June 08, 2006


Globalization and Its Enemies. By Daniel Cohen. MIT Press. $27.95.

     It seems that today’s tales of globalization-inspired wealth inequality, job displacement, and imposition of foreign values on traditional cultures are nothing new.  They date back, argues Daniel Cohen, at least to the Spanish Conquistadors – and have been provoking sometimes-violent argument for hundreds of years.

     Cohen brings a peculiarly French viewpoint to an argument often expressed by, or against, U.S. intellectuals and policymakers.  He is professor of economics at the Ecole Normal Supérieure and the Université de Paris-I, a member of France’s council of economic advisors, and a Le Monde columnist.  His basic point is an intriguing one: far from forcing the values of a materialistic society onto nations organized on different models, modern globalization – thanks to instantaneous worldwide transmission of information and easy dissemination of data even in many poor countries – creates desires and expectations among impoverished people.  Those desires cannot be readily fulfilled, so there is resentment, even outright anger, at being exposed to so much wealth and so many objects of interest without the ability to join the party.

     This is an intriguing viewpoint.  Cohen bolsters it not only by reference to the Conquistadors but also by discussing the British empire in the 19th century.  His point is that global free trade, as enforced by the Spanish and British empires among their colonies, does not bring a general improvement in wealth or well-being: India, for example, was as poor in 1913 as in 1820.  Furthermore, the results of today’s instantaneous transmission of information – and the values of the societies producing the information – are decidedly mixed: China has found a way to rise rapidly while maintaining its own social and political system, but wealth dissemination to Africa has been spectacularly unsuccessful.

     Cohen notably omits a review of France’s own imperial days in his discussions of the downside of globalization, and even though he does not specifically say that the United States is the central problem in modern globalization, he certainly implies that it is.  These are not unexpected positions from an author so closely tied to the French government.  That does not mean they should be discarded – but readers should remember Cohen’s own biases while reading what he writes about others.  Thus, Cohen at one point comments, “To think of freedom as a Western attribute is to engage in the unfortunate habit of judging the past in light of the present, to forget the Inquisition and the tragedies of the twentieth century.”  He is specifically discussing Burma at this point, but the remark does reflect one of his general attitudes.

     Cohen is not quite sure how to make globalization work – not that anyone else is.  By pointing to China as a success, he seems implicitly to accept the brutal dictatorship there; but he is not accepting of the junta that rules Burma and calls it Myanmar.  He is also a continual apologist for France, a country whose sclerotic economy and unsustainable socialist impulses are dragging down the entire European Union.  For example, he praises the “thirty glorious years” after World War II in which “Europe managed to catch up” to the United States, and remarks offhandedly, “The management methods that French industries had copied from the United States were not far from those that already existed in Europe,” thus minimizing the need to catch up in the first place.  This misplaced national pride is one of the forces standing in the way of successful globalization.  If someone as educated and thoughtful as Cohen does not see this barrier, it is no wonder that intelligent discussions of globalization’s costs and benefits are so few and so far between.

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