One big planet, a global community, the vision of everyone and everything together from pictures of the Earth from space first sent back by Apollo 8—globalization can be romantically portrayed as any of these. From the dark side, it can also be seen as something that shatters local communities, takes away individual autonomy, destroys local cultures, and renders everyone helpless in the face of overwhelming power from somewhere else.
That globalization can be seen as both the happy inevitability of a bright future and the dismal gray of a grinding disaster reflects the reality of a significant conflict between opposing perspectives. Globalization can be represented in economic, cultural, sociopolitical, and environmental terms, each of which has its own means of measuring the difference between heaven and hell.
Globalization Patterns from the Past
To some extent, globalization has always been with us. Looking to identify the means by which people or cultures have sought to spread around the planet and why, one can argue that the primary means has been military, conquering the world through the use of force. For historical examples, we can look to Alexander the Great, the emperors of Rome, Genghis Khan, and so on. In such instances, the means becomes the object; there is no particular value to be gained by conquest, yet the conquest continues because the military machine, so unleashed, has no particular boundary or end to its use. Like a forest fire, globalization by such means continues until it reaches some natural boundary— like a river or an ocean—or it runs out of “fuel” to sustain it.
On the heels of military globalization, the means by which the gains of conquest are maintained and the benefits accrue to the state or group that initiated the conquest are primarily political. One of the reasons for the failure of Alexander’s empire was the fact he absorbed the local political structures, virtually unchanged, into his own; when he died, of course, that was the end of the empire. The Roman Empire, by contrast, brought with it Roman forms of government and social organization, structures that tended to be imposed on the local populations that were controlled and directed by Roman law and institutions. Caesars and other leaders came and went, but the empire continued until the center fell apart, and the institutions—though not the roads—also fell apart. Political organization may be combined with religious organization, however, and, although certain Roman institutions lost their sway in the outlying areas, the religion that was propagated through the military and political structures continued and spread.
With military and political impulses to globalization come economic considerations. In the first instance, to the victor the spoils, for the fruits of conquest are inevitably monetary—someone, after all, has to pay the costs of the operation and make it possible for further conquest. In the second instance, the establishment of political institutions makes an economic return on conquest more than the immediate spoils of war; a steady flow of money back to the state at the center of the empire enables the maintenance of a structure from whose stability everyone benefits, at least to some extent. Trade flourishes in the context of political stability, and military power protects such trade from the natural depredations of those who want to profit through force and not commerce.
Naturally, to maintain this kind of structure in the longer term requires both common currency and common language; in the wake of military and political conquest inevitably comes the standardization of currency (the coin of the empire) and some common language for the exercise of political and economic power. Latin—and particularly Latin script—became the language of the Roman Empire to its farthest reaches, providing a linguistic uniformity and continuity that outlasted the empire itself by a thousand years. With linguistic uniformity comes intellectual constraints; whether it was previously possible to articulate dissent or rebellion in the language of the peoples, over time their linguistic armory is depleted by the acceptance and use of the language—and the philosophy it reflects—of the conquering culture. The longer an empire has control over the political, social, and religious institutions of the areas it has conquered, the less able the conquered people are able to sustain an intellectual culture distinct from that of their conquerors—thus increasing the likelihood that such an empire will continue, because no one can conceive of another way of making things work.
Colonialism—a practice that existed long before the European powers made it an art in the 19th century—was the means by which the empire was not only propagated but also sustained, through the use of military, political, economic, religious, and intellectual tools.
This is a coercive model of globalization, but it tends to be the one first thought of when discussing how to overcome the various geographical, social, and cultural barriers that divide various groups. It is also the model that is reflected most obviously in history, which tends to be a record of the various conquests of one people or nation by another.
Is it possible, however, for there to be an impulse to “one planet” that is not inherently coercive? Is it possible for these kinds of boundaries to be overcome through mutual goodwill or a collective self-interest, in which all parties cooperate because it is to the advantage of all players that they do so? This is the million-dollar question, because, in the absence of some way in which such cooperation might take place, all that remains is a coercive model, however well the coercion is disguised.
Money and Merchandise
Of the current models for breaking down regional boundaries, most of them are economic and arguably coercive in nature. There is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) coupled with the World Bank, both operating within the framework approved (if not designed) by the countries of the G8 (and now G9, if one includes China). Within that framework, although countries identified as “developing” are offered financial assistance, the assistance is tied to certain monetary and trade policies in such a way that they are, in effect, coerced into compliance. Where countries—including members of the G9—try to go their own way, it is still within the framework of international trade agreements (such as the General Agreement on Tariff s and Trade [GATT]) and under the watchful eyes of global currency markets whose volatility is legendary. In the absence of a global gold standard, certain economies set a global economic standard through their national currency; for example, the value of other currencies used to be measured primarily against the U.S. dollar, though increasingly it is measured as well by the Japanese yen and by the euro from the European Union.
