Globalisation and its cultural discontents

Summary of a talk held on 27 October, 2016, The Hague.

1. Prehistory

Today the word globalisation seems to be in common use. The meaning of the word meanwhile has not yet crystallized. Wikipedia dishes out divergent definitions.

Turning to my dictionaries (dating from the seventies) I find globalisation had not yet arrived fifty years ago.

Global is there in Dutch from the French, as a general connotation of a whole. In a French dictionary of the time (1971) it indicates the viewing of the whole before the parts. Italian (1979) follows the French, globalizzazione is a perception that is more synthetic than analytical (and ascribed to childhood).

In 1960 The Concise Oxford did not give the word globalisation, but defines global as: ‘worldwide, embracing the totality of a group of items, categories’.

It strikes one that the word itself should be absent. But also that global is not linked systematically to the world as a whole. Fifty years on the world, the globe, is central to the overlapping connotations of globalisation. It is clear that public opinion was in need to express some novel experience of the world and named it globalisation.

(Amusingly Italian, French, Dutch and other dictionaries do recognize the word globetrotter. This English tourist seems to have blazed the trail of globalisation.)

It is not strange that mankind had to struggle to compress the immensity of the world into the shape of a globe. It took five centuries.

Of this mental effort the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 is an early example. On behalf of the kings of Spain and Portugal Columbus sailing West and Vasco da Gama sailing East laid claims to the non-Western World. To secure peace within Christianity the pope supported drawing a global meridian through the Atlantic that would give Spain the Western (American) part and Portugal the Eastern, “African” part. The pope’s successors would follow up this global division by also dividing the Pacific on both sides of a meridian, Portugal gaining access to Japan, Spain to the Philippines.

This early division of the world as a whole was a remarkable piece of global thinking, but not yet globalisation.

In the 16th century the global vision penetrates the minds and actions of western rulers. After Spain and Portugal, the Dutch and English, French and Russians will extend their colonial ambitions on a global scale. After the suicide of Europe in two aptly called World Wars, the pax Americana gives a semblance of a new world order. But though one could rightly speak about the mondialisation of “world powers” like the USA or the USSR, globalisation is not yet there. Only towards 2000 the awareness grows of worldwide processes that seem no longer linked to specific centres of power. They seem to be interconnected and more or less autonomous. Fukuyama tries to describe this new state of the world as the end of history. Huntington believes historical divisions will prevail. The great debate about the future of globalisation has begun.


2. Definitions of globalisation

The process has quickened over the last fifty years. Globalisation is now well recognized in the fields of finance and trade, the global  interdependence of economic production and distribution, in technology and the transmission of information, global tourism and migration. It also leads to an agenda of global problems like climate change. Cultural globalisation is also taking form: both natural sciences and commercial art have gone global. The emergence of Davos is a sign that globalisation needs platforms and think tanks.

The welter of associations concerning the term globalisation asks for a purification. I would suggest a definition that brings into focus its main character:

Globalisation is a process of erosion of borders on a world scale.

If one accepts my simple definition one has still to avoid some hasty generalisations.

The erosion of borders does not mean that the border become less of a problem. The border is perhaps the most underestimated theoretical and practical issue.

Also globalisation does not consist of one single process nor of necessity lead to one uniform global situation.

Globalisation also does not abrogate history. Globalisation manifests itself in the context of historical configurations and will lead to reconfigurations on a world scale. Fukuyama and Huntington give progressive and conservative views of globalisation, not alternatives.

The main difference between mondialisation and globalisation seems to lie in the pattern of control. In mondialisation there still exist traditional centres of power with a global reach. In the world without borders coming out of globalisation, these centres seem to have lost control. This loss of control is an important issue in counter- globalisation.


3. Reactions to globalisation

America may be at the apex of mondialisation, but is not truly globalized in its perception of the world. Separated by two oceans from the rest it always had a somewhat hazy awareness of borders. Used by the pax Americana to be on top of the world, today it discovers itself to be only a part of it. While global migration has traditionally been seen as contributing to American identity, it is now seen as a negative. China, though a recent partner in global warming and world trade, is now perceived as the enemy. To make America great again means going backwards from mondialisation to isolationism.

