The economic, cultural and social consequences of globalisation: ethical and evangelical perspectives

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The economic, cultural and social consequences of globalisation: ethical and evangelical perspectives

Gaudium et spes Episcopal Commission

November 2005

"Only a globalisation process attentive to the requirements of solidarity can assure for humanity a future of authentic well-being and stable peace for all." (Benedict XVI, 19 May 2007)
The document by the Episcopal Commission Gaudium et Spes considers globalisation an inevitable phenomenon. As the Pope says, this process needs to be harnessed to become the source of progress for all of humanity and for each human being. In this year which marks the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, it is good to recall that progress or development are the responsibility of the people of all nations, and especially of those who hold financial, economic and political power. Our document is intended to raise awareness of this responsibility, first of all within the Church. The text seeks to interpret globalisation as a sign of the times. It analyses and interprets the phenomenon in the light of the Gospel, in accordance with the wishes of the Second Vatican Council as expressed in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (n. 4). In order to do so, we have followed the well-known method of “see, judge, act”.
The Commission is very pleased to see the publication of its document in English translation and hopes that it will help Catholics, in the first instance, to take a position with regard to globalisation, in order to contribute to the attainment of an authentic, global well-being.

+ Aloys Jousten

Bishop of Liège

President of the Episcopal Commission Gaudium et Spes

Globalisation is a keyword for describing one of the most radical processes in the history of humanity1. Opinions on the meaning of the term vary, but there is no doubt that the phenomenon it refers to is an irreversible process2. Its most striking characteristic is the gradual elimination of existing borders with regard to the movement of people, capital and goods3. Geographical borders are disappearing. Whatever is purely national is under pressure as the multinational prevails. There are more and more supranational political organs, multinational corporations and multinational non-governmental organisations4.

Globalisation, according to Ruud Lubbers, is a complex reality characterised by a triad of technology, economics and politics. Others point to the fact that globalisation brings rapid changes in social systems and cultures.

W. Ruigrok and R. Van Tulder distinguish seven aspects of this phenomenon5: the globalisation of finances and of capital; of markets and strategies; of technology and knowledge; of lifestyles, consumption patterns and culture; of the management and regulation of profit; of perception and consciousness; and globalisation as the political unification of the world. An important catalyst of globalisation is the evolution of worldwide telecommunications, which open up new information sources. News about events, disasters or protest actions are no longer local, but are quickly broadcast via professional media systems to all the news channels in the world.
One of the most interesting, albeit critical definitions of the concept is provided by David Held and Anthony McGraw. In their view, globalisation refers to
“the expanding scale, growing magnitude, speeding up and deepening impact of trans-continental flows and patterns of social interaction. It refers to a shift or transformation in the scale of human organisation that links distant communities and expands the reach of power relations across the world’s regions and continents.

But it should not be read as pre-figuring the emergence of a harmonious world society or as a universal process of global integration in which there is a growing convergence of cultures and civilizations. For not only does the awareness of growing interconnectedness create new animosities and conflicts, it can fuel reactionary politics and deep-seated xenophobia. Since a substantial proportion of the world’s population is largely excluded from the benefits of globalisation, it is a deeply divisive and, consequently, vigorously contested process.” 6.

The same critical tone can also be found in the report by the Lisbon Group, which refers to economic globalisation as “an inexorable process that enables global networks of financial and industrial enterprises to concentrate within their hands an unparalleled decision-making power over the fate of millions of people around the world”7.
There is no point being against globalisation. Even its opponents, who rightly call themselves “altermondialistes” (a French term coined to refer to those in favour of an alternative type of globalisation, sometimes translated as “alter-globalisation”), organise their movements primarily through a worldwide form of communication: the Internet. The spontaneous use of the metaphor of a “worldwide web” is yet further proof of just how globally interconnected human beings are.
The phenomenon of globalisation cannot leave the Church community indifferent. For the latter has a duty to scrutinise globalisation as a sign of the times and to interpret it in the light of the Gospel (Gaudium et spes, no. 4). This means, first of all, examining and judging globalisation from an ethical perspective. We can do this using the method described by John XXIII and inspired by the Young Christian Workers’ movement: see, judge, act. The first step is to analyse the situation (see), the second to identify the moral principles on the basis of which one can critically evaluate globalisation (judge), and the third to give a practical answer on behalf of the Church community (act).
Scrutinising the signs of the times requires more, however, than a neutral and objective scientific analysis, no matter how important that may be in itself, for it is also a process that involves discernment. This process takes as its starting point the conviction that the Church community “is linked with humanity and its history with the deepest of bonds” (Gaudium et spes, no. 1), and a commitment grounded in a belief in God as the loving creator who wants what is best for all human beings. In other words, the analysis cannot be detached from the duty to humanise the world in the light of the Gospel. For the Gospel is good news for each person and for all of humanity.
This duty to humanise the world is certainly no easy task, for it obliges the Church community to confront the real ambivalences of human history. This history is characterised by positive and negative trends, by a tension between, on the one hand, forces that promote life and the quality of life and, on the other hand, forces that are destructive and violate human dignity. In the former, human development can be regarded as a step in the direction of the reign of God, which is present, if in
a veiled form, in everything that promotes human dignity and the universal common good. In the latter, the Church is obliged to be critical of the negative forces and of every form of injustice that results from them, and to show how they represent a violation of human dignity.
In both cases, a process of social discernment inspired by the Gospel calls for careful analysis and ethical reflection. For a judgment regarding globalisation cannot be formed exclusively on the basis of the premises of faith. Without a social analysis as well, there is the danger that the faith perspective will lose its connection with concrete reality. Conversely, an analysis of globalisation without the faith perspective lacks depth. This can lead to a neglect of the quest for the meaning of contemporary developments. The evangelical approach demands, moreover, that we look at globalisation in a particular way, namely from the perspective of the victims of history. The question as to the consequences of globalisation for the common good or for human dignity runs the risk of remaining an abstraction unless it is also made clear what the implications of the new developments are for those who are the most likely to suffer from them – the poor, the unemployed, underpaid workers, economic migrants, etc.
This perspective was already amply represented in the encyclical Rerum novarum, in which Leo XIII wrote that “Jesus Christ calls the poor blessed... He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed” (Rerum novarum, no. 24). This (preferential) option for the poor means first of all that the riches of the world must be shared with the poor. We will develop this further in the ethical section of this document. The poor are not only the objects of well-intentioned decisions. They are also subjects of their own history. A fundamental evangelical orientation demands that we recognise that the poor and the victims of globalisation must be full participants in global society. Together with all people and groups of good will, the Church pleads for the creation of conditions that make possible a true participation by the poor in decisions that affect their own lives and those of their children. For this reason, the Church, through its committed laity, priests and religious, seeks to be present around the world, and especially wherever trade unions and social movements are being established. It is precisely thanks to this presence and evangelical commitment that our analysis cannot remain aloof from reality.
Finally, an interpretation of globalisation in the light of the Gospel calls for a vision that opens up hopeful expectations for the future and releases the capacity of human beings to turn all things to the good. We will devote ample space to this future-oriented vision, from the standpoint of the influence of metaphors related to globalisation.


