People Before Profit

People Before Profit

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by Charles Derber, Noam Chomsky

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Has globalization failed us? The promises of economic stability, increased prosperity, and cultural cooperation seem more like a pipe dream than ever before. But rather than stop globalization, Charles Derber challenges us to rewrite its rules in order to fulfill its potential as an agent of democracy and global harmony. In this provocative and optimistic work, one


Has globalization failed us? The promises of economic stability, increased prosperity, and cultural cooperation seem more like a pipe dream than ever before. But rather than stop globalization, Charles Derber challenges us to rewrite its rules in order to fulfill its potential as an agent of democracy and global harmony. In this provocative and optimistic work, one of the first examinations of globalization after September 11, 2001, Derber argues that only a democratic cure--begun at the grassroots level--will end global terror and economic insecurity. People Before Profit provides an essential understanding of our world economy as well as a practical guide for building a stable and more equitable global community.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Vault[s] the globalization debates to the next level. . . Derber's blueprint for global democracy is controversial (at times I found myself screaming at the page), and that's precisely why this book is so important.” —Naomi Klein, author of No Logo

“A provocative and stimulating work directed to issues of the highest signficance.” —Noam Chomsky

“For all those who need or want to know about the fast-congealing domination by global corporations and their indentured governments, People Before Profit is the book to read.” —Ralph Nader

“Professor Derber's impressive analysis is an important contribution to the ongoing worldwide debate about globalization and its effects.” —Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Publishers Weekly
Sociologist Derber (Corporation Nation) has a breezy writing style, slightly more academic than that of Thomas Friedman, whom he invokes often in this critique of the increasing trend toward globalization. Where Friedman sees globalization as an inevitable process, Derber believes we can still change globalization's direction, eliminating its market-driven excesses to provide truly universal economic development. The goals he proposes-ending global poverty, promoting local democracy and culture, making businesses socially accountable and creating a framework for genuinely collective peace and stability-aren't new, nor is his observance that people all over the world are coming together to achieve those goals, but what his analysis lacks in originality, it makes up in accessibility. Despite Derber's optimism that American citizens will sympathize with the emphasis of "third-wave" activists on combating corporate corruption and influence over government, he does admit his insistence that "we cannot have global democracy in a world so thoroughly dominated by the United States" is likely to meet with mainstream resistance. Reaction to that frank assessment is likely to overshadow other discussion, such as Derber's cogent explanation of the threats that the WTO and IMF pose to local sovereignty, especially with regard to labor and environmental legislation, and his 25 suggestions for "what to do right now," simple actions that almost anyone can take to become politically aware and active. It's clear Derber wants to do more than preach to the choir and less clear that the public is ready to listen. (Dec. 1) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An optimistic critique of globalization from Derber (Sociology/Boston Coll.; Corporation Nation, not reviewed). Despite the bluster of its proponents, the course of globalization is neither safe, democratic, nor economically secure, says Derber. This isn’t because the system is inherently flawed or, as Thomas Friedman has it, outside of human intervention. Derber contends that globalization has within it the groundwork for a worldwide constitutional system that would allow active participants to think globally and act locally, pursue the basic set of human rights outlined in the UN Declaration of 1948, and seize the constitutional moment—aided by the technological innovation of instant global communication—at a time when "making history is a realistic prospect for ordinary people, as they find themselves caught up in seismic struggles over the basic rules of the world they inhabit." Today’s globalization need be no more profit-driven, US-managed, or consumerist than, say, colonialism or the Gilded Age were socially flawed—those being examples of the fact that world systems have been with us since the beginning—if, as in Derber’s scheme, a limited mega-government oversees global rights, with citizen-controlled national governments protecting participatory democracy on the local level and enforcing socially accountable global business standards. Obvious areas of reform include the antidemocratic, shadow governments of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization—though be it said that Derber is no conspiracy theorist, more a time-honored Social Democrat—as well as the tempering of the power grab by the US Fundamental in movingglobalization toward democracy is an informed, traveled, abolitionist, green, active citizenry, keen-eyed to all antidemocratic institutions and to interventionism and unilateralism. The effort "will involve engaging citizens not only in free and fair elections, but in active participation in local, national, and global politics through civic, grassroots, labor, feminist, and public-interest associations." Derber wants long-term stability, where accountability starts at and proceeds from the individual guided by the basic tenets of human decency.

