If you love planet earth and the human race, may I humbly suggest corporate globalisation leading to a grotesque misappropriation of resources may not be such a good idea after all. However, some self-proclaimed progressives disagree. They somehow associate the onward march of transnational organisations, the proliferation of branded retail outlets and the relentless expansion of the non-productive hedonism business with a concept they like to call progress. Indeed, even many wishful-thinking greens and socialists have internalised the notion that we, as a species, are all on a one-way journey towards a better tomorrow and we can face all potential challenges through ever greater cooperation. Guiding us are an alliance of transnational organisations, multinational enterprises and virtual social networks integrated seamlessly with the entertainment industry. As soon as people gain access to the World Wide Web from Norway to Chile or Japan to Angola, they tend to join Facebook apparently to stay in touch with a diaspora of friends and family, but also to broaden their mindmap of familiar faces to friends of friends or newly formed virtual communities of special interest groups. Never has the world been more connected and never has travel from one country to another been so easy. Many global optimists already view countries as mere relics of a bygone era of nation states, fallen empires and anachronistic religions. Local languages, dress codes, cuisines and custom blend into a potpourri of flavours and choices available in an apparent free market. Whether a modern world citizen happens to be relaxing by the beach in Goa, visiting museums in New York City or Paris, attending a business conference in Dubai or inspecting a factory in a Chinese megacity, the interconnected global culture never seems far away. The same brands and artefacts of our postmodern decadence and techno-wizardry accompany financial wealth wherever it spreads. While 50 years ago opulence was concentrated in a handful of wealthy countries, extreme decadence has spread worldwide. There are billionaires in countries we once prefixed with the label third-world such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and even Nigeria, and billionaires in the first and second world countries often hail from former colonies of the old imperial powers. Nowhere is the scourge of ostentation as daunting as in the Middle East, the scene of over 80 years of imperialist meddling and destabilisation. Yet without easy access and control of the world's cheapest oil reserves in the Middle East, the global economy would shrink.
Just 20 years after the fall of the former Warsaw Pact, European governments have become little more than county councils negotiating deals with multinationals and harmonising legislation in line with new laws in other countries and with the wishes of international pressure groups. In practice government ministers act merely as middle managers implementing policies decided elsewhere and liaising with local underlings to mitigate adverse effects for social stability. In many ways the history of post-war Europe has been a conflict between rival visions of global harmonisation. As long as the rift between the Stalinist East and Capitalist West remained, leaders paid lip-service to outmoded concepts such as self-determination, national sovereignty and workers' rights. Countries could intervene to protect markets against destabilising global competition thus protecting not only local jobs, but also key skill bases. After the big powers had redrawn boundaries and forced millions to move, enduring extreme hardship and even starvation, from around 1950 to 1990, Europe enjoyed one of its longest periods of peace, social stability and general prosperity. Admittedly large pockets of relative poverty and social exclusion remained, as did authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and until the mid 1970s in Spain, Portugal and Greece. However, the degree of democratic participation and freedom of expression tended to reflect both social and economic realities. Those countries with the highest material living standards and thus best equipped to meet demands for better pay, working conditions and availability of life's pleasures and luxuries, could allow greater debate on economic policies and tolerate much greater dissent. If the business classes can distract the populace with bread and circuses and carefully manage the range of acceptable opinions, dissent can be easily sidelined or channelled into narrow lifestyle issues. Despite longstanding cultural differences, all Western European government pursued essentially social democratic policies. While governments allowed industries to compete, trade, expand and satisfy growing demand for consumer goods, they also invested in technological innovation and infrastructure, expanded welfare provision and protected national markets and workers against unfair competition from low-wage economies.
In the 1980s globalisation entered a new era with the Reaganite and Thatcherite obsession with supply-side economics and outsourcing of manufacturing. Since the fall of the former Warsaw Pact, we have seen the expansion of the European Union from a small set of countries with similar living standards to encompass most of the continent from Ireland to Romania or Finland to Portugal alongside other regional trading pacts from NAFTA, Mercosur to ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). As a result the social democratic dream must either be extended to all and sundry or be gradually dismantled. In the UK we have the paradoxical situation where many descendants of the once proud working classes have become trapped in welfare dependence while low-wage jobs are increasingly the preserve of newcomers. To put things in perspective, despite public concerns about immigration from Commonwealth countries in 1950s to the 1980s, this immigration was always relatively balanced by emigration. Indeed between 1945 and 1995, total immigration to the UK was just under 2 million, a large number but spread over 50 years. Of course, the demographic effects were distorted by varying birth rates. Since 1995 more than net migration has been running at between 100,000 and 250,000 a year and the population has risen from a 58 million in 1991 to 63 million in 2011 despite a below replacement fertility rate among the native population. This means the UK has import raw materials, manufactured goods and food to sustain economic growth. So, as ironical as may seem to many trendy lefties, a higher population and greater economic growth in the UK leads to greater depredation of resources elsewhere. Where people suffer hardships in many apparently developing countries, it is often because foreign multinationals have uprooted them from their ancestral lands to exploit resources required by global markets. Yet corporate globalisation acts as double-edged sword, forcing people to leave their homelands and conveniently shifting the blame to the incompetence or corruptions of local leaders, while simultaneously promoting the very consumption-led economic growth that causes this displacement.
A False Sense of Security
Harold MacMillan, British prime minister in the late 1950s, once claimed "You've never had it so good". In some respects our material wellbeing and life expectancy have continued to improve since. However,what mattered most to those who remembered the humiliation of mass unemployment, soup kitchens, orphanages and real poverty below the breadline, were a secure job, affordable housing and a better future for their children. By the early 1960s most Western Europeans had all three essential components of the good life. With the advent of affordable television sets and growing car ownership, the new norm came to resemble the American Dream. It mattered little that most of the world still lived in a kind of post-colonial semi-feudalism or had to endure the excesses of Maoist or Stalinist authoritarian idealism.