Globalization, Power and Survival: An Anthropological Perspective

By Abélès, Marc | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Globalization, Power and Survival: An Anthropological Perspective


Abélès, Marc, Anthropological Quarterly


We are accustomed to emphasizing the economic aspects of globalization and it is true that globalization corresponds to a displacement from a primarily industry-based economy to one where working on concepts plays a major role and where trade growth is tied in with financial deregulation and the new approaches this implies in terms of the circulation of capital. It is possible, though, that we have given insufficient weight to the fact that globalization is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon.

We should not see the violence of globalization purely and simply as a process of domination-like some new form of colonialism. The power of its impact is all the greater for the fact that it consists of a profound change in our awareness of time and space. "Globalization as a concept refers both to the compression of the world and the intensification of our consciousness of the world as a whole" (Robertson 1992:8). For Westerners, this notion of a selfcontained world expresses itself in a strong feeling of insecurity. It only needs a sector of the economy, for example, to show signs of weakness, for the possibility of relocations to emerge. In the confrontations between staff and bosses that have always punctuated economic life, the outcome used to be that of a solution that took into account local social and economic conditions. Now, we "think globally"-meaning that relocation appears from the outset to be a pertinent alternative. In the face of this prospect, workers are caught in a very simple dilemma: either they accept the "sacrifices" or the company will quite simply disappear. Beyond this recurrent blackmail, what weakens people is the sense of the extraordinary "nearness" of other lands-which are easily identifiable, whether it be a country in Eastern Europe or Asia. There is a sense of temporal "nearness" too, in that in a few weeks or even days one can create a similar company on the other side of the world.

In practice, the compression of time and space can be perceived as a threat, not only because it accentuates the pressure of the invisible hand of the omnipotent market system, but also inasmuch as it makes possible a violent intrusion of alterity into our world. This was the case on September 11, 2001, when a place that represented the quintessence of the market was brutally attacked by a group that incarnated radical exteriority. We realized how easy it was for people we tended to think of as being on the other side of the world to reach the heart of the system by turning peaceful technologies into fatal weapons.

The awareness of globalization, therefore, is more than just the apperception of an ever closer interdependence of economies. It is equally, if not more, a matter of the citizens of the developed countries internalizing a simple, disturbing reality: that they will never again be "safe" from a threatening "elsewhere," hitherto considered marginal and today able to organize itself in a most "modern" manner and burst in. The whole "modernity" position, though, was based on the idea of there being an irreducible difference between all that represents civilization and fits into the scheme of progress and these Others who, while being part of humanity, were nonetheless doomed to the inertia of beings without history. We are part of the same planet, our destinies appear to us to be increasingly intertwined. There too, the evaluation can be interpreted optimistically: the fact that the compressing effect of globalization breaks down certain barriers between societies, overturns prejudices and obliges us to mix is cause for rejoicing. The concepts of cross-fertilization and hybridization have been invoked to describe the possibility finally at hand of a meeting between cultures so long separated and so long isolated by prevailing ideologies. The opposite of this ecumenical vision is an interpretation that highlights the virulence of the tensions generated by another huge present-day reality: that-the other side of world unity is that resources and riches have to be shared. …

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