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Globalization: A Critical Introduction

by Jan Aart Scholte [Reader in International Studies, University of Warwick]

Palgrave, 2000

To say that globalization is a much-abused popular buzzword has itself become a cliché. Academic sophisticates are honor-bound to yawn or frown at the mere mention of the term. What is a serious student of the subject to do? Self-deprecation helps: "Not another book on globalization!", Scholte begins. So does a pragmatic attitude: Scholte argues that developing an allergy to this particular cliché is premature, for scholars have hardly begun to define globalization clearly and to study it systematically. Because the term captures profound social changes, he suggests, careful study is fully justified.

To clear his scholarly path, Scholte first proposes a distinct definition of the notoriously fuzzy concept. Rejecting "redundant" notions such as internationalization and universalization, Scholte defines globalization as deterritorialization. Global relations, he says with emphasis, are "transborder exchanges without distance" (49). Such relations are becoming more significant as communication and production increasingly occur without regard to geographic constraints, transborder organizations of many kinds proliferate, and more people become aware of the world as a single whole. Pushed by the "structural forces" of capitalism and rationalism, propelled by "actor initiatives" such as technological innovations or regulatory decisions, the transformation is creating a new world: "Only since the 1960s has globality figured continually, comprehensively and centrally in the lives of a large proportion of humanity" (87).

After thus providing a "framework for analysis," Scholte assesses how new this world really is. His main thrust is to suggest that globalization adds complexity. For example, capitalism becomes more strongly entrenched worldwide, but also changes its organizational form. Deterritorialization does not spell the end of the state, but "governance" does become more "multilayered." Globalization does challenge "the position of the nation as the predominant framework in world politics" (162), but the result is a proliferation of communities, territorial and nonterritorial. Global consciousness is still heavily rationalist, but new transworld relations also favor challenges to this dominant worldview.

To some extent, Scholte continues in this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style when he addresses the consequences of globalization for human welfare. For example, he shows that globalization has mixed effects on security. Yet here he also turns more deliberately critical. He argues that stratified access to global spaces, the decline of the redistributive state, and entrenched global social hierarchies have produced serious inequities. He thinks that globalization may actually undermine conventional liberal democracies without making global life itself more democratic. However, the fault lies not in globalization as such, but rather in the particular, neoliberal way it has proceeded thus far. To tame this beast, Scholte proposes many reforms, including abolition of offshore finance and devolution to local government, that should lead to social democracy writ large.

As befits an introduction, Scholte's writing is admirably clear; his schematic summaries are most helpful. Though the text as a whole represents an original synthesis, few of its parts, starting with the main definition, are really new. In a longer book, Scholte might have taken time to support some puzzling claims he makes in passing, such as the point that Russia's 1998 crisis is "substantially a consequence of global financial flows" (216) or that under the pressure of globalization governments have "implemented the greatest cuts in respect of sunk costs" such as "provisions for the elderly" (141), who have "readily seen their interests systematically subordinated to those of people in mid-life" (235). Some topics that are important to the overall argument, such as the rise of cosmopolitanism, Scholte treats only briefly. (In fact, the text might have benefitted from one staple of introductions, namely more detailed discussion of illustrative cases--specific commodity chains, say, or particular transnational organizations.) Notwithstanding such introductory features of the book, the subtitle also betrays some false modesty, since Scholte has a strong message for scholars: treating globalization as deterritorialization is the way to clear up a lot of confusion, explain what is new in the world, describe the shape of global relations, and ground a vision of future reform. He makes this case very effectively, and his book therefore promises to become one benchmark in scholarly discussion.

Scholte certainly has a point: globalizing social relations does involve the overcoming of distance. But he makes this definition a bit too exclusive. For example, some of his own examples of global practices, such as consumerism, resemble what others might have described as universalization or diffusion. Many of the organizations he discusses, including the IMF and the like, exemplify the internationalization or interdependence he rejects as defining features of globalization. To say that they operate in "deterritorialized" fashion may well go too far in any case. Focusing on the globalization as a "question of geography" also leads Scholte to say that liberalization, for example in the form of lowered tariffs, is a distinct "question of regulation" (50). At the same time, however, he opposes neoliberalism, which obviously includes such liberalization, as a particular approach to or form of globalization. A slightly more relaxed use of his definition might entail some fuzziness but avoid artificial distinctions.

Scholte's historical argument is also plausible: the world works differently than before. In developing this point, he does not fully engage opposing views. Prior to the nineteenth century, he asserts, "globality had little existence outside the mind" (65). He recognizes, of course, that there has long been transoceanic trade in certain commodities, but he suggests that such trade affected only a minority of the world's population and did not become a forerunner of current transworld production and distribution. Partly because Scholte acknowledges elsewhere that capitalism becomes more entrenched due to globalization, it would have been helpful to examine what was different about early global commodities, such as sugar, that have been studied extensively. Many neo-Marxist scholars regard sixteenth-century commercial capitalism as a world system in its own right; why are they wrong?

Perhaps more surprisingly, Scholte also does not take advantage of scholarship that supports his case. He rightly stresses the pervasive influence of rationalism--a secular, anthropocentric, scientific, instrumental worldview. Neoinstitutionalist research has examined this rationalism from several angles, showing how the individual has become a legitimate global actor, how states institutionalize certain "rational" models of education, how even transnational organizations become carriers of this culture, and so on. Examples from this body of work would have enriched Scholte's book.

The good-but-thin discussion of rationalism points to a bigger problem, namely the somewhat cursory treatment of culture. To be sure, Scholte shows, drawing on Robertson, how the shifting consciousness of the world itself is an integral part of globalization. He also is well aware of the ongoing clash of contending worldviews. He directly addresses that contention in defending his proposal for reform. Yes, he affirms, culture matters. But his heart isn't in it. The culture chapter is one of the shortest in the book. As an introductory guide to research on global religion, global media, or global antirationalist movements the book leaves something to be desired.

Scholte's critique of neoliberalism is fairly precise. His clear standard of justice--the absence of arbitrary privilege and exclusion--provides a useful yardstick by which to judge the effects of globalization. But is it really reasonable to regard any distribution based on transfers that occur at birth as unjust? How does this view of justice compare with others that stress conditions for fostering human capabilities or assuring that all transactions are free and fair? Can any single conception of justice govern the diverse and multilayered world Scholte describes? How can social democracy become plausible as a global model?

Though he does not address such questions to reflect critically on the global status of his own premises, Scholte senses that the discontents of neoliberalism are becoming so clear that the world is moving in his direction, and he may well be right. Of course, the success of that movement does not depend on its ability to answer a reviewer's philosophical questions. But disputes about the grounds for global reform are bound to intensify. The direction of globalization is up for grabs. In this moment of global choice, Scholte's kind of diagnosis and prescription are gaining influence beyond the circles of like-minded left-leaning academics. The philosophical drawbacks of his views do not detract from their sociological importance.


Note: expanded version of review written for Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management

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Copyright 2000-2001 - Frank Lechner