Globalization and Its Enemies
Versions of liberal democracy have spread into parts of the former Soviet bloc, but in Iraq democracy is producing a type of elective theocracy not unlike that which exists in Iran. China has abandoned central economic planning for a type of state capitalism closely linked with nationalism. Some countries are moving toward market reform and others in the opposite direction. Europe has opted for a combination of social democracy with a neoliberal economic system, while under the Bush administration the United States has tilted toward a mix of protectionism, an unsustainable federal deficit, and crony capitalism.
Though the world’s diverse societies are continuously interacting, the process is producing a variety of hybrid regimes rather than convergence on a single model. Yet a belief that a universally accepted type of society is emerging continues to shape the way social scientists and public commentators think about the contemporary condition, and it is taken for granted that industrialization enables something like the way of life of rich countries to be reproduced everywhere.
The assumption of convergence is evident in theories of globalization. In The Borderless World (1990), the influential management theorist Kenichi Ohmae declared:
[The global economy] is becoming so powerful that it has swallowed most consumers and corporations, made traditional national borders almost disappear, and pushed bureaucrats, politicians, and the military toward the status of declining industries.1
Ohmae’s work embodies what may be called the business-utopian model of globalization, but the idea that national systems of government are becoming marginal is shared by theorists of cosmopolitan governance who believe that powerful new supranational institutions are emerging—a view that is no less unreal. Similarly anticapitalist movements are based on the premise that the divergent patterns of development of the past have been replaced by a new, repressive global system. Supporters of globalization and many of its critics assume that it creates similar conditions wherever it spreads. Whether they welcome the prospect or resist it, both accept that global market forces are forcing societies onto the same path of development.
In Globalization and Its Enemies, Daniel Cohen, a professor of economics at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, provides a refreshing antidote to some of the most misleading features of this consensus. His starting point is the seemingly paradoxical claim that for most people in the world it is not a reality but a mirage. As Cohen sees it, the ongoing wave of globalization—the third in a series that began in the sixteenth century with the conquistadors and continued in the nineteenth with British imperial free trade—occurs largely in a realm of virtual reality and leaves much of everyday life untouched. Nineteenth-century globalization involved large-scale movements of population to new lands, while the present phase involves mainly commodities and images.
“Today’s globalization,” he notes, “is ‘immobile.'” Goods are produced and marketed on a planetary scale but those who live in rich countries encounter other societies chiefly through television and exotic vacations. There are politically controversial migrations of poor people from the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.