Why Globalization Works: Notes Part II

Finally finishing my notes on Martin Wolf’s book. I was not
very impressed
by the first third of the book, but the remainder is much
better, although it does have some big flaws. In fact, the book would be
a better one if Wolf had limited it to Part III (chapters 9 to 13) in which he
tackles the arguments of what used to be called the anti-globalization
movement. These chapters deal with the economic issues as Wolf sees them:
inequality, trade, the role of corporations, the role of the state and the WTO,
and finance.

So let’s deal with the good things first.

Wolf’s book is an argument against the “critics of
globalization”, or “new millennium collectivists” (henceforth the Cs of G). And
Wolf is, to be fair, faced with a problem because the movement (which hardly
seems to be one any more, unfortunately never having recovered from the massive
kick in the gut it received on 9/11, but that’s another story) is just that – a
movement. As a result it is, like most political movements, a mish-mash of
people with conflicting ideas and beliefs, united only in their opposition to
corporate-led globalization, and this makes it difficult to argue against. (Strangely,
Wolf seems to think this lack of analytic rigour is indicative of woolly
thinking on the part of everyone in that movement, rather than the unavoidable
messiness of active coalition politics.)

Wolf tackles the problem by reducing the concerns of the Cs
of G to a set of economic issues (see chapter list above) and splits each of
those into a set of separate arguments, and then tackles each one in turn. This
structure in itself is useful no matter what side you are on, as it brings some
organization to the muddle of overlapping issues that are gathered under the heading of
globalization. The end result is worth reading even if you disagree, especially
because some books on the economic end of the Cs of G have been so sloppy
(hello there Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, whose “The Case Against the
Global Economy” is a prime example).

Wolf makes a strong case on some issues (eg, he makes a good
case that nation states still have a lot of power, despite what some claim), on
other issues he puts out some arguments and facts that make you think (about
inequality, for example) and highlights shoddy arguments (such as comparing the
sales figures of the biggest multinationals to the GNP of nations). On other issues
he is open minded enough to conclude that the picture is muddy, so for example
he acknowledges that Naomi Klein has a point about export processing zones (p
241), that Dani Rodrik has some good things to say about the process of
economic growth (p 204) and that Oxfam has some good things to say also about
the traps that export-oriented countries have fond themselves in (p 204). He
does have his prejudices though: for example, when it comes to so-called infant
industry protection you can see his distaste at such an anti-free-trade
strategy in his writing, and he is more damning of them than many
others are, without really making the case. About the
only prominent economic issue the book misses is the privatization of knowledge
happening by the extension of intellectual property under the WTO TRIPS
agreement, even though this is a major issue for many Cs of G. It’s an odd omission.

On the down side, Wolf really fails to see beyond the
strictly economic side of many concerns. He dismisses Klein’s No Logo, saying that “analytically, No Logo adds nothing to the debate about
globalization”. I disagree with him actually, but regardless, books can be
important for reasons other than analytical contributions. Upton Sinclair’s
The Jungle added nothing analytically to the debate over
working conditions in Chicago meat-packing plants, but it was the most
important and influential statement about the scandal anyway. Similarly, No Logo was important because Klein
identified and distilled into a single, thorough book, the concerns of a
heterogenous and disparate movement, and did so with brilliant timing. The book
came out a month or two after the Seattle protests, which was the first time most people realized anything was happening,
but Klein had been working on No Logo
for four years by then. She was ahead of the game, and by being so she defined
the terms of the debate. A counter-argument four years
on is beside the point. And with an economist’s blinkers, Wolf completely
ignores or dismisses as unimportant the cultural portions of Klein’s book:
the intrusion of advertising and commercialism into all aspects of life, the
erosion of public spaces (physical and otherwise), and so on.

Child labour and sweatshop labour are other issues where
Wolf does not see a  problem. Wolf can see only one question of importance: is
the wage paid by MNCs higher than that people would receive in their absence?
If it is higher, then MNCs are to be applauded rather than derided. But there
is another side to the story and it is to do with responsibility, proximity and
culpability. If oppression is taking place on the other side of the world and
has nothing to do with us, then there is little point to being angry. But if
our neighbours become involved in oppression, then there is a chance that we can do something
about it. The fact we can influence them makes action worthwhile even in the case that our neighbours’ oppression
is slightly milder than the original. This seems an elementary ethical
point, but Wolf and other economists (Paul Krugman for one) just don’t get it, instead dismissing this as
some kind of moral queasiness rather than the practical concern that it is. Is this a result of his trade as a commentator or a cause of it? I don’t know, but Wolf seems to have little idea of how social movements work or why they arise.

But despite that, most of us could usefully read more books that we disagree
with, and this is a useful book for the anti-globalizer to read. It is not what
its fans claim (“a devastating intellectual critique”) but it is a thorough and
well-informed (comments on Naomi Klein and other occasional lapses aside) look at the economic issues. Just skip Chapters 1 to 8.

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