If at the turn of the 21st century, the world already seemed decidedly ‘flatter’ and more compressed, after a year of closed borders, silent airports, ‘stay at home’ injunctions, and all sorts of newly normalised barriers, it has now become a vast and forbidding archipelago of fiercely competing micro-sovereignties pulling further and further apart from each other.
Once again, globalisation has proved skin-deep.
In so many ways 2020 felt like a brutal reality check. So much of what had been taken for granted as part of the ‘third’ era of globalisation came to a violent halt: inter- and trans-national mobilities froze by decree or stumbled on reinvigorated hard sovereign borders. A retreat into protectionism, already evident as a trend for some time, was further legitimised in the name of existential threat. National shortages of medical equipment and then of vaccines added fuel to a language of national self-sufficiency and a spirit of aggressive competition with other states for control of resources.
Not unlike what happened with the ‘waves’ of globalisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was in this century driven by the willingness of states to cooperate; and its downfall was the narrow-minded retreat to a zero-sum, fiercely antagonistic conception of sovereignty.
The past five years provided ample evidence that the time when globalisation was regarded as the inviolable totem of a brave new world could come to an abrupt end. The unprecedented level of sophistication of networks and processes achieved in the past half-century, as well as the attitudinal changes that they produced over time across the globe, were no guarantee against reversal.
A global health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic may indeed prove to be a temporary blip, followed by the fabled re-opening of the world and a ‘back-to-normal’ expectation. But the changes that have occurred in the past year, however seemingly authorised as temporary exceptions in the name of an existential threat, are likely to bequeath long-lasting legacies.
The pandemic archipelago
The spatial marking of sovereignties has been extended in ways that go well beyond abstract notions of governmentality, like the standard infrastructure of border controls. It is now also defined by a depressingly long register of physical border walls, of which the so-called ‘Trump wall’ on the US-Mexico border has been the most notorious recent example.
Meanwhile, just as the power of the nation-state to reassert unilaterally its sovereignty seems to be on a dangerous upward trajectory, micro-sovereignties have thrived on the sub-national level. Nearly all states have become de facto more federalised in the management of the pandemic –sometimes to the point of an unworkable patchwork of competing jurisdictions and conflicting rules as has been the case in the UK or in the US.
Now a growing number of long-standing but recently bolstered sub-national identities have staked a much stronger claim to separatism. Postcode, municipal, regional and other previously invisible boundaries have not only fractured the supposedly globalised world but have also fostered inward-looking mentalities that may be part of the ‘new normal’.