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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Globalisation – A victim of its own success? Forgetting the lessons of history

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Globalisation – A victim of its own success? Forgetting the lessons of history

It’s nearing 11pm on the last day of January and the air is rife with anticipation. After 47 years, the United Kingdom is finally leaving the European Union (EU). This should be a time for celebration. It is, after all, a step forward.

It is nonetheless unsurprising that a vast majority of people are far from happy.

For many, Brexit brings about a sense of great loss.
For others, Brexit is a sign of something else entirely.

To Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann, Britain’s departure from the EU evokes a sense of foreboding. He writes how many of his friends are now leaving a country they took for their homeland. He recalls: A German executive, fresh from negotiations with British officials, mused: “For the first time, I understand how the first world war arose.”

In the hours before the countdown clock reaches zero at 10 Downing Street, masses of people continue to demonstrate. A pro-EU protestor speaks to The Guardian: “We’re being dragged out of the European Union without our consent.”

Kehlmann reflects upon a theme that this event has brought to the fore. “Brexit is a clear example for our generation that progress is not inevitable and that everything you achieve can be lost again.” It is a message that is becoming increasingly prominent as the new year drags on. The world is being driven apart and forgetting hard-learned lessons from the past. It is understandably not something that we are willing to hear, especially when the driving force of our world today is the all-consuming pursuit of ‘progress’. However, it is impossible to ignore the tell-tale signs that we are entering a new era of deglobalisation.

Brexit protesters. Photograph: ChiralJon for Creative Commons

Take, for example, the global spread of the virus COVID-19. Deglobalisation might already have been taking place, but this extremely contagious virus that stemmed from the country with the largest population in the world may have accelerated it. Writing for the New York Times, journalist Steven Erlanger contributed this: “Even before the virus arrived in Europe, climate change, security concerns and complaints about unfair trade had intensified anxieties about global air travel and globalised industrial supply chains.”

“Among all the challenges to globalisation, many of them political or ideological, this virus may be different.” This certainly appears to be the case. Never before have the world’s connections unravelled so quickly. Confronted with this threat, it is every country for itself. It seems that years of working towards the unity of nations to avoid, at all costs, the wars that wreaked havoc upon so many lives have been forgotten. The virus has prompted an array of questions about the way the world has been built. Everything is interconnected –  from air travel to supply chains – and when push comes to shove people are left wondering if perhaps what is now recognised as a global pandemic could have been avoided if the world had not been constructed like it is.

Indeed, many see the coming apart of globalisation as a real benefit. The argument is that the current system poses a multitude of threats – from health to security. These claims, however, betray a lack of understanding of the reasons the world is where it is today. Surely, one would think, there must be a purpose behind the great efforts of globalisation. The world has gone through a great deal to construct society as it is today; it is far from perfect, but for the most part it works. It has brought about peace and this is ultimately what the world should strive for.

So why has there been a recent push for nationalism? Perhaps globalisation has worked too well. Changes have been made very effectively; it has brought relative peace, free trade, freedom of movement and higher standards of living. In doing so, however, it has left behind large parts of the working class in developed countries, who blame their struggles on the same integration that has brought gains for the rest of society. Citing research by the labour market economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin, Ben Chu, a journalist for The Independent, writes of Brexit: “The Leave vote tended to be bigger in areas of the country where wage growth has been weakest since 1997.” Chu goes on to suggest that “This would seem to support the popular theory that this was essentially a giant protest vote against the political class by people who feel economically ‘left behind' in modern Britain.”

It follows, then, that the majority of Leave voters may only be able to see the costs of globalisation; worrying about the impacts of free trade and immigration on jobs and their way of life and by doing so taking for granted the benefits of peace.

Chu attests to this, reporting that “A poll by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft seems to support this, with Leave voters being generally much more hostile to concepts such as multiculturalism, social liberalism, feminism and environmentalism.”

Admittedly, it can be difficult to see the positives of globalisation when one’s immediate world is replete with its problems. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent recognises this, saying, of Remainers and economists: “They downplay the belief that immigrants keep down wages and take jobs that might otherwise go to local people. But for those who are just getting by, immigrants pose one extra pressure, real or imaginary, on top of many others.”

Still, the fact remains that priorities are getting confused as society is falling under the illusion that progress is irreversible. Peace is not something that should be taken for granted, instead, it should be treasured. The European Union was, according to its official website, “set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War.”

That is the main priority - it always has been. Until now. In the world that we are living in today, it is harder than ever to keep nations together. The simple truth is that whatever progress we have made is not everlasting.

President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric and the trade war with China are driven by this same inward-looking nationalism. The New York Times recently reported that at the Munich Security Conference, “The Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, described a bleak future if the United States and Europe did not work to contain China on all fronts.” He warned countries against letting Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, build next-generation communication networks, saying that if they did they should be prepared to see American intelligence cooperation reduced.

His statement was not commented upon, for fear of insulting China. Countries are torn between the two economic powerhouses. Choices will have to be made, inevitably creating tensions.

Hence, the divide. Hence, the closing of borders. Hence, the seemingly endless conflicts. 

The countdown clock reaches zero. A giant screen flashes the words ‘We’re Out!’ Flags are waved and cheers fill the air. Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, yells into the microphone as he addresses the exuberant crowd, “Let us celebrate tonight as we’ve never done before – the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation!”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson declares, “This is the dawn of a new era.” It irrefutably is. Forty-seven years of alliances brought to an end in the name of progress, sovereignty and independence.

We truly have been blinded by our successes.

Mankind is yet again demonstrating its inability to learn from past mistakes. We would do well to remind ourselves of the old adage that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

The British flag will no longer be flown at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Bankenverband for Creative Commons


2 Jun 2020
Media and Republish

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