Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Globalization and the History of Ideas

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Globalization and the History of Ideas

Article excerpt

What connections exist between globalization and the history of ideas? It is a difficult question, for globalization is contentious. The debate on globalization has generated a vast but also very recent literature-for example, there was not yet an entry for "globalization" in the 1994 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.1 However, the relatively recent emergence of a debate on globalization does not mean that the set of ideas surrounding the term arose all of a sudden in the last few years. On the contrary, the globalization concept goes back to the middle third of the nineteenth century, although it has roots earlier. The concept appears in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, where we are told that "the bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country."2 Many other nineteenth-century thinkers likewise reflected on the emerging connection between the alleged European core of civilization and those parts of the world inhabited by "other" peoples. In nineteenth-century thought we often find a European triumphalism, appearing in Marx and Engels as the triumphalism of productive forces. These forces were taken to be global-that is, they were seen not as attached to any particular nation or culture but as the manifestation of a universal process. The notion of a universal process to which all human beings are or will be subjected was markedly different from the vision of the relation between Europe and the rest of the world that was to be found in earlier "ideologies of empire."3

But while globalization is not exactly a new idea, until recently it was not widely viewed as the core reality of the present moment, nor was it seen as itself constituting a problem. Only recently has it come to be widely recognized that globalization has two distinct and conflicting faces. The most challenging resistances to globalization are in fact deeply implicated in globalization itself, so much so that they would not exist without it. In other words the issue is not one of conflict between the universalistic process of globalization and a particularism that is external to it. Rather, it is a matter of challenges to globalization that globalization itself has launched and continues to sustain.

From time to time a word or phrase arises that is then taken up by many people as a way of characterizing the present moment. We might call these now-terms. For Marxists of a generation or two ago the preferred now-term was late capitalism. For Marxists in Marxism's more hopeful periods, as well as for many supporters of capitalism and liberal democracy, the now-term has often been some variant of modern or modernity. Where "late capitalism" suggests a short breathing spell before the next revolutionary transformation, "modernity" suggests the need to spread enlightened, secular ideas and corresponding modes of human interaction to places that are as yet unenlightened. For some non-Marxists after the collapse of grand narrative but before the collapse of the USSR, the now-term waspostmodernity. Today postmodernity is largely a thing of the past. Its inaptness as a now-term became evident by the mid-1990s, if not slightly earlier.

It seems clear that we continue to live within the framework of "modernity," at least insofar as we take the term modernity as designating the application of a technical and bureaucratic rationality to ever wider spheres of human life. The spread of material technologies, the rise of rule-based procedures for doing things, and the impact of a market economy that is ever more extended in its scope and interconnectedness are all indications of a modernity that is very much alive. On the other hand there are current phenomena that are hard to understand in terms of the notion of modernity. These include such things as religious fundamentalism and a growing localism and regionalism.

In part globalization does little more than designate modernity's extensive tendency, that is, its tendency to spread over larger and larger areas of the globe and of human life. …

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