Think before you say - A Guide to using the Concept of 'Globalisation'

“Globalisation” was the Zeitgeist of the 1990s. In the social sciences, it gave rise to the claim that deepening interconnectedness was fundamentally transforming the nature of human society, and was replacing the sovereign state system with a multilayered, multilateral system of ‘global governance’. A decade later, however, these expectations appear already falsified by the course of world affairs.” (Rosenberg, 2005:3)

“As the counter-critique below indicates, scholars have imminently defensible grounds for persisting analyses of globalisation into the 21st century.” (Scholte, 2005:391)

A critical investigation of the competing scholarly claims relating to the concept of “globalisation”.



Before introducing the map of this essay I want to clarify that, in the lines of Justin Rosenberg, I understand globalisation as lacking considerable explanatory ability. However, I still consider it a useful term as long as those studying global political economy are aware of its shortcomings and use it within the correct descriptive properties it holds. The debate dissected here comprises of one long discussion surrounding the conceptualization of one single word. Recognized by Scholte in his 2002 paper, globalisation is usually used interchangeably with a multitude of other concepts such as: internationalization, liberalization, universalization and westernization.
First and foremost it is important to distinguish between ‘theories of globalisation’ of which there are many and ‘globalisation theories’ of which there is a handful. Globalisation theory was a term ‘coined’ by Rosenberg to put into evidence the academic “trap” that hyperglobalists fall into when believing that we have now moved beyond the state-centred Westphalian model and entered a new stage in the history of international relations. Globalisation theories in turn, allude to a multiplicity of understandings of globalisation ranging from: the debates over what the effects of a supposed globalisation are – homogeneity versus heterogeneity; to anti-globalisation theories such as those advanced by Brecher et al (2000) and Starr (2001); to the question if globalisation is actually secondary to a reigning form of Empire (Pieterse 2004).
One of the most interesting of these debates saw ‘homogeneizers’ and ‘heterogeneizers’ clash in a sort of post modern prediction of the evolution of cultural relations. Some authors proposing globalisation as a causal factor of hybridity such, as Held (1995) and his cosmopolitan theories, disagreed with heterogeneizers that refuted any linkage between an acceleration in economic integration and a trend towards cultural homogeneity.
However, in my critical discussion of the claims over the concept of globalisation I will go beyond these previous debates and focus instead on the reactions triggered by Justin Rosenberg’s treatment of the concept as a “folly”. This mention led Jan Scholte and other academics interested in the topic to embark upon a deep and sophisticated conceptual debate over the term. The ‘voyage’ will allow a better understanding of the academic disagreements over the use of the concept of globalisation and shed light on the positions of, not all, but a good selection of the most prominent scholars in the field. I will finalise by testing their main arguments against the challenging backdrop of China’s rise into prominence in international relations and what it can mean for globalisation theory.
After being immersed by the reading of the debate that follows I opted for an understanding that sees globalisation as consisting of: the acceleration in the accumulation of capital, which does not imply a full-blown systemic change in the political organization of accumulation, but does bring about more superficial yet versatile innovations in the modalities of accumulation, economic integration and socio-cultural interaction. Let us now take a look at how I got to this final conceptualisation.

