Goodbye to “Globalization”

The term “globalization” first swept the world in the 1990’s and reached its highpoint of popularity in 2000 and 2001. In 2001, for instance, Le Monde contained more than 3,500 references to mondialisation. But then the figure steadily fell – more than 80% by 2006. Since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007, the word’s usage in major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Financial Times has fallen still further. Globalization is on its way out.

A brief history of the concept, and a comparison with another term that also became discredited by overuse, helps to explain what happened.

The twentieth century’s two most important conceptual innovations, “totalitarianism” and “globalization,” were originally Italian. The first term defined the tumultuous middle of the twentieth century, the latter its benign ending. “Totalitarianism” finally disintegrated in 1989, and globalization prevailed.

Both terms originated as criticisms that were supposed to undermine and subvert the political tendencies they described. But both ended up being just as frequently and enthusiastically used by the respective tendencies’ proponents.

“Totalitarianism” began its conceptual life in 1923 as a criticism or parody by the liberal writer Giovanni Amendola of the megalomaniacal pretensions of Benito Mussolini’s new regime. In the course of a few years, it had become the proud self-definition of Italian fascism, endorsed by Mussolini’s education minister, Giovanni Gentile, who became the official philosopher of fascism, and then incorporated in a ghost-written article by Mussolini himself in the Encyclopedia of Fascism.

In both the hostile and the celebratory use of the word, totalitarianism was intended to describe a movement that embraced all aspects of life in what purported to be a coherent philosophy of politics, economics, and society. Fascists liked to think of themselves as imbued with total knowledge and total power.

Today, few know where the term “globalization” originated. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the earliest reference to its current usage an academic article from 1972. The word had been used earlier, but in a rather different sense. It was a diplomatic term conveying the linkage between disparate policy areas (for example, in negotiating simultaneously on financial and security matters).

The OED etymology ignores the non-English origins of the term, which can be found in the inventive linguistic terminology of continental European student radicalism. In 1970, the radical left-wing Italian underground periodical Sinistra Proletaria carried an article entitled “The Process of Globalization of Capitalist Society,” which was a description of IBM, an “organization which presents itself as a totality and controls all its activities towards the goal of profit and ‘globalizes’ all activity in the productive process.” Because IBM, according to the article, produced in 14 countries and sold in 109, it “contains in itself the globalization (mondializzazione) of capitalist imperialism.” This obscure left-wing publication is the first known reference to globalization in its contemporary sense.

Since then, the term has had ups and downs. It became increasingly faddish in the 1990’s, but mostly as a term of abuse. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, anti-globalization demonstrations targeted the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum, and McDonald’s. Globalization was seen at this time – as in the vision of the 1960’s Italian leftists – as the exploitation of the world’s poor by a plutocratic and technocratic elite.

But in the 2000’s, the meaning of globalization shifted and began to take on a semi-positive note, in large part because it increasingly looked as if the major winners of globalization included many rapidly growing emerging markets. Indeed, countries that had previously been described as “under-developed” or “Third World” were becoming incipient global hegemons. Moreover, many former critics began to recognize global connectedness as a way of solving global problems such as climate change, economic crisis, and poverty.

Historians have started to project globalization backwards. It is no longer seen only as a story of the capital-market-driven integration of the last two decades of the twentieth century, or even of an “early wave of globalization” in the nineteenth century, when the gold standard and the Atlantic telegram seemed to unite the world. Instead, the wider and deeper historical vision is of a globalization that encompasses the Roman empire and the Song dynasty, and goes back to the globalization of the human species from a common African origin.

The terms that we use to describe complex political and social phenomena and processes have odd ambiguities. Some concepts that are designed as criticisms are quickly inverted to become celebratory.

By 2011, anti-globalization rhetoric had largely faded, and globalization is thought of as not something to be neither fought nor cheered, but as a fundamental characteristic of the human story, in which disparate geographies and diverse themes are inextricably intertwined. In short, globalization has lost its polemical bite, and with that loss, its attractions as a concept have faded.

By Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, and Matteo Albanese, researcher in history at the European University Institute.

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