What Is Globalization? by Ulrich Beck (translated from the German by Patrick Camiller). Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001. Pp. 180. £14.99.
Originally a buzzword for the supranational aspirations of transnational capital, ‘globalisation’ now features in most cultural, economic and social discussion. Intellectuals of every stripe now pepper their work with references to it, sometimes coining new words for it: the Arabic al-’awlamah, for instance. However, this ubiquity obscures the fact that different people mean different things by ‘globalization’, and few recognize either the challenges or the opportunities it presents.
In this succinct volume, sociologist Ulrich Beck surveys definitions of globalization, simplifying without trivialising this convoluted concept, and suggesting that important opportunities are being missed to explore the potentials of globalization for transnational political action. His goal is to redeem the faces of globalization in order to test its mettle as a political concept.
Beck begins by describing the emergence of “virtual taxpayers,” whose allegiance is only to themselves and their wealth. Virtual taxpayers insist on living in the cleanest, safest places, sending their children to the best schools, investing their money in the best ventures, paying taxes at the lowest margins, situating businesses in the friendliest locales and hiring workers at the cheapest rates; all while ordinary people are losing their ability to move at all. The nation state is becoming obsolete, incapable of providing the services that it once provided, and unable to protect its residents from nomadic bands of marauding virtual taxpayers.
Beck believes that globalization is fundamentally about “de-nationalization”, suggesting that national economies and politics are inevitably intertwined on a global scale, increasingly rendering national systems obsolete. He also extends this to a critique of the “methodological nationalism” that relies on the “container theory” of society, placing all social phenomena within the state. In the age of globalization these containers have sprung leaks that cannot be resealed. Instead, the new economic, political and social realities will have to take global fluidity and mobility as the norm.
Beck insists that globalization must become the “criterion of national politics in every domain,” and that it is “not up to the individual, or to social and political actors, whether they recognize this or not.” This is because the “new developments in world society, which are making the idea of ‘national’ products, firms, technologies, industries or even sports associations increasingly fictitious, compel them on pain of economic, political and cultural decline to open their eyes to the possibilities, ideologies, paradoxes and hysterias of the global age – and above all, to the new power game to which everyone is to a greater or lesser degree subjected.”
But the emergence of such a world society poses problems for politics, Beck argues, since “world society without a world state means a society that is not politically organized.” At the same time, “new opportunities for action and power arise for transnational actors that have no democratic legitimation,” creating a “transnational space of the moral and the subpolitical.” He reviews the possibilities by surveying transnational organizations, problems, events, communities and structures, before concluding this part of his analysis with a summary of his earlier work on “world risk society,” a form of “organized irrationality” that pervades the post-national global scene.
Describing how forms of society “with a transnational intent” may become possible, Beck reminds readers of two axioms: dynamics of world society and transnational cooperation. He deliberately refuses to see globalization as a form of imperialism or Americanization, to which the commonest response is some form of protectionism. Instead he insists that political action in the global age will have to abandon two defining principles of the national age: the “equation” of state and society, and the “exclusive territorial association” of state and society. Once world society is recognized as a feature of globalization, it becomes possible to imagine forms of transnational cooperation that are no longer based on “exclusive claims to sovereignty and national identity.”
Instead of “going it alone,” which “destroys state politics,” transnational cooperation can give “fresh life” to state politics, Beck suggests. But Beck believes that several things are necessary for this. The concepts of politics and society have to be reformulated. However, world society does not mean no organized entities because transnationality can be developed in terms of “provinces” that provide a framework for “staging regional specificities.” Transnational cooperation also requires “clearly defined multiplicity,” rather than the “multiplicity without unity” of world society, which is apolitical, and instead of the “unity with limited diversity,” which is the province of the nation state.
Transnationalism of the kind Beck describes leads to spaces being opened for social and political action that are both local and global, and both centralized and decentralized. So, to resolve debates on the relationship between neo-liberal economics and state sovereignty, Beck suggests that “world-market politics, often against the intentions of those involved, compels the formation of transnational society and of transnational social ties ñ at least insofar as state policy understands and learns to use globalization as a new lease on life.” This requires new ways of thinking about and acting within the world, to which Beck turns last, after analyzing the “errors of globalism.”
Beck differentiates between two features of globalization: globalism and globality. He uses “globalism” to refer to the neo-liberal, supra-political economic processes normally associated with the term globalization, and outlines “ten errors of globalism.” Neo-liberalism relies on a form of one-dimensional thinking that sees the world monocausally and economistically. Globalism is a form of “economic internationalization” that claims that “so-called free world trade” is in everyone’s best interests, when really the only way for capital to increase profits is to replace people by technology, or to exploit harsh labour conditions. Such globalization marginalizes other forms of international and transnational development.
In the final chapters, Beck develops responses to the errors of globalism that illustrate “globality,” a form of thinking and acting that is both global and local. He sees these not as hard-and-fast solutions but as ways to begin the debate on how “responsible globalization can be politically moulded and achieved.” In order to coordinate responses to economic globalization, states can begin to work in ways that are based on “international cooperation” that prevent global capital from playing one state against another for the most favourable terms and conditions. This response calls for a “closing of ranks among national states” in order to keep capital within its limits and to renew claims to political power.
The development of a ‘transnational state’ based on “inclusive sovereignty” is another response to globalism, but which only makes sense if the conditions of “exclusive sovereignty” are abandoned. Beck thinks that this can be achieved by “pacifism enshrined in international law” and by developing the “federalist principle of interstate controls.” Recognizing that “labour is being replaced by knowledge and capital,” Beck suggests that “joint ownership of capital” is a way of “giving labor a share in capital.” There will have to be a “reorientation of educational policy” in which states invest more in research and education in order to “build and develop the education and knowledge society.” This includes developing educational systems that are more process- and skills-oriented than the current content-oriented degree-by-course approach developed in the nineteenth century.
Beck suggests that an “alliance can be forged between transnational capital and transnational politics.” Forms of labour that supplement wage-labour can re-invigorate civil society and social movements, provided that viability is assured for civil society by tax-relief for civil organizations and by developing non-monetary methods of exchange.
As globality takes root, “new cultural, political and economic goals” will have to be developed that are based on ecologically sound products and a movement away from mass-production to individualization. It will also be necessary to develop ways of coping with “risk society,” while also building regional markets. New cultural goals can also be explored that put an end to “the blockages involved in the image of cultural homogeneity.” This could lead to “experimental cultures, niche markets and the self-renewal of society,” which can take hints from the growing counter-cultural youth movements worldwide. As mass labour and employment are individualized, a globalist world have “social entrepreneurs” and “people working for themselves” who also “assume a strong identification both with the needs of others and with the work.” Finally, any response to globalization must include “a social contract against exclusion” that will make poverty and unemployment everyone’s responsibility, and establish “measures of social protection”, “strengthen social networks” and “keep alive world issues of social and economic justice.”
Beck concludes the book with a chapter called “Europe and globalization” and a short, dystopic and apocalyptic essay on “the Brazilianization of Europe.” These last sections provide the best clues to Beck’s work. It is important to remember two points about the critiques of globalization and responses to it that Beck develops. First, he is not creating a manifesto for a monolithic movement against globalization; rather he is exploring globalization and responses to it, trying to describe it and plot possible courses. Second, much of Beck’s discussion is based on Germany’s experiences after its reunification and on debates growing out of the quest for European union.
However, the rest of the world is also being drawn into globalization. This book makes it clear that globalization is changing the world; it is imperative to listen to those who are trying to imagine life in a global world, and to join what might become a groundbreaking global conversation.