Ed – This is the second pert of a four part series. You can find the first part here.

How distinctive is contemporary globalisation ?

The second set of issues found throughout this essay address the distinctive qualities of contemporary globalisation. Clearly, responses to this concern depend on the position taken in the first place about the very nature of globalisation. If one is sceptical of the idea of globalisation then one will not find it very useful in demarcating different phases or stages of social change.  We find major divisions in the positions taken by the debaters,starting with how to set out grounds for raising serious doubts about the strong globalisation thesis, that is, the globalist position. For them the present world, judged in historical terms, remains far from closely integrated. They point out that the actual net flows between major economies are considerably less than a century ago. But they argue that the key test of economic globalisation is whether world economic trends confirm the existence of a single global economy. In this respect, they suggest, the evidence falls far short of the overestimated claims of many globalists. They argue that the national economy persists and so does the possibility of national and international economic management.

We should also explore those reasons for scepticism in regard to strong claims about the degree of change in global patterns of culture and communications today. Here the case study of the telegraph and the internet is particularly apposite. Many of the exaggerated claims about the growth of cultural flows and transnational communications patterns fail to take account of how unremarkable certain technological changes may be if judged in historical terms.

Many of the claims made about the novelty of the Internet today were made in the late nineteenth century about the invention and growth of the telegraph. This fascinating case study raises questions about the extent to which networks of communication have been altered by the information revolution. The challenge is not simply to affirm that either everything or nothing has changed but, rather, to be precise about what has, and in what ways. Hugh Mackay emphasizes that the scale, intensity, speed and volume of global cultural communications today are unsurpassed. The accelerating diffusion of television, the Internet, satellite and digital technologies have made instant communications possible across vast areas as never before, involving growing numbers of people. But he also stresses that cultural space and cultural systems are more contested than ever and that, accordingly, the future is uncertain, dependent on negotiations and conflicts among nation states, media corporations, technical developments and the preferences of ordinary citizens. Evidence in this account can, therefore, be used to support each of the three competing positions, although the thrust is to reject the more extreme interpretations of globalists and inter-nationalists.

We can contrast the development of the Westphalian system of states and the contemporary system of world politics, with the development from the late seventeenth century of the states system, which humankind became organized into discrete territorial political communities, the present period – especially since 1945 – has, he contends, seen a remarkable internationalization of the state and transnationalization of political activity. What is new about the contemporary phase of political activity is the emergence of a distinctive, multi-layered system of global governance and the diffusion of political authority.  McGrew argues that this is not to say that all state power is simply being eroded and that the interstate system is in terminal decline. That would be to misunderstand what has happened. What is occurring, he suggests, is an ongoing transformation and reconfiguration of political power.

National governments – increasingly sandwiched between global forces and local demands – are reconsidering their roles and functions. States today remain very powerful, if not more powerful than their predecessors in earlier centuries. On fundamental measures of political power – from the ability to raise taxes to the capacity to wage war – many states remain very strong, especially in the OECD world. But they must increasingly work together to pursue the public good – to prevent recession or to protect the environment.  And transnational agreements, for example dealing with acid rain or economic crises, will often force national governments to adopt changes in domestic policy. Increasingly, McGrew argues, global politics alter the nature of domestic and international politics, although the exact contours of the changes remain far from clear.

What are we to make of these different accounts of what is distinctive about the contemporary historical period? In the first instance, it is important to stress that we cannot understand globalisation as a singular condition or as a linear process. It is best thought of as a multi-dimensional phenomenon involving diverse domains of activity and interaction, including the economic, political, technological, cultural and environmental. Each of these spheres involves different patterns of relations and activity, and before we can make strong claims about globalisation we need to dissect what is happening in them. Second, it is clear that a general account of globalisation cannot simply ‘read off’ or project from one domain of activity what has occurred or is likely to occur in another.

It is important to build a theory of globalisation from an understanding of what is happening in each area. The interpretation of the debates leads to considerable scepticism which may be justified in the economic sphere, while different accounts of the nature and dynamics of globalisation may be more appropriate to the cultural and political. There is no reason to assume – in fact, it would he quite wrong to do so, that globalisation involves a single historical narrative or logic with all realms moving in sequence. Different processes of globalisation may have developed at different times, followed different trajectories and tempos. In order to elaborate an account of globalisation, therefore, it is necessary to pursue an examination of the distinctive domains of activity and interaction in and through which global processes can evolve. A full account of globalisation can only hope to be built up through these discrete analyses.

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