­­­­­The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization

Dr. Barrie Axford, Emeritus Professor of Politics at School of Law and Social Sciences, Oxford Brookes University.

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Please cite as:

Axford, Barrie. (2024). “The Implications of Rising Multipolarity for Authoritarian Populist Governance, Multilateralism, and the Nature of New Globalization.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 30, 2024. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0031

 

Abstract

What is it about the current phase of globalization that feeds on and is fed by the populist zeitgeist? In what follows I will tie the discussion of populism to the changing character of globalization, sometimes called the “new” globalization, though that label does less than justice to the overlapping nature of historical globalizations. The “new” globalization is both a description of the de-centered and multi-polar constitution of globality today and a reflex to safeguard against the roils of an ever more connected and turbulent world. It is a reminder that globalization has always been a multidimensional and contradictory process, moving to no single constitutive logic, and historically variable. The new globalization is the context for the current populist surge and, in turn, that surge is testimony to its emergence as a serious political force, perhaps as an embedded global script. In this same context the much-trumpeted failures of multilateralism are set against a burgeoning multipolarity which is itself an expression of the changing face of political modernity.

By Barrie Axford

The end of multilateralism and the onset of a multipolar world is a compelling narrative today. Here is a flavor of that narrative as told by academics and players of different hue:

First, Gideon Rose in 2017: “Today the liberal international order is a bit dilapidated. The structure still stands, but paint is peeling, walls are cracking, and jerry-built additions jut out from odd angles. Even at its best the arrangements never fully lived up to their ideals, and benefits have not always been distributed equally or fairly. Slowing growth, increasing inequality, declining social mobility, excessive bureaucracy, self-dealing elites, poor responses to transnational problems such as terrorism and climate change—the litany of current problems is long and familiar.” 

Second, EU foreign affairs supremo, Josep Borrell, who in July 2023 opined “(w)e live indeed in a more and more multipolar world, but multilateralism is in retreat. It is a paradox. Why? Because when the number of participants in a game increases, the natural response should be to strengthen the rules governing the game. However, we are facing the opposite trend: the rules governing the world are running out of steam. We must find ways to overcome this paradox.”

The third intervention has it that regardless of what robust multilateralism might imply or even require, as Donald Trump repeated in early Spring 2024, collective security – among other things – can go hang if America is expected to go on bearing undue financial costs.

The penultimate reference is to Elizabeth Braw’s recent claim that “the uprising of Europe’s farmers is a final nail in the coffin of globalization.” She goes on, “globalization is rapidly retreating and the forces of populism it helped to unleash are on the march.” Which, of course, echoes similar predictions made over the 30 years since Silvio Berlusconi first promised Italians a videocracy shorn of usual politics and politicians. Some years later various factions of the British “Leave” campaign weaponized Brexit with the promise to “take back control.”

Finally, from the Politico App in October 2023 a swingeing judgement: “For years we debated whether multipolarity would strengthen or weaken multilateralism. Now we know it has killed it.

With the exception of the Politico quote none of these references is a full-blown jeremiad on the twilight of the liberal order. Is Trump really serious about NATO? Will his “Second Coming” deliver the brain-death of the liberal international order?  Does widespread agricultural protest actually signify a wider and deeper disenchantment with the globalized economy; or even suggest that globalization is crumbling? Well, perhaps, but we are right to question the credentials of such claims. At the least exercising social-scientific caution will alert us to the complexity and dangerous messiness of world geo-politics and economics today, and this almost irrespective of whether one stands on the rise or decline in American power.

In what follows I begin by addressing the key terms in use: first multilateralism and particularly its troubled confrere the liberal international order; then multipolarity, which, with something of an Orwellian cast, can be read in different ways and with quite different agendas in mind. And finally, the part played by populism in these scenarios; bearing in mind the need to couch all this in a rather wider canvass of what might be called “new” globalization with the attendant shift to what looks like a re-racinated modernity, and what that might entail for world order.

