The watershed date of 1990
In my role as Chairman of the parliamentary Select Committee on Economic Globalisation I learned with a degree of surprise that the term globalisation was brand new. It began to play a role in public life not earlier than in 1993. Fig 1 shows it for the German language but similar pictures are obtainable for other languages.
The strongest reason for the sudden appearance of the term globalisation has been the end around 1990 of the Cold War. 1990 was a real watershed date of history.
Nearly everybody was happy at the time. After all,
- We were freed from the spectre of a Third World War;
- Democracy, free speech and free press spread throughout the world;
- Well-positioned and well-governed countries enjoyed exciting new opportunities, e.g. the US (owning the largest amounts of capital which could be invested at the places of highest profitability world-wide) and China (with its immense labour force, emerging high technologies and high discipline).
- Stock markets soared, letting market capitalisation of the world’s total stocks triple within ten years. The sharp increase of foreign assets shows that this growth of value was interlinked with the globalisation of capital markets.
- Inflation was sent down in most countries to the lowest levels since the 1950s.
- The Internet became an immensely powerful tool of worldwide communication. It also massively spurred economic globalisation.
The downside of globalisation
However, for all the good news, there is also a downside to globalisation. During the Cold War, international capital had always to seek consensus with national governments and parliaments in the North and the South. In the South, governments used to play on the East-West tensions to induce the inflow of official development aid or of private capital.
In the North, the Cold War had forced governments to establish an attractive social security net to prove to the masses that capitalism took better care even for the poor than communism. In Germany it was the Social Market Economy launched by Ludwig Erhard in the 1950s. But the entire European Union was constructed around that model of an “inclusive” capitalism. Progressive income taxes and hefty corporate taxation were never seriously disputed. For business and for the rich this may have been annoying but it was anyway better than communism.
With the end of the Cold War, the need for consensus disappeared. Now the name of the game was catch as catch can. Competition got ever more brutal. You can see it from the number of business bankruptcies in many countries, including Germany.
Let me illustrate what happened by an anecdote from the automobile sector. Volkswagen got into deep troubles in 1993 because its cars were simply too expensive for the competitive world market. In response, Volkswagen hired a fairly controversial Spaniard, Mr. Ignacio Lopez whose task was to reduce costs, which he did by squeezing the last penny out of the parts suppliers, by saying they had to supply the same quantity and quality of parts next year, but at ten percent lower costs. If they complained hinting at their own costs, he coldly replied that Volkswagen would then go to another supply firm, maybe in Malaysia or Czechia.
It sounds brutal and it was brutal. But then, Fiat, which, I am sure, was much gentler to its part suppliers, ran into deadly difficulties a couple of years later.
For the state, the situation was not at all more comfortable. The increasing weakness of the state in negotiating with the private sector was soon felt in the field of taxation. Fig. 5 shows the steady decrease of corporate tax rates, resulting from ever-increasing pressures the private sector imposed on the states, in this case the OECD states.
The joy of the winners and sadness of the losers
You can imagine that many people were truly happy with the new situation. The market philosophy originating with Adam Smith in the 18th century became something like a new religion. The Adam Smith Institute had a Christmas card recently showing the exuberant joy on the part of the new religion:
Unfortunately, there were also many losers, notably the poor in the developing countries. Fig. 7 shows the unfortunate dynamics of a growing gap between rich and poor in the world. Since the 1970s, the factor of the accumulated income of the richest 20 percent of the world population divided by the accumulated incomes of the poorest 20 percent rose from 30 to 75!
During the 1980s, the reason for this growing gap were the “forerunners” of globalisation, the debt crisis and the “Washington Consensus”, which mandated the IMF to force liberalisation, privatisation and budget austerity upon countries needing IMF money. In the mean time, Joseph Stiglitz and others have brilliantly demasked the Washington Consensus as something that mostly benefits capital and rather impoverished the poor. In Latin America the effects were aggravated by the skyrocketing since 1979 of the US dollar interest rates leading in heavily indebted countries to what is now called the lost decade.
Keeping a balance between public and private interests
Before coming to solutions let me first recapitulate that Adam Smith himself made it clear that at least three conditions needed to be fulfilled before markets could become a blessing for all. (i)External peace and (ii) internally the rule of law are necessary to let the “invisible hand” work for the wealth of nations. Moreover, (iii) the state has to safeguard services and investments that are not by themselves profitable on the markets. Among them you would count mass education, infrastructure, social cohesion, culture or care for the environment.
“Inclusive” capitalism can be seen as one of the best ways of fulfilling Adam Smith’s conditions. When globalisation began to attack social justice and the provision of elementary infrastructure services, it thereby began to destroy the balance between public and private interests and thereby the very basis of healthy capitalism.
To visualise the idea of that balance, let us go through a small series of pictures symbolising the shift of power from the public to the private sector:
Let me submit that it is now high time to re-balance public and private interests.
Democracy, US unilateralism and WTO
To put it in more dramatic language: What we are up to is nothing less than a re-invention of democracy.
How that? Have I not said at the outset that the end of the Cold War helped the spreading of democracy? True enough, but at the same time nation states have lost much of their power to shape their own future because they have to obey the rules of world markets.
