Globalisation has been a hot topic in political and economic thought for over twenty years now, but its far-reaching implications for people in all walks of life are still unfolding, making it an excellent choice of topic for inclusion in the book festival’s ‘visions of the future’ thread. For this series of events, the festival has invited leading thinkers to speculate about the biggest issues facing humanity over the next few decades, and tonight’s speakers were of a suitably high calibre. As chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman’s presence promised a well-informed if somewhat pro-market viewpoint, while eminent academic Mary Mellor’s extensive body of work in alternative economics suggested a more left-leaning counter-position in the debate about globalisation. But that isn’t exactly how the evening unfolded.
Rachman began with an observation which very much set the tone of the event’s discussion, namely that globalisation is now characterised by the waning of western dominance, and the runaway growth of the Chinese and Indian economies. The west, he said, and particularly the USA has viewed this state of affairs with increasing alarm, especially as the post-cold war myth of capitalism spreading liberal democracy has proven to be an empty promise. Mellor, however, argued that the important thing to remember about globalisation is that it is not politically neutral, being fundamentally neo-liberal in character. There are inherent dangers, she suggested, in allowing such ideologies to spread unchallenged.
While the evening’s discussion saw the speakers tackle topics as diverse as war, inflation and bank bail-outs, this initial clash very much represented their dynamic as a whole. Rachman was primarily focused (the occasional riposte to Mellor aside) on recent history in international relations and probable future developments in America and the far east. Mellor, meanwhile, was much more concerned with the neo-liberal myths being perpetuated by the global spread of market fundamentalism, and the damage already being done to public services because of it. Chair Michael Williams made deft use of humour to defuse a couple of tense moments in the conversation, and on the whole the event was good-natured, but it was less a discussion about globalisation than two people simultaneously presenting alternative takes on what the subject means to them. Both made valid and interesting points, but both also seemed to be talking at cross purposes for most of the event.