It is neither possible nor the intention here to examine all aspects of globalisation. But we can analyse the situation in such a way that the link amongst the economic, technological, political and cultural aspects is made visible from the perspective outlined above.8
Economic globalisation has fundamentally altered working conditions
Technological and economic changes undoubtedly form the core of the whole process of globalisation, which now has a greater impact than ever on the daily lives of millions of people.

The expansion of the world market to a much larger scale has opened up hitherto unknown possibilities for the exchange of goods, services and capital. In theory, this ought to contribute to an increase in investments and innovation, to more labour opportunities and to a better fulfilment of basic human needs. A typical example of this optimism is the document by David Dollar and Aart Kraay of the World Bank’s Development Research Group, aptly entitled “Growth is Good for the Poor”9.

This optimism was contradicted by none other than James Wolfensohn, the former president of the same World Bank, in a speech with an equally apt title: The Challenge of Inclusion, in which he outspokenly addressed the “tragedy of exclusion”. According to him, in too many countries “the poorest 10 per cent of the population have less than 1 per cent of the national income, while the richest 20 per cent enjoy over half”10. Studies show that one can speak of an improvement in the situation of the poor only if stimulus is given to adequate mechanisms for redistribution. According to Joseph Stiglitz, the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) aimed primarily at a total liberalisation of financial and capital markets, the “unfair trade agenda” of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the tendency towards what has come to be called “biopiracy” (the unjust patenting of completely natural medicines and foods that have been used by people for centuries) are chiefly responsible for the negative effects of globalisation11. Globalisation is thus not only a success story.
Although more people enjoy an improved standard of living and more people can enjoy the fruits of their labour, the gap between earnings has also grown. In some countries, such as the United States, real wages in industry have even fallen. Moreover, employment income is subject to heavy taxation, while income from capital generates comparatively little tax revenue. There is something of a “Matthew effect” in globalisation: the rich grow richer, and the gap between rich and poor increases.
One of the features of globalisation is the so-called “creative destruction”: on the one hand, new jobs are created, but on the other hand, ever more jobs are eliminated12. Often it is the least well educated, or people over the age of 40, who lose their jobs.
This is the result of the globalisation of financial markets, along with the various waves of takeovers and mergers of companies and the associated restructuring. The financial markets take little account of people’s well-being, despite an important but modest rise of the movement for socially responsible investment. Everything is measured in terms of its efficiency in delivering added value (by which is meant profit for shareholders and investors). Cost-cutting operations that lead to mass layoffs are welcomed enthusiastically by the stock markets. Restructuring is usually followed by an increase in share values. To this must be added the fact that over a certain age, a job is seen as “too expensive” from the point of view of managers, whose task is simply to cut costs.

On the other hand, the loss of jobs can also result from “offshoring”, or the relocation of companies to countries where labour is cheaper. What is happening at the international level is analogous to what took place in Europe in the 19th century: workers become each other’s competitors. Whoever has a good salary in Europe loses his or her job, while others receive jobs for sometimes inhumanely low wages. The situation has direct consequences for our country. Who can forget the closure of the Renault plant in Vilvoorde or the Cockerill Sambre factory, the mass layoffs at Philips or the reduced production at the Genk Ford plant, resulting in the loss of a large number of jobs?

In some countries entire sectors, including firms in the high tech sector, are moved to new locations, which certainly contributes to growth in Third World countries. A typical example is the American call centres that were transferred to India and from which American customers are addressed in perfect “American” accents.
Globalisation also has negative consequences for the poor in the developing world. The lives of farmers, workers and fishers have grown harder as a result of the inhumanely low wages and unhealthy working conditions that they are forced to accept if they and their families want to survive. Expensive genetically modified crops are introduced, which are much too expensive for poor farmers, while mass production of animal feed for the rich North sometimes displaces the agriculture intended to provide food for the local population. Poor fishers cannot catch enough fish because large industrial fishing boats have depleted the supply through overfishing.
Around the world, the work ethic is changing. People are under increasing pressure. Anyone who is unable to keep up with the pace, or who cannot reach the level of knowledge demanded in order to gain access to the labour market, is excluded13. The problem is thus not only poverty, but exclusion: there are people who will live their whole lives outside the established social order. The concept of exclusion has evolved over the past few decades from a description of a status to that of a process by which a significant group of people comes to be excluded, to such an extent that this can lead to extreme situations. Their children have access only to inferior schools or to schools afflicted by violence. Their neighbourhoods are unsafe. They have no work. Along with the poor of the Fourth World, they are the pariahs of post-industrial society. They live in neighbourhoods in which violence and xenophobia are rampant.

Such exclusion is found mainly in the big cities, where half of the world’s population now lives, in contrast with the beginning of the last century, when only 10% of people lived in cities.

