Globalisation, Capitalism and Materialism: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

Created 24th January, 2006 17:55 (UTC), last edited 7th March, 2006 09:32 (UTC)

I firmly believe that globalisation is a good thing, capitalism is great and I don't know about anybody else, but I know I feel bad when I have no money.

It seems to me though that lots of people attack all of these as being unreservedly evil.


There's so much I could say about the IMF, WTO and a raft of other anti-globalisation targets, but I'm not going to address them here (for good or for ill). Maybe later…

I've noticed a few things about Thailand in my time here. The amount of private enterprise that goes on staggers me. People start and stop businesses so quickly I can barely keep up with the change in commerce going on in my neighbourhood. But what of it? The only audience they can reach is local.

I buy computer kit fairly often and it seems obvious to me that prices here are cheaper than they are in the UK. But they're not that much cheaper. In fact I can find prices pretty nearly as good by looking at mail order companies in the UK (pre-shipping costs) as I can find by going to one of the many IT super-centres here. The reason for this is that the base price is nearly exactly the same everywhere in the world because it is a true global market. The reason I have to go mail-order in Europe is because property and wages costs are higher and this means that shops have much higher overheads with mail-order companies having only slightly less overhead than a shop here.

If I want to buy some food here then it's so cheap that I don't even need to think about it no matter how skint I may find myself. I can always find the equivalent of 33p for a bowl of fresh noodles for breakfast from my noodle man (and he comes by the front of the house so I don't even have to go anywhere to get it). In London even the worst food is nearly ten times the price. I remember eating something I bought at a London train station late one night and thinking that I wouldn't even give it to my dogs at home, and they really don't care what they eat.

Farm goods and textiles are heavily regulated in the West. There is no "global" market in them because every rich country is scared that their farmers might actually have to work for a living. Now I know that farmers are put upon, their lot in life is hard even in Europe and the US (where they're far more likely to commit suicide than nearly any other group). But however hard they have it the farmers in South East Asia and to an even greater extent the farmers in Africa have it much worse.

The fact that rich world farmers hold the third-world farmers to ransom in this way is a travesty of justice. The ruination of any industry is a tragedy for those affected, but even ruination means totally different things in France and Africa—a French farmer who loses his livelihood is going to have a bad time, but a Kenyan one is having an even worse time trying to compete against him.

At the last WTO meeting in Korea it was rich farmers who were making the loudest protests. The latest trade discussions held in Hong Kong where a flop. The rich countries promised to try harder (as they have for years). No wonder the poorer nations don't trust them to actually do anything.

In so much as the term globalisation is used to mean the de-facto monopoly rights of a big fish in a small pond then that is a harder thing. Monopoly rights are always bad for consumers and good for the monopoly owners. If the monopoly owner allows the consumer a part in the monopoly then that mitigates it somewhat, but that's pretty rare.

How a small economy should protect itself from the predation of larger economies is beyond the scope of this rant, but it is a real problem. My question is, does it matter? — And I'm not trying to imply that it never does, only that the typical nationalistic knee-jerk reaction isn't best. — In every economy there are those that own companies and those that don't (and certainly in the West the number who own companies is a lot larger than people'd think it was—got a pension scheme? Where do you think that money is invested?).

So what? Why should a national boundary between the share holders and the workers be more important than an economic one? The world's poor don't own shares in companies no matter where they come from, or where the companies are. The reason is the truly selfish interest in politicians using the divide as a tool to get re-elected. No politician ever got elected for managing to add 1% to GDP, but many have been elected by, in effect, promising to chop 10% off it by cutting the country off from international markets, or even better chop 10% off somebody else's GDP by giving money to your own constituents and punishing the foreigners who actually make better product at cheaper prices.

There's a part of the human psyche that wants us to punish those that are well off, even if it means that we punish ourselves in the process. When enough people do this a situation arises where the country becomes worse off, but at least there's nobody who's doing well. Look at what's going on in North Korea. People there believe they're better off simply because nobody (they can find out about) is better off than them. Proper open borders and globalisation simply wouldn't let this impoverishment happen—unless the whole world lost their heads and decided to get poor just so the rich would also be poor.


There are still people who attack capitalism even after the collapse of Communism (there seems no point in discussing the few Communist countries left as they're either totally broke or not actually Communist any more). These people speak of greed. They speak of a widening rich/poor gap. They speak of a lack of spiritualism, a growth of materialism and a destruction of the fabric of society.

