review of Jan Aart Scholte, Globalization, 2000

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2000, globalization and democratisation, reviews

Martin Shaw

Jan Aart Scholte, Globalization: A Critical Introduction

London: Macmillan 2000. ISBN 0-333-66022-6

Draft of a review for Millennium: Journal of International Studies

Do we need another book on globalization? Jan Aart Scholte is modest enough to pose this question, but his text is a plausible riposte. What we get in here is the most accessible textbook yet produced – as theoretically sophisticated as the recent Global Transformations of David Held and his collaborators, but single-authored, lighter on data and designed for undergraduate use. Scholte also writes clearly, so that this book can be recommended to students with confidence that here is a coherent view of globalization that can be tested against other arguments and information.

The kind of globalization theory informs this text acknowledges continuities as well as change, complex causation rather than singular driving forces, negative as well as positive aspects, and the need for radical policy alternatives if the ills associated with neoliberal globalization are to overcome. In terms of Held et al.‘s three-way classification of the debate, this book appears neither global-enthusiast nor global-sceptic, but global-transformationist.

If these are the camps, this reviewer finds himself in the same corner, but there are still serious problems with the account here. The careful way in which Scholte qualifies the simpler views of globalization enables us to perceive deeper weaknesses, once the hyperbole of earlier writers is stripped away. These weaknesses are not, as global-sceptics of many varieties suggest, because of an overestimation of contemporary changes in general. Rather they arise from insufficiently radical definitions of the global and a misidentification of the primary sources of change.

As an introductory text, this book offers a critique of globalization itself rather than of ideas about it. This makes for some difficulties in locating Scholte in the theoretical discourse but it also simplifies the critical task. The author commits himself to one-sentence ‘core theses’ on which more complex arguments are built, but these theses are unsure foundations.

The problems start with definition. Globalization has been widely grasped in spatial (or time-spatial) terms and Scholte presents a strong version of this position. For him globalization is ‘a transformation of social geography marked by the growth of supraterritorial spaces’ – although he simultaneously recognizes that ‘territoriality and supraterritoriality coexist in complex interrelations.’ This mistakes a change in the content of social relations for one of their spatial form, a question of sociology for one of geography. It misses the maximum sense of the global: the recognition of human commonality on a worldwide scale, in the double sense that the world framework is increasingly constitutive of society, and of emergent common values. It is not that supraterritorial spaces are growing more important, but that both territorial and supraterritorial spaces – more fundamentally national-international as well as supranational-transnational relations – are both globalized in this double sense.

If we identify global change in this way, we may also be more hesitant to use ‘globalization’ as a term, with its connotations of mechanical, inevitable process; there was reason for Held et al. to prefer ‘global transformations’. And this leads us to questions of causation and periodization. Scholte argues for ‘multifaceted causal dynamics, with the principal spurs having come from rationalist knowledge, capitalist production, various technological innovations and certain regulatory measures.’ Yet rationalisation, capitalism and technological change are all fundamental phenomena of modernity. These spurs to globality are centuries old, at least, and all that is distinctive about them in the current period is, as Scholte puts it, ‘unprecedented speeds’ and ‘unprecedented extents’.

The joker in this historical pack is political change and state organization. Here Scholte argues both that, as conventional wisdom has it, globalization (arising primarily from rationalisation, capitalism and technology) ‘has prompted important changes to certain aspects of … the state’ and that, at the same time, political change is part of what constitutes globality. To the extent that the latter is proposed, political change is primarily identified, however, with ‘the growth of additional loci of governance besides the state’. (Emphases added.)

This seems, like the majority of both globalization and global-sceptic literatures, to mask the central political dynamics of twentieth-century world change. The big changes in the century were not in the mode of production, markets and technologies, or even in international regulation. In all these senses the situation in 2000 was very much a continuation, albeit with phenomenal growth, of trends established in 1900. The areas of real structural transformation were in politics and state organization. Through wars and revolutions, huge upheavals changed the context in which economy, technology and culture were mobilized. Rival world empires were displaced as pivotal organizations of power by a single Western-global conglomerate. Monarchical, authoritarian and totalitarian rule gave way, increasingly if problematically, to political democracy. In the core at least, virulent nationalisms increasingly gave way to internationalization.

One looks in vain, in Scholte as in most globalization literature, for a real sense that these dynamics were significant, even principal ‘spurs’ to historical change in general and the ‘global’ in particular. War is discussed primarily in terms of how it is affected by, not how it might have caused, global change. Revolution, genocide and the Holocaust are not even in the (very thorough) index. In the end, Scholte’s book is the best available version of the globalization paradigm. But that paradigm is deeply flawed, and not in the way that its traditionalist critics have proposed.

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