Global Village or Global Pillage?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 6, 2000
It seems that four men-- Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, and a hippie backpacker-- are on a small airplane, traveling together. Suddenly, something goes wrong. Red lights start flashing; alarms sound; the pilot comes into the cabin and says, “Gentlemen, I’ve got bad news. The plane is out of control and we’re going to crash. Unfortunately, there are only three parachutes left, and there are four of you...”
Well, President Clinton says, “Hey, I’m the leader of the Free World. My country needs me; I’m the only President they’ve got.” And he takes one of the parachutes and jumps out of the airplane.
Bill Gates then says: “I’m the smartest man in the world. Things could never get on without me.” So, he takes the second parachutes, and jumps out.
Then, the Dalai Lama turns to the young hippie and says: “Young man, listen. I am old. I have lived a good life. Other incarnations of the Buddha will arise to take my place. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Go ahead, take the last parachute. Jump, and save yourself.”
But the hippie just replied calmly: “Chill, your holiness. Everything’s cool. The smartest dude in the world just jumped out the plane with my backpack.”
It has been suggested that this is a parable for our times, and for the challenge of globalization that our world faces. Joined together in a world of limited resources, competing values of politics, corporate power, religious and spiritual enlightenment, and our simple humanity all strive to determine the shape of our common future. Who is going to win out? Who is going to end up on top?
Decades ago, long before the concept of globalization even existed, Adlai Stevenson wrote:
“We travel together, all of us, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace... We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave to ancient enemies of humanity, half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day... No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.”
But the years since have seen little progress in solving the “vast contradictions” of which Stevenson spoke. In some ways, our world is drawing ever more closely together all the time. “We now live in a single global civilization,” Vaclav Havel said at Harvard in 1995. “The identity of this civilization does not lie merely in similar forms of dress... or in the constant buzz of the same pop music all around the world, or even in international advertising. It lies in something deeper,” Havel continued. “The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunication networks consisting of millions of tiny threads or capillaries that not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political, and economic behavior... The life of the human race is completely interconnected... We are [all] familiar with CNN and Chernobyl, and we recognized the Rolling Stones, Nelson Mandela, and Salman Rushdie... Such information flows around the world and, in varying degrees, takes root in different places... In theory, at least,” Havel went on, this trend “gives people not only the capacity for worldwide communication, but also a coordinated means of defending themselves against many common danger...it can, in unprecedented ways, make our life on this earth easier and open up to us hitherto unexplored horizons in our knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in.”
The great promise of globalization ought to be a cause for celebration among us as a religious people who have as two of our guiding principles “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all” (that’s the sixth UU principle) and “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” (that’s the seventh).
For generations, Universalists and Unitarians have declared “Our world is one world”, and have taken up the cause of “the brotherhood of man” (as it used to be called)-- “the global village”-- “spaceship earth”. Globalization, for us, was supposed to be a good thing. It is supposed to lead a rising standard of living for all people; increased respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; the ability to communicate instantly with people in all parts of the world; strengthened international organizations which seek to forge real links among different nations and force us into cooperative modes of action. All of these are worthy goals, from our religious perspective.
Yet, as we look out upon the countenance of this global culture we have in our world today, we can’t help feeling, as Vaclav Havel concludes, “And yet there is something not quite right about it.” Something is not quite right...
That’s because the actual face which our globalized world presents is quite different from these high ideals:
A globalized economy means that we who can afford them can have strawberries in December-- or any time of year that we might want them. It means that if we rifle through our closets, we’ll find clothes and shoes and accessories made in Costa Rica, India, China, Lithuania, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Burma, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and so on...
E-commerce and speculative capital investments flow freely through the world at the speed of light, via modems and fax machines, e-mail, beepers, the Internet, cell phones, DSL lines, and who knows what else there will be tomorrow-- all absolutely amazing, exciting aspects of modern technology, which keep all of us connected to the world in ways we couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago.
