Analysis by Prof MLR Smith & Dr Niall McCrae
Before the coronavirus pandemic, who knew that the country with the largest Chinese diaspora in Europe is Italy? The leather sofa in many a British living room may have arrived with the label 'Made in Italy' but was quite possibly sewn by Chinese hands in the employ of a Chinese company. Let us explain how this came about, and its relevance to the deadly outbreak of Covid-19, which has engulfed global societies and their political and economic systems. The lasting impact could be dramatic: globalisation, as an ideology, is in the dock.
Belt and Road Blandishments
With a shaky economy yet to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis, exacerbated by the rigidities of the Eurozone currency union, the Italian government was enticed by China's 'Belt and Road' infrastructure scheme. Economically struggling countries are attracted to Chinese largesse, with promises of new roads, ports, bridges, railways and industrial development. But membership of the Belt and Road initiative comes at a price, as the clear, if unstated, intention is to bind countries into China's economic and political orbit. Nonetheless, in May 2019 Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed the formal agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping to become part of the scheme: the only G7 country to do so. Matteo Salvini of the La Liga party refused to attend the signing ceremony, warning that China would be 'colonising' Italian industry.
As research by Alessandra Vecchi of the University of Bologna has shown, the process of Chinese companies acquiring enterprises in Italian luxury goods has been underway for the better part of two decades. While exports to the growing middle-class market in China have increased, in the other direction has come around a hundred thousand Chinese workers. Belt and Road has dramatically strengthened Sino-Italian links, with a plethora of deals struck between Italy and China, particularly in the energy sector.
The impact of opening up to Chinese business has had some notable effects on the local economy and demographics of northern Italy. Unable to compete with the cheap migrant labour, numerous small Italian family firms either closed or sold out to Chinese enterprises. Chinese Mafia gangs are heavily involved in the labour supply. They pay their workers a pittance, take away their passports and force them to toil in the conditions of a Dickensian mill. National and European Union employment rights are casually ignored. The incomers live cheek-by-jowl in apartment blocks, rarely engaging with the host community in Emilia-Romagna and neighbouring regions. Their hardship was described in a New Yorker article 'The Chinese workers who assemble designer bags in Tuscany' (April 2018):
'Some migrants came with tourist visas and stayed on. Others paid smugglers huge fees, which they then had to work off, a form of indentured servitude that was enforced by the threat of violence. The long hours that the Chinese worked astonished many Italians.'
The New Yorker piece quoted a senior police officer in Prato who believed that some ten thousand of the city's population were illegal immigrants. Here resides the largest Chinese population in any city in Europe outside Paris. Remarkably, some six thousand of the businesses in the city's environs are Chinese-owned. Local people increasingly resent the Chinese takeover, with the authorities turning a blind eye to tax evasion, illegal dumping and counterfeiting of prestigious brands (a pattern of activity, and associated local antipathy, it might be noted, that is repeated in nearly all other countries to have fallen for China's BRI blandishments).
A high proportion of the Chinese labour influx is from Hubei province, and Italian airports have regular direct flights to Wuhan. This city, as we know, is the source of the coronavirus contagion. The virus is believed to have passed from another species to human beings at a wet market, where local people eat freshly killed bats and snakes. The first cases were detected in mid-November 2019, though the Chinese authorities failed to report the new virus until three weeks later. By the time of the Lunar New Year festivities, the disease was prevalent in Wuhan, and had spread to other provinces in China.
Unlike governments in countries like Russia, Vietnam and Singapore, Italy did not move early to stop flights from China, despite the obvious risk. When the legion of leather workers returned to their homeland to spend time with their families, as they do every year, inevitably some would have contracted the virus and unwittingly brought it back. To state this is not idle speculation, it is an obvious correlate: the first cases in Europe were centred on northern Italy.
Immediately after the virus appeared in Europe, the political establishment and mainstream media were principally concerned with potential racism towards Chinese people. Media commentators asserted that 'borders don't stop the virus' (Guardian), which is dangerously at odds with the reality that robust border checks and travel restrictions are protective. Much of the commentariat also busied themselves lambasting President Donald Trump for imposing a US travel ban on European countries in early March, only to be made to look foolish when the rest of the world was compelled to follow suit a few days later.