There is one country that feels differently about the new situation after 1990, the USA: Thomas Friedman, author of the brilliant book The Lexus and the Olive Tree wrote an enlightened article the New York Times (June 2, 2003) by, entitled Why the rest of the world hates America. He quotes a Pakistani saying that America is touching the daily lives of Pakistanis more than their own government does. This disturbing observation would not have been true before 1990 because it is only since 1990 that the US remained as the only superpower. If Washington judgments and decisions touch peoples lives more than their own parliament’s and government’s decisions do, the very meaning of democracy is at stake: What’s the use of going to the ballots if whom you vote for matters less than how some fellows on the Potomac behave?
To prevent too much of US unilateralism, many governments in the West – understandably – put their hopes on multilateral agreements. But then, what kind of agreements are there that have the capacity to impress America? America coldly disregards the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol and even the ABM treaty negotiated between the superpowers twenty years ago. The set of rules impressing America most are the free trade agreements. But there we are in a Catch 22 situation. Governments try further to strengthen the WTO, but in doing so sacrifice even more of their own democratic sovereignty. And regarding the aforementioned balance, WTO rather makes things worse by its inbuilt tendency of protecting the private sector at the expense of public sector needs.
As I write this, it is not clear yet whether the next WTO Ministerial at Cancún will make headway on global investment protection and the other “Singapore Issues”. There is no need for me to advise governments and NGOs from the South to be extremely cautious about the Singapore Issues, which further erode the shaping powers of national democracies.
NGOs have been active in challenging recent developments of the free trade agenda, including in particular GATS and TRIPS, both addenda to the old GATT during the “Uruguay Round” of negotiations.
I am not saying that trade in services (GATS) and patent protection (TRIPS) are per se undesirable, but we need a context of rules ensuring a reliable balance between public and private interests. How can that look like? Is there a chance of re-strengthening democracy, the public sector and the good sides of the nation state?
Global governance and civil society
I suggest that there are two mutually supportive strategies available for re-inventing democratic mechanisms:
- International rule-setting, often called “global governance” but also rules-based regional governance such as in the EU;
- The strengthening of a third actor, civil society, the NGOs, which can case by case line up on public issues with democracy thus strengthening both.
International rule setting and global governance should, of course chiefly address those aspects of political life that have come under that awful pressure of global competition. That is human rights, social equity, and environmental protection. The subordination under WTO rules of social and environmental treaties must under all circumstances be avoided. Shame on negotiators at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002) who tried to do exactly this! Climate change is likely to hit the poor far more than the rich. Also biodiversity losses could be disastrous for small farmers in developing countries. The ILO is right to insist on core labour standards that are essentially human rights protecting the weakest actors of the global economy. And the Forum on Financial Stability was right to establish recommendations (hopefully to become rules) against wild currency speculations.
Global governance also needs structures. The most important structure is the system of the United Nations. The UN are the hope also for those who are afraid of too much US unilateralism.
More realistic than global governance is regional governance. We see a number of regional economic groupings such as NAFTA, Mercosur or APEC. But none of them has so far attempted, let alone achieved a degree of democratic rule setting of the type built up in the process of European unification.
While deepening economic cooperation and integration, the EU (formerly the EEC and the EC) has created impressive mechanisms of democratic control, legal supervision, geographical spread of the benefits accruing, and political including environmental coordination. We have a European Parliament, a European Court of Justice, the “Cohesion Funds” and a regular coordination of policies at the Council level. Soon we shall even have a European Constitution. The EU is also reasonable open to cooperation with the NGOs, although so far the industrial lobbies are far stronger in Brussels than their NGO counterparts.
What is systematically deficient about global governance and even regional governance is direct and democratic participation of citizens. It is virtually impossible for “the man or the woman on the street” to influence the European Commission, the WTO or the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention.
This is where the NGOs come in forcefully. Everybody can join an NGO and strengthen its influence. Civil society can play and does play an increasingly important role in global affairs. NGOs can cry alarm whenever something scandalous goes on. Civil society consists of churches, trade unions, environmental NGOs, philanthropic clubs, scientific groupings, and the whole gamut of charitable or at least not-for-profit NGOs. Nearly all of them, almost by definition, defend some public good. In many cases have these groups made themselves heard and forced the private sector to withdraw from unacceptable practices. One of the earliest cases was the “Nestlé kills babies” campaign against Nestlé’s attempts to shift African mothers from breast-feeding to formula milk. In some case NGOs can cooperate with private companies on safeguarding particular public goods. A case in point is the “Marine Stewardship Council” formed by Unilever and WWF to ensure sustainable fishery by the firm.
Without NGO power both national democracies and international treaties such as the Climate treaty or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can easily be marginalized or ignored!
NGOs can systematically cooperate with democrats in parliaments and political parties. I see lots of synergies. Parliaments can adopt transparency rules making it easier for NGOs to look into business practices including long and complex supply chains for consumer goods.
Fig. 11 symbolises the new and emerging coalitions that can be formed between the State and the NGOs.
We have a long way to go both on national and international levels to develop a world society that is rooted in democratic control, in citizens’ participation and in international fairness. But then, when Charles de Montesquieu developed his fundamental ideas in the 1740s about the need for the division of power, no division of power existed in his own country, France. It took a couple of decades until, as the first country in the world, the USA took up his ideas and created a democracy built on the division of powers.