Global Warning: What Would Bruce Jesson Have Said About Apec?

Listener 11 September 1999

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade;

I wish Bruce Jesson were here, especially as I write this column about APEC. Bruce and I use to discuss our putative writings. Never directly of course, but after a mulling over, one of us would say “I’ve been thinking about writing a column on this issue, and …” Sadly, we dont know what Bruce would have written on the APEC conference, but there are hints in his last major article.

Following the publication of his Their Purpose is Mad Bruce wanted to write a successor book shifting from the analytic – what has happened – to the programmatic – what could happen. The strategy was to write a set of essays for the Political Review, and reconstruct them into the book if the cancer gave him time. Alas it did not, and the only part he wrote was “To Build A Nation”. (We often talked about nation building.) Now I am not going to summarise the essay (read it for yourself in the April 1999 edition). It is pregnant with ideas, in effect his final testament. In it there are clues to APEC.

Significantly, he shows an impatience with his past record: “Most of what I wrote in the 1970s was negative in tone. I attacked ….”. The new book was to have reversed that, to offer an alternative. He applied this criticism to others including, may I hazard, those who criticize APEC. It is one thing to say there is an alternative. The issue is what is it? Demonstrators tend not to have them. What is a coherent anti-APEC manifesto?

There is also a paragraph which Bruce often expressed more strongly to me. The critics do not actually tackle the economic issues. They know hardly any economics. Bruce was not, of course trained as an economist, but he was quick enough and interested enough to grasp the key issues. He placed narrow economics in the wider context of political economy, arising from his studying of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx and their successors. What I am now about to write is my best understanding of Bruce’s position, although we never discussed it in this way and I may have got him wrong.

By way of background, nineteenth century Europe was dominated by the painful transformation of industrialisation. Some socialists – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his Philosophy of Poverty is a prime example – argued the solution was to go back to the agrarian society which was being destroyed. Marx retorted with his Poverty of Philosophy. His thesis acknowledged the pain of industrialisation but saw it as a part of the sweep of history. The redemption was that eventually the new economy would lead to a classless society in which workers would be the beneficiaries.

Bruce almost certainly saw globalisation as parallel to, and as inescapable as, industrialisation, driven by similar material forces of history (although that may be cruder than he would have put it). His final essay is about that process. (As an aside it quotes Marx and Friedrich Engels to demonstrate globalisation was a nineteenth century phenomenon too.) Nations are integral to the global economy. It “requires national political structures, if only to provide a system of law and authority and basic economic and social infrastructures.” I have no sense that Bruce thought globalisation would necessarily lead to a better world. Rather the essay begins to explore how to build a New Zealand nation which could benefit from the opportunities globalisation creates, although it is adamant that New Zealand is currently suffering. Unfortunately we dont have the rest of the book. We’ll have to write it ourselves.

‘Well, Bruce, thanks for the ideas for the column. Are you going to demonstrate against APEC yourself?’

That engaging impish grin. ‘Think I’ll go to the demonstration against the US lamb tariffs.’ It would not just be the freezing-workers son’s solidarity with farmers. The world’s largest trading nation with its rhetoric of, and interest in, globalisation screws smaller nations when it suits its national interest.