The Dark Side of Globalization

What the Media Are Missing

by Jerry Mander

Economic globalization involves arguably the most fundamental redesign and centralization of the planet's political and economic arrangements since the Industrial Revolution. Yet the profound implications of these changes have barely been exposed to serious public scrutiny or debate. Despite the scale of the global reordering, neither our elected officials nor our educational institutions nor the mass media have made a credible effort to describe what is being formulated, to explain its root philosophies or to explore the multidimensionality of its effects.

The occasional descriptions or predictions about the global economy that are found in the media usually come from the leading advocates and beneficiaries of this new order: corporate leaders, their allies in high levels of government and a newly powerful centralized global trade bureaucracy. The visions they offer us are unfailingly positive, even utopian: Globalization will be a panacea for all our ills.

Meanwhile, the diverse opposition to globalization is lumped together in one ball -- whether they are environmentalists, or human rights advocates, or small businesses, or small and indigenous farmers, or people trying to sustain the vestiges of democratic governance; whether Perotites or Naderites or Buchananites, covering a wide political spectrum -- they are all combined into a single category, "protectionist," so as to be summarily dismissed. In the end, we are left with a public information climate that is exceedingly shallow and one-sided. Worse, we are left with a corporate protectionism that does not act to protect jobs, communities, democracy or the natural world. It works to protect and expand business freedoms, to circumvent democratic control and to establish effective transnational corporate governance.

The recent passage of the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), with its associated W.T.O. (World Trade Organization), was celebrated by the world's political leadership and transnational corporations as a sort of global messianic rebirth. They have proclaimed that these new ruling structures will bring on a $250 billion expansion of world economic activity, with the benefits trickling down to us all. "The new rising tide will lift all boats" has become the dominant economic-political homily of our time.

The global economy is new, but more so in scale than in form. It offers new global freedoms of mobility and investment to corporations and banks; it facilitates a technologically enhanced speedup of global development and commerce; and it produces a profound and abrupt shift in global political power beyond the reach of even large Western democracies. Surely it is something new that the world's democratic countries have voluntarily voted to subordinate their own democratically enacted laws to the W.T.O. Also new is the elimination of most regulatory control over global corporate activity, and the liberation of currency from any nation's controls, leading to what John Cavanagh has described as the "casino economy," ruled by currency speculators.

But the deeper ideological principles of the global economy are not so new; they are only now being applied globally. These rules include the absolute primacy of exponential economic growth and an unregulated "free market"; the need for free trade to stimulate the growth; the destruction of "import substitution" economic models (which promote economic self-sufficiency) in favor of export-oriented economies; accelerated privatization of public enterprises; and the aggressive promotion of consumerism, which, combined with global development, faithfully reflects the Western corporate vision. The guiding principles of the new economic structures assume that all countries -- even those whose cultures have been as diverse as, say, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Sweden and Brazil -- must row their (rising) boats in unison. The net result, as Helena Norberg-Hodge argues on page 20, is a global monoculture -- the homogenization of culture, lifestyle and level of technological immersion, with the corresponding dismantlement of local traditions and self-sufficient economies. Soon, everyplace will look and feel like everyplace else, with the same restaurants and hotels, the same clothes, the same malls and superstores, the same TV, the same streets choked with cars and the same universal materialistic values. There'll scarcely be a reason ever to leave home.

But can this system work? Will the promised economic expansion resulting from GATT actually happen? If so, can it sustain itself? Where will the resources -- the energy, the wood, the minerals, the water -- come from to feed the increased growth? Where will the effluents of the process -- the solids and the toxics -- be dumped? Who benefits from this? Will it be working people, who, in the United States at least, seem mainly to be losing jobs to machines and corporate flight? Will it be farmers, who thus far, whether in Asia, Africa or North America, are being maneuvered off their lands to make way for huge corporate monocultural farming -- no longer producing diverse food products for local consumption but coffee, grains and beef for export markets, with their declining prices? Will it be city dwellers, now faced with the immigrant waves of newly landless peoples desperate to find -- someplace -- the rare and poorly paid job? Can ever-increasing consumption be sustained forever? When will the forests be gone? How many cars can be built and bought? How many roads can cover the land? What will become of the animals and the birds? Are we -- as individuals, as families and as communities and nations -- made more secure, less anxious, more in control of our destinies? Can we possibly benefit from a system that destroys local and regional governments while handing real power to faceless corporate bureaucracies in Geneva and Brussels? Will people's needs be better served from this?

