How to rule the world (and how not to)

Nicholas Sarkozy points the world's leaders to the right at the G8 summit conference in Hokkaido Toyako, Japan.

Engler, Mark. How to Rule the World. The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. New York: Nation Books, 2008.

According to Mark Engler, the masters of wealth have split into two camps about how to rule the world, which leaves an opening for others of us to seize the terrain for a globalization that works for humanity.

In fact, as Engler is well aware and Marx pointed out long ago, the ruling groups have always been divided in many ways by their fierce competition for bigger slices of the wealth. But since World War II and Bretton Woods, they had come to accept a framework of cooperation, by which the elites of the most powerful industrialized economies protected one another from threats to their power from outsiders including any reform-minded elites in poorer nations, rebellious workers or underclass in their own countries, and of course revolutionary movements backed by the USSR or Communist China.

This cooperation was effected in large part by global institutions including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (using debt-pressure to keep poor nations' economies safe for transnational investors from the U.S., Western Europe or Japan), the World Trade Organization (to make sure the poor nations didn't protect their own industries from rich nations' exports), NATO (backing the economic rules by armed force), and other treaties and agreements. Since one country, the U.S., had the greatest wealth and greatest military force in all these institutions, it was able to assure that they and others (including the U.N.) generally acted in accord with the interests of its own national military-industrial complex. The arrangement did cause occasional inconvenience for big U.S. corporations, however, since it required them to abide by the same rules that they demanded of everyone else and for important international actions to be agreed upon by all the major players.

The Bush government team changed all that. They have acted repeatedly outside the international institutions to make separate trade deals outside the WTO and IMF, and defied international law, the World Court and the UN (demanding exemptions from international law for U.S. troops abroad, invading Iraq, Guantánamo, etc.). This has split the world's elites, who no longer had much of a say in the actions of the world's biggest power.

The two camps of the would-be rulers of the world are those who want to go back to something like the older international system, and the U.S. go-it-aloners and their (very few) allies abroad. But the Bush-Cheney offensive of the past 8 years has brought both systems to a crisis. The old mechanisms of global control are broken. For example, almost all of Latin America has now freed itself of the destructive control that the IMF had over their economies. And the attempted new style of control, an unabashed and undisguised Pax Americana, is proving unsustainable. The U.S. cannot fight all the wars its policies provoke, and can't even win in the big ones it has got into now, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the country's economic might also looks precarious.

Engler points out the fallacy of the slogan, "There is no alternative" to globalized capitalism as we know it. There is always the alternative of saying, as Bolivia has recently to water and gas companies seeking monopolies, "No." And there are always many alternatives within the system. What there is not is a single, unified opposition movement with a clearly defined program -- and that, Engler thinks, is just fine. And I agree with him. Our last single, unified opposition movement, very tightly unified, its cadres firmly disciplined and marching on orders, the world Communist movement, turned out to be too disciplined and rigid to adapt to ever changing, many-faceted realities.

"Capitalism" is not united and never has been, that has been its strength, what has allowed aspects of it to thrive and grow even as other expressions of it became obsolete and died. Opposition to particular capitalist abuses has to be as flexible and creative as capitalism itself. "Capitalism" is not one thing but many different ways for people to seek private profit from public goods, and there are just as many ways to try to re-channel that private profit motive into public welfare.

Engler is particulary good, and amusing, in his critiques of Thomas Friedman's global enthusiasms and the limitations of Joseph Stieglitz's acute denunciations of current practices (though without proposing a radical alternative). Also valuable is his chapter on how countries of Latin America -- backed in different ways by Venezuela's oil wealth and Brazil's enormous agricultural and industrial potential -- are changing the ways the game has to be played.

He gives us no assurance that we can make a better world -- that wiser people with more generous, solidary motives can come to rule it -- but he shows that there is a chance. As for what we can do, I think he's pointing us in the same direction as two older researchers whose books I've mentioned here. See my notes on Alain Touraine, Penser autrement, and Ulrich Beck, Power in the Global Age.


Here's a good collection of images of the village we live in. A long way from our previous home, in Manhattan.