Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft
Revue suisse de science politique
Swiss Political Science Review


Globalization and Politics


Philip G. Cerny, Professor of International Political Economy, Department of Politics, University of Leeds, United Kingdom

Globalization presents a number of problems for Political Science. This is because the various trends, processes and structures usually lumped together under the heading of globalization are not linear or commensurate. They are asymmetric conglomerations of a range of quite different processes, with different structural characteristics and different dynamics, which intersect and interact in complex and circular ways. In this sense, it is always possible to deny that "globalization" exists, by merely showing that some trends point in the opposite direction, or that some preexisting structures and processes are "enduring" in the midst of other changes, or that these different processes do not blend empirically or normatively into a coherent whole. Three sorts of questions will be posed here. In the first place, what is globalization? Does it "exist"? And, if so, is it fundamentally an economic phenomenon, or is it inherently political? Secondly, what impact is globalization likely to have on how people approach politics as a human activity? What sort of agents are involved in the globalization process, and to what extent do their actions merely involve a series of discrete, adaptive changes, on the one hand, or a far-reaching paradigm shift, on the other? And finally, what are the potential normative consequences of globalization?

My view is that globalization does exist - but my definition of globalization will not be to everyone's taste. Furthermore, I believe that globalization is driven not primarily by some inexorable economic process, but rather by politics: by ideology; by the actions, interactions and decisions of state actors, their private sector interlocutors, and wider publics; and by the fact that the nation-state as a structural framework for politics is poorly adapted to cope with the imperatives of an unevenly globalizing polity. I think, therefore, that globalization does require a paradigm shift, but not the kind of paradigm shift that the business school or "airport bookshop" literature on globalization would suggest. Rather it requires a qualitatively new kind of political philosophy, involving not only a rereading of the history of political thought (and turning some of its assumptions on their heads) but also a far-reaching attempt to derive a new set of normative understandings necessary in order to confront an increasingly global future.


What is Globalization

Globalization is a remarkably elusive concept, especially in political terms. There are several candidates for the role of independent variable. Three of these are essentially economic. The first is the interpenetration of national markets for various goods and assets, from money to industrial products to labor, across borders. The second is the advent of new technology which, in contrast to the hierarchical technological forms of the Second Industrial Revolution - the age of the industrial state and the welfare state - is structurally amorphous and rapidly diffused. The third is that of private and public economic institutions, from multinational enterprises to strategic alliances to public and even private regulatory regimes. Sociological hypotheses, of course, give pride of place to cultural globalization, in which people's perceptions of themselves as subjects or citizens of a particular nation-state are undermined by the crystallization and dissemination of global images and identities; for post-modernists, however, the global village is not so much a unified culture per se but an intensely speeded-up world where cultural fragmentation undermines all grand narratives and socio-political projects from underneath rather than from above.

The debate about globalization as a political phenomenon usually takes it to mean that the shape of the playing field of politics, and the outcome of political processes, are increasingly determined not within relatively autonomous or insulated states, but at some sort of "global" level. The problem, however, is that it is not clear just where the global "level" lies, how it is structured, or how tight its constraints are. On the one hand, for some proponents of globalization, that level involves a convergence or homogenization of the world, whether markets, technologies, or ideologies and cultures - a homogenization which changes the context of politics and therefore alters the stakes, the rules, and the outcomes of political games. In order to deal with capital flows or multinational corporations with global strategies, the state needs to drop the pretence of being able to pursue an internally generated general will or common good and adapt itself to global imperatives. For critics of "globalization", on the other hand - those that say it is not really happening, or that it is no different to what happened in the second half of the 19th century, or that it just is not all that important - such a global level is just too amorphous. Indeed, it is malleable, and if we are to recapture politics from a runaway international capitalism that has been promoted by neoliberal political forces at home, they say, then globalization must be counteracted by changing the direction of domestic politics. The intellectual debate about globalization within Political Science has become polarized between those who think it is inevitable and those who think it can, and should, be resisted.

