Some Notes on Globalisation Justin Frewen (edited version of piece first published by Irish Left Review) Global Social


One would have to lead the existence of an unrepentant hermit, allergic to our all pervasive media, to have avoided coming into contact with the much discussed and apparently novel new phenomenon of globalisation. Though, of course, globalisation can be traced back several centuries, at least, for political leaders around the globe it has over the past couple of decades become a favourite if not all embracing mantra. However, despite its frequent use and even more frequent misuse or abuse, globalisation not only suffers from a lack of clear definition but its meaning is also heavily contested.

It is difficult, indeed, to think of any concept that has seen as much hot air expended as that of ‘globalisation’. Politicians such as Bill Clinton informed us that we are ‘powerless to resist’ as the search for policy options was a pointless one while Tony Blair, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” (TINA) dictum with respect to the pursuit of liberalist economic policies, informed us its “irresistible and irreversible trend.” Academics too have fallen victim to its’ seemingly irreversible and remorseless logic pushing us to ever greater conformity in terms of ‘End of History’ liberal democratic free market utopias. For Giddens, globalisation is the outcome of unparalleled technological advances accompanied by liberal economic structures that have thrown us headlong into a ‘runaway world’ characterised by a “global order that no one fully understands, but which is making its effects felt upon all of us.” (Giddens, 2002: 6)

Provocative though such an analytical denotation of globalisation might be, it is hard to see how such a conclusion really contributes to our understanding of the economic and

political forces and structures shaping the current global arena. In an effort to rigorously analyse the range of globalisation theories and also provide their definition as to what globalisation truly entails perhaps the most ambitious attempt can be seen in the work of Held et al. In Global Transformations, they divide the current agglomeration of globalisation theories under three main headings namely “hyperglobalists”, who maintain that the ascent of the worldwide economy, together with “the emergence of institutions of global governance, and the global diffusion and hybridization of cultures” are evidence of a “radically new world order” (Held et al, 1999: 4); “sceptics”, who hold that the current phase of globalisation is in fact not historically unique; (Ibid: 6-7) and; finally transformationalists, with which Held et al generally agree, who argue that although it is the “central driving force behind the rapid social, political and economic changes reshaping modern societies and world order”, who exactly will be the main beneficiaries of globalisation is still an issue that needs to be resolved. (Ibid: 7)

For Held et al, the transformationalist approach to understanding globalisation is the most appropriate one. As Callinicos writes Held et al

...argue that globalization should be seen as a complex, multi-dimensional process rather than a primarily economic phenomenon. They suggest that it should be conceptualized as ‘a process (or set of processes) which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions – assessed in terms of their extensity, intensity, velocity and impact – generating transcontinental or interregional glows and networks of activity, interaction, and exercise of power’. (2001: 18)

However, while the work of Held et al is undoubtedly a highly impressive one in academic terms, comprising a great deal of serious and rigorous research and analysis, questions have been raised as to whether their definition of globalisation really contributes to a ‘deeper’ understanding of this phenomenon and in particular, why globalisation has manifested itself in the manner it has. Apart from negating the political

perspectives of the various theorists, assimilated under the neutral(ising) categories of Hyperglobalists, Sceptics and Transformationalists, arguably the most devastating critic of Held et al’s definition of globalisation is provided by Rosenberg, who claims it falls into the trap of ‘empty circularity’ as while

... no-one denies that ‘worldwide social relations’ do indeed exist today in ways and to a degree that they never did before, there can be no objection to calls for a theory of globalisation, if that means an explanation of how and why these have come about. But such an explanation, if it is to avoid empty circularity, must fall back on some more basic social theory which could explain why the phenomena denoted by the term have become such a distinctive and salient feature of the contemporary world.” (2000: 2)

In short, the explanandum, which should deal with understanding the fact that globalisation is the evolving outcome of a particular historical process has ended up being “progressively transformed” into the explanans where globalisation is now being applied to give meaning to the “changing character of the modern world” of which it is itself a prime component. Given this conceptual circularity and lack of investigation into the driving forces generating globalisation it is debatable as to how much such theories really add to the simplistic formulae of the politicians referred to above.

