[Marxism] The myth of convergence

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 8 07:51:24 MDT 2006

The New York Review of Books
Volume 53, Number 7 · April 27, 2006

The Global Delusion
By John Gray
Globalization and Its Enemies
by Daniel Cohen, translated by Jessica B. Baker

MIT Press, 192 pp., $27.95
How We Compete: What Companies Around the World Are Doing to Make It in 
Today's Global Economy
by Suzanne Berger and the MIT Industrial Performance Center

Currency/Doubleday, 334 pp., $27.50
End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation
by Barry C. Lynn

Doubleday, 312 pp., $26.00

1. For the past two centuries leading social theorists have believed that 
modern development can have only one outcome. In the nineteenth century 
Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, and Auguste Comte asserted that the advance of 
science and technology was leading to a single type of social organization, 
and unless modern societies foundered in a reversion to barbarism they were 
bound to converge in a global system. There was wide disagreement on the 
nature of the system that was coming into being. According to Comte it 
would be a kind of technocracy, while Marx believed it would be egalitarian 
communism and Spencer laissez-faire capitalism. In each case it was a 
version of industrial society that enabled scarcity in the necessities of 
life to be overcome. Despite their different political visions these 
thinkers were at one in assuming that with the advent of industrialization 
prosperity could be ensured for all. Once this had been achieved, war would 
cease and a universal economic system would replace the diverse and 
conflicting regimes of the past.

Similar beliefs shaped the thinking of many twentieth-century social 
theorists. In the Thirties F.A. Hayek resuscitated a version of Spencer's 
theory of the free market as the endpoint of social evolution, while Sidney 
and Beatrice Webb believed an early version of the universal society of the 
future was embodied in the Soviet Union. During the Sixties theorists of 
the "end of ideology" such as Daniel Bell anticipated that centrally 
planned economies and market-based affluent Western societies would come 
together in a managerial mixed economy. Toward the end of the century the 
idea became fashionable that societies everywhere were embracing 
"democratic capitalism."

None of these expectations has been borne out by events. Industrialization 
is spreading everywhere, but at varying rates of rapidity and with 
disparate consequences. As in the past, societies are developing in widely 
different directions. In parts of the world the state has foundered and 
been replaced by anarchy; in others authoritarian regimes remain strongly 
entrenched. The former Soviet Union converged with the third world rather 
than the affluent West and has been replaced not by liberal democracy but 
by a hyper-modern version of traditional Russian authoritarianism.

Versions of liberal democracy have spread into parts of the former Soviet 
bloc, but in Iraq democracy is producing a type of elective theocracy not 
unlike that which exists in Iran. China has abandoned central economic 
planning for a type of state capitalism closely linked with nationalism. 
Some countries are moving toward market reform and others in the opposite 
direction. Europe has opted for a combination of social democracy with a 
neoliberal economic system, while under the Bush administration the United 
States has tilted toward a mix of protectionism, an unsustainable federal 
deficit, and crony capitalism.

Though the world's diverse societies are continuously interacting, the 
proc-ess is producing a variety of hybrid regimes rather than convergence 
on a single model. Yet a belief that a universally accepted type of society 
is emerging continues to shape the way social scientists and public 
commentators think about the contemporary condition, and it is taken for 
granted that industrialization enables something like the way of life of 
rich countries to be reproduced everywhere.

The assumption of convergence is evident in theories of globalization. In 
The Borderless World (1990), the influential management theorist Kenichi 
Ohmae declared:

     [The global economy] is becoming so powerful that it has swallowed 
most consumers and corporations, made traditional national borders almost 
disappear, and pushed bureaucrats, politicians, and the military toward the 
status of declining industries.[1]

Ohmae's work embodies what may be called the business-utopian model of 
globalization, but the idea that national systems of government are 
becoming marginal is shared by theorists of cosmopolitan governance who 
believe that powerful new supranational institutions are emerging—a view 
that is no less unreal. Similarly anticapitalist movements are based on the 
premise that the divergent patterns of development of the past have been 
replaced by a new, repressive global system. Supporters of globalization 
and many of its critics assume that it creates similar conditions wherever 
it spreads. Whether they welcome the prospect or resist it, both accept 
that global market forces are forcing societies onto the same path of 

In Globalization and Its Enemies, Daniel Cohen, a professor of economics at 
the École Normale Supé-rieure in Paris, provides a refreshing antidote to 
some of the most misleading features of this consensus. His starting point 
is the seemingly paradoxical claim that for most people in the world it is 
not a reality but a mirage. As Cohen sees it, the ongoing wave of 
globalization—the third in a series that began in the sixteenth century 
with the conquistadors and continued in the nineteenth with British 
imperial free trade—occurs largely in a realm of virtual reality and leaves 
much of everyday life untouched. Nineteenth-century globalization involved 
large-scale movements of population to new lands, while the present phase 
involves mainly commodities and images.

"Today's globalization," he notes, "is 'immobile.'" Goods are produced and 
marketed on a planetary scale but those who live in rich countries 
encounter other societies chiefly through television and exotic vacations. 
There are politically controversial migrations of poor people from the 
Middle East and Africa to Europe and from Mexico to the United States, but 
immigrants still make up only around 3 percent of the world's population 
today, whereas in 1913 it was about 10 percent. Again, trade has expanded 
greatly in the past thirty years but a great deal of it occurs between rich 
countries. The fifteen longstanding members of the European Union make up 
around 40 percent of global commerce, but two thirds of their imports and 
exports are traded within Europe itself. As Cohen puts it, "in wealthy 
countries globalization is largely imaginary."

The belief that financial globalization is promoting economic development 
in poor countries is also delusive. Global financial markets have few 
incentives to equip poor countries to be globally productive. It may be 
profitable to computerize a grocery store in New York, but in Lagos 
customers are too poor to pay the prices required by such investment. The 
result is that technology is very unevenly diffused, and the poor stay poor.


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