Friday, July 3, 2009

Globalization and Genocide

There are several dimensions to the "ignored reality" of the Holocaust examined by Timothy Snyder in his essay in the latest issue of The New York Review. Most important is his observation that "many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas," stressing that, for example, the factory-like procedures at camps like Auschwitz were only a part (and a relatively late one) of the tragic narrative of the Holocaust. Equally important is Snyder's effort to examine parallels between the mass killings under the Nazis and those in the Soviet Union under Stalin. However, Snyder saves the real punch line of these parallels for the end of the article:

Although the history of mass killing has much to do with economic calculation, memory shuns anything that might seem to make murder appear rational. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union followed a path to economic self-sufficiency, Germany wishing to balance industry with an agrarian backwardness with rapid industrialization and urbanization. Both regimes were aiming for economic autarky in a large empire, in which both sought to control Eastern Europe. Both of them saw the Polish state as a historical aberration; both saw Ukraine and its rich soil as indispensable. They defined different groups as the enemies of their designs, although the German plan to kill every Jew is unmatched by any Soviet policy in the totality of its aims. What is crucial is that the ideology that legitimated mass death was also a vision of economic development. In a world of scarcity, particularly of food supplies, both regimes integrated mass murder with economic planning.

They did so in ways that seem appalling and obscene to us today, but which were sufficiently plausible to motivate large numbers of believers at the time. Food is no longer scarce, at least in the West; but other resources are, or will be soon. In the twenty-first century, we will face shortages of potable water, clean air, and affordable energy. Climate change may bring a renewed threat of hunger.

If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed and may witness again. The only sufficient answer is an ethical commitment to the individual, such that the individual counts in life rather than in death, and schemes of this sort become unthinkable.

For all my criticism of Tom Friedman's evangelical approach to globalization, I do not think I would accuse him of fostering "privileged development." On the other hand it is not difficult to read his evangelism in terms of "economic autarky;" and, from that point of view, I suspect that Friedman can be accused of wearing blinders that block out the connection between economic autarky and privileged development. Thus, we need to turn to Europeans to take that connection into account; and one of those Europeans appears to be Angela Merkel.

I make this assertion on the basis of a statement she made yesterday to the German parliament reported this morning on SPIEGEL ONLINE:

With a week to go before the next G-8 meeting in the Italian city of L'Aquila, Merkel told the German parliament in Berlin on Thursday that the forum was no longer sufficient to deal with the challenges ahead. "We are seeing that the world is growing together and that the problems that we face cannot be solved by the industrialized countries alone," she said.

Merkel now favors the G-20, a wider group of nations, including the fast-growing nations like China, Brazil and India. "I think the G-20 should be the format that, like an overarching roof, determines the future," she said.

These are the words of a world leader who recognizes that there will always be a threat of economic autarky and is prepared to counter that threat by avoiding economic planning by elite bodies that lack adequate concern for those countries not already "developed" according to standards set by the industrialized countries. Of course, compared with the membership of the United Nations, the G-20 is also a rather elite body; but she has taken a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, it will be up to leaders whose sense of history is more tragic than that of any American "players" to take further steps to recognize that the economic well-being of the world at large is not necessarily strictly a matter of growth, rapid or otherwise. Well-being also includes security from threats of harm, such as terrorism. Until those with both the potential and the motivation to threaten can engage in meaningful discussion about economic futures, even the G-20 will not be able to address economic well-being from a position that will matter most to the rest of the world.

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