The central characteristic of our time would seem to be the tensions that generate real or perceived inequalities in the distribution of the benefits of economic growth. Countless nations around the world have elected leaders whose calling card has been the rejection of whatever existed. Obvious examples include Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro and now Lula and, in the same fashion, Chávez and López Obrador. The motion of the pendulum has been extreme in some nations, much more moderate in others, but the desire is unmistakable: to take refuge in a known past and to abandon the milk and honey of unfulfilled promises. The question circulating the globe is how distinct the future will be.
Seen in retrospect, it is very clear, and easy to arrive at the conclusion that the narratives accompanying the golden era of globalization along the last three decades resulted in being utopic, thus impossible to satisfy. In fact, one of the lessons furnished by one survey after another, in Mexico and worldwide, is that people are more unappeased by the sluggishness of the advance than by a longing to return to familiar ground. The great problem of globalization does not lie in the lack of results, but instead in the unequal distribution of these. The citizenry thus recognizes this: what it yearns for is to be part of the success, not to boomerang back to an uncertain past and one of poverty.
On the other hand, the political attractiveness is evident of exploiting the sentiments and resentments that engender the disruptions giving rise to the accelerated change that the world has undergone during these years, nearly all this more the product of technological advances and changes than of the economy per se. The technological change has been the chief component of economic globalization and, above all, of the alteration of value chains.
The first component of globalization are the instantaneous communications that have transformed the economic, but not the social and political, reality. Today any person has access to more information than the governors knew only a few decades ago; the possibility of communicating and sharing information has radically revolutionized our daily lives in a more pronounced manner than any other factor in the history of humanity. Telephones sixty years ago were mechanical contraptions assembled by factory workers in simple production lines. Smartphones, veritable computers that they are, entertain enormous creative power and, relatively little manually incorporated material. The value relationships have been recast, explaining why very-high-quality education is so important.
Clearly, technology has made globalization possible while simultaneously underscoring social differences significantly, provoking the political, nationalistic and introspective reactions we experience every day. To this one must add the geopolitical competition depicting the world powers: certain nations have reinforced their industrial-policy strategies, while others, especially the U.S., have begun to adopt the latter in explicit form. Part of this responds to the unionized base (paradoxically) of Biden as well as of Trump, but much of this derives from its competition with China. Parenthetically, it is of import to annotate here that these changes in industrial matters constitute an immense opportunity for Mexico, but that is another affair.
About which there is no doubt is that there has been a profound alteration in the approach to perceiving economic processes. Today politicians claim to determine the way economic matters are decided upon, and that constitutes the most prodigious change undergone in the world in decades. Some argue that the supply chains are too intricate for these to be modified, but the reality is that political pressures and incentives are eroding these at fast speed.
There are two things that seem apparent to me: first, technology will continue advancing and that will affect the economic course of action. The other is that many of those demonstrating the most against globalization are also those who will most suffer the losses of deglobalization. As with all pendula, novel tendencies sooner or later start to exhibit the limitations of the new policies and a new backwash will come. The world moves in cycles, and today’s is only another of these.
Borja Sémper sums up the dilemma clairvoyantly: “We are living through the first great backlash of the new world order arising from globalization, a world that is not static and that is characterized by constant change. A change that bewilders many. ‘Worldization’ is a reality charged with opportunities and challenges, it is a creator of wealth (the new capitalism requires adjustments, as have been needed in all changes of era, but it continues to be the system that has created and distributed the most freedom and wealth in the history of humanity), nonetheless still possessing the Achilles’ heel of the absence of governance that allows us to know and correct its overreach. The crisis is of confidence, and confidence is one of the basic pillars of democracy.”
The question for Mexico is the same one as always: Will it respond with a sense of future or try to control uncontrollable processes?