Cultural Effects of Economic Globalization
by Jay Walljasper
Are you nervous that fierce economic competition may force your employer to slash jobs or relocate overseas? Do you worry that your kids spend too much time absorbed in the violent, flashing images of television and video games? Have you watched small shops and businesses in your neighborhood go broke as commerce flows toward mammoth superstores on the edge of town?
Has your hometown recently turned harder-edged, with more crime, more poverty, and less confidence that we can do anything about these problems? Does your life seem to move at a faster and faster and more uncomfortable pace? Is it your perception that no matter how hard you try you always wind up feeling poorer, fatter, drabber, less sexy, less happy, and less fully alive than the people portrayed in advertisements?
If so, you're not alone. Almost six billion people on the planet feel much the same way.
All these fears and frustrations, mingled with a growing uneasiness about the state of the world's environment, work to undermine everyone's sense of well-being. Accompanying all this is a mounting sense of pessimism about our prospects for changing the course of modern civilization. The only thing it seems that we can do is busily prepare ourselves for even more social upheaval as the world enters a new century.
Yet according to more than 1,500 environmentalists, organizers, academics, economists, and activists from five continents who gathered recently at a conference at Columbia University, these problems are not inevitable nor unassailable. We can succeed in challenging and overturning these social and economic trends, especially if we understand them all as part of the same problem: the widespread effects of economic globalization.
Globalization, in the eyes of participants at the Teach-In sponsored by International Forum on Globalization, is not the latest phase of human progress but rather an ideology imposed on the world by transnational corporations and their followers in governments and universities. These forces have elevated theories about market economics, free trade, consumer choice, and economic "efficiency" to the level of a religion — indeed, to the level of scientific fact, akin to the laws of physics — because it boosts their profits and expands their political control.
This is all happening at the expense of local communities around the planet, which no longer can provide their inhabitants with security, prosperity, democracy, or the simple satisfaction of lives that make sense. This affects almost everyone in the world who is not a major shareholder or high-up manager of a global corporation.
With the end of the Cold War, the collapse in prices of raw materials from developing nations, and the unchallenged ascendency of the World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, and GATT, it seems that the path toward the future is already charted and paved. A small coterie of business executives have achieved what Alexander the Great, Caesar, the Spanish conquistadors, Napoleon, the British Empire, and Hitler never could: They rule the world.
Their power far exceeds any government on earth. Through sheer economic might they can bully any nation into submission, and the adoption of free trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT allows them to outflank all attempts to regulate their actions. Environmental or labor laws enacted by city councils, state legislatures, or national parliaments can be snuffed out by calling it a restraint of trade.
This means not only that corporate powers control the world's traffic in microchips and millet, but also the flow of information, entertainment, culture, and basic ideas about what constitutes the good life. Helena Norberg-Hodge of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, pointed out small kids living on the Himalayan plains of northern India who feel bad about themselves if their sneakers are not the most fashionable brand.
With so many people on the losing side of this global economic equation (a statistic widely quoted throughout the conference, is that 358 billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest 40 percent of the world's population), it seems odd that there isn't more opposition to these shifts, which represent the biggest social upheaval since the industrial revolution.
Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist from India, pointed out, "Globalization isn't new, we in the Third World are very familiar with it. We used to call it colonization." But now the restless, relentless churning of the global economy upsets traditional patterns of life and livelihood in New York and Norway along with New Delhi and Niger.
It's the aim of the International Forum on Globalization — a diverse set of activists and researchers from ecology, social justice, and human rights organizations in 19 countries who have met for two years discussing these topics — to spark a new movement that addresses social and environmental devastation wrought by transnational corporations.
This may not be as hopeless a cause as the current climate of political passivity would indicate. Jerry Mander, author and chair of the IFG, opened the Teach-In by noting "when we planned this event we didn't know whether to expect 50, 100, or 150 people," as he looked out at the nearly full pews at New York's Riverside Church (capacity: 2000). As registrations for the Teach-In poured in, many of the panels had to be moved from Columbia classrooms to the bigger space nearby at Riverside Church, which was appropriate because it was there 30 years ago that some of the first teach-ins opposing the Vietnam war were held. It will take a similar large-scale shift in public opinion here and abroad to create a viable movement that can reign in large global corporations.
It's instructive to note that the anti-war movement succeeded in fracturing the Cold War consensus, an article of faith among both liberals and conservatives that American liberty depended on fighting communism wherever it appeared. The anti-globalization movement must battle a similar political consensus that looks on the current state of the global economy as the historically preordained triumph of efficiency and technological savvy.
But when it comes to solutions, most anti-globalization activists part company with previous social movements. From the labor agitation of the early 20th Century on through the civil rights fights of the '60s and environmental campaigns of the '70s, the answer has always been seen as national or even international in scope. But this emerging movement thinks locally, focusing its energies on strengthening regional economies and expanding their political influence. David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance said that local communities stand as the most cost-effective and democratic level at which to make decisions. "The only thing smallness lacks is power," he added.
Relocalization, as some in this emerging movement define their goal, found some critics at the teach-in who worried about repeating horrors such as Bosnia. But globalization is as much to blame there as parochialism, Norberg-Hodge argued. Ethnic cleansing and other tragedies were unleashed in Yugoslavia only after it underwent full-scale integration into the world economy after the fall of communism. Crime, violence, fundamentalism, and xenophobia often come to the fore in a society where the traditional patterns of family and community have been levelled by outside economic forces. And these problems are intensified by the sense of inferiority and self-hate that arises in people who don't look like the svelte, blonde actors they see in the globalized entertainment of Hollywood and can't buy all the lovely goods featured in the globalized marketplace of Benetton. And indeed, most of us find ourselves in that situation.
"I think we can mobilize people on this issue," Norberg-Hodge said, "by realizing that it will make them happier."
Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne Reader and the American columnist for the English magazine Resurgence.