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Falling off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization by Alex Perry

Posted By David Lida On February 16, 2009 @ 10:55 am In China,Economics,India,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

Falling off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization
by Alex Perry
Bloomsbury Press, 352 pp.
CLR Rating:

A Bleak Look at Globalization

Globalization, if not an outright myth, is at best a deceptive proposition. Its benefits are enjoyed by a tiny minority of the world’s citizens, while most people struggle to survive. In many countries, the resentment of the have-nots has reached such a climactic crescendo that they have engaged in wars of startling violence in an attempt to redress the balance.

This sums up the central thesis of Alex Perry’s Falling Off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization. In some sections of the book, the author does a better job at proving his theory than in others. But even when his hypotheses seem to stretch the imagination, and credulity, of the reader, the book is nearly always informative and often riveting (if that is an apt word to describe the depiction of some of the world’s most miserable places).

Perry, based in Cape Town, is Time’s Africa bureau chief, and before that was the magazine’s Man in South Asia. As such he has filed “up-close-and-personal” stories from, among other hot spots, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kashmir. In its first pages, he refers to Falling Off the Edge as a “reporter’s book.” It is a proper description, and prone to both the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.

In the first chapters Perry is very good at describing some of the places that are most emblematic of the world’s unjust distribution of wealth. Shenzen, a Chinese border city, is the world’s center for light manufacturing, a metropolis that has created staggering new wealth. However, its boom has been not only in business but in crime and corruption. The piracy capital of the world, Perry writes that, “Shops displayed perfect replicas of Armani suits, Gucci handbags, Nike trainers, Rolex watches, Cartier jewellery.” Drug traffic also abounds in Shenzen. Impoverished laborers lose limbs due to unsafe workplace conditions, while others find themselves forced to sell their babies. The city is home to whole communities of high-rise buildings that house gangsters’ mistresses. Yet the chapter ends with an unconvincing argument by Perry that in Shenzen the center is not holding: He merely points to two workers’ protests as evidence.

This is followed by a great chapter on Mumbai, which puts the lie to India’s supposed unstoppable march of progress into the 21st century. Perry points out that while in India, 1.63 million people may have found jobs through outsourcing from other countries, in fact, forty million are unemployed, nine hundred million earn less than $2 per day, and three-hundred-and-eighty million less than a dollar. A third of the world’s poor live in India, and in Mumbai there is one bus for every 1,300 people, two public parking spots for every thousand cars and seventeen public toilets for every million citizens.

Yet in Mumbai Perry also attends a party for two thousand guests thrown by Vijay Mallya, the self-styled “king of good times,” who manufactures Kingfisher beer. Mallya has two helicopters; four jets; penthouses in London, Monaco, New York, Johannesburg and Los Angeles; a Scottish castle; several South African game lodges; a stud farm and a stable of two hundred and fifty thoroughbreds; as well as a 165-foot yacht. Each day he wears $100,000 worth of jewels.

Perry describes a world without a middle class, a world in which, according to 2006 statistics, one percent of the world’s adults own forty percent of all global assets. The richest ten percent own eighty-five percent, while the poorest half own less than one percent.

The book’s middle section, called “Five Fights,” is the weakest. In its pages, Perry is literally all over the map – from tribal war in Nigeria, to extreme urban violence in South Africa, among Maoist guerrillas in Nepal and with the U.S. troops as they invade Baghdad. It is hard to keep up with him here, and at moments all the fights begin to sound the same.

The author blames globalization for “bombings from Oklahoma to Jakarta, war from Niger to Kashmir, civil conflicts from Sierra Leone to the Solomon Islands.” The 5,400,000 who died in Congo in the last decade, the hundreds of thousands who perished in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the tens of thousands in tiny Sri Lanka’s civil war – globalization is Perry’s perennial culprit. The conflicts and wars are real enough, but does the author prove his argument? At best he simplifies; at worst, he is unconvincing.

For instance, in a colorful section about pirates in the Straits of Singapore who hijack ships, repaint their hulls and sell them after pilfering their contents, Perry tries to persuade us that the bandits are “attacking globalization … they stole from the global economy that had shut them out.” If this is so, you could make the same argument for Barbarossa and the Moorish brigands of the 1600s, who redistributed wealth in an almost identical way – or nearly any pirate or even petty thief.

Almost perversely, Perry blames globalization for tribal warfare in Kenya. Although the fights between these tribes have existed for centuries, the author asserts that globalization has made the country’s commodities more valuable. Hence it is to blame for raising the stakes and giving the tribes more to fight over.

If Perry’s argument has serious flaws, it is worth noting that his book is almost always captivating and a page-turner. As I mentioned, it has all the strong points and limitations of having been written by a reporter. Falling Off the Edge is loaded with information. Perry does his job dutifully. He is a quick study who describes places and situations vividly. However, it is worth noting that, while many daily and weekly journalists have written excellent books, there is nothing about the job that prepares them for the slower, more contemplative and complex task of writing a book. Most journalists grind out stories of eight hundred or a thousand words on a daily or weekly deadline, stories which substitute facile explanation for intricate analysis. This tendency is often compounded for foreign correspondents. In times of dwindling budgets, they are forced to cover various countries at once and bounce from place to place without getting to know anywhere very well.

By definition, most journalists are covering the disaster du jour, and as such for them the whole world starts to look the way Perry paints it – nothing short of catastrophic. In the last section of the book, his measured if unpleasant conclusion is that globalization is a Darwinian game of winners and losers, and more or less the way of the world throughout history.

If in Falling Off the Edge, Perry has written a good book, I think he can, and hope he will, someday write a better one. In one passage he briefly describes spending five days in jail in Zimbabwe, and only in that chapter’s notes does he suggest that the reader may find a fuller account of the episode in a 2007 Time story called “Land of Chains and Hunger.” I read that piece online and found it a completely satisfying account of Perry’s personal experience within the larger context of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in that country.

Perry is excellent when in brief passages he describes the challenges to foreign correspondents, both due to the physical dangers they encounter and the economic constraints from a struggling journalism industry. It is only in the last sentences of the book that he concedes that war zones are “frequently exceptionally beautiful.” He writes

Nepal’s countryside is a picture of bucolic paradise, rivaled perhaps only by the blossoms of Afghanistan’s northern mountains in spring. Cambodia’s civil war raged against a backdrop of the awesome architecture of Angkor Wat, while the graves of 70,000 Sri Lankans are lush jungles of palms and ponds alive with kingfishers, green parrots and black and yellow longtails. Sierra Leone is a tropical paradise. The coastal cities of Croatia are Venetian wonders. Downtown Mogadishu, that tropical Dresden, is like any work of painstaking craftsmanship: breathtaking.

It was in this passage that I was reminded of the great work by some of Perry’s revered colleagues, such as Jon Lee Anderson or Ryszard Kapuscinski, and the ironies of the novels of Graham Greene. At a comparatively young age, Perry has no doubt seen and survived a great deal. A memoir that would recount some of his experiences, while analyzing the problems and perils that journalism faces today – and also take into account the paradox of the beauty amid all the bloodshed – would be an incredible read.


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