“As the tides of re-globalization reshape our world, a new social contract emerges, illuminating the path towards a reimagined global economy. Through the embrace of collective cooperation and equitable practices, we can forge a future that transcends borders, empowering individuals and fostering a harmonious global community.”
Underlying every economic system is a social contract, which establishes the norms, values, and beliefs of the people involved. This contract dictates how individuals should behave within the economy, defines their reciprocal obligations, and shapes the way the economy operates. In numerous market economies worldwide, including both advanced and emerging nations, there is a prevailing materialistic social contract that is increasingly failing to address the basic needs of its citizens. Globalization, in its essence, is not inherently positive or negative. It possesses the potential to bring about immense benefits. However, to ensure that the globalization process remains balanced and prevents excessive control of financial institutions over the global economy, we need a world governing body that is accountable to the people of all nations.
To those who support globalization, often linked to the embracing of capitalism in an American fashion, it is seen as a path to progress. They argue that developing countries must embrace globalization in order to experience growth and effectively combat poverty. However, many individuals in the developing world have not witnessed the economic benefits that were promised with globalization. In Africa, the lofty hopes that emerged after gaining independence from colonial rule have, for the most part, gone unrealized. Instead, the continent finds itself descending further into distress, with declining incomes and deteriorating living conditions. Even the hard-fought advancements made in life expectancy over the past few decades have started to erode.
The critics of globalization claim that Western countries are guilty of hypocrisy, and their argument has merit. These countries have pressured impoverished nations to dismantle trade barriers, while simultaneously upholding their own barriers. Consequently, developing countries are unable to export their agricultural goods, leading to a detrimental loss of vital export income. The Western countries, even when not engaging in hypocrisy, have played a significant role in driving the globalization agenda. As a result, they have obtained a disproportionate share of the benefits, often at the expense of developing nations. This was not solely due to the refusal of more advanced industrial countries to open their markets to goods from developing countries, while insisting on open markets for their own goods. These advanced countries also persisted in subsidizing agriculture, creating obstacles for developing nations to compete, while simultaneously demanding that these nations eliminate subsidies on industrial goods.
When it comes to economic globalization, one controversial and almost draconian policy of the international financial system led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is the requirement for developing economies to open up their markets to foreign competition, sometimes prematurely. These countries often feel compelled to comply with IMF demands because the provision of IMF funds is contingent upon swift trade and capital market liberalization. In contrast, developed societies, such as the United States, have historically protected industries considered unable to compete with foreign markets, until those industries became strong enough to thrive in a free market economy.
Perhaps most striking is the perceived hypocrisy of Western countries, who advocate for trade liberalization in the products they export, while simultaneously safeguarding sectors where competition from developing countries could potentially threaten their own economies.
For many years, the voices of the impoverished in Africa and other developing nations have often gone unnoticed in the Western world. Those who toiled in these countries were aware that something was amiss as financial crises became more frequent and the numbers of poor individuals grew. However, they had limited means to alter the rules or exert influence over the international financial institutions that dictated them. Those who held democracy in high regard observed how “conditionality,” the conditions imposed by international lenders in exchange for their aid, eroded national sovereignty.
The issue of governance lies at the core of the problems associated with the IMF and other international economic institutions. The decision-making power is primarily held by the wealthiest industrial countries, as well as by commercial and financial interests within these countries. As a result, the policies of these institutions tend to align with these dominant influences. It is often remarked that these institutions lack representation from the nations they serve, and the management positions are typically selected by major developed nations that are mostly driven by their own specific interests. Traditionally, the head of the IMF has always been a European, while the head of the World Bank is always an American. The selection process for these positions occurs behind closed doors, without any requirement for the head to have any prior experience in the developing world.
Economic theory does not guarantee that every individual will benefit from globalization, but rather suggests that there will be overall positive gains, allowing winners to potentially compensate the losers and still come out ahead. However, conservatives have argued that in order to maintain competitiveness in a globalized world, tax reductions and reductions in welfare state provisions are necessary. In the United States, for example, taxes have become less progressive, with tax cuts mainly benefiting those who benefit from globalization and technological advancements. This has resulted in a situation where countries like the US, and others following their lead, have become wealthy nations but with poor people.
The appeal of capitalist economies is often based on the principle of a material social contract, where people support this economic system because it promises higher living standards and greater economic freedom compared to alternative systems. The underlying assumption is that material prosperity can fulfill human needs. However, in many countries, this economic model has resulted in increasing inequality across various dimensions such as income, wealth, education, health, skills, and social esteem. It has also led to reduced social mobility, growing social divisions, and a widespread sense of disempowerment in response to the uncertainties associated with globalization.
In advanced economies, disparities have increased among different generations, with younger individuals falling behind their older counterparts, as well as between metropolitan and rural areas. These inequalities have eroded social cohesion, leading to reduced trust in government, lower civic engagement, decreased political participation, and a rise in support for populist ideologies. Policies such as corporate tax reductions and decreased welfare provisions have benefited a small portion of the population, who have then utilized their newfound economic power to shape the political process and media discourse to their advantage.
The interactions between successful business leaders, politicians, and journalists have contributed to a cycle of inequality, deregulation, and the gradual dismantling of social safety nets. This has been perpetuated through notions of “trickle-down prosperity” and the perception that there is a trade-off between equity and efficiency, suggesting that greater material prosperity can only be achieved at the cost of less material equality. As a result, an increasing portion of GDP growth has been channeled towards the top 1% of the income distribution.
The issue at hand is that economic globalization has progressed at a faster rate than the globalization of politics and mindsets. While our interdependence has grown, necessitating collective action, we lack the proper institutional frameworks to address these challenges in an efficient and democratic manner.
The main obstacle to successful globalization reforms lies not only within the institutional structures but also in the mindsets of key decision-makers. It is crucial to prioritize concerns such as environmental sustainability, ensuring the participation of marginalized communities in decision-making processes, and promoting democratic principles and fair trade. However, the challenge arises from the fact that these institutions often reflect the priorities and mindsets of those in positions of power. Typically, central bank governors are more focused on inflation statistics rather than poverty statistics, while trade ministers prioritize export numbers over pollution indices. This misalignment of priorities hinders efforts to fully realize the potential benefits of globalization.
Establishing a new social contract that is grounded in sustainable principles can help reconnect economic activity with the fulfillment of essential human needs. This redefined contract requires a fresh understanding of the responsibilities of businesses, households, and governments. It is evident that globalization can undergo change, but the crucial question is whether this change will be driven by a crisis or the result of deliberate, democratic deliberations. If change is crisis-driven, there is a risk of generating a negative backlash against globalization or haphazardly reshaping it, which could lead to potential problems in the future. On the other hand, taking control of the process offers a potential avenue to reshape globalization, enabling it to truly live up to its potential and promise of improving living standards for all individuals in the world.