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Surviving globalization
Essay : globalization, economics, spirituality, empire, history, cinema, paranoia, apocalypse
Friday, November 30, 2007 19:38 GMT

Published by Channel 4 in their anniversary book Channel 4 at 25.


When the twentieth century began, there was history. Capitalists and Socialists alike believed that time unfolded with moral purpose, leading human society through periodic crises into inevitable improvement. By the end of the same century, there was globalization.

Glass towers and shopping malls sprouted in the world’s cities, annihilating older forms of commerce and consigning them to amnesia. In the cities where the tide struck with the sharpest impact – such as Shanghai, Delhi or São Paulo – the numbers of the displaced reached into the millions, while many more millions were pushed out of the world’s villages by war, drought, and the global market’s takeover of agriculture. In 2005, the UN counted thirty million refugees “of concern” , a fraction of the world’s displaced people that was nonetheless equivalent to the total number of refugees in 1945 – as if what was previously disaster had become run-of-the-mill. Many of these fleeing multitudes made their lives in the era’s most startling innovation: vast, and rapidly expanding, slum-city-states, such as the one surrounding Lagos . Meanwhile, barricades intensified around wealthy neighbourhoods, cities and nations, and the affluent of the world were subjected to a media fantasy of universal freedom and mobility.

Time no longer soared above all this. It had become only another commodity among many – and there was no more talk of “progress”. The gigantic processes of the global market were their own purpose, and no one could really say what they meant, or what human end they served.

***

Elites of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth enjoyed a serene confidence about the direction that their own experiments in “globalization” would take. John Maynard Keynes wrote about that period:

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth in such quantity as he may see fit and reasonably expect early delivery upon his doorstep. He could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources or new enterprises in any quarter of the world and share without exertion or trouble in their prospective fruits and advantages, or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.

He could secure, forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.

But most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as scandalous, abhorrent and avoidable.


Even those who saw flaws in this status quo could not easily imagine its end. In his novel of 1895, The Time Machine, H.G. Wells warned of the ultimate consequences of the class inequalities he saw around him. But his time traveller had to journey 800,000 years into the future to detect the splitting of workers and elites into separate, degraded species, and thirty million years for the effects to be complete. There was a certain lack of urgency to the prediction, and his readers could put down his book with the reassurance that the mighty engine of European commerce would continue in pretty much the same way for the foreseeable generations.

In the 2002 Hollywood movie of The Time Machine made by Wells' grandson, Simon Wells, this epic timescale was startlingly shrunk. Everything had already come to an end by 2037, when a space exploration disaster caused the moon to rain down on the earth, instantly destroying capitalist society, and turning human beings out into a ruined nature.

In its departures from H.G. Wells' plot, the film embraced a periodicity more of its own time. The idea that Western capitalism would go through a gradual decline across the millennia was by now outmoded: instead, the film presented a world already stretched to dangerous limits and threatened at every moment with catastrophe.

In the early twenty-first century, this was a prevalent feeling. While "consumers" continued to buy and sell in the global marketplace, while they watched approvingly as people in formerly secluded economies began to do the same, while they enjoyed even more astonishing conveniences than Keynes’ gentleman – they nevertheless had none of his confidence that these things would persist and improve. Instead, they were stalked by the suspicion that it cannot continue like this. The buzzword for every industry was sustainability, which only served to remind everyone how improbable that seemed. The Time Machine was only one of countless movies from those years that showed contemporary science and capitalism reaching their limits, and suffering total defeat at the hands of returning natural forces. The Day After Tomorrow (2004), for instance, showed the world destroyed by climatic break-down – a scenario for the near future that touched all the insecurities of those times. Outside the realm of fiction, scientist James Lovelock, author of the “Gaia hypothesis”, prophesied in 2006 that “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable” . Such harbingers of doom confirmed what many people already suspected, and found large followings for their message. Apocalypse was the orthodoxy: buy today, gone tomorrow.

