[Paleopsych] Sunday Times: Paul Kennedy on The Collapse of Globalism by John Ralston Saul

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Paul Kennedy on The Collapse of Globalism by John Ralston Saul
    May 22, 2005

    Current affairs: The Collapse of Globalism by John Ralston Saul
    THE COLLAPSE OF GLOBALISM: And the Reinvention of the World
    by John Ralston Saul
    Atlantic £16.99 pp309

    Most readers will know the apocryphal Indian story about a group of
    blind sages being brought to feel the various parts of an elephant and
    then to describe what it is they are feeling. One savant strokes the
    elephant's rough leg and declares it must be a tree, another feels the
    tail and insists it is a snake, and so on. None of them can comprehend
    the totality of the beast.

    Most scholars examining today's volatile political and economic
    circumstances resemble those India sages in that they -- and I plead
    guilty here -- focus upon one particular part of the story and tend to
    ignore (or at least downplay) the others. Some assemble facts to prove
    that China is an enormous investment opportunity; others contend that
    it is a vast and growing military threat. Certain scientists warn us
    that we are on the brink of ecological collapse, but their
    conservative critics declare the evidence to be too murky to tell.
    What is the poor layman to do?

    Nowhere does our present intellectual Tower of Babel appear more in
    contention and confusion than in regard to the matter of
    globalisation. This is no mere academic dogfight, because entire
    political parties, indeed whole countries, have seized upon the
    question of whether the completely free exchange of goods, capital,
    ideas and people is a benefit -- or a deadly threat.

    There are few middle-of-the-road voices to be heard here. Egged on,
    one suspects, by their publishers, authors participating in this
    debate tend to advance a more extreme -- or, shall we say, more
    dramatic -- picture of events. Just recently, the foreign-affairs
    correspondent of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, published his
    new book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Globalised World in
    the 21st Century. Deeply impressed by the communications revolution
    and the free flow of capital, and reinforced by interviews with
    high-tech entrepreneurs from Boston to Bangladesh, Friedman argued
    that globalisation is intensifying, making societies ever more "flat"
    -- that is, conforming more and more to free-market western practices.

    This debate is now joined by the Canadian philosopher John Ralston
    Saul, with The Collapse of Globalism. Saul has written various books
    of fiction as well as non-fiction, and he brings a great breadth of
    literary and cultural knowledge to his task. But he has his own axe to
    grind in this debate over globalism, and his own arguments to advance.

    The reader would be wise to ignore the dust-jacket blurb:
    "Globalisation, like many great geopolitical ideologies before it, is
    now dead." The author is not that crude. He recognises some of the
    trends that Friedman celebrates, that is, that software engineers in
    Bangalore and female assembly-workers in a Motorola plant in Thailand
    are earning 10 times more than their parents could ever hope to bring
    home. Saul knows that there are significant winners in this tale.

    But his story is about the losers or, better put, about the backlash
    against globalism and globalisation. And he is striving, yearning,
    faltering and then rising to find what Hans Kung, the great German
    theologian, described as a "global ethic" to help us pick our way
    through the debris of the 21st century. The Collapse of Globalism is
    an angry and, I think, an unbalanced book, for the same yet opposite
    reasons as Friedman's. Each is groping a particular part of our
    elephant of globalism. For his part, Saul sees, not the "flattening"
    of our world, but the increasing storms and dislocations, and the
    increasingly powerful movements and protests against unbridled
    capitalism, especially in the developing world. And he means to
    frighten the reader, not only to his point of view, but to take
    action. This is a sort of manifesto, rather like Rachel Carson's The
    Silent Spring, or Donella and Dennis Meadows's Club of Rome report,
    The Limits to Growth.

    There is much that I like about this indignant approach, and there is
    much evidence to support Saul's contention that things are going badly
    wrong with our planet, its economic and social systems and its
    environment. Should the reader peruse a book such as Dominique
    Reperant's wonderful photographic work, The Most Beautiful Villages of
    France, he or she would find breathtaking images, but one thing comes
    to mind: there are few people, except for the ancient women and
    bent-over veterans. The modern world has sucked the populations out of
    such rural, pre-industrial and pre-high-tech communes. The same is
    true in the broad plains of Nebraska, where only the two cities of
    Omaha and Lincoln survive, and where rural folk are resigned to
    driving 75 miles to a supermarket. If they can pay for the petrol.
    These are not pleasant sights and, so far, only a few regions have
    found a way to cope with this implosion. And the Wal-Mart revolution
    marches on.

    Meanwhile, far from "old" Europe, the backlash against globalism has
    intensified. This is not just in depressed, poverty-stricken countries
    in the developing world. One of Saul's more interesting discussions,
    in chapter 22, is how New Zealand flipped from being the "model" of
    Cobdenite free-market success to a nation riven by economic crisis --
    and how it has now begun to recover from that crisis with a return to
    a mixed economy, recognising where the state has a role to play in
    providing for the basic needs of its citizens. The Adam Smith
    societies of the world will go nuts at this. And it is unlikely that
    Klaus Schwab and the governors of the World Economic Forum at Davos
    will welcome Saul's description of their orchestration of enthusiastic
    globalism each year.

    But the author's chief indignation is arrayed at what is happening in
    the poorer parts of the world today -- malnutrition, Aids, abuse of
    human rights, gross distortions of income, dreadful examples of child
    labour, widespread ecocide, corrupt governments in cahoots with
    fantastically rich multi-national corporations whose fat-cat
    executives earn ever-higher bonuses even as they shift their
    production facilities to cheap-labour countries and fire their own
    workers. It is a sort of old Socialist Workers' guide to the planet.
    Anecdote is piled upon anecdote, and statistic upon statistic. It is
    like being raked by a full broadside from HMS Victory.

    Saul's counterblast to globalisation's cheerleaders is a healthy one.
    On the whole, I incline to his worries rather than to "the world is
    flat" optimism. There is a lot of evidence that societies old and new,
    north and south, are responding with anger to the acquisitiveness of
    Wall Street and the cheerful forecasts of the Chicago School of
    Economics. But the tone of this book is a little too breathless, it
    rushes from one fact to another, and awards itself (especially in the
    conclusion) too much importance. This is not the modern-day equivalent
    of Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace; would that it were.
    And it will not sell well in Bangalore.

[The continuation of the article. It was three printed pages in Lynx, but only 
one paragraph of text!]

    Saul is certainly no fan of the World Economic Forum at Davos, which
    this year featured Bono, discussing Africa with Tony Blair and Bill
    Gates. "Just as classic plays with kings, virgins, love and betrayal
    must have their fool," he sniffs, "so globalisation has Davos."

    Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University and the author
    of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and Preparing for the 21st
    Century. The Collapse of Globalism is available at the Sunday Times
    Books First price of £13.59 plus £2.25 p&p on 0870 165 8585

    READ ON...

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