Globalization has become one of the buzz words of our era. But it means many different things to different people, and is the focus of an intense and global protest movement. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ discusses.
Globalization means "going global," giving something a global dimension. The word was coined by business interests in the nineteen-eighties to mean extending the reach of corporations beyond national borders, to "go global" with a particular product, to open new markets for those products outside the borders within which they are manufactured.
Since then, globalization has also taken on several other meanings. Beside economic globalization, one can now find, for example, cultural globalization, which means extending cultural ideas and practices. In this way it is possible to talk about the globalization of American movies, which have mass appeal outside of America and which are insinuating American cultural attitudes into other cultures. One can also find the idea of environmental globalization: the realization that what happens in the Brazilian rainforests or the Polar ice-caps (for instance) has global repercussions. In other words there are many forms of globalization, of products, ideas and phenomena.
Most commonly, "globalization" still means the business definition, so when one hears of anti-globalization protests, the protestors are protesting against the globalization of powerful business alliances and laws, such as the World Trade Organization and the IMF. But, in a sense, the protestors are taking advantage of the same idea: going global with protest.
An important factor in contemporary globalization, which sets it apart from earlier manifestations in the pre-modern age (e.g. the Silk Road and the Crusades), is the role of technology in making it easy to "go global." Information technologies — telephones, computers, satellites and so on — make it easy for ideas to have a global reach. Computer transactions transfer money around the planet at lightning speed. Modern modes of transportation make it easy for people to "go global" by travelling quickly to different places. Modern globalization begins as a technological opportunity for businesses to extend their reach, but ends up as a wide ranging phenomenon that affects everybody, with some benefits and some drawbacks.
According to this definition of globalization, it is important to recognize the possibilities of globalization as well as the challenges. As a business venture, it does not bode well for most of humanity, if the WTO and other trade agreements are any indication. But one way to resist this is to "go global" with a protest movement, to create or link up with movements that are already identifying the problems of economic globalization, and join their efforts. The corporate media, such as CNN and BBC and their clones, are useless for this, since they uniformly support the ideology of globalization as a business venture. But if one looks beyond the corporate media a whole new world of political action opens up.
Boycotts take on a new significance in the age of globalization. As an economic force, globalization relies on consumers to purchase products manufactured far away from where they are being sold. To persuade people to do this, the corporations first have to make local products seem less appealing. In other words, there is a cultural shift being brought about with economic globalization, so one way to resist this is to seek out and use locally produced goods, including food, entertainment, and whatever else is possible. In this way, people can use the boycott as a sort of ballot box: "voting with their feet", as it were. No one can actually force someone to be a consumer. People can "vote" with their purchasing power by withholding money from irresponsible corporations or those businesses that have poor environmental records, that abuse workers or bust unions, that exploit local cultures, or that support repressive, imperialistic governments. Most governments cannot do any of this, because they are signatories to trade agreements. But boycotting is a form of "direct democracy": people can "vote" for or against an idea or action by buying or not buying the products associated with it.
Some have said that boycotts in the age of globalization are the political action of a world without politics. What this means is that, as national politics become more subservient to the interests of global corporations, a government’s role will be reduced to policing local populations on behalf of global investors, as is evident from recent events in several South American countries. Traditional methods of expressing political opinions will become impotent, as they already have in the so-called democracies. With boycotts, people can express their political will directly by taking advantage of the weak link in the corporate chain of global trade: that they don’t have to spend their money where they don’t want to. This is most effective on a community level, but loses effectiveness on the state level, since most states are beholden to the global corporations. However, boycotts are not always possible. Such a political campaign depends upon having some consumer status to begin with, and so boycotts tend to be most effective for people who have some discretionary wealth to spend.
Whether it be street protests or boycotts, the corporate media outlets never give the anti-globalization movement a fair hearing. If one looks elsewhere, there are many groups that indicate a broad-based, well-organized network of citizens’ nongovernmental organizations, and academics with a fairly clear list of grievances and some innovative suggestions. Street protests have shut down several meetings of the global business elite, and the corporate media do nothing but report on the "violence," as if that were the goal of the protests. The fact is that corporate globalization poses a real threat to national sovereignties, with the WTO and other organizations laying the basis for corporate control of the world. All this is being done behind closed doors, with only token representation of most of the nations of the world. That is one of the grievances of the movement: that the WTO is railroading its interests in secrecy, and the protestors have made this point so well that even the corporations are starting to listen, though the main response has been tokenism and condescension. The corporations are also promoting "discipline," which they interpret as austerity and police enforcement. But what the citizens’ movement has worked out is that the rule of law is being stacked in favour of the corporations, and that sometimes laws have to be broken. It used to be the law to keep black and white people separate in America and South Africa, but people saw that law as evil and protested against it. There is now a similar growing global condemnation of Zionism.
In a different sense, in a sense that is not usually seen as political, simply practising one’s religion can become an important part of global protest. Most of the world’s religions teach a pious, frugal lifestyle, although their followers often fall short of the ideal. But if one really looks it is possible to find that, at their high points, many civilizations were cosmopolitan. Certainly Islam did this well in its day. It is one thing to look back on the glorious past, but it is more important to work on constructing a liveable present. Because the terms of the game have changed with globalization, and while Islam has the ethos of a global community of believers, the facts on the ground contradict that ethos at present. Muslims may find allies in all walks of life to combat something like globalization, and they need to get involved in multicultural organizations, if not to lead them then at least to participate side by side with others. Fighting the corporate colonization of Muslim countries is a good place to start, at least in the political or economic sphere.
In the late nineties a campaign called Jubilee 2000 linked up with the anti-corporate movement. It was basically about forgiving the debts of some of the poorest ‘third world’ countries, whose entire national economy was (and usually still is) directed almost entirely toward servicing debts that came about by ill advice on the part of banks and global corporations. The Jubilee 2000 goal of relieving the suffering of millions of impoverished people in the Third World, especially in Africa, is a noble goal: that no one can deny. However, the movement was taken over by the Catholic Church — even the name Jubilee is Biblical — and they ended up blaming the global debt-crisis on the Muslims. The Church got recognition for helping the poor and was able to knock Islam in the process. How did they knock Islam? They played up the idea of Arab oil-money from the Gulf states being invested in Western banks, which in turn loaned that money to Third World nations, with unfair terms or untenable repayment schemes. Logically, this argument can be refuted, but emotionally it took hold. With the strong ethos of helping the poor, Islam should have been at the forefront of this kind of movement. Instead, it became the villain because Muslims were not involved in Jubilee 2000.
It is possible to say that Islam provides the only true alternative to corporate control of the world and the cultural homogenization being fostered by globalization. However, this is dangerously close to vindicating Huntington and his "clash of civilizations," in an ironic sort of way. In fact, maybe he was right — for the wrong reasons — that Islam is at odds with the West. This happens precisely because Islam has a global ideology teaching a frugal, charitable lifestyle, with vast numbers of people attached to it. In other words, the greatest protest of all could be simply to practise Islam. Of course, Huntington’s answer to this is the only reply the West ever offers: war. But, as Muslims have proven in the past, there are other alternatives. In this sense, one can see the wisdom of President Khatami of Iran, who declared a "dialogue of civilizations" at the UN when the US was crying "clash of civilisations." Muslims can enter the dialogue, but the question is with whom. Are Muslims with the Third World, the Islamic world, the non-Western world, the disaffected of the West, or are they with those who support the corporate takeover of the world?