Give me a break.

Capitalism is selfish. It relies on selfish self-interest to promote a system whereby everybody gets the best they can. What it doesn't do is to dictate (as much as many would like to portray it as such) any definition of the best. Money is an obvious target for the best, but it isn't the only one. Europe manages just as happily as the US does with less money and less time working and therefore lower productivity and wealth measures. Does this make Europeans less successful? To an American yes. But then the American 10 days a year holiday seems impoverished to any European who couldn't imagine not having the opportunity of a couple of weeks off in the summer and the odd week here or there wherever it suited.

The reason why capitalism works so well is that we're all selfishly striving for different things. Many of us do want more money, and there is certainly a conspicuous number of those who want for nothing else. For most of us though money is a means to an end and not and end in itself. For many of us money translates to more freedom to go on holiday, to spend longer seeing our friends, to spend less time working. I'll work as hard as I can to optimise my income versus the time I have to do what I want.

If you turned up and offered me a million pounds to work 14 hours a day for six months I might think about it (a million pounds would last me many years here in Thailand), but if it was for ten years I doubt I'd be able to justify it to myself. Money is an important enabler. Total lack of money is a real problem, but most of us understand the concept of sufficiency. To those that don't I consider them to be just as badly off as any other addict where their addiction rules their life. These people have already been impoverished by their addiction.


This I think is where things can go genuinely ugly. Abraham Maslow famously came up with his Pyramid of Needs and I think that anybody who where to criticize the materialism of anybody unfortunate enough to be at the bottom of the pyramid deserves all the social castigation they get. But what about those of us lucky enough to be at, or near, the top of pyramid?

It does happen that people, when making a choice between personal happiness and being able to "show-off" to their peers, often choose the latter. Why is this? For some I suppose that their self-image dictates that they must not only be better, but be seen to be better than others, and in every way.

My own philosophy is more complex and more ambiguous. I already know I'm quite good at some things and pretty bad at others. In those things I think I may be better than average at I want to improve still further. In others I'm happy to think "OK, you beat me". In all I don't expect to be the winner. I'm happy enough to go through life doing as well as I can (and I'll try jolly hard to do that), but at the same I'm not going to worry too much about every time I get beaten (especially if I can learn from it).

I feel there's a resilience to this (old adages about oak trees and stems of grass come to mind), but none of this means that I don't want to have a DVD player or a faster computer to play games on. I'm not immune to the spread of materialism, but neither am I slave to it. Everything that I've seen of people tells me that they're much more complex than the pundits trying to push simple viewpoints suggest.

Nearly everyone I meet and talk to has this much more complex system of values where we would all like maybe a new iPod, or a bigger diamond ring, but we're not about to let that rule and ruin our lives. We feel sympathy for those that do though in the same way that any person feels sympathy for those worse off.

Calming down

Globalisation—The good—I can't think of any bad from this. The rich get richer, but so do the poor. Because the marginal cost of goods decreases all the time people can afford more and more goods. The big danger is restrictive trade practices that don't allow the poor to compete on an even footing against the rich. I say total free markets — drop all trade barriers, quotas, duties and anything else that increases costs above just the shipping of goods from one place to another.

Capitalism—The (when abused) bad—Capitalism seems to be bad when it's somebody else who is doing it better than you. Do you really want to give up your right to ask for a raise? I suspect not. The selfishness implied by the doctrine is always tempered by those who understand that there's a lot more money to be made by being nice to people and co-operating.

Materialism—The ugly—But even here the ugly is only really valid for those of us who have the materialistic trappings of a safe existence and still think of nothing other than the accumulation of more goods. Don't tell me that the wish for an earthquake proof building to live in when you're in San Fransisco or Kobe is "materialistic evil", but that safety is going to come at a price and the pursuit of safety will always seem materialistic to those who don't see the danger. I'm clearly not saying that all materialism is a safety issue, but many things that are pursued are a safety-valve for a person's peace of mind.

So, now that I've managed to calm down a bit from my rant… What then? I hope that Doha Round will succeed in the end and we can all enjoy the benefits of increased trade and better standards of living. I hope that nobody really wants to replace capitalism with some other way of doing things, their track records haven't been all that good so far. I hope that we all temper our materialism and understand when enough is enough even as we understand that enough for us isn't necessarily enough for some others.