Wednesday 12 October 2016

Peering into the Future and Seeing the End of Territoriality (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, Autumn 2016

 Is Globalisation's Momentum Irresistible and Irreversible?

By Keith Tidman

The instantaneity of digital communication, the speed and connectivity of transportation, and the profusion of shared knowledge—spurred by technology’s rapidly increasing ubiquity—compress space and time, fueling globalisation. As Martin Heidegger pointed out, writing in the first half of the Twentieth Century, in this globalised world, “everything [becomes] equally far and equally near”—today dramatically represented by such disparate capabilities as the Internet, jet travel, shipping wharves, and satellites. Or rather, as he goes on, everything is neither near nor far, but without distance. Given the geographic and temporal dynamics driving the intermeshing of human affairs across former divides, has globalisation reached critical mass—and is therefore irresistible and irreversible? Is all that’s left to figure out is how to make globalisation’s transformative nature work to best advantage for as many communities and people as possible?

The British-born Ghanaian-American cultural theorist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, thought the answer to those two questions was yes: “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.” Continuing, he remarked that:
“The challenge . . . is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.” 
The vision is thus of a one-world community—solving globalisation’s hard challenges while mitigating the gnawing uncertainty that some people might experience in the face of melting borders and shifting social landscapes.

All that said, spirited debate over globalisation’s benefits and risks won’t abate soon. The current polarization will endure foreseeably, as globalization will lack a simple straight-line ascendancy. Accordingly, the route to mature globalisation will be rocky and contentious; yet, despite the cycle of gains and setbacks, the overall long-term trajectory will be up. At the same time, at no point in globalisation’s ascendancy will there suddenly appear the end of all possible world orders—there won’t be ‘an end-of-ideology moment’. Fundamentally, however, globalisation’s surge is beyond being corralled; it’s a growingly interdependent world, with tough connective tissue forming every day among governmental, sociocultural, business, communal, and organizational entities across the globe. Territoriality is receding rapidly, and human experience and social activity are being reshaped. Although the dial of globalisation will need to be adjusted—turned up or down, preferably in proactive anticipation of future requirements rather than in reaction to past events—globalization will prove undoable. Arguably, what’s left is to agree how to mould globalisation’s features as it takes hold.

Though palpable, the effects of globalisation—its direct impact, economic and sociocultural, on the world’s seven billion citizens and their communities—remain hard to nail down at this early phase. Much is in flux. Nonetheless, mobilising globalisation is doable. Nations and people are venturing down the many-decades-long path of globalisation—that is, globalisation of today’s magnitude!—for the first time in history. Getting to true transcultural globalization will prove hard. Yet, context as to the sweeping effects of globalization helps to inform the discourse on both sides of the ecumenical divide, as people give a thumbs-up or -down on globalisation’s desirability. That context is brought home all the more by the fact that change often evokes anxiety. Anxiety that’s made worse if some communities distrust globalisation as foisted upon them by what some may perceive as ‘marauding’ self-interested outsiders. Appiah’s ‘global tribe’ shorthand, therefore, provides a sanguine explanatory backdrop.

The typically first way to look at globalisation is through an economic lens. Opponents like to paint economic globalisation with a Darwinian brush—globalisation supposedly making the life of large cohorts of people more difficult. Their argument may be framed as some mix of persistent inequality in income and assets, economic benefits that shift from less-developed to developed countries, sluggish livelihoods, ‘market hegemony’ by the economically more-muscled nations, and workers displaced by technology like robotics. However, a case has been made that the opposite is true, with, for example, tens of millions of people pulled out of extreme poverty, a growing middle class, and lives enriched. In that economic milieu, Adam Smith points us in the right direction. When production is put to the crucible of competitive market dynamics, increases in efficiency, scale, innovation, specialisation, and productivity are realised—resulting in decentralised power, with greater shared wealth and higher living standards for more. Gains in living conditions attributable to the metaphorical ‘invisible hand’ of free markets proposed by Smith. Globalisation means all this happens across communities’ increasingly irrelevant geographic borders. In contrast, communities that attempt to cocoon themselves in protectionism, closing the door on change, are acting counterproductively, putting people’s potential at risk. Government’s role, accordingly, should be circumscribed, as outlined by Smith:

The [government] is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which [it] must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interests of society.

