Mobility and Globalization in the Aftermath of COVID-19

In this post, Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli reviews the latest monograph by Dr Maximiliano E. Korstanje and Dr Babu George, reflecting on its merits and the questions it raises for future research.

It has been repeatedly argued in academic, policy and journalistic circles, that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated global social inequalities. Mobility and Globalization in the Aftermath of COVID-19 takes this discussion further, by positing questions of exclusion at the most basic level: who is qualified to be considered and treated as a full human being with rights and duties in contexts of extreme risk. Given the title of the book (‘in the aftermath’), one may consider it as speculative political sociology of globalisation (as at the end of 2021, when this review is written, we are still in the eye of the pandemic, with new virus strains recycling emergency protocols and the social and political problems lockdowns and restrictions these generate). According to the book’s subtitle, Korstanje and George place their analysis amongst geographic research focusing on emergism. However, as I proceed to explain, their real focus fits better in an ongoing decolonial controversy: the temporal, rather than spatial, relationship between the contemporary capitalist system, processes of political post-colonisation and the endurance of invisible forms of (post-)colonial authority.

The book is divided into 9 chapters, each unpacking a form of mobility and/or stasis in the COVID-19 contexts or assumes a link between them and colonial or cultural imperialist pasts. It is worth noting that: (a) whereas some chapters are evidently contemporaneous in their discourse (e.g., chapter 3 on consumption trends and new consumerism trends), others oscillate between historicist and genealogical discourse (e.g., chapter 2 on colonial voyages), and (b) whereas some chapters draw methodologically on political realism (e.g., chapter 7 on the proliferation of conspiracy plots in the pandemic), others resort to more blended epistemologies that for example place Marx’s materialism next to Weber’s interpretivism (e.g., chapter 3), or to Bauman’s critical hermeneutic phenomenology (e.g., chapter 6). Most of the monograph’s key intellectual voices come from different traditions of political sociology (e.g., David Riesman, David Altheide) and globalisation theory (e.g., George Ritzer, Zygmunt Bauman), rather than geography. The latter raises a question regarding the presence of the discipline of geography in the subtitle of a book, which is more obviously on globalisation than mobilities as we find them in theoretical treatises and ethnography-based research associated with the ‘new mobilities paradigm’ as an autonomous new field. The reference to geography ties better to the beginnings of mobilities studies as a field in which capitalism is taken as a ‘datum’. In this respect, the link to ‘geography’ is, more specifically, a link to John Urry’s political-cultural sociology.

 

Chapter 1 and 2 constitute an attempt to demonstrate a continuity between the old imperial projects of Europe and the new empires of Western capitalism, with particular reference to the United States. The argument set forth is that both versions of ‘Empire’ enabled relationships between different cultures and generated new ways of knowing and thus principles and structures of hospitality. The tone of writing is mostly dystopian and negative towards the effects of such contacts. It is argued that the pandemic exacerbated the racist subtext on which relationships between global variations ‘host’ and ‘guest’ were/are being built, especially in contexts of terrorist surveillance, where non-citizens are treated as ‘undesired’ others or mere ‘pestilence’. The analysis borrows from Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, but also dances around a lasting academic controversy regarding terrorism and fundamentalism: Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ (an argument emphasising the emergence of civilisational-as-ethno-racial difference), and Benjamin Barber’s (2004) ‘Jihad versus McWorld’ (with an emphasis on terrorism versus spectacular consumerism).

