“Left Behind” by globalization?: It’s not just about geography

This week, I picked up The Economist.  The magazine’s cover photo depicted an abandoned railroad track next to a run-down factory. The headline: “Left Behind”.  According to the magazine, the problem with globalization was geographical. The benefits of globalization were unevenly distributed. The city of Scranton in my home state of Pennsylvania is “lined with shuttered factories.” There are other, more prosperous places people might live. “Yet despite almost a century of economic blows, more than half a million people remain in the area.” The article goes on to argue people’s refusal to move to places of economic growth is one reason they have been “left behind.” The right-leaning magazine then posits government interventions to make places like Scranton economically viable. Karl Polanyi’s assertion that all markets, free or otherwise, require state agents to invent them seems proved again.

When I read this article, I wondered whether the investment would address globalization’s underlying problem, namely the gap between the wealthy and the poor. This gap occurs both within and between communities. Economic policies can address standards of living, but I’m not sure how globalization can eliminate the gap. Ideas of “wealthy” and “poor” are comparative. The definition of each depends on the other, such that people only know they are wealthy when they have poor people against whom to compare themselves. From an ideological perspective, in order to promote wealth, one would also have to promote poverty.

I saw this dynamic in action in my ethnographic research on men’s labor migration from rural Mexico to the United States. At this small social scale, dynamics of wealth and poverty are thrown into stark relief. Remittances, for example, could make some families appear suddenly wealthy while families with no migrants suddenly found themselves poorer than their neighbors. I watched how a growing gap between wealthier migrant families and poorer active stayers aroused jealousies, a natural enough reaction. But the place where these dynamics were most poignant was within families.

The villages where I work are home to a few extended families. When a single, nuclear family used migration to “move ahead,” the people “left behind” where aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins. This was a necessary part of the migratory experience. Family members served as each other’s points of reference. In order for one family to advance, other families had to stay still or experience a loss. As anthropologists who study kinship note, at some level, kin are supposed to be equal to one another, or at least, supportive in their differences. People often feel family inequalities more sharply than they feel inequalities in other relationships. But the way to get ahead in migration was to create economic distance from one’s nearest relatives.

 The Economist’s motivation for the article is our current political climate. People who were “left behind” voted for economic nationalists in 2016 in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.  The magazine’s answer to the problem emphasized more globalization, this time with state incentives to encourage businesses to cluster in areas that are currently struggling. Maybe that would work, but we would still need leadership to address wealth and poverty’s comparative dimension.