Running with Smith’s globlisation-friendly model, the notion of neatly delineated nations and communities envisioned by John Rawls as “self-sufficient schemes of cooperation for all the essential purposes of human life” has long been fading fast into the past. Yet, to Rawls’s credit, he also recognised the importance of distributing, to use his term, ‘the social surplus’—everything people obtain only through cooperation. Advancing this notion of cooperation, beyond simply the internal dynamics of individual nations, leads to the more ambitious vision of cooperation on a global scale. If Rawls is right that cooperation is key to what people acquire—and that distributing ‘the social surplus’ is fundamental to that model of success—then it’s reasonable to extend the concept of cooperation to the merits of globalization. In that environment, the more resilient communities thrive from globalisation—with many populations benefitting from the sharing of material and intangible resources: products, services, capital, information, technology, skills. By one metric, this positive outcome has happened: the World Bank has credited globalisation for having halved the number of people living in extreme poverty over the last two decades. Indeed, it’s considered realistic, as globalisation seeps into all regions of the world, to eventually eradicate all extreme poverty. Dithering by communities until ‘the perfect’ reveals itself may leave their people disadvantaged; no choice is a choice. Figuring out how to marry up communities’ mutual interests—for the ‘good life of each’—is part of the solution.

The complexity of the economic issues—and their quick onset—means that economists are still getting their minds around what’s unfolding. Some of which they control, some of which they don’t. Not unexpectedly, there’s animated disagreement among economists, academics, social theorists, and policymakers, as well as the public at large, as to which aspects of globalisation work, to whose advantage—and which linkages should be promoted and expanded, or be caused to shrink. The parts are tantilisingly in motion. Therefore, hasty assumptions by opponents that globalisation, in economic terms, is necessarily ‘deleterious’—that it encourages, as some misguidedly argue, polarisation between competing interests and marginalization of the socioeconomically vulnerable—will prove vastly premature in the longer term. Leo Tolstoy got it right when he point out that “Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs”. Such ‘freethinking’, though difficult when one’s comfort zone is put in play, is important if progress in moulding and managing globalisation is to succeed.

Notwithstanding all the economic issues, globalisation is more multidimensional than economic considerations alone. Sole focus on the economic aspects of globalisation would, in fact, paint an incomplete, even unfair, picture. Rather, globalisation’s impacts relate also to culture, social norms, the environment, security, and more. These noneconomic factors profoundly and rightly matter to most communities—with people selectively coveting some of their features while disdaining others. This is a world presciently defined by the cultural critic Marshall McLuhan as a ‘global village’, marked by ‘acceleration at all levels of human organisation’—not just economic. It’s a world in which increasingly decisions made and actions taken in one part of the world will directly, and in short order, reveal consequences that affect the welfare of another.

From an environmental standpoint, for example, any effects that globalization has on issues like extreme weather, biodiversity, pollution, and resource supplies need to be folded into negotiated and mutually agreed-to international plans that promote globalisation. Plans, that is, that recognise that globalisation—choices about technology, regulations, standards, behaviors—can be a vector as much of solutions as of problems: preferably to prevent and minimise harm, but otherwise to repair harm. International organizations and individual governments have had mixed success in formulating, buying into, taking responsibility for, and executing plans to curtail the worst of environmental degradation—damage that’s still to play out its hand. In this context, one powerful driver in globalisation’s environmental calculation is application of the moral doctrine that international law refers to as the ‘common heritage of humanity.’ A heritage that echoes the Kantian principle that “use of the right to the earth’s surface [belongs] to the human race in common”. That bold whole-of-humanity standard regarding the environment should underpin communities’ move toward moulding the future of globalisation.

