Few words elicit more controversy and less understanding than “globalization.” It’s a good thing, argue most economists. A few others, like the Institute for Advanced Study’s Dani Rodrik (The Globalization Paradox), say, maybe not so much. It’s an inevitability, argue most, if not a fait accompli. A few others still argue that it can be stopped.
Thing is, there’s not a lot of agreement about what “it” is. Some conceive it merely as increasing interconnections, in many ways, across national boundaries, while others see it in more starkly economic terms. All seem to agree that something big is happening.
Something big is, indeed, happening, and it is causing lively debate in scholarly circles on questions as fundamental as the surrender of national sovereignty, the future growth of the world economy at the expense of impoverishing billions, and both the value and the very definition of free trade.
Many argue with considerable force that we have entered the age of a new mercantilism. Scholars on the right don’t like it, because classically, mercantilism (the dominant trade pattern of the European powers from the 15th through the 18th centuries) is characterized by state controls and protectionism. They miss the point and mischaracterize events.
What is happening – has happened already, in some significant cases – is the subordination of the nation-state to the interests of a corporatocracy. Governments in the developed world often work, not for the good of the people directly, but for the furtherance of the goals of large, multinational corporations who happen to fly their national flags.
Few are the prominent figures who will say this quite so bluntly, yet, but the facts seem to support the thesis.
Rodrik, in fact, feels compelled to defend the very idea of the nation-state, because “The nation state has few friends these days. It is roundly viewed as an archaic construct that is at odds with 21st-century realities.” He concludes that the nation-state still has some uses. Some lonely voices suggest we need stronger national and international regulatory institutions.
Large corporations have to agree with Rodrik for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that some level of governance, however minimal, is necessary for the conduct of business. The argument can be made, and often is, that we could use a little more. The second reason is a bit less abstract: governments do things that corporations need, and that, without taxpayer support, they would have to do for themselves. Typically it is governments, not corporations, that build roads and bridges. They also, conveniently, supply armed forces, which corporations need rather frequently. When an American president speaks of protecting Americans and American interests, he means corporate interests, chiefly. Sometimes he will take the idea to extremes: repeated armed interventions in Latin America to keep banana plantations under the oppressive control of U.S. companies. Even that sort of thing sometimes isn’t enough, so corporations are prepared to field their own armies if necessary. Monsanto, the GMO giant, reportedly hired the mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater to keep tabs on people who question its aims.
The fact, however is that the balance of power between nation-states and corporations has shifted quite dramatically. The Brothers Koch and their like are working night and day to accelerate the trend, but they have the wind at their backs. The British Empire is a distant memory. The Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin’s ego and ambitions notwithstanding, won’t be coming back. The American empire, to the extent it can be said to exist, is fading. Yugoslavia is – what, now, four or five different countries? Iraq cannot hold together. Catalans want to separate from Spain. The United Kingdom, even, is fraught and fraying. Nation-states are getting smaller and, perforce, weaker. International cooperation is no less imperiled. The United States does not pay its bills to the United Nations, and no one who can afford to ignore them abides by its mandates. The future of the European Union is far from certain.
Corporations, meantime, are merging at record rates and exercising powers most empires would envy. Often they negotiate directly with governments with little direction or interference from institutions like the State Department or the Office of the United States Trade Representative. PBS’ Frontline has teamed with Pro Publica to produce Firestone and the Warlord, a documentary about how the company negotiated with Charles Taylor, then becoming a brutal dictator, to save its 2,200-square-mile rubber plantation in Liberia. It’s not that Firestone was necessarily wrong, or that government people would have done anything different or better; the point is that the government was irrelevant.
Banks deemed too big to fail in 2009 are much bigger, yet, at this writing. Represented by their rather poorly paid footmen in Congress, they argue that the problems caused by a lack of regulation can be solved by more deregulation.
BP, the British petroleum giant that was responsible for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, is weaseling out of its obligation to the American taxpayers. This, among other factors, makes it a takeover target. Unbelievable.
The case rests here, but the trend toward corporatocracy is inescapable and gathering steam. We wage slaves are not going to like the future very much.