Globalization blues

At a conference on globalization held recently in France, someone in the audience asked me if Filipinos exported mushrooms too.  I had mentioned in my paper that our farmers were being prodded to shift to high-value crops like asparagus in order to survive the global competition.  I couldn’t tell him if we had begun to export mushrooms to France.  But I can assure you, I said, that whatever it is we are exporting to your country cannot possibly threaten your champignon. 

There is a tendency all over Europe to assume that jobs being lost at home are automatically being taken over by foreign workers and farmers.  The man who asked the question about mushrooms, for instance, was complaining that in his hometown 700 mushroom growers stood to lose their business because of the entry of cheaper imports.  I told him that I understood his feelings, because in the Philippines, I said,  millions of small rice growers stand to lose not just a business but their entire way of life when the country begins importing cheaper rice from California and Vietnam.

In that conference on globalization and the future of work, as in all the public meetings I attended in quiet French towns, a baleful uneasiness filled the air.  The sound of new words – mondialisation and globalisation – evoked a profound insecurity in audiences who were just beginning to sense that something big was about to change their lives. They wanted to know what it was, whether it could be stopped, and what the government should do to defend their jobs and their farms.

This collective anxiety has been seized upon by extreme rightist politicians like Le Pen, whose rhetoric of xenophobic nationalism continues to draw adherents into the National Front party.  Today’s ideological battleground is globalization, and the challenge to progressive groups and parties is to construct a sensible analysis that opposes the defensive nationalism of Le Pen.   It has not been easy.

The specter of an exhausted socialist alternative haunts the European left.  Someone has made the painful observation that whereas in the past, the left was split on the question “Which road to socialism?”, today, the debates center mostly on the question of how best to accommodate the market.  Social democratic parties may indeed be recovering strength, but they have done so by dropping the vision of a working class alternative, and by instead addressing the concrete needs and aspirations of a broader middle class within an assumed market framework.

Ironically, those needs and aspirations were historically formed under the aegis of social democratic governments.  It was the struggles of the working class movements that secured the health, employment, education and welfare benefits that today nurture Europe’s middle class.   Globalization essentially means the encroachment of the market on a world scale, as a result of which these same social guarantees are now precisely imperiled.

On this last visit to Europe, it suddenly occurred to me how much more resilient and adaptable we Filipinos probably are in confronting the uncertainties of globalization.  Our people have never known nor tasted the minimum necessities of civilized living that all the modern states of Europe have secured for their peoples – efficient transport systems, museums, libraries, parks, modern hospitals and schools. Globalization means that increasingly, these goods – previously the obligation of the state — must now be obtained competitively through the market.  What we have not known, we will not miss.  But Europe’s citizens will.

I have realized that globalization is indeed a new and disturbing thing in Europe, whereas we have always been, in a sense, globalized. Successive waves of colonialism from across the globe succeeded in eroding our social and cultural systems, and in turning our people into rootless nomads, whose most complete representative is the overseas Filipino worker.  Because we were never quite citizens of a nation we could call our own, perhaps we can say we’ve always been, in that sense, cosmopolitan.  Yet Europe, which globalized the rest of the world, curiously remained parochial.

I asked an audience in Poitiers if they did not feel threatened by the possible entry of global chain stores or Barnes & Noble bookstores into the retail stream of the French market.  Our stores are better, came the quick confident answer.  Besides, said another, who would buy English books in France?

That last remark struck me.  It was the most sensible thing I heard.  I had not realized that, until now, the French imagined that the whole world spoke like them.  In the formal conference I attended, the organizers had to draft a retired local teacher of English literature to interpret for me.  Throughout my stay in France, I felt like an illiterate because, outside Paris, hardly anybody spoke English, or maybe everyone pretended they did not know English.  I came away convinced that in the last analysis, a people’s language, the heart of its culture, is its last defensive wall against global homogenization.


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