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The biggest picture | Aeon

A logjam of container ships in the so-called global supply chain, moored off Long Beach, California, on 9 October 2021. Photo by Tim Rue/Bloomberg/Getty

A logjam of container ships in the so-called global supply chain, moored off Long Beach, California, on 9 October 2021. Photo by Tim Rue/Bloomberg/Getty

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The biggest picture

No wonder we cannot agree on how globalisation works and whether it’s a good thing. All the stories we have are flawed

by Anthea Roberts & Nicholas Lamp + BIO

A logjam of container ships in the so-called global supply chain, moored off Long Beach, California, on 9 October 2021. Photo by Tim Rue/Bloomberg/Getty

Isaiah Berlin understood the parable of the fox and the hedgehog – ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ – to illustrate two styles of thinking. Hedgehogs relate everything to a single vision, a universally applicable organising principle for understanding the world. Foxes, on the other hand, embrace many values and approaches rather than trying to fit everything into an all-encompassing singular vision.

Debates about economic globalisation are often dominated by hedgehogs – actors who interpret and evaluate the dynamics and consequences of globalisation through a single lens. Take the narrative that dominated the debate about globalisation in the West from the collapse of the Soviet Union until the global financial crisis in 2008. On this view, economic liberalisation promised to grow the pie so that everyone – developed and developing countries, rich and poor – would be better off. This confident perspective touted free trade as a win-win outcome that would create peace and prosperity for all.

In recent years, this view has been challenged by a variety of narratives that stress that economic globalisation produces many losers. Right-wing populists lament the decay of America’s rust belt, warning of the need to protect the native working class against the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and the onshoring of immigrants. Left-wing populists and critics of corporate power protest that globalisation’s advantages often accrue mainly to rich people and powerful multinationals, hollowing out the middle class. The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have heightened anxiety about the resilience and sustainability of our economies.

We are at a critical juncture: a relatively long period of stability in mainstream thinking about economic globalisation has given way to a situation of dramatic flux. During such periods, narratives assume particular relevance because they offer new ways for actors to understand what the problem is and what should be done about it.

The interplay of different narratives could be the starting point of a nuanced appraisal of the complexities, uncertainties and ambiguities of economic globalisation. More often, however, debates about economic globalisation devolve into stand-offs among hedgehogs who emphasise the validity of their perspective while seeking to expose their opponents as economically illiterate, politically dangerous or morally bankrupt.

A prime example of such a standoff was the reaction by establishment figures to the critiques of free trade and immigration that animated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the United States and the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom. Many curled up into a ball of spikes, disparaging opponents for their stupidity and self-interest. But proponents of the insurgent narratives have been no less at fault: they have drawn much of their energy from their ability to present a radically different perspective, often at the cost of nuance and a willingness to compromise.

None of this is to say that the perspectives brought to light by the hedgehogs are not valid and valuable. Some of them harness the empirical and theoretical tools of particular academic disciplines to build our knowledge of the global economy, polity and environment. Others articulate a particular value system and spell out its ethical ramifications for organising the global flow of goods, people, capital, data and ideas. Each of these perspectives expresses a different viewpoint and sheds light on a piece of the puzzle.

Yet debates dominated by hedgehogs hinder us from moving forward. These debates tend to oscillate between two extremes. On some issues, proponents of different narratives seem to inhabit different worlds, with little or no interaction (silos). Some know a lot about inequality, for instance, but little about great-power competition or how the two might relate. At other times, the advocates of rival approaches clash forcefully, but the sides are so deeply entrenched in their own worldviews that genuine dialogue seems impossible (polarisation).

In order to grapple with complex issues such as economic globalisation, we need to develop more fox-like approaches that seek to overcome the silos and polarisation that are the hallmark of contemporary debates. The fact that hedgehogs have been dominating public debates about economic globalisation not only impedes our understanding of complex phenomena but makes it difficult for us to appreciate and accommodate the different values at stake. It is time for a more foxy approach.

The first step to developing such an approach is to understand what the hedgehogs have been saying about economic globalisation. In our book Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why It Matters (2021), we identify six main narratives driving debates in the West about the virtues and vices of economic globalisation. These narratives provide the storylines through which people perceive reality and communicate their understandings and values. They fall into three broad categories: win-win, win-lose and lose-lose narratives.

The establishment narrative has been the dominant frame for understanding economic globalisation in the West over the past three decades. It sees globalisation as an unstoppable but overwhelmingly beneficial force. It focuses on rising productivity and declining poverty rates, emphasising economic efficiency and the virtues of countries and companies playing to their comparative advantage. This ‘everybody wins’ view has been espoused by many institutions that serve as the guardians of the international economic order, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

The establishment narrative has now been dislodged from its dominant position. In the decade following the global financial crisis, previously marginalised narratives have made their way to the centre of political debate. While the establishment narrative assumes that everyone wins, four other hedgehog narratives argue that economic globalisation produces both winners and losers. Where they differ is in who wins and who loses, what causes these distributive outcomes, and why they are problematic.