It is not only those with low educational levels, but managers also experience the consequences of globalisation. Complete availability and flexibility is expected of them. Long hours at work, increases in work pressure and international travel have a serious impact on their private lives14.
It is probably no coincidence that cases of depression are on the rise, and the use of anti-depressants has increased enormously (in the G7 countries there was an rise of 16% per year between 1989 and 1999). The sales figures for Prozac are higher than the GNP of more than one smaller country!15
The pressure of competition and efficiency has of course had positive effects as well, such as greater efforts, more innovation and the development of new methods of production and new technologies. But the price paid for this by human beings is high.
Moreover, behind the above-mentioned phenomena lies a deeper process: the reduction of the worth of the human being to his or her economic utility. People are assessed in terms of their value as a tool for the world market16. According to R. Petrella, this has led to the reduction of human persons to a “resource”, to the point of denying their very right to existence. They retain that right only insofar as they are still useful for producing wealth. Once their usefulness declines, for any reason at all, they are replaced by human resources of a different kind, or even by machines.
Along with the reduction of the human being to a useful instrument comes the trend we might refer to as the “marketisation” of the world. A global market emerges for every product, even for pop stars or footballers, who can if necessary be imported along with Brazilian coffee. The world market is no longer only a mechanism whereby goods and services are made available to men and women. The market itself becomes a creator of culture, and without our even realising it, whatever the market regards as good or valuable becomes normative.
In some cases, one might even speak of the “tyranny” of the market, or of a colonisation of our lives by the economy. There is a real danger that economic goods such as money, capital or property, which within certain limits are legitimate, may gain such a powerful influence on other aspects of life that they become normative in those areas as well. Moreover, we see a tendency to label everything that has to do with the “social” realm as negative, while everything that has to do with the complete “liberalisation” of the market (thus leading to the breakdown of social protection) is valued. There is widespread confusion between the rightful concern for rational and responsible economic solutions to problems, and the ideological conception of economic rationality from the perspective of neoliberalism. The consequence is that profit for the sake of profit is sought at the expense of the world of work, and solidarity between rich and poor is replaced by the survival of the fittest. Neoliberalism fails to take into consideration the real “structural vulnerability” of many people, but calls for an end to social security and the replacement of the existing solidarity-based system with the principle of individual insurance. Yet experience shows that without state social protection, the aged, the sick, the involuntary long-term unemployed and persons with handicaps can no longer be insured through the private sector, since they incur more costs than benefits. Another example in this regard is the problem of the distribution of safe water. Drinking water is a public good that is essential for human life. Yet the water supply is increasingly being privatised. In some countries the takeover of the public water supply by the private sector can lead to a new exclusion of the poor. Anyone who lacks sufficient means to pay their bills is shut out. People in this situation are forced to resort to water that is a threat to their health. The first victims of this process are children17.
When economic criteria overstep their boundaries, then everything is subjected to the logic of the market and the economy. Even free time becomes a business. Thus the original meaning of social goods is buried. Their meaning and distribution come to be determined solely on the basis of economic criteria. And when this tendency of the market to overstep its boundaries occurs on an international scale, then life becomes totally dominated by the market18.
People become consumers whose freedom of choice and purchasing power are treated as their principal measures of value. Goods brought in from all over the world are worshipped like fetishes, as if they were idols. Product logos and brand names also attain nearly religious status19.
In the global economy, goods are more than just objects. They have become signs in a system of meanings. They confer status and esteem. It is also possible to take away the status of certain goods, so that one has to buy new items in order to acquire (new) status. New products receive – and then once again lose – social significance, so that production can increase endlessly. Instead of solving the problem of true scarcity among the poor, the economy creates an artificial scarcity among individuals with purchasing power. Advertising is used to heighten their needs so that new objects are constantly sought out. Over the long run, the consumer is increasingly manipulated and made dependent20.
His or her identity is increasingly determined on the basis of his or her capacity to acquire consumer goods, which confer social status and regard. This is, in fact, a reversal of values: the human is measured in terms of the material, while the human being is reduced to an object (reification). Authentic human needs are trampled underfoot through the stimulation of inauthentic new needs (cf. Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus, chapter 4).
People are regarded as no more than employable individuals who must place their lives at the service of consumer goods that have been turned into fetishes or idols. Those who have no jobs or purchasing power no longer find a place in a society that is shaped by objects. Such people are simply shut out. This is a new form of exclusion.

Finally, we can point to the new waves of migration: it is estimated that today there are more than 100 million people living in regions other than where they were born. They include not only poor migrants, refugees and poorly educated people, but also specialists and managers. Many are fleeing violence, oppression and, what is often forgotten, the consequences of ecological disasters (drought or water shortage as a result of interference with our environment such as massive deforestation, poorly planned industrialisation and the construction of large dams). Others are in search of better living conditions and a future for their children. In this hope they are often disappointed, since the host country does not seem to correspond to the idealised picture of a materialistic paradise represented in the media21. The problem of the waves of refugees and economic migrants weighs heavily on the European political agenda, and has focused the debate on the so-called “multicultural society”.

Political globalisation: the consequences for democracy and the quest for a new world order
States remain important actors on the world stage. But their power is diminished through the process of globalisation. The nation-state has become too large for the small problems and too small for the large ones. Nation-states (or variants thereof) are no longer capable of forming a sufficient counterweight to the growing economic power of the multinationals.
Multinational corporations can certainly make a positive contribution to the well-being of a country by creating jobs and developing new products that offer society an added value, such as various human-oriented technologies that benefit people with handicaps, or medicines that are essential to the lives of large segments of the population such as anti-malarial and anti-retroviral drugs. Many companies profess a commitment to greater social responsibility, or what they call “socially-responsible entrepreneurship”. They strive to find a balance among profit, human beings and care for the environment (the so-called “triple bottom line” of profit, people and planet). This concern is often reflected in socially oriented annual reports or a true policy process. But there are also shadow sides. Through lobbying, multinationals can exert great influence on decision-makers and see to it that their interests are enshrined in legislation. Their expensive lawyers succeed in making use of the loopholes in the law. In The Global Takeover, Noreena Herz shows that multinationals pay less and less tax. The state’s ability to govern and to create a socially corrected market economy based on solidarity is thereby undermined. Key sectors such as gas and electricity are taken over by foreign holding companies (cf. the takeover of the Belgian Société Générale by Suez).
To reduce the international forum to just two players – the state and the multinational corporations – would, however, be shortsighted. During the past decade, a third force has emerged: a new “world civil society”, of which the international NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) and CBOs (Community Building Organisations) are the driving force. These groups often constitute quite an efficient counterweight, and are in fact a new form of democratic opposition. NGOs bring information to light that otherwise might never come to be known. They increase transparency and uncover corruption. They give a voice to forgotten groups in society and are sometimes the only form of opposition22. They make their presence felt at international conferences. Their expertise is valued even by multinational corporations, who find themselves compelled to deal with them as full-fledged conversation partners. Shell knows all about this after the Brent Spar affair and the violations of human rights in Nigeria. The representatives of this world civil society call for a reform of the UN in order to institutionalise their voice. What is of prime importance, as the Lisbon Group’s report shows, is the fact that they know how to deal very professionally with the media, and that they are able in this way to get their agenda or actions on the news around the world.

