The Perils of Globalization:
An Interview with Jerry Mander

By Scott London

Jerry Mander is regarded as one of today's most articulate and outspoken critics of technology and economic globalization. His books include Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, In the Absence of the Sacred, and The Case Against the Global Economy (co-edited with Edward Goldsmith). In this interview, Mander makes a forceful case against economic globalization, arguing that we need to examine the hidden costs of free trade and deregulation and search for more enlighened economic models to guide us into the twenty-first century.

Scott London: The case, as it's usually presented, is that the globalized economy is a good thing that will secure jobs, allow us to remain competitive, and promote democracy abroad. Isn't there some truth to that?

Jerry Mander: The people who are making that case are the people who are promoting globalization — corporations and banks and governments. They are saying that globalization can solve the world's problems, that it's going to give people something to eat and so on. They are redesigning an economy that they say works. But it doesn't work.

Jerry Mander
Jerry Mander

We've had globalization for quite a while, it's just being accelerated right now. Wherever the rules of free trade and economic globalization are followed, you have economic and ecological disasters immediately thereafter. You've got the complete destruct ion of small, traditional farming in Africa and elsewhere; you've got the complete devastation of nature all around the world; you've got people shoved off their lands to make way for giant dams and agri-business and so on, who then become part of the mil lions and millions of people roaming the land and going into cities looking for impossible-to-find jobs, all in competition with each other, and violent and angry. And then people are angry with them, because who needs more people around? So you've set in to motion a global disarray and nonfunctionalism that would not have been achieved — certainly not at the same level and with the same speed — without this emphasis on global development.

However poorly people lived in terms of material wealth in traditional societies, there was much that they retained. They retained a fair amount of local control. They retained some degree of traditional culture. Even in societies that had already been im pacted, like India, you had a lot of cultural identity and a history of relationships to scale that were really different. It was an economy of small-scale institutions. That has been wiped out by economic globalization with the invasion of franchises and giant institutions that have taken over the land.

London: I remember a full-page ad in the New York Times during the height of the NAFTA debate a few years ago. A long list of Nobel laureates in economics and the various sciences expressed their support for the free-trade agreement. How is it that so many "experts" could speak out in favor of something that has such damaging effects?

Mander: Look, the roots of globalization are in the concepts that are underneath it. The concepts of economic globalization are the absolute need for economic growth and the viability of the free market. Economic globalization is an acceleration of both of those conceptual frameworks. Those frameworks are not questioned in this society. In every newspaper report about the economy, in every presidential campaign, and in a high percentage of congressional speeches, people insist on the need for more economic growth. This idea is at the root of our classical economics. The fact that so-called experts, like five former presidents and five former secretaries of state, all got together in a press conference and said that free trade is a good thing was al ready known. They were the ones who helped create it. What was the big news about that? The fact that big economists and big corporations all think the global economy is a good thing is not news. Of course they think so, they are the ones who have been ru nning it all along.

I don't know what Nobel laureates have thought about this subject very much. I don't know how many of them could talk about structural adjustment programs, for example. Very damn few of them would even know what it means. They just think that it's a good thing to unify the world. They think the idea of all the cultures getting together and merging into one big happy culture is how to save the world. It's kind of a left-over of communism, on the one hand, and the new federalism on the other. And, on the th ird hand, it's a funny distortion of pluralistic democratic ideas.

But they're wrong. Globalization doesn't work. There is lots of evidence of that. We're on the verge of an ecological catastrophe of stupendous proportions. There is a terrible degree of alienation at large in the world. There is a tremendous amount of vi olence. Everybody is at each other's throats. How could they possibly think that this has been good? This whole process has been terrible, and the process of globalization only makes it much worse. It's preposterous to think that anything good is going to come from this.

London: What is a structural adjustment program?

Mander: Structural adjustment programs are the basic way that the World Bank gives its so-called loans. The loans are supposed to get countries to lift themselves up out of poverty. Everybody thinks that World Bank loans are good things. There are times when they are good things. But most of these loans are given on the basis of a nation agreeing to a set of rules that structurally adjust its economy to make it compatible with the structural adjustments going on in other countries and with the gene ral shape of the globalized economy. So the World Bank is going around from door to door, more or less, and redesigning everybody's economy so that they will be a part of the same general economy, and so that they will all be connected to one another — like a standard-gauge railway.

The rules of structural adjustment include such things as eliminating laws formerly in place, such as not letting foreigners come in and take over corporations, banks, and infrastructure, and ensuring that locals always had a controlling interest. You had to get rid of those rules, of course. So, automatically, structural adjustment creates foreign domination of national economies. Local businesses are injured.

Structural adjustment also puts caps on social welfare. Countries are supposed to have wage controls, but not price controls — that is, you can control wages, but you cannot control prices. And the former models of production which were called "import su bstitution models," where nations tried very hard for self-sustainability, have to be sacrificed for export economies. That is to say, you drop import substitution programs and you promote export economy programs. Things like public services are cut way b ack, but public infrastructure is supposed to get a certain amount of the money that you are loaned, and you then build more highways, more roads and so on. You create a condition which speeds up economic activity. Those are just some of the rules, but th ere are many more.

How could anyone expect that a country would be better off under those rules? If anything, they lose the ability to control themselves. The elites of those countries who participate in this process, who become part of the boards of the corporations and so on, they benefit. But most people lose their livelihoods, their homes, their ability to survive, and have to get on their feet and start wandering around looking for something to eat. Basically, that is what's happened. The bankers and the financiers and the economists and the government people who conceive of all this are the ones who benefit from the process.

It's almost as though people got together and said, "What kind of economic system would work best for us?" The global economy is it. That's the economic system that works best for the corporations and the bureaucracies that control the process. And part o f what they do is that they tell us that it's good. Why would they tell us it's bad? They tell us it's good.

