The project of economic globalization is much more complex than many
understand it to be. It is not merely the lowering of tariffs to make a
level playing field for international commerce. It is, as practiced by the
World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and U.S. foreign policy, a plan
to coerce all nations of the world into behaviors which were once easily
identified as markers of colonialism.
For example, "structural adjustment" is a term used to describe the kinds
of measures debtor countries are encouraged, or forced, to adopt by the
World Bank and the IMF. These amount to shifting resources away from public
benefit programs such as food subsidies and health programs to concentrate
on debt reduction. In other words, poor countries are encouraged -- indeed
coerced -- into giving up food and medicine so they can use the money to
pay debts owed to foreign banks.
Often the foreign debts were incurred when some regime borrowed money to
build infrastructure -- roads, pipelines, power lines -- to facilitate
natural resources extraction which was, in turn, being developed by foreign
interests. Sometimes that money was diverted -- as in embezzled, stolen,
appropriated -- by people in the regime.
There are many and complex ways countries get into debt, but the ideology
behind globalization involves exploiting these debts to advance
international capitalism and (mostly) American cultural hegemony. The
advice that accompanies the conditions for loan extensions includes such
things as encouraging people to speak English, the international language
of commerce. The problem is, many poor countries have populations to which
English is no advantage.
The debtor countries are encouraged to sell all assets, including natural
resources such as gas or oil, forests or mineral rights, to outside
investors. This is privatization to the advantage of foreigners.
Defenders of globalization like to point to the fact that in the search for
the cheapest labor, corporations sometimes build plants which bring jobs to
already desperately poor people who must now labor without unions,
environmental protections, or any kind of legal rights. It is said, and in
some anecdotal settings it is true, that some individuals are better off.
But the costs are usually unemphasized, and the threats to the whole
society are ignored in these accounts.
The mythology that surrounds capitalism is that it grew organically as
production, demand and wages fluctuated according to the rules of the
market. Historical globalization, as distinct from capitalism, was a
product of the British Parliament in the 19th century during a period of
military expansion and colonization. It was heavily subsidized, even
ordered, by the state. This included the use of powers of enclosure at home
and military coercion abroad. When those in power wanted something, they
found a way to take it. Without the power of the state wielded in the
interests of the investor class combined with overseas use of military
coercion, the kind of globalization that emerged in the 19th century is
One aspect of this ambitious project was then, and is now, the
privatization of the commons. The commons in England was rapidly turned
over to men of commerce who built sheep ranches on land formerly used by
peasants to grow food. The displaced English peasants were recruited to
jobs overseas and in factories at home; and ever since then, historians and
economic philosophers have asserted that this was a happy ending. (Let's
call this the British consensus on globalization and empire-building.) It
also enriched the rich, impoverished the poor, and set into motion
ecological transformations the world has come to regret. Workers benefited
to the extent labor movements were able to demand better wages and
We are now seeing how this great contradiction of privileging the few at
the expense of the many is played out in democracies. In Latin America,
huge movements of the underprivileged are re-exploring versions of
socialism that are defined as anything but the Washington consensus on
globalization. The neoconservative vision that wealth can be created by
reducing and/or eliminating social services while creating profitable
investment opportunities for foreign investors -- the kind of model imposed
on Latin American countries in recent years -- has proved both undesirable
and impractical. Now that the United States is distracted by the war in
Iraq, societies as different as Argentina and Venezuela are in full
defiance of the Washington consensus because they understand it doesn't
work for them.
Indigenous peoples have led the way to roll back this war against the poor.
The first, in this modern context, were the Zapatistas of Mexico. Mexico
has been a particularly abused victim of neoconservative economics, and the
Indians are among the most acute sufferers. It is no exaggeration to state
that neoconservative economic policy has served to destabilize Mexico
politically and the Zapatista movement was explicit in its assertion that
globalization was at the root of Mexico's problems. They were right. And in
Bolivia, large grass-roots movements were energized when an American
company tried to privatize all the water in a small city there. Since then,
the mass movement has continued to be energized, and at the end of 2005 it
helped elect an indigenous man, Evo Morales, as president.
American apologists are painting the Bolivia story as one dominated by
cocaine, but it is also dominated by a globalization program which is
threatening that country's small farmers, just as it threatens small
farmers in other countries and uses the powers of the state to force
"reforms" which will lead to the local farmers' demise. Whatever its
merits, one of the consequences of globalization, especially in
democracies, is the rise of grass-roots movements opposing its imposition.
Three books, each from an author with a distinct perspective, can help
those interested in the misguided dilemma of neoconservative economic
policy and U.S. foreign policy. Richard Douthwaite's "The Growth Illusion:
How Economic Growth Has Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and
Endangered the Planet" takes issue with the consensus in Western culture
that economic growth, as measured by economists, is a desirable thing.
Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in economics, worked in the Carter
administration and served as chief economist at the World Bank, explains
that the Washington consensus on globalization is not working in a landmark
book, "Globalization and its Discontents." John Gray, an important
political thinker in the Thatcher administration and an intellectual of
Britain's New Right, argues that the globalization project has never worked
for the betterment of societies, and won't work now in an insightful
volume, "False Dawn: The Delusion of Global Capitalism."
John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an associate
professor of American studies and director of Indigenous studies at the
State University of New York at Buffalo.