ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Smooth Narrative, Spotty Scholarship

Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalisation by Nayan Chanda

Smooth Narrative, Spotty Scholarship

Amiya Kumar Bagchi

dominance of the dollar from 1971 had already alerted the political and financial establishment in the US to the need for a strategy to re-establish US hegemony. The new phase of imperialist globalisation can be seen as the process of this clawing back of lost ground by capital and imperialism

ven before the end of second world war, Winston Churchill and Harry S Truman had decided that the Soviet Union and the communists were going to be the main enemy of the hegemonic western governments in the postwar world. The US, with Britain as the junior partner then began creating military alliances, mounted counterinsurgency operations and open or covert intelligence-gathering and brain-washing activities all around the world. Such activities were intensified after the victory of the communist revolution in China, despite the massive economic and military aid given by the US to the Kuomintang regime. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Central Treaty Organisation, Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, Radio Free Europe, Congress for Cultural Freedom and countless other front organisations created by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) were all parts of this systematic and concerted campaign to “roll back” communism. The NATO-Korean war and the French and US aggression against Vietnam were parts of this all-out war. In the name of protecting freedom, popular and often democratically elected governments were overthrown, from Guatemala and Guyana to Indonesia and Iran, and brutal, often “genocidal” dictatorships were installed in their place. The murderously racist apartheid regime of South Africa received full support from the US and its allies, and long-drawn out wars were conducted by them against national liberation movements in Congo, Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Since many of the independence and anti-imperialist movements were led by secular nationalists and communists, the US and its allies promoted fundamentalist regimes such as the installation of the Wahhabist clan of Ibn Saud on the newly

Economic & Political Weekly

march 1, 2008

book review

Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalisation by Nayan Chanda; Penguin/Viking, New Delhi, 2007; pp xviii+ 391, Rs 525.

created thrones of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Muslim Brotherhood originally arose as a reaction to the abolition of the Turkish Caliphate. Similar fundamentalist organisations arose in other countries and they were promoted by the imperialist powers to counter Nasserite and Arab nationalism, and of course, communism [Achcar 2002; Ali 2002]. Thus long before the US funding of the mujahideen to fight Soviet influence in Afghanistan, the imperialist powers were planting dragon’s teeth of fundamentalist terrorism in west Asia and the world is now breathing the fumes of this poisonous harvest.

Capital Regains Lost Ground

But containment of communism in the excolonial countries or in eastern Europe was not enough for the capitalist regimes of the US or Britain. The challenge from the Soviet Union, and the memory of the depression of the 1930s that helped the rise of the Nazis persuaded the western European governments to try and pursue policies with full employment and provision of more or less comprehensive social security as objectives. The post-war boom also increased the power of trade unions. All these developments led to a rise in real wages and a profit squeeze. Then in 1973 the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries raised the price of oil far above the very low levels that had prevailed until then. The planning of the counterattack led by the financial and military might of the US, faithfully supported by Britain began from that date, although it may be argued that the loss of undisputed with every means at their disposal.

Publicists and economists advancing the cause of a neoliberal polity and economy have performed a double trick to confuse the unwary reader or watcher of electronic media: they have hijacked the word “globalisation” which means the growing interconnectedness of different branches of the human family several millennia after they walked out of Africa to populate the major land masses of the world and confined it to mean only the kind of globalisation for the rich at the behest of the rich that they favour. Then they turn round and accuse the people opposing neoliberal globalisation of opposing all the processes that bring human beings together through trade, cultural exchanges, political cooperation, neighbourly contacts and long-distance communication.

Doubly Misleading

Nayan Chanda’s narrative flows smoothly as is only to be expected from a journalist of his experience and reputation. It is therefore doubly misleading because on the one hand, it is full of interesting information culled from many different sources about many aspects of the process of globalisation and he also outlines many of the imperial projects in advancing or blocking particular facets of globalisation. He is also aware that many aspects of the current process of globalisation are the outcomes of deliberate decisions by powerful institutions and governments and that the critics of the narrow globalisation project of rich men and their client governments are opposing their life-threatening decisions. For he writes: “They view globalisation as deliberate choice of groups of people or institutions. Media and academic reports on the myriad ills of globalisation sometimes identify a neoliberal political philosophy and its handmaidens, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation,


as the forces behind globalisation” (p 274). But he ends the book with the anodyne statement: “Calls to shut down globalisation are pointless, because nobody is in charge, but together, we can attempt to nudge our rapidly integrating world toward a more harmonious course – because we are all connected” (p 320).

The fourth chapter of Chanda’s book has the heading, ‘Imperial Weave’, in which he records the founding of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas, Africa and Latin America and the later founding of the British empire across the globe. He also records the way the US took up the imperial mantle formally with the occupation of Cuba and the Philippines. Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem about the “white man’s burden” to celebrate the US occupation of Cuba and not the already accomplished mission of the British in India. He even records that the second US-Iraq war’s code name, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is very reminiscent of the 19th century slogans of the “civilising mission”. But he does not see that armed warfare has been a constant companion of European-style capitalism and imperialism since the 16th century and that the new phase of globalisation has seen a heightened military interventionism on the part of the imperialist powers. Niall Ferguson and Thomas Friedman – two of the favourite authors of Chanda – have been among the most unabashed proponents of imperialist globalisation. Chanda should have heeded the militarist caution of Friedman (1999): “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonald’s cannot work without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps”.

