What is Globalization?Updated: Nov 1, 2016
The Economist once called globalization “the most abused word of the 21st century,” and in many respects the way the term is treated in the popular and academic press makes the concept seem a great deal more complicated and murky than it really is. Globalization is nothing new; according to Yale University’s Nayan Chanda, the term first appeared in about 1962 but is actually a normal process of human civilization that has been going on for thousands of years.
A Historical Perspective on Globalization
Globalization, according to the basic dictionary definition, is the expansion of activities or ideas to a worldwide scope. In Nayan Chanda’s view, the process of globalization actually began when the first humans started to spread from the species’ point of origin in Africa to other parts of the world, beginning about 50,000 years ago. Globalization in the form we would recognize it probably started with Alexander the Great; his short-lived empire in the 4th century B.C. was the first in which we can clearly identify the permanent changes in disparate cultures because of their interaction.
We humans are naturally expansion-minded, and the process of globalization can be attributed to three essential motivations. The first is economic; we are driven to increase our prosperity. The second is political; we seek to expand our range for the sake of security, to increase our power, and to spread our ideas about how we think humans should organize themselves, through concepts of government and religion. The third is our natural curiosity; we are a restless and adventurous species, and can’t help wondering what lies beyond our horizons.
Malaysia today is an amalgam of native Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures, with a government system that is a hybrid of the British Parliamentary system and a centuries-old confederation of Muslim Sultanates and is one of the world’s biggest sources of a strategic crop – rubber – that is native to South America. And most of the “fusion of influences” that created a national culture that is still somehow uniquely identifiable happened a century or more before the word “globalization” was even invented. Our world is what it is because of globalization, and it is not at all a recent development.
Globalization in the ‘Pax Americana’
There have been four great periods of globalization in history. These “paxes,” for lack of a more imaginative word, were all characterized by the presence of a superpower, long periods of relative peace in which armed conflict was at least limited or localized, a significant and fairly rapid improvement in general standards of living, and enormous advances in travel and communications technology. The first was the Pax Romana, which began with the accession of Caesar Augustus in 27 B.C. and ended with the death of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who was not, despite what the otherwise-entertaining movie Gladiator depicted, smothered with a pillow by Joaquin Phoenix) in 180 A.D. The second was the Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries, during which Genghis Khan and his immediate descendants imposed a sophisticated and orderly administration stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, securely connecting Europe and Asia. The third was the Pax Brittanica, the century between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the start of World War I when Great Britain was at the height of its imperial power. We live in the fourth, the Pax Americana, which began at the end of World War II.
In our time, globalization has been characterized most by rapid and accelerating advances in communication. Air travel replaced sea travel as the main means of reaching other continents in the early 1960’s, and barely a decade later had also replaced trains as the preferred means of long-distance land travel. The explosive growth of television after World War II initiated the first real global communications system; for the first time in history, events could be witnessed simultaneously by people all over the planet. The Internet, which we sometimes forget has only existed in a commonly useful form for only about 20 years, changed that global ability to receive information as-it-happens into the ability to create and participate, and in the past few years, to do so with fewer and fewer physical barriers – portable computers and smartphones now make up the majority of Internet-connected devices in the world, by a considerable margin.
In every one of Mankind’s “pax” ages, the movement of people and goods follows the movement of ideas, and vice versa. In our age, this is reflected in the growing influence of supranational governance over national sovereignty when it comes to economic matters. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and multi-state organizations like the EU, the GCC, and the ASEAN have more to do with determining the economic courses of individual countries than do their own citizens – a supreme irony in an age which is also characterized by growing democratization and civic participation.
But if Globalization Is a “Natural” Process, Why Do so Many People Protest It?
Just because globalization is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s beneficial to everyone; every great period of globalization in history has been marred by inequity, oppression, and general misery for some people. Entire cultures were wiped out in the Roman and Mongol expansions, and the colonial experience of many cultures under British rule was painful in a lot of ways. The United States did not grow to the political, economic, and cultural power that created the Pax Americana without ruining a lot of lives as well, virtually destroying a continent’s worth of diverse, sophisticated Native American cultures as it expanded. In our age, we have seen brutal conflicts in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East, in Central and South America, and in large parts of Africa. Despite living in a relatively peaceful and prosperous world, we also live with the threats of terrorism from various forms of extremism, new diseases, and risks to health and safety created by our own technological prowess, and far too many people still live with the ancient threats of famine, abject poverty, and hopelessness.
The difference between our age and the ones that preceded it is that not only are we aware of the imbalances between groups and classes of people and how what we do creates those imbalances, the advances in communications mean that the disadvantaged have a better chance of being aware of it, too – and more to the point, have a better chance of calling attention to their plight. Being “against globalization” is a futile point of view; it is a basic human aspiration. But knowing what globalization really means, and pursuing it in a manner that causes the most benefit and the least harm, are goals we as a species can and should pursue.