Distinguished Lecture Series Review: Peter Nolan

  • April 5, 2008

On March 12, 2008, professor Peter Nolan gave a talk at the Gates Common room in Cambridge University as a part of the Gates Distinguished Lecture Series. Professor Nolan’s talk covered a range of topics and sparked wide interest among the 50 attendees in the packed common room.

2007 Gates Scholar James Zou was in attendance and has written the following short review of the talk:

GLOBALIZATION—PROMETHEUS UNBOUND OR THE DISCONTENT OF CIVILIZATION?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens’ fabled depiction of Victorian England seems to Peter Nolan, the Sinyi Professor at Judge Business school, a more fitting model for modern globalization.

On the one side, Nolan argued in his talk that capitalist globalization has been an incredibly positive force for developing countries; and he enlisted an unlikely ally. “Karl Marx more than Adam Smith,” said Nolan, “understood the progressive power of capitalism in unifying the world.” Marx predicted that capital would be concentrated in the hands of a few, making possible rapid technological progress. “Big business do things better than small business,” said Nolan, drawing a boxing analogy. “Instead of the little Bugsy Malones jabbing about, we have the true heavy weights—GM, Toyota—fighting it out for the love of consumers.”

Despite all the optimism, Nolan believed the world to be in a more dangerous state than ever before. The concentration of wealth in a handful of firms leads to extraordinary inequality, especially as most of these firms are based in western countries who are intent on pursuing their political interests. Global capital is also wreaking havoc on ecology. The Living Planet Index—an indicator of global bio-diversity—has declined 30% since 1970.

To face these challenges, Nolan called for greater global regulation to end the phase of wild financial globalization. “UN is the only capable institution,” he said. “I’m against divorce, we have to stick with it however painful.” His outlook agreed with that of Freud in Civilization and Its Discontent—the future of mankind depends on its ability to master human aggression.

“Through to a certain extent [Nolan] rejected the rosy picture of neoliberalism,” said Alexandra Cox, Gates Scholar’07, after the talk, “he could have addressed those places in global south in particular that have been subjected to structural adjustment programs and whose citizens have faced a real decline in social and economic well-being.”

Peter Nolan is Director of the Chinese Big Business Programme (CBBP) at Judge Business School, which organises regular meetings involving leading Chinese and international firms. The meetings are based on fieldwork conducted by Professor Nolan and his research team, both in China’s leading indigenous firms and in many of the world’s largest corporations.

Peter Nolan has for many years been closely involved with China’s policy discussions about the integration of China with the global economy and business system. He spoke at a series of key meetings held in Beijing in 2000/01. These involved Chinese and international political and business leaders, who met in order to evaluate the impact of China joining the WTO. He has testified before the US Congress’ US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He has contributed to the UK China Forum and served as an Advisor to the World Bank. Peter Nolan is an advisor to Coca-Cola and Standard Chartered Bank. He has been a participant in public discussions with CEOs of BP, HSBC, Coca-Cola, Michelin, Ernst & Young, Tesco, Vodafone and WPP. He has convened meetings of China delegates with Tony Blair in 2005 and 2006. In their January 2000 report on the China Big Business Programme, The Financial Times commented: “Peter Nolan knows more about Chinese companies and their international competition than anyone else on earth, including in China.”

The Gates Distinguished Lecture Series is a seires of lectures organised each term by the Gates Scholars’ Society. Each lecture is preceded by a drinks reception, giving scholars, guests, and invited lecturers an opportunity to interact and meet members of the Cambridge community. All interested members of the University are welcome and encouraged to attend.

For more information and to subscribe to lecture series updates, please visit the Gates Distinguished Lecture Series page at Talks.cam.

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