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November Book Review

One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism
by William Greider, 1997 Simon &Schuster
Reviewed by John Tarleton

William Greider has unveiled the human face of today's Global Capitalism. And at the same time he has provided a cautionary description of how the "wondrous machine" of global industrial revolution may oscillate completely out of control if it is not soon reformed.

Greider is a cartographer of the constantly shifting landscape of present-day political economy. In his latest book, the best-selling author of Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy and Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country roams freely through the global economy, talking with people from all walks of life.

His anecdotal survey of the global economy is both brilliant and jarring. He reveals the richness and the cruelty, the wonder and the horrors of a transformation that is bringing unprecedented change to all corners of the world.

Life As It Is

Follow Greider as he moves from the inner corridors of power at the Federal Reserve and the Deutsche Bank to a clandestine meeting of young labor organizers in the teeming slums of Jakarta to the silent flocks of bicyclists on Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace. From an automated car factory in Japan to a grimy, obsolete steel mill in Post-Communist Poland to Boeing's state-of-the-art, 98-acre manufacturing plant in Everett, Washington and then back to Sunyuan in the mountains of China where a primitive Maoist-era factory has been retooled to produce titanium-alloy struts for the engine mounts of the Boeing 747. From a marble palace in Zurich where the beleaguered International Metalworkers Federation is holding its centennial Congress to Thailand where poor women are jumping out of the fourth floor of a burning sweatshop and confident, middle-class insurgents rebel against a military dictatorship with cell phones in hand, to Malaysia where young Moslem women have left their native villages to work at a semiconductor factory that is decorated with Norman Rockwell paintings. From the blinking control room of George Soros's Quantum Fund on New York City's posh 7th Avenue to the desperate contrivances of European finance ministers whose currencies are being overwhelmed to Uruapan in the poor Mexican state of Michoacan where a bank lobby has been turned into a makeshift funeral parlor by the bereaved family of a small farmer whose avocado fields were foreclosed on by the bank during the turmoil of Mexico's 1995 economic collapse.

Explaining the Nuts and Bolts of Global Capitalism

"One World" would be fascinating if it were only an impressionistic collage of global society. But, Greider also delivers thoughtful and penetrating analysis that delves beneath the complacent assumptions of mainstream economics and the flurry of day-to-day headlines and business page briefs. He doesn't argue with orthodox, free-market dogma so much as points out where its clichés fail to keep up with the reality it purports to describe.

Consciously avoiding Econo-Speak, Greider puts the incomprehensible in comprehensible terms. He explains the policy-making rationale of Central Banks, the (often-irrational) dynamics of the financial markets, the imperatives that drive corporations to shift factories overseas and continue downsizing at home even when they are reaping record profits. He also explains why capitalist firms like AT&T, Boeing, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Motorola are so eager to establish joint ventures with the Communist government of China, why "emerging markets" in poor countries are so vitally important to capitalist enterprise and why defending human rights around the world is not just the cause of a few idealists but is in everybody's interest.

Throughout "One World", Greider elaborates on what he sees as the destabilizing contradiction in the global industrial revolution: that capitalism's unparalleled ability to create more and more from less and less also means that demand cannot keep up with supply.

"You can't become so efficient that all this stuff is made without any labor content," a former IBM executive tells Greider. "Because then you have nobody with the money to buy anything."

It was a supply glut, Greider points out, which brought on the Great Depression of the 1930s. Have we learned our lessons? He asks. Or will Capitalism be allowed to endlessly repeat its most neurotic failures on an even grander scale? Will the bitter struggle between Capital and Labor that dominated the 20th Century be replayed again in the 21st Century?

A Global “New Deal”

Though he is unsparing in chronicling the excesses and failures of the market, Greider fervently believes in its workability if its vast energies are well-channeled; if society working through a responsive government imposes its values on the market instead of the other way around. Greider sees the grasping, acquisitive, creative energies of the market as an aspect of human nature that shouldn't be stamped out (See the History of Communism), but can only be used rationally or irrationally depending on human choice.

In that vein, he puts forth humane, common sense reform proposals. Their appeal is that they are doable, if the political will existed.

Greider's solution to the Capital vs. Labor conflict is to universalize the ownership of capital through ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), an idea that was first advanced in the 1950s by the maverick investment banker Louis Kelso. Over 1,500 U.S. businesses, including United Air Lines and Avis Car Rental, are set up along those lines. Greider would greatly expand this through easy credit policies that would make it possible for people to use their ESOP purchases as collateral in the same way that people do so when they take out a home mortgage.

Drawing on the Keynsian economics that guided all the industrial democracies from the 1930s to the 1970s, Greider proposes a Global "New Deal" that would lift the standard of living of all wage earners while stabilizing the demand for excess production. And he insists that defending human rights and the rights of workers everywhere is essential to this.

"For the first time in human history...a fateful connection is emerging between the first and the last," he writes. "One end of the ladder (or the see-saw) cannot defend its own general prosperity without attending to conditions at the other end. For masses of people in the global marketplace, economic self-interest is converging with altruism."

How Much “Stuff” Do We Need?

Anyone who feels like they've had enough of traffic jams, sprawling strip malls and the constant destruction of wilderness in the name of economic "development" will feel uneasy with Greider's persistent call for increased economic growth as a panacea for our social problems. How much more "stuff", for instance, do we need in our lives? Our notion of private property fires our energies even as it narrows our vision and leaves us further apart from one another, creating a void that no amount of things can fill. The GNP and the stock market spiral upward. But when will we ever be able to say "Enough"? Likewise, the trumpeting of more economic growth strikes an empty note when set against the approaching realities of the 21st Century. The Earth's resources are finite. And, so too is its ability to absorb our abuses. How can the imperatives of economy and ecology be reconciled? And how will competing nations and classes of people be affected by these trade-offs? In the book's final chapter (entitled "Oikonomia", the Ancient Greek word for economics which translates as "the management of the household and husbandry of its valuable assets"), Greider gamely tries to square the circle. Among others, he introduces the president of Tokyo University who is trying to redesign the whole manufacturing process so that it becomes a closed loop and a pioneering American economist who has developed a new accounting system for measuring sustainable economic growth which takes into account all the "externalities" that economists traditionally ignore.

Learning to Think Anew

But how do you put a qualitative value on the loss of a rainforest, the fouling of the air, or the poisoning of our drinking water? Or the extinction of a species, which is forever? For the past five or six centuries, Capitalism has been almost continually expanding. Greider's suggestions in this area are vague but hopeful. Sustainability (with justice) will be the key concept of 21st Century Economics as the bubble of economic growth may finally pop in the next generation or two. How an innately expansive Capitalism will come to terms with that is uncertain. We've been accustomed to the logic of industrial capitalism for so long that it is difficult for someone even as perceptive as Greider to articulate a future along different lines. But for now, we would do well to take heed of his cautionary words about a global economy that is increasingly oscillating out of control. "One World" is a masterpiece that combines the best of keen analysis and good reporting. Back to On the Road with John Tarleton