The political meaning of global change, review article, 1999

Martin Shaw

The political meaning of global change

From International Politics, 36, 419-424, 1999. Offprints available: email me

  • Peter Dicken. GLOBAL SHIFT: TRANSFORMING THE WORLD ECONOMY. Third edition. New York: Guilford Press, 1998. xvi + 496pp. paper
  • Zygmunt Bauman. GLOBALIZATION: THE HUMAN CONSEQUENCES. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 138 pp. $24.50 hardcover.
  • Wolfgang H. Reinecke. GLOBAL PUBLIC POLICY: GOVERNING WITHOUT GOVERNMENT? Washington DC: Brookings, 1998. $42.95 hardcover.
  • Bob Deacon with Michelle Hulse and Paul Stubbs. GLOBAL SOCIAL POLICY: INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AND THE FUTURE OF WELFARE. London: Sage, 1997. xiii+252pp. paper

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are frequently told that we are in the midst of ineluctable processes of ‘globalization’ – resulting primarily from technical changes in means of communication. Even the social-scientific community has for the most part accepted the myth of globalization as a techno-economic phenomenon devoid of conscious political meaning. For some, it is enough to map the patterns which globalization produces – for others, there is a challenge which calls for intellectual, political and policy responses of various orders. In this review I shall first observe the perameters of the debate in these four partly complementary, partly contrasting studies, then demonstrate the limits of the shared historical paradigm which informs the debate, and suggest how we need to enlarge our ‘global’ political imagination.

The reissue of Dickens’ Global Shift is timely, since in this now-established text of economic geography we find the simplest – although in its own terms sophisticated – expression of the paradigm. For Dickens, as the term ‘shift’ suggests, there simply a multi-dimensional movement in the patterns of economic activity, from predominantly national to international, transnational and global levels – all still territorially based – which are complexly described and analysed. States and international organizations appear as economic actors or as frameworks of economic action. The life-problems of individual human beings figure marginally only (in the penultimate chapter) in terms of the consequences of the myriad shifts for their employment and incomes. Global governance is a brief afterthought, in a very short concluding chapter.

In Bauman’s Globalization, as we would expect from this critical philosopher-sociologist, the style and content are worlds apart. For him, the task is to find the meaning of ‘time/space compression’ – the term with which (like Anthony Giddens) he encapsulates the multiple shifts which Dickens describes. In a somewhat disparate series of discursive essays, Bauman sees the problem of globalization as one of new speed and flux, which divides humanity between the haves and have-nots of cyberspace. ‘[R]ather than homogenizing the human condition,’ he avers, ‘the technological annulment of temporal-spatial distances tends to polarize it.’ Elites have ‘chosen’ cybernetic isolation, but the rest of the population are ‘cut off’ and ‘forced to pay the heavy cultural, pyschological and political price of their new isolation.’ New global media are not truly interactive, but privilege a small global elite, while the many use media only to watch the ‘celebrities’ of this elite, celebrating their lifestyle.

In globalized politics, according to Bauman, nothing is left of the older ‘universalizing’ discourse which ‘declared an intention to make similar the life-conditions of everyone and everywhere, and so everybody’s life-chances; perhaps even make them equal.’ Globalization refers ‘primarily to the global effects, notoriously unintended and unanticipated, rather than to global initiatives and undertakings.’ It ‘is not about what we all, or at least the most resourceful and enterprising among us, wish or hope to do. It is about what is happening to us all.’ We live in a ‘man-made wilderness’, not least because of ‘the growing experience of weakness, indeed of impotence, of the habitual, taken-for-granted ordering agencies’ – above all the state, of whose sovereignty all three main supports (military, economic and cultural self-sufficiency) have ‘been broken beyond repair’.

Bauman’s concern is overwhelmingly with the human meaning which Dickens’ essentially technical account of globalization leaves out. He assumes, however, a similar definition of globalization as technologically-driven economic change, and his account is even simpler than Dickens’, to the point of being simplistic. Bauman’s pessimistic cultural critique leaves little room for agency, and this is because he sees both state and public sphere as deeply compromised by globalization. The other authors under consideration, although largely sharing the definition of globalization with Dickens and Bauman, make more serious attempts to define the possibilities of political action to deal with its consequences.

Reinecke, like Dickens, sees globalization as ‘for the most part a corporate-level phenomenon’, and similarly to Bauman argues that both the ‘external’ and ‘internal’ dimensions of sovereignty lose significance in consequence. However Reinecke sees the possibility for states to go beyond both defensive nationalism and competitive interventionism, to develop ‘global public policy’ – although he hastens to add that ‘this does not imply the formation of a global government – an unrealistic and impractical solution’. Reinecke then provides studies of emerging global policy in three areas – financial markets, transnational crime and dual-use (civilian-military) goods. Answering the question of his provocative subtitle, he concludes that ‘for the foreseeable future governments will remain the core constituent elements of global governance’, but together with the ‘active cooperation of non-state actors’. Global public policy – detached from the territorial basis of the nation-state – is necessary, he argues, to prevent governments falling back on defensive or purely competitive strategies due to the collapse of internal sovereignty. Reinecke acknowledges, however, that global public policy-making could exacerbate the ‘democratic deficit’, unless it is accompanied by (unspecified) new democratic forms beyond the nation-state.

