March 14, 2005

Globalization and the democracy in the Middle East.

It was interesting reading the article New Signs on the Arab Street by Thomas Friedman in New York Times on Sunday, March 13. His basic contention is that promoting free market policies in Arab countries and signing free trade agreements with more Arab countries is the key to transforming the Middle East into a democratic and progressive region. He equates a liberal society which respects individual freedom, freedom of press, freedom of political activity with a society which embraces open economy and export-oriented private sectors:

It [democracy] will arise only if these countries develop, among other things, export-oriented private sectors, which can be the foundation for a vibrant middle class that is not dependent upon the state for contracts and has a vital interest in an open economy, a free press and its own political parties .... that is why, beyond Iraq, America's priorities should be to sign a free-trade agreement with Egypt ....

Now it is interesting too to recall what Mr Friedman wrote a few years ago on the issue of globalization:

For globalism to work, America can't be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is....The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist -- McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Thomas Friedman, What the World Needs Now, New York Times, March 28, 1999. Quoted from Backing Up Globalization with Military Might

This is not just a moral sanction of American hegemony in the world - it is an outrageous proclamation of the necessity of it. Mr Friedman says For Globalism to work - work for whom? This is the core issue in globalization and its attempts at making the whole world into one big free trade zone.

It is a noble intention to desire that the various countries interact freely among themselves to share their respective resources and work on the general betterment of their peoples. But as with any idealistic desire, one needs to be very careful whether what is portrayed in the popular culture (i.e media) is the actual truth. In other words, is the free trade and globalization, as practiced today, at the behest of WTO (read, the West), the real way to implement the above mentioned idealistic program?

One just needs to do understand what is happening in the name of various free trade agreements, such as NAFTA. These are being used by major corporations to get hold of cheap labor in many poor countries, without the necessity of any responsibilities such as minimum wages, health insurance to the workers, environmental issues, to name a few. The free trade agreements have come to serve the purposes of the industrial class in the West and its fast growing brother in the developing world. And the notion that the well being of the industrial class, as a matter of course, results in the general improvement in the society is at best reckless optimism.

Mr Friedman says that this leads to a vibrant middle class and that paves the way for a successful democracy. While this is far from being self-evident, I just want to mention that this pre-occupation with middle class has become fashionable these days and the concern with the poor and questions of hunger have decidedly gone out of fashion. It is a fact that more than 20,000 people die every day because they are too poor to stay alive. And a majority of human beings live their lives in a constant struggle for livelihood. So there is still some time before we can get genuinely excited about the middle class, whatever that means.

So Mr Friedman's vision of the problems in the Middle East through the economic prism and his recipe for democracy there do not seem convincing. The lack of democracy in the Middle East is the result of hundreds of years of autocratic and authoritarian regimes (some of them actively groomed by the West) and the resulting destruction of any liberal institutions. Another major cause for genuine resentment among Arabs is the state of Palestinian people. These are the major causes for unrest in the Middle East, and the West, with its own vested interests, had a role to play in both issues. The economic reasons have nothing to do with the present chaos. Unless an intellectual and cultural change takes place, the liberal institutions can not thrive, and the West has no active role to play in this. It has to come from the within. As for the issue of Israel-Palestine conflict, the West can play a constructive role in its resolution. But given the various hidden agendas, that seems unlikely.


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