Multilateralism Today

The concept of liberal international order is far from precise, despite its routine usage by scholars, journalists, and politicians. It is often spoken about as an open and rule-based order, enshrined ‘in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism’ (Ikenberry, 2011: 56; 2010). States are core actors in this order, which nonetheless prescribes a cooperative demeanor on their part and, in some cases, a partial abrogation, or pooling, of state power (Ruggie, 1993: 562). So far – so uncontentious. But at this point some definitional, and thus operational, issues arise (Kundnani, 2017).  These include obvious qualifiers as to its actual openness – is it really no more than a Western club masquerading as a universal order? What is meant by ‘rules? – who makes them and what are the sources of their legitimacy? There is also the matter of what ‘liberal’ implies. Does it suggest a modal opposition to authoritarianism? (political liberalism) Is it just about open markets and opposition to economic nationalism? (economic liberalism). Or is it just an abstract and scholarly term, used to disparage realist and neo-realist theories of international relations? (liberalism as IR theory). Well in fact, the concept melds all these definitions of liberal, but in doing so highlights tensions between them. These tensions are evident in what, some years back, became known as the ‘Beijing Consensus,” whose precepts were succinctly put by Stefan Halper (2012) when he wrote that states outside the West have been ‘learning market economics with traditional autocratic or semi-autocratic politics in a process that signals an intellectual rejection of the Western economic model.’ Here economic and political liberalism are distinct and one does not predicate the other. 

The present international order fuses two distinct notions of order. The first dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, somewhat contentiously taken to have laid down the concept of state sovereignty (Teschke, 2003). The second draws on liberal thinking developed first in Britain and the US over the past two centuries. Here being ‘liberal’ means embracing ‘open markets, international institutions, cooperative security, democratic community, progressive change, collective problem-solving, shared sovereignty and the rule of law’ (Ikenberry, 2011: 2). So, what we currently depict as the international liberal order is in fact a hybrid based on more-or-less statist assumptions and, since 1945, a regard for multilateral cooperation in many policy areas and issues of common concern. 

In all but name this was a settlement made in the image of the Western powers that initiated it. Realist in its commitment to state autonomy, it also espoused liberal principles, and these found limited expression in the United Nations Charter. The great economic institutions of the postwar era – the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT – later to be replaced by the World Trade Organization or WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were resolutely liberal, but still dominated by Western powers and reflected Western economic interests.

In sum, the idea of a liberal international order comprises three basic elements. The first is a systemic configuration of power in the doctrine of sovereignty. Second is the architecture of fundamental rules and practices that designate sources of authority in that order and smooth its routine operation. Finally, there is the framework of social norms that sanction the other two elements. This third element provides the justification for what might otherwise appear as a system governed by contradictory imperatives – territorial particularism (sovereignty) and moral universalism (seen, for example in the United Nations doctrine of human rights). These elements have developed in different, and sometimes contradictory, ways and these are manifest in the tensions over what constitutes an international security order, an international economic order and an international human rights regime, all under the auspices of a self-styled benignAmerican hegemony. 

Current arguments between the West and authoritarian powers such as China and Russia are not so much about international order per se but about different versions of it and in particular about the way Western powers have sought to change it since the end of the Cold War. Russia – some startling appearances to the contrary – wants to go back to the order agreed at the Yalta Conference in 1945, in which states with different ideologies and political systems co-exist and in particular respect territorial sovereignty — a Westphalian world in other words. In contrast, the more ‘liberal’ order for which many in the West argued in the post-Cold War period, “demands that states be obedient to liberal principles in foreign policy” (Kundnani, 2017: 47)

What About Multipolarity?

At this point it is appropriate to add that opposition to the liberal world order is not confined to China, Russia, and their allies. During Donald Trump’s presidency and still a feature of his current bid for office, is the rhetorical dismissal of the postwar liberal order and America’s stewardship of it. Moreover, it is clear that states of different hues do not share the vision of a benign US hegemony or, if they share it, wonder if the United States is still suited or committed to playing that role. 

In 2016, Fu Ying, then Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress identified three features of what she called the ‘US-led world order.’ These are ‘the American value system,’ the ‘US military alignment system’ and ‘international institutions, including the UN system.’ Although she did not use the term hegemony, what she describes amounts to the same thing. Apparently willing to support the third element of the international order, she said that China would always temper its approval of a system based on Western, and especially American, values. This reaction is increasingly widespread and has led to demands to dismantle the postwar geopolitical order and inaugurate a more obviously multipolar world, much like the economic sector. Americans counter that their hegemony has been, and remains benevolent, but the fact is that many outside the geographic and ideological West (and some within it, including countries in Europe) see the Liberal International Order as an ideological project. China is still frequently mentioned as a possible or likely successor to America’s hegemony, and so attention rightly turns to the kind of world order it would support and pursue. 