The German ecological philosopher Wolfgang Sachs argues in his book The Development Dictionary that the only thing worse than the failure of this massive global development experiment would be its success. For even at its optimum performance level, the long-term benefits will go to only a tiny minority of people who sit at the hub of the process and to a slightly larger minority that can retain an economic connection to it, while the rest of humanity is left landless and homeless, groping for fewer jobs, living in violent societies on a ravaged planet. The only boats that will be lifted are those of the owners and managers of the process; the rest of us will be on the beach, facing the rising tide.

Given the above, one would expect massive efforts by media and educational institutions to explore all the dimensions of this subject. Yet when the mass media report on some aspect of globalization, rarely does the story express the connections between the specific crisis it describes and the root causes in the globalization process itself.

In the area of environment, for example, we read of changes in global climate and occasionally of their long-term consequences, such as the melting polar icecaps (the real rising tide), their expected staggering impact on agriculture and food supply, or their destruction of habitat. We read too of ozone-layer depletion, the pollution of the oceans and the wars over resources such as oil and, perhaps soon, water. But few of these matters are linked directly to the imperatives of global economic expansion, the tremendous increase in ecologically devastating global transport (caused by universal conversion to export-oriented production), the overuse of raw materials or the commodity-intensive lifestyle that corporations are selling worldwide via the culturally homogenizing technology of television and its parent, advertising. Obfuscation is the net result.

I personally have had some harsh experience of this obfuscation. While working with Public Media Center in the run-up to the vote on GATT, my colleagues and I were preparing educational ads about GATT's environmental consequences, particularly the way it can challenge existing major environmental laws, such as recently happened to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Clean Air Act. We collaborated on the project with fifteen environmental groups who signed the ad, among them the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, Earth Island Institute and the Rainforest Action Network. The groups felt the campaign was important precisely because the media had carried so few stories about environmental opposition to GATT, and did not take it seriously.

Shortly after our first ad appeared in The New York Times, a report in Newsweek advised its readers that the advertisement was not really from the environmental community at all; it was secretly funded by labor union "protectionists." Public Media Center protested loudly, and finally Newsweek ran a small corrective notice. But the damage was done. A good opportunity to broaden the public's thinking about economic globalization was undermined.

Other notable examples of media misunderstanding include the coverage of the Barings bank debacle of 1995 and the Mexican financial crisis of 1994-95. Rarely has any medium made clear the role that the new global computer networks play in creating the capability for instantaneous transfer anywhere on the planet of astounding amounts of money; nor do the media describe the consequences of deregulating financial markets or the role that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund play in creating the conditions that encourage currency speculation. The Mexican story was carried in the U.S. press as if the United States' "bailout of Mexico" was some kind of do-gooder act on our part: good neighbors coming to the aid of our Mexican friends. In fact, the main people bailed out were Wall Street investors, who, with the direct complicity of the World Bank and the I.M.F., largely brought on the crisis in the first place. For middle-class and working-class Mexicans, the bailout was disastrous. That story has yet to be told by the mass media.

Some publications did do stories about "corporate greed" as expressed by the firing of thousands of workers while corporate profits and executive salaries soared. Even those stories missed the crucial point that corporate restructuring is directly hooked to the imperatives and mobilities provided by the new rules of globalization, and that it is happening all over the world. Obfuscation yet again.

The media like to speak of immigration crises, but there is no mention of the role of trade agreements in making life impossible for people in their countries of origin. NAFTA, for example, was a knockout blow to the largely self-sufficient, small-scale corn-farming economy of Mexico's indigenous peoples -- as the Zapatista rebels said in 1994 -- making previously inviolate indigenous lands vulnerable to corporate buyouts and foreign competition. In India, Africa and Central and South America, World Bank schemes have displaced whole populations of relatively prosperous peoples to make way for giant dams and other mega-projects. Millions of small farmers have thereby been turned into landless refugees seeking nonexistent urban jobs.