With so much commerce at stake, European governments, businesses and other institutions were reluctant to upset Beijing, where the communist leadership is hyper-sensitive towards any criticism of its handling of the virus. Notably, propaganda instruments of the Chinese state, like the Xinhua news agency, were more than willing to use the charge of racism, thereby deflecting criticism of the government's role in ignoring and covering up the early stages of the outbreak. Such political tactics, deployed with the malign cynicism of an authoritarian regime that tramples over the human rights of its citizens, almost certainly aggravated the spread of the virus in Europe.
I'm Not a Virus
One salutary example, above all others, illustrates the baleful effects of what can happen when Chinese government mendacity combines with misguided virtue-signalling Westerners willing to do Beijing's bidding. The propensity of Chinese people to wear facemasks in public resulted in a few reported instances of hostility and abuse in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. To counter this prejudice, in February 2020 the Associazionne Unione Giovani Italo Cinesi, a cultural organisation funded by the Chinese government, devised a stunt broadcast by China Global Television Network. The title was 'Italian residents hug a Chinese people to encourage them in coronavirus fight'.
Anyone can watch these videos (although for political sensitivities they may be removed soon). One has a winsome Chinese girl with a placard 'Please hug me, I'm Chinese not a virus' (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o_uXF9B4KI). Dozens of Milanese take up the offer with gusto. Another video, this time sponsored in conjunction with Dario Nardelli, the Mayor of Florence (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNMdg4morQs) shows a man wearing a mask receiving countless hugs from strangers, while a running caption underneath reads: 'I'm not a virus. I'm a human. Free me from prejudice'. Many youngsters, undoubtedly well-meaning, embraced the opportunity to disport their multicultural virtue in a naïve but hazardous act. While younger people are generally not seriously threatened by coronavirus, it is likely that some of the huggers passed on the virus to elderly relatives. Italian mortality has now surpassed that of China (if Chinese statistics can be believed). We won't know the full extent of this carnage until the virus is contained, but already it far exceeds that of a bad winter flu.
Furthermore, some younger Italians would have taken the virus to the ski resorts, a key route by which the virus arrived in northern Europe, including the first cases in the UK. This is not to blame anyone who carried or contracted coronavirus, but simply to describe one of the likely trajectories of transmission, and to point out that well-intended liberal inclusiveness mixed with the callous irresponsibility of organs of the Chinese state, yields tragic consequences for everyone.
Whatever Happened to Investigative Journalism?
None of this is conspiracy theory. It is all known, traceable and documentable. Yet it is unlikely that you will read or hear much of this in the mainstream media. Only a few outlets in what are often misleadingly described as the 'alternative media' – that is, journalists willing to investigate newsworthy stories rather than merely offer punditry – have reported on this aspect of the disaster. One can contrast the reporting of investigative journalists with neutered British newsstand publications such as the New Statesman, whose latest editorial 'The gravest crisis of our time' is more concerned with criticising Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and the evils of populism than any objective analysis of the Chinese government's culpability.
Elsewhere, it is increasingly evident that the pandemic is being presented through political lenses to reach entirely predictable conclusions. Jeremy Cliffe, in a lengthy New Statesman article, for example, informs us that nationalist leaders have been wrong-footed by coronavirus, when evidence points in the other direction. It is those countries that had more permeable borders, such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy that have experienced relatively high rates of infection in comparison to others with harder border controls – Hungary, Poland, Russia, Israel.
Much media reportage now focuses on the purportedly effective Chinese response of lockdown and enforced quarantining in controlling the infection. Moving on from criticising Trump for issuing early travel restrictions, commentators now ask why Western governments have not done enough: an interesting volte-face. Other reports, meanwhile, focus on the grim toll in Italy, without any considered contextual analysis of why this country is suffering so badly. The trite, mono-causal explanation is that the Italian population is the oldest in Europe, and therefore more vulnerable. This is certainly a factor but to suggest it is the only reason is so misleading as to be deceiving. But why the deceit?
The Ideology of Globalisation
The media establishment appears to have shifted the goalposts throughout the evolving crisis, moving from initial complacency and a willingness to downplay the impact of the contagion, to moralising against racism, to a focus on blaming Western governments for under-reacting in contrast to the supposedly efficient state intervention in China. This may be partly explained by the capricious 24-hour news cycle, the laziness of modern journalism in its pursuit of punditry rather than reportage, the decline of investigative journalism and the consequent proclivity of media commentators to ramp up the hysteria and change the story with little concern for the consistency and coherence of their previous coverage.
