A Quaker Response to Economic Globalization

We must identify the seeds of violence that are scattered in the wake of U.S.-style hypercapitalism when it is forced on the world.

How do we bring our faith to bear on issues of global trade?

The question is crucial. The challenges arising from economic globalization are surely among the greatest we face together as Friends.

The Dimensions of Globalization

Economic globalization—once the rarified province of trade ministers and transnational corporations—is now part of our individual lives, whether we like it or not. Every time we pick up a newspaper or shop for food or clothing, we are confronted with issues that link us inextricably to a world whose human traffic is growing increasingly complex and whose issues are increasingly interconnected.

Some ask, "Hasn’t global trade long been part of human affairs?"

Certainly, far-flung trade routes have existed for millennia. The 13th-century spice and silk trader brought Chinese innovations to Italy, helping to spark the Renaissance. And one of the profoundest dislocations in human history was produced by the international slave trade.

But what distinguishes today’s globalized economy—which has really only been around since the 1990s, engineered largely by the so-called "neoliberal" principles fostered by the Bretton Woods-inspired organizations, the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—is first of all the order of magnitude. For the past decade, the movement of goods has been growing exponentially. Snowblowers assembled in Brazil, shrimp farmed in Thailand, wheat grown in the U.S. Midwest, are shipped across the globe—at huge and mostly unacknowledged cost.

Second is the quality of transformation: the flow of capital and jobs across national borders; the ubiquitous pressure on indigenous peoples everywhere to "modernize"; and the spread of large-scale U.S.-style capitalism, or "hypercapitalism," with its emphasis on growth and short-term profits at the expense of community and sustainability.

Third is the expansion of technologies such as genetic engineering that carry unprecedented threats both to the non-human environment and to the human community in all its diversity, threatening the survival of indigenous peoples.

In its intensity, saturation, velocity, and scale, today’s global economy amounts to an explosion. Fueled by overpopulation and profits, a petroleum-based transportation network, and industrialized agricultural practices, this explosion is rocking the natural and the human world from Iowa to Bangladesh.

The explosion is overriding the capacity of nation-states or local governments to govern. Just as Wal-Mart lawyers are able to overwhelm local resistance in small towns in the United States, large corporations are able to set down low-wage, polluting factories pretty much wherever they wish in the developing world, usually under the rubric of providing jobs and with little attention to environmental and social costs. Similarly, giant agribusiness corporations like Cargill and Monsanto are able to squeeze local, small-scale farmers out of business. Other companies like Bechtel are able to seize control over water, long regarded as common property. Thus the very necessities of life are being taken over and commodified.

Scientist and activist Vandana Shiva sees it as a struggle between most of humanity and a handful of corporations. "During colonialism," she said in an interview published last February in the Sun, "the frontiers were other continents. Europeans came and took the land that belonged to the native communities in India and Africa. Now the frontiers are water, plant life, and life itself."

According to Vandana Shiva, who authored a book called Biopiracy, today’s seizure of the commons is aided and abetted by the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. Her thesis was borne out as recently as last February when Monsanto received patents on the genetic sequence contained in the strain of wheat used for making chapati—the flat bread that has long been a staple of northern India. Under the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, Indians might be forced to pay royalties to Monsanto for using that particular wheat, which generations of Indian farmers developed through selective breeding. This amounts to a seizure of a genetic and cultural commons. Vandana Shiva points out that TRIPS was virtually written by Monsanto.

She is not alone. At a recent gathering of trade ministers, heads of state have begun to utter the complaints voiced by demonstrators on the streets of Seattle four years ago. In January 2004, at the Summit of the Americas held in Monterrey, Mexico, the Bush administration tried to push its own agenda—the expansion of the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) to include all of Latin America, under the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). But our largest trading partners dared to speak out. "Every day the gap that separates the rich and poor in our continent grows bigger," Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told delegates to the Summit. He called U.S. development policies "perverse" and "unjust." And Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that "the great destabilizer in the region is poverty and neoliberalism."

Why is the gap between rich and poor growing? In part because under the WTO, countries in the developing world cannot shield their infant industries with tariffs. Under today’s WTO-enforced rules, South Korea and Singapore never would have been able to jump-start their industrial economies. The rules are written to favor the already industrialized nations.

Questions for Quakers

Faced with the inequities of biopiracy, commandeering of basic resources, and a growing gap between rich and poor, how can we respond as Quakers? Faced with the alphabet soup of trade agreements (WTO, IMF, NAFTA, FTAA, and TRIPS, to name a few), compounded by the velocity of change and the partiality of our own knowledge of distant consequences, and frustrated by the infusion of corporate agendas into our own government, how do we keep from feeling overwhelmed? And how, in the face of this complexity, do we retain the simplicity at the core of Quaker faith?

