books globalisation

Globalism and Regionalism, by Johnathan Porritt

When dealing with two seemingly unreconcilable parties, the people who manage to annoy both sides are sometimes the ones presenting the best solutions. So it is with Johnathan Porritt, who is a meddling environmentalist to business, and a corporate sell-out to the greens.

His 2005 book Capitalism as if the World Matters is very useful, and was one of the books that inspired this site in the first place. Since this was billed on the back as a sequel, I picked it up. It’s not a sequel. Nor is it really even a book. And neither is it really about globalism and regionalism, so it’s something of a puzzle. It’s actually an extended essay or monograph on making globalisation work in an age of climate change, and regionalism is just one part of that.

The world, Porritt argues, faces a number of simultaneous crises – climate change, inequality, resource depletion, political instability and population growth. Globalisation could be part of the solution to all of these problems, or it could be part of the problem.

This is because there are two different types of globalisation. There is the corporate form, which is all about opening markets, and there is civic globalism, which is about working together to solve global problems. The first of those is hostile towards the idea of more regional production, the second would benefit from it, and the anti-globalisation movement needs to learn to recognise the two different types.

This matters, because a more regional approach to organising ourselves is vital in creating a more sustainable world. “That which can be delivered locally and coordinated regionally, should be”, and actually whether we like it or not, there will be a rebalancing of local and global once the rising oil price  starts to push up the cost of transportation.

Porritt is great at bringing together environmental and social concerns. “No serious definition of the word ‘sustainable’ could possibly allow for a continuation of the gross disparities in wealth that we see today, both within and between countries.”

He also has a pretty uncompromising view of where the world is going. He maintains that he does not see a tension between sustainability and growth, but is adamant that the future has less consumption, less international trade. He sees “an almost inevitable period of traumatic breakdown ahead of us.” That’s not a popular message, and neither is his description of the US as a rogue state. “On every single ‘big ticket’ opportunity to harness the power of globalisation to help address today’s most pressing global challenges, the US is pulling in the opposite direction.”

You may find yourself nodding in agreement with Porritt’s combative and irreverent comments, you may not – chances are he’ll batter your own cherished movement or cause at some point too. Like transition. Having described how we need to move away from “today’s ludicrously wasteful, over-priced and carbon-intensive energy supply systems”, he then complains that calling this process an ‘energy descent’ is unhelpful. I don’t know why, I find it quite a useful term to describe what he’s talking about.

As I say, Porritt has a knack for winding up everybody, but in this case, he is one of the people with the best ideas. But, I wouldn’t start here. This short book is part of a short series for a project called The Edge Futures. I’d pick up Capitalism as if the World Matters instead.


  1. “He maintains that he does not see a tension between sustainability and growth, but is adamant that the future has less consumption, less international trade.”

    This already strikes me as a contradiction, unless he refers to the (somewhat fuzzy) concept of “qualitative growth”. Isn’t growth basically defined as “more consumption and more international trade” under the prevailing economic paradigm? I still wait for a growth proponent to show me how perpetual exponential growth could be at least theoretically possible – without resorting to space colonies.

    I presume Porrit picks up Schumacher’s theme, as the title suggests? Schumacher’s subtitle was “Economics as if people mattered”. My impression is that there can be a humane free market economy, but if unregulated it turns into capitalism, and capitalism is not human centered, it will always lead to concentrations of wealth and power and finally dominion of a small financial “elite” over the paying majority. An almost thermo dynamical process. What I find quite revealing are the different definitions of “Capitalism” in the German and English Wikipedia. The English Wikipedia states:

    “Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit.”

    While the German Wikipedia states (translation beneath):

    “Kapitalismus bezeichnet eine Wirtschafts- und Gesellschaftsordnung, in der der Faktor Kapital (Eigentum an Maschinen, Anlagen, Fabriken, Geld) im Vergleich zu anderen Wirtschaftsfaktoren wie Arbeit oder Grund und Boden eine dominante Funktion einnimmt.”

    “Capitalism is an economic AND SOCIAL order in which the factor capital (ownership of machines, plants, factories, money) has a DOMINANT FUNCTION compared to other economic factors, such as labor or ground.”

    Wikipedia is based upon consent, and it strikes me that there is a stark difference here. The second introductory sentence acknowledges that capitalism is a social order and not just an economic system. Its rules pervade and totally dominate our lives, and the goal of all capitalist activity ultimately is to increase capital, while the goal of traditional market participation is to produce and manufacture useful things and sell them to make a living. So – “capitalism as if people mattered” strikes me as an oxymoron. Is that intentional? I would even go so far as to say that capitalism and democracy at some point are at odds (in my view we have arrived there quite some time ago). It is not exactly a free market when, for example, an all-dominating company like Siemens pays out almost 2 Billion US$ in direct individual briberies over the course of 4 years (acc. to the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2007).

