Is the Crisis Good for Globalisation?
The recession that has left so many disillusioned with economic orthodoxy that it may give rise to a better alternative
In the heady days of 2003, before most of the world had heard of such things as credit-default swaps and banks "too big to fail", I was an undergraduate student at a prominent liberal arts university in Washington DC. In the spring semester of my junior year, I recall enrolling in a mandatory course on world politics, the main goal of which was analysing the relationships between state and non-state actors in an increasingly globalised world.
As part of the course, the whole class, about 40 students in all, was divided into four groups: "terrorists", "law enforcement", "globalisers", and "anti-globalisers". Each group was then tasked with putting together a detailed strategic plan for how it would attain its stated objectives and measure success.
Thus, over the course of the semester, "terrorists" plotted the most practical methods to undermine western democracies; "law enforcement" agents put together a plan for combating the terrorist scourge; and "globalisers" advanced an agenda of continued neoliberal free market expansion.
For me and my fellow "anti-globalisers", however, it was clear that a more difficult task lay ahead. One must recall that we were the generation that came of age after the end of the cold war; when history had apparently "ended" and the dominance of the American political and economic model was perceived as not only unchallengeable in ideological terms, but inevitable.
Our group quickly realised that any full-frontal assault on globalisation would degenerate into cliched Marxist critiques of globalised capitalism. For mainstream, well-adjusted American students born under Reagan and studying in Washington, there could be nothing worse than having to make a vaguely leftist argument against the prevailing orthodoxy - it felt too much like the 60s of the anachronistic east-west divide and, worse, of our parents.
So we "anti-globalisers" took a different tack. We would not set out to undermine globalisation per se, but rather try to make it more equitable, just, and, above all, sustainable. We were all for shrinking the distances and barriers between people and economies, but not at the expense of social justice and common decency.
As one can imagine, we lost. Despite an avalanche of evidence indicating that the gulf between the rich and the poor - inside states just as much as between states - was actually increasing, it was simply too big a leap for most in the class to critique the entire system. What was clear to those ill-served by the unfettered advance of hyper-capitalism - globalisation's "discontents," in economist Joseph Stiglitz's phrase - was not so obvious to us sitting in its epicenter. (After all, it was called the "Washington Consensus" for a reason.)
Indeed, I recall my professor quizzing us as to how exactly we would know when the tide had turned on the current incarnation of globalisation, thereby vindicating our strategy. Our response: When those in the developing world became politically aware that the system was untenable, and demanded a change. This was a lame and romanticised answer, of course.
But fast-forward six years, and it doesn't seem so crazy. Brazil's President Lula made headlines recently when he criticised the west for causing the present economic crisis, declaring that it "was encouraged by the irrational behavior of white people with blue eyes, who before the crisis appeared to know everything, but are now showing that they know nothing".
The New York Times described the situation more diplomatically: "In the past, American officials traveled to India, Brazil, China and South Africa and lectured government officials on the need for open markets, free trade and deregulation. But now some of those very policies - particularly deregulation - are viewed as the culprits for the recent economic collapse." Another New York Times piece stated simply: "Anglo-American Capitalism on Trial".
However, itis telling that we anti-globalisers failed to imagine a scenario where even at the core of the system, discontent would reach a tipping point. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, might have been expected to call for the "moralisation of financial capitalism" and the "refoundation of a better regulated capitalism....which would put an end to the excesses and abuses". But it was Barack Obama who in a recent press conference called for an end to the "illusion of wealth" and "narrow prosperity," and touted "broad economic growth" as an integral part of the "wider set of obligations we have to each other".
Obama, though, was simply echoing public opinion. A Rasmussen poll from last week clearly shows that an unprecedented shift has taken place, with capitalism and socialism essentially dividing the loyalties of American adults under the age of 30. Overall, only 53% of Americans preferred capitalism to socialism.
It's a damning indictment of what has gone on these past few decades that not only the developing world, but the west and America, too, now feel badly served by what was previously considered an inevitability. The uncertainty people currently feel is due not only to lost jobs, eviscerated retirement savings, and ballooning national debts. Rather, it's their ongoing disillusionment with much of what they previously believed to be "true".
Among the many casualties of our present economic crisis, ideology is arguably the most overlooked and, at the same time, the most consequential. The underlying mode of thought upon which globalisation's various political and economic models were based has been badly shaken. While socialism itself is probably not the answer, it's clear that in ideological terms a more egalitarian, socially responsible, and sustainable form of capitalism needs to be promoted. If my old college course were offered today, it's clear that the "anti-globalisers" would have a much easier time of it than we did. As even Time magazine asked: "The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?"
The broader question might be whether this crisis is actually good for globalisation. If a decent ideological alternative is found to replace the excesses of its predecessor, then there should be cause for hope. If not, there are other ideological alternatives lurking, preparing to give new and sinister meaning to the prefix "anti".
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited