This is the second in our three-part series of edited excerpts from Prof. Bob Goudzwaard’s speech to CPJ’s AGM in May of this year. The first part explored five trends of globalisation Prof. Goudzwaard has identified: emerging powers, bilateralism and growing scarcities, the revolts in Arab countries, growing indebtedness, and the lordship of money. Stay tuned for the final section exploring the Christian response to these troubled times in the coming weeks!
And here we enter another level than the level of current processes. It is the level of changing cultural patterns and attitudes. I would like to distinguish two common major characteristics. Perhaps together they can bring us to a deeper understanding of what is really going on.
First common characteristic: globalisation hardens
Firstly, the conclusion is inevitable that globalisation has apparently begun to harden. At first it seemed to hold out a prospect of fluid development. But now it becomes, more and more, a power struggle and a hurricane in which the poorest groups and countries are very easily pushed aside.
But what is behind this hardening of almost all international relations? I think the major factor here is fear, especially on the side of the richest nations. They see the threat of the rise of new power-blocks in the world, challenging not only their power, but also taking away a lot of their employment. As well, the rich countries seem to be on the losing side in their access to future scarce resources. No wonder that fear begins to reign. And fear surely contributes to an overall hardening. Fear, for instance, about the possibility of continuing the high standard of living in the richest nations based upon a continued high economic growth rate. This goal is so essential for them that they are indeed willing to fight for it and to push for it by all means.
Second common characteristic: the growing power of illusion
But there seems to be even more at hand than this process of hardening. There is also a second element, the growing significance of illusions.
Illusions can take on great significance, especially in times of fear and deep insecurity. For illusions allow people and nations to believe what they like, instead of taking reality seriously. In his book The Empire of Illusion Chris Hedges convincingly defends the thesis that the distinction between illusion and reality in our time is increasingly blurred. We live in a culture of entertainment of illusions, which, as Hedges underlines, is a matter of utmost seriousness. For a culture that can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion dies. Even more interesting for us is his final conclusion:
The cultural retreat into illusion is a form of magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns … destruction ... into an opportunity for growth.
Magical thinking? Could it be that indeed magic plays a growing role in our time? Like Faust dealt with in Goethe's great drama of Doctor Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil, just to be able to rule the world via the power of self-created money?
Money is indeed a strange thing and an almost magical item. Money represents value, but only as far as we collectively believe in it. It can indeed create the illusion of continued progress and of growing power over others. And it was that illusion which played a crucial role in the outbreak of the recent global financial crisis. The banks, the speculators, they simply believed in the endless growth made possible by money.
Monetary greed and illusion, illusion and growing indebtedness, are moreover very closely related. Debts form the illusory path along which we can perpetuate our desires, even if it is in fact a perpetuation of what is no longer possible! Our desires will prevail right until the moment that money breaks down on harsh reality.
Illusion, the cultural base of endless continued money creation, still exists, especially in the USA. China is still willing to buy US treasury bonds and debt-papers, but for how long? It is not imaginary that sooner or later the US dollar will go down and even further down. Remember how Germany, at the close of the First World War, also became involved in rampant inflation, followed by state bankruptcy.
Two cultural trends I have tried to sketch for you: the trend of a continuous hardening of international relations and the trend of still growing illusions. But there is a real risk, and it is a serious risk, that these two trends will go further hand in hand. The two trends which I mentioned can go on working together and strengthening each other right up until the moment of an abrupt and massive collapse. The main problem of our time seems thus not its lack of idealism but its lack of realism. Of understanding our own history in this, God’s world, in a mature, responsible way.