Multipolarity is the defining feature of this order, and it elicits both approbation and opprobrium. Some commentators argue that it is a myth, and even those who discern its rise claim either that it is “unbalanced” and therefore dangerous, or that it reflects a growing demand for sovereignty (for which read recognition) and identity and recognizes that there are multiple routes to economic modernity, especially in the Global South. As Josep Borrell also wrote, this new multipolarity results from the combination of three dynamics. First, a wider distribution of wealth in the world, second, the willingness of (hitherto middle-ranking) states to assert themselves strategically and ideologically and third, the emergence of an increasingly transactional international system, seen in bilateral deals – strategic partnerships and the like, or in forms of minilateralism – rather than in global rules. All this is a good way from the uniform “end of history” envisaged by Fukuyama in the early 1990’s, or visions of the smooth, networked world of hyperglobalist fantasy, and is clearly threatening to liberalism and universalism as the paradigm expressions of a post-ideological world. Moreover, the multipolar cast of twenty-first-century globalization is significantly different from the twentieth-century version. Before coming to, that let me say, a preliminary word about populism

The current (and seemingly protracted) spate of populisms is also part of a post-triumphal, post-hegemonic phase of global rebalancing. It is an expression of the tension that arises between globalization as a process of interconnection and de-bordering on the one hand, and strains of consciousness, as well as pressing exigencies, that resist any such convergence. It is at once fractal and ubiquitous; national populism was clearly orthogonal to the ideological landscape of the neo-liberal narrative of late twentieth century globalization, with its borderless credo. Then, it was fashionable, and for a while prescient, to declaim the potentially borderless quality of every kind of network and flow. Now that bullishness is largely absent – in the global north as well as south. Populism in its current guise is a specific moment in the more encompassing dialectic of global convergence and heterogeneity; a dialectic that displays various types of accommodation between national and global imaginaries, while still proclaiming an ontological divide between the two. 

Globalization in Flux

The much-rehearsed crisis of (Western) liberal capitalism is, along with the travails of Western modernity, more generally construed a staple in accounts of global change, leading to intense arguments about the end or rebirth of modern history. Sometimes this is glossed as a hegemonic shift, the sequential, and even cyclical, passing of preponderant might. But more often today the emphasis is on systemic disruption, disjunction, and fragmentation, and on alternative futures, where nothing is certain, and insecurity is rife. In terms of scholarship’s attention to things global this is an important development. For one thing, it locates the much touted “backlash” against globalization and modernity in a global crisis of “existential security,” which is a matter of consciousness. 

In his book the “Silent Revolution,” published in 1977, Ronald Inglehart drew attention to extraordinarily high levels of existential security experienced in mature democracies in the decades following World War II. This condition brought an unprecedented shift from materialist values that emphasized economic and physical security alongside endemic fears over the liminal quality of many lifestyles; to post-materialist values privileging individual autonomy, self-expression, openness to change and embracing diversity. The value shift so described brought with it huge social and political changes, from the rise of anti-war movements, demands for stronger environmental protection and their partial fulfillment, higher levels of gender equality across the social spectrum and the mainstreaming of gay rights. Democracy as a global cultural script also flourished. It too was dependent upon unprecedented levels of economic prosperity and geo-political stability. Of course, none of this happened overnight. Change was often quite protracted, occurring at the speed of intergenerational population replacement and, while secular, always subject to short, and sometimes not so short, economic downturns. 