An action by Greenpeace at the South Pole, or by Doctors Without Borders after the earthquake in India can easily be seen around the world. Sometimes the NGOs represent a radical opposition to an all too liberal world market. The unexpectedly heavy resistance and mass mobilisation against free trade that we saw in Seattle in 1999 and in Prague in 2000 caused many people to stop and think. The meeting at Porto Alegre (Brazil, 2003), which was supported by church bodies, among others, became a nearly ritual blessing of that resistance. Such demonstrations are symptomatic of a deeper dissatisfaction.

In some circles, people are thinking about the need for a new world authority that would have more power than the United Nations has today. That may be wishful thinking. But it is also a process that has its own dangers. In any case, both extremes should be avoided23.
On the one hand, we hear calls for a world government and a global police force. But that brings with it the danger that all power will be integrated into one power centre, thereby creating a super Leviathan. Given the principle that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, this fear is not unfounded. The concentration of excessive power in one centre would also destroy cultural and political diversity in the name of universal citizenship. On the other hand, we have to move beyond the anarchy of a collection of sovereign states. Even before the French Revolution, Rousseau had shown that the existence of a large number of individual states is in itself a permanent source of conflict, given the ultimate irreconcilability of their interests (for instance, control of water supply in certain regions is today an interest that can lead to conflict). Yet the anarchy of nation-states does offer the guarantee that cultural diversity will be defended and protected. It does not, however, offer a solution to universal and cross-border problems such as international crime, the environment, migration, terrorism, etc. Purely bilateral or multilateral agreements are no longer enough.
According to the American political philosopher Michael Walzer, what is needed is a complex integration of various factors24. Enough power must be placed in the hands of the states in order to protect cultural differences, and in this regard nation-states or federal states can play a role. We also need a further expansion and optimisation of world bodies such as the UN, which must be given the resources and the opportunities to pursue an effective peace policy and to resolve global problems. This can go hand in hand with new forms of integration at the regional level, such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) and the European Union. Finally, the world civil society must also be strengthened and institutionalised. Only a dynamic collaboration of all these elements can guarantee a democratic and humane system of “world governance” within which there is room for diversity.
In any case, there is hope for a new world order, but this must rest upon ethical foundations. Among the most important protagonists in the dream of a new global ethic are the world religions25. Even secular, scientific works acknowledge that religions, despite their ambivalence (by which we mean the potential misuse of religion by extremists), can play a positive role in building peace: they emphasise the unconditional nature of fundamental moral norms, and are learning communities where value is placed on something other than self-interest. In recent years some have taken innovative peace initiatives26. In the Catholic world, Sant’Egidio is an example of this: where traditional diplomacy failed, this movement succeeded in bringing about peace in Mozambique27.
The hope for a world peace to which religions can make a contribution has been challenged, however, by the Huntington thesis, which claims that in place of the Cold War, a new world conflict has emerged, a new “clash of civilisations”. This is no longer rooted in the old ideological conflict between the free West and communism, but in a conflict between the West on the one hand, and a coalition of fundamentalist Islamic states together with the prosperous countries of Southeast Asia where Confucianism sets the tone28. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 gave new impetus to this doomsday prophecy29.
According to some scholars, religious and ethnic conflicts will increase in the future and will result primarily in conlicts within state boundaries. The conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, the genocide in Rwanda and the wars in Eastern Congo and in the Great Lakes region are but a few examples.
Whether or not one agrees with Huntington, he is certainly right about one thing: globalisation does not lead unambiguously to universalism, but also to a new quest for identity and even new forms of nationalism and fundamentalism. The social theorist Anthony Giddens, who has devoted much attention to this question, does not hesitate to affirm that the “revival of local nationalisms, and an accentuating of local identities, are directly bound up with globalising influences, to which they stand in opposition30. According to Giddens, globalisation leads to fragmentation as much as it does to unification. It is in this context that he explains the growing success of fundamentalism, which he calls a “child of globalisation” 31. The reason for this is not only the defence of “doctrinal purity” or “resistance against other traditions” but also, and chiefly, the refusal to join what Giddens calls the world of those who seek solutions through consensus and rational argumentation, and do so by cosmopolitan means of communication that transcend cultures and beliefs32. In this context, fundamentalism is not exclusively a religious phenomenon but is the standard-bearer of the quest for ethnic identity, and also embraces elements such as nationalism, care for the family and gender issues33. Moreover, despite the inherent danger of provoking conflict and power, and despite the lack of dialogue, fundamentalism has significant value as a symptom of a deeper malaise. It is one of the signs that opposition is rising after all against globalisation as a loss of tradition and against the top-down imposition of a culture. People refuse simply to surrender their identity. That is partly a positive phenomenon, but it can also lead to new oppositions and conflicts, something that we are unfortunately faced with in our country as well.
In any case, fundamentalism shows that globalisation is, paradoxically, compelling us to rediscover our own system of values and our own culture, and in the best-case scenario, to explain discursively what is valuable in them. The position of Giddens is endorsed by Eugeen Roossens: the uniformisation of the world goes hand in hand with a new fragmentation. Ever greater numbers of people and social networks affirm that they are different based on their ineradicable origins and individual cultural identity34.
Globalisation and culture
It cannot be denied that global interdependence and the developments in the world market exercise a profound influence on the texture and structure of societies. One of the consequences, especially in the big cities, is the greater mix of cultures. This has led to debates about our “multicultural society” and is often grist to the mill of extreme right-wing movements, which want to maintain the illusion of the purity of a people, by inhumane means if necessary.
The processes of cultural change are problematic above all because of the rapidity with which they are occurring today, and which cause difficulties for many ethnic groups. A number of countries and peoples indeed are faced with the impossibility of keeping up at the cultural level with the speed of change. While the so-called rich western countries were able to make a fairly slow transition from an agrarian to an industrial or postindustrial society over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries – a transition which in spite of its relative slowness gave rise to numerous problems – the transition in several countries is now so abrupt that it leads to disorientation.