Theoretical goal posts

Held, Macgrew, Goldblatt and Perraton (1999) introduced their piece “Global Transformations” with the statement that “globalisation” has become the “cliché of our times”. Held and Macgrew, criticized by Rosenberg (2005:4) as being part of the globalisation theory group, have nonetheless put forward a very useful and parsimonious typology framing the important ongoing debate. Given this, in order to make sure that this present reflection does not lose itself in the “sea” of literature on globalisation, I will be using as a framework the academic typologies put forward by Held et al that “box” theorists of globalisation into three different types: hyperglobalists; sceptics; and transformationalists. These three accounts will be the flag posts of my analysis. I will put forward a series of interpretations of globalisation from different prominent authors and localise them within the typologies. Then, I will try and expose their main strengths, difficulties and interrelations in their arguments and finalise by reflecting on how successfully their competing scholarly claims deal with the rise of China in a seemingly globalised world. China’s unprecedented growth and the massive challenges it faces will be used as a case-study to test and apply Global Political Economy globalisation theory.
In very simple terms, hyperglobalists are those that defend that the vortex of interconnectedness brought about by globalisation has fundamentally changed the organization of international relations and announced the death of the nation-state as we knew it. States have no choice but to become ‘decision takers” instead of “decision-makers”.
Sceptics argue the exact opposite, arguing that the current turn of events has only provided nation-states with further tools to advance their “grip” on the international system. The unit of the state is seen as invariably resilient and actually strengthened in the context of a globalised world.
The last typology is the most nuanced one. Transformationalists essentially look at globalisation as a great uncertainty. As a phenomenon which is perhaps not absolutely new, but that is now changing the basic state centric “rituals” of international relations. The main difference between transformationalists and the other two accounts of globalisation is that they have concluded what the end-product of the current era is going to be and on what exactly the future holds for the unit of the state. They argue that it is still an open and uncertain “game” whose outcome will necessarily be path dependent.

Justin Rosenberg – The importance of explanatory power

“Post-mortem: Globalisation Theory, deceased circa 2000. Cause of death: congenital misplaced concreteness, leading to terminal intellectual complications, compounded by sudden loss of life-supporting ideological plausibility.”
Justin Rosenberg’s post mortem of Globalisation theory (2005:65)

Justin Rosenberg is a sceptic by excellence. He fundamentally criticizes a group he labels as ‘globalisation theorists’ for erroneously identifying causality between the sets of processes encapsulated in the term globalisation and the supposedly fundamental transformations these processes are responsible for in the social world.
More strikingly, he goes to the point of claiming that “the actual historical movement which was called ‘globalisation’ is already in the past” (Rosenberg 2005:6). The idea of globalisation is criticized for not being able to explain any of the actual changes we are witnessing with success.
The question remains. How definitive is the passing of the globalisation zeitgeist that Justin Rosenberg so firmly announces? Rosenberg’s international historical sociological narrative is compelling, the alternative he presents fresh and provocative. This narrative comprises a conjunctural form of analysis that firmly believes that the “geographical scope of capitalism has been trans-societal from the start” (Rosenberg 2005:37), meaning that Globalisation Theorists are commemorating something ancient and “dusty” as being something new and unprecedented. The origins of the reigning model of state-supervised market economy as the model of organisation are everything but new. Adapting the words of Thomas Friedman (2005), the world has actually been “flat” for quite a while. More than realising that the world is ‘flat’ it is important to know why it became ‘flat’ in the first place. To put it simply, Rosenberg defends that the true role of global political economy is to look at the quantity and not the quality of the “flatness”. He argues that globalisation as a concept performs wonderfully with quantity and desperately struggles with quality.
His critique of hyperglobalists goes further, condemning them for not questioning the apparent “unilinear path of endogenous development” they put forward and for relying on spatio-temporal analyses that disregard the social sources of power (Rosenberg 2005: 9, 14). This critique is particularly targeting those seen as the more traditional hyperglobalist writers such as Friedman (2005), Emannuel Castells (1996) and Anthony Giddens (1999). In his seminal piece, “Globalisation Theory: a Post Mortem”, Rosenberg (2005:41) says that the current period/conjuncture should actually be analysed as being part of a wider and more ancient process of “uneven and combined development” On one of this best passages, Rosenberg recognizes that the volume of capital accumulation today is indeed impressive but questions if these have actually been the result of a deep “system-change” (Rosenberg 2005:26). He concludes his argument by dropping the provocative question: is globalisation not simply another word for interdependence?
In his last saying on the matter, an article that came out on September 2007 in the journal Globalisation, Rosenberg is at his best in eloquence and analytical parsimony. He puts forward a very strong argument that globalisation as a concept has little explanatory power. It is not a force that by itself drives anything or is directly responsible for integrating societies in new ways; hybridising world cultures; spreading industrialisation; extending the influence of the European Union, and making international organisations proliferate (Rosenberg 2007:420). Globalisation is ultimately portrayed as being insipid in its attempt at social scientific explanation.