It would be one thing if this approach to globalization was successful, but for too many people, it is not; and the number of critics from all perspectives grows. Oswaldo de Rivero (2001), the head of the Peruvian delegation to a round of the GATT talks, lays out very clearly in The Myth of Development why the current structure not only favors the wealthy but also entails the failure of the economies of developing countries in the South. Similarly, Joseph Stiglitz (2003), 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics, reached the same conclusions about the unequivocal failures of the IMF and the World Bank from the perspective of an insider in Globalization and Its Discontents. For those who wonder why and how such a situation came about, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, historian of technology David Landes (1999) set out the historical development of industrial economies through to the present and makes it clear why there are winners and losers.
There is a difference, however, between the macroeconomic globalization that organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank promote and what can be termed commercial globalization. Commercial globalization, through the merchandising of certain products worldwide, promotes an economic model of consumption that is not restricted by national boundaries. Because the objects sold through such global channels are always value laden, this reflects a globalization, if not of the commercial culture itself that produced the items, at least of some of its values and mores. For example, it is not possible for McDonald’s restaurants to be found worldwide without there also being an element of the American burger culture that is found wherever there are golden arches, regardless of what food is actually served (even the McLobsters that seasonally grace the menu in Prince Edward Island). Given the worldwide availability—albeit at a higher price—of virtually any item to be found on the shelves of a North American supermarket or department store, and the capacity of advertising to be beamed simultaneously to multiple audiences watching television from the four corners of the globe, it becomes understandable how and why commercial globalization has become a potent economic, political, social, and cultural force in the 21st century.
Thus, the material aspirations of a 21-year-old in Beijing may well be parallel to someone of the same age in Kuala Lumpur, or Mumbai or Dallas or Moose Jaw. Exposed to the same images and advertising, their material desires in response are likely to be the same; regardless of their culture of origin, their culture of aspiration is likely to include cars, computers, iPods and fast food.
One might say the primary implication of commercial globalization is the globalization of consumer culture, specifically Western consumer culture. Whether such a culture is good or bad in and of itself, its implications are arguably negative in terms of what it does to the local culture through supplanting local values and replacing them with (usually) more alluring and exciting values from far away.
In addition, the diversity of local cultural values—reflected in everything from forms of government to traditions around medicine and healing to cultural practices related to agriculture, cooking, and eating to religious belief systems and habits of dress—is endangered by the monoculture of mass consumerism as it is represented in the venues of mass media.
The Global Village?
There is a difference, however, between globalization and standardization. It is important to distinguish the two, especially in light of the social and cultural requirements of industrial (and postindustrial) society. A very strong case can be made that the impulse to globalize is an effort to regularize and systematize the messy world of human relations into something that fits a mass-production, mass-consumption model. From the introduction of the factory system (1750) onward, industrial processes have become more and more efficient, systematizing and standardizing the elements of production, including the human ones. Ursula Franklin (1999) refers to the emergence of “a culture of compliance” in which the activities of humans outside the manufacturing process become subject to the same terms and conditions as are required in the process of mass production. This culture of compliance requires individuals to submit to systems; it requires them to behave in socially expected as well as socially accepted ways, thus removing the uncertainties and vagaries of human behavior from the operations of society. Although in the mechanical sphere of production, such habits of compliance are essential for the smooth operation of the system, taken outside into the social and cultural spheres in which people live, the antihuman effects of such standardization—treating people in effect like machines to be controlled and regulated—are unpleasant, if not soul-destroying.
Thus, in any discussion of globalization, it needs to be established from the outset what the benefit is, both to individuals and to societies, of some kind of uniformity or standardization in the social or cultural spheres. What is lost and what is gained by such changes, and by whom? Much has been made of the comment by Marshall McLuhan that humans now live in a “global village,” thanks to the advent of mass communication devices such as the radio, the television, the telephone, and now the Internet. Yet studies were done of what television programs were being watched by the most people around the world and therefore had the greatest influence on the development of this new “global” culture that was replacing local and traditional cultures. Imagine the consternation when it was discovered that the two most watched programs were reruns of Wagon Train and I Love Lucy! Globalization and the cultural standardization that mass-production, mass-consumption society assumes to be necessary may mean that the sun never sets on the fast food empires of McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, just as 150 years ago it was said to never set on the British Empire. Yet if the dietary habits of local cultures, in terms of both the food that is grown or produced and the ways in which the food is eaten, are merely replaced by standardized pizzas or burgers (or McLobsters, instead of the homemade variety), one cannot help but think something has been lost.
