Who Killed Globalization?

Was it Colonel Bush in the kitchen with a gun? Mr. Nike in the Gym with a blunt instrument? Sir Ralston Saul in his study with a sharp pencil?

And now globalization is dead, according to Ralston Saul. As the eulogies mount, we see a contrary portrait: saint, blackguard, Machiavellian creep, dimwitted pawn, oppressor, benefactor. In the end, flawed but human, that polite funeral catch-all.

Globalization arose, amorphously, in the early 1970s. Because it lacked a coherent, universally accepted definition, it has lent itself to simplifications, to slogans. Ralston Saul defines globalization as looking at civilization through a purely economic prism. The most familiar argument in its favour is that a world united by multinational corporations, rather than divided by nation states, would offer more opportunity for economic growth and less chance of war. It was the same argument made by free traders in the early twentieth century before they ran into the bloody response of World War I. Economics, like fashion, has a limited range, and the ideas keep returning, sometimes as a stock two-button suit (Keynesian theory) and sometimes as a pair of lime-green velvet bell bottoms (Reaganomics).

Trade is said to be the engine of civilization, its benefits obvious. There are recent examples of economies that flowered when borders were opened—Spain, Poland, and China among them. But as an ideology, it has the empty commercial zeal that Sinclair Lewis lampooned in his 1922 novel, Babbitt. For centuries, trade has been a driving force for national economies, but not for civilizations. In Athens, businessmen couldn’t claim citizenship. Rome saw mercantilism as utilitarian. The current economic prism produces a distorted picture of the world that relegates realities such as disease, history, and culture to nuance.

Since globalization’s debut, the gap between the richest and poorest countries has grown. The gap between the rich and poor within developed countries has grown as well. In Britain, it is the widest it has been since the 1880s. The United States has a similar imbalance. Warren Buffet, the sage of the American plains, noted that there has been “more misdirected compensation in corporate America in the last five years than in the previous century.” Unemployment has risen, the debt ratio of developing countries has multiplied, and sub-Saharan Africa has become increasingly impoverished.

Ralston Saul sees postwar prosperity in the West as a golden age (one we can’t match now, despite the increase in wealth, because so much of our current wealth is artificial). With that prosperity came a demographic shift. After World War II, the traditional working class in North America began to disappear, replaced by migrant workers. There are now 120 million such transients in the world. In Europe, the poor from Islamic countries were brought in as menial labourers, the so-called guest workers, of whom there are now 17 million. Initially, they weren’t allowed citizenship and they were culturally alienated, impoverished, and sometimes victims of religious persecution. This may have seemed a logical economic policy, but it was a social calamity, one that is tragically manifesting itself now.

One of the allures of economics as an ideology is that it is measurable. You see progress or failure in mathematical, if not always reliable, terms. In a study produced by the American National Bureau of Economic Research in 2000, the figure for the world’s extreme poor was given as 350 million, a vast improvement over the World Bank estimate of 1.1 billion. The accompanying press release said that the bureau’s research ended the antiglobalization arguments being put forth by academics. Among the countries that showed improvement were Rwanda, where 800,000 people had been victims of genocide, and Botswana, which has the highest aids rate in Africa. What wealth there was was being shared by fewer people so their per-capita worth rose, but it is hard to argue that those countries are better off. As economist Paul Krugman has noted, “Anyone who has seen how economic statistics are constructed knows they are really a sub-genre of science fiction.”

John Ralston Saul warns against defining poverty in purely economic terms: If an African is subsisting in a rural environment, he has zero income. If he moves to a city and lives in squalor, with unsafe water and inadequate food, but earns 70 cents a day, he has moved forward. His progress is measurable and therefore real. So goes the globalization argument.

In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs writes that this is, in fact, a sign of progress. He argues, in a carefully politic way, for the existence of the garment trade in developing countries, one of the chief targets of the antiglobalization movement. In Bangladesh, women working in the industry spoke of arduous labour, an absence of rights, and harassment in the workplace. But they also said it was the best opportunity they had. They were rural, illiterate, extremely poor, and living in a patriarchal society that allowed them almost no choices. The sweatshops were a step up. Sachs argues that these jobs put them on the bottom rung of the ladder, and from there it is possible to climb. This is a valid, though Dickensian, argument.

Between 1981 and 2001, the number of moderate poor (those earning $1 to $2 per day) has increased from 1 billion to 1.6 billion, while the number of extreme poor has fallen from 1.5 billion to 1.1 billion. It means people are leaving the ranks of the most desperate, that they now have some chance for advancement. But the numbers also indicate that those on the bottom rung haven’t moved up. And the number of basic poor (those in both categories) has grown slightly.

Both Sachs and Ralston Saul argue for retaining some of the principles of globalization, but expanding its narrow economic focus to create an enlightened globalization. Debt relief is a necessity, though in the case of the poorest countries it is more of a noble gesture than a pragmatic measure. For those who aren’t paying anyway, debt relief doesn’t free up any new capital. But it does mean that foreign aid earmarked for debt relief—currency movement that ultimately returns money to the donor—could be used for more pressing needs.
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1 comment(s)

AnonymousOctober 28, 2007 10:37 EST

Wasn't slavery globalization?
Isn't globalization just a new name for colonialism where borders are porous for money and solid to people of colour?

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