But, for the past forty years or so, citizens of even high-income countries have seen more volatility in fortunes, so that they no longer take material wellbeing, or even survival, for granted. As a result, the graph tracing feelings of security has dipped markedly. Ulrich Beck argued that this is part of the crisis of second modernity – the inevitable consequence of living in the risk society (1996). In risk society, hazards have become much less predictable than of yore and even when predictable, profoundly more unmanageable. As a result, the scope for contingency, doubt and relativism increases vastly, to the point where fears about survival are rife; all without the dampening effects of fatalism or the haven of insurance. In this scenario the list of contributory ailments is familiar – declining real incomes, erosion of job security, rising income inequality within, if not always between, nations, and fears for the lot of subsequent generations, not least in terms of actual or impending environmental and health disasters and perceived threats from uncontrolled immigration and the displacement of whole peoples. Inglehart argued that the “Silent Revolution” dynamic still musters, but that – to a marked extent – it has gone into reverse with acute consequences, both politically and socially.  The consequences include growing support for xenophobic, populist, and authoritarian movements, along with a morbid fear of globalization, at least in its paradigmatic Western and capitalist (neoliberal) shape (Brubaker, 2017). 

In systemic language all this suggests a faltering of the Western model of globalization and of Western modernity; modernity shaped by rational, cognitive reflexivity on the part of individuals and institutions, along with critical monitoring of the self and social institutions by all actors. And as a reaction to the perceived failure of reflexive modernization and the ability to manage the trials of everyday life, there has been a search for, or reversion to, seemingly more “authentic,” and decidedly more expressive components of self and collective identity. Anti-globalization and neo-statist rhetoric and activism is one such expression – distilled in the slogan “taking my country back” – and it appears in various shades of contentious politics; not all of them regressive. And where it is not seen as part of a cyclical process, but as a contingency born of circumstance – de-globalization is another; often taking the form of the “innovative fortification” of various enclaves and identities to protect against globalization’s relativizing and integrative dynamics (Betz, 2023; Benedikter et al, 2022). Populism is a key – though not the only – component in such politics. 

What are the implications for globalization’s 21st century profile? 

The politics range from exclusivist forms of collective identity, like ultra-nationalism, through a world in which the “other” – however conceived – is forever consigned as alien and untrustworthy; to adopting designer selves in line with fashion or circumstance, making identity construction a lifestyle choice (Foges, 2020). Crucially, for the temper of politics abroad in such a milieu, the latter often entails a rejection of meaning systems that are mediated by technical expertise, abstract systems and rationality; ironically at a time when life itself is ever more subject to the pervasive technologies of the Internet, AGI (artificial general intelligence), and soon, quantum computing. The first two are all too familiar as the tools of what Joshua Neves calls “under-globalization” with its panoply of fake news, deep fakes, conspiracy theories, disinformation and polarized worldviews (Neves, 2020). 

On the ground the search for security and for recognition has triggered new forms of contentious politics. As well as varieties of populism, new social movements – of indigenous peoples, climate change protestors, communitarians, feminists, and Trans activists – have invoked elements of the romantic-aesthetic tradition. But in its most robust, and least palatable, form the search to minimize exposure to risk tribalizes relations between groups. In this scenario the recently dominant trope of a hegemonic, benign and borderless global order – capitalist, liberal and embracing of (cultural) diversity – has less and less purchase. Other contenders, other globalizations, such as “justice globalism” or “jihadist globalism,” perhaps civilizationism, as well as evidence of multiple routes to modernity, point up the increasingly fissiparous, or at any rate plural qualities of the umbrella concept “globalization” (Steger, 2015).  The point is that all such changes in the real world demand an agile scholarship to address changing global complexity which is comprised – inter alia – of the emergence of non-western, post-western, post-capitalist, and post-socialist globalities and a myriad of glocal formations, including platforms in cyberspace. 

A sense of impending doom on many fronts lends a febrile quality to any discussion of current global change and its direction; though the actual set of the world after a veritable glut of deluges remains hard to fathom. Which will undo us first; nuclear Armageddon courtesy of a throwback to what – pre-Ukraine – most scholarship had consigned as an outdated twentieth century trope for world order? Or might demise lie in the kind of politics occasioned by excessive inequalities and growing precarities, in the spillover from wars in Ukraine and Gaza and the weakening of US hegemony on many fronts? Is climate change the obvious, or only, form horse in the apocalypse stakes? These are hardly frivolous questions, and for some, they betoken a world already far down the road to perdition. But here a word of caution is appropriate because while a focus on dislocation and crisis is seductive and the narrative of impending ruin compelling, they tell only part of the story, at least for how we construe and consign the global, both in the academy and in popular imagination.

