Blogger’s Note. Reflecting upon the a recent “long read” published in the Guardian – an absorbing piece by Nikil Saval entitled “Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world” – I was rather jarringly reminded of something I wrote back in the nineties. What strikes me about this vintage analysis, published in the International Journal (53:1, Winter 1997, pp 17-37), is just how little the debate has advanced over the intervening two decades. It seems that virtually nothing has been learned, and even less done in response to this longstanding critique. Why? As a contribution to everyone’s summertime reading, I have decided to re-release the original, complete and unabridged, in five easy pieces. With apologies for the curious formatting, I would very much welcome reader commentary.
Inclusion for consumers
At the international level, and notwithstanding the occasional recourse to coercive force, guns will
remain a last resort. Globalization’s most obvious, and possibly most powerful, milieu is cultural,
manifest through technology, popular entertainment, and the media. The Internet is at the leading
edge of the current wave, but with the satellite-enhanced penetration of television and the spread
of VCRs and video rentals, an international community united by similar tastes and appetites has
been in formation for some time. At the most fundamental level what is most remarkable about all
of these media is that they share a look, a feel, and an ambiance which derive from common
In the early 1980s, filmmaker David Cronenberg probed the assertion that ’video is the retina of
the mind’s eye.’ His vision was disturbing, and since then the scale and intensity of electronic
homogenization has grown. We should ask: what kind of culture is being created, what kind of
norms are being imparted as a result of constant saturation by the latest in broadcast and
information technology? To a large extent the values transmitted are those associated with the
uninhibited pursuit of self-interest. What are the implications for democracy when in the United
States 43 million more people watched the Superbowl than voted in the last presidential election?
This is especially worrisome because what happens in the United States usually happens
elsewhere – in cultural terms, globalization and Americanization are largely indistinguishable.
Television has long been recognized as a potent medium of cultural influence, part fifth column,
part narcotic. Now, with more people spending more time tapping on keyboards and gazing into
monitors, we are being collectively drawn ever deeper into cyberspace and further away from the
reflective habits of the Gutenberg galaxy. And the web sites, like the billboards, the music, the
television, the films, look much alike. From Tokyo to Toronto, Santiago to the Seychelles,
Halifax to Harare, places and people are losing their distinguishing characteristics. Aspirants to
the emerging world class drink Coke, drive Toyotas, shop in malls, and fancy themselves in the
united colours of Benetton.
Among the newly affluent and the legions of wannabes, personal consumption and lifestyle are
the most desirable ends. An interest in public affairs, community service, or political engagement
just doesn’t fit. The disadvantaged, and all those ill-equipped to protect, defend, or even
effectively express their interests, are given barely a thought. Concern about the welfare of the
underclass, wherever they live, is not part of globalization’s calculus.
On the margins, both inside developed countries and on the periphery of the North America-
Europe-east Asia axis, billions have never surfed the Internet and can’t afford Nikes – or, for that
matter, Nike knock-offs. Others opt deliberately for locally produced sandals. For some, nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) provide a locus of resistance by organizing at the grassroots
level around labour, environmental, human rights, and democratic development issues. NGOs,
however, can often be accommodated, or, with the help of governments and foundations, coopted.
A growing number of those stuck permanently on the outside looking in have turned to the
identity politics of ethnic nationalism or found voice in fundamentalist religious movements.
These mass-based political and cultural alternatives tend to run more directly counter to the
mainstream and are significant, even if they are less immediately visible.
Events in the margins will never receive protracted prime-time attention or centre-stage billing. If
vital interests are not at risk, coverage will be limited to disasters or conflicts, treated as
unfortunate sideshows, instantly terrifying and just as soon forgotten, commanding about as
much serious or sustained international attention as the civil wars in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Liberia,
Nevertheless, though the signal may be faint, stay tuned. From liberation theology to appropriate
technology, the margins are a primary source of alternative approaches and creative responses.
Moreover, as the absence of news on events unfolding in Zaire or Albania or inside the former
Soviet Union during the lead-up to its disintegration illustrated with some force, the judgment of
the international media is fallible. Across a vast expanse of peripheral humanity, alienation
appears to be growing. In more than a few former neighbourhoods, ethnic, religious, and political
resistance has been articulated through violence.