Tuesday, August 02, 2005

History still hasn't ended

John Gray throws cold water on Tom Friedman and the whole globalization-leading-us-to-utopia mindset. He compares it to its most obvious global economic utopian antecedent, Marxism, and finds it shares some of the same flaws:

It is an irony of history that a view of the world falsified by the Communist collapse should have been adopted, in some of its most misleading aspects, by the victors in the cold war. Neoliberals, such as Friedman, have reproduced the weakest features of Marx's thought—its consistent underestimation of nationalist and religious movements and its unidirectional view of history. They have failed to absorb Marx's insights into the anarchic and self-destructive qualities of capitalism. Marx viewed the unfettered market as a revolutionary force, and understood that its expansion throughout the world was bound to be disruptive and violent. As capitalism spreads, it turns society upside down, destroying entire industries, ways of life, and regimes. This can hardly be expected to be a peaceful process, and in fact it has been accompanied by major conflicts and social upheavals. The expansion of European capitalism in the nineteenth century involved the Opium Wars, genocide in the Belgian Congo, the Great Game in Central Asia, and many other forms of imperial conquest and rivalry. The seeming triumph of global capitalism at the end of the twentieth century followed two world wars, the cold war, and savage neocolonial conflicts.
Unfortunately the problems of globalization are more intractable than those of corporate life. States cannot be phased out like bankrupt firms, and large shifts in wealth and power tend to be fiercely contested. Globalization is a revolutionary change, but it is also a continuation of the conflicts of the past. In some important respects it is leveling the playing field, as Friedman's Indian interlocutor noted, and to that extent it is a force for human advance. At the same time it is inflaming nationalist and religious passions and triggering a struggle for natural resources. In Friedman's sub-Marxian, neoliberal worldview these conflicts are recognized only as forms of friction —grit in the workings of an unstoppable machine. In truth they are integral to the process itself, whose future course cannot be known. We would be better off accepting this fact, and doing what we can to cope with it.

This essay argues some compelling points: That globalization isn't pretty, and that history is richly complex and unpredictable, driven not just by economies but by nationalistic passions, cultural and religious traditions, and perhaps now increasingly by global environmental stresses. In this distinctly American world-historical moment, this self-evident truth is something that we - and our leaders - tend to forget or ignore.

Thanks to Frank Foer subbing for Andrew Sullivan for the link.