Globalisation is one of those ‘vogue’ words that suddenly become ubiquitous. They are used in all sorts of contexts by all sorts of people. They seem to promise understanding of the ills and hopes of the day, and yet no one seems to know precisely what they mean. In the 1960s, ‘alienation’ was such a word, while ‘systems’ and ‘structural’ had their vogue in the 1970s.
Undoubtedly the word of the 1990s is ‘globalisation’. It has been used to explain everything from the fashion for baseball caps worn backwards to the decline of the welfare state. It has been represented both as the culmination of human history and as a regression to the 19th century. But in all its forms, globalisation is a crippling and disabling concept. It implies that in future, every aspect of our economic and social lives will be determined by impersonal global forces over which we as a community have no control.
Although no precise definition of such an elastic term is possible, globalisation refers in essence to the growth in international flows of goods, services and especially capital that has taken place since the 1970s.
Two different stories are commonly told about globalisation. The first story is basically about technology. Globalisation is commonly claimed to be the inevitable result of technological changes and, in particular, the striking innovations in computing and telecommunications that have taken place since the 1970s. These developments, it is claimed, have made possible a massive growth in international financial flows, and the development of highly sophisticated international financial markets which form the basis of a new global economy. This story is nonsense. The world economy was far more globalised in 1900 than 1950 and instantaneous links between financial markets were established with the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph around 1870.
Whereas the technological story of globalisation ignores the global economy of the 19th century, the neoliberal story presents the 19th century as an economic golden age to which we are about to return. In fact, for neoliberal true believers, the entire 20th century may be seen as a mistake, a statist interruption of the natural development of the free market economy.
According to the neoliberal story, the 19th century economy based on free movement of goods, capital and labour produced strong economic growth and was generally beneficial. However, some groups, such as workers in industries threatened by competition from imports, generated a backlash against globalisation which led to the widespread adoption of tariffs and restrictions on migration. The end of globalisation was completed by the suspension of free capital movements during and after World War I. According to this story, we are only now returning to the true path of a free-market economy.
In this story, globalisation per se is less important than the imperative of a return to free markets. Globalisation goes hand in hand with domestic free-market reform.
Opposition to ‘globalisation’ does not necessarily imply support for economic or cultural nationalism. The term ‘internationalism’ is far older than ‘globalisation’ and connotes a democratic and progressive position of support for international cooperation. The same position is sometimes summarised in the pejorative phrase ‘transational progressivism” (adherents are more briefly referred to as “Tranzis”).