All of these factors play a part, but we argue that the underlying cause of a consummate pattern of deceit is ideological. In particular, the concerted attempts to politicise the coronavirus crisis, whilst ignoring everything from the circumstances in northern Italy to the role of the totalitarian Chinese government, reflect a defensive reaction in the face of the growing evidence that the impact of the virus is endangering the most cherished shibboleth of the progressive left: globalisation.
The Promise of Globalisation
Globalisation is one of those terms that readily trips off the tongue of commentators. As a concept, globalisation is not only an economic manifestation but also comprises a system of thought concerning the construction of the world order. The origins of globalisation as an ideological understanding stems from the convergence of two closely concurrent phenomena: first, the deregulatory market reforms (most notably in Britain and the United States), and secondly the end of the Cold War.
Alongside cultural trends, the financial and industrial reforms of the 1980s enabled the freer movement of capital and labour across international boundaries. With rapid advances in information technology, especially after the creation of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, supranational corporations were able to shift production and money from one country to another with ease (often within the blink of an eye). As an economic activity, therefore, globalisation came to denote a vast interconnected transnational network of technology and finance.
The end of the Cold War, likewise, was to presage similarly dramatic effects in the political realm. Historian Francis Fukuyama pronounced the 'End of History': following the collapse of Soviet communism and the earlier demise of fascism, he believed that there were no other 'viable alternatives to liberal democracy'. Thus commentators began to conclude that economic liberalism and democracy would inevitably triumph, everywhere. The globalised economic order promised free trade, growing prosperity based on the efficiencies gained from the international division of labour and relative freedom of movement across national borders. Global GDP would increase, and raise millions out of poverty.
China's Central Role in Globalisation
The role of China was pivotal in this evolving understanding. The People's Republic emerged from its Maoist autarchy with a gradual acceptance of market economics from the late 1970s onwards, and in particular its entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2002. These developments were very encouraging to advocates of an integrated world economic system. China would become the primus inter pares for the offshoring of production by multinational corporations attracted by its vast supplies of cheap labour, whilst Chinese conglomerates would have the chance to compete on the international stage. Furthermore, China's arrival suggested that it too would be socialised into the realms of international good citizenship and would eventually succumb to the charms of political liberalisation.
Indeed, in 2002 – in the same year that China joined the WTO – British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of a new global order, proclaimed that the 'struggle for world hegemony by political ideology' had come to an end. The dissonance in Blair's post-ideology thesis was, of course, that it was itself an ideology. Blair's view encompassed the teleological belief that a progressive West was driving a process of global convergence from a position of benign economic, military and technological dominance. This is the ideology of globalisation: the idea that the world was being transformed into an increasingly borderless and interdependent utopia. It was a world where cosmopolitan norms of human rights and redistributive justice would prevail, causing the nation state, and notions of national identity, to wither as humankind joined together on the horizon of the End of History.
Globalisation as New Political Religion
Such cosmopolitan idealism was, however, not a statement of reality, but a reflection of a belief system. In fact, it is more than that. Globalisation as an ideology is an example of what the philosopher Eric Voegelin defined as a new political religion, in the sense that it represents the sacralisation and worship of a superhuman controlling power. The power of the market would lead the world to a form of salvation – a post-national democratic Shangri-La. It is a religion of secular modernity. As such, it possesses assumptions and characteristics, both economic and political – a materialist catechism – that render it a totalising system to which its priesthood and devout followers in finance, media, politics, academia, and increasingly, big tech, are dogmatically wedded and, consequently, resistant to any evidence of falsification.
An obvious consequential effect of globalisation was the wholesale transfer of productive capacity from the industrial heartlands of the West to the cheap labour markets of the developing world. The mass outsourcing of production spurred the rise of the huge and monopolistically dominant corporations in trade, manufacturing and services (think Google, Amazon, Disney, Apple, Coca-Cola, amongst others), many of which offshored their operations to China, while taking advantage of differential tax regimes to avoid paying anything other than minimal rates of tax on their lucre.
