Ibsen Martinez

Licit Globalization

Ibsen Martinez*
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" 'Resist' is certainly a short word that can make feel some people righteous and brave enough. But it does not help much when it comes to truly understand what a vertiginous and innovating phenomenon globalization is."
I am writing this article from Buenos Aires, Argentina, a country where two out of each three of its almost 40 million inhabitants put the blame for all their plights on globalization.

Globalization here is viewed, as almost everywhere else in Latin America, as a diabolical conspiracy of multilateral organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, as well as an ill-intentioned repertoire of schemes perpetrated by multinational enterprises to weaken a small nation's sovereignty and make poor countries even poorer.

Cab drivers, newspaper columnists, bartenders, local rock stars, politicians, brainy scholars and, of course, the host of "fast thinkers" that are usually invited to discuss national issues on radio and TV talk-shows agree in denouncing "la globalizacíon" as the main cause of this once-rich country's calamities. And, they recommend doing everything possible to have it reverted.

However, none of their forays in global economics can compare in vehemence and media impact with the utterances of Diego Armando Maradona, the famous ex-soccer player now turned into a TV talk-show celebrity as an unflagging foe of globalization.

In early November, George W. Bush became Maradona's favorite moving target during the Interamerican's Presidents' Summit held at the Argentinian beach resort city of Mar del Plata. The summit's main agenda issue was supposed to be unemployment in Latin America, but somehow the meeting was derailed into an anti-globalization jamboree.

Here is how the British weekly The Economist anticipated what the Presidents' Summit would yield in the end: just another occasion to take to the streets and denounce globalization. Its comment on Mr. Maradona's stance is worth quoting:

"Among the hoped-for 50,000 demonstrators will be Diego Maradona, who as a footballer became rich through the game's global market and as a cocaine-addict was dependent on barrier-busting international trade; and naturally his fellow-summiteer, Hugo Chávez, who is using trade in high-priced oil to finance his '21st-century socialism' in Venezuela." [The Economist, Nov 3rd 2005.]

Paul Kennedy, the respected Yale University historian, affirms that in all this anti-globalization rhetoric you can perceive evidence of how deep and ample the fear of capitalism still is, despite the collapse of all the 20th century's forms of socialism.

 

See "The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,"The Nation, Naomi Klein, April 14, 2005. On the meaning of "hysterical materialism" see "The Pretenders" by Peter Sedgwick, and "The Correct Line" by Bob Black. The phrase "heart of darkness" invokes Joseph Conrad's 1902 novela Heart of Darkness, an extraordinary work exploring men's complex inner motives as the characters ply the difficult Congo river for the first time. Conrad's tale of man's internal struggle with good versus evil has since been subjected to many interpretations, including using the financial greed of his chief character as a symbol of imperialism.

Many of these attitudes belong in the breed of Naomi Klein's "hysterical materialism," which envisions globalization as just another up-the-river journey into the heart of darkness; a superior-phase of imperialism.

Still, it is very disappointing that a great deal of what we can read or hear on globalization, even in academic venues far removed from the streets of a Third World city hosting a summit, amounts to nothing more than a feebly elaborate version of Maradona's war-cry: "Resist!"

"Resist" is certainly a short word that can make feel some people righteous and brave enough, up to the point of throwing Molotov cocktails at a MacDonald's outlet as if they were braving artillery fire to raid La Bastille fortress and free the prisoners. But it does not help much when it comes to truly understand what a vertiginous and innovating phenomenon globalization is or properly assess the myriads of never-before-imagined effects it has brought about in just a few years time.

Truly, globalization may well be about World Bank's ill-advised policies and multinational CEO's schemes. But, it is, ultimately also a human phenomemon caused and determined by far more forces and variables than just the so-called "Washington's consensus" menus.

Perhaps one of the most illuminating approaches to the real nature of globalization that I have ever read so far is Mr. Moisés Naím's Illicit: How smugglers, traffickers and copycats are hijacking the global economy.

Mr. Naím affirms in one of the first chapters of his book that the dramatic expansion of world trade—6 percent on average from 1990 to 2000—also created ample room for illicit trade.

 

See Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy Magazine published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But the main assertion of Mr. Naím's book is that "in the coming decades, the activities of the global trafficking networks and their associates will have a far greater impact than is commonly imagined on international relations, development strategies, democracy promotion, business and finance, migration, global security, and war and peace."

So the story of illicit activities in the coming years will not just be about crime but, to put it in Mr. Naìm's words, "about a new form of politics in the twenty-first century. And about the new economic realities that have brought to the fore a whole new set of political actors whose values may collide with yours and mine, and whose intentions threaten us all."

The first time that Mr. Naím tackled this uncanny family of subjects was in his 2002 essay "The Five Wars of Globalization" which he wrote on occasion of having been invited to deliver at the Annual Grotius Lecture hosted by the American Society of International Laws. That essay is the core of what, with time (and a lot of research and toiling), evolved into an engaging and disquieting book. And an essential one if you intend to guess right what the near future holds in store for everyone in this planet, including my always grumpy and querulous Argentinian friends.

So five wars are going on, but: What are they about? Here is Mr. Naím's war list:

  1. a. the war on narcotic traffickers,
  2. b. the war on illicit arms trading,
  3. c. the war that is being waged everywhere to defend intellectual property,
  4. d. the war against the traffickers of human beings, and
  5. e. the war on money laundering.

"My interest in illicit trade," Mr Naím says, "comes out of a decade of work on the surprises of globalization. As editor of Foreign Policy magazine, it has been my job to track and understand the unanticipated consequences or the new connections between world politics and economics".

So his book could not overlook the weird dynamics that followed the swift and deep political changes underwent by the former Soviet bloc during the 1990s.

The 1990s meant macroeconomic reforms for many Third World countries. Those reforms implied the falling of trade barriers, exchange deregulation and lots of privatizations. To be true, many of these reforms were not always completely nor successfully achieved but certainly eased the dodging of rules and ended up offering the kind of law-bending "atmosphere" that illicit trafficking can thrive on.

At the same time, the demise of the Soviet bloc incorporated to the global market what up to those years had been "closed societies".

Illicit trade has benefited all in ways that governments and international agencies have not been able to cope with so far. To complicate things, global traffickers have developed tremendous skills and strong economic muscle to obtain ever growing political clout.

Mr Naím's book points out much of what is still missing in the fight against all kinds of new forms of illicit trade. Those forms are not only real but also active in global markets, where concepts such as "national sovereignty" no longer have any meaning. In the process, Mr. Naím gives us a totalizing view of the current trends of global economics... and world politics.

It is in no way a minor achievement that Mr. Naím's book persuasive argument on how real globalization is derives from the unsettling fact that organized crime in the 21st century's first decades have been taking advantage of much of the 1990's legacy: the technological communications revolution and the geopolitical changes brought about by the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

In the face of what professor Maradona might recommend to reverse globalization, a strong proof of the definitive consolidation of global economics is the mere fact that the wars against illicit trafficking are being fiercely waged out there. Right now, while you read this article, the good guys are still losing.


* Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.
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