Globalization: Just Do It

By Assaf Sagiv

Does Nike make a better world?

In an unforgettable scene from the 1976 film Network, television news anchor Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is summoned to an urgent meeting with the head of a powerful corporation. The previous evening, Beale had exposed a deal the corporation had concocted with the Saudis, and demanded that America not sell out to the Arabs. Now, his superiors are intent on bringing him to heel. Beale soon finds himself seated in amassive conference room, lights dimmed ominously, face to face with the chairman of the board. The chairman’s voice thunders through the empty room:
You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear? You think you have merely stopped a business deal—that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity. It is ecological balance. You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians! There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels!… You get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T, and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.1
This dramatic speech, now a Hollywood classic, is as relevant today as it was when Network first appeared, nearly three decades ago. “Globalization” had not yet become the buzzword it is today, but the chairman’s rant employs all the clichés that have become inextricably associated with it. If anything, the picture this speech paints and the ideas it represents have become only more familiar with time: A new world order in which all-powerful, ruthless corporations hold sway; a global hegemony of capital oblivious to states and borders, with no ideology other than an insatiable greed which enslaves nations, eradicates cultures, tramples on the dignity of man, and squanders the planet’s resources—all in the name of supply and demand.
The apocalyptic dread of globalization has become for many people an article of faith. While the anti-globalization movement has only recently gained strength, it has managed to unite under its banner a large and enthusiastic mix of social activists, intellectuals, and public figures, all of whom are dedicated to waging an intense (and occasionally violent) campaign against the new order’s representatives, foremost among them international financial institutions, multi-national corporations, and the politicians who are perceived as catering to them.2 A series of anti-globalization demonstrations held in Seattle in 1999 infused the movement with a new energy, a momentum that soon garnered widespread support around the world.3 The journalist Paul Kingsnorth, who has studied the anti-globalization phenomenon from its beginnings, has called it “a global network of millions; one that has fused together in a remarkably short time and which has regularly outfoxed the forces of the Establishment. It is the biggest story of the age, the biggest political and social movement for generations; perhaps the biggest ever. And it wants to change the world.”4
Thus has the anti-globalization trend become one of the dominant public movements of recent years. It should be noted, however, that many of the movement’s activists reject this label; the linguist and radical intellectual Noam Chomsky, for example, explains that, “No sane person is opposed to globalization, surely not the Left or the workers’ movements, which were founded on the commitment to international solidarity—that is, a form of globalization that is concerned with the rights and needs of people, not private capital.”5 Even the most ardent critics of globalization—on the Left, at any rate—do not reject the aspiration to establish an international community as such; in fact, this aspiration is perfectly compatible with the cosmopolitan ideal they espouse. Rather, it is the way in which the global economy has developed that is not to their liking: Instead of creating a supra-national, distributive system of justice—a kind of global welfare state—nations and international institutions have pinned their hopes on an elusive free market, condemning the underprivileged to a life of serfdom in the service of rich Western capitalists.
This would indeed be a horrifying state of affairs, if it were real. The facts, however, seem to indicate otherwise. A careful examination of the facts shows that the most strident criticism against the spread of international trade is grounded in distortions, half-truths, and exaggerations. There is little truth to the claim that the global market economy has brought about the oppression of poorer countries and populations around the globe; on the contrary, the evidence seems to suggest that it actually improves their lot both economically and societally, and makes available to them political and cultural possibilities that were, until recently, well beyond their reach.
In what follows, I will address three central questions concerning the effects of globalization. First, I will revisit the evidence showing the crucial contribution of the global market economy to closing the gap between rich nations and developing ones, enabling hundreds of millions of people to escape poverty and to join the ranks of an expanding global middle class. Second, I will examine the impact of globalization on national sovereignty, with the aim of showing that, contrary to alarmist rhetoric, the sovereign state is still alive and well, and in fact continues to play a central role in the global order. Finally, I will attempt to demonstrate the positive influence consumer culture has on the political awareness of the masses. The combined effect of these phenomena has decisive and far-reaching implications for the future of humanity in the next century, because it lays the foundations for the expansion of the democratic system and its core values well beyond the political and cultural boundaries of the Western nations to which it has been confined until now. Thus, even if globalization does provide businesses with an extraordinary opportunity—and there is no doubt that it does—it also provides billions of people with something of far greater value: A life of greater dignity, prosperity, and even freedom.

On paper, the word “globalization” does not seem so menacing. In dry terms, it denotes a process of international, multi-faceted cooperation that accelerates the integration of the world system by enabling the free movement of goods, services, information, and personnel between countries.6 The result, according to sociologist Roland Robertson, is a “compression of the world” and an “awareness of the world as a whole”;7 in other words, the formation of a “global village.”8
But associated with the word “globalization” is a popular myth according to which the process it denotes is responsible for widening the gap between rich countries and poor ones. Some of its critics further view it as a more subtle reincarnation of old-style Western imperialism.9 The renowned investor George Soros, for example, adopts this view. “The empire analogy is justified,” he writes, “because the global capitalist system does govern those who belong to it—and it is not easy to opt out. Moreover, it has a center and a periphery just like an empire, and the center benefits at the expense of the periphery.”10 The “center” to which Soros refers is the financial elite of the United States, Europe, and Japan, an elite that generates enormous profits by employing cheap labor from developing countries. This exploitation, it is argued, works only to the advantage of those who control the means of production; the masses in their service must subsist on meager wages and endure grim working conditions. According to this view, globalization therefore means increased global inequality. In the words of Egyptian economist Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum, “Over the last two hundred years the spread of capitalism has created inequalities and a level of polarization that were unknown during the preceding three centuries. This phenomenon is so enormous that it cannot be ignored, and it must be placed at the center of the analysis of contemporary society.”11
The arguments of the anti-globalists reflect a deep moral conviction, and a praiseworthy concern for the well-being of the poor. Yet they are not grounded in facts. One need only look to a number of economic studies which roundly refute any claims of increased economic disparity stemming from global trade. World Bank researchers David Dollar and Aart Kraay, for example, discovered that a long-term international trend towards greater inequality indeed prevailed for at least two centuries, but since this trend reached its peak in 1975, it has “stabilized and possibly even reversed.”12 Another study conducted by Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin used a wider base of data and seven different indices to show that according to conventional economic assessments, global income disparities have declined substantially during the last two decades.13 In other words, the rise of the global economy over the last two decades has coincided with a decrease in economic inequality around the world—the only such decrease in modern history.

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