The Common Good
May-June 2002

From Conquistadors to Corporations

by Richard Parker | May-June 2002

Wanna do something about globalization? You might start by learning a little history.

If we are to talk about "globablization" today, we must first talk about death. What happened in New York and Washington, D.C., last Sept. 11 has squarely put before us the true scale of the moral and human issues this process called "globalization" entails. Let me share with you some simple facts:

Over the course of this coming year, more than 50 million—50,000,000—people will die of preventable disease or malnutrition, human beings the United Nations estimates needn't have died had someone been willing to spend just a dollar or two per person for food or medicine.

To give some perspective, 50 million dead is greater than the total casualties of World War II. It is eight times greater than the Holocaust, about which we all rightly insist "Never Again." It amounts each year to 13,000 World Trade Centers, which must also never be forgotten. And yet—year after year—this loss of life goes on not merely forgotten but unknown to all but a tiny fraction of Americans.

Of those 50 million who will die, there is an even more painful fact: More than 12 million will be children under the age of 5. That's 1 million children needlessly dying every month, a quarter million every week, nearly 40,000 children every day.

 

THE WORD "GLOBALIZATION" is a perfectly modern term, unpoetic, efficiently neutral and technical, a description of what many even now believe is a natural, and therefore inescapable, process going on around the planet—a "golden straightjacket," as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls it, that only the foolish and malign refuse to accept. Globalization is also often described as new, the consequence of amazing technological, informational, and market advances unknown even a quarter-century ago.

But contrary to that conventional wisdom, globalization is not a new phenomenon: It is at least half a million years old, and began when our prehistoric ancestors walked out of Africa, into the Middle East, Europe, and Asia—and eventually Australasia and the Americas. Long after that first-stage globalization, human beings gradually settled down in fixed communities and territories and began exchanging hunting and gathering for farming.

Now a new sort of "globalization" started. It was the exchange of culturally specific knowledge and things, cultivatable plants and domesticated animals, weapons and jewelry, tools and toys, techniques for casting pots and weaving cloth and shaping metals, and stories—crucial stories about who we are, why we are here, who we worship and obey, and why. This second stage of globalization, of course, is hardly new either—it had been underway for at least 15,000 to 20,000 years before Christ's birth.

The period today that we vainly imagine is so new and revolutionary is only the latest chapter in a fourth or fifth stage of globalization, a wave that began in Western Europe 500 years ago.

There are of course undeniably "new" things about the world we live in today. Yet what so many briskly talk about as characteristically modern—as signs of our "new global era"—in fact rest on long-established patterns and achievements. Even those larger features we think are most distinct about our own global era today—the immense trade flows, or the instant information of the worldwide Internet, or the electronic financial markets that send billions coursing around the globe—all have a longer and deeper heritage than most of us understand.

Take global trade, for example. America's international trade is basically no greater today under George W. Bush than it was under Teddy Roosevelt a century ago, measured as a percentage of gross national product. The total volume of trade has grown—but so has the economy.

The same with international finance. We're so accustomed to being told breathlessly—and more recently anxiously—about the latest in the "new" world of global capital markets that we forget such markets were well developed by the time of the American Civil War.

The mid-19th century, after all, was a time when English investors poured money into Canadian railroad bonds, Rhodesian cattle ranches, and Ceylonese tea plantations; when Americans bought German chemical firms and sold sophisticated textile looms to Egyptians, opened hotels in Shanghai and telegraph companies in Mexico City; when the French invested in Russian and Chinese manufacturers, Senegalese farms, Caribbean plantations, and New Caledonian mines. In other words, there's a reason why highly regarded economic historians such as David Landes and Jeffrey Williamson have long tried to remind this ever-amnesiac culture of ours that the late 19th century—not the late 20th century—was the first great "Golden Age of Global Trade and Investment."