That’s the face globalization presents to us in our prosperous Western, North American cacoon in which most of us live. But globalization presents many different-- more than five billion faces, in fact. Other images of globalization are not so glamorous:
Globalization means an entire generation of industrial workers in America being rendered redundant, unemployed, expendable when their factories shut down in order to move their operations to Mexico asmaquiladoras;
Globalization means boys and girls as young as 11-years old stitching soccer balls, or assembling toys, or hooking rugs for 12-13-14 hour shifts in suffocating sweatshops for pennies an hour;
Globalization means Brazilian rain forests being destroyed by logging companies-- uprooting entire cultures, so that suicide is now the leading cause of death among some tribes of indigenous peoples of the Amazon;
Globalization has many faces, very few of them glamorous.
The case of Anna Parr is quite typical. Anna Parr was a young girl who lives in Guatemala, working in a factory making clothes for Wal-Mart. She lives with her family-- 10 of them in all-- in a one-room shack made of cardboard and wood, with a dirt floor, no running water, no electricity. Anna works, typically, between 60 and 90 hours a week in the factory, depending on the deadlines she and the other girls there have to meet. If the girls don’t meet their deadline on a given day, they can be locked in the factory all night if need be, until their quota was fulfilled. Anna doesn’t go to school because she had to work to help her family earn a meager living-- as did every other child in the family over the age of nine.
Wal-Mart, the “All American” success story that “employs” Anna, is the largest retailer in the world-- larger, indeed, than the number 2,3, and 4 retailers put together.
It is the envy of the retail world, with annual sales of $140 billion. That’s larger than the economic output of 163 of 193 of the world’s nations. There is little doubt in my mind, however, that Wal-Mart’s profit consists largely of money (almost literally) soaked in blood.
Of course, here in the United States, Wal-Mart has proudly claimed to have made an “unprecedented commitment to purchase American good”-- and then, in small print, “whenever pricing is comparable to goods made offshore.” Kind of hard for American labor to compete with Anna Parr and her brothers and sisters down in Guatemala, don’t you think? It’s like my saying, “I am going to go on a diet tomorrow. Unless I come across something really tasty that I like to eat.”
If the problem was just with Wal-Mart, though, it would be easier. But Wal-Mart isn’t unique; it’s just better and more blatant at what it does than other corporations are.
Consider, for instance, Nike, the shoe manufacturer, whose CEO Phil Knight is among the wealthiest people in the world.
That left-wing, bleeding-heart subversive journal Forbes Magazine [hardly] pointed out that the “typical” Nike worker is an Asian girl or woman working in a sweatshop for less than $10 per week. But when asked by Forbes about this fact, the “unrepentant” CEO Knight grew defensive and blasted his critics, saying “This isn’t an issue that should even be on the political agenda today.”
Well, where the heck else should it be, if not on the world’s “political agenda”?
On the world’s moral and religious agenda as well, it seems to me.
The fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe around 10 years ago (so ably chronicled by you know who...) represented an historical moment of great and dramatic change; hopes ran high; anything seemed possible.
Unfortunately, in the years that have followed since, the forces of monopoly capitalism gone mad have been unleashed on the world to an unprecedented degree. Corporate power has expanded exponentially:
There are 193 nations in the world. Many of them (like us) are ostensibly democratic, but most of them are utterly dwarfed in size and influence by the world’s 200 largest corporations. In just one of these corporations-- Microsoft-- the three wealthiest officers, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Ballmer, own more assets than the combined gross national product of the 43 least-developed nations in the world, and their 600 million people. Three people own as much wealth as 600 million. (Closer to home, Bill Gates alone is worth more than the 106 million poorest Americans.)
I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that, as it is today, corporations largely run the world. Through their sophisticated, well-paid lobbyists and their huge campaign contributions, even in obstentibly democratic countries like ours, corporations largely determine who our leaders will be, and what policies they will represent. Corporate lobbyists sometimes even draft legislation themselves, which our political leaders approve as a sort of rubber stamp. That’s how cozy they are!
As Barbara Ehrenreich has written: “In effect, these multinational enterprises have become a kind of covert world government-- motivated solely by profit and unaccountable to any citizenry.” The bottom line in this global economy is, ultimately, corporate profits rather than the common good. And that’s just not good enough for us as religious people, as people who truly yearn for “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all”.