  2. That’s fascinating, the German and English views of capitalism. That’s something that Oliver James writes about, the difference between English speaking capitalism and other kinds – he describes it as ‘selfish capitalism’, and that there are other forms.

    I think Porritt’s view is similar to Churchill’s statement about democracy, that it’s the worst form of organising society, except for all the other ones. Having said that, he definitely pulls his punches. Throughout the book, he says there must be less of everything, that development as traditionally defined is impossible. I reckon he stops short of saying that growth is impossible because he knows that if he did, nobody in a position of influence would take him seriously again.

    He was head of the Sustainable Development Commission when it issued its ‘prosperity without growth’ report, so he definitely believes it. I just think he holds back to avoid being branded a heretic. And since this booklet pre-dates the report, perhaps he’s made his peace with the contradiction in the meantime.

  3. I’m afraid you are confusing corporatism with capitalism.

    Definition of CORPORATISM:
    : the organization of a society into industrial and professional corporations serving as organs of political representation and exercising control over persons and activities within their jurisdiction.

    Definition of CAPITALISM
    : an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

    Capitalism is about free trade amongst individuals and groups. It is what built America. Free. Trade.

    Corporatism is about organizing society and politicking.

    1. Then perhaps the important thing is the degree to which our capitalism has become corporatized.

      It is interesting how various regions negotiate capitalism differently, with different balances of power between society and industry. Scandinavia is different again from Rhine capitalism, as is Japan, while India and China are running much more tightly controlled versions, choosing some elements and discarding others. Many theorists insist there’s one model, the ‘golden straightjacket’ that Thomas Friedman described, but I reckon it’s much more nuanced than that.

      1. Although they differ in many subtle – and a few not so subtle – ways, what seems to occurr in all variations contemporary capitalism is concentration, despite differing timelines, magnitudes and rules of the game. But in any case: the further concentration progresses, the more the respective stakeholders exert their growing power to influence policy in their own interest. It might be a crude way to put it, but my view is that potentially plutocratic – or plutarchic – corporatism may well be a symptom of late stage capitalism.

        1. That’s the problem with any model based around competition. Success becomes defined as growth, and the result is always monopoly. That’s a paradox at the heart of the free market system, and how we get around that problem may turn out to be the may or break issue for capitalism in the longer term.

          Personally, I think a move towards not-for-profit companies, co-operatives, open-source and other alternative business models is challenging the idea of corporations already, and long may it continue.

          1. Those are wonderful aspirations, but we are dealing with humans and not angels.

            The first mistake made when considering ‘communal’ societies, is that they fly in the face of how humans are incented and how they actually behave.

            Any animal trainer will tell you that in order to be successful, a trainer must incorporate, or take advantage of, the natural behaviour of that animal.

            Humans cannot be perfected.

            The first form of social order tried in the American colonies was communinsm. After the first year, when they almost starved, it was abandoned.

            There will always be poor people. There will always be tragedy and evil. I would rather be a poor person in America than a wealthy man in the Sudan. A rising tide raises all boats.

            America has proved that the most successful form of social order in the history of man is based upon a 224 year old document. Thanks, I’ll keep my God given free will.

  4. Perhaps I’m missing something, but when it’s said “corporate form, which is all about opening markets… hostile towards the idea of more regional production” does that not contradict the obvious facts that ‘globalized’ industry creates regional production by opening regional facilities?

    As for calling America “a rogue state” while they give more than any other 2 nations combined in foreign aid is slagging pure and simple. It denies the facts. Is it not in fact, the epitomy of “to harness the power of globalisation”?

    1. Describing the US as a ‘rogue state’, is a dramatic overstatement, and I think he’s out to shock. And I’m reporting his words in the interests of reviewing – it’s not something I’d say. He justifies it by saying the US is suspicious of the UN and most international treaties.

      The US does give more aid in absolute terms, but it also has the biggest economy. As a percentage of that enormous economy, it comes 19th in the global generosity stakes, giving away 0.2% of its income. Canada manages 0.3%, the UK 0.56%, and Sweden’s in the lead with 1.12%.

  5. I see Portugal has has voted for a new direction The Socialists have been defeated and a new government “must implement a demanding austerity programme as a condition for an EU bail-out.” reverseing the wanton spending that has near destroyed the country.

    The non-existant national ‘wiggle room’ has collapsed and as a result ” All the main parties are backing the 78bn euro ($116bn; £70bn) bail-out, which requires tough austerity measures amid a faltering economy and a debt crisis.”.

    From the new Prime Minister:
    -he would do “everything possible” to make sure Portugal honoured the terms of the bail-out.
    -the country faced “a very difficult period for the next two or three years”.
    -“I want to guarantee to those who are watching us from abroad that Portugal does not intend to be a burden for the future to other countries that lent us the means that we needed today to face up to our responsibilities,”

    And what does this entail? “The terms of the bail-out call for tax increases, a freeze on state pensions and salaries, and cuts in unemployment benefits.”

    The chickens are home to roost.

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