World has become a 'champagne glass' - globalization will fill it fuller for wealthy few.
That is the geometric form the distribution of global wealth resembles. According to the U.N. Human Development Report of 1992, the richest 20 percent of humanity hoards 83 percent of the world's wealth, while the poorest 60 percent of humanity subsists on 6 percent of the wealth. This concentration of wealth is greater now than at any moment in the history of the world, even in times of colonial expansion.
Next, the gap between rich and poor has more than doubled in the past 30 years. According to the 1994 U.N. Human Development Report, in 1960 the richest 20 percent of humanity was 30 times richer than the poorest 20 percent. Now that ratio is 61-to-1.
Third, technological know-how has become the axis supporting the accumulation of wealth. And the distribution of technological skill is even more skewed than income distribution@ Ten percent of humanity controls 90 percent of all research and development resources. With cutting-edge technology concentrated in so few hands, the 20 percent sitting on the top of the champagne glass will only accumulate more and more, while the rest of humanity squeezes a living out of a narrowing stem. Thus the gap between the North and the South will continue to grow.
Additionally, the July 18, 1994, issue of Forbes magazine talks about a global explosion of billionaires. The accumulated personal wealth of the top 358 billionaires is $762 billion. That sum, according to U.N. statistics, equals 45 percent of the per capita income of the world or of 2.4 billion human beings.
This is the biggest aberration in the history of humankind. And it is occurring at a time when the world has become one big global village. A global village with these inequalities is unstable and extraordinarily fragile. We have thus become a civilization of uncertainty, facing a moment of extreme confusion.
It is impossible to "universalize" the world under these circumstances, to "globalize." If the poorest 80 percent of humanity were to adopt the patterns of consumption presently enjoyed by the richest 20 percent, we would face an ecological, social and political disaster. Even so, the sole intent of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is to create a so-called homogeneous, global world. Such a feat is structurally and politically impossible under the present scheme. You cannot liberalize markets and create a level playing field for trade when an elite 20 percent of the world controls the bulk of the wealth, the technology, the military and political power available to humanity. Globalization in this context is like placing a shark and a sardine on the same fish scale: The sardine is being devoured.
Globalization will fill the champagne glass fuller for the wealthy few. And each nation holds its own, individual champagne glass. Even in the United States, wealth is increasingly controlled by a privileged elite. The Reagan and Bush administrations catered to the interests of the wealthy class like never before in the history of the United States. A similar trend has taken root in Canada and in Europe, and, of course, it continues to grow throughout the Third World.
Simultaneously, the military budget of this uncertain world rages at $815 billion. That is equal to 50 percent of the per capita income of the world. To fight whom? Rwanda? Somalia? Haiti? Bosnia? With this kind of military spending, coupled with immense concentration of wealth, the only kind of economic growth possible for most nations is jobless growth.
Jobless growth, in a global market, forces more and more people into the ranks of what is called the "disposable population." Disposable, because those unable to find jobs are considered surplus people. Frankly, in the eyes of many, the world would be a better place if these surplus human beings simply did not exist. Worse yet, whole countries are now considered disposable nations because they have no place in the international market system. All of the Central American and Caribbean countries, except, perhaps, Costa Rica, are on this list.
What globalization and free trade are creating is a superhighway for international commerce that is totally asymmetrical, where monopolies rule. On this trade superhighway, a very small elite has buying power, but the rest of the people are nothing more than window-shoppers.
Disposable window-shoppers, really, because the poor of today are not just poor - they are excluded from a place in civilization. When the world was largely rural, a social fabric protected the poor. But todays urban poor are isolated, alone, without community. Many of them cannot not survive in the cities, so they migrate across borders. International racism against the poor grows. Laws like Proposition 187 in California further marginalize poor Mexicans who are declared "illegal"; skinheads in Europe beat and kill poor immigrants, since white European unemployment is also growing.
This process of marginalization is filled with contradictions. The free-market economic system pushes people out of rural areas because it promotes only the exportled growth of powerful agroindustry. Urban migration has created cities of 20 million that are unlivable: Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta, Shanghai and Cairo. In these cities, people arm themselves because crime and insecurity create a permanent war among the citizenry. In the United States alone, there are 200 million guns in the hands of private citizens. Just think. They try to defend themselves from a product that their own society has created.
