4. The Incredible Shrinking World
issue 188 - October 1988
4. The incredible
The concluding episode, in which our adventurers finally ride out
beyond national boundaries to take on the world, tilting at multinational
windmills and wearing the Third World's favour on their lances.
UP to now we've been talking about a single Western country as if it were isolated from the rest of the world.
Not exactly living up to the name 'New Internationalist'.
True. It's fair enough to start off thinking about change in our own countries. But what happens when we bring the Third World into the frame? The NI talks a lot about justice for developing countries, about a fair division of the world's resources. But sharing these out fairly between all the peoples on the planet would have a devastating impact on living standards in the West.
If the world's current wealth were divided equally between all its people it would leave us all on a per-capita GNP of about $2,300 - about the same as South Korea and Algeria now. I'm sure you'd be as willing as me to give up your wealth in the interests of global justice...
Well . er, yes . of course.
... but I doubt that any Western electorate in the foreseeable future is going to opt for that kind of cut in material standards.
So what do we do?
We carry on arguing for a One World approach that pushes things in a fairer direction. Which means working for changes in the global economic system that give developing countries a fairer chance to compete.
That's just the kind of vague, pious statement the NI excels at. You talk about tinkering with the system but in the mean time the multinational corporations are quietly accruing more and more power.
The increasing power and lack of accountability of multinationals is certainly one of the world's biggest problems. It's impossible for any single nation to control them now. Developing countries are usually so desperate for investment that it's difficult for them to insist on their own terms. And even in the West corporations will produce parts for the same car in five different countries, so that none of those countries, let alone their workforces, can exert a stranglehold. As soon as they encounter problems they're on their way to a more pliant locality and a more docile labour force.
So where are the changes going to come from?
They can only come through internationalist action. In the case of the multinationals it probably involves controls imposed by a United Nations body with teeth.
The UN will solve all the world's problems! If that's the best you can do you might as well shut up shop now.
Okay, it's easy to be cynical about the UN. But it's only as strong as member nations' belief in it - and that means it's a lot stronger now than it was in the 1950s, since the Third World countries, the Soviet bloc and China have started to participate in earnest. Mikhail Gorbachev has just made a fascinating proposal for strengthening the UN's powers in just about every area.¹
I don't know how that guy sleeps at night with all these 'fascinating proposals' wheeling through his brain.
Me neither. But he seems to have recognized that as the world becomes smaller and ever more unstable, the only sensible thing to do is to strengthen international institutions. And the UN may have been less than wonderful in the past but there's no reason why it shouldn't develop - after all, the idea of national parliaments took a while to get going too.
And Gorbachev isn't alone in appreciating the increased importance of the international dimension. You can see it in the closer integration of Western Europe and in the greater readiness to call summit meetings of all shapes and sizes. And while the increasing power of multinationals makes them more difficult to control, it also makes supranational regulation of their activities the more inevitable in the end.
I hope you're right. But why should the US ever agree to take action against its own corporations?
As long as US-based multinationals are dominant, they probably won't. But that's already changing fast. And when it's Japanese multinationals that are running the show you might see a greater interest from Washington in regulating them. There's every sign that the US doesn't much like being beaten at its own game.
So it'll get the rules changed to suit itself, not to improve economic justice.
You're right, of course. I just wanted to see if you were on your toes. Even if the UN ends up stronger, it's still going to require a major change in attitude and approach for things to change. But changed conditions in one country spark off changes in others. Look at the influence that Thatcherism has already had on other Western countries, or that perestroika is having on Eastern Europe.
But both those are shifts that suit the free market. If you moved in the other direction and started to threaten the market seriously it'd be a different story.
There'd be fireworks. Money would be flashed out of the country in billions in the blink of a computerized eye. Multinationals would decamp to your next-door neighbour, which would be very pleased to get the business.
And you'd wind up paddleless up a putrid creek.
Such a way with words - have you thought of a career in journalism? All of those things would happen. There are two answers. The first is that there's something of a mythology being built up around 'the internationalization of capital'. Money can always be tracked down and brought back - in fact it's increasingly easy to trace where it has gone in a computerized age.
So national governments still have a chance?
I'm not saying it would be plain sailing. But it's always in the interests of the powers-that-be to mystify and confuse people and the economic powers-that-be are no exception. If even the people who most want to change the system believe that it can't be done, that financial forces are as immutable as physical laws, then that's very convenient.
