Creatures from the Past

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
8 January, 2019
Editorial: 271
Fecha de publicación original: 12 junio, 2001

There is no rain if the wind doesn’t look for it

In the 80s, the most frequent use of the word global –not globalisation– was in relation to the natural world and the changes scientists began to detect in the environment due to human intervention. These changes were referred to as “global” because they affected the planet’s whole ecosystem irrespective of the type of aggression involved or its origin: climate changes caused by industrial pollution, loss of soil (or human) fertility due to intensive and widespread use of fertilisers; deforestation as a result of changes in land use, agricultural practices which destroyed natural habitats, etc. Hardly a decade and a half later, global has become globalisation, a vast mixed bag into which we fling poverty, liberalism, telecommunications, religious wars and even hamburgers and other junk foods. All that’s missing is a catchy song to illustrate this “bargain bazaar” and its universal fame on the worldwide stage will be guaranteed. It seems to me that this is not the best way for us to understand what we are up to.

The term globalisation does not need to be semantically extended for it to include all the vices and virtues as old as those already detected by Adam Smith and his disciples. They were the first to analyse economic changes as a product of a new system of economic relationships which later became known as the industrial revolution and capitalism. As we saw in the editorial “Einstein’s Globalisation”, the concept of globalisation, in the contemporary sense, corresponds to the birth of networks of connected computers, with the construction of a new technological space where the local/global duality is articulated on the basis of the presence, activity and relationships between the users themselves in that virtual space. Globalisation, therefore, implies a substantial change in the communications model established by the industrial society: from the multiplication of specific sources of information towards a passive audience, to the multiplication of disseminators of information who interact with each other.

This change has been so sudden and surprising that a culture still strongly impregnated with the industrial model has so far been unable to digest it. The mark that this model has made, with all its bloody train of social and economic inequalities, focuses a harsh spotlight on the most characteristic features of globalisation itself, diffusing them against the background of the authoritarianism, oppression, lack of transparency and show of force that characterises the industrial society. The fact that globalisation came about –perhaps there was no other way– amidst huge political convulsions such as the break up of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany or the trauma of the Gulf War, has prepared the ground for this confusion (Karma Peiro covered the most obvious doubts on this issue –and some less so– in her article “La globalización es cosa de todos”). Thus, typical internationalisation processes such as the spread of MacDonald’s all over the planet (which Pans&Company, the Spanish sandwich chain, would dearly love to imitate), have become surprising symbols of the fight against globalisation (why not other transnationals such as Volkswagen, Novartis or IBM who have been in the business of internationalisation for much longer intervening decisively on how international commerce and our societies have taken shape?)

Changes in the way we access and disseminate information and knowledge have radically altered our perception of the world around us. The multiplication of information transmitters via the networks, supplemented by numerous other new ways of disseminating knowledge, have elevated our ability to express, manifest and organise ourselves to a political category which has yet to be formalised. One of the first spinoffs of this change is the prioritising of the “if they take us into account, they can count on us” paradigm, and this brings us into direct conflict with the social structure of the industrial society as we know it. Now all of us have a voice or want to have one and we have the means to do it. Consequently, active participation in designing the future becomes a real possibility: personal, collective, business, etc. This is a hallmark of the networks, they relate to the immediate future, the here and now. This is what globalisation means, and it was this that internationalisation denied us. Just ten years ago this wouldn’t have even crossed our minds (take a look, for instance, at the first chapter I wrote in the book “El Medi Ambient vist pel Sud”, published in 1994, which I called “The Autism of the North” [it’s in Spanish]).

The main frontier dividing proponents for and against globalisation is how they view the role of information and the individuals –or collectives– that express it. Globalisation has given rise to an “Ancien Régime” characterised by a culture and practices which are rapidly becoming outdated. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, for example, clearly illustrate this rapid movement from internationalisation to globalisation and, their none too peaceful coexistence as well. In an interview published in the economics section of the Spanish newspaper El Pais (2/6/01), Joseph Stiglitz, ex-vicepresident of the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, stated, with his characteristic straightforwardness, “There are things that [the World Bank] could have done more effectively. And I have to agree with the critics on this. More transparency is needed. The present structure does not make sense anymore. The IMF makes decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. And it is only Ministers of Finance and the governors of the central banks that take these decisions. In a world dedicated to democracy, openness, transparency, these institutions are creatures of the past”.

Creatures against globalisation, anti-globalisation institutions. Exactly the opposite of those who are crying out to be heard, particularly if they have been subjected to the brutal policies that these institutions –and their armed transnational wing– are trying to implement in different parts of the world. These movements are the ones that are deciding the particular form globalisation will take by pointing to the need for new channels of communication between institutions and those affected by their policies, so that, amongst other things, the policies of the latter are also taken into account. They are, thus, pro-globalisation creatures, globalisation movements.

Globalisation makes it possible for people to construct things, relationships, institutions, ways of learning, with others with whom they otherwise would never even have touched sides before, let alone met. And this has created a unique, unprecedented cultural framework for the joint negotiation of talent, ingenuity, knowledge, cultural traits and the living conditions of those involved. These commodities (talent, etc.) have leapt to the forefront of social action. But not automatically, nor just because the networks exist. In the same way as 200 years of industrial capitalism with all its consequences, beneficial or otherwise, does not just disappear overnight. The opportunities that globalisation offers are just that: opportunities waiting to be taken up. Viewed like this, the options are quite clear. Either we continue surviving, allowing the rich to turn a deaf ear to other voices or, otherwise we create and promote networks where we can give a sense of a global market to what up until now many still understand as a world market.

Lastly (but not finally), diversity is another element that makes its mark on the respective fields of action of internationalisation and globalisation. Despite everything the prophets of one-way thinking have said, whose most imaginative move is reproducing a “Davos for the poor” (that’s really a perfect example of one-way thinking), it is only through globalisation that we can promote and defend diversity. Amongst many other things, because globalisation is basically a cultural process based on the possibility of each and every one of us to express ourselves and communicate via our own information and knowledge processes. It is, therefore, the place where we can really deal with diversity, participate in it, absorb it, promote it and defend it. Internationalisation, on the other hand, promotes a process of homogenisation and standardisation based on captive knowledge belonging to organisations that physically move to different parts of the world (and it couldn’t be any other way: their business is homogenising for the faceless, indifferent masses).

This is the reason why internationalisation progresses via the concealment of vital information and knowledge which forces us to be dragged along in the wake of events. So we are up to our necks in the so-called fifth extinction of the species, which includes the euphemistically named “vulnerable peoples”, in the destruction of habitats and ecosystems and the degradation of environmental conditions in general on the planet. Internationalisation, with its vested interest in a fragmented world market, hides companies like Cipla, the Indian pharmaceutical company now offering generic drugs to combat AIDS at 100 times below the “market price”, from view. Or Egyptian drug companies offering to treat millions of sufferers in Africa. Globalisation will bring many industries –and their knowledge– into the open which the international commercial structure, laid down and organised by the rich countries, had kept confined to their own countries with the noose of the powerful industrialised nations around their necks. And, as is so often the case in other aspects of life, depending on where we put ourselves with respect to the issue of globalisation, we are bound to find both friends and enemies there.
Translation: Bridget King