Globalisation's positive power

Nobel Prize winner and former Clinton economic advisor Joseph Stiglitz believes in the positive powe

Listen to the podcast In conversation with Joseph Stiglitz

Many Americans are counting down the hours until George W. Bush leaves the Oval Office. Joseph Stiglitz, though, has gone further than most. He keeps a special clock at home just so he can see precisely how long there is to go.

The Nobel Prize winner has never been afraid of controversy, but he's not exactly alone when he says in his view things can only get better the second the countdown reaches zero and Bush moves out of the White House.

With his lack of pretensions and easy-going style Stiglitz seems more like a favourite uncle than a world-renowned economist, academic, and former presidential advisor as he chats over a cup of coffee.

His ability to put complicated concepts into easy-to-digest nuggets has endeared him greatly to the media, but also explains why his books on globalisation and economics have a far greater reach than most economists could dream of.

As he whisks around the globe, stopping in Korea and London, before heading back to Columbia University, Stiglitz has plenty to say about what the US needs to do to improve its relationship with the rest of the world and where it has taken wrong turnings. "At the end Americans will look back at a failed presidency that turned its back on the international community."

But Stiglitz is interested in more than critiquing the Bush presidency; he is campaigning for a new type of globalisation, one that puts a more equal and fair global society at its heart, and for less pressure from the US-influenced global development institutions to impose a one-size-fits-all free market, pro-privatisation model.

“The US has pushed a particular model on the rest of the world. It might work for America, but is totally not acceptable in many other parts of the world where a sense of social solidarity is important or need to be important for those societies to function.”

Where developing powers India and China have resisted US-led pressure to move towards instant privatisation of state functions, and refused to swing open their doors to multi-nationals without qualification, they have created much stronger societies, Stiglitz argues.

“These countries managed globalisation: it was their ability to take advantage of globalisation, without being taken advantage of by globalisation, that accounts for much of their success."

More transparency, easier to access information, and stronger civil societies are wearing away some of the power in the relationship between the developing and developed countries, he argues.

"Using the internet … they can see what is going on in a way that we might not like," he says relating a story about the recent US-Korea bi-lateral talks where, after the US negotiators had finished a deal they told the Koreans was good and fair, the write-up on the US government website told a different story. "Basically it said: 'we managed to screw the Koreans'.” Korean access to that information is likely to have a powerful influence on future negotiations.

With the US presidential primaries in full swing, the timing may be right for this man with global stature, and the ear of influential Democrats, to be heard by policy makers back home.

Knowledge of foreign policy and the continuing role of the US in Iraq have both emerged as part of the cut and thrust of debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as they tussle for votes. And Stiglitz has a lot of knowledge and experience to offer. He acknowledges that he has regular conversations with the three Democratic front runners, and you can imagine he is likely to be snapped up as an advisor by the Democratic candidate next year.

A long-time critic of the IMF, even in his World Bank days, Stiglitz can help build a wide base of support. He can find common ground with anti-globalisation lobbyists who cluster around Naomi Klein when he speaks of the damage Bush and his acolytes have done to the UN and other multilateral institutions, but the Nobel Laureate has far more than journalistic railing and emotion in his armoury.

Klein would no doubt agree with Stiglitz that: “The damage that has been done by Bush has been huge… the damage to the World Bank is huge, the damage to the UN is huge.”

But Stiglitz is not an anti-globalisation campaigner; just someone who believes it can be done better and to the benefit of the many, not the few. He is busy spreading his message that globalisation is not yet benefiting the world's poorest and then setting out his prescription for how to make it work.

Narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest with a strong state at the core is the only way for globalisation to work in his view. The poorest suffer the most insecurity in a global economy, but if it is to work they too must benefit from opening trade doors and jobs to international competition. In the past, he says, “when people have talked about globalisation they have talked about the impact it has had on GDP but they don’t talk about the impact it has on disparities. The way globalisation has been managed has meant increasing disparities in many parts of the world, both in developed and developing countries.”

Not only does he argue for safety nets of various kinds – medical and educational among them – as essential in creating a more secure and stable society in developing countries, but he applies these principles to the US as well.

These principles – including a centralised national health care system – have always been considered surprisingly radical in the US, but he is not alone when he says the pendulum is swinging towards significant reform.

“All the candidates have been forced to address the questions of what are they going to do about the health care crisis in the US?”

Stiglitz believes that high levels of inequality in the US have started to change people’s views about the role of the state. Inequality has grown under Bush and has even started to undermine that greatest of national myths – the American dream.

He argues plausibly for greater emphasis on equality in development theory and practise. This, he believes, will help create greater stability and security internationally.

“The argument has always been that [if] the country is a whole lot better off…those that have gained could compensate the losers, but the problem is under Bush that hasn’t happened. Rather than trickledown it has been trickle up.”

Inequality, he argues, produces social unrest. “I believe that it is important for countries to focus on equity, on ensuring that the fruits of growth are widely shared,” he says.

"The people at the bottom keep paying the price. We could compensate them, we could help them share more the fruits…by improving education, and having more progressive taxation. Under Bush we have done just the opposite and I think that is part of the social tension in America.”

And who can find fault with his campaign to bring the same kind of democracy and transparency to international development organisations such as the World Bank and IMF? It seems only fair that these international organisations should have a clearer voting structure, and the public should know how they come to decisions, as they would with their own governments.

He argues idealistically for a fairer world built not on the single pillar of the market, but on three more — government, individuals and community. As someone who has worked in the highest levels of both academia and politics, he offers more than just analysis; he provides a set of potential policy solutions - and that is his advantage over other critics of US foreign policy and development theory.

It may be stating the obvious to say that free trade will not bring equal benefits while everyone has different levels of skills, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated and re-stated, until the time is right to hear it. And Stiglitz isn't giving up.

A version of this article was first published in the Fabian Review. Check out the society's website for details of the Fabian Society Change the World conference on 19 January in association with the New Statesman

title="Link to posting">In conversation with Joseph Stiglitz

Rachael Jolley talks to Bill Clinton’s ex-economic adviser about the positive power of globalisation and other issues ahead of the Fabian foreign affairs conference on 19 January in association with the New Statesman

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood