By Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”- Opening paragraph from “A Tale of Two Cities”
That was after all the time of agribusiness and the widely held idea that “big is always better.” That in turn was integral part of a positivist approach which believes that progress is inevitable, it is always scientific and what comes at the end and is most modern is always the best of all possible worlds.
Now we are more likely to be persuaded by those who insist, as Schumacher did, that a more localized decentralized approach to economics may be the more sensible and humane approach.
The question arises: why is that? Quite simply because economic globalization has taken center stage while global warming is often derided and ignored, more often than not by those who are supposed to be our leaders. Some say that globalization actually began with the era of Western colonialism and imperialism and it is unstoppable like the idea of progress. Closer to us, in modern times, while welcomed and seen as a panacea at its inception in the last quarter of the 20thcentury, it has by now transmuted into a great debate on whether globalization is capitalism at its most pernicious or a promising way to reduce poverty world-wide. The sad truth is that while wealth has been increased it has mostly gone to the one per cent on top of the economic pyramid while the poor and middle class have seen no economic process.
Laissez-faire liberal capitalists of various stripes and assorted entrepreneurs searching for world-wide market opportunities a la Trump naturally support globalization and argue that becoming part of the world economy is the only chance for developing countries and those living in abject poverty at grasping economic opportunities and lift themselves out of poverty. They see absolutely nothing wrong with globalization per se; at best they suggest some reforms in its methods and its side effects on regional cultures. They may pay lip service to regional cultures and even religious heritages and tradition while at the same time deriding them as retrograde but necessary superstitions to keep the people docile and exploitable (hence Marx critique of religion as the opium of the people), but essentially they have reduced human beings to mere consumers within the global market place.
As William James used to quip: do not pay attention to what people say, pay attention to what they do and you will know what they really believe in. People willing to ruin reputations and impugn the professional integrity and career of their critics for an ideology reveal with their ad hominem attacks better than with their scholarly treatises the extreme measure to which they are willing to resort to in defense of their pet unexamined ideology.
And that may indeed be the reason why, on the other hand, the protesters believe that globalization is merely an excuse for big business to run roughshod over the developing world. For them “free trade,” so called, simply enables multinationals to dominate developing markets and push out local enterprise. They call for alternative ways of reducing poverty that prioritize environmental and human rights. They argue that by reducing ancient heritages and cultures to their lowest common denominator one dissolves most conflicts and distinctions among them and trivializes them.
The protesters, who have been at it for the last twenty years or so are convinced that Global capitalization is all about getting the rich to be even richer. They cite examples such as this: ten years ago a US company director got 40 times the wages of an average blue collar worker – their wages are now over 400 times as much. Just 400 families have more than half the world’s theoretical wealth. Yet calling this insanity is sneered at. Capitalism requires expansion, there has to be year on year growth, and that’s simple math: if you must expand your economy by an average of 3% a year, in a hundred years you need to consume in a day what we currently consume in a year.
In the world of culture a dichotomy seems to exist between the world of science and that of the liberal arts and the humanities, something I have written at length in previous articles. Indeed, a novel by a great novelist such as Dostoyevsky or Joyce, or a poem by Dante or Shakespeare represents a world rooted in numerous particularities where people from different backgrounds encounter one another and are trying to connect and influence each other; a world complicated by memories and ambitions and multiple connections and displacements. It’s a world wherein its unique rounded characters refuse simplifications.
On the other hand, what Globalization with its reductionistic tendencies seems to produce is the disembowelment of the complexity of world cultures, forcing their differences into the blender of consumerism and accumulation of wealth, to then regurgitate shallow formulaic platitudes, reducing the narrative of those cultures and their heritage of millenarian religious traditions, to a singular outcome; that of universal consumerism and happiness, Disney or McDonald or soccer games style, where business need not be responsive to the people or to truly democratic institutions but to the happiness of its shareholders. This is achieved by moving factories and businesses to the cheapest labor markets and keeping pays low.
According to this severe critical view, history has taught us that globalization means only one thing: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Corporate globalization and financial globalization without a buttressing ethical value system which sees the unity of humanity and its nexus to the earth, inevitably becomes dominated by greed and the profit motive. The critics also point out that those societies with the highest standard of living are those which allow some degree of capitalism, but combine it with a strong sense of social justice as exemplified by their social programs designed to help the less privileged and the least fortunate. The richest country in the world may not necessarily be the country with the highest standard of living. It appears that the element of distributive justice, whether it is taken seriously or it is simply ignored and considered unimportant, makes all the difference
Obviously there are two contrasting ways of looking at Globalization and the question arises: are the two views irreconcilable or is a synthesis of sort possible? While the developing world needs help from the developed world, does such help have to come at the price of pollution and unsustainable technologies under the title globalization? Does globalization have to imply that transporting goods and foodstuffs thousands of miles using valuable fossil fuels and creating massive pollution is a good thing? It appears that Globalization as envisaged by the visionless current world leaders and economic pundits measuring wealth and ignoring justice is likely to damage the developing world more than help it.