Jan Aart Scholte – A smaller world is a different world

From an alternative transformationalist perspective, Jan Aart Scholte (1999:18) departed from a critique of the social sciences as being traditionally too pinned down to “methodological territorialism”. The persistence of this type of methodology meant that scholars were badly equipped to fully understand the extension of the transformations occurring when the process of globalisation came “knocking at their door”. The transformationalist critique of Rosenberg, put forward by Scholte, is in my opinion the strongest and most pervasive. His current understanding of the scene of Global Political Economy as being underpinned by an inherent “polycentrism” is sound and analytically useful. Polycentrism refers to the apparent particularity of multi-layered and diffused governance of the present era (2004, 2005b).
I too agree that Rosenberg slightly overstretched his argument against the historical novelty of globalisation when he argues that “the actual historical movement which was called globalisation is already in the past” (Rosenberg 2005:6). Rosenberg does commit the fallacy of bundling together moderate transformationalist theorists of globalisation with theorists that have been describing since the 1990s an era of hyperglobalisation. An era that is seemingly here and now, ready-made, presented to us on a tray of magical special compression and technological evolution.
Rosenberg had argued that Scholte’s work was over-focused on changes at the levels of spatiality. Scholte’s response is that he does not see why is it not “possible to argue that space matters without going to a ‘spacist’ extreme” (2005:394). This response is sensible. His point is essentially that, when designing a theory of globalisation in Global Political Economy, a certain degree of uncertainty and hesitation on what concerns the future does not reflect weakness per se. As Scholte puts it, the result of “multidimensional systemic causation (…) need not to be ‘directionless indeterminacy’ (2005:395). Scholte’s final and most compelling point is that Rosenberg does not tackle the “nitty gritty” of the current process of globalisation, failing to look at the “changing forms of commodification within contemporary capitalism” and the advent of “communications capital, consumer capital, finance capital, genetic capital, information capital, and the atomic capital of emergent nanotechnology” (Scholte 2005:398). This is a very good point, capitalism even if recognized as a mode of production whose social relations can be traced back to a much ancient long duree, is indeed changing dramatically.
Rosenberg returns to the debate by claiming that all he is criticizing hyperglobalists for is for using the term globalisation as one that goes beyond mere description. He refutes the implicit notion that we now live in a systemically different system where there has been a major breakthrough in the economic and social relations of global political economy. Globalisation as advanced by hyperglobalists is once again cast as a fading hype lacking explanatory edge.
John Hobson – The problem of orientalism

A question that may be asked of Rosenberg’s seminal work is that if his understanding manages to escape outside John Hobson’s critique of Orientalism. John Hobson puts forward a Edward Said-inspired assertion that Justin Rosenberg’s Marxist-inspired work is Eurocentric and constructed in a “line of civilization-apartheid” (2005:374).
Rosenberg recognises his Eurocentrism to some degree but defends his primary focus on the long duree by recalling the idea that the concept of globalisation per se is empty and not analytical enough since it does not recognize the uneveness of relations between societies that goes back at least to the middle of the 19th century. (Rosenberg 2007:461).

Alex Callinicos – Claiming room for an intermediate analysis

Alex Callinicos (2005), also a sceptic of globalisation theory, agrees first and foremost with Rosenberg when it comes to the understanding of the economic integration witnessed throughout the 1990s as simply not being historically unprecedented. It is, in fact, part of a much greater and longer duree a la Fernand Braudel (1982), part of an “historical conjuncture” which needs to be analysed from a few centuries ago onwards, in order to be properly understood. In his piece, “Epoch and Conjuncture” Callinicos celebrates Rosenberg’s historicism. Reminding readers how the “euphoric proclamations of Globalisation theory” (2005:361) were a product of the 1981-1991 rupture with the Cold War. After his celebration however, Callinicos argues that the type of conjunctural analysis that Rosenberg proposes should not substitute a conceptualisation that includes general theory in a way that is able to distinguish between “two kinds of intermediary analysis (…) – epoch and conjuncture ” (2005:42). In a nutshell, a differentiation and a simultaneous combination of the two dimensions can be a much more useful analytical tool for scholars studying the peculiarities of globalisation. This may be particularly be the case, as we shall see, when it comes to generating better understandings of exceptional accumulation processes, both in form and in proportion, by state actors such as China.
Rosenberg defends his argument by reminding Callinicos that the “international” does not penetrate enough in such a conception of capitalist development” (Rosenberg 2007:478). He also alludes to the idea that “capitalist exchange relations have always been implicitly ‘supra-territorial’” (Rosenberg 2007:466), strengthening the point that scholars should use the long historical duree as the starting point for analysing the conditions of global political economy.

