Word for Wednesday: Globalisation (or Globalization) definition

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”).

Blogging and TV

Along with James Morrow and Gareth Parker, I’ve been interviewed for a possible 7:30 Report segment on blogs and the war, presumably to be aired when the straight war news has slowed down a bit. Mick O’Donnell, the ABC journalist also mentioned that he might interview Gianna, and some US bloggers.

Actually, I don’t think that the war is a topic where blogs have a comparative advantage. The traditional media are the primary source and are devoting huge analytical resources to it. Blogs are better for longer-running stories where careful analysis and public domain research are the strong point. An exception is the Baghdad blog of Salam Pax. Assuming (as I have no reason to doubt) that this is a genuine insider’s account, it is better than anything that visiting journalists can do. If it is a work of fiction, it’s a compelling one.

Al Najaf

The story of a chemical weapons plant found at Al Najaf received wide coverage, the subsequent Pentagon statement that claims were ‘premature’ received a bit less, and this item seems to have run only in the Financial Times so far.

Department of Defense officials said on Monday that no evidence of chemical weapons production had been found at a facility close to the southern Iraqi town of Najaf occupied by US forces on Sunday

. It’s still possible that Saddam has some chemical weapons stashed around Baghdad for a last stand. But if so, it’s clear that, even in these extreme circumstances, deterrence is still working. The claim that Saddam’s weapons presented an imminent danger to the US or to Iraq’s neighbours has already been refuted by events.


In military terms, the Coalition setbacks of the past few days don’t appear very significant. But this is essentially a political war and politically things are going very badly. There is little sign that the Coalition forces are regarded as liberators, even in Southern Iraq where it was expected that they would be welcomed with open arms by the mainly Shia population. While the anti-war camp can say ‘I told you so’, this is scant comfort. We will all have to live with the consequences of a war which is rapidly becoming one of conquest rather than liberation.

The only thing that could make the situation much worse is large-scale civilian casualties. These are most likely to arise, as they have in the past, not from the direct impact of bombing but from starvation and disease. Such an outcome is already threatened in Basra where the water supply to much of the city has been cut off following the destruction of the power plant at the main water supply station. So far, there has been no serious response from the Coalition leaders to this potential disaster.

If there is to be any chance of a successful peace, the Coalition must take all necessary measures to ensure that water supply to Basra is restored, even if this means lifting the siege of the city.

Wishful thinking

One of the most striking features of the war so far has been the fact that, on a wide range of issues, Iraqi official statements have been a more reliable source of information than those of the US and allied governments. Within the first day or so of the invasion, US sources on the spot in Southern Iraq were claiming the capture of towns like Nasiriya and Umm Qasr, the surrender of entire Iraqi divisions and predicting the imminent fall of Basra. Meanwhile, Iraqi officials in Baghdad were denying all this and claiming that their forces were fighting on. Even for someone as skeptical of US official pronouncements as me, it did not seem difficult to tell who had the facts on their side and who was merely blustering.

But as it has turned out, the Iraqis were right on all these counts, while the US was wrong. The Iraqi claims may have been just lucky guesses but it seems more likely that their communications have not been disrupted to the extent that the US has claimed.

On the US side, there’s no reason to suppose that the claims were deliberate lies or military misinformation. The most plausible explanation is less sinister but in many ways more disturbing. Throughout the journey to war, the US Administration has displayed wishful thinking on a massive scale, leading to uncritical acceptance of anything that seemed to reinforce its self-belief. The easy credulity that was given to the forged documents supposedly showing Iraqi purchases of uranium from Niger and the clumsily doctored and plagiarised analysis of Iraqi intelligence put forward by Blair’s spin doctors are two of the most notable examples, but there are many more.

The most critical piece of wishful thinking is the assumption that the armed forces of the US and UK, which have been bombing and starving Iraqis for the last decade, will be welcomed as liberators when they finally defeat Saddam. The argument that Saddam’s defiance was responsible for the bombings and that his corruption was responsible for the devastating impact of the sanctions, plays well in Washington thinktanks, but I imagine the view of the average Iraqi is much closer to ‘a plague on both your houses’.

Second thoughts on shock and awe

Having long feared the adoption of a ‘shock and awe’ strategy in Iraq, I assumed the worst when large-scale bombardment of Baghdad began a few days ago. ‘The worst’, in this context means a strategy designed to terrify the population into submission either by inflicting substantial casualties or knocking out services like electricity and water. In fact, the reports from Baghdad so far suggest that, while massive in scale, the bombardment was tightly focused on targets like government departments and Saddam’s palaces, and that civilian casualties have been limited. This is a good thing, and gives at least some hope that the war will not turn out disastrously badly.

On the other hand, while technologically impressive, this kind of attack does not seem to have generated much shock or awe and nor was it likely to. Everyone knew that the US had the capacity to flatten Saddam’s palaces and assumed they would do so. That included the regime which appears to have evacuated most of the obvious targets in Baghdad itself, although the situation may be different with the Republican Guard perimeter defences.

The strategy of striking at symbolic targets associated with the regime, and of attempting ‘decapitation’ would be an effective one if (as some commentators have assumed) the regime is so much hated that the majority of people would actively support an invasion as soon as it appeared safe to do so. But so far, that does not appear to be the case. No doubt most Iraqis hate Saddam, but there’s little evidence that they have any love for Bush.

Monday message board

It’s time once again for your comments on any topic. I’d be particularly interested in how people’s views about the war have changed (or been confirmed) now that it’s actually happening. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.