Tuesday, March 20, 2007

El mundo es plano

...Babelfish says that's the Spanish for "The World is Flat", and I couldn't help but wonder if there was some Spaniard in the 1500s writing paeans to the out-sourcing that was happening to Spanish industry and the massive new era of globalization that was occuring... and would make Spain a pauper country in the process. Turns out, there was. Stoneleigh has an excellent post about Energy and Empire, but this quote stuck out in particular:
Let London manufacture those fabrics of hers to her heart’s content; Holland her chambrays; Florence her cloth; the Indies their beaver and vicuna; Milan her brocades; Italy and Flanders their linens, so long as our capital can enjoy them. The only thing that it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid and that Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody.(quoted in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David Landes)
The rest of Stoneleigh's article is excellent and definitely worth clicking through. This reaction in the comment threads also caught my eye:
These days Tainter's (and Homer-Dixon's) view of the fall of Rome looks a bit dated.... The archeological record does not show widespread agricultural decline. Many areas were going gangbusters and had never been better.

What archeology and the written record do show is that living adjacent to the Empire for centuries caused the barbarians to unite into fewer (and larger) polities. Their own farming output and population surged as they adopted better farming methods and traded extensively with the empire.

According to Heather, Rome did not run out of gas, it was overwelmed. And the forces that overwelmed it were in great measure a product of a dynamic that the Empire itself set in motion.
Jesus, that sounds familiar. China has been able to grow itself in to a position of power not by opposing the American-built global system, but by working within it and trading with the US. Ditto Europe.

Europe may be especially relevant -- as well as the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- as we're seeing a definite trend in middle powers coalescing into regional blocs for economic and security purposes.

So where does this leave Canada? Were there barbarians who weren't Romans, but fought alongside the Romans right up to the end of the Empire?


Closet Liberal said...

John, I was thinking last week you'd be the right person to ask, and this post confirms it.

It seems obvious to me, or I've long suspected, that a necessary side effect of concentrating wealth is the exporting of the manufacturing base to where the cheap labour is. To keep consumables affordable, we need a worker "underclass." At the moment this is the far east (China, India, etc.). What happens when our current foreign manufacturing base continues the cycle and starts to be a center of wealth concentration as well? Eventually salaries will rise where they are no longer a source of cheap labour and they turn into another "knowledge economy" or whatever the west calls itself now (or in the future).

Assuming the West stays at its level of wealth (it does not decline while the East rises) from where will the cheap labour come from? Robots?

In essence can a capitalist based world exist where all countries are wealthy? I don't think so, and I think I'm applying the theory of entropy and empire appropriately to state that a capitalist world requires a poor hinterland of labour to support the lifestyle of the wealthy center.

Whadda you think? Am I over simplifying, off the deep-end?

john said...

I certainly don't think you're off the deep end, and don't worry about simplifying or over-simplifying: it's inevitable when dealing with this stuff, I think.

Can a capitalist world exist amid general prosperity? Sure, but capitalists tend not to be happy about it. The "30 glorious years" from WWII to roughly 1975 or so were a period of broad-based growth and declining -- or at least flat -- inequality. Not just in the west, but globally as well. So of course, we had to invent austerity packages from the IMF and World Bank.

The first thing I'll say about global labour is that there's still a billion people in Africa much much poorer than China or India, and the countries of Africa are working feverishly on making it easier for capital to go there. When you add the resources of that continent, it's increasingly inviting for both American and Chinese capital.

But what happens when there aren't any places left in a condition of general poverty? I honestly don't know. The "optimistic" reading, I suppose, would be that the development of serious robotics has been retarded by a global surplus of labour, and that capitalism will adjust to a world where everyone has a share of wealth and a stock of cheap, mass-produced robotic labourers. Some kind of broad-based robo-feudalism.

The pessimistic reading would be that if we actually are "threatened" with a global shortage of starvation-labour, the IMF or its successor will work to fix that problem -- either by destroying demand in the core countries or increasing poverty in the periphery.

I don't think capitalism as we've known it can bring us to the optimistic scenario, but I'm a big fan of the Mondragon model -- google "Mondragon Cooperatives" for some info.

Closet Liberal said...

You are absolutely correct that there are still a lot of poor to be taken advantage of, scratch that, to provide jobs to. I'm glossing over a hell of a lot in surmising that all countries can reach the same level of wealth. What I know for sure is I will be long gone before this becomes an issue, but the question still intrigues me.

A quick interpretation on the effects of the Mondragon model is that it flattens the curve and reduces the disparity between wealthy and poor, basically remove the excesses from either end of the equation. Applied as a global model, it means we all have to live with less, but we all are fed, clothed, sheltered and employed.

I'm pessimistic on that one. Requires a level of co-operation between individuals unheard of in human history. Basic problem with socialistic, communist or collectives. Have to subsume the self in the interests of the whole. Just takes a few greedy and/or power hungry buggers to screw it up. I have a feeling that a growing scarcity in essentials (rare metals, water, arable land) will exacerbate the problem, maybe even in my lifetime. I do hope I am wrong.

Interesting tips for reading. Not normally my bag (I read to escape), but might give it a try.