Ref. :  000000031
Date :  2000-11-07
Language :  English
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Globalisation : the law of the strongest ?

This adress was delivered at UNESCO in Paris on november 7, 2000 at a symposium on the topic: "Globalisation and Identities". Above-mentioned title was the Round table topic.

A ten-step "platform" that will probably seem "political", which in fact it is - not political like a new party ideology, but according to the twin meaning of the Politeia (the City) and Politikon as Plato and Aristotle conceived them, with their community of thinking and their controversies. These are, in spite of all the hazards attached to them, a way of searching for the best government for the City and its citizens.

  • Force oneself to think of "globalisation" as an object for thought and action, not as a mere "fact":

  • What is at stake here is for citizens to re-appropriate a "phenomenon" which, so they are told, is radically disrupting their lives, and promises to disrupt them even further, for better or for worse, but about which they can do nothing. "Globalisation" is neither a natural disaster nor a gift from heaven. Those who describe it as a "fact" (a majority among so-called "decision-makers") are in fact trying to impose their own, exclusive conception of globalisation, avoiding at all costs any interference from citizens! It is imperative to move beyond this propaganda, whose ultimate aims are largely economic and political, and return to globalisation its true nature: that of a complex, many-shaped object that evolves, is unstable, cannot be reduced to a mere "fact", and forces us to a veritable thought process in order to grasp it as it is, in all its complexity. This is far from simple, it is an exacting task.

  • Put "globalisation" into historical and philosophical perspective and redefine its meaning:

  • It has become urgent to move beyond the distorted view according to which "globalisation" is an exceptional, unprecedented phenomenon, with no historical equivalent, that was born in the early 1990s with the expansion of the "NICTs" and whose role is to configure an entirely "new" world. In fact it is quite the opposite: it is an opportunity to revisit the wealth of philosophical tradition devoted to conceptions of the world, from the cosmogonies of ancient times to the considerable contributions of what is known as the Age of Enlightenment (as in Kant's famous opuscule: Idée d'une histoire universelle au point de vue cosmopolitique, in 1784) and to contemporary attempts to think the world. This will make it clear that although the word "globalisation" was coined only recently, it has been a concern ever since nature became an object for thought, i.e. since the earliest pre-Socratic texts, and since politics became an object for thought. Similarly, a careful re-reading of History will make it possible to replace the current "globalisation" within a long tradition that also includes the Greek and Roman globalisations; the Spanish-Portuguese globalisation in the 16th and 17th centuries; the Anglo-Dutch globalisation in the 18th century; Napoleon's attempts at globalisation; globalisation in the last quarter of the 19th century, and so on. It is within this twin philosophical and historical approach that we should redefine what "globalisation" is; such an approach, instead of emphasising the current phenomenon's "unprecedented" or "exceptional" character, would replace it within a tradition that helps to shed light over its nature.

  • Carefully distinguish the "globalisation" concept from the concept of globalisations :

  • The first result of replacing the concept into perspective as suggested above should be to limit the spreading of "globalisation" as a polemical concept and to introduce the concept of globalisations into in the current debate. Why? Because to invoke "globalisation" not only restricts our understanding of what it is, but also lends credit to the idea that such a phenomenon can be understood and "known" - despite Hegel's objection in his Phenomenology that what is "well known", precisely because it is well known, is not known. To this "well known" object that takes centre stage without being "clarified", therefore producing, instead of "meaning", an ever increasing amount of confusion, I will oppose another, "badly known" object - globalisations - about which almost everything remains to be discovered and understood. Globalisations consist in a multiplicity of ongoing processes that pertain to a great many different fields, with connections and characteristics that are inherently complex, at varying "degrees" of advancement, whose "common sense" - if they have one - is not yet accessible, and which call for Cartesian doubting and for Nietzschean suspicion instead of certainties and ideology.

  • Evidence, in particular, the largely ideological and instrumental character of "globalisation":

  • The distinction process outlined above scientifically is not only "desirable", but also indispensable from a political point of view. In fact, the "globalisation" leitmotiv should not be seen only as a language approximation, a simplification that cannot be avoided and is justified by the rules of media talk, for which everybody is, to a certain extent, responsible and which, when all is said and done, is not that serious. On the contrary, promoting this reductive concept is neither innocent nor approximate. "Globalisation" must be seen as an instrumental concept placed at the service of certain causes - a concept that designates a certain restrictive view of the world, a world that is "the way it is" and that moves in a certain direction ... Explicit, staged "globalisation", orchestrated by a great number of "opinion leaders", turns out to be an ideological machine whose voluntary propagation is used to vouch for, or on the contrary to expose, a simplistic, sectarian vision of how today's world is moving: for some, it is a positive, even apologetic vision ("the benefits of globalisation"); for others, it is a dark, apocalyptic vision ("the evils" of that same globalisation).

