Globalization: A Complex Web of Political, Social, and Cultural Issues

Globalization, the process in which peoples are united into a single, interconnected global society, often raises both economic and idealistic questions. The issue of globalization extends far beyond the question of economics, involving the complex interplay of politics, social inequality, and various cultural perspectives.

Theoretically, globalization increases the political repertoire between nations and inspires the development of global political institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Often, however, it seems as though the equitable relationships between governments are more a trick of smoke and mirrors than anything real. A strong case has been made that the UN’s goals are not to promote development in Third World countries that will bring them “up” to the standards of the Western world (as their public relations materials state) but instead to hand over development dollars that will be returned to the west in the form of contracts (for American or European-based electric companies and builders of airplanes, for instance) or hiring whites as highly paid specialists to work in those countries. Often, the individuals are “…on expensive fact-finding missions. What this means in practice is that they arrive with empty hands and lave with their heads full of information that may, or may not, later be translated into action,” (Hancock 1989: 8) Moreover, in 1994, the Office of the United States Trade Representative in Washington warned Indonesia that they would take away the special trade preferences placed on their goods if Indonesia failed to “demonstrate a real commitment to international standards for labor rights” (Greider 1997:394), and yet all Jakarta had to do was raise the minimum wage to $1.80 per day. Even though many companies paid no heed to the new law because they were “confident nothing would happen to them” (p. 395), this was apparently acceptable to those in charge at Washington, because the issue was not pursued any further. It appears that nations, as the agents of globalization, speak in a language of universal rights and privileges, but in practice they are only concerned with protecting their own economic needs. This often happens at the expense of those from less powerful and rich nations.

Take also for example the United States’ stance on free labor. Although the country claims to support the rights of free labor, it does not challenge the contradictory practices of international trade organizations. The present global system works by “creaming” (p. 390) the poorer countries for cheap labor, as many people are so desperate to work that they will accept almost any terms. This is referred to as “the ultimate black hole for workers” (p. 407) since they are left with no other options. If they refuse work due to the conditions, there will always be other people to fill the jobs. People are lured to these industrial jobs by the promise of disposable income which can be used to purchase Western goods. These items (such as bicycles, make-up, and Western clothing) confer privilege and status upon those who own them. Thus, globalization works on two levels simultaneously: to homogenize cultures through consumption as well as to develop a new group of consumers. The desire for these goods ensures that people will always be willing to return to industrial jobs in spite of the poor conditions. Some argue that because government is “trapped by the food chain of poorer nations willing to accept the new factories on any terms” (p. 410), there is no point in raising wages – in essence, that there is nothing which can be done.

Human rights and labor rights are intertwined, as work is an intricate part of the human condition. For Marx, human history begins with labor – to feed oneself and to reproduce – so labor cannot be separated from the human experience. Additionally, “both require a trading system that insists upon free speech and the right of assembly” (Greider 1987: 390). As the United States claims to be a supporter of human rights, it would only make sense if the country in turn supported international labor rights. The reality of the situation is quite different, though. It seems the United States government supports labor rights in other countries idealistically (ibid: 389), but does not put their ideals into practice. Currently, freedom of trade appears to be held more dear than freedom of people, for the US stands to make huge economic gains by ignoring human and labor rights abuses in countries like China, with a billion consumers ready to buy up American goods.

Perhaps the physical distance between the United States and underdeveloped countries is partially to blame for this emotional detachment. It may be easier for the United States to ignore the suffering of people in undeveloped countries because it sees them not as fellow human beings, but as “faceless digits in the global wage system” (p. 390). As long as profits are there to be made, this apathetic attitude will continue, as will the exploitation of laborers within the global network. Greider (p. 413) suggests that “if the idea of equality is ever to have meaning, especially on the global plane … it must begin from the understanding that human potential is universal and diverse, vast and unfathomable, and largely unrealized.”

