During a recent lecture tour I had occasion to reacquaint myself with the Pacific Northwest, where I used to teach some thirty years ago. The region offers lessons in the difference between American conditions and economic management and most of the rest of the world, to which the New World Order promises paradise: democracy, capitalism, human rights. Of the two states I visited, Washington is the more prosperous, although its timber industry has been cut down to size due to ecological considerations. This is also true of Oregon, but this state does not have Boeing and its auxiliary industries that make Seattle a boomtown compared to Portland. Yet what is striking in both states is the relatively smooth adjustment to vast changes, which results from a highly developed infrastructure that benefits new ventures. This infrastructure is coupled with a ready, mobile population, in southern Oregon in particular, where Californians have been relocating to escape high taxes and real estate prices. Similarly, many Oregonians move to Washington.
Such a situation, which is valid for the entire country with few exceptions, has a detrimental effect on our thinking about the rest of the world. We are so hypnotized by the American model that we commit the frivolous act of imagining it is workable elsewhere, when in reality there are absolutely no terms of comparison. Those now in intellectual power, from George Bush to Francis Fukuyama, have persuaded themselves that the latest American success story is also valid “out there,” and that a rich and victorious West can automatically bring improvements to South America, Eastern Europe, India, and the Middle East. The illusion is not only American. I well remember the first meeting of UNCTAD, a U.N.-sponsored organization to help decolonized Africa. Fabulous percentages of aid were committed by the developed nations, up to 3 percent of their annual GNP. Through various stages of decrease, UNCTAD’s contribution is now down to 0.1 percent—with the overall picture having become far worse and the population of this area having grown by hundreds of millions of people. In the 1960’s three sage men—Willy Brandt, Pietro Nenni, and Pierre Mendes-France—proposed similarly fabulous investments in underdeveloped areas (baptized “developing countries”) and taxing Western nations for the benefit of Africa and Asia. Yet, a generation later, the U.N. Program for Development reports that in 1990, 93 percent of all births took place in underdeveloped countries. General summary: “Future international migrations will go beyond the numbers which populated originally the United States, Canada, and Australia.” This means, according to the report, some 200 million migrating people in the coming decade.
Suggesting that capitalism will solve these on-going and developing tragedies is nothing less than obscene, and worse, infantile. The statement is correct in the Pacific Northwest where infrastructure, tradition, and cooperation between the state and an economically articulate citizenry are taken for granted. Temporary setbacks are remedied. But carry the message and the method to the previously mentioned areas, and you see that they bring even more misery, corruption, inequality, and more wealth going to the already wealthy. Is it, as the slogan has it, that these areas and mentalities are infected by “socialism” and lurking agents of Moscow and Beijing? This is the comfortable view that ignores local realities and mentalities thousands of years old. It also ignores the fundamental difference between capitalism and the free market, because it assumes that the former is a mere further-development of the latter, a false vision. The free market is as old as mankind, its origin is the marketplace all over the world. It is also the basis of papal thinking in successive encyclicals, the last one being no exception. Capitalism, on the other hand, is more than a quantum-leap beyond the free market in matters of human transactions; it presents itself as a changed and reorganized way of life with profit at its center and with a leviathan-like organization of publicity, mechanization of the human nexus, impersonal and obsessive propaganda, and the tearing to shreds of private life, education, and culture. When huge economic and political powers preach capitalism to small and fragile countries with primitive economic structures, the consequence is not prosperity à la Seattle, but rather the sharpening of class differences and the sacrifice of local culture.
In short, the New World Order perspective—recognized abroad as a will to extend the American market—commits the same error that President Wilson and Robert Lansing, his secretary of state, made in 1917 when they planned to turn the world into a club friendly to the United States; a club, as Lansing wrote to Wilson, of democratic regimes—of which, in the President’s own words before the Senate in 1917, the new Russia will also be a part after the czar’s overthrow and the ascendancy of the Bolsheviks. True, there is for the moment no bulky enemy on the horizon, which is certainly one cause of the exuberance in certain circles. Yet the sum total of the situation would recommend moderate views and prudence.
