The Global(ized) Antiglobalism

It is an interesting thing that what is commonly called the antiglobalist movement (by the media as well as by those involved themselves) is probably the best interconnected – one may say, globalized – movement in the world. The spread of Occupy Wall Street to Europe is a most recent example. In this context, two question may well be asked: is it right to call that movement anti-globalist? And what does it represent? What are the grounds such an interconnected movement has emerged? The latter questions must be answered first, before we can turn to the former one.

Media, economists, politicians and other commentators have been cheering globalization for years. It has been supposed to be a great thing without downsides, promoting development and in the end lifting all people in the world to wealth and freedom. Alas, these hopes (still awake in many heads) seem to be unrealistic. Globalization has its downsides – social, political, psychological and environmental. And this is the reason why what is often pigeonholed the antiglobalist movement has emerged.

But which one is the globalization the protesters in Seattle in 1999, in Genoa in 2001 or at the Wall Street now were and are against? The term globalization has many meanings, the phenomenon itself many faces – both good and bad. It can be taken as certain that the antiglobalists are not against “informational” globalization (i.e., Internet, social networks, mobile phones etc.), since they have been using it extensively – indeed, it is hard to imagine any of the most famous antiglobalist protests to take place in the pre-Internet age. However, even this side of globalization is not all good. It has negative aspects as well – consider the alienation through social networks (when people living in the direct neighbourhood of each other communicate only via Facebook), the addiction to instant information, the flood of unimportant news (it becomes ever harder to separate the wheat from the chaff) or the private sphere abuses by social network corporations. Nevertheless, treated sensibly and with sufficiency, informational globalization is a great thing – indeed, a constitutive aspect of the way today’s world works.

What about cultural globalization? This one brings both positive and negative phenomena with it too. Knowing other cultures, having the possibility to interact with and learn from them is a great thing. It is good for personal development as well as for democracy (on the latter see my next post about Amartya Sen’s recent book “The Idea of Justice”, soon). On the other hand, we often observe a homogenization of the cultures (some commentators called it the McDonaldization of society), instead of a fruitful interaction and enrichment – a conquest rather than an interchange. This certainly is not a good thing, especially when it is mainly Western consumerism that is adopted by nearly all other cultures. Here as well, the dose is important – globalization can potentially be a good thing if handled with reason.

However, it seems that the globalization antiglobalists oppose most is what Dani Rodrik has called economic hyperglobalization. It is no coincidence that the most famous antiglobalist protests took place during meetings of the G8, the IMF, the World Bank or where the world’s financial markets have their symbolic home (the Wall Street). Indeed, this is the aspect of globalization that have been driven to its extremes most (therefore hyperglobalization). Free markets, free trade and the resulting phenomena of reckless corporatism, global economic crises (international contagion were never as probable as it is today) – all these are the reasons why so-called antiglobalists go to the streets. And yet, even these protests are global in their nature – just think of the World Social Forum (as counterweight to the yearly World Economic Forum in Davos) or the widespread solidarity with the Zapatist movement in Mexico. Antiglobalists feel that economic hyperglobalization has become a goal of its own – frequently at the cost of democracy, freedom, human rights, real development and the environment. It has grown too big, as Dani Rodrik impressively showed – fed by those who have been led by the wrong belief that the freer the markets and trade, the better for the people. Most of the antiglobalists haven’t read J. M. Keynes, but they would certainly be pleased to know that he would likely support them:

I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than those who would maximize, economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel – these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national.

So, it seems to me that the term antiglobalism is wrong and unfair. The so-called antiglobalists are not against globalization in general, but against globalization in its current form – especially against the economic hyperglobalization mannifoldly threatening people’s livelihoods and freedom. They wish globalization to change, not to vanish. Maybe it would be better to call them alterglobalists. But, whatever the name, it is important to understand their main message: that we must stop treating globalization as a self-evident good. It has, as well as, say, democracy, free markets or religion, its downsides. Let me close with another quotation, this time by the late Leszek Kołakowski, a Polish philosopher (in my own translation):

Every idea, if treated consequently enough, turns into its opposite.

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