John Ralston Saul Takes On Globalization

‘I hate definitions,” says John Ralston Saul. This is not helpful. I’ve asked him to define “globalization” as he uses it in his new book The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World. Globalization is, by any definition, a controversial, complex and challenging subject and it’s made all the more difficult by the fact it can mean many things. If a writer doesn’t spell out the term, the discussion can quickly become, as Shakespeare put it, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Fortunately, Saul is only being coy. He actually does have a precise definition in mind. He simply prefers — in person and in the book — to circle around artfully before getting to it. “What does Globalization mean?” he writes in The Collapse of Globalism. “Defining received wisdom is often a scholastic trap. Worse still, as the British Liberal John Morley put it a century ago, ‘if you want a platitude, there is nothing like a definition.’ It is better to come at the subject in context.”

This is classic John Ralston Saul. Graceful writing, wit, erudition and intuitive leaps — across time, space and subject — are the qualities his legions of fans adore and they will not be disappointed by The Collapse of Globalism, already on bestseller lists in Canada and soon to be published around the world. For those who like this sort of thing, as Abraham Lincoln once wrote, this is the sort of thing they like.

Artful circling concluded, Saul gets to the point: The “globalization” he dissects is globalization as an ideology. It is “Globalism:” The neo-conservative dogma that sees everything through the narrow prism of free-market economics.

Markets will drive history, the Globalizers say, leading us toward ever-greater international trade. Growth and prosperity will spread across the Earth. Wars and conflicts will fade. Nation-states will shrink in importance and ugly nationalism will slip into the pages of history. Democracy and freedom will flourish.

“In short,” Saul sums up at the end of a two-page checklist of Globalism’s promises, “freed from the fetters of willful men, we will be able to follow our individual self-interests toward a life of prosperity and general happiness.” All that is needed to hasten our arrival in this Promised Land is to privatize, deregulate, cut taxes, shrink government — all to unleash the liberating vigour of the free market.

The big idea animating The Collapse of Globalism is Saul’s belief that modern history can be divided roughly into three eras. The first is the postwar period that lasted into the early 1970s, when the idea of the public good, not just economics, informed public policy. Social welfare systems grew. Economic growth was strong and unemployment low.

Globalism came about, he writes, when public administrators daunted by the crises of the early 1970s — from the oil squeeze to rising unemployment to “stagflation” — shrivelled into visionless technocrats. Seizing the moment, free-market ideologues aggressively promoted the Globalist ideology and Globalism dominated the public policy agenda from the mid-1970s until the late 1990s.

But after three decades in power, Saul says, Globalism hasn’t brought us Utopia. Soaring trade hasn’t produced soaring growth. Unemployment has worsened. So have Third-World poverty and debt. And instead of peace, there has been a steady proliferation in war.

Disillusionment has set in, Saul writes, and the faith is collapsing. For the first time in decades, doubts about the wisdom of putting the free market before all else have seeped into official circles.

So what comes next? Saul shrugs. He wants people to realize the Globalist dogma is slipping from its pedestal and it’s time to consider the world anew. “We are in this interim period when, if we really think about it, we might be able to come up with something that’s workable.”

Commentators so far have grappled only with the breadth and width of Saul’s considerable vision, but there’s another level on which one must examine The Collapse of Globalism. It is the level of raw fact, the realm not of Olympian thinkers but grubby journalists and policy wonks. Vision, theory and philosophy are grand, certainly. But even the most magnificent argument will crumble if it is constructed on a foundation of factual errors.

The Collapse of Globalism, alas, is a remarkable demonstration of this inescapable truth.

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“The most obvious failure of Globalization has been its failure to maintain employment,” Saul writes. “In 1973, the OECD had 10 million unemployed job seekers … Through the 1980s, the numbers ranged from 29 to 30 million. During the 1990s, it was mainly in the mid-30s. Already in the new century it is rising toward 40 million.”

These numbers are meaningless. They do not take into account the substantial population growth that occurred in OECD member countries over 30 years. Nor do they account for the growth in the OECD’s membership: In the 1990s alone, Mexico, South Korea, Poland and several others joined the organization. So it’s to be expected that total unemployment among OECD members is higher. What matters is whether the unemployment rate is rising.

A recent OECD report answered that question at least for the period between 1991 and 2003. “In almost all countries,” it concluded, “unemployment rates rose in the early part of the 1990s but have been falling since.”

