Channeling global capitalism.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
June 6 2002 1:15 PM

Channeling Global Capitalism

Some journalists go abroad and file dispatches about the "mood of Paris" or the "mood of London." I was just in Berlin, but I spent most of my waking hours inside my hotel, so I can't really speak for the city as a whole. (I know what you're thinking: That's never stopped other foreign correspondents.) Instead, I'd like to serve as a medium for the mood of global capitalism. Those waking hours were spent in the hotel ballroom with a few dozen executives—mostly CEOs—from corporations around the world, ranging from Mitsubishi to Saatchi and Saatchi.

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This was the 10th annual meeting of the Global Business Policy Council, run by the consulting firm AT Kearney (which compiles Foreign Policy magazine's globalization index). The Kearney people like to think of their council as comparable to the famous World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, if on a boutiquier scale. But, to the connoisseur of global, big-think junkets, Berlin had at least one edge over Davos. As a Kearney "faculty member," I got paid (this is full disclosure), whereas at Davos they just cover expenses. Also, at Davos ­­I got a modest hotel room in Klosters, the out-of-the-way village where the beta males are housed, but in Berlin I stayed in the serotonin-boosting Hotel Adlon, where President Bush stayed last month and President Clinton stayed years ago. At the Adlon, every man is a king: After a couple of days of tossing my dirty clothes in a corner—too cheap to pay for laundry service—I returned to the room to find a little tower of meticulously folded dirty clothes, underwear included.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Anyway, as for the mood of global capitalism: If I were forced to say something positive about Osama Bin Laden, it would be that he has deepened capitalists' interest in the world outside of five-star hotels. A year ago, I suspect, the average CEO would have shown scanty enthusiasm for hearing Benjamin ("Jihad Versus McWorld") Barber hold forth on the discontents of the world's teeming masses. But these executives listened to Barber closely, even if they weren't wild about his take-home lesson: that global capitalism runs roughshod over the cultural landscape, subverting time-honored values and insidiously inducing innocent human beings to order Big Macs.

Naturally, the CEOs also indulged their interest in economic forecasting, listening raptly to a mildly downbeat assessment by the eminent Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf. Still, at the end of the conference, when the execs were polled on their biggest macro-concern in the coming year, terrorist-related political instability, not stalled economic recovery, topped the list. And, when asked how they hoped to address the challenge, a couple of executives mentioned correcting the underrepresentation of Muslims at the top of their corporate hierarchy.

That's my buried lead: Top Business Executives Embrace Global Affirmative Action! It raises two questions.

1) Would this help? Maybe a little, in the long run. It could, for example, attune corporations to cultural nuance in Islamic countries, reducing the backlash their business practices arouse.

2) Would this just be a cynical attempt by capitalism at self-preservation? Presumably—but what's wrong with that? It may well be that the best hope for preventing an endless replay of 9/11s lies with capitalism's powers of cynical self-preservation. After all, there are basically two ways to influence war-on-terrorism policy: public opinion (i.e., future votes) and money. So far, public opinion has done no great good that I can see. It was to please voters that Bush (and Congress) refused to open our textile markets to Pakistan—something we should have done both to reward Prime Minister Musharraf and because, in the long run, drawing Islamic countries into the global economy is a good way to dampen the appeal of radical Islam. And it was presumably fear of public opinion that shaped our casualty-averse strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that may have let Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. So, with public opinion doing little good, that leaves money as the main source of hope—and money, as you may have noticed, is sometimes brought to bear on the political process by capitalists.

Can capitalism use this lever wisely? History offers at least some encouragement. Commerce has often, one way or another, managed to make the world safe for itself. In the late Middle Ages, merchants in various German cities united to form the Hanseatic League in order to quell pirates and build shipwreck-preventing lighthouses. At about the same time, as kings across Europe grabbed power from local lords, paving the way for the nation-state, they did so as proxies for the incipient capitalist system. The conflicting regulations of the various lords had been impeding commerce, and, worse still, the lords fought one another and even marauded, making trade perilous. The emerging middle class of merchants gladly paid taxes to ascendant kings in exchange for peace and order.

Note that in both cases, commerce's drive for self-preservation carried governance to a higher level of organization—from the local to the regional. And in both cases, this was because commerce at that higher level was threatened. Regular readers may sense an impending Earthling sermon on how 9/11 underscores the need for global governance. Wrong! Having just tried to sell that argument to a bunch of CEOs, I'm too weary to rehash it and will settle for a link.

However, I would note that there's a precedent for converting CEOs to this cause. The one-worldism afoot around World War I, when the League of Nations was born, was largely a capitalist plot. Industrialists saw how bad war had been for business and were willing to give up some national sovereignty to avoid another war. (It didn't work, but it was a start.) Only later in the century did one-worldism come to connote lefty idealism.

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