[This book review article was published in the Spring/Summer issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 26-32.
BOOK REVIEW ARTICLE
A Provocative Look at Globalization and Democracy Dwight D. Murphey Wichita State University, retired
In a book that combines deep thoughtfulness and insight with a style that will put off most readers with its dissertation-like abstruseness, Guoguang Wu of Canada’s University of Victoria provides in-depth analysis of today’s global market economy and its relation to “democracy” in both “neoliberal” and “authoritarian” societies. In this article, we will recap his analysis, and will follow that with a critique of several issues that his book brings to mind. Among other things, we will see that the effort he has put in to describe the global market will rather soon be misplaced, since the on-rushing advance of science and non-labor-intensive technology is in the process of making a radically new economic order imperative.
Key Words: Globalization, democracy, Guoguang Wu, neoliberal societies, authoritarian societies, governing elites.
Globalization against Democracy: A Political Economy of Capitalism after its Global Triumph Guoguang Wu Cambridge University Press, 2017
During the past century, social analysis has been extended far beyond the basic concepts that marked the beginnings of the various social science disciplines. Without intending to denigrate it, we could say that most bodies of thought have seen a vast elaboration, a process of web-spinning that explores many subtleties. In Globalization against Democracy, Guoguang Wu, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada and a former editor at Beijing’s “People’s Daily,” examines the globalization of the world economy very much in this vein. His method is not mathematical or statistical, but rather analytical, and probes with considerable sophistication into the effects of the global market on political systems, the concentration of capital, labor mobility, the rise of world consumerism, and burgeoning inequality.
It certainly isn’t a book for everyone. A lot of concentration is required to break through the often esoteric language that is more akin to a Ph.d dissertation than to a book intended for the general reader. Consider, for example, the title to the second chapter: “Capitalism in Institutional Reconfiguration by Globalization: A Theoretical Framework,” or the section heading “Inter-Institutional Perspective of Political Economy: Methodological Experimentation and Ideological Transcendence.” We’d love to see speed-readers grapple with those. Even those of us who read at a normal pace will find ourselves having to go over such wording three or four times until the meaning of each word sinks in. When we do, we find that Wu has quite a lot to say. Unfortunately, it is a fine-spun elaboration that, for reasons we will explain here, is not only incomplete but also will soon be radically out of date.
As we paraphrase the main themes of Wu’s analysis, we will necessarily be simplifying subjects that an intrepid reader will find the book examines in much greater detail. We think, however, the following gives a fair description of his message:
The global market has come to fill all spaces, subject only to some local holdouts or protests. As a well-nigh irresistible force, it pervades both the “neo-liberal” social democracies of the West and the “authoritarian” regimes of such countries as China and Vietnam. As a matter of fact, the market finds its most efficient presence in the authoritarian systems, which now count on economic success for their legitimacy after having foresworn Communist anti-market ideology. By providing that legitimacy, however, the market in such societies retards any move they might otherwise have reason to make toward democracy; and their “efficiency” is tainted by social injustice, environmental degradation and an absence of political and civic freedoms. For their part, the neo-liberal societies find their own democracy diminished by the increasing polarization of rich and poor, the decline of the middle class, the rise of “crony capitalism,” and the inability of their nation-state governments to govern the global market, which is de facto laissez faire. As the book’s title asserts, globalization acts, in Wu’s analysis, against, not for, democracy, and that applies in both types of society.
Although Wu makes little effort to campaign for world government, he observes that the global market lacks “effective authorities of global governance.” All systems, including the neo-liberal ones, gravitate toward mixed-economy state-activism, with a collaboration of the state with the market, resulting in what Wu calls “the state-market nexus.” Even in neo-liberal societies, the state becomes highly involved through such things as support for research and development, assistance to domestic enterprises, and its promotion of technology. Its activity is by no means limited to a correction of market failures. At the same time, its pro-market ideology provides cover for “the jungle that is the political economy of global capitalism.”
In the global market, capital and finance flow easily. To compete in so large a market, firms grow to form gigantic oligopolies and monopolies, which contend with each other. Labor mobility is found in the migration of vast numbers of people worldwide, although mostly to what Wu calls “the Global North” and the United States. The consumerism that is prompted to exist throughout the world, with its “single-minded” preoccupation with enjoying material life, is in his opinion transformative, displacing other aspects of life and culture. He argues that individuals have become “atomized” and “one-dimensional economic man,” while group action becomes more difficult. Criticisms continue as he points to the ignoring of “public goods, in a race to the bottom,” and “huge ecological predicaments.” There is the worldwide polarization of incomes, withering of the middle classes, and growing class division. The last of these sees the rise of a global elite composed of the super-rich who lose their national affinities.
