Review

From Asia to Zurich, there's no place to hide

One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism
By William Greider
Simon & Schuster 
New York

Question: What do metalworking unionists in Zurich, Muslim women in Malaysia, and peasant-farmers-turned-aircraft-parts-makers in China have in common?

Answer: Like the rest of us, they are being swept up in a powerful process of social and economic transformation unleashed by the globalization of capitalism - a process that, depending on our collective willingness to control it, could lead to a worldwide economic collapse or to new heights of global prosperity.

That is the general thesis, at least, of a new book by William Greider, entitled One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism.

"Every nation, especially the wealthier ones, promotes its own version of national arrogance, a natural self-centeredness that is very difficult to set aside. But global commerce undermines - and perhaps will someday destroy - the ancient, nativist stereotypes by which different peoples are ranked and rank themselves." 

-- William Greider

A respected if somewhat iconoclastic journalist whose previous books on economics and politics have won numerous awards, Mr. Greider traveled extensively to gather facts and details - and especially to talk with individual workers and managers - in an effort to understand and explain how the rapid expansion of world markets and finance are affecting people and communities in virtually every nation, at all levels of society.

His conclusion (although no summary can really do justice to what Mr. Greider painstakingly lays out in 528 pages): that the globalization of business and enterprise is a revolutionary force - akin to the sort of transformations wrought in the past on a country-by-country basis by such developments as steam power, the assembly line, and/or the proliferation of the internal combustion engine - that is today remaking the world's entire social and political order.

"The essence of this industrial revolution, like others before it, is that commerce and finance have leapt inventively beyond the existing order and existing consciousness of peoples and societies," writes Mr. Greider, who is national editor at Rolling Stone magazine in the United States. "The global system of trade and production is fast constructing a new functional reality for most everyone's life, a new order based upon its own dynamics and not confined by the traditional social understandings. People may wish to turn away from that fact, but there is essentially no place to hide, not if one lives in any of the industrialized nations."

Although many books in recent years have pointed to similar themes and trends, what makes Mr. Greider's book especially interesting is the way he brings a reporter's eye to the subject. By visiting factories, union halls and homes around the world, he explores what effect the globalization of industry is having on the lives of individual people, giving a human face to the processes that others mostly theorize about.

That reporting, coupled with a sharp eye for big picture trends, brings home the book's central message: that we are indeed rapidly becoming "one world" - "ready or not." Assuredly, if there are still serious thinkers who have doubts about this process, the concrete details and close-up observations provided by Mr. Greider in this book will go far to help them visualize the real world impact of globalization, and especially to see that economic globalization cannot be had without similar transformations in the social, political and even spiritual realms.

For example, Mr. Greider visits an American-owned semiconductor factory outside Kuala Lumpur and observes how the surprisingly high technology jobs it has provided to Muslim women are gradually introducing major changes in their cultural life. While describing how young women in ankle-length dresses and traditional headscarves don spacesuit-like overalls to begin the exacting, clean room routine necessary to the manufacture of silicon chips, Mr. Greider quotes an American manager, Roger Bertelson, who describes how the process of recruitment and training and motivation for this sort of work required certain changes in regional social norms.

"'We had to change the culture,' Bertelson said, 'because the Malay home does not encourage women to speak out. The daughter is supposed to have babies and take care of her husband. The idea was to break down the resistance to speaking out. We use positive reinforcement, just like you would work with school children. First, convince them that you are going to listen to them. Then we have them stand up before their peers for recognition.'"

Or consider the changes in a remote Chinese village, where peasant farmers have been taught to produce world-class aircraft parts for Boeing. Although many of the workers at the Hongyuan Forging plant in Shaanxi Province still live in houses with thatched roofs and keep goats for the milk they produce, and although the factory they work in is located in a series of caves - a site chosen in the 1960s as a shelter from nuclear attack - they are able to produce high-tech titanium-alloy support struts for the engine mounts on new 747s.

Again, as is frequently the case in the book, some of the keenest insights come from the people that Mr. Greider quotes. "'Since we have business with Boeing,'" says Kang Feng Zio, the factory's general manager, "'this makes us upgrade our forgings so our technology is very close to the world standards… We intend to develop our company as the biggest in China, the biggest in East Asia. I think in this way - the way of the market - it won't be long before China will have great changes.'"

These two scenes also illustrate a central point of the book: that modern industrial techniques have in some ways empowered people everywhere - again, illustrating that we are one world. As Mr. Greider writes: "The global system of production is teaching a powerful lesson: people everywhere are capable, everywhere in the world. Every nation, especially the wealthier ones, promotes its own version of national arrogance, a natural self-centeredness that is very difficult to set aside. But global commerce undermines - and perhaps will someday destroy - the ancient, nativist stereotypes by which different peoples are ranked and rank themselves."

One downside of all of this is that for many workers in industrialized countries, the availability of so many capable people around the world tends to push wages down, in many cases leading to the elimination of their jobs. Mr. Greider illuminates the quandary faced by high wage workers when he visited a meeting of the International Metalworkers Federation in Zurich. Delegates from some 90 countries had gathered to celebrate 100 years of solidarity and to adopt an "action program" to confront global capitalism. But, writes Mr. Greider, their "reunion seemed more melancholy than celebratory, for it mainly delineated how the globalization of production has dismantled a century's work, the collective mobilization of workers."