My own view is that both sides of this debate are presenting oversimplified, one-sided and unrealistic interpretations of globalization. In fact, those who support both positions admit that the reality of globalization is more complex. Those who accept that globalization is a reality increasingly point out that rather than leading to simple convergence or homogenization, it also promotes divergence and heterogeneity. And those who argue that globalization is an overblown idea also accept that there are numerous important trends towards the internationalization and transnationalization of economic structures and processes, trends which at the very least require the state to learn new ways of cooperating and refashioning itself in both domestic and foreign policy. For these reasons, rather than adopting an essentialist or teleological definition of globalization, I prefer what I call an "additive" definition: that "globalization" is quite simply the sum total of the wide range of political, economic and social processes of transnationalization and internationalization taking place in the world today. Thus the "global level" is the structural level (or complex of structural levels) at which those processes of transnationalization and internationalization intersect and interact.

In this context, the role of politics becomes both more significant and more salient. For, as with so many other phenomena in human life, real people are faced with real choices about how to organize and regulate these processes (and their interrelationships), how to navigate and negotiate amongst them - in other words, how to make individual and collective decisions about how to react to and how to deal with globalization. In engaging in such actions and making such political choices, they have to devise new and evolving roles and rules of the game, to face the issue of whether embedded arenas of politics and government (i.e., the state and the relations between states) ought to change or be changed. As with so many aspects of human life, these decisions can be contradictory.

People want more consumer goods provided relatively cheaply by the international marketplace, and therefore more imports; yet at the same time they want to protect jobs at home. People want to vote for their political leaders and have those leaders act effectively on the basis of domestic welfare; yet at the same time, they are unwilling to pay the costs involved in a world where political choices are increasingly constrained by transnational and international linkages. And people want to identify with a social nation; yet local and global interests, ethnic particularisms and transnational cultural trends often intersect to undermine the social nation, to create new and multiple levels of identity which undermine the project of cultural nation-building which dominated the great social transformations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this context, globalization is not a self-evident product of ineluctable forces. It is a coming together of a new crossroads of competing, conflicting and intersecting forces, much as the nation-state itself was 100-200 years ago. Globalization, therefore, has been not so much an economic process, although its structure and dynamics have been shaped by perceived economic imperatives. Rather it has been a political process. State actors in advanced industrial countries have pursued freer markets, liberalized, deregulated. The result has been to accelerate transnational and international economic forces and processes - especially the geometric increase in international capital flows and the increasing political as well as economic weight of international financial markets. International competitiveness has become the totem of policy-making and implementation, of bureaucratic structures once mired in domestic corporatism now linked through "transgovernmental" policy networks. More obvious processes of intergovernmental cooperation, from trade agreements to environmental negotiations, have become inextricably intertwined with domestic politics, while transnational interest groups and advocacy networks have taken causes out of the hands of both domestic politicians and international institutions and confronted international business directly. In this context, the state is neither autonomous nor obsolete per se, but rather has not only been caught up in a web of new constraints and opportunities but also become the primary terrain of conflict between social forces promoting globalization (or accepting it as inevitable) and those seeking to resist or reassert domestic control over globalization trends. There is an increasing globalization of the political, to be sure; but at the same time, there is an increasing politicization of the global.


Globalization: Adaptation or Paradigm Shift

States have been the structural lynchpin of the modern world order. Nevertheless, significant structural pressures on the state have opened up serious fault lines both within nation-states domestically and in the states system. Probably the most significant variable in recent versions of this debate has been the advent of the so-called "Third Industrial Revolution". What is perhaps most important about the Third Industrial Revolution in this context is its transnational character. Key sets of economic agents which in the past have been closely bound up with the territorial nation-state are increasingly experimenting with new forms of quasi-private regulation of their activities. In this environment, the notion of the "public interest" itself is being questioned. Rather than seeking to take certain key economic and social activities out of the market in the name of the general welfare, "competition states" are increasingly privileging the marketization of those activities in the name of international competitiveness, as well as marketizing and flexibilizing themselves internally, replacing the notion of public service by financial performance indicators and the "New Public Management". Indeed, the role of democracy itself is under challenge, not only in terms of what actors expect of governments, but as to whether national, territorially-based institutional structures can be expected in the future to effectively aggregate and reconcile divergent individual and sectoral demands at all.

At one level, these changes may be seen as part of a wider transnational restructuring of domestic political systems, challenging the operation and even the very legitimacy of nation-states from within; transnationalization is a profoundly domestic political process, not just an "international" one. But they may also be seen to challenge the states system from without. The end of the Cold War reflected a profound restructuring of international relations. The central mechanism of stabilization and ordering in the states system has usually been seen to be the operation of balances of power to counteract the "security dilemma". But the end of the Cold War did not result so much from the end of a particular balance of power - the bipolar relationship between the two postwar superpowers - as from the increasing ineffectiveness of interstate balances of power generally to regulate the international system. This has not entailed a simple replacement of competition for military security by a new competition for "economic security", but rather a realization that the kind of security that could be based on the simple interaction of unitary nation-states was itself a cause of even greater insecurity. This sense of insecurity - symbolized not only from above, by the general threat of nuclear annihilation, but also from below, by the rise of civil wars, tribal and religious conflicts, terrorism, civil violence in developed countries, the international drugs trade, etc. - has led to a growing belief that security itself, the raison d'être of the states system, can no longer be guaranteed by that system, and that alternative means must be found. Security, too, must be restructured in the context of globalization.

The growing salience of a range of fault lines in existing domestic and international political structures has therefore created permissive conditions for broadly-based, paradigmatic structural change. In a deeper sense, however, the increasing salience of those fault lines and their interaction in complex, changing exogenous circumstances, are themselves generating causative conditions for change. Whether such change will actually occur, however, will depend on the complex interaction of such permissive and causative conditions. Although specific changes may take place, whether change overall is fundamental and far-reaching enough to be paradigmatic - i.e., transformative change - will depend upon the balance of forces between two types of agents: those who routinely reinforce existing structural forms and practices, at best engaging in adaptive behavior; and those who have the strategic consciousness and structural potential to generate and reinforce new forms and practices. However, change will often depend upon the way the latter actually behave in practice; although they might be expected to act in ways which challenge the structure, they also may for various reasons, including cultural and ideological motives as well as calculations of short-term gains, not be able, or not choose, to act in such ways. Finally, of course, pursuing structural alternatives which may in theory be possible may prove either too ambitious, on the one hand, or too amorphous and fragmented, on the other, to form an effective foundation for those agents' strategic or tactical calculations.

Do particular (individual and/or group) agents have the potential to become genuine institutional entrepreneurs or "change masters" - and are they likely to actualize that potentialð The answer to such a question lies in the complex interaction between such strategically located agents and any patterns of latent or manifest structural vulnerability which may plausibly be identified. In other words, the outcome of such interaction will be path-dependent. Economic agents alone are not likely to be the main drivers. Despite their strategic location in a context of rapid economic change, it is unlikely that the more powerful among them will seek to promote a political paradigm shift - although they may both consciously and inadvertently drive other actors to attempt to effect more far-reaching structural change. The reason is, of course, because economic agents depend on the existence of a stable political order to provide security, establish property rights, enforce contracts, and the like. Thus economic agents themselves are most likely to continue to adopt adaptive forms of behavior, e.g. promoting a dialectic of regulatory competition and cooperation in the financial market sector, supporting the continuing reduction of trade barriers and the consolidation of international regimes such as the World Trade Organization and fora like the G-7, etc. The main impact of economic transnationalization in terms of agent behavior will manifest itself in two ways: on the one hand, by spreading an ideology of market globalization; and, on the other hand, by prompting political agents to reconfigure forms of political authority and to resist the demands of popular constituencies for the reassertion of political values such as the "public interest" which supposedly distort markets.

In this context, pressures on political agents to act as institutional entrepreneurs are likely to increase. However, they are confronted with distinct patterns of opportunities and constraints from those facing economic agents. In the first place, of course, politicians and bureaucrats are to a great extent expected to act as institutional entrepreneurs in the modern world, a role which they took on in the world of the nation-state and the states system. Their authority and legitimacy have depended upon their role as upholders (and designers) of constitutions and institutional systems, their capacity to use "noneconomic coercion" to achieve collective action, their role in protecting and furthering the "national interest" vis-à-vis foreigners (even to the point of expecting citizens to go to their deaths in its name), and their manipulation of the symbols of elemental social bonds, belonging, loyalty, etc. Political agents are expected to combine carrots and sticks in the pursuit of, ideally, collective goals (or at least the goals of dominant groups), to blend "voice" and "loyalty" while minimizing threats of "exit" or "free-riding." At the same time, that very authority and legitimacy are inextricably intertwined with the multifunctionality of their authority, the sovereign character of political power within a particular territory.

The capacity of political agents to act as institutional entrepreneurs may take on a different form in a transnationalizing international system, but their role is still central. Of course, they suffer from growing disillusionment with governments, politicians, and bureaucrats generally - a disillusionment which results from the increasing political immobilisme and poverty of public policy which transnational constraints impose on publicly visible, formal officials. Furthermore, traditional interest groups, especially sectoral pressure groups, are increasingly divided amongst themselves along transnationally-rooted fault lines; they are perceived less and less as parts of a positive-sum, pluralistic process of negotiating satisfactory compromises within the national political arena, and more and more as "special interests," acting against the public interest or free-riding on the collective actions of others. With the splintering of the state and the crystallization of more and more complex transnational opportunity structures, many domestically-oriented interest and pressure groups are increasingly "out of the loop," condemned to pursue politically problematic goals such as protectionism and open to marginalization as obsolete representatives of the old left or the populist right. Transnationally-linked interest groups, on the other hand, are better able to use their influence on a number of different domestic and transnational levels at the same time, even playing state actors off against each other in their desire to "level the playing field" in a politically as well as economically competitive world.

It is at this level where political agents do play a key entrepreneurial role, by acting as intermediaries between transnational pressures and interests and domestic pressures and interests. At one level, a new political quasi-consensus has emerged which identifies international competitiveness as the main criterion for policy success. Even more important, however, is the day-to-day transformation of state intervention - especially of state-business-labor relations, often challenging the very vested interests imbricated in different "national models" of capitalism. But although the competition state operates as a major collective agent in the globalization process, the capacity of political agents to act is still inextricably intertwined with the maintenance of state institutions and national discourses. They are not about to deconstruct the state itself and design transnational constitutional processes to replace it. Indeed, in a paradoxical fashion, the weight of state interventionism increases, often significantly, as the state undertakes enforcement functions on behalf of transnationally-linked economic agents - functions which transnational structures are unable or unwilling to undertake. Thus the state may be dramatically altered through a wide range of adaptive behaviors on the part of political agents, but it will not itself be fundamentally left behind.



Thus globalization is increasingly an additive process, without an overall shape or logic of its own, and without a readily identifiable set of political (or economic or social) "change masters" to give it coherence or stable values. This does not mean, of course, that globalization is not happening; it merely means that it is inchoate and difficult to assess in normative terms, much less to steer in practice. The dominant image of transnationalization and globalization today, as suggested earlier, is that of economic and business globalization. The transfer of power or system control from political agents (via states) to private economic agents would represent a massive paradigm shift - a shift that, I have suggested, is unlikely to occur in and of itself. However, another scenario can be envisaged - pressures on the nation-state/states system, interacting with tensions within that system, will cause that system to erode and weaken in key ways, but without providing enough in the way of structural resources to any category of agents (or combination of categories) to effectively shape the transnational structuration process. In other words, no group or group of groups will be at the steering wheel of change in the international system, and competition between different groups will in turn undermine the capacity of any one of them to exercise such control.

Perhaps globalization is leading not to a coherent political project of the sort that modern society has become accustomed to in the "Age of Ideology", but to a multilayered, multiple-identitied world more analogous to the medieval era. To avoid that eventuality, it will be crucial not to bury our heads in the sand, but actually to invent a more humane political project for a globalizing world. At one level, as the eminent New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has written (14 November 1997), it will be crucial to translate values such as the provision of welfare from the national to the global level - "a politics that can show people the power and potential of global integration while taking seriously their need for safety nets to protect them along the way." Another dimension may be the reconstruction at transnational level of a capacity to regulate capitalism not merely in the interests of capitalists, but in the interests of ordinary people. In both cases, what is required is a reconstitution and revivification of the concept of the public interest, without limiting the capacity to pursue that interest to the governments of states. We must neither meekly surrender to globalization nor blindly resist it. What we do need is a new understanding of political philosophy, freed from the restrictions of the national frame of reference - an understanding that will enable us to control globalization and shape it according to consciously applied human values, i.e. politically. In what is a profoundly path-dependent process, we must begin to blaze new trails.