New world order
Globalization and its narratives
September 13, 2000
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
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.