The Language of Globalization

By Marcuse, Peter | Monthly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Language of Globalization


Marcuse, Peter, Monthly Review


The language of globalization deserves some explicit attention. To begin with, the word globalization itself is a nonconcept in most uses: a simple catalogue of everything that seems different since, say, 1970, whether advances in information technology, widespread use of air freight, speculation in currencies, increased capital flows across borders, Disneyfication of culture, mass marketing, global warming, genetic engineering, multinational corporate power, new international division of labor, international mobility of labor, reduced power of nation-states, postmodernism, or post-Fordism. The issue is more than one of careless use of words: intellectually, such muddy use of the term fogs any effort to separate cause from effect, to analyze what is being done, by whom, to whom, for what, and with what effect. Politically, leaving the term vague and ghostly permits its conversion to something with a life of its own, making it a force, fetishizing it as something that has an existence independent of the will of human beings, inevitable and irresistible. This lack of clarity in usage afflicts other elements of the discussion of globalization as well, with both analytic and political consequences. Let me outline some problem areas, and suggest some important differentiations.

First, the concept of globalization itself: it hardly needs reiteration in these pages that globalization is not something new under the sun, but is a particular form of capitalism, an expansion of capitalist relationships both in breadth (geographically) and in depth (penetrating ever-increasing aspects of human life). But there are two distinct aspects to the development of capitalist relations since 1970 that are often lumped together under the rubric of globalization: developments in technology and developments in the concentration of power. Separating advances in technology from the global concentration of economic power, and seeing how their combination has changed class relations, is critical both for analysis and for political strategy.

The link between advances in technology and the concentration of economic power is not an inevitable one. Computerization, the speed of communications made possible by advances in information technology, the ability to expand the span of control from one center across continents, the increased speed and efficiency of transportation (both for people and for goods), facilitating the flexibilization of production, and the automation of routine tasks are all indeed essential for the substantial increase in the concentration of economic power we are witnessing. But these advances in technology could be used in quite different ways (although it may be that, if their intended use were different, they would in fact be quite different). Advances in technology could mean either that the same quantity of useful goods and services could be produced with less effort or that, with the same effort, more could be produced. Either way, everyone would be better off, either working less or having more. That is not the way thin gs are going, not because technology could not go that way, but because it is directed and harnessed by the power-holders to increase and concentrate their power. It has been used to change the balance of power between classes. Attention needs to be focused on this, not on the technology itself.

The distinction between technological globalization and the globalization of power is critical--not only analytically but also politically. It raises the question, "What might the other possibilities be if the two were separated?" We should speak of the existing combination of technological globalization and the globalization of power as really existing globalization; that would highlight the possibilities of an alternative globalization. Opponents of the damaging consequences of really existing globalization, from left as well as from liberal perspectives, are divided on the appropriate response to it. …

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