It’s not the global economy, stupid

Analytical fashions come and go, but the postmodern concept of hyper-reality, the state in which distinguishing between reality and its simulation becomes impossible refuses to fade into irrelevance. In January, the political historian Anton Jäger suggested that we have finally entered the era of hyper-politics: the phase in the evolution of democratic societies when anything and everything becomes a matter of politics.[1]Anton Jäger, ‘How the World Went from Post-Politics to Hyper-Politics’, 3 January 2022, This hyper-politics is not the politics of the union movement or partisan electoral gestures. Hyper-politics, instead, is the ideological scrutiny of every event that saturates all spheres of life and from which there is no opting out. In the age of hyper-politics, your aunt has loudly articulated opinions on lockdowns, statues, free speech, and trans rights. And boy, are they political.

If hyper-politics is a malaise that breaks all the promises of political participation by distracting us from the substance of political realities, an age of hyper-economics follows closely on its coattails. Like hyper-politics, hyper-economics has little to do with the here-and-now economics of jobs, taxes, or business grants. Instead, it’s an economics of the global stage, of OECD, WTO, and other acronymised ideas. Like hyper-politics, this global hyper-economics is so seductive that it draws us to participate in world-shaping debates which would have been the preserve of government experts and trade emissaries until not long ago. And just like that of hyper-politics, hyper-economics’ role is to loosen our grip on the reality of power by creating the illusion that the discourse we are participating in is the reality.

Hyper-economics’ favourite issue is anti-globalization. After a brief respite from MAGA politics, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the Manichean morality of global flows of goods back into everyday focus. Isn’t it good of Apple Pay to boycott the Moscow metro? Have our elected representatives moved quickly enough to sanction Russian aluminium? These are valid concerns and we cannot blame economic pundits for speculating on the future shape of the economic system that has supplied our food and fuel for decades. But the critiques of the economic impasse are indicative of a dearth of new ideas. Certainly, globalization “has run its sorry course”[2]Nick Timothy, ‘Globalisation Has Run Its Sorry Course. We Must Find a New Model’, The Telegraph, 27 March 2022, and has shown itself to be incompatible with freedom.[3]‘Confronting Russia Shows the Tension between Free Trade and Freedom’, The Economist, 19 March 2022, But to conclude that ‘something has to give’ because we no longer like the smell of Russian gas is to ignore that the internal contradictions of global flows of capital have been obvious for decades.

The nature of the proposed successors to the globalist order remains nebulous. The global economic order’s proposed successors include versions of radical independence, strategic diversity, brute-force free trade, multilateral protectionism, and even dreams of a global plan economy. Some of these propositions have the ring of Trump’s ‘America First’ or Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’, in tone if not intent. After ‘Chaina’ and ‘Brussels’, Russia makes for the perfectly immoral economic bogeyman.

It remains unclear who would lead a sweeping overhaul of the world’s economic order: the great man of history theory lacks a Reagan or a Thatcher for 2022. Pretenders are plentiful but even Trump’s assault on international trade run out of steam even before the pandemic hit. But the lack of a daring global economic vision amongst G7 leaders should not distract us from the fact that those ‘great men’ are still around and that they have been practising the hard economics of dollars and renminbi while we have been distracted by the ideological debates of hyper-economics. 

Davos, Switzerland. Photo: World Economic Forum/Andy Mettler/flickr.

Today’s greats are the men of Davos, the oligarchs of Russia, China, or the US. Here, that ‘hyper’ prefix which indicates an untrue reality comes in handy again: ‘great men’ don’t need greatness. Granted, some harbour ambitions of colonizing Mars, but the majority wouldn’t even make the news if they became the subject of economic sanctions. They are immune to scrutiny because they have made Faustian pacts with hyper-economics’ spiritual leaders: Klaus Schwab, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping. Of course, these great men are not following some conspiratorial plot devised to return the world’s global order to some status quo ante and who has the upper hand changes periodically. This hardly matters because the object of the game is to harness the flows of capital and war, in the long run, is good for business. The sublime magic of hyper-economics is that it no longer relies on the international rules-based order. Just like democracy is no longer a prerequisite of capitalism, neither is a global consensus essential to globalization. 

The superbly obfuscating power of hyper-economics at times of conflict is that it steals the moral valour of international diplomacy ostensibly rooted in political deliberation. How effective are governments and multilateral organizations in shaping a global future when their promise of war-ending sanctions and fracking proves to be no match for war itself? Is it not the case that for all the political contingency of the global commodity trade, the power of NATO allies over Russia’s economy has remained merely symbolic? 

It turns out that stopping Nord Stream 2 does surprisingly little to arrest the undercurrent of capital circulation that keeps the disciples of Schwab and Putin in power. This is, of course, an inevitable effect of deregulating and privatizing our economies completed with China’s full embrace of ‘state capitalism’.[4]Karl Gerth, Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China’s Communist Revolution (Cambridge, United Kingdom New York Port Melbourne New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2020), We have become so economically libertarian that it is now too late to pull the moral handbrake. Between the flows of Taiwanese semiconductors and Ukrainian grain, we are now one shortage of agricultural fertilizer away from joining the UK secretary of state Liz Truss in nostalgically waxing about the country’s international cheese trade balance.[5]Conservative Party Conference Speech, 2014,

This mismatch of morality and scale is also the missed potential of protectionist populisms or the fantasies of economic green transition that in hyper-economic terms rely on simplistic, singular interventions in the exchange of commodities. It is unsettling to think that Steve Bannon’s Movement and the Paris Accord could fulfil their goals through similar means, but even more so to understand that both at the core rely on relegating political agency to the men behind Davos, the Kremlin, or Beijing.

Main image: Jim Black/Pixabay