Is globalism dead?

Canadian author John Ralston Saul argues that globalization is not the answer to economic success for all nations.

By Stuart Jeffries
Published June 10, 2005 2:24PM (EDT)

John Ralston Saul is Prince Albert to Adrienne Clarkson's Queen Victoria. Clarkson, as you will know, is the governor-general of Canada, which makes her that country's ceremonial head of state. She bends the knee to no one but the queen. As a result, John is Adrienne's consort and, if you were to address him correctly, you should really call him your excellency. Oddly enough, he is staying in Kensington, just around the corner from the widow of Windsor's multiple homages (the Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial) to her dead German husband.

"I do hope this isn't the way the interview is going to go," says Saul, when I ask him about current etiquette issues in Ottawa. And with good cause. After all, he isn't just a leading Canadian's ankle bracelet. He is a formidable person in his own right -- philosopher, political and economic penseur, novelist, Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France, and holder of more honorary degrees than you can shake a stick at. The Canadian edition of Time magazine has called him a "prophet." He will be 58 later this month.

His latest book, "The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World," is published in Britain at a moment that would seem to make him right on the geopolitical money. France and Holland have both just rejected the E.U. constitution, seemingly suggesting a retreat by these two hitherto Europhile countries from a transnational project, and next month's G8 meeting in Scotland is likely to be the object of an unprecedented anti-globalization campaign.

These events seem like the culmination of Saul's prophecies -- either that or his publishers are deft at anticipating the right time to publish a book. The book's thesis is that the era in which the nation-state was deemed obsolete, in which transnational corporations would secure global peace and prosperity, when the monetarism of Milton Friedman swept all before it and the technocratic language of Valerie Giscard d'Estang poisoned political discourse, is dead. It thrived for more than two decades, but its technocratic and technological determinism and market idolatry have expired. Saul's purpose in the book is like John Cleese's in the Monty Python parrot sketch -- to point out what should be obvious: that globalization is deceased.

"We have scarcely noticed this collapse," he says, "because globalization has been asserted to be an all-powerful god, a holy trinity of burgeoning markets, unsleeping technology and borderless managers. Opposition or criticism has been treated as little more than romantic paganism."

Of course, Saul's thesis may be nonsense, a possibility he is prepared for. "Even if what I'm saying is only 50 percent true, it does at least form the basis for a conversation." Indeed, at times one gets the sense of a recklessly imaginative novelist riffing recklessly on historical material that a more sober writer would have treated less cavalierly. "Facts," he says, "stop being facts after a while. They just fade away." What remains? If this book is anything to go by, jaunty hypothesis.

Giscard, intriguingly, emerges as what Saul calls the "comic nemesis" of the story. Not only did he write the much-satirized text of the E.U. constitution, a masterpiece of eye-rollingly technocratic unreadability, but he ushered in globalization in the first place. In November 1975, when president of France, he gathered the world's most powerful leaders for an epoch-defining powwow at his country home. Giscard was, in the early '70s, one of the first generation of technocrats to reach the top of the political ladder, and he insisted that economics, and technocratic management of international economics, were preeminently important.

Henry Kissinger, the then U.S. secretary of state, had wanted to establish an elite club of nations that could discuss matters of common political interest, similar to the concert of nations that had existed in the years after the Congress of Vienna. He also wanted to restore the United States' waning global influence. Giscard had other ideas, says Saul. He wanted this club, to be known as G7, to reflect the Common Market's concentration on economics and administration.

At that first G7 meeting at Rambouillet, Giscard ensured that Kissinger's agenda was not discussed. "He first verbalized the idea that economics was the prism through which we should see civilization," says Saul. "The idea was that the waning of the power of nation-states would be replaced by the power of global markets and transnational corporations. Economics, rather than politics or arms, was and should be the most important determinant of human events, and the best means by which human peace and prosperity could be pursued."

As a result, he contends, that meeting discussed exchange rates and ignored the pressing humanitarian, military and geopolitical nightmare that was unfolding in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge had seized power six months before and was busy murdering civilians.

So how did Giscard become comic? "Ah," says Saul, "that happened when he went on French television, looking to be reelected, but he gave the performance of a castrato. He told the French people that great global forces were at work and he had no control over them. He had been a new type of leader who had sought to use his technocratic skills to stop the crises of oil-price rises, inflation, unemployment and no growth. He came to believe he had no control over them, and he told his electorate that."