  • Identify the current moral deadlock which forces one to judge globalisation's "goodness" or "evil"::

  • This is the consequence of the previous point. The simplistic, all but innocent, view, which ceaselessly reduces the current debate to the increasingly confused subject of "globalisation", has also led to the formation of a binary, impoverishing morality. For this morality, jointly produced by the so-called "supporters" and "enemies" of "globalisation", the only question is whether it is "good" or "bad" (always assuming, even though this has not been demonstrated, that it is known to us). Sometimes, an apparent concern for making this contrast more subtle leads to suggesting a distinction between "good globalisation" and "bad globalisation", yet the same categories are being used. The universal spreading of so skimpy a morality should be submitted to a veritable critique, for one has not yet measured how devastating it is - in particular for the morale of citizens and the alienation from politics that they are reproached for. In fact, "good globalisation" or "bad globalisation" can only be result in a war, a never-ending war between "pro" and "anti" (such as between Guelphs and Gibelins, Capulets and Montaigues, etc.).

  • Carry out a multidisciplinary study of the globalisation processes at work in all sectors of activity, and establish both their similarities and their differences through a comparative process:

  • This step is obviously closely linked to the previous one. How do we avoid the simplistic notion of "globalisation"? First by looking at globalisations in their diversity, which can in no way be reduced to a motive for war. How can one be either "in favour of" or "against" globalisations? Such a standpoint would mean nothing: the complexity, the richness of meaning that the concept of globalisations necessarily generates, force one, in actual fact, to reflect and preclude moralising. We must not hesitate to say so in this venue: it is no more possible to be "in favour of" or "against" globalisations than it is possible to be "in favour of" or "against" education, science and culture. Therefore what matters is no longer to express at all costs an opinion about "globalisations", but to study, in their plurality and from the standpoint of subjects as diverse as history, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, ethnology, and so on, the globalisation processes at work in practically every field, from the arts industry to environmental struggles, from clothing fashions to staging trials for crimes against mankind. The most pressing matter - if one is to follow as clumsy a guide as urgency - is to free oneself from all a priori before approaching these aspects of globalisation, to study them, compare them, look for their common or distinct causes, evaluate their consequences, converging or contradictory, and validate or invalidate the many interpretations they give rise to.

  • Uncover the motives and objectives of the players who, in various capacities, fuel and justify globalisation processes::

  • The static view of "globalisation" as a "fact" is not sustainable, because this is a dynamic process. It is a movement that can in no way be understood if one congeals it. We must therefore look at its historical dimension, find out why men ("NICTs" implies men, not machines!) have encouraged, if not "triggered" this movement, and have supplied the means for its development. What are their motivations and what do they desire - in one word: What, and who, makes "globalisation" go round? For instance, if we consider the "globalisation of the arts industry", which shows up in the fast-paced consolidation of publishing (whether it is newspaper and book publishing, music, video), the growing scarcity of creation and of published "products", the transnational standardisation of cultural habits, it is not enough to say that this is either good or bad. One must also replace this process in its historical context, evaluate its origins, identify the forces that drive it and its leading players, recreate its movement, uncover its meaning, project its final consequences in a manner that is rational, rather than emotional.

  • Judge in a non-moral way the objectives (whether private or public) pursued by "globalisers" and the means they use to achieve these objectives:

  • It is now essential to step away from the current moralising ideology, whether it is an ideology that rejects or an ideology that worships. And this is not easy, because the rules of the present debate, which were set both by the "anti" and the "pro" (globalisation), make it difficult to seek any other standpoint - a standard feature of binary morality, whether it is religious or secular. The issue no longer is whether "globalisation" is "good" or "bad", but to find out Who globalises, how, and what. One must to investigate, and understand:

    - which group (scientists, intellectuals, technocrats, entrepreneurs, financiers, politicians, etc.) is at the origin of this or that globalisation process (for instance the globalisation of the record industry, or of a pedagogical approach);
    - which are the objectives (obvious or hidden) pursued by those who have developed, promoted, encouraged this process;
    - whether these objectives are private or public, commercial, scientific, humanitarian... ;
    - which means (technical, political, financial, commercial...) have they devised or used in order to promote it and spread it;
    - lastly, which have been the consequences, in different orders, to this day, and how are these consequences likely to evolve.

    Only through such a critical investigation shall we be able to break out of the present deadlock and formulate an "extra-moral" judgement (to use a Nietzschean category) about the object of an everyday polemic.

  • Assess and foresee the consequences of ongoing globalisation processes for freedom, rights, access to knowledge and information for citizens, the future of democratic practice and the mastering of the phenomena concerned:

  • Few contemporary social issues have generated as many fantasies, whether negative and positive, as "globalisation". It is high time to leave the realm of fantasy to return to that of politics - the politics that shape the City, the politics whose aim is the best government for everybody. To use an analogy, if we try for one moment to put ourselves in the place of those who saw the beginnings of printing, we must try (without urgency or sectarian fears ) to patiently unravel one by one all the threads of the processes at work under our eyes, without focusing obsessively on certain of their consequences (such as the disappearance of copyists once printing became commonplace, for instance). One should not be overawed by the manifold consequences of globalisations, and thus fail to see the forest for the trees. Of course, it's easier said than done! The immediacy, and factual character, of facts as complex as those we are witnessing make all critical distance and "rational anticipation" dangerous to implement... But, whatever the difficulties, there is no real alternative!