The view expressed by Marshall McLuhan in The Global Village (1964) is pertinent here: in his view, the speed with which everything takes place and the major influence of the media on these processes lead to a sort of “implosion”: everything becomes synchronous, simultaneous and immediate.

We may also refer in this regard to the theory of William Ogburn on the rise of a culture gap. A culture gap appears when the material culture is changing so quickly that the non-material culture (such as social norms and customs) lag behind. It is also worth noting in this context the theory of Putnam on the fall of social capital and the dissolution of the social fabric. We might even ask ourselves whether we are not seeing what David Riesman had described already in 1950 in his book The Lonely Crowd, namely that a strong network of family and friends is transformed into the superficiality of extensive, efficient social networks.
In the world of the Internet, we seem to be forgetting that homo sapiens did not evolve in a cybercafé. Meaningful social interaction consists first and foremost in relationships with people of flesh and blood, and not only with words on a screen. Words can, moreover, evoke a purely virtual reality that stands in stark contrast with reality (cf. changed identities in email contacts).
The social fabric is also affected by the merciless trend towards greater flexibility, which inevitably goes along with globalisation. Not only are businesses moved offshore, but people as well. In his book The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett tells the story of a young American executive who during a very short period had been employed in four different regions of the United States, with all the consequences that this has for family and the creation of a socially rooted identity. Relations in such a context become purely freelance ties, and this has a significant impact on the opportunities to develop as a person. Will we not end up in a sort of Durkheimian anomie, a situation in which the fixed points of reference and supports disappear and people feel disoriented and see their lives as meaningless? Social rootlessness can in any case have very negative consequences for society: individuals who feel disconnected go in search of new certainties and are ready for political adventures. Some analyses of the rise of the new Right in prosperous countries point in this direction: the less individuals are integrated into a thriving civil society, the less they participate actively in various associations that can help integrated them socially, the more they withdraw into their cocoons in front of the TV soap operas and computer communications. As a result, they will become even more isolated and inclined to lend their support to those who, playing on their desperation, offer the certainty of an abstract identity.
Moreover, meaninglessness also increases as a result of an excess of communication, as Claude Lévi-Strauss argues. The increased forms of communication available is in itself positive.
As inhabitants of this world, we know exactly in one part of the world what is going on in all other parts of the world. [However,]…this yoke of over-communication destroys human diversity, impedes progress and stifles creativity. Now that a single civilisation has spread throughout the entire world, we are threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers. Fundamentally, we can produce nothing new (despite appearances to the contrary), because we know too much about what others have brought forth. By way of compensation, we have acquired the means to snoop around everywhere and to pick and choose among other cultures, as if we were deciding what to eat today: Swedish salmon, Mexican tacos or Malaysian peanut sauce.
The danger of “over-communication” calls for a response. It reinforces the task of education not only to help young people gain knowledge, but above all to teach them how to make choices and to interpret that knowledge. They must be given the means to think once again in global, cross-disciplinary ways (capax universi) and need to receive adequate general education in order to be able to gain a broad overview and integrate information into a meaningful concept of reality35. In order to lend meaning to globalisation, we need to form a universitas in the fullest sense of the word, in which there is room not only for technology, economics and practical training, but also for thought and literature, preferably including world literature. In this area there are positive signs: the literary world has fortunately undergone a positive form of globalisation, and through the many works available in translation allows us to participate in a wide range of imaginative possibilities to interpret our reality. As long as we can read Márquez, Llosa, Maalouf, Chang and so many others, we will be protected from an undue shrinkage of our contemporary hermeneutical horizons.
One of the challenges is and remains, however, the refinement of our capacity to be open to the otherness of other cultures. International tourism has a role to play in this regard, although one may well ask whether this phenomenon has really brought us into contact with the uniqueness of other cultures.
If globalisation is to become a humane process, if human beings do not only want to be objects, but also subjects of the high-speed processes around us, then a number of additional conditions will have to be fulfilled.

Globalisation is a priori neither good nor bad: it will be what people make of it (John Paul II, address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences)36.