In the same way as colonies were encouraged to supply raw materials to the homeland and be captive consumers of the manufactured goods it produced (along with the culture and mores that the homeland dictated), so too the commercial colonization of mass-production/mass-consumption society requires the same of its cultural colonies. The irony, of course, is that the homeland is much less identifiable now than it was in the days of political empires; although corporate America is often vilified as the source of the evils of globalization, the reality is that corporate enterprises are much less centralized and less entrenched than any nation state. Certainly the burgeoning economic growth of the European Union (with its large corporate entities that not only survived two world wars and a Cold War but even thrived on them), along with Japan, and the emergence of China and India as economic superpowers indicates that the capital of empire today is entirely portable. The reality that some corporations have larger budgets and net worth than many of the smaller nations in the world also indicates that borders are neither the boundaries nor the advantages that they used to be.
Although the economic examples of globalization today are arguably coercive (despite the inevitable objections that no one is forcing us to buy things), it is possible at least to conceive of other ways in which globalization might be noncoercive, incorporating mutually beneficial models instead. In a subsequent book, Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz (2007) works through the ways in which the current problems he and others identify with economic globalization could be overcome; while he proposes solutions to the major problems, he does not effectively address the motivational change that would be required for decision makers to make choices reflecting social responsibility on a global scale.
Politics and Resistance
In the political realm, the United Nations (UN) has, in theory, the potential to be a body that—while respecting the national boundaries of its member states—works to find constructive ways of collectively responding to regional and global issues. Whether its first 60 years reflects such an ideal or whether instead the UN has been a facade behind which coercion has been wielded by one group against another is a subject for debate; in the absence of a clear global mandate for intervention or the effective economic and military means to intervene, moreover, even within a coercive framework, it is hard to see the UN as a model for good global government.
(In terms of any other models of globalization, one might point to the Olympic movement, but, because it has always been a stage for personal and national self-aggrandizement, it is hard to see how it could become a step to some positive global culture.)
In the larger scope history provides, there are positive signs for political organizations that transcend the boundaries of the nation-state and in which participation is voluntary, benefits accrue to all, and the elements of coercion become less significant over time. No one who witnessed the aftermath of the Napoleonic era, the revolutions of 1848, the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, World War II, and the Iron Curtain ever would have expected either the peaceful reunification of Germany or the formation (and success) of the European Union. Begun first as an economic union, it has continued to grow and mature into a union that has lowered many of the barriers to social, cultural, and political interaction that hundreds of years of nationalism had created.
Whether the EU model is exportable to other parts of the world raises some serious questions about how political globalization might succeed. The EU is regional, involving countries with a long and similar history, even if it was one in which they were frequently at war. The export of its rationale to other areas and cultures, with a different range of historical relations, is unlikely to meet with the same success. There should be some considerable doubt that democracy—as a Western cultural institution—will be valued in the same way in countries that do not have a similar cultural heritage or as desirable to the people who are expected to exercise their franchise. William Easterly (2006), in The White Man’s Burden, is quite scathing in his account of why such cultural colonialism has done so little good, however well-meaning the actors or how noble their intentions.
Certainly the effects of globalization are far from being only positive in nature; globalization in the absence of political and economic justice that is prosecuted through military and economic coercion creates not only more problems than it solves but also arguably bigger, even global, ones. Whatever the potential benefits of a global perspective, they are undercut by what globalization has come to mean in practical terms for many people—as the articles in Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Order (Aronowitz and Gautney 2003) so clearly represent. After the events of September 11, 2001, one might easily argue against globalization of any sort given that previously localized violence has been extended worldwide as a consequence of what is now the “global war on terror.”
All of these issues combine to ensure what John Ralston Saul (2005) describes as “the collapse of globalism.” He sees recent events as sounding the death knell for the free-market idealisms of the post–World War II period, noting that the promised lands of milk and honey that were to emerge from the spread of global markets and the demise of the nation-state have simply failed to materialize. In fact, the current reality is so far from the economic mythology that, in retrospect, it perhaps would not be unfair to regard the architects of this plan as delusional and their disciples as blind.
Saul does add a subtitle to his book, however, in which the collapse of globalism is succeeded by “the reinvention of the world.” Out of the ashes of this kind of economic globalism, in other words, and the unmitigated disaster it has spawned, it might be possible to reinvent a shared perspective on global problems that seeks to find a way other than those that have failed. Although Saul is rather bleak in his outlook and much more effective in describing the collapse of globalism than in setting out the character of such a reinvention, he makes a useful point. The failures of economic globalism are so painfully obvious that there can be no reasonable doubt that some other means of working together must be found.
