Taking the highlands of Ladakh as her starting point, Helena Norberg-Hodge reveals how the economic process of globalization has made us all increasingly insecure.
In the US, it’s Donald Trump. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. With rightwing authoritarian leaders and extremist political parties gaining strength, people who care about equality and the future of the planet have good reason to be worried.
To counter this trend we need to address its root causes – not the personality traits of individual leaders or the unique conditions that fuelled their rise. In short, we need to look at the process of economic globalization.
While its supporters portray globalization in terms of international collaboration and interdependence, it is actually an economic process by which diverse cultures and economies are amalgamated into a single, global monoculture dominated by huge businesses and banks. Critics of globalization acknowledge its role in expanding the obscene gap between rich and poor, but there is little recognition of globalization’s profoundly personal impacts: in country after country, it is leaving the majority feeling increasingly insecure – not only economically, but psychologically. And insecure people can be highly susceptible to false narratives purporting to explain their precarious situation.
From co-operation to conflict
Let me illustrate how this happened in Ladakh, an Indian-administered region on the Tibetan Plateau where I have worked for the past four decades. I arrived in the mid-1970s, when the area – until then largely closed off to the outside world – was first opened up to tourism, development and the global economy.
At that time, the Ladakhi people were still in control of their economy. Although there was little money in the typical Ladakhi household, there was no real poverty: everyone had a place to live and no-one went hungry. In fact, throughout Ladakh I was told regularly: ‘We are tung-bos za-bos’, which means, ‘We are self-sufficient, we have plenty to eat and drink.’
There was also a remarkable degree of social harmony; the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority lived peacefully side by side. For generations they had been economically interdependent, rather than being dependent on distant, anonymous institutions over which they had no control.
Within a decade of economic ‘development’, however, there was a terrifying shift, as Buddhists and Muslims found themselves competing for scarce jobs. Ethnic and religious differences began to take on a divisive political dimension, causing bitterness and enmity on a scale previously unknown. Muslims began requiring their young daughters to cover their heads with scarves. Buddhists in the capital began broadcasting their prayers over loudspeakers, so as to compete with the Muslim prayer call. Religious ceremonies once celebrated by the whole community – Buddhist and Muslim alike – became occasions to flaunt one’s strength.
In 1989, tensions between the two groups exploded into violence that took several lives. I heard mild-mannered Buddhist grandmothers – who, a few years earlier, were sipping tea with their Muslim neighbours – declare: ‘We have to kill the Muslims before they finish us off.’
Outsiders attributed the conflict to old ethnic tensions flaring, but any such tensions had never led to group violence in 600 years of recorded history. To me, living in Ladakh and speaking the language fluently, the connection between the changes wrought by the outside economy and the sudden appearance of violent conflict seemed obvious.
The most noticeable economic changes centred on food and farming. Imported food, heavily subsidized by the Indian government, now sold at half the price of local products. As a result, food self-reliance was steadily replaced by dependence on the global food system. Many Ladakhis – the vast majority of whom were farmers – began to wonder if there was a future for them.
Meanwhile, young men were being pulled out of their villages into the capital Leh in search of paid jobs. Suddenly cut off from their community and in cut-throat competition with hundreds of others for scarce jobs, their once-secure sense of identity began to fragment.
Changes in education also had a huge impact. In the past, Ladakhi children learned the skills needed to survive, even to prosper, in their difficult environment: they learned to grow food, tend for animals, build houses from local materials. But in the new Westernized schools, children were instead provided with skills appropriate for a fossil fuel-based, urban life within a globalized economy – a way of life in which almost every need is imported. The new schools taught children almost nothing about the Ladakhi way of life; instead they were implicitly taught to look down on the traditional culture.
The locus of political and economic power changed as well. Decision-making shifted from the traditional village level to the centralized government apparatus based in New Delhi, leaving people out of decisions that deeply affected their lives.
These changes were further amplified by an influx of foreign tourists, by the introduction of satellite television, and by a bombardment of advertising campaigns – all of which served to romanticize Western, urban culture, making the Ladakhis feel backward by contrast.
It was clear that the arrival of the global economy had created a pervasive sense of competition, insecurity and disempowerment. At a practical level, the Ladakhis were becoming dependent on far-off manufacturers and centralized bureaucracies instead of each other. Psychologically, they had lost confidence in themselves and their culture. It is not hard to see how people so insecure and disempowered can turn to anger and extremism.