Globalisation follows a logic of its own, but it also requires an ethic. Such an ethic consists of two components: on the one hand, there is greater need than ever for a global ethic, and on the other hand we also need an ethic of globalisation itself37.
The need for a global ethic
We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history… As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny (Earth Charter).
At a purely pragmatic level, one could say that there are a number of problems that must be resolved on a global level and on the basis of universal norms, that is, norms that are valid for all people and all cultures. Examples of these abound: the water shortage, the greenhouse effect, the gap between rich and poor, migration, etc.
A global ethic can only function well, however, if it is founded upon something that is not contingent. We must make sure that economic or political decisions are not taken solely on the basis of interests or of the arbitrary will of the powers that be. That is why we need norms on which all reasonable people should, in theory, agree.
Such norms rest upon a foundation, namely the universal and unfailing readiness to recognise that every human being, as a human being, is not only a subject of rights but also a person with inalienable dignity. All social, political and economic phenomena must be judged in light of whether they contribute to enhancing human dignity38. This dignity is no abstract generalisation, but the dignity of the flesh-and-blood human being, and hence entails respect for cultural and religious diversity39. The importance of founding rights on human dignity is given due emphasis in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first article of which affirms that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. This truth can be demonstrated in several different ways. Francis Fukuyama points to an “x factor” and, explicitly citing Pope John Paul II, to the human soul40. On this question the Church also refers to the conscience and to the fact that the human being is the image of God and we have all been saved in Christ and have the capacity for radical solidarity on the basis of a self-emptying love (kenosis).
The Church has always stressed that what is essential at all times is the dignity of the whole person (thus running counter to any attempt to reduce the human being to a purely economic being) and of all people (presupposing the concern for the common good). This care for the human being in his or her concrete reality and dignity makes the Church community an ally of all who strive on behalf of humanity.
The criterion of human dignity has, since the encyclical Pacem in terris, been given concrete expression in terms of rights and duties. In this regard the Church subscribes to human rights as these have been proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
The quest for universal norms is nothing new. It is no coincidence that as early as the fourth century before Christ, at a time when Alexander the Great had established an early form of world empire, the Stoics defended the view that there is a humanity that transcends the particularity of one’s own culture or nationality: “The wise man knows no boundaries to his benevolence but is in solidarity with all human beings, and is thus a citizen of the world (kosmopolitès)”.
Today the search for a global and thus a universal ethic also finds support in the dialogue among world religions. The Declaration toward a Global Ethic of the World Parliament of Religions (1993) appeals for a global order grounded in a global ethic41. This ethic must be based on two fundamental principles: the notion that every human being is to be treated in a humane fashion, and the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is further explained in terms of four basic rules: a commitment to a culture of non-violence, based on the ancient commandment: Thou shalt not kill; a commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; a commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; and a commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
Both the declaration of the World Parliament of Religions and the Global Ethic project further emphasise that a universal and global ethic is reinforced by the religions of the world, since they confer an unconditional character upon moral principles and goals, pointing to a transcendent foundation. Furthermore, they serve as pedagogical communities in which their members learn the key attitudes that are essential for realising the general norms (such as learning to act in a way that transcends one’s self-interest in favour of the common good)42.
One might object that designing a global ethic through the religions will not persuade everyone. It is true that a global ethic must be based on a rational foundation. This is possible, for instance, by pointing out that respect for life and for fundamental human rights have their origin in universal negative experiences of the contrary situation. For there are behaviours, circumstances or economic or political decisions that are so inhumane that every rational person will spontaneously reject them. Such negative experiences are, as it were, a pre-reflective reference to fundamental norms. For instance, all reasonable people will be shocked at the sight of a child dying of hunger. This negative experience is not only synchronic (Schillebeeckx) but also historical: it can take the form of a paradigm shift (Walzer), that is to say, a historical experience that so shakes up humanity that it remains imprinted on our collective memory and spontaneously, as it were, makes us realise the need to respect certain human rights. The experience of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis was a paradigmatic experience that has firmly established at a pre-reflective level the prohibition against genocide and the right of threatened groups to a life of human dignity. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cites such paradigmatic experiences as one of the chief reasons for its existence.

Towards an ethic of globalisation
It is not enough to call for a universal ethic. We must also make it clear which ethical principles and norms are important for judging all that globalisation involves. Two basic principles are human dignity, as has already been mentioned, and the common good. From the perspective of the Gospel, these fundamental principles take on a particularly radical character in light of the preferential option for the poor and the victims of history.

  • The universal common good presupposes first of all an evaluation of decisions from the perspective of their consequences for the poor.

As James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, put it: “Everyone is talking about a new financial order, about a new international insolvency law, about transparency, and so on … but thus far, you have not heard a word about people… Two billion people live on under two dollars a day… This is not hopeless, but it is inevitable if we do nothing about it.”43

The preferential option for the poor is a concrete application of the principle of the common good, which has to do not only with particular political communities but also with global well-being. One of the most relevant aspects of this is the classic Thomist idea of the usus communis rerum, which freely translated means the universal right to use the goods of this earth or the universal destination of these goods: each person has a right to a portion of the fruits of the earth44. In the context of the discussion surrounding globalisation this is of crucial importance, for it is a conditio sine qua non for humanising the right to property. The right to private property can be considered useful and a stimulus for a sense of entrepreneurship and responsibility, but it must never be used as a right to exclude others, in other words it can never serve as an argument for a business method that conflicts with meeting people’s basic needs. Ownership of shares or real estate is acceptable only if it yields not only monetary profit but social profit as well: it must contribute to creating useful work. The Church passes harsh judgment on the use of capital and shares to make profit from the production of goods in such a way that it prevents the creation of jobs which are essential for human beings and for society:
Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilised or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people. Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man (Centesimus annus, no. 43).
Moreover, the love of neighbour and justice demand that if a poor person is in dire need, the right to survival has priority over private property (cf. Gaudium et spes no. 69 and the controversial statement of Bishop Muskens of Breda that a poor person who is hungry and who takes bread in order to appease that hunger does not commit theft).
Such a vision of property has consequences for the debate on globalisation. For a vehement debate has arisen recently concerning the appropriation of revenues from new goods and medicines. Individual rights or, in an industrial context, the claim to proprietary rights are very often subordinated to fulfilling real human needs. For instance, a conflict may arise between on the one hand the right of a company to sell a new patent medicine at a high price, and on the other hand the right of the poor to use such medicines, for which a reduction in price or a cheaper product would be necessary. The Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health (TRIPS= Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) declares that every member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has the right to disregard the patents of pharmaceutical companies if this is necessary in order to provide its people with medicines at affordable prices in the case of public health crises such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria. The same declaration instructs the Council for TRIPS to find solutions for the less developed countries that are unable to manufacture such medicines themselves.
In this regard it should also be noted that 97% of all patents (and thus also of the profits generated by the products concerned) are in the hands of individuals and companies from the rich West.

