Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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The globalisation brigade marches on

By Gamil Mattar *

Gamil MattarTwo warring camps: one championing globalisation (which 1...Snderstands to varying degrees), the other attacking globalisation (sometimes with a grasp of the issues, often with a refusal to comprehend). Both have their fanatics.

Thomas Friedman is one of the most zealous advocates of globalisation. Certainly, by now he has run out of things he can say about the subject, I thought after reading a book and several articles he had written. I was mistaken. Last April, he came out with The Lexus and the Olive Tree. The product of a flash of inspiration following the author's visit to the Japanese car factory that produces the Lexus, the book may well appear to be an endless series of trivial anecdotes posing as factual portrayal of realities, or, worse, a compilation of determinist visions. Such has been the frequency and influence of the teleological reasoning characteristic of Friedman's work that it has brought some globalisation evangelists to the brink of heresy. Several weeks ago, I read in a French newspaper that the proponents of globalisation see world history in terms of three phases. The first was the age of divinity, marked by a succession of competing religious creeds. The second, the age of reason, began in the eighteenth century, when all the bases of contemporary political thinking evolved. Finally, the age of certainty has dawned, and with it the unsurpassable and unrivaled religion of globalisation.

The debate over globalisation has been and, for many, is still exciting. And so it may continue to be, if it remains confined to philosophers and theoreticians. Intellectual debates can be stimulating as long as only intellectuals are involved. But disaster is in store when one or both sides of a debate begin to lure political authorities into taking part. And when these authorities stop acting as impartial observers and begin to adopt absolutist stands on one side or the other, as has increasingly been the case in the debates over globalisation, we are really in trouble. The debate over globalisation has become politicised. What was once stimulating, sometimes amusing (given the absurdities that have often passed as reasoning) has become nightmarish as idle drivel turns into policy, fiction into law and fantasy into certitude.

Globalisation is on the rise. Of this there can be no doubt. I take issue, however, with the inevitability or wisdom of capitulating resignedly to the trend. Globalisation advocates themselves admit that it does not necessarily promise the land of milk and honey. In fact, they say it can often be bitter and painful. What they do not say is that the majority of the world's population lives in hardship, that this majority is growing and that their hardship is growing more acute. Nor do they say that most of the evils of the process, whether we call it globalisation, unbridled capitalism or the new age of certitude, are becoming increasingly brutal.

The critics -- the weaker of the two camps -- stress a number of deficiencies which they believe threaten the stability of certain societies that have plunged headlong into the process of globalisation. These deficiencies, they argue, also jeopardise international peace and security, as well as the very bases of globalisation: democracy, transparency, broad-based participation in economic and political activity and an expanding free market. Of greatest concern, they contend, is the growing discrepancy between rich and poor, both within nations and at the global level.

Years after the free market experiment became virtually universal and the role of the state in steering the economy declined, one fifth of the world's population continues to suffer abject poverty. More than 1.3 billion people in the world today live on the equivalent of one dollar a day. How lamentable, then, is the remark of one of America's foremost proponents of globalisation that the world's poor -- who, he confesses, will increase in number and whose poverty will become more aggravated -- will be eating a Big Mac as their daily meal? Although poor, he says, they will at least be taking part in the process of globalisation. I agree with the editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique that there is no difference between this comment and Marie Antoinette's proverbial utterance of 1789.

The second shortcoming cited by the critics of globalisation is the deteriorating -- in every sense of the word -- relationship between the state and the symbols of statehood. For the first time in 350 years, the state is voluntarily -- so it appears -- relinquishing the most important constituents of its existence, not least of which its national sovereignty. More than ever, it is beleaguered by international financial institutions, which use loans and debt servicing liberally as the whip to impose conditions regarding the structure of government and its political philosophy.

Equally debilitating to the state is the electronic herd, as Thomas Friedman has described the masses of speculators on international financial markets, and their agents within the state. This herd, steered by institutions specialising in financial and economic assessment operations, has become perhaps the most powerful strike force in modern history. At the slightest signal that a nation's government bonds are worth less today than they were yesterday, the value of the bonds drops, the national economy teeters, hungry and destitute mobs launch violent demonstrations and governments crumble.

There is no need for domestic or foreign military intervention; existing democratic institutions are superfluous. One economic observer has compared the alliance between financial assessment institutions and the electronic herd with the atomic bomb. I found the analogy particularly apt, but there is a difference. An atomic bomb with the horrible destructive power witnessed in Hiroshima can demolish the infrastructure of a province, kill tens of thousands and make tens of thousands of other inhabitants homeless. The destructive power of the financial speculators is infinitely more insidious. It can demolish a nation the size of Russia or Indonesia, leaving its carcass easy prey to the smaller predators in the jungle of globalisation. This has been one of the most important developments to draw the attention of the military everywhere. In Washington, they have their eyes trained on Indonesia, and in Indonesia, they have their eyes trained on the new forces that have taken control of that country's fate: the army of financial speculators and the IMF.

It would be wrong to believe that responsible political officials in a number of nations are not aware of the peril posed by these forces. They are on the alert; they have admitted that the "state" is fragile, and have disclosed the extent of its weakness. Sometimes they have had recourse to loans in the hope of strengthening it, only to find that these loans acquired an impetus that threatened the state itself. They countered by calling for "cultural authenticity", which goaded the forces of cultural globalisation into an assault on any glimmerings of national culture, the barrage of drivel and misinformation channeled through the ever-expanding media. The state media in the developing nations, especially in Eastern Europe and Latin America, was unable to get its fair share of air time. The most powerful prevailed, again.

To both pro- and anti- globalisation theorists, globalisation has become more connotative of dissolution than of assimilation and harmony. The inexorable process seems to bring with it an inevitable corollary of minorities rebelling against majority rule and demands for a multitude of petty states, each with its own ethnic identity. The phenomenon has cast the right to self-determination in a different light, particularly given the increase in outside intervention to defend minority rights from "the power of the state". The state is besieged increasingly by demands to ignore the principle of national unity based on a shared culture, history and fate, and, with a stroke of the pen, to adopt the principle of cultural plurality. The powers exerting these pressures are well aware that Third World governments cannot easily sustain rapid transformations. On every continent, we can find an example confirming the rule: international forces have intervened everywhere to remedy the disasters resulting from relentless pressure to introduce plurality prematurely and under unfavourable circumstances.

The growing gap between the preaching and the practice of globalisation has begun to wreak havoc on domestic political arrangements in many societies. Globalisation crusaders contend that their fundamental tenets are political plurality, freedom of expression and respect for diversity of opinion and belief. They overlook these tenets, however, when preaching the inevitability of globalisation. The world is racing headlong toward a new monolithic ideology, which heralds a new totalitarianism far more dangerous than all those of the 20th century.

The strident and aggressive campaign for globalisation brooks no resistance, no dissenting ideas, no constructive criticism and, indeed, no free and open global dialogue on the notions of political and cultural plurality. As such, it has come to depend on a propagandist style that the West viewed with derision as long as it profited the communist machine. Propaganda was grounded in endless repetition: the new capitalist system has discovered this method serves very conveniently as the ultimate proof of its superiority.

* The writer is the director of Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.
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