Imagine there's no countries...

Sunday, 13th September 2015

Reflections on Global Convergence

As an idealist teenager John Lennon’s Imagine became my anthem. I yearned for a future devoid of the seemingly pointless nationalist rivalry and imperialism that had fuelled two world wars and enslaved millions in the colonial era. I dreamed innocently of a world where different peoples would learn from each other, share their experiences and cultures altruistically and fairly. Yet as I travelled around Europe, South America, Southern Africa and India, another reality emerged. Far from converging on a new environmentally sustainable and egalitarian world order with genuine cultural exchange, the world was converging rapidly on a new model of hyper-consumerism based on the North American dream. As the increasingly globalised world media, albeit localised in a multitude of idioms, spread awareness of the 2-car suburban family with all mod cons, traditional alternatives lost their appeal. Suddenly everyone wanted a washing machine, fridge, car, TV and holidays in the sun. Anything less might now be viewed as some kind of denial of human rights. If you enjoy these luxuries you may reasonably wonder why you should deny them to those who through no fault of their own were born in a low-wage country, where with a lower purchasing power people may not afford all the gizmos of early 21st century life that many of us take for granted. This begs the question, can we ratchet up global consumption to sustain 8 billion people (the world population is forecast to peak at between 10 and 11 billion sometime mid century) with a Western European lifestyle? That would require 4 billion motor vehicles, millions more miles of multilane highways and high-speed railways, a huge rise in air traffic, and four to five-fold rise in electricity consumption, even taking into account improvements in energy efficiency. Even if we could convert our entire car fleet to electric power, we’d still need billions of tonnes of steel, aluminium and plastics as well as copious supplies of lithium for mission-critical batteries. Yet some wishful thinkers would rather believe the only reason we have not yet refined technology to accommodate 10 billion happy consumers in perfect harmony with our ecosystem is because of a combination of evil capitalism, repressive regimes and remnant border controls that prevent people from escaping third world hell holes.

An apparently well-meaning group of left-branded activists have recently staged protests under the No Borders banner in Calais. As their name suggests they want the complete abolition of border controls. If corporations can operate globally without restrictions, then why can’t human beings? Their demands stand in stark contrast to widespread opposition among millions of ordinary Europeans to growing levels of immigration. Then Germany’s business-friendly government announced they would accept as many as 800,000 refugees (and other migrants) this year. As migrants continued to flow through Southern and Eastern Europe to reach the more generous welfare states of Sweden, Germany and the UK, incessant media pressure mounted for more countries to take their fair share. The stage is set for the perfect storm in the next phase of globalisation, as ethnically diverse groups of natives and newcomers compete to gain access to higher pay and living standards. Newcomers fail to understand why they cannot enjoy the fruits of what is by any measure a globally integrated economy, while natives all too often remain not just sceptical of the alleged benefits of mass immigration, but see their wages compressed as the practical cost of living keeps rising.

Global Village

For the sake of argument let us just indulge the universalist fantasy, prevalent in much of the allegedly green left, that as we are all human beings in an increasingly interconnected world, we may as well just abolish all borders and let people move freely wherever they see fit.

If your ideal society is some sort of post-modern metrosexual vegetarian hippie commune where everyone shares a worldview broadly based on the 1969 Woodstock festival but with state-of-the-art smartphones and designer-label fashion accessories resembling a typical London advertising agency, borders would be pointless. Everyone would share the same godless politically correct mindset, speak the same language, watch the same movies and worship one or more global brands, a jetsetting, peace-loving generation eager to explore the world. Except they'd all be fairly rich and would only travel to embellish their facebook profile and boost their CV.

I agree borders are a major inconvenience for globetrotters. I’ve had a few unpleasant exchanges with border guards myself. In 1990 I was refused entry into Argentina on a British passport while my Italian partner was welcome to enter the country visa-free. After waiting 2 hours, I was granted a temporary 10 day visa. In 1999 I had my backpack humiliatingly ransacked (exposing two rolls of film in the process) by a Kalashnikov-wielding Namibian border guard. In the early 80s I can recall being detained by a Dutch border guard because my garishly dyed hair and earring did not match my 2 year-old passport photo. But by far the most awkward border crossings I endured were between West and East Berlin. On one occasion I sported a red SWP fist badge. The East German border guard was not amused as I explained it stood for International Socialism and then discovered a crumpled copy of the magazine of the SWP’s tiny West German sister organisation. Just 6 years later jubilant crowds knocked the infamous Berlin Wall down. Later as the Schengen Zone expanded to include Poland and Baltic states, one could travel from Portugal through Spain, France, Germany and Poland without ever having one's documents checked. Just 30 years ago longstanding communities were torn apart by arbitrary borders imposed by superpowers. Now not only is Europe largely borderless, but the ruling elites plan to open the continent’s doors to millions of economic migrants and refugees. Many cities and suburbs have already been transformed from mildly cosmopolitan urban districts that still reflected the cultural traditions of their provincial hinterlands to microcosms of a rapidly converging global village of diverse transient communities. Cities have come to resemble airport terminals populated by a motley crew of international commuters frequenting localised variants of the same global brand stores and restaurants.

