Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Polarised World Of Globalisation

A response to Friedman's Flat earth hypothesis

by Vandana Shiva

ZNet Commentary (May 28 2005)

The project of corporate globalisation is a project for polarising and dividing people - along the axis of class and economic inequality, the axis of religion and culture, the axis of gender and the axis of geographies and regions. Never before in human history has the gap between those who labour and those who accumulate wealth without labour been greater. Never before has hate between cultures been so global. Never before has there been a global convergence of three violent trends - the violence of primitive accumulation for wealth creation, the violence of "culture wars", and the violence of militarized warfare.

Yet Thomas Friedman, [New York Times columnist], describes this deeply divided world created by globalisation and its multiple offsprings of insecurity and polarization as a "flat" world. In his book "The World is Flat" Friedman tries desperately to argue that globalisation is a leveller of inequalities in societies. But when you only look at the worldwide web of information technology, and refuse to look at the web of life, the food web, the web of community, the web of local economies and local cultures which globalisation is destroying, it is easy to make false and fallacious arguments that the world is flat.

When you look at the world perched on heights of arrogant, blind power, separated and disconnected from those who have lost their livelihoods, lifestyles, and lives - farmers and workers everywhere - it is easy to be blind both to the valleys of poverty and the mountains of affluence. Flat vision is a disease. But Friedman would like us to see his diseased, perverse flat view of globalisation's resulting polarisations as a revolution that aims to reverse the revolutions that allowed us to see that the world is round and the earth goes round the sun, not the other way around.

Friedman has reduced the world to the friends he visits, the CEOs he knows, and the golf courses where he plays. From this microcosm of privilege, exclusion and blindness, he shuts out both the beauty of diversity and the brutality of exploitation and inequality. He shuts out the social and ecological externalities of economic globalisation and free trade. He shuts out the walls that globalisation is building - walls of insecurity and hatred and fear - walls of "intellectual property", walls of privatization..

He focuses only on laws, regulations and policies which were the protections of the weak and the vulnerable, on barriers necessary as boundary conditions for the exercise of freedom and democracy, rights and justice, peace and security, sustainability and sharing of the earth's precious and vital resources. And he sees the dismantling of these ecological and social protections for deregulated commerce as a "flattening".

But this flattening is like the flattening of cities with bombs, the flattening of Asia's coasts by the tsunami, the flattening of forests and tribal homelands to build dams and mine minerals. Friedman's conceptualization of the world as flat is accurate only as a description of the social and ecological destruction caused by deregulated commerce or "free trade". On every other count it is inaccurate and false.

Take Friedman's description of three waves of globalisation. According to him, globalization 1.0 which lasted from 1492 when Columbus set sail to 1800 and shrank the world from a size large to a size medium, with countries and governments breaking down walls and knitting the world together. Globalisation 2.0, which lasted from 1800 to 2000, shrank the world from a size medium to a size small, the key agent of change being multinational companies. Globalisation 3.0 started in 2000, is now shrinking the size small to size tiny, and is being driven by individuals.

This is a totally false view of history. From one perspective in the south, the three waves of globalisation have been based on the use of force. They have been driven by greed, and they have resulted in dispossession and displacement. For native Americans, globalisation 1.0 started from 1492 and has still not ended.

For us in India the first wave of globalisation was driven by the first global corporation, the East India Company, working closely with the British [nation], and did not end till 1947 when we got Independence. We view the current phase as a recolonisation, with a similar partnership between multinational corporations and powerful governments. It is corporate led, not people led. And the current phase did not begin in 2000 as Friedman would have us believe. It began in the 1980s with the structural adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the IMF imposing trade liberalisation and privatization, and was accelerated since 1995 with the establishment of the World Trade Organisation at the end of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs.

Friedman's false flat earth history then enables him to make two big leaps: results of coercive, undemocratic "free trade" treaties are reduced to achievements of information technology, and corporate globalisation and corporate control is presented as the collaborations and competition between individuals. In his view, the WTO, World Bank and IMF disappear and the multinational corporations disappear. Globalisation is then about technological inevitability and individual innovativeness, not a project of powerful corporations aided by powerful institutions and powerful governments.

In reality, neither e-commerce not WalMart-isation of the economy could take place without the dismantling of trade protections, workers' protections and environmental protections. Technologies of communication do not make long distance supply of goods, including food products, cheaper than local supply. Low wages, subsidies, externalisation of costs are what make WalMart cheap, not its information technology based supply chain management.

In 1988, I was in Berlin before the Berlin wall fell. We were part of the biggest ever mobilisation against the World Bank. Addressing a rally of nearly 100,000 people at the Berlin wall I said then that the Berlin wall should be dismantled as should the wall between rich and poor, which the World Bank creates by locking the Third world into debt, by privatising our resources, and by transforming our economies into markets for multinational corporations. I spoke about how the alliance between the World Bank and global corporations was establishing a centrally controlled, authoritarian rule like communism in its control, but different in the objective of profits as the only end of power. As movements, what we sought and fought for are the bringing down of all walls of power and inequality.

Friedman's flat vision makes him blind to the emergence of corporate rule through the rules of corporate globalisation as the establishment of authoritarian rule and centrally controlled economies. He presents the collapse of the Berlin wall as having "tipped the balance of power across the world toward those advocating democratic, consensual, free-market-oriented governance, and away from those advocating authoritarian rule with centrally planned economies".

