Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Globalization or genuine economic and social development?

Please excuse the vagueness, but I dimly remember some fairly recent developments in the fishing business off the west coast of Africa. Let me sketch in the outlines of the story: for millennia families with small, home-made wooden boats fished the seas off the west African coast in a sustainable way, then a few decades ago huge trawlers from foreign ports started sweeping the coastline and taking a massive proportion of the fish stocks - stocks that were depleted to such an extent that the relevant authority (we forget which) had no choice but to ban foreign trawlers and pass a law allowing fishing only from the traditional small boats.

The reasons in this case were partly ecological but also partly an expression of the self-interest of business (because there can be no fishing business - either modern and globalized or sustainable and traditional - without fish). The point that we want to make is this: Why think that either ecology or this simplest form of business self-interest are the only reasons for putting the brakes on globalization and looking for some alternative form of development? The policy on the west African coast was great for the local population and fantastic for the economic autonomy (or let's just call it the autonomy) of the region. Are these not also extremely good reasons for putting on the brakes? Seeing the community in this part of west Africa flourishing, do you not see a reason for questioning the kind of globalization represented by the foreign trawlers?

Part of the resistance to this idea seems to come from an odd dynamic in the discourse of globalization itself - the way it has built into it a belief in both a technological imperative and what might be called an arithmetic fetish (the conviction that more or faster must be better than less or slower). Globalization of a certain sort (big foreign trawlers, in this case, and because they are much, much bigger and much, much more effective at catching fish, it goes without saying that they are - in a supposedly absolute sense - better) is identified with progress, and everyone wants progress, don't they? It just seems so self-evident that business must become big business, and that big business must become even bigger. Is this not progress? Is this not unquestionably good?

Another example: Opel in Germany. Opel make cars, a lot of cars, and they are a big player in the German economy. Some ridiculous percentage of the German economy revolves around the manufacture of cars (including all the associated car-related businesses). It's not just Opel, but Opel is one of the biggest. Entire German towns (one of which is Bochum) have grown up around Opel factories and depend on the continued existence of the business. Doubtless hundreds, if not thousands, of German youngsters go to technical schools in the hope that they will one day be able to find work with Opel.

Once upon a time Opel was bought by General Motors, whose headquarters, apparently, is on the 30-something floor of a tower in Detroit. In the midst of the crisis, the workers (and their bosses) in Germany hear that the board of directors in Detroit is thinking of closing the German operation down. Some of those at Opel argue that it makes no sense. It obviously looks different from Detroit.

Can it be right that the future of such an important part of the German economy is decided by a handful of guys enjoying the view from the top of a steel and glass tower in Detroit? Although there is a lot to be said for foreign investment (injecting capital into an economy that lacks it), there is something very dubious about investors then controlling the fate of entire communities - and controlling it without any meaningful accountability (because it seems that our wonderful form of globalization does not require the guys from Detroit to travel to Bochum and persuade everyone there that they must give up their jobs. Where is the justification for allowing a tiny group of people to have greater and greater control of larger and larger parts of foreign markets (and markets mean jobs, which mean communities)? This justification is especially difficult to grasp if we bear in mind the extent to which a company like GM was depending on things like the infrastructure in Germany and the local educational system to provide skilled workers and the health care system to keep them fit and healthy - all paid for, presumably, not by GM but by German tax payers.

I find myself looking for the most dubious assumption behind all of this. What is it? Is this the really dubious assumption: Only if we allow the unbridled pursuit of profit, will the economy develop? Now for that not to be an empty tautology about the accumulation of profit, it must mean the following: Only if we allow the unbridled pursuit of profit, will people's needs for goods be satisfied. (This is the message we were fed so often during the Cold War with footage of empty East European shelves, implying that only the free market can come up with the goods.) Isn't this a very, very dubious assumption? The trawlers (they may have been Spanish - forgive my terrible memory and laziness in checking the facts) off the coast of Africa did not improve the supply of fish to the local African market. And I wonder if GM's purchase of Opel all those years ago did anything to improve the manufacture of cars. Did more people get better cars as a result of it (assuming more people ought to have cars, which is itself a dubious assumption and unfortunately one whose serious discussion is discouraged by the principle of the free market that consumers will decide such things, not citizens through debate and democratic decision-making)?

This might be old socialist pie in the sky, but the opposite might sometimes be the case. If a car manufacturer did not have to worry so much about making a profit and fending off hostile take-over bids, it might be able to develop a better kind of car. I seem to remember reading a scurrilous article about a prototype of an electric car by Ford that was scrapped perhaps because it was too reliable and too easy to maintain (so that there would be little or no profit to be made from spare parts and frequent maintainance). By easing off the profit neurosis, the phenomenon of built-in obsolecence could be ended, which would be one good thing.

There is no reason here to make profit into a sin. I have my little book and it would be nice if I could make a profit out of it. I would also like to set up my own little publishing business so that I could publish my book and similar books myself. However, I would find it perfectly reasonable if I was looking, for instance, at publishing opportunities in Nigeria and found that the Nigerian government only allowed me either to lend money to Nigerian businessnes or to sell my expertise, not buy up a massive part of the Nigerian publishing industry. In a similar way, if there is a future in fishing off the west African coast, could the Spanish (instead of sending in the trawlers) not provide credit to local fishermen or sell their know-how so that the locals can improve their techniques (providing that the improved techniques are sustainable)? Even if we limit ourselves to ignorant and bovine economic motives, there are opportunities to make money in this way without, for instance, making a quick profit by scooping up pretty much every fish in the waters off west Africa. In this way, is the development of real and sustainable economies not possible without the expansion of irresponsible foreign ownership and control? Is it not possible to rethink globalization so that it doesn't become synonymous with the growth of a hideous international oligarchy (and it is a terrible contradiction that western democracy is effectively a tool for the growth of such an oligarchy)?

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