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Paradoxes Of Globalization

By Md. Saidul Islam

07 June, 2007

Globalization is a process by which capital, goods, services, and sometimes labor cross national borders and acquire a transnational character. It is often accompanied by the flow of related taste, ideas, and even values across boundaries, thus helping to reshape local political institutions, social relationships, and cultural pattern.

As summarized in McMichael (2004), both proponents and opponents of globalization can discern the following characteristics: (a) a Washington-based consensus among global managers/policy-makers favoring market based rather than state-managed development strategies; (b) centralized management of global market rules by the G-8 states (the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, and Canada); (c) implementation of these rules through multilateral agencies (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization); (d) concentration of market power in the hands of Transnational Corporations (TNCs) and financial power in the hands of Transnational Banks (TNBs); (e) subjection of all states to economic disciplines (trade, financial, labor), varying by position in the state system (North/South/East), global currency hierarchy, debt load, resource endowments, and so forth; (f) realization of global development via new gender, race, and ethnic inequalities; (f) a counter-movements at all levels, from marginalized communities to state managers to factions even within multilateral institutions, contesting and second-guessing unbridled market rule.

While in one sense globalization is not a new system as capital was global since the inception of capitalism few centuries ago, we can find many novel trajectories of capital movement in the today's world. One of them is the "electronic herd", a concept used by Thomas L. Friedman in his classic book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree". Friedman is one of the great proponents and a high priest of globalization, and also quite paradoxically a hard-core supporter of Iraq War. While the book is one of the most prominent ones written to vehemently support and propagate the process of current globalization, it does not escape itself from the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in the process.

Globalization is, to Friedman, a dream for sale: the middle class American lifestyle. The assumption is that the whole world can buy and live with it. This dream can be realized by sharing the global economic space dominated by the USA. The dominant economic and political partner of globalization is the USA, and one can reach there sooner or later. The logic he presented is, the "electronic herd", the new electronic technology, which is the "driving force" of interdependence.

While technology is an important component of social change, it may not be the "driving force" as propounded by Friedman. How to use technology and for what purpose are not determined by technology itself, but by people who control it. Whether nuclear technology would produce power (electricity) or warheads ( e.g., in World War II for domination and control) was decided by those who controlled it. By attributing an agency for social change to technology, Friedman attempted to shift the blames of global disharmonies created by globalization from the actual perpetrators to technology itself.

Friedman continued, there was interdependence in the old economy which was based on manufacture. However, electronic technology in today's globalization is qualitatively different from before, as it has "a major shift from manufacture to services" across national boundaries. Therefore, "labor mobility is no longer as important as it was in the past (as you can get your services in Singapore, Bangalore…; slaves need not to be brought from Africa). Capital can go where labor is."

This assertion of Friedman also gives rise to a number of questions and paradoxes: First, while sometimes capital moves to different places to exploit cheap labor, evidences shows, however, that it dos not remain there for long time. Secondly, contrary to what Freedman said, labor movement is in fact more important, and therefore creates more concern, than any time before. It is one of most important issues in the NAFTA, and the European Union to guard Mexican labors. The USA calls them "illegal aliens". However, not a single company in the USA can run without these "illegal aliens". Paradoxically, today's borders are tighter than before to guard labor migration. Guest workers, sex trade etc. are now crucial and critical issues in the age of globalization. Finally, we can only find the qualitative difference between old economy and current globalization; however, relations of production, exploitation, and maximization of profit before people remain the same. Globalization is nothing but an "old wine in a new bottle" as McMichael (2004) coined.

Friedman argues that a country's resource is no longer tied down to natural resources so long as there are resources in the minds of its people (i.e., human capital). And therefore, mental resources (ideas), (and not the natural resources), are most important today for development. Again, this kind of argument seems quite persuasive, however occludes other side of reality. First, mental resources (ideas) are important today, but material resources, Iraq's oil for instance, are more important than anything. Secondly, countries such as Iraq or South Africa, which have important natural resources, have paid, and still paying, the highest price in the era of globalization. There is a direct connection between the availability of natural resources and sources of prosperity and misery. If natural resources are not important today, so many Iraqi lives would not have been disappeared. Finally, Friedman seems to say, "Hey, you do not need to think of your natural resources if they are exploited by corporations. As long as you have mental resource, it's enough!"

