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Globalization and its discontents

As protesters gather in Cancún this week for the WTO conference, it’s important to remember that the criticism against globalization isn’t just about economics. It’s about an assault on cultural values and identity. By Ira Rifkin.
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From Sept. 10-14, the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference will meet in Cancún for another round of free-trade negotiations. As is now the norm, legions of predominantly youthful, counter-cultural anti-globalization demonstrators will converge on the Mexican resort to denounce the WTO, and, not incidentally, have some radical fun in the sun. Stay-at-home solidarity demonstrations are also planned for cities across North America and in Europe.

It's tempting to dismiss globetrotting, anti-globalization protesters as misguided, if not hypocritical, Cassandras. They decry globalization’s free-market aspects but happily partake of the market-spawned advances in air travel and information technology that allow them to reach Cancún and maintain their far-flung movement via the Internet and cell phones.

However, every social movement has its faults and contradictions, and to dismiss all those made uneasy by globalization because of the sometimes immature, headline-grabbing antics of ragtag anarchists, the blindly anti-American, and the naïve young is to lose sight of a deeper dynamic at work here.

The anti-globalization movement’s radical edge may speak for no one but itself. But discomfit with globalization is widespread among far more establishment populations, and becoming more so. The reason is the unprecedented assault on identity and values that is globalization’s unspoken agenda.

Most advocates and critics of globalization limit their analysis to the economic sphere, debating whether the world’s have-nots will ultimately benefit from globalization’s aggressive capitalism along with the haves. Economics, holds this narrow view, is primary. Food and shelter are what matter.

Food and shelter are indeed primary, and globalization’s failure so far to deliver its promised material benefits certainly fuels the anti-globalization backlash. But it’s a profound mistake to overlook the parallel importance of cultural values and identity — the psychological and spiritual building blocks upon which rest the world views of billions, and that are now under assault by globalization’s radical redefinition of human society and purpose.

Globalization’s inherent values are essentially short-term and selfish, and in fundamental opposition to the long-term and selfless values that have emotionally sustained members of the world’s myriad cultures for centuries. Globalization favors immediate gratification through consumption. Economics, from this perspective, leads rather than serves the human spirit. Traditional cultural values look beyond the ephemeral to individual and communal salvation that promise lasting security.

Salvation? Yes, in its most elemental sense.

Strip away theology and salvation is the belief that certain behavior best assures long-term (including eternal, if that’s your cup of tea) individual and community survival.

Globalization’s rub is its fundamental denial of this deep-seated human want rooted in the need for inner security. From a psychological perspective, the defensive reaction to globalization stems from the unnerving identity confusion it produces.

Society’s designated, though imperfect, moral watchdogs, our religious leaders — both orthodox and progressive, Western and non-Western — are increasingly vocal about globalization’s downside. But the undermining of values that have been cherished across broad sectarian lines discomforts not just overt believers.

Institutional religion’s historical dominance ensures that we are all molded by the religious culture in which we live, even in our so-called secular age. Losing touch with the spiritual insight that gave rise to the Abrahamic concept of justice, for example, in no way excludes us from maintaining belief in the desirability of justice.

Globalization is an age-old process now officially labeled. Humans have always traded products and ideas; rapacious greed and domination have always been part of it. The difference today is the unprecedented speed and breadth at which globalization is occurring, leaving no time for gradual adaptation, and no place to hide.

It’s politically fashionable today to disparage the excesses of the ’60s. But in the end, the youthful demonstrators of that era awakened many to the need for environmental and consumer awareness, and racial, gender, and sexual equality.

The Cancún protesters are this generation’s Free Speech movement. Where this will lead remains unknown. But they should not be dismissed out of hand simply because they speak impolitely. UC Berkeley made that mistake with Mario Savio.

Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval” (SkyLight Paths, 2003).