The startling paradox of globalization, in fact, was this: that the great augmentation of possibility it offered to its elites – the global, and especially Western, middle classes – was accompanied by an even greater increase in their paranoia and fear. Why?

***

The composure of Keynes's gentleman derived from his sense of the benign and universal power of European intelligence. He too was familiar with war, poverty and terrorism, but he looked out upon the world and its peoples with optimism, for they would surely form themselves every day more closely in his image, tending eternally towards harmony and civilisation.

By the end of the twentieth century, this vision had been entirely dismantled. A century of atrocities by the wealthy nations had done away with the supposed innocence of Western knowledge, and shown just how great was its potential for violence. Environmentalism had placed the infinite extractive logic of the market in direct conflict with the finitude of the planet, and shown that the increase in products brought an increase also in drought, deserts and poisoned landscapes. This deterioration was intensifying sharply with the added appetites of new Third World consumers, and, since its burden was borne overwhelmingly by the world’s poor, it was difficult to believe any longer that the expansion of markets would result only in enlightenment and harmony. The experiences of decolonisation and multiculturalism, moreover, had put the old "universals" in their place: it was now clear that Western knowledge was as parochial as every other – and the more monopolistic it became, the more fervent and desperate grew its dissenters. No cost-benefit analysis could predict exactly how the peoples of the world would respond when rapacious global markets arrived to dictate the terms of their lives.

All in all, the world seemed more threatening and obscure at the end of the twentieth century than at the end of the nineteenth, and when stark images began to float back through the network – sweatshops, terrorist attacks, resource wars, desperate migrants dying at borders – it was natural to feel that the calm of the global suburbs was only local and temporary, and some terrible catastrophe was stored up.

Alarmingly, even those privileged enough to live in these islands of order and prosperity felt pretty much powerless to influence the course of globalization and so to avert such disasters. The British Empire of a century before, vast as it was, was often presented as a quaint, even intimate, universe, controlled by a coterie of like-minded men from their drawing rooms, clubs and offices. The forces at play in globalization, on the other hand, seemed so stern and abstract as to elude all human control. It was difficult to see who was in charge of globalisation, or to avoid the feeling that even Prime Ministers and CEOs were only agents of yet larger energies. It was as if globalisation was a great daemon, with its own mind, its own dark and non-negotiable intentions. Early twenty-first century humans, in fact, had a similar relationship to the system in which they lived as primitive humans had to nature, and it was often hi-tech folk religion and conspiracy-theory superstition that best captured the feeling of its inscrutable workings. There was widespread disillusion with the inherited systems of political control, which now seemed to have little efficacy for rebuking storms and plagues. Voter turnout fell across the OECD countries, for national elections seemed parochial and superficial. Many were forced to admit they had no remaining sphere of political expression except consumption itself. Buy Organic became politics; Buy Free Trade. But when the problem was precisely how much stuff had to be extracted to run the average modern life, such consumer power felt suspiciously like just another marketing ploy. People could be forgiven for wondering whether, in the face of the apocalypse, more fundamental transformations were not required.

But it became difficult in this era to imagine alternative ways to live – which explains much of the sense of helplessness of people who otherwise appeared so privileged. While globalization entertained them with daily fantasies of escape and transcendence, its total system made it close to impossible, in practice, to experiment with the parameters of life. The flows of global real-estate capital had made New York and London, which had historically been centers of bohemianism and counter-culture as well as of commerce, so unrelentingly expensive that it was difficult to survive there without signing oneself over to the kind of corporate athleticism captured in the 1999 Lexus ad: “Sure we take vacations. They’re called lunch breaks.” These cities, moreover, had ceased to be the places of anonymity and freedom that had previously attracted those of independent spirit. The average Londoner was filmed 300 times a day by the city’s two hundred thousand security cameras , and, especially in the wake of the flurry of anti-terrorism laws of 2001, there was very little about city life that was spontaneous, riotous or subversive. Any truly radical counter-culture had become either commodity or criminal, and what was left was troubled conformism.