London: Some people feel that now that communism has collapsed, free-market capitalism may be next. After all, the economy can't continue to grow forever — at some point, an exponential curve has to either level off or crash.

Mander: I think that if I say "Yes, we have to rethink capitalism," then it gets reduced to, "Oh, he's anti-capitalist." It's not capitalism in particular that has to be rethought, it's the whole economic structure. The global economy is not capita lism. I have a master's degree in economics, and I know this is not capitalism. What we have now is a centrally controlled economy. The only capitalism that takes place is among the people who have no part in the real benefits of the system — you know, t he people at the lower rungs have some capitalism going with small stores and so on. But, basically, the great part of the system doesn't function in a capitalist manner. It's not a socialist manner either. It's some kind of hodge-podge of connections tha t have been put together for greasing the skids of advanced development and growth and corporate benefit.

Free trade? Free market? We don't have either of those either. We have some kind of combination. What we have is a corporate take-over of the rules and a lot of corporate authority.

London: Corporatism?

Mander: Yes, a corporate economy — an economy that is good for corporations. It's not capitalism exactly, and it's not socialism exactly, and it's not anarchy either. It's a different of system of organization in which corporations exercise the co ntrol and reap the benefits.

London: You've written that one of the insidious effects of the global economy is the creation of monocultures defined by satellite television and global marketing. What's wrong with kids in Nepal wearing Reebok shoes and wearing Madonna T-shirts i f we here in the States are eating sushi and listening to Brazilian pop music?

Mander: There is nothing really wrong with any of it. That's not the point. I don't think that any human being is wrong for wanting something, or even using something. Why shouldn't a kid wear Nikes? What we have to take a look at is the multiplici ty of rearrangements and new rules that creates kids in Nepal dying to get hold of Air Jordan sneakers, and what that expresses in terms of homogenized viewpoints and the loss of cultural diversity and so on. Are we gaining more or losing more? That's wha t people really need to focus on, and that's what we need to decide.

London: I was working in the north of Norway in the mid-1980s. At the time, the Norwegian government was installing new satellite TV services and making them available to people in their homes. The town I was working in had a very vibrant local art and music scene. But almost overnight the people started picking up new stations like MTV and CNN. The effect on the young people was extraordinary. I got to see at first hand how the local scene was supplanted by the influx of foreign TV shows, pop videos, and global marketing. This the kind of "monoculture" you are talking about, I take it.

Mander: You put it very well. That's one. But there are others, and the others may be more important. Helena Norberg-Hodge and Vandana Shiva, in particular, have written about the agricultural monoculture that is upon us now. Because of the global market, the varieties of produce that people used to grow is no longer available. In Peru and Chile, for example, there are hundreds of varieties of indigenous potatoes. People used to grow them and protect the seeds so they could pass them on to the next generation so that there was tremendous variety of potatoes. But now, with the export economy taking over everywhere in the world, you don't grow a hundred varieties of potatoes anymore. Now you grow one kind of potato, or maybe two, because that is what is going to get exported to England, or that is what is going to be exported somewhere else.

Another common example are small farm systems that once grew many, many varieties of many, many different food products. Today many of them have been wiped out in order to grow coffee, for example. That's a loss of biodiversity and a the creation of an ag ricultural monoculture.

So we have not only a cultural monoculture, but also a biological and technological monoculture — where people are all relating to the same kinds of machines. The global economy is simplifying and homogenizing and unifying culture arround the world.

London: How do we respond to the forces of globalization?

Mander: Well, if the car is about to go off the cliff, the first thing you do is stop the car. We're about to go off the cliff and we've got to stop the car. That's number one. Then we have to find a road map — where to go next. A lot of people ar e already looking for this road map.

The question that is most interesting to me, and the only that seems to make sense is: if globalization doesn't work, what about localization? I think relocalization is absolutely inevitable. It's going to happen one way or another because the global econ omy will break down, even if we don't organize a mass movement about it. It simply doesn't work. It can't sustain itself. It's going to fall apart and disintegrate — I hope sooner rather than later — so a certain degree of relocalization is going to tak e place automatically. I'm I little worried that it might also entail the growth of fascism here and there, as local powers gain real control. But I don't think that's an argument against relocalization, just against the wrong kind of localization.

What's necessary is that real power and real economic control be reduced very far down so that people have real control of their lives, and so that the technologies and forms of organization that they use don't assist the process of globalization.

London: E.F. Schumacher, in his famous book Small is Beautiful, talked about "economics as if people mattered." That seems to be the case you are making here as well: we need a new kind of economics on a smaller scale, as if people mattered.

Mander: Well, it's not only people, though. I really we need an economics as if people and the natural world mattered. At the very least, you have to put it like that. It's not only people. Thinking only of people on this question is part of the pr oblem, because it means that we try to seek solutions to our own needs and satisfactions without looking at the values and long-term results of those solutions.

London: We talked a little about advertising, which has a great deal to do with the global economy. You used to be an advertising executive but made a conscious decision to get out back in the 1960s. Why?

Mander: I began to feel that doing advertising and promoting greater consumption and greater use of resources and more cars (we had a car count at the time) was the problem, not the solution. I was also beginning to relate to the world according to the kinds of movements that were developing at the time. We began to do advertising for the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and some other groups in those days. The ecology movement was growing up and I started to take it seriously. Then I formed the country's first non-profit advertising company, which was called Public Interest Communications, which no longer exists. But now I work for the Public Media Center, which started up on its own a few years after that. My relationship to this subject is rea lly rooted in what began at that time, because I now see that the consumption orientation is a major part of the problem, and that it's now being expressed globally to such a degree that it's become an advertising man's greatest fantasy.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 2000 issue of HopeDance magazine.