[Column] The close of 2020 marks the beginning of the end for Western hegemony

Posted on : 2020-12-09 18:02 KST Modified on : 2020-12-09 18:02 KST
Neoliberalism, social division, and climate change are wreaking havoc on the current world order
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

The year 2020 is drawing to a close, and with it the decade of the 2010s. In a broader sense, other “endings” stand to have a decisive impact on the course of global history amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, the “middle class society” created by postwar modified capitalism since 1945 has faced catastrophe amid the crisis of neoliberalism. This disaster has been most evident in the US, the country that spearheaded neoliberalism at the global level. On the one hand, the pre-deduction income for the top-earning 1% of Americans now accounts for 19-20% of all income. As recently as the 1960s, that percentage was only 10%; the fact that it has reached this point signifies a return to the severe polarization levels of the 1910s and 1920s.

On the other hand, more and more of the lowest-earning Americans have reached the state of starvation — much like the Great Depression of the early 1930s. It may be hard to believe, but in the city of Houston, Texas, one in four children today suffers from frequent hunger because of poverty. Throughout the US, one-eighth of the total population is at least occasionally exposed to hunger. The US, veritable birthplace of the liberal world, is now once again facing a division like the pre-war era: a wealthy class that inhabits a different world, an ever-dwindling middle class, and a growing lower middle class gripped by anxiety, never knowing when they might end up going hungry.

The decline of European, American manufacturing

Second, the global hegemony enjoyed by Europe and America now seems to be reaching its end alongside the “middle class society.” That middle class society first emerged in the years after 1945, but the European and American hegemony was the product of industrialization first achieved by England in the late 18th century, drawing on the capital acquired through sugarcane plantations and other systems that exploited the slave trade and slave labor. If we simply view it in terms of industry, the percentage of gross global manufacturing production represented by Asia today (roughly 52%) far exceeds the 40% combined total for all of Europe and North America. The UK’s industrial production today amounts to just around 60% of South Korea’s.

For the first time since the mid-17th century, Asia has once again become the center of global production. Today, about the only areas in which the US and other major Western countries retain a global advantage are finance, the military, some aspects of information technology (which grew out of the military), academic research, and the arts and culture.

Even in the area of academic research, Chinese researchers accounted for 20% of technology papers in global academic journals two years ago, while American scholars accounted for just 16%.

What about culture? For many of the young Russians and Norwegians whom I know, K-pop from South Korea is much more familiar than American pop music.

Military supremacy is the US’ trump card, but even that might expire in two or three decades. In terms of fleet size, the Chinese Navy already outnumbers the US Navy.

To sum up, Western hegemony, which has continued for nearly 250 years, will probably come to an end in the 2040s or 2050s. It was at the tail end of the 2010s when the collapse of Western hegemony became perceptible.

Reevaluating the concept of “development”

Third, the West has lost its monopoly on development in Asia just as the very concept of “development” has come into question amid the growing severity of the climate crisis.

If average global temperatures rise by 3 degrees through 2100, the Chinese city of Shanghai will likely face the risk of severe flooding, turning the 17 million people living in the area into climate refugees. Even if China becomes the world’s most powerful country around 2049, according to its current plan, that historical accomplishment will be rendered nearly moot by the climate catastrophe.

Over the past 10 or 20 years, the impending climate catastrophe has dramatically changed the paradigm of the world’s progressives. In the 20th century, the left shared the right’s obsession with “development.” That can even be seen on the divided Korean Peninsula: heavy industry-focused industrialization was achieved earlier in North Korea than in South Korea.

But now, progressives are forced to call for restrictions on total global production along with the development of less-developed areas and a more equitable distribution of the fruits of industrialization: in short, degrowth on a global scale. While areas that have been hitherto robbed of opportunities for development have the right to their share of those opportunities, already industrialized regions need to share its fruits more equally with other regions and to freeze or reduce total production in recognition of the climate crisis and other ecological issues.

S. Korea needs to apply principles of “degrowth”

One of the countries that has already achieved a high degree of industrialization, a country that needs to apply this concept of degrowth, is South Korea.

Korea’s swing to neoliberalism took place 17 years later than in the US. Korea hasn’t even seen a definite hollowing out of its manufacturing sector, as the US has. That has fortunately enabled Korea to avoid social breakdown on the same scale as the US.

But that doesn’t mean Korea can afford to be complacent. While the percentage of the population exposed to hunger isn’t as high as in the US, about 8% of Korean high school students sometimes had to skip a meal even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, these vulnerable groups find themselves in an even worse situation.

In an era when Western hegemony is waning, Korea and other emerging industrial societies in Asia have become the new center of the world. But the massive improvement in Korea’s international status isn’t enough to bring happiness to the Korean masses.

The urgency of action on climate change

While the wealthy and middle classes have money to spare, housing prices continue to skyrocket. And in contrast with Korea’s greatly improved international prestige, this manufacturing powerhouse isn’t fulfilling its international obligations related to climate action.

The swindler Lee Myung-bak — who should never have become Korean president — started promising “low-carbon green growth” 12 years ago, but the reality is the exact opposite. Korea’s greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise; today, it’s the world’s 7th biggest emitter. Korea’s per capita emissions are even higher than Japan’s or Germany’s, countries with a similar industrial structure.

The Climate Change Performance Index 2020, produced by Germanwatch, NewClimate Institute, and Climate Action Network International, ranked Korea 58th (26.75) among the 61 major industrial states. That was nearly as low as the US (18.60), which is failing in nearly every respect.

As Korea becomes one of the key global countries in the Asian Era, it won’t be able to bring its own citizens happiness or serve as an example to the outside world unless it moves away from the American model of neoliberalism and toward an eco-friendly welfare state. It is now, as one era draws to a close, that we need to give serious thought to the long-term vision of transitioning to a Korean model of the ecological welfare state.

By Pak Noja, professor Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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