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A narrative on globalisation

Minh Nguyen*

Published as "A Vietnamese in Australia" in Promotio Iustitiae, no.88, 2005. PJ is a journal of the Social Justice Secretariat of the Society of Jesus

Personal narrative

I experienced globalisation and marginalisation long before this became a popular topic of discussion and long before I became conscious of it. As a Vietnamese refugee trying to come to terms with a foreign culture and a foreign language I have had my fair share of racist discriminatory experiences. Having arrived empty-handed in a new land, my family knew hardship and exploitation long before 'sweatshop' became a 'vogue' word. Globalisation gave us new opportunities but it also brought hardship.

By the time the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, globalisation in Australia had firmly reached a new stage in its development owing partly to the Hawke-Keating Labor Government's economic and industrial reforms. Once a party that stood for social democracy and the working class, it became a pioneer of neo-liberalism known in Australia as economic rationalism. Among other initiatives, Labor introduced enterprise bargaining, commercialised state enterprises, and scaled down welfare benefits. It also initiated tariff reduction, prompting some manufacturing, and textile, clothing and footwear companies to move overseas.

Not all companies felt the need to move or source products from overseas. In Australia we have our own third world economy within a first; we have our own domestic 'race to the bottom'. This economy is fuelled by increased migration from Asia and the Pacific, which creates a pool of unskilled, unprotected non-English speaking outworkers. The vast majority of these workers are women. In some industries there is even a pecking order in which more established migrants exploit newer ones. By the 1990s my mother used to complain that there was not enough work to go around even though workers like herself would be lucky to earn more than $3 an hour in the textile industry. These migrants made the clothes that could be branded and sold at inflated prices to impressionable young consumers of the kind I once was.

Going through secondary school, I was a model passive consumer; saving the little money I had to splurge on brand name outfits and joggers. The period of the early 1990s is now remembered for the rise of the branding and marketing culture that corresponded with the rise of the service industries and the decline of manufacturing in the West. I embraced American popular culture and adored their corporate logos as they were beamed across Australian television. At times, these foreign cultural elements gave me identity and a sense of belonging among similarly non-critical peers. At other times, they became a means to distinguish my own ethnicity from the homogenising influences of mainstream Australian identity (for example, participating in the basketball subculture as opposed to rugby or cricket).

The influences of Hollywood probably changed the direction of my life. I might never have studied law but for its glorification in American legal dramas. As it turned out, it was the tertiary environment in general and my almost accidental second degree in humanities in particular that shook the foundation of my thoughts and faith. Although by the time I entered university, I had already became wary of the promises of the corporate brands, it was at university that I was politicised, became conscious of the forces of economic globalisation and was introduced to the rapidly evolving area of information technology, a tool that turned out to be essential to my post-tertiary justice work. It was also during this time that the issues of race and multiculturalism became popular topics for debate with the election to federal parliament of Pauline Hanson, an unpolished small businesswoman who later founded the right-wing isolationist party One Nation.

One Nation itself was a reaction to the negative effects of globalisation, particularly in rural Australia. Those who voted for One Nation certainly included former employees of multinational and local companies made redundant because operations shifted or were subcontracted overseas, mainly to Asia, where manufacturing was cheaper and better. Hanson hit a raw populist nerve when she announced that One Nation would “reindustrialise Australia and embark on programs of self sufficiency.” As an open season was subsequently declared on indigenous people, Asians, migrants and refugees, I realised that marginalisation has a trickle down effect. Migrants and foreign-born Australians not only felt the pinch from a decade of economic restructuring, but were also the scapegoats of populist perception. Experiences like these, and being involved in discussions generated by the growth of One Nation, politicised my thinking and acting.

By the end of my first degree, I was involved in campus politics, mingling with communists, radical feminists and former Catholics. Even while I associated myself with the left of student politics, I kept contact with conservative, particularly religious, elements. At one stage I even headed a right-wing devotional Asian Catholic group which I tried unsuccessfully to conscientise. Through my involvement with this group, I was introduced to the International Movement of Catholic Students Australia, an international movement that once emphasised the importance of immersion, contemplation and action in solidarity with the poor, particularly those in developing countries. Its method gave me a tool of analysis for life.

