Harold James on globalisation and migrants
By Alberto Mingardi
Harold James has a piece on the backlash against globalisation and the immigration debate. For James, antipathy for globalisation isn’t anything new, but whereas at first it used to be nostalgia for economic nationalism, by now it has morphed into hostility against the free movement of people. Once people opposed goods passing by national boundaries, now we oppose people.
James’s article attempts to read the popular mind in Western countries. As opposed to twenty years ago, “Rich-country consumers have become far more comfortable with – even reliant on – foreign products, from constantly upgraded electronics to the cheap ‘fast fashion’ that has become predominant throughout the advanced economies”.
Also, the elites are likely to realise that “the reversal of product globalization is easier than ever, thanks to progress in robotic engineering and the development of processes like 3D printing”. So, James argues, it is more difficult to paint globalised trade as a race to the bottom.
James argues that our hostility to migrants has deeper roots than the refugees’ crisis. That is nothing new, nor is James alone in pointing at that. But I find interesting his explanation, though I’m not sure I agree.
It is not that Westerners today haven’t been exposed to other cultures: they have, and in bigger numbers than ever. But, James writes,
The problem lies in how we travel. Nowadays, we are more likely to have quick, superficial experiences than to immerse ourselves in a culture. But, as modern game theory teaches, a one-time interaction is very different from ongoing contact. If participants know that they are having a unique and finite experience, they have no incentive to build a basis for deeper understanding or cooperation. Continual exchange is needed to foster trust.
(..) Visitors stay within the confines of their pre-planned excursions, meeting only the swindlers offering overpriced trinkets or taxi rides. Locals are hardly appreciative of the massive groups of tourists swarming around their most prized sites. Nobody feels particularly engaged or trusting.
James is kind of nostalgic for the days when tourism meant long stays and deep encounters with vastly different cultures. “Soon after the US entered World War II, Winston Churchill famously decamped to the White House for 24 days, cementing Britain’s transatlantic alliance by deepening his relationship with Franklin Roosevelt. That level of familiarity may well be the greatest enemy of today’s anti-globalization populists”.
Well, it could be that good things need to take time to mature. But I wonder if we can really expect people to spend that much time in foreign countries, entering into deep contact with others. Modern tourism happens at an unprecedented scale; it is, different than in the past, available by and large to people of all incomes, a good number of whom travel with their families.
James’s conclusion is perhaps more modest: “it is possible to imagine settings in which visitors and their hosts interact in a more personal way. Airbnb, for example, can provide a much more engaging experience than a hotel or, worse, a cruise ship”. Some people indeed collect experiences and people and friends inasmuch as they ‘collect’ selfies and pictures with world-famous monuments.
For me, I find this reasoning suggestive, but I always tend to doubt that people are really much into inferring political ideas from their own experience. Sometimes Deirdre McCloskey tells the story of a Marxist colleague of hers, who passionately hates “markets”, but is a most skillful market operator in selling antiques and in roaming all sorts of flea markets. I am sure any of us has some friend who pontificates against immigrants as being threats to our society, but is more than glad to make exception for her filippino housemaid, the Chinese girl working at the newspapershop, and the African pizza-maker whom she knows and considers wonderful friends. It’d be great if all of us may have a richer experience of different cultures, I’m not sure it will make us all more tolerant.