So, Is There a New Globalization?

Neoliberal globalization is experiencing profound challenges, sometimes simplified as a “backlash,” and its opponents have markedly differing prescriptions for the global future, including a world disaggregated into national redoubts. In the climate engendered by the Coronavirus pandemic the latter scenario is less a strategic vision of multi-polar or decentered globalization than the reflex of insecure humanity looking for succor where it can. The responses to Covid-19 reflect a sense of collective (global) vulnerability while decanting to mainly local ways of dealing with it, and this is a paradigm for the present global condition. The same is true of the politics of climate change, where the cause of national exceptionalism, seen in what became known as “vaccine nationalism,” was reflected in health security measures and more draconian forms of immigration control.

Viral and ecological disasters, along with the possibility of nuclear Armageddon aside, there is widespread agreement that liberal globalization has been usurped by rising protectionism and by diverging growth paths in emerging markets. Taken together they describe a concatenation of crises for previous versions of globality (Gills, 2020). But talk of a backlash against this model does not imply an end to globalization, or even a systematic process of “deglobalization.” Rather it posits a rebalancing in, as well as a destabilization of, what Steger and James describe as once “taken-for-granted shibboleths,” most obviously the centrality of unfettered markets (Steger and James, 2019: 191; Benedikter and Kofler, 2019; Steger, 2019b; Steger, 2019a). Rebalancing tends to what I call a “new” globalization, though the attribution has to be used with care. New globalization is no hyperglobalist rebirth; but neither is it an unequivocal shift to more state-centric forms of national liberalism or, for that matter, national populism

So, what is it?

First, we should note a shift in the global balance of economic power, which is, or may be, of world-historical significance. We are in the midst of another long-term transition – from the Atlantic economy (Atlantic globalization?) to the Pacific economy (Pacific globalization?) (Nederveen Pieterse, 2018: 124) – a shift that further attests to globalization’s dynamism and its indeterminate nature. This re-balancing is often characterized as a process of “post-Westernization,” or “Easternization.” Using such labels is still simplifying but qualifies the urge to treat radical changes as just another increment in the cyclical transfer of hegemonic power. It is more accurately portrayed as a process of “multi-polar globalization,” no longer in thrall to Western neoliberalism (Nederveen Pieterse, 2018; Arrighi, 2007). Easternization is a complex process wherein “non-Western societies and civilizations acquire, institutionalize, and transform…. modern traits” (Casanova, 2011: 263), but crucially, also enact their own versions of modernity out of their own pasts. The Chinese case underlines the fact that the pattern of global economic integration is not a Western telos, and in key respects never has been (Axford, 2018). 

As Jan Nederveen-Pieterse says, twenty-first century globalization involves a “new geography of trade, weaker hegemony and growing multipolarity” (2018: 11). Increasing multipolarity has cast shadows on the relevance, legitimacy, and effectiveness of established multilateral organizations and processes seen, most obviously, in the UN, G-20, World Bank, IMF, EBRD, WTO, and WHO. Chronic weaknesses have been concurrent with the rise of initiatives such as BRICS – plus, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), driven by authoritarian and populist leaders, who have now staked a claim on the future demeanor of global governance. Meanwhile the Western architectures of post-war global governance are often perceived as "weak" or "disingenuous.” These developments have far-reaching implications, not least in the ability to address global challenges such as climate change, food security, conflict resolution, and humanitarian crises. And proxy conflicts, political oppression, terrorism, and ethnic and community displacement have triggered irregular and uncontrolled migration, contributing to the rise of far-right and other populist parties and movements in developed nations. 

What really sets the two strains of “old” and “new’ globalization apart is the rise of emerging economies in the current phase. Their growth has outstripped rivals in the developed world to the point where they are now the drivers of the world economy. Data for 2023 confirms this trend. A group of 24 emerging economies accounted for 50% of Global GDP in 2023, and 66% of global GDP growth in the past 10 years (2013-2023) (World Economics 2024). Although dramatic, this growth spurt might still be seen as tracking a pattern of global convergence already extant, whereby Asian and other emerging economies strive to achieve per capita GDP and living standards currently enjoyed by developed nations. But that understates the extent to which the rise of emerging economies upsets, and possibly overturns, the practices and mythologies of two centuries of North over South domination, with its “familiar expressions of colonialism, imperialism and American hegemony” (Nederveen-Pieterse, 2018: 10). 