On the Left of the political spectrum, we see two narratives that emphasise how gains from economic globalisation have flowed upward to rich individuals and multinational corporations. On the Right of the political spectrum, we find two narratives that see the gains from globalisation flowing sideways to foreigners and foreign countries.

The Left-wing populist narrative focuses on the ways in which national economies are rigged to channel the gains from globalisation to the privileged few. Even as countries have seen their economies grow, many have also experienced a sharp increase in inequality, with a growing divide between rich and poor and a hollowing-out of the middle class. Whereas some proponents point the finger at chief executive officers, bankers and billionaires (the top 1 per cent of the global population), others take aim at the educated professional class and the upper middle class more broadly (the top 20 per cent). Either way, the poor and working class have lost out.

Proponents of the related corporate power narrative argue that the real winners from economic globalisation are multinational corporations, which can take advantage of a global marketplace to produce cheaply, sell everywhere, and pay as little in taxes as possible. These companies use their power to shape international rules in areas that advantage them, such as trade and investment, while lobbying against effective international cooperation on subjects that might disadvantage them, such as taxation. According to this narrative, economic globalisation produces many losers – workers, communities, citizens, governments – but only one winner: corporations.

The sixth hedgehog narrative argues that we are all at risk of losing from economic globalisation

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: whereas Left-wing populists fault the elite for enriching themselves, Right-wing populists deride the elite for failing to protect the hardworking native population from threats posed by an external ‘other’. The Right-wing populist narrative thus has a strong horizontal us-versus-them quality, whether expressed through concern about protecting workers from the offshoring of jobs or guarding them against an inflow of immigrants who might compete for those jobs, live off the welfare system, or threaten the native community’s sense of identity.

The geoeconomic narrative focuses on a different kind of external threat: the economic and technological competition between the US and China as great-power rivals. Although both countries have gained from economic globalisation in absolute terms, in relative terms China has closed the gap on the US. The US increasingly perceives China as both an economic competitor and a security threat, lending the geoeconomic narrative an urgency that it did not have during the Cold War. Instead of applauding international 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.

Sometimes these different narratives overlap. For instance, many members of the Trump administration embraced both the Right-wing populist narrative and the geoeconomic one, while presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren embodied both the Left-wing populist critique and the corporate power one. At other times they diverge. For instance, the protests against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in Europe were much more strongly motivated by the corporate power narrative than the Left-wing populist one. Different narratives focus on different concerns. While the Right-wing populist narrative laments the loss of the manufacturing jobs of the past, the geoeconomic one focuses on winning the race in the technologies of the future, such as fifth-generation (5G) networks and artificial intelligence.

These win-win and win-lose narratives differ from the sixth hedgehog narrative, which argues that we are all at risk of losing from economic globalisation in its current form. This lose-lose narrative portrays economic globalisation as a source and accelerator of global threats such as pandemics and the climate crisis. Some versions focus on how global connectivity increases the risk of contagion of both viruses and supply chain shocks. Others warn that the skyrocketing carbon emissions associated with the global diffusion of Western patterns of production and consumption are endangering both people and the planet.

This global threats narrative emphasises our shared humanity; its proponents call for global solidarity and international cooperation in the face of common challenges. They argue that we need to redefine the goals of our economies to enable individuals and societies to survive and thrive within the limits of our planet. This can mean emphasising resilience over efficiency in our supply chains and sustainability over profit-seeking in our economies. Without change, they warn, we run the risk that everybody loses – though some people and countries are likely to lose first and worst.

Trained in a world that values hedgehogs, the most common question we encountered in our research was ‘So, which narrative is correct?’ We also found that proponents of the individual narratives were quick to point out the ways in which their narrative was right and others wrong – a classic hedgehog move. Both approaches missed a deeper point.

As with any partial representation of a more complex reality, each narrative contains some truth but does not tell the whole truth. Each narrative highlights important aspects of the process of economic globalisation and expresses values that are deeply held by significant numbers of people. Each narrative reveals and obscures. Rather than defending one narrative as the correct one, we need to adopt more fox-like approaches that embrace multiple perspectives, holding them in tension and combining their insights.