One candidate for the presidency has even praised the Great Wall of China and proposes to divide the American continent by such a wall. The American counter-globalisation creates a mythology of borders.

The world of Islam is also experiencing globalisation.

One should recognize the global success and the innate ambition of Islam to conquer the world. Since the Middle Ages the Islamic world may have contributed little to globalisation, yet the world of Islam has kept its sense of superiority, as a religion with a fixed and final global destiny. While Islam accepts a world without borders, it is on the condition of control by Islam. This is a counter-globalisation of uniformity on a world scale.

Drawn into the world of mondialisation by its mineral resources, mainly oil, it has early on developed a negative attitude to globalisation, unwilling to accept change. With the help of its immense riches, it actively spreads a fundamentalist ideology globally. Its attitude of preaching jihad on a world scale, is now seen by world consensus as a common danger to diversity.

China has contributed to mondialisation (for instance inventing the magnetic compass, book-printing, the kite, canal lock gates, gunpowder and porcelain). Contrary to Islam, it has no obvious unwillingness to adapt, even if knowledge comes from the outside. Moreover for centuries education, not ethnicity or religion, has been the mainstay of Chinese identity. This education however is not neutral.

Since China jettisoned “western” communism, it has returned to a globalized version of Confucianism. This moral system is based on hierarchy, in which the ruler provides and guarantees peace and prosperity.

The Chinese rulers have to maintain internal and external harmony. Control is a non negotiable principle. So uncontrolled globalisation is unthinkable.

Both the market and democracy assume that either the hidden hand of economy or the common sense of the citizen will prevail. In Chinese eyes open systems may cause trouble and must philosophically be subject to control.

Therefore Taiwan and the diaspora (and in a minor sense Singapore) are interesting experiments of confronting Confucianism with a world without borders.

In America the border is a main feature of counter-globalisation. In China it is the future of control versus an open system that characterizes counter-globalization. In Islam it is the conflict with diversity and change.

The conclusion of this sketch is that counter-globalisation dominates the debate in America, Islam and China, though in different ways.


4. Europe and re-inventing control

My next observations concern Europe. There is little doubt of Europe fully participating in globalisation, as it did in mondialisation before.

Today Europe has lost its world role, and is meanwhile experiencing the inroads of globalisation. Traditional European spaces, for instance the harbour of Pireaus or an English football club, can now be owned by Chinese. Global migration is going on in an unprecedented way. Cities like Rotterdam and London have first or second generation migrants as their mayors.

During millennia Europe has been experimenting, in its Greek and Roman forms, with the Christian Holy Roman Empire, to reconcile unity and diversity. Moreover by its colonial powers and the Enlightenment Europe has profoundly impacted on globalisation, as an ideology of open change through democracy and the market.

The European Union has tried to find unity in diversity by soft power, that is by internal elimination of borders and replacing them by the rule of common European law. Towards the outside world it rejected the idea of “ fortress Europe” by participating in the American world order. As such Europe seems at ease with globalisation.

But to the eyes of the European population the European project has lost too much control over its future. It has become identified with the vagaries of globalisation, especially through the Greek crisis. The nation state still seems to guarantee some protection, for instance of equality and solidarity in the welfare state. The visible lack of control over its borders, and its way of life in the face of Islam, Russia and the USA, leads to a crisis of democratic leadership. Politicians try to reconnect by promoting nationalism instead of populism. The main problem is to regain control, both inside and outside the Union.

In my eyes the European voter is still looking for solutions that combine internal elimination of borders with a strong defence of European security and prosperity. But the European Union has to regain control in a world of globalisation and its discontents.

Seen from a world perspective it is not impossible, but rather improbable, though, that Europe would implode. Globalisation has eroded popular confidence in the European Union but the European population, even in England, is not totally adverse to European solutions if they show success. Moreover the pressures from outside the European Union will increase, not diminish the demand for European solutions. America may retreat from its European role, Russia may take its chances to fill the gap. The Islamic world will not be easy on a powerless Europe. Nationalists can do little more than criticize, as they have not enough power in this new world. So if the political elite both on the European and the national level manages to re-establish control, democracy will be safe. All depends on the creativity of democratic leadership in Europe.


(N.B.: de volledige tekst van de toespraak is in het Nederlands op aanvraag beschikbaar.)