What Wu would like to see would be for the world to pull in a very different direction. The fetish for growth should be set aside, and instead of governments seeking growth and wealth, they should strive for “equality-and-ecology-centered development,” with a “better distribution of wealth.” He would like to see “institutional innovations… to re-connect democracy with capitalism.” Within neo-liberal societies, there needs to be an “ideational revolution” that, no longer seeing the state and market as adversaries, will accept the reality of a mixed economy. Although the tone of Wu’s book is unemotional and academic, we can see in it much that can serve as a manifesto for the various anti-globalization movements that exist, often taking the form of an anarchic and violent rejection of the world as it is.
We said earlier that we would be summarizing Wu’s views, but that his analysis suffers from several flaws. These shortcomings are worth considering not simply as criticisms of the book, but as subjects worth thinking about in their own right.
1. It is ironic that so elaborate a dissection of the world scene should be undertaken so shortly before it all becomes radically out-of-date. Wu has put enormous academic effort into the book. It won’t be long, though, before the world is overturned economically and culturally. The tidal-wave of automation, with its incongruous mixture of super-abundant low-cost productivity and displacement of existing industries and hundreds of millions of people from remunerated employment, is in its infancy, even though it has been building up for several years. When abundance is mixed with displacement, there is a crisis at both the supply and demand side. The super-productivity won’t be able to occur without consumers, and consumption can’t occur in a primarily jobless economy unless there is a widespread distribution of wealth that will provide the means for the purchase of the goods and services.
This means that all societies, including all elites and all existing ideological systems, will be forced to adjust to profound new realities. We can well expect the adjustment won’t be easy. Foresight could ease the way, but foresight is always in short supply. Ideas are “vested,” just as there are “vested interests” and firmly rooted ways of living. These tend to be hammered from their places only by emergency. Unless adjustments are made wisely and quickly, the world is in for turmoil, perhaps catastrophic, unlike any we have imagined heretofore.
In a world of non-labor-intensive technology, capital-intensive productivity, and the imperative broad distribution of wealth just mentioned, there is an increased likelihood that Wu’s desire for a simplified-consumption and ecology-minded way of life will ensue. Although that is by no means assured, such a development seems almost out of the question – as a sort of “pie in the sky” -- in the now-existing economic world of global competition that Wu describes so well.
2. As we have seen, Wu notes, although only passingly, the negative features of the “authoritarian regimes” such as China and Vietnam. When, however, he speaks of “effective authoritarianism” and “a well-functioning authoritarian state,” it doesn’t seem that he realizes how neurotically fragile such a system is. It is doubtful that they have introduced a new “end of history” in which ideological distemper, lusts for power, and men-on-horseback are no longer possible (or even probable). We are reminded of Lord Acton’s admonition that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”; and we recall the travails the Roman Empire went through when good emperors were followed by tyrants, and vice versa. The reality is that a totalitarian system lives on the side of a volcano.
Nor is it sufficient to make just a cursory reference to abuses and failures within the now-existing authoritarian regimes. Amid the spectacular growth of Chinese cities, the abuses that form the warp-and-woof of Chinese totalitarianism are egregious. Control is in the hands of a single party, conformity of opinion is demanded at all but the top ranks even of that party, millions of people are ushered about through arbitrary decisions to tear down and replace their neighborhoods, the press is party-controlled, the courts are instruments of the Communist Party and there is no concept of judicial independence, many millions live in misery and without any system of health care or social security, the spectacular cities are showcases of the most shoddy construction – each of these aspects and more deserve considered discussion.
3. Throughout the book, Wu talks of “democracy” without defining it other than through an occasional reference to “popular participation” and “popular accountability.” Most assuredly, the “democracy” concept calls for more examination that this. It has an essential fictional element in it. When, for example, American internationalists call for the spread of “democracy” in, say, the Middle East, they certainly don’t contemplate rule by “the Arab street.” They want “democracy,” but by no means do they want the “great unwashed masses” to rule. In the United States, seen as probably the preeminent example of “democracy,” the broad opinion elite speaks up repeatedly against “populism.” Being generic, this is somewhat broader than the 2016 condemnation of America’s millions of “deplorables.” Even thinkers on the right, not part of the opinion elite, have, at least until Donald Trump’s election, repeatedly made their position “against populism” clear.
