Globalism, Corporatism and Open Source

Globalism is the least hip political idea around at the moment, perhaps because it has been hijacked so completely by the multinationals. Herd-like college kids and knee-jerk political activists associate the term with a broad range of bugaboos, from cultural imperialism to sweatshops to environmental destruction. But others (like me) see it as the best hope for a world in which gaps between the tech and non-tech worlds are widening, and the have-nots are increasingly enraged at the haves.

(Second in a series.) Globalism is the least hip political idea around at the moment, perhaps because it has been hijacked so completely by the multinationals. Herd-like college kids and knee-jerk political activists associate the term with a broad range of bugaboos, from cultural imperialism to sweatshops to environmental destruction. But others (like me) see it as the best hope for a world in which gaps between the tech and non-tech worlds are widening, and the have-nots are increasingly enraged at the haves. Philanthropist and open-society advocate George Soros is an ardent supporter globalization, despite its shortcomings. In response to this series, Niklas Saers e-mails this question: “Do you think developing countries will be able to use open source to develop and keep pace with the western world?” My answer: not unless they get open governments to support it. Soros supports globalism, and not only because of the new wealth he believes it can produce. Along with many Open Source advocates — he believes in what supporters call a global open society that could ensure a greater degree of freedom than individual states can or will. Is it already too late for that?

To Soros, the current state of globalism — capital is free but social concerns are underfunded — represents a distortion of globalization, not its true promise.

Corporatism and globalism have become hopelessly confused in the public mind.The many excesses of valueless, greedy, proprietary and unrestrained multinational corporations have become enmeshed with tech-driven networked economies. It’s difficult to even imagine what an effort it would take to separate one from another, sadly.

In his book George Soros on Globalization, the billionnaire asks for institutional reforms to address some of the many political concerns globalism raises:

  1. Contain the instability of financial markets.
  2. Complement the World Trade Organization (WTO),which is supposed to generate equitably-distributed global wealth, with equally powerful international organizations devoted to social goals, like reducing poverty and making necessary goods available all over the world.
  3. Improve the quality of public life in countries suffering from corrupt, repressive or incompetent governments.

Free software advocates have argued for years now that open software could help create wealth and promote open societies in once-repressive, impoverished and technologically-primitive regimes. This idea is exciting. It attracted non-geeks like me to Open Source and Slashdot in the first place. That they are right is almost beside the point. How will proprietary software be curbed, and open software developed, in regimes that are corrupt and repressive? Why would these noxious governments support the use of software to develop an open society any more than they would encourage free speech or abandon censorship?

Legal scholars like Lawrence Lessig see the GPL as a major cornerstone of a vast, global “digital commons.” So far, this vision has failed to materialize. In fact, new software is creating personalized, fragmented, narcissistic media in which screening and blocking (products, people, differing opinions) has become widely accepted, even epidemic.

In his terrific new biography of Richard Stallman, Free As In Freedom writer Sam Williams quotes Stallman: “What history says about the GNU project, twenty years from now, will depend on who wins the battle of freedom to use public knowledge. If we lose, we will be just a footnote. If we win, it is uncertain whether people will know the role of the GNU operating system — if they think the system is ‘Linux’ they will build a false picture of what happened and why. But even if we win, what history people learn a hundred years from now is likely to depend on who dominates politically.” So far, the big winners are the big corporations.

But Stallman, the Thomas Paine of the Net, is obviously right in some ways. To many people on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, the GNU project is already a footnote. It remains the most vibrant and exciting political idea on the Net, whatever the obstacles. But it seems that corporatism is too deeply entrenched to really change, and who is going to make it change? Few governments in the world as as powerful as Microsoft or AOL-Time-Warner. The multi-nationals are, in a way, the new nation-states of globalism. In recent years, they have been the primary beneficiaries of globalism — as Soros concedes — and for much of the undeveloped world and many political activists, they are the spawn of globalism’s first generation of existence.

Soros skirts some major obstacles to his proper and idealistic vision. He recognizes that the networked global economy is forcing market values into areas where they don’t properly or historically belong, from copyright to publishing to medicine to the law. These intrusions also occur in foreign cultures where they are distinctly unwelcome. Anti-Americanism has become a staple of life in many parts of Europe, and even more virulently elsewhere, where the United States is equated with evil, greed, corruption and blasphemy.

One of the great — and widely foreseen — political consequences of the rise of the Net was a widening gap between developed and undeveloped countries, many of which simply lack the infrastructure to wire up their populations and economies. How can governments in places like Afghanistan embrace open software and an open society if they can’t even bring electricity and telephones to most of their citizens?

There’s already enormous opposition to ideas like the ones Soros proposes. Market fundamentalists and conservatives object to tinkering with the global marketplace. And the broad range of people who call themselves “antiglobalization activists” don’t buy the idea that globalization could conceivably improve lives in impoverished parts of the world. Many don’t believe meetings should even be held by governmental officials to discuss globalism.

Soros argues that the world’s worst conditions aren’t necessarily caused by globalism. It’s bad governments that are responsible for exploitive working conditions, lack of social and economic capital, and political repression.

Soros’s primary argument is that globalism could be used as a powerful social tool, one that could undermine or circumvent incompetent or repressive regimes. The increased wealth globalization produces, he maintains, could make up for the inequities and other shortcomings of networked, global economies. The problem is that the winners don’t compensate the losers, says Soros. “There is no international equivalent of the political process that occurs within individual states. While markets have become global, politics remain firmly rooted in the sovereignty of the state.”

The Net becomes a significant political factor in this evolution, because it is both individualistic and trans-national. It permits the rapid movement of capital and, if open source activists are correct, could also use free software and other technologies as a powerful tool for developing nations who want to join the globalization movement.

But it’s difficult to see by what process this is going to occur. As a result of globalization, the divisions between the world’s rich and the poor continues to widen. According to the United Nations Development Program, the richest one percent of the world’s population receives as much income as the poorest 57 percent. More than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day; nearly a billion lack any access to clean water; 826 million suffer from malnutrition; 10 million die annually due to lack of basic health care. Some of these conditions pre-dated globalization, but the new economy has hardly improved matters. And it seems to be generating hatred of the United States, where contemporary notions of globalism were born and shaped.

Next: Getting specific about reforming globalism.

Author: Jon Katz

News Service: Slashdot.org

URL: http://slashdot.org/features/02/04/04/1953218.shtml?tid=126