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Future shock

Print edition : Nov 03, 2006 T+T-

A grim prognosis on the world's march towards globalisation.

ONE of the keenly contested issues about the complex phenomenon designated by the popular expression `globalisation' is the relationship between its economic aspect, which is rapidly spreading to all parts of the globe, and its political and legal aspects, which are fairly tightly circumscribed by territorially bounded nation-states.

According to one view, since a legal, if not political, basis is required for any serious economic activity, the `state' in some form will survive, or will get re-established. The opposite position is that globalisation will rout the extant nation-state and the international order based on nation-states, and as there is nothing in sight to take their place, chaos and war is the most likely scenario to emerge.

Prem Shankar Jha, one of our leading journalists, takes the latter position. Eric Hobsbawm in his Foreword describes the work as a "strikingly intelligent, lucid and troubled book". Jha's arguments are set against the widely propagated view that the end of the Cold War and the beginning of globalisation mark "the end of history" and a "going back to the future" of global prosperity and peace.

An enthusiastic advocate of globalisation, for instance, has claimed that because of its ever widening connectivity of individuals and nations and its spreading of capitalist values, it "both increases the incentives for not making war, and it increases the costs of going to war in more ways than in any previous era in modern history" (Thomas Friedman in his The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999).

No, says Jha. What is likely to happen is just the opposite. Jha's work is a critique of capitalist globalisation in terms of what he sets out as the innate logic of capitalism itself as seen from its history.

What are usually perceived and celebrated as the economic aspects of capitalism, its aggressive growth and opening up of new opportunities, have always been set in larger societal, political and institutional `containers'. And it is in the very nature of capitalism to break out of its container from time to time.

In the early stages of capitalism, back in the 13th century in Italy, its container was the city-state. Not that it was confined to the city-state: it could not be because trade and finance between and across city-states were its early manifestations. But the scale of capitalist production then was small enough to be confined to the container of the city-state.

When production became the central and essential feature of capitalism, it broke its original container, with all the social and political disruptions that it involved, but entered a new container, a small nation-state, England. Capitalism's propensity to reach out continued, partly into other nation-states in Europe and in other parts of the world and partly into a large nation-state, the United States, which soon became capitalism's `home state'. By the beginning of the 20th century, some sort of inter-national order had also emerged, under the domination of the U.S.

Today, what has so far been the national-international container of capitalism is being broken down and capitalism is aiming to convert the globe itself into its new container. "This," says Jha, "is the process that the world refers to as globalisation." Jha continues: "What the world is going through is not without precedent. Growing disorder, eruptions of violence and decades of insecurity have accompanied each rebirth of capitalism in the past. Not just individuals, but entire classes of people that enjoyed an assured status, some degree of affluence and, above all, security, have been robbed of all three and found themselves scrabbling frantically to retain their place in society. At the same time, ethnic, occupational and social groups ... who were treated with condescension or reviled under the older dispensation, have suddenly shot up in status. Such dramatic changes are bound to be resisted and have often led to rebellion and bloodshed" (pages 17-18).

This link that Jha tries to establish between globalisation and social disruption at different levels in many parts of the world is worth pursuing. The global spread of capitalist production, the global distribution of ownership of capital, the global flow of capitalist finance and the global sway of capitalist corporations, all made possible by changes in technology, have substantially eroded the power and authority of nation-states and even the international order that nation-states had built up. The loss of power of nation-states has also led to the authority of states being challenged by groups of people from within. No one is really in control anywhere, and violence is both a symptom and a product of that loss of control.

Actually, even the U.S., which pretends to be the one and only superpower, has also experienced this loss of power and control. From the 1940s until about the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. had the standing as a power to be reckoned with. Its hegemony was accepted - possibly with resentment or reservation. But in the name of the `war on terror', the U.S. has made it known to the whole world that it no longer recognises the territorial sovereignty of nation-states. For, the `war on terrorism' that President George W. Bush declared immediately after 9/11 was not against territorially defined states or societies but against groups or even individuals who were perceived to be a threat to the interest of the U.S., no matter what the citizenships of the persons concerned were or in which territory they happened to be. Wars from now on will be "police actions" by the world's self-proclaimed super-cop. It is now clear that the writ of the U.S. has ceased to run; it will have to be imposed by force. In this commitment of the world's still most powerful nation to `war' on individuals anywhere in the world, Jha sees the "growing obsolescence" of the nation-state and the chaos that is bound to follow. This is a powerful statement, but the manner in which Jha goes into even the minutest details (based largely on newspaper accounts) of the U.S.' involvements in Serbia and Iraq detracts from it.

Jha's pessimism is strengthened by the recognition that the power that is emerging from the systemic collapse of the weakening international order based on nation-states is the set of transnational corporations (TNCs). TNCs are powerful, to be sure, but they are only the instruments of capitalism. They lack, and cannot come to have, the larger societal nuances and attributes to emerge as the new `container' of the emerging phase of capitalism.

Jha's work can be viewed as the antithesis of the rosy picture that apologists of contemporary neoliberal globalisation have been presenting. But at the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, is humanity turning "towards darkness" as the title of Jha's concluding chapter suggests? Jha, it would appear, has succumbed to the common error of thinking of the future as a mere extrapolation of the past and the present. True, one cannot predict the future. And yet, if one just looks around, one can see other kinds of possibilities. What if the countries now underwriting the huge payments deficits of the U.S. decide not to do so? What if the political balance shifts with, let us say, the major countries of Asia making a united stand against the U.S.? What if some military debacle of the U.S. leads to popular uprisings within the U.S. itself? What if the losers all over the world of the present form of globalisation unite to block its onward march?

Yes, Prem Shankar Jha, nature has unexpected ways of bringing order out of chaos, and so there may be light beyond the present darkness.