Question: What is globalization?

John McMurtry

There is immense confusion around the concept of "globalization." Globalization of what is the question not asked. The reason it is not asked is that the answer reveals what is kept hidden in official culture – that "globalization" means dominant banks and corporations moving across the world’s borders in rising tides of short-term speculative capital flows and floods of junk, luxury and armament commodities with no accountability beyond themselves. The promised "increase in prosperity" means more privatization of public goods, more exotic commodities for those who can afford to pay for them, and an ever larger share of the profits of this "global trade" going to the borderless banks and corporations commanding the agenda.

In other words, "globalization" is a masking term for oligopolist corporate globalization. This meaning is very different from what people think of when they think of the word "globalization". They think it means world interconnection by trade when, in fact, it means the subordination or ruin of whatever public or private enterprise does not fit the demands of the imposed system.

Question: Do you think there is nothing good about globalization, then?

Globalization in a life-connective sense is very important, and needed. But its meaning is the opposite of what the media and politicians are selling. The deep irony is that those who are being labelled as "anti-globalizers" are really those working hardest for global co-operation – people connecting across borders and cultures to stand up for the integrity and protection of the world’s ecosystems, for human and labour rights enshrined in international trade agreements, for security of first peoples against genocidal invasions of oil, mining and other environmentally destructive corporate practices, for the end of war criminal invasions by the US of resource-rich countries, for the democratic sovereignty of the world’s peoples, and so on. What the new opposition stands against is a transnational cabal of big business and state machineries orchestrating a global crusade for their control of the world’s resources and governance with no electoral or constitutional responsibilities.

These are complex matters that I explain in my work. The truth on the ground is that countless millions of people are joining in a real global movement against a multinational corporate coup d’etat of accountable government – which is not really "globalization" at all, but a special interest absolutism with no limit to its demands. What I think unifies the world struggle unfolding against this agenda is a true global vision – that is, a recognized interrelationship, a bonding around ultimate concerns about what I call "the life-ground" and "the civil commons" expressing it.

Question: How do you define the difference, then, between "true" and "false" globalization?

Something is true globalization insofar as its connective project is to protect and enable ecological and civil life systems across divisions of borders and cultures. Corporate market globalization does neither. It is effectively lawless. It has no life-protective standards governing or inhibiting it, and state leaderships now behave as its servo-mechanisms.

Question: What are the effects of corporate market globalization?

Unlike an armed invasion, the effects are not visible in the short term. But the long-term effects may be more disastrous than an armed invasion. The occupation is not announced by armies marching in and killing people so that they resist. As a famous US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, said long ago: "There are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control its people by force of arms. The other is to gain control of its economy by financial means."

Dulles puts the matter clearly. A lot of my work has been to uncover the inner logic of this "conquest by financial means." I won’t try to explain that here, but it is borne by an incremental process – big banks centring in Wall Street lending money to governments at compound interest, multinational corporations buying up resources and private and public infrastructures of production aided by IMF demands, and so on. I look for the underlying pattern that connects the dots and the crises.

Question: What is the overall pattern?

It is an unseen pattern – to restructure the identity of entire societies from self-determining sovereignty to instrumental functions of a new kind of imperial subject – the transnational joint-stock corporation, whose sole goal is to turn money into more money for private stockholders.

Question: Isn’t this a bit dark?

Well, look for the evidence to disconfirm it. As for the imperial intent, it is acknowledged by US leaders themselves. After Canada’s Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, signed the Free Trade Agreement in 1988 with a majority of the voters opposing it, the US chief Trade Representative, Clayton Yeutter, said to Congress: "The Canadians don’t know what they signed. They’ll be sucked into the American economy within 20 years." Canadians as a whole still don’t know what they signed. The corporate media do not report any of the articles of these binding regulatory apparatuses, nor their organizing meaning. The same goes, by the way, for the FTAA and the WTO (the World Trade Organization).

Question: Other than the consequences of foreign control of economies, are there other effects that we should be concerned about?