Andrew Gamble – Why not cherish well-intentioned globalisation theory?

Justin Rosenberg’s argument on globalisation has meanwhile been taken by Andrew Gamble (2005:367), simplified and commented upon in very constructive ways. Gamble puts forward what is a clear transformationalist argument. He agrees with Rosenberg on his qualification of globalisation theory as over-descriptive and with his reminder of the old Marxist adage that the capitalist system “was both domestic and international from its very beginning”. Rosenberg’s elaborations on the differences between Hegemony and Empire are also recognized as analytically useful and Rosenberg is further supported on the defence that capitalism cannot exist without the modern state, that sovereign states are required to provide the conditions for the accumulation of capital.
The crux of Gamble’s critique lies with Rosenberg’s quick dismissal of globalisation theorists benign “normative hopes (…) that the structure of collective hegemony, which is now in place, is far deeper and more extensive than that which existed in the 19th century”. What clearly gives away Gamble as a transformationalist is his conclusion that the game is open and that “the test will be the rise of India and China during the next few decades to be leading players in the global economy” (Gamble 2005:371). This is precisely the discussion to which I will turn in the last section.
Once again, Rosenberg replies by saying that Andrew Gamble forgot that what he disputes is not a change in the nuances of the relation between sovereignty and the world market argument, but that he finds it much important to understand “the overall character of the process” (Rosenberg 2007:471). He goes further to quote Linda Weiss (1999, 59) and, although he incurres once again in the problematic generalization of putting hyperglobalists and transformationalists in the same bag, remember that “the dispute between globalists and sceptics is not about the reality of change but about the nature and significance of the changes under way as well as the driving forces behind them”.

George Lawson – The importance of agency

Lawson is also a transformationalist with a particular focus on the importance of agency. He starts out his argument by contrasting his position with what he perceives to be Rosenberg’s reductionism and focus on “easy-targets” (2005:382). George Lawson’s main point is very simple. He claims that, without discarding the importance of looking at long historical waves and the relational social structures they put in place, one must also take into account the substantial role that specific actors can occasionally have in influencing the very system of historical conjunctural relations. Only then can one avoid reductionism when criticizing globalisation theory.

Testing the theory - Globalisation through the eyes of China

“China is a rotting semicivilization…vegetating in the teeth of time”
Karl Marx 1848-1862 (in Avinieri 1969:343)

