How Big Is 'Globalization,' Really?
How much does "globalization" matter? Are there other factors that get ignored when so much stress is placed on it?
Certain aspects of globalization fall far short of the amount of globalization that we observed at the tail end of the previous century. I think we often exaggerate the degree to which national governments are constrained by global forces. Often governments find it too easy to say, "We can't do this or that because corporations will flee or we'll lose exports." National governments still have a lot of autonomy, and political forces, NGOs and others who want improvement in local conditions could still get those improvements by getting national governments to see that there is considerable room for acting.
Oh, I think people do focus on globalization at the expense of much else. To conceive of globalization as an independent force that has nothing to do with the [neoliberal] politics that conquered the world in the past two decades is completely wrong. It's not that there isn't something to the idea that international markets have a certain objective force, but the fact is that they can't exist without the political will and organization that allow corporations to close plants and restructure freely.
The debate is frequently cast as being between "free-traders" and "protectionists." Is that a helpful way of framing things?
I think it's very misleading. Some of the most ardent supporters of free trade are no less mercantilist than the most ardent promoters of protection. In both instances, we're really seeing the pursuit of self-interest. Some financial-services firms in the United States press for opening the financial-services markets abroad. That's driven by the same mercantilist concerns as those of segments of industry that try to stop imports. So, what might appear contradictory--promoters of free trade like financial-services firms versus protectionists like the steel industry--is really very much the same thing, the pursuit of self-interest.
The notion that the decision is between something called free trade and something called protectionism is total horsefeathers. That is a construct set up by the proponents of one set of rules for organizing the global economy. The proponents of this current version of it call it "free trade" and say that anything different is protectionism. The WTO is not anything that Adam Smith or David Ricardo had in mind when they wrote about free trade. The best thing you could call its 800 pages of regulations is managed trade. Only it's corporate-managed trade, and we want people-managed trade. They don't have free trade and we don't want no trade, so the real issue is what the rules of the road will be.
Free-traders like to condemn their critics as protectionists who are trying to build walls around countries, prisoners of nostalgia; and some argue they're hurting workers in poor countries whose only avenue out of poverty is exporting to rich countries like the United States. How do you respond to that?
Workers around the world need to have their basic rights protected, whatever country they're in, rich or poor. The international trading system undermines those rights by lowering trade barriers and increasing the rights and mobility of capital, putting workers in competition with one another. This is something that we've worked very closely on with labor unions in developing countries and Europe. We've been very clear that we are trying to take control of the globalization debate, not hide from it, and that our vision of the future is one in which rich and poor countries trade with one another, in which workers' rights are protected, in which the developing countries are given the right incentives to build strong democracies, strengthen their middle classes on the basis of strong trade unions and protect the environment. That's a vision of the global economy that is very positive and different from one in which we build a wall around the United States.
What clearly is the backward perspective is one that looks at a pre-Keynesian, turn-of-the-century standard of living and labor treatment as the sought-after global norm.
Often the issues that have created discontent in the North come across to people in the South as protectionist, in that they seem aimed at keeping goods from the South out of Northern markets. This is one of the areas where we need civil society organizations on both sides to sort out these issues. But if you look at the way that countries in the South have made advances in this century, it's been through protectionism. During the Great Depression, Latin America made tremendous advances, in terms of development, through import-substitution strategies. More recently, the so-called tiger economies in East Asia were able to move up the ladder with protectionism. Free trade, deregulation--this has been mainly a US agenda. Since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the United States has used these policies to push the interests of US corporations in that part of the world.