The Common Good
September-October 1997

Economic Futures

by Thad Williamson | September-October 1997

The dangers and possibilities of globalization.

The increasingly scarce art of solid, informative, and provocative journalism is a vital mechanism for holding elites accountable in a functioning democracy. While most Beltway pundits blather away about this week’s controversy or next week’s political ploys, former Washington Post correspondent William Greider is among the last—and best—journalists to take seriously his civic responsibility as a watchdog for the ordinary citizen.

Having exposed the fallacies of Reaganomics with his famous 1981 interview of budget director David Stockman, written what is still the most accessible and informative text on the politics of money (1987’s Secrets of the Temple), and penned the essential primer on the decay of American democracy in the 1990s (Who Will Tell the People?), Greider now turns his passion for describing the detailed workings of political and economic reality to the question of global capitalism as a whole in his new work, One World, Ready or Not?

Greider literally traveled the world to write this book. Not content to rest with simplistic generalizations from either the Right or Left about the meaning of "globalization," he opens his pages to the voices of, among others, central bankers in Germany, outlaw labor organizers in Indonesia, economics professors in Japan, debtors’ rights activists in Mexico, and even currency speculators in New York. Greider paints a multilayered, complex picture of how the global market economy is operating in the 1990s, and what this means for ordinary people worldwide.

Greider describes a world economy rollicking out of control, and in constant danger of being swallowed up in its own contradictions: For instance, while auto manufacturers have now designed factories capable of making a single car with just 18 hours of human labor (as opposed to an industry average of more than 40 hours per car in 1979), the weeks of salary it takes for an average American family to earn enough money to buy a car has increased from 18 to 28 in the past 20 years.

In a fascinating chapter that manages to inspire simultaneous feelings of wonder and revulsion, Greider uses China as a case study to illuminate the world economy. If China does not keep up its fast pace of industrial development, literally one-fifth of the globe will be destined to continued, largely abject poverty in the 21st century; what is potentially the world’s largest consumer market will go untapped, leading to a downward tug on industrial economies worldwide.

But if China does continue to develop, it will provide a source of cheap, skilled labor that will attract huge amounts of capital away from richer nations (like the United States), and in the process destroy what remains of those countries’ manufacturing capacity. This development, in turn, would likely inspire a worldwide economic downturn as well-paying industrial jobs in the wealthier countries are lost.

WHILE GREIDER IS at his best in describing the details of the world economy—why Boeing cut a long-term deal with Beijing to move jobs to China, or the economic strategy being pursued by the Malaysian government—several basic themes permeate the book. First, in strictly economic terms, the world now faces conditions similar to those that eventually triggered the Depression—an excess of supply (capacity to produce goods) over demand (capacity of people to buy them), combined with extraordinary levels of financial speculation.

Second, addressing that reality will require putting a "floor" of basic working and living conditions under the poorest of nations, to end the savage race to the bottom that characterizes capital’s search for ever-cheaper labor. Also required would be numerous top-down restrictions on corporate capital and the operations of global financial markets, which can bid the value of entire economies up and down on the basis of the hunches a few key speculators decide to play on a given day.

Third, overcoming the contradiction between the interests of corporate entities ("the economy") and the larger public good will eventually require new institutional forms for organizing economic life. Greider pins his hopes in this regard on the promise of worker (and possibly communitywide) ownership of profit-making corporations.

Fourth, and more hopeful, Greider believes that the wonders and pitfalls of globalization, in which formerly destitute peasants are turned into highly productive (if ill-paid) industrial workers, ought to teach a new, moral lesson—a lesson that might fuel a new political sensibility capable of redressing the global economy’s many harms. People everywhere are capable of making and doing amazing things, and have aspirations to dignity that are worthy of respect.

Fifth, and perhaps most difficult, Greider concludes that "the poor cannot save the earth, only the affluent minority can do that." If the worst case scenarios of the new global economy are to be avoided, citizens in the developed countries—in the United States in particular—must first recognize that their own self-interest is intimately connected with the goal of pulling up labor and living standards worldwide, and then move to establish the genuine political control and direction over both corporate and finance capital that would make meaningful reform possible.

As the book’s very title implies, Greider is well aware that the policy-making elites are not ready to heed these basic messages of what is an endlessly informative and evocative book. But the author has amply fulfilled his civic responsibility in telling "the people" what he knows; those curious enough to delve into the puzzles and particularities of how the global economy is operating will find both understanding and even an occasional ray of hope from this most humane of journalistic guides.

THAD WILLIAMSON is research associate at the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives in Washington, D.C., and a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

One World, Ready or Not? The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. William Greider. Simon and Schuster, 1997.

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