Departing Johannesburg International Airport for Maputo, I picked up a copy of Falling off the Edge: Globalisation, World Peace & Other Lies by James Perry, African Bureau Chief for Time Magazine. In the book, he argues compellingly for the simple conclusion that globalisation causes wars. Incidental to this is are some fascinating analyses of the causes of the rise of the new global left under the leadership of personalities such as Hugo Chavez, and the (argued) globalisation/economic roots of many of the developed world’s anti-western insurgencies – from the likes of the more populist Al Quaeda, to lesser known (in the developed West) groups such as the Shining Path and India’s Naxalites.
The simple argument, presented through numerous compelling examples from around the world, is that, for all the overall economic growth it brings, globalisation is causing two very undeniable effects. Firstly, it is making the world a more standardised, often western-influenced place – with the effect that local cultures of various sorts are being faced with a loss of identity, culture and (if you are an religious conservative) religion. Secondly, that the overall new wealth being generated is distributed hugely disproportionately, with millions remaining in grinding poverty for each new millionaire. What exacerbates the inequality is a world of global media which make it abundantly clear to the majority of the poor exactly what they are missing out on.
It is only inevitable, the argument runs, that in the first instance, the groups whose identities are being squeezed out will fight back. And in the second, that poverty, combined with desperation and the humiliation of exclusion from globalisation’s success wll lead inevitably to rage. Rage directed at the rich, to those on the extreme other end of the scale. And beyond, to the source of modern democratic capitalism, the West.
Particularly, Perry’s stories as a journalist in much of the developing world – the front line in globalisation’s spread – supports this thesis. It also forces the reader to ask whether we are willing to accept globalisation as an inevitable worldwide Darwinism, where to the victorious ideology and its footsoldiers (the new rich) goes the spoils, with the losers being obliterated or assimilated. Or whether, alternatively, we need to rethink the idea of global capitalism as the acceptable endpoint of human development, and look instead at whether other, more equitable systems might not be more fundamentally just.
One point that Perry makes, and which resonates, is that globalisation is not simply the abstract reality that we observe from our first world fortresses, made of axioms such as “India and China are rocketing into the first world” and “greater economic efficiency offers obvious net improvements to developing world societies”. The story of globalisation is, at least in the main, the story of the developing world – of rampant capitalism breaking apart social structures which were (comparatively) far more equal beforehand. And thatis a story of which we in the developed world are largely ignorant. Because we and our media don’t generally go there to find out.
It was serendipitous to read the book on arrival in Mozambique, and particularly to reflect on it as I relax for the morning in Vilanculos. Mozambique is Third World – with a capital T. And yet even here, amid hundreds of thatch houses and families eking out a subsistence living, rich South Africans and Mozambique elite are cherry picking the best for themselves. From the supermarkets with full South African inventories, unaffordable to the majority of the city, to the beachfront houses and hotels under construction for foreign tourists, there is a bubble of first world play and relaxation forming here, to which the average Mozambican is not invited. Sure, there are ancillary trickle-down benefits to the local community, but what part they play in this economy is largely supporting of the disparity of the few who sit at the top of the pile.
It’s not a question of “is it right” in any moral sense, since the preference of capitalism over more equitable systems can be persuasively argued for or against on both sides, depending on whether you are a beneficiary or a bystander, usually). It is more a question of whether it is tenable in the long term, as gross inequality leads to frustration, and frustration leads – across the world – to disharmony, to crime, to rebellion. And crying over millions of deaths and the hatred this stirred by globalisation in the western capitalist mould aside, it makes the overall goal of majority acceptance of the new world order impossible.
I had never really considered before how truly unworkable western democratic capitalism might be until now. But perhaps, just perhaps, we need to consider that unlike Fukuyama’s famous assertion that we had reached the end of history, we should instead be considering that something else can, and perhaps invariably must, replace the current world order. Good as it is for us, it is terribly unjust for far too many others. We just don’t happen to see them.