John Ralston Saul is a Canadian writer, a more or less Trotskyite intellectual and Africanist of note. He is, consequently, not a bad guy, even if his views on South African politics are shallow and ill-informed and he has a vastly inflated sense of his own importance and competence. There are not a lot of leftists standing up to be counted, and so people like Saul should be welcomed. Now he has written a substantial and widely praised book, The Collapse of Globalism, which many people consider to be almost a definitive treatise on this subject.
Unfortunately there are some grounds for wondering whether this is altogether true. The approving blurbs on the cover of the most recent edition of the book (which was written in 2005) give reasons for this suspicion. He wins plaudits from Time and Forbes, two major propaganda tools of the American ruling class, and from the London Sunday Times, a comparable tool of conservative propaganda in Britain. It might seem odd for someone who is apparently challenging the system to be endorsed by people who are dedicated to the survival of the system.
A book with a title like this must possess several attributes. It must say what its definition of globalism is. It must show solid evidence that globalism has indeed collapsed or is in process of doing so. Also it should do these things in a way which has some relevance to the general public. As a book of serious political content, it should also, if possible, explain something about where globalism comes from and why it should now be collapsing.
Does Saul actually manage these things?
Saul defines globalism in terms of a belief that the elimination of all restraints on capitalism is the best possible route to the improved all-being of everyone on Earth. This is not a bad definition, although clearly this does not only apply to a process of weakening national states. It is true that many of the people who have promoted this belief have suggested that it would lead to the disappearance of national states and their replacement by something else — presumably, in practice, by multinational corporations. The science fiction writers of the “cyberpunk” era in the 1980s, especially figures such as Walter Jon Williams, wrote of this kind of environment. Very few of them wrote of it with approval, however.
The point is that eliminating restraints on capitalism means things like getting rid of environmental regulations, banking and antitrust legislation, fiscal and exchange controls, and so forth. The internationalisation of this process is obviously also to the advantage of capitalists. It is also true that this kind of approach to the world began, as Saul admits, in the early nineteenth century (he quotes extensively from the anti-Corn Laws agitation of Cobden), which was also the time when global trade was taking off in the post-mercantilist era. But it is also obvious that this is not simply a matter of globalisation but also of changes in industrial policy, social policy and political policy, many of which policies are easily administered within national or even provincial and municipal boundaries.
In other words, Saul seems to be shifting between his concept of globalism, or globalization, and a somewhat more nuanced notion of neoliberalism, whenever it suits him. This is already something of a problem, but not a disastrous one. It is a quite common problem among leftists to lump the things we identify as bad things together, for our own rhetorical convenience. Unfortunately, this process is not good for analysis.
The biggest problem in this regard is that of taking other people’s rhetoric at face value. Unfortunately Saul does this all the time. He quotes extensively from the cheerleaders for corporate neoliberal capitalism and its consequent globalisation, without ever deciding or even asking whether these quotes deserve to be taken so seriously. Francis Wheen, in his amusing if not always accurate or honest How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, discusses the Enron and “dotcom” fiascos in the United States and notes that almost everybody involved in promoting the illusions of the “New Economy” delivered vast amounts of fraudulent hype. However, as subsequent investigations proved, some of these people did not believe a word of the lies they told and sent out pungent denunciations of the rubbish they were selling in their e-mails. When these e-mails were brought to court, the people who had consciously fooled the public into buying worthless dotcom stock or investing in Enron’s fraudulent deals went to prison. Others, who actually believed their own lies, got off scot-free, which seems a little unfair since the people they cheated were just as bankrupt as the rest. Saul fails to recognise the mendacity of most corporate figures and politicians.
This raises an interesting question which Saul never really gets to grips with. Why should people believe things which are manifestly untrue? Anyone can look at the record of the International Monetary Fund in the Third World and see that its interventions have ranged from not very helpful to catastrophically destructive, and that all the real success stories arise from refusing to take IMF advice. So why do people continue to take this advice, and why do people continue to hype this advice? Saul seems to think of this as a religion, as a kind of irrational delusion which has somehow seized the ruling class, its chief financial operators and its media, for the last thirty years.
This is actually quite reassuring, because if this is just a cult, then presumably people can be deprogrammed from cults (though not always successfully). However, people usually join cults for a reason. Saul does not attempt to explain the reason why his “globalism” was adopted by large corporations and global financial institutions in the first place. Nor does he say why, when the policy manifestly failed, as it was already doing in 1981 (when, as Wheen observes, both Reagan and Thatcher, pursuing neoliberal objectives consistent with globalism, plunged their nations into serious depressions), the corporate bosses who adopted this policy were not unceremoniously turfed out by their organisations.