Nor may intellectual property rights be invoked as a justification of biopiracy. Knowledge about the genome of humans, plants and animals cannot simply become the exclusive property of large corporations, and certainly not if this leads to economic and personal damage to those concerned. Therefore action groups have successfully protested against the attempt to claim a monopoly on genetic knowledge about Basmati rice. This variety of rice has been developed by generations of Indian farmers. At one point, a foreign company claimed proprietary rights to the genome map of this strain of rice, the consequence of which would have been that these farmers would have had to buy their rice from this company. The aforementioned problem of water supply can also be mentioned in this regard: can water simply be privatised, or is water to be considered a public good?

  • Solidarity, radical love and subsidiarity

We need a globalisation of solidarity (John Paul II).
Solidarity refers to the ties that bind human beings, and refuses to see society as simply a sum of individuals.

Although the term was introduced by sociologists while searching for solutions to the problems raised by industrialisation beginning in the 18th century, the idea underlying the word solidarity is centuries old. Its foundation lies in the biblical idea of the ties that bind individuals and that flow from the bond between God and humanity. The Bible does not speak of individuals and their needs, but about community and common fidelity. Moreover, the notion of solidarity is universal in character. From the perspective of the Gospel, solidarity cannot be limited to a bond with one’s own people. For we are all children of the same Father and made in the image of God. We are also one in Christ.

In Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), John Paul II distinguished between three different meanings of solidarity: sociological, ethical and specifically Christian.
Solidarity is first of all a sociological phenomenon. As such, it is synonymous with what John XXIII described as “socialisation”, that is, the ever more complex interdependence among people, countries and continents, a mutual dependency that is further reinforced by the process of globalisation. This form of socialisation goes hand in hand with a growing intervention by the State, which, contrary to some ideological assertions, is also happening in countries that follow asocial, neo-liberal policies45.
Secondly, the concept of solidarity points to an ethical response to this situation (SRS, no. 38). In this sense solidarity is not some “feeling of vague compassion… at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual” from the awareness that “we are all really responsible for all.”46 Solidarity at this level is an obligation not only of individuals, but also of communities and states.

This universal responsibility implies a redistribution of the goods of the earth, including labour and property, through which, according to John Paul II, “mutual interdependence must be transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all.” (SRS, no. 39)

For Pope John XXIII, one of the consequences of the notion that goods are meant for all was the “right to that which pertains to the necessities of life”, among which he includes the right to “health care, education on a more extensive and improved basis, a more thorough professional training, housing, work, and suitable leisure and recreation.” (MM, no. 61)
There is yet a third meaning of solidarity, which cannot, however, be separated from the previous one. It lends theological depth to the ethical dimension and radicalises it.
As a Christian virtue, says John Paul II, “solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.” (SRS, no. 40)
The difference between this and the aforementioned meaning is above all in the underlying conception that radical solidarity is not based solely on the presumption of a symmetrical relationship of reciprocal responsibility between people and groups, but on an asymmetrical relationship that goes further than just respecting rights. According to this view of solidarity, “one’s neighbour is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else” but a person who is the living image of God, and to whom we have a very special type of relationship informed by a relationship of self-emptying (kenosis). The asymmetry of this self-emptying love expresses itself in the self-sacrifice and readiness “for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren” (SRS no. 40 and no. 38). Bearing in mind the concrete needs of the poor, this means among other things that it is no longer sufficient to give out of our abundance, but also out of our necessities (SRS, no. 31).
An evangelical choice of this nature enriches a global ethic based upon reason: a radical ethic of witness thus makes its appearance47. An existence based not on one’s own interests, but in which one is prepared to give precedence to the need of the other (which is the distinguishing feature of a kenotic or self-emptying life) is, for John Paul II, the pre-eminent way for Christians to help humanise the world, including from a structural perspective. This also implies a resistance against the “structures of sin” that one could also characterise as “structures that make people vulnerable”. These structures are so powerful that they cannot be overcome except by a radical form of solidarity. “The ‘evil mechanisms’ and ‘structures of sin’…can be overcome only through the exercise of the human and Christian solidarity to which the Church calls us and which she tirelessly promotes.” (SRS, no. 40)

Human and Christian solidarity are not two entirely different categories. They complement each other. General human and ethical solidarity is necessary, but will only be fully effective historically if Christians add to it their own specific radicality. Structures of sin will be overcome if Christians, without worrying too much about their own needs, add a radical, salvific dimension to the actions that transform history.

A final question concerning solidarity has to do with defining its boundaries. For example, can one extend a solidarity that is guaranteed through a social security system at the national level (as is the case in Belgium) to Europe or the rest of the world? Apart from the fact that solidarity between communities even within a single State comes up against many problems (for instance, the solidarity between Flanders and Wallonia), one may ask whether the Rawlsian principle of difference can be universalised. The principle of difference means that economic inequality – e.g. growing wealthier through creative entrepreneurship and the resulting economic growth – is justified only on condition that the poorest members of society thereby advance as well.

In his book The Law of Peoples, John Rawls, the author of this principle of difference, rejected the possibility of universalising solidarity. In his view, it cannot be the intention of the law of peoples to improve the standard of living of people throughout the world. Rawls approaches the question not from the perspective of people’s well-being, but from the freedom of peoples to develop into a liberal and decent society. “Certain provisions will be included for mutual assistance among peoples in times of famine and drought and, insofar as it is possible, provisions for ensuring that in all reasonable liberal (and decent) societies people’s basic needs are met. These provisions will specify duties of assistance in certain situations, and they will vary in stringency with the severity of the case.” (p. 38) The duty to assist others is, according to Rawls, limited to helping “peoples living in unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime.”48. Nevertheless, Rawls admits in a footnote that his view presupposes reasonable underlying conditions on an international level which are necessary in order to prevent dishonest market transactions and the rise of unjust inequalities among peoples. But despite this remark, he gave insufficient attention to the institutional causes at a global level that influence the living conditions of people, such as agreements on global free trade, property and patents. Therefore it would be useful to formulate a complementary principle to the law of peoples, drawing on the theory of T.W. Pogge, namely, the active responsibility of each member of the community of peoples for the collective establishment of an optimal regime of property rights and trade relations. This would mean that solidarity is more than a question of helping – it is, rather, a matter of just institutions (see the discussion of justice below). Only just institutions can prevent abuses such as biopiracy and the exploitation of people in low-income countries49.

