The Wealth of the World and the Poverty of Nations

By Lansky, Mark A. | International Labour Review, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Wealth of the World and the Poverty of Nations


Lansky, Mark A., International Labour Review


Cohen, Daniel. The wealth of the world and the poverty of nations. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1998. 136 pp. Index. ISBN 0-262-03253-8.

Originally published in French, this book aims to demonstrate that "there is practically no foundation for the alarmist position according to which 'globalization' is to be blamed for the crises currently experienced by rich countries". Although there clearly are winners and losers in the process, it is the rich countries' "propensity toward transforming the nature of work that has created a niche for globalization and given it an ominous dimension, causing some to reject it". The main driving forces of that transformation, Cohen argues, are the "information revolution" and the "advent of mass education" - neither of which has much to do with the rich countries' trade with poor countries. Besides, such trade still accounts for less than 3 per cent of the wealth produced each year by the richest countries. Clearly, it is not the direct cause of poverty in the rich industrialized countries. "If terms such as 'delocalization' and `unfair competition' ring true when applied to trading with poor countries, it is not because they correspond to the reality they are supposed to describe; it is because they fit the new internal reality of capitalism."

A particularly thought-provoking chapter of the book is that entitled "the poverty of politics". That the author's arguments are mostly supported by examples from France detracts nothing from their broad international relevance. In a nutshell, the social problems commonly blamed on external factors - of which globalization provides a convenient, catch-all representation - are in effect largely internal, distributional issues in which conflicting individual and/or collective expectations and aims play a key part. "It is obviously absurd and demagogic to blame globalization for the difficulties rich countries have in resolving their internal conflicts in the area of distribution ... Today, half of the wealth produced is subject to government appropriation or redistribution. How could such great amounts of money not solve the problem of poverty if our societies were to make a political commitment to do so?"

Highlighting the distinction between the "technical" and "political" aspects of the battle against poverty, Cohen stresses the need to take full account of "the existence of internal diversity in our societies when addressing this issue".

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