At the analytical level, adopting a more fox-like approach helps in developing better understandings of complex issues. As the political scientist Philip E Tetlock explains in his book Expert Political Judgment (2005), what experts think matters far less than how they think. Tetlock finds that hedgehog-like thinkers who know one big thing are often overly confident and inclined to (over)extend the explanatory reach of their expertise into new domains. Yet they are often far less accurate in their predictions than fox-like thinkers who stitch together diverse sources of information to produce more provisional conclusions.

Take the backlash against the French president Emmanuel Macron’s diesel tax as an example. From the perspective of the establishment and global threats narratives, the tax made perfect sense: making fossil fuels more expensive is a market-based way of reducing carbon emissions. The policy failed, however, because Macron did not consider how the tax would appear from the populist perspectives that fuelled the ‘yellow vest’ protests. Right-wing populists saw the tax as an affront to rural ways of life by city-dwelling elites, while Left-wing populists noted how it burdened poorer populations without equally targeting the habits of the rich, such as flying.

If the art of advocacy lies in convincing others to view the world through the lens of your preferred narrative, the art of policymaking requires examining issues through diverse lenses. The question of whether a country should use the telecommunications company Huawei for its 5G networks is not just about whether Huawei’s products are cheap, reliable and economically efficient; it is also about whether a country is comfortable entrusting its critical infrastructure to a company that is subject to the Chinese government in an era of increased security concerns and geopolitical rivalry. Similarly, understanding the spread and impact of the virus SARS-CoV-2 requires an appreciation of the systemic risks arising from global connectivity as well as the variability resulting from domestic inequalities.

The synthesising mind takes in information from disparate sources, knitting it together into a more coherent whole

A fox-like approach can also help overcome some of the mutual incomprehension that plagues economic debates. A fox-like approach encourages us to step into the shoes of the proponents of narratives with which we disagree. It does not require us to adopt their narrative – we may still contest some of the narrative’s empirical claims, value judgments and policy prescriptions. But if we attempt to see economic globalisation through the lens of another narrative in a charitable and empathetic way, we will gain a better understanding of that narrative’s internal logic, appeal and prescriptions, and a clearer vision of the blind spots and biases of our own preferred narratives and policy options.

To develop more fox-like approaches, we need to get better at integrative thinking. This is difficult in today’s environment. Universities typically organise their research and teaching along disciplinary lines and thereby encourage depth, specialisation and mastery over breadth, connectivity and creativity. Policymakers often work in a relatively siloed fashion as different departments take charge of a problem and keep a tight hold of the drafting pen. Yet complex phenomena such as economic globalisation involve a multitude of interconnected issues that do not fall neatly within the disciplinary and subject-matter lines along which much of our knowledge production is organised.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann was of the view that: ‘In the 21st century, the most important kind of mind will be the synthesising mind.’ The synthesising mind takes in and evaluates information from disparate sources, knitting it together into a more coherent whole. The ability to hold (at least) two diametrically opposed ideas or narratives in one’s head and, instead of simply picking one, produce a synthesis that is superior to either has been found to be a common quality among exceptional business leaders. Increasingly, we are seeing trade policies in Washington, DC, Brussels and beyond that seek to integrate insights from different perspectives instead of simply championing the establishment narrative or replacing it wholesale with another narrative.

Although Trump’s defeat revived optimism among some commentators about a reset on economic globalisation, the new US president Joe Biden’s approach integrates insights from multiple narratives. Biden’s trade agenda embraces the establishment narrative’s enthusiasm for trade’s potential to generate prosperity while tempering it with a commitment to prioritising the welfare of US workers (a concern of both Right-wing and Left-wing populists), an awareness of the need for greater regulation of corporate power (including in the areas of taxation and antitrust), and a determination to compete aggressively with China economically and technologically while attempting to cooperate on global threats such as the climate crisis and pandemics. The Biden administration has continued many of Trump’s protectionist and geoeconomic trade policies, while also seeking to work with allies and reaching out to China on issues of common interest, such as the climate crisis.

Similar movements are evident in Brussels. Long a staunch proponent of the establishment narrative, the European Union has been updating its trade policy to achieve greater resilience with respect to critical goods, spearhead its own semiconductor manufacturing to protect its industrial position, and impose a carbon border adjustment mechanism to pursue greater sustainability within a global trading system. Europe is also seeking to incorporate insights from different narratives in its approach to China, with the European Commission declaring that:

China is, simultaneously, in different policy areas, a cooperation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.

If we move past either/or arguments about which narrative is right, where might more integrative thinking about economic globalisation lead us? Although we do not have a definite answer, our survey of competing hedgehog narratives suggests that the debate’s centre of gravity is shifting away from the old establishment consensus in at least two respects: questions of distribution, both within and between countries, are increasingly central; and noneconomic values, whether environmental, social or security-related, are increasingly qualifying or outweighing a primary focus on efficiency and growth.

