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New world order
Globalization and its narratives

September 13, 2000
The Iranian

We are the stories we tell. We shape our stories, and our stories shape us. The current world trend toward "globalization" is obvious enough, but few can agree on what it means. Globalization as a concept has paraded in so many different narratives that it tends to be more confusing than enlightening. The State of the World Forum, held on September 4-10 in New York concurrently with the UN Millennium Summit of world leaders, provided a platform for the competing voices. Meeting annually since 1995 under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Forum provides an alternative talking shop to UN. This year, government, business, and civil society voices each told a different story about globalization. A few heads of states also traveled across town from the UN Summit to tell their stories. Corporate executives who had mainly provided the funds for the lavish festivities inundated the program. A few gentle and not-so-gentle voices of civil society were also there to remind us that the Two-Third World is not part of the global economy and its wonders. Some maintained that two-thirds of the world population is, in fact, suffering under globalization's rapacity.

The picture that emerged was a complex tapestry of at least seven narratives. We may call these stories by their main points of origin, including Davos, Seattle, Moscow, Beijing, Africa, Tehran, Havana, and The Vatican. At the core of the tapestry, we also have an unfinished story being drawn by the Umpires of Globalization. These include the many public intellectuals and world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev, George Soros, and Daisaku Ikeda who are trying to bring some intellectual order out of the current chaos. Gorbachev was calling for responsible globalization, while Soros argued for the spread of open societies everywhere. Daisaku Ikeda has gone a step further to call for world citizenship and the reform of the United Nations to include a Peoples Assembly elected by universal suffrage.

Each narrative, of course, voices the views of a different faction in the globalization drama. The gospel according to Davos, where about 1000 world corporate and government leaders annually meet to chart the future of globalization is the dominant voice. It is a neo-liberal doctrine that was initiated by Thatcher in UK, Reagan in US, and Kohl in Germany. Their policies put the world on the path of deregulation, privatization, and dismantling of the welfare states in the United States and Western Europe. It promises that if market forces are left alone to their own devices, they will generate increasing wealth and income. This, it argues, will eventually trickle down to all sectors of society. The neo-liberal gospel was so powerful that it led to waves of deregulation and privatization everywhere, introduction of market economy in the Sino-Soviet camp, and the collapse of the communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe.

After two decades of experience, however, the world has come to recognize that the gospel contains serious flaws. It has led to the rise of "Mafia Capitalism" in Russia, enormous class and regional tensions in China, stagnation in many parts of the world, retrogression in sub-Saharan Africa, and growing gaps in wealth and income among and within countries. The annual UNDP reports on human development graphically depict these gaps in the form of a champagne glass in which most of the world's wealth stays on top while a narrow band reaches the bottom of the glass. The 1997 Human Development Report, for instance, showed that the world's 225 wealthiest people had a combined wealth of over one trillion dollars, equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 percent of the world's people (2.5 billion).

A second view of globalization voiced its protests in Seattle at the 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) regime. Labor, human rights, feminist and environmentalist activists in advanced industrial societies have argued against the current forms of globalization. John Sweeney of AFL-CIO, Vandana Shiva of India, and many other civil society voices pointed to the disastrous impact of unbridled globalization on standards of living of the peripheral population, environmental pollution, drug trafficking, and continuing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Moscow faction consists of those countries in the so-called Second World that have tried and failed, either through discrimination or their own shortcomings, to join the bandwagon of globalization. The case of Russia is the most telling. There was a period of initial enthusiasm for the end of communism and rise of capitalism in Russia. But it soon became clear to all that without adequate social, political, legal, and cultural infrastructure, the introduction of capitalism in former communist economies is quickly corrupted into the rule of a corrupt and rapacious oligopoly.

The Beijing faction includes those countries, mostly located in East Asia and Latin America, which have so far successfully jumped on the bandwagon of globalization and benefited from its dynamic growth. Their story is well known. So is their vulnerability. The Asian Crash of 1997 clearly pointed to the risks of globalization for countries that have not developed adequate controls on speculative currency exchanges and foreign investment. Together East Asian economies experienced major bankruptcies, rising poverty, surging unemployment, reduced schooling and public services, and increased social stress and fragmentation. However, countries such as Malaysia, China, and Korea that had exercised greater controls over global currency exchanges, trade, and investment have been recovering from the crisis.

The Africa faction, namely countries that have experienced a decline of per capita income during the past two decades, is often conspicuous by its absence in international forums. Uneven globalization has brought to them social, economic, and political disintegration. As a result, per capita incomes are lower today in Sub-Saharan Africa and other least developed countries than they were in 1970. Globalization has thus brought increasing misery while rapacious elites in Congo and Nigeria, for instance, have allied themselves to Western corporations to siphon off resources to their own bank accounts in Geneva, London, and New York.

The Tehran faction consists of those social movements in the Islamic world and elsewhere that have focused on the cultural as well as economic aspects of hegemonic globalization. Branded sometimes as fundamentalist, their narrative is grounded in religious protest (Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian) against secular humanism that has dominated the international discourse of the last two centuries. Their call for reconstitution of society along religious rather than secular lines has led to radical religious movements in Iran, India, Israel, Sudan, Algeria, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Such movements have changed the existing secular regimes, modified it, or undermined it.

The Havana faction represents those few countries such as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam that continue to cling to an orthodox communist doctrine. Their view of globalization as a hegemonic capitalist enterprise against the working class and peasantry continues to have a strong appeal to the down trodden. Although communism as a statist strategy to catch up has lost much of its economic appeal, state as an instrument of power to negotiate with powerful global forces for a fair deal has not lost its relevance in developed as well as developing countries. Finally, the Vatican faction represents a wide spectrum of civil society forces around the world that have come together on a such diverse issues as nuclear disarmament, landmines, human rights, criminal justice, environment, and debt forgiveness for the Two-Third World.

At the World Forum 2000, in a series of three roundtable discussions characterized by dialogue rather the monologue of plenary sessions, a report on Reimagining the Future: Toward Democratic Governance provided some pertinent proposals for democratizing global governance. Sponsored by La Trobe University in Melbourne, Focus on the Global South in Bangkok, and Toda Institute in Tokyo and Honolulu, the report focused on UN institutional reforms, humanitarian interventions, and international financial flows. It aimed at fulfilling the promises of this age for greater global peace and security, freedom, equity, and community. It deserves therefore to be critically examined everywhere. In a preface to the report, Richard Falk of Princeton University evaluates it as follows. "Here, at last, is a global strategy developed in an Asia-Pacific setting from which we in the West can learn, including the humbling realization that others may have better answers to the dilemmas of our time than we have."

Globalization and its many narratives are clearly too complex to allow for a satisfactory analysis in a short article or even a short report. However, recognizing the complexity and diversity of present forces might be helpful to resolving some of its dilemmas. Something extraordinary is clearly taking place in the world today. A new world order is being born out of the old. We have called it by many names. Post-Industrial and Information Age, Network Society, Third Wave, and Third Civilization are among such labels. If we wish the 21st century to avoid the errors of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in human history, we need to heed the sane voices of the Umpires of Globalization.


Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.

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