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Globalization and its discontents

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Public Lives

Globalization and its discontents

/ 12:40 AM November 19, 2015

The world has changed so much in just the last 25 years that it is discouraging to see how the leaders of the most powerful nations continue to think of its problems in the same old way—as though they were not interconnected.

Meeting in Vienna over the weekend, the leaders of 17 nations agreed on a timeline on how to end the civil war in Syria.  A day later, the heads of states belonging to the Group of Twenty (G20)—an economic bloc representing 85 percent of the global GDP—met in Antalya, Turkey, to discuss a plan of action meant to strengthen global economic recovery and enhance resilience.  After Turkey, some of them proceeded to Manila for yet another summit: the Asia-Pacific Economic Leaders’ Meeting. More participants, same topics.

After the Manila gathering, many of them will congregate in Paris at the end of the month for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Same concerns, different perspective. Given what happened this past week, Paris seems a fitting venue for the last meeting in this round of global conversations.

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In a perverse way, the gruesome terrorist carnage in Paris last Friday night may have made it easier to imagine the concerns of these various international forums as forming one seamless unity. To say this is not to offer a justification for this cowardly slaughter of innocent civilians.  It is rather to try to make sense of the world’s most urgent problems as the blind outcomes of a global economic order that has cut itself loose from all societal bonds.

Two such outcomes quickly come to mind: first, the destructive and exclusionary effects of a differentiated global economic system on human communities; and second, the long-term impact of global economic forces on the natural environment.  In both instances, these outsized consequences have forced people to abandon their homes and villages and search for a better life through migration. For the many powerless others who have lost all hope for a better world, the accumulated resentment, as we have seen, has made them easy prey to the apocalyptic and redemptive visions offered by terrorism.

Unfortunately, in almost all instances, the victims of terrorist attacks, as well as of the counterattacks, have been defenseless ordinary people. Terrorism not only strikes at civilian targets; in its aftermath, it also heightens the xenophobia that seeks to keep migrants and refugees out of prosperous Europe.  That the European Union has not been able to hammer out a unified response to the refugee crisis merely attests to the inescapable primacy of national politics in the reckoning of global problems.

This is even more true in the quest for lasting solutions to the challenges posed by economic globalization.  There is hardly anything that has come out of these state-led global conversations that shows any promise of meaningfully reversing the exclusionary and inequitable effects of economic globalization. On the contrary, nearly every concerted attempt at managing the global environment to make it congenial to the requirements of global capital has only produced unintended developments from which new and more complex problems have arisen.

A good example is the way in which initiatives led by the United States to subvert uncooperative autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa has fostered vicious elements that subsequently became the core of today’s global terrorist networks.

It is not difficult to see why.  These interventions are largely opportunistic and self-referential.  The blind spots in which they are mired hide the bigger problems they create. Governments tend to bask in their deluded self-descriptions, blocking any form of introspection. It is depressing to see the United States and the Western powers being caught off-guard by the sudden influx into Europe of millions of refugees and migrants following the collapse of the political order in their war-torn countries.  But perhaps nothing beats the sight of Europe’s nations invoking their sovereign power and sealing off their borders in a frantic effort to keep the crisis they helped create from spilling into their backyards.

Still, the problem is not that easily externalized. The excluded “other” is part of our world, not an alien from another planet.  To everyone’s dismay, for instance, one of the suicide bombers in the barbaric Paris assaults was born in France, of immigrant parents, but educated in the nation’s schools. Worse, the entire plot itself appears to have been hatched in an immigrant ghetto in neighboring Belgium.

As shocking as this realization might be, it serves to drive home an important point—namely, that we are dealing here not merely with conventional conflicts arising from problems of identity and insufficient integration.  What we have here are the complex outcomes of an autonomous global economic order that respects no sovereign, no culture, no affiliation, and recognizes no imperative other than its own self-referential reproduction.

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Unless we begin to see terrorism as a pathological reaction to the manifold problems spawned by an indifferent global economic system, we would remain blind to the structural conditions that sustain terrorist cells. The problem is world-systemic, and complex.  We need to sharpen our instruments of self-observation, and keep our eyes open for those evolutionary shifts in the various functional domains of global society that signify the promise of a better world.

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TAGS: Apec 2015, G20, Globalization, paris attacks, United Nations Climate Change Conference
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