Though never certain or guaranteed, there was time not so long ago when the prospect of a global convergence around OECD-levels seemed to be, if not within immediate reach, so at least a reasonable long-term expectation. At that time, during those long nineties, “millennial capitalism” had not run its course, 9/11 paranoia was just as unheard of as ISIS, and the world was still imbued with the liberal optimism of having woken up alive from the nuclear nightmare. Yet, even then, the idea of the whole world eventually becoming like, say, the Nordic countries, was provocative to many. Dependency theorists still maintained that the riches of some were only possible through the exploitation of others, cultural essentialists argued that the poor lacked the moral and intellectual capacity for their own development, and post-development theorists were beginning to suggest that the poor did not really want a modern life after all. In addition to these voices there was, ever since the 1970’s, a growing Malthusian stream of people who were convinced that universal affluence would spell immediate ecological doom.
However, considering the vast social transformations that a country like Sweden itself had gone through over the last couple of centuries, not to mention the simultaneous expansion of science and technology, the burden of proof should reasonably have fallen on those who doubted such as a bright global future. It was one thing to declare the impossibility of mass democracy, gender equality or social welfare in 1690, a completely different thing to do it in 1990. Yet, somehow, that very obvious observation never took hold. Instead, as many sociologists have argued, there was a gradual loss of confidence in our ability to democratically decide the future.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the world is, if not in flames, so slowly scorching as the global carbon cycle is being altered, wars are engulfing the Middle East and the hypermasculine language of geopolitics and “security” is back with a vengeance everywhere from North-East Asia to Europe. In the rich world, an unfortunate combination of insufficient social investments, stagnating wage growth, and an overreliance on debt-financed consumption has led to slow or negative growth rates. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, globalization is treated with trepidation but often not so much for material reasons as for existential fears of self-actualization. Instead of a world of ever greater fluidity which would demand that each individual creates something of global value to others, xenophobic parties and nationalist politicians have promised to restore stability, homogeneity, and continuity with a romanticized past. In Sweden, long heralded as the vanguard of progressive politics, the xenophobic “Sverigedemokraterna” is now the largest party among men. Across the Baltic Sea in Russia, Putin speaks the same language full of contempt for weakness. In Asia, proxy conflicts over islands reflect a deeper inability to escape victimhood and a corresponding failure to take active responsibility for the future.
All taken together, this means that the hope of a more fully integrated world, based on a common democratic order and universal norms of global citizenship, is far less pronounced today. While the European Union still points to the possibilities of political and economic integration, the euro crisis has reminded the world of what was always true, namely that if your consumption rate is higher than your overall productivity and you consistently neglect the need for social investments and modernization in terms of for instance gender structures, then your country will eventually fall upon hard times. The single currency has only made it more difficult to hide this through currency manipulation. In combination with a deregulated financial market, this has however created a strong political backlash against the European project, both among its net contributors and recipients. Further failure to integrate Turkey has given support to “European exceptionalism” and the view that what has happened in Europe is some kind of historic anomaly rather than a template for future global integration.
In an optimistic reading, all this amounts to nothing but speedbumps or temporary setbacks on the journey towards a global welfare state. Without subscribing to teleology
there are many reasons to think that this is indeed the case, not only has global market integration accelerated over the last decades, but the World Value Survey and other similar studies have consistently shown a worldwide movement away from traditional values and hierarchical forms of authority towards secular-rational values, greater individual freedom and autonomy. Every year, more people travel by airplane and are able to experience other countries and cultures first-hand. As the world gets smaller, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny our common humanity and insist on the artificial segregation of people based on a completely randomly assigned variable (place of birth). Yet, in terms of politics or ideology, there has been surprisingly little interest in even imagining a world with universal freedom of movement and shared prosperity. Even among so called “progressives”, the idea of global economic convergence has come to instil more fear than hope. As climate change has emerged as the defining political issue of our time, the Malthusian belief that a world in which everyone can live a modern life would simply not be ecological sustainable has become both widely spread and deeply entrenched. What is worse, cultural perfectionist ideas about the perceived superficiality of “mass consumption” have been allowed to blend with protectionist fears of foreign competition into an ideology which sees chronic poverty abroad, preferably under the guise of “sustainable livelihoods” powered by small-scale renewable energy, as an acceptable price for avoiding a climate emergency. For those subscribing to such views, a delayed or incomplete globalization is in fact a blessing of sorts as it takes away some of the urgency of climate mitigation.