Because of this shift, the new globalization has something of an epochal feel to it, although such a conclusion may be premature. Overall, the demeanor of twenty-first century globalization is not assured because the data lends itself to different interpretations. Thus, in 2019 geopolitical uncertainty in the guise of the US-Iran conflict and a slowing Chinese economy combined to trigger a global manufacturing downturn. A year later the novel coronavirus that began in China dampened Asia’s growth prospects still further, with the global consequences still being played out, most obviously through its effects on those developing nations with poor healthcare systems, pronounced national debt and generally fragile economies. The Coronavirus pandemic then reshaped trade by shortening supply chains. For many multinationals a move towards regional, rather than global, supply chains offers the prospects for resilience and, as the Economist Intelligence Unit reported in 2021 the flexibility to shift production of key components from one location to another. Global trade networks have also shrunk or been damaged in the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and from Israel’s response to Hamas’ massacre of its citizens in October 2023. 

Relations between old and new preponderant powers are also more volatile. In particular, US-China trade relations remain fragile. Geo-strategically the same is true, a consequence of China’s insistent and persistent claims on Taiwan. Calls to decouple Western economies from “strategic dependency” on China for a range of goods and infrastructural services increased markedly during the time of the Coronavirus, partly as a reflection of worsening relations with the USA, and partly out of fears that the CPR controlled too great a proportion of trade in goods critical for national security.   

So, important questions have to be asked about the significance of events and trends and about the rise of emergent economies and fragmented societies more generally. Are these secular changes, heralding an epoch-ending, terminal failure of the status quo, or another periodic adjustment in the dominance of global (read Western) capitalism? Do they advance or retard neoliberalism or is that question already redundant? Are they just another frisson in the changing (if not cyclical) fortunes of nations in general and preponderant nations in particular? Do they signify the advent of post-liberal globalization tout court, as an illiberal and authoritarian  state (China) and its cohorts, make the running in terms of global growth and stewardship? Most portentous, are the shifts epochal because they intimate the breakup of the capitalist world economy, of capitalist modernity and thus of capitalist history? The weight of these questions imparts a more nebulous quality to any judgment about apparently seminal indicators of change.

The likelihood is that multi-polar globalization has its own dynamics, including the lineages of Chinese and Indian economic development as alternatives to Western models of growth. But this is not another grand narrative of globalization – a new hegemony – in the making; more a major rebalancing in key areas such as trade, finance, international institutions, and soft power. It contributes to a crisis of dominant modes and the appearance of a globalization that is more complex, overlapping, disjunctive and (dis)ordered. 

Second: Digitalization. Of course, there are still robust signs of global convergence economically and culturally, but the drivers and character of that convergence are changing, and this has consequences for the character of world trade, for growth, as well as for wealth creation and distribution. Such drivers also impact profoundly on the ways we live our lives. Here I advert digitalization – the displacement of analogue technologies and cultures by digital means – as a new global formation that has become “continuous and ubiquitous” (Sandywell, 2011: 14). In this respect, though in many others too, the “emergent global” as Appadurai says, is (or has been) all about speed (2020). While the trade in goods seems to be slowing down, and may be stagnating, trade in global services and information – especially where they are digitally enabled – continues to boom. 

Of course, there are disabling pinch points in these developments. Digital technologies are not replacing mass and low-cost manufacturing altogether; or not yet. But the roboticization of production threatens an ever-wider constituency of workers, not only just low or unskilled operatives. The consequent political need to protect jobs in face of such pressures is growing stronger, especially in advanced economies, and this spawns a protectionist politics to match. But here there is a crucial prospect to consider. Across the board digital media are no longer just intermediaries between social agents, no longer just channels or conduits of information. Rather, they are generative social apparatuses that produce the social. Digital technologies are designed for a borderless world because, as Barry Sandywell argues, “the images of life, nature and relationships they promulgate tend to take a universal form” (2011: 15). Yet there are paradoxes, some of them apparent in the ruttedness of places and identities when set against the desire to live “in the moment,” to benefit from simultaneity and routine access and yet be free of the usual joys and trammels of human contact.

