"Globalization of the economy is a new kind of corporate
colonialism visited upon poor countries and the poor in rich countries."
- Vandana Shiva - Environmental Activist from India
from Resurgence issue 179
ECONOMIC GLOBALIZATION involves arguably the most fundamental re-design of the planet's political and economic arrangements since at least the Industrial Revolution. Yet the profound implications of these fundamental changes have barely been exposed to serious public scrutiny or debate. Despite the scale of the global reordering, neither our elected officials nor our educational institutions nor the mass media have made a credible effort to describe what is being formulated or to explain its root philosophies.
The occasional descriptions or predictions about the global economy that are found in the media usually come from the leading advocates and beneficiaries of this new order: corporate leaders, their allies in government, and a newly powerful centralized global trade bureaucracy. The visions they offer us are unfailingly positive, even utopian: Globalization will be a panacea for our ills.
Shockingly enough, the euphoria they express is based on their freedom to deploy, at a global level through the new global free-trade rules, and through deregulation and economic restructuring regimes large-scale versions of the economic theories, strategies and policies that have proven spectacularly unsuccessful over the past several decades wherever they've been applied. In fact, these are the very ideas that have brought us to the grim situation of the moment: the spreading disintegration of the social order and the increase of poverty, landlessness, homelessness, violence, alienation and, deep within the hearts of many people, extreme anxiety about
the future. Equally important, these are the practices that have led us to the near breakdown of the natural world, as evidenced by such symptoms as global climate change, ozone depletion, massive species loss, and near maximum levels of air, soil and water pollution.
We are now being asked to believe that the development processes that have further impoverished people and devastated the planet will lead to diametrically different and highly beneficial outcomes, if only they can be accelerated and applied everywhere, freely, without restriction: that is, when they are globalized.
That's the bad news. The good news is that it is not too late to stop this from happening.
THE RECENT PASSAGE of the Uruguay Round of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) with its associated WTO (World Trade Organization) was celebrated by the world's political leadership and transnational corporations as a sort of global messianic rebirth. They claim that these new arrangements will bring on a global economic order that can produce a $250 billion expansion of world economic activity in a very short time, with the benefits "trickling down" to us all. The dominant political-economic homily is "the new rising tide will lift all boats."
Indeed, the global economy is new, but less so in form than in scale: the
new global rules by which it now operates; the technologically enhanced speedup of global development and commerce that it facilitates; and the abrupt shift in global political power that it introduces. Surely it is also new that the world's democratic countries voted to suppress their own democratically enacted laws in order to conform to the rules of the new central global bureaucracy. Also new is the elimination of most regulatory control over global corporate activity and the liberation of currency from national controls, which lead in turn to the casino economy, ruled by currency speculators.
But the deep ideological principles underlying the global economy are not so new: they are the very principles that have brought us to the social, economic and environmental impasse we are in. They include the primacy of economic growth; the need for free trade to stimulate the growth; the unrestricted "free market"; the absence of government regulation; and voracious consumerism combined with an aggressive advocacy of a uniform worldwide development model that faithfully reflects the Western corporate vision and serves corporate interests. The principles also include the idea that all countries - even those whose cultures have been as diverse as, say, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Sweden and Brazil - must sign on to the same global economic model and row their (rising) boats in unison. The net result is monoculture - the global homogenization of culture, lifestyle, and level of technological immersion, with the corresponding dismantling of local traditions and economies. Soon, everyplace will look and feel like everyplace else, with the same restaurants and hotels, the same clothes, the same malls and superstores, and the same streets crowded with cars. There'll be scarcely a reason ever to leave home.
Globalization of the economy is a new kind of corporate colonialism, visited upon poor countries and the poor in rich countries.
But does this system work? Will the promised economic expansion of GATT actually happen? If so, can it sustain itself? Where will the resources
- the energy, the wood, the minerals, the water - come from to feed the increased growth? Where will the effluents of the process - the solids and the toxics - be dumped? Who benefits from this? Who will benefit most? Will it be working people, who seem to be losing jobs to machines and corporate flight? Will it be farmers who, thus far, whether in Asia, Africa or North America, are being manoeuvred off their lands to make way for huge corporate monocultural farming- no longer producing diverse food products for local consumption but coffee and beef for export markets with their declining prices? Will it be city dwellers, now faced with the immigrant waves of newly landless peoples desperate to find the rare and poorly paid job?
And what of the ecological results? Can ever-increasing consumption be
sustained forever? When will the forests be gone? How many cars can be built and bought? How many roads can cover the land? What will become of the animals and the birds - does anyone care about that? Is life better from this? Is all the destruction worth the result? Are we, as individuals, as families, and as communities and nations, made more secure, less anxious, more in control of our destinies? Can we possibly benefit from a system that destroys local and regional governments while handing real power to faceless corporate bureaucracies in Geneva, Tokyo and Brussels? Will people's needs be better served from this? Is it a good idea or a bad one? Do we want it? If not, how do we reverse the process?
The German economic philosopher Wolfgang Sachs argues in his book The Development Dictionary that the only thing worse than the failure of this massive global development experiment would be its success. For, even at its optimum performance level, the long-term benefits go only to a tiny minority of people who sit at the hub of the process and to a slightly larger minority that can retain an economic connection to it, while the rest of humanity is left groping for fewer jobs and less land, living in violent societies on a ravaged planet. The only boats that will be lifted are those of the owners and managers of the process, the rest of us will be on the beach, facing the rising tide.
Our society has been massively launched onto a path to we-know-not- where, and the people in the media who are supposed to shed light on events that affect us have neglected to do so.