Likewise, the great global "Information Age" we are told started only yesterday was already 150 years old when Bill Gates launched Microsoft. It wasn't the personal computer that created the Information Age—it was the steam-driven rotary printing press, an invention from the days of Napoleon that brought not just to the West but to the world mass-circulation newspapers, magazines, and books. Thanks to the steam press, the total number of newspapers and magazines exploded, from fewer than 1,300—almost all in Western Europe and North America—to more than 30,000 across the planet. Meanwhile, the average price of a book plummeted 90 percent, creating thereby not only an immense new world of voracious adult readers but the ability to provide textbooks to millions of new students—a revolution that began spreading literacy across the planet at an unprecedented rate.

There's more. When someone starts bubbling on to you about "The Internet Revolution" and about its amazing abilities to move information and ideas around the globe almost instantly, gently stop that person and simply repeat this name: "Samuel Morse." Because it was Morse, again in the early 19th century, who was the true "global networking" revolutionary—long before Cisco or Yahoo or dot.coms. Before Morse, information traveled little more quickly than it had for thousands of years—by land, at the speed of a horse, by sea, at that of a sailing ship. Before Morse, for example, the fastest a message could travel from New Delhi to New York was four to five months—God, a fast ship, and the weather willing. By the time Morse died, copper telegraph lines spanned the continents and the oceans—and that same message now went from Delhi to New York not in four to five months, but in four to five seconds.

 

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT to understand that globalization is not new? Comprehending our present era as another stage in a process that is 500 years old in one way (and more deeply 500,000 years old in another) means that you and I can look backward for patterns and connections, for trends and similarities—and most important draw on the richness of our traditions, our ancestors, our values, and our faith to shape this world as those before have tried to do, living in that same faith.

Think back to what happened 500 years ago that gave birth to the present era of globalization. Of course, that era has largely been about the expansion of West European power across the globe—and not some vaguely mutual and equal process of all peoples. After Columbus, African fleets did not sail off to conquer India. Incan traders did not land in France and carry back slaves and gold to Peru. The Chinese did not begin exporting opium to England (as England once did to China), and Indonesia did not colonize Holland for its spices.

In short, we would all be more honest if we talked about our present era as part of the 500-year-long chapter involving global "Europeanization," not the "globalization" of all. The values, logic, and technology, and the social, political, and economic forms that are today remaking the world originated in Western Europe (or its North American child), not somewhere else.

Second, we need to see how the legacy of specific changes in European-born political, economic, and value structures—not some "natural" process—continues to define the current global era. One hundred years ago, just half a dozen European states—Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Portugal—ruled empires that directly or indirectly controlled 60 percent of the world's population and territories. Today those political empires are gone, and there are more than 200 nation-states in their place.

Yet here's a conundrum: Since those empires ended, global economic inequality has worsened, not gotten better. Since 1960 alone, the income gap between rich and poor states has doubled, leaving the richest states controlling more global income than they ever did back when they directly ran colonial empires—while more than a billion people today survive on less than $1 a day, and two billion more live on less than $2 a day.

For most of us, that reality should be profoundly troubling. After all, as Americans, not only do we worship the ineffable majesty of Progress, we deeply believe that our own early escape from colonial domination was central to our success and affluence as a people. So why has it not been so for others?

We know, of course, that much of the world over the past 500 years paid a terrible price for its subjugation by European empires—the enslavement of millions of Africans and the decimation by disease of millions of Native Americans being merely two of the more familiar examples for Americans. The great economic takeoff of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries owed much to technological innovation and enormous effort and industry, to be sure—but it owed much as well to exploitation and consequently uneven patterns of development imposed by the West that unfairly used the economic wealth of others for our own ends.

In the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries, the immense capital accumulation that funded the new technologies that gave birth to the Industrial Era in the West relied on resources transferred from the poor throughout the world. Fortunes that were invested in the new factories were made first in tobacco, coffee, tea, sugar, minerals, and land that relied on slavery, indentured labor, and—frankly—outright theft on an unimaginable scale. For example, in the United States alone, by 1860 slaves were the second-largest form of wealth after land itself—that is, human slaves were greater in value than all U.S. manufacturing plants or all the railroads combined.

