Basic Instincts in a Global World

What is globalization — and what is it not?

December 22, 2000

What is globalization — and what is it not?

A friend of mine studies village life in central Africa. A few years ago, she paid her first visit to a remote area where she was to carry out her fieldwork. The day she arrived, she was invited to a local home for an evening’s entertainment. She expected to find out about the traditional pastimes of this isolated community Instead, the occasion turned out to be a viewing of “Basic Instinct” on video. The film at that point hadn’t even reached the cinemas in London, where we lived.

Clearly, we live in a world of transformations, affecting almost every aspect of what we do. For better or worse, we are being propelled into a global order that no one fully understands, but which is making all of us .

I have not travelled to a single country recently where globalization isn’t being intensively discussed. In France, the word is mondialisation. In Spain and Latin America, it is globalización.

The Germans say Globalisierung. The global spread of the term is evidence of the very developments to which it refers. Every business guru talks about it. No political speech is complete without reference to it.

Yet even in the late 1980s the term was hardly used, either in the academic literature or in everyday language. It has come from nowhere to be almost everywhere.

Given its sudden popularity, we shouldn’t be surprised that the meaning of the notion isn’t always clear, or that an intellectual reaction has set in against it. Globalization has something to do with the thesis that we now all live in one world — but in what ways exactly, and is the idea really valid? Different thinkers have taken almost completely opposite views about globalization in debates that have sprung up over the past few years.

Some dispute the whole thing. I’ll call them the sceptics. According to the sceptics, all the talk about globalization is only that — just talk. Whatever its benefits, its trials and tribulations, the global economy isn’t especially different from that which existed at previous periods. The world carries on much the same as it has done for many years.

Most countries, the sceptics argue, gain only a small amount of their income from external trade. Moreover, a good deal of economic exchange is between regions, rather than being truly worldwide. The countries of the European Union, for example, mostly trade among themselves. The same is true of the other main trading blocs, such as those of Asia-Pacific or North America.

Others take a very different position. I’ll label them the radicals. The radicals argue that not only is globalization very real, but that its consequences can be felt everywhere. The global marketplace, they say, is much more developed than even in the 196os and 1970s and is indifferent to national borders. Nations have lost most of the sovereignty they once had, and politicians have lost most of their capability to influence events.

For that reason, it isn’t surprising then that no one respects political leaders any more, or has such interest in what they have to say. The era of the nation-state is over.

Nations, as the Japanese business writer Kenichi Ohmae puts it, have become mere “fictions.” Authors such as Mr. Ohmae see the economic difficulties of the 1998 Asian crisis as demonstrating the reality of globalization, albeit seen from its disruptive side.

The sceptics tend to be on the political left, especially the old left. For if all of this is essentially a myth, governments can still control economic life — and the welfare state will remain intact. The notion of globalization, according to the sceptics, is an ideology put about by free-marketeers who wish to dismantle welfare systems and cut back on state expenditures.

What has happened is at most a reversion to how the world was a century ago. In the late 19th century there was already an open global economy, with a great deal of trade, including trade in currencies. Well, who is right in this debate?

I would have no hestitation in saying that globalization, as we are experiencing it, is in many respects not only new, but also revolutionary. Yet I don’t believe that either the sceptics or the radicals have properly understood either what it is or its implications for us. Both groups see the phenomenon almost solely in economic terms. This is a mistake. Globalization is political, technological and cultural, as well as economic.

Adapted from "Runaway World" by Anthony Giddens. Copyright © 2000 by Routledge. Used by permission of Routledge.