The Commanding Heights

PBS produced an interesting documentary on economics and globalization titled “The Commanding Heights” — based on the book of the same name — and the content of that documentary has been made available as an educational resource on the net that “includes a netcast of the complete television series integrated with a broad range of interactive information resources.”

As an economics term, “commanding heights” was first used by Lenin — in a speech defending his New Economic Policy, to refer to the key sectors of the economy over which the government must exert control — but the term is clearly military in origin, comparing those economic sectors to an entrenched position over a battlefield, from which the battle could be dominated. The term’s roots in Lenin’s speech seem painfully ironic given how little government control we see in the documentary — and how much of the story of globalization has to do with governments losing control. The older, battle origins are less ironic than apt, it seems to me, given how destructive the progress of globalization has been for so many.

The documentary/website provides a very useful introduction to the historical background of globalization as well as a solid overview of many of the issues and concepts involved. And the website adds a lot of value to the overall presentation, such as the “Timemap” of key events.

Obviously I reject most of the program’s criticisms of the anti-globalization movement and, even more obvious, its generally pro-corporate capitalist stance.  (EDS, FedEx and BP were among the funders of the documentary — ’nuff said.) But I still think it is a very useful place to get a basic grip on the issue of globalization.

A year ago, an understanding of economics might not have seemed that important, but after the events of the last nine months — the economic meltdown — I suspect this series will find attentive new audiences. While that meltdown has seemed to have less to do with globalization per se than with bizarre Vegas-worthy shenanigans in the financial sector, at the end of the day globalization is the world in which we live, economically, culturally and — thinking of the swine flu pandemic — epidemiologically as well. So it seems like a good time to visit, or revisit, “The Commanding Heights.”

For a review/discussion of the documentary as originally aired, an article published in The Quaker Economist is interesting, and Wikipedia has a useful overview of both the original book and the documentary.

For some correctives to the presentation in “Commanding Heights,” check out:


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