The French didn't reelect the castrato. But globalization, paradoxically, was the dismal fruit of his loins. Giscard and others "believed free markets would establish natural international balances. Boom and bust was over. International trade would rise and the Western poor and the developing world would benefit. As a result, dictatorships would turn to democracies. The metaphor was that this tide would raise all ships -- even though it is one that shows scant knowledge of seamanship. If you raise tides, a lot of crafts capsize."

And yet this rising tide was seen as inevitable. Saul recalls Margaret Thatcher telling faithful and skeptic alike: "There is no alternative!" But, as he writes, Maggie was a weak woman, "someone afraid of that central human strength -- that confidence to be uncertain." Such fear was to be the hallmark of globalization's proselytizers, and it led to many crackpot things -- notably Francis Fukuyama's contention that history was over. Saul, however, maintains that it is Fukuyama, not history, that is bunk.

How did globalization become the only game in town? Saul is less certain about its origins than on the details of its postmortem. "Perhaps a quarter century of social reform had left the liberal elites exhausted. The need to manage enormous new social programs that had been put in place in a democratic manner -- an ad hoc manner -- made it difficult for political leaders ... to concentrate on a broad sense of public good. Instead, governments were caught up in the endless and directionless details of management."

This was hardly inspirational to young people hoping to improve the world. Instead of joining the castrati, they set up or joined NGOs, convinced that, in a globalized world, national democracies were spent forces. "A lot of those guys I have spoken to in NGOs will say, 'What's the point of being a backbench M.P., a minister or even a prime minister? The power isn't there anymore.' So you have this bizarre situation where there are more people in public life than ever before, but only a small proportion of them are democratically elected."

Saul clearly is not happy with this. His book is, in part, a call for democratic renewal and for a renewed pursuit of the common good. "While globalization, which was just a misreading of Adam Smith's notion of the hidden hand, insisted that no one need take any responsibility for anything, democracy is about the people taking responsibility for the public good. If you weaken the nation-state, you weaken democracy."

What does that mean for such bodies as the E.U.? "Who knows where Europe will go now? Its elites are basically in denial. I would recommend a large number of exchanges between European countries. Not just university students, but primary-school children. You have to move these 450 million people around and spend money so that they have some idea of how their differences are interesting."

He takes some hope from the way in which Latin American countries, after years of being exposed to what he calls the "crucifixion economics" of bodies such as the IMF, no longer believe in globalization or its hellish tools. "Neither does Africa. Nor does a good part of Asia. Globalization is no longer global."

Asian countries such as Malaysia, which took its currency off the market, raised tariffs and blocked the export of foreign capital, have showed that they are refusing to play by globalization's allegedly inescapable rules. Nor do India or China, which have both blocked their currencies in defiance of free-market orthodoxy, now bend the knee to this Western ideology. Instead, their economies are so strong that the West may have to play by these countries' rules. "We got to design the shape of globalization in a way that suited us. They are now going to design their very powerful economies in a way that suits them -- with tariffs, capital export controls. The West keeps crying that this is unfair, that it doesn't play by globalization's rules, but why should these countries play by rules that are really just a smokescreen for Western self-interest? They have demonstrated that globalization is not inevitable, and certainly not necessary for economic success."

After a long period of seeming impotence, believes Saul, national leaders have realized since 9/11 how much power they really have, though that recognition can hardly be regarded as an unalloyed good. He writes about the "normalization of irregular warfare," suggesting that this has thrived under globalization. But he also cites the Ottawa treaty against land mines and the Kyoto accord on global warming as hopeful signs. "They represent the beginnings of an attempt at an international balance in which the prism of civilization is neither naive market economics nor national selfishness." He says no such positive things about the war in Iraq.

Saul insists that what is necessary now is that national governments do something positive. "Here's an idea. These nation-states could just write off third-world debt. It's not rocket science. You could do it by inflating it away, by devaluation or just by ripping it up. It would show that our leaders are not just in thrall to administrators, they are not just technocrats. To do something good and unexpected should be the hallmark of good government."

But instead Western governments are still adhering to the ideology of globalization, he says. He points out that there is a new translation of "The Emperor's New Clothes" that warrants reading as a parable about globalization. "The elites say that everything is as normal. That denial, that macho incapacity to say that we got it wrong, makes it really hard for well-intentioned leaders to deal with reality. The fact that we look entirely silly has not impinged on the West's consciousness at all."

Stuart Jeffries

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