“Globalization” has been on so many lips that it’s easy to forget how recently it entered daily speech. Shown nearby is a graph of the word’s appearances in the New York Times and Washington Post since 1980. After flatlining its way through the 1980s and early ’90s, “globalization”–as a word, at least–took off in a near-vertical ascent in the late 1990s.
What does it mean exactly? Like many deeply ideological words, it’s rarely defined; everyone knows what it means. Elites mean something like the internationalization of economic, political and cultural life, as if these haven’t long been internationalized. Non-elites seem to mean everything bad that’s happened lately. Writing in the American Prospect in 2001, Mark Greif reported on a focus group held for corporate clients worried about the antiglobalization backlash. Thirty Americans were convened by a Jungian market researcher and asked what globalization meant to them. Some responses: “Nothing’s personal…it’s all machines.” “No more privacy.” “There’s no mystery anymore….” Pressed for detail, respondents complained about speedup, the “fight for the dollar,” powerlessness, growing gaps between haves and have-nots, the deterioration of healthcare. An impressive array of complaints, but it’s not clear how “globalization” is their cause. They sound like venerable complaints about capitalism.
Experts often do little better. The French international relations analyst Dominique Moïsi defined globalization as “complexity, interaction and simultaneity,” a phrase that could also describe a crowd chatting in a bar. The British sociologist Bob Jessop avers that the word “is best used to denote a multicentric, multiscalar, multitemporal, multiform, and multicausal process… the complex, emergent product of many different forces operating on many scales.” Indeed.
Whatever it is, globalization is usually taken as a recent arrival. But from the first, capitalism has paid little respect to national borders. After the breakup of the Roman Empire, Italian bankers devised complex foreign-exchange instruments to evade church prohibitions on interest. Those cross-border capital flows moved in tandem with trade flows. And with 1492 began the slaughter of the First Americans and the plunder of the Western Hemisphere. That act of primitive accumulation, along with the enslavement of Africans and the colonization of Asia, made Europe’s takeoff possible. As John Maynard Keynes put it:
the booty brought back by Drake in the Golden Hind may fairly be considered the fountain and origin of British foreign investment. Elizabeth paid off out of the proceeds the whole of her foreign debt and invested a part of the balance (about £42,000) in the Levant Company; largely out of the profits of the Levant Company there was formed the East India Company, the profits of which during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the main foundation of England’s foreign connections; and so on.