Arguably, these developments have few, if any, parallels in previous analogue cultures. The virtual inscriptions of cyberspace are creating new spaces and times of politics, governance and leisure, new business practices and new kinds of imagined community. The changes are perhaps most advanced and dramatic in visual worlds – especially in the seductiveness and growing availability of worlds through virtual and augmented reality technologies and AGI (artificial general intelligence). But in truth, they are everywhere, mainly because digital information is accessible at any point on the planet – if not always easily – and thus supplies resources for personal and institutional innovation and greater reflexivity, and also opportunities for more systematic and draconian surveillance. This process is never going to be a tale of bland homogenization. The globalization of digital culture is variable and contested in terms of its liberating potential, its repressive and dehumanizing possibilities, and its variation across localities. And the digitalization of personal worlds and cultures demonstrates the same features, arousing the same passions.

Third, Sovereigntism (neo-statism): In a recent foray Jonathan Friedman corrals populism’s basic precepts with the label “sovereigntism” (2018; see also Kallis, 2018 and Basile and Mazzoleni, 2019, Gerbaudo, 2021) an almost elemental regard for retaining or “taking back” control over one’s conditions of existence. In like vein Paolo Gerbaudo labels this phenomenon “neo-statism. This is a mantra that keeps on giving, witness ex-UK Prime Minister Elizabeth Truss’ reference to the Trumpian “deep state” at the CPAC conference in February 2024. Sovereigntism is a very portable concept and popular sovereigntism, the “will of the people,” is the evocation most favored by populists. Just where does all this sit in the narrative of the new globalization?  

Sovereignty resides center-stage, if uneasily, in all accounts of modern globalization, where debate and dispute focus on the capacity and future of the state and the international system of states, alongside the threat or promise of statelessness. Sovereigntism looks back longingly to a more untrammeled version of sovereign power based on “mutually exclusive territories and the retrenchment to the national dimension” (Kallis, 2018). If populism is the bully-boy opponent of globalization, then sovereigntism and neo-statism are its intellectual and ideological avatars. They instantiate the “innovative fortification” of the national I spoke of earlier, but they do not amount to de-globalization. 

Most observers now agree that states are not in demise, which was the hyper-globalist conceit not all that long ago. But are they routinely effective actors, not just in the mythology of realist and neo-realist theory, but in their actual ability to penetrate, extract and coordinate resources within a territorially defined space and act in concert with others? These resources include the size of the available pool of trust in governments, and the belief that, by and large, what they do will enhance the quality of life for citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic trialed the strength of that trust, challenging the state’s position as a bastion for nationals, while underlining its vulnerability to the indifferent globality of pathogens. But is this a limiting case, or was the pandemic a turning point in the capacity of individual states to manage their affairs, as well as in the shape of global geopolitics? 

Taking back control is an elemental, if often non-specific, ambition. The complexities of twenty-first century globalization confront all shades of populism as a battle for the future of the national imaginary in geo-political, geo-economic and geo-cultural guises. Taking note of the previous indicators of new globalization, it can be argued with some conviction that since the millennium the “rise of a multifaceted populist challenge to the liberal mainstream” (has) exposed the shallowness of liberalism’s supposed triumph in the world more generally, but critically in its heartlands in Europe and North America (Kallis, 2018). We might also claim that in the shape of a renewed sovereigntism, the national state, indeed the national imaginary altogether, have staged something of a comeback in recent years. Indeed, sovereigntism as a facet of the new globalization may have “emerged as one of the primary ideological-political fault lines of contemporary politics” (Kallis, 2018: 13). It is, as Aristotle Kallis notes, benefitting from lying at the “intersection between rival populist projects of re-defining and allegedly re-empowering the community of ‘the people’” (2018: 13) and frequently apocalyptic – though sometimes experiential – accounts of a world in chaos, or soon heading that way.

But Are There Reasons to Be Cheerful?

