All our worldly good..

December 21, 2001

Is globalisation, the ideal before us for a just society, the new face of racism, asks Nadine Gordimer.

Many communities in the world, and many individuals outside but humanly concerned about such communities, believe globalisation to be a new form of discrimination by a group of economically privileged people expanding and protecting their own powerful interests.

Globalisation is seen as a phenomenon that started in the 20th century. But it may be useful, in examining its pitfalls and potential triumphs from all aspects, including those of scientific research now that this has become the prevalent motor for human good in the 21st century, to look at its historical precedents. Its inception goes back centuries.

Exploration was the first idealist form of globalisation, as distinct from the ancient wars that succeeded in conquering and homogenising territories under dominant powers, and from the ancient trade routesof the Chinese and Arabs.

The premise of explorers was to expand the concept of "The World". Through knowledge: that was its intellectual, scientific ethic, and its philanthropic one, following close behind, was to bring what was regarded as the only unifying spiritual enlightenment possible for humankind, the Christian faith, to peoples who had faiths of their own, discounted within the ethnic boundaries of the countries from which the explorers came. Along with the globalising mission of Christianity came that of western-world trade - in goods other than slaves, in which they were already involved and which itself constituted an unspeakable form of globalising, the purchase of people in one country and homogenising of them as slaves within the social hierarchy of another.

The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, is one of the best examples of multinational corporate trade as an early form of globalisation. Its outpost at the Cape in South Africa was not supposed to be a settlement but a supply station for its ships en route to India. A purely business enterprise. The fact that its supply station led to the Dutch Empire's occupation of the Cape takes us to the next stage of globalisation: colonialism. I cite the example of my own country's history, but the same thing had happened, was happening, in the Americas and other territories "undiscovered" until Europe penetrated them.

Today the ideal we have before us, as politicians, scientists, artists and other intellectuals, after the disparate national and international institutional combinations of modern times, is that of One World; a just world under a new name:globalisation.

The boldest attempt to realise globalisation in contemporary history has taken a politically ideological form, that of communism and in particular Soviet communism. As we all know, the ethic of communism calls for, counts on, human self-seeking to be transformed for the general good by revolutionary control of the means of production, an economic praxis. It was without question a noble ideal and many of us believed it had a better chance of success than the religious ideal, which believed this end would be achieved above and beyond politics. But Soviet communism failed to globalise, first because one cannot count on the transformation of human self-seeking; second, because its means grew instead to a form of unbridled power that in turn could not match that of capitalism.

Neither East nor West has succeeded in getting the people and powers of the world to unite for the good of all. What chances of success has the One World concept in its less grandiloquently termed equivalent, globalisation?

If we look at the past, we cannot ignore that previous attempts have always turned out, of necessity, to be forced partnerships. Globalisation has always needed not only to assert itself on moral grounds, but also to work with the forces of other forms of power. The transformation of human self-seeking into human justice has to have agents. Politics and high finance have always taken a hand to the reins, whatever the noble declared direction of the charge into the future. So has scientific experiment. But it would be simplistic not to admit, along with the widespread movement of protest against globalisation, that globalisation has been managed so far as the function of the world's economy is concerned by agents of the rich countries, in their own interests and without recognition of the other aspects of just dispersion of the world's resources that a true globalisation demands.

We surely do not need reminding of the global scene, these days - the image of a world made up of multinational corporations. One of its greatest beneficiaries, Bill Gates, has come to the conclusion that "computers are amazing in what they can do, but they have to be put into the perspective of human values. And certainly as the father of two children, thinking about the medicines I take for granted that are not available elsewhere, that rises to the top of the list." The responsibilities of science and medicine towards the world's poor are implied here, along with high finance.

The facts of contemporary reality have come not only to Gates. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, has recently declared "that the 'systemic failure', failure of world financial control, makes it hard to escape a dismaying conclusion. The global institutions that we have so painstakingly built - the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation - are inadequate to deal with the many problems we face. Systemic failure threatens us allI I am deeply scepticalI that the institutions responsible for promoting world peace, financial stability, socioeconomic development and the free flow of goods and services will ever again be able to address these challenges on their own."

A first move towards creating a new and effective collaboration is his suggestion that the G8 should become the Group of 20, a move already envisaged by South African president Thabo Mbeki. I hope that this might be recognised as a correction of the unacknowledged part racism has played against the concept of bringing about globalisation. It would not be an exaggeration to see the G8 as having been the last international expression of colonialism, coming from its old home in the western world. Mbeki's proposal implies that globalisation, in all its implications, has as its final obligation the means to bring an end to colonialism for ever.

Even in science where genetics has been seen by many as a positive force for global development, there are fears that globalisation will introduce a new face of racism. Is genetic engineering that face? I do not feel qualified to speak on the subject of the gene revolution announced for the millennium of globalisation. As a concerned activist individual, I can only express disquiet and alarm based on nefarious genetic theories and subsequent practice on human beings in the century just left behind us. I refer, of course, to the Nazi regime.

It is difficult at present - when lay people such as myself do not have enough knowledge of the theories of cell reproduction, embryo creation or the human genome project that holds hereditary information, to make a judgment about whether the medicinal benefits of these discoveries will push the ethical limits of such research, or whether the end result will be that form of discrimination produced by the breeding of a world class of genetically privileged people. Will science bring a new overlordship, one that opens up strong possibilities of racism, even if unintentional? For even within approved fields of medicine, while vast economic differences continue to prevail between the haves and have nots, it will be the haves, mainly western and white-skinned, and not the have nots, mainly dark-skinned, who will afford to counter physical affliction and live longer and better lives. This is the question to be asked of and answered by scientists.

Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1991.

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