You had two answers.
Yes, the second is really internationalism itself. The world is getting smaller by the day and as things become internationalized national boundaries have less meaning. So regional blocs of nations are forming. Look at the way chauvinistic, insular Britain is consenting to become part of Europe. A European passport, a single European market, talk of eventual integration - and even chauvinistic, insular Margaret Thatcher has only just started to protest.
But is that a good or a bad thing? Aren't local interests just going to end up swamped by an even bigger State?
We have to try and make sure that the movement towards supranational government goes hand in hand with greater decentralization and local autonomy. But anyway a world of a few powerful trading blocs need not be a war-ridden nightmare. If Latin America and Africa stood together as blocs they'd have a lot more chance of getting heard. The Arab and South-East Asian nations are already doing it to some extent.
And a single Europe could be an opportunity. Progressive people are in the same sort of position all over Europe - except most of them are stronger than in Britain. If they won the argument the kind of changes we've been talking about would be irresistible. Multinationals can decamp from one country to another but they couldn't ignore Europe. The same goes for the Asia-Pacific region which is becoming the world's key trading area and with which Australasia needs to start identifying. And what about North America? Who could resist a real change there?
Hallelujah! I have seen The Future and it belongs to us!
Cynic. I was getting quite carried away.
And forgetting the nightmare that made up the first part of this magazine.
You've got to have a dream, haven't you? If you don't have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?
South Pacific 'Happy Talk'? Doesn't sound much like the NI to me.
We all have our carefree moments. Next month is pretty carefree too: the Debt Crisis and how it's strangling the Third World.
I can hardly wait.
4. KEY POINTS
Sharing the world's wealth out equally may be politically impossible but the West has at least to change the terms of trade so as to give developing countries a chance.
Multinationals can only be controlled through a strengthened United Nations.
National governments have less power to challenge the money market since it has become internationalized - but still more power than the global financiers let on.
Radical ideas and examples can span the world as fast as money. Transform a whole trading bloc and there would be no stopping the process of change.
The daunting thing about researching an issue on 'politics in the West' is that just about every book could be relevant. There are, of course, any number of tomes about the 'What is to be done about Reaganism: the Crisis of the Left' variety. Yet when it came down to thinking in detail about how a future economy and society might operate, I was surprised how little work had been done.
The person who comes closest to filling the bill is Alec Nove in The Economics of Feasible Socialism (George Allen & Unwin 1983). Nove is scornful about the lack of realism in much socialist thinking about the economy. His ideas sparked off an interesting debate in the pages of the heavyweight journal New Left Review, mainly with Ernest Mandel who is something of a fundamentalist when it comes to the role of 'the market' (see, for example, NLR 161 and 169).
Nove is also scornful about 'utopians'. Most Green thinking about the future actually falls into this category. Probably the best of the utopian thinkers is André Gorz, any of whose books (Farewell to the Working Class, Paths to Paradise and Ecology as Politics, all published by Pluto) are worth investigating. Gorz can be inspiring, but the future world he portrays often seems far too distant to be credible. Boris Frankel's book The Post-Industrial Utopians (Polity 1987) is an excellent corrective not only to Gorz but to other woolly thinkers of the Third Wave type - notably Alvin Toffler, Rudolf Bahro and Australian Labor politician Barry Jones.
Another important example of Green thinking about the economy is The Living Economy, edited by Paul Ekins (RKP 1986). This is based on the papers and workshops from the first two Other Economic Summits held in 1984 and 1985. There is a wealth of ideas here - not necessarily compatible but always intriguing.
Anyone looking for an academic study of the New Right worldwide could do worse than turn to The Transformation of Contemporary Conservatism, edited by Brian Girvin (Sage 1988). A more accessible approach to the British version of this transformation is The Challenge of Thatcherism, published by Verso in November, which will pull together the best of Stuart Hall's always clear-sighted essays. Also on the British front, the briefing papers prepared for the second non-aligned Socialist Conference in Chesterfield make interesting reading (they were published in the June 1988 issue of the magazine lnterlink, available from 9 Poland Street, London W1, UK). And Bruce Jesson's book Behind the Mirror Glass (Penguin 1987) is a fascinating exposé of the dirty dealings and mad profit-making that have resulted from the deregulation of the economy in Aotearoa (NZ).