When people, regardless of country of residence, have no choice but to work in inhumane conditions for a pittance or else starve to death, this can be called nothing other than exploitation. Current conditions have a long history which can be traced back to the colonial period. At the turn of the century, colonial governments sought to make self-sufficient empires that would not be dependent upon procuring goods from other countries. Globalization, then, has a deep time depth, and exploiting native populations for the good of westerns has always been a key factor. Exploitation, defined by Greider (p. 388) as “extracting profit from … people who are unable, for whatever reason, to defend themselves against domination,” also takes the voice from the people because governments in certain countries do not allow workers to form unions. Multinational corporations defend their practices by essentially saying “commerce … helps ‘civilize’ the backward peasants … [who] are not yet equipped for the experience of individual expression, democracy, or labor rights” (p. 389). The concept which they promote is that the people are “grateful for the work” and eventually, the work will teach the people “to expect more from life” (p. 389). If this were the case, there would be no conflict between workers and the authorities, simply because the workers appreciate their jobs so much. The reality of this situation is that the workers are often struggling to organize among themselves to fight for basic labor rights. As Greider (p. 389) points out, strikes go on even where the participants could face years in prison as a result. Where this has been unsuccessful, workers find other ways to get breaks at work or to express dissatisfaction, as in for example the regular (and work-stopping) occurrences of spirit possession among Malaysian factory workers (Ong 1987).

In spite of some Western attitudes, suggestions abound as to how to combat laborer exploitation. For instance, Henry Ford raised his factory workers’ pay in 1913 because he realized “mass production can not succeed … if workers can not afford to buy the things they manufacture” (Greider 1989: 390). It seems as though things have come to a stand still since then. The most logical way to bring an end to the social inequalities of labor exploitation is to devise a system of global trade laws, “rules that would require producing nations to meet the internationally recognized standards for labor rights and thus establish the basic human rights of self-expression as well” (p. 408). This way, those countries that chose to ignore the global trade laws would not be allowed to participate in global trading, in effect forcing developing nations to meet with standards of basic human rights. Greider (p. 408) concludes that “if poor countries wish to become players in the global industrial structure, they will learn to play by the global understanding of civilized conduct.” Of course, Greider seems to be over looking the fact that often the reason that these countries do not allow their workers to organize unions is because they are bribed by American and European countries and told not to. The wealthy American and European countries should take some initiative in creating these trade laws and abiding by them themselves.

Interestingly enough, the very foundation of organized labor is based on the idea that “self-realization was the universal right” (p. 414), dating back to the nineteenth century. Apparently, this idea has fallen out of favor, because development has become such an ever present issue among many countries and scholars. More aid programs exist than can be easily named, but one of the many is the World Bank, who’s aim is to promote development in under-developed countries. However, it seems as though the World Bank is more interested in helping itself than helping these countries; one might even say that “the purpose of a development project is to aid capitalist exploitation in a given country” (Ferguson 1994:11). The World Bank’s interest may lie more in “boosting production an export of cash crops for the external market” (p. 16) than in helping the people in a given country. It is also key to note that the World Bank does not consider a people’s culture before jumping into the country and attempting to develop it with useless programs they do not want or need.

For example, the Thaba-Tseka project which was put into action in Lesotho in order to “stimulate the mountains” (p. 83) and completely ignored the fact that the people of Lesotho would, in all probability, never accept the introduction of livestock marketing. The project implied that the only reason the people did not sell their animals was due to a lack of a place to sell them (p. 84), but in fact, keeping animals is a lifestyle choice. Animals, specifically cows, are highly valued among the people of Lesotho as far more than just animals. The animals are almost status symbols, viewed as being worth more than money because they can bring prestige, respect, and an investment for the future (p. 135). Due to their very culture, it becomes quite clear that no development project could convince the people of Lesotho to start commercializing their livestock. Yet because of the pulsing push for world globalization, organizations like the World Bank are thirsty to develop any country they can imagine might somehow come to benefit them in the future.

The issue of globalization infiltrates much more than just the surface of society with economic implications. Globalization is many faceted phenomenon which involves political, social, and cultural aspects.

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