Friedman further added, this mental resource can be obtained by anyone from any country due to the blessings of globalization. Therefore, no country has to remain poor. In other words, "poverty is a matter of choice." However, evidence and analysis shows that poverty is not a matter of choice. People working in the sweatshops and earning less than a dollar per day, and remaining in poverty is not a matter of choice. The social structure or the relation of production is the most important thing while addressing poverty. Friedman's logic blames the victim—the poor, and sanctifies the oppressors and system that perpetuate a vicious circle of poverty.

This new technology, as Friedman thinks, has increased the power of the investors. Capitalists today are more integrated. Electronic herds (people who control technology) can exercise more influence on countries' economic and social sectors. They are the driving force on 21 st century and it marks a new phase of international relations (different from cold war): not international rivalry but global integration. "International relation is no longer marked by cold war, but by integration, not by military technology, but by economic technology."

Again, Friedman's declarations are fraught with numerous contradictions: First, Cold War was actually a hot war. Both superpowers developed weapons which can destroy the world in few seconds. Instead of removing poverty, they both made bunkers and deadly weapons. One side thinks, human dignity comes from private property and free market, while other side thought private property destroys human dignity. In the current era of globalization, Cold War is replaced by a new war for global dominance. Second, Friedman was wrong when he said that current international relation is based not on international rivalry but on global integration. Historical evidence shows that worst forms of dictators have been installed and supported by global managers which create more tensions in their regions. Third, "The new world is characterized by electronic technology, not by military technology!" Absolutely wrong assertion. Most sophisticated electronic technology today is military technology. "Military industrial complex" is the most dominant feature in today's society. Often military and economy are fused into one, as they go hand in hand. Capitalism, colonialism, and military conquest all go together. Preparing for war while competing for free market is the history of capitalism and modern globalization. Even after Cold War, capitalism is not peaceful, as Freedman thinks. War is an active part of globalization for the capitalists to maintain their domination. Afghan war, Iraq War, Lebanon war--all are happening in Friedman's "peaceful world".

Friedman in his book argued that the new phase of globalization is "free market". There is no alternative to free market economy today. If you follow it, you will get "Lexus", but if you don't, you will be crashed, and hang on the "Olive tree". Electronic technology is not without flaws. But it can correct itself. Herd can not be stupid for long time, he added.

"Free market" is a deceptive connotation as all countries do not have free access to market, while capital seeks free access to exploit labor. Therefore, "free market" wants abolition of governments' intervention and control. In current globalization, free market is only for powerful corporations and powerful countries. Some critiques argue that the world has never been, and will never be, a free market. They think, there is always a viable opposition to free market. If free market is to operate freely, it will destroy humanity. Following Friedman's argument, we can say that the herd can correct itself; however, the price for correction is very high. More than 20 million died alone in World War II. Finally, there are always tensions between different corporations, as they compete with each other. Tensions in capitalism can never be resolved, as critics argue.

Because of globalization, Freedman agues elsewhere, the "wretched of the earth" can to go the Disney land. What he means is that the poor and destitute people of the earth can become like Americans, and get a Lexus, as globalization creates greater economic opportunities, tolerance and individual autonomy.

Evidence shows that Friedman's propagation is nothing but a "mere dream" and a form of deception, as even in the USA the middle class is gradually shrinking. On the other hand, the middle class/Disney land is now moving to the wretched of the earth. From priests to prostitutes all are selling their labors in capitalism as long as their labor is valued in the market. The capitalists will move to any place where labor is poor and cheap. Jobs are now leaving the USA as companies are moving to countries like India, and China. Despite having enormous wealth, the USA enacted legislation in December 6, 2005 that put 200,000 poor Americans in dire hunger as $140 of food subsidy was eliminated. It also slashed medical and childcare coverage. Statistics shows, poor people in the USA increased by 37 million in 2005. More than 600,000 children cannot have enough food in the USA. More than 7 million more poor people added in 2006.

Therefore, Friedman's assertions are one-sided, ideological, and biased. The assertions reveal one side of the reality to mask and occlude another side of globalization, which is fraught with exploitation, inequality, mass poverty, hunger, blood and tears.

Md. Saidul Islam is a PhD candidate in Sociology at York University, Canada. He can be reached at

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