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Home arrow Political science arrow Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization


Globalization is a term that is used so widely and so often, it is commonly assumed that its meaning must be clear. It is usually a short hand way to refer to “free trade,” growing international interdependence between countries and, more critically, the political, economic and cultural hegemony of the West over the rest of the world. While these characteristics all have their truths, they do not constitute a singular definition of globalization by any account. It may be said that finding such a definition is not altogether necessary considering the fact that it is already a known part of daily speech across the globe. However, the discourse of globalization does not just reflect reality but is also instrumental in shaping it.

There is a certain tension involved in trying to pin down what exactly “globalization” is. Specifically, it is simultaneously both ambiguous in its meaning and quite socially meaningful (Spich, 1995; Perkmann and Sum, 2002). A dominant account of this phenomenon is one that emphasizes increased international, social, political and economic integration and interdependence. Globalization is depicted “as a process (or sort of processes) which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions ... generating transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction and the exercise of power” (Held et al., 1999).

Significantly, such attempts at a definition also represent the underlying power politics at the core of globalization. It is not just that diverse perspectives of globalization differ, but that their differences perhaps represent competing visions of what globalization is and should be. The meaning granted to globalization at once reflects and helps to actively reinforce the direction and instantiation of this phenomenon. It is perhaps not surprising that the dominant understanding of globalization remains primarily the expansion of a market economy internationally (Robertson and Khondker, 1998: 25).

It is necessary, therefore, to view globalization as a dynamic and influential discourse (Rosamond, 2003). Discourse, here, is considerably more than just the language used to describe globalization. Rather it speaks to the multi-leveled effect that a given social understanding can have for impacting upon and constructing social relations. Discourse refers, in this sense, to “the structured collection of texts embodied in the practices of talking and writing (as well as a wide variety of visual representation and cultural artifacts) that brings organizationally related objects into being as these texts are produced, disseminated and consumed” (Grant et al., 2004: 3). According to Fairclough (2007) there are three particular ways in which globalization currently operates as a discourse in relation to power: (1) the role of discourses for supporting and reproducing growing international networks and relationships of power; (2) the use of the word “globalization” and associated “global” values such as “democracy” or the “free market” in legitimizing concrete changes to the world’s economy and politics; and (3) the mutually influencing relationship between “actual processes of globalization and representations of globalization.”

Globalization discourses then are fundamental to the creation and ongoing recreation of globalization in practice. They demand an understanding of the influence of cultural representations for “generating institutional structures for the ‘global,’ mediated through policies and techniques of necessary adaption” (Cameron and Palan, 2003: 167). At perhaps the simplest level, this relationship between discourse and practice can be said to be self-fulfilling. Indeed, “the very discourse and rhetoric of globalization may serve to summon precisely the effects that such a discourse attributes to globalization itself" (Hay and Marsh, 2000: 9). Popular assumptions of this phenomenon, then, strengthen and naturalize existing concrete processes, which in turn bolster these commonly held beliefs regarding what globalization actually “is" and can be.

Importantly, this discursive function of globalization can have a strong ideological dimension (Robertson and Khondker, 1998: 37). More precisely, the dominant perception of globalization is underpinned by and serves to bolster a certain worldview and set of beliefs. Politically, this use of discourse for ideological promotion is witnessed in forms of “rhetoricism” or the intentional use of discourse for strategic purposes (Hay and Rosamond, 2002). When politicians champion the need for “free trade,” they are doing more than just advocating international trade agreements. They are also often tactically deploying this phrase to support an agenda of greater marketization globally, commonly at the expense of environmental and labor concerns domestically, for instance.

The discourse of globalization is thus “facilitating” in its social effects. It fosters and helps to culturally embed certain identifications and understandings (Brenner, 1997; 1999). It can be seen in this light as a type of “normative re-ordering,” where particular ideals, norms and practices are prioritized and granted social legitimacy over others. This process of normative re-ordering, significantly, can be used to justify a dominant ideology - such as those associated with colonialism and Euro-centrism (Banerjee and Linstead, 2001).

Specifically, the mainstream rhetoric of globalization, as well as the deeper discourses surrounding it, represents an elite commitment to a “neoliberal ideology” (Steger, 2005). The objective is to entrench values of privatization and marketization within and across nations (see for instance Hill and Kumar, 2008; Mensah, 2008; Passas, 2000). In policy terms it has meant:

New forms of globalized production relations and financial systems are forcing governments to abandon their commitment to the welfare state. Rather than formulating policies to ensure full neoliberalism employment and an inclusive social welfare system, governments are now focused on enhancing economic efficiency and international competitiveness. One consequence is the “rolling back” of welfare state activities, and a new emphasis on market provisioning of formerly “public” goods and services. (Larner, 2000: 6-7)

Such a project is accomplished, in no small part, by the association of globalization discursively with these neoliberal ideals.

To this end, discourses of globalization reflect the subjective element underpinning the structural and concrete spread of capitalism internationally. In this regard, an underexplored but crucial component of the study of globalization is the affective “grip” it has on individuals. In what ways do discourses of globalization emotionally and psychologically appeal to individuals, and in doing so lead them to invest in these capitalist ideologies, often in quite unexpected ways? Particularly relevant to this study, how is this creating a common “subject of globalization” across contexts, a subject who displays similar desires for and legitimizations of political authoritarianism?

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