‘Security’ is another noneconomic, critical product of the incubation of global interests, disinclining communities from warring with one another. Where there is reciprocally beneficial commerce, sociocultural open-mindedness, cultural cross-seeding, and broad interdependence—and thus understanding—there is a greater likelihood of peace. Indeed, some see global peace as the ‘highest good’ to strive for in justifying working toward globalisation. Historic adversaries begin to envision what each might bring to enhancing joint prosperity. Globalisation affords more nations with geostrategic opportunities to foster peace and stability. But conflict, and its avoidance, begins with people: As the preamble to the constitution of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation proclaims, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. With globalization, commercial multilateralism, and increased diffusion of prosperity, competitiveness in pursuit of self-interests that are blinkered to other nations’ interests cedes ground. In particular, it cedes ground to a healthier alternative for communities: resisting dangerous isolationism (breeding a them-versus-us mind-set), de-conflicting tense regions, and allowing for the cooperation that Rawls envisioned to take root and flourish. Conflict thus becomes a less attractive, outmoded recourse to advance self-interests.

Meanwhile, state and non-state actors are pressed to understand and promote the human rights dimension of globalisation—that is, whether globalization, on balance, benefits human rights and the dignity those rights bring. Some people see globalisation—its economic advantages, such as reducing severe poverty—as having the spillover effect of more liberal, freer forms of governance. And, as a domino effect of the concept of (indivisible) human rights, there are greater opportunities for such benefits as improved education, healthcare, racial and gender equality, justice, absence of exploitation, enfranchisement, and much more. Just one example is more robust child labor laws. An aspiration, in other words, for people to enrich their families’ lives beyond the triad of shelter, clothing, and food. Given that human rights are unassailable and universal—theoretically and practically, everyone has a claim to them—their presence in the globalisation debate is imperative.

To some measure, globalisation across these noneconomic dimensions will spur aspects of cultural homogeneity—transcending nations and communities while moving closer to ‘universal’ ideals and values. In other ways, these dimensions will spur cultural heterogeneity—acknowledging the desirability and inevitability of continued cultural and social pluralisation and differentiation, where indigenous autonomy is the preferred option. The eventual balance, in cultural and social terms, between homogeneity and heterogeneity resulting from longer-term globalization may never be precisely fixed (or fixable), but rather will be subject to off-and-on recalibration as technologies, needed skills, products and services, social needs, and other factors morph; the dynamic is only partially grasped at this point in time, though the pieces will get filled in. The shifting contours of the balance, as communities weigh in and make choices, will not devolve to a simple binary either-or. Rather, as the choices play out, there will be both: increased homogeneity in some situations, increased heterogeneity in others, and all subject to Appiah’s ‘continuities and changes’. Given the increasingly constitutive nature of globalisation in today’s world—its momentum—that reality will persist.

Accordingly, people will continue to form supranational unions—like the African Union, European Union, United Nations, Arab League, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation, World Bank, International Court of Justice, International Atomic Energy Agency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and many others. Collectively, they comprise a powerful panoply of unique yet interconnected interests, with each acting as a force multiplier for others. These types of organisations will serve as one component of the leading edge in globalisation’s forward momentum. Rawls’s emphasis on the benefits of cooperation, therefore, applies as much to the function of these organisations as to individuals, communities, and nations. Their members’ aim is multifaceted: to help melt boundaries through practical inducements and diplomacy; define what’s at stake while developing policy; clarify alternative outcomes, and how to rank and attain them; aspire to attaining the ‘greatest goods’; and serve as a venue for tackling global challenges. All the while fostering their shared interests—commercial, legal, political, cultural, human rights, environmental, and security.

Globalisation is a complex living ‘organism’ with self-correcting properties, still only partway through its many-decades-long evolution and lifecycle. A lifecycle underwritten by the basic tenet that the absence of change translates to the absence of progress. In light of globalisation’s critical mass and thus its irresistible and irreversible momentum in a shared unlocking of human potential—as well as Appiah’s model of world citizenry as a ‘global tribe’—Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, offered moral and practical guiding principles: “If globalisation is to succeed, it must succeed for poor and rich alike. It must deliver rights no less than riches. It must provide social justice and equity no less than economic prosperity and enhanced communication.” There’s time and opportunity to continue baking those normative principles into a future increasingly defined by globalisation.

