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The Globalization Syndrome: Transformation and Resistance

by James H. Mittelman [Professor of International Relations at American University]

Princeton University Press, 2000

Few scholars think globalization is all of a piece. Instead, most now cultivate a taste for complexity. Globalization, they argue, consists of tendencies and countertendencies. It happens differently in different places. It intertwines economic and cultural changes in subtle ways. The term encompasses both real processes and a particular kind of discourse. Understanding globalization, in short, requires attention to contradiction, variation, and interpenetration. Hay and Marsh have called this trend the "third wave" in globalization analysis (Demystifying Globalization, 2000).

Mittelman joins this wave. From the outset, he stresses the tensions inherent in globalization, those between "the powerful thrust of globalizing market forces" and "a counterthrust fueled by the needs of society" (3). Market expansion, he thinks, inevitably creates discontents; these sometimes crystallize as open resistance movements. To capture its variability, he argues that globalization is not a single phenomenon but a syndrome. Case in point: the diverse ways regions participate in the new "global division of labor and power." Mittelman specifically focuses on Southern Africa and Mozambique, showing how structural adjustment exacerbates poverty and marginalization. While the term globalization figures prominently in justifications of free trade, Mittelman proposes to treat it as the core of an oppositional discourse, a critical response to the expansion of market power. This response constitutes a "domain of knowledge" that "interrelates multiple levels of analysis" (7). As in many third-wave studies, Karl Polanyi, patron saint of market critics, makes frequent appearances. Like Polanyi, Mittelman despises the disembedding of economic from social relations and the neoliberal ideology that supports it. In many ways, then, Mittelman's book is exemplary third-wave work.

While the first two sections of the book deal with the global division of labor and power and with regionalism, the resistance theme comes into clearer focus in the third section. Groups opposed to neoliberal globalization, Mittelman suggests, can adopt different modes of resistance: they can challenge its ideology in the form of "counterhegemony," they can assert self-protective control over the market in a Polanyi-inspired "countermovement," or they can engage in the kind of small-scale, everyday protests James Scott has called "infrapolitics." Each of these modes of resistance in turn can rely on different strategies and select different sites. Their collective target may be an economically driven set of processes, but Mittelman stresses that the meaning of resistance is "culturally embedded" and that acts of resistance in turn shape "cultural processes." He illustrates these points in a chapter on environmental movements, which is based in part on interviews he conducted in Asia and South Africa. He does see a pattern: the movements show that the "space for resistance to neoliberal globalization" is expanding, though their actual impact thus far is limited (201). But Mittelman avoids making this resistance seem too tidy; rather, he conveys its multi-layered complexity. He also follows his own counsel against romanticizing voices of opposition. For example, he quotes one of his South-African interviewees, a union organizer, as saying that in the black community "[t]he environment is looked at as a liberal phenomenon that doesn't interest working-class people" (192).

Such direct quotes all too rare in this book. None of the interview subjects comes alive; the only voice we hear is Mittelman's. Of course, that makes it difficult to judge the quality of the interview data. It also seems to defeat one of Mittelman's goals. He aims to convey the view of globalization "from below," but his actual treatment of globalization is forbiddingly abstract. Even when you think he is finally ready to delve into juicy empirical material in the environmental chapter, he again takes time out to position himself within a triad of master theorists (182). Yet, at the risk of creating a Catch-22 predicament, Mittelman still does not do enough conceptual legwork. His core terms are fuzzy: within a few pages, for instance, he defines globalization as a "syndrome," as a multidimensional "transformation" (when "viewed from below"), and as a "domain of knowledge." Substantive proposals remain quite vague: Mittelman calls his treatment of modes of resistance a set of hypotheses, but other researchers will be hard put to test them. He calls attention to the cultural dimension of resistance, but does little to analyze it. Several co-authored chapters do not help in sustaining a single argumentative thrust. In short, this book hardly provides a major surge to third-wave scholarship.

As a critique of neoliberalism, Mittelman's book shares the limitations of the genre. In some respects, to be fair, Mittelman escapes the genre's constraints. He does indeed refrain from romanticizing the global underprivileged; he is well aware that resistance to neoliberalism can take many forms. He explicitly raises the question of what "re-embedding," the antidote to disembedding market forces, might mean in practice, but offers no clear-cut answers of his own But his very first sentence, quoted above, echoes a familiar refrain: "market forces" stand opposed to "the needs of society." Not surprisingly, it is hard to find a single example here of workers or consumers who might have benefitted from "market forces." How "market forces" can flourish without satisfying at least some needs remains, as usual, unexplained. Neoliberal thinking itself gets short shrift. For example, in a chapter on gender and poverty, the "neoliberal perspective" gets less than a page, part of which is devoted to a critical quote from Polanyi. Precisely what Mittelman wants from the neoliberal world is not quite clear. At one point, he opposes the introduction of market prices in Mozambique's agriculture, for fear it will marginalize female subsistence farmers; later, he laments Mozambique's "involuntary form of delinkage" (103). How Mozambique is to achieve sustained growth and a higher standard of living without successfully engaging "market forces" Mittelman does not explain. While he says globalization is not a contest of villains and heroes, his fellow critics can rest assured that no heroic corporate executives or IMF administrators figure in this story. Of course, Mittelman looks for a way out of the neoliberal mire, but in the end he offers only speculative comments about the kind of global governance that may help to "put mankind on the right path." The forces of hegemony have little to fear.

As conceptual analysis and critique of neoliberalism, Mittelman's book exemplifies rather than advances recent trends in globalization analysis. He surfs on the third wave. Perhaps like-minded scholars will appreciate being carried along for the ride. For empirical grist and theoretical tools, beginning students now have many other sources. Experts and beginners alike will be put off by Mittelman's plodding prose. "Above all, the challenge here is to discern . . . ," starts the second sentence, a sign of things to come. "This book emphasizes the interactions between globalizing structures that intersect different levels of analysis in highly, if not the most, dissimilar parts of the world, gauged on a continuum of economic dynamism and marginalization" (14). And on it goes. Here's hoping that turgid writing will not become a mark of sophistication in third-wave scholarship.


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Copyright 2000-2001 - Frank Lechner