Globalisation isn't inevitable: we can do something to stop it

If we learn anything from the collapse of the Asia tigers it is that even economists can get it wrong
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WE SHOULD be ashamed of ourselves. The gap between rich and poor is widening not only globally, but in front of our very eyes. The United Nations Annual Human Development Report has said that despite a six-fold increase in global consumption since the mid-Seventies, amongst the wealthy nations only the United States and Ireland suffer higher levels of poverty than Britain.

I am aware that only a couple of days ago I wrote about the joys of consumption, of desiring computers and fridges that cost around pounds 1,000 or so. Yet I am not alone in living this contradiction between wanting things and wanting things to change. Knowing and seeing that there are deeply deprived people not just in the Sudan but living in our midst, does not stop most of us attempting to enjoy ourselves while spending vast amounts of money in the process.

That a new restaurant in SWI is opening soon and is to be called after that revolution icon of the Sixties, Che Guevara, is symptomatic of the way we all carry on. What will you be able to do at Che's, apart from eat, drink and be merry? Well, there is to be a special cigar room so that the faux-peasants can smoke their fat cigars. Is this any more superficial than all those posters of the handsome young man with the beret that students used to have on their walls? Ironic eateries are now the new radical chic. Che may be turning in his grave, but the world has turned too. There are now myriad ways in which some of us are less equal than others. Poverty seen not as simply lack of money, though in the end it may still come down to this. Over the last 20 years poverty has come to be viewed by many on the left as not merely material lack, but relative poverty.

In other words, some people in this country may be in possession of a TV set, but still be barely subsisting. The Thatcherites refused to engage with the concept of relative poverty, arguing that because all of us were better off than we had been before, those who complained were little more than whingers or scroungers. The whole theory of the underclass was bought in from America to persuade us that the poor were not like us only with less money, but an entirely different, subhuman species - which meant that little could be done about them.

These days we may talk less of the underclass, but that language has influenced the way we think about the poor. I don't want to reduce the debate about inequality to one of language, but at the same time language is immensely important.

I was struck by this at the Marxism Today seminars that I attended last weekend. While economists discussed what was going on in the global economy, there was a point at which it felt as though the discourse of economic theory was so far removed from a real political language that the possibility of change was even more remote. I must admit that by the end of a very long day of talking about globalisation I had turned into a kind of Tracy Emin figure, heckling drunkenly from the floor.

But my point, which obviously was made far more coherently by experts, was that if we continue to talk about the economy as though it consisted of nothing more than huge and uncontrollable forces of nature, then no sensible political programme can ever be formulated.

The danger of those who talk about globalisation is that, whatever their intention, they talk as if it were a weather system, as though it happened all by itself and as if even governments, never mind ordinary people, were powerless in the face of these huge currents of capital. If we have learnt anything from the collapse of the Far Eastern tigers and from Russia it should surely be this: that even economists get it wrong, and that their powers of prediction are often on a par with those of Mystic Meg.

It seems that these days we talk of globalisation without talking about the human beings who do it. This enables us conveniently to be against certain aspects of capitalism without being against capitalists themselves.

The exception, as we have seen this week, is football - which strikes at the very soul of our sense of ourselves. The dismayed Manchester United fans who don't want to be owned by Mr Murdoch are not talking the jargon of economic theory; in their own way they are mounting a naive but politicised opposition by just saying "This is not fair".

The Government may choose to ignore this little crisis, but it is not true that governments cannot stop such huge global forces, that there are no alternatives. They can sign up to treaties and deals that limit the power of the multinationals.They can intervene, as laissez-faire capitalism does not prove to be the most efficient way of organising things, and it looks increasingly as though they will have to.

Meanwhile, the shocking statistics on inequality can be read in a number of ways. The United Nations report measured poverty in four areas: life expectancy, deprivation in knowledge, deprivation in income and social exclusion. The recognition that there is a widening gulf between those who are information-rich and those who are information-poor is an important one.

This has come about because of the so-called revolution in information technology, with the result that huge numbers of people are locked out of, or have no access to, what makes the modern world go round.

In this country we are not just talking about those who don't own PCs, but an appallingly high rate of illiteracy. Without literacy, never mind the skills necessary to use the new technology, this particular cycle of deprivation will continue. Again, though, it is interesting to see how the language has changed. We talk now of social exclusion and inclusion as a way of by-passing the older left-wing demand for redistribution. Redistribution makes the Blairites nervous, as it may signal higher taxation. Yet, for all the theorising, not one person has come up with a policy to make the excluded feel more included, which does not involve some form of redistribution.

JK Galbraith, who was on the case some 40 years ago, notes in the UN report the tendency "to develop some rationalisation for the good fortune of the fortunate. Responsibility is assigned to the poor themselves." This means that affluent nations and individuals "enjoy their well-being without the burden of conscience, without a troublesome sense of responsibility".

The new establishment - "Top 50 leaders of the Information Age" celebrated in this month's Vanity Fair - typify this sensibility. We are told, for example, that Bill Gates could buy a year's worth of groceries for every US household below the poverty line. This is fascinating not because it indicates his vast wealth, but because the possibility that he would ever do such a thing is unimaginable.

So it is not just that we accept inequality, but that we have begun to fetishise it. Those who don't want to accept it may have to accept also that we have to change the language in which we think about it. Inequality may be inevitable, but inequality on this scale? We don't have to buy this, any more than we have to buy the idea that ruthless globalisation is unstoppable. It's not just that we don't have to buy it; in terms of human suffering, the price however you measure it is way too high.