In this context, those of us who attempt to live from a Christian perspective are in danger. We are tempted by what I call a theology of inevitability: The world is like it is, economies just work that way@ we can do nothing about it. From this perspective, Christians fumble, trying to prevent the poor from suffering too heavy a cost. Nongovernmental organizations devote themselves to charity; churches become like garbage pails, gathering up and caring here and there for those crucified by this historical context, trying to keep them simply from dying.
What Christians and the churches need to be doing, though, is getting to the cause of this champagne-glass civilization, to the causes of this epidemic of impoverishment, of unemployment and of exclusion of the majority of humanity.
This is a difficult task: All the idealistic alternatives, such as socialism, are gone. The only thing left is this capitalism of the free market with its market democracies. But there is no niche in such a market for the poor and excluded. They cannot fit in as workers because economic growth, under this model, is fast becoming jobless growth; they cannot contribute as consumers, either.
Also, in this context, real democracies cannot survive. Take Nicaragua, with an unemployment rate of 60 percent and a poverty rate of 70 percent. Our war is over, but our per capita income is 40 percent lower than it was when conflict raged in 1985. And Nicaragua has one of the largest foreign debts in the world: At $11 billion, the debt is six times our gross national product. There is no way out of this crisis, given the present global economic trends. Countries like Rwanda, Somalia and Haiti face similar situations.
Most sadly, this theology of inevitability is a sin against the spirit and against hope. It creates a civilization of hopelessness. And, where there is no hope, there is no life. Thus we face what I believe is the most profound crisis of our modern-day faith, of our religious perspective. As the possibility for hope is slaughtered, what remains is mere escapism where people seek consolation in things like drugs.
Data from Interpol, the international police network, reveal the magnitude of the world's desperate retreat into escapism: Human beings spend $400 million dollars a year on illegal drugs, $100 million of which are laundered by the free-market, international banking system. And, according to a declaration of 132 nations that met in Naples, Italy, in November 1994, the yearly global expenditure on drugs, prostitution and arms totals $732 billion, a sum equal to 40 percent of the per capita income of humanity.
This is shocking, but there is another type of escapism perhaps more severe than this expenditure: the retreat into rigid religious and political fundamentalism. With this retreat come trends that are dangerous for the well-being of humanity - racism, xenophobia, the Shining Path in Peru, the skinheads in Germany, or Islamic and Christian fundamentalism.
As Christians, then, we must seek solutions never sought before. Political solutions have failed: Ideological divisions of West vs. East brought us nothing. The homogenization of the world under a capitalist market system driven only by profit and gain is polarizing the world even more. Also, the market system's blind pursuit of immediate, material gain threatens that which is essential to the Earth's and to humanity's survival - the ecological and structural matrix of the planet.
We must not seek solutions in the geopolitical struggle of the past, nor must we confide in todays geoeconomic power structure. We must seek a geocultural alternative that promotes a civilization of global consensus, of "world citizens." We must find an ethic of common, concrete values, not an abstract ethic. Abstraction abounds in scores of documents written by the United Nations, by groups of presidents who hold summits in Miami.
We must begin to devise concrete ways to implement the common values of all of humanity. And to do this we have to overcome what I would call a civilization of antagonisms: North vs. South; man vs. woman; growth vs. the ecosystem; consumption vs. happiness; present vs. future. We must seek a geocultural ethic that is global but that respects individual cultures in their diversity. Globally, we must prioritize the profound values that bring human beings together - and these values are present in all faiths, all religions. We must create those bonds. This is the only way we can confront the despair of this theology of inevitability.
Globalization is inevitable, thanks to the technological revolution of telecommunications. But the rules of globalization do not necessarily have to be written by the richest 20 percent of the world. This does not have to be a top-down process. The world's majorities that are being crucified by this champagne-glass structure can join together, breaking down antagonistic barriers of "North" and "South." This is already happening: The "South" is spreading throughout the United States - you can find it in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, or in the streets of Los Angeles. And you can find a "North" all over Latin America - the elites that join with counterparts up North to reap the benefits of all of the free-trade treaties. We need to "democratize the market." We need a "globalization from below."
Keeping in mind that the South thrives in the North, I would like to offer a few words of insight from Eduardo Galeano: "The East sacrificed freedom to obtain justice on the altar of productivity. The West sacrificed justice to obtain freedom on the same altar of productivity. Today, we the people of the South are asking ourselves, `Does this god of productivity deserve the sacrifice of our lives?'"
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|Title Annotation:||Global Trade In A Divided World - special section|
|Publication:||National Catholic Reporter|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Jan 27, 1995|
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