I should admit a selfish personal interest in maintaining regional cultural diversity. For me part of the joy of visiting another locale is to experience different customs, ways of life, philosophical outlooks, expressions of humanity, belief systems, cuisines and languages. I admit such differences are not always convenient. I once had trouble ordering a meal with a monoglot Czech waitress in the pre-Internet era before I had a chance to buy a phrase book. During a four week exchange with an Indian family on the outskirts of Delhi my stomach took two weeks to adapt to Uttar Pradesh cooking, bucket showers and squat toilets. I was the only non-Indian in the neighbourhood. Now these differences are either commoditised as regionally branded dishes and fashion accessories available worldwide or are submerged by a global lifestyle. Cultural diversity in Europe’s metropolises is just a temporary illusion as different ethnic communities adapt to a bland new superculture, often at odds with most of the world’s traditional cultures.

However, many radical universalists view real cultural diversity as an anachronism. We may celebrate our differences and share recipes, but national cultures may soon become mere historical artefacts of interest largely to ethnologists, preserved only in vestigial formats for tourists, a little like Maori Dances of Life performed at New Zealand’s All Blacks national rugby team matches or quaint signs in Manx or Cornish, now defunct languages resurrected only by local enthusiasts.

Global Fantasy

So what would happen if all border checks disappeared? 30 years ago most people in Africa, Southern and Eastern Asia would have simply been too poor to take advantage of their new travel freedoms. Even today many would rather stay within their native communities than risk uncertainty in foreign lands. Yet the world today is a radically different place as hundreds of millions have already abandoned their ancestral rural homelands for large conurbations. Moreover, we live in an unprecedented era of instant telecommunication, peak population and, more disturbingly, peak consumption. Never have so many wanted to consume so much and so rapidly. So now with the consumerist genie of out of the proverbial bottle, it seems only logical for millions more young people to migrate to where the best economic opportunities present themselves. I’ve experienced this myself as an IT contractor. “Would you move to Dubai as an Oracle database administrator”, enquires an IT recruiter, “Surely many locals would like such an opportunity” I reply. It seems all countries experience both high youth unemployment and a skills shortage.

As long as migration is controlled, substantial differences can remain in welfare provision, workers' rights, environmental protection, tax regimes and salaries. The UK’s population has risen by nearly 7 million in just 15 years, its fastest rate ever since the early 19th century, almost entirely due to record levels of net migration. Yet seven million extra human beings are a mere drop in the ocean compared to 6 billion human beings who do not yet enjoy Western European living standards. Some have argued the free movement of labour enshrined in the 1993 Maastricht Treaty worked well when the EU only had 15 member states with fairly comparable living standards. However, without overriding economic motives, inter-EU migration remained relatively balanced. By contrast when countries have huge differences in wealth, migratory flows tend to become unbalanced. We see that both within countries and internationally. For much of the 20th century the British Isles saw a steady drift of best and brightest from the North of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to the Southeast of England. Likewise Southern Italians would migrate to the industrial North. However, governments would intervene to redress the imbalance. In the 1990s many Northern Italians grew tired of subsidising the South and supported the Lega Nord, who wanted to secede from the rest of Italy. Little did they know that their taxes would soon not only subsidise Sicily, Campania and Calabria, but much of Eastern Europe and a growing influx of migrants from Africa and Middle East too.

Life as an Emigré

Fed up with life at home, I migrated myself to Italy at a time when just as many Italians were in the UK. I belonged to a tiny minority that felt a little disillusioned with British cultural decadence in the mid 80s and relished the opportunity to learn Italian, a different outlook on life and new ways of doing things. Cultural change catches your attention much more when you return to a place after a lengthy interlude. After 13 years away from the UK, I returned in 1997 feeling rather alienated, but for the first few years I failed to grasp the true scale of cultural change as we moved to the relative backwater of Fife, Scotland, but within easy commuting distance of more cosmopolitan Edinburgh. Only when I moved back down to London in 2006 did I begin to realise that the gradual cultural changes of my youth had given way to a new era of rapid global cultural convergence. Whereas once I would worry that 90% of movies in Italian cinemas were American or continental Europeans unduly worshipped English rockstars, the England that I knew as a child was fast fading into a distant recent past. Its capital city has become a global hub unhinged from its geo-cultural setting. Indeed while I may have once worried that Spanish waiters would reply to my Spanish in English, I would often struggle to make myself understood in the heart of England’s capital. What we are witnessing is not, as I previously thought, Anglo-American cultural imperialism (as Robert Phillipson theorised in his seminal book on Linguistic Imperialism), but full-blown Global imperialism. This may sound oxymoronic. How can the world colonise itself, but a global superculture is rapidly superimposing itself on all autochthonous cultures everywhere.

Global Justice

As the global juggernaut seems unstoppable, despite our undeniable environmental challenges, let us briefly evaluate the feasibility of this borderless fantasy. If transnational corporations exploit people and resources globally, how can we expect them to subsidise welfare and higher pay only in Europe and North America? Abolishing borders would surely require us to get rid of different tax regimes, salary levels and environmental standards. The European Union is well its on its way to harmonising tax systems and welfare provision across the continent. If a Federalist EU merged with NAFTA, MercoSur and other regional trading blocs, some idealists believe global corporations would pay global taxes to be redistributed fairly to anyone in need wherever they may live. Global justice warriors imagine they can welcome the mass exodus of people from low wage regions and simultaneously defend welfare provision in high-wage regions. They imagine resources are extracted merely to boost corporate profits, but not to meet an insatiable demand for more and more consumer goodies.

Democracy and Human Nature

Lower living standards are not great vote winners, yet as wealthy countries lose their exclusive right to a larger share of global resources, that is precisely what we may soon have to accept.

Should the economies of Northern Europe, North America and Australia (the most popular destinations of the current exodus from developing countries) decline, you can be sure migratory pressure will subside too. However, business elites have found a clever way to grow the economy by promoting a huge oversupply of low-skilled labour servicing the affluent professional classes alongside cheap manufactured goods keeping the consumer classes happy. This growth is both illusory and ultimately counterproductive as it relies on importing more and more waves of compliant workers to replace home-grown workers with higher material expectations. Worse still unbalanced migration in an unequal society tends to erode social cohesion and trust. However much we may pretend to care for the rest of humanity and embrace new cuisines or music, the system induces us act selfishly as self-marketing players in an economic rat race. In this context the prospect of a better paid job in Australia or Norway is simply an opportunity.

Reality Check

Historically, the higher living standards of ordinary workers in wealthier countries like Sweden, Canada, Germany or the UK were built on a high-skilled and dedicated workforce, subservient to a rapacious ruling class eager to gain access to plentiful supplies of raw materials. I very much doubt Britain’s industrial revolution would have given the country such a vast technological lead over its main imperialist rivals in the 18th and 19th centuries without immense coal reserves, and shortened lives of hundreds of thousands in miners, powering its shipping and steel industries. Likewise Britain would not have conquered a quarter of the world’s landmass without a sizeable navy. UK-based corporations built the nation’s subsequent wealth on the back of its mercantile empire with the blood of its native workers and colonial subjects. As industrial automation and outsourcing took hold, people became less aware of the complex processes involved in the production and distribution of their beloved consumer products and began to value them only for their utility and prestige. We take many consumer products for granted and have redefined poverty to mean a relative lack of the kind of devices considered essential for our modern lifestyle. Just 20 years ago, most of us could manage without a mobile phone. Just 60 years ago most Europeans did not have a car. Now anyone unable to afford these technological marvels is considered poor.

Alternative Futures

Global idealists envisage the only way to tackle global inequality is to abolish nation states altogether, so in effect the whole world becomes one country. If we simply enforced a global average on everyone, living standards would plummet in wealthy countries, so global justice warriors believe rapid technological change will enable us to elevate everyone to Scandinavian levels of welfare provision while reducing consumption. They seem to believe solar panel and wind turbine technologies are progressing so fast that massive efficiency gains will enable all 7-8 billion human beings alive today to escape poverty in a nice cuddly tree-hugging eco-friendly way. The problem is while the current phase of intensive globalisation has certainly seen rapid rises in wealth in countries once considered poor and a shift of global power away from Europe and North America to Asia, Africa and South America, it has destabilised whole regions and continued to fuel proxy resource wars. The Euro project, far from creating a level playing field among its member countries, has led to record youth unemployment in much of Southern Europe, unable to compete with cheap imports from the Far East. Meanwhile we see extreme concentrations of profligate wealth in the Middle East, China, India, Africa and Latin America. How can we build a global utopia if Nigerian billionaires squander the proceeds of their country’s oil bonanza on Ferraris, private jets and marble palaces? Why should working class Europeans compete with refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East for social housing and healthcare provision, if Arab billionaires build fortress city states that refuse to accept any refugees at all?

I’ve long argued that mass migration is not the answer, but merely a symptom of a grotesquely unequal world. The only sustainable solution that accords with human nature is to roll back corporate globalisation and build a new multipolar world order of independent countries that live within their means and only trade fairly. We would still pool some sovereignty on global environmental issues and we would still have some balanced migratory exchanges. To me it seems perfectly fair to ban imports reliant on cheap labour or to give preferential treatment to local lads and lasses for local jobs. We must become more aware of global issues, but seek local solutions to our immediate problems.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

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