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Post subject: Globalization Posted: Wed Apr 27, 2005 5:05
Globalization: the Choices Before Us
By John Ralston Saul
Perhaps it has always been the case, but there seems to
be an inherent tendency in contemporary social and economic theory to
mistake fashion for truth and trends for inevitabilities.
this out as a possible key to the curious form taken by the globalization
revolution of the last quarter century. My own guess — and what more
could any sensible person call a view into the future — is that current
trends are not sustainable. In fact, the more the academic, administrative
and corporate leaders treat these trends as inevitable, the more likely
they are to provoke one of those reversals in direction of which all
human history is so full. If we find walls going back up between peoples
and the current technological tools of globalization turning themselves
impetuously into the tools of partition — after all, machinery has the
truth you give it — this will be entirely the responsibility of those
who have refused a sensible debate over the direction our societies
are to take.
The question of debate is absolutely central to
what will happen next. One of the curiosities of the globalization revolution
has been an accompanying inability to engage in constructive debate
without obliging the participants to chose sides. Having to choose sides
as a preliminary to dealing with complex questions is a sign that debate
is being shut down. The simplistic scenarios of ‘for and against’ lead
to the fantasies of a black and white world.
This is not choice.
It is ideology. The implication that someone possesses clear truth is
that the others are wallowing in falsehood or self-delusion.
What I am talking about is one of the most important contemporary philosophical
problems, in particular for societies which claim to be democracies.
The bases of democracy could be summarized in this way: the existence
of real choices; a belief that the foundation of society’s intelligence
lies in the body of the citizenry, not in its elite, in other words
that the legitimacy of the society lies in the citizenry; and a belief
that through debate these citizens will make choices among the many
complexities of reality.
Is the future inevitable?
the last quarter century and the next have most often been presented
by our public and private sector leadership as a long continuum of inevitabilities.
Technology is presented as a revolution which shapes society. The idea
that society might have a say in that shape is generally presented as
ludditism. What’s more, the sweep into globalization is presented as
a victory for internationalism over narrow nationalism (as represented
by the nation-state) and a parallel victory for the free market.
The problem with this whole approach is that it has little internal
consistency. And the specific events of the real world tend to contradict
the general theory.
Two small examples of the technological
leadership theory spring to mind. We were assured by the dominant voices
within our society some fifteen years ago that new technology would
lead to a service economy. Instead, the precise opposite occurred. The
last fifteen years have seen an important shrinkage in real services
to the citizenry.
By real services I mean those which individuals
want and/or need. Schooling and health care would be two primary examples.
And throughout the private sector, the simple ability to speak to actual
humans in order to receive real advice has slipped away. None of this
has been the inevitable result either of technological breakthroughs
or of market place demands. Rather, it has been the outcome of a particular
administrative approach towards the use of technology.
new means of communication such as the Internet were presented as tools
of open communication around the world. Instead we are now approximately
30 percent of the way down a road which is reducing these tools of communication
to the parameters of commercial activity on the one hand and legally
regulated activity on the other.
Truth vs. trend
out these two examples only as a teaser to the essential contradiction
in our current truths and trends.
First there is the question
of the market place. The deregulation and globalization which were supposed
to lead to a return to more active capitalism and competition are leading
instead to an increasing number of national and international monopolies
and oligopolies. Interestingly enough, this is precisely what happened
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when what could be
called the second industrial revolution swept onto the international
stage. The result was, on the negative side, a rise of frightened nationalism
and, on the positive side, the rise of democratic-based regulations.
The fear which that uncontrolled wave incited was one of the central
causes of the twentieth century’s astonishing levels of violence. As
for the regulations, they led to a solidification of healthy market
place competition and thus to wealth in the Western democracies. The
resulting middle class prosperity has become the most obvious sign of
success for the Western model.
What I am saying is that we already
know what happens when we leave the market to regulate itself. It slips
away from competition to monopoly and provokes fear-filled reactions
from the citizenry. The essential question I would ask today is: why
wouldn’t the same happen this time? Are there not already signs that
this is happening?
Which leads me to the essential contradiction
in current models. The glory of Western democracies is indeed their
democracy, however flawed it may be. Democracy is not the product of
the market place. Rather, democracy creates the conditions which render
possible long-term market place prosperity. This can be seen throughout
the history of the West.
But democracy is a concrete phenomenon.
