Slowing globalization down

By Robert Wright, Nov 12 2019

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright (2000).


The early-twentieth-century sociologist William Ogburn attributed many of the world’s problems to “cultural lag.” Cultural lag happens when material culture (technology, basically) changes so fast that nonmaterial culture (including governance and social norms) has trouble catching up. In short, the disruptive part of culture gets out ahead of what Ogburn called the “adaptive” part of culture. Ogburn’s general prescription was to speed up the latter—“make the cultural adjustments as quickly as possible.” But there is another option: slow down the former—cut the rate at which material technology is transforming the world; make the inevitable unfold at a more sedate pace.

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Globalization doesn’t come with a velocity-control knob. And the old-fashioned approach to slowing the spread of material technology—raising tariffs—has a history of inviting retaliation and thus yielding full-blown trade wars (the kind that usher in depressions). But there is a safer approach to slowing globalization down just a tad—a supranational approach.

The idea isn’t to create a Bureau of Global Slowdown at the United Nations. The idea is simply to tolerate various supranational efforts that are starting to take shape and that, as they solidify, will naturally have a sedative effect. As first-world and third-world workers unite to raise third-world wages (and thus keep first-world wages from free-falling), industrialists will complain that this dulls the market’s edge, slowing progress. Yes, it does—but that’s okay. As environmentalists unite to save rain forests, or tax fossil fuels, the same complaint will be heard—and the same answer will apply. In the age of the superempowered angry man, and the quite disgruntled man, the slowing down of deeply unsettling change is a benefit, not just a cost, because anger and disgruntlement are world-class problems. 

Note that these two particular forms of slowdown—supranational labor and environmental policies—have the added virtue of directly addressing specific sources of anger and disgruntlement: the rapid exodus of blue-collar jobs from developed nations; and the ecological damage that can radicalize environmentalists and that, more broadly, deepens cultural dislocation in such already polluted places as Mexico City and Bangkok. In a sense, then, these policies address both halves of the “cultural lag.” Rather than choose between slowing the “material” change and hastening the “adaptive” change, we can slow the material change by hastening the adaptive change. 

In a way, it’s a misnomer to call this a “slowing” of globalization. After all, the things that might do the slowing—supranational labor groups or environmental groups, supranational bodies of governance—are themselves part of globalization. What is really happening is that the further evolution of political globalization is slightly slowing the evolution of economic globalization.

This approach has a proven track record. In the United States during the early twentieth century, as economic activity migrated from the state level to the national level, the national government grew powerful enough to regulate it. And some of the regulation—labor laws in particular—had the effect of subduing capitalism a bit, dulling its harsher edges. This was, among other things, a preemptive strike against chaos (in the form of Marxist revolution) and a successful one.

We needn’t worry much about economic globalization grinding to a halt under the weight of regulation. The political prerequisites for real regulation, such as strong transnational labor coalitions, will form only slowly, and the economic impetus behind globalization is mammoth. In fact, the only thing with much chance of stalling globalization for any length of time is the very chaotic backlash—from the angry and the disgruntled—that a slight slowdown might avert. Strange as it sounds, the best way to keep economic globalization from slowing down a lot may be to slow it down a little.




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