Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Globalization(s): as Evolution and the Contradictions of Socially Constructed Desire

Over the years scholars have sought to construct a common definition for the perceived phenomena termed globalization. However, instead of developing a unified definition, the heterogeneity among various conceptions of this phenomenon has generated circles of intense debate. Each camp staking out a theoretical claim on what globalization is, and whether it is happening at all. Some argue that globalization is defined by the emergence of a world-system of economic exchange (Wallerstein, 1979), or the growing presence of global governance above the nation state (Scholte, 2002), whereas others define globalization in terms of phenomena such as global communicative integration (Castells, 1989) and the construction of a global culture. Each definition and the phenomena scholars choose as a criteria for empirically testing their definitions lead each to varying conclusions regarding the existence of the globalization process, and the degree at which the world’s societies are becoming ‘globalized’. And while all of these definitions describe current phenomena, none of these definitions appear to fully grasp the nature of historical processes of global relationship building, or the ebb and flow of global integration and disintegration.

However, it is this ebb and flow of integration and disintegration that appears most relevant for defining and understanding the globalization phenomena. From the beginning of time as we know it, there appears to have been a natural human tendency for social integration. As examples, we can cite the processes of migration throughout pre-civilized societies, on through present day times. We can also observe the advent and growth of interconnections through trade, the rise of empires and the capacity for ‘round-the-world’ communications (Roberts, 2002). And then, there is the globalization project itself (as a consciously constructed normative for peace and prosperity) that points to this historical tendency for integration.

On the other side of the coin is the parallel tendency for disintegration, the fall of empires, economic protectionism or isolationism, terrorism and the great wars that have taken place throughout history, all of which contradicts and moderates this tendency for expansion and integration. However, despite these events in our shared history there is some sense of progression, just as if we take two steps forward, we then take one step back. Something of this type of conflict can be observed through the globalization of U.S. consumer culture, while at the same time there is a globalization of resistance to this very same culture. Similarly, as communication goes global and the level of interactions across time and space intensify, there is a simultaneous tendency towards parochialism. The same goes for the increased globalization of financial and commodity transactions. For instance, in this globalizing world manufacturing is a mobile industry, setting up shop among regions with the lowest bidder is common practice and even encouraged, yet the response is one of vehement opposition among labor within developed countries (Williamson, Imbroscio & Alperovitz, 2002). For these groups globalization is equal to the loss of economic opportunity, and contrary to those who defend the process of global economic interdependence.

At its most fundamental level, globalization is perhaps, simply a macrocosm of the microcosmic dimension of human experience itself, expressed as an on-going dialectic between what we as society want, and fear. In this sense, globalization could be seen as the natural and evolutionary process towards continued human social integration in the form of our economics, politics, culture and information; a somewhat self-organizing phenomena connected to the growing complexity and interaction of social desires, and of course the growing complexity of interdependent systems that we construct to fulfill these desires. It is a tenuous process mitigated by push and pull of contradictions inherent among competing human social desire, and therefore prone to reversal and periodic instability. For instance, these various desires can put people in direct opposition with one another, whereas others can be encouraged to cooperate. This of course enables a convergence of interests among like-minded groups and individuals in order to advance parallel desires, creating networks of people, organizations and states.

In considering this aspect of globalization we might then begin to extend our definition to consider ‘globalization(s)’ instead of a singular globalization. In this case, entire social groups disaffected by the globalization project might become globally connected in their resistance to the phenomenon taking place. Likewise, those who perceive globalization, as being connected to the fulfillment of their basic desires could become linked in their support of this process. Perhaps, no better example of these ‘globalizations’ is the existence of various world religions, along with their specific practices and ideologies. Other examples might include the globalization of various extremist ideologies, terrorism as a justified response to violent political marginalization or the advancement of one’s ideals, as well as localism, fair trade and neo-nationalism.

The present phenomena and tendency of people to aggregate around shared interests and fears points towards the idea that the fundamental characteristics of human experience (i.e. desire and aversion) are what are driving the emergence of global integration (or disintegration), and in turn, the products or outcomes of this process then influences each subsequent step forward, much like a feedback loop. For example, most humans possess a desire to connect to each other, we also have a desire to protect what is ours, many have aspirations of power and wealth, a desire for expression, peace and security, and so forth. To achieve these ends we have constructed global communication systems, international bodies to encourage peace and security, human rights and the rise of multinational corporations to consolidate people’s capacity to accumulate wealth. And while we have these outcomes to point to the existence of a globalization process, these social desires and aversions have been shaping the nature of social organization and its growing complexity since before history, there is simply more of us now and the outcome of this evolutionary process has made each of us more aware of our similar and conflicting interests.

Yet, simply perceiving globalization as a process constructed out of human desire is perhaps incomplete, and though the individual plays a part, this desire or aversion is really an aggregation of experiences translated into global relations. So, it is less about the individual as it is about the culmination of individuals responding in particular ways to particular experiences. However, it is this aggregation of interests and conflicts that come to surface when disturbances to the system are most apparent. In a world where minimal levels of integration are present it would be much less likely for droughts in China to produce steep increases in the cost of rice throughout the world. But in a globalized world where localized events have far reaching consequences, the effects can have serious implications that can force people and nation-states to question the nature of their global relationships and participation within the process of globalization. It is like dropping a stone in a pond sending waves throughout, and each collective response is determined much by how certain interests and past experiences of the globalization project have been distributed among a particular collection of peoples.