From time to time, the mass media do report on some major problem of globalization, but the reporting rarely conveys the connections between the specific crises they describe and the root causes in globalization itself In the area of environment, for example, we read of changes in global climate and occasionally of their long-term consequences, such as the melting polar ice caps, the expected staggering impacts to agriculture and food supply, or the destruction of habitat.
We read too of the ozone layer depletion, the pollution of the oceans, or the wars over resources such as oil and, perhaps soon, water. But few of these matters are linked directly to the imperatives of global economic expansion, the increase of global transport, the overuse of raw materials, or the commodity
intensive lifestyle that corporations are selling worldwide via the culturally homogenizing technology of television and its parent, advertising. Obfuscation is the net result.
Some publications have carried stories about "corporate greed" as expressed by the firing of thousands of workers while corporate profits soared and top executive salaries were being raised to unheard-of levels. Even these stories, however, rarely mentioned the crucial point that the new corporate restructuring is directly hooked to the imperatives of globalization and that it is happening all over the world. Obfuscation yet again.
In the autumn of 1995, the international press carried reports on the paralyzing strike by hundreds of thousands of French railway and other public service workers. Most reports characterized the workers as trying to protect their privileges, benefits and jobs against government cutbacks. True enough. But most stories left out that the cutbacks were mandated by the rules of Europe's Maastricht "single currency" agreement, itself part of the corporatizing, homogenizing and globalizing of Europe's economic system to make it compatible and competitive globally.
The media also report daily about the immigration crises, about masses of people trying to cross borders in search of jobs, only to be greeted by xenophobia, violence, and demagoguery in high places. But the role that international trade agreements play in making life impossible for people in their countries of origin is not visible in such reports. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, was a virtual knockout blow to the largely self-sufficient, small, corn-farming economy of Mexico s indigenous peoples - as the Zapatista rebels tried to illuminate in 1994 - making indigenous lands vulnerable to corporate buyouts and foreign competition from the United States.
Meanwhile, in India, Africa and South America, similar World Bank development schemes over the past few decades have deliberately displaced whole populations of relatively prosperous peoples, including small scale self-sufficient farmers, to make way for giant dams and other megadevelopment schemes. The result of such "development" is that millions of small farmers are turned into landless refugees seeking nonexistent urban jobs.
Now and then we see media reports on food shortages, yet rarely is the connection drawn between hunger and the increased control of the world's food supply by a small number of giant (subsidized) corporations, notably Cargill, which effectively determines where food will grow, under which conditions it will grow and what ultimate price consumers will pay. The food, rather than being eaten by local people who grow it, is now typically shipped thousands of miles (at great environmental cost) to be eaten by the already well fed.
Horrible new disease outbreaks are very thoroughly reported with ghoulish relish in the Western press. The part that is omitted, however, is the connection between these outbreaks and the destruction of rainforest and other habitats. As economic expansionism proceeds, previously uncontacted organisms hitch rides on new vectors for new territory.
We also read stories about the "last indigenous tribes" in the Amazon, Borneo, Africa or the Philippines; stories that lament the inevitability that native people, even against their clearly articulated wishes, even against the resistance of arrows and spears, must be drawn into the Western economic model to benefit from our development plans. Insufficiently reported are the root causes of this: the demands of economic growth for more water or forest resources; the desperate need for new lands for beef cattle, coffee or timber plantations; the equally desperate need to convert previously self- sufficient peoples into consumer clones. This is not to mention the far deeper need to destroy the "other" for the psychological threat they represent and for their example of viability in an entirely alternative context.
As for the role of technology, the powers that be continue to speak of each new generation of technological innovation in the same utopian terms they used to describe each preceding generation, going back to the private automobile, plastics and "clean nuclear energy", each introduced as panaceas for society. Now we have global computer networks that are said to "empower" communities and individuals, when the exact opposite is the case. The global computer-satellite linkup, besides offering a spectacular new tool for financial speculation, empowers the global corporation's ability to keep its thousand-armed global enterprise in constant touch, making instantaneous adjustments at the striking of a key. Computer technology may actually be the most centralizing technology ever invented, at least in terms of economic and political power. This much is certain: The global corporation of today could not exist without computers. The technology makes globalization possible by conferring a degree of control beyond anything ever seen before.
Meanwhile, new technologies such as biotechnology bring the development framework to entirely new terrain by enabling the enclosure and commercialization of the internal wilderness of the gene structure, the building blocks of life itself The invention and patenting of new life forms, from cells to insects to animals to humans, will have profound effects on Third World agriculture, ecology and human rights.
The point is this: all of the subjects are treated by the media, government officials and corporations alike as if they were totally unrelated. This is not helpful to an insecure public that is attempting to grasp what's happening and what might be done about it. The media do not help us to understand that each of these issues - overcrowded cities, unusual new weather patterns, the growth of global poverty, the lowering of wages while stock prices soar, the elimination of local social services, the destruction of wilderness, even the disappearance of songbirds - are the products of the same global policies. They are all of one piece, a fabric of connections that are ecological, social and political in nature. They are reactions to the world's economic-political restructuring in the name of accelerated global development. This restructuring has been designed by economists and corporations and encouraged by subservient governments; soon it will be made mandatory by international bureaucrats, who are beyond democratic control.
Jerry Mander is the co-editor of a newly published book, The Case Against Global Economy (Sierra Club, San Francisco, $27.00). The book consists of many outstanding contributions from well-known thinkers, economists and activists. This article has been extracted from the introductory chapter.