The problem, writes Mr. Greider, is that as much as the unionists want to support the idea of solidarity with fellow metalworkers around the world, the fact that Asian workers are able and willing to accept much lower wages than their European and American counterparts, and that multinational companies are accordingly relocating factories from Europe and American to Asia as a result, has virtually destroyed the leverage that unions once had in fighting for higher wages and better working conditions.

Mr. Greider quotes an Asian financial analyst, Rodney Jones, who observes: "'Where is it written that white guys in Britain are entitled to $15 an hour and five weeks of holiday while Asians are supposed to work for $3 a day… Asian workers are now part of the global economy and the West will simply have to adjust to this fact.'"

Mr. Greider also offers an extended economic analysis as to why and how these trends are happening. Some of this analysis is straightforward. Mr. Greider notes that investors and businesspeople, in their drive for an ever greater return on investment, have raced far ahead of governments and other regulatory institutions. Events ranging from the fall of Communism to the development of the Internet have opened new markets and accelerated the pace of business, and investors and corporations increasingly operate without regard to national borders or nationalistic loyalties.

But some of Mr. Greider's observations are more controversial. He argues, for example, that in their reach for global markets corporations may well have overextended themselves in many areas, building too many factories in the chase after too few dollars. The result of this over-capacity, Mr. Greider writes, could well be a global economic collapse.

In addition to the possibility of collapse, Mr. Greider finds other faults in unregulated global capitalism. He echoes those critics who say capitalists too often prosper at the expense of the poorest of the poor, those peoples and nations who have no hope of even getting into the race to make a high-tech aircraft part or a knock-off Walkman stereo tape player. And he is concerned that without consistent international standards for labor safety, the exploitation of workers on the next rung up will grow worse. In one chapter, he writes about workers in Thailand who, for $2 or $3 a day, make small stuffed toys for the American market in sweatshop conditions - conditions that in 1993 led to a horrific factory fire that killed some 188 people. Americans worry obsessively over the safety of their children, writes Mr. Greider, yet they took no "interest in the brutal and dangerous conditions imposed on the people who manufacture those same toys, many of whom were mere adolescent children themselves."

His prescription calls, first and foremost, for a general recognition that the world has become one, not only in its markets but also in the social and cultural effects that stem from its interdependence. He then calls for increased regulation of international financial markets - although he stops short of proposing any specific new institution or agency to do this, other than urging national governments to "reassert" their power to "regulate players in the global market" while at the same time "embracing the internationalist perspective."

He also calls for a number of specific measures, such as writing off entirely the debt that has been accumulated by poor nations, reforming central banks so that national monetary policy around the world emphasizes the needs of workers instead of "the prerogatives of stored wealth," and refocusing "national economic agendas on the priority of work and wages, rather than trade or multinational competitiveness." Mr. Greider also argues for a much increased push to "democratize" the ownership of corporations, principally through employee profit-sharing plans, which he believes could be a key tool for increasing worker involvement while maintaining international competitiveness.

From a Bahá'í point of view, Mr. Greider's work is important on several levels. First, his recognition of the world's oneness, and clearheaded argument that we must first and foremost recognize this fact, is an echo of what Bahá'ís have been saying for more than a hundred years.

Likewise, a number of his prescriptions parallel long-standing Bahá'í proposals. Bahá'ís have long promoted the idea of profit-sharing as a key tool for creating unity and justice between capital, management and labor. And his call for some kind of increased world governance or authority, halfhearted though it may be, is consonant with Bahá'í belief that our emerging world unity does indeed require equivalent structures for global governance at the international level.

At the same time, however, if there is a flaw to the book - beyond the various disputes over Greider's interpretation of economic theory - it lies in his presumption that it is merely the unleashed mathematics of deregulated economics and the market system that are causing the profound changes known collectively as "globalization."

From a Bahá'í point of view, this puts the cart before the horse. Bahá'ís would assert that the engine of change is driven not by economics but by the reality of human oneness, which is itself a spiritual process that has gradually become manifest over the last century.

Yet, toward the end of the book, Mr. Greider does come close to identifying the role that ethics, consciousness and spirituality have to play in understanding and, ultimately, healing the effects of globalization.

"Traveling around the world, between moments of euphoric wonder and dread I began to sense that a new ideology is struggling to be born - a new global consciousness…that is still weak and unformed, too undefined to even have a name," he writes. This consciousness, he writes, cannot be called socialism or even environmentalism, although it incorporates elements of both, nor can it be wholly expressed by the new ideas about justice emerging from feminist thinkers or the sense of global solidarity promoted by unionists. "The world's great religions might contribute important elements to this new way of thinking," he adds, "except their theologies still often reflect the tribalism that exalts faithful followers and demonizes nonbelievers."

Rather, he writes, a new global ideology would start "by accepting that, ready or not, we are all in this together." And, indeed, that is exactly right.

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