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Globalism ain't what it used to be
Jeremy Faludi, 20 Aug 04

There's much concern these days about corporate globalism and the exploitation it wreaks upon people. I agree with this concern, but let's look at it in perspective--what's going on today is kid stuff compared to history. The real action happened 300-400 years ago, and no longer happens today because of successful political activism, and perhaps because the approach is simply financially unsustainable in the very-long-term. If you're not a history buff, what happened back then may surprise you, and help illuminate our course today.

If you are against technologies that facilitate globalized exploitation, you had better throw away your watch. The one technology that enabled more imperialism and corporate rule than anything in history was the accurate clock. Accurate clocks enabled maritime navigation of the world for the first time, which opened up the 'New World' and the East to enterprising Europeans. This one invention made possible the colonization and foreign rule of Africa, the Americas, and Asia, changing the political and economic face of the world forever.

Much of this colonialism was state-run, such as the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas. This is the story we're familiar with. Their slave-run gold mines and plantations were economic production centers with all the business needs and motivations that go along with that, but ultimately they were not private ventures, they were owned by the Spanish and Portuguese royalty.
However, not all colonialism was state-run; in fact, most of Britain's empire was not conquered or even ruled by the state for the first hundred years, and they were the most successful colonialists of the time. Their empire was mostly formed by the British East India Company, a private corporation that had its own navy, and its own army. It conquered and occupied India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, and Java, and in the end the company ruled roughly 20% of the population of the entire world. The company's administration of India was so efficient that the British civil service system was modeled after it. America's Boston Tea Party was a revolt against the company's monopoly on tea, and it's argued that the American flag came from modifying the British East India Company flag.

The Dutch East India Company, which lasted almost from 1600 to 1800, was another giant global corporation of the day (in fact, it was the first company in the world to issue stock, the first stock market was created to buy & sell nothing but its shares.) The company was formed by Holland forcing its many independent trading companies to merge in order to avoid competition between them (rather the opposite of today's anti-monopoly laws.)
There was also the Dutch West India Company; your schoolbooks talk about America being founded at Plymouth Rock by pilgrims, but they landed in 1620; precursors to the Dutch West Indies Company had already started a colony by 1614 in what's now New York. (Remember old New York was once New Amsterdam.) At the time their main business was shipping Europe beaver pelts--a high-tech material, because you could make waterproof felt hats with it. Piracy was also a big part of the WIC's business; however, after their colonies were lost to the British and other Europeans, their main business was slave trading.

The British East India Company was a much less brutal taskmaster to its colonies than the Spaniards were in the Americas, being motivated merely by money rather than by the combination of money and religious zealotry. But they were still hardly saints, one of their most famous escapades being the Opium Wars with China--fought so they could sell opium there against the Chinese government's wishes, to compensate for the trade deficit resulting from Chinese tea imports. The company also exercised massive influence over the British government at home: when Britain threatened to revoke the company's monopoly status in 1702 the company loaned Britain's treasury £3,200,000 (I'm guessing roughly equivalent to three billion pounds today) to get a three-year extension on the monopoly. Similar arrangements, for smaller sums, continued for the life of the company until eventually it waned: it had its monopoly removed, some of its nation-ruling fell apart, and the company was nationalized, with England taking over all colonial governance.

The "adventure-trading" companies were amazingly profitable at first (a spice-trading voyage would often turn a 1000-fold profit), and their two-hundred-year boom never really had a bust, it just faded away. But fade away it did. Some sectors were crippled by progressive laws (the Dutch West India Company's slave-trading was stopped by governments declaring slavery illegal; this abolition was due to citizen pressure, and may be the world's most successful example of public activism). The rest faded away by the failure of their own economics--the administrative cost of colonial governments ate more and more of their profit margins, and increased competition drove prices down (the initial high profit margins were the result of monopolies on trade, which had only resulted from technological challenges and nationalist politics such as the Dutch government's forced merger creating the Dutch East India Company). If we're lucky, this means that foreign exploitation is a fundamentally self-defeating business model in the long-term, that its collapse is a historical inevitability. After all, big-scale corporate colonialism ended long before the state-run versions. It took another hundred years or so (depending on the place) for activists & revolutionaries to kill nationalist colonialism; it was bad business long before it was bad politics.

By comparison to these tidbits of history, the worst of today's global corporations and bought politicians look like harmless schoolchildren. Bushes' wars for oil are bad, sure, but at least we're not invading a country for the right to sell them addictive narcotics. Halliburton is a profiteer, but it can only push policy by influence-peddling, it can't go invade countries on its own. Microsoft may run some small companies out of business to avoid competition, but its 'pirates' don't kill boatloads of sailors on the open seas. Nike may be paying Indonesian workers little by our standards, but it's not trading slaves. And Bush will not be around for the 100 years that the British East India Company was, or the 200 years that the Dutch East India Company was. This is not to say that everything is rosy in the world today. Instead you can take it as a reminder that the fight against corporate abuse of power is not new, and we have already made much more progress than you might think. Occasionally it even falls apart by itself. We should keep in mind that the battles our generation has to fight are actually much easier than some that have gone before; it's all the more motivation to get out there and do it.

