(Third of a series). Globalism is the biggest idea in the world right now. The French call it Mondialisation, the Germans say Globalisiening and throughout much of Latin America, it's called globalizacion. WTO talks and demos are underway in Japan this week. Even though globalism has many humanist advocates, much of what we used to call the political left hates it. So do religious fundamentalists and extremists like the Taliban, who equate it with godlessness and blashphemy. I've been writing about it for years, and got more than 2,000 responses and e-mails about it from some columns here last week, but you know what? I still couldn't tell you exactly what it is. "It's the biggest evil facing the world," e-mailed JDRow. "It's the only hope the world really has," messaged a professor from Amherst. Neither could say what it was. Can you?
Sometimes things are easier to grasp by defining what they're not. The e-mail and posts last week were about equally divided (apart from the usual flaming yahoos) over whether globalism marks corporate evil or global modernization. Most were agreed that globalization isn't about buying computers and TV set. It's about what sociologists like Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics call living in a "runaway world," a period of enormous transformation, affecting almost every aspect of life from technology to how government functions to employment to personal values. Globalization is spreading all over the world, yet nobody is in charge of it, and there isn't even much consensus about what it is, an economic system or an ideology.
Generally speaking, globalization today is a Western idea (although other, earlier cultures took some shots at it), fueled most recently by technology's forging of a global economy. It's a powerful offshoot of capitalism and popular culture, yet it's being debated in almost every country, and it's become almost impossible to hear a major political speech that doesn't mention it.
The subject arouses strong emotions. Directly or not, globalism is at the root of the terrorist attacks on September 11, and the resulting conflict between the United States and Islamic fundamentalists, who are articulate and open about their hatred of the changes sweeping their cultures. Every business is obsessed with it.
It's getting hard to find academics and other members of the intelligentsia who don't mistrust it, equating it, somewhat justifiably, with corporatism and the rise of the multinationals. Surely, there are more reasons to mistrust the multinational corporations who advance globalization than I could possibly list here.
But globalization is an elusive notion. Skeptics argue that it's a highly exploitive western force and profit center that represents business as usual for corporatists exploiting new worker pools and marketing possibilities, and for despoiling the rest of the environment.
Some economists argue that globalization is an old idea, similar to the way world economies operated centures ago, from the Romans to the Venetians. Those civilizations didn't have an e-economy and the Net, of course, and couldn't transfer cash all over the planet in seconds.
And there are clear differences. Globalization seems to erode the longtime primacy of the nation-state, already undercut by networked computing, which changes the potency of boundaries and enables people, businesses and banks to talk directly to one another rather than through surrogates. It also undermines dogmas, both political and religious, some of which greatly fear environments that permit the free flow of ideas. It's hard to preach a monotheistic view of the world if all sorts of ideas are available to your kids online and via TV, music and film. And the new global electronic economy -- involving fund managers, banks, corporations and millions of individual investors -- can transfer vast sums of capital from one part of the world to another in seconds, quickly stabilizing or de-stabilizing economies, as has happened recently in Asia.
Electronic information has also fueled globalism and its consequences. The World Trade Center attacks were a global, not a local event. When Nelson Mandela was released from a South African jail, he was watched by the entire world. So is the American bombing campaign against the Taliban. This kind of internationally-transmitted imagery doesn't just provide external information, but affects the internal politics and reality of our lives -- our family and religious values, our perceptions about the world. When hundreds of teenagers stormed the Berlin Wall and began to tear it down, the first thing many of them did was run to music stores and buy the videos they'd been secretly -- and illegally -- watching on MTV. And "Baywatch" remains the most popular show in Iran, to the despair of the religious leaders running the country.
Primitive cultures like the one running Afghanistan don't accept the inevitability of globalism. Most other governments do, perhaps the primary reason the Arab world isn't actively resisting the much-resented United States in its new war. Countries that don't want to join in may end up like Afghanistan, beset by tribal conflicts, cut off from capital development and economic opportunity. Would investment from multi-nationals help or harm a country like Afghanistan, where one kid after another says in TV interviews that the only available job opportunities involve shooting people?
Whether it's a good witch or not, globalism is much too big and pervasive an idea to go away. For all the media hysteria about bio-terrorism and other dangers, it seems probable that the United States will ultimately destroy the Taliban government, and the first such conflict of the 21st century will be over. What isn't as clear is whether this will mark the beginning of a war or the end. Or whether anybody will ever come up with a widely-accepted definition of what globalization really is.