Many anti-globalization interests, Jay Walljasper writes in the latest Utne Reader, have coalesced in the belief that growing poverty, environmental destruction and social breakdown, with continuing bloodshed seen around the world, are the direct results of an international political and economic system that places most of the world's wealth and power in the hands of unaccountable and powerful corporations. "To these activists," writes Walljasper, "a new era of global peace and justice can be achieved by reinvigorating local communities and creating a new international system that promotes cooperation over competition."
Sounds great. In fact, it sounds like the early Wired Magazine manifestos about the Net, some of which I wrote. But would such a system work? Even if it did, who would pay for it and maintain it? And who will curb those corporations whose economic, lobbying and political power far outstrips any of those groups protesting their existence? Why would citizens in the west pay to "reinvigorate" local communities elsewhere and create a new international system? Globalism thrives on the contributions of corporations who want to profit from it, not from the efforts of governments or civic groups advancing democratic ideals.
The idea that globalism could even bolster those ideals is a view not widely held by fundamentalists or by certain educated elites in Europe and the United States. The institutions that to most minds represent the global economy -- the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization -- have become reviled and distrusted in these circles, their meetings developing into bloody standoffs. Political leaders in economically-advanced countries can no longer meet to talk about trade or economic issues without sparking riots.
The protesters opposing them represent a variety of causes, from the loss of good domestic jobs to the lowering of global wages to denouncing sweatshops to decrying environmental desctruction. They have quieter allies, too; even in prosperous Western economies, support for trade liberalization has declined and governments are accused of caving in to business interests. Liberal politicians from Bill Clinton to Britain's Tony Blair have expressed puzzlement and frustration at this sometimes anarchic, unthinking political fury; they claim such organizations are vital if wealth, technology and economic opportunity ever gets equitably distributed around the world.
Moreover, an editorial in the Economist magazine argues that anti-business protesters have their arguments upside down -- with genuinely dangerous consequences for the sometimes just causes they hope to advance. On the whole, says the Economist, stricter regulation of international business won't reduce profits. "What it may well do, though, by disabling markets in their civilizing role, is to give companies new opportunities to make even bigger profits at the expense of society at large." Companies pressured to increase wages will simply move, close overseas plants or charge more, thus make more profits. Afterwards, "The companies, having shafted their third world competition and protected their domestic markets, count their bigger profits (higher wage costs notwithstanding). And the third world workers displaced from locally-owned factories explain to their children why the West's new deal for the victims of capitalism requires them to starve."
If you follow these violent and confusing protests -- many now organized online -- you get the impression that some of these demonstrators confuse globalism with corporatism, since large companies are among the most vocal advocates of globalism and so far are its primary beneficiaries. The trappings of corporatism -- using technologies to create low wages and new markets, while suppressing individual enterprise and distinctive cultures -- have already encircled the world. McDonald's is much more symbolic of globalism than a small village in India getting wired for the Net, even though the latter may ultimately be more significant. And many political scientists equate Afghanistan's poverty, political extremism and instability to the fact that globalization hasn't yet reached the country.
The world's biggest companies sometimes appear more powerful than the world's biggest governments. (Microsoft's long and successful battle with the U.S. Justice Department is a good case in point). In the United States, they control our media and popular culture and are the primary contributors to the political system. Their lobbyists are the single most influential political force in Washington.
It's not surprising that many people feel instrinsically uncomfortable with globalism. Humanists aren't the spokespeople for globalization -- economic interests are. Corporations appear to be unchecked, and corporations have little inate social responsibility. They exist to generate profits, not advance social agendas or protect the environment, so they inevitably spark enormous resentment in foreign cultures whose citizens want jobs but are then puzzled by their own resulting lack of prosperity. These foreign workers also find that new globalizing technologies undermine their own national identities and religious and political values, all increasingly subsumed by the homogenized Disneyfication and Wal-Marting of the world that has swallowed up U.S. popular culture and countless small business, from pharmacies to family farms. The U.S. comes to seem like a remote, sometimes monstrous, always greedy and insensitive force.
But Giddens argues that democracy -- and the globalism inextricably linked with it -- is the most powerful emerging idea of the 21st century. Few states in the world don't call themselves democratic now, even when they aren't, like China and North Korea. In fact, the only countries are explicitly refer to themselves as non-democratic are the remaining semi-feudal monarchies or fundamentalist entities -- Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria.
Democracy's spread has now in fact created a bloody confrontation with fundamentalism, a holy war. Both sides refer to one another in evil blasphemers. Lost in this confrontation is the idea that Democracy isn't only about multi-national markets, cheap labor and business opportunities. It's about the liberation of information, freedom of religious and cultural choice, and a brorader value system with a complex civic structure. Yet another good reason why multinationals ought not to appear more powerful than governments (they aren't) and become the sole face and voice of globalization.