Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

Daniel Cohen, Globalization and Its Enemies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. ix + 192 pp. $28 (cloth), ISBN: 0-262-03350-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John R. Hanson, Department of Economics, Texas A&M University.

This book is authored by the well-known French economist Daniel Cohen, a professor at the Ecole Normale Superieure and the University of Paris, who has a penchant for the historical approach to economic problems and a willingness to engage controversial topical issues, such as, in this case, globalization. Here he purports to explain why globalization, toward which he is generally sympathetic, is not universally admired. Not for him the normal arguments against it, such as destruction of indigenous cultures by rapacious capitalists or exploitation of labor in developing countries. He also lacks patience with the old critiques of commerce between rich and poor countries, dismissing unequal trade as a danger to poor countries and urging enlightened people to drop that canard.

His claim is that globalization is not evil, but is oversold as a method of lifting impoverished countries out of their misery. As far as he is concerned, it does not have grandiose potential; in this sense he resembles the late, wise Irving Kravis, who called international trade a “handmaiden of growth.” Yet the hype, in Cohen’s view, has created inflated expectations in less developed countries and elsewhere, with impatience toward globalization, sometimes bitterness, the result. This, in turn, fosters blindness and irrationality in assessing globalization’s consequences, even to the extent of educated people sometimes treating it as a satanic instrument. Cohen seems to imply that certain fashionable ideas, such as the notorious “clash of civilizations,” would disappear or lose salience, if only globalization’s limitations as a speedy wealth-creating machine were more widely appreciated. According to Cohen, we have, in short, a global crisis of disappointed expectations.

What to make of this? To me it seems easy to utter and hard to prove. Perhaps that is why most of the book — a long essay, really — is merely a wide-ranging meditation on poverty and related matters, such as 9/11, from an historical perspective. Cohen is well read, cites pertinent authors, and writes many astute paragraphs and pages about the world economy and the contemporary geo-economic scene. Often he is on the side of the angels, as when he stresses that failures of economic development are ascribable to local social and cultural conditions not external predation.

Yet Cohen’s discourse cannot be regarded as a rigorous marshaling of apposite evidence to document a scientific hypothesis. Quite often, in fact, the prose gets mystical, overblown, and banal. He writes that “…globalization does not keep its promises” (p. 166). He amplifies, “…the world will never be ‘just’ as long as people do not have the conviction that they all contribute to discovering and molding a shared human destiny” (p. 169). Or, “For [some] countries … to be dispossessed from creating new knowledge … is equated with exclusion from History” (p. 168). And this: “The tragedy of the poorest countries is that they want to participate, without losing themselves, in a world that essentially ignores them” (p. 164). (Ignores them? Somalia, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and so forth regularly get headlines as trouble spots. Some are regarded hysterically as a threat to prosperity in rich countries because of their cheap labor.) Again: “…it will be necessary … to open a public space outside the realm of economic forces” (p. 164).

I never imagined that the psychological fragility of poor nations and their sense of betrayal was behind hostility to globalization. I did suppose that misguided ideologues and rent-seeking special interests, such as labor unions in developed countries, had something to do with it. I further doubt that less globalization, including Cohen’s bete noire satellite TV transmissions, would, as Cohen seems to imply, mitigate the poor’s jealousy of the rich by removing the cause of frustration. Am I to take seriously Cohen’s insinuation that, out of pique, the typical poor nation someday might renounce its share of globalization’s benefits, however meager?

Finally, let me make a more conventional criticism of this navel-gazing book. Cohen doesn’t have a clear idea of what modern globalization is. He treats it as analogous to the shrinking of the world through the transportation and communications revolution of the nineteenth century. To him, as to many others, it appears to be an unstoppable technological phenomenon which brings promise and peril. Actually, modern globalization is mostly a massive but still hugely incomplete lowering of political barriers to the movements of labor, capital, and knowledge. The transfer of useful things is endogenous, not exogenous, to political decisions taken everywhere, and the world is merely less statist than it used to be. The way to accelerate the benefits of globalization (which also might mitigate impatience and jealousy on the part of the world’s dispossessed by keeping “promises”) is to lower barriers more. So, buck up Cohen old boy. Let’s get on with it.

John R. Hanson II is Professor of Economics at Texas A and M University. He is the author of “Proxies in the New Political Economy: Caveat Emptor,” published in Economic Inquiry in October, 2003. He is currently researching the colonial American money supply.