Posted on 1-August-2006
In the seventh decade of the thirteenth century, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, two Venetian traders, travelled across the Black Sea and the Caspian and lands beyond till they arrived at the court of Kubla Khan. In 1270, they set out on a second journey to China, accompanied this time by Nicolo's son Marco. After his return to Venice many years later, Marco became a renowned story teller, talking about his journeys. In his delightful little book, In an Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh traces the career of a Jew born in Casablanca, who moved to Cairo and then to Aden and further east to Mangalore where he spent years as a trader, acquiring a local slave whom he brought across to Aden. The Jew then established marital relations with others which extended his family contacts to Messina. The world which the Polos or Amitav Ghosh's Jew bestraddled was how it had existed from as long ago as human memory can stretch backwards and it would continue to be thus till around the sixteenth century of the Christian era.
In this world of many kings, chieftains, marauders, bandits, pirates and robber barons, there were no official border controls. Passports and visas had not yet been invented. People moved freely over very long distances in search of livelihood or fortune. Major port cities and trading centres were inhabited by men of diverse races and tribes plying their trades without any requirement of work or residence permits. They transported not only merchandise of different kinds but also ideas and, occasionally, disease and pestilence, using beasts of burden, sailing ships and slaves. No doubt, human life was still relatively short and jet aircraft, refrigeration, antibiotics, transcontinental communications and hundreds and thousands of other boons of modern technology were unknown. But for people there was but one horizon which encompassed all the world they knew, undivided and borderless.
Some present day academic scholars writing about "globalisation" speak of four phases of this phenomenon: archaic, proto-modern, modern and post-colonial. To my unscholarly mind it seems that while it may be possible for the purposes of clear analysis to break up the story of man and his development into these four phases or any number of other phases, "globalisation" cannot be divided in this manner. The world is either "globalised" or it is not, if by globalisation is meant the existence of the entire human community as one unit. The archaic or proto modern world of the Polos and Amitav Ghosh's Jew or of those who preceded them was truly "global' while the present day world, fragmented by physical, conceptual and legal boundaries, is not, even though modern technology has given man the power to reach anywhere and everywhere on the earth and beyond.
The rise of the nation state in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards meant not only that the territories possessed by states came to be enclosed within razor-edge boundaries, but also that individuals resident in each state came to be defined in terms of legal concepts of citizen and alien, endowed with legally defined rights and obligations. In time states came to fill the entire geographical space around them and regulate ever increasing aspects of the lives of those living within their jurisdiction. As Europe's major states expanded to establish colonial empires in the rest of the world, the whole world was partitioned to form parcels of land defined by lines drawn on maps. Though by the eighth decade of the twentieth century, the colonial empires were nearly all dismantled, none of the newly independent states formed in the crucible of wars and competition among the colonial powers has shown any inclination to dissolve or redefine its frontiers--the Organisation of African Unity (now renamed the African Union) formally decided early in its life that frontiers established by the colonial powers were not to be touched. At the other end of the spectrum, in spite of nearly fifty years of slow, halting yet steady progress towards greater economic integration within the European Union, Europe continues to be a collection of old nation states living within the boundaries as they existed at the end of the Second World War and sanctified by the Final Act of Helsinki--if we disregard the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, each of which cases involves in a manner a reaffirmation of the idea of the nation state and the boundary.
If the existence of state boundaries has at best regulated the movement of people and goods across them and at worst impeded their free flow, the existence of a whole superstructure of laws about copyright and patents has created barriers in the realm of ideas. Intellectual property, it is averred, must be protected in order to reward and encourage technological invention and artistic and literary creation. Looked at against 100,000 years or so of human experience, such assertions about the benefits of laws protecting intellectual property seem questionable. Technologies such as iron smelting and ploughing which were responsible for the transition from food gathering to agriculture and spinning and weaving which gave man minimal protection from the elements belong to distant antiquity when no one could have thought of owning intellectual property yet they probably represented greater civilisational leaps forward than the telephone and the telegraph, the dynamite and the computer chip each of which has enjoyed the protection of patent laws; if the unknown inventor of spinning and weaving had lived in our times and patented his invention he would have been a trillionnaire many times over.
The story in the realm of literature is similar. It is impossible to make confident assertions about who between the writer of the stories of The Panchatantra and Aesop stole from whom but none of them could claim copyright. If it had been possible for the estates of Plutarch or Boccacio to assert copyright, Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries would possibly have written less freely and creatively. Very recently the authors of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail sued the author of The Da Vinci Code for the infringement of their copyright. Yet there can be little doubt about which between The Panchatantra, Aesop's fables, Plutarch's Lives, Decameron and Shakespeare's plays on the one hand and The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code on the other are the more precious treasures in mankind's cultural heritage.
