About Sects and Supermarkets



Ahmad Beydoun



Free trade cannot be considered as a moral value. It consists of a set of behaviors subjected to some defined rules and that is supposed to promote the growth of the global wealth. On the part of the consumers, free trade is supposed to insure best quality/price ratio by promoting competition that leads to reducing rates of profit and to continuous enhancement and diversification of commercialized products and services. On the part of the investors, competition promotes concentration of capital: a must for providing adequate investments in research, innovations in equipment and thus increased productivity that imposes a widened distribution. Once the national markets prove too narrow for the increased offer of products and services, pressures are exerted in order to open new markets by overcoming national constraints, thus unifying progressively the world market. The necessity for the partners to apply commonly accepted rules, while engaging in this process, implies that free trade has to be a fair trade. The assumption that global growth should be beneficial to all the involved societies means that free trade has only a practical and conditional value.


In fact, unless the growth related to free trade is perceived by the concerned parties as fairly beneficial to those who accept the rules of trading practices, it would be exposed to more or less violent contempt.


Actually, in the free trade game, the players happen to be of various sizes. When the game is intended to resemble to a repetitive wrestling round where light weight wrestlers have to compete against heavy weight champions, it would not be considered as a fair play, at least not by all the parties. The small players would be tempted then to break the rules. They would use any unlawful instrument they can reach to compensate for the obvious inferiority of their muscular system in this imposed combat.


Conversely, if free trade is proved to be, rather than an unbalanced competition, similar to a multilateral business where every partner is allowed to expect benefits (or losses) more or less proportional to his contribution, then all the parties would be legitimately expected to stick to the prefixed rules.


We live in a world where economy and economic identities have become infinitely more global than other collective practices and identities. Moreover, the globalization of the production and distribution of goods and services and of the financial transactions has resulted in weakened power of decision and weakened authority of the national State, thus fueling sub-national identities such as sectarianism, ethnical fanaticism, tribalism, etc. This process is much more visible in the countries of the South where benefits from the global free trade are still to be proved.


Of course, these elements are not representative of the complete picture. Sects, ethnic groups and even tribes, while facing other groups of the same types in a single society, perceive badly their weakness on the international scene where they spontaneously tend to situate the main battlefield. Most of them recall than the fact that they are equally sub-national and transnational. Thus they aim to create each its “Internationale” hoping to prevail or, at least, to prove present on both the national and the international scenes. This results often in aggressive networks, religious or ethnical, and sometimes ends, under certain conditions, in local and/or international terrorism.


On the global scale, free trade is never a mere economic practice. When an international firm creates a huge supermarket in a remote city of a southern country, this makes thousands of people happy. A supermarket is an air conditioned space coupled with a parking area and where a car owning consumer finds almost all what he needs for his and his family’s daily life. Moreover tens of unemployed people in the city may find a job in the new supermarket and thus join the happy people group.


Nevertheless, the supermarket ends in ruining dozens of small businesses. A superficial observer would see no big issue in this. He would argue that we have here a small number of unhappy people facing a huge number of happy people. Unfortunately, this would be a truly immature vision of the situation.


In fact, in a so-called traditional society, an owner of a small business is never a mere small business owner. Having never completed his “Great Transformation” (Karl Polanyi), he never isolates his economic status from his overall persona. Normally, a business owner belongs to an extended family or even to a bigger tribe where the sense of solidarity is far from vanishing, especially in an era where the so-called “modern” group identities, patiently founded under the authority of the always questioned and often unstable national State, are dangerously challenged by the globalization processes. Also, the above-mentioned small business owner always happens to be a member of a religious sect that is, in general, more effective in handling and publicizing his complaint. He may even recall his national identity consciously as he might be of the fact that the supermarket came from abroad.


The xenophobic and eventually violence generating feelings that are fueled by these combined affiliations may be widely contagious. Large sectors of the happy consumers and even a number of the happy new employed people may develop a schizophrenic attitude and, while they are still happy about the supermarket, they might be deeply affected by the mobilizing complaint of the ruined people. Similar to the small business owner which in no way can be reduced to this aspect of his condition, a consumer, in this  kind of society, is never a mere consumer and new employed individual would hardly become a mere new employee. For instance, the sectarian solidarity is, in general, highly more mobilizing and militant than the simple affiliation to a certain category of consumers.