For instance, no one would have predicted the impact of 9/11 on global integration, but just as the world rallied behind the U.S. to contest transnational terrorism, we witnessed the renegotiation of alliances and the emergence of conflictive interests as the U.S. planned for its invasion of Iraq. In this sense, both 9/11 and the U.S. response could be considered unpredicted chaos, putting the stability of the current system in a state of flux where people, organizations, and nation-states are likely to be engaged in a process of seeking a new set of responses to emergent threats and shifting interests. As an example, the lead up the U.S. invasion witnessed the largest first ever globally coordinated mass protest in history, as well as a strain on the relations among nearly every member of the UN Security Council. All it might take is one relatively small event to radically transform the way we pursue our interests, one minute it is globalization, the next it could be communalism, nationalism or something else.

Now, the definition of globalization or globalizations presented might appear to be an argument against this phenomenon, after all, the author has described a series of contradictions in the ways this process has unfolded, on the one hand we have people coming together and on the other hand there is a simultaneous tendency towards fragmentation. But that is it; globalization is the worldwide diffusion of this push-pull phenomenon towards integration and fragmentation, with the tendency for integration possessing an edge, mostly as a function of the human species natural attraction to one another.

Take as an example Samuel Huntington’s thesis in Clash of Civilizations? (1993). In his piece people are coalescing around regional cultural blocs, centered upon identity, race, religion and so forth, but in contrast to Huntington, the ideas presented here cites the emergence of interest based coalitions between states, civil society networks and multinational corporations as being of parallel importance and power for structuring global social organization. For example, neo-Marxists in Spain are working with Maoists in India through media and shared tools for propaganda development and distribution, whereas the Chinese and Sudanese are engaged in negotiations for greater economic interdependence with energy at the center. Others can look to the work of George Ritzer and his thesis on The McDondaldization of Society (1993) as another example of interest based integration, not necessarily leading to separate cultural blocs of power. Interests and desires for particular consumer products, political power, economic superiority, and so on are arguably just as powerful in organizing relationships in as are the elements discussed by Huntington. Perhaps this is just another contradiction, or a confluence of contradictions, just like eating a curry-veg sandwich in a McDonalds in New Delhi, versus a Big Mac in New York. The interesting thing is that all of these connections are occurring simultaneously, again redirecting our focus on globalizations rather than a singularity of global phenomena. The only real thing global about globalization is the apparent paradox engendered by the process.

Overall, such conceptions of globalization could help in understanding the role each of us plays in the construction, legitimization and stability of such processes. For instance, just as we construct new ways to facilitate in the process of globalization, we can likewise use these same mechanisms to contest the process, and likewise contest the process in drastically different ways. As people perceive the withering of the state apparatus through the strengthening of global governance, some might be called to a sense of nationalism in order to protect the legitimacy of their government, heritage and culture. These groups might link up with other nationalistic groups focused upon sharing resources to achieve a retreat of the globalization project and herald a return to a Westphalia style of international social organization. On the other hand others might seek to contest a loss of political power through the creation of international networks of resistance aimed at influencing global power in order to preserve a sense of local autonomy. This is an often cited as a reason for the rise of transnational advocacy networks (TANs) (Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Rodrigues, 2004). As groups and individuals perceive a lack of responsiveness to shared interests, TANs become an outlet for alternative social relationships based upon shared values aimed at developing an empowering political voice.

However, just as these networks attempt to influence the face of these various political, economic and cultural systems, oppositional groups will in turn seek out their own interests; at times these interests will converge to support collective integration and at other times, disintegration will occur. The same thing can be said for nation-states as well. Currently, global integration is perceived to be good for ensuring peace and security, as well as for the accumulation of wealth, the spread of international norms on human rights and environmental sustainability. However, this doesn’t mean interests will always align, nor does it mean continued globalizations are assured, rather hyper-fragmentation could over take the desire for human social interconnection due to fears of what the overall globalization project means for peoples’ interests. But as long as we still perceive the value of cooperation to achieve our aims, it would seem that this tendency for global integration and cooperation will continue as an evolutionary process marked by bumps in the road, both small and large.

Castells, M. (1989). “The Informational Mode of Development.” Ch. 11 in Timmons, R. J. & Hite, A. B. (eds.). The Globalization and Development Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Huntington, S.P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations? From Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993
Keck, M. & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists Beyond Borders. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. Pp. 1-37.

Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge Press.

Roberts, J.M. (2002). The New Penguin History of the World. Penguin Books; London, UK.

Rodrigues, M. (2004). Global Environmentalism and Local Politics: Transnational Advocacy Networks in Brazil, Ecuador and India. SUNY Press. Albany, NY. pp. 3-15, 115-134.

Scholte, J. (2002). “What is ‘Global’ about Globalization?” Ch. 5 in Held, D. & McGrew, A. (eds.). The Global Transformations Reader. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Wallerstein, E. (1979). “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis.” In The Globalization and Development Reader: Perspectives on Development and Global Change. Ed. Roberts, J. and Hite, A.B. Blackwell Publishing; Oxford, UK.

Williamson, T., Imbroscio, D., & Alperovitz, G. (2002). Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era. Taylor and Francis Group; New York, NY.

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