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Globalisation can work, but only with a unified international plan | Will Hutton

We desperately needs economic and social institutions working across national borders

Britain has become a hub in the global web of car and engine production. This year, 1.4 million cars and more than 3 million engines will be produced here, most of them for export. The research-and-development spend in the industry is high and rising, while Tata’s purchase of Jaguar Land Rover has proved one of its best-ever investments, as it now produces nearly three-quarters of the company’s total profits. All considered, this is a modern capitalist success story and if and when the economy rebalances, production of this type will grow even further.

However, all this success is accompanied by very few new jobs. Fewer than 150,000 jobs are directly involved in the making of all those cars and engines and the numbers have been gently falling for years as modern production techniques transform productivity. Tata is building a new engine plant in Wolverhampton that will be a world leader in low-carbon engines; it might create 750 jobs.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s has announced that it will be creating another 2,500 jobs this year. Hamburger flipping creates jobs and these jobs do require more than a modicum of skill and capacity to handle often truculent customers. But MacJobs are never likely to be highly paid, high-value-added jobs. Nor will McDonald’s earn Britain much in the way of export revenue.

There’s a similar pattern across the industrialised west, raising anxious and urgent questions about whether the modern economy can create mass employment at worthwhile wages. Yes, there is a manufacturing core that puts production on sites across the globe but that creates few jobs in a country such as Britain. And there is a modest service sector, which is either integrated with the manufacturers or, as is the case with fast food, which provides self-standing services in its own right. Beyond these, there’s a vast web of “cream-skimming” services associated with brokerage and agency – everything from investment banking to headhunters, estate agents and football agents – taking a cut on some transaction or deal but adding precious little value despite sky-high personal rewards. Let’s call this “agentist” capitalism.

At a dinner with Apple’s Steve Jobs, President Obama asked him if the US’s most successful and profitable company would ever bring some of the work it is generating back to the US. Never, replied Jobs. Apple, like Britain’s car industry, is embedded in its global production networks.

Without globalisation, this new economic structure and accompanying pattern of reward would be impossible. But there is another twist: this “enabling” globalisation is itself unstable. It rests on countries such as Germany, China, India and Japan – which do most of the producing in the new global supply chains – building up never-ending trade surpluses, while other countries carry deficits, with no mechanism compelling either side to change. The banking system is then obliged to recycle the surpluses, exploiting the many loopholes to create an unregulated shadow system, which has now imploded.

George Osborne writes in the Financial Times that we are living through less a crisis of capitalism than a crisis in confidence, without ever inquiring whether those who have lost confidence might have some very good reasons for doing so. Lord Mandelson, once no less an innocent cheerleader for markets and globalisation, last week issued an extraordinary recantation. He told BBC’s Today programme that he would never now, as he did in 1998, say he was intensely relaxed about businessmen becoming filthy rich doing whatever they chose.

Moreover, as he introduced “Making the third wave of globalisation work for us all”, a new report by the centre-left thinktank IPPR, Mandelson urged a strengthening in global governance along with a serious commitment at home to industrial policy, a robust social safety net and regulation of errant business. Otherwise, he warned, the legitimacy of globalisation and modern capitalism would become profoundly questioned. Enlightened self-interest must prompt governments and business into a major change of direction.

It is an important intervention and Mandelson has unexpected allies at the IMF and World Bank. But the debate has to go further still. The decline of productive, high-employment capitalism is most marked in the English-speaking countries of the “Anglosphere” – the countries most committed to the notion that markets are brilliantly wise and never need challenging.

These are the economies where “agentism” has gone furthest, the productive sector has shrunk most and where the resulting inequalities of income and opportunity have become most acute. All economies have their agentist service sector, but in the UK and US it has become over-large and over-rewarded. There has been an indifference, especially in the UK, to building the ecosystem that delivers productive enterprise. Instead, the doctrine, even if it is now changing somewhat, and erratically, has been to do the opposite. The consequent “squeezed middle” and doubts about modern capitalism are as much doubts about agentism as they are about globalisation.

There are multiple threats to confront. Only so much can be expected from enlightened self-interest. We need some counterbalancing international forces to hold government, business and banks to account. What is striking, for example, in the protests in Greece, Portugal and Ireland against the austerity packages is that they are so firmly national. There has not been one high-profile joint press conference, for example, of those parties in all three countries that oppose the measures. Not even the protesters or the trade unions make common cause. Nor has there been any practical prospectus for what could and should be different.

British trade unions are often attacked for being intellectually moribund and permanently on the defensive. But these are weaknesses they share with their counterparts elsewhere. The Occupy movement is a beginning, but it is transient. If the world is to have a constructive counterbalance to globalisation, then it needs grounded social institutions that work across borders and are likely to endure.

One would be powerful transnational trade unions, committed not to socialising the global means of production, but to insisting on worldwide responsible capitalism – and creating new levers to get it. A pipedream? Something has to change. We can retreat to our national laagers, which would be an economic disaster, or we can build an interdependent world that works. There is only one option to choose. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds