Written 25 years ago (source article has been taken offline)

We live in a world that is simultaneously shrinking and expanding, growing closer and farther apart….National borders are increasingly irrelevant. And yet globalism is by no means triumphant. Tribalisms of all kinds flourish. Irredentism abounds (Attali, 1991: 117).

Because of the great increase in the traffic in culture, the large-scale transfer of meaning systems and symbolic forms, the world is increasingly becoming one not only in political and economic terms…,but in terms of its cultural construction as well; a global ecumene of persistent cultural interaction and exchange. This, however, is no egalitarian global village (Hannerz, 1991: 107) (emphasis added).

The pace of global change is extremely rapid, and even those trained to track and analyze it have difficulty keeping up with new developments. However, trends are regularly observed and named, and these new terms become “buzz words” in the lexicons of governments, academia and the media. Such a term is globalization. Though it is, admittedly, rather vague, and the phenomena it is employed to describe extremely diverse, it does express a prevailing sentiment at century’s end that our lives are increasingly influenced by forces which have transcended borders, and which, precisely because of their scope and power, are changing, irreversibly, life on this planet. All levels of society are being reshaped by this process: the individual may find her/his livelihood threatened or identity thrown into question; localities and whole regions are forced to recreate themselves or die in the face of new economic forces; and nation-states themselves experience steadily decreasing freedom of action and ever closer ties to each other.

At the moment there is a serious contradiction between the fact that globalization is in full swing, and the fact that existing processes of global governance lack sufficient power, authority and scope to regulate and direct this process toward beneficial ends. As a result globalization is often disruptive and inequitable in its effects. It has also posed new challenges for existing public institutions while at the same time weakening their autonomy and support; and, paradoxically, provided the means for those it excludes culturally or economically to organize against its subordinating and homogenizing force. Many analysts have pointed to the turbulent nature of this planetary process and to the increasing frequency and variety of reactions to it. Drawing on this literature, this paper first attempts to clarify various aspects of globalization and then considers its potential for generating social conflict and unrest. Subsequently, human needs theory, as developed and applied by John Burton, is used to explore some of the roots of these conflicts and, finally, globalism is put forth as a positive, and potentially corrective, dimension of globalization.

Globalization: A Closer Look

There are a variety of definitions and descriptions of globalization, which, though overlapping in many respects, do emphasize different dimensions of the process. Robertson’s is one of the first and the most general:

Globalization as a concept refers both to the compression of the world and intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole…both concrete global interdependence and consciousness of the global whole in the twentieth century (Robertson, 1992: 8).

Anthony Giddens’s adds an important dimension to the picture by emphasizing the interactive, or dialectical dimensions of the process:

Globalization can thus be defined as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa. This is a dialectical process because such local happenings may move in an obverse direction from the very distanced relations that shape them. Local transformation is as much a part of globalisation as the lateral extension of social connections across time and space (Giddens, 1990: 64).

However, it is in regard to business and economics that the term “globalization” is most frequently invoked. What is referred to here is:

“…a qualitative shift toward a global economic system that is no longer based on autonomous national economies but on a consolidated global marketplace for production, distribution, and consumption;” (Holm and Sørensen, 1995: 5)

in which

“…distinct national economies are subsumed and rearticulated into the system by essentially international processes and transactions” (Hirst and Thompson, 1992).

The primary vehicles for this process have been the increasing transnationalization of production, and the resulting rise in influence of multinational enterprises, and even more importantly, the explosion in the volume and scope of transactions on international financial markets. In this regard, consider the following commentary on contemporary change in the banking industry:

Banking is rapidly becoming indifferent to the constraints of time, place and currency…an English buyer can get a Japanese mortgage, an American can tap his New York bank account through a cash machine in Hong Kong and a Japanese investor can buy shares in a London-based Scandinavian bank whose stock is denominated in sterling, dollars, Deutsche Marks, and Swiss francs (Waters, 1995: 89).

And one of its most often noted effects is the homogenization of consumer markets around the world, at least in certain areas–the so-called “McDonaldization” of global consumption.