Citizens' movements fighting globalisation advocate democratic, consensual governance and fight the WTO, the World Bank and global corporations precisely because they are undemocratic and dictatorial; they are authoritarian and centralized. The WTO agreement on Agriculture was drafted by Mr Amstutz, a Cargill official, who had led the US negotiations on agriculture during the Uruguay Round and who is now in charge of Food and Agriculture policies to be inserted into the Iraqi Constitution. This is a centrally planned authoritarian rule over food and farming.

That is why the democratic and consensual response of citizens' movements and Third world governments in Cancun [in 2003] led to the collapse of the WTO Ministerial conference. Then it was the so called "flatteners" who were erecting walls - the barricades at which the Korean farmer Lee took his life, the walls that the US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, tried to create between what he called "Can do" and "Can't do" countries. What Zoellick and Friedman fail to see is that what they call "Can't do" is actually the "Can do" for the defense of farmers in the face of dumping and unfair trade. Zoellick's and Friedman's world is shaped by and focussed in Cargill - our world is shaped by and focussed on 300 million species and six billion people.

The biggest wall created by the WTO is the wall of the trade-related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS). This, too, is part of a centrally planned authoritarian rule. As Monsanto admitted, in drafting the agreement, the corporations which were organised as the Intellectual Property Committee were the "patients, diagnosticians and physicians all in one". Instead of telling the story of TRIPS and how corporate and the WTO-led globalisation is forcing India to dismantle its democratically-designed patent laws, and how the WTO is creating monopolies on seeds and medicines, pushing farmers to suicide and denying victims of AIDS, Cancer, Tuberculosis, and Malaria access to life-saving drugs, Friedman engages in another dishonest step to create a flat world.

He presents the open source software movement, initiated by Richard Stallman, as a flattening trend of corporate globalisation when actually Stallman is a leading critic of intellectual property and corporate monopolies, and a fighter against the walls that corporations are creating to prevent farmers from saving seeds, to prevent researchers from doing research, and to prevent software developers from creating new software. By presenting the open source movement in the same category as outsourcing and offshore production, Friedman hides corporate greed, corporate monopolies and corporate power, and presents corporate globalisation as human creativity and freedom.

This is deliberate dishonesty, not just the result of flat vision. That is why in his stories from India he does not talk about Dr Hamid of CIPLA who provided AIDS medicine to Africa for $200 when US corporations wanted to sell them for $20,000, and who has called the WTO's patent laws "genocidal". And inspite of Friedman's research team having fixed an appointment with me to fly down to Bangalore to talk about farmers' suicides for the documentary Friedman refers to, Friedman cancelled the appointment at the last minute.

Telling a one-sided story for a one-sided interest seems to be Friedman's fate. That is why he talks of 550 million Indian youth overtaking Americans in a flat world, when the entire Information Technology/outsourcing sector in India employs only a million out of a 1.2 billion people. Food and farming, textiles and clothing, health and education are nowhere in Friedman's monoculture-of-mind locked into Information Technology.

Friedman presents a 0.1% picture and hides 99.9%. And within the 99.9% are Monsanto's seed monopolies and the suicides of thousands. Within the eclipsed 99.9% are the 25 million women who disappeared in high-growth areas of India because a commodified world has rendered women a dispensable sex. Within the hidden 99.9% economy are thousands of tribal children in Orissa, Maharashtra and Rajasthan who died of hunger because the public distribution system for food has been dismantled to create markets for agribusiness. The world of the 99.9% has grown poorer because of economic globalisation.

And it is the rights [of the 99.9%] we fight for. We work to build alternatives for a just, sustainable, peaceful world - a shared and common world - in which our common humanity and universal responsibility links us in earth democracy. The walls of exclusion and discrimination that globalisation has strengthened are made by men in power. Like the Berlin wall, they too must dissolve, because authoritarian rule is inconsistent with free societies, and corporate globalisation is a form of authoritarianism and dictatorship which is robbing us of our fundamental freedoms and our full human potentials.

The world we are reclaiming and rejuvenating is not flat. It is diverse, democratic and decentralised. It is sustainable and secure for all, based on cooperation and sharing of the earth's resources and on our skills and creativity. The freedom we seek is freedom for all, not freedom for a few. In contrast, "free trade" is about corporate freedom and citizen disenfranchisement.

What Friedman is presenting as a new "flatness" is in fact a new caste system, a new Brahminism, locked in hierarchies of exclusion. In Friedman's caste system, the "Shudras" are all those whose livelihoods are being robbed to expand the markets and increase the profits of global corporations. They are shut out by invisible social and economic walls created by globalisation while it dismantles walls for protection of people's livelihoods and jobs.

The Indians being drawn into the US economy through outsourcing are not the new Brahmins, as Friedman claims. They must be satisfied with one-fifth to one-eighth of the salaries of their US counterparts, and what is outsourced is "grunt work", "number crunching", standardized, mechanical operations. Outsourcing is Taylorism of the information age. The control is in the hands of the corporations in US. They are the Brahmins who monopolise knowledge through intellectual property. Outsourcing and off-shoring are like the "putting out" work that occurred in the industrial revolution. These are old tools for maintaining exploitative hierarchies - not new flat earth linkages between equals who are equal in creativity and equal in rights.

Friedman's free trade freedom is flat-earth freedom. In contrast, earth democracy is full-earth freedom and round-earth freedom; that is, freedom for all beings to live their lives within the abundant, renewable but limited bounds of the earth. We do not inhabit a world without limits where unbounded corporate greed can be unleashed and allowed to destroy the earth and rob people of their security, their livelihoods, their resources. Full earth freedom is born in free societies, shaped by free people recognizing the freedom of all. Diversity is an expression of full earth freedom. "Flatness" is a symptom of the absence of real freedom. Facism seeks flatness.

Bill Totten


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