The internet at this stage was in the middle of a technological and commercial eruption. I had the privilege of studying a number of legal and computer components at law school under the direction of lecturers who were pioneering the use of the web to increase popular access to and awareness of the law, via the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) database. I witnessed the enormous potential of the internet. However, my optimism was later dampened by a chance meeting with a Latin American student who educated me about the existence of a 'digital divide' – the growing gap between the 'information rich' and the 'information poor'.

Technological globalisation burdened our conscience with awareness of the problems in developing countries, but it also expanded our capacity to deal with these issues. Information and transportation technology, both a product and driver of globalisation, provides the privileged with unprecedented access to information from across the globe and has radically changed the way social activists organise themselves. The campaign against the draft Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in 1998 and the 1999 East Timor solidarity campaign in the wake of post-independence violence, in which I became intimately involved, utilised the internet and other communication tools to mobilise people at short notice.

For a moment in time, economic globalisation almost became its own gravedigger with the internet and mobile phones being used to rally disaffected people against it. Fired by the success of the MAI campaign and the protests in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organisation, anti-globalisation passion reached its peak at the turn of the century. I became involved in what was known as the 'S-11' protests against the World Economic Forum’s Asia Pacific Summit in Melbourne in 2000. S-11 marked Australia's debut in the series of global actions against agenda-setting neo-liberal institutions. S-11 was a sharp learning curve in my perception of the role of the media and police in curbing dissent and reinforcing the status quo, and my understanding of emerging community organisational strategies and methods. My bias in favour of the marginalised and grassroots was reinforced.

S-11 became the single most significant event in recent memory for those affected by, or concerned about, the excesses of global capitalism. It brought together diverse groups seeking alternatives to the simplistic worldviews of both neo-liberal globalism and Hansonite nationalism. S-11, as an act of public dissent, was groundbreaking in that it helped shatter the teleological doctrine of globalisation as inevitable and helped create the space for the emergence of the World Social Forum (WSF), an evolving strategy to bring together diverse community groups from around the world.

Another significant aspect of this event is that it was the first action of this kind to have worked successfully without the need of a centralised command structure – such as People for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s. The new social movement worked because participants learned how to exploit communication technology as an organisational tool and means of disseminating information. When information was freely available, different autonomous groups were able to identify gaps and strategise independently without the need to be marshalled by an overarching central organisation or 'vanguard' party.

The following year, inspired by the possibilities of the post-S11 social landscape, I decided that I needed to reflect further on globalisation and subsequently enrolled in a postgraduate course in international relations. During this period, courses and even degrees specialising in globalisation began to appear in university curricula. Debates over a proliferation of issues around globalisation were deep and broad. No one could have predicted that these debates that had been ongoing from the mid-1990s could be so suddenly eclipsed by two unconnected events in August and September of 2001.

Those who ascribed to the neo-liberal worldview supported the idea of a rapidly integrating world. But they did not envisage that one day the faces of the poor, desperate and angry would come to haunt them. In August 2001 the controversy over 430 asylum seekers heading for Australia, rescued from sea by the Norwegian vessel 'MV Tampa', caused anxiety among many Australians. A few weeks later, on the first anniversary of S-11, terrorist-piloted commercial jets slammed into the World Trade Centre and the walls of the Pentagon, proving that even insecurity could be globalised.

The Government reacted to these events with little sympathy, first by revolutionising a fortress-like border protection regime and later by joining the US in its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. By then, most international activists had turned their attention to the issues of refugees and wars. As the connection between war, energy security and global capitalism became clearer to me, I concentrated my efforts on building up the peace movement and helping organise the February 2003 global peace rallies. These were extraordinary times with community political participation reaching record-breaking levels all around the world. Although this was not enough to change foreign policies, it was enough to offer hope to many that globalisation could, with a bit of hard work, be made into a force for justice.


Globalisation is a mixed bag for the poor, marginalised, and people working for justice. The consequences for Australian culture have also been mixed, along with the potential for religious coexistence. Knowledge of the outside world, assisted by the international organisation UNHCR, brought my family and me to a 'first world' where we were at times treated as if we were in the third. American popular culture created artificial consumption habits but it also helped develop my critical thinking, acting and faith. The effects of economic restructuring and migration patterns generated a populist backlash, but it also inspired me to embrace plurality and to participate more actively in the global democratic and justice movement.