Though often touted as representing the height of economic rationality, globalization has also been portrayed as having a very dark side. Critics repeatedly point out that the contemporary form of globalization , driven by economic power, clearly promotes the hegemony of Western culture and corporations; puts jobs and communities at risk in the rich countries and exploits cheap labor in the poorer countries; increases threats to the environment; and undermines the foundations of democracy and social stability by subjecting national political institutions to forces of economic change beyond their control. Furthermore, as a recent volume of essays (Holm and Sørensen, 1995) has highlighted, globalization is uneven both in its processes and in its effects. It produces concentrations and deprivations which, in the aggregate, constitute an increasingly well-defined global power structure.
Claude Ake, a leading African critical thinker, has argued in this regard that:

Economic forces are constituting the world into one economy and, to a lesser extent, one political society. Nations participate in global governance according to their economic power, which is coextensive with their rights. The global order is ruled by an informal cabinet of the world’s economically most powerful countries; its law is the logic of the market, and status in this new order is a function of economic performance (Ake, 1995: 26).

Critics also argue that there is a neo-liberal ideology of globalization which serves to “normalize” the process – to make it seem natural, inevitable and beneficial. Thus, while it is clearly in the particular interest of big multinational and global corporations to be free to move money, factories and goods around the planet seeking access to the cheapest factors of production, the most congenial regulatory environments and the most lucrative markets, the ideology of globalization promotes the belief that the interests of humanity and even of the earth itself will also be best served if world markets are:

“.left unfettered by ethical, moral, social, or environmental considerations.” (Ritchie, 1996)

In an analysis of the North American Trade Association as a case study of both the ideology and practice of globalization, economist Robert MacEwan presents data from the United States and Mexico to substantiate what he calls the “social failures” which are produced by the trade pact: greater income inequality, environmental damage and the decline of democratic control:

Greater income inequality is not the only social failure generated by the success of globalization generally and by NAFTA particularly. Environmental destruction is surely exacerbated with the success of globalization. The greater mobility of capital makes it more and more difficult for citizens of any one political unit to organize and use their government to impose regulations on polluting firms (MacEwan, 1994: 2).

Finally, he argues that globalization has a negative impact on the quality of politics and public life by placing restrictions on governments’ powers to intervene in their own economies, and, thereby:

“..limiting people’s power to exercise political control over their economic lives” (MacEwan, 1994: 2).

Though one should not necessarily take all this criticism at face value, it does reflect what can go wrong as corporations and capital have acquired the means to move and operate on a much broader scale. Furthermore, it conveys a sense of alarm that the nation-state as an institutional structure cannot cope effectively with these new developments, and, in fact, finds its own priorities and policies heavily influenced, if not dictated, by them. The question then arises, who will articulate and defend the public interest against the global reach of private financial and commercial interests, when the latter go too far? For instance, all but the most laissez-faire of economic thinking argue that governments must intervene to protect the public when markets fail, i.e. when they are no longer free and competitive. However, efforts to implement such a strategy at the global level, through various multilateral and international institutions, have achieved little. Consequently, world markets have become increasingly concentrated in major sectors.

Furthermore, while there is a case to be made for reducing expensive and inefficient government regulatory structures, the lack of adequate regulatory standards applying across borders does provide an incentive for multinational firms to choose less-regulated operating environments, and involves countries seeking foreign investment in a:

“race for the bottom” competition to see who can provide the most “free” and least regulated business environment (The Economist, July 1995: 114).

In the negative characterization of globalization, and this judgment becomes even more plausible when globalization is evaluated as an “engine” of social conflict.

Globalization and Conflict

Though the previous discussion is suggestive, the link between globalization and conflict requires further explication. Much of the literature distinguishes between conflicts which focus on issues of culture and identity, and others which appear to be primarily economic, and the discussion that follows adopts this approach while acknowledging that in practice the two elements are interrelated. Conflicts of world views and interests should not, however, be seen as inherently threatening or negative. Indeed many of the tensions of social change are largely unavoidable, and some are undoubtedly creative in their effects. At the same time, however, the analysis which follows suggests that if the human needs and rights issues involved are not adequately addressed, the incidence and intensity of social conflict associated with globalization are likely to increase steadily in the years ahead.

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