When it comes to distributive questions, advocates of the establishment narrative traditionally endorsed a two-step approach. The first imperative was to maximise the size of the pie by opening markets to international trade and investment. Distributional questions about how the pie was divided were left to the domestic level. Economic thinking in this mould focused on increasing efficiency so as to promote economic growth for the country as a whole. A growing economy meant that the winners could compensate the losers and still be better off. Whether the winners actually did compensate the losers was a matter for messy politics rather than elegant models.

A common theme that emerges from the other narratives is that distribution is highly significant. It is not enough to increase the size of the pie; the way the pie is sliced is just as important, and sometimes more so. Left-wing populists zero in on the distribution of wealth and opportunity among socioeconomic classes within a particular country. For them, growth is pointless if it is not broadly shared. The Right-wing populist narrative argues that distribution also matters horizontally in geographic space. It contrasts dynamic cities that move ahead with rural communities that decay when factories close.

Relative gains may also be important at the international level. The geoeconomic narrative notes that, although China and the US both gained from economic globalisation in absolute terms, China’s relative success in closing the gap has sharpened strategic competition between the two. Instead of producing a win-win situation that increased peace and prosperity for all, the changing global balance of power now threatens peace and prosperity. Distributional questions, both within and among countries, are becoming central to policymaking.

We need to find ways to more openly discuss and balance different values in our pluralistic societies

Another common theme in the narratives pushing back against the free-trade orthodoxy is the focus on values other than economic efficiency, whether they be human wellbeing, environmental protection, community cohesion or national security. The establishment narrative tends to either ignore nonmonetary values or treat them as reducible to economic measures. The challenger narratives argue that overall ‘welfare’ cannot be represented solely in economic metrics; sometimes other values are more important than wealth and might not be commensurable with money. Even if disability payments, welfare handouts and cheaper products mean that laid-off manufacturing workers are materially better off than their parents, what they have lost in pride and status will likely outweigh any material gains.

The idea that values other than wealth maximisation matter is an essential element of the global threats discourse. Environmentalists and their allies ask us to recast economic growth as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. They remind us that not all economic growth contributes to human wellbeing, especially when it is pursued without respect for planetary boundaries. ‘Today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive,’ notes the economist Kate Raworth; ‘what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.’

Noneconomic values also animate the other challenger narratives. The Right-wing populist narrative prizes the ties that bind families, communities and nations, and it values tradition, stability, loyalty and hierarchy. Its advocates see work as important not just for providing an income but also for conferring a sense of identity, self-worth and dignity, which in turn helps in building stable families and communities. Even if trade encourages greater efficiency and cheaper production, it can damage the social fabric, particularly when change is rapid and highly concentrated in specific geographic regions or industrial sectors.

Sometimes economic growth is helpful in achieving these noneconomic goals; sometimes it stands in tension with achieving them. Proponents of these nonestablishment narratives concur that we cannot focus solely on growing the size of the pie or even on dividing it fairly – we must also acknowledge that the things that we value might not form part of a single pie. This conclusion means that we need to find ways to more openly discuss and balance different values in our pluralistic societies. As the philosopher Michael Sandel explains:

Liberal neutrality flattens questions of meaning, identity, and purpose into questions of fairness. It therefore misses the anger and resentment that animate the populist revolt; it lacks the moral and rhetorical and sympathetic resources to understand the cultural estrangement, even humiliation, that many working-class and middle-class voters feel; and it ignores the meritocratic hubris of elites.

There is no one view that accurately captures the virtues and vices of globalisation. Instead of buying into the worldview of a single hedgehog narrative, we need to develop more fox-like ways of thinking about complex issues. This approach requires an ability to appreciate the insights of and values held by proponents of different narratives, as well as a culture of respectful debate where different tradeoffs are openly assessed. How should we weigh tradition against economic progress, the wealth of the nation against the wellbeing of particular regions or groups, and the importance of nationality against the value of global and cosmopolitan identities, for instance?

Debates about economic globalisation need to move past either/or battles about which narrative is right. The ability to integrate insights from different narratives and a willingness to explore synergies and navigate tradeoffs will become hallmarks of successful policymaking. Efficient supply chains are no longer good enough; we need them to be secure and resilient as well. Climate policy must not only be economically and technologically feasible; it must also be equitable and inclusive. The choice is not US-China cooperation, competition or confrontation, but how to navigate all three in different domains and at different times.

Looking at an issue through many narrative lenses requires a lot from us, both cognitively and normatively. But it is also the best chance we have of devising approaches that respond to the kaleidoscopic complexity of today’s challenges.

EconomicsPolitics and governmentCosmopolitanism

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