Globalisation and its (dis)contents

Globalisation is the big issue of the 21st century. Economics, politics, international relations, development, refugees, even HIV/Aids — all fall in to its shadow. No one can pretend it is not an important issue. And everyone has an opinion, ranging from demonisation to deification of what has also been called the “new world order” (or disorder). These books by John Pilger, Naomi Klein and Alan Shipman offer different perspectives on globalisation. For Pilger, the phenomenon of economic globalisation seems to a large degree subsumed under the rubric of United States imperialism. As the world’s superpower, the US simply does as it likes and regards the majority of humanity in the Third World as “unpeople”. The “liberal realism” of many political commentators in the West is simply a mask for old-fashioned imperialism with a bemused George W Bush stare (or a toothy Tony Blair smile).

The US’s foreign policy enforces politically the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, who in turn serve the interest of the “Great Powers” (or at least their elites).Pilger draws on a number of disturbing case studies. He gives an account of Indonesia, where resources where divided between foreign interest groups after the 1965/66 coup, itself engineered by US and British intelligence. The result was repression, torture and murder on a genocidal scale (500 000 to one million dead), the imposition of a sweatshop economy to benefit multinationals — and the representation to this day of Indonesia as a model of “structural adjustment”.

Elsewhere, any signs of independent socialist or social democratic thinking have been crushed. The CIA helped create the Mujahedin of Afghanistan to oust a reformist regime and then to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam. It helped create the roots of al-Qaeda. The US also backed Saddam Hussein for many years. Its post-1991 sanctions policy did nothing to remove Saddam but killed 500 000 children. Of the 250 000 Iraqi casualties in the 1991 Gulf War, 150 000 were civilians. Only 7% of bombs used were “smart” bombs; 70% of all bombs missed their target. Global terrorism, says Pilger, is the reaction of poor people against global domination. He concludes that if terrorism means invasions, engineered coups, state terror and aid to terrorists, the world’s greatest terrorist is the US.

State terrorism — or at least the repression of dissent through legislation, harassment and policing — is a subtext of Klein’s book. A collection of essays, it shows how resistance to economic globalisation has grown. Klein notes that the anti-globalisers are by no means Luddites, but themselves represent a different, healthier form of globalism — the globalisation of human solidarity, particularly through mass communication. Klein talks of state repression and media manipulation, showing how in many countries (including her native Canada) policing has become increasingly repressive and in violation of human rights statutes. In countries such as the US after September 11, human rights have been savagely eroded by security legislation.Klein’s strength lies in her passion and her hopefulness. The weakness of the book is that her material is sometimes repetitive.

The counterblast to Pilger and Klein comes from economist Shipman, who argues that economic globalisation is both inevitable and good. He rejects the notion that globalisation is uncontrolled rampant capitalism backed by force; instead, he says, it is still too tightly manipulated by governments and legislation. He argues for a freed-up international economy. It is a myth, he says, that globalisation inevitably destroys local cultures — multinational companies adapt themselves to the cultures they operate in, and the very notion of supra-nationality, being members of a global world, protects indigenous cultures from decline.Shipman’s radical case for globalisation is certainly provocative, and deserves careful thought. Yet one wonders whether his solution is feasible. George Soros, for one, has argued convincingly that unrestrained free-flowing capital without a certain degree of state regulation is potentially disastrous, in the long term, for the global capitalist system itself.

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