Saturday, February 11, 2006

Review: The Collapse of Globalism

[John Ralston Saul. The Collapse of Globalism: And the Reinvention of the World. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2005.]

I have a soft spot for John Ralston Saul because he contributed to my politicization. Reading his Voltaire's Bastards was an important proximal step in taking a second-year biochemistry student who was rather underwhelmed with his academic path and unsure of where he wanted his life to go, and tipping him towards...well, towards where I am now, which is to say still quite unsure about where I want my life to go, but at least quite a bit more practically and intellectually engaged with the social and political world than I was back then.

Saul's politics served as a catalyst in a particularly propitious moment, but the space defined by his worldview was never really a resting place for me. I still appreciate his clever writing and his occasional understated mocking of those closer to the levers of power than himself. I still think that reading his writing is a useful way to learn about how the world works, as long as you are careful to mentally compensate for his deficiencies. And I still enjoy the way he is able to approach issues in novel ways, to tease out new insights and encourage new and important ways of thinking about things even if I disagree with some of his underlying assumptions.

This book, his latest, takes as its starting point the idea that the neoliberal globalization pushed with bubbling enthusiasm by Western elites after the mid-'70s and the supposedly borderless and prosperous world that it promised has, a few die-hard ideologues aside, largely collapsed and we are in a period of transition between one Big Idea and the next. This change of direction may not be immediately obvious because elites haven't gone out of their way to advertise to their populations that things are different, in part because a new course has not yet gelled. Still, a close examination of facts and behaviours shows that many mainstream politicians no longer share quite so completely the ideological enthusiasms of a particular set of academic economists as they did, say, in the mid '90s. He argues that we must do what we can to ensure that wherever we head next -- and it seems to be a sort of renewed nationalism -- involves a much greater space for rational choice and the public good than the last three decades has allowed. He traces the trajectory of globalization, with particular attention to what its proponents have said it is and could be. He shows how its proponents have been right and how they have been wrong or even foolish. Most usefully, he relates this particular historical period to the larger ebb and flow of history over the last few centuries.

All of which is well and good, and I think useful to a non-specialist lefty such as yours truly in understanding shifts in power and practices and history at the global level. But.

Saul is, it seems to me, an example of liberal-democratic thinking at its best. He is willing to go farther than most who claim that mantle in actually putting in to practice the often undeserved reputation the tradition has for skeptical and critical thought. But despite that, he is still unable to escape some of the tradition's longstanding limitations.

For example: He is willing to see systemic causes for suffering and death under systems that called themselves Communist, which is a good thing, but refuses to see systemic causes for suffering and death under capitalism. At what point does a system's tendency to repeatedly create situations of starvation, disease, massacres, and other forms of suffering and death become enough for it to be recognized as an inherent feature of the system rather than a series of discrete policy issues? If you're asking liberals and the system in question is capitalism, the answer appears to be never.

Another example: I definitely appreciate his tendency to connect the present to the past. That is something that people across the ideological spectrum do too seldom and too simplistically, and when he does it I always learn. But he never identifies his standpoint explicitly or acknowledges that the particular rhythms of history to which he connects the present are those most relevant to Western elites and Western white middle-classes. The most important rhythms of history, and therefore the most important way of conceptualizing current political problems, would likely be seen quite different from an indigenous North American standpoint, for example -- though details have shifted somewhat over time, the basic structural determinants of why life on the rez is oppressive, and in fact why indigenous peoples live on reserves at all, were much the same in 1925 and 1935 and 1965 and today. You could similarly argue that for populations in Asian and African nations, the points of continuity in their relationships to the imperial nations of the West over the last few centuries are much more important to understanding both past and present than exactly what mechanisms have been used to dominate them in any particular era. Anyway, I still feel it is important for me to learn about the rhythms Saul talks about simply because the dominant nature of those standpoints mean they shape life for everyone. It is basing one's analysis and political practice only on the dialogue between that present and that past that leads to very limited political decisions in the present.

Yet another example: At one point he makes some statement about how the return in significance of nationalism, particularly what he describes as "negative nationalism," is indicative (I'm paraphrasing him) of race once again becoming an important marker of belonging. The idea that certain kinds of nationalism and certain more overt uses of racism seem to be resurgent since, say, the mid-'90s is an important observation, but there are lots of folks who would be pretty surprised to learn that there has been a recent historical period in which it has not been an important marker of belonging or a basic structuring force in North American and European society. Again, a whole multitude of standpoints and analyses and political practices are effectively treated as not worthy of our consideration by this statement, and any analysis or political practice that proceeds on the basis of this statement will reinforce those oppressions.

A final example: I don't know the literature particularly well, but I'm pretty sure that some of the holes that he points out in the rhetoric of the proponents of globalization were identified quite some time ago, if with somewhat different framing, by leftist commentators. For example, I'm pretty sure that some writers coming out of Marxist traditions pointed out quite early on that globalization never for a second meant the withering of the state, whatever its propaganda claimed. Rather, it always intended the transformation of the state. To steal an expression from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu via Paul Street, it meant a deliberate and enforced starvation of the left hand of the state and empowerment of the right hand of the state. A more active engagement with neoliberal globalization's longstanding critics from the margins would have made the book more useful to me.

So, yes...I'm not going to argue that this is a must read. Certainly for me, at this stage of my life, it is the sort of book that I would pick up in a bookstore, flip through, and inevitably put back down, but I am quite happy to have received it as a gift and to have had a chance to reacquaint myself with Saul's thoughtful, witty prose, and with his particular take on the state of the world.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

1 comment:

Ricia said...


yes. i'd like to go out and get me this one too. thanx!