A vast and violent system that tolerated no alternatives, and an anxious generation with no room for ethical manoeuvre or innovation: it was a gloomy impasse. So those who were otherwise the conspicuous beneficiaries of globalisation nonetheless felt harried and burdened by it. There was still no question of any compromise to the “Western way of life,” and, since this was dependent on intensive extraction from every continent, the best that could be hoped for was that higher fences could prevent the worst effects of this from reaching home. The outside seemed increasingly barbaric, after all, and the world’s wealthy wanted no part of its disease, environmental degradation, terrorist attacks, and war – which had never come into their simple capitalist equation of hard work and well-deserved rewards. Stern controls were placed on the cross-border movements of refugees and economic migrants (which had not been present during the more truly “liberal” age described by Keynes), and the West took refuge in isolation. The shrill jamboree of marketing and celebrity provided much-needed relief from the eerie spiritual silence. The energy of the arts – “world cinema”, “world music”, novels from the “periphery” – was supplied by a frisson of distance: the euphoria of the strange and exotic, the horror of the terrorist and the barbarian, the melancholy of the stranded middle classes looking out.

***

In 2003, Clare Short, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood under British Prime Minister Tony Blair, resigned from the Cabinet over her government’s role in the invasion of Iraq. In her position as Secretary of State for International Development, she had several times seen her own conception of justice founder on globalisation’s harder edges, and her resulting sense of anger and impotence led her to write, later:

“We will have to move to a higher level of civilization where all people have the basics that they need, and then we must develop a new way of living which gets beyond an obsession with the ownership of more and more material goods and economic growth for its own sake. We must learn to enjoy caring for each other, nature, literature, the arts, philosophy and the spirituality for which Western people in particular are yearning as they find that material plenty does not provide meaning to their lives.”

What her experiences had taught her was that the impasse of globalisation was not fundamentally economic – though everything tended towards economics in those days – but philosophical.

For the eighteenth-century philosophers who had developed the conceptual architecture of politics that still prevailed in the early twenty-first century, the nation-state was the highest level of political organisation. It was only within nation-states that people had affective bonds with each other such that they would be prepared to make an effort – and even sacrifices – in the name of creative coexistence. States might have official, top-level alliances with each other, but there were no ties of politics, empathy, or care between citizens of one state and citizens of another. When globalisation created substantial relationships between factory workers in China, cotton farmers in Mali, tribal communities in Brazil, and advertising executives in London – there was therefore bewilderment as to how they might be thought about or honoured.

This showed only that the vision of life had become small and parochial, and entirely inadequate for the scale of globalisation. It was natural, in such a context, that the grandiose abstract systems of finance, commerce and production seemed vast and indomitable. It was no surprise that people now found it difficult to imagine how they might intercede with those expanding systems in order to safeguard what earlier generations considered a minimal definition of life – or that life’s future defeat seemed inevitable. But human society had successfully faced up to this situation before. There had been a time, after all, when the European nation-states themselves seemed impossibly large and forbidding, and when it had seemed implausible that such extreme human variety could be brought into common citizenship – and the years had brought visions of this coexistence, and images and stories that gave sense to the project.

Now the vastly expanded field of globalization, which contained every conceivable form of living, and which had no “outside” by which the inside could be defined, needed to be rescued from senselessness. This required an unworldly retreat from the nested illusions of the age, and an earnest attempt to grasp the realities of the global condition. It required new kinds of satire for the old puffed-up power centres. New systems of thought that would accept the planet as a single intellectual horizon, and new theories of ethics and justice that would not take the perpetuation of the national gated community as the pre-eminent value. A new heroics of the self-in-the-world, which could blend ambition with frugality and the ability to bear consequences. A new humanism, unswayed by the entrenched rationalisations of inequalities. New art forms and new sensibilities to outdo the scale and dynamism of economics, and to make the global market seem comprehensible and quaint… There was no underestimating the enterprise. But only in such a way could people emerge from their arid apocalyptic apprehensions, and believe once again that human society had a future.