Spinning out of control

The Global Age - Globalisation in Question
September 19, 1997

For all the voluminous output of the past decade or so the debate over globalisation shakes down, pretty much, into two schools of thought: hyperglobalisers and sceptics. Hyperglobalisers argue that we now live in a world in which social processes operate predominantly at a global scale; national differences are being eroded and a homogeneous global economy and culture is emerging; the sovereignty and autonomy of nation-states have been radically reduced. Sceptics argue that for all the increases in global flows of trade and investment, the majority of economic and cultural activity continues to occur on a more restricted spatial scale; historical evidence suggests that contemporary forms of international economic and cultural interaction may not as unprecedented as is claimed.

Martin Albrow's The Global Age falls unquestionably in the hyperglobal camp. Taking on this kind of task is not easy. A theoretical assessment of the origins, dynamics and direction of globalisation requires one to reach across a range of disciplines and examine a huge range of evidence. However, Albrow has taken few of the recommended precautions before taking the task on. The gist of the argument, extracted from its glutinous prose, is, I think, that the central agency of modernity, and the main institutional expression of the modern project, was the nation-state. The territorial consolidation and expansion of European states fuelled scientific innovation, provided the context for capitalist development and offered the perfect institutional form for the rational collective control of the world. However, in so doing, nation-building elites and modern sociologists conflated state and society: they assumed that societies, like states, have meaningful fixed borders and that the two happily coincided. Globalisation has changed all of this profoundly and irrevocably. Environmental, economic and technological change has transformed people's perception of the world and themselves, radically diminished the power of nation-states and in so doing has revealed the always tenuous connection between state, nation and society. If the nation-state is all over, then modernity, and its stabilised national identities, is all over. Albrow trumps the postmodern age with the global age.

I am unconvinced by any part of this argument. It seems to me that social theory has enough problems as it tries accurately to grapple with modernity and globalisation separately, without trying to theorise them together. The nation-state may well have been a central element of western modernity, but to elevate it to the status of primary agent is to commit the same mistake as all the other unicausal, uni-institutional models of the modern world. Modernity has been nothing if not diverse as a force for social change. It is just not clear that the age of the nation state is over. Western nation-states continue to monopolise the means of violence, control vast bureaucracies and spend very large percentages of GDP. No other political institutions are capable of energising similar levels of political legitimacy. Two basic preconditions of investigating the demise of the nation-state would have been a systematic account of the extent and form of globalisation and some historically checkable index of national interdependence and autonomy. Albrow constructs neither of these.

Paul Hirst's and Grahame Thompson's Globalisation in Question is probably the most focused sceptical attack on the economic models and visions of hyperglobalisers and their mainstream social democratic adherents. For the latter, globalisation serves as an ideological fig-leaf for a process in which governments have willingly abandoned many of the tools of governance and passed power from the democratically legitimated sphere of politics to the unaccountable realm of the market. To test and probe the hyperglobal claims, Hirst and Thompson describe an ideal-type global economy in which a distinct and separate global economic system both encompasses and determines economic activity at a national level; markets become truly global, open and integrated; multinationals are truly global operators unhindered by residual allegiance to national bases. Using this index Hirst and Thompson conclude that the world economy is not global at all. They argue that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ratios of trade to GDP in industrialised countries and levels of international capital movements matched or exceeded contemporary levels, while international labour migration easily outstripped today's flows. The contemporary world economy is in any case more regional than global, with distinctive patterns of trade and investment developing around the three poles of advanced capitalism - North America, Europe and East Asia. That regionalism is reflected in patterns of activity among multinational operations which retain a bias towards domestic and regional activity and do not generate global strategies of production and investment. While they concede that the world economy is growing and expanding, they do not accept that the game of governance is up. Politicians have conceded more power than they need have. Nation-states remain central to the mobilisation of political and social coalitions and retain considerable control over their own populations. Buttressed by subnational and international institutions, governments retain considerable regulatory capacities over markets and corporations. If only politicians would use them.

Globalisation in Question is an important contribution to the debate. Those who wish to claim that contemporary globalisation is historically unprecedented in scale must contend with its arguments. However, by setting up such a severe model of the global economy and focusing exclusively on economics, the book underestimates the impact of globalisation. For example, while the Gold Standard era displayed an impressive openness of international economic activity, it seems impossible to argue that the scope, scale, velocity and volatility of contemporary financial markets are nothing new: over a trillion dollars a day are turned over in the international foreign exchange markets, the extent of national government borrowing on international bond markets is unprecedented. It is clear that the exit options for capital in financial markets and the sheer volume of privately held capital relative to national reserves have massively increased. The nation-state is not all over, but the balance of power has decisively shifted in favour of capital. That is not to say that there is a single global market, that national differences do not persist and that governments have lost all relevance. However, if your model requires that only these strong conditions constitute globalisation it seems to me you will never find globalisation anywhere.

Even if national governments can exert a little more pressure on Wall Street than they have hitherto thought, and even if they can wring more concessions from Electrolux than they planned, so what? With every turn of the economic cycle, the global spread of industrial processes and forms of consumption accelerates and the parallel diffusion of global forms of environmental degradation - from global warming, to rainforest destruction - intensifies. If Albrow is on to anything, it is his concern with this. Environmental degradation and the global payback for northern and southern industrialisation look to me like a shift of epochal proportions. Let us hope that the sceptics are not so busy disputing the limits of economic globalisation that they are unwittingly submerged by the rising sea of environmental globalisation.

David Goldblatt is lecturer in politics, the Open University.

The Global Age: State and Society Beyond Modernity

Author - Martin Albrow
ISBN - 0 7456 1188 5 and 1189 3
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 245

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