 

 

(citation: all facts quoted from the Wikipedia entries on the various subjects, except the 1000-fold profit number, which came from information at the Amsterdam Maritime Museum.)

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Comments

I often feel as if my labor is merely a part of the effort spent to birth me. I often feel that I am a part of a great and long journey of the good people that came before me. I often cement my values by considering what my forebears would want; what have we been fighting for?

This article, and I praise it, takes us a little further toward the journey. It takes us out of ourselves and joins us to the dead. This is a terrifically rude way of putting it, but I mean to say, that we walk on the cold hearts of so many hot blooded folks that have so strongly attempted to make our lives better.

When I learn a little bit about the courage and virtue and fortitude of humanity, I am better able to continue.

I respect this article. It probes not only a handful of facts and illustrates an important era -- a cruel and rough and horrid era -- but it also reminds me to be grateful for effort and labor and virtue and to use all of this myself.

Regards,
Brian


Posted by: Brian Hayes on 20 Aug 04

"By comparison to these tidbits of history, the worst of today's global corporations and bought politicians look like harmless schoolchildren."

They were not corporations except in name. They were militarized monopolies that did not believe in capitalism as we know it, they were vestages of the Medieval gild which controled all aspects of life, indeed they went to war against states as independent powers and had private navys and armies to protect their market turf. They were more like states than corporations.

Now, if you consider that today the state and the coporation are often run by the same people, one could say it starts to look very similair.


Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 20 Aug 04

Shell in Nigeria is pretty close to the militarized monopoly status mentioned above, or at least was a few years ago. Pretty similar human rights / environmental record too!


Posted by: Vinay on 20 Aug 04

20th century brutality wasn't exactly mild compared to those of previous centuries - but perhaps the regression wasn't complete and there's cause to hope.

This idea that globalization actually dates from the 1600's is actually, I believe, at the core of Neal Stephenson's recent "Baroque Cycle":

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380977427
for Quicksilver, etc.

I reviewed "The Confusion" here:
http://www.al.com/books/huntsvilletimes/index.ssf?/base/entertainment/1084699086159340.xml
concluding:
The chaotic complexity of modern global society and the social and political ingenuity it took to create it are the real subjects of these books. Stephenson implies parallels with our modern world in the new technical capabilities that undermine the old order, and the desperate need for new political and social entities that can bring stability again.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 20 Aug 04

According to Economic History Services
(www.eh.net):

£ 340 731 376 in the year 2002 has the same "purchase power" as £3200000 in the year 1702.


Posted by: Tatu Siltanen on 20 Aug 04

For further history, see also Niall Ferguson's book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, which includes quite a few comparisons to the other empires (Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish).

However, you say:

``By comparison to these tidbits of history, the worst of today's global corporations and bought politicians look like harmless schoolchildren. Bushes' wars for oil are bad, sure, but at least we're not invading a country for the right to sell them addictive narcotics.''

What about addictive petroleum products being sold to the entire world?

See this article from last Sunday's Guardian:

Pollutants cause huge rise in brain diseases

``The numbers of sufferers of brain diseases, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease, have soared across the West in less than 20 years, scientists have discovered.

``The alarming rise, which includes figures showing rates of dementia have trebled in men, has been linked to rises in levels of pesticides, industrial effluents, domestic waste, car exhausts and other pollutants, says a report in the journal Public Health.

``In the late 1970s, there were around 3,000 deaths a year from these conditions
in England and Wales. By the late 1990s, there were 10,000.''

It's not just car exhaust; many of the other pollutants mentioned are petroleum products.
And that's just one type of disease and death.

-jsq


Posted by: John S. Quarterman on 20 Aug 04

"The real action happened 300-400 years ago, and no longer happens today because of successful political activism [..]"

BZZZZT. Wrong. It still happens today. It would be worse were if not for successful politics, but it still happens.

"Halliburton is a profiteer, but it can only push policy by influence-peddling, it can't go invade countries on its own."

Uhm.. It JUST DID.

"Nike may be paying Indonesian workers little by our standards, but it's not trading slaves."

Yeah, not *Nike.*

"And Bush will not be around for the 100 years that the British East India Company was, or the 200 years that the Dutch East India Company was."

But if the estate tax is repealed, then his family's aristocratic holdings will be. The Bush family fortune comes from the '30s, so that's 70-ish years already.

"This is not to say that everything is rosy in the world today. Instead you can take it as a reminder that the fight against corporate abuse of power is not new, and we have already made much more progress than you might think."

This is true, in a general sense. The oppressed have a better view of their options. And you can buy t-shirts with Che Guevara on them.

"Occasionally it even falls apart by itself."

This is also true, but mostly in the sense that corporate abuse of power sometimes metabolizes through everything it can, before finding itself without an ecosystem to support it.

"We should keep in mind that the battles our generation has to fight are actually much easier than some that have gone before; it's all the more motivation to get out there and do it."

No. The challenges that face humanity are exactly the same as they've always been, even before the time of corporations. Ignorance and greed are the problem, not globalism.


Posted by: Paul on 21 Aug 04



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