Globalization and Its Discontents

Journal of Business Administration and Policy Analysis, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Globalization and Its Discontents


Let me start with a definition of globalization. Political economists would likely tell us that globalization describes a world economic order in which capital, trade, production and information flow to their logical destinations, without being artificially constrained by national boundaries and national policies. If a particular country or community enjoys a comparative advantage in terms of, say, raw materials or cheap labour, it will attract a certain combination of the factors of production. If another offers a highly educated and highly skilled workforce and proximity to major markets, it will attract a

different combination. Likewise with capital: investors will appraise exchange rates and the risks of investing in this country or that and off they go: far from being constrained by national borders, they are positively wooed by governments desperate for new projects and more jobs. And likewise with other factors of production: intellectual property, management skills, political connections, brand names and physical security. All of these become globalized; all find their way to markets where willing sellers await willing buyers. And we all live happily and profitably ever after, buying Levis in far-off places, watching CNN around the world, using bank cards to access exotic currencies.

There is something postmodern in this account of globalization - reason enough to trigger my discontent, if not yours. But in fact, globalization has had a long and chequered career. The Hudson's Bay Company, the East India Company - and their rivals from Holland and France, and all over Europe - began the process four hundred years ago with one powerful insight: there is a lot of money to be made by exporting capitals goods and know-how to distant parts of the world where they can be exchanged for commodities and services in short supply at home.

In certain respects, the great mercantile companies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries closely resembled the transnational corporations of our own time. They were able to escape from the feeble constraints of national sovereignty into the virtually unregulated spaces of transnational commerce; they were largely indifferent to public morality - and in turn were sometimes ruined by corruption, treachery and greed; and though they came seeking profit, they often. left trailing conflicts of religion and culture. Like today's globalization, the expansion of world trade three or four hundred years ago ushered in a period of great institutional and legal creativity. Much of the machinery of transnational trade was invented during this period - the joint stock company, marine insurance, international arbitration, bills of lading, the stock market, international currency exchanges. And finally, like the globalization of the late twentieth century, this early wave of globalization left in its wake winners and losers; it transformed social relations, as well as patterns of production and consumption; it disturbed ecosystems and distributed deadly diseases; and it expanded the cultural horizons and political aspirations of people everywhere. But at the core of it all, globalization - then as now - was about wealth and dreams of wealth.

So globalization has had a long and chequered history; truth to tell, it also has a chequered present and future. That present and future is largely driven by technology. By substituting machine labour and digital intelligence for animal labour and human intelligence, technology has utterly changed the way we produce things. This in turn makes possible mass production which in turn leads to mass consumption which in turn leads to continuous expansion of the markets needed to consume ever-increasing outputs which in turn leads to globalization. Or so some people argue. And technology has changed not only the scale but also the site of production. Depending on which is most efficient, we can consolidate production functions under a single roof, distribute them across a local network of just-in-time suppliers, or disperse them globally. …

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