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Read an Excerpt

People Before Profit





Hegel was right when he said that man can never learn anything from history.



History teaches us the mistakes we are going to make.



IF I ASKED YOU TO NAME THE PERSON WHO BEST SYMBOLIZES GLOBALIZATION, what would you answer? I bet you'd say, "Bill Gates." As the founder of Microsoft, the leader in the information revolution, Gates is the towering business figure of the age. Do you know of any country in the world that hasn't joined the Microsoft revolution? When I walked through the poorest streets of Bangkok, I saw Internet shops where kids paid pennies for a few precious moments of time on a PC. And now we know that terrorists hiding in hovels in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan rely heavily on Microsoft software, just as you and I do, to communicate.

If you ask what person symbolizes globalization to me, I think of someone very different. She is Nisran, the Muslim Bangladeshi apparel worker I mentioned in the introduction. She is a hauntingly beautiful and fragile young woman, very thin with large dark eyes. While bombs were falling in a nearby country to kill terrorists, she and millions of workers like her started the engines of the global economy in the early morning and kept them running all day long and late into the evening. Listen to a little of her story:

I am Nisran. I am twenty-two years old. When I started working, I was twelve. I had to go to work because my family wasvery poor. So I had to leave school after the fourth grade. For the last ten years, even as a child worker, l have had to work twelve to fourteen hours a day and sometimes up to twenty hours. I have been working for ten years, but I still have no savings. If I die today, my family would have no money to bury me.

Now l work for Actor Garments where l produce caps for many universities in the United States. l am a sewing operator; I do the stitching on the visors of the caps.

When shipments have to go out to the United States, we have to work nineteen or twenty hours until 3 or 4 A.M. There is no space to sleep, so I have to curl up next to the machine to sleep for three or four hours. Then I go home at 6 to wash and eat breakfast, and I have to be back working by 8 A.M. Because I earn so little money, I have to share a tiny room with three coworkers. We have two beds, and two of us share each bed. We have nothing else—no chairs, no table, no cooking equipment, no radio or TV or clock. Five families with a total of thirty people in the row of rooms where I live share one bathroom and one kitchen and one stove. So in the morning l have to stand in line to use the bathroom and to use the stove. Sometimes l have to go to the factory without having breakfast.1

We will hear more from Nisran and other global workers because their stories remind us why globalization has become dangerous and could turn millions of people against the United States and the West. Such stories help us understand why changing these conditions may prove the best long-term strategy for reducing violence in the world.


I want you to meet two ghosts. One I will call Cecil, an arrogant and adventurous phantom, the apparition of colonialism. The second is J.D., a Scrooge-like ghost if ever there was one, the specter of the late nineteenth-century U.S. Gilded Age. Cecil, the ghost of European colonialism, and J.D., the ghost of the GildedAge, linger to remind us that we repeat history when we don't remember it. They haunt globalization and are the historical windows through which we can see it most clearly.

This first chapter is devoted to ghosts because globalization does have a history, and it is essential to understand it. Many people see globalization as entirely new. In fact, it is a reinvention of earlier world economies that I call "ancient globalizations." Only by understanding these earlier developments can we see some of the roots of the poverty suffered by so many like Nisran in the world economy today. When we see how history has been a never-ending process of building new kinds of globalizations, it becomes easier to understand that we can do it again.

We all have our personal ghosts. They often are important figures in our family history—relatives with a drinking problem, a womanizing weakness, a face like our own. We may try to deny their existence, but they haunt us anyway, and we can learn much about ourselves by admitting that they're around and by seeing them clearly. Therapists tell us that only by studying our ghosts carefully can we exorcise them and heal ourselves.