As for the role of technology, we now have global computer networks that enable global corporations to keep their thousand-armed enterprises in constant touch. Biotechnology brings the corporate patenting of new life forms and the voracious global search for indigenous seeds and plants to patent and market, with devastating effects on Third World agriculture, ecology and human rights. Where are the reports on this?

As for reportage about corporations themselves, the media treat corporate figures mainly as glamorous celebrities and speak respectfully in the new language of consolidation -- efficiency, structural engineering and downsizing -- rarely attempting to present such activities within their economic and social context. The media have still less to say about global media corporations that place Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and very few others in a position to transmit their Western images and commercial values directly into the brains of 75 percent of the world's population. The globalization of media imagery is surely the most effective means ever for cloning cultures to make them compatible with the Western corporate vision.

But if the media have failed to connect the dots and show how many of the global crises of today have their roots in the globalization process, they have been still worse in analyzing the economic theories that underly it, and their expression in practice. We may find references to World Bank loans to Third World countries, but there is scant effort to reveal the draconian "structural adjustment" rules forced on recipients, leaving their local economies decimated and their governance under the dominion of transnational corporations and banks.

And when have mass media ever challenged the preposterous idea that, on a finite earth, an economic arrangement based on limitless growth can possibly be sustained?

The point is this: The media do not help us to understand that all these issues -- overcrowded cities, unusual and disturbing new weather patterns, the growth of global poverty, the lowering of wages while stock prices soar, the elimination of social services, the destruction of wilderness and wildlife, the protests of Maya Indians in Mexico -- are products of the same global policies. They are all connected to the economic-political restructuring now under way in the name of accelerated free trade and globalization. This restructuring has been designed by economists and corporations, encouraged by subservient governments and will soon be made mandatory by international bureaucrats in Brussels and Geneva who are beyond democratic control. All claim that society will benefit from what they are doing. But the authors in this special issue of The Nation believe the opposite is true.

In such a deprived information environment it is truly a wonder that significant numbers of people are already conscious of what economic globalization means to them, and to the planet, and that resistance is necessary. Aside from the example of the Zapatistas, we have seen the strike by hundreds of thousands of French public service workers in 1995, who brought the French economy to a halt. They may soon do it again, if the French government proceeds with its plan to cut wages, benefits and jobs to "harmonize" them with Europe's single-currency agreement, itself an integral part of the restructuring and corporatizing of the European economy for global compatibility.

In Japan, tens of thousands of rice farmers protested when supports were removed from traditional farming to open the country to the global market. In India there have been a series of tremendous demonstrations by farmers. A half-million protested the new GATT rules on intellectual property that allow for transnational seed companies to patent and own indigenous seeds. In another demonstration, farmers burned the offices of agribusiness giant Cargill, and in a third, they damaged a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet for its role in undermining India's very diverse poultry farm economy, to replace it with factory farms for exporting chickens.

Throughout Asia and South America, indigenous people have been fighting World Bank dam and irrigation projects that cause the displacement of people from their land; and a new international Native movement is opposing the taking of Indian blood and skin samples by corporations prospecting for commercially applicable and patentable genetic traits.

In the United States, meanwhile, dozens of organizations that worked to oppose NAFTA and GATT have spent the past two years broadening their sights to encompass globalization itself. Environmental, consumer, human rights, labor, small business and economic justice groups are now grasping that their issues are directly affected by globalization, and are forming new partnerships here and across borders. Organizations like the International Forum on Globalization have found that events planned for 300 people are bringing out thousands.

A growing tendency among many groups is to take it as axiomatic that we must turn away now from globalization to a new relocalization with economic, financial and political power rooted in place. This is sometimes viewed as too utopian for the modern world, but that puts the case backwards. What is truly utopianism, corporate utopianism, is the belief that centralized economic models that defy natural limits and social equities can ever sustain themselves. It's far more practical to fight such schemes in all of their manifestations, while encouraging alternative solutions.

Jerry Mander is a senior fellow with Public Media Center, San Francisco, and co-founder of the International Forum on Globalization. He is co-editor, with Edward Goldsmith, of The Case Against the Global Economy, forthcoming from Sierra Club Books in September. This article was adapted from the book. Copyright 1996 Sierra Club Books.

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