Address for correspondence: Keith Tidman can be contacted via this page


  1. Surveying the major shifts here described, the facts seem to me to be problematic. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, conflict has greatly increased as globalisation has gained momentum -- rather than globalisation 'disinclining communities from warring', as stated here. And while global poverty is said to have 'halved', take China out of the picture, and any reduction may be rather hard to discern. Further, are shifts in China attributable to globalisation? China is a protectionist nation, and in a sense resisting globalisation.

    But this is simplistic, for the reason that constructs such as 'conflict' and 'poverty' are not easily defined, and are influenced by many factors, among them welfare, health, or water supplies. The World Bank itself states that it 'does not take these multiple dimensions into account'. The Guardian states simply that gains against poverty 'haven't actually happened'.

    But do we not further have problems in principle here, considering the 'Irresistible and Irreversible' momentum in the title of the paper. Even if the purported facts were to reveal what the author claims, how would the fact of globlisation in principle prove a direction, or offer a foundation for value? And with disclaimers such as 'globalization will lack a simple straight-line ascendancy', is this paper really saying anything at all? With its emphasis clearly coming down on 'advantage', 'gains', 'enhancement', and so on, without much, it seems, to bear this up, what should distinguish this from the tired idea of progress?

    The paper leaves me confused. However, there may be no straight-line ascendancy to my enlightenment. Perhaps I should just believe that it will all become clear, and beautiful.

    1. Indeed, Thomas, there’s no lack of passion on both sides of the ‘globalisation’ divide. If such passion is kept constructive, that’s healthy in terms of energising problem solving. At the moment, for example, there are several players on the world scene, like the United Nations, U.S. Agency for International Development, and World Bank, among others, that have set themselves the target of ending ‘extreme poverty’ by 2030. That is, to build on the remarkable successes achieved over the last twenty years—the world having, according to many sources, already boldly cut into extreme poverty. All of which will require a global, vice myopic, view. These organizations’ target for 2030 is ambitious; and it remains to be seen if the goal proves attainable in its entirety or just partially. Of course, there are many other, equally critical, dimensions to ‘globalisation’, as my article discusses.

      As to your point about whether relations—economic and otherwise—among countries reduces the possibility of conflict, although it’s difficult to distinguish between cause and correlation, I refer you to the words of the European Union, formed shortly after the blood-letting of World War II: “The first steps [in forming the union] were to foster economic cooperation: the idea being that countries that trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict.” Certainly, such ‘unions’ can’t absolutely guarantee the avoidance of conflict—to think otherwise would be naïve of us—but during the EU’s several decades’ tenure, its member nations have found ways to resolve disputes other than sending their armies across their neighbors’ borders in anger. The EU is just one data point—but a nontrivial one.

      As to globalisation’s ‘lack of a straight-line ascendancy’, that should be fairly obvious. Globalisation has multiple dimensions, is engaged in a very much push-pull dynamic among healthily competing philosophies, and poses profound challenges to governments, academics, supranational organizations, think tanks, and publics at large in figuring out how, indeed, the world might proceed to greatest advantage. To state the obvious, those elements of globalisation will require course corrections as the world moves forward—hence, yes, resulting in that ‘lack of a straight-line ascendancy’. In all of human history, globalisation hasn’t proven to be the first worthwhile goal to have followed an ‘unstraight’ path.

      Perhaps one of the most problematic—and frankly startling—ideas in your reply is that of its rejecting the ‘tired idea of progress’. Rejection of progress seems to me to leave only two unappealing alternatives: satisfaction with the present (including current conditions, such as extreme poverty), or satisfaction with the past (historical conditions, which were even worse). Perhaps I have a more sanguine view of the future and faith in humankind’s creativity and problem-solving, but my choice from among the three options is both obvious and easy: progress.

      After all is said and done, although your observations are both interesting and trenchant, I don’t see how they present a successful refutation of the main theme of the article: that ‘globalisation’s momentum will prove both irresistible and irreversible’.

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