“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t
— Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), The Usual Suspects, 1995.
“M1 can be as big as it likes”, someone recently said to me, “but isn’t opposing
globalisation a bit like opposing the telephone?” Not quite.
Rulers always justify their actions with high words and lofty claims. They seek
to conquer the high moral ground and, with it, the mantle of “inevitability”.
Roman emperors termed the enslavement of Europe and the Middle East “civilisation”;
the owners of the dark, satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution dubbed their
work “progress”; and the investment bankers, stockmarket gamblers and
multi-millionaire business executives of today’s corporate capitalism call their
subjugation of the world “globalisation”.
With such words, rebelling slaves, striking factory workers, anti-corporate
protesters cease to be partisans fighting oppression and become ignorant
throw-backs who oppose “civilisation”, “progress”, “globalisation”, the very
forward march of history itself.
Globalisation, at its most basic, means simply the long-term, secular trend
towards ever-greater interpenetration and interdependence of the world’s
economies. And this is indeed inevitable. Over the centuries, as production
processes have developed and grown more sophisticated, their linkages have
By this definition, however, globalisation is not something specific to now: it
has been with us since the beginnings of mechanised industry. Marco Polo and
Christopher Columbus were just as much “globalisers” as Bill Gates and George
Soros are, if not more so.
But this is not what the world’s rulers mean when they speak of “globalisation”
and remind us of its “inevitability” — any more than Augustus Caesar and
Caligula meant the spread of literacy, roads and sanitation when they spoke of
the “inevitability” of Roman “civilisation”.
What they mean by these words is the caprices and cruelties of their rule, and
whichever form of it, whether subtle or flagrant, presently meets their fancy.
And neither the forms of it, nor the rule itself, are in any way inevitable —
which is why they spend so much time and make so much noise seeking to convince
us that it is.
“Globalisation” is but their word, their high-sounding euphemism, for “global
capitalism” and the forms it has taken over the last two decades.
What’s been globalised?
Only very specific things have been “globalised” during the 1980s and 1990s; in
many other things, there has been not a “growing together” but rather a pulling
apart. Wealth, for instance, has not been globalised; it’s been further
concentrated, both within and between countries.
During the 1990s, the gap between the richest fifth and poorest fifth of
humanity grew from 60:1 to 74:1. Three men — Bill Gates, his fellow Microsoft
founder Paul Allen and rentier extraordinaire Warren Buffet — now own assets
equivalent to those owned by the 600 million people in the world’s 48 least
developed countries, while the number of people living under US $1 a day is
expected to increase from 1.2 billion today to 1.9 billion people in 2015.
Technology hasn’t been globalised, either; its concentration in the hands of the
high and mighty is greater than it has ever been before. Ninety percent of the
world’s patents on technology are now held in the richest countries, heavily
protected by World Trade Organisation agreements, amongst other things.
According to a February study by the International Labour Organisation, only 5%
of the world’s population has ever used the internet — and 88% of them live in
the developed capitalist countries.
Not even economic growth, the supposed root of capitalism’s historic
superiority, has been globalised. The United States may have boomed in the 1980s
and 1990s, but according to a study of countries’ growth patterns by the
US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, the growth rates in 77% of
countries were significantly lower in 1980-2000, the decades of “globalisation”,
than they were in 1960-1980.
And the flow of people certainly hasn’t been globalised, either — the fortress
walls of all the rich countries are growing higher, to keep out the huddled
The things which have been “globalised” are far more specific and far more
Money capital has been “globalised”: it can now flow as it likes into (and out
of) pretty much every country in the world, as profit rates rise and fall and as
its owners see fit.
The global stock of financial assets has grown sixfold, from US $12 trillion to
US $80 trillion between 1980 and 2000; cross-border flows of bonds and equities
into the largest economies have increased by 55-60 times since 1970; and the
amount traded on international foreign exchange markets daily has exploded from
US $18.3 billion in 1977 to US $1.5 trillion in 2000.
