Citizen protest movements are sweeping the world: from the wave of democratization that began with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East, to widespread protests in China, mass demonstrations before and after the recent elections in Russia, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States.
The reasons for these movements differ from country to country. In some cases, people are rising up against despotic governments, in other cases to denounce corruption among governmental and political leaders. Other movements have emerged as a reaction against the growing social disparities brought about by globalization. People are arguing that neoliberal economic principles have gone too far. Paradoxically, in some places the spread of democracy has resulted in greater religious interference in politics. In places like Europe with a strong tradition of class consciousness, the movement to address social disparities has had a pronounced anti-establishment tendency, fuelling extremism on both right and left.
More than Just an Anti-Globalization Movement
One common thread uniting these various developments is the sluggish state of the global economy and the growing divide between rich and poor, which has led to mounting frustration and popular discontent. Even worse, there are signs in many countries that social mobility is on the wane, a problem exacerbated by inequality of educational opportunities.
How can we account for the emergence of such problems; and why they are becoming so acute?
It goes without saying that globalization is one of the fundamental causes. Free competition has intensified as market principles and democracy have spread around the world, and this has created losers as well as winners. It is undeniable that frustration and discontent have grown among those who find themselves on the losing side. Even so, I think we need to be wary of superficial explanations. It would be a mistake to understand today’s wave of protests solely in terms of the social disparities arising from globalization and the resulting frustrations.
In its original sense, globalization refers to a process of assimilation and unification on a worldwide scale. But the process has invariably been accompanied by exclusion and alienation. Assimilation and unity have been made possible only by a simultaneous process of excluding or discarding anything that does not fit with the principles of a market economy or the ideals of democracy. There is a tendency for anything that runs counter to market principles to be excluded from the market altogether, rather than simply losing out.
Clearly, some of the unemployed have lost their jobs because of tougher competition in the labour market. But for many, it is less a case of losing out than of being excluded from the labour market altogether for one reason or another, such as a lack of educational qualifications or having the wrong nationality. The same thing applies in politics. In places where an unspoken assumption exists that democratization goes hand in hand with secularization, for example, movements in which religion and politics are closely integrated have essentially been excluded from the “democratic” political process.
Uprooting Exclusion and Alienation Is the Key
Seen from this perspective, many of the grassroots movements popping up around the world today are not primarily a reaction against globalization and an attempt to correct its distortions. A more fundamental cause lies with a problem inherent in the Janus-like nature of globalization itself. As well as being a process of deepening mutual dependence and increasing assimilation, globalization also involves a process of exclusion and alienation.
If this is indeed the key factor, then what we need is not more opposition to the process of globalization or efforts to help people who lose out as a result of it. Instead, we should concentrate our efforts on working to correct the mechanism within globalization that has resulted in alienation and exclusion. (February 9, 2012)
(Originally written in Japanese.)
Invited professor, Aoyama Gakuin University; secretary general, Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. Born in 1938. Graduated from the Law Faculty at the University of Tokyo and the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1962, serving as director general of the Cultural Affairs Department and of the Economic Affairs Bureau, deputy minister for foreign affairs, and ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, and France. President of the Japan Foundation from October 2003 to September 2011. His works include Gurōbarizumu e no hangyaku (Rebellion Against Globalism; 2004).