Days of Future Past – Part II

Editor’s Note. A few days ago I received an email from one of my younger brothers. While cleaning out some old files, he came across a paper which I had sent along for comment back in the spring of 1993. It was entitled At the Crossroads and had been prepared for delivery at a session of the Canadian Learned Societies on 07 June of that year.

I offer a selection of unabridged excerpts below, in hopes that readers may find them of some interest as a very early critique of the “New World Disorder”, neo-liberalism,  and what has come to be known as globalization.  For ease of handling, I have divided the post into two parts, the second of which follows:

At the Crossroads (continued)

The world may be smaller…

The global village has become crowded and unruly. The huts are ramshackle and the underprivileged precincts poorer. The profusion of ever more meagre units of political affiliation, and in particular the proliferation of dubiously viable, ethnically inspired states which have oozed from the wreckage of former federations, has greatly complicated the task of forging any consensus on new forms of international organization. With the possible exception of the UN, most of the post World War Two institutions are failing or facing irrelevance. The rational pursuit of national interests has been rendered vastly more difficult. The tribes are rising as states and institutions crumble.

Both above and below the level of national governments, powerful actors are working to subvert traditional structures. Transnational forces – corporate, financial, environmental and cultural – are sweeping across the global economic and political landscape in a great homogenizing wave. At precisely the same time, sub-national sectarian movements are splintering states into  indigestible, often unintelligible political shards. The break-up of the former Soviet empire could seem like a model of rational devolution when compared to Russia’s likely response to Chechen, Ingush, Abkazi and Ossetian national aspirations.

The machinery of government is being overwhelmed from above and dismembered from below. What was once, and always somewhat euphemistically referred to as the “international system” is reeling, staggering, stumbling over its near complete inability to accommodate a new, and very different set of demands. Economic prowess, not military might, population size or resource endowment now serves as the fundamental vector of international power and influence. All countries, particularly those saddled with the high overheads, inefficiencies and policy biases which come with the burden of bearing a military-industrial complex, are discovering that in an interdependent world, foreign policy is economic policy. Security is borne of national economic performance and environmental sustainability, while an overemphasis on defence tends towards instability by diverting scarce resources from more productive applications. There will always be a place for military capabilities, but they will no longer play a definitive role overall.

… but the edges are harder

While globalization is working to erode much of that which is distinctive and particular, a parallel process of regionalization is resulting in the creation of large, integrating blocs organized according to economic imperatives. The challenge now for all governments is to avoid being accorded a peripheral, subservient, or dependent role in the world political economy, either within nascent or maturing group (the post-Maastricht EC, NAFTA and the Japan/Asia-Pacific complex) or, worse yet, in the relative wilderness beyond (Africa, the Caribbean, and more). Consignment to one of the large tracts of the planet currently being marginalized is a worst case outcome to be averted at all costs. That said, these colossal challenges are confronting states just as their ability to respond effectively is hitting new lows. The internationalization of production and ownership, in combination with the mobility advantages inherent in capital and technology as compared to the rigidities affecting labour and the state, mean that the  battle to restore some semblance of balance will be steeply uphill.

Self-sufficiency and self-reliance, to say nothing of protectionism, are out of fashion as principles of national economic organization. In some circles they are outside the framework of acceptable debate. But the experiments in economic integration now everywhere in evidence, many going well beyond free trade, are by no means value neutral. Once tariff barriers are down, the, process leads inevitably towards deregulation, decontrol, and policy “harmonization”, mainly at the level of lowest common denominator. The protection of inefficient economic activity is much more difficult to defend than the protection of occupational health and safety standards, environmental regulations and enlightened social programs. It is precisely these sorts of issues, however, which may well crop up for adjudication before unrepresentative, unaccountable tribunals under the heading of “impediments” and “technical barriers” to trade.

Structural adjustment, policy reform and economic liberalization may sound good, but they are the consequence of the victory of the free market ethos, and with that comes some weighty unadvertised freight. In  matters of international finance and exchange, public and corporate interests do not necessarily intersect. Citizens groups, organized labour, and political parties have struggled for years to achieve much of that which is being undone; in the face of a largely unseen agenda, most have not been accorded the opportunity to decide whether more of the same represents progress or regress.