Obviously there are and will be many Quaker responses to these questions. And many Friends are working very hard to seek answers. Some Friends believe the WTO is necessary, that without such a venue for negotiating trade rules, powerful multinational corporations would exercise even more control over developing nations (see the Viewpoint by Brewster Grace, "A Better Understanding Is Needed of the WTO’s Abilities and Limitations," FJ May 2000).

My intention here is more to raise questions than provide answers—questions that may serve as grist for the larger Quaker mill. I will also point to some tangible steps that Friends and others have taken that may serve as models for us all.

My personal journey began when, after listening to an E. F. Schumacher Society lecture by Jerry Mander in late 1999, I was led to travel to Seattle to witness the landmark protest against the WTO. In Seattle, I attended a series of educational forums and debates, sponsored by some 130 organizations involved in the protest that were ignored by the press. Afterwards I reported about all this in Friends Journal ("The Message of Seattle," March 2000). The violent police response to the overwhelmingly nonviolent protest raised another set of questions, as did the subsequent portrayal of the protest in the mass media. The media persisted in referring to the "Seattle riots." If anything, as three separate investigations later confirmed, it was the police who had rioted.

For me, these concerns took on new urgency two years later, with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. For a brief three weeks following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, we began to hear the beginnings of a tentative but thoughtful national dialogue. People were asking: Why are we hated? What would prompt such a brutal attack? What can we do to reduce the tensions that arise from world trade?

The Bush administration had a simple answer, predicated on vengeance and the assumption that Evil could be excised from the world like a cancer, a stance readily endorsed by the religious right: U.S. citizens were blameless; other (non-Christian) nations were jealous of our "freedom." The Statue of Liberty might be the next target. Our brief period of thoughtful national introspection ended as soon as the bombs began falling on Afghanistan.

But the terrorists’ choice of targets—the World Trade towers and the Pentagon—should haunt any thoughtful person.

Today it seems that the Quaker testimonies offer a particularly relevant basis for carrying forward the dialogue that was cut short by vengeance. What can we do to reduce the injustices that arise in the global economy?

If, following the Peace Testimony, Quakers not only "deny all outward wars and strife" but seek to remove the "occasion for war," then we must identify the seeds of violence that are scattered in the wake of U.S.-style hypercapitalism when it is forced on the world.

We cannot look to the mass media for support. Our national media are large corporations themselves. They are mostly oblivious to the violence implicit in the assumption that we can remake the world in our image. The French protest the incursion of McDonald’s and are ridiculed in our media as "elitists." Oil-seed and onion farmers in India commit suicide and are called "backwards" because they cannot compete with foreign cartels. Muslims railing against the bombardment of images from Hollywood and Madison Avenue are dismissed as "medieval." But the outrage is real; the suicides are real; the sense of blasphemy is real.

How do we stay informed when, as John Woolman said of slavery, much of this suffering is "done at a great distance and by other hands"? How do we picture the windowless carpet factories in Nepal, where young children work in bondage and sleep under their looms; the slave-worked chocolate plantations; the sweatshops where Nike shoes are produced? How do we relate to our own protest movement at home when nonviolent demonstrators are met by a militarized police response and kept far away from the objects of their protest, and when protestors are in danger of being identified as terrorists, under the USA Patriot Act? And how do we participate meaningfully in the struggle for social justice, which is now necessarily global?


All this came together for me rather vividly in March 2003—I was visiting Cuba just as our government began bombing Iraq. The parallels between the two countries were inescapable. Most striking was the simple fact that ordinary Cubans and Iraqis were suffering under the yokes our government imposed, in the form of long-term trade embargoes aimed at producing "regime change." A decade of sanctions in Iraq; four decades in Cuba.

Differences should be noted. Despite Cuba’s visible poverty—Havana’s beautiful but crumbling buildings, its artfully maintained old cars, the rationing of beans and rice—its infrastructure was more or less intact, its water supply and sewage treatment facilities were operational, and its underequipped hospitals were available to all Cubans. There was nothing approaching the horrific casualties suffered by Iraqi children when cholera and other water-borne diseases claimed more lives than had the first Gulf War. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is the lowest in Latin America—lower than Philadelphia’s or Hartford’s.
Four things struck me with special clarity:

First, our government, as a matter of bipartisan policy, had used economic isolation as a method of forcing "rogue" regimes into compliance with U.S. business interests: oil most obviously in the case of Iraq; agricultural markets and a host of consumer goods and other interests in the case of Cuba. This coldly calculated punishment amounts to a war on the poorest and most vulnerable members of these societies.

