Global Utopia

Globalisation as a Utopian ideal has been around for more than 150 years. The very word implies Utopia, or perfection, just as monotheism, or the idea of there being just one true God, does. (See below, March 24.) And it is equally dangerous.

150 years ago it was not called ‘globalisation’, of course, but ‘Free Trade’. (The word ‘free’ has much the same kind of pure resonance as ‘global’.) If anyone doubts the Utopian nature of it, then read this, by the great Corn Law abolitionist Richard Cobden in 1846.

I have been accused of looking too much to material interests. Nevertheless I can say that I have taken as large and great a view of the effects of this mighty principle as ever did any man who dreamt over it in his own study. I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate.

Gosh golly! – All this would be the ultimate result of allowing commercial markets absolute freedom domestically and internationally, unrestrained by governments (aka ‘democracy’) or workers’ combinations (Trade Unions), both of which would be entirely subordinate to the dictates of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. It was the idealistic aspect of it which recommended the principle of Free Trade even to working-class radicals in the mid-19th century; this, together with the promise of ‘cheaper bread’ that it offered (imported), and – which may be more difficult to credit today – the promise that eventually the free market would lead to greater social and international equality. Just think of it! (And see below, April 18.) That was important.

Whether TTIP – the latest effort to allow market needs and considerations to override democratic ones – will in fact give rise to this kind of Utopia must be doubted. We know how markets can be fiddled and fixed; how easily they can morph into monopolies, which can hardly be regarded as ‘free’ trade, and into imperialism; the dangers it poses to people’s preferred rights, for example to a ‘National’ Health Service…. And very few people nowadays – especially nowadays – can be under any illusion that it can ever conduce to ‘equality’.

More generally, we ought to be aware of the enormous dangers that have always attached to simplistic and idealistic ideologies like this, historically; from the various great monotheisms, through communism, and now culminating – but for how long? – in blessed ‘Globalisation’. Lesson: beware of Utopias, even when dressed in utilitarian clothes, and advocated by ‘good guy’ American presidents.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Global Utopia

  1. Pingback: Liam Fox, Richard Cobden and Free Trade | Porter’s Pensées

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