Reinecke also acknowledges (in passing) the worsening inequalities of our globalizing world, and the need for transfers to the developing world to offset these. In this sense his global public policy overlaps with the global social policy advocated by Deacon, Hulse and Stubbs. Their book, in part a case for the globalization of social policy – a policy and social-science field which has been less affected than others by globalization debate – is also a case for the socialization of global politics. Although one might think that global social policy, in a sense which seriously addresses the gross worldwide differences of income and wealth, is a utopian idea, Deacon and his co-authors show how social policy of various kinds is actually embedded in many kinds of international organizations’ policy-making and practice. Their book, although rather inelegantly written and constructed, is important for its dual agenda-setting as well as for much detailed analysis, both comparatively between national contexts and concerning international organizations.

Both Reinecke and Deacon offer bases for a riposte to the mechanical presentation of globalizing processes by Dicken and the matching pessimism of Bauman. While Reinecke presents global public policy as a response to economically-defined globalization, Deacon (although not clearly defining the latter) appears to see global politics and social policy as themselves parts of globalizing processes. This raises a critical point: whether the conceptualisations of ‘global’ change as ‘globalization’, and the latter as technologically-led economic and cultural change, are adequate. There are, indeed, grounds for questioning the entire way in which the debate is framed in these books as in the majority of the literature.

Three major issues should be raised. First, like most of the literature, none of these books ask at all about the meaning of ‘global’ in globalization. The term is used to equate to ‘worldwide’, in the sense of the growth and intensification of linkages between actors across the world. Little attempt is made to discover whether it has any meaning beyond this largely technical, spatial or space-time sense. And yet it is surely the case that the importance of ‘global’ understanding is connected to the sense of commonality in human relations. Even its original meaning, the understanding of the world as a sphere, was imbued with a new consciousness of the common environment of humankind, a consciousness which has greatly grown in recent decades. However, the understanding of the global has increasingly carried with it the sense of a common human society which involves more than mere technical linkages. Increasingly, the global is seen to involve a new social condition, ‘globality’.

The global in this sense is not in a relation of opposition to universality, as Bauman (like many radical critics) supposes. On the contrary, the liberal (and before that Christian) universalism of Western civilization, which has existed in tension with a rigidly stratified nation-state system for the last three centuries, was in many ways an anticipation of globality. Universalism appeared as abstract, necessarily in tension with empirical reality, because it was always at least potentially opposed to the increasingly rigid political constitution of a world of nation-states. In the nation, universals had always to be reconciled with – if not subordinated to – particular interests and values. In weakening the absolutism of national-particularist ideas, global change releases the potential of the old universalism and offers new possibilities of grounding universals in common, worldwide social relations. Globalism means, as Deacon shows, that ideas like social justice can now be thought practically in common, worldwide terms, even if many social and political institutions remain formidable obstacles to realising such values.

This failure to define ‘global’, which means in reality that globalizers and global-sceptics alike ascribe it a very narrow meaning, is linked to the second problem of the discourse. The idea of ‘globalization’ represents a very shallow understanding of the great historical changes which global change involves. The deficiency of this historical understanding can be seen in the mechanical quality which (Bauman rightly points out) is generally understood to belong to globalization. It can also be seen in the relegation of agency in general and politics in particular which is involved in both supportive and critical accounts of globalization. Politics is seen as, at worst, epiphenomenal or denied by (Bauman) or, at best, a mode of response to (Reinecke) social and cultural changes which are fundamentally technically and economically driven.

This understanding takes the sets of changes called ‘globalization’ out of the context of the broader historical processes – in which very definitely political (and war-related) changes have been defining moments. Already the ‘end of the Cold War’ has become no more than a distant backdrop to the thrust of global change, in most accounts; and yet this more-or-less simultaneous change of world order and (in large parts of the world) political system not only was, but remains (as Reinecke and Deacon in places show) central to any understanding of how global change is actually playing out.

This neglect of the historicity and political character of present change is rooted in an even more fundamental failure to grasp the past historical roots of globality. The meaning of global culture does not depend on the symbolic dross of contemporary commerce – Coca Cola and MacDonalds. It is rooted, rather, in the fundamental common experiences – of world wars, holocausts, the defeat of fascism. However much these seem to belong, or are even appropriated by, particular national communities, they are actually common possessions of humankind and core experiences of our common, global humanity at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Similarly, it was as a result of war and Cold War, in the 1940s, not commerce in the 1980s or 1990s, that (as Bauman indeed recognises) classical nation-states began to be transformed into components of larger blocs of state power. The result was not the simply weakening of state power, but its transformation. New forms of state are not merely agencies of response to globalization, but the very conditions for and even, to some extent, the creators of globalizing processes.

