Wednesday Book: Ebb and flow of globalisation

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THOSE WHO write about globalisation usually fall into two camps - all for it, or dead set against it. Both have one feature in common: scant regard for empirical evidence.

The trouble with a tendency to see globalisation as demanding the taking of sides is that it fixes the phenomenon as a sort of force of nature. It reduces the scope for discussion to a technocratic debate about economic policies without engaging with the technicalities, because that involves grubbing about in the statistics.

Indeed, despite the overlap between right-wing politics and the pro- globalisation camp on the one hand, and the left and anti-globalisation on the other, the usual reductionist approach is frustrating for those of us who are leftish in our politics yet in favour of globalisation for its potential. Old friends accuse us of selling out, abandoning our youthful radicalism for a Thatcherite embrace of the market.

What a delight, then, to find a book that analyses globalisation as a complicated set of processes that could in principle take many forms. While the underlying causes are unstoppable, the shape they take is not. The right natural metaphor is not globalisation as a flood that will sweep all before it, but rather as a series of tides, subject to human intervention.

Too often globalisation is seen as a purely economic phenomenon. Its cavaliers and roundheads focus on the international financial markets, trade across borders, low wages in developing countries and investment by multinationals.

Economics is important, but so is the globalisation of culture and, perhaps most interestingly, the rule of law and democratic politics. The war in Kosovo, for example, and the extradition of General Pinochet, are examples of a new uncertainty about the territories over which any given set of political norms should apply.

In other words, as this book emphasises, globalisation has altered our understanding of political community. Democracy involves making policy decisions accountable to a particular community. This accountability must be formal - reflected in votes and representation - but is also informal, embedded in economic and social involvement. However, the nature of political communities, while obviously no longer confined to the nation state, is pretty hazy.

This raises truly profound questions about the nature of democracy and citizenship. What is the proper constituency for reaching a decision on, say, the import into Europe of American beef treated with the hormone BST? On the processing of nuclear waste? On targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Or the regulation of the financial markets?

The authors of Global Transformations get three cheers for posing all the right questions. Given the breadth of their material - by its nature, globalisation can affect anything, everywhere - it would be churlish to expect answers, too. But they do rule out certain responses.

One is the argument that there is nothing very different about modern forms of globalisation; that turn-of-the-century imperialism had a similar scope. A mass of information makes it plain that trade and investment flows are bigger than they were a century ago, and have a wider reach and greater impact on societies affected.

Intriguingly, the book argues that, if there is a good historical parallel, it lies in the Middle Ages. Although there was no medieval equivalent of McDonald's or Microsoft, and the globe had not even been mapped, that too was a world of overlapping authorities and multiple loyalties. No ruler was sovereign; all shared power both with barons below and with higher authorities. It is precisely this dispersion of powers that fuels the passion of both pro- and anti-globalisation camps. Markets, especially high-profile financial markets, are assumed to have captured power from elected national governments. James Carville, adviser to Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign, famously said that if he could be reincarnated, he would come back as the bond market. This book cites a graffito from Poland: "We wanted democracy, but we ended up with the bond market."

But markets are processes rather than entities, and can have benign or malign results. Markets can act as a vehicle for democracy, undermining the entrenched interests of elites in undemocratic places. Or they can be shaped to benefit the elites at the expense of the many.

The virtue of Global Transformations is that it is neither for nor against. What it loses in populism it more than recoups in intellectual honesty.