issue 246 - August 1993
Giants stalk, creation trembles
Kirkpatrick Sale interprets the ‘gospel of globalism’, the essential values
underlying the frenzied drive towards a new world economy.
It is not so surprising that the global corporations that stand to benefit from it have spent so much time and money recently trumpeting the virtues of what is described as the ‘transnational economy’ of the twenty-first century. What’s far more surprising is that they’ve been allowed to get away with it so neatly, without more than a choir-stall of voices raised – late and not always consistently – in dissent.
Of course it’s true that the globalists have been able to develop a gospel full of such chapters and verse as ‘efficiency’, ‘progress’, ‘individualism’, ‘productivity’ and ‘growth’ – and those are hard canons to go up against. But a gospel, after all, is nothing more than a good story (Old English ‘god’ – good, plus ‘spell’ – tale). You would have thought that this late in the day – what with deconstructionism and all – no-one would be allowed to go around spinning their self-serving yarns without some sort of challenge.
Yet here we are with the global gospel everywhere triumphant. The new American President (insofar as he has any convictions of his own) is a proclaimed internationalist, as are his Secretaries of Treasury, Commerce and Energy. And the chief futurist on his new team, Labour Secretary Robert Reich, has been known primarily for his embrace of a global economy in which the US attracts multinational investment by specializing in high-tech/high-intellect production. The Uruguay round of GATT and the new North American Free Trade Agreement, after they go through some tinkering to satisfy a few protectionist types, will ratify the globalism of the industrial world. And the World Bank, IMF, Group of Seven, the European Economic Union and the newly Western-bought UN are in place to guide and protect it. No government anywhere seems inclined to try to halt this economic juggernaut.
And a juggernaut it is: in truth, a Second Industrial Revolution at work. ‘Broad, global forces for change,’ in the words of historian Paul Kennedy, ‘are bearing down upon humankind in both rich and poor societies alike.’ These include, he says, sweeping technological changes in production and marketing, a 24-hour-a-day worldwide financial trading system, an unfettered relocation of factories and trading of products across national borders. ‘Every country is challenged by these global forces for change,’ he says. Most of them, especially in the South, will fail to meet that challenge.
Well, if things are bearing down on us like that, I think it behoves us to take some account of the gospel they are riding on and the values – so deeply held that they are not usually even perceived as arguable – behind it. Because, you see, if those values are allowed to go unchallenged and unaltered, and the gospel of globalism does indeed triumph, the result cannot be anything but the increasing impoverishment of the South, dangerous economic and political distentions for the North and environmental ruination of the greater part of the earth.
In one sense the values of globalism are just the values of modernism – the overarching ideology of industrial capitalism – writ large. And we needn’t slog through all of that familiar and drummed-in litany. There are four key values, however, so important to the emerging global order and so vulnerable to examination, that they deserve some scrutiny.
Monoculturalism – The idea that the world is a single, interdependent market lies behind the commitment to free trade and what the Chief Executive Officer of United Technologies calls ‘a worldwide business environment unfettered by government interference’. In this industrial monoculture factories and people, like parts, are interchangeable, and ‘Coca-Colonization’ extends to every corner of the globe.
The first victims are of course the familiar nation states, whose borders and governments are now impediments – as much in the North where administrations are seduced or bought, as in the South where they are subverted or controlled. Thus over the last decade we have seen the disintegration of national governments in Eurasia, the total collapse of central authority in a variety of states and a hell-bent drive to join in the capitalist game from China and Vietnam to Poland and East Germany.
But monoculturalism won’t stop there. Its need, which has always been the need of industrial capital, is to destroy regional identities, indigenous cultures and even stable communities. Traditions rooted there – self-sufficiency, sustainability, handicrafts, ‘enoughness’ – the market system must eliminate for its success.
Technophilia – What was once a simple drive to replace human work by mechanical work has become a near obsession in our machine-dominated society. It is not merely that the globalists have machines that can slosh billions of dollars around the world instantly at the press of a key, or can alter equally genes or ecosystems or atmospheric layers. What’s critical is that their perspectives must succumb to the patterns set by these machines. Problems must be posed in ways that can be solved by them.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES
There’s a lot of talk these days about the ‘information age’ and a ‘post-industrial world’ built on ‘knowledge industries’ and the like. It is what America is supposed to become in the next century, along with a few other chosen partners like Japan and Germany, while most of the industrial world and all but a select few parts of the industrializing world drop farther into poverty. It sounds good to many, and even astute critics like David Morris of the Washington-based Institute for Self Reliance seem to believe that computers will empower individual citizens and permit decentralized independence from the megacorporations.