I mention Cecil because colonialism runs deep in globalization's own history. This does not mean that globalization is colonialism, although many leaders in the Third World, including the president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki and Arthur Mbanefo, spokesperson for a group of 133 poor nations called the Group of 77, have made the comparison bluntly. And after September 11, many debate intensely whether globalization in the Middle East, as well as in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, is the twenty-first-century brand of colonialism. American power, globalization, and colonialism are now equated or blurred in the thinking of millions of people across the entire Third World.2

But to many U.S. workers, globalization is like colonialism in reverse, shifting valuable investments toward the Third World and draining the United States and other First World nations of good jobs. Don't tell a displaced U.S. autoworker whose job just flew to Mexico that he or she is the beneficiary of a new American colonialism. Yet, despite the differences in perspective,colonial history shapes both the reality and perception of globalization. I believe it is useful to look at the Spanish, Dutch, and British colonial empires of centuries past as ancient globalizations that can give us surprising new insights into our very different model today.3

I have named colonialism's ghost after Cecil Rhodes, the serotonin-loaded nineteenth-century British entrepreneur and adventurer who along with Rudyard Kipling virtually invented colonialism's logo, "the white man's burden." Rhodes founded the British South Africa Company and De Beers, the huge diamond corporation and the world's richest company of his time. His companies built railroads connecting Cape Town to Cairo, and they literally ruled nations such as Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Rhodes himself became the prime minister and effective dictator of Cape Colony, now South Africa. Rhodes saw colonialism as an idealistic mission spreading prosperity and civilization to the newly conquered colonies; he fiercely believed that the English were a superior race and had a moral responsibility to spread British companies and values across the whole continent. Today, he would be leading the chorus of those who see globalization as the West's latest and perhaps best effort to deliver growth, opportunity, and civilization to the world. The persistence of global poverty among people such as Nisran would not discourage him, because it did not make him rethink his business in Africa. The extremist Islamic reaction against the West that exploded on September 11 would also probably not change his views, since tribal resistance to his own African adventures only strengthened his resolve.4

My second phantom, J.D., is the ghost of the Gilded Age, the era that virtually invented the large modern corporation. It will not surprise you that I have named this lean and hungry ghost after John D. Rockefeller, the greatest and greediest of all the robber barons and the quintessence of the Gilded Age itself. While many historians have connected dots linking colonialism and globalization, fewer have seen the Gilded Age as a historical window into globalization's soul. This seems hardly surprisingsince the robber barons in the Gilded Age were busy taking control in the United States itself and were not ready to take on a global mission.5

Nonetheless, the Gilded Age is a source of surprising insight. The robber barons ran sweatshops in the United States that were a sad preview of today's factories. One small snippet of Jenrain's story could come right out of J.D.'s factory:6

On the production line there are thirty machines with thirty operators and ten helpers. The supervisors give us a production target of 370 caps per hour, but we can barely complete 320 caps per hour, so we have to work as fast as we can. But because of this, we sometimes make mistakes, and then the supervisors shout at us and call us bad names, or they slap us, or hit us with a stick or a cap, or jab us with scissors. Sometimes we cry because of this rough treatment, and then they threaten us not to cry.

I have to ask permission to use the bathroom, and they give you only two minutes. The supervisor checks the time. If I need more than two minutes, the supervisor yells at you and calls you bad names.

We only have tap water to drink, which is filthy and makes us sick. The workers often have diarrhea, jaundice, and kidney problems. Because we have to sit on stools with no backs working so many hours, the workers also suffer from backaches.

The factory is cloudy with dust. It is not well ventilated; it is without enough air and light. The air of the factory is polluted with dust from the cloth. This dust goes into our noses and makes us sick with coughs and respiratory problems.

