Friday, August 13, 2010

Globalization: A Very Short Introduction

The term "Globalization" is freighted down with multiple meanings. It is one of those words that are so large, abstract and all encompassing--very much like the word "education" or "culture" that can mean multiple things dependent on the context that the writer or speaker may or may not be fully aware of. One of the real benefits of Manfred Steger's Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford) is he introduces us to some of the most significant multiple meanings for the term and shows how and why the term is unavoidably a "contested one." Steger prefers to refer to the term as a "social condition" that is "characterized by a the existence of global, economic, political, cultural and environmental interconnections and flows that make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant."

The term is interpreted by academics differently depending on their discipline and political disposition--some believe economics are at the core of the globalization, others believe political, cultural and ideological aspects, while others connect the term to environmental processes. He suggests that they are all guilty of the mistake of believing that globalization can be reduced to "a single domain that corresponds to their core expertise." Rather than going down the road of academic narcissism it is wiser to respect the varied and uneven ways globalization manifests itself--so that while various aspects of globalization have been present throughout history--it is "important to note the occurence of dramatic technological and social leaps that have pushed the intensity and global reach of these processes to new levels."

The short book is jammed full of good examples of how the uneven globalization forces work their magic in important ways today. Educators especially should pay close attention to a number of critical points Steger makes with respect to the ways globalization explodes our traditional view that nation states and home grown politicians and companies control our fates. A deeper understanding of globalization will reveal how more of the world's future is now subject to the interaction of global institutions and globalizing forces that are so powerful they cause sometimes massive political reactions. Reading this book can help educators see the sometimes yawning gaps in the picture of the world we portray to students. Some of the blank spaces include:

i) The diminished power of the state as a result of global corporations controlling as they do so much of the world's investment capital, technology and access to international markets are far more powerful than most states. Wal-Mart for example with sales of $166 billion surpasses the GDP of Poland, South Africa, Israel, Ireland and many other countries ad does Exxon, Shell, IBM and Siemens.

ii) The increasing power of international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization which are largely invisible from the eye of the media and hardly feature in most curriculums are largely responsible for controlling the power balance between rich and poor countries which largely runs on a north south basis.

iii) The increasingly important work of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) sometimes referred to as the "global civil society" like Amnesty International and Greenpeace that account for millions of active citizens throughout the world interceding in local as well as global political events.

iv) The ongoing clash between what Benjamin Barber has referred to as McWorld vs Jihad that has helped spawn Islamic terrorism as some extreme fundamentalist Muslims reject Western values carried so widely through the modern US dominated media outlets which they see as threatening the purity of their beliefs.

I found Steger most impressive on his critique of the ideological dimension of globalization--the assumption taken up by writers like Tom Friedman and politicians like Bill Clinton that globalization is an inevitable force that will benefit mankind and only needs free markets to enable this force to fully flourish around the world. Steger takes apart these naive view and criticizes globally controlled media outlets such as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times etc. for mindlessly subscribing to this ideological view. Steger acknowledges that what he refers to as "the globalists"--have the benefit of a "strong discourse" that is "notoriously difficult to resist and repel" --it is far from a water tight one and it would pay to actually look at the facts. It is not the case for example (as the globalists like to argue) that globalization has narrowed the gap between the richest and poorest countries. Using UN data he shows that while the income ratio between the richest and poorest countries in 1973 before the rapid onset of globalization was about 44:1 --in the remaining quarter century it had risen to 74:1.

Reading Steger's book can remind us that globalization is a force that can go in many directions and that it is dangerous if the term gets captured by one ideological group such as the globalists. His own view is expressed in the introduction:

"I believe we should take comfort in the fact that the world is becoming a more interdependent place that enhances people's chances to recognize and acknowledge their common humanity. I welcome the progressive transformation of social structures that goes by the name of globalization, provided that the the global flow of ideas and commodities and the rapid development of technology go hand in hand with greater forms of freedom and equality for all people, as well as the more effective protection of our global environment."

Good words and ones I can fully subscribe to. It is now up to educators to make this more open and more challenging view of globalization come alive in the classroom.