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On Globalisation

On Globalisation

The key concept in respect of globalisation is the pace of change and the friction which this causes. Commerce moves faster than social adaptation, society changes faster than its formal institutions. Elites are easily able to alter their stance and are almost always more adaptable, informed and connected than the bulk of the society. Equally, the average person generally moves faster than do the poor. Science, technology and social experiment occurs at a rate which greatly outstrips the capacity of society, commerce and commercial institutions - such as markets - to internalise the new potential.

We achieve fast change because it is the sum of the things which we want: choice, independence, access to information, resources, entertainment, social stimulation. The intermediate tools to this are all the subjects of positive policy: education, rational labour markets, economic performance and productivity, efficient resource allocation, predictable operating environments. Nations which do not pursue these goals, however, modulated by broader considerations, thwart the ambitions of their citizens. Their governments are seen to fail, not least as they soon become unable to fund the very considerations which led them to reject adaptive measures of this sort.

Plainly, things which were hitherto separate are becoming connected, and each domain in this network is being heated up by ambition, potential, access to resources and perceptions of best practice. These connections are unpoliced and ill-considered; and the policy engines which worked within each domain are proving inadequate to the new task. What is to be done?

First, the international framework is marked by weak institutions. These are going to remain weak, because power is concentrated in a few hands that are answerable to domestic concerns. The US or Europe are not going to cede power to a New Order unless (a) they control it and (b) it offers greater benefits than it affords risks. Nevertheless, all of the industrial powers greatly damage developing nations - and add considerably to their own cost overheads - by protecting their primary producers and simple manufacturing industries. The arguments for agricultural overproduction founded on supply security, employment or rural balance simply have no current viability. Wars of the future will be too short for blockades to work. Farms employ a tiny proportion of the population, which demographic changes will anyway easily absorb. Intensive agriculture is damaging to the environment, and alternative approaches offer many advantages.

Equally, it is to the advantage of the industrial nations that they should take advantage of the cost savings inherent in trade. The best way to do this is to export capabilities such that what arrives is of a uniform high quality, and that value has been added in ways which meet domestic ethical and environmental standards. If the industrial world believes that its social model is 'right', then this is how it can propagate these standards. (There are no institutions or arrangements which are free of implicit values.)

These issues will gradually come into play if the world's economies evolve smoothly. However, this calm development will occur only if the much larger block, that of social and institutional adaptability, is itself overcome. This has to be done locally, at a national or substantially sub-national scale. Functioning political institutions whereby the people in question can discuss amongst themselves what they want to become are, therefore, central. Road block to this - dictatorial rule, special interests which quash discussion - are all too common. The machinery of open debate, even in well-established democracies, is not evident. People and the media have neither the reflexes nor the patience for such concerns. Consequently, splintered parts of the issue surface as special interest concerns: moral panics, environmental activism, labour outrage, religious fervor, xenophobia. This is unhelpful.

We developed scenarios for worlds of this sort in 1996: Rough Neighbors saw an armored, elderly industrial world facing off a disorganised, shrill poor world (with, of course, all manner of clienthood and bilateral or special deals.) More thoughtful cases were then and still are hard to envisage. However, active measures that are aimed to propagate the tools of thoughtfulness are a part of any promising case. This said, solutions have a number of undeniable general characteristics:

  1. They will occur against a background of adequate economic and military stability. Prosperity, however measured, will need to continue to increase. The economic facts mean that the industrial nations will therefore set the pace and the framework for a positive outcome.
  2. Solutions will be local, 'bottom up' and founded on consent. People will have to see that a given "way" yields multidimensional advantages for themselves and the things about which they care.
  3. The pace of events means that solutions arise through active measures. That is, whilst the outcome is the product of local discourse, the tools by which the discourse occurs need to be supplied and enabled, actively and purposefully, by the state, by the media and by the educational establishment.
  4. Debate can be defocused and derailed by loud, shrill voices, by a muddled atmosphere and by overwhelming concerns, such as terror. The oversight of (3) requires a network of thoughtful minds if it is to stay on course.
  5. The international arena cannot be decoupled from local accommodations: indeed, that is what the entire essence of the issue. The wealthy world is going to have to take some painful steps in respect of tariffs, primary production and subsidies. It is also going to have to put itself at least partly in the hands of partner states which are not its economic peers. If, for example, assembly and simple manufacture is to be ceded to the industrialising countries in order to accelerate their orderly development, then a certain risk and mutual dependence has to be accepted. A web of commercially-driven co-regulation will emerge, assuring content standards, managing intellectual property and the like. This, too, will enforce dependency. The rich world must be ready for this.
  6. It is important to understand that these processes are amoral. Ethical issues such as poverty alleviation are not the drivers of events but the fortunate consequence of a successful outcome. It is good that efforts are made locally and internationally so as to channel change in ways which ensure that this does occur. Nevertheless, the machinery of adaptive change is quite other than the headline debates on "equity" would have one believe. In a very real sense, they are distractions from the machinery which truly needs to be installed.

Primary producing societies are greatly affected by the onset of industrialisation. People are displaced from agriculture, the marginal are often rendered visibly impoverished by urbanisation. Human concentrations develop disease, and mass mobility destroys the former tacit institutions of policing and conformity. Skills that are in short supply do relatively well, and inequality tends to grow, not least as the society migrates from barter and subsistence to a cash economy. Countries such as Britain had two centuries to invent their solutions to this, whilst those undergoing industrialisation today may have less than a generation. It took Britain around 60 years to double its GNP when it invented industrialisation. It took China ten years to achieve the same outcome in the 1990s. China has, as a consequence, much change to absorb and it will need to work hard to find, internalise and make organic its responses to these. There are many issues with a strong ethical dimension that it and others will have to resolve, but it is the pursuit of balance and functionality, not ethical imperatives per se, that will determine success or failure.

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