Virtually any discussion about the contemporary state of politics, geopolitics, economics, industry, technology, medicine, communications, sociology, and even religion must either reference –or actually be framed in- the overarching context of “globalization.” Despite the ubiquity of the term, however, there is not clear consensus about what “globalization” actually means (Kellner 2002); how one defines the term is often determined by ones’ perspective on the aforementioned (though admittedly incomplete) list of contemporary discussion topics. As problematic as it is to define globalization, it is equally problematic to determine whether globalization is, on the whole, beneficial or deleterious (Scholte, 2008). It is clear that some have benefited from globalization, while others have not. Nowhere is the divide between those two sides more clear than in examining the effects of globalization as manifested in the northern and southern halves of the globe (Kacowicz, 2007).
While the search for a definition of the term globalization will turn up many different responses, it can at the very least be understood as the manner in which nations around the world are growing increasingly interconnected, though industry, communications, travel, and myriad other ways. This movement towards interconnectivity has increased geometrically over the last few decades; the very term “globalization” was virtually unknown until the tail end of the 20th Century (Houghton, 1995). While the inexorable growth of globalization has been accepted as given, questions still remain about how, exactly this growth functions.
The concept of “globalization from above” posits that globalization is not a lateral, rising-tides-lift-all boats phenomenon, but is instead a system of pressures placed upon the economically or politically weak by those nations, organizations, or even individuals with economic or political power (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). This perspective on globalization has been described as a form of totalitarianism (Friedman, 1999); while such an assertion may be a bit melodramatic, it does succinctly embody the disparate concerns that the negative effects of globalization can engender.
Seen through the perspective of liberalism, globalization is, overall, a positive movement, bringing the benefits of modernity to underdeveloped nations (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). Organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, have, for most of recent history, been driven by –or at least supportive of- the agenda of lifting people and entire nations out of poverty by cultivating the local flowering of roots that stretch from the first to the third world (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). Critics of the liberalism model of globalism make no effort to deny the activities or the manifested agenda of such organizations; they simply maintain that these activities actually serve to cement the hegemony of those in power. To some degree, the anti-liberalism viewpoint seems to see globalization as little more than a complex take on classic Western colonialism. The forces that oppose globalism tend to do so based on the argument that it is, overall, bad for smaller, weaker nations.
If globalization really is just a modern take on the historical tendency towards political and economic exploitation by the strong of the weak, the disparities between how globalization has affected the northern and southern halves of the globe may be seen as the evidence of this exploitation (Bremner, 2011). Globalization has offered benefits to many nations and regions in the north that have not been shared by those in the south (Reuveny, 2007). From Latin America to southern Africa, those effects of globalization that have helped to lift some peoples out of poverty or to bring new opportunities in industry and development have been witnessed from afar (Pieterse, 2000).
Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, many Latin American nations borrowed large amounts of capital to invest in industry and infrastructure that was ostensibly intended to allow them to allow them to open up to international markets and compete on the same global stage as other industrialized nations (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). The concept of globalization was not yet a common linguistic currency at this time, though the main idea was more or less the same: the centers of power encouraged the less-powerful to accept their supposed assistance in being lifted up (and lifting themselves up) to the same level as the powerful nations that were offering such assistance.
What happened in the region seems to be not unlike what is happening in some of the Eurozone nations right now (Greece, especially, comes to mind): when the economic slowdown of the 1980s took hold, the Laatin American nations that had borrowed so much investment capital now faced a massive debt crisis (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). The forces of Liberalism then swooped in, placing pressures on the debt-saddled nations to enact “reforms” and take other measures that would foster the servicing of their debts, often at the expense of the nation’s own internal best interests. It is nearly impossible to look at that situation without calling to mind the economic, social, and political forces that are currently tearing at the seams of the European Union.
O’Byrne and Hensby (2011) discuss Walden Bello’s perspective on the forces of Liberalism; Bello believes that undermining the strength of third-world nations is actually done strategically, with the overt message of assistance being merely a guise for the true intentions of liberalist forces. Similarly, Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang likens the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to an “unholy trinity” for their actions in third-world nations. The real picture may be more complex than that, however; the intent to assist other nations in joining the world marketplace may be genuinely felt by many of the actors within the liberalist or globalist context, while the power that drives the liberalist engine may still force less-powerful nations into subservience to more powerful ones.
The concept of “structuralism” stands in opposition to the basic premises of liberalism (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). If liberalists see the push for smaller nations to enter the global marketplace as a phenomenon that levels the playing field for all involved, structuralists see the opposite: entrée into the world market does not lead to equality and mutual benefit for all involved, but does in fact lead to a strengthening of already-extant power imbalances. Historically –according to the structuralists- those nations that have lived in the shadows of more-powerful nations will continue to do so when it is those powerful nations who are the ones “assisting” the weaker nations in their efforts to step up to the world stage.
Latin America scholars have often seen the world market through the perspective of their own regional experiences with power and economics. Looking at the strong central economic forces –and the weak peripheral forces- in Latin America, they see a template that is directly transferable to an understanding of the global economy (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). The larger, more powerful forces on the global stage are, in this view, interested only in maintaining or consolidating power, and any efforts to assist weaker nations in opening up to international economic activities are tempered by such interests.
Whether one can prove that such are the intentions of the globalist overseers is one matter; weighing the end results of globalism is quite another. As the divergence between the rich and poor continues to widen within individual nations, so too is the widening gap between and among nations clearly seen. So-called “contender states” – those nations whose involvement in the international marketplace has put them into contention to grow economically are far more likely to drop away from the top tier rather than to enter it (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). This is clearly evident in the Latin American region, where the results of the efforts to join the international marketplace have done little to advance the overall conditions in the region.