Economic globalisation therefore stimulated developed Western nations to move away from a model of 'civic association', based on an idea of a welfare social contract with citizens, towards the idea of an 'enterprise association': that is, states run as corporations, with competitive cost-cutting as an imperative. In this context, from the later 1990s Western governments themselves began to encourage mass immigration, which had the effect of keeping wages and income growth low. The results were that profitability for the corporations grew exponentially, while country GDP also tended to expand.
Imagine… it's Easy if You Try
We have charted the main economic contours of globalisation. Yet, it was the political and social effects of this phenomenon that were to have equally significant ramifications. With the rise of huge multinational corporations, global financial interests became disembedded from the nation state. These entities have no strings of loyalty or allegiance to a nation, a region or community. The social impact of transnational 'capitalism on steroids' is therefore transformative. It seeks to commodify and commercialise all facets of life. Globalisation, as a consequence, is an inherently homogenising force.
Globalisation erodes distinctive customs, cultures and traditions – ethnicities, local languages, industries, skills and crafts, established religious practices, and so on. It strips away particularistic cultural accretions and communal attachments, relegating people to the status of individual consumers: consumers of commodities, services, social media, lifestyles, and bad ideas. Mass consumption leads to standardisation. It leads to alienation, atomisation, and the sanctification of consumerism, mass travel and mass movement. All of this combines to render one place much like another. Imagine the world reduced to one giant airport departure lounge: the same shops, with the same global brands of music, clothing, and food on display, and with a Starbucks on every floor. You don't, sadly, need much imagination.
The Globalised Aristocracy
What are the political consequences of all this? In addressing this question we start to see the fault lines that the coronavirus outbreak is exposing. If the forces of globalisation were moving towards the creation of an integrated economic system, they were also pushing towards the imposition of a single world political order. Wherein lies the power to control and manage this emerging global system? The answer is in our analogy of globalisation as a political religion. For a politico-religious belief system has given rise to its own ministry of priests and prelates.
This ruling aristocracy is caricatured in the annual congeries of the exclusive business and political jet set who meet annually in Davos. On the Alpine slopes the 'Davoisie' plan progress towards the next level of an integrated global order. However, the secular priesthood of the new global faith is much broader, comprising politicians, financiers, intellectuals, media commentators and assorted technocrats, in whose hands wealth and power are concentrated. For these high celebrants, the belief is that the nation state as a system of governance is of diminishing importance. 'Global governance' is now the name of the game. Multinational structures – the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, the European Union – are the preferred 'post-national constellations' in which the power to regulate the international system should be invested. Presiding over these institutions are enlightened, highly educated, progressive experts - in other words, people like themselves.
The Politics of Globalisation
In the age of globalisation, political process begins to replicate the disembedded systems of global finance and economics, as politicians detach themselves from the nation state. The homogenising political effects of globalisation, therefore, push in anti-democratic directions as transnational elites abdicate from the democratic accountability that traditionally inheres in the political structures of a nation. The European Union exemplifies this tendency alongside its bureaucratic technocracy, and the associated political classes in member states who quite openly tried to flout the electoral mandate of the 2016 Leave vote in the United Kingdom: a tactic to which it had resorted many times before in obstructing an undesirable majority verdict in referendums in Ireland, Denmark, France and Greece.
The European Union is an integral element in the globalisation project. The very basis of the EU is premised on the diminution of national sovereignty with the aim of creating a post-national polity. In 2019 the European Parliament president, Guy Verhofstadt, openly acknowledged that the EU was an empire in the making. Yet, interestingly, one of the standard arguments advanced by those who wished for the UK to remain within the EU was that Britain needed to be a member of an integrated regional trading bloc in order to stand up to the likes of China. The coronavirus crisis, however, revealed these claims to be hollow. Far from securing the EU's security and trade interests against major external powers, globalisation has caused its members to become dangerously dependent upon them: under the auspices of globalisation as much as 80 per cent of the world's pharmaceuticals have been outsourced to China. All of a sudden, it does not seem such a wonderful idea to be so reliant on a 'global supply chain' for vital medical supplies, including life-saving drugs, based in the communist People's Republic.
The Deglobalisation Movement
The coronavirus pandemic could be a sockdolager to globalisation. The assumptions of this ideology have been coming under pressure for a long time as its failings and incoherence have been gradually revealed over the past thirty years. A backlash to globalisation manifested in the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, and also in the ascent of nationalist-right political parties across the world from Eastern Europe, to India, to Brazil, which are seeking to de-globalise themselves and free their countries from the dubious joys of disenchanted secular modernity.
