The turn of the century marked the zenith of globalisation and the golden era of G7-G8 summits. One model seemed fit for all: neoliberal economics and democratic politics. One obvious hegemon was in the room: the United States of America. And one clear ambition charted the course ahead: defining a “new world order” supported by the optimistic claim of a prosperity for all.
That picture has blown up. Ten years after the outbreak of the global financial crisis, the snapshot that emerges from the Hamburg G20 summit is one of a global disorder where no clear model, no clear hegemon, and no clear ambition prevails.
The failure of the neoliberal model should be evident to all: financial and extractive capitalism has led to increasing inequalities and secular stagnation, decline of the Western middle classes and concentration of wealth on a scale not seen since the belle époque.
In the meantime American hegemony is waning and challenged – from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea; the election of Donald Trump to the White House has led even traditional European allies to question the trans-Atlantic special relationship.
And, finally, global ambition has given way to a cacophony where illiberal democracy brushes sides with authoritarianism, protectionism with free trade, while all the most pressing issues of our time remain unaddressed.
The result is that the international system appears unable to craft a new vision of global governance. “Crisis” seems to be the permanent form of an open transition, generating tensions at every level: from political and economic clashes between declining global powers and ascending regional powers to military tensions unchecked by global policemen.
The G20 process was not meant to represent a simple quantitative extension of the G7 or G8 structure; it was rather born as a qualitative attempt to broaden to emerging countries a degree of co-responsibility in the stabilisation of the global economy. It is no coincidence that the format was first imagined in the aftermath the 1997 Asian financial crisis and it gained in importance following the 2007-8 financial havoc.
But the G20 summit in Hamburg, far from representing the first sprouts of a new, multilateral governance, appears as a genuine clash of world-views. One the one hand a parade of monsters flirting with political nationalism, economic isolation and authoritarianism – from Erdogan to Putin and Trump. On the other, the remnants of the so-called liberal establishment attempting to relaunch a “business as usual” of flexible accumulation, open markets and technocratic governance – from Macron to Merkel.
Far from addressing a growing list of clearly global problems – from migrations to climate change, from multinational tax evasion to online surveillance – it is inevitable that such disproportions are bound to multiply tensions and conflicts. The path seems to lead to a permanent crisis of the very idea of a possible global governance. This is an open scenario. One where tragedy and catastrophe flit with possibility and renewal.
Holding the banner of such possible renewal, hundreds of thousands of activists will take the street of Hamburg to protest a G20 divided between two bad alternatives: status quo or authoritarianism. If the “no global” movement of the 1990s had the slogan “another world is possible”, the movements gathering to contest the G20 summit have chosen to stress that “the other world is already here”.
The other world is the one made visible by various global waves that in the last months have seen the centrality of women struggles, of migrants and “welcome initiatives” across Europe, of precarious labor and new forms of strike in the digital economy, or again the experiences of right to the city movements, from Barcelona to Zagreb, which in some cases have even stimulated new local government experiences.
The often local scale of this “other world” does not mean it shies away from the necessary reconfiguration of a transnational alternative to the destructive chaos of the G20 summit. Just a month ago, for instance, Barcelona hosted a global summit, fearless cities, bringing together mayors from across the world to commit to joint initiatives to tackle precisely the global challenges that national leadership seems increasingly unable to address. At the same times, many of the movements and civil society actors represented in Hamburg – from Blockupy to DiEM25, form the trade justice movement to European Alternatives and hundreds more – aim precisely to recuperate that bottom-up, continental counter-power that Europe would badly need today.
Yes, we run the risk of stumbling towards a chaotic world of nationalism and conflict. But today’s crisis of global governance also offers the chance to move beyond a system that never truly worked in the first place. For anyone with the ambition of constructing a true democratic politics beyond borders, the best ideas aren’t likely to come out of the official G20 Summit but to be found on the streets of Hamburg.