Tuesday 15 April 2014

The chimera of the powerless individual

A specter is going round in the political debate, the specter of the multi-national company that buries all people under its relentless drive for profit. The conventional trope is one of an overbearing multinational conglomerate that sweeps everything and everyone before it, squashing the powerless and helpless and forcing them to submit to its will.

But is our age really characterised by a lack of power for individuals? Has the domain of individual freedom really shrunk since globalisation has arrived on our shores? There is clearly a significant and worrying asymmetry between the power of the multinational companies and governments that are trying to extract taxes out of their profits. The demise of state power however has much to do with the geographical boundaries of governments and the ability of multinationals to transcend those boundaries. Much of the blame (if this is a case for blame) can be laid at the doorstep of those very governments that have tried to lift governmental controls through free trade agreements. So, there should be little surprise that capital flows freely where it is told to do so.

Yet, the fact that governments stand largely impotent before the behemoth of multinational capital does not necessarily mean that the individual suffers likewise. You can only think so if you believe that governments are the sole guardians of human beings. There is some truth in it (think of security), yet the larger picture seems to be one of increasing freedom for individuals rather than one of its diminishment.

What constrains individuals in modern societies are not multi-national companies through the free flow of capital. Companies and the economies globalisation has created appear to enable freedom rather than  squash it. What traditionally and historically restricts the freedom of individual human beings are state boundaries and social expectations of conduct underpinned by collective notions of morality and law. But we do not have to ascribe to a mechanistic conception of liberty to see globalisation as the main agent in the increase of human freedom. Marxists can take comfort in the fact that even in their traditional domain of positive liberty, the big barriers to individual freedom have been knocked back. Access to education is universal in most countries now and states have made huge strides towards health care provision for all.

Whether you live in Costa Rica, Nigeria or Slovenia, geographical mobility is at unprecedented high levels which demonstrates that individuals all over the globe do not perceive themselves as powerless in the face of economic forces but more than ever, see this world as their oyster. And my suspicion is that the leveling forces of global economic integration are a big part of this story of empowerment.

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