Globalization as a Massive Civilizational Shift (Part II)
How does globalization foster innovative global patterns of life and more complex identities?
April 5, 2010
Globalization has gained many meanings since being introduced into the language as a term of analysis in the 1950s by Roland Robertson. In general, it refers, as he points out, to a worldwide set of dynamic social and cultural developments that are influencing every local context, all peoples, each nation and the ecology of the earth itself.
It has thus become the framework that relativizes and modulates every regional, national and local context — and is simultaneously adapted into each local, national or regional context in distinctive ways. It creates new cultural varieties that are “glocal,” new combinations of the global and local.
Specialists in various fields treat the changes in terms of their disciplines and often tend to attribute the dynamics to the factors that most interest them. For instance, political scientists, as well as politicians and public policy critics, treat globalization as the emerging realignment of power relations in a “new world order” as the Soviet Union began to collapse and the United States became the only remaining superpower.
In contrast, economists, as well as business leaders and remarkably critics suspicious of business, treat globalization essentially as an economic dynamic. They see capitalist markets, practices and institutions that can leap over the borders of nations to escape legal limitations, establish new markets and find cheap labor and resources.
This simultaneously makes an economy more inclusive and productive — and subverts local economies. This dynamic is embraced by some and rejected by those who want a political sovereignty over economic life — or hold that ecological peril is the inevitable result of disrupting the lifestyles of those who subsist in a local adaptive niche.
Meanwhile, technologically oriented communications specialists speak of the spread of information technology, media availability and transportation facilities that allow the peoples of the world to interact and discover or create new commonalities.
Cultural critics, for their part, speak of a post-modern fragmentation of meaning as earlier dominant cultural assumptions are shattered by their exposures to a host of alternatives.
Yet again others quote demographers who speak of massive migration flows, as those from the south and east migrate to the north and west, while some anthropologists document the ways in which traditional societies adapt and other members of their profession celebrate the resurgent values or mourn the global forces that disrupt indigenous societies.
More inclusive definitions seek to comprehend these partial perspectives. I think they reflect more accurate views in terms of grasping the scope of present dynamics.
Thus, I see all the factors mentioned above as contributing to the formation of a new transnational public and a new social infrastructure that, while still fragile, could lead to a new worldwide civilization. It invites a catholic, an ecumenical, a cosmopolitan vision.
There is evidence, as the late Samuel Huntington suggested, for the realistic possibility of a “clash of civilizations.” But Reinhold Niebuhr probably was more correct.
He argued that, while Christianity is penultimately pessimistic (since it knows the reality of sin in historical life), it is ultimately optimistic, for it also knows more universal realities that touch on the deeper aspects of human nature and human destiny — a deeper realism that also binds humanity together and does not only divide.
It is these seemingly opposite pairings that we are forced to consider by globalization. It invites, allows and facilitates contact and bridges between clashing contexts. After all, as the old popular hymn says of the Creator of the world and Lord of history, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” and thus the Christian view is ultimately one of confidence.
In this light, contemporary globalization is essentially a massive civilizational shift in the making — a worldwide civil society that is more complex and integrated than we have yet imagined. It promises a potential improvement on what we now have.
It signals a potential change like the shifts from hunting and gathering societies to agricultural, then urban societies and then to industrialized nation states. Each shift takes hundreds of years and sometimes ages, and it requires technological, political, economic and social shifts — each guided, tempered, limited and legitimated by a fundamental religious reformation or transformation.
Each of those past shifts involved crises and conflicts. Each shift was also made possible by both material and political factors and was shaped by a dominant religious vision that both learned from and surpassed its rivals, which generated ethical transformations.
In other words, new profound theological syntheses produced new doctrines out of classic beliefs that enhanced certain possibilities in cultural, material and socio-political life and gave legitimacy to some possibilities rather than others.
Today's globalization is ultimately about forces which are forming the infrastructure of what could become a new, worldwide federated civil society — but not yet, if ever, a global civilization.
It is a decidedly dynamic process, incredibly complex and increasingly inclusive of every other context. It thus requires a comprehensive contextual analysis and a general theology of history to give it direction.
More people see material, social, spiritual and ethical benefits than see liabilities, as new middle classes are created at geometric rates, a fact that tends to support globalizing forces.
Notably, this partially formed global civil society, as messy, pluralistic and conflictual as it is, will not be welcomed by all. This new, seemingly amorphous entity is developing without being under the control of any state — although more developed lands, especially the United States, Great Britain and the EU, plus Japan and increasingly China and India, are rapidly adapting to the changes demanded.
They thus take advantage of the opportunities afforded and reinforce the developments and the international legal arrangements that legitimate them.
Editor’s Note: Part III of this feature will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.
Contemporary globalization is essentially a massive civilizational shift in the making — a worldwide civil society that is more complex and integrated than we have yet imagined. It promises a potential improvement on what we now have.
Globalization refers to a worldwide set of dynamic social and cultural developments that are influencing every local context, all peoples, each nation and the ecology of the earth itself.
Globalization creates new cultural varieties that are "glocal," new combinations of the global and local.
Professor of Theology, Princeton University Max L. Stackhouse (July 29, 1935 – January 30, 2016) is Princeton Theological Seminary's Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life. He also chairs the Seminary's Religion and Society program. He is ordained in the United Church of Christ and is president of the Berkshire […]