As a transformational political project to create a post-national utopia, globalisation appeals most visibly to those on the so-called progressive Left. Yet the pillars of this new world order are now crashing all around them. The prophets of globalisation are, of course, unwilling to acknowledge that their vision of the world has reached its fin de siècle. They portray the rise of anti-globalist parties as reactionary populism. But if we persist with the religious theme we can discern that the so-called populist reaction is more equivalent to the idea of a 'Reformation', in that it represents a return to more traditional understandings of nation, culture and custom: in other words, the return to something more spiritually healthy and nourishing that encompasses those appurtenances that give meaning, community and attachment to people's lives.
The Counter-Reformation Left would have you believe that the return to nation, custom and tradition is the expression of underlying Western racism, and a prelude to the re-emergence of fascism. The more correct Reformation analogy, however, is a movement against the corruption and decadence within the Church of Globalism, whose synod is estranged from representative democracy or any real accountability. Like the self-serving priesthood of the pre-Reformation era, however, they pursue their own advancement and enrichment at the expense of others. This can be seen in widening income disparities under globalisation, resulting in the concentration of wealth and resources within a tiny upper percentile of the population. This elite class – from corporate executives, to bankers and public sector officials to university vice chancellors – has benefited from escalating remuneration (in pay and pensions). Contrastingly, wages, living standards, and pension provisions for almost everyone else have deteriorated. Indifference to this differential can be observed in the globalists' lack of concern for communities laid waste by the offshoring of industries. It can be observed in their concomitant indifference to the appalling working conditions that often prevail in those very same areas where those jobs have been outsourced.
Anti-globalisation Reaches the West… Finally
The Counter-Reformation Left would also like you to believe that anti-globalist 'populism' is an exclusively Western phenomenon of recent provenance. In fact, resistance first emerged in the 'Asian values' debate in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s, which inveighed against the emulsifying, conceited and aggrandising precepts inherent in globalisation's earliest incarnation in the End of History hypothesis. It was then reflected onwards in the emergence of violent Islamism, which vehemently rejects secular global modernity, which according to one Islamist tract encompassed: 'the United Nations; the servile rulers of the Muslim people; multinational corporations; international communications and data exchanges systems; international news agencies and satellite media channels; international relief agencies and non-governmental organisations, which are used as a cover for espionage, conspiracies, proselytising, and arms smuggling'.
After the turn of the millennium, hostility within the West also began to crystallise around the globalists' catastrophically inept Crusade (and yes, that term was used at the time) to advance the democratic End of History in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The failure of these proselytising neo-liberal interventionist missions were to pale, however, in comparison to the 2007/2008 banking crash, induced by those very instruments of deregulated transnational finance that the sorcerers of globalism eulogised as offering never-ending growth and an end to boom and bust. The transnational elite responded to this disaster by doing what came naturally… saving themselves, while landing nation states and their citizenry with epic mountains of debt that might never be paid off. In doing so they have surely only sown the seeds for the next fiscal crisis.
And so we come to the global disillusioning impact of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. The understanding that political and economic forces were moving the world towards a single, borderless, political order governed by enlightened post-national constellations has collapsed with the sudden imposition of border controls, the strangulation of international trade and world recession in an 'every nation-state for itself' rush to protect their own people. The EU has been reduced to irrelevance.
With unintended irony, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan chastised Donald Trump for referring to 'the Chinese virus'. Khan corrected him: it's a 'global virus'. We are not virologists or epidemiologists. We have no idea how this crisis will end. But as we survey the devastation being caused to so many people and so many communities we posit that the world has indeed experienced a global virus for nearly three decades and that Covid-19 is but the final denouement of a comprehensive failure of a vainglorious attempt to re-configure the economics and politics of the world. This is what happens when you pursue a new secular political religion. This wreckage is what globalisation hath wrought.
Niall McCrae is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at King's College London. A regular writer for the Bruges Group, he has written three books: The Moon and Madness (Imprint Academic, 2011), Echoes from the Corridors (with Peter Nolan; Routledge, 2016) and the forthcoming Moralitis: a Cultural Virus (with Robert Oulds; Bruges Group, 2020).
M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King's College London. He is co-author of Asian Security and the Rise of China: International Relations in an Age of Volatility (Edward Elgar, 2012) and Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2014).