Populism – which traffics the relativization and even transcendence of modernity’s principles and forms – holds up a mirror to current politics and the current phase of globalization, and what that shows is both unedifying and palatable. But the fissiparous quality of politics around the world should temper any impulse to generalize. This is a world manifesting different kinds of conflict and revolt, and that variety is itself a reflection of growing – not to say systemic – multipolarity. The de-centeredness, or multi-centeredness of this world also qualifies any neat blanket labels such as “global capitalism,” “global neoliberalism” or liberal order, as unequivocal descriptions of a predominant or hegemonic variety of globalization or global system. Capitalism is differentiated, and neoliberalism increasingly fails to convince as an overarching and steadfast rubric because big players in emerging markets – China, India, and Northeast Asia – have developed, and continue to develop, outside it (Arrighi, 2007). And to underline further the variety of origin and temper, Modi’s populism in India is a mix of autocracy, ethno-religious nationalism, and neo-liberal economic dogma. Donald Trump – in his guise as the “come-back kid,” still beggars any model of ideological (or policy) consistency; touting a blend of Jacksonian conservatism and protectionism, alongside neo-liberal formulaics, and a now developed white version of nationalism. 

It also remains true that in advanced economies in the West and North populist movements and parties of both the (notional) left and the (notional) right have emerged in recent years to protest and counter the perceived and experienced ills of market capitalism. To a greater or lesser extent, and almost regardless of ideological hue, they offer cures or palliatives for perceived maladies that are inimical, or at least challenging, to democratic elitism as the dominant mode of governance and political culture (Inglehart, 2018). On this count, populism, in what I have elsewhere termed its “postmodern” guise, can be seen either as a distinct (though not singular) challenge to the remnants of embedded liberalism and the currency of its neoliberal spawn, or a remedy for their ills (Axford, 2021). As Dani Rodrik says, populism so conceived is part of an ideological and policy rebalancing of globalization (Rodrik, 2018). That said it may be no more than a cathartic response to periodic crises; a shock to the system, rather than its successor-in-waiting, and that syncs with its hit-and-run style of politics. Populism appears to demand transformation, albeit of a back-to-the-future variety but is perennially light on detail. In the aftermath of Covid such coltishness may continue to find favor with sections of disaffected electorates. But in the longer-term, perhaps not. The spate of elections – including to the European Parliament – around the world in June 2024 may provide some of the answers to that question. 

And to a great extent it depends on how deep and how widespread the politics of anger and of cultural insecurities run. How serious is the demand for change in the battle to rebuild the world and domestic economies after successive crises? We know the depth of anger and the degree of polarization, or so we now think; though many commentators dismiss such frustration as either whimsy, or as an unlikely basis on which to build a new politics, to fashion radical economic policies, and to mend broken cultures. Populism’s credentials in these respects remain open to question. How committed are various electorates to radical solutions as opposed to garish gestures – and what would a politics born of such radical commitment look like? The “cultural turn” of late has encouraged citizens to repose what were once seen as biddable political issues into matters of identity that are not so malleable, and these may be legion. 

So, in the broader warp of social change what signifies is a politics founded on insecurity as the dominant motif for turbulent times. Crucially, insecurities are manifest over the stability of borders and identities, as much as over jobs and wages. And, of course, Covid-19 added a new source of universal insecurity. Populism did not cause these insecurities but taken in the round it narrates a crisis of modernity that is unlikely to be resolved through mere refurbishment of usual politics. Because of that it has a course still to run. Nonetheless, can it be redeemed as a project that tempers globalist excesses; holds at bay the indifferent globalities of microbial infection, and heals cultural divisions? The answer is probably not, and certainly not entirely. But what I have argued here locates populism as a feature of a globalized world itself in the midst of change; and a quickener in the ontological shift away from political and quotidian modernity. This will look like a re-racinated version of twentieth century Western modernity, but notably without its universalist cast and, to say the least, such a designation adds a sting to routine talk of a multipolar world. Populism may not be an embedded feature of current geo-politics, but it is expressive of what is a now likely to be a modal force for change; perhaps for good, but more likely for ill.


Note: A version of this article was delivered by Professor Barrie Axford at the ECPS’ Third Annual International Symposium on "The Future of Multilateralism Between Multipolarity and Populists in Power" with the same title on March 19, 2024.


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