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Is This the Way the World Ends?

(Photo: NASA / Flickr)

The purported end of the world came and went, and, to the surprise of few, the rapture did not come to pass on May 21.

The world is not, however, out of the woods if you read Peter Nolan's superb book, “Crossroads: The End of Wild Capitalism and the Future of Humanity.” Nolan's thesis is that unrestrained capitalism, its extremes and its contradictions, have put China, the United States and the world of Islam on a collision course that gives the world “the choice of no choice.” Either these three models of culture and capitalism will find constructive engagement, or the world as we know it is in extreme peril – either from economic instability and social reaction, military conflict, or environmental destruction, or all of the above.

Students of economics and geopolitics will find much that is familiar here in theory, but Nolan's formulation of the world's current dynamics, risks to the system and limited options going forward – engage cooperatively or unhinge the world – are elegantly reasoned and argued. As a professor of Chinese management and holder of the Sinyi Chair at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School, Nolan demonstrates great knowledge of and passion for China and its potential to find a harmonious route through capitalism's contradictions, although success here is by no means a given. He also argues convincingly that global capitalism requires global regulation in order not to run amok and roughshod over most of the world's population.

In this part of his thesis is the intriguing notion that the major oligopolistic global corporations have an insurmountable advantage in the world and are increasingly stateless in their ambitions and interests. Developing economy companies are starting from so far back in some areas that they cannot hope to compete. And then, what?

Readers will also find fascinating economic and political history to suggest that the underlying approaches to capitalism pursued by China, the United States and the Islamic world are far more importantly similar than they are different. Property rights, individual pursuit of profits, taxation and a drive to serve the common good all have a place in these systems (and Islam has found a way to embrace interest on capital by another name.) Their differences with regard to capitalism are more perceived and exacerbated by nationalisms and cultural bias than substantive. But can these systems find ways to constructively coexist before it's too late?

Nolan reaches back as far as biblical times to report the early histories of China, the Middle East, Europe and the infant United States, which has risen in the post-World War II period to dominate the global system (and whose military expenditures now reach $2 billion a day). Moreover, the United States, motivated by its thirst for oil, has alienated Islam with its unquestioning support of Israel, and tends to view China as a rising threat rather than as a potential and natural collaborator in meeting the challenges of global modernization. China's labor advantages will continue to depress advanced economy wages, and we will have to deal with that.

In the last 30 years, progress has been made on many fronts. Millions have been lifted out of poverty as finance and technology have spread into the developing world. But wealth disparity has grown significantly (Egypt, by no means alone, is one example where one percent of the population controls nearly all the country's wealth), the environment has been severely degraded (desertification growing by great leaps in China, whose organic water pollutants equal those of American, India, Russia and Japan combined), and global warming has emerged as humans' unique threat to the world in which we live. In this, the United States has been slowest to recognize the threat, let alone take significant steps to address it, Nolan notes.

The United States has fomented an unregulated form of global finance capitalism that led to the great unwinding of 2008, which has not yet played out. This is one factor – along with US dependence on autos and oil, military power, and a jaundiced view of the Middle East – that leads Nolan to conclude (quoting former US defense secretary Robert McNamara), that there has never been a more dangerous moment in human history.

This book is riddled with fascinating facts, as well as broad arguments, to challenge any conventional American view about the legitimacy of both our approach to global finance capitalism and our reaction to those who challenge us or require a different political approach on the world's playing field. You may finish reading this book, as I did, convinced that if the United States is not prepared to change some of our political and economic approaches to China and Islam, we may bring Judgment Day upon the world sooner than we think – and in ways not yet imagined. That said, Nolan will help persuade you that nuclear Armageddon, as one way to end the world, is by no means out of the question.

© 2011 Eric Best

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