By Parag Khanna
Parag Khanna considers the dark shape of globalisation to come in Alex Perry's new book, Falling off the Edge.
Falling Off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization Alex Perry Bloomsbury Dh60 Globalisation has become so synonymous with our contemporary, interconnected existence that the word hardly merits usage anymore. And yet we can no longer take our stale understandings of the term for granted, especially in a time of global financial crisis – when trust has frayed, tensions run high, and national economic survival has become the overriding priority. Rather than think of globalisation as a single, inevitable phenomenon, we should consider several different scenarios that could emerge for the future world order. I can think of at least four possibilities: a neo-medieval world of diverse actors and fragmented authority, a regionalised world of trade blocs and spheres of influence, a neocolonial world of imperial competition, or a global “one world” of human solidarity. While elements of all four futures can be spotted in our collective reality today, I believe we are entering a neo-medieval age, characterised by a worldwide splintering of power and sovereignty. Already we see the world divided up by a layering of empires like the EU and China, trans-national forces like the Catholic Church and al Qa’eda, multinational corporation-dominated supply chains, philanthropic interventionists like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, who some describe as modern Medicis, and globally deployed mercenary armies like Blackwater – the conditierri of the 21st century. There is no global peacekeeping force or social safety net. Responsibility no longer rests with centralised entities like the UN or even in governments, but with whichever group is closest to the problem to be fixed. The only correct answer to the question of who has power is “Where? And over what?” The diffuse milieu of the Middle Ages lasted over a thousand years, so to speak of any certain collective future is futile. Globalisation may evolve into any of the forms alluded to above, but it is unlikely to provide the world with one shared bridge to the future. As Alex Perry puts it early in his riveting new book Falling off the Edge, “globalisation is global governance without global government”. It has no rules, and cannot be explained through a single narrative. Greater prosperity and greater peril are the two sides of the same coin. The multiple, cross-cutting narratives of globalisation are in good hands with Perry. Since September 11, his travels have taken him much more to places in the midst of upheaval than to the cosmopolitan capitals of emerging markets – but in Perry’s mind, the two are subliminally connected. He pauses, for example, in his riveting account of the Qala-I-Jangi prison riot near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in late 2001, to discuss Joseph Stiglitz and the antiglobalisation movement. As a reporter in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Perry realises, he has often been “there” on the scene of unexpected turmoil of the sort implied in Stiglitz’s Freudian-inspired title Globalisation and its Discontents. And with the capture of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh during that fateful riot, Perry connects antiglobalisation with anti-Americanism, pointing out rightly that violence has been globalised as well. Indeed, rising inequality in most of the world’s countries creates a sense of moral equivalency on the ground between self-interested globalisers and the global underclass defending its own freedom. From Andaman Island tribes devastated by contact with modern civilisation to Afghan tribes resisting it, this is the same global struggle that has already been felt on the streets of Seattle. But Perry’s mission is not to denounce economic globalisation as humanity’s postmodern scourge; rather it is to follow stories from surface to root. Where other writers have limited themselves to viewing globalisation through one lens – usually that of economics – Perry succeeds at keeping a political, economic and cultural perspective. He is at his best when showing how all these aspects intertwine. After all, there is no terminological splicing on the street. Perry’s story begins in Hong Kong at the turn of the millennium. Most Westerners hadn’t yet heard of Shenzhen, which was inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping in 1980 as China’s first Special Economic Zone – and has since become a symbol of mainland China’s audacious, self-assured growth. Perry discovers a city that is, despite China’s authoritarian rule, rife with criminal syndicates, prostitution rings, plastic surgeons and narco-fuelled Triad gangsters. Far from the rule of law, Shenzhen is an apocalyptic free-for-all, with the soaring heights of its skyscrapers providing, among other things, a popular avenue for suicide. After Hong Kong, Perry spends over four years walking the narrow ledge separating India’s billionaires from its billion poor. What troubles him there is not just the reality of inequality, but the psychology. Everywhere he sees that India’s nouveau riche, who have become iconic role models to the Bollywood-swooning media and society, regard their fellow citizens as unwanted semi-humans who interfere with their social efficiency. He boozes with the rich and famous, but never fails to remind the reader that these trust fund elites are not living in New York or London, but just steps from the world’s largest and most destitute slum, Dharavi. Those who have sought to juxtapose the two sides of globalisation know that India presents the ultimate laboratory of extremes. Is India a superpower (a nuclear-armed global IT hub) or a failed state (home to over 800 million poor and a dozen separatist movements)? Or is it both? Perry describes Mumbai, India’s economic motor, as a chaotic “temple of inefficiency” even though it is just as much a part of the global economy