Books: Globalisation's bumpy ride - This rounded collection of essays makes an exhilarating read, says Peter Parker

Books: Globalisation's bumpy ride - This rounded collection of essays makes an exhilarating read, says Peter Parker - ON THE EDGE

by Sir PETER PARKER, was chairman of British Rail 1976-83
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


edited by Will Hutton & Anthony Giddens Jonathan Cape pounds 16.99 Change isn't what it used to be. Of course it was always a condition of life in the 20th century - pell-mell, HG Wells called it early on - and the dynamics are recognisable in the 21st century, with the familiar priorities at the head of our agenda still: the worldwide revolutions of information technology and biotechnology, high-tech flying high over frontiers; the weightless economy of financial markets circling the globe like Ariel 'in a twink'; the environmental fight that must be ceaseless if we are to sustain the limited planet; and the social and cultural corollaries of all this - not least the progress of women as, slowly, mankind concedes that womankind is an equal part of it. The dramatic last decade of the century brought the collapse of Russian communism, the triumphant West making no secret of its success: a victory for democracy and the market economy. Suddenly, all these forces of change are like tributaries converging into a mighty river; globalisation is what we call the flood.

The word itself was born in the late '80s and has proved a baby Gargantua.

There is an immediacy and inevitability about it that seems to have changed change as we knew it.

This is what makes On the Edge so compelling. Co-editors Tony Giddens and Will Hutton force us to think harder and faster about what globalising means. It is a compliment to their reputations that they have attracted a dozen of the most interesting people in the world to discuss the phenomenon: economists and financial practitioners, sociologists, and a Nobel ecologist and physicist. Their essays glitter both separately and together, joining at the hub of the matter like spokes of the wheel of our future fortunes -o summarised in the words of the editors: 'Whatever we may think about the results, the emerging truth is that we live not merely in a business civilisation but one that is going global.'

The going will be rapid and rough. Businessmen naturally see the matter as business-and-the-bottom line, but this is a dangerous over-simplification, as Volcker, the banker, and Soros, the financier, make plain in their wide-ranging contributions. Volcker, the ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve System, dissects with Olympian coolness the causes of the Asian crisis and the lessons to be learnt and argues for improved institutions for world governance: disappointing as it has been, the IMF 'is the only vehicle available - and the appropriate vehicle to bring consensus and legitimacy to reform the financial system on a global scale'. Soros comes differently to the same conclusion. These eminent men understand the humanity of what is at stake. As the World Bank president put it in December: 'At the level of people the system isn't working'.

We may have to live with capitalism, but not the worst kind. Not what Manuel Castells, in his piece, describes as the Automaton 'whose logic is indifferent to the values of humanity'. Vanda Shiva writes of the loss of sanctity in life as 'everything becomes tradable ... even pollution, which the rich can sell to the poor'. The cultural and social and even personal dimensions of what is happening are fully explored. Globalisation is not a remote proposition, Richard Sennett says, 'it is personal, bloody personal, your job, your sex, your spirit'.

So how do we save the global market system from itself? There is no time to lose. We are being warned. The Battle of Seattle was a muddle of causes but not meaningless: there really are the beginnings of a backlash to the giant corporations strutting about the world.

The one criticism I have of this formidable collection is that it allows big business no voice. Not all transnationals are locked in the romance of laissez faire, in Kuttner's phrase, and the case for corporations with conscience and sense of citizenship needs to be heard. It is not easy to balance the interests of cosmic shareholder and stakeholder. How does the manager reconcile efficiency and happiness?

On the Edge offers no easy answers. The co-editors conclude that there is some hope for a Third Global Way through the risks and opportunities ahead, but they admit that 'it is a glorious and frightening time'. This is a glorious and frightening read.

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