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Predatory Globalization: A Critique

by Richard Falk [Professor of International Law and Practice, Princeton University]

Polity Press, 1999

To business elites and leftists activists, globalization means the same: the expansion of capitalism around the world, backed by "neoliberal" free-market ideology. Of course, their assessments differ: elite opinion heralds its benefits, the critics lament the harm it does. In fact, according to the now-conventional wisdom among opponents of globalization, the process is inherently "predatory." In his new book, Falk accepts most of the critical party line. Globalization, he thinks, has "cumulative adverse effects . . . . on human well-being" (2). It turns states into "quasi-states" (43), limiting their ability to protect the public good. As a result, he notes despairingly, "Sweden can no longer be Sweden" (41). The unrestrained rule of market forces favors the rich over the poor, inevitably deepening world inequality into a form of global apartheid (13-5). Triumphant neoliberalism, the project of turning the world into a market system, brooks no ideological opposition. The collapse of socialist alternatives, "at least temporarily" (19), has solidified market dominance. Regional organizations are "not yet" able to counter "negative globalism" (72); the UN is hampered by numerous obstacles. The United States, "reasonably seen" by non-Westerners as a "moral cesspool" (105), continues to push the neoliberal agenda. Globalization, it seems, is not merely predatory, but unstoppable as well.

Falk, however, is an optimist. He thinks disagreement in capitalist circles at the end of the 1990s can be exploited by people with more progressive views. As neoliberal confidence declines, opportunities for change increase (8). Progressive reform can build on advances under the old system, which did improve the lives of people in parts of Asia and foster commitment to some universal principles. A new politics of resistance, practiced by many nongovernmental organizations, promotes globalization-from-below with increasing success. In support of this transnational effort, Falk offers normative principles bolstering the "rooted utopianism" of "cosmopolitan democracy." Going "beyond" free elections (147), the global democracy he envisions gives "primacy to the . . . . well-being of the whole" (61). To achieve it, Falk sketches a plan of action for a global civil society, in the form of nine "normative initiatives" (171), such as renouncing the use of force and protecting the common heritage of mankind. In this way, Falk extends his previous work on models of world order, though his focus has shifted from solving the problems of the state system to countering economic globalization.

In the emerging global debate, Falk represents what might be called the New New Left. The Old Old Left, of course, hoped for revolution through class struggle. The Old New Left of the 1960s, active mostly in industrialized welfare states, gave up this hope to pursue antiauthoritarian reform. It broadened its social agenda beyond class warfare and income redistribution to include feminist and environmental issues. The New Old Left regards the demise of communism and the looming crisis of global capitalism as an opportunity to revive socialist dreams. The New New Left shares the Old Left indictment of capitalism and its hope for greater equality. However, as Falk's work illustrates, it pursues "humane" reform to improve "well-being" from within the system, rather than a wholesale reversal of globalization, as a normative project that does not rely on "matters of political economy" (131). Like the Old New Left, the New New Left encompasses a wide range of groups and issues, all part of building "civil society," but, as Falk argues, it now constitutes a more transnational movement with a distinct global focus and aspiration.

As an indicator of the state of the debate, this book is useful. As argument and advocacy, it is less effective. For example, with respect to states Falk presents a simple scenario: they lose out to the forces of globalization; one would not glean from his book that scholars hotly debate the effects of those forces on welfare states. Falk denounces rather than explains the consequences of globalization; he does not trace any particular impact of globalization in any particular place in any detail. He conveniently attributes most of the world's ills to globalization, including the malaise expressed in the lyrics and suicide of singer Kurt Cobain (45, 54). Such shallow analysis does little to support Falk's ambitious project. Unfortunately, his normative advocacy is not much more persuasive. Never engaging any specific "neoliberal" argument, Falk preaches to the choir. The move to global democracy, he implies, will be all gain, no pain: not once does he ask what his alternatives might cost, who will have to give up what, or how the transition from neoliberalism should be managed. Cruelty unrelated to economic globalization or oppression in actually existing dictatorships appear to hold little interest for him. At a time when the world's most populous country still suffers under a grossly undemocratic regime, sloppy moralizing about global democracy seems both premature and misdirected.

This book falls short of Falk's ambition to provide the politics of resistance with a solid normative platform. It may serve to inspire some anti-globalization activists with its humanistic rhetoric, but they will not find here a clear conception of a new world order and a detailed map for getting there. Perhaps, in its current phase, the opposition to neoliberalism can assume that the strength of its cause does not depend on the quality of its arguments. But if neoliberalism is as strongly entrenched as Falk and his comrades think, and if Western public opinion is still largely seduced by its charms, then successful resistance will require more carefully reasoned and more persuasively argued alternatives than the movement has produced thus far.


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Copyright 2000 - Frank Lechner