What the developing and the developed world need are initiatives that allow countries to be self-supporting and less dependent on the vagaries of world exchange rates, transport costs and international sanctions. However those promoting world trade and entrepreneurial capitalism do not want this, they want to the developing world be dependent on to their technologies and trade tie-ins. The problem is not free trade as such, but the unfair way with which it is implemented. It is apparent to any dispassionate observer that far from upholding the principles of democracy, the exigencies of commerce has served often to thwart them. All one has to do is recall that Britain’s colonial adventures in India, China and the East Indies were perpetuated by what was felt to be an inalienable right to force nations half way across the world to trade with them on their own terms.
Some have suggest that socialism is the solution, but socialism is often seen historically tied to the ideology of communism, adhered to by China’s ruling party, and this despite the fact that it is practiced in genuinely democratic countries in Scandinavia as well as in most industrialized democratic countries of the world which have social services that can only be characterized as socialistic, including the US which has social programs such as Social Security, Welfare benefits, Unemployment benefits, Medicare, Medicaid etc.
The Chinese are out to prove that democracy is not necessary for material prosperity; it is mere frosting on the cake, never mind Marx’s injunction that power ought to always proceed from the people, that is to say, from the bottom up and not from the top down. Hence ideological cultural battles invariably and regularly ensue and as it can be expected they become not part of the solutions but part of the social problems of our global village.
In point of fact, the battle between capitalism and anti-globalization, socialism, communism and all the other -ism’s one can think of is quite pointless – none of these ideologies stand up in extremis. A harmonious balance between regulation and freedom in the markets seems to be the only way forward to benefit all with at least a minimum of egalitarianism and distributive justice while preserving and enhancing freedom and democracy.
There is one glaring example that can be brought to bear to better illustrate the unfair business practices of the developed world toward the developing one. Both Britain and the US make strenuous efforts to sell cigarettes to poor countries. They give no health warnings against smoking as they do by law in their own countries. One can easily imagine how the precarious health services of these developing countries are going to cope in 20 year time with all the smoking related diseases we in the West are imposing upon them. I suppose that at that point in time the rapacious entrepreneurs of our brave new world will get busy selling them expensive medicines manufactured and developed in the West.
The major issue with globalization seems to be that corporate chairmen have power without representation. One of them is all set to become the next US Secretary of State. If we were to think of consumerism as a new political idea, corporate chairmen are the politicians, advertisements are the party broadcasts or propaganda, and the products are the manifesto. The result as advertised is happiness, fulfillment and wealth for everyone concerned. Donald Trump has promised as much to the ignorant and gullible and many are now waiting for the check in the mail. Good luck!
This analysis points to the fact that in effect we live in a semblance of democracy but in reality we live in a deterministic universe wherein we have been reduced to consuming automatons and our personhood and our very humanity has been robbed. It is now impossible to vote a corporation out of power. There is something fundamentally wrong in this situation. Branding globalization protesters as “anarchists” playing at revolution, as the media tends to do, will not lead to any solution either. Schumacher made similar points in the above mentioned book.
In this article I have simply outlined the problematic of Globalization as presented by those on opposite sides of its analysis. Those readers who may wish to further deepen their knowledge and even attempt a solution to the conundrum would be well advised to peruse a seminal and influential article by Steven Weber, Naazneer Barma, Mathew Kroenig and Ely Ratner titled “How Globalization Went Bad” which appeared in Foreign Policy of Jan/Feb 2007.
In conclusion let me say this on the present perplexing and ambiguous age of globalization, the era of the so called interrelated “global village” with its Facebook and Twitter and the Internet: it is both the best of times and the worst of times. The outcome, I suppose, will depend on how well we can hold together in our mind those two contrasting notions and wrap them around our minds as a paradox. I sincerely doubt that logical positivists and assorted entrepreneurs will be of much help here, but I would suggest that the novels of a Dickens or a Dostoyevsky, not to speak of sages and philosophers, may provide some hints on how best to bridge the chasm.
Emanuel L. Paparella is a former professor of Italian language and literature at the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Central Florida. He is the author of various books: Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, New York, 1993), A New Europe in Search of its Soul (Authorhouse, 2005), Europa: an Idea and a Journey (Exlibris, 2012), Tre Novelle Rusticane di Giovanni Verga (ed. 1975, Florentia Publisher), as well as innumerable articles on Italian literature and philosophy.