Is Globalism Dead?

You will find below a copy of a book review featured on the URBANA 06 website ( —————————————————-
The Collapse of Globalism

Authors: John Ralston Saul
ISBN: 1585676292
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
Number of pages: 224
Type of cover: Hard Cover

reviewed by Paul Grant

Globalism collapsed between 1995 and 2002. During this seven-year period internal contradictions in the religion called Globalism began to come home to roost: ever-increasing inequalities, surging developing-world debt, and so on.

So goes the main argument of John Ralston Saul’s remarkable book. The Collapse of Globalism is the story of intellectual overreach: an economic philosophy that evolved into a proud theology of salvation for humankind. By eliminating all barriers to trade, the message was, globalism would unleash the forces of creativity in human hearts and would point those hearts toward wealth creation. Preoccupied with global economic opportunities, we would find bad activities like war, injustice and racism too costly to be continued. Thus globalism would lift the whole world out of poverty and would lead to democracy everywhere.

Most telling about all these promises was the blind optimism of it all: Globalism’s true believers felt (and continue to feel), that history was on their side, and that the sooner we aligned our systems to favor unlimited global trade, the sooner our problems would disappear.

Ralston Saul gnashes against such inevitabilities, believing instead that the options available to humans to shape their own destiny in the world have yet to be exhausted. During the nineties, he says, more and more people began to believe the same: that the infinite expansion of global trade was indeed not inevitable, or even desirable. At a more local level, people began to doubt the necessary connection between free trade and democracy. China has done quite well with free trade without succumbing to democracy, and many international corporations can function just as well under tyrannies as under democracies.

I witnessed the collapse of Globalism, as John Ralston Saul defines it, during my years at the University of Wisconsin, one of the great activist schools. Between 1995 and 1999, I hung out with students determined to stop a mine in northern Wisconsin from polluting a nearby wildlife refuge. It was a unique story, as erstwhile political enemies (Native tribes and non-Native sportsmen) joined up with lefty college students to agitate on a local level against an international mining consortium. Eventually the Natives won, but only after a lengthy battle for the hearts and minds of everyday Wisconsinites.

On campus, the Crandon Mine struggle was able to command student attention for several years in a row – eons in college-years – long enough for a full anti-globalist movement to emerge, which later merged with the local branch of the Green Party and took up all range of wild political causes.

But for those few short years between 1995 and 1999, a local debate became a battlefield for a global debate. In order to protect a small swamp in the north woods from cyanide leeching, these students had to grow up in a hurry, educating themselves about global economics, global treaties and more.

By 1999 protests were a daily affair. Students were getting much more sophisticated, and began branching out into struggles against the sweatshop production of varsity garments and other righteous (so we felt) causes. It came as no surprise then, when that November’s World Trade Organization summit in Seattle exploded in riots.

The bigger surprise was that the riots were such a surprise to the WTO. Had they really been living such an isolated existence that they didn’t recognize the burgeoning hostility to unfettered Globalism in the very heartland of the economic world, the United States?

Apparently they had. According to Ralston Saul’s account, the leading proponents of Globalism were far more than capitalists; they were true believers of a religion. This religion’s great evangelists, like Thomas Friedman, Milton Friedman and others, see evidence for economics’ primacy in all world events, including political, cultural, and even spiritual. In April 2004, for instance, Thomas Friedman said in an interview:

[H]aving spent the last two years on 9/11, post-9/11, pre-Iraq, Iraq, and post-Iraq – I really had lost the thread of the globalization story, and I found it in Bangalore, on my last trip to India.1

Wrong. This is an attempt to understand a nation’s rapid development as Globalism. Look beneath the surface, and India’s growth looks a lot more like Japan’s post-war explosion, or any of several other national economic miracles. Such growth serves the global economy only incidentally, but is quite focused on building a nation – in this case the second-largest nation in the world. Meanwhile, the largest (China) and the third-largest (the United States) both cherry-pick their global economic commitments, while resolutely tending to their own national interests. If Ralston Saul is to be believed, such local self-interest is normal, growing, and is not dangerous in itself.

The great strength of this book lies in Ralston Saul’s pragmatic understanding of life. Globalism, like Marxism before it and other ideologies since, tried to shoehorn humanity into a materialistic model, usually with dehumanizing results. Since people and cultures won’t ever be reduced to economics, Ralston Saul has expanded his survey to account for complexity. He is the first philosopher I have read who has given sufficient thought to the incredible rise of Christianity across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

He fails, however, in his insistence on viewing the growth of the church around the world as evidence of the failure of the social safety net. How about taking African and Asian spiritual decisions at face value? Is it not possible that people in those countries have the same intellectual capacities as Westerners, and choose to follow Jesus for greater reasons than insecurity in the face of national debt? By preemptively dismissing the possibility that real truth, real salvation, and real power for real life lies behind such growth in the church, he reduces converts’ humanity by doubting the freedom of their choices.

More significantly, no ethic lies behind Ralston Saul’s essay, save boring, unsalty utilitarianism. The requisite quotes from the Qu’ran are here, along with Confucius’ admonitions concerning modesty in ambition. Unfortunately, history belongs to the ambitious, and as Ralston Saul himself notes, intellectual vacuums are always filled. To set about describing the collapse of globalism with no greater ethic than enlightenment humanism is the safe way to go. Perhaps that’s to be expected for someone out to bury a tried-and-wanting ideology. But our day is one experiencing a vacuum at the highest level. Where are those Christians willing to fill it with a whole-life vision for the healing of the nations? This is your hour.

The Collapse of Globalism is a wise and mature book, restrained enough that occasional low punches ring with power (example: at one point Ralston Saul describes irresponsible speculators as being “overburdened with gonadal energy”). It might not be a book for newcomers to the discussion, but Ralston Saul’s extended essay should not be missed by anyone concerned with global economic justice.

1 YaleGlobal, April 4, 2004

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