  • Lastly, define the conditions that would make possible a "civic globalisation" that would provide for, not only the respect of a plurality of identities and cultures, but also the development of these identities and cultures, and encounters between them::

  • I also think one should avoid reducing "globalisation" to the realm of communications - it is so obvious, far too obvious! "Globalisation" cannot be reduced to easier, faster communications from one end of the world to the other - this does not create civilisation... On the other hand, giving attention to this distinction does make it possible to return to the idea of civilisation: that of a civic globalisation, civic precisely because it implies something more than easier communications and trade among men. To rise to the present challenge, I think it is necessary to overcome an ordinary technical illusion: it was not printing that created Renaissance, but a certain appropriation of printing, to the benefit of man, contributed to the process known as "Renaissance". Similarly, while technical developments have contributed in recent years to a boom in the circulation of information, they cannot be understood as having produced by themselves a new civilisation. While they can be used to support such a development, this development still needs to be given shape and meaning by a will that is, strictly speaking, political.

    A provisional conclusion:

    My reaction to the provocative question which this round table is being asked to answer would be that "the law of the strongest", or "might is right ", is not necessarily found at the normative level that spontaneously springs to mind: globalisation of the strongest that would crash the weak. I think that while globalisation is in actual fact perceived today by a majority as an issue of domination, and without minimising the importance of all forms of "actual" domination that can be observed (economic, political, military, financial, linguistic, cultural and so on), the foremost form of domination remains that of the concept: that is, precisely the meaning that is given to globalisation by its so-called "supporters" and its "opponents". "The law of the strongest", at this stage, which I am not sure has been overcome yet, despite the invasion of media space (and of this very venue) by the issue, is nothing but the law of he who says what "globalisation" is, or what it should be: something good or something bad, that should move in this or that direction. This much supporters and opponents agree on, inasmuch as they appropriate it for their private use, in line with their general view of the world and their interests - whether these interests are economic, political or intellectual. "The law of the strongest in globalisation" is first and foremost the law of he who speaks loudest , whether it is in the assemblies of the WTO, the World Bank or the IMF, or in the streets of Seattle, Bangkok or Prague, so as to convince others that his vision of a world in movement is a good one, nay the best one there is. Yet a peaceful issue to this ever-increasing global controversy is unlikely to be found: maybe, quite simply, because this controversy remains strictly on the ground of domination, and because it is never placed into perspective, detached from the immediacy of argumentation.

    So is there a solution to this deadlock, one may ask?

    I see none myself except through a collective process that would deliberately and rationally (instead of emotionally) replace the question of globalisation in the field of sharing, instead of the field of domination. Which, I must hasten to clarify, doesn't involve any intellectual "concessions" that would de facto turn the supporters of such a process into "supporters of globalisation" -that is not where the problem is! To place globalisation in the field of sharing doesn't imply a naive belief that the processes at work under our eyes have, once again, a priori, beneficial virtues. It simply means that if it is clear for everybody that the issue at hand involves the destiny of the entire community, we can no longer afford to continue waging a trivial form of war over it. It also means that this "thing" shows, through many signs, that it can increasingly become an object of sharing capable of aiding the common City to progress. One can only be unsettled by the fact that the globalisation of "internal" political events in Yugoslavia seems to have largely contributed to the evolution of the situation in the direction we all know. One can only be impressed by the efforts that are being made, in a new way and with new means, in every region of the world, to stop or contain civil, religious, ethnical wars and particularly to find solutions to them (while providing ongoing "support") on the basis of far-reaching, long-term international contributions. One can only appreciate, in a venue such as this one, the recent multiplication of transcontinental initiatives for rapprochement and co-operation, even outside any political context, in the realms of pedagogy, science and academia.

    All this, which belongs to the order of "globalisation" and personifies globalisations with essential consequences, also belongs precisely to the order of sharing, and cannot be reduced to an ideology, a clan, a private or exclusive interest. It is therefore by using these advances, by reflecting on them instead of considering them as simple "facts", that one could, by giving it a completely different value, turn "the law of the strongest in globalisation" into something with a new sense of general interest. This may not be immediately clear, but many signs are apparent and it may be able to succeed in the end, posthumously proving Kant's cosmopolitan idea right. Finally, "globalisation" may have to stop being something obvious - too obvious according to some - and once again become a question: the question of a common future we must build and share. This is a globalisation, or rather globalisations, that would only find their meaning and acquire timelessness by contributing to this historic moment when "the law of the strongest" becomes the law of everyone...

    (On the same problem or on connected issues we recommend the following article by the same author in the Critical Dictionary : Globalisations)

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