In the latest engagements with the continent a fascinating phenomenon has come to about. The success in the accumulation of capital by China in the last couple of years has been absolutely tremendous, as Callinicos (2005:362) puts it “where would the world economy be today without the prodigious accumulation process under way in China, a process that is made possible by a very tight set of linkages between the state, the banking system, and both publicly and privately owned firms?”
Most strikingly, the heterogeneity in the modes of accumulating capital is becoming more notorious, particularly in the distinctiveness of equally productive and functional capitalist outputs by intrinsically diverse socio-political organizations of the state. I am thinking of the current ascendancy of China and India in the architecture of International Political Economy whose growth rates and competitiveness are telling, but that could not be more apart in terms of political system and the current social sources of power. India is a federalized decentralized system characterized by the prominence of centripetal forces while China presents a much more centralized and State controlled economic model. Both seem to be doing reasonably well in adapting to the international capitalist mode of production, probably in an unprecedented scale.
An interesting question to be posed in the debate over globalisation therefore is how it affects the sovereign state system and if there are indeed any alternatives to the invariable erosion of the state put forward by hyperglobalists. At a first glance, as we saw, China is an example of how trends announced by hyperglobalists are, to a great extent, not coming about.
China as a case study both confirms and challenges Rosenberg’s theory. On the one hand the sovereignty and the centralism of the state apparatus, despite some incoming challenges, remain reified and has began to operate according to modern pushes towards state accumulation of capital.
On the other hand, the form of this astonishing growth, despite having its origins at least all the way back Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy that started in 1978, has assumed breathtaking proportions in the last ten to fifteen years. Again, this means nothing per se. Nonetheless, the potential influence of China’s rise in the current conjuncture of capitalist accumulation which Rosenberg traces all the way back to at least the 18th century[1] remains uncertain.
Rosenberg’s questioning of understandings of political economy that accept a unilinear path of growth is very strong and is, I believe, one of the major problems with some of the writings of so-called ‘globalisation theorists’. However, I cannot help but recognize that, since the beginning of the 1990s, China has indeed witnessed growth of such a nature that it has, together with India, been pushing aggregated world growth in that direction. Most remarkably, although not without great challenges, on its way up China has pulled millions above the poverty line and was somehow left unscathed by successive financial crises in Latin America (1998, 1999), the United States (2000, 2007) and even in its own region (1997). The date limit and sustainability of this growth remains the “million renminbi question” of the next few decades.
The case of China also shows that, although at root capital accumulation remains the same, today the process goes beyond the simple schema of an interstate system replicating uneven power relations that divide those holding the means of production and those who do not. Indeed, China now presents remarkable new forms of innovation. The Chinese model is set to profoundly challenge, maybe not the economic system as Rosenberg understands it, but most definitely the international economic equilibrium. It is set to do so by among other means, putting its 800 million labour force and 1.3 billion consumers to use. China is also set to revolutionise cost innovation by already starting to market: high technology at low cost; greater choice of products; and speciality products at lower prices (Zeng & Williamson 2007). The material processes “flattening” spatiality such as the onset of international supply chains, the phenomena of outsourcing and the acceleration in the opening of markets, have all contributed to this, as was recognized by Scholte (2005). Again, all of these changes do not necessarily imply a new age in the relations of political economy. It can always be understood as the latest stage of an old political process that endures and that continues to have state-supervised market economy as the model of organisation.
Hobson’s (2005) point, alluding to Rosenberg’s orientalism, brings to mind broad questions such as if China has been writing its own history, particularly after the period of the Opium Wars. Looking at Chinese recent history it is clear that the country’s isolationist tendencies have been drastically challenged. China has indeed been fairly reactive when it comes to the evolution of international relations ever since it was militarily forced by Britain to “smoke the opium” in 1839. This reactive role however does not mean that China has been having or will have a passive role in setting and influencing the evolution of the long duree. It was a key player in the Cold War, particularly in what was happening in some parts of Africa and cunningly balanced its relation with the two super-powers. Also, in the present era, China is slowly and perhaps informally starting to challenge the traditional five principles of its international relations[2] (Kornberg & Faust 2005:14). It is doing so in a new approach and involvement in South-South cooperation and its business abroad where its interactions with economic, diplomatic, social and security issues are becoming more and more complex. My point is that China is starting to realise it will have no choice but to have a much more proactive role in its international relations and this means it will probably be at the forefront of affecting the design of the next socio-political long duree.
Finally, to pay a bit of lip-service to George Lawson (2005), looking at agency through the eyes of China for the purposes of this reflection is a tricky affair. On the one hand the roles of actors such as Deng Xiao Ping in pushing through with the open door policy or, more recently, Hu Jintao significant criticism of his own party (Times Online 2007) cannot be underestimated. Likewise, events such as the incoming Beijing Olympics can bring about unforeseen structural changes. However, I have to agree with Rosenberg and ask at what level these changes can actually be meaningful. In this sense, it would not be the case that an unexpected, dramatic quick shift towards multi-party democracy led by Hu Jintao or triggered by the 2008 Olympics would not affect countries and peoples elsewhere. The important question is if the scope of the events set in motion by this one man or event would ever have the potential to suddenly alter the fundamental premises of the international model of capital accumulation. Probably not, as Justin Rosenberg and Fernand Braudel show us ever so well, these vaster structural changes have traditionally tended to take a while and be more ‘tectonic’ in nature.
[1] I would actually trace back to the 15th/16th century age of the discoveries but for obvious reasons of length I will not be discussing this argument further.
[2] The five principles are: mutual respect for sovereignty; nonaggression;noninterference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence
The case of Chinese engagement in Africa and its light on the many Globalisations

