Spring 2000

One-world dilemmas

Suzanne Berger mulls the paradoxical effects of globalization, the role of values and whether the new Europe is possible.

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"The most exciting thing that's happened in Europe is the debate over Austria"—whether a state that has allowed a party like Haider's into the government can be an acceptable EU member."

Soundings - School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT

Political scientist Suzanne Berger, decoding the new politics of globalization.

One-world Dilemmas

Suzanne Berger is the Raphael Dorman and Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science. Working in comparative politics and political economy, she has authored and edited numerous books, including Dualism and Discontinuity in Industrial Societies; Organizing Interests in Western Europe; National Diversity and Global Capitalism, and Made in America. Director of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) Program, Berger is a member of the MIT Industrial Performance Center, a Senior Research Associate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

You write about the media and scholars exaggerating the effects of globalization. How so?

There's a big struggle in our minds between trying to understand what part of social life is determined by economics, technology and forces outside our control, and our ideas about how much we can really shape the world. That debate in the 1960's and 1970's was about whether technology determined the shape of society and constrained personal and social autonomy. Today that debate has shifted to globalization and whether it forces us to adopt particular social, political or economic forms. Do all societies that want to be efficient and innovative have to move along the same trajectory? At the end of the 1980's, when the US industrial economy appeared to be lagging and losing, we came to think there might be something in the social and economic model of capitalism of Japan and Germany that was superior. Today, we think exactly the opposite, that Japan and Germany are going to have to give up their distinctive national characteristics and move towards an American model, or become stagnant.

If we look at the United States, Germany and Japan over a 15-year period, they've done about equally well in economic growth. The American economy has done distinctively better only in the creation of large numbers of jobs. But the other economies have done just about as well by any other measure. So there's nothing in our experience that suggests that a single economic model is the best way to organize for innovation and economic growth.

Yet there seems to be resistance to globalization—what you call "a new politics in the making." Why is globalization such a politically divisive issue?

For the first time in history, flows of capital and goods and services over borders seem threatening, not only to the jobs of the least skilled in society but to much better educated workers. In China and India large reservoirs of university-educated people are now working as software programmers and in other technical jobs. Facing this kind of competition instills a diffuse sense of vulnerability, which shows up even in these times of great prosperity in the United States.

The second dimension is political. Globalization means the state is no longer regulating the flows of human beings or goods, services and money across borders. And people have the same fears about the state not regulating these flows. With the Asian financial crisis—where the success of even well-organized, highly productive societies was suddenly swept away after several decades of hard work—people's sense of vulnerability is tremendous.

Student image Students in the MISTI China program use Lego robots in teaching foreign high school students.

How do we see this expressed?

In western Europe, we see it in the protest movements in France against McDonalds and in the French government's refusal to allow Coca-Cola to buy Orangina. You see it in the new Austrian government with [Jorg] Haider's [Freedom] party, which is nationalist, anti-universalist, anti-globalist. In the U.S., the protests in Seattle over WTO [World Trade Organization] showed the possibilities of a new kind of coalition among groups that in the past were quite opposed to each other. So the AFL-CIO and Greenpeace, which had nothing to say to each other and no way of cooperating on environmental issues, today find themselves on the same side with respect to globalization and regulating international economic flows. That is a sea change.

What's the chance that such values have any effect on a global marketplace driven by profits?

Well, it is legitimate to ask how goods were produced and whether the economic advantage of the Bangladeshi producer of T-shirts comes from paying average wages for that society, and providing reasonably good working conditions, or whether it comes from coercion or exploitation of children or factory conditions that are at the low-end, even by that society's standards. I think it's legitimate to try to put in place some monitoring mechanisms. Should Nike, for example, be required to pay workers in Indonesia a living wage or simply average societal wages? We might say that multinationals should pay at least the average wages in that society and that working conditions in their plants should be at least minimally safe and non-harmful to worker health. Here the issue is not imposing Western standards on developing countries, but enforcing regulations that exist, on paper at least, in virtually all countries.

So who would regulate a Nike, and how?

There's great concern about consumer backlash over issues of child labor and bad labor conditions . . . and Nike has found the campaign against it extremely costly. There is a push among consumers, in the United States and to some extent in Europe, to understand better the conditions of production for goods people are buying. American retailers are increasingly aware they have to do more monitoring of the factories from which they source their goods.

Some people say this push is nothing but Third World bashing because the U.S., having already succeeded economically, is raising the debate to a higher moral level.

There's an element of truth to that. And this is going to be one of the hallmarks of a globalized world, where increasingly, negotiations between states are going to be over domestic arrangements. People will demand some measure of assurance about the values involved in the economic and social organization of production in the countries from which they're importing goods.

Let's segue to the new Europe. Can the European Union work?

The Europeans have recognized far more clearly than we have that an essential foundation for economic exchange has to be a minimum set of common political and social values. The European Union refused to admit Spain, Portugal and Greece—as well as the Central-East European governments—until they had functioning liberal democratic governments.

But even when there has been a will at the highest levels, it has been very difficult to build a European Union. It's been very difficult to harmonize standards on some of the most basic things—like light plugs or outlets. That looks like a technical point, but when you look more closely at some of the technical points, they're just the tip of the iceberg of profound social differences. Take, for example, the difficulties of harmonizing safety regulations for woodworking tools. In Germany, woodworking tools have basically no safety requirements because workers see their professional honor and years of training as the guarantee of their ability to use the tools. They bear the risk of using the tools. In France, workers were less highly trained, and if you had an accident using a tool, you could go back and sue the manufacturer. So there were wholly different systems of worker training and wholly different conceptions about who should bear the risk. Each time you scratch away at what seems to be just a pure technical point about standardization, you come to very different societal conceptions of how to organize relations between society and market.

What do you make of Europe's response to the election of Haider's party in Austria?

The most exciting thing that's happened in Europe, far more exciting than the Euro, is the debate over Austria—whether a state that has allowed a party like Haider's into the government can be an acceptable EU member. It forces them back to the central question about globalization, which is the central question about Europe: whether open market exchanges presuppose some basic common values and political legitimacy.

How do you think the EU will affect the economy of the U.S.?

The EU is our largest customer. So the fate of its economy is enormously important to the United States. It's a site of tremendous technological innovation and we need to be much closer to these innovations. One of the great weaknesses of Americans is our NIH—"not invented here"—syndrome.
Our ability to deeply understand how knowledge is created in societies other than our own remains weak. It's a parochial fix on the world.

Does MIT have a role in changing this mindset?

MIT is trying to do more to teach our students and faculty how to connect to centers of innovation and development outside our borders. If you learn once in your lifetime how to deeply appreciate a different style of problem-solving, you have a mental ability to learn from foreign societies. The MISTI programs allow students to learn across borders. And learning across borders doesn't just mean having your Berlitz book clutched in your right hand. It means getting into another society's knowledge base and understanding how to work with foreign colleagues.

What is your goal in teaching political science students at MIT?

With graduate students, I'd like to help them do their own best work and push them to develop a research agenda that involves the big questions that motivated them in the first place—how to make contributions to society or further social justice or understand how societies and governments work. With undergraduates, the most important thing is to help them ask better questions and search more deeply about the questions they face in their lives, whether as engineers or as citizens.



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