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Essential Matter: Globalization Excerpts from a Keynote Address at the UNRISD Conference on Globalization and Citizenship

1 Dec 1996

  • Author(s): Anthony Giddens


There are few terms that we use so frequently but which are in fact as poorly conceptualized as globalization. The word seems to have appeared everywhere from nowhere. But what does it really mean? At the moment, two schools of thought hold sway, taking quite opposite positions. On the one hand, there are what might be called the "hyper-globalizers", and on the other, the "globalization skeptics".

The hyper-globalizers tend to be linked ideologically to business. A good example of their arguments can be found in works by Kenichi Ohmae, like The Borderless World and The End of the Nation State. According to this view, globalization means the expansion of the global market-place. Furthermore this process has gone so far that nation states have lost most of the power they used to have. The problems of politicians across the world express this lack of power, the theory runs.

According to Ohmae and similar authors, many regions which are not nation states will become nodal points in the world economy. These are areas such as South-East China, which cross-cuts Hong Kong, or the Barcelona-Perpignan region cutting across northern Spain and southern France. There is also talk of a "new feudalism", quite closely linked with the hyper-globalization school. In fact, some hyper-globalizers argue that within 20 years the world will contain as many as 2,000 states, or city states with their surrounding hinterlands.

This may be an improbable scenario, but it does have some purchase on the present precisely because it is to some extent the informing ideology of business enterprise. In the context of global business, the idea of globalization is not just an analytical notion, it is an ideological one, expressing a certain orientation toward the future.

A directly opposite point of view is taken by the "globalization skeptics". The most prominent work in this regard, much discussed at present, is by Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson (Globalization in Question). Hirst and Thompson argue that if one looks at statistics on global trade, globalization was more highly developed at the turn of the century than it is now. There was more global trade, they claim, in the 1900s, and even in the latter part of the nineteenth century, than there is today .And they produce a battery of statistics to show that the globalization thesis is a myth.

This thesis tends to appeal to people on the left; because if globalization is nothing new, all can go on as before. The welfare state can remain more or less intact, and the traditional apparatus of social democracy, as well as some degree of national economic power, be preserved.

I would like to suggest that both the views of hyper-globalizers and those of globalization skeptics are wrong. It seems to me that an adequate understanding of this phenomenon must differ from each of them.

First of all, I would argue — contrary to the hyper-globalizers —that we are at the beginning of the process of globalization, not at the end. We are at the beginning of a fundamental shake-out of world society, which comes from numerous sources, not from a single source. It comes from the impact of technology on global markets, and also from the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the Soviet style of communism. We are at the beginning of this process and we do not really know as yet where it is going to lead us. I think Martin Albrow's recent book, The Global Age, provides the best way to conceptualize where we are. He says we are the first generation to enter a global age — not a post-modern age; and at present, in my view, there is only modernity.

Second, contrary to the globalization skeptics, I would say that globalization is the most fundamental set of changes going on in the world today. It has not advanced as far as the hyper-globalizers say, and it is not purely driven by economic market imperatives, but it is still the most fundamental phenomenon of our times.

Globalization should not be understood as wholly an economic concept, or as simply a development of the world system, or as purely a development of large-scale global institutions. I would call it "action at distance": globalization refers to the increasing impact of action at distance on our lives The concept describes the increasing inter-penetration between individual life and global futures, something which I think is relatively new in history.

In this sense, I would take globalization to be as much an "in here" phenomenon as an "out there" phenomenon. It is as much about the self — changes in our personal lives and certainly changes in local arenas — as it is about global systems.

Globalization is not a single set of processes and does not lead in a single direction. It produces solidarities in some places and destroys them in others. It has quite different consequences on one side of the world from the other. In other words, it is a wholly contradictory process. It is not just about fragmentation: I see it much more as a shake-out of institutions in which new forms of unity go along with new forms of fragmentation. Third, and certainly contrary to globalization skeptics, it seems to me that the current phase of globalization is not just an extension of earlier phases of Western expansion. I would take the current phase of globalization as beginning only about 30 years ago, when the first global communication system was established. This created new economic mechanisms, such as 24-hour global money markets, that affect so much of our lives. But with instantaneous global communication, the very texture of social life is also altered. When we live in a world where media images are conveyed across the planet, this changes who we are and how we live. For example, we may often be more familiar with the faces of world leaders than we are with the faces of our next-door neighbours.

Although they still reflect an extension of Western dominance, contemporary processes of globalization are much more decentred than in the past. We have the rise of new power centres — in the Pacific basin, of course, but elsewhere too. If you could say the West controlled the earlier phases of globalization, the current phase is one which nobody controls.


Biographical Note

Anthony Giddens was recently named Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. In his books and lectures, Giddens has challenged and renewed the sociological tradition; and through his work as editor of journals and monograph series, he has had an even broader impact on the way we think about the contemporary world. He is Senior Editor of the journal Theory and Society, and Director of Polity Press. His recent work has focused on the meaning of modernity, explored in The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), Modernity and Self-Identity (1991) and The Consequences of Modernity (1990). Other well-known publications include The Nation-State and Violence (1985) and Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971).