A Ramble through Theories of Globalization

For wastun.org

According to some globalization refers to the “increased mobility of goods, services, labour, technology and capital throughout the world. Although globalization is not a new development, its pace has increased with the advent of new technologies, especially in the area of telecommunications.”[1] At the dawn of the nineties, only few had heard of the academic term. That was going to change soon. In a matter of years globalization became the most common used label of to describe the post Cold War era. As the term says, globalization presents itself in essence as a process. It doesn’t like to present itself as a static belief system or ideology. Globalization wants us to admire its glitter and speed. Who doesn’t want to be a “global player”? “All that is solid melts into air,” as Karl Marx already used to describe the dynamic character of 19th century capitalism. It is hard to oppose fluidity. It is a challenge to identify the corporate capitalist elements in a piece of technology—and still enjoy it.

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History embodied the victorious gesture of an uncontested system of free market economy plus representative democracy that no longer had enemies. Besides the dramatic grand vistas that globalization provides on the big shifts, the terms has been used as a way to describe a precise set of so-called ‘neo liberal’ policies. The Corpwatch site lists a few points:   the rule of the market, cutting public expenditure for social services thereby reducing the safety net of the poor, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of community and the public good, replacing it with individual responsibility.[2] Around the world, neo-liberalism has been imposed by powerful financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Some of the worst effects were felt in Mexico where wages declined 40 to 50% in the first year of the NAFTA free trade agreement while the cost of living rose by 80%. Over 20,000 small and medium businesses closed while more than 1,000 state-owned enterprises were privatized.

For global companies such as Microsoft globalization first of all mean ‘localization’ of its products. Microsoft’s definition of globalization means “ identifying the locales that must be supported, designing features which support those locales, and writing code that functions equally well in any of the supported locales.” In other words customization and adaptation of the product to “a defined set of language scripts relating to specific geographic areas.”[3] Besides such rational definitions of globalization as a ‘neo-liberal’ economic program, globalization is widely used to express a much more diffuse fear for (foreign) domination. Where the French fear for their local film industry, the Japanese protect their rice farmer as a vital industry. It is here that the right and left political spectrum meets. Within affluent Western societies globalization is being discussed by the fearful middle class that is witnessing the melting of the social and cultural consensus models of post-world war two (national) welfare state. Some ‘anti-globalization’ activists have a national agenda, but the majority doesn’t, as it seems unlikely that the power of nation state will be restored any time soon. A return to nationalism, so disastrous over the past centuries would be a millennial setback.

Much of the academic studies and their journalistic reworking had a hard time keeping up with the variety and complexity of the global trends, unleashed by state-sponsored corporate neo-liberalism. With the regulatory regimes of world trade in its centre, globalization studies varied from global warning, migration patterns, the appearance of global cities (Saskia Sassen), the spread of AIDS, labour conditions, environmental degradation to studies on the use of technology and computer networks (Manuel Castells). Whereas some went back into history to the World Systems theories of Emanuel Wallenstein (tracing the origins of global capitalism), whereas others focused on very practical condition of workers and nature in rural India (Vandana Shiva).

According to some globalization theorists the protest against neo-liberal globalization is very much part of the same process. Thomas L. Friedman dedicates a whole part of book The Lexus and the Olive Tree to the Backlash against the System. He knows global capitalism is too intrusive, too dehumanizing and too unfair for too many people in order to maintain a sustainable legitimacy. Resistance for Friedman and others is an understandable (but wrong) expression of the all-too-human hesitation against ‘progress’. The hardcore conservative libertarians so far ignored the uncertainties of the ‘innocent’ civilian class.[4]

New York Times commentator Friedman developed a willing ear for the rising fears and complaints about corporate greed, dropping income level and quality of life. Freedman, we could say, embodies the shift from a triumphant discourse that presents measurements with the iron logic of inevitable steps towards a more tactical, careful discourse that has incorporate the media talk of pros and cons. The old Friedman of “Buy Taiwan, Hold Italy, Sell France” (dated 1999) no longer celebrates the historical necessity of the “golden straight jacket” of IMF and WTO. Instead, leading US-commentators have a hard time selling the post-911 Bush doctrine because of its protectionist and unilateralist agenda, values that do not quite fit into the globalization rhetoric of the nineties. In the past it was an easy deal to criticize Old Europe for its EU farm subsidies. The protectionist bills of the Bush Jr. administration, subsidizing US-farmers and steel plants with hundreds of billions of dollars send out the wrong signal.

Friedman’s chapter in The Lexus and the Olive Tree on “rational exuberance” shows how complicit US business journalists and writers have been in the making of dotcommania, the collapse of Enron, Andersen, Global Crossing, WorldCom and the general fall of US stock markets since then. “Revolution Is U.S.”?   For Friedman and so many contemporary commentators, markets could only go up. There is no crisis, no recession, only market corrections. Opportunities could not diminish, that’s simply not part of the globalization scheme.   The get rich quick formula would prosper all. The global statistic reality that the richer got richer and poor poorer, doesn’t fit into the worldview of neo-liberal believers. However, the market as the great equalizer is failing over and again. There is no redistribution of power and income. At best there is an emergence of new corrupt elites, for instance in Russia, China, India and South-East Asia.

Instead of the triumphant story of the marketplace, it may be better to read the dark realism of Robert D. Kaplan in his The Coming Anarchy. In times of war it is better to turn to skeptic realists. Globalization is too much an idealistic, Hegelian construct. Too good to be true. Kaplan rejects the very idea that the post Cold War period will ultimately bring democracy and prosperity to all. “Just as after World War I and II, our victory has ushered in the next struggle for survival, in which evil wears new masks,” he writes.[5] What Kaplan criticizes is the takeover of the world by quasi-neutral experts (technologists, lawyers, social scientists etc.). For Kaplan the world is deeply political and cannot (and will not) be ruled by “an aristocracy of technical experts.” This cannot be said of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. This bible of the modern day culturalist (for instance Pim Fortuyn) is missing the rigor to come up with a sharp political analysis. Huntington is conservatism without teeth. 911 prevented the world from the “dangers of peace” Kaplan summed up while writing the essay in late 1999. The Coming Anarchy may not have predicted 911, it certainly provides much more elements to understand the post 911 world, compared to Friedman, Fukuyama and other propagandists of market populism who can only sit and wonder why economic rationalism hasn’t long gotten rid of the Palestinian problem, Islamic fundamentalism and anti-corporate protests. After Seattle and 911 theories of globalization can’t do without a deep understanding of conflict and power.

  1. http://canadianeconomy.gc.ca/english/economy/globalization.html
  2. http://www.corpwatch.org/issues/PID.jsp?articleid=376
  3. http://www.microsoft.com/globaldev/wrguide/WRG_g11n.asp
  4. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York: Anchor Books, 1999. For a critical description of the civilians, see Christoph Spehr, Die Aliens sind unter uns! Muenchen: Goldmann Verlag, 1999, pp. 171-173.
  5. Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy,   New York: Vintage Books.