Nonsense. ‘Information’ is just the currency of the globalists’ machines. The globalists made the machines in their own image and they control the kinds of information those machines are capable of using: the quantifications of life, the reduction of human complexities to analogues. And they are not much interested in empowering citizens or they wouldn’t give us those machines in the first place. To believe otherwise is to fall into the trap of technophilia – a velvet-lined trap, with its VCRs and microwaves and
wordprocessors, but a terrible snare and delusion nonetheless.
There should be no doubt about the fundamental dangers of believing that machines are here to solve our problems. They exist out of their own imperative, a technological imperative backed by a utilitarian science that, as Lewis Mumford so cogently saw, is really ‘the ultimate religion of our seemingly rational age’. He called it ‘the Myth of the Machine’ and warned explicitly of what it meant: ‘bigger and bigger, more and more, farther and farther, faster and faster’– not to mention worse and worse, riskier and riskier, deadlier and deadlier.
There should also be no doubt that if there is to be any salvation for the twenty-first century it will come through biophilia, some kind of profound and thoroughgoing love of nature and a respect for her laws and imperatives. All of which, I need hardly say, are opposed to those of globalism.
Consumptivitis – It is so elemental that we almost overlook it, but the unalterable foundation of industrialism is the disease of unending consumption – of what, it hardly matters – and its accompanying unlimited production. A global economy guided by free trade – that is free of environmental laws and price constraints and resource allotments and national allegiances and labour restrictions – can go into a frenzy of production and consumption, prodded by advertising, sanctioned by consumer culture and driven by the materialism that lies at the heart of Western society.
This consumption need not be equal, within or among nations, to work. In fact the accumulated buying power of the rich must come from the increasing impoverishment of the poor – the underclasses within industrial society (growing by record numbers in the 1980s and 1990s) and the still-colonized countries elsewhere, whose distance from the rich nations is vast and growing wider each year.
There are limits to all this, of course, and they are set by the earth and its systems, already seriously over-stressed. But they are of no concern to globalists, since by definition they have no home and couldn’t care less about that care-of-home that goes by the name ‘ecology’. Without restraints the megacorporations are free to use up resources at an ever-faster rate (remember, the scarcer the resource the more valuable it becomes), to foul the biosphere in their processing of them and to poison air and soil in their disposal of them. There is no concern for the inevitable ecocidal end of this because the corporation, again by definition, does not comprehend the future and must maximize profits in the shortest run possible.
Giantism – Perils there may be in bigness, as the struggling IBM, General Motors and even Mitsubishi demonstrate. But this is the imperative of successful globalism. What you lose now in workforce you simply gain later in hassle-free automation, reduced labour costs and increased profits. Despite its problems General Motors is still the number one American corporation. Moreover the occasional and inevitable misstep (for with all their megamachines, large enterprises are always less efficient than small) is more than made up for by the immense power the global players have. They can twist laws and regulations, shift plants around the globe, open or close markets, set prices, monopolize research and development. The rules, written by the big players always favour the big players, and are designed to forgive them for their flaws and failures.
It has become commonplace to note that such power is beyond the control of any mere citizen or consumer. But corporations have never been democratic, nor were ever meant to be. The largest of them are for the most part impervious not only to popular pressure but even to government suasion. They owe no loyalty to any town or even nation. Wasn’t it revealing that the US pavilion at the World’s Fair in Spain last year was such a meagre, flimsy thing? The main reason was that American companies one after the other refused to kick in funds and thus become associated with the United States. They wished to be seen as ‘global’ instead.
And since there is none to take them on and all the powerful international institutions like the World Bank are of their own making, there is none to halt their increasing growth, or their increasing power to impoverish the people and imperil the earth. Giants really do stalk the world, and most of creation trembles.
The gospel of globalism made up of these essential values bids fair to sanction a corporatist catastrophe in this next century. And I’d be hard put to identify – alas, even to imagine – the forces that would be able to undermine its potent message and the likely outcome. We know what values we would put in its place: community, democracy, decentralization, biophilia, harmony, sustenance. But it is difficult to see what gospel would be able to proclaim them forcefully enough, effectively enough, quickly enough.
Perhaps there is comfort in the knowledge that, in time and probably not too far hence, the earth will recoil from the assault of globalism and in some awful spasm will dispel it and all its work, as a dog shakes off water after a plunge. Whether we will be here afterward, of course, is an open question.
Kirkpatrick Sale spends as much time as he can in rural upstate New York. He is currently working on a book on technophilia.