Thinker John Ralston Saul takes fresh look at 21st century globalism — in democratic blocs

India-Book

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Madhusree Chatterjee
Jaipur, Jan 2014

What is happening in Asia has nothing to do with globalism. The west was hoping that the east would generate markets for the west through trade. But that has not happened. Asia has become a production centre undermining the west, says Canadian philosopher, writer and thinker John Ralston Saul, the president of International Pen. Saul has been studying the gradual redefinition of globalism around the world and the positioning of the developing world against the developed blocs in the new global order.

“They (Asia) have tried to play the west in their own game,” Saul said. The Asian journey of development does not follow the theories of international notions of “economic, social and political globalism” that was born and honed in Europe and US— it has a more local story.

The 21st century has seen a re-establishment of Asia in the balance of the world markets — moving back up in the 1700s when the continent was exporting 40 per cent of the products and resources, Saul said trying to thread together the new models of globalism in Asia and the world on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014 in India. Saul described the new “globalised economy of Asia” as another version of 19th century capitalism. “It is quite interesting that the continent has adopted economic models that had existed centuries ago,” he said.

In the Asian context, globalism is alien — a fancy school of thought in Chicago that led to re-adjustment of socio-economic orders in the west. The west, however, also made mistakes while re-adjusting itself. When globalism was projected as the promised future, it pointed to a waning of the nation-state, new shifts of power to the global markets, thus making economics — not politics or armies — the arbiter of human events in the global markets which were to become international economic balances, Saul argues in his treatise, “The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World”.

In a developing world like Asia, one of the problems in thinking globalism is that it “justifies money making” by individuals.  Moneyed groups and individuals have taken a gated community approach to economic obligations. A section of people have benefitted from the Asian global models by “adopting a social attitude (defined by globalization in the west) that this is my money not your’s”. “What is mine, what is your’s is mine. We don’t have any obligation to the country’s economic prosperity — no tax paying approach. The rich as a consequence has remained rich and the poor has continued to languish as poor in the developing world”. Explaining the problems that the west has faced, Saul said, “It had adopted certain economic measures in the late 18th century that came out as individualism”.

“The west had struggled for 200 years over how you would put together the individual and society with the market place,” Saul said. The situation became complex and confused when a series of crises in the 1970s debunked the post-war market economy and “set a rethink that global market places were more secure and level”. “The crises were the result of economic successes which brought the production economies around to the realization that they could not keep the growth growing unless they ‘revamp the western economic model’. It paved the way for globalization – and the spread of free market economics 15 years later”.

The crises of the 1970s were as diverse from chalk from cheese — but bound a common compulsion of economic re-adjustments, Saul suggests. The crises came tumbling out one after the other leaving no space to breathe. The changes began with US president Richard Nixon’s decision to do away with the Bretton Wood monetary system that envisaged financial stability by tying other currencies to the US dollars at fixed exchange rates. The dollar was suddenly unshackled — sparking a change in the global monetary machines. The failure of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Tokyo round) in 1973 followed by the Yom Kippur war in Israel led to an oil blockade. In 1974, India conducted its first nuclear test setting off fears of mass proliferation of nuclear assets in the elite nuclear club.  The United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. These tumultuous events turned the economic balances of the western countries upside down, allowing space to more “liberal” schools of thoughts to influence economic structures and re-alignments in power blocs – away from the traditional power centres in America and Europe in the developing worlds like South America, Africa, China and in the rest of Asia— including India.

These new power blocs are “experimenting with dual identities” of a nation-state model reaping the harvests of free-market capitalism, Saul argues.

The theorist has strong views about India and the road to democracy that the country is taking post 1990s — which is not exactly globalism despite the entry of free market economy. “You were great victim of the successes of what west called the British empire — there is a certain amount of romanticism in that which I don’t understand. One of the characteristics of the British empire was that it purposely set about dividing people, race, religion, cultures and caste, Saul told this writer. They reinforced the caste system and it became a tough job to rebuild from the schisms out in place by the British empire before the colonialists left with its final attempt at division (Partition),” Saul observed.

“You were in a different situation. The British put in place a modern Indian version of the education system — by introducing private education for the elite. You don’t have a democracy unless you have a public education system,” the theorist said. Economic growth makes sense in India if it is tied to “public education, healthcare, sanitation and electricity,” he said. “This creation of new wealth is worthwhile and it has to be enforced. The new world has to be taxed at sufficient level to create sufficient long-term wealth,” Saul pointed out.

The wealth has to be spread across dominant education and public services, Saul said, warning that “without taxes and redistribution of wealth the economy will become vulnerable to corruption”. “In the west, a lot of history over the last 40 years has seen legalization of corruption. Rules have been rewritten and the move has to been from corporate taxation to personal taxation. Employees have created systems where they shares and the managerial leadership is deeply entrenched in corruption,” Saul said.

He pointed out that “the world was in the early stages of a major political rethink”. “If we don’t do that – the political rethink how to re-establish the role of the Indian citizen in the democratic structure — in which now the citizen has to be shoved to the edge. The only way out of that is freedom from grassroots populism created by corrupt leagues. We do not need revolution to change anything. People must be given an opportunity to express what they like (the way they do in their families and inter-personal relationships with positive and value-based dialogues). The rethink should be on how to get the positive dialogues back and put them in public places — grassroots democratic movements like the Occupation (of Wall Street),” Saul compared.

The writer, who came to India for the first time in 1998, “finds a lot of openness and energy in 2014”. “There is interest in debate… You have an interesting government in Delhi,” he mused as he looked around to “admire the vibrant colours combinations of Rajasthan”. The nation state flourishes in its cultural traditions unlike in the west where “everyone is dressed in black and dark blue- symbolizing the victory of mediocrity, the Pen International President observed.

(P.S. John Ralston Saul is the author of the philosophical trilogy — Voltiare’s Bastards, The Doubter’s Companion and the Unconscious Civilisation which have impacted political thoughts in many countries. The conclusion of this trilogy “On Equilibrium” is an exploration of the six qualities of humanism and the story of the human for struggle for personal and social balance.)    

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