  • Subsidiarity and the role of civil society

The tradition of the Church’s social teaching has linked solidarity with the notion of subsidiarity. This concept means that social relations cannot be reduced to a relationship between individuals and a State or between a supranational political entity such as the European Union and its Member States, or the United Nations and its Member States. Between the level of States or international organisations on the one hand, and individuals on the other, there is a complex layer of civil society. This includes all those associations that, each in its own way, contribute to the community (the family, volunteer groups, trade unions, political parties, universities, etc.). States or the European Union do not have the right to take everything into their own hands. They must certainly offer assistance, but not at the cost of the independence of the various communities within civil society. What can be accomplished at another level than that of the State or a supranational institution may not be taken over by the State or supranational institution (for example, the care of small children, education). If the principle of subsidiarity is not respected, society runs the risk of political totalitarianism.

This is also true in a world that is in the process of globalisation: we must not allow it to lead to a world in which one global State emerges in which all power is concentrated and against which all individuals are powerless. It would be undesirable even for there to be a single global authority in relation to the various States. At all levels between such a world authority and the citizens there are a variety of active organisations, NGOs and communities in which social capital is built up and links are made between people’s concrete life world and world problems.

Such organisations correct the market through their community action. Their interest lies in fostering a basic moral relationship, a sort of virtue of global citizenship that enables people to transcend their own needs and take into consideration the universal common good.

Without religious or philosophical communities that can be close to people, it would not be possible to develop this sort of human virtue or social competence. In this regard, it may be seen as a positive sign that in the constitutional treaty of the European Union, the role of intermediary communities such as Churches, religious associations, philosophical and secular organisations are fully recognised and that a dialogue between the EU and these communities is also provided for (Article 52).

  • Towards a more just world

One of the important words in the biblical vocabulary is “justice”. The prophets emphasised that one cannot know God without doing justice, especially towards the poor.

According to Paul Ricoeur, an emphasis on justice in addition to solidarity is important because the object of the former is the “faceless other”, the generic “everyone” of the institutions. Justice does not consider the good intentions of an individual who wants to help a neighbour, but the fulfilment of the right of every person, as a human being, to a human existence and to full participation as a citizen.
In the Gospel, justice is never separated from mercy, for justice should not be without mercy. Hence the importance of a healthy dialectic between love and justice. For there are always tears that are ignored by a bureaucracy that focuses only on structures. In a globalised world, there will always be a need for spontaneous forms of love and solidarity that have an “individualising” perspective and that contribute to making sure that “everyone” (chacun) who is the subject of just distribution does not slip into the anonymity of “one” (on), thereby rendering social relations increasingly pragmatic in nature (Ricoeur). A loving solidarity personalises the structural response to problems, while social solidarity, understood as justice, finds its incarnation in institutions.
Tradition teaches us the difference between three aspects of justice: general or legal justice, distributive justice and commutative justice. This distinction is especially useful for evaluating globalisation.
Commutative justice is the type of justice that is typical of market relations and contracts. Individuals or groups enter into a symmetrical relation with each other. In such cases, reciprocal obligations are calculated mathematically50. The parties to a contract enter into a relationship in which they, as formal equals, must honour certain clearly defined commitments such as providing labour services in exchange for reasonable remuneration or the payment of a fair price for raw materials. A respect for commutative justice has important consequences for determining remuneration and for improving trade relations between rich and poor countries (better prices for the raw materials). The worldwide effort on behalf of fair trade, through which poor producers and farmers are paid fair prices for their goods, is a shining example of the commitment to greater commutative justice.
General justice, which refers to the obligation of citizens to contribute to the common good, could be updated as a contributive form of justice. This contribution is not only economic in nature, but can also be social, artistic, intellectual or contemplative51.

Yet not everyone has the opportunity and the means to make a contribution to the universal common good. This is why distributive justice is so important. If we inquire as to the distribution or redistribution of goods or financial means, the starting point is not a formal contract, nor the freedom to make an individual or personal gift, but the entitlements, needs or rights of the weakest party. Even the poorest must be allocated a proportionate part of common goods, bearing in mind their needs and global well-being52.

In this context we may refer to the argument made by John Paul II in Centesimus annus: “It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish.” (CA, no. 34).

For this reason, prior to the logic of an honest exchange of goods and the associated forms of justice, one must recognise that “there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity.” (CA, no. 34).

From the perspective of distributive justice, we can ask (1) whether contemporary developments in the world market contribute sufficiently to the advancement of global well-being and the general welfare of all peoples, and (2) whether or not globalisation has a favourable effect on meeting the basic needs of the poor, especially as regards food, security, basic health care, education and civil rights and freedoms, understood as the right to political participation.
If developments in the world market increase the gap between rich and poor to such an extent that even the basic needs of millions of people can no longer be met, then alternatives must urgently be sought.
The link between contributive and distributive justice is further refined by the concept of social justice, which comprises two different aspects. If people do not have at their disposal sufficient means to make a creative contribution to building up society (for instance because of illness, a handicap, unemployment, lack of access to the knowledge required for meaningful work), then society must provide them with the means, and above all the opportunities to function, that will allow them to become active citizens in the life of the community. This demands greater participation.

The problem, however, is that in a context of globalisation, decisions are increasingly made by experts. Despite their great specialist knowledge, they are not infrequently alienated from the real living conditions of people. Many decisions are made above the heads of the latter. Therefore it would be desirable to see more people participate in the decision-making that will determine people’s future and that of the coming generations.

Social justice is thus not simply a question of distributing common funds. It is first and foremost a contribution to true freedom: providing education that will give people a “basic capability to function” (cf. the theory of Nobel prize laureate Amartya Sen)53.


It is not enough to formulate ethical principles and to pass judgment on globalisation. A Church community is rightfully expected also to inspire action.

Two aspects are important here: an inspiring vision, and models of action that contribute to humanising the world.

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