Notably, in chapter 3, Korstanje and George view consumer trends in the pandemic as a form of ‘deferred gratification’, which allows neoliberal markets to survive and thrive, despite the enduring crisis of physical mobility. Through an impressive overview of the literature on the populist roots of new consumer trends, they conclude that the principle of deferral is based on a revised Weberian rationalisation of erstwhile religious hopes of self-salvation. Their revised Weberian spirit of consumerism communicates with Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, which does not feature in the monograph. Instead, in chapter 4, they continue to debate connections between terrorism and tourist consumption, in line with Barber’s and George Ritzer’s analyses on the rationalisation of production/consumption and its associations with bureaucracy. Regarding tourist industries as the new empires of knowledge, after Urry’s thesis on the ‘tourist gaze’ (see Urry & Larsen, 2011, third edition), they shift the debate from race/ethnicity to class inequalities. Chapter 4 addresses continuities and discontinuities between race and class inequalities in less direct ways than the previous two. However, it does demonstrate continuity with the critical-theoretical analysis, in chapter 5, of the ways Western spectacular industries stereotype forms of ethnic difference, boxing them into the logic of terrorism. Intriguingly, there is a constant oscillation between epistemological (e.g., the production of knowledge about the other in the colonial or extreme consumerist contexts we associate with Urry’s sociology) and ontological controversies (e.g., how the category of the ‘enemy’, the ‘radical other’ or the ‘parasite’ come into the being we associate with Bauman or Derrida). In this respect, the monograph does not aim to develop social/political theory as such, but to draw on different and often competing approaches to solve a particular socio-political problem. David Altheide’s foreword is aptly titled ‘The Grand Experiment’ and clarifies what this monograph is really about: the serendipitous relationship between risk and fundamentalist knowledge production. Such an ‘experiment’ led Nazi utopian thought to the Holocaust, after all, as he notes (and Bauman argued in Modernity and the Holocaust).

Chapters 6 and 7 return to some of the debates covered in previous chapters, but also open new avenues, which are not addressed in-depth, including the relationship between environmental and climate change studies and sociologies of medicine. The focus continues to be the changing nature of hospitality in what is considered as a ‘locked-down world’, which is politically manipulated by American interest groups. Although Chapter 6 commences with an overview of the globalisation of COVID-19, in its latter sections, we are introduced to a political allegory of inhospitableness that ‘spreads’ across the world. This reiterates Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s suggestion that the ‘culture industry’ resorts to myth to consolidate its function as a strategy of mass allure. This thesis guides Chapter 7’s focus on conspiracy plots facilitating mechanisms of demonisation and exclusion in pandemic contexts. The chapter stays true to sociologies of deviance, as its logic recalls Paul Lazarsfield’s and Robert Merton’s exploration of the pathology guiding the ‘love of the same’ (homophily). Deliberations on the proliferation of political scapegoating in cultures presenting democratic deficit draw on contemporary Lacanian political philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s critique of Western/American authoritarianism (as market fundamentalism). The book concludes in Chapter 8 with the paradox of unfreedom in a world pretending to be progressive and open, but slowly sliding into a radical securitisation of leisure. Because this new regime of risk and security focuses on consumer affordances, it forecloses the protection of vulnerable subjects, demoting them to non-citizens.

The book concentrates on the intensification of lack of tolerance towards difference; the context of the current viral crisis is serendipitous, whereas its exploration of the relationship between post-9/11 counter-terrorism and market fundamentalism seems to be the core theme. There is some hesitancy regarding the establishment of epochal boundaries without an explicit discussion of modernity. At times, the authors favour dependency theory, rather than Wallerstein’s ‘world systems’ theory, because they allude to the exploitation of the periphery by world centres (America in particular), instead of considering the ways exploitation develops within world regions. They seem to favour a linear-historicist development of European imperialism to contemporary market fundamentalism, which clashes with their references to connections between Anthropocenic and viral/environmental scenes of development in chapter 6, as the latter favour rhizomatic genealogies instead. Students in politics and possibly political sociology will find this book useful as a critical reading on the ways post-9/11 trends in fundamentalism have facilitated new consumerist trends in the new risk environments, including, but not focusing only on tourism.


M.E. Korstanje and B. George, Mobility and Globalization in the Aftermath of COVID-19: Emerging New Geographies in a Locked World, Cham: Switzerland/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021 hardback (£79.99), eBook (£63.99).


Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli is an Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology and Director of the Mobilities Area in the Bauman Institute, School of Sociology & Social Policy. Leeds. She has just published Cultural (Im)mobilities and the Virocene: Mutating the Crisis with Edward Elgar.