In its engagement with Africa for example, China is at times challenging the sovereignty and the traditional moulds of inter-state relations and sometimes cementing it. The challenge to sovereignty is present when we see China focusing its engagement with private companies or particular stakeholders within particular regions which are in turn within sovereign states. This is the case for example with the Niger Delta areas and the private oil companies operating in Nigeria as well as with the oil-rich area of Southern Sudan. It is possible that the added importance that China’s engagement brings to these actors and sub-state geographical units is not system-changing. It does however give “food for thought” on how to understand the unit of the state, international relations and most importantly the meaning of today’s acceleration in capital accumulation for Africa.
As a rule of thumb, the public and the “corporate” private sector tend to be one and the same in the African state given the tendency for the appropriation of the state by patrimonial networks of patronage (Chabal & Daloz 1999). This has, among other reasons, encouraged the Chinese to prefer high level diplomacy to set up their aid, trade and investment. This kind of engagement tends to reify the sovereignty and the political leverage of patrons in the state apparatus. The use of the state as an instrument for the accumulation of wealth is particularly prominent in some African states causing top private sector companies of the countries to lack efficiency and the will to seek markets and expand. This connection to the international global economy puts into evidence what is a drastically different interaction of regions and states with the current accelerated processes of capital accumulation. One of the reasons why there is very little private sector investment from Africa in China and abroad is therefore because the few rent-seeking patrons controlling the state are extremely intimate with the big nationalized sectors and the companies have no incentives or capacity to tap into the broader international supply-chains of the international economy.
This goes to show how ultimately, in the context of global political economy, the use of the concept of globalisation does not explain the great differences in opportunities and challenges that a country such as Swaziland faces in comparison with, for example, China. Justin Rosenberg also does not directly answer this question but does recognise globalization theorists’ failure to do so. As a concept, globalisation is better at describing the pace of economic growth and change than at understanding the “political” in the political economy of international relations. Conceptually, it struggles with the origins, distribution and the forms of maintenance of the current modes of economic organization and it has difficulties in shedding any light on the concrete sources of social power.


The debate of how “new” and “recent” the current set of relations of Global Political Economy is, has been slowly progressing in the past few years and nothing has been more fascinating than the abundant and thorough academic discussion triggered by Justin Rosenberg’s provocative piece – “Globalisation Theory – a post mortem”. Although rife with some instances of theoretical caricaturing and misinterpretation, the debate has streamlined the quality of the arguments of different schools of thought and improved the thoroughness of their theoretical beliefs. All of those who study political economy should be aware of the ‘heated’ debate around the term and of what it means to how we understand the complexity of the current era. That will allow us to better understand the highly visible changes the world has been through but also, and most importantly, allow us to challenge these processes and understand how significant and historically revolutionary they actually are.
For that reason, and drawing from the debate, globalisation must be approached carefully. It holds little explanatory ability but the job it does at describing and situating the new forms of capital accumulation should also be acknowledged as important. It should not be treated as historically unprecedented and its difficulty in analysing the nuances in the origins of social and political power should be both urgently acknowledged and urgently addressed.
To conclude, after all this debate, I propose a more textured conceptualization of globalisation as referring to: an acceleration in the accumulation of capital, which does not imply a full-blown systemic change in the political organization of accumulation, but does bring about more superficial yet versatile innovations in the modalities of accumulation, economic integration and socio-cultural interaction.


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