Robotics and closed borders: Is it end of globalisation? (Book Review)

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Until very recently, globalisation was the talk of the town and promised to be a melting pot of global cultures, economies and social ties. Two recent books by prominent western authors, on the other hand, appear to construct a narrative of the doom and suggest that 2017 may well be the year when globalisation breathes its last.

“Globalisation is an irreversible process, not an option,” United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had said in 1999, but the authors of these well-researched, highly scholarly and sufficiently cited books provide reasons to believe that this idea is in danger. What is more noteworthy is the argument of these authors that the threat comes from a “different belief” shared by some powerful leaders across the globe.

Bill Emmott, the former editor-in-chief of The Economist, in his recent book “The Fate of the West” (Hachette India / Rs 599 / 257 Pages) argues that the West has long been a font of stability, prosperity, and security, but now when it is faced with global instability and economic uncertainty, nations in the west are tempted to react by closing borders, hoarding wealth, and solidifying power.

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This may have been a direct reaction to US President Donald Trump’s statement in which he said: “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs”. But it is not just about Trump as the author uses a long alliteration to describe the state of mind that haunts most western leaders: “demoralised, decadent, deflating, demographically challenged, divided, disintegrating, dysfunctional, declining”.

His central argument in “The Fate of the West” resides in his belief that the West is as much an ideology as it is a geographical entity. He says that the West is found in Seoul, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur as well as Paris and London and that the US or any other Western country should not act all-powerful to claim this status.

He contends that that there have been strong efforts to close borders and minds while also suggesting to the western leaders that if the West has to prosper, they must follow the “lodestars of openness and equality” that had guided their successes in the past. He argues for a return to the core values of openness and equality of opportunity that are increasingly eroded in today’s global political climate.

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And then there is “From Global to Local” (Profile Books / Rs 599 / 210 Pages) by Cambridge academic and an expert in public policy, Finbarr Livesey. In this book, Livesey argues that all predictions about globalisation and outsourcing are now proving to be wrong as the global economy is fast changing.

“Robots are becoming cheaper than overseas labour, climate concern and volatile fossil fuel markets are restricting carbon footprints, and consumers increasingly expect tailored products with express delivery. Bouncing production around the planet is already making less and less economic sense.

“Holding on to familiar stories about the global economy is not an option, as technological and political changes make a mockery of any past consensus,” argues the author.

Livesey says that the past three decades have seen the leaders from both the East and the West favouring globalisation and taking several concrete steps to ensure that it takes its present shape, but even during those times when globalisation was over-hyped, the idea of regionalism never really went away.

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He quotes several examples from leading multinationals to prove his point — of deglobalisation. Adidas, for instance, now makes use of “automation and 3D printing” to produce high-end trainers. This is not done in China or South Asia, but in Germany.

“From Global to Local” bluntly shows how the world trading structure has already begun to shift, with irrevocable consequences for the global economy. Volatile oil prices, the pressures of sustainability and the availability of new technologies — such as 3D printing and automation — mean that companies are beginning to move production away from distant countries and back home.

If robots can make everything, why would companies use workers in far off countries?

Both of these books make for curious case studies on whether or not a reverse globalisation is under way and what may be its future implications.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>)



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