Globalization, like many huge things, results from two opposite, but eerily complementary, forces:
In this, globalization is like other massive and massively co-opted phenomena, e.g. television, the "Green Revolution," and, perhaps most clearly, the Internet.
Television was originally promoted as a democratic medium whose possibilities were endless: "It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind," reads a typical bit of early dramatics by ABC. Some of these people actually meant what they said, and the subsequent corporate use of the medium can only be seen as a hijack more thorough than could have been accomplished by even the most sustained government effort.
Likewise, modern food engineering began as a scientist's sincere desire to remove the scourge of hunger from the world. But the practices into which relentless pursuit of profit have pushed this domain would be hard to match in heartlessness and cynicism: another gargantuan hijack.
The Internet is another example of a giant system coopted by greed-based giant interests, who then attempt to turn it entirely to their own ends.
Globalization, like television, biotechnology, and the Internet, also represents an appropriation of the well-intentioned efforts of others. Shortly after the last giant war, forward-looking people in France, Britain and Germany agreed to closely monitor and coordinate their countries' steel and coal output, in hopes of making it impossible for any one party (more precisely, Germany) to suddenly start building a significant war machine, and to make their economic interdependence a serious obstacle to the warpath. This earnest effort grew into the European Union, which, despite a disturbing resemblance to the Europe the Nazis envisioned (click here for advertisement), has preserved in the popular memory the idealism of its postwar proponents. At the same time, the EU has been the platform from which multi-national corporations have gutted sensible trade protections, as well as successful and popular social programs (the so-called "welfare state"), in favor of corporate profits and a very strange vision of peace.
A vestigial idealism has been enlisted to support not only the recent excesses of the European Union, but also NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO.
www.WTO.org, for example, claims that "The multilateral trading system established after the end of the second World War has... guaranteed peace and stability"--as if that were its point, and glossing over the fact that the "peace and stability" are between the major powers only. Not entering into this picture of "peace" are the innumerable "operations" against small powers to enforce global trade; the increasing incarceration in the U.S. of domestic sectors not very useful to the economy, and with no recourse to an
Like the WTO, late 19th-century ideologues also promoted industry as the only route to world peace, and claimed that the freeness of trade was the reason there had been almost no major wars during that century. Not entering their image of "peace" either, of course, was that century's unprecedentedly huge scale of colonial and domestic exploitation, which resulted in the moral and sometimes physical destruction of entire populations at home and abroad. Finance frowned only on large-scale wars between the strongest European governments, and wielded such power that it could prevent them: as in Central Europe under the Soviets, even long-standing enmities had to take the back seat... for a while. (Curious afternote: many people believe that the inevitable breakdown of this system led to WWI.)
Today, the WTO, exactly like 19th-century apologists, is only lubricating violence against a frontier (the Third World, and domestic poor everywhere) in order to ensure the smooth functioning of core machineries--all the while claiming, like its colonialist predecessors, to bring health and prosperity to that frontier. The WTO's version of free trade is no different from the original: a ruthless system that destroys exactly what is most vulnerable in the name of expansion, profit, and "progress."
The idea that free trade leads to improvement still holds sway in much of the First World, even among those who should know better. And in even more cases, the possible extreme effects of corporate freedom are not quite understood. In Europe, for example, many are conscious of the immediate losses--spiritual as well as material--resulting from privatization of core societal functions like education and health care (privatizations which are proceeding all the same, sometimes so clearly against popular desires as to make a mockery of democracy).
But though many may feel revulsion, few realize the much more extreme physical results which this form of power can effect with no public participation or even awareness--and which it is destined to do by its nature. Today, many otherwise intelligent Europeans still feel that if money
And while the instructional examples cited above of television, food engineering, and the internet are still to one degree or another unfolding, and hence not pedagogically perfect, there is another example that couldn't be clearer, because it is entirely set in stone, or rather asphalt. Like the others it comes from America, so Americans of an instructive bent can refer to it with assertions of memory--although precious few who did not live through it even know that it happened....
* * *
Around the time that France, Britain and Germany were forging a commercial alliance to prevent future wars, three U.S. companies were forging a commercial alliance to prevent public transportation.
By 1945, U.S. cities had the most advanced public transportation networks in the world. Los Angeles had more miles of electric train tracks than any other single area of its size on earth. This type of transport, in L.A. as everywhere else, was cheap, clean, and efficient. You could get from one place to any other for a few cents (one or two of today's dollars or euros), with almost no danger and without polluting the environment much--just as you still can in any European city (except, nowadays,
And did they ever achieve some efficiency! Shortly after WWII, General Motors (cars), Standard Oil (gasoline), and B.F. Goodrich (car tires) slowly but steadily consolidated the public/private transportation companies of eighty U.S. cities (including Los Angeles) into one, and then, just as steadily, demolished every last shred of their prey. Meanwhile, to fill this growing gap in public transport, the three companies successfully lobbied that public money be used to build highways on the gargantuan scale we still live with today.
