative, which argues national economies are rigged so the benefits of globalisation are funnelled to a privileged few,” she says.

“We can also see the corporate power narrative, which argues that the real winners of globalisation are the major corporations dominating the global economy today.”

This is a worldview where companies like Apple get to have their cake and eat it too.

On the third side of the cube is the right-wing populist narrative.

“The right-wing populist narrative shares with the left-wing version a deep distrust of elites, but the two narratives part company on what they blame the elite for,” Lamp says.

“Whereas left-wing populists fault the elite for enriching themselves at the expense of the working and middle classes, right-wing populists denounce the elite for failing to protect the hardworking native population from threats posed by an external ‘other’.”

This is the side of the cube where Trump and the forces behind Brexit make their home.

On the final side of the cube is the geoeconomic narrative. At its core are debates about increasing economic competition between the US and China. This is the rock and the hard place Australian foreign policy is currently trying to negotiate.

“Although the narrative features most prominently in America, it is gaining ground in other Western countries as well, where China is increasingly regarded as a strategic competitor and a potential security threat rather than merely as an economic partner,” Roberts says.

“Instead of applauding trade and investment as enhancing economic welfare and increasing prospects for peace, the geoeconomic narrative emphasises the security vulnerabilities created by economic interdependence and digital connectivity with a strategic rival.”

Finally, we come to the bottom of the cube. This is where, appropriately and poetically, the idea “everybody loses” can be found. It’s what Roberts and Lamp call the global threats narrative.

“This narrative sees all of us as at risk of losing from economic globalisation in its current form,” Lamp says.

“It portrays economic globalisation as a source and accelerator of global threats, such as pandemics and climate change. Some of these narratives focus on how global connectivity increases the risk of contagion, both of the viral and economic kind.”

Now that we have our reconstructed Rubik’s cube, with its six cohesive and colourful narratives, so what? Why put the colours back together at all?

The simple answer is that like most things in life, economic globalisation can’t solely be viewed in black and white terms.

But if we match the colours, we can explore economic globalisation from multiple perspectives. This is crucial if we are to deal with its challenges and seize its opportunities, Roberts and Lamp argue.

“No single narrative can capture the multifaceted nature of such issues, and no perspective is neutral, just as solving one face of the cube does not solve the whole puzzle,” Lamp says.

“In many Western countries, the electorate is becoming more divided, and individuals are growing more distrustful of those holding different political views.”

Roberts says: “As anyone who has tried to solve a Rubik’s cube knows, there are many ways home. Unlike with the Rubik’s cube, however, there is no single solution to the pushback against economic globalisation.

“Instead of reaching a perfectly coherent outcome, the policy challenge we face is how best to mix-and-match the coloured squares that make up the faces of the different narratives so that we can find a new consensus to move forward.”

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