Review: Globalisation, A Challenge for the Churches
by Cornelius Conwell.


Globalisation A Challenge for the Churches is a short (38pp) discussion document edited by Richard Morgan and published by the Christian Citizenship Department of the Union of Welsh Independents (i.e. the Welsh Nonconformist churches). Its aim, as stated in the Introduction, is to 'increase awareness and promote discussion' about the impact of globalisation upon money, agriculture and food, manufacturing industry, language and culture, specifically in the context of Wales.
The document defines globalisation, at least in its primarily economic aspect, as 'processes of the movement of capital, production, services, pollution and information in a way which, to a large extent, is independent of national borders and sovereignty' (p.5)
In Part I Richard Morgan concedes some positive aspects to globalisation, at least in theory, but he makes it clear that it is the problems and negative facets which worry him most, especially the growing social and economic inequality between and within societies - now a well-documented and indisputable fact.
Part II provides a summary of the 1998 Declaration on Globalisation by the World Council of Churches. This Declaration identifies tensions between the reality of 'economic colonialism' and distinctively Christian concepts of justice, equality and 'life in all its fullness' (John 10:10, p.12). It also protests about the increasing marginalisation of the weak and the poor as the globalisation process intensifies. The remaining sections describe briefly the impact of globalisation upon the international financial markets and upon different aspects of the Welsh economy and culture.
Confusions and disagreements
At first glance the document appears to avoid the well-meaning but wooly-minded equivocation typical of so many papers written for use by church discussion groups. The authors, for the most part, make plain their critical attitude towards globalisation, their awareness of its exploitative character, and their sympathy for its victims. Nor do they absolve Christians from a measure of collusion in the evils of the global market.
Closer inspection, however, reveals that the arguments contained in the document are marked by confusion and at least implicit disagreement among the various contributors. As an analysis of the workings of the contemporary world economy it fails on several counts.
For one thing the authors speak of the globalisation process as something which has simply evolved, perhaps as a result of certain advances in technology. There is no reference to the fact that over the past twenty years large economic interests have used their considerable power to actively promote this advanced form of capitalism - a word which, significantly, does not occur once in the document.
Let us recall that in the mid-1970's the postwar consensus, which existed among politicians of all major parties in the countries of the developed world, began to unravel. This consensus, which had partly grown out of revulsion against the unemployment and poverty of the interwar years, involved a commitment to government intervention, in order to ensure acceptable social conditions and to offset the instabilities of the market. It also entailed a commitment to maintain the welfare state.
The parties of the Right, especially the British Conservative party, began to abandon these commitments and to embrace a revived form of economic liberalism. Theoretically this neo-liberalism was based on certain assumptions about human nature: that men and women are driven by selfish motives, and that they pursue these motives 'rationally'.
This tough, 'realistic' concept of what people are actually like was contrasted with the romantic and reputedly failed notions of solidarity, community and co-operation that belonged to the opposing Socialist tradition, and in a certain sense to the so-called 'One Nation' philosophy of the Tory 'wets'. (It is worth mentioning that the document makes no reference to the Socialist movement either.)
These assumptions about human nature served to support the neo-liberal view that governments should not attempt to interfere with the workings of the market to offset its damaging social effects, but should leave it to regulate itself, regardless of the consequences.
In practice the new economic doctrine involved promoting the interests of international business, creating a favourable investment climate for multi-national companies by encouraging greater competition and a 'flexible' labour market (more part-time and low-paid jobs and short-term contracts), weakening the powers of the trade unions, controlling inflation, and eliminating the 'dependency culture' (i.e. reliance on welfare benefits).
The idea of redistributive taxation was scorned. Instead income tax levels were lowered, while 'taxes' like National Insurance contributions, domestic rates, and V.A.T. were all increased. Obviously this harmed the poorest members of society most of all. Nevertheless, such one-sidedly pro-business policies have been adopted by several erstwhile left-wing parties, notably the New Labour party under Tony Blair.
The authors of Globalisation A Challenge for the Churches offer no interpretation of these crucial events of the last twenty years. They wish to encourage their readers to campaign against unemployment and to defend workers' rights. But they do not appear to acknowledge that such campaigns would set them on a collision course with strategies now being pursued by governments everywhere on behalf of big business. Nor, incidentally, do they seem to anticipate the opposition which their proposals would inevitably arouse from church members who support the business agenda and consider themselves well served by the consumer economy.
Some positions taken in the document are facile. For example, one of the authors makes this statement in all seriousness: 'The World Bank needs to be encouraged to become much more focused on the elimination of poverty rather than helping countries 'adjust' their economies to free markets that benefit the strong and impoverish the weak' (p.17). As if the managers and controllers of the World Bank are unaware of the way their policies are affecting underdeveloped countries, and only need a few words of moral instruction from the Churches!
The chapters on Welsh agriculture and manufacturing suffer from a narrow nationalistic emphasis. Eurwen Richards complains that 'rules and costs have been imposed on Welsh farmers making it difficult for them to compete in the global market', and laments the 'decline' of Welsh agriculture in general. His vision for the future does not go beyond more favourable conditions of competition for Welsh farming and greater support for local foodstuffs by the large supermarket chains.
Similarly, Alun Daniel's exuberant talk about Wales' 'welcome success in manufacturing' sounds less convincing in the light of the repeated losses of steel jobs, the majority at Corus plants in south and north Wales. (Corus shareholders' dividends, of course, were not 'cut' as a result of announced job losses, but rather soared in value.)
Daniel congratulates Welsh manufacturing on the high level of inward investment which it has attracted in recent years, but he neglects to mention Wales' lower average wages than the rest of the country or the exertions of the Welsh Development Agency in marketing Wales to foreign companies as a haven of cheap labour and low corporation tax, with rigorous single-union, no-strike deals thrown in as an additional incentive.
These conditions place (and are intended to place) Welsh workers in competition not only with workers abroad, but even with workers elsewhere in Britain. Inevitably, when one region wins, others lose. And this in fact is the chief and unavoidable effect of globalisation: to enhance enormously the power of business and to undermine the rights and the natural solidarity of ordinary citizens. Nationalistic appeals only reinforce the tendency to divide groups of people whose basic interests actually lie in common.
The need to rebuild socialism
Ultimately, then, there is something half-baked about this attempt to describe and analyse the effects of globalisation. The document contains many fine exhortations - about the duty to 'defend the weak against the arrogance of the strong in all spheres of life' (p.34); about the need for a sense of 'solidarity, shared values and a commitment to the good of all peoples' (p.17); and about the need for 'equality and fairness in the distribution of resources' (p.12).
There are also some memorable quotations, such as Bishop Mauro Morelli's 'Every day I pray for the downfall of the global financial system', and Abraham Lincoln's prophetic remark that an overindulgence in music often manifests an inclination to slavery. These sentiments are all very valid.
But the fact is that capitalism has only ever grown less unjust and exploitative as the result of mass protest and resistance, not in response to moral lectures; and unless such impulses are embodied in a movement of such protest and resistance, then no amount of discussion - least of all by church groups - will make the slightest difference to its global modus operandi.
Moreover, in discussing Christian responses to globalisation the first thing we need to do is to acknowledge the reality of our situation. Christianity as it exists today in Britain no longer possesses the moral, spiritual and intellectual vigour to provide the basis for alternative forms of social and economic life. Nor do the Churches command the level of allegiance among the big public which would enable them to act as agents of large-scale social change.
As stated above, the traditional mass resistance movement against the depredations of the market was the Socialist movement. If believers wish to help create a fairer and more equal society, it is to the building and strengthening of a new global Socialist movement that they must now lend their vision and their energies.