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I am not predisposed to scholarship written in an idealistic register. For many contemporary thinkers—in most any field—greater insight into modern political trends gravitationally pulls one toward cynicism. Some of this very cynicism encircles debates in international law that question whether idealism itself has been unwittingly complicit in bringing about the world of ever-growing inequality and retreating democratization now often centerpiece in global legal scholarship.

As such, I was not predisposed to like Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why It Matters. I had long read with interest the scholarship of its two authors, Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp, whose previous work has rarely been overtly optimistic about the international legal order. But Six Faces is an idealistic book to its very core and premise. Moreover, in working through a book of great ambition and intellectual agility, it is invariable to find points of disagreement, even discomfort, among its diverse insights. Yet, what is most striking about Six Faces is that throughout you can feel the authors’ dedication to finding a constructive way to be publicly facing international academics when most public spaces are thoroughly polarized and rife with contempt. It is in this reading that I found it both provocative and challenging.

The main ambition of Six Faces is on its face diagnostic. It seeks to identify and elucidate six different narratives regarding modern globalization which shape regulatory responses to its challenges. In their introductory chapters, Roberts and Lamp review the idea of narratives in ways that will be familiar to those in various disciplines—emphasizing how they interpret social reality by privileging a particular mode of social analysis, identifying key casual storylines inhabited by virtuous and villainous characters, and providing clear normative assessments and prescriptions.

Six Faces devotes one chapter to each of its six dominant narratives: establishment (emphasizing economic growth and conflict-reduction), left-wing populist (emphasizing inequality and self-interested domestic elites), right-wing populist (emphasizing traditional cultural and economic losses), corporate power (emphasizing the exploitative legal and economic agency of multinational corporations), geo-economic (emphasizing national competition around US-China affairs), and global threats (emphasizing the risks of interconnection in producing climate change and spreading viral contagions).

For each they openly disavow normative evaluation, opting to emphasize “its power in public discourse and in policy formation.” (P. 14.) Moreover, to facilitate this diagnostic aim they highlight earnest exemplars to a “present charitable and coherent version.” (P. 14.) The specific contours of each narrative closely hew to popular understandings, following the book’s desire to understand each narrative as articulated and translated into the public sphere.

In many ways, while the title of the book signals a grounding in these six typologies, Roberts and Lamp use these typologies as preface to the analytical work of the last seven chapters which are closer to the heart of their underlying motivations. Part III, “Working with Globalization Narratives,” explores how these narratives operate in the much messier practical domains of political contestation and bargaining. Here they seek to show how their earlier dispassionate diagnosis enables a better understanding of how specific actors opportunistically modulate their use of discrete narratives, how overlaps in narratives lead to potential common solutions for specific issues, and how trade-offs in values generate tension within and among narratives. Part IV, “From the Cube to the Kaleidoscope,” includes three chapters which attempt to demonstrate the general utility of their particular methodology as a more effective starting point for global problem solving.

Some challenges to such a project are unavoidable. It attempts to create productive ideal types for analyzing a level of sociological complexity akin to the Weberian gambit of reducing legal traditions to only four modalities. As such, many readers and subsequent reviewers will have critiques as to the accuracy and sufficiency of their “six faces.” I think most will immediately point to the lack of genuine divergence between the “left wing-populist” and “corporate power” faces. Their “geo-economic” and “global threats” narratives already begin to incorporate multiple elements of, and adherents to, the other four narratives. They do devote their twelfth chapter, “Blind Spots and Biases,” to acknowledging that their narratives are primarily about debates concerning (economic) globalization in the West and cataloguing some of the many permutations that exist in non-Western countries—the majority of which are far more critical about the nature of the post-World War II international order.

I do not think Roberts and Lamp would necessarily reject any of these critiques or see them as damning for their larger ambition. They presuppose that there is inherent value in the process itself of diagnosing these narratives in order to find practical solutions. Here again, their aim does not rest on the perfection of their typologies. In this, many reading Six Faces will struggle with the fact that they do not assess the myriad of empirical and causal claims their six narratives encompass—or even their internal consistency. Given the frequent assumption of disingenuity ascribed to many who publicly claim fidelity to each narrative, some may feel frustrated they do not point out the self-serving interest of many of their loudest proponents.

Yet, this openness to critique is grounded in the true face of Roberts and Lamp’s project: a call for cognitive empathy. Their diagnosis is not so much meant to fully capture the complexity of globalization discourses, but to demonstrate a way of engaging with globalization’s challenges that does not simply surrender to cynicism. Admittedly, in my life as a comparative scholar, I have long struggled with ways to argue for constructive scholarly engagement with issues that are over-determined by social forces and intellectual presumptions seemingly beyond reason—including penning appeals to pragmatism that I am often not fully convinced by. Lamp and Roberts notably conclude the book with the hope for “good-faith debates” which evokes a genre of disinterested cosmopolitanism whose empathy can facilitate pragmatic problem-solving by identifying opportunistic alliances and coalitions informed by an analytically kaleidoscopic holism.

There is no way to ultimately judge what is, in essence, a methodological claim without examining its output. Herein, Six Faces is most effective when it delves into those areas almost universally seen as key issues in globalization but which have witnessed little constructive problem-solving to date. As a scholar who works on both US-China relations and labor, it was notable that these were the dominant examples to which they returned throughout Six Faces for illustrating the merits of their approach.

Most directly, the entire “geo-economic” narrative is explored through the US-China lens, and China also recurs as a major example regarding anti-trust regulation and trade law. Here Roberts and Lamp explicate what many others caught within specific paradigms miss. China provokes so much fracture among existing narratives because its recent development upends common assumptions both economic and political. The core presumption of modernization theory that economic growth would invariably lead to political liberalization, among myriad other claims regarding law and development, has faced clear empirical rebuttal in the resilience of China and other authoritarian regimes. Yet, such presumptions were used to drive popular support for the dominant “establishment view” of globalization. Such rebuttal has thus shattered alliances on economic globalization which once successfully cross-cut party lines in almost every democracy. Notably, it is not until China emerges in the book that the word “democracy” makes its first and limited appearance.

While less addressed in Six Faces, a parallel disruption has occurred in the “left-wing populist” and “corporate power” camps regarding China. Many committed to such agendas traditionally adhered to a US-centric anti-imperialism and have demonstrated a dogged inability to develop any critical position on Chinese authoritarianism and its thoroughgoing, if only increasing, repression of labor and other civil society interests. Again, while Six Faces is generally focused on disruptions stemming from Western, and here primarily US, engagement with China, it is notable that a parallel fragmentation of narratives regarding globalization is roiling China, prompting massive regulatory experiments and rhetorical reframings. In tandem, China has demonstrated the degree to which the now almost universal use of “national security” as “the exception that swallows the rule” can be used to paper over a country’s lack of an ideologically coherent response to globalization’s challenges. (P. 130.)

Similarly, the term “worker” or “workers” appears hundreds of times throughout Six Faces and is refracted through all of the narratives presented. Once again, the function of the diagnosis is to highlight rather than hide tensions. Roberts and Lamp take head on the problems within “left-wing populist” and “corporate power” camps in addressing the lack of specific convergence between workers in high-income and low-income nations. Much of this derives from what Ayelet Shachar has termed the “birthright lottery” in which international solidarity breaks on the shores of nationalist identity and wage differentials without a principled stance on the democratic control of production.

In working through these examples, Six Faces does demonstrate how the cognitive empathy they argue for enables a diagnostic utility that can sometimes elude those fervently set in a particular narrative frame. Readers open to the book’s contributions in this regard are then left to consider whether such pragmatic empathy will in fact facilitate real world problem solving. Here perhaps Robert and Lamp’s shared background as trade lawyers makes its presence most felt. They deploy Venn diagrams recurrently in the book, which map discursive overlaps for various narratives. One can imagine earnest trade representatives sitting across the bargaining table studying these diagrams to find a way to make further progress and ultimately reach an agreement palatable to their political sponsors. By contrast, the term “social movement” only appears in the book once, and many social movement scholars and activists seeking legislative change wholeheartedly emphasize the importance of “rally[ing] the troops” with clear narratives over “win[ing] anyone over” with reasoned analytic discourse. (P. 30.)

As such, consider their statement that “the protection of no other set of individual rights in developing countries enjoys as much support among politicians in developed countries as the protection of labor rights.” (P. 209.) This claim is most sustainable in the specific context of some current trade negotiations, in which promoting labor rights is an asserted position of high-income countries. Yet, such a claim will instinctively shock the conscience of most labor scholars, who have seen these same countries undermine labor rights in other political arenas over the last five decades internationally as well as domestically. Such disjuncture also emphasizes their own acknowledgement that not all narratives have equal power, which helps explain why their sections on climate change confront almost entirely “establishment” solutions in practice to date. Admittedly, such issues of narratives, power, and politics are impossible for any form of pragmatism or empathy to fully transcend,

Within this struggle, it is in the concluding chapter where Six Faces’s project reveals its best version of itself as a principled defense of intellectual integrity. Yes, if you have certain substantive personal ends, there is much practicality in attempting to contribute to social change by rallying around effective narratives suffused with angels and villains—and none of which is buoyed by critical self-reflection. The “geo-economic” struggle between the US and China has led both countries to consistently cast almost every new policy by reference to the other, which often does rally domestic political support. But such rhetoric runs directly away from the question of how these two countries came to become so deeply economically integrated in the first place if they didn’t share the presumptions Six Faces outlines about trade and economic/political development. In the concrete context of workers’ well-being, there seems little new energy to truly democratize economic life in the United States or in the Chinese Communist Party’s campaigns around “common prosperity” which leave the political subordination of workers untouched. The type of cognitive empathy that Roberts and Lamp argue for would disrupt such practices by showing how playing to existing narratives excuses uncomfortable commonalities with one’s “villains” and turns focus away from internal contradictions.

In a final ode to Isaiah Berlin, Six Faces takes its place among many pragmatists of the past. It presents a vision of modern academic practice rooted in integrative thinking, diverse teams, and value pluralism. It leaves one to consider if Berlin’s foxes who know many things can be ever be properly equipped to successfully battle academic and political hedgehogs who know only one Dunning-Kruger amenable truth. And it seems an anthropological truism evidenced time and time again that humans crave simplicity in their meaning-making at odds with the kaleidoscopic academic “dragonfly eyes” Roberts and Lamp hope to develop. What they are really asking then is whether a truly cosmopolitan discourse on globalization is possible, and whether a tangible role exists for intellectual integrity in a hyper-polarized world. Six Faces is a worthy read for its many provocations, and centrally so for any self-critical academic looking to make sense of their place in era seemingly dead-set on fueling cynicism at every turn.

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Cite as: Jedidiah Kroncke, Empathy as Pragmatism: Facing the Challenges of Globalization in a Polarized World, JOTWELL (March 25, 2022) (reviewing Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp, Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why It Matters (2021)), https://intl.jotwell.com/empathy-as-pragmatism-facing-the-challenges-of-globalization-in-a-polarized-world/.