Globalization: An Alternative View. You Don't Have to See the World through the Eyes of the Market

By Ransom, David | New Internationalist, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Globalization: An Alternative View. You Don't Have to See the World through the Eyes of the Market


Ransom, David, New Internationalist


TANNERIES are pretty filthy places. To make leather from the hides of cattle they use chemicals which combine to form a toxic sludge that is virtually impossible to make harmless. Tanneries are common in southern Brazil, where cattle graze on grasslands that once were forests, and so there is a big sludge problem too. One might suppose that serious local ecologists even if they were not vegetarians - would want to get the tanneries shut down.

Jose Lutzenberger, an agricultural chemist and visionary ecologist, thought otherwise. He took a fresh look at the tanning process. Why not prevent the chemicals from combining in the first place? Then recycle them - for some, like chrome, are expensive as well as toxic. the tanneries would thereby become cleaner and more efficient. The problem was less with the sludge than with the process. But you had first to accept that there was a problem, and then look at the process afresh to find the answer.(f.1)

The world's economy resembles a tannery in this respect at least, that it is created by the all-too-fallible power of human ingenuity and produces a lot of sludge - both literally and figuratively. Too often people look at problems like unemployment or pollution and conclude with a shrug that nothing can be done - 'there is no alternative'. But when people are forced to this conclusion you can be pretty damn sure something's gone fundamentally wrong with the world's economy.

For a good while now we've had it hammered into our heads that there's an entirely new phenomenon, a 'globalizing' economy, that we must obey. A driverless machine(f.2) assembles a thousand different parts from a dozen different countries to make a motorcar, or processes the bookings for European airlines in Bangalore. The long-delayed appearance of industrial societies in former European colonies like Malaysia, and around the 'Pacific Rim', is portrayed as nothing short of miraculous. A revolutionary new fuel - called 'market forces', and actually as old as the hills - suddenly seems capable of bringing us as close as we're ever likely to get to perpetual motion.

The evidence on which all this cultish fever relies is superficially convincing. The world's international trade has consistently grown faster than its economic output - more than twice as fast between 1985 and 1994.(f.3) This means that an increasing proportion of what we consume is made somewhere else. The assumption here is that any kind of growth is good and that the cheaper things are the more efficiently they are being produced. Therefore an industrial machine that scours the world for the cheapest way of doing things is ultimately a boon to all. The only alternative is to revert to the kind of beggar-thy-neighbour protectionism that deepened the 1930s Great Depression and led to world war - which is, of course, no alternative at all.

Which is where we have to ask: 'So what's gone wrong?' Well, the evidence is seriously misleading. The new 'global' economy is growing more slowly than the old 'Golden Age' economy did between 1945 and 1973 - when there were widespread attempts to protect national economies and promote industrialization through 'import substitution'. In the end this did not work very well. But the globalizing, 'export-oriented' economy works no better. After the initial effect of removing trade barriers during the 1980s wore off, world trade began to slow down. So the benefits of being globalized seem short-lived at best. And whisper it not in Gotham, but economists already know that globalization will never solve the problems of unemployment in the North, poverty in the South or the North-South economic divide - it may even be responsible for aggravating them.(f.3)

The driverless machine is, of course, industrial capitalism. The invisible driver is in fact the urge to maximize profits and minimize costs. The biggest of these costs is you and me, the toilers whom capitalism calls 'labour'. So it searches out the cheapest labour it can find - these days largely in the South, which provides the majority of the world's industrial labour. …

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