as tech-savvy Bangalore. And for anyone wondering what global warming and rising sea levels might do to a crowded mega-city, Perry’s account of the summer 2005 monsoon floods in which hundreds drowned in the sewers and in their cars makes for apocalyptic foreshadowing. Perry’s pursuit of India’s deeply unsettling reality flies in the face of the euphoric “Incredible India” branding campaign that has been promoted so successfully in recent years by a mix of business associations and public relations agencies. But he has not always been rewarded for his efforts to see past the hype: Falling off the Edge began as a collection of articles that the editors at Time magazine declined to publish, calling them too negative. Perry’s great strength is his knack for picking up on the day’s burning transnational challenges – from sex-trafficking to piracy – well ahead of other observers. He also dissects these challenges admirably. As sailors’ salaries fall in Indonesia, he is there in rickety ships with rebellious pirates who have now become overt rivals to the state. Globalisation, he realises early on, is a growth opportunity for piracy. He visits the sophisticated offshore insurgents of the Niger Delta, whose attacks have at times crippled Nigerian oil exports and contributed to global oil price spikes. He succinctly explains the conflict in Darfur, then drives past a camel’s skeletal carcass in northeastern Chad and argues that the first major water war looms like a “dry tinderbox waiting for a spark.” And in 2002, Perry goes inside Nepal’s Maoist insurgency – which eventually takes over the mountainous nation and spreads into Naxalite groups across eastern and central India. When Perry shifts to Cape Town, he sees it as only a partial respite from India’s extremes. While the post-apartheid African National Congress transforms itself from guerrilla group to political party, South Africa is falling into a state of virtual civil war, with the highest murder and violent crime rate in the region. As he wanders through the country’s slums and attends the self-congratulatory press conferences of the elite, he sees that in South Africa, free trade agreements bring neither freedom nor equality, but simply exacerbate crime and despair. Meanwhile, the continent’s three regional anchors – South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya – are effectively at war with themselves, while being called on to lead interventions to stabilise their neighbours. He leaves us with a picture that bears little resemblance to any notion of an “African Renaissance”. In Falling off the Edge, Perry also covers Somalia and Sri Lanka, showing himself to be equally comfortable with American commanders in the former and ragtag rebels in the latter. In the Horn of Africa, he travels extensively with US Special Operations Forces hunting Islamist assassins in what has become the “third front in the war on terror” spreading across Eritrea and Ethiopia. In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, he is arrested and imprisoned for five days, eventually paying an exorbitant fine in local currency that is equivalent to approximately one half of an American cent. The western reader can hardly be blamed for his original inclination to accept globalisation as a noble process that expands trade, lowers prices and fosters integration. But once a road is paved, why wouldn’t sex-traffickers and arms dealers use it to expand their own trades? Perry’s reporting drives us head-on into the complacent traffic of Western assumptions. Every page of his book brings a collision. To Perry, globalisation is the process whereby elites capture world resources through rampant deregulation: “Globalisation is capitalism out of control.” Perry’s book makes us angry at the inequities of globalisation, but we shouldn’t conflate our visceral anxieties about the effects of globalisation with an equally deserved but more distinct anger at the abject failure of efforts to manage it. Globalisation is ubiquitous; it is the unevenness of efforts to control it that is the hallmark of a neo-medieval world. And yet in certain cases, someone is in control, as Perry admits when arguing that globalisation leads to a “standardisation” of global news that is always in search of the “one big story.” (Of course, without getting close to the story, corporatised media sells the glossy, prefabricated narrative of India’s bounding tiger and China’s surging dragon.) Perry also recognises and admires the global influence of corporate philanthropists like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Ratan Tata. What Perry seems to be saying, though not explicitly, is that we will have to accept good governance and leadership from whomever provides it, for there is certainly no utopian resurrection of the United Nations on the horizon. In this he is undoubtedly correct: mega-philanthropists, multinational corporations and NGOs already deliver far more tangible financial and material benefit to the world’s poor than do Western governments, the World Bank and the UN put together. It is perhaps fitting that one of Perry’s final vignettes takes place on the tsunami-ravaged Nicobar Islands, which an Indian government surveyor describes as “the end of the world”. Is it? Is globalisation an accelerated ride into disaster? Will countries like India actually last the one century it will take (according to the UN) to raise living standards to western levels? Is killing not just the Sri Lankan way of politics, but the world’s way, with just a veneer of diplomacy? Amazingly, Perry ends on notes of hope. The world has always been violent, he says; globalisation just allows us to see more of it. And war is just one of the things that happens in the world, not the sum of all things. In the end, the Dalai Lama captures this sentiment best for Perry: “The future? Not bad.”
Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World: How Emerging Powers are Redefining Global Competition in the 21st Century.