16 April 2007

Globalization - tipping the hat to reality

Since about the 16th century, a form of globalization has been in full swing. Trade, conquest, and information exchange has simply increased since then, as Portuguese and Dutch trader's exotic 16th century travels has now become the stuff of today’s spring break vacations.

But it is difficult to talk about globalization when the term is so fuzzy. I’d like to suggest two dimensions to globalization. One is the increased trade of goods, services, and information that spills across national boundaries like trade winds. The other is the construction of agreements and institutions to give a structure to this reality. Call the first globalization flows and the next globalization structures.

At this point, it is hard to imagine anything short of a catastrophe limiting globalization flows. It takes far less imagination to envision hiccups, disruptions, and derailing of the process of globalization structures.

In this country, conservatives and liberals are united in their fear of globalization flows as a force that will erode national autonomy. For liberals, globalization threatens a return to the days before Teddy Roosevelt when labor and the environment lay unprotected from the rapacious advances of robber barons. For conservatives, globalization means that the US will be like Europe, our masculine independence threatened by blue helmeted troops more inclined to act like bureaucrats than cowboys. Some conservatives even see the emergence of global institutions as heralding the coming apocalypse.

American fundamentalists are not the only ones who see globalization flows as a threat. It is no coincidence that Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center Towers. Trade brings with it strange customs and ideas that defy regional cultures. The Renaissance and Enlightenment were led by communities active in trade; along with the taste for foreign products came openness to foreign ideas. Local clerics, just as much as local merchants, could be put out of business by foreign trade. If Al Qaeda could disrupt world trade, they might succeed at protecting their daughters from the bump and grind of hip hop, their sons from the allure of materialism.

For now, globalization structures have been largely left to the institution best suited to the realities of globalization flows – the modern corporation. And the corporation has seemed to do the most to define the globalization structures. The WTO, GATT, IMF, and the World Bank regulate globalization flows in ways that seems to most clearly benefit corporations.

Many people forget that one of the key motivators for the emergence of the modern nation-state was the gain in trade. In 1550, a European trader would literally pay tolls about every six miles. Nation-states created a huge free trade zone that encouraged trade and specialization - two boons to productivity. Globalization structures is similar in that it suggests the creation of institutions that do for world trade what the nation-state did for "national" economies.

But done wrong, globalization structures could be a realization of the fears of liberals and conservatives alike. If these institutions are lackeys to the corporation, they could indeed become an instrument for direct attack on the progress of labor unions and environmental activists, a race to the bottom for wages, benefits, and regulations. Conservatives fears of a loss of autonomy, an inability to stand up against countries with different traditions and values, could also be realized. But done well or done poorly, globalization structures is a deed that must be done. To ignore the importance of these institutions is to ignore the degree to which globalization flows can destroy or build communities.

The reality is that we live on a globe and the use of nation-states is a convenience, a tool to improve quality of life. Ideas like Sweden, South Africa, and Canada are social constructs. Greenhouse gases may emerge from a particular national economy, but they disperse perfectly throughout the atmosphere. Terrorist’s cells may meet in a particular country, but their ideology - like McDonald's - is not constrained by national boundaries.

The nation-state has evolved since the time of Louis XIV. Advances like human rights, environmental protection, and worker rights need to be built on, not crowded out as the work of globalization structures takes places.

The good news is the bad news. We’ve entered a phase of human history when no community can be isolated from this simple truth – we live on a globe and share a fate. Institutions that pretend otherwise are institutions that will become increasingly ineffective.

7 comments:

Dave said...

"The WTO, GATT, IMF, and the World Bank regulate globalization flows in ways that seems to most clearly benefit corporations."

While this seems true, I'm sure it's relevant to the inevitability of globalization whether economically or politically.

The international alphabet agencies have their equivalents regionally, nationally and intra-nationally (if that's a word).

Corporations are the beneficiaries of the agencies' policy not, I think, because of any bias, but because corporations are the players in the game.

I don't see a viable alternative to the large role that corporations play in developing trade structures. The UN with its current "mindset" isn't going to be effective.

Perhaps the next step is a "super union" comprised of the European Union and to be formed "Americas Union," "Pan-Asian Union," "African Union" and "Sino/Indian/Soviet Union," though that last name isn't going to get it.

Dave said...

My first sentence should have read "...I'm not sure..." I hate blogger's klunkiness and my lack of proof reading.

Tisha! said...

Once again had to put on my thinking cap, oooo aaa thanks!

When I think of globalization the working environment comes to mind as I spend hours communicating with clients across the globe in various languages throughout the day.

The fact that I can do it in my pajamas sitting in my living room whenever I wish has completely changed my way of life.

This may be on a very personal scale however the implications go far beyond that especially for women who wish to raise their children and continue to make a living and resulting benefits for society as a whole.

Ron Davison said...

Dave,
I agree that corporate influence is less a matter of conspiracy than convenience - corporations are best situated to deal with these issues. The question, really, is whether we want to leave it to them. Thanks for forcing me, once again, to think more clearly about my thinking. :)

Tisha!
Thanks again for stopping by and for pointing folks to my blog. I really do appreciate it.
I love the notion of globalization by pajamas. Perfect image for the 21st century.

ThomasLB said...

Institutions that pretend otherwise are institutions that will become increasingly ineffective.

The other possibility is that these are the institutions that will ultimately destroy us all.

Maybe ten thousand years from now a new dominant species will dig up our fossilized bones and speculate on what the hell happened. (They'll probably blame it on a comet.)

Norman said...

". . . these institutions are lackeys to the corporation, they could indeed become an instrument for direct attack on the progress of labor unions and environmental activists, a race to the bottom for wages, benefits, and regulations."

"Corporations are the beneficiaries of the agencies' policy not, I think, because of any bias, but because corporations are the players in the game."

These two thoughts, for me, suggest the need to transform the corporation into a new structure -- a structure where each person is able to contribute to their full capability; where each person is fairly compensated for those contributions; and where each person is free to apply their passion to the problems and challenges at hand.

(And it would probably be helpful to have the 3-month'ers working for 1-yr'ers working for 5-year'ers working for 10-year'ers '-)

Ron Davison said...

Thomas,
it does seem at times that we're reaching a point of bifurcation: we either raise things to a new level or collapse.

Norman,
I do think that ultimately the transformation of the corporation is key to success with globalization, but the change can't be limited to their efforts.