The power, the grasp and the freedom of manoeuvre of the transnational
corporation has also been “globalised”. While the volume of international trade
trebled between 1982 and 1999, the sales of TNCs’ foreign affiliates increased
sixfold. Forty-nine of the 100 wealthiest and most powerful institutions are now
corporations rather than governments and they control 70% of the world’s trade
and 80% of the world’s foreign investment.
All this, the “globalisation” of some things and not of others, is no accident,
nor the workings of some historical inevitability. It is by design, it is the
result of the deliberate and calculated plans of men (and a few women) who meet
in corporate board rooms and government cabinet rooms, at diplomatic summits and
international conferences, and at exclusive social clubs.
For the number one thing that has been “globalised” in the past two decades is a
very specific set of economic and social policies, the formulae of economic
liberalism (in Australia, because these policies were initiated by a Labor, and
not a Liberal, government, they are dubbed “economic rationalism”).
These policies are everywhere the same, they come from the exact same recipe
book: hand over state assets to corporations, turn a blind eye to the operations
of financial institutions, prorogue controls on capital flows across borders,
allow currencies’ exchange rates to be determined by speculators, weaken laws
which specify labour rights or environmental standards, cut government spending
on social programs, cut taxes on corporations and the super-wealthy, force
workers to pay for their own retirement and education and health care, rob from
the poor, give to the rich.
Between 1991 and 1999, there were 1035 changes worldwide in laws on foreign
investment — 94% of them increased the freedom of foreign investors and reduced
By 1998, 145 of the International Monetary Fund’s 182 member-nations had acceded
to the IMF’s Article VIII, which specifies the free flow of capital across
borders — 70 had acceded in the previous five years.
By March 1, 1999, the starting date for the WTO’s new Financial Services
Agreement, which drastically reduces restrictions on cross-border finance flows,
102 member-nations (out of 140) had signed onto it. The FSA gives the WTO
jurisdiction over 95% of the world trade in banking, insurance, securities and
Those governments which haven’t read willingly from the recipe book have had it
forced on them. Since the 1980s, there have been 90 Third World countries forced
to sign “structural adjustment programs” with the IMF, as a condition for
refinancing their massive debt burdens. These programs are a long list of
pro-business, pro-Western measures: the IMF’s grotesquely named “Poverty
Reduction Strategy Paper” for Tanzania, signed in April 2000, for example,
included 157 specific changes to the country’s laws and regulations.
Can it be reversed?
If “globalisation” — or rather the globalisation of financial flows, of
corporate power and of economic liberalism — is the result of the deliberate and
calculated plans of people, then they can be reversed by the deliberate and
calculated plans of (other) people.
Privatised assets can be re-statised, freedoms can be taken away from
corporations and given back to communities, tax burdens can be shifted from poor
to rich, the rentiers can be euthanised and the expropriators expropriated.
There’s one further proof that “globalisation” isn’t inevitable: its architects
don’t think it is.
If it is inevitable, why are World Trade Organisation director-general Mike
Moore and the trade representatives of the United States and Europe desperately
criss-crossing the world twisting the arms of governments to make sure that the
coming WTO conference in Qatar doesn’t end up the debacle that the last one in
Seattle in November 1999 was?
If it is inevitable, why have the drafters of the Multilateral Agreement on
Investment, the “corporations’ bill of rights”, buried their document since
massive public outcry erupted when it was leaked in 1998? And why are they now
forced to plot its reintroduction, through as yet little-noticed clauses of
proposed WTO agreements, by stealth and not in the open?
If it is inevitable, why are the meetings of the corporate globalisers taking
place behind high barbed-wire fences and lines of riot police? And why are the
numbers, and the confidence, of protesters around the world increasing?
Three days before thousands from across Europe gathered in the Czech capital,
Prague, to demonstrate at the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, the
British Economist magazine, which boasts that it is the standard-bearer of
economic liberalism, editorialised on September 23: “The protesters are right
that the most pressing moral, political and economic issue of our time is
third-world poverty. And they are right that the tide of `globalization’,
powerful as the engines driving it may be, can be turned back. The fact that
both these things are true is what makes the protesters — and, crucially, the
strand of popular opinion that sympathizes with them — so terribly dangerous.”
And into the breeze goes claims of “inevitability”.