Monday’s Wall Street Journal carried an interesting item on the problems now besetting herders in Mongolia. It seems that many of these people had borrowed extensively in order to expand their herds and supply the growing demand for cashmere from the U.S. and Europe. (Like Americans with home-equity loans, some of them also spent part of the loan proceeds on consumer goods such as motorbikes.) With the economic downturn, cashmere prices have dropped, and many herders are being forced to sell off their animals. Some have even had their tents foreclosed.
The story reminded me of a passage from Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s classic book The Story of Mankind, published in 1921:
Unfortunately in the year 1914 the whole world was one large international workshop. A strike in the Argentine was apt to cause suffering in Berlin. A raise in the price of certain raw materials in London might spell disaster to tens of thousands of long-suffering Chinese coolies who had never even heard of the existence of the big city on the Thames. The invention of some obscure Privat-Dozent in a third-rate German university would often force dozens of Chilean banks to close their doors, while bad management on the part of an old commercial house in Gothenburg might deprive hundreds of little boys and girls in Australia of a chance to go to college.
The Mongolia story also reminded me of some dark thoughts from Ralph Peters, published in 2006:
Globalization is real, but its power to improve the lot of humankind has been madly oversold. Globalization enthralls and binds together a new aristocracy–the golden crust on the human loaf–but the remaining billions, who lack the culture and confidence to benefit from “one world,” have begun to erect barricades against the internationalization of their affairs. And, from Peshawar to Paris, those manning the barricades increasingly turn violent over perceived threats to their accustomed patterns of life. If globalization represents a liberal worldview, renewed localism is a manifestation of reactionary fears, resurgent faiths, and the iron grip of tradition. Except in the commercial sphere, bet on the localists to prevail.
When the topic of resistance to globalization arises, an educated American is apt to think of a French farmer-activist trashing a McDonald’s, anarchist mummers shattering windows during World Bank powwows, or just the organic farmer with a stall at the local market. But the swelling resistance to globalization is far more powerful and considerably more complex than a few squads of drop-outs aiming rocks at the police in Seattle or Berlin. We are witnessing the return of the tribes–a global phenomenon, but the antithesis of globalization as described in pop bestsellers. The twin tribal identities, ethnic and religious brotherhood, are once again armed and dangerous.
Men dream of change, but cling to what they know. Far from teaching the workers of the world to love one another (or at least to enjoy a Starbucks together), the economic and informational effects of globalization have been to remind people how satisfying it is to hate. Whether threatened in their jobs, their moral code, or their religion, human beings dislocated by change don’t want explanations. They want someone to blame.
I think Peters understates the many positive imacts of globalization–the reductions in desperate poverty in India and China, for example–but the psychological reactions he describes are often very real.