RM Issue #030805
Too much theatre, too little debate
Aug. 3, 2003
The anti-globalization protesters in Montreal badly missed the chance to make their case. While they shouted about the evils of the global economy — "sweatshops," "corporate imperialism," "cultural genocide," and the rest — all of this has been entirely negative. Instead, they ought to have cited as role models those countries that have completely turned their backs upon the global economy. Two such poster nations for the anti-globalization movement come immediately to mind. North Korea for one. Burma for the other. Both function entirely outside the global economy, not merely in terms of almost no trade and incoming investment, but equally in terms of no cultural and political contact with the outside world, with foreign publications and broadcasts banned, and with almost no visitors allowed in to contaminate the people. These two countries, and a few others such as Iraq, while run by Saddam Hussein, and Cuba (in part there because of the U.S. embargo), are as close as it's possible to get to fulfilling the anti-globalizers' dream. Except that everywhere that dream is actually applied, the result is a nightmare of economic backwardness and political repression. I'm mocking of course. But only to show the complexity of the issue. (One example of global complexity: Canada has an exceptionally generous immigration program, except to poor countries, which have to watch many of their best brains drained away here.) In Montreal last week, anti-globalizers again harassed a meeting of the World Trade Organization. If their purpose was to draw media attention to themselves, they succeeded. If their purpose was to get a public debate started about globalization, they failed miserably. Street theatre and the occasional outburst of violence attract the media, but no one interested in a real debate. This is what is so maddening about the anti-globalization movement. It's trivialized an important topic. An argument can be made that the anti-globalizers have a good case to make. Almost 1 in 2 people around the world — 3 billion — struggle by on less than $2 a day. About a quarter — 1.5 billion — have no access to clean water. The poor are getting poorer. The United Nations calculates that 55 countries are now experiencing actual economic regression, or deepening poverty. And there are psychic, as well as economic, costs to globalization. British political scientist John Gray has written, "The ideal of a universal civilization is a recipe for unending conflict, a sense of injustice and a genuine rejection of Western modernization." As good an argument can be made, though, that globalization benefits most countries and most people. Globalization, or modernization, can be hard on underdeveloped societies. But it does eventually spread wealth around. The proportion of absolute poverty around the world is declining. Global unemployment is down to 780 million from 820 million a decade ago, despite population growth. Nor are all the poor getting poorer while the rich get richer (as they are). Average incomes in China, which were one-19th those of Americans in 1975, had climbed to one-sixth by 1995, and have since further closed the gap. Countries that once were poor, like Singapore and South Korea, are now at the top income levels. If they can succeed, so can others. Globalization isn't necessarily evil, any more than it is necessarily benign. Rather, its cardinal characteristic is that it is random — some nations do well, like China and to a lesser extent India, while others are left in the dust. Often, the cause of hardship is entirely local in origin — especially bad (repressive, corrupt) governments and ethnic conflicts. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, the principal factor slicing down economic and social standards is AIDS, which has nothing to do with globalization. The problems of globalization, thus, aren't so much general as particular. One of the most serious problems, which gets drowned out by all the anti- globalization shouting, is that the wealthy nations keep poor nations down by subsidies and protectionism. Agriculture is the worst example. It's been estimated by the World Bank that if developed countries stopped subsidizing their farmers, African countries would gain $30 billion in exports and foreign exchange by 2005. The WTO is now engaged in a trade liberalization round. Key items on its agenda are agricultural subsidies, as well as drug patents. Suspicion about the intentions of the wealthy nations — the U.S., Europe, Japan, get the most blame, but others, like Canada hide behind them — are well merited. But the protests and the violence turn everyone's attention away from substance to theatre. Which is exactly what vote-seeking Western politicians and multinational corporations want. The real indictment of the anti-globalists is that they're doing the job of those who want to do nothing.
Richard Gwyn's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. gwynR@sympatico.ca.