The main consequences follow from the wholly new conditions of trade and investment. The major multinationals have pressured political parties which depend on their financial and media support into these "trade agreements," which might as well be the rules of an occupation. Corporate trade lawyers in and out of government have written their articles so as to protect only the rights of corporations, and to prohibit governments from doing anything which would not obey the new rules. But no peoples are protected by the treaties. Only corporations gain rights by them, while elected governments increasingly lose rights and acquire liabilities.

Question: What rights do governments lose and corporations gain?

Well, already societies cannot protect their natural resources for their own peoples’ use. Under the new transnational rules, such policies are illegal because they infringe the "national treatment" rights of foreign corporations. According to these undebated rules, even the most popular governments cannot legislate anything that might diminish the "expected profits" of foreign corporations – including by environmental laws. Governments cannot stop or impede foreign goods made with slave labour or ecocidal processes of production from free or "most favoured nation" entry across their borders. They cannot subsidize local enterprise in their poorer regions without hand-outs to foreign corporations complaining against "discrimination." It goes on and on. Elected governments are losing the right to serve their peoples and their economies by a straitjacket of invisible threads – these regulatory apparatuses are thousands of pages long of articles of binding prescription, one size fits all. This is what I mean by restructuring of societies’ sovereign identities into instrumental functions of transnational money-sequences.

Question: Can you give our readers a local example?

Consider Ontario Hydro. The Harris-Eves government sold it off, just before Eves got a million-dollar-a-year job in a Boston firm specializing in privatization deals. This was called "privatizing for efficiency" and "an opportunity of free trade." Professor Myron Gordon, an eminent economist from U of T, estimates that over $40 billion of generating value, a staggering figure, was effectively given away by the privatization. Even now, Ontarions do not know they are soon going to pay New York rates for electricity – because the private firm which has bought Hydro’s generating capacities at a fraction of its worth now has the right to export as much of our Ontario-generated electricity out of province as it pleases for higher prices.

Now suppose that citizens wake up and understand they have been effectively robbed of their electricity infrastructure and natural resource of water power as well as their stable electricity rates – which have gone through the roof in California and Alberta where privatization schemes were also imposed. Suppose they vote in a government to pay back the money with interest to foreign owners to regain their greatest public asset. They are forbidden under trade law to do it. NAFTA rules it out, and it is the model of corporate globalization now being instituted at the WTO level. Right now the GATS negotiations (the General Agreement on Trade in Services) are putting more and more of our public resources and services on the table for privatization and foreign corporate ownership.

Question: Could you distinguish the short-term from the long-term effects of this process?

The short-term effect of privatizing Hydro is hardly visible, nor is its connection to "free trade" and "globalization." But the long-term effect is not much different than if a foreign power was encouraged to march in and take over all our electricity-generating capacities. The same will apply to our public health-care budgets, our fresh water, and everything else as these unknown rules are spread, as they are being now, more widely and deeply. Our society and others have almost lost the ability to govern ourselves and to protect the life-ground of our peoples.

Question: So who are the biggest victims of this process?

Just about everybody – except transnational corporate operations, their dominant stockholders and their collaborators who are rewarded with directorships, consultant fees and media plaudits. The young and next generations lose most of all, because their country and its assets have been sold or given away by those gaining from this process. So have Canadians’ and others’ future livelihoods and well-being by "the race to the bottom" of wages, public service jobs, environmental regulations and social security to achieve "competitive costs in the global market." The poor and marginalized suffer most of all without private means. In a deep sense, corporate globalization is a liquidation of the infrastructure of civilization.

Question: How could this have happened with so many people, including in the university, applauding globalization as good and inevitable?

Ultimately, I think it is an issue of cultural insanity – a deranged value system presupposed as given. Unthinking people are its vehicles. What drives their acquiescence is a sort of group-mind, a superstitious mind-set whose god is "the Invisible Hand of the Global Market." Almost all our international problems relate back to the mindless assumptions of this model. It is life-blind. As a philosopher, I try to lay the dogmas bare, to show "the invisible prison." That is what my new book is about.

John McMurtry

John McMurtry, PhD, FRSC, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph. His recently released book, Value Wars: The Global Market Versus the Life Economy, is published by Pluto Press, London, GB.