Economic globalization and its discontents

The world's most powerful businessmen were represented at the meeting in New York City in early February. The World Economic Forum, which usually meets in Davos, Switzerland, claims some 3,000 corporations and its members are, by definition, gurus of economic globalization. Several blocks away, 4,000 police carefully kept protesters in check. Protesters, in these circumstances, tend to validate the importance of the event in the eyes of the crusaders of commerce. In recent years, when movers and shakers gather to discuss and plot the future of the world, protesters are an almost necessary part of the mix in democratic countries. When they want privacy, there are plenty of totalitarian countries more than happy to host their meetings.

This time, because of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the discussions centered more than usual on credible threats to the safety of the assembly, the world economy, even Western Civilization. The old sense of security had been shattered. If nineteen fanatics armed with a few hundred thousand dollars could wreak such havoc, anything seemed possible. And the possibilities were ominous: anthrax, smallpox, poisons in the water supply, an attack on a nuclear power plant, the further slide of the Euro, eminent failure of Japanese banks, the fear a small nuclear device could be smuggled into a major American city and other possible horrors. The question in the air was: Why would anyone do anything like this, and what are they going to try to do next?

For the most part, the mainstream American media does little to shed light on this kind of meeting or the issues discussed here. The media is accused of focusing its energies on mindless celebrity trivia and regularly wastes more ink and paper describing Julia Roberts' latest dress than on the debate about how much government regulation is the right amount. This latter topic ? government regulation ? is exactly what the World Economic Forum has been talking about during the last eight-plus decades since the Russian Revolution of 1917 ended the previous global economy.

There are extremists on both ends: people who desire full regulation are called socialists. Those who want no regulations support "free trade" or capitalist imperialism depending on one's political position. Full regulation was what happened in the managed economies of the former Soviet bloc and is out of fashion, for the most part, around the world. "Free trade," the kind in which there is no regulation, does not exist and has never existed, but its advocates have an almost religious zeal about it.

The market is described by free market zealots as a kind of force in nature, an intelligence capable of solving all problems if only it could be left to its own devices. One of its ideologues was Friedrich Hayek, whose The Road to Serfdom inspired the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions which, among other things, described government regulations of commerce as threats to freedom and democracy. The zealots don't talk very much about how the vagaries of the marketplace can be dramatically unfair or how such economies create ever widening disparities in wealth between rich and poor or, for that matter, how the market can be harnessed for progressive purposes or what can be done when the market produces undesirable results. They also tend to be oblivious to the fact that politics and military force have played an essential role in the creation and sustenance of global market economies. Governments do not merely regulate. Sometimes they facilitate asset acquisitions and sometimes they use debt to coerce favorable trade agreements.

Since its inception, the world economy has been an unrelenting engine of change that has challenged and eroded traditional (previously existing) social orders and has swept them contemptuously aside. In sixteenth-century England, for example, an enclosure movement created by market opportunities and enabled by political changes transformed rural England from a populous to a nearly depopulated place, removing peasants who had husbanded the land for centuries. This was an early chapter in what became an economic globalization movement that produced economic winners and losers around the world and continues to do so.

In Latin America the cities are swelling with people who are economic and political refugees from the countryside, driven to the cities by falling agricultural prices. Stories are heard from around the world about the collapse of rural life. The United States has spent months bombing Afghanistan to rid it of the Taliban, but what is to be the fate of the 80 percent of its population who are small agriculturists? To such questions the purveyors of the global economy have no positive answers because to them such people are expendable ? inefficient market sectors face extermination. They have no adequate understanding that what is being lost here is not merely a faceless economic sector but part of the collective human heritage which is revered and loved and, yes, idealized by millions.

The global economy, in its rhetoric and in its behavior, renders traditional economies irrelevant and expendable and in their destruction paves the way for the growth of hunger and misery. It is this almost scornful treatment of human cultures which cannot survive under the new rules that creates contradictions even in countries which have both great reserves of natural resources and strong adherence to tradition. In these countries, rich and poor alike resent the pressures and political climates created by globalization.

The way the economic agenda is pushed forward is no secret. The largest and best-funded bureaucracy in the U.S. government is the Department of Defense. The second largest is the Department of Agriculture. These two departments represent the perceived overseas agenda involving the use of armed force to promote and protect "national interests" ? oil and exports. The attacks of September 11 were aimed at these symbols. It was no accident the targets were the Pentagon, symbol of American military power, and the World Trade Center.

There is no compelling reason the industrialized countries of the world must continue to promote practices and policies that will undermine the traditional self-sufficiency of countries around the world. The disappearance of small shops and growers in rural and semi-rural countries could be seen as an undesirable consequence of growth and steps could be taken to reverse it. The West (and this is shorthand for the economic globalization process) could re-evaluate its perceived contempt for peoples who prefer to live beyond its reach.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.