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Saul makes a similar mistake in looking at severe poverty. He concedes that the number of people in the world living on a dollar a day has declined substantially during the past two decades, but he notes the number living on two dollars a day has risen. “So the total of those living in basic poverty has actually grown from 2.5 to 2.7 billion under Globalization.”

But during the same period, the planet’s population grew by 1.6 billion — to 6.4 billion people from 4.8 billion. So Saul’s numbers actually show that the rate of poverty dropped: From 52 per cent of the world’s population making less than two dollars a day to 42 per cent. A 10-per-centage-point decline in worldwide poverty should be treated as the good news it is.

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Saul claims wars and conflicts have steadily proliferated in the Globalization era. This proves, he says, that those who says international trade reduces international conflict — including both today’s Globalizers and many 18th- and 19th-century philosophers — are wrong.

In fact, it is Saul who is wrong. “War between countries is much less likely than ever,” Monty Marshall of George Mason University recently told the New York Times, “and civil war is less likely than at any time since 1960.” Marshall’s conclusions are based on a biennial survey of war called Peace and Conflict published by the University of Maryland, a survey that has found that the number and intensity of conflicts has fallen every year for the past 15.

After the Second World War, international and civil wars followed very different trends. The number of civil wars rose steadily and rapidly until 1992. A sustained drop followed.

The number of international conflicts, meanwhile, generally stayed low and stable since 1945. In recent years, it has dropped slightly. Growing trade probably has something to do with the degree of peace between nations: “There is strong evidence that countries that trade with each other are less likely to fight each other,” writes Macartan Humphries of Columbia University.

The only evidence Saul presents to support his claim that conflict is spreading is based on a study of the number of people killed in wars and conflicts since 1945. Saul calculates that 18 million were killed between 1945 and 1970 but 22 million died between 1970 and 2000. This proves bloodshed is on the rise, he says.

Assuming Saul’s numbers are accurate, how can they be reconciled with the fact that the number of wars is low and falling? One mistake he has made is to compare a 25-year period with a 30-year period. More importantly, his numbers again fail to take into account exploding population. In 1950 there were 2.5 billion people on the planet; in 2000, there were 6 billion. Even if the rate at which people were killed in war had dropped in half between 1945 and 2000 — a wonderful trend, indeed — the number of people killed would still be higher.

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Saul is also wrong to write that the debt-to-export ratios — the best measure of a country’s debt burden — of the most indebted countries “have just kept on multiplying.” According to the World Bank, the trend among middle-ranking and poor countries from 1990 to 2003 has generally been positive, so the debt burden has actually been getting lighter. The trend among “heavily indebted poor countries” is particularly good, thanks in part to a relief program instituted in the 1990s. It may be absurd that these debts haven’t been written off entirely by rich countries, but it’s just not true that the burden has only gotten heavier.

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Saul blames the tragic failure of Europe to integrate immigrants on Globalism. European technocrats brought “guest workers” to Europe without giving any thought to integration, he writes, because they assumed they could treat the workers like spare parts to be added and removed from the economic machinery as needed. But the workers turned out to be humans with thoughts of their own. Many stayed and formed communities that remain alienated today.

It’s not a bad analysis except that Saul says recruitment of guest workers coincided with the beginning of Globalization “in the early 1970s” and reflected the new Globalist thinking. Unfortunately, he has the dates wrong. Recruitment started in the early 1960s and it stopped precisely when Saul says it started. So the blame lies not with Globalists, but with the postwar governments Saul admires, including that of Konrad Adenauer, the German chancellor Saul singles out as a contrast to the small-minded technocrats of the1970s.

One point Saul is surely right about is his insistence that there’s more to life than economics and that progress should be measured by more than Gross Domestic Product. Oddly, though, he never takes a serious look at such key indicators as democracy, freedom, health and education.

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A good measure of democracy and freedom in the world is the annual survey of political and civil liberties produced by Freedom House, a respected NGO based in Washington DC. By coincidence, this survey was launched at the beginning of what Saul calls the dawn of the Globalist era.

In 1973, Freedom House rated 44 countries as “free,” while 42 were “partly free” and 65 were considered “not free.”

These results steadily improved every year for the past three decades. Today, there are 89 free countries, 54 partly free and 49 not free.

