The Magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Bookshelf - September/October 2000
Read All About It:
Long before last June, when Unitarian Universalists gathered in Nashville to debate issues of economic justice at General Assembly, it was already tough to ignore the global economy's implications for human life. Even folks who'd rather chew nails than talk about things like NAFTA, GATT, and the IMF got a speedy education, thanks to the 1999 "Battle in Seattle," which focused on the World Trade Organization.
The global economy is hardly new; slavery in the Americas was one of the earliest results of the free, rapid, and destructive movement of capital and labor across continents and cultures. But the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of information and communications technologies, and the constant, urgent hunger for wealth have joined to accelerate globalization and increase the corporate power that accompanies it and in many ways precedes it.
Books on the global economy are being written as fast as it is expanding, as a trip to your local independent bookstore will reveal--that is, if your local bookstore hasn't been wiped out by competition from corporate superstores. If you want to understand that nagging feeling that there is something about the reach of our economy that is threatening our common lives, take a look at one or more of these books.
In The Lexus and The Olive Tree (Anchor Books, 2000; $15, paper), New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has appointed himself to give the reader a grand tour of globalization. Friedman's access to world financial and business leaders is unparalleled (many of them are thanked in his acknowledgments, from Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve to Jim Wolfensohn of the World Bank). And the details he offers--a Thai taxi driver declaring the death of his country's financial houses; an Islamic woman who owns the Internet Cafe in Kuwait--range from exhilarating to deeply moving.
Yet it's impossible to regard Friedman's work as disspassionate. He's a vigorous and unapologetic champion of the global system. If that system has enriched the lives of millions and disrupted the lives of millions more, so be it. "People can talk about alternatives to the free market and global integration," he writes, "they can demand alternatives, they can insist on a Third Way, but for now, none is apparent. ... In the end, if you want higher standards of living in a world without walls, the free market is the ideological alternative left." Friedman has appropriated to himself the task of naming and claiming the varying parts of this new system, as befits his self-appointed tour guide status. Consider his version of what we like to call the interdependent web of all existence:
Today ... the traditional boundaries between politics, culture, technology, finance, national security and ecology are disappearing. You often cannot explain one without referring to the others, and you cannot explain the whole without reference to them all. ... In a world where we are all so much more interconnected, the ability to read the connections, and to connect the dots, is the real value added provided by a journalist. If you don't see the connections, you won't see the world.What world, then, does Friedman see? A world that, he writes, strips "huge chunks of economic decision-making power from the state ... and hand[s] them over to the free market," much as the US and Britain did under Reagan and Thatcher. The attendant constraints are referred to here as "the golden straitjacket." In Friedman's world, countries survive by placing themselves at the mercy of what he calls "the electronic herd," which he defines as "all the faceless, stock, bond and currency traders ... all over the globe, moving their money around from mutual funds to pension funds to emerging market funds. ... And it also consists of the big multinational corporations who now spread their factories around the world, constantly shifting them to the most efficient, low-cost producers." It is a country's donning of the golden straitjacket that attracts the electronic herd, bringing investment capital as well as its own peculiar set of rules for governance.
It is telling that so many of Friedman's explanations of this new economy rely on metaphors antithetical to what so many of us value about being human--straitjackets placed on democratic countries; the decisions of herds, particularly virtual ones, about the lives of people and communities. Friedman does acknowledge the dangers of globalization--the income gaps, the human displacements, the insinuation of corporate power into the democratic process, the sacrifice of the world's ecosystem on the altar of growth. But he worries a lot more about the threats to globalization: mainly the resistance of people who think its dangers are not unfortunate possible consequences but an inherent and fatal flaw in free global markets as they currently operate.
Most lacking in Friedman's analysis is a serious discussion of what the global economy will mean for US democracy. He alludes to the democratization of markets, information, and technology; he talks about the critical importance of more-democratic processes in countries that wish to enter more fully into the global marketplace. (Such processes, Friedman believes, are crucial, because countries committed to the free flow of information have more "buy-in" from their people in the face of severe economic restrictions that have been imposed in the name of reform.) Still, it's most revealing to review the index of his book and find not a single notation for democracy. Make no mistake; The Lexus and the Olive Tree is a singularly important read. But its greatest importance may be in teaching us more about a way of life worth questioning again and again.
While Friedman expends great energy explaining why globalization has been inevitable, David C. Korten puts out equal energy reframing the events Friedman regards so favorably. Korten is not a journalist but a businessman, foundation executive at Ford, professor at Harvard Business School, and officer with the US Agency for International Development. Though this is hardly the résumé of an economic radical, Korten's writings in opposition to growing corporate power and a destructive global economy are striking in their focus on and affirmation of ecology, humanity and democracy.
When Corporations Rule the World (Kumarian Press, 1996; $19.95, paper), Korten's fourth book, has gained him the attention of the many women and men pushing back against the heavy hand of globalization. What Friedman sees as opportunity, Korten views as crisis. "A globalized economic system," he writes, "has an inherent bias in favor of the large, the global, the competitive, the resource-extractive and the short-term. Our challenge is to create a global system that is biased toward the small, the local, the cooperative, the resource-conserving, and the long-term--one that empowers people to create a good living in balance with nature."
Korten's view of the fall of communism is perhaps the only place he and Friedman agree. In his view, however, free market capitalism will meet the same ignoble ends--and for the same reasons. He argues that
both lead to the concentration of economic power in unaccountable centralized institutions--the state in the case of Marxism . . . the transnational corporation in the case of capitalism. Both create economic systems that destroy the earth's living systems . . . both produce a disempowering dependence on mega-institutions that erodes social capital . . . both take a narrow economistic view of human needs that undermines the sense of spiritual connection to the earth and to the community of life.In his new book, The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism (Kumarian Press, 1999; $27.95), Korten moves beyond a tough critique of capitalism to a full-fledged rejection, describing the current financial system as a greedy perversion of the free and open market envisioned by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Unlike Friedman, he sees a major threat to democracy in the transformation of our economic system. He traces corporate influence in public life from its organized rebirth, which came in response to the anticorporate and consumerist sentiment aroused by the social movements of the 1960s. Korten points out, for example, that only a few Fortune 500 companies had public affairs offices in the nation's capital in 1970, while more than 80 percent did by 1980. Today, lobbying groups are ubiquitous, and we tend to believe they've always been there, along with corporate influence in the way we understand it today.
In both books, Korten attempts to break the spell so charmingly woven by Friedman. If Friedman tries to show us that resistance is futile, Korten counters that if we value the rest of our lives, resistance is imperative.
Books to Note
In the annals of post-cold war capitalism, few people have turned more heads than Aaron Feuerstein. Many of us know him not by name but by his company's product, PolarTec fleece. When his business, Malden Mills, burned to the ground in 1995, the owner of the privately held firm continued to pay his employees' salaries and health insurance, rebuilt the factory, and eventually rehired his workers. Reflections on Feuerstein's story appear not only in David Korten's second book but also in The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership by Joseph William Singer (Beacon Press, 2000; $22). Singer, a professor of property law at Harvard Law School, uses the story of Malden Mills, along with examples from Talmudic law, to discuss the notion of property not simply as an entitlement but as a complex system of relationship. In such a relationship, the law acts to ensure the security of owners by limiting others' access to property. Singer's closely argued book suggests that this complex relationship thus entails responsibilities on the parts of owners to others--not just shareholders but employees and the larger community of which such property is a part. He does a good job of bringing the insights of the law to bear on issues of corporate responsibility, and he makes credible the notion of combining this thinking with a religious sensibility.
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