Capitalism promises civilisation and delivers death; it promises freedom and delivers slavery. It accelerates rates of innovation in production and weapons of mass destruction, endows the few with undreamt of wealth and luxurious living and creates huge swamps of deprivation for the many and forges new chains of bondage for them [Bagchi 2006]. One of the best examples of the doublespeak of the masters of conquest by weapons and market ideologies is the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which blocked the freedom of expression in the name of fighting Soviet totalitarianism [Saunders 2000].

The world Chanda chooses to portray is the world of the jet-age traveller and the connoisseur of the privileges delivered by the age of nano-electronic technologies. On pp 35-36 he recounts how he ordered an Apple iPod music player for his son, with his son’s name engraved on it by email and had it delivered from Shanghai “barely forty hours after I had clicked ‘buy’”. In the last chapter of his book, he describes his non-stop flight from New York to Seoul, during which he savours meals and wines with a multi-origin imprint, and he scours the world news and sends emails through his computer notebook (pp 305-07). These are real privileges of technological progress but he displays no real sensitivity to the fact that these privileges are still enjoyed by only a small minority in the world, and that the privileges are often bought at the cost of the deprivation of many. The illiteracy, poverty and hunger are not only avoidable but their removal becomes difficult in a global society of winner-takes-all. Chanda is a journalist and he therefore cites various media polls on subjects treated in the book. Again, he displays no awareness that these opinions are mostly of people who live in the stratosphere of the privileged or who are aspiring to join that fraternity. Moreover, the media he scours are mostly controlled by new-age moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and that the information highway often becomes a disinformation highway [Herman and McChesney 1997].

Selective Memory

Chanda’s selective memory and review of the literature is extremely discriminating. He credits globalisation for the birth of Human Rights Watch. But the only time he talks about violation of human rights is in the context of violation of rights at Darfur and comments: “In the latest incident of paralysis, the UN Security Council has failed to muster the will to take effective action on Darfur. In this case it was held hostage to China’s oil interests and Russia’s trade in arms” (p 141). He fails to record that Israel has violated the largest number of UN General Assembly resolutions, with strong support from the US and other western powers. Terrorism figures in his narrative only as Islamic terrorism. He vaguely recognises that Islamic terrorism is partly triggered by the effects of western imperialism (which he pushes under the portmanteau term, “globalisation” with the Saudi fundamentalists providing the theology behind it) but he plumps ultimately for Samuel Huntington’s framework of understanding when he writes at the very end: “The world’s sole superpower, the United States…is engaged in mortal combat with shadowy extremists who do not have a state but who are grimly determined to advance the cause of a longdefunct Islamic empire” (p 318).

Chanda’s selective memory about recent events goes even further. The only references to the war against Vietnam, which the US took over as the French failed to reconquer its colony, are the following. When the victorious Vietnamese army entered Saigon, “In a massive airlift operation, giant US Air Force planes had ferried out 57,300 Americans and Vietnamese officials and their dependents before the airport came under attack” (p 170). And, “The Vietnam War’s legacy was more than a million Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong settling in the United States” (p 191). There is no mention of the Agent Orange, which devastated the Vietnamese landscape and left its mark not only on the vegetation (or rather the lack of it) and on deformed births for over a generation, or of the million Vietnamese killed in the war. Chanda talks about the post-second world war Soviet military expansion, but says not a word about the process by which the US, with less than 5 per cent of the world population has come to account for 50 per cent of the global military expenditures, and its continual aggression to grab more and more of the world’s non-renewable resources, of which oil and natural gas are the most prominent.

The most interesting part of the book is the sections in which he traces the history of human migrations and the intermingling of human DNAs from the time human beings walked out of their cradle in Africa. There are also interesting stories of how preachers and traders have travelled across the world and thereby diffused

march 1, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


products, production processes and culture in a broad sense to all parts of the globe. But his scholarship even in these areas is very spotty. He writes, for example, that Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal was its monarch (p 159); that European textiles lost in competition with Indian products because “European wages were six times higher than Indian wages” (p 77). Apart from the fact that recent scholarship has demolished the myth of European advantage in wages of workers before the 19th century, Chanda does not realise that Indian cotton textiles were a different kind of product from European cotton textiles. He writes: “A vast majority of nurses in India even today are Christian women” (p 124), thus transforming perhaps casual observation of Keralite nurses into an unverified all-India phenomenon. Given such a spotty nature of his scholarship, I wonder how much credence we can place even in his smoothly running story of human migrations.



Achcar, Gilbert (2002): The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder, Monthly Review Press, New York.

Ali, Tariq (2002): The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, Rupa, New Delhi.

Bagchi, A K (2006): Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Friedman, Thomas (1999): ‘A Manifesto for the First World’, New York Times Magazine, March 28.

Herman, Edward S and Robert W McChesney (1997): The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism, Cassell, London and Washington.

Saunders, F S (2000): The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, The New Press, New York.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 1, 2008

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top