If there is a perspective that has potential to be a positive rationale for globalization, it might be an environmental or ecological one. One of the most significant issues pushing some cooperative means of globalization is the environment, as we consider the ecological effects of human activities on a planetary scale. Global warming, ozone depletion, and the myriad means of industrial pollution whose effects are felt worldwide make it clear that, in the absence of a global response, we will all individually suffer serious consequences.
As much as we like to divide up the planet in human terms, laying out the grid lines of political boundaries and economic relationships, the fundamental limitations of the planet itself establish inescapable conditions for what the future holds. Although this may seem just as counterintuitive as Saul’s analysis of the failure of global economic systems reinventing the world, the global spread of pollution combined with catastrophic climate change may catalyze changes that overcome local self-interest in favor of something bigger than ourselves. The artificial boundaries that humans create—everything from the notion that one can possess the land to the idea that one can control a part of the planet—are seen through even a crude ecological lens to be nonsensical and even dangerous. If the idea that people have the right to do what they please with the land, water, or air that they “own” is replaced by some more ecologically responsible understanding, then there may be a common ground for cooperation on a planetary scale that does not yet exist. Whether such global cooperation will be in response to some global disaster or whether it will be the result of some new and more positive understanding remains to be seen.
It may seem like pie in the sky, but there are noncoercive ways of conceiving of a global community in which globalization consists of the universal acceptance of ideals and values. If justice, human rights, and respect were tied to the provision of the necessities of life to people in all areas of the planet, and peaceful means were used to settle whatever disputes might arise, then a global culture that reflected these things would be good for everyone.
This is not a new idea, but it is one that Albert Schweitzer (1949) elaborated on in his book The Philosophy of Civilization. The first two sections were written “in the primeval forest of Equatorial Africa” between 1914 and 1917. The first section of the book, “The Decay and Restoration of Civilization,” locates the global problem not in economic forces but in a philosophical worldview that has undermined civilization itself; for Schweitzer, the Great War was a symptom of the spiritual collapse of civilization, not its cause. He asserts that society has lost sight of the character of civilization and, having lost sight of it, has degenerated as a result. That degeneration is primarily ethical; civilization is founded on ethics, but we are no longer aware of a consistent ethical foundation on which we can build a life together. The second section, not surprisingly, is titled “Civilization and Ethics”; in it, Schweitzer explores this ethical (and spiritual) problem. Schweitzer’s answer, reached in the third section, published after the war, was to found ethical action on a principle Schweitzer called “the reverence for life.” By doing this, he said, it would be possible to make decisions that were more fair, just, and life-giving than society at the present time was making. He noted that the principle was a general one, for it was not only human life, but all living things, for which people were to have reverence.
The idea of “reverence for life” entailed not only an ecological view of life but also one in which a spiritual dimension in all living things was acknowledged and respected. Moreover, it was not merely a Christian spirituality that Schweitzer said must underpin ethics in civilization, but it was a spirituality in general terms that—across religious boundaries as well as cultural and political ones—had not just a respect for life, but a reverence for it.
In the search for some noncoercive means of uniting people across social, political, cultural, and economic as well as geographic boundaries, working out some vague consequentialist environmentalism to guide the activities and choices of individuals in the global community is not likely going to be enough. There does, however, need to be some ethical framework within which to consider options that, in some form and in the service of some greater, global good, will not have negative effects on people, places, and human institutions. Such a framework will be difficult to find, to articulate, and to accept. Perhaps Schweitzer’s idea of reverence for life might turn out to be as useful an ethical touchstone for global decision making today as he thought it would be nearly a century ago.
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- Aronowitz, Stanley, and Heather Gautney, eds., Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Order. New York: Basic Books, 2003.
- De Rivero, Oswaldo, The Myth of Development: The Non-Viable Economies of the 21st Century. New York: Zed Books, 2001.
- Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts To Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: Penguin, 2006.
- Faber, Daniel, Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
- Franklin, Ursula, The Real World of Technology, 2d ed. Toronto: Anansi, 1999.
- Hilton, Matthew, Prosperity for All: Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.
- Landes, David S., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
- Saul, John Ralston, The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World. Toronto: Viking, 2005.
- Schweitzer, Albert, The Philosophy of Civilization. Translated by C. T. Campion. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
- Stiglitz, Joseph, Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
- Stiglitz, Joseph, Making Globalization Work. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.