Thursday, 28 February 2008

The Development of Globalisation Discourse

I remember first coming across 'globalisation' when I was doing my A Levels in the early-mid 90s. Then it was deployed as an overly simple but useful concept identifying the increasing circulation of commodities, capital, ideas, fashions, communications, and culture across the borders of nation states. Fast forward 15 years, globalisation has shed much of its former utility. In a historical blink of an eye it has morphed into the buzzword of our times. It is routinely evoked by neoliberal politicians and business to justify wage freezes, the export of jobs, vocationalisation of education, etc. But also key concepts once commonplace in 1980s academic discourse, such as post-industrialism, postmodernism, post-Fordism, Japanisation, and convergence, are rarely mentioned in their own right any more. The have become subsumed under the ever-broadening globalisation umbrella.

Howard Brick of the University of Washington paid Keele a visit earlier in the week to talk about the development of globalisation discourse in the United States. His presentation looked at its emergence in the social sciences in the 1970s, its transformation hype that reached an apogee by the late 90s, and its recasting in response to the new international realities of the post-9/11 world.

For Brick US intellectual culture has always been caught in the grip between insularity and cosmopolitanism, a contradiction arising from being the great melting pot of nations and the most isolationist of the pre-WWI great powers. The rise to being the hegemon among the capitalist powers, the Vietnam War, the near-simultaneous outbreaks of radical protest across the West, and the breakdown of New Deal Keynesianism set the scene for a greater interpenetration of social relations across the metropolitan countries and the global south. In this early understanding of globalisation states remained key components of the international order (the Cold War focussed the thoughts of international relations specialists).

It is quite ironic that globalisation studies is in part rooted in Marxism when you consider its later use as a foil for neoliberalism. Brick didn't mention them, but theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, and those involved in debates around underdevelopment/world systems theory pioneered the analysis of the transnational circuits of capital by which post-war imperialism retained domination over its former colonies. Marxism also remained in the vanguard of globalisation studies in the 80s. Frederic Jameson and David Harvey blazed a trail in their materialist accounts of 'postmodern' capitalism, while much of the academic left collapsed into irrationalism and superficiality. For Jameson, the 80s culture of artiface and relativity expressed the logics of late capitalism. (This understanding of capitalism was developed by the Fourth International's Ernest Mandel in a celebrated book of the same name. Though ostensibly concerned with explaining the post-war boom, Mandel also noted capitalism would be increasingly dominated by the imperatives of financial markets). For Harvey postmodern capitalism was characterised by time-space compression, the speeding up of the global circuits of capital and production and the acceleration of the experience of time.

Unsurprisingly, the collapse of the soviet-bloc at the end of the decade saw globalisation discourse assume increasingly neoliberal forms. Easily the most influential work of the post-Cold War world was the triumphalist The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. Though he tried to give his argument a sophisticated gloss by dressing it up in Hegelian clothing, the thesis was simple: "Communism" was defeated. Fascism was long dead. All that was left was liberal democratic capitalism. This was the end of history - as a mode of social organisation, not only had capitalism seen off its challengers, it couldn't be improved upon. This world of neoliberal dominance appeared to bare out this thesis. The legitimacy of the United Nations grew; the strengthening/setting up of regional economic blocs like NAFTA, the EU; the reorganisation of GATT as the World Trade Organisation did not meet any kind of global alternative. Multiculturalism, the globalisation if environmental concerns, the rise of the multi-national NGO, and the real arrival of the internet, all held out the promise of a global society transcending the nationalities of old.

The triumphalist discourse had foundered by the end of the decade. For all the hype the ugly face of nationalism came back with a vengeance. Rwanda saw the exterminations of hundreds of thousands. Far right populism broke through into the mainstream of European politics, Yugoslavia was torn apart by nationalisms that had long been bureaucratically repressed, and culminated in 1999 with the bombing of Serbia by NATO forces. But were they a sign of nationalist resurgence, or the violent death spasms of a set of beliefs in historical decline? But also, the late 90s showed another globalisation was possible. One month before the 90s ended the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle was besieged by legions of protestors from all over the world united in their opposition to the baleful effects of global capital.