When it was discovered what had happened, and how, the perpetrators were brought to trial, found guilty of "conspiring against the public good," and forced to pay a fine of $5000--in today's dollars or euros, about the same amount that companies like Ford and Bridgestone pay today for skirting regulations at the public's expense.
Tales of sneaky maneuverings around European electorates are already numerous (though none yet as enormous as that wrought by GM/SO/BFG on America). But
As it turns out, the arguments used in these cases to justify and promote unfettered corporate power are the same misreadings of Adam Smith that first took hold in the late 1700s. For about two hundred years, the supremacy of profit has been the keystone in an entire cosmology teaching that humanity must evolve towards less and less regulated competition, with less and less protection for the weak, infirm, or uncompetitive--and that this is the only natural/virtuous state for the species.
Just as God was originally conscripted into the arguments, most surely against His will, the same was done to Darwin a while later, resulting in something that might be called "corporate Darwinism." Now, obeying the dictates of profit-seeking unhampered by local prejudices and mores no longer led to heaven, but rather to various virtues. (Cleanliness, for example: The WTO website actually claims that free trade will make the world cleaner by "facilitating the diffusion of environment-friendly technologies around the world"--apparently in the face of all logic and evidence.)
The divine content of free trade mythology has changed since its inception, but the substance itself has not. Belief in free trade has proven immensely resilient, surviving even changes in our elementary metaphors.
Why the persistence? It cannot be the arguments themselves: they are so flimsy that the slightest glance beneath the surface suffices to expose them as mere opinions, with no substance beyond the emotional.
Nor can it be the results of the free trade prescription: the average growth rate of developing countries that are rigorously "liberalized" is 2.2%, versus 2.1% for those that are not. And during the last thirty years, the U.S. market has been "opened" and deregulated more, and more quickly, than that of any other developed country, but the average hours worked per year in the U.S. has increased considerably since then, while in less "liberalized" economies, they have declined (Bureau International du travail, Key Indicators of the Labor Market 1999, Geneva, 1999, p. 166). Compared with 1973, Americans must now work six weeks more per year to achieve the same standard of living (Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books, New York, 1992, pp. 79-82).
This sort of failure is always chalked up by free trade apologists to impurity, to the incomplete implementation of free trade principles. For two hundred years, governments have been blamed for the failures of free trade, for their stodgy, authoritarian resistance to spontaneous free-trade evolution. If only governments would stand out of the godly (or natural) and inevitable course of free trade, things would turn out for the best.
But of course it is the "free market" that must be enforced in an authoritarian manner, by bodies such as the WTO, and it is resistance to the ravages of unfettered free trade that is spontaneous. What is natural and inevitable is refusal of people and their elected representatives to accept the destruction of society by market forces, before that destruction is finished, before free trade has run its full course.
Since neither arguments nor results are what sustains belief in free trade, why, then, do ordinary people often rally to the causes of corporate politics?
Money may have something to do with it: holding a few shares in mutual funds can make it easier to cheer abstract, long-term destruction, with or without supporting arguments, in the name of immediate dollars or euros.
But the primary reason for ordinary people to believe in free trade may be that it makes acceptable, even desirable, the fait accompli of free-trade ascendancy and all that this entails. More and more, corporate interests are succeeding in dismantling social programs, and generally running roughshod over laws and government, functions that used to be under some degree of control by electorates: to see this with no ideological veneer can be disappointing, or, depending on the degree to which one's life is impacted, debilitating. It is much more bearable to see it as part of a near-cosmic plan, a cosmology in which it is sensible and worthwhile, and in which one's participation, rather than being that of a tragic victim, partakes instead of the epic.
With the basis of belief not in any semblance of fact, but rather in emotional consensus, it is easy to see why corporations have expended such vast sums not only on promoting bad logic to elected decision-makers, but on public relations, i.e. telling the public stories. P.R. serves to defuse anger at a particular company and excuse its behavior; in the long run, it works to promote free trade above all other values.
One particularly dramatic P.R. story is that of "big government." Corporate apologists, for their own specific ends, often point to the influence of "big government" in the language of
Indeed, such P.R. might as well be a conspiracy, it works so well. Its long-term effects dovetail wonderfully with its immediate uses: since it points to privatization as as a path to freedom from arbitrary government decisions and motives, it helps marshal to corporate interests the support of a public which should by all rights be against it.
The free market, designed and constructed and refined to exploit all situations for the sake of profit, has in the U.S. self-organized to achieve the destruction of public transportation, the ethnic cleansing of politically volatile inner cities, the mass fattening of the poorest class, the reduction of useless leisure time for all classes, and on and on and on--all the while using the language of freedom and choice and Constitution with an abstraction and distance that might be poetic if it weren't so cynical. These are a few of many such amazing reversals, like television helping turn American society into the television image of Soviet society, that are inexplicable at first sight--no one is in control, but the result is infinitely more effective than a "real" conspiracy, consciously decided and plotted, ever could be.
Global resistance has arrived. This section, unfortunately, has not. Coming soon!