On Economic Nationalism, India Is Late To The Party

Published: December 03, 2016 08:34 IST
Hyperglobalisation is dead, at least as an idea. The liberal global order, underwritten by American military dominance and fortified by American cultural hegemony, is crumbling. Long under threat from rising powers with their own brash forms of modernity, this hegemony has just been shattered by the election of an unhinged, low-watt pyro-capitalist as "the leader of the free world." The world is indeed free, free at last from the hubristic goad of western cultural superiority.

Ironically, India is attempting to become a global manufacturing hub precisely at the moment that the global north wants to "bring jobs back." The unravelling of hyperglobalisation will only push our manufacturing dream further away.

Thus we in the rest of the world can hardly snark from the comforts of secure civilisation. Not only are our own houses far from being in order, quite the contrary, but we're all aboard Spaceship Earth together. The question before us seems to be: will the liberal order unravel in an orderly or disorderly fashion? Will there be a cooperative downscaling or a rush to the exit? What will this mean for India's economic aspirations?

Hyperglobalisation might be summarised as the deep integration of national economies through open trade and capital accounts, creeping standardisation of regulations covering everything from the environment to finance, and the emergence not only of a global criminal jurisdiction but a commercial one as well where sovereign states might be taken to "court" by companies for breach of contract.

This system linked elites across global cities to workers in the global south in a manner not seen since the high water mark of imperialism before World War I. Indeed, some see it not unjustifiably as imperialism by another name, albeit one that shares its spoils more evenly with elites of the global south. These shared spoils are the wages of hard-won national sovereignty.

Like several nations, India has resisted hyperglobalisation to the extent it can, trading off growth for the stability our democracy demands. Yet we too are witnessing a turn to right-wing economic nationalism that, so far, has born very little fruit despite grand pronouncements. This is perhaps because we came to the party too late. 

The great fault line of hyperglobalisation has always been the disjuncture between a globalised economy straddling discrete, national polities. Economics has been global but politics has remained resolutely local, tied firmly to the only legitimate political entity we have, the venerable nation-state of Westphalian vintage. 

This fault line was managed by two developments. First, a combination of economic growth and coercive force, used in different proportions in the global north and south, kept national polities quiet. Northern losers from outsourcing in the US and UK were appeased with traditional and then financialized Keynesianism while their southern counterparts in places like India and China were more often driven to the wall. 

Second, a globalised managerial elite, collectively educated at a handful of schools where they were socialised in Potter-esque niceties, formed a distributed but coherent network located across global financial centres that performed many of the coordinating, quasi-governmental functions demanded by a globalised economy.

The economic crisis put paid to the first leg of the first prop of hyperglobalisation, namely economic growth. All that was left at the margin was violence to keep populations in check. The near-simultaneous rise of protest movements across the globe in the aftermath of the crisis made the sight of young would-be revolutionaries facing down stormtroopers almost commonplace.

And now, with the rise of anti-elite populisms of the right, we have a frontal attack on the other prop of hyperglobalisation. 

Rural and post-industrial heartlands of the global north became surplus to requirements, political problems to be managed rather than places of active citizenship. But embarrassing racist uncles whose time had passed still had one asset in the global north: they could vote.

Where their colleagues in the global south might face the gallows - India is exceptional in its democracy, imperfect as it is - the losers from hyperglobalisation in the developed world still had political assets where their economic ones had atrophied.

No surprise then that the chosen vehicle for this anti-elite assault was the nation state. Prognostications of its demise were always overblown. Relegated to a poverty-management role, the state nevertheless retained economic supremacy as the largest economic entity in every national jurisdiction, the provider of risk-free assets. The assets of the largest states were safe havens when the web of the world economy snapped under successive expansionist drives.

Within northern states, the battle of ideas emerged from the Cold War to warp the field. Progressive forces in the developed world forgot about economics and focused on issues of identity and inclusion. With their narrative of inclusion, these progressive forces implicitly colluded with global elites in papering over the fault lines the system by making it appear to be on the right side of history.

But the absence of a left-wing, progressive discourse on economics ultimately made the system more fragile. Without a progressive political idiom that spoke to the realities of their dispossession and insecurity, populations in rural and post-industrial heartlands were left with only one rhetorical arsenal to attack the status quo, that of the right. 

A combination of economic insecurity, political capital, and right-wing rhetoric is now weaponising the nation state against the hyperglobalisation of the suit-boot elites. The disjuncture between a global economy and national polities stands exposed, unmanageable. 

Hyper-unravelling would result from the blunt assertion of national interest by major powers in a tit-for-tat dynamnic. We're already seeing shades of mutually-defeating actions in post-Brexit EU. Imagine that on a global scale. Instead of the cooperative construction of a more just version of globalisation, we could get an even more violent lurch to the right.

When, for domestic political and economic reasons, the global north was outsourcing manufacturing jobs, India was not in a position to capitalise as East Asia did. Now the wheel has turned. 

Market  access to developed economies will be harder. They will strike harder bargains to access our own market, demanding more of the attributes of hyperglobalisation that India, because of its democratic political settlement, finds hard to deliver. Controls over banking, finance, and the rupee in particular are required to insulate a poor democracy from the volatility of global markets.

There is, therefore, a further risk to our polity. On the one hand, desperation for the promised economic success increases. On the other, world markets will now drive a harder bargain for market access. How much will India be asked to give to secure market access and inflow of investment?

India's growth experience, such as it is, has been one of poverty amidst plenty. With the world market in retreat, we might think more about what we can do to reduce still-raging inequality and thereby spur demand in our planet-sized home market.

(Anush Kapadia is a social scientist at IIT Bombay.)

NDTV Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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