Once again, it was Marxists who stepped up and offered an alternate theory of globalisation that could make sense of the contradictions. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire offered a view that saw the emergence of a new form of sovereignty incohately making itself felt through growing supranational institutions. These were in competition with existing national sovereignties but the tendency was toward a global society, albeit one where the imperatives of capital predominated. But opposing this was a new stand-in for the proletariat - the 'multitude'. This included but went beyond the workers' movement, bringing together all the constituencies who stood to lose from the coming of the new Empire. They were not anti-globalist, but rather alter-globalist - the multitude by their very opposition to capital and Empire would create the conditions for global communism.

All this changed with September 11th and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Globalisation discourse changed. The triumphalism of capitalist globalisation was consumed by the war on terror hype. Global (Western) civilisation was threatened with an irrational and fanatic foe driven by hatred of its "freedoms" and "way of life". The alter-globalisation movement itself was drawn mainly into anti-war activity and much of its scholarly energy spent on the underpinnings of US dominance. Likewise mainstream globalisation studies had to reckon with a reassertion of state sovereignty. The perceived threat of terror attacks were seized upon by governments to tighten border controls and clamp down on dissent. Far from being out of the picture, states were very much back in. And now the rise of China and India raise the question of inter-state rivalry.

So where are we now? For Brick there's no use pretending globalisation is a coherent phenomena. The global integration of production and distribution is proceeding apace, but very unevenly. For example, when Africa figures in these global circuits it tends to be as a source of raw materials rather than as a market for commodities produced in the West and the East. Indeed, some could argue that regionalisation as opposed to globalisation is taking place. For example, British trade with continental Europe is many degrees higher than with China. Capital, rather than driving development, prefers to migrate to where stable institutions and infrastructures are in place. And the bulk of profits are always repatriated. The increasing willingness of the EU to flex its economic muscle shows just how variegated our globalised world is. But also, the new can coexist quite happily with the old. The House of Saud, for example, can engorge themselves on the fruits of globalised production while the absolutist class relations they rest on keep the oil flowing to Western markets.

A few other points were raised too. Just as one cannot put a plus or minus against globalisation, the anti-imperialist politics of the past must give way to a more subtle understanding of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. For example, some of the left have rallied to an uncritical defence of the regimes sitting in Tehran and Herare because of their opposition to US/UK imperialism. However, at the same time both governments are pursuing the same neoliberal programmes as their Western opponents. Does solidarity with the "oppressed" mean we have to ignore their appalling records?

The 00s have also shown globalisation does not have to mean the erosion of national sovereignty. Some may have been given away to the local regional bloc (EU, AU) but other capacities have been retained and enchanced. However, where poor/insecure states are concerned never before have they been as prey to the predations of capital and the big powers.

As Brick has shown, Marxism has played a key role in understanding the developments taking place and framing key issues in the globalisation debate. This should not be too much of a surprise - the revolutionary left have always appreciated capitalism as the first truly international mode of production in history. But the reconfiguration of capital, the rise of India and China, regionalism, nationalism, environmental problems, and global opposition movements place a good deal more than analytical difficulties before us. The left's great challenge is to articulate the global socialist alternative that will seriously contest capital for the future of this planet and our species.


Anok said...

Fantastically written....You've given me food for thought now, and maybe I can get on with writing. Or, I could just go on, and read more LOL!

Anonymous said...

A great post Phil.I once read Global Shift by Peter Dicken which explains that far from spreading capital around the world, globalisation concentrates trade in the Triad of the US, EU and Pacific Rim. And, as you write, most of it naturally flows back to its source.
Even within the EU, capital is not spread evenly. I believe that Corrwall qualifies for EU funding because of its economic predicament.
I once had a conversation with a doctotal student in International Relations who had been taught that the EU, by spreading Free Trade, was promoting democracy and keeping the communist bogeyman out of the former Warsaw Pact states! We agreed to differ.

Anonymous said...

And Cornwall!