Many thought that this would all change with the end of these great Western empires. But less has changed than one might have hoped. After World War II, as more and more colonies won their freedom, they entered our "Europeanized" world unprepared by their old colonial masters. For example, the Congo—on the day Belgium set it free in 1960—had exactly 12 college graduates among a population of more than 14 million. Moreover, these new nations were born amidst a global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later China) in which each superpower valued the loyalty of its allies over the greater good of national democracy and just economic development.

The Soviets and Chinese had their own horrible client states—Albania, Romania, Cambodia—but the United States was certainly no innocent in this world. The Shah in Iran, the Marcoses in the Philippines, the endless list of Mobutus and Pinochets, Somozas, Korean generals, and Greek colonels were free to steal, torture, and abuse because, as Lyndon Johnson once so colorfully said of one of our client leaders, "Well, he may be a son-of-a-bitch, but at least he's our son-of-a-bitch."

The price of this "our son-of-bitch" policy—and its corruption of the fragile tendrils of both democracy and egalitarian economic development in newly liberated colonies—had led by the 1970s to a vast system of military and oligarchic regimes across the developing world that was not only condoned but actively supported by the United States. Our intelligence services trained and equipped their torturers, our military schooled their death squads, and our bankers happily deposited and hid the immense wealth they freely plundered. In the 1970s we permitted and even encouraged an immense perpetration of evil—an evil that filled shallow mass graves in Guatemala with highland Indians and the torture chambers of SAVAK (the Iranian secret police) with students in Iran, that sustained pestilential civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, wars whose machetes and land mines killed 40 civilians for every combatant, and that led Argentine and Chilean soldiers to push the broken—but still conscious—bodies of their opponents out of helicopters at 10,000 feet.

Today the old "evil empire" of Soviet communism is gone, and there has been an important flowering of at least modestly democratic regimes in the developing world. In this, there is reason for hope and celebration. But, lest we forget, the political cost of blocking and overthrowing democracy in the name of anti-communism wasn't the only price billions of Third World poor were made to pay. There was—and is—an economic price as well, that took a brutal new rise with the explosion of global oil prices in the 1970s. Entire economies without their own oil supplies ground to a halt—or began borrowing heavily from New York banks and Washington's multilateral financial institutions to maintain energy imports in a desperate race to outgrow poverty faster than their debts came due. With all but a handful of exceptions, those countries lost the race—creating in the process a global debt crisis that the West resolved by forcing on the developing world harsh new lending conditions.

These conditions—which famously came attached to "structural adjustment programs" meant to generate "export-led growth"—required poor countries to make massive cuts in education and health care, in road and hospital construction, and simultaneously raised heavy new taxes on their poor and middle classes, while cutting taxes on their rich. "Structural adjustment" also meant opening domestic markets to Western goods and reorienting domestic production away from local markets toward exports designed to earn hard currency that would pay down the old debts incurred by the energy crisis.

Given the intoxication leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan encouraged with radical deregulation and worship of "the market" in its most primitive form, no one bothered to notice at the time that while such structural adjustment policies followed a certain kind of microeconomic textbook logic to the letter, it was a logic on paper that had never worked in practice. The successful rapid growth of the world's first capitalist economies such as Britain, Germany, and the United States in fact had never relied on such structural adjustment models—nor had Europe's recovery after World War II, nor Japan's explosive growth in the '60s and '70s, nor the phenomenal rise of the so-called Asian Tiger economies in the '70s and '80s—and certainly not the monumental growth of China in the '80s and '90s.

In fact, every developmentally successful economy in the last 200 years had protected its domestic markets from "free trade," limited currency convertibility, used tax and labor policies to lessen inequality, poured billions into education and physical infrastructure, and used the size and power of its government to favor industries, technologies, and regions considered important to national development, and in dozens of ways limited the unadulterated power of private markets and private wealth that, like the Golden Calf, has been worshipped so freely in this past quarter-century.

