[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
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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