Globalization Is Not Made in the West

Too often, globalization is seen as an exclusively Western phenomenon, an aggressive force that often endangers indigenous cultures and ways of life. But, as Robbie Robertson writes, this view is not simply reductive – it is inaccurate. "Globalization is not about rampant capitalism, technology, or homogenization," he writes, "It is about the changed environments people create and manipulate as their societies globally interconnect." Robertson offers a broader historical perspective, tracing transformations from Chinese dynastic trade, through the bubonic plague, and up to today's telecommunications explosion. While interconnectivity has always expanded the environments in which humans operate, it has also generated substantial challenges. The most pressing issue, Robertson suggests, is in the necessity for stable, fair governance: "Only democratization broadens the scope for wealth generation and capacity-building, and creates the skills needed to manage increasingly complex societies." – YaleGlobal

Globalization Is Not Made in the West

Historically-rooted, globalization's latest challenge is to widen and deepen democracy
Robbie Robertson
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Before the Cyber Highways: A painting of the Silk Road across Central Asia that brought inter-continental connectedness during the first millennium. (Copyright (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art) Enlarged image

SUVA, FIJI: The question-what is the most serious threat to our contemporary wellbeing, – might evoke the answer: "Globalization." Globalization, many of us believe, is a powerful juggernaut of transnational forces intent on devouring the world for profit, and destroying local cultures and environments in the process. However, from the perspective of history, things look different.

First, although globalization is often viewed as the consequence of new technologies and changing political priorities after the Cold War, it is in fact a much older force for change.

A historical view of globalization, stressing the common heritage of humanity, enables us to contextualize changes such as industrialization without assigning superiority to the West. The result is a much more inclusive interpretation of globalization.

Second, a historical interpretation enables us to treat globalization as a process facilitating the most radical transformation of societies that humans have ever experienced: a transformation called democratization.

Globalization, then, is not about rampant capitalism, technology or homogenization. It is about the changed environments people create and manipulate as their societies globally interconnect, environments that have become increasingly commercialized, urbanized, and democratized.

Humans first experienced this transformative effect 1000 years ago, when the most advanced society of the time fueled continental interconnectedness. China's trade surpluses fed a network of regional linkages that stretched across the world's most populous continent.

But the momentum did not last. China succumbed to Mongolian warlords and much of Afro-Eurasia fell victim to the plague they carried across the continent. Like HIV/AIDS and SARS today, the plague was an early indicator that interconnectedness possesses real dangers. In the 14th century, China lost one-quarter of its population and Europe, one-third.

The resulting disruption encouraged European states to connect directly with China. In the process, they discovered the Americas, using its wealth to buy their way into the intra-Asian trade and establish a new Atlantic economy. Thus, human interconnectedness became globalized, and a whole new environment for human activities emerged.

Today, the history of this early transformation is usually read in terms of civilizations and economic activity: Because Europeans initiated global networks, many observers stress European exceptionalism as its cause; because of the tremendous growth in commercial activities, many also give centrality to capitalism.

But the transformation was much more extensive and destabilizing than these interpretations suggest. It accelerated the global distribution of plants and animals, transformed human diets, spawned rapid population growth, and stressed environments as land-use patterns changed and urbanization increased.

Authorities everywhere struggled to accommodate these unprecedented changes. Spain's rulers tried to convert their newfound wealth into the basis for hegemony within Europe, but in the end, power flowed to societies that gave space to wealth-generating merchants. This democratizing consequence of globalization challenged the interests of elites. They sought stability through exclusions of religion and race, as well as imperial and commercial monopolies. Frequently, they turned to war and conquest – outcomes that reduced global interconnectivity. Most elites little understood the transformations they confronted.

Industrialization is a case in point, normally portrayed as an example of British exceptionalism, or of Europe's "enlightenment." Rarely is it presented as an outcome of global production and trade in cotton and the expanding consumer markets globalization occasioned. Many analysts give centrality to technology in stimulating change. Yet human interconnectedness alone enabled industrialization to resonate so rapidly and globally.

However, there can be no doubting the impact of what became a second wave of globalization. Industrialization enabled environments to carry larger populations, which in turn generated new social and political dynamics. More than ever before, technology generated huge profits, which made it desirable as an economic activity. Certainly the military power it generated attracted the attention of states.

Yet most leaders still failed to grasp that security and well-being came from social empowerment, not conquest. They feared democratization and tried to reduce its impact. They sought colonial successes as alternatives. With competition increasingly drawn in Darwinian terms, they were prepared to go to war in order to retain hegemonic status at home and abroad. They failed, and World War I cost their nations tremendously – and not only in lives: It cost them the confidence that once energized the second wave of globalization.

Economic collapse quickly generated a brutal depression. The resulting inward-looking economic policies simply reinforced the drive to empire and conquest that had already exacted a high price. During the 1930s and 1940s, they provoked a second round of bloodletting.

From World War II, a very different third wave of globalization emerged. The demise of many former ruling classes created the democratic space for political stability in industrialized nations and for international cooperation.

It also enabled the dissolution of empires. Thus decolonization, too, was a product of globalization. But decolonization could not guarantee meaningful participation in the new global environment for the emergent Third World. Colonialism left its peoples poorly equipped, and development strategies gave little weight to the democratic imperative. Consequently, a democratic global divide emerged that still holds the potential to destabilize human interconnectedness.

In addition, the third wave began with a new global ideological division, an unprecedented arms race, and a destructive Soviet-American rivalry. It was not an auspicious start. However, as the Cold War ended, corporate transnationalism assumed center stage.

When postwar prosperity faltered in the 1970s, corporations exploited fears of recession to deregulate domestic economies and transform global regulatory systems to their advantage. As capital became more transnational, it harnessed a new generation of technological change to fashion global production networks. But it was not the only global force to survive the Cold War.

Postwar democratization had sent shockwaves of empowerment through industrialized societies. They reached deep into societies to transform working and domestic lives, family and social relationships, gender and race relations. They created wealthier, more educated, and longer-living populations able to connect with industry in new and innovative ways. Civil societies represented the symbiosis between economic growth and democratization. They stressed the role of human agency in development and generated alternative global goals.

Such transformations demonstrate the dynamic character of the third wave of globalization. Human interconnectivity has always expanded the environments in which humans operate. But, as we have seen, it also generates challenges.

Three challenges stand out: first, the challenge of extending and deepening democratization globally. Increases in inequalities, exacerbated by war and debt, have lost the third wave of globalization much of its legitimacy. However, like the empires of old, the industrialized world cannot survive as a world unto itself. Human interconnectivity makes that impossible.

Second, there exists the environmental challenge of addressing issues of sustainability globally. Just as democracy cannot survive in a sea of poverty, so it cannot survive in an environmentally damaged and disease-ridden world.

The third challenge is multicultural. We need to adjust to the diversity that globalization presents. With human migration greater and more rapid than at any time in the past, all forms of exclusivity risk instability. They deny common citizenship and collective responsibility as tools for sustainability in increasingly multicultural societies.

All three challenges represent divides that could cripple globalization and its human dynamic. Only democratization broadens the scope for wealth generation and capacity-building, and creates the skills needed to manage increasingly complex societies.

Robbie Robertson is Professor of Development Studies at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. This paper is derived from The Three Waves of Globalization: A History of a Developing Global Consciousness. London & New York: Zed Books, 2003.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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