In listening to Jenrain's story, one begins to believe that globalization is bringing a new version of Gilded Age conditions to millions of global workers.7

The Gilded Age was a coming attraction, in a more literal sense, to a kind of economic "globalizing" in the United Statesitself. The robber barons were immersed in a stunning project of market expansion and integration, moving the country from local commerce to a great interconnected national corporate economy. In a few short decades, the robber barons knit together a huge new market, a feat of extraordinary imagination and boldness. In this sense, the robber barons were "globalizers" within a single nation, and the Gilded Age can be seen as a key historical story about economic integration.

A few caveats here before we proceed with our ghost story. First, Cecil and J.D. may seem like old gloomy ghosts who are not up to the job of giving us the real scoop about globalization. Colonialism and the Gilded Age, you might be thinking, are the past. Globalization is the future, one full of adventure, excitement, and hope—or so it seemed before September 11. Let me try to reassure you. Cecil and J.D. are just globalization's ghosts—they don't tell us everything we need to know about the world today. History never repeats itself in quite the same form. Although the ghosts are telling us about a side of globalization that we might not be hearing about as much as we need to, they can't tell us the whole story.

Let me also acknowledge that these ghosts appear to unfairly stack the deck against globalization. Colonialism and the Gilded Age are not the proudest moments of Western history. Both were built on forms of brute labor exploitation and political corruption that we like to hope no longer exist. But the ghosts as I see them tell us several things. One is that we haven't progressed as far as we thought. Although it is unfashionable to dwell on it in the United States, global exploitation, as people in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East keep loudly protesting, is still a reality for billions around the world.

Second, Cecil and J.D. have their sunny sides. Few eras in history are all bad, and even colonialism and the Gilded Age had some redeeming qualities. Both were periods of bold growth and change, and both were associated with dramatic technological advances that made the world a better place. Both upset existing systems of power that had exploitative features of their own, andboth set into motion new movements for freedom and social justice.

Third, globalization differs in important ways from its historic ghosts. Its legal, technological, and political foundations are all unique. As you will see, my ghost story does not try to reduce globalization to a sad or one-sided historical stereotype. Instead, I will be discussing the parts of globalization that are unpredictable and positive. As noted before, I see globalization as a progressive force in many ways, and I hope to show that those challenging it make a great mistake by demonizing it or creating a nostalgia for the world that came before.


Many of my friends think of globalization as "the Internet thing." They find it nearly impossible to separate the computer e-mail, and the Internet from the process of globalization. They understand that high tech liberates money to fly across national borders, and allows markets and companies to go global faster than the Concorde can rev up its engines. My friends see frightening new dangers after the terrorist attacks but feel that globalization is upbeat because they associate it so closely with exciting new technology. They also believe that high tech makes globalization inevitable, because nobody, not even Osama bin Laden or future terrorists, can undo the information revolution. New, faster, and hotter technology will shrink the world further and rewrite national boundaries in disappearing ink.

I believe that people in the United States and many other Western countries have bought into the technology-centered globalization mystique. Thomas Friedman, who has shaped the public's view of globalization as much as anyone, is a contributor to the technology mystique. He says if his child were to ask, "Daddy, where does globalization come from?" he would respond that it is all about a 1980s and 1990s technological "whirlwind" that blew down the old walls of the preglobalization world. It involved minirevolutions of "computerization, telecomunications, miniaturization, compression technology and digitization." It is about you and me being able to communicatewith anyone anywhere at the speed of light, not in the First World or the Third World, which are things of the past, but the one new "Fast World." For Friedman, globalization means you "can call to anywhere cheaply, you can call from anywhere cheaply, including from your laptop, your mountaintop, your airplane seat or the top of Mount Everest."8

I can appreciate his point. Not long ago in the Bangkok airport I was peering into the waiting section reserved for monks. I remember seeing many of the monks, in their saffron robes and bare feet, seemingly deep in ninth-century meditation, suddenly reaching into their robes and taking out their cellphones. The image of the monks chatting merrily away on their wireless devices caught me up short and made me think, yes, this is globalization in action, the world of the Buddha married to the postmodern era of electronic gadgets.

