Worldwide webs of capitalism

- Globalization's Contradictions - The Globalization and Development Reader

May 25, 2007

Ready or not," as the bestselling title mercilessly urges, globalisation is imposing itself all over the teaching curricula. But how to teach it meaningfully if the subject matter comes from policy wonks, corporate visionaries, academic gurus or empire builders - contested by the loud if dissonant chorus of counter-hegemonic voices? Asking economists about capitalism becomes akin to asking nuns about sex: you get a doctrinal abstraction shrouded in sophisticated scholasticism. Fortunately, geographers are still around.

Relegated to the endangered departments that many a dean would consider an odd relic, contemporary geographers have successfully turned their marginality from the sources of power into freedom. Geographers seem wonderfully unconcerned by institutional boundaries between disciplinary knowledge as they plough in the fields of culture as well as political economy, demography, urbanism and ecology. They move freely between macro and microanalysis, and can afford the straightfoward expression and empirically grounded sobriety that seem lost at the extremes of postmodern culturalism and mathematically rational economics.

Globalization's Contradictions , edited by Dennis Conway and Nik Heynen, amply illustrates the point. For instance, the chapter by Christian Allen on the Mafia easily surpasses authoritative reports by policing experts and intergovernmental agencies for analytical clarity and daring prescriptions.

Allen describes the transnational criminal economies for what they are: the markets of greatest risks and rewards that emerged from the combination of selective deregulation and the unwillingness of national governments to cede policing prerogatives to any transnational bodies. Allen's policy recommendations sound unabashedly utopian: how about a total legalisation of drugs to remove the main source of revenue from the criminal groups and shift the problem into the medical-social challenge, while ceding enough sovereignty to the supranational police agency?

In the same volume, John Agnew contributes "Globalization has a home address". Agnew, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, bridges the historical-analytical gap that in usual accounts separates globalisation from its Cold War antecendants. Where enthusiasts of hyperglobalisation claim a total newness and the predominantly Marxist sceptics see only the continuation of imperialist structures, Agnew shows in masterful detail the adaptations within American hegemony that brought us globalisation.

Students will find a lot to chew on in Adam Tickell's "Global financial architecture"; in Susan Walcott's "Multi-local corporations"; in Byron Miller's "Globalisation of fear"; in Nik Heynen's and Jeremia Njeru's expose of the "Neoliberalisation of the global environment"; in Daniel Knudsen's and Molly Kotlen's impressive discussion of alternative economic strategies for the developing nations. And then, of course, there is the globalisation of culture. Conway and Heynen return to this theme throughout, especially in a concluding chapter devoted to "Alternative visions". Most pedagogically helpful is the chapter by Don Mitchell and Clayton Rosati, who use the example of Chile before and after Pinochet's coup. A once ebullient culture of political theatre, songs and street life was displaced after 1973 by the profit-driven, passively atomising culture of soap operas and commercial sport. Could Chile's neoliberal transition get students to think about why today's entertainment is so boring or why the industry of symbols recycles Che Guevara's face - and how subversive might that be?

A good theoretical supplement would be the The Globalization and Development Reader organised by the sociologists J. Timmons Roberts and Amy Bellone Hite. It is a hefty volume of authoritative texts on global capitalism ranging from Marx and Weber via W. W. Rostow and Huntington to once famous iconoclasts such as Andre Gunder Frank, Fernando Cardoso and Immanuel Wallerstein, and up to its present "corrective" critics Joseph Stiglitz, Dani Rodrik and Robert Wade, enthusiasts such as Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs, political reformers such as David Held, macrohistorical debunkers Philip McMichael and Giovanni Arrighi, or the soberly oppositionist Peter Evans.

The editors provide an analytical compass in the brief introductions to each part of their volume. But the introductions are a tad too generic while giving little concession to students' knowledge of contemporary political history. The criticism applies to both volumes under review.

Assigning them in courses would require a judicious selection of readings and in-class explanation regarding when, why, and who is who. Besides, the critical leanings of both collections, especially the polemical style of Conway and Heynen, might conflict with the apolitical atmosphere on today's campuses. So, globalisation involves a struggle! Yet both volumes supply enough material for a systematic, lively discussion.

Globalization's Contradictions: Geographies of Discipline, Destruction and Transformation. First Edition

Editor - Dennis Conway and Nik Heynen
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 287
Price - £78.00 and £22.50
ISBN - 9780415770620 and 0629

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