Four Faces of Globalization

By Mel Watkins | 2009-04-01 12:00:00

Any discussion of globalization should come with a warning like those you get on television: In the nature of the subject, there may be coarse language, references to chaos and catastrophe that will be frightening to rational adults, and the certainty of nudity since the Emperor does have no clothes. Reader discretion is advised.

So what is this thing called globalization? The word is so pervasive, swirling about us globally, that we need to remember that it hardly existed as recently as the 1980s and only became commonplace in the 1990s.

It appears to have originated in the business press and quickly spread to corporate and media discourse. For this reason Noam Chomsky has labelled it simply a term of propaganda, used by the powerful as a means by which to frighten ordinary folk into accepting whatever is being done to them as inevitable.

It's easy to find endless examples of the word being used in this way. Lie down and let the tsunami of globalization wash over you. "There Is No Alternative," as Margaret Thatcher famously said -- shortened to TINA for those who are so busy sloganeering that they have no time for words.

This is corporate talk. It is an example of the phenomenon recently noted by the columnist Rick Salutin of speaking not truth to power but power to truth. Canadians were told by politicians and business leaders to shape up and accept that we live in a global economy. This is silly talk because it ignores the obvious reality that what is now called Canada was born in a global economy. Ask the aboriginal people who got overrun by settlers and got little by way of long-run benefit and who are still trying to negotiate arrangements for the betterment of their lives.

Having been so born, Canada has remained ever since deeply embedded in the global economy. Ask the wheat farmers of the prairies, particularly of Saskatchewan, who responded creatively by forming the CCF and the first social democratic government in North America, out of which came universal health care - which may now, finally, be spreading to the backward United States.

Four Slices of the Truth

Anyway, there are four distinct meanings of the term and, as befits these postmodernist times, all partake of the truth.

The first is the neo-liberal moment. It's the one Chomsky railed against, that commonplace economic globalization, full of itself and its right-wing rhetoric, which has brought us the economic crisis the world is now in and is, as a result, in manifest disrepute.

The second is Marshall McLuhan's global village, which the world has become in the last two decades. It's the wired and wireless world of Information Technology (IT) that McLuhan foresaw with remarkable prescience. IT permitted the financial morass that caused the economic crisis now afflicting us. But the same IT enabled Barack Obama to become President and become the world's best hope for dealing with the crisis.

The third face of globalization is the death pangs of the Eurocentric world: the rise of China and India and the desperate acts of the neo-cons, of Cheney/ Bush and Tony Blair to pretend that European man runs the world, which has mired us in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fourth face let us call the deep meaning of globalization. It's about seeing the globe from space. It's the Gaia hypothesis that the world is one. It's about global as in global warming.

Corporate Globalization

The first of our faces is best called economic or corporate globalization, so its limitations will be evident. It's the kind that has given globalization a bad name. It coincides with the era of neo-conservatism or neo-liberalism, that trinity of free trade, privatization, and deregulation, with a dystopian discourse of a borderless world and the withering away of the nation-state. It is merely the latest stage of capitalist expansion around the globe that can be seen as having begun circa 1500. Thus its novelty is easily exaggerated. But we now know that it has brought the world capitalist system to a serious crisis, its greatest since the 1930s.

Economic globalization has come and gone. It has lost its lustre and its legitimacy -- though we can be certain that key parts of it will linger on like the hair that grows on a corpse.

Having always been part of an empire, Canada has been part of the global economy. However, our elites have never accepted economic globalization in the sense of an openness to the whole world. They have trouble even counting Mexico with its poverty and its much larger aboriginal presence as part of North America. Our record in aid to poor countries is abysmal.

Our global role - sorry, imperial role - has been and still is the export of resources to the more advanced imperial metropolis in exchange for manufactured goods imported from the metropolis. We were born industrially deficient and so remain.

There is little interest in the nationality of ownership of capital, at least so far as that of the metropolis is concerned and willingness to ignore the environmental consequences of staple exploitation. The Canadian economy shows striking persistence down to the present day. It is still what Bay Street calls a commodities-driven economy. From drawers of water and hewers of wood and chasers of beaver, we have become scrapers of tar.

As the globalization project stumbles, we are seeing the return of national policies -- Keynesianism, now called stimulus packages, is inherently about a pro-active national state.

As for civil society, it is a striking fact that the Council of Canadians that emerged in the left nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s, led by Maude Barlow, played a key role both in defeating the Multilateral Agreement on Investment -- a proposed international agreement in the late 1990s on investor rights that would have cemented the power of the multinational corporations -- and in supporting the rights of small farmers in India to underground water that is being drained away by Coca-Cola. Globalization triumphant never ruled out politics. Globalization discredited has put protest and alternative policies squarely on the political agenda.

The `Global Village'

The second meaning of globalization is one for which Canadians can take some credit, because it was first formulated by two Canadian scholars, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. As the key members of what has been called the Toronto School of Communications, they taught us to take the media seriously in terms of their pervasive consequences for culture and consciousness. McLuhan popularized the term "global village."

Innis and McLuhan were among the very first to articulate the connection between print and capitalism and print and nationalism.

Scholars like the American Benedict Anderson now write of what they call "print capitalism" and "print nationalism." Anderson sees the nation as an "imagined community" and what is imagined is powerfully conditioned by the media as message. The great technological innovation that underlay modernity was the Gutenberg press in the 15th century.