The speed and scale at which these changes took place in Ladakh made the structural connection between globalization, insecurity and conflict obvious. But the same process is actually under way around the world: the economic system has become a driver of fear, fundamentalism and political instability. To see why, it is vitally important that we see the broader connections that mainstream analyses generally ignore.
Since the end of World War Two, governments have been promoting worldwide economic integration, or globalization. In the Global South, it’s referred to as ‘development’; in the Global North, as ‘progress’. But in both North and South the fundamental process is the same: an economic transformation driven by the deregulation of global banks and corporations, largely through ‘free trade’ treaties. And while the global giants are being freed of regulation, businesses and individuals at the national and local level are burdened with ever heavier regulations and squeezed for taxes to subsidize transnationals that pay almost no tax. For the majority, it’s a process that dramatically heightens insecurity in a number of ways:
• Job insecurity. With footloose corporations ruling the global economy, even long-held jobs can disappear overnight. Thanks to downsizing and offshoring, mergers and takeovers, artificial intelligence and automation, many people live in constant fear of the unemployment line.
Although heightened job insecurity is a consequence of globalization, the remedy offered by policymakers is not to reverse corporate deregulation, but simply ‘more of the same’: more economic growth, fewer environmental regulations, fewer taxes, and more government support for high-tech. These are corporate-friendly responses, but they are often packaged as a way to protect the ‘little guy’ from big government. Because almost no political leader is willing to say that the corporate-led global economy is the root cause of economic insecurity, voices reflecting a rightwing, anti-government and xenophobic perspective are able to fill the gap with false narratives, blaming immigrants or minorities – people who are victimized even more profoundly by the global economic system.
• Political insecurity. Deregulation is making global corporations and banks richer, while impoverishing governments. National treasuries have been drained by the heavy subsidies and tax breaks handed out to attract big business, and by the ability of transnationals to hide profits in jurisdictions with lower tax rates. Meanwhile, governments are left to cover the heavy social and environmental costs of global growth. As a consequence, many people see their government leaders as inept at running the nation’s affairs, while the growing wealth of businesses suggests that the solution is to ‘run the country more like a business’.
Increasingly distanced from the institutions that affect their lives and growing ever more insecure about their economic livelihoods, many have become frustrated, angry and disillusioned. Unaware of the role of the global economy in the downward spiral of their communities, they blame individual politicians or political parties – only to be disappointed when a change in office-holders makes no difference for their community or their personal lives.
• Psychological insecurity. As local and national economies are undermined, the fabric of interdependence that holds communities together begins to fray. This not only leads to social fragmentation and isolation, it also unravels the safety net that ensures that the surrounding community can be relied upon for help in times of hardship.
At the same time, global consumer culture is relentlessly expanding. People all over the world are targeted with advertising messages telling them: ‘You are not good enough as you are, but buying our product will make you better.’ With face-to-face relationships deteriorating and real-life role models replaced by artificial images of perfection in mass media and in the hyperbolic world of social media, unhealthy comparisons run rife. In the Global South especially, the breakdown of communities and cultures is severing rich intergenerational relationships and uprooting identities.
Those healthier identities are often replaced by destructive alternatives which reflect a desperate need for belonging. Ideological fundamentalism and extremism can seem to offer an explanation for worsening social and personal ills, as well as a radical solution. They can provide personal validation and meaning, solidarity and a sense of community – all essential human needs that have been undermined by globalization. In this way, the uprooting of the South’s land-based populations has been the driver of much of the ethnic conflict, fundamentalism and radicalism seen in that part of the world.
Rural areas in the North have been similarly hollowed out by global economic forces. Family farms tied to the global food economy are steadily failing, and their demise devastates the local economies and communities they long supported. Young people who have grown up in these rural areas often see no future there: not only are jobs scarce, but – just as in Ladakh – the media and advertising tell them that urban life is ‘cool’, glamorous and exciting by contrast.
Unable to grasp the destructive impacts of the corporate-led global economy, people are vulnerable to arguments that scapegoat immigrants and minorities. They can also become anti-Green and anti-Left, believing that bloated government bureaucracy and environmental and social protection measures are responsible for their economic woes. Many will vote in support of free trade and laissez-faire economics, believing that these policies will provide the prosperity they have been denied.
To avoid spiralling further towards extremism, we urgently need to get active in spreading the word about global economic deregulation and its impacts on our communities and personal lives. Ignorance about this system enables the pseudo-solutions of Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro and others to gain strength, even as the global economic system marches onwards, unfettered.