Globalization, it is often assumed, is an inexorable process. Even Osama bin Laden uses disposable cell phones (better for maintaining security) and communicates with his fanatical minions via the global media offshoot Al-Jezeera. Hilton, McDonald’s and Starbucks are just about everywhere. What happens in Tokyo instantly affects markets in New York. The future is obvious, say the globalization gurus.
Well, yes and no.
It’s true that globalization is, in a significant way, unstoppable. Humans seemingly have been programmed since the dawn of history to leave the cave for the next valley and to try and make it their own. This has led to cultural and economic exchanges that have both benefited and diminished elements within the human community.
Without the global movement of people and products, the United States, as we know it, obviously would not exist. It is just as obvious that the same process devastated the tribal people who were indigenous to the land we now call America. Casino riches are a poor substitute for the riches of culture and tradition they have largely lost. But as Jared Diamond made clear in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” the fate and tragedy of human existence is that politically and technologically complex societies will always trump less complex human groupings.
One can even argue that the philosophical construct we call monotheism is a theological attempt to explain the human impulse toward greater complexity. One world, one God, one intellectual system may seem simpler than polytheism’s myriad deities, but it is in fact the opposite, just as a multinational corporation is infinitely more complex than the corner lemonade stand.
While globalization is a given, globalization as the term is understood today is not, however.
When we speak of globalization, the assumption is we are referring to the coming together of specific three phenomena; the unprecedented degree to which commerce and capital now flow across national borders, the spread of Western (some say American) monoculture, and the accompanying promotion (and acceptance) of consumerist values that trumpet the notion that happiness is rooted in material progress above all else.
Globalization’s cheerleaders speak of this process in near-messianic terms. Drop trade barriers and peace and stability will, despite all appearances to the contrary, eventually come to pass on an unprecedented scale. Democracy will triumph and the American dream will continue uninterrupted.
America’s economic and social values are the world’s gold standards. Even our enemies, perhaps above all others, covet our economic gains. Hundred of millions of people including many in the Muslim world who loudly oppose American foreign policies would gladly abandon their homelands for the opportunity to enjoy the personal freedoms, civil liberties, and access to material advancement we enjoy.
But the United States must do more than simply proclaim that its vision is head-and-shoulders above the existing alternatives if globalization is to proceed in a positive manner. America appears to be the only game around only from within our borders. Elsewhere, globalization faces great hostility, not because it is associated with the United States, but because it fails to meet the immediate economic and psychological needs of so many, who then turn on what amounts to empty promises.
If globalization is to proceed in a manner that continues to benefit the West, it must also benefit the developing world. This means the economic playing field must be leveled; absentee corporations in cahoots with international moneylenders and domestic elites that too often are corrupt or incompetent, or both, cannot continue to benefit at the expense of the world’s ever-growing underclass. Maintain the current system and angry mobs and deviant terrorists demanding their form of globalization militant Islam is one example are sure to follow. It’s simply human nature.
Respect must be shown toward the many regional cultures that globalization’s monoculture seeks to replace simply to standardize business practices. Traditional cultures provide security that the emerging monoculture cannot possibly offer. Remove this safety net and individuals will be further at the mercy of the volatile market, which can, ultimately, offer only short-term comfort. It is not enough to pay lip service to cultural values and sensitivities. Trying to stage the Miss World contest in half-Muslim Nigeria during Ramadan is an example of how not to do it.
History teaches that what today seems the inexorable future often turns out tomorrow to be narcissistic fantasy. Remember the Roman and British empires? At their height, the continued dominance of each seemed as unquestionable as globalization’s hegemony now appears to some. Yet free-market globalization’s cracks are already showing in Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and elsewhere. We have not been inoculated against the return of the Dark Ages.
Given the rapidness of change these days, the time available for course correction may be short.
Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval” (SkyLight Paths).