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The Collapse of Globalism: And the Reinvention of the World

by John Ralston Saul

After decades of incessant talk from pundits about the inevitability of multinational capitalism, many have come to consider globalized market forces to be as unavoidable as, say, gravity. Corporate and public institutions have linked their hands tightly in an unceasing, frantic dance, removing trade barriers, cutting regulatory “red tape,” boosting prosperity, and supposedly lifting all boats.

That’s how it’s supposed to run, in any case, and it seems awfully gauche to challenge the overall scheme. The economists have spoken. We may argue with individual policies, but no serious person would deny that the world continues to become a better place.

But the public intellectual should never be concerned with what serious people are saying, and in The Collapse of Globalism John Ralston Saul rises to our historical moment with principled and irreverent dissent. Not only is the ideology of globalism failing us, he argues, but it has, in fact, already failed. His new book is many things: an intellectual history of the movement, a rumination on historical perspective, and a broad program for what to do next.

In the past generation of international relations, Saul sees a near-religious obsession with economics and a collective willingness to ignore the facts of our own lives. But he gives much credit to the pseudoscience of management and its takeover of the public sector. “If leadership is reduced to management, well, then, problems are not to be solved,” he writes. “They are to be managed. In fact, they are no longer problems.”

The hard-nosed imperative of global economics has made it easier for governments to skip tough decisions that might combat this global wisdom, minimize the continuing recessions of the 1990s, and ignore comparisons to the high-tax, high-growth postwar era.

This, he argues, is a fundamental reorganization of society around an economic model – specifically, the model of unrestrained capitalism. Saul captures its various ideals in a two-page, note-perfect “Summary of the Promised Future.” Among them are the contradictory promises of an increase in democracy and a weakening of the nation-state.

But this only makes sense if you ignore the question of the public good. Democracy, writes Saul, involves citizens making choices on fundamental matters, like how their society treats its poor and vulnerable. “Weaken the nation-state through the idea of inevitable international forces and you cannot help weakening your democracy.”

Saul argues that we should be aiming at the public good as an ideal, as some goverments are already doing with models of “balanced development.” That means resisting market forces, and, as he points out, India and China have done quite well indeed by taking their own oblique paths to liberalization.

The Collapse of Globalism is most provocative when Saul assails the fortress of numbers that defend globalization. Yes, international trade is at unprecedented levels, but perhaps 60% of that “trade” consists of multinational corporations moving around goods and services. Yes, foreign exchange is sky-high, but a solid majority of it is pure speculation. Yes, wealth continues to be created, but much of it in the ether of corporate mergers and acquisitions – not entrepreneurship but “coupon clipping.” What growth there has been has not translated into high employment, improved middle-class standards of living, or job security.

Such tendentious arguments, combined with Saul’s wide-angle view of history, demand a certain amount of the reader’s trust. But he rarely takes the reader’s agreement for granted. While Saul’s arguments tend toward abstraction, he doesn’t neglect hard facts or cultural trends that fit awkwardly into the narrative of globalization. Take the permanent state of low-level conflict across the world and the undeniable rise in racial and ethnic tension during the 1990s.

In Saul’s view, it is time to make some important decisions about how we are to shape our societies. The moment is ripe for new ideas and a new, collectivist social model that’s open to outside influences. After all, Saul knows how the inevitable can quickly become forgotten. Take this description of a free-trade paradise: “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth…. [He] regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement.”

Contemporary as they sound, these words describe not our own period of thriving global trade but the one that preceded the First World War – they are from John Maynard Keynes’s The Consequences of the Peace, and all the more striking for how his economic insights have been belittled by globalists. Saul would like to save us from a similar fate, and this book will make a contribution. The Collapse of Globalism is striking in its scope, lucid in its analysis, and passionately intense.