Second, this economic war is not too different in its effects from the draconian "austerity" measures demanded by the IMF and the World Bank when they come into a developing nation—Bolivia, for instance—and insist that it reduce inflation by tightening the money supply, that it privatize water companies, and that it force subsistence farmers to give up agricultural diversity in favor of cash crops grown for export. The motives may be less identifiably political, but the punishing effects of the neoliberal "fiscal discipline" fall once again on the poor.

Third, I noticed the connection between what was happening in the places I’ve described and what has happened under NAFTA— despite NAFTA’s being pretty much the opposite of a trade embargo or an IMF-mandated austerity program. By eliminating tariffs on trade between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, NAFTA was supposed to create a large free market that would facilitate trade and create jobs. So went the argument. The reality was that the market forces unleashed under NAFTA ravaged the poor.

My fourth realization has evolved slowly over the past year, as the tragedy in Iraq continues to unfold. It’s simply this: Iraq represents the convergence of old-fashioned military imperialism and the new global hypercapitalism. These two forces are personified in Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton. But they are latent in our nation’s energy policy, which depends on seizing control of other nations’ oil resources one way or another. This stark convergence of economic globalization and empiricism has not yet hit Cuba, but the Cubans are worried. Indeed, the people of Brazil and Venezuela and South Africa might be worried. At what point will any nation that doesn’t knuckle under to U.S. economic interests be declared "rogue"?

Destructiveness of Hypercapitalism

As for NAFTA, why has it had the opposite impact from the ones advertised? Because, as many analysts have pointed out, "free" trade is by no means the same as "fair" trade. (Nor is it "free," as testified by the fact that the NAFTA agreement runs several hundred pages.) What our press touts as "free trade" is, in reality, an elaborate set of rules written by large-scale international corporations to give them a competitive advantage over small-scale local operations.

As soon as NAFTA was implemented, Mexico was suddenly inundated with cheap corn and milk from U.S. agribusiness—a short-term bonus for Mexican consumers, but it drove marginal farmers out of business on both sides of the border. NAFTA created low-paying assembly jobs for Mexicans. But some 200,000 of those jobs have disappeared since 2001—mostly to China, where labor is paid one-fourth as much. Between 1994 and 2000, Mexican manufacturing workers saw their real wages decline by 21 percent. Meanwhile, last year a staggering $6.3 billion worth of Chinese goods found its way into Mexico, displacing Mexican goods.

Mexico is not alone in this dilemma. Jamaican dairy farmers cannot compete with imports from the Netherlands. U.S. sheep growers cannot compete with New Zealand growers. Mom-and-pop stores everywhere cannot compete with the efficiency of large corporations—especially when the new trade rules favor this "race to the bottom" and when artificially low petroleum prices subsidize the movement of ships and trucks across the planet.

Clearly, we need to examine as a society what is meant by such terms as "marginal" and "efficiency." Do they reflect the social costs and the environmental consequences? This is especially critical with respect to agriculture. Since the 1950s the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been telling farmers to "get big or get out." But today’s huge farm operations are destroying thousands of tons of topsoil every year. If they achieve their "efficiency" by mining irreplaceable topsoil, if they sacrifice biodiversity, if they pollute watersheds and the gene pool, if they destroy "marginal" agrarian communities, then we are living in a fool’s paradise of underpriced food that is as unsustainable as the fossil-fuel economy that drives it. Outbreaks of mad cow disease and widespread contamination by e-coli are the collateral damage of "efficient" feedlot beef factories that force cattle into cannibalism in order to hasten weight gain and maximize profits. The new avian flu threat is partly the result of similar treatment of poultry under runaway capitalism at a global scale. Industrial agriculture disrespects animals even more profoundly than it disrespects humans.

Finally, there is the more pervasive "Wal-Mart effect" of global hypercapitalism. If cutthroat, growth-oriented producers are constantly pressuring suppliers to lower their costs and squeezing workers all over the world to work for below-subsistence wages, then who is left to buy things? And what happens to businesses that treat their workers humanely and observe sound environmental practices? The latter are often deemed "marginal." What happens to "marginal" small farmers who know and love their land and who treat their animals with respect? What happens to the unscripted store clerk who takes the time to engage in conversation? Under the pressure of hyper-capitalism, what happens to everyone’s capacity for living mindfully?

Toward a Quaker Response

In Seattle I had a chance to talk briefly with the indefatigable Vandana Shiva. Knowing that I would be reporting to Friends Journal, I asked whether she had found allies among Quakers. She had, she said politely. But she suggested we all could do more. I think she understood the parochial intent behind my inquiry: I wanted to believe that Quakers were out there, somewhere, in the movement for global justice in 1999.