The answer seems to be quite simple. Firstly, although Saul doesn’t talk much about this, the desire to establish a “free enterprise” society in which corporations would rule and democratic politics would be reduced to subjection is not new. It existed in the United States from the nineteenth century. The resistance to the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, and the corporate ideological counter-offensive in the 1950s which eventually led to Goldwater’s Presidential candidacy in 1964, was also a major part of it. The ideological activities of people like Hayek shows that it was far from invisible in Europe, although Europeans have tended to take their cue from the United States on this issue. The roots of the globalism which Saul opposes are deep in history.
They are, however, also deep in class politics. Globalism of this kind is good for rich people. Not necessarily good for big business (although it usually is) but definitely good for the people who make up the top structures administering big business. It eliminates obstacles to profits and allows the virtual destruction of worker rights. Hence, anyone who is both very rich and has essentially no human or social conscience will endorse this kind of globalism. Such people will pay others a good wage to promote their interests. Hence lots of people, journalists, managers, politicians and bureaucrats, are likely to be willing to endorse this kind of globalism.
Admittedly, not all the politicians are bought. Saul points out the moment when French President Giscard d’Estaing declared his impotence to save France in the face of world markets as a key moment in history. He is quite right. The combination of impotence and depoliticisation — the establishment of an alternating system of identical, policy-free political parties which present no meaningful ideas or systemic theories — are useful for professional politicians because they secure the political landscape for them and keep dangerous destabilising radicals out. Equally so, Third World politicians may weep into their hankies and explain that they would love to serve the people but, alas, the IMF or the WTO or Washington or Beijing won’t let them do so. Globalism is this a useful excuse.
But it is only an excuse. As Saul points out, even a weak figure like President Mathahir Mohamed of Malaysia had no difficulty standing up to the IMF when it suited him. The reason why he did this was not because he was smarter or better-informed or braver than the leaders of the other East Asian economies who obeyed the IMF’s commands and saw their economies collapse. The reason seems simply to have been that the president of Malaysia wanted to see the best for his country, whereas the other leaders wanted to see the momentary best for themselves and the narrow corporate interests which backed them. (It helped that he was able to seize the opportunity to get rid of a rival who wanted to serve Western interests, having his Prime Minister thrown into jail on trumped-up charges of homosexuality. This, incidentally, is not mentioned by Saul, who presents Mathathir Mohamed as a shining light of anti-globalised goodness!)
But now that we have good examples, suggests Saul, we can be sure that globalism is collapsing. After all, there are countries which do not follow the precise models of globalism! And First World countries are not following these models either — some of them are actually doing other things! Therefore, globalism is collapsing. It must be so. Fiat lux; gloria in excelsis.
This is another big problem. For, of course, it is not so. The basic principles of greed and grabbing are still very much there and unlikely to go away. Nobody has cancelled that big old Debt Crisis which bleeds the South into the pockets of the North. Most of the governments of weak nations outside Latin America are still firmly in thrall to neoliberalism. As for first world countries, they are neoliberal when it suits them to be; when not, not. (Thus even George W Bush resorted to protectionism, despite his noisy neoliberal principles, when his staunchly Republican steelworkers were threatened by cheap South African steel — luckily the mighty multinational Mittal has saved him from that, thanks to our beloved government selling ISCOR to them.) The whole system is pointed in the direction of neoliberal globalization and is not going away. No powerful political structure opposes this and anyone who thinks Barack Obama is going to change anything in this regard needs an Obamaectomy as a matter of urgent colonic irrigation.
This is Saul’s most massive problem. Having failed to precisely define what he is talking about, having skirted the political dimensions and the class issues (presumably so as not to expose his actual radical positions) he is left hoping that nice people will sort everything out. They will not. As the Creator writes, South African journalists are eagerly proposing that the International Monetary Fund should take over the Zimbabwean economy, and they aren’t doing that by coincidence, they’re doing it because their editors’ bosses have told them that this is the way the story must be covered. And so it will go until we have political parties, mass-based and radical, prepared to challenge the global neoliberal imperialist system and bring it down. In pursuit of this necessary goal, Saul is not much help.
But at least he isn’t doing much harm, either.