Towards Global Diversity

In the aftermath of the rowdy and effective protests at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Congress in Seattle and Davos there has been a sustained effort to remind us of the ‘common sense’ of globalisation. Both columnists and their editors, it seems, have been panicked by a level of protest which reminded them of cultural and political movements of four decades ago. Could it be that globalisation might become a point of political protest that will shake the world of politics on a scale reminiscent of the 1960s? If this were to come about, however, none of the comments would help us understand why. Economic experts, ‘big names’, ‘clear thinkers’: with some notable exceptions, most have willingly accepted the opportunity to reassert the common sense of globalisation. Reality is with the global way, it might be said, and that is that.

Gerard Henderson, one of our local clear thinkers, is both illustrative and to the point. ‘[T]here is little governments can do about the process of globalisation. People want to trade and people want to move … it is almost impossible to resist such developments.’ He goes on: ‘For a small trading nation like Australia, there is no alternative … A country with the population size and economic might of the US might be able to take a stand against aspects of globalisation. Likewise, possibly, the European Union. But not 19 million strong Australia.’ Then comes the clincher: ‘Not without a significant decline in living standards.’

Gerard Henderson has much support for his position. He certainly won’t be contradicted by the economic experts who regard the protestors as quite insane. Nor will he find resistance from Third Way thinkers — Tony Blair or Anthony Giddens for instance — who assume there is no alternative to globalisation as we have known it.

Yet with such a strong version of reality on the side of the global economy why have the protests gained such support? And in taking up this question it should be kept in mind that the WTO protests do have a larger picture with a definite momentum. This can be illustrated by reference to world-wide phenomena, but there is more than sufficient local material to make the point. Take for a start the meteoric rise and fall of One Nation, a party which rode the wave of deep resentment towards global restructuring and had mainstream politicians in fear of the political abyss. And as the political fortunes of One Nation sank like a stone, the forces of protest renewed themselves. They removed the most powerful politician in Australia, Jeff Kennett, and now John Howard is in their sights. Don’t talk to this embattled sector about the high living standards offered by globalisation.

What Gerard Henderson and others assume is that while there is pain, disruption, even loss of livelihood, there is no choice. Globalisation is just one of those tragedies of economic development, like the industrial revolution. Some people get hurt, but the greater good emerges given time.

In the face of this common sense those who protest against it have little to say that can shake it. They know they are against it. They know they are increasingly shut out of the core practices of social life and are, at best, being managed as problems. But to shake the common sense view and shape politics in a definite direction requires much more: a perspective which can locate how it is that globalisation has these effects, and which can then be drawn upon to develop social policy in a plausible alternative direction.

It is here, of course, that commentators like Gerard Henderson win hands down, for the moment. They win because there are no self-evident plausible alternatives, a situation the Left is reluctant to face. Certainly the socialist utopia has no credibility, and the implication of most commentators that to reject globalisation is to reject modernity in favour of a village level of development rings true for too many.

A policy which can cut through conventional globalisation needs an awareness of what is unique to global culture and economy: its capacity, through the combination of the market with the full range of high technologies, to render most, if not all, of social reality as elements of a market calculus. This universality, this capacity to reduce all particulars to a general value, laid the ground for what the economic rationalists called the ‘level playing field’. It was the renewed power of this market which has swept aside public institutions since the early 1980s.

At the same time it is this very universality of global culture, mediated as it is by the various high-tech media forms, which undermines all particular relations and institutions. What is a strength is also a weakness. While globalisation claims to re-assert the local, it nevertheless undermines diverse expressions of culture or economy based on particular social relations. Thus the emphasis on the ‘local’ in the global/local divide is more an expression of need and of loss than a practical reality with institutional force. And it is this structural process which gives the lie to the implicit hope in writers such as Gerard Henderson that things will balance out over time.

Neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx faced such a bleak reality. Prior to ‘their’ market lay a community structure they assumed and built on. Here Smith found the basis for an ethics, while Marx found the basis for a politics. And these structures were composed of particular social relations — this family, that community, ‘our’ history.

In other words today’s global market is by no means merely a market. The fusion of the market with the new powers of high technology allows it to combine economy and culture in a new way. The nineteenth century could be characterised as having boundaries between the market and cultural contexts — a prior community — which was its foundation. These particularistic cultural settings had the effect of limiting the reach of the market because they co-existed with it. They limited the ‘freedom’ of that market.

The postmodern market, on the other hand, reaches into and reshapes those social forces which Smith and Marx took for granted. It is this background force which allows Gerard Henderson to speak with such confidence, even though he has no grasp of its special powers. He has history on his side, he might well conclude.

Yet just as the share market today experiences jitters even as it celebrates its latest triumph, he has no reason to feel too confident. A social order built on the global market is inherently unstable, as evidenced in processes which systematically destroy all local institutions and social relations. And its savagery towards stable work is legendary. Even in the heart of the booming techno-sector no job has security, as 16,000 Telstra employees have just discovered. Hence the ‘irrational’ vehement opposition to — and bitterness towards — the global way. Yet instability will not in itself turn the tide. It is the emergence of a social idea able to contain the global market which is the crucial matter. Such an idea combined with a social determination to make the idea practical would certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons.

The novelty of our situation lies with this special power of the global market over us: firstly the sheer power of its apparatus to devour and shape all social relations; secondly the widespread belief, shared by protestors, economists and Gerard Henderson alike, that there can only be one market structure in social affairs. These two aspects join to close off social policies which could contain and manage globalisation.

In fact there have been many types of exchange historically. Some have coexisted with others for long periods of time. For example reciprocal exchange, which does not rely on the money form, is as old as human society. Its structures today still make a crucial mark on the formation of selves in co-operative relations with others, although increasingly they are truncated. With the economic market itself there are also important distinctions to be made. In his investigation of the meanings of the market, Marx emphasised the universality of its medium of exchange. This is a crucial insight but it can be overstated. Postmodern globalisation allows us to see this is a relative question. Some markets are regional. Their sphere of exchange is regional and hence they depend upon particular individuals and communities. Such markets emerged in the first instance around restricted mediums of exchange. Others have a more universal character but still are particular to a nation. These obviously contrast with global markets.

If reciprocal exchange has managed to co-exist with markets before the emergence of the global market, the same cannot be said for money markets. The policy problem is that our only experience of market exchange has been through one dominant form of exchange. Once there were regional markets. We know them only as traces within the national market. In the year 2000 it is now possible to tell a similar story about the national market. Now it ‘survives’ as it can within the logic of the global market. What most people assume is that there should only be one form of market exchange. And notably, today, that is the global logic of info-money.

A choice between a global market and a national market has little to recommend it. The choice is too stark and is not viable. But in the face of an all-consuming global market the co-existence of other market structures as well as reciprocal exchange which better preserve particular social relations and regional identities is a choice which is non-negotiable. Only then would the space for cultural choice open up and allow sectors within our economy which are not at the mercy of the global market. Then global diversity would mean something. The social policy question becomes one of how to have at least two markets which co-exist, employing mutually exclusive mechanisms.

It would be novel historically, and test the social and practical imagination of us all. But it is an alternative to what we have come to know as ‘globalisation’. Could this become one of the social policy issues at the World Economic Forum which is to be held at Crown Casino, Melbourne on 11–13 September, 2000?

An extended version of this editorial can be found in Arena Journal No. 14

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