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The big lie
Apathy as much as manipulation has allowed the globalisation myth to flourish. Michael D. Higgins explains the urgent need for economic alternatives and stresses the importance of political activism
Michael D Higgins, 17 Jan 2002
It is one of the characteristics of the great oppressions in history that they have sought to justify themselves by invoking or creating a myth. Tyrants have justified their rule by claiming a Divine origin. The rich have justified their existence on the basis of their special attributes, which the poor were regarded as lacking. Racists have justified their hatred on the basis that those whom they perceived as different were less evolved.
Religious texts have been twisted to suit such ‘rationalisations’. In the Old Testament, the Book of Leviticus has been a rich source of justification for many prejudices, from homophobia to slavery. In the present period, the Koran is distorted to justify the most appalling oppression against women. Perhaps a common thread is that the presenters of such versions of the world describe their own situation as ‘natural’ or inevitable. Those they exclude or oppress are regarded as deviant, dangerous or unnatural. Furthermore, by exclusion and censorship they strive to obstruct all attempts at a critique of the assumptions upon which their model of oppression was based.
History reveals that the threat of naked force is but an early phase in such oppression. Censorship, however, is present at all stages. Not for nothing did the ruling class fear the printing press. As one writer put it, the oppressed were considered as likely to use their literacy to read the pamphlets of Tom Paine, as they were the Bible. Thus it was important to confine literacy to those who administered power. It was also important to exclude the possibility of women becoming literate so as to assure a male dominance and a female docility.
In the contemporary world, such oppression is less likely to be sustained by a threat of force. Rather, we are more likely to be deceived into a compliance with received versions of our world – versions we did not create. We are deceived into thinking that our world is so complex that we cannot possibly understand it and that certainly we cannot change it. Such deception is buried in the symbols of the world around us, particularly in its culture and media, in what is taken for granted. As the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor puts it, we “drift” to “unfreedom”. We sleepwalk in our world.
It is one of the interesting features of our time that we have been alerted, to some degree at least, as to the ecological damage we can do. Global warming, desertification, pollution are all clear consequences of an uncritical approach to Development based on greed. We have, however, scarcely begun to question the social or ethical milieu in which we live. The areas in which our consciousness has been raised is limited. Single issue agitation too, while admirable to a degree, has left the issues of power and its allure untouched.
It is in such an atmosphere that we are at present experiencing the creation of a new, dangerous and comprehensive myth. That myth consists of the suggestion that there is a single formula of Economic Management appropriate to all peoples and states, that this model is inevitable, that to impede its progress is to be backward and that to question its assumptions is to be subversive. Economics is so complex, it is suggested that it is not regarded as appropriate for public and democratic understanding. Just as the clerical scribes in their day mediated God to the peasantry, so we, in our day, are asked to accept a technical rendering of the economic world by alleged experts. And it is interesting that, just as the bogus scribes abused the innate spiritual impulse of the people to create a specialism, today’s free market liberal economists feel free to abuse their own subject, and indeed, language itself. Thus ‘market freedom’ is invited to defend something that is entirely contradictory to true freedom – the creation of new monopolies.
There are certain aspects of our present condition that are urgent matters for reflection and analysis. It may be worthwhile, however, to note straight away, how anti-intellectualism, and its lesser version, cynicism, plays with the hands of those who oppress. Those who have decided to absorb themselves totally in consumption, those who are encouraging a withdrawal from the political world and political action, are facilitating the continuance of a world that is deeply unequal, unjust, and amoral – that contains all the cruel stamp of unrestrained capitalism. Understanding how it sustains itself, how it reproduces itself requires work. This is a challenge that has become more difficult in recent times. Nevertheless it is essential. Furthermore, we should remember that every struggle in history, from the abolition of slavery to the partial successes of the Women’s Movement, required the making of an analysis of how the different oppressions they opposed were justified.
When I wrote in Hotpress last April, I referred to ‘the new intolerance’, as it is manifest in the economic model that we are not allowed to question. Since then some significant confrontations have taken place between, on the one side, those who are opposing what the media call ‘globalisation’ and, on the other, the leaders of those countries with the largest economies – the self-styled G8.
While there are some advantages in usage of this term ‘globalisation’ – it can, for example, combine different sources of opposition to the consequences of the latest and most unaccountable version of capitalism – such usage it is not without its dangers.
Among the protesters are:
• Those who want the burden of debt removed from countries who are forced to service it at the cost of the health, education, housing and welfare of their people.
• Those who are appalled at the widening gap between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.
• Those who know that excluding countries from fair trade, indeed a whole continent in the the case of Africa, who are dependent on primary commodities such as coffee, is to condemn them to cycle after cycle of poverty.
• Those who are disgusted that armaments sales exceed by more than 60 times the total health expenditure on the world’s four major preventable diseases.
• Those who see a monoculture of consumerism being imposed on a tapestry of diverse histories, stories and imaginings.
There are of course many others who participate. They share a belief in our shared humanity and insist that, rather than the world’s powers becoming prisoners of an economic model based on endless consumption and greed, that the world’s economic resources should serve the world’s people.