Although Trump has challenged it, the “PeeWOC incubus” has long governed both the United States and Europe. PeeWOC is this reviewer’s recently coined acronym for “People whose opinions count.” What is worth noting is that this opinion elite is extremely broad, consisting of the main media, most of the entertainment industry, almost all of academia, corporate America, the legal profession, and millions of “college educated” people whose outlook is formed by the others. Until recently, only local, sporadic and temporary challenges to the PeeWOC hegemony have succeeded. In addition to constituting the dominating governing force in the United States and Europe, this hegemony towers over the world through what is now called “the Davos culture,” a reference that points to the annual meeting of the world elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
John Stuart Mill agreed with Thomas Carlyle that a society needs what they called a “clerisy,” an intellectual elite to provide guidance. A free society needs this as much, perhaps more, than any other. The problem in America’s history during much of its existence is that the PeeWOC culture, influenced very largely by the Left, has not been the sort of clerisy appropriate to the society. Rather, it has for many decades been alienated from the main body of the people. Were it present as an elevating and supportive force, it would in effect be an instrument of the people, and there would be no significant division between the elite and a “populist” population who constitute a “silent majority.” Lincoln’s aspiration for a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” would be a reality.
The challenge to the PeeWOC dominance is one of the more significant aspects of the Trump phenomenon. Because of the towering strength and deeply entrenched nature of what he opposes, it is a challenge that may well be beyond his or anyone else’s ability to effectuate. If a change in the opinion elite is to occur, it will likely take two or three generations, if it happens at all.
4. Wu says economics is “becoming the central focus of politics.” This is debatable. Politics in the United States since World War II has largely been dominated by the “identity politics” of race and ethnicity. Simultaneously, the society has been preoccupied with a “culture war” that has pulled the society incrementally out of several of its erstwhile customs and norms. Wu mentions the flood of migration into the United States and Europe. The “focus of politics” about that is not mostly about economics but about the immigration itself.
5. The book devotes many pages to a discussion of what Wu sees as consumers being pawns of capital. Readers will recognize this as a revisiting of a theme that has long been a favorite in leftist thinking about a market economy. The problem with it is that it is only a partial truth. Commercial interests, along with many other forces such as politics and religion, do indeed subject the public to a constant barrage of commercials, advertisements, and most recently “cookies” that are implanted in computer files to funnel even more direct appeals to any specific consumer. But does all that result in making people mere passive receptors? When the Left suggests that it does, it strips them at least in part of their humanity. A truer picture sees people as bringing a lot of their own thought, willfulness and preference “to the table” in what is really a two-way interaction. When the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises argued that “the market responds to consumers,” he was seeing what the Left has long chosen not to see.
6. Readers receive the impression that Wu’s sweeping analysis captures what is most important in world developments. This is far from the case, however. There is much occurring in the world that his landscape doesn’t encompass. The cybernetic and scientific revolutions, the discoveries in medicine, the birth and death rates portending major shifts in demographics and hence in civilization, the pressures from an expanding Islam – all of these and much more, including those we have mentioned such as the growing non-labor-intensive technology and the inappropriateness of the Western elite, make up parts of the larger picture.
It is too much to expect any author to bring all of these into focus. The fault is not in Wu’s book, but in the impression that its analysis is comprehensive. That impression is overcome if readers approach the book with that in mind.
1. Several authors, come quite recent and others going back over centuries, have discussed the need for a variety of possible systems that would provide everyone a “basic income.” The proposal that is written by the author of this review is designed to provide that income support while fostering a flourishing market economy and keeping government from dictating the content of people’s lives. In other words, he has sought a “classical liberal” approach to the social-political-economic restructuring. See his book A Shared Market Economy, which is on Kindle and is posted to his website (search Google for his name to find the website).
2. We see this refusal to serve as an elevating force at, say, an art school in Telluride, Colorado. There, towered over by majestic peaks that should inspire any artist, is a courtyard filled with gargoyles and other grotesque pieces. This sort of alienated art is found, too, in most, if not all, of the United States’ more prestigious art galleries. Often what is chosen for display is simply mediocrity, elevated to a place of honor. The opposite is found in each summer’s Prix de West art exhibit in Oklahoma City.
 Several authors, some quite recent and others going back for centuries, have discussed the need for a variety of possible systems that would provide everyone a “basic income.” The proposal that is written by the author of this review is designed to provide that broad income support while fostering a flourishing market economy and keeping government from dictating the content of people’s lives. In other words, he has sought a “classical liberal” approach to the social-political-economic restructuring. See his book A Shared Market Economy, which is on Kindle and which is published to his web site www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info
 We see this refusal to serve as an elevating force at, say, an art school in Telluride, Colorado. There, towered over by majestic peaks that should inspire any artist, is a courtyard filled with gargoyles and other grotesque pieces. This sort of alienated art is found, too, in most, if not all, of the United States’ more prestigious art galleries. Often what is chosen for display is simply mediocrity, elevated to a place of honor. The opposite is found in each summer’s Prix de West art exhibit in Oklahoma City.