Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer. Pub: Zed Books, London and New York, 2001. Hbk: $19.95.
‘Globalisation’ is one of the many terms which have become virtually ubiquitous in contemporary discourse, not least because it means many different things to different people. For its supporters and defenders, it is an inevitable, unavoidable and beneficial part of social change and modernization. For most of its detractors and critics, it requires little more definition than "it’s just imperialism, stupid!"
This new book by James Petras and Henry Veltmayer, sociologists based in New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia, respectively, is a lively and well-written polemic which seeks to provide simple and straightforward answers to the complex and often jargon-laden arguments put forward by the apologists of globalization. By doing this in a way that places the issue within the reach of anyone who can think critically, they have provided an essential tool for both activists and general readers.
The book opens with three chapters that set out the authors’ basic thesis, offer a critical analysis of globalization, and examine its ideological and political underpinnings. Petras and Veltmeyer’s argument is that "the existing world economic order is in the process of being renovated so as to create optimal conditions for the free play of greed, class interest and profit-making." They are particularly keen to counter the suggestion that globalisation as an inevitable process, "the only road available." Instead they point out that every aspect of globalization — the "widening and deepening of the international flows of trade, capital, technology and information within a single integrated market" — is contingent upon decisions taken by human beings. Other decisions could have been taken and could yet be.
Thus, they argue, "globalisation is politics in the service of a particular vision of economics, the result of a consciously pursued strategy". It demands "the liberalization of national and global markets"; without this liberalisation the growth of world trade would take on an entirely different pattern. This is an important distinction, because if globalisation is inevitable all we can do is try to adapt to it. If not, we can resist. These three chapters together provide an excellent starting point for anyone looking for a clear and incisive introduction and simplification of the jargon of what has become known as "globaloney".
Petras and Veltmayer cut straight through the jargon to provide a clear analysis of globalization’s true driving forces: for them, transnational corporations (TNCs) are the motor and the beneficiaries. What is being created is a new international division of labour, new institutions to bypass democratic and other defensive forces, new means of exploiting opportunities provided by new technologies capable of reducing the costs of transport and communication in order to increase the profitability of capital at the expense of the world’s poorest people.
This is not a new process: the book traces it back to the telegraph and the steam-engine in the nineteenth century, but the speed of technological progress has increased enormously, and the impact of e-mail and jet aeroplanes, cheap fuel and advances in sea traffic of commodities have "shrunk the world". In recent decades, we have seen a newly aggressive approach from the core of capital, encouraged by the political support offered in and since the Reagan-Thatcher era. Other political changes were also significant: the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the massive boost that gave the capitalist West, for example. This had the effect of undermining and destroying left-wing and socialist politics in Western countries.
In the second half of the book, Petras and Veltmayer provide a series of thematic chapters on closely related topics, including American imperialism in Latin America, privatisation, capitalism and democracy, NGOs and imperialism, and "The US empire and narco-capitalism". The quality of these chapters varies, but most are excellent. It is also useful that they stand alone, making it easy for readers to dip into the book for short, primer-style texts on particular issues. If there is any major disadvantage, it is the focus on Latin America rather than on a geographically wider range of examples. Overall, however, this volume is an excellent introduction to this subject.