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Pandemic or not, there is no such thing as “de-globalisation”

By Ooi Kee Beng, in The Edge Malaysia, 28 March 2021

WHILE THE Covid-19 pandemic is sometimes portrayed as globalisation hitting a wall, it has at the same time raised public consciousness that globalization as a whole has gone beyond a point of no return. You see that paradox in how local remedies to the disruptions have to adopt at least a “glocal” context in order to be credible. This could be about the strengthening of local food security, or the developing of meaning and sustainable job markets, or even the managing of environmental gains from the pandemic.

We can no longer think in narrow nation-based terms. Capital, goods and labour gain value most effectively through being mobile. The real inequality in the world today is really the Mobility Gap.

De-globalising is therefore not really an option. The world becoming multipolar, or supply chains becoming decentralised, is not deglobalizing. It is only when we consider globalisation to be a deterministic process dictated by western impetus and interests that we think of it as being in retreat today. It is merely the American Century coming to an end, and yes, if one considers globalisation to be a western project, then it is in retreat.

The point of no return was passed ages ago. Globalisation—understood as a centuries-long journey that conjoins trade with piracy, technological wonders with hellish weaponry, and scientific thought with traditional superstitions—has been a process that keeps drawing more and more actors into the game. It has never been a single-directional process, and its path has never been determined by a single actor.

It is therefore more illuminating to think of it as a dialectical one played out over several centuries, articulating a Hegelian process of destructivity and productivity, all the while growing in geographical relevance.

After oceanic travel began, colonisation and global plunder generated resistance throughout the world even as old regimes fell, and this series of conflicts drew the path of globalisation towards what we know today—a zigzag motion rather than a bulldozer rampage. One should however not forget that conflicts were plentiful and bloody within the western world, and these also followed a globalising trend. While the Napoleonic War in the early 1800s was largely fought in Europe, the Second World War was a very global one.

And, indeed, what better way to imagine a global war than the Cold War, with the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation thrown in? That threat is not gone. The Cold War is the culmination of the understanding of globalisation as a class of civilizations—or more rightly, the clash of one civilization—the West—against the rest; not forgetting that in saying that, we must remember that the West, as a historical phenomenon, is not homogenous, just as the Rest is infinitely diverse.

Globalisation Matures

The pandemic is global because the world is greatly globalised, and in that sense, its powerful impact on all parts of the world is a measure of the level of globalisation that has been achieved. With the rise of China, and of India, the key actors are no longer only from the West. It is that mature phase of globalisation that we see today, and the pandemic should not distract us from that fact.

Naturally, this new phase is of great concern to those who had so far been dictating the discourse on globalisation. The Thucydides Trap is in that sense merely a description that comes out of this biased concern. I would argue that what is happening today is merely globalisation having reached a point where it truly multipolar, and this is not a stage to be simplistically understood as a struggle for hegemony.

The Hegelian Synthesis of the Western Modernity Thesis and the Non-West Reaction Antithesis is being accomplished in our times, and with that, a qualitative change in our understanding of globalisation is necessary—and imperative. Globalisation through trade and consensus is overshadowing globalisation through military threat and conflict.

The zoonotic Covid-19, mirroring humanity’s endemic destruction of nature, tells the story that it may be the conflict-seeking interactions which defined globalisation in the past, that has hit a wall, but not globalisation as such.

Globalisation continues into a new phase, and if we can move beyond Cold War thinking to perceive of this process as the connecting of civilizations through liberatory science, through international trade and through common threats, then globalisation becomes the necessary coming together of humanity.

With that, deep respect for the processes of Nature of which we—and viruses—are a part, will hopefully appear.

Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute, Senior Fellow at Jeffrey Cheah Institute for Southeast Asia, and Senior Visiting Fellow at ISEAS Yusof – Ishak Institute.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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