What my narrative suggests is that globalisation is not a unidirectional, one-dimensional force. The interactions between the global and local occur in complex ways. While not wishing to underrate the reality of power imbalances in our world – the economically strong over the weak and the knowledgeable over the ignorant – it is important to emphasise that people do not passively absorb external influences but engage with them in a continual process of resistance, incorporation and collaboration.

Australia, for example, has been at the forefront with the US and UK in promoting neo-liberal ideology and its practices. We have also embraced and incorporated many aspects of foreign culture but have resisted those things we thought would undermine our treasured national myths – such as the notion of social equity or a 'fair go'.

Besides the vertical negotiations that occur between the global and the local, there are also tensions and negotiations that occur in the depths of our minds and horizontally among local social groups. My journey has been a long progress from passiveness to action, ignorance to attentiveness and doubt to faith. But it could have been different. People's responses to globalisation vary and will depend on a combination of circumstances, chance and accepted worldviews. In dealing with issues of justice and religious coexistence, I have learned that it is unhelpful to demonise people who oppose my social justice agenda. Although I will be careful not to underestimate the influences of organised rightwing ideological groups, these oppositions are, more often than not, expressions of anxiety from ordinary people trying to make sense of a changing world.

It is not only the marginalised that feels this anxiety but the Australian mainstream as well. More especially following the anti-globalisation actions, the Tampa incident and September 11 terrorist attacks, mainstream Australia is becoming increasingly conscious that there are winners and losers in the new globalised order. These tensions may prompt some to work for social justice. Some may feel vindicated in their present worldview. Others may even look to extremism or fundamentalism for answers.

The anxiety generated by globalisation has produced a backlash in some places that are overtly xenophobic and conservative insofar as they see globalisation as an external threat to some benchmarked, homogeneous and communal way of life. For now, these forces seem to have struck an informal alliance with the Government against the greater threat, perceived or otherwise, of global terrorism and radical Islamism. The Government is ahead in its ability to accommodate these forces, albeit by adopting some of their visions ranging from welfare to immigration. At hindsight, the often violent clashes between anti-racism protesters and supporters of the then budding One Nation party were counter-productive. I have realised that it is not enough to articulate opposition explicitly against some of the excesses of global capitalism or its malign offspring; we need to show sensitivity and a more proactive approach to the different visions that underlie populist demands.

There is also an urgent need to deal with the tensions among us, that is, people of different faiths and political persuasions working for a fairer democratic globalisation. My involvement in S-11 and the peace movement have led me to advocate 'practical dialogue' as one of the best hopes for the development of a coherent articulation and strategy against forms of globalization that promote inequalities and/or terror. In the interfaith context, practical dialogue involves diverse groups motivated by their religious backgrounds working together on a particular project. On a more general level, it may involve the coming together of peoples from all religious or political persuasions motivated by a hope for a better world.

We have already seen the development and evolution of one such space for practical and respectful dialogue between many groups – the WSF. Unlike the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries and the 'counter-summits' of NGOs of the 1990s, the WSF is broad, diverse and community-based. At the WSF at any one time, you would find hundreds of overlapping and competing plenaries, conferences, workshops, cultural events, exhibitions, protest marches and performances, as well as informal gatherings on and off the venue. Within the WSF process, dialogue has occurred among races, cultures, faiths, paradigms and ideologies. More importantly, dialogue has also occurred between the marginalised and those seeking to represent their interests. There is still a long way to go, but this represents a start.

Finally, we must also recognise the need for a 'dialogue' with technology. Through my experiences with the use of the internet, despite the current lack of universal accessibility, I have come to appreciate the potential the internet has to produce conceptual and organisational advances for social justice. Technology is not just facilitating new forms of human organisation; it is also inspiring new practices and ideas. Internet projects like Wikipedia have succeeded in uniting diverse and constantly changing online individuals and communities through common projects. Wikipedia defies common logic because it is a seemingly chaotic collaborative effort to create a credible free encyclopaedia based on the idea that any user on the web can change any entry, even anonymously. As recent trends among social movements seem to indicate, developments on the internet can cross-fertilise developments in real life. In an increasingly plural and complex world, ideas that would have once been considered unworkable or a 'recipe for anarchy' are becoming more attractive by the day.

* Minh Nguyen is Uniya's Research Officer.


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