Bookshelf: Into the lion's den

This tracking of the evolution of globalisation dispels many prevailing academic assumptions and theories.

by Julius Sen, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Globalisation has become a tired and contested term. Tired because it is overused, misused, misunderstood and mistreated by everyone from politicians to poultry farmers; contested because it means different things to different people and is thus amenable to a variety of presentations.

Getting a sense of the debate and a grasp of its dimensions often grates with a wider audience and tires its interest and patience. It has also become something of a battleground for two world views. The first - often presented as peculiarly Anglo-American - suggests that it is a broadly benign and inevitable process, and consistent with a vaguely defined business agenda.

The second - variously presented as a liberal, developing country or European perspective - questions whether the process is benign at all and asks if the purpose of human existence is to serve the interests of economic efficiency.

To find a book that is prepared to venture into the lion's den, and actually say something new and interesting about a subject that has been done to death and contaminated by polemics, is a rarity. To find a book that can say this with calm fluency and gentle argument is a pleasure. And to find one that talks about the complexity of the human experience without judging whether it is good or bad, but through an organised presentation of interconnected themes across the span of history is worth reading. Bound Together by Nayan Chanda does all this, and it does it in a literary style that is largely free of both economic theory and jargon.

The author attempts to impose some order on this analytical framework. He tracks the evolution of globalisation (which he argues began when man first migrated out of Africa) through four perspectives: migration, trade, religion and warfare. He succeeds in bringing out two larger truths in the process: that history is filled with unintended consequences of startling contemporary impact; and that no one really has the faintest idea of where things are heading, despite periods of surging confidence among religious and political leaders, and business visionaries. The greater part of what we see today is thus a product of an unbroken series of accidents that stretch back to the dawn of history.

Perhaps the most interesting examples relate to two trade issues of great contemporary relevance: coffee and cotton. Chanda describes how the cultivation of cotton has been both a source of wealth and misery through the rise and collapse of markets, human suffering through the use of migrant workers and slavery, and astonishing political and military consequences. Even to this day, cotton subsidies are one of the most contentious (and emotive) issues on the WTO agenda. After centuries of tumultuous history, cotton still divides us and is a source of political strife. Similarly, the importance of coffee in consumer culture brings up emotive issues, from growers' welfare to eco-footprint, issues that have been used by both pro and anti-globalisers to support their agenda.

To convey all this - and much more - effectively is the reason why Bound Together is such a good and unusual book. No conventional academic would dream of writing anything like this - it covers far too much ground and brings together too many strands of history and human experience. It may be criticised for being too general and for relying too heavily on the conventional view of history that each academic stream generates, but this is precisely what makes it so fascinating.

I was particularly struck by how poorly understood were the theories of human migration out of Africa - a process in which 'primitive' man can supposedly find his way to remote islands in the Pacific, apparently by accident and in pursuit of their next meal in an idle, beach-combing sort of way, but which modern man 'discovers' thousands of years later through the application of science and navigation. Reading this, you realise that prevailing academic assumptions are manifestly absurd. Chanda's skill is to reflect on these findings and academic traditions without challenging or criticising them, but using them to sustain his general storyline.

The accuracy of some elements may be questionable, but it is all the more useful for exposing some of the weaker links in our understanding of human history, and this to me is one of the book's major contributions.

Bound Together: how traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors shaped globalization, Nayan Chanda, $16.99, Yale University Press, ISBN: 0-30011-201-7.

Julius Sen is associate director and senior adviser at Enterprise

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