Talking Globalisation into Being

When former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the Labour Party conference in 2005, he responded to anti-globalisation voices within his party in the following way: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

Unstoppable force

As far as Blair is concerned, globalisation is a force as insensitive to human intervention as the earth’s movements in the solar system. This is not just a worldview espoused by the odd politician, but the dominant view on globalisation in the popular media for the past 20 years or so.

Thomas Friedman, an author who can reliably be found singing the praises of globalisation, perfectly illustrates this view when he discusses the convergence of the PC and the internet: “It just happened – right around the year 2000.”

Many well-known critics of globalisation do not even challenge the underlying premise that it is an unstoppable force, outside the sphere of influence of individual humans or societies. And even though the financial crisis of 2007-2008 has opened up new avenues for a more fundamental critique, the notion of globalisation as an unstoppable, exogenous force still informs much of the public debate.

Resistance is futile

If – as it is widely believed – globalisation cannot be significantly influenced by human intervention, then adaptation is the only logical response. Friedman urges his readers to ‘reach for a shovel and dig inside [ourselves]. Don’t try to build walls’. In other words, he means resistance is futile.

At the level of national governments and supranational organisations, ‘structural reforms’ like labour market flexibilisation, privatising the public sector and promoting market integration then appear to be reasonable responses to a world system that is inevitably becoming more competitive and interconnected.

So, in short, the dominant explanatory model about globalisation starts from the assumption that it is an unchangeable phenomenon and that it is something individuals and societies need to adapt to. This adaptation often means: a preparedness to respond to a purported increased amount of competition.

Words that do things

While this way of thinking intuitively makes sense to most people and corresponds with their own perceived powerlessness, I think it is seriously flawed.

First, it sees talk and text about globalisation as an accurate, neutral and inconsequential description of a real-life situation. But it this really the case?

The 20th-century preoccupation with language in philosophy has been dubbed ‘the linguistic turn’. One of the key issues of this linguistic turn is the question whether language’s main task is to just accurately and verifiably describe reality. Within this debate, it is largely uncontroversial to argue that there is more to language than plain description: words can also ‘do things’, the most explicit examples of which are court verdicts (‘the court hereby sentences you to…’), wedding vows (‘I do’) or other declarations. These utterances do not describe a wedding or a court verdict, quite the contrary: without the utterance, there is no marriage or court verdict.

There are also more implicit ways in which words have real-life consequences. For instance, by talking about whales as mythical and noble creatures, whale-watching became a viable business model – quite a departure from Herman Melville’s influential depiction of Moby-Dick, a notoriously aggressive white whale. And any spin doctor worth their money would tell you that framing a political issue is perhaps more important than winning subsequent arguments about it.

Cascade of change

With this in mind, it makes sense to look at how globalisation is being framed: we already know that it has been overwhelmingly presented as inevitable. And when there is one predominant lens through which a phenomenon is analysed, the burden of proof typically is on those challenging the dominant view, not those espousing it. For adversarial voices to successfully alter the discussion, they have to put much more effort into it than someone who believes what is widely taken for granted.

Also, the purported level at which globalisation operates makes it a very effective rhetorical tool. Because it is supposed to operate outside of and above the jurisdiction of every institution and exert an influence of its own, it therefore is assumed to affect all lower levels of organised social life, be it regions, nations, businesses, families or individuals. And since it is operating at such an unmanageable scale, these lower levels can do nothing but adapt. This particular rhetorical technique is coined the ‘cascade of change’.

The second reason why I think people’s intuitive thinking is flawed, is because it overlooks how those measures that are said to be inevitable responses to globalisation, actually contribute to and perpetuate it.

Government procurement rules in the European Union, for instance, do not so much respond to globalisation as provide the infrastructure for it and actively stimulate transnational trade. The same goes for an institution like the International Monetary Fund (IMF): regardless of the actually existing economic needs of a country, the conditions under which the IMF lends money effectively favour an easier flow of global capital in and out of a country’s economy.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Taken together, the rhetorical closing off of alternatives and the proliferation of an increasingly favourable infrastructure have turned globalisation into a self-fulfilling prophecy the likes of which mankind has rarely seen. So, instead of starting from the assumption that globalisation is an unstoppable force and then haphazardly concluding that we all have to adapt, it might be worth it to ask ourselves whether this really is the case, who ‘makes’ globalisation, what otherwise questionable measures it legitimates and whose interests are being served by perpetuating this notion.

Implications for security studies

Of course, since this blog is largely devoted to issues of safety and security, chances are that you are from the field of security studies and you might be wondering how relevant this is for you. My foray into the field is quite recent, but there’s one term I’ve heard bandied around quite frequently: VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), which in the context of security studies often implies that since the world is more and more insecure we need more security measures.

From what I’ve seen so far, its discursive features starkly remind me of those of ‘globalisation’. You might want to further scrutinise this concept and ask some serious questions about the actions it legitimises and the interests it serves. Doing this might prove painful and destabilising, but based on my own experiences, this is what good science often feels like.

This blog post originally appeared at the now defunct CESAM blog on the website of the Rotterdam School of Management.