That was then and this is now. We are now deeply into the wired and wireless world of IT. Newspapers flounder. Stand-alone book review sections in newspapers are dead - a double whammy against print. Students go to libraries as a place to sit to use their laptops. Print has morphed into text or hypertext.

True, this revolutionary change began with the telegraph in 1837 and then the telephone in 1876, but it has now become utterly pervasive and it has not exhausted itself. IT has enabled the companies to control operations world-wide on an instantaneous basis. It has also revolutionized financial markets which are in a crisis that has put the global economy at risk.

Without computer modeling, we could never have developed the derivatives that took on a life of their own and led to the present financial crisis. This is the first globalized recession/depression. It is not a pretty thing and it is brought to you by IT.

But there is also the matter of the Internet, social movements, and political activism. President Obama's stunning success in the primaries hinged on the use of the Internet to raise funds and mobilize volunteers. The new media as means of communication brought us the economic crisis. But the crisis gave new life to Obama's campaign which was likewise powered by the new media.

Bypassing the Media

Now President Obama is using the Internet to bypass the media proper by mobilizing his supporters and moulding public opinion directly. As Harold Innis warned us, new media call forth new powers to control us.

If capitalism is really print capitalism and nationalism is print nationalism, then presumably what we are witnessing is not just globalization as another turn of the wheel, but just maybe the biggest thing since Gutenberg.

All of this has the makings for revolutionary change, which is admittedly not yet evident. Regardless, globalization in this sense of the wired world is big news and it's here to stay. It will be no easy matter to control it and its consequences for financial stability - while failure to do so is to condemn us to endless financial crises.

The Multipolar World

The third meaning of globalization is manifest in the spectacular economic take-off of China and India, the two most populous nations on the planet.

Historically, the new world of science and industry began in Europe, and moved most easily to the New World, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which the American scholar Alfred Crosby tellingly calls the "neo-Europes."

The first real exception to this "white folks world" was Japan, with its rapid industrialization in the late 19th century. Japan could do it only because it was not colonized by the existing imperialisms.

In the post World War II period we see the industrialization of the "Asian tigers" -- South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, plus China and India. Add Brazil and Russia and you get the so-called BRICs and with them the decline of US hegemony.

Some saw "globalization" as a unipolar world under US neo-conservative hegemony. Indeed, that was the fatal flaw of the neo-cons like Dick Cheney who took over America under George W. Bush. In fact, "globalization" is better understood as the beginning of the end of Europe and the countries of European descent, of the rule of white people, of Western civilization as we've known it.

There will be profound geopolitical consequences in the long-run. In the short-run, the US has absolute military dominance in hardware. This has been increasingly a source of instability rather than stability in the world and may remain so for some time.

There may be new rivalries between blocs, particularly around control of scarce resources. Yet the project of economic globalization promoted the utopian notion that such imperialist rivalries, which had brought us the devastation of Africa and World War I, had ended.

For Canada, with its rich resources, there is actually the possibility of selling to China and permitting their companies to own our resources. Still, in a world of blocs, Canada's greater risk is its deeper integration with US. That might challenge Canadian sovereignty more than anything threatened by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

This globalization creates globalized cities in Europe and the "neo-Europes." As birth rates have plunged in these countries and immigrants have come from outside the European world, Canadian cities - Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal - have indeed become global villages. Multiculturalism is the ingredient of a new nationalism of English Canada and, more slowly, also of Quebec.

Although racism persists in Canada, our official commitment to multiculturalism puts us ahead of Europe. This advantage may be essential if we are to avoid a trumped up clash of civilizations that would be devastating.

Deep Globalization

The fourth meaning of globalization can be called "deep globalization" as in deep history and deep ecology and even deep economics.

Modernity has been about our discoveries about the globe. It began with Copernicus and Galileo and the realization that our planet was not the centre of the universe. The discovery of the globe continued with its circumnavigation in the late 15th century, followed by the industrial and demographic explosions from the late 18th century onwards under the aegis of empires with global pretensions.

Darwin's theories of evolution told us of the common descent of all human beings throughout the world and hence of their commonality, their kinship, a powerful message about deep globalization.

We first saw our world, curved and whole, with Sputnik in 1957. That wise philosopher Hannah Arendt thought that, having now seen the world in a radically new way, we would come to think and act in a new way. In fact, in the 1960s James Lovelock's work with NASA led him to put forth the hypothesis, the Gaia Hypothesis, that the world is a single organism. With its marvelous link back to Greek mythology, we now have a deep sense of the oneness of our world, of our lovely, lonely catastrophe-prone world, in the vastness of time and space.

The great Keynes himself anticipated what we can now call "deep economics." In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, he wrote with great intellectual prescience, in an essay titled "National Self-Sufficiency": "I would sympathize...with those who would minimize, rather than with those who would maximize, economic entanglement among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel - these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun wherever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily local."

The American writer Bill McKibben in his book Deep Economy is the most articulate spokesperson for a new paradigm of deep economics, which can validly call Keynes one of its founders. McKibben calls for an economics free of reductive assumptions, informed by history, holistic, nurturing of the humanity imbedded in the economy. respectful of community and of nature, conscious of the case for localism . In short, an economics fit for globalization.

Permit me, as an economist, a practitioner of the dismal science, to end on that happy thought.

Mel Watkins is an economist and political scientist, retired from University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2009, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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