IN CHOOSING the World Trade Centre for their principal target, the terrorists were striving not merely to kill as many Americans as they could, but also to tear down a potent symbol of America's economic might, of its ideas and values, of capitalism. If the shock of the attacks and the war on terrorism that is just beginning do lead to global recession, as many fear, the West's faith in market economics may indeed be tested. If this happens, will it be right to see it as merely a brief swerve in sentiment, as one would expect in any severe economic slowdown? Or does the terrorist “backlash” against the ideology of America and the West, if that is what it was, demand a deeper response—a reappraisal, even, of that very ideology?
Some in the West are arguing that it does. John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics and a much-quoted thinker on these matters, spoke for many last week when he declared that the era of globalisation is over. “The entire view of the world that supported the markets' faith in globalisation has melted down...Led by the United States, the world's richest states have acted on the assumption that people everywhere want to live as they do. As a result, they failed to recognise the deadly mixture of emotions—cultural resentment, the sense of injustice and a genuine rejection of western modernity—that lies behind the attacks on New York and Washington...The ideal of a universal civilisation is a recipe for unending conflict, and it is time it was given up.”
Is there no limit to the crimes for which globalisation must be held to account? Not only does it oppress the consumers of the rich West, undermine the welfare state, emasculate democracy, despoil the environment, and entrench poverty in the third world; we knew all that already. In addition, we now find, it is a utopian scheme for global ideological conquest—like Stalinism, minus the compassion. Truly, the idea that people should be left free to trade with each other in peace must be the most wicked and dangerous doctrine ever devised.
Either that, or a lot of people are talking nonsense. In fact, this is a distinct possibility. Western governments do a poor job of explaining and defending globalisation—so poor as to breed disaffection with democratic politics. This does not alter the fact that the substantive charges of the anti-globalists fail to stand up. This week, we publish a survey reviewing their arguments. We had intended it to coincide with the annual meetings of the IMF and the World Bank, scheduled for this weekend but cancelled after the attacks; the article was written (for the most part) before September 11th, but in view of the links that are being drawn between the perils of globalisation and anti-western rage, we believe it remains relevant. Globalisation undermines neither the welfare state nor democracy, our survey argues; it is entirely consistent with sound environmental policies (see article); above all, far from increasing poverty in the third world, it is the most effective force for reducing poverty known to mankind.
But what about the view that globalisation is a kind of cultural conquest? This too is plainly wrong. Under a market system, economic interaction is voluntary. This is the market's greatest virtue, greater by far than its superior productivity. So there is no reason to fear that globalisation itself threatens traditional non-western cultures, such as Islam, except in so far as individual freedom threatens them. McDonald's does not march people into its outlets at the point of a gun. Nike does not require people to wear its trainers on pain of imprisonment. If people buy those things, it is because they choose to, not because globalisation is forcing them to.
In some countries, governments may see globalisation as a threat to their power as tyrants. They probably overstate the danger, but in any case we leave Mr Gray to speak for them. Where governments reflect the preferences and beliefs of most citizens, democratically or otherwise, and where those preferences call for cultural distinctness and non-western values, economic integration does not militate against diversity, least of all against religious diversity. In the West, globalisation has been running at full power for years. Has it mashed the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Japan into a homogeneous cultural putty? It has not, and there is no reason why it ever should.
This is not to say that the future of globalisation is assured. Far from it. Economic liberty suffered a terrible reverse in the 1930s, thanks to war, financial breakdown and bad government. That brought one era of globalisation to an end, and history could repeat itself. Let us at least agree, however, that if governments allow this to happen it would be a tragedy—and not for the rich West, first and foremost, but for all the poor of the developing world.
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