Tuesday's book: The dark side of the global dream

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The Independent Culture
YOU CAN imagine some Alf Garnett of the 21st century, splitting vowels and spitting bile over the very word. "Well, it's yer globalisation, innit? All these bloody huge companies, hand in glove wiv the World Bankers, runnin' riot all over the place, settin' up an' closin' dahn wherever they bloody well feel like it."

Pardon the phonetics - but hopefully you get the drift. Once it was a term used only in the rapier-play of the academic conference hall. Nowadays, "globalisation" is in danger of becoming a new populist keyword. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, wonks-in-arms, have been using the word like a nail-encrusted club to beat down resistance to their New Economic Order. Yet, if you hear enough about "the challenges of globalisation", maybe one day you will just rise to that challenge. Though not, perhaps, in the desired way.

The recent massive strike at General Motors in Michigan was explicitly about globalisation. Workers were resisting GM's attempts to work them harder, the company pleading that it was under pressure from cheaper plants and competitors throughout the world. And one of the voices in support of the strike was Pat Buchanan, the right-wing demagogue who has turned defender of the American worker against the scourge of the global economy.

Semi-socialist critiques, such as William Greider's book, One World: Ready or Not, have been receiving acclaim from the American business press. Even corporate behemoths such as General Electric's chief executive, Jack Welch, are publicly worrying about the global market's tendency to over-production. In the US, at least, "globalisation" is at last turning from a mantra into a debatable issue.

On these shores, the first counter-attack came recently from John Gray, former guru of the New Right. But his book, False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism, went down in a hail of bullets from a phalanx of nit-picking economists. Zygmunt Bauman's Globalization: the human consequences, for all its brooding brilliance, is no likelier to gain favour from those who regard a technical mastery of intra-corporate investment flows as the only way to address this question.

Bauman, emeritus professor of sociology at Leeds and Warsaw, is the dark side to Blair's favourite intellectual, LSE director Anthony Giddens. Where Giddens bends his labours to building a "Third Way", a politics that can master the tensions of late modernity, Bauman sees these same tensions hardening themselves into a series of new and almost intractable inequalities.

And globalisation, in his analysis, produces the most fiendish inequality yet - one that divides the world between the mobile and the immobile. At one extreme there is a cosmopolitan, capitalist elite, revelling in the speed and weightlessness of the new planetary systems of money and technology, brashly proclaiming their dominance. At the other extreme are those whom info-capitalism simply leaves behind - those "localities" (workforces, communities, cultures) that are switched on or off by global business networks, according to their comparative usefulness.

Within this great polarisation - statistically verified by the recent monumental trilogy from Manuel Castells, The Information Age - Bauman subtly lays out the "human consequences". Nation states, ever more weakened by global forces, become internally obsessed with law and order. Excelling in the job of "precinct policeman", says Bauman, "is the best (perhaps the only) thing state government may do to cajole nomadic capital into investing in its subjects' welfare". Is this the real "iron" behind our Chancellor and his welfare-to-work severities?

The anxiety of the middle classes under globalisation becomes, for Bauman, a battle of identities. They conceive of themselves as "tourists": they are consumers gaily sampling the diverse pleasures of the world. Yet they fear that they may also become "vagabonds" - compelled to move or stay according to the dictates of poverty and necessity.

For all Bauman's critical powers, his final tone is fatalistic. Globalisation makes it "increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible, to reforge social issues into effective collective action". Nowhere in this short book does he mention Europe. But it is at least a possibility that a more "federal" Union will find ways to leash this new hyper-capitalism to the concerns of social solidarity both within and without its boundaries.

And what if the culture of the globalisers - hybrid, restless, pluralistic - were not just an elite affair? Pop culture, and the techno-creativity that the Cool Britannia scam tried to exploit, joyously embraces the global. It emphasises routes rather than roots, mixing Utopia and realism, both vagabond and tourist. Is it possible that a younger generation might forge its own "world ethic", deploying the same flexible processes - digital technology, computer networks, cheap travel - which are what Bauman deplores?

One would never cast a world-class intellectual such as Bauman in the role of a next-century Alf Garnett, waving his fist at the future flying overhead. But a full measure of globalisation's human consequences should include the possibility of creation, as well as destruction.