The social theorists Petras and Veltmeyey tackle this particular issue head on when they emphasise the need not only to undertake theoretical analyses that attempt to describe what globalisation is but also examine the prescriptive aspects of globalisation.

As a prescription, “globalization” involves the liberalization of national and global markets in the belief that free flows of trade, capital, and information will produce the best outcome for growth and human welfare. When the term globalization is used... it is usually presented with an air of inevitability and overwhelming conviction, betraying its ideological roots. (2001: 11)

This approach enables us overcome the ‘empty circularity’ inherent in merely trying to provide a picture of what is currently happening in terms of globalisation, by focusing on which elements of globalisation have occurred ‘naturally’ and those which are being driven by powerful sectors of the political and economic communities whether through the more economically developed states and international institutions or domestically by national elites. In this way, it becomes possible to identify the boosters and drivers of the globalisation phenomenon, potential future political and economic developments globalisation might entail and how we as ordinary citizens might try to ensure it works for all our benefits and not just a select few.

In this respect, the ideological component of globalisation comes into play. As Gélinas clarifies:

Globalization is also a discourse, a semantic system aimed at rationalizing and explaining the world according to the world-view of those who hold power. In this sense it is an ideology: that is a coherent set of beliefs, views and ideas determining the nature of truth in a given society. Its role is to justify the established political and economic system and make people accept it as the only one that is legitimate, respectable and possible. (2003, 22-3)

This ideological aspect of globalization plays a crucial role in understanding how “contemporary globalization is neither a natural nor an autonomous phenomenon” but has instead been “shaped by complex and dynamic set of interactions between transnational capital and nation-states.” (Singh, 2005: 14). Similarly it allows us to distinguish between what Parekh refers to as the empirical phenomenon of globalisation and the ideology of globalism, who celebrate “globalisation either as intrinsically valuable or as a way of solving humankind’s major problems.” (Parekh, 2004: 134)

While some commentators claim that the current recession has provoked the end of globalisation, they are missing the point. The elites will manifest other means of extending their power in order to extract the maximum possible from the fruits of the labours of others. Indeed, it is happening now as we see politicians such as the Manchurian Candidate Harney manipulate the financial crisis to continue her

dismantlement of the public health service in favour of the private health sector. Similarly as the banks are bubble wrapped in billions of taxpayers’ money, earnest debate is engaged in by sober economists and politicians (not to mention business leaders) as to whether child support should be means tested or taxed and the desirability of bring more people such as social welfare claimants into the tax net in order to prevent the poor ship of Ireland from running onto the reeks of financial ruin. While such practical matters might seem light years away from the arcane musings of academia on globalisation they are intrinsically connected. Without awareness of the prescriptive driving force behind ‘globalisation’, its mechanics and ideology, we run the risk of accepting it and the policy prescriptions that emanate from its principles as a ‘fait accompli’, thus falling for Thatcherite-like ‘There Is No Alternative’ nonsense. In fact, there are always alternatives no matter how much those in power work to repress them.

Bibliography Callinicos, A. (2001) Against the Third Way. Polity: Cambridge Gélinas, J. B. (2003) Juggernaut Politics: Understanding Predatory Politics. Zed Books: London Giddens, A. (2002) Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives, (2nd ed.). Profile Books: London Held, D.; McGrew, A.; Goldblatt, D. & Perraton, J. (1999) Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford University Press: Palo Alto, Ca Parekh, B. (2004) ‘Globalisation for a multicultural world’. Globalisation and Equality, (Horton, K. & Patapan, H. eds.), London and New York: Routledge Petras, James and Henry Veltmeyer. (2001), Globalization Unmasked. London: Zed Books. Rosenberg, J. (2000) The Follies of Globalisation Theory. Verso: London Singh, K. (2005) Questioning Globalization. Delhi: Madhyam and London & New York: Zed Books

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