The world is mountainous

Globalization is in full swing. The best proof of this are the attempts to stop it.

Offering simplistic generalizations to any socio-economic phenomenon is, to put it mildly, problematic, but none are more questionable than those that relate to globalization. Globalization is not a single process. There is globalization for virtually everything, including the economy, politics, culture, religion, science, health and medicine, education, and sports. Further, there are profound differences within and between them in how, and the degree to which, they globalize.

In spite of globalization’s wide range, most academic and popular attention is focused on the economic component. However, even this defies generalization since it, in itself, is highly diverse. One example of a simplistic, even erroneous, generalization is Thomas Friedman’s contention that the world is both growing flatter and rising economically. Clearly, great barriers continue to make the world “hilly”, if not “mountainous”, and billions are falling further behind economically.

It’s not all about economics

How do we account for the near-universal tendency to equate economic globalization with globalization as a whole or, less extremely, to privilege the economy in discussions of globalization? Obviously, the economy is of enormous importance both macroscopically (e.g., for countries) and microscopically (e.g., to individuals virtually everywhere). In addition, it is implicated, at least to some degree, in all other aspects of globalization. But it is far from being alone in having great significance and in having wide-ranging implications. Among the many other aspects of globalization that have these characteristics are borderless diseases (think of the next viral pandemic), climate change, immigration, the brain drain, the internet (especially social networking), as well as the spread of political and religious ideologies, illegal goods (especially drugs) and terrorism.

However, those who analyze the economy, especially the economists, are hegemonic in the social sciences. They are also deeply involved in the political world, especially in the U.S., as, for example, Chair of the Federal Reserve. Their thoughts and ideas are also of great interest to the media and economists are often featured in newspaper articles and as “talking heads” on television. It is not surprising, therefore, that an economist, Thomas Piketty, has become a global superstar and his ideas on capital and inequality, as well as the numerous criticisms of them, have globalized with unprecedented speed for a scholarly work. Ultimately, it is the capitalist economy, and its impact on all aspects of globalization and of the social world, that gives the economists their great visibility and influence. Given this reality, it is not surprising that most discussions of, and thoughts about, globalization focus on its economic aspects.

However, it is wrong-headed to reduce globalization to economics, to focus so much attention on economic globalization and, of course, to over-generalize it. No generalization about globalization is more troublesome than the idea that it, especially economic globalization, is somehow ending (a similar argument was made, erroneously, in the wake of the autarchy associated with WW 1). One often hears this today in discussions, especially in the U.S. and Europe, of the efforts to better control, even resurrect, national borders in order to stem the flow of various unwanted products and immigrants. Muslim extremists are currently seeking to create a new caliphate that would presumably put in place barriers to the entry of all sorts of heretical ideas, to say nothing of the heretics who bear them (but not to the oil they- largely Sunnis- want and need to export including, at the moment, even to the hated Alawites [Shiites] in Syria). However, even if these barriers are put in place, we will continue to see the global flow of extremist ideas, of extremists themselves, and of oil (and the huge profits associated with it) into and out of the new caliphate. Also likely to flow freely are arms and other material support for the opponents of this development. All of this points to the continuing reality and importance of globalization even in the face of efforts to create new obstacles to it.

However, that is not to say, as Thomas Friedman has argued (again erroneously), that globalization is inexorable. There are developments such as a nuclear winter or a pandemic worse than the Spanish flu that could slow or alter the nature of globalization, although it is worth noting that both of those developments would, themselves, be global in scope.

The dialectic between flows and barriers

Contemporary globalization is defined by the great liquidity of its many elements (money, social networks, people) as well as the barriers (tariffs; national borders; China’s “Great Firewall”; visas; terrorist watch-lists) that are often erected to stem the flows that at least some see as undesirable. The idea of barriers would seem to suggest that globalization could be ended if only there were enough of them and that they were made impermeable. However, there are never enough barriers and those that exist have proven to be porous (e.g., firewalls on computers housing government secrets or valuable corporate information). Therefore, it is best to think of globalization as involving a continuing dialectic between global flows and the barriers erected to impede them. Flows of, for example, capital, immigrants, ideas, and pollution will tend to continue, even accelerate, until they reach a point where they engender strong enough opposition to begin to erect barriers to them. These efforts might be successful for a time, but it is likely that whatever barriers are created will eventually be swamped by global flows and/or dismantled by those with vested interests opposed to the barriers.

Because of the dialectic between global flows and barriers, globalization varies in terms of a number of dimensions. Globalization can vary in its extensiveness; its elements need not cover the entire globe (indeed nothing does) to be considered an aspect of globalization. McDonald’s is a global phenomenon even though its restaurants are now found in “only” about half the world. Some areas of the world will escape the ravages of climate change and perhaps even benefit from it. Intensiveness of globalization can vary everywhere from the currently “hot” spread of radical Islam to the “cool” movement of a global fashion change. In terms of velocity, some global changes occur seemingly overnight (the flow of radical new ideas and social movements) while others (the movement toward greater global economic equality) are glacial. Finally, there is the variation in the impact of global processes from high (the 9/11 attacks) to low (the latest fad in emoticons on the internet).

Nothing is inevitable in the socio-economic world, and that is true for both globalization and the barriers erected to stem its many different flows. Both globalization and those barriers are social constructions, and they are constantly open to change, reconstruction, or deconstruction. It is safe to say that the future will bring with it a continuation of this dialectic, although the way it plays out will vary greatly from one locale to another and over time. That’s not much of a generalization, but it’s the best we can do in the case of globalization.

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