The world was supposed to end in either water or fire, so who would have thought it might implode in a frenzy of global trading on the spread between currencies? That at least is the apocalyptic scenario the journalist William Greider proposes in One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, his critique of the deregulation of the international financial markets and the rise of the global economy. Deregulation, he contends, is inexorably blurring the boundaries between nations, undermining the authority of current political institutions and creating a de facto international order that operates by its own rules.
Mr. Greider's concern is markets writ both large and small: the so-called free market, the notion of which has increased in influence since the end of Communism, and the financial markets, which view the monetary and fiscal policies of nations as inconveniences — or as fodder for speculation. The convergence of the ideology of the free market and the power of the real market is beginning to control what previously had been the social contract between a government and its citizens, Mr. Greider argues. Moreover, the balance of wealth, in the form of investment, infrastructure and savings, is beginning to tip from the mature industrialized countries to the developing nations.
But the developing nations are repeating the horrors of early capitalism: the exploitation of child labor, murderous working conditions, environmental degradation. The power of "the market" and its desire to operate without consideration for externalities, or what might be called collateral damage, has rendered government ineffective or complicit. The dialectic between the exploiters and the exploited — or the haves and have-nots — will inevitably explode into violence, as it did in revolutionary France and National Socialist Germany.
Mr. Greider stops short of predicting the rise of another Hitler, but he notes that it makes no sense to continue the cycle of growth and development that each time broadens the gap between the rich and the poor. It is foolish to depress the wages of those who should become the consumers of goods being produced, and yet that is what happens when companies migrate in search of ever-lower-wage workers who will toil under ever more dangerous conditions. Capital is more mobile than labor. Mr. Greider turns this economic truism into anxiety about the future of democracy.
And well he might. Capital detests cheap sentiment. It moves on as it needs to, in search of its own enhancement. Did a state government subsidize a factory? So what? The partnership had a good run; it's over. Will a thousand people lose their jobs? Sorry, but they should have been saving and taking courses at the local junior college. Will a proud old industry fade away? Not to worry, new industries will emerge. A thousand jobs will bloom.
Mr. Greider argues that the world has been through this before, in the 19th century. We know what happens when people are expropriated, as happened during the Enclosure Movement in Britain. They become immiserated and it takes generations for the nation to recover. Why do we have to do it again? Capitalism doesn't need to be cruel. Rationality dictates that it takes a slightly smaller margin of profit and that the margin be plowed back into development. It's not necessary to intensify the inherent conflict between labor and capital. It's not necessary to accept working conditions that lead to such tragedies as a fire at the Kader toy company near Bangkok, which killed at least 188 people, many of them children and teen-agers, more than the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911.