Four years, later, I see signs of hope. Quaker faith is, I believe, gifted with special relevance to our times. Ours is a living, revelatory faith. We believe that truth is continuously being revealed. Our engagement with these issues will test us, much as slavery tested us two centuries ago.

Quaker organizations are becoming engaged. American Friends Service Committee is beginning to incorporate globalization issues under its broad umbrella. The AFSC magazine Peacework increasingly serves as a flexible and reliable conduit for global issues.

Quaker UN Office (QUNO) in New York, administered by AFSC, and Quaker Peace and Social Witness in the UK (QPSW) have also been engaged in global issues at a hands-on level, as reported in Friends Journal ("The WTO Meeting in Cancún: Failure—or Success?" by Phillip Berryman, Feb. 2004). According to Phil Berryman, at Cancún QUNO and QPSW worked directly with government delegations from poor countries on TRIPS-related issues, aimed especially at enabling hiv/aids patients to gain access to generic drugs. QUNO strives to keep an open dialog with the WTO, World Bank, and IMF.

On the environmental front, Quaker Earthcare Witness (formerly Friends Committee on Unity with Nature) seeks to move environmental concerns into the mainstream of Quaker faith. One of its projects, Quaker Eco-Witness for National Legislation (QEW-NL), is tracking legislative issues pertaining to ecological sustainability, including U.S. involvement in economic globalization. "We believe the human-Earth relationship in all its aspects is inseparable from our relationship with the Divine," QEW-NL declared in a newsletter last January. "We are convinced that the current economic system should be of urgent concern to the Religious Society of Friends. It is intensifying economic and social inequities throughout the world, causing structural and physical violence, driving many species to extinction, and leading our own species toward ecological self-destruction." QEW-NL urges Friends to "learn more about current economic policies and institutions as they relate to Friends historic testimonies."

All this is a start. But time is short, and the challenge is very broad. We have a long way to go. Above all, let us recognize the urgency of these issues. Let us pursue them vigorously, first as queries. Let us invest in our meetings’ libraries, stock our shelves with appropriate, up-to-date materials, including periodicals such as Guardian International, which offer alternatives to the U.S. media. Let us bring in speakers, sponsor traveling ministries, support our local economies, and engage our communities in the spiritual dialogue that the media avoid.

Let us look to other faith communities, as well. It was the Baptist church in downtown Seattle that opened its doors to forums held by the protestors. Catholic orders have sponsored shareholder resolutions at corporate board meetings that offer models for Quaker meetings. A model for me is the radical Catholic, Kathy Kelly, who has most fervently brought what I think of as Quaker values—compassion, nonviolence, and simplicity—to suffering Iraqi civilians, and who is, as I write, in a U.S. jail for her efforts. Secular community groups offer venues and models for Quakers. We in turn have faith and experience to offer.

How can we mobilize institutions like Friends Journal and Friends General Conference to bring our best energies to this dialogue?

What can we do to encourage our quarterly and yearly meetings to endorse the principles of environmental stewardship contained in the Earth Charter? Or solicit minutes on globalization issues, as New England Yearly Meeting has started to do?

May we find courage, as well as clarity. And let us not forsake the tools of nonviolent action. When Arundhati Roy, another tireless Indian activist and author of The God of Small Things, addressed the World Social Forum in Mumbai last January, she evoked Gandhi:

Gandhi’s salt march was not just political theater. When, in a simple act of defiance, thousands of Indians marched to the sea and made their own salt, they broke the salt tax laws. It was a direct strike at the economic underpinning of the British Empire. It was real. While our movement has won some important victories, we must not allow nonviolent resistance to atrophy into ineffectual, feel-good political theater. It is a very precious weapon that must be constantly honed and reimagined. It cannot be allowed to become a mere spectacle, a photo opportunity for the media.

She, too, sees the war in Iraq as the inevitable culmination of empire and hypercapitalism. She advocates going after the corporations that are profiting from the misery in Iraq. "It’s a question," she wrote last February in The Nation, "of bringing our collective wisdom and experience of past struggles to bear on a single target."

However Spirit leads us; whatever we can summon from past struggles or from continuing revelation; whatever tools we employ—this constellation of issues will test our faith.

Let us ask these questions, and go where we are led.

David Morse

David Morse is a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting, a novelist, and author of pamphlets on John Woolman and the global economy published by Pendle Hill (#356) and by New England Yearly Meeting's Committee on Prejudice and Poverty. He can be reached at his website, http://www.david-morse.com.