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The focus on globalisation reflects growing opposition to its effects

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2001


Sometime journalist Karl Marx and his colleague Fred Engels wrote about what we now call globalisation a hundred and fifty years ago, and with some concern. Academics started using the term in the mid 1980s, suggesting that a definably new phase of capitalism, and even human social development, was under way. Some of them were also concerned about it. This concern, as well as an opposite trumpeting of the virtues of globalisation, has been getting more noticeable as the 1990s progressed, but still in a way that hardly troubled the average person, especially when Australia was doing so well in the cricket. So why has globalisation only become genuine headline material in 2001?

The harsh answer has to be that it is because of active dissent, and more accurately, violence. People have been injured, a man killed, and there is good prime time video for the punters to shake their heads at. The mass media, especially television, has decided that globalisation is an issue because it has become associated with overt violence involving black-clad cops and a variety of colourful, mostly young protesters.

The basic components of globalisation – neo-liberal ideology, mass transportation and telecommunications, big corporations, international finance markets – have been around for decades, sometimes centuries. It was, after all, fifteenth century Portuguese carracks loaded to the gunnels with soldiers and guns on the way out and booty heading back that started the whole trend. European civilisation, thanks mainly to gunpowder, sailing ships and disease, eventually conquered almost the whole world - although it did not necessarily destroy the indigenous cultures – and set the scene for the later integration of world populations and resources into what was increasingly one socio-economic entity.

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It was the advent of telegraphy that started the most important shift towards full blown globalisation in the 1840s, and in the process invented news and hence the mass media. There were operational global financial and military networks soon after, but nation states with increasingly restless populations halted the trend and, excited by the potential of a whole range of terrifying new weapons, returned to bickering amongst themselves. They eventually went to war, devastatingly so, in 1914, ushering in three long decades of world war and depression. But by the end of that time, the new global power, the US, had generated the necessary institutional structures (large corporations) and technologies (semiconductors, computers and strategic air transport) to physically enable the next phase. When international finance got up and running again and neo-liberal ideology gained ascendancy, the exhausted Soviet Union fell over, the Cold War ended and the stage was set for the next phase.

Of course, once the new, high-tech global capitalism stood standing triumphant over the fallen communist foe, with only enigmatic China and perhaps a few other difficult countries like Iran, Iraq and North Korea still uncertain participants in the new order, it became the new monolithic power, and its guiding ideas the new orthodoxy. It was now the unalloyed centre of attention. For a few years opposition seemed weak, uncoordinated, but then the greenies got organised for Kyoto and an international movement coalesced against the MAI, and all kinds of people emerged to agree that they did like the forces behind globalisation, and said so at Seattle and subsequently.

Perhaps the unctuous Tony Blair and terminally arrogant George W. Bush have helped focus the growing feeling that globalisation is not necessarily a good thing, since they seem to so in favour of it. The utter failure of world leaders to do something serious about global warming, not addressed by recent events, the determination of the Bush administration to build its crazy so-called missile defence system and the associated rise of a potentially new cold war, this time with China, indicates to the doubters that globalisation cannot even provide answers to the old question of war, let alone the new one of environmental threat.

Certainly globalisation, with its freeing up of trade and finance, does seem to promote economic growth, but that wealth is ever more unevenly distributed and the social, cultural and environmental costs more and more evident to all. Whole populations, especially in the less developed world, are excluded from its supposed benefits, while still experiencing many of the worst effects.

Globalisation has been a long time coming, it is approaching a new stage of intensity, and it is a process of fundamental importance to humans on Earth. It is a new way of organising people and resources, and for that reason alone it is vitally important. It also brings with it new ideas, deliberately propagated by governments and think tanks, or more or less inadvertently by mass advertising. This represents an unprecedented impact on the minds and lives of almost everyone on Earth. But these people do not feel like they are necessarily being given a choice regarding this great change. It will therefore generate growing dissent, conflict and probably violence. The question, then, in relation to our attention to this issue should perhaps not be Why now?, but rather Why so late?

With the imminent disappearance of anything like a culture of public intellectual discourse in western, and thus increasingly global society, the mass media may be too focused on the colourful video image and slick sound bite to provide an appropriate means for determining the relative importance of events. It took real organisation, much of it utilising the new communications technology, to arrange the protests against globalisation, but it took the masked anarchists and the police in their Darth Vader outfits to get them into the news. And the news stories generated debate about the issue.

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But then again, given the sclerotic nature of what passes for political leadership on the world stage these days, how else was it going to happen?

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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