One’s understanding of the current situation in Latin America, as well as the recent history of the region, depends almost entirely on one’s perspective on globalism itself. From one perspective, those nations that are unsuccessful at creating economic conditions within their own nations that serve to make them equals on the world stage fail to do so not because of the nature of globalism, but because those nations have their own internal problems that prevent them from doing so. Seen from the opposite perspective, the problems within those nations are at least as much, if not more, the results of globalist intervention. While there is no question that civil war, political unrest, and other problems can serve to undermine efforts of nations to shed their internal problems and step up to the world stage, these problems are largely the result of the conditions imposed on these nations (according to the ant-liberalist and anti-globalist forces).
As the effects of globalization have served, in many ways, to strengthen economic development and foster political cooperation among many regions in the north, the south is still plagued by political and economic turmoil (Kacowicz, 2007). The overall effect of globalization has been to drain resources upward, away from the south (Arrighi, 2004). While it could be asserted that such effects could be offset by making concerted efforts to bolster similar development in the south, such efforts would also likely serve to flatten or reverse positive trends in the north. Therein lies a perfect example of the conundrum that is globalization: nothing about it is truly simple, and each positive aspect of globalization if either offset, or actually outweighed, by an opposing negative aspect.
While almost any serious discussion of globalization references the deep divide between the north and the south in terms of the positive and negative effects seen in the two hemispheres, the disparities manifested by globalization are not so simply delineated. While the north has inarguably reaped greater benefits from globalization than has the south, there are troubling disparities found laterally across thee northern hemisphere as well. While economic and industrial development has clearly spread across the globe, the advances of technology and industry have not always equated to economic advances for all regions touched by globalization. Only a very small percentage of the global population could arguably be called “middle class,” and that small percentage shares an even smaller percentage of the total global wealth (O’Byrne and Hensby, 2011). Despite all the headlines about the wonders of globalization, the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen.
It is in the examination of such facts that the paradoxical nature of globalization is made most clear: on one hand, the phenomenon has fostered lifted millions of people out of poverty, while on the other, it may not lift those millions very high because the bulk of globalization’s propulsive effects are lifting a very few people very, very high. There are some very significant, fundamental questions about the nature of globalization, and the roles of individual nations within its context, that are difficult to answer. Are the nations that struggle within the globalization framework struggling because they are, to whatever degree, dysfunctional states? Or are those struggling nations actually a by-product of globalization itself, as inherent to globalization as raw materials are to manufacturing? Is globalization itself just an exploitative Ponzi scheme, or does it have a self-correcting component that will eventually find a way to right those ships of state that are currently listing in the water?
It may be that such questions are too simple, to stark, to be answerable in the real world. Students of international relations often discuss concepts such as “convergence” and “divergence” as if the two are mutually exclusive: either the world is moving in one direction or it is moving in another. On a macro scale, such simplifications may appear to be borne out in, for example, the grand disparities between the north and the south. On the micro scale, however, the situation is more complex. It is most accurate to see convergence and divergence happening at the same time; overlapping economic, social, and political phenomena do not always move in direct opposition to each other any more than they always move in the same direction in and of themselves (Rasler, 2011). That is what makes it so difficult to take the true measure of the effects of globalization: not only do the rules constantly change, but everyone seems to be looking at a different playing field.
Any effort to determine whether globalization is, on the whole, a beneficial movement, is inherently handicapped. It is virtually impossible to make any sort of blanket condemnation of globalization, just as it is impossible to praise all of the results that globalism has brought about. While it is clear that increased globalization has cemented the divide between the north and south, it has also served to strengthen many economic and political bonds across northern borders. Recent economic turmoil has tested the solvency of some of these bonds –witness the dizzying reversal of fortune for the Eurozone in recent years- but overall, there seems to be little sense that globalization itself is likely to wane in the near future.
What is clear is that the need for capitalist systems to exploit resources for gain is the force that drives globalization; as such, there must be some upper (or perhaps “lower” is a more appropriate term) limit against which the forces of exploitation must bump. The ultimate question about globalization, then, is not “where is it headed?” but rather “what will happen when it gets there?” That question may be one that will only be answered with the benefit of hindsight.
Arrighi, Giovanni et al. Industrial convergence, globalization, and the persistence of the north-south divide. Studies in Comparative International Development. 38(1). 2004.
Awuah, Gabriel Baffour. Impact of globalization. European Business Review. 23(1). 2011.
Barkin, David. Globalization: love it or leave it. Latin American Perspectives. 29(6). November 2009.
Bremner, Ian. Globalization fails poor countries. The Nelson Mail. 13 May 2011.
Dutt, Amitava Krishna. International institutions, globalization, and the inequality among nations. Progress in Developmental Studies. Suppl. 2009.
Friedman, Thomas. Dueling globalizations. Foreign Policy. 116. Fall 1999.
Houghton, James R. Globalization. Vital Speeches of the Day. 61(9). 15 February 1995.
Kacowicz, Arie M. Globalization, poverty, and the North-South Divide. International Studies Review. 9(4). Winter 2007.
Kellner, Douglas. Theorizing globalization. Sociological Theory. 20(3). November 2009.
O’Byrne, Darren J. and Hensby, Alexander. Globalization and governance. Palgrave MacMillan/St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 2011.
Pieterse, J.N. Globalization north and south: representation of uneven development and the interaction of modernities. Theory, Culture, and Society. 17(1). February 2000.
Rasler, Karen et al. Globalization and north-south inequality. 1870-2000. International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 50(5-6). October-November 2009.
Reuveny, Raphael. The limits of economic globalization: still another north-south cleavage? International Journal of Comparative Sociology. 48(2-3). April 2007.
Scholte, Jan Aart. Defining globalization. The World Economy. 31(11). November 2008.