Osama bin Laden's high-tech command posts in the caves of Afghanistan brought home the point. From one of the world's poorest nations, terrorists sent e-mails and satellite communications to "sleeper cells" around the globe. And in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Islamic clergy in nearly every village now use their own Web sites to argue the religious merits of bin Laden's jihad. "Whoever helps America and its fellow infidels against our brothers in Afghanistan is apostate," writes Saudi cleric Sheik Hammoud on his own personal Web site. Hammoud is part of a buzzing Internet dialogue among turbaned and bearded clerics glued to their PCs in their desert huts or mosques in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan.9

But while images like this help me understand the power of globalization-as-technology, they don't make it true. It is a compelling myth that distracts us from understanding what globalization is about, and our friendly ghosts will help us cut through the fog. Cecil and J.D. offer historical perspectives illuminating the intimate but misunderstood relation between new technology and globalization. Much of the romance of globalization flows from the technology with which we sometimes confuse it, and this was also true centuries ago.

Colonialism and the Gilded Age make it obvious that "globalizers" of any historical epoch have their roots in transportation and communications breakthroughs often connected to the technology of war. Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain all turned themselves into empires by harnessing bold new naval technology and using it to trade and conquer. Making better ships and guns depended on advances in mechanics and steel made possible by the industrial revolution. The tie between colonialism and the industrial revolution is probably as close as that between globalization and the information revolution. Few of us, though, would mistake the technological advances greasing colonial empires with what colonialism was really about.

The Gilded Age offers another view of how globalizations of every era feed off great technological innovations with which they can be easily confused. Who were the first robber barons? They were railroad entrepreneurs and Wall Street tycoons such as Jay Gould, who collectively built a national market by financing and hammering in the tracks that knit the country together for the first time. The railroads were to the Gilded Age what the Internet is to globalization. They were the industrial age's information highway, and they help show that globalizing always is anchored in a new physical and technical infrastructure that links people and places that couldn't communicate before. Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone, a second technological miracle of the Gilded Age, may have been as important as the railroads, allowing people to talk and do deals across the country without getting on a train.

What we learn from former globalizations is partly the obvious: we can't create globalizing projects without technological breakthroughs. No ships, no colonialism; no railroads, no Gilded Age; no computer or Internet, no globalization. We just can't blow out the limits of the existing markets without technologies that allow us to economically integrate on a grander scale. New technology makes globalization in any era possible, but that's quite different than saying that technology drives globalization, or that it has the longevity or sexiness of its technology, or—thebiggest mistake of all—that it is its technology. We could have had ships and guns without colonialism, railroads without the Gilded Age. The Internet makes possible many worlds other than the one globalization is constructing. The essence of globalization lies outside the new truly fantastic technologies that now grip our imagination. This is good for you, the reader, and me the author because, while the technology is fascinating, the real plot is more exciting.


At least in parts of Africa, Cecil is a ghost who is kicking up more than just metaphorical dust. At Makokoba M'kambo market, near Cecil Rhodes's burial site at the Top of the World, some n'angas (healers) worry about Rhodes's roaming evil spirit. Local activists appease their worries: "We have ways of directing the energy of spirits."10

"If not harnessed, Rhodes's spirit will haunt and harm the British," warns Sangano's resident spirit medium, Mathisa. Sangano Munhumatapa, an activist group in Zimbabwe, the country where Rhodes was buried, has threatened to throw his interred bones into the Zambezi River if someone doesn't remove them first.11

The controversy over Cecil Rhodes's burial site suggests the potency of his power as a symbol of colonialism. African leaders still talk with emotion about Rhodes's "evil deeds," including his swindling of early tribal chieftains for the sacred land where he is now buried. But the real issue is the continuing legacy of colonialism, now resurfacing, as many Africans see it, in the new face of globalization.

