JUNE 12, 2003
Faithfully Considering Glocalization
Pope John Paul II, at a Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences meeting in early May, issued one of his periodic critiques of globalization. He said that the process we call globalization -- the unprecedented spread of Western-style (some would substitute American) free market capitalism -- is in need of "ethically responsible" guidelines to insure that all people benefit equally from the phenomenon.
The pope has been a critic of globalization for more than two decades. His 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens, spoke of the need for the world's poor to have a voice in "international decision making," even if it means "a reduction or a less rapid increase in material well-being for the more developed countries." More recently, he has been a leading figure in the campaign promoting international debt relief.
In his latest critique, the Roman Catholic leader noted globalization's failure, so far, to deliver the benefits -- chiefly, higher standards of living and social and political progress -- that its champions among the corporate and political elite said would flow naturally from open markets. "It is disturbing to witness a globalization that exacerbates the conditions of the needy, that does not sufficiently contribute to resolving the situations of hunger, poverty and social inequality, that fails to safeguard the natural environment," he said, summarizing the concerns shared by globalization's growing numbers of religious and secular critics alike.
In urging some sort of internationally sanctioned standard against which multinational corporations and their political partners would be judged, essentially a top-down solution, the pope is acting quintessentially papal. He's also admitting that, as with the fallen Humpty Dumpty, there's no turning back. Only global action can address the new global reality.
It should be noted, however, that neither the Church of Rome, nor its current spiritual head, are anti-globalization so much as they are alter-globalization. Rather than the corporate-derived, consumption-oriented globalization we have, the Vatican, whose worldwide influence is a direct result of globalization's foundational antecedents, would like (it's version of) a Gospel-derived, values-oriented globalization to reign.
However, that's exactly what Islam preaches as well, not to mention every other mission-oriented faith. And now that everyone's realized the relative ease that jet travel and fiber optics have lent to worldwide proselytism, this mission-oriented characterization now extends to many of the world's major and minor religions. What standard for globalization might everyone agree to were the unlikely opportunity for discussion to present itself at, say, the World Trade Organization or, more probably, at some international (but essentially powerless) interfaith gathering?
Representatives of the Abrahamic traditions might argue for agreement based on just actions in accordance with God's plan, and Buddhists might stress an understanding of greed's corrosive influence. A Baha'i might maintain that the necessary truth will come from open-minded consultation -- i.e., reasoned thought. A tribal religionist, or as Huston Smith would say, a "primal" believer, might mention the need to put globalization into a holistic context that includes language, land, and kin.
Were these variant streams of spiritual insight to converge, globalization would indeed follow a different, and to my mind, far better course. But past history tells us they won't, which brings us to the current impasse where terrorism has also gone global and the future looks more insecure than usual. What is left then is taking a stab at glocalization, certainly no easier to effect, but at least offering the possibility of compromise.
Glocalization is the term for attempts to blend local values with the tools of globalization. Here are two examples from India: Hindu computer technicians in Bangalore drape their machines with garlands and recite prayers to them as they would statues of deities; and the Daudi Bohra Isma'ili Muslim community of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a tight-knit, socially conservative group, dresses traditionally while embracing modern education and all other contemporary advances not specifically forbidden by their Koranic understanding.
One complaint about globalization is its snooty dismissal of all tradition that interferes with market efficiency. But the human (or perhaps simply biological) inclination toward differentiation seems to recoil from the very suggestion of cultural homogeneity -- which is why a top-down revamping of globalization seems a non-starter.
If religion is to become the counterweight to globalization's destructive values as some, including John Paul II, hope for, it must come from the bottom up, regardless of tradition. Globalization has us figuratively in each other's face, yet we're still as solitary as ever.
Besides, top-down guidelines already exist.
Ira Rifkin is author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (SkyLight Paths, 2003) and a Washington correspondent for the "Jerusalem Report" magazine.