The anger generated by the creation of the supermarket may not target the supermarket itself. The latter would continue to flourish, attracting new customers. Some of the unhappy fellows would convert to other types of activity or become dependant on their relatives or community. Hoping to live happy there ever after, others would go as legal or illegal immigrants to where the supermarket came from. Through tricky and complicated mutations accorded to selected cultural factors and patterns, the specific and local resentment their case generated would likely integrate in a overall weltenshauung incriminating the world system and its main players that are supposed to have given birth to the supermarket.


What conclusion can be drawn from this realistic – though imagined –  story? Should we advise the multinational society to give up the idea of creating supermarkets in remote cities of the southern world? The answer is no because this would be a loss for both the city and the company. Should we ask the company to tackle directly the problem of the small merchants it had ruined by opening the supermarket? Such a procedure may be taken into consideration, but it could prove to be unrealistic and furthermore too simplistic for such a multidimensional situation. It would be more accurate to build on a basis of awareness of the fact that the supermarket problem is nothing but a microscopic expression of a set of huge questions. The most

important of these questions may be the following: under what conditions the global free trade can be considered as a fair trade? Given the above developed analysis, those conditions seem not to be purely economical. They are also political, social and cultural. It will never be possible to apply simple economic calculus of costs, prices and profit to the economic transactions between the north and the south of the planet, basing on this sole type of facts, prospects of peace and security. It will never be possible to build peacefully a unified world market while we pretend to ignore the conflicting relationship between the unified market and the culturally and politically fragmented world. Ignoring this relationship means denying to the majority of the world societies the right to keep their economic behaviors integrated into their whole cultural life. Even though this may change in due time, the change cannot be imposed by aggressive methods. Furthermore this change appears as an illegitimate request, especially with regard to the fact that, while a simplified universal culture is spread everywhere, the unified market is still largely contributing to the fragmentation of the political and cultural landscape of the world.


The main source of conflicts and violence in today’s world is the fact that the ongoing unification of the world market does not meet elsewhere political, social and cultural conditions adequate to its implications. Parallel to the global market, we find a fragmented world that the market unification makes even more fragmented. What else could be expected when the State’s authority is weakened and when the sub-national communities feel threatened and left alone?


By defying existing national sovereignties, precarious social structures and deeply rooted cultural patterns, the new global economy, based on free trade, triggers defensive reactions. Should these reactions be violent, they would not be legitimately attributed to an intrinsically violent culture. Rather, they would seek their basis in a reinterpretation of an ambivalent culture. Ambivalence never has been proper to a culture nor to a group of cultures. Unless very poor and deprived from historical traditions, a culture is always ambivalent. When the outside or inside pressures exerted on a cultural community are strong enough, they may lead to violent reformulation of its sets of behaviors and its value systems.


This reformulation is never embraced unanimously by the entire cultural group. Usually it involves a small minority that polarizes sympathy in certain milieus of the group and a more or less active refusal in others. Nevertheless, this minority, if deeply engaged in its violent option, can become equally dangerous for the rest of the group and for the outside parties it may target. This is exactly what terrorism is all about.


Condemning terrorism should not prevent us from unveiling its roots. Fighting crime never prevented scholars from developing a whole psychology and a whole sociology of crime. This effort helps going beyond mere condemnation and repression, knowing that – though necessary – they never would be enough to defeat crime. In the case of terrorism, deep inquiry about its roots may lead to ways (surely long, painful and costly ways) to uproot it. As a start, we must leave behind us the sterile dichotomy of Good and Evil.


The roots of present day terrorism have to be looked for in the nurturing soil of the confrontation above mentioned that characterizes our present day world. In order to uproot terrorism, we must tackle, in national and international arenas, the whole set of economical, political, social and cultural problems triggered by the multiple processes of globalization. Free trade could become a moral value, only if it becomes fair trade and if it is coupled with the reinvention of our world starting with that of the international relations system.