It is not good enough that in this world today 19,000 people, mostly infants and children, die each day from largely preventable hunger and malnutrition.
It is not good enough that in this world today 1.3 billion people are living in abject poverty, earning less than $1 per day.
It is not good enough that in this world today another 2 billion people are barely scraping by, earning less than $3 per day.
It is not good enough that in this world today one corporation’s annual sales is larger than the entire economic output of 85% of the world’s countries;
It is not good enough that in this world today where the combined wealth of the 358 people at the top of the economic scale is more than that of the 1.7 billion at the bottom.
It is our religious values, my friends, that tell us that a world founded on this kind of iniquity and injustice cannot stand. Our religion demands a transformation-- a revolution-- in our consciousness, in our values, and in our society and politics and economics.
Our religion demands that in this world grown so small, we put the human common good ahead of corporate private gain.
Our religion demands that we need fair trade that invests in people, not just free trade that exploits them.
Our religion demands that we all be held accountable for our actions-- corporations no less than any of us. Our religion insists that profit that is not earned ethically, without concern for the common welfare, is blood money. It is the Judas kiss, the forty pieces of silver, the down payment on the cross of injustice upon which this world of ours will sooner or later be crucified.
But my faith also tells me that something is starting to stir, and things are starting to change. Perhaps the events we witnessed ten or eleven years ago-- in Berlin, in Prague, on the streets of Moscow-- were just the first act in a great global drama which might well change the world still further, and move it, kicking and screaming perhaps, toward justice and peace.
It could well be that just over a year ago, give or take a couple of days, we saw the opening scenes of the next act of this great world drama on the streets of Seattle. There, 70,000 demonstrators converged to say “No!” to the globalization and the secret dealings of the World Trade Organization-- “No!” to the obscene extremes of wealth and poverty in this world of ours. Perhaps those thousands of demonstrators were there to remind all of us that while we’re not getting any younger, we’re not dead yet-- and neither is the stirring of the human heart that yearns for justice and peace-- and neither is the movement in the human world which will strive to bring those things into reality.
In the face of the hectic, busy lives that most of us lead, it is hard to know what we can do to bring about justice. In the face of the 38,000 advertisements that bombard the average American man, woman, and child each and every year, it is difficult to believe that there is very much that can be done to change the world. I t is understandable if we feel the urge just to shrug our shoulder, and throw in the towel, and do the best we can to protect our families and their economic position, and to carve out just a little piece of the pie for ourselves. “It’s too bad about those poor people down there in Guatemala or whatever,” we tell ourselves, “but what can we do?”
Seattle reminds us that we have choices in how we face this world of ours. We have choices about where we shop, and what we buy, and how we invest our money. We each have a responsibility-- just like Bill Gates does, and the CEO of Nike-- to do what we can to be ethical global citizens.
This certainly isn’t easy. But religion isn’t supposed to be about doing the easy thing. It’s supposed to be about doing the right thing-- the ethical and just thing.
In the meantime, Spaceship Earth, this beautiful blue-green planet of ours, hurtles through space. But in this age of the world economy and globalization, it has become too much like the divided spaceship of which Adlai Stevenson spoke so many decades ago. It has become too much like that out-of-control airplane of which we spoke earlier. Indeed, it has become too much like the great ship Titanic-- that illustrious exemplar of another gilded age that turned to rust: The Titanic was real nice to look at-- it was oh-so-comfortable for those in the First Class quarters. But it was ultimately doomed; doomed, with only enough life boats for those at the top to save themselves.
Maybe it’s time, all over the world, for those of us of goodwill and sacrificial spirit (to use the words of our Universalist forbears) to disembark from this sinking ship before it’s too late. To remember, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” To remember that our ultimate loyalty is not to ourselves alone, or to our corporation, or our nation, or to our race-- or even to our church or our religion. Our ultimate loyalty as children of the Divine-- as religious men and women-- is to this Earth-- to this Earth we share, and to all of our brothers and sisters all across the face of this holy globe, this holy homeland, our common, blessed home.