Globalization - RF Cafe Forums
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Post subject: Globalization Posted: Wed Apr 27, 2005 5:05 pm
Globalization: the Choices Before
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.
I point 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?
And yet 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.
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.
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
Equally, 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
I point 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.
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?
Citizens will choose
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.
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.
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 and acquisitions.
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
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 years.
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 (1995).