The reason why the picture is not likely to change is that while from the Western perspective these moneys poured down the drain could find better outlets, as in education and health services, the structure of life and beliefs in these countries and regions cannot, and perhaps should not, be uprooted. Americans ought finally to grasp that just as the famous American way of life is not easily subject to change, so are other nations similarly committed to their own tribes, social systems, and religious creeds. And these other ways of life often have divine and sacred dictates behind them. There is also the notion of great and rich powers sharing the planet with smaller and weaker ones. It has been shown that the expenditures made during the ten days of the Gulf War—beneficial for mankind, we were told would have covered the cost of immunizing all of the world’s children against maladies for ten years to come. Would that knowledge stop George Bush in his crusading elan, yesterday against Saddam Hussein, tomorrow against another, arbitrarily chosen enemy? Obviously not, as it had not stopped Caesar, Napoleon, or Bismarck. In its fundamentals, the world remains what it has been.
Every planetary project, whether of George Bush, UNCTAD, or of the three wise men mentioned above, aims—through Hegel’s famous “cunning of history”—to make the West richer, to make the Third World poorer, and to prompt new Third World millions to migrate to some accessible part of the West, where they create new problems, unemployment, fiscal troubles, and racial conflict. This is a truer version of the “circulation of the world economy” than the much-advertised “aid to underdeveloped countries.” But if another datum is needed to illustrate this point, here it is: a large proportion of U.S. foreign aid is destined for the defense expenditures of Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, which may explain the underpinnings of the Desert Storm operation. At any rate, so-called “humanitarian” aid (like health and irrigation projects) represents less than one percent of American aid. Once again, we should look at this disproportion as the normal part of international relations, but then we should also be more circumspect with our promises of a New World Order with capitalist and democratic prosperity. For us, yes; not for them.
Is “socialism” the alternative? It is not, for it too is a system of exploitation, not only on account of its built-in flaws but because of the many local situations in the world that neither Washington nor other capitals can magically transform. Let us take India and Eastern Europe. The recent assassination of Rajiv Gandhi brings the former into focus with all its dead-end streets. India is, in fact, emblematic of Western reform and development policy, and there is no American newspaper that does not refer to it as the “world’s largest democracy.” India is, of course, neither democratic nor capitalist, nor even socialist; it is 850 million people, of which only a handful are prosperous (some of these immensely wealthy), with the masses unimaginably miserable. Visitors and investors are offered, just like today in Eastern Europe, agreeable prospects because they meet local people who think like they do and who studied at Oxford, the Australian universities, and in America, persons who are welltrained in banking and the stock market. India is the only spiritual land I know, but it is also a land of wretched villages, gurus, child prostitutes, and enormous famines. How could the West “solve” India’s “problems”?
When polled, East European people are for the free market; when asked further, close to 40 percent add two provisos; the market should not be allowed to turn into a capitalist system with its ferocious competition, lack of job security, and all-invading advertisement (such as on television, which in these areas is still remarkably cultural); and in order to prevent such a course—of a market economy devolving into capitalism—people expect the government— yes, in spite of the communist experiment—to keep an eye on the use of resources and to retain a substantial segment of the economy, up to 30 percent, under its direct management. Of course, the Hayeks and Friedmans throw up their hands and the Galbraiths exult; however, this is public opinion today in Eastern Europe. It is one thing to reach for the goods delivered by a consumer society, but quite another to reorganize the economy and the culture along its lines. If this is a paradox, we must live with it. If offered a choice, people would opt—using Ferdinand Tonnies’s distinction—for Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft, the spontaneous, organic community over the formal, urban society. The West’s refusal to acknowledge this hidden preference caused havoc in the past, and may again do so in the coming years.
There is no reason to be pessimistic (other than what realism dictates), but it would be out of place to regard the events of the last two years, from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to Desert Storm, as a succession of unquestioned triumphs. After all, Washington has discredited itself further in the eyes of the Arabs: by an essentially stalemated situation around Iraq, and the handing over of Lebanon to Syria as payment for services rendered by Assad. In Europe, too, people are now taking a second look at the anti-Baghdad “coalition,” recognizing that the crusade was not in their interest. But the most important lessons to be drawn from the last two years are not that history has come to an end and that America reaps the benefits, but that Seattle and its splendid glass-and-steel towers are no model for mankind.