It should be noted that the total number of countries also increased between 1973 and today and that plays a small part in the numbers. But the trend away from dictatorship toward democracy and freedom is unmistakable.

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What about health and education? According to a United Nations human development report, child death rates dropped by half between 1965 and the turn of the century. Life expectancy increased by a decade.

In the developing world, the combined primary and secondary school enrolment ratio more than doubled, while the proportion of children in primary school rose “from less than half to more than three-quarters.” Adult literacy rates rose from 48 per cent in 1970 to 72 per cent in 1997.

Even in sub-Saharan Africa — which Saul describes as “collapsing” — there are positive signs. Charles Kenny, a World Bank researcher, found that despite AIDS and the other evils that afflict the continent, many social indicators have shown great improvement. Infant survival rates, under-five survival rates, life expectancy, enrolment in primary school: All have taken turns for the better. Some have dramatically improved. What’s more, Africa improved on these scores more quickly than the developed world did during the same period, closing the gap somewhat between the continent and the rich countries.

On the economic front, Africa has suffered, as Saul rightly notes. But even there, the story is not all woe and misery. “In the last decade,” notes the Report of the Commission for Africa prepared under British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s direction, “16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have seen average growth rates above four per cent, including 10 with rates above five per cent and three with rates above seven per cent.” For some strange reason, people don’t want to hear good news about Africa, but it’s there.

None of this is to deny that the world has seen terrible failures, follies and outrages during the past three decades. Nor is it to say globalization deserves a crown of golden laurels: How much of the good news cited above can be credited to globalization and how much is the result of unrelated factors is an enormously complicated question I can’t even begin to answer.

But that complexity is precisely the issue. The relentlessly negative portrait of our times drawn by Saul — and some other leftish critics — is false. It is far too simplistic. The reality of the past three decades is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. It is complex.

That complexity defies Saul’s notion of dividing the past 60 years into three eras. How, for example, can he account for the fact — unmentioned in the Collapse of Globalism — that during the period he calls the Globalization era, the slice of the economic pie consumed by governments actually got bigger (as measured by the OECD average of total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP)? If Globalism was such a dominant power, surely western governments should have shrunk drastically. But they didn’t.

Or how can Saul’s framework explain the fact that social spending didn’t plunge during the supposed reign of Globalism? In fact, the OECD average soared until 1980, grew slowly until 1993 and declined only very modestly to 2001. It’s still far higher than at the alleged beginning of Globalization. This is hardly what one would expect of an era in which the Margaret Thatchers of the world held the levers of power while the ghost of Ayn Rand danced a jig.

Many other facts don’t fit Saul’s framework. Agriculture, for example, is one of the world’s biggest industries but governments continue to control and manipulate it with tariffs, subsidies, marketing boards and countless other schemes that give free-traders fits. If the Globalists have had the run of the planet for the last 30 years, why has there been so little movement toward a free market in agricultural goods?

The Collapse of Globalism has no answer. In fact, Saul does mention that the rich world uses agricultural tariffs to block poor nations from selling their produce but he somehow manages to blame these tariffs on the allegedly Globalist status quo.

There’s a word for that kind of reasoning. It is “tendentious.” And tendentiousness is the root of the problem with The Collapse of Globalism. Saul treats globalization not as a phenomenon to be studied but an enemy to be crushed and he handles facts accordingly. Those that do not add to his frightful portrait of the foe are ignored while anything that does is dragged up front and centre, even when doing so requires the author to struggle mightily.

There’s some unpleasant irony here. Throughout The Collapse of Globalism, Saul chastises Globalizers for being simple-minded. They cannot see or appreciate complex realities, he says, because they are blinded by dogma.

It’s hard to disagree when one thinks of, for example, the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and the IMF and World Bank technocrats who imagined they could restructure nations with templates, charts and textbooks but not the slightest understanding of those nations’ history and culture. Globalism did spawn a great deal of nonsense. And Saul is also right that the Globalist congregation is shrinking– one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in IMF or World Bank headquarters who would defend the ideological zealotry of 20 years ago.

But rather than explore the complex realities, Saul has fashioned his own simplistic theory and pursued it as dogmatically as any 1980s IMF analyst with a clipboard and calculator. If nothing else, The Collapse of Globalism successfully demonstrates the dangers of getting carried away with an idea.