 

TODAY, OF COURSE, the World Bank and others freely acknowledge the failure of these structural adjustment programs they were promoting just a decade ago—and have even, in limited ways, apologized for the damage their punitive and pious economic fundamentalism caused. But in some ways the apologies have come too late: All across the Third World, the schools have closed, the rural medical workers have been dispersed, cheap food imported from the West has driven millions of farmers into cities, and the cities—lacking consumers—have failed to create the jobs needed to feed the hungry mouths who cry out. As a result:

• 100 countries have undergone economic decline since the 1970s, with sub-Saharan Africans alone living on 20 percent less than they did 25 years ago.

• Worldwide, of 4.4 billion people in the developing world, 3 billion live on less than $2 a day, 1.3 billion on less than $1, and 840 million go hungry. Three-fifths lack basic sanitation, a quarter lack adequate housing, and a third will die before reaching the age of 40.

• Meanwhile, wealth and income has become so much more concentrated both in rich countries and among the rich in poor countries that the U.N. now estimates that the 15 richest individuals are worth more than the combined GDPs (gross domestic products) of all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Globally, as a consequence of these profoundly misguided policies, the numbers of very poor during the 1990s alone grew by nearly 500,000,000.

 

MORE THAN A century ago, a powerful new wave of reform emerged that radically reordered power and wealth and reshaped the balance between public and private as well as the weak and the strong. Beginning in the 1880s and accelerating right up to World War I, an amazing campaign of renewal swept the nation. Democratic and justice-driven to its core, it reasserted the values of the U.S. founding fathers and took Lincoln as its patron saint—it sought nothing less than the "reconsecration" of what its leaders took to be America's uniquely covenantal history.

Historians today call that period "the Progressive Era"—but in its own time, millions more called it, this glorious covenantal renewal, simply "the Social Gospel era." And in truth it was—explicitly and unapologetically—a determined, systematic, and detailed application of mainline Protestant values to a new urban, industrial, and globalizing world. Moreover, the achievements of that Social Gospel movement have ever since defined American life.

The hard work of building and realizing the Social Gospel movement was done by the committed Christian social scientists and philanthropists, the reformers, journalists, and politicians whose faith led and sustained them. It was a remarkable period—one in which the confidence of America's mainline Protestant leaders led them to associate Christian moral teachings with scientific advance and social and political reform. It was an era of leaders who saw in the achievement of justice on earth manifest signs of the heavenly kingdom in which they believed as Christians—leaders who passionately believed they had not only the right, but the obligation, not merely to witness but to alter the course of human history.

Today, more than a century later—and in the wake of Sept. 11, facing hard years and daunting challenges ahead—we would all do well to reacquaint ourselves with the achievements of that Social Gospel era, and the men and women who led it. There is much talk of the potential of "faith-based organizations" nowadays, too little of it (in my opinion) well-focused, too much of it sentimental. What the Social Gospel did was deeply faith-based, yet everywhere visionary and practical at once about the powerful and subtle relation between religion and democracy and the central role of renewed democratic government—not as enemy or even competitors of any faith, but—when rightly led—the instrument of all faiths' most generous instincts.

The German sociologist Max Weber visited America in the early 1900s and saw much of what the Social Gospel era achieved. He knew there would always be skeptics, those who doubted that vision could accomplish much. For such doubts, however, he left a timeless reminder.

"We shall not succeed," Weber wrote, "in banishing that which besets us—the sorrow of being born too late for a great political era—unless we understand how to become the forerunner of a greater one."

 

Richard Parker, an Oxford-trained economist, is senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This article is adapted from a September 2001 speech before the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, USA. Portions appear in the new book Waging Reconciliation: God's Mission in a Time of Globalization and Crisis (edited by Ian T. Douglas; Church Publishing, Inc., 2002).

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