Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

You get to help me study: economic globalisation

I’m preparing answers to practice questions for my upcoming comprehensive exam in international relations. Since many of the themes they address may interest some of the people who read this blog, and since having an audience may keep me sharper than just writing for my own benefit, I will include a few of these practice answers here. I did so whilst studying for exams for my MA, and that produced a few interesting posts, I like to think. I will probably not bother to expand upon the citations, so just pretend they don’t exist.

Discuss and assess the debate about economic globalisation and its effects upon political stability and economic development, with some reference to empirical research.

Generally speaking, economic globalisation is a process of deepening and broadening economic interconnectedness of a global scope, such that economic activity in any one locality is incresingly influenced by that of geographically distant others, which in its modern, accelerated form constitutes a profound transformation in economic organisation across space and between nations (cf. Rosenau, Held, Giddens). The main points of debate over economic globalisation revolve around whether it benefits all states and communities caught up in its processes or only a powerful (and Western) few, whether it will lead to the decreased salience of states and borders to the global – and local – economy, and whether it will continue in the face of the tensions, reactions, and fracturations it generates in opposition to it.

The view that globalisation consists of imperial exploitation of the globally un(der)industrialised by a few, highly industrialised, capitalist states in N. America and Europe is generally traceable to Lenin, and in its more sophisticated ‘systems-theoretical’ form, to Wallerstein’s ‘World Systems’ theory. According to it, the world may be divided into the core, the periphery, and (in WST) the semi-periphery. The core exploits the periphery and countries in the periphery, deluded by the belief that it has the potential to itself reach the position of the core, occasionally to semi-periphery status, which is a sort of mid-point of partial industrialisation/development. The core essentially plays the role of the bourgeoisie and the periphery that of the proletariat, writ global, and the former is devoted to the labour exploitation, resource extraction, and political marginalisation of the latter. Modern economic globalisation may not involve the same formal institutions of domination and control as were seen in the heyday of European imperialism and colonialism, but it is functionally analogous, serving the same interests and generating the same relations of power and subordination.

In opposition to this view is the generally (neo)liberal view that economic globalisation permits if not even than still universal and absolute growth in quality of life and economic development. Based on economic theories rooted in Smith and Ricardo, it holds that the expansion of markets, the free flow of capital, and the development of transport and communications technology permits countries to trade to their comparative advantage, buy goods as cheaply as possible while satisfying global demands, and access the credit and investment needed for capital growth and industrial development. Liberals in the Kantian tradition predict that this will also lead to the spread of democratic norms as an ascendent middle-class will demand political enfranchisement, while neofunctionalists go even further by predicting that economic globalisation will eventually lead to political unions or federations, on the grounds that national borders and currencies will be consolidated to facilitate more efficient trade (cf. Mitrany, Rodrik). While the rise of the ‘BRICS’ is often held to be an example of how ‘developing’ countries can follow trajectories beyond the limits of ‘semi-periphery’ quasi-industrialisation, and the EU is often held to be an example of a move towards political union in the service of economic integration, both these examples encounter problems. Of the BRICS, only Russia and China appear to possess the power to attain considerably global economic might, while South Africa, Brazil, and India are so riven with domestic developmental asymmetries and constraints that it is questionable whether they will continue to exhibit a high rate of economic growth. Meanwhile a resurgence in nationalism in Europe, most starkly illustrated by the rise of the fascistic Golden Dawn movement in Greece but certainly not limited to that country or to that level of radicalism, driven by debt crises and a reaction against austerity, suggests that while Rodrik may have been right to see a tension in simultaneously attempting economic intergration, democratic politics, and state sovereignty, the resolution to this tension will not lie in a democratically sensitive transnational federalism but rather in a return to protectionism.

This third view, that while globalisation may not be reducible to the logic of capitalist exploitation write large but that it also shall not produce the liberal harmony envisioned by its most enthusiastic proponents, tends to see globalisation as an irregular, fractured, and variable process. Reactionary political movements such as those associated with the rise of conservative Islamism, the competition of economic powerhouses such as Russia and China to establish exclusive zones of economic hegemony – Russia in Central Asia and China in Africa – and a growing awareness of consumers in wealthy countries of the ways in which their consumption can fund political and labour practices they find anathema all indicate push-backs against a universalist economic globalisation that may transform global economic integration into multiple regional integrations.

Numerous empirical research projects feed into this debate. Scholarship on civil wars and authoritarianism has payed close attention to the role of globally desirable resources and commodities, such as oil and diamonds, in funding human rights abuses (cf. Bates, Laitin, Cederman, Weinstein, Wood). Scholarship on agricultural development has examined the  dependencies, environmental degradation, and market sensitivity produced by the spread of patented crop varieties or the shift towards cash-crop cultivation. Scholarship on the economics of environmentalist measures such as carbon emissions controls finds both persistent unwillingness on the part of states to honour their economically restrictive commitments and a curious readiness on the part of firms and non-state professional bodies to self-regulate (Hoffman). Notably, none of these projects are so clear in their findings, so far, as to support one view over its competitors in the debate as to the effects of economic globalisation.

Perhaps the next few years will provide some clarity, as we will see whether the EU can weather its most acute crises to date, whether the BRICS will continue to rise, and if regional hegemony bids such as China’s ‘ring of pearls’ strategy will produce spheres of influence rather than open markets.

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