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The collapse of globalism and the reinvention of the world.

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Wednesday 14 September 2005

John Ralston Saul, philosopher


The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World.  


Some people are surprised by the idea that globalism could be collapsing; after all the discourse out there is pretty assertive when it comes to the inevitability and the permanence and the success of globalism. And so the arguments usually are you’re for it or against it, but not Is it working, or Is it collapsing, or indeed Could it even collapse? 


But the fact is, if you stand back and take a look at what’s actually happening in the world, it is collapsing, it’s not the same thing as dead or dying, but it’s collapsing, and people say, ‘Well my God, what would that possibly mean? Do you mean we’re all going to close ourselves up inside our nation-states again?’ But internationalism has always existed, globalism is just a very particular form of internationalism. It’s one that says economics is at the centre, we’re going to look at the world, control the world, run the world through globalism. But you know international politics, international religion, international economics has always existed in one form or another for better or worse. People remember that in the 17th, 18th century we had things like great big transnational corporations around the world called the British East India Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Dutch East India Company. In the 19th century we had free trade and Empires that covered the entire globe. Today people say that one of the phenomena of the inevitable global marketplace is these new post modern transnational corporations. 


The curious thing about them of course is that they’re just about the same thing, they work the same way as the old British East India Company, they’re really about controlling markets from production to consumption. They’re really the opposite of something that would be called free markets and competition; it’s just old-fashioned mercantilism back again.  


People don’t like to talk about these things, certainly not the advocates of globalisation, and often they’ll say in a very sort of cheery way, I mean the true believers are always very cheery about what’s happening, they’ll say, ‘But you know, things are going really well. We’re selling enormous amounts of raw materials to China for example, and they’re selling us cheap goods, and we’re doing very well out of it.’ And the funny thing is that anybody would ever think that this was something new, or that this was something revolutionary, a new economic theory of globalism. I mean that’s just what commodities producers have always done, and it’s always been a pretty dangerous business. 


Argentina once had a higher per capita income than Australia or Canada on the basis that they sold commodities and bought manufactured goods, and it works as long as people are willing to pay a high price for your commodities, and as long as your commodities haven’t run out. 


The reality today is that in fact the West is increasingly panicked by the avalanche of goods coming from China, which are coming not in a global way but in a way which will rebuild the nation-state of China. Brazil has stepped outside of the global experiment, for example refusing to recognise international laws on royalties for drugs, in order to fight AIDS and other diseases in their country. Argentina has simply walked away and hasn’t paid its debt, and is rebuilding in a different way. Europe is stalled and is really very confused about where to go in terms of regional or international economics and politics. There are about 25 new nation-states alone that came out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and they’re very, very good at protecting their nation-states. Nationalism is back in a very big way, positive, and negative nationalism. 


The United States is leading the return of nationalism in a very sort of nationalistic phase of its own, encouraging other people in fact to be nationalistic. War has returned as the central discourse, and God has returned as a player in modern politics. But who would have thought that war would again take those spaces on the front pages of our newspapers that economics had dominated for a couple of decades?  


Racism is back in a big way. And on the positive side, and the negative side, politicians, having felt for 20, 25 years they didn’t have much power, politicians are beginning to regain confidence. One of the reasons is that they see that their citizens are becoming impatient with the idea that governments don’t have the power to shape events. Citizens are impatient with the idea that economic events or international will right now I think, are in, I guess what you could call an interim phase, between an old, inevitable, global system, globalism, and whatever’s going to come next, a confused vacuum, with all sorts of forces at work competing with each other. I’ve named some of them: war, racism, nationalism positive and negative, citizens trying to get back into the game through the NGOs, which haven’t yet taken on the most difficult task of all, which is trying to get yourself elected. 


But the real point is, the world is changing. Those who believe in the absolute inevitability of globalisation can go on believing it, but the denial of reality doesn’t change reality. What we have to do is try to understand what’s happening, and if we can understand what’s actually happening in the world, we’ll feel that we have the power to shape the next era, to figure out which direction the world is going in, what the options are, what the possible powers of citizens are, and then to attempt to give some shape to that reality.  


Guests on this program:

John Ralston Saul  

Author, Essayist, Philosopher