A cause celebre? Globalization’s wake

Big shocks change perceptions. As the attendees at a recent round-table discussion were told, the September 11 tragedy and the tide of rightist extremism in Europe have shattered the idea of globalization as an irreversible, inevitable, and a necessarily beneficial process. «What can we expect from Europe in light of liberal globalization?» was the topic of the round-table discussion organized by the French Institute in Athens along with Le Monde Diplomatique and Eleftherotypia newspaper. But while the panelists did not hesitate to lash out against what might best be described as corporate-led globalization, they were less eager to describe an alternative model for Europe. Dystopia The «invisible hand» of liberalism promotes cooperation and peace. Growing economic interdependence and technological progress draw people of different races, creeds and languages into the embrace of eternal peace. What you get is the universalization of the Western way of life; the triumph of the autonomous individual. A truly cosmopolitan world. Or so free market pundits have been telling us for more than 10 years now, said Philip S. Golub, a journalist from Le Monde Diplomatique. Unfortunately, the «invisible hand» of liberalism proved too invisible, and the utopia envisaged by liberal thinkers, from Habermas to Fukuyama, a far cry from reality. For Golub, this is not a disaster in the making, but a disaster already. Dystopia is the word. «Globalization has reached its limits,» Golub stated. And the signs of its approaching demise are too obvious to ignore, he said, before going on to cite an odd sense of historical deja vu: the period of «first globalization» between 1870 and 1914. The economic system that was in place in the late 19th century – what was indeed a more solid system than the existing one – collapsed in 1914 after a deep social crisis. «The growing corrosion of identity, social, and political structures that have been shaped by modern globalization, will result in a similar collapse,» Golub commented. Self-destructive So why has globalization failed us, defeating the utopian visions of Western liberal thinkers? In what seems like a delicious irony for critics of neoliberal globalization like himself, Paris VIII University Professor Costas Vergopoulos argued that «globalization is self-defeating, for it destroys the very premises which allow its reproduction.» Lenin once said that «the greedy capitalists will sell us the rope by which we will hang them,» the Greek professor recalled. The cash value of that phrase is that the capitalist drive for unrestricted freedom leads to license. Market forces undo the cultural norms which uphold them, breeding insecurity, instability and fragmentation. Does globalization, then, come with a self-destruct button? The panelists sounded uncomfortably sure, perhaps slightly gleeful about this. But what is the impact of neoliberal globalization which prompts talk of crisis and an inexorable collapse? First, globalization has undermined the status of the nation-state. The nation-state is no longer the principal arbiter of social issues. It can no longer satisfy man’s unending quest for identity, his desire to feel at home with the world. People’s urge to «belong» can push them into the arms of extremist populist or fundamentalist movements. Jean-Marie Le Pen and Osama bin Laden are both, in a sense, a reaction to the modern order. Both feel that their social or religious identity is in danger, Golub argued. Democracy is not the only victim of globalization. Free market fundamentalism has also reproduced national inequalities – in capital, knowledge, and power – at a global level as well. People round the world can gain access to the symbols of modernization. They can buy a pair of Nike trainers or a McDonald’s double burger. «But in their overwhelming majority, they will never be able to gain access to what the symbol really stands for; the real power behind the symbol, will not be distributed,» Golub said. The result is a growing systemic dependence between a wealthy center (the First World states) and an underdeveloped periphery (the Third World). This double structural inequality, the French journalist said, fuels social and political tension inside as well as among states. What’s left? The question of national and global inequality is a popular issue and, therefore, a profoundly left-wing issue. «However, while there is a strong leftist momentum at the social level, at the political level, leftist parties have been reduced to ashes,» Vergopoulos said. The contrast between the shutdown of the Seattle trade talks and the subsequent emergence of the so-called Seattle movement and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, on one hand, and the state of leftist parties in Europe, on the other, is indicative of this. The European left, the two speakers agreed, has to redefine itself; to redraw the boundaries which distinguish it from the right. Above all, they said, it has to do away with the centrist mishmash which led social democratic parties to the recent electoral debacles. Should the left be sidelined, Europe’s precious social attainments, such as the welfare state, will be in peril. Making no secret of his pessimism about Europe’s prospects in curbing the tide of neoliberal globalization, Vergopoulos quoted EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, who recently said that in succumbing to the regulations of neoliberal globalization, «Europe has lost its soul.» Not only has Europe failed to constitute a bulwark against the wave of neoliberal deregulation; «it has also become a vehicle for implementing aggressive neoliberal policies in European societies,» Vergopoulos said. Both speakers agreed that the solution to the current crisis is not a return to the national perimeter. What we need, Golub continued, is to defend public rights and commodities at an international level. This is the only way to uphold social solidarity. It is imperative that we enter a phase of «tempered capitalism.» For Vergopoulos, there is an urgent need for a system which puts emphasis on fighting inequality. «Any other system is unstable and in the long term unsustainable,» he concluded.