[Paleopsych] John Rawlston Saul: Globalism has had its day, eh?

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John Rawlston Saul: Globalism has had its day, eh?
May 22, 2005. 01:00 AM

    Globalism has had its day, eh?
    John Ralston Saul calls us to reject consumerism; Philip Marchand is
    none the wiser

    The Collapse of Globalism:
    And the Reinvention of the World
    by John Ralston Saul
    Viking Canada, 309 pages, $36

    Near the beginning of his new book, The Collapse of Globalism: And the
    Reinvention of the World, John Ralston Saul quotes the 18th century
    philosopher Montesquieu: "Where there is commerce, people are better
    behaved." The remark is reminiscent of a similar comment by Samuel
    Johnson: "A man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is getting

    I'm not sure Saul entirely believes either man. I have a sneaking
    suspicion that Saul believes people are truly well behaved, and
    innocently employed, only when reading books such as The Collapse of
    Globalism. But Saul is not against commerce or even capitalism, as
    such -- throughout his book, in fact, he continually refers favourably
    to capitalists as opposed to "managers."

    What he is really opposed to is "globalism" -- a philosophy of
    international economic advancement through free trade, privatization
    of government enterprises, de-regulation, low taxes for business,
    high-tech agriculture and so on. Saul's book argues that globalism has
    had its day, chastened by failure to deliver the goods in Latin
    America, and by countries such as New Zealand and Malaysia, which have
    reversed earlier globalist policies.

    Before examining this argument, however, it is worthwhile to remember
    why globalism held such appeal in the '80s and '90s. V.S. Naipaul's
    1964 book, An Area of Darkness, described an India not only mired in
    terrible poverty but enchanted by a mystique of poverty, crippled by a
    caste system, sunk under the weight of a government bureaucracy
    embodied by an "Inspector of Forms and Stationery" Naipaul met on an
    Indian railway. He also described village tailors and other tradesmen
    who had not the remotest concept of service or quality of goods.

    It was globalism that promised to make that tailor behave better
    through real competition and real commerce. Saul excuses the stagnant,
    bureaucratic India portrayed by Naipaul: "What Western critics forget
    is that this relentlessly stable approach permitted Indians to catch
    their breath after the disorder and violence of independence."

    You can believe that if you want to. India is now booming, in part
    because much of the bureaucracy has been dismantled. In his most
    recent book about India, published in 1990, Naipaul was already noting
    signs of economic vitality and a new social freedom, complete with
    improved agriculture and housing.

    Saul, again, would not argue against economic progress or a basically
    free market economy, but he insists that India's new economic vitality
    is not due to pure globalism. India has unleashed entrepreneurial
    energies in its own distinctive fashion, complete with government
    directives, and the same is true for China. What Saul argues against
    is globalism's central thesis that "civilization should be seen
    through economics, and economics alone."

    Saul also opposes the corollary of that thesis, which is a belief in
    the unstoppable progress of technology. In so doing, Saul takes his
    place in a long line of fundamentally conservative critics of
    political economy, like the Victorian critic John Ruskin, who insisted
    that there was no wealth but life.

    "Is it possible that a sizable portion of our growth in trade relates
    not to a revival of capitalism, but to a decline into consumerism?"
    Saul asks rhetorically. "Note how many of the leading modern economic
    historians equate consumerism not with wealth creation and societal
    growth, but with inflation and the decline of citizenship. Why?
    Because there is a constant surplus of goods that relate neither to
    structural investment nor to a sense of economic value, let alone to
    societal value."

    This is classic Ruskin. "Wise consumption is a far more difficult art
    than wise production," the latter proclaimed. "Twenty people can gain
    money for one who can use it."

    So I think I know what Saul means in that paragraph. Yet there's a
    nagging lack of clarity. I'm never sure what the word "consumerism"
    really signifies. The only definition of consumerism I can think of is
    people buying stuff intellectuals have no use for. Socks and
    underwear, fine, but video games -- everybody knows they have no
    economic or social value. I guess that's what consumerism means. But
    then what causes a "decline into consumerism?"

    Many of Saul's rhetorical techniques leave me mildly puzzled. There is
    his habit of setting up good/bad dichotomies that are never completely
    explained -- "management" versus "leadership," for example, or
    "efficient" people versus "effective" people. He even differentiates
    between ethics and morality. "Those who preach Globalization can't
    seem to tell the difference between ethics and morality," he says
    impatiently. "Through ethics the health of the public good can be
    measured." On the other hand, "morality is a weapon of religious and
    social righteousness." This latter definition of morality seems to owe
    something to Nietzsche. Anyway, it's wrong.

    This is part of a larger problem of Saul's prose style, which I might
    almost say is moralistic, but which certainly takes an abstract and
    magisterial tone. What Saul wants to get across is very complex, and
    requires a very patient attempt to explain terms and give concrete
    examples and underline the logic of argument, and he just won't do
    that. The result is writing that is very hard to digest:

    "The technocratic approach to global warming simply ignores reality
    and replaces it with competing interests and an idea of proof that,
    because it is projected toward the past not the future, denies the
    central human capacity of prudence." Say again? To be fair, Saul did,
    in the previous sentence, define prudence as "the capacity to live in
    reality," and that helps a bit.

    The pity is that we all want some understanding of the world economic
    situation, and a lot of us who are a bit hazy on what hedge funds
    actually do are nonetheless prepared to grapple with the intricacies
    of international finance if clearly presented. For what it's worth, I
    agree with Saul on a number of his key points. I agree that the sheer
    size of large corporations has a stultifying effect on employees and

    I am heartened and intrigued by his portrait of a country such as
    Italy: "About 23 per cent of Italians work in companies with fewer
    than 10 employees," Saul writes. "The equivalent figure in Britain is
    7 per cent, in the United States 3 per cent." This is part of the
    reason why I'd rather be living in the town of Assisi right now than
    in Toronto, Liverpool or Houston.

    I also agree that there's something radically wrong with our public
    finances when government depends so hugely on gambling revenues, a
    form of taxation falling largely on the poorest and most vulnerable
    citizens. And I agree, of course, that there's more to civilization
    than gross domestic product (GDP).

    Unfortunately, I don't feel I have any deeper understanding of the
    post-globalism world than I did before reading this book.

    Toronto Star literary critic Philip Marchand appears weekly.

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