Rhodes was a crusader on a grand mission who believed that God had divined Britain as his agent to create a new planet built on British civilization. In his youth, Rhodes had heard a famous lecturer at Oxford say, "We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled with the best northern blood ... . Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of Kings, a sceptered isle? ... This is what England must either do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and far as she is able."12

In contemporary terms, colonialism was a vision of a new world system—and I italicize this phrase for a reason. Before colonialism, there had been no vision of the world as an integrated entity; there were only hundreds of splintered regional markets, nations, and tribes. True, trade and earlier empires began to integrate the world long before European colonialism, and colonialism itself never went global in today's sense of replacing national with global sovereignty. But in a preview of globalization, colonialism was giving new weight to a novel idea: that we can create something called a world order and really mean it.

Cecil makes it clear that we are also speaking meaningfully of a new system. Colonialism was serious about tearing up the economic, political, and cultural pillars of the old world and building a master plan for a new order. The political architects would be the great commercial nations of Europe, and their blueprint was a true system overhaul designed to maximize capital accumulation in the global colonial economy. The dream of Cecil's British Empire was to see the Union Jack flying high all around the world "from sea to shining sea."

The important idea about both ancient and modern globalizations is the breathtaking ambition of the project. My Jewish grandmother would say, "Some chutzpah, this globalization idea!" Globalization is about rewriting all the rules for people everywhere; it's hard to imagine more chutzpah than that. It's also why I write about globalizations as creating Constitutional Moments, periods in which the basic rules are put into play because somebody is serious about inventing new rules and making everyone in the world play by them.

Any new world system, made possible by new technology and often justified in God's name, has human architects. Rhodes saw the divine inspiration of God in the British Empire, and John D. Rockefeller said bluntly, "God gave me my money." But globalizations are always missions by very human actors. This point seems too obvious to mention except that it is so widely ignored or denied in current conversations. With hindsight, it is easy to see that the earlier globalizations of colonialism and the GildedAge were designed and enforced by people with immense power and much to gain.13

The common sense about today's globalization is that it "runs itself," suggesting that it is conspiratorial to believe that self-interested people run it. Since hardly anyone would deny the greed and self-interest at the heart of colonialism or the Gilded Age, one can only draw two conclusions. The first is that globalization is different from the "ancient globalizations" precisely because nobody is in charge. The second is that the idea of nobody in charge is a myth that helps disguise the prime movers themselves. My own view veers toward the second. We can't speak of globalization without thinking of those who make it happen for their own ends.

One example is media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. He seems to me a modern-day equivalent of the swashbuckling Cecil Rhodes. The Australian-born Murdoch, now an American citizen, built News Corp., owner of the sprawling worldwide Fox media conglomerate and hundreds of other publishers, record companies, newspapers, and magazines. Murdoch now owns TV Guide, the New York Post, the Weekly Standard, the Sunday Times, the Australian, the Daily Telegraph, ChinaByte, HarperCollins, Columbia TriStar Netherlands,, and many more. The global leader in satellite communications, Murdoch operates nine media on six continents. News Corp. is a huge force in the United States and Europe, and the biggest corporation in Asia. That's saying a lot when you think about Toyota, Honda, or Sony. Murdoch seemed the first to smell a global audience. He was buying satellites to build his planetary ratings, while U.S. media were still delivering newspapers by bicycle. Nobody has had more fire in his belly for globalizing, and nobody has been better at it. Ted Turner, a world-class globalizer himself, accuses Murdoch of being "out to conquer the world." Along with some of his friends running two hundred of the world's largest corporations, Murdoch's made a pretty good start.14

PEOPLE BEFORE PROFIT. Copyright © 2002 by Charles Derber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Charles Derber, a noted social critic, is a Professor of Sociology at Boston College. He is the author of eight books including Corporation Nation and The Wilding of America. He lives in Dedham, Massachusetts.

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People Before Profit 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a really good read for those who are neither totally against all the prinicples of globalization nor for the destructive globalization being brought forth across the world today. People Before Profit is at times redundant with some concepts, but it works well in this case becase it helps you remember the point Derber is trying to get across. It's just a really solid book, with great information and ideas.