It is tied not to great abstract, romantic theories, but to the participation
of citizens within their societies. If you think of it that way, then
the idea that globalization is a victory for internationalism over nationalism,
as represented by the nation-state, suddenly presents a fundamental
problem. Those nation-states are the concrete structures which contain
democracy. The real concept of citizen-based legitimacy was developed
and is based within those states. What’s more, the ugliest aspects of
nineteenth century nationalism have finally been more or less evacuated
from those states.
So the false debate which surrounds us today
is: are you for globalization or against? But the core of the real question
is: are you for citizen based legitimacy and real choice?
If the current model of globalization denies the central
importance of that legitimacy and favors instead great romantic abstractions
about inevitable trends, well then, the probability is that citizens
will increasingly look for ways to alter the trend. If those in positions
of authority do not focus on this reality, the citizens will gradually
slip into a more outright opposition. And political movements will adjust
to that opposition or be replaced. That is what history tells us.
The key to this rather delicate situation is that for half a century,
we have worked hard at globalizing economic regulations. And much of
this has been positive. But we have done almost nothing to globalize
social and political regulations through enforceable treaties negotiated
by the representatives of citizens organized at the nation state level.
In other words, very little has been done to balance new economic structures
with new social structures. There are those who worry that such a balance
would merely be a Western maneuver to remove a competitive advantage
from developing economies. If you see these situations in absolutes
and inevitabilities that might well be the case. But in a real world
there are many approaches which could take into account the needs of
all types of economies. After all, on a slightly different plane, that
is how the European Economic Community was able first to include Spain
and Portugal and now is reaching out to even more fragile societies.
In any case, not to balance social agreements with economic agreements
is to sap the power of citizens by removing their power of choice. And
it is to encourage a dangerous imbalance within our societies between
self-interest and the public good. Let me repeat. We are in a situation
not so very different from that of 1900. As then, now we are faced by
the resulting dangers and opportunities.
A final contradiction
There is a final internal contradiction in current fashions which
will illustrate our situation. We are constantly told that since the
world is big and globalization is about the world, therefore it is normal,
even natural, that corporations will have to grow through constant mergers
But the exact opposite makes far more sense.
Small markets have difficulty supporting multifaceted competition. They
often require one or two large dominant players. Large markets on the
other hand free the corporations from the heavy, costly infrastructure
of unnecessary size. Indeed, if there is any lesson inherent in new
technology, it is that the need for the large heavy international infrastructure
is gone. A lighter, more flexible international approach is not only
possible, it is probably more competitive.
What then drives the
trend towards ever larger corporations and ever weaker competition?
One of the central factors is that the core of the larger transnationals
is not capitalist. They are essentially bureaucratic or technocratic
structures run by administrators who have no real commitment to, or
love for what could be called capitalism or risk or competition. Size,
domination, control — all three are classic characteristics of management
theory; that is, of bureaucratic theory. They have nothing to do with
the needs of the market place.
My final guess is that the inappropriateness
of these spreading monopolies is already provoking a slow political
reaction. Discussions around such tables as the G8 and the OECD are
already focussing on the problems this trend is creating for democracies,
for governments in general and, very specifically, for tax policy. After
all, the social, cultural and political services which citizens have
given themselves over the last hundred years must be financed and our
slippage into a world of monopolies and oligopolies is threatening that
What’s more, market place economics has always been
about fashion. These fashions usually last ten to fifteen years. The
obvious disadvantages of a market place dominated by gigantic icebergs
floating aimlessly about, crashing into this and that, leaving damaged
infrastructures behind as they float on, are becoming more obvious every
day. That means economic fashions will begin to change within a few
Let me come back to two essential points. There is nothing
wrong with globalization. However, in the real world, it is not an absolute
truth. It is a theory which can take on many forms. The best way to
provoke a reversal ending in ugly nationalism and negative protectionism
is to pretend that internationalism can only exist in a predetermined
and inevitable form. On the other hand, the best way to navigate the
complicated period ahead is to come back to the core force of democracy:
a system in which legitimacy lies with the citizenry; in which there
is a constant belief in the possibility of real choices; in which those
choices are dealt with through real debate and a real belief in the
intelligence of the citizenry. From that basis it is possible to make
sensible use of an ongoing technological revolution. And it is possible
to give the market place the long-term stability and competition it
needs to serve itself and the societies out of which it grows.
John Ralston Saul is the author of several books. His growing impact
on political and economic thought in many countries has been established
through the philosophical trilogy, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship
of Reason in the West (1992), The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary
of Aggressive Common Sense (1994), and The Unconscious Civilization