Into our yet fragmented modern world was introduced about two decades ago talk about globalisation written nearly always with a G. Taking shelter behind its invention, the national boundary, Europe and later its cultural extension, the United States of America had industrialised and prospered. It had succeeded in banishing starvation and pestilence just as it had moved polluting industries like leather tanning outside its boundaries. It has nearly succeeded in banishing war too even as its industries engage in often uncivilised competition in selling engines of death to Asia and Africa. As Europe enriched itself in the three centuries of colonial expansion and rule, large parts of Asia and Africa were impoverished and laid waste so much so that very few post-colonial societies have the economic strength to deal with the consequences of free imports, unrestricted movement of capital and net reverse transfer of wealth towards the prosperous,industrialised world.
Globalisation, rendered inevitable by the advance of modern technology--easy travel, the speed and volume of the flow of information, modern facilities for speedy movement of capital--will increase prosperity all round, it is argued, because lowering and removal of barriers to trade and movement of capital will make manufacturing and services more efficient and free competition will benefit consumers everywhere just as creation of more wealth will improve everyone's standard of living. In this project, promoted by the prosperous industrialised world, considerations such as allowing greater access to their markets to agricultural or manufactured products of the poor countries or allowing fair competition for agricultural produce from the poorer countries by reducing and eliminating farm subsidies in Europe or the USA hardly figure anywhere and are talked of either by anti-globalisation lobbyists or spokesmen of some developing countries. At trade negotiations at the WTO, one of the main platforms for preaching globalisation, the constants in industrialised countries' lists of demands are: lower tariffs, stricter protection for intellectual property, free trade in services, fewer bureaucratic hurdles to trade, opening procurement by public authorities to competition from everywhere and and removal of all barriers to capital flows. The principle respected in the early years of GATT of the richer countries not asking for reciprocal trade concessions from the poorer ones has been all but jettisoned.
In a recent article posted on YaleGlobal Online, Patrick Sabatier talks of a developing consensus in Europe about allowing controlled demand-led immigration, on the pattern of Australia and Canada. The USA is moving towards a guest worker programme while at the same time taking steps to strengthen the policing of its border with Mexico. The aging population of Europe will need people from the poorer parts of the world to do dirty, degrading or dangerous jobs or perhaps some other jobs for which manpower is simply not available. The USA which from time to time regularises the stay of illegal immigrants has its own need of immigrant workers. But neither the USA nor Europe is prepared to risk a decline in its standard of living or risk dealing with other problems that a large influx of poor people from Asia, Africa and Latin America might be feared to entail. The current campaign against terrorism and the fear of cheap workers from the new East European members of the European Union has strengthened opposition to any immigration at all in the public mind . Though it is argued from time to time that Fortress Europe has no long term future, it does not look as if the barriers against free movement of people are going to be removed in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia or elsewhere in the next quarter century at least. The borders and the states are there to stay except when outside intervention in the internal affairs of a weak state can be justified on the grounds of a threat to regional peace and security or on a moral principle such as stopping genocide or widespread violations of human rights.
This project called globalisation is no real globalisation but akin to 19th century British advocacy of free trade. In spite of all that is said about its virtues by its proponents and propagandists, it is designed to facilitate the pursuit of perpetual economic growth, enriching the rich in the industrialised world along with the smaller numbers of rich people in China, Brazil, India, Argentina and a host of other developing countries, abandoning large numbers of the wretched in the poorer part of the world to life at subsistence levels or worse. The proponents of this project have the economic power and the political will to succeed and implement it. They also have the control over the means of mass communication which enables them to create the illusion that their project is for the greatest good of the greatest number. India's 83,000 or so dollar millionnaires, for example, will become richer and sing praises of the new "globalised" world. For the third of India's population which lives on or below the poverty line there will most likely be the old, daily, wearing struggle for survival. For them, globalisation or the more faddish glocalisation mean nothing as two Andhra Pradesh politicians, P.V.Narasimha Rao and Chandra Babu Naidu discovered to their chagrin at elections in 1996 and 2004. The Indian picture has almost certainly its parallels in other developing countries. This half globalisation or non-globalisation is no panacea for the ills of mankind and it will, like so many other projects before it, leave unrealised the dream of a global society in which there will be adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and health care for all.