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The globalisation illusion

June 29th, 2009 · No Comments

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The Guardian 10 June 2009
The globalisation illusion
Like past imperialism, the idea of globalisation is unsustainable and kept unchallenged to insulate us from reality

Hugh Goodacre

Much of the coverage of the current political storms in this country gives the impression that it all takes place in isolation from the rest of the world. It is consequently refreshing to read George Monbiot pointing out that “the revolutions and reforms experienced by almost all other developed countries have been averted in Britain by foreign remittances. The social unrest that might have transformed our politics was instead outsourced to our colonies and unwilling trading partners.”

In the days when colonialist ideals were unblushingly stated and upheld by Britain’s government and business interests alike, Cecil Rhodes readily admitted that it was precisely this “outsourcing” of social unrest that was the underlying goal of his enterprise in Africa. He recalled how in 1895, he witnessed a meeting of the unemployed in East London, where “wild speeches” called for “bread! bread!”. This led him to conclude that the only way to save this country from “a bloody civil war” was to “acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factory and the mines. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists”.

Well, you can’t become imperialists nowadays, or not of the old colonialist type anyway. Rhodesia has long since become Zimbabwe, and, as Monbiot shows, the chickens are now coming home to roost. Social unrest will, from now on, “transform our politics”.

Monbiot cites a number of authors who have addressed this issue (Hamza Alavi, Ralph Davis, Eric Hobsbawm, John Newsinger and Mike Davis). However, he leaves one rather obvious omission, namely, Lenin, who, some months before the 1917 October revolution in Russia, memorably quoted Rhodes’s words in his pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism . Rhodes’s frank admission of his motives fitted neatly into Lenin’s argument that the contradictions underlying capitalism in its imperialist phase are ultimately insoluble and must inevitably end in its overthrow – an argument of increased force today when the former colonies have long been advancing towards greater levels of independence. Lenin also ridiculed the idea that imperialism had overcome its contradictions and that a less conflictual “ultra-imperialism” had emerged – that being a buzzword of his day, just as “globalisation” is of ours.

Monbiot concludes that “the government can no longer insulate us from reality”. But his prescriptions for what we are to do are limited in the extreme. To find how our “small, densely populated country which produces very little supports itself”, he recommends the works of Joseph Stiglitz, author of such works as Globalisation and its Discontents and Making Globalisation Work.

It is ironic that these are precisely the works that have been endlessly quoted by Gordon Brown, who liberally peppers his speeches with remarks about the “discontents” of globalisation and his “determination to make globalisation work”. The following comment from a November 2006 speech to the CBI, in particular, could almost have been taken word for word from Stiglitz:

Globalisation is a fact and here to stay. The real question not whether it exists or not, but whether it is well managed or badly managed, and one of my themes today is that it is for us to be evangelists for globalisation, taking on the anti-globalisation and protectionist forces who fail to recognise today’s economic truth that free trade, open markets and flexibility are preconditions of modern economic success across our global economy.

Well, does globalisation work? Surely the evidence of recent months is that it does not and cannot. Indeed, it is more reasonable to conclude that it is precisely by seeking to sustain the illusion that globalisation can work that the government has done most to “insulate us from reality”.

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