There is a danger however, of being sucked into the language and categories of that to which so many are nobly and morally opposed. The purveyors of the myth of globalisation suggest that it is an inevitable process, that it is unavoidable. Those who are described as ‘the anti-globalisation protesters’, are not dealt with by an uncritical media in terms of the arguments they make on Aid, Trade, Debt, Armaments reduction or economic governance. Rather, for the media it suffices to speak of ‘globalisation’ and the ‘anti-globalisation’ protesters.
The political Right and their serving ideology, the neo-liberal right wing economists, are very happy with this. They will also welcome and are well served by the cynicism and apathy addressed towards elected politicians of the Left, towards Trade Unions, and other representative organisations of Civil Society. The Berlusconis of this world like to keep it simple – globalisation realists and defenders versus what Peter Sunderland regards as ‘the wreckers’.
Raymond Williams, that great egalitarian, historian of culture, and defender of democracy wrote in his Towards 2000. “Once the inevitabilities are challenged we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope.” Challenging the inevitabilities – that is where the globalisation debate must now go.
There needs to be a serious consideration of how the current capitalism operates. The value of this approach is indicated, for example, by the recent adoption of the proposal for a Tobin tax by Lionel Jospin. Professor James Tobin suggested some years ago that a tax of .001 per cent be placed on speculative transactions through the world financial exchanges. These run at a volume of between 1.3 and 1.6 trillion dollars ( twelve noughts )per day. This tax would yield over $50 billion today, which could be recycled to relieve the debt of the poorest nations. Indeed as I wrote in Hotpress in April, such speculative transactions for any five days exceed world trade for a full year.
When the idea of the Tobin Tax was first mooted it drew some support, in, for example, Canada and Australia. However, the Helms-Dole legislation of the US – which does not allow the US to fund any perceived interference in free trade – blocked its consideration at the United Nations. It was knocked off the agenda.
The idea was kept alive however, by groups such as Attac and it is their efforts , and those who supported them, including hundreds of elected politicians, that has succeeded in putting the proposal back on the agenda.
Similar critiques of Trade, Aid and the Armaments Industry are possible. Let me, however, repeat my observation that being apolitical, being cynical, choosing not to participate, not bothering to ask the fundamental questions or to vote is of little value. At the time if the Vietnam war, when I was in the US there were those who thought that reading Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, combined with smoking pot, while their parents discovered gin and tonics would “defeat the machine” and the war. It didn’t. They disappeared into the system and their parents retired to Florida.
Some political people, however, went to gaol. Others made the war a political issue and insisted on asking the question as to where candidates stood. It was they who forced the US Government to accept that it could not defeat the Vietnamese people.
In responding to the big lie that globalisation is some kind of neutral or natural phenomenon, I would like to suggest that we must accept that we are morally responsible not only for what we do but also for that which we allow to happen.
Among those who are taken in by the myth of the global economy are some otherwise well meaning people as well as others who are not necessarily inclined towards the capitalist system. Clare Shortt, for example, speaks of ‘developing’ and ‘undeveloped’ countries participating in the world economy as if there was only one version of it. Rather like the old 1960’s,arguments about Modernisation and Development, much of what impedes the ‘Developing’ countries is construed in terms of what is suggested as their own characteristics – weak leadership, undeveloped society, corruption, absence of market economy structure and so forth. This is all as if colonisation had never occurred.
One of the most prominent Christian Democrats in the European Parliament recently told me that no matter what I said about the new global capitalism and its consequences, participation in the Neo-Liberal version of the market economy was Africa’s only hope. Such a view is just a shade removed from the old adage that it is better to have been exploited by a colonial power than never to have been exploited at all.
Close to the single version of the international economy is the suggestion that all politics and all politicians are the same. Devaluing all politics, all politicians, in the popular media, advocating non participation as opposed to active citizenship, suits those who wish to be unaccountable.
Politicians do differ – a simple test will show a difference between the Right and the Left in politics in Ireland. To the question as to what issues should not be left to the market alone, any serious politician of the Left would mention the areas of health, education and housing. The Right and the populists would suggest that the State’s involvement be a minimalist one. This minimalist role for our accountable state is also the position of a small number of single issue organisations and individuals.
We should also not forget that our current Right of central Government, as described by Charlie McCreevy, is there by the people’s choice. If that Government returns it will be due not only to those who have an interest in their return, but also to the apathy of the abstentionists and those who couldn’t care less. Every candidate in every constituency for every party should be asked where they stand on the global issues, as well as the local ones. As far as the globalisation debate is concerned, they should be asked as to whether they are sleepwalkers for the unaccountable economics or whether they are willing to be part of constructing the alternative.
In summary then:
Globalisation is a myth constructed for an ideological purpose by the Right.
Globalisation is neither inevitable, neutral or benign.
Constructing a global consciousness to confront the rhetoric of the New Right requires engaging in analysis, as a preliminary to opposing the politics and economics of the right.
Opposing the politics of an unaccountable economics requires a participation in politics not a rejection of it.
The re-linking of economics to politics and ethics, the restructuring of institutions of economic governance, is a project requiring a genuine global consciousness.
Finally, it is imperative to realise that the current anti-intellectualism, censorship of ideas, the new intolerance, represents the greatest threat to our citizenship. That threat is sustained, however, as much by apathy as by conscious manipulation. Apathy is hopeless. Getting involved is the beginning of a journey of hope.