There is not space here to define these political conditions fully, but let us note: the abolition of war between the central states of the world system, first between the states of western Europe, north America and Japan, second (since 1989) between the West and Russia; the formation of new complexes of transatlantic, European, international and (yes) global state institutions; the rapid extension of democratization, so that formal democracy at least became the norm first for Western states and increasingly (especially after 1989) for states in all other regions; and finally the growing sway of common global norms, of universal values and international legal ideas increasingly appealed to by people worldwide and institutionalized in both international and national legal institutions. These four sets of changes constitute global change in a political sense, and represent a positively revolutionary – albeit very incomplete and highly contested – transformation of the world. Without these changes, many of the changes in markets and communications would not have been possible, and they would be as devoid of, or negative in, their meaning as Bauman seems to think.

The third problem of the globalization discourse comes out of this: the disdain for politics and the lack of understanding of political agency in global change. Whether this is the technicist ideology of some elite globalisers, or its critical reflection which concedes too much (malign) power to this tendency, there is the same remorseless structuralism and complete condescension towards the politically-active people of the world.

Most thoroughly of all, there is the writing out of globalization of the popular movements which actually created much of its political momentum. Once again, a sense of historical perspective is critical. The Berlin Wall did not ‘collapse’; worldwide democratic transformation was not handed down either by newly-enlightened despots or by fresh converts among American policy-makers. For half a century democracy, in many parts of the world, was the struggle of courageous oppositionists and dissidents against not only Soviet totalitarianism but also Western Cold-War authoritarianism and realpolitik. The global-democratic agenda was developed by social movements, campaigning groups and non-governmental organisations as much as by Western states, and pushed by the former against the resistance of the latter.

The democratic transformations of 1989 itself, and of the subsequent decade worldwide, have come from popular movements – on the streets of Soweto, Sueul and Jakarta as well as Berlin, Prague and Bucharest. Certainly, the enmeshing of political change with market reforms – and in many places with ethno-nationalist violence – has meant that the longer-term results of popular movements have been mixed. Yet it is a curious historiography which sees in global change only the death of the old, national state-socialist model of political transformation – and neglects the new, even revolutionary agency of democratic mass movements and civil society.

The pernicious neglect of political agency also affects the treatment of elites. Critics of globalisation decry, as Bauman does here, its supposed effects in hollowing out the political capacity of states. And yet it is difficult to credit this as a general structural effect of globalization: to this extent global-sceptics like Hirst and Thompson are right to suggest that the demise of state capacity has been exaggerated. To the extent that globalization weakens, as Reinecke suggests, the internal sovereignty (perhaps better described as legitimacy) of states, this is surely a challenge to governing elites to reinvent themselves, their missions and their legitimacy. Both Reinecke and Deacon suggest some of the ways they can do this, through developing global public and social policy. But Reinecke is right to see the weak democratic basis of these initiatives as a potential Achilles’ heel. For this reason, the agenda of globalizing democracy, developed consistently by David Held, is surely an essential complement to the policy initiatives proposed in these books.

There is – and to this extent Bauman is correct – a loss of political initiative by Western elites, but it is not in any simple sense a structural consequence of globalization. Rather it is more plausible to see it as a result of the insular complacency of American policy-makers as well as the parochialism, deference and timidity of many non-American elites, and the common loss of framework resulting from the end of the Cold War. The narrow attention to domestic political bases, reinforced by the kind of media surveillance which Bauman describes, are structural factors, but they do not enforce political ineffectuality. We have to explain why European elites can create what are, in some ways, visionary new political institutions within the European Union, while yet manifesting such miserable incompetence in dealing with the post-Yugoslav wars. We have to explain why Bush could get hold of the Iraqi threat, after Kuwait, or Clinton could eventually impose the (albeit flawed) Dayton settlement, while the West’s leaders collectively connived at the United Nations’ acceptance of genocide in Rwanda.

It is in the interactions of elites in the mess of national, European, transatlantic and global institutions, and their erratic responses to both globalist, democratic movements and the threats of nationalist, genocidist violence, that we can identify the framework of global politics today. As Reinecke suggests, the development of global public policy and institutions – we should add democracy – has not matched the market flows or the spurts of corporate interventions across boundaries in the first decade after 1989. In this limited sense, politics is ‘following’ economics. But in a broader historical sense we must see the centrality of the political transformation to globality. These are revolutionary changes, with much momentum from below, which are larger than the technical-economic ‘global shifts’. Globalization, in the latter sense, is both conditional on political change and a condition for it. But the unfinished, contested global revolution is the larger framework for which globalization is at most necessary, not sufficient. In this sense above all, the debate needs to move beyond the terms of the present literature.

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