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Globalisation and its enemies !
Friday, 12 September 2008 11:11

Daniel Cohen's book, Globalisation and its Enemies (The MIT Press, 2006), is an interesting and original book, though intriging and curious at the same time.

For Cohen, the enemies of globalisation are those that denounce the exploitation of poor countries by rich ones or those that denounce the imposition of Western values on traditional cultures.  But rather than forcing a new world economy on people who do not want it, Cohen argues that globalisation shows people a world of material prosperity that they do want, but cannot get.  21st century communications have created a global consciousness, but never have economic forces lagged so far behind expectations.  It is because of what has yet to happen -- the unfulfilled promises of prosperity -- that globalisation has so many enemies in the contemporary world.  For the poorest countries of the world, the problem is not so much that they are exploited by globalisation as that they are forgotton and excluded.

Cohen's book reads like a meditation on globalisation.  For him, today's globalisation is the third act in a history that began with the Spanish Conquistadors in the sixteenth century and continued with Great Britain's nineteenth-century empire of free trade -- although Cohen never actually offers a definition of globalisation.   

What is curious and intriging about Cohen's book is that he presents very little data to support his arguments and has very few recommendations to address developing countries' exclusion from the global economy.  Indeed, he seems rather pessimistic on that front.  Further, his story is a very limited take on globalisation.  He does not mention the great concerns that exist regarding the effect of globalisation (which has expanded economic activities in China, the rest of East Asia and India) and thereby added to the pressures on local and regional environments, as well as the global environment notably through climate change.  The world is also feeling many other resources pressures on energy, raw materials, water, etc.  In addition, countries like his own (France) are increasingly worried about competition from new emerging economies, as well as the effect of outsourcing ("delocalisation") of manufacturing and service activities and the so-called financialisation of the economy as hot money darts from one country to another.

Many French people see globalisation as indistinguishable from Americanisation and are concerned about the global dominance of the American hyperpower, as well as the American cultural imperialism.  These are just a few of the many issues that are not addressed by Cohen.  And of course each of these issues has its own enemies such as NGOs like ATTAC, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Jose Bove and the radical French trade unions.

These shortcomings aside, Cohen does highlights a number of points of interest.  Migration is a much less important phenomenon in today's globalisation.  Immigrants only make up around 3 % of the world's population today, whereas in 1913 it was about 10 %.  The nature of trade changed.  100 years ago, England imported wheat and tea, and exported textiles.  In recent times, so much trade has been between neighbouring countries as Renault automobiles are traded against Volkswagens.  And in today's new global economy, there is no better symbol than Nike athletic shoes -- a product conceived in the US, manufactured in Indonesia, and advertised everywhere in the world.  What place is left for poor countries which are neither conceivers or consumers in this new division of labour ?   

He offers a tragic anecdote about contact with the outside world of an Algerian village.  Apparently, the French dispersed DDT in the ponds to combat malaria and typhoid and built a road to end the village's isolation.  The eradication of malaria and typhoid triggered a demographic explosion, doubling the population in a generation.  Shepherds had to enlarge their herds which rapidly destroyed the soil !  Thanks to the road, some exported their surplus livestock.  Some became rich, others fell into debt, some were ruined.  The inequality became apparent.  The richest members of this society sent their children to the school in the nearest large town.  The Koranic tradition was quickly devalued.  The traditionals ociety was disintegrated by this slight contact with Western civilisation.  Today, as yersterday, a considerable number of poor countries are destroyed by the fact that they are not protected against the perverse effects of industrial society and of urbanisation, or against the lifestyle they entail.

Cohen concludes with a section that is almost “globalization-psychology”.  He argues that because today virtually all new technology comes from the US, it creates a painful sentiment of dispossession to the rest of the world.  Innovation has become the US's comparative advantage.  For countries of the South, and to a certain degree for European countries, to be dispossessed from creating new knowledge and new technology is equated with exclusion from History.  "...the world will never be "just" as long as people do not have the conviction that they all contribute to discovering and molding a shared human destiny".

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