Ireland and the Global Question

Joe Jamison reviews Ireland and the Global Question by Michael J. O'Sullivan, Cork University Press, SBN 10-1859- 184022, €29.95 hbk

Ireland and the Global Question

IN 1995, Thomas Friedman, the arch-globalist pundit at the New York Times, with some condescension, singled out Ireland as a globalization success story:

"the country that for hundreds of years was best known for emigration, tragic poets, famines, civil wars and leprechauns today has a per capita GDP higher than that of Germany, France and Britain. How Ireland went from the sick man of Europe to the rich man in less than a generation is an amazing story."

Ireland and the Global Question is an Irish mainstream economist's reflections on globalization. The author, Michael O'Sullivan, is a man of moderate nationalist views. Educated at University College Cork at Balliol College Oxford, he taught economics at Princeton University and he works in the City of London. Refreshingly these conservative credentials do not make him rule out thinkers unlikely to please Princeton's economics department, including de Tocqueville, Engels and Marx.

If he taught conventional economics, he does not torture us by forcing his study into the straitjacket of conventional economic theory as taught in US universities, where its chief function, behind a thicket of pointless algebra, is to convince the young of the rightness and eternity of the existing order.

Ireland and the Global Questionasks "how a small open nation can independently manage the effects of globalization on its economy, society, and public life". He tackles this question with chapters on Defining globalization; Measuring Globalization in Ireland; Views of unglobalized Ireland ; The Tiger: The Republic; Neutrality in a new world ; and Ireland and the globe.

"Unglobalized" Ireland for the author means Ireland before 1870. He claims globalization has come in two waves in modern times, in 1870-1914 and 1989 to the present.

O'Sullivan states that Ireland does not fit the way globalization has been debated around the world. For example, he cites a report on globalization prepared for the EU concludes that that globalization has caused massive poverty and inequality; that globalization allows TNCs to play off one government against another; that TNCs pay sweatshop wages in Third World states ; that big US TNCs impose US consumer culture; that globalization harms the environment in countless ways; that it forces farmers to switch to cash crops to compete with giant agribusiness a competition they cannot win; that it imposes the US will via international institutions (IMF, WTO, World Bank) on unwilling but desperate weaker states. Some of these evils afflict Ireland, to be sure, but not as severely as elsewhere. Ireland has done better than most.

He tries connect the concerns of Irish nationalism (the Republic, partition, the EU, British imperialism), to the globalization debate. Yet some of the treatment is curiously ahistorical and defensive about Ireland's catastrophic history. No one should have to affirm, but he does, that:

" is difficult to argue against the facts that Ireland was politically and economically dependent on Britain, enjoyed little benefit from the trade that flowed into its ports and was not free to integrate itself with the social, political forces permeating Europe."

Perhaps these sentences are aimed at a corporate audience needing education on these realities.

The book aims to provide

"...a top-down view of the process of globalization in Ireland, to set out the challenges facing the Irish economy, society and public life in the context of the broader world, and to highlight future issues regarding the Global Question."

He is dubious that the benefits resulting so far from globalization will keep coming. The opening chapter, 'Defining globalization', is both interesting and frustrating.

Globalization's meaning is perhaps the most elusive in the lexicon of politics. After surveying how it is used by the British government, the IMF, the UN, Greenpeace and the World Bank, he comes down in favor this definition:

"Globalization involves the increasing integration of markets, economies and societies as border become less relevant, bringing increased interdependence between nations."

The reviewer believes better definitions are available. Henry Kissinger, monster though he is, was closer to the truth in 1999 when at Trinity College, Dublin he declared:

"...what is called 'globalization' is really another name for the dominant role of the United States."

After 1989-1991 the word became the utterly unavoidable cliché in Anglo-American business discourse and in conservative social science.

Doubters should take this test. Go to and type in "globalization." This results in thirty-one million references to globalization.

Globalization is not a thing a thing or a process. Rather, this multipurpose word functions as the favorite slogan of neoliberalism. It suggests inevitability, that it's an unstoppable process before which all other barriers -- weak states, national independence movements, trade unions, defenders of the environment -- must give way.

The word implies a political program of opening weaker states to the power of transnational finance capital by way of staggering debt, by IMF discipline, by WTO regulations, bilateral and regional trade pacts to ensure dominance of the metropolis and hobble Third World development.

The word reflects a new consciousness among western corporate elites of the now-unlimited reach of the power of western imperial states and the TNCs, the new and harsher world in which there are no longer two rival systems but really only one and the remaining beleaguered and dependent socialist states must integrate themselves into the victorious capitalist one.

To a lesser extent, it does reflect new objective processes (the revolutions in information, communication, and transportation over the last few decades) that create the possibility of a TNC producing in many countries. If globalization were solely an objective process, there would be no need to advocate it and celebrate it, and no point in opposing it. Nobody organizes against the sunrise. It's dismaying that not only mainstream writers but also some writers on the left also use "globalization" uncritically and undefined and speak of "capitalist globalization" as if they knew what it meant.

What has caused recent Irish prosperity? In the long chapter entitled 'The Tiger', O'Sullivan disputes the consensus that it is due to the Irish education system, credit growth, the role of the IDA, Ireland's membership in the EU and a flexible labor market all these factors existed before the 1990s. He concludes that:

"a combination of pragmatic, business- friendly policy making supported by a healthy supply of labor, the framework of European economic convergence and positive global rends in investment and interest rates drove economic growth in Ireland."

He does not expect these to continue.

This is an interesting and eclectic book by a "globo-skeptic." Admittedly he is not the most radical one, but he is an honest and thoughtful critic of the uncritical admirers of globalization. Readers on the left will find some of his assumptions hard to take. It is not the final word by any means but it does advance this important discussion. There is a full and heterogeneous bibliography and a well-organized index. Those who want to delve deeper into it should start here.

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