Courtesy Reuters

Capital Ideas

By Stephen J. Harris

To the Editor:

Jagdish Bhagwati ("Coping with Antiglobalization," January/February 2002) is undoubtedly right to say that false assumptions about capitalism drive the rationale behind the antiglobalization movement. But there

is much about his own analysis that appears to rest on false assumptions, too. For example, Bhagwati claims that many of deconstruction's advocates in "English, comparative literature, and sociology ... now turn to anarchy" since the techniques involved "often [have] nihilistic overtones." But it is a false assumption that radical students have uniformly understood this very complex and sometimes meaningless philosophy, successfully translated its opaque semiotic claims into political and economic theory, or discovered in deconstruction a nihilism otherwise unavailable in Western thought. Anarchy and ambiguity were not invented by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. One might argue that Western nihilistic semiosis goes back to St. Paul's claim that the letter killeth, or to Talmudic approaches to the semiotics of Torah, or to Socrates' accounts of knowledge, or to Aristotle's Analytics. Derrida is not a cause of organized opposition to globalization.

What troubles me most is Bhagwati's adoption of antiglobalist assumptions that globalization is, in its immense complexity, either good or bad. One false assumption here (on both sides) is the result of a category error. Corporations and markets have no ethical value in and of themselves. They are not people, but merely tools, organizations, legal entities. They do not act ethically or unethically; they act legally or illegally. "Exploiting foreign workers" is therefore a loaded phrase, since it assumes unethical (but not illegal) "exploitation" according to domestic legal standards. Antiglobalists must decide whether corporations or governments have the right to insist that foreign laws be changed in accord with U.S. laws, and whether U.S. laws ought to have international precedence over, for example, British or German laws. The issue is a complex one and involves, among other things, the unwelcome role of the United States in manipulating the legal institutions of a foreign people. There are genuine problems that cannot be easily dismissed by calling them illogical. Neither will it do merely to cite, as Bhagwati does, putative instances of social progress (newly minted Japanese feminists, for example) in direct response to antiglobalist accusations. Although they sometimes go to ridiculous and dangerous extremes, and although their arguments are riddled with fallacies, these students are not all fools. Moreover, the health of any democracy derives from a serious consideration of continual challenges -- political, social, and ethical. To blame English departments and cable television for young people's idealistic opposition to corporate control over political life is to miss the point and the problems of the debate entirely.

Stephen J. Harris

Assistant Professor of English, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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