Night Thoughts on Globalization

by Jonathan Wallace

I have been tutoring a college student who is taking a course on globalization. It has been a long time since I read the dense kind of college texts I remember from my own political science major. Some of the readings are familiar, such as Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. Others dovetail nicely with issues I have written about here over the years.

Among the new things I encountered in these readings were two truly horrendous made-up terms, "glocalization" and "grobalization". These represent opposing trends. In the first, globalization leads to new types of diversity as international trends merge with and marry local ones. In the second, growth leads to a boring uniformity everywhere.

It is hard to write about these issues without giving the same examples as everyone else. When I first spent time in Paris in the 1970's, there were theaters seemingly on every street corner showing French movies from every era. The number of revival houses was very impressive, given that New York at its peak had only two, the Elgin and Thalia. When I last visited the city in the 1990's, the theaters that remained were all showing Hollywood blockbusters and I had to travel further to find a genuine French movie. French cinema had suffered a second impact as well: increasingly, much of the home-made product was derivative of Hollywod films such as The Godfather series.

In my own experience, it is hard to find examples of "glocalization" overseas, and much easier to find them here in New York. Another way to phrase this would be to say that where America intrudes in other countries, sooner or later nothing is only "a little bit American". In the seventies, McDonalds had a licensee in France who ran restaurants that were his own concept under the company name. By the end of the decade, unhappy with his divergence from corporate standards, they terminated him and began opening McDonald's franchises as they would in any American city. Today, McDonald's in any foreign city will have a menu partly in the local language and may serve a few items unknown back home. I doubt that anybody would point to this as being an exotic and desirable hybrid of local and multinational influences.

For contrast, think about "fusion cuisine" restaurants in New York, both the new fancy ones and old unpretentious products of world-wide diasporas such as Cuban-Chinese cuisine. A MacDonalds in France or Tel Aviv is the product of large amounts of money and the accordant power wielded internationally. A Cuban-Chinese restaurant in Manhattan is the product of a double exile, the first from China and the second from Cuba after Castro. There is a world of difference.

This also helps explain why "glocalization" works best in one direction, from the world to the United States and not vice versa. The merged products of international wanderings are appealing, exotic and benign, and become the pastimes or playthings of American consumers with disposable income. But the products of America, sent abroad, are a very different kind of animal. We can find thousands of examples of victory in commerce-- at home as abroad, Microsoft is one--where the last product standing is not the best one. It is simply the one backed by the most money and monopoly power. A MacDonalds in any other country is simply an export of American eating habits, and by extension of our tendency to obesity and heart disease.

As a former business executive with left-leaning sympathies, I can stand in two sets of shoes. As a businessman, I can say "globalization" and think of international vistas, winds blowing free, container ships on the ocean carrying needed things everywhere. As a private political individual, I can say the same word and imagine maquilidoras in Mexico, the loss of factories and jobs at home, cultural imperialism, children starving in sight of the golden arches.

Is "globalization" good or bad? The ease of labeling helps avoid the necessity of thought; it is easy to have a knee-jerk for or against. Considering globalization as if it were a technology (in fact, it is a political, social and economic trend assisted by numerous technologies) it is more appropriate to say it is nothing in itself, everything in its application. The same is true of most, not all technologies (torture implements are devices for which it is hard to argue benign uses; for atom bombs, we can argue deterrence and the like, but in their essence they are designed with a single goal in mind, of killing staggering numbers of people). It is hard to argue that we would all be better off if there had been no exchnage of ideas and goods between countries ever. When we say "globalization", part of the problem is that we are pretending to talk about something which began in modern times. Yet very early in grade school I remember learning about Phoenicians trading with Greeks, and the dissemination not only of particular forms of amphorae but of powerful technologies like writing across the known world. And Benedict Anderson writes of medieval times, when borders were porous and sovereignties overlapped one another.

The term "globalization", like so many we use, is intended to obscure some distinctions and to pretend some very different things are the same. "Globalization" among players of roughly equivalent power leads to a free exchange of needed goods and services, and then in the separate cultures becoming more sympathetic and similar to one another, which may promote peace between them. "Globalization" is something entirely different when one player is a superpower. Then we are talking largely about the export of power and control from that nation to others. Rather than reaching an equilibrium among disparate powers, we are talking about domination by one. While America has had problems projecting military and political power in recent times, its products, pushed by strong U.S.-based multinationals with monopolistic dreams, still have tremendous momentum.

A last thought: Al Qaeda, and Islamic fundamentalism in general, is globalization's mirror image. Here we have an idea and set of practices which has put down roots in a small or large way in almost every country, and which leads its adherents to renounce any local political loyalties they have. It embraces people of every race and background, causing them to forget they are different in any way. It has its own networks that pass information, people and money around the world rather easily. And people are willing to die, and have done so in large numbers, for this global idea. What we have, as the twenty-first century begins, is two globalisms fighting each other for domination, one disseminating a largely American idea, and the other an Islamic fundamentalist one. Personally I would rather have lived in ancient Greece (before Athens became too dominant).