The Limits of Globalisation

Barry Gilheany discusses globalisation.

In this article I engage with the essentially contested phenomenon of globalization in the domains of culture, politics and economics. I analyse a number of theoretical approaches to globalization with particular emphasis on internationalist perspectives. I critique internationalist perspectives and compare them to others and conclude by endorsing internationalism fused to social constructivist insights.

Globalization is the subject of intense debate amongst social scientists concerning definition, meaning, measurement, chronology, explanation and impact. It is a multi-dimensional process which relates to the totality of social relations: cultural, economic, political, social and environmental. It is not reducible to one single process, as if ‘it’ could be explained from an Archimedean standpoint (Ritzer, ed. 2007). Rather it consists of two major directional tendencies: increasing global connectivity and increasing global consciousness and the dimensions just mentioned are heavily intertwined. (Ritzer, Ed: p.64).

To give a brief account of the operation of globalization, it is generally accepted that it consists of four main elements: stretched social relation across nation state boundaries and involving transcontinental and inter-regional relations which extend across the globe e.g. environmental degradation; intensification of flows or increased density of interaction around the world causing greater global impact of events such as famine, war and earthquakes; increasing interpenetration between apparently distant cultures and societies as for example in the ‘outflow’ of US/Western cultural products such as Coca Cola and Hollywood but also the ‘return’ flows to the West of the Latin American soap operas telenovelas and music from Africa and the creation of a global institutional infrastructure enabling globalized networks to operate e.g. international organisations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, networks of cities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (Held, ed. 2004).

The mainstream literature on globalization usually categorises three different views on it: Globalists, Inter-nationalists and Transformationalists. I believe that a fourth approach has much to teach students of and activists in the arena of globalization: that of constructivism

Briefly, globalists believe globalization is an inevitable development to which resistance by rational political actors such as the nation-state is futile. The world wide expansion of market forces and in information and communications technology will eventually bypass the state and increased inter-connectedness will lead to a more homogenous global village. “Positive Globalists” view globalization as beneficial as ‘rising tides will raise all boats” meaning that it will improve the quotidian of humanity’s prosperity and potential. Neo-liberal proponents of this view propound a particularly positive narrative of globalization (Ritzer, ed.: pp.67-83). On the other hand, “Pessimistic Globalists” tell a story of globalization as the driver of dominant economic and political interests and of the erosion of national identities and sovereignty. Prominent in these are accounts of “Americanisation” from the Left (Held & McGrew, 2007) but also laments from the populist Right about the effects of large-scale migration to Europe.

Transformationalists recognize the significance of globalization but do not accept the inevitability of its impact as the state remains a powerful actor but its scope to act is constrained by unaccountable global forces. They call for an accountable and democratic modes of global governance to address this democratic deficit. “Inter-nationalists argue that the globalization process can be traced back to at least the 19th century, that most economic and social activity is regional rather than global and that
regional actors derive benefit from globalization. Furthermore, the state retains its legitimacy and military capacities on the world stage. (Held. Ed: pp.135 – 142). Lastly, social constructivism allows a critical view of many of the seemingly immutability of many globalization discourses and emphasizes the possibility of change rather than the inevitability of global processes.

As I am focusing on internationalist perspectives on globalization, I cite internationalism in wider debates within International Relations theory.

Classical internationalism is premised upon a depiction of the sovereign state as not only a still viable form of human community, but that remains more an aspiration than a reality for millions of people and whose dissolution is greeted with foreboding by millions more. (Iraq post 2003 invasion may be a case in point). (Lawler, 2005). Three distinct strands of contemporary internationalism can be identified: liberal internationalism, reform internationalism and radical internationalism.

The current world system is based on the geo-political understanding of the nation-state established by the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). Within this world of sovereign, territorially defined states, there is no superior authority above the state and law making and enforcement are largely the functions of individual states. States are equal before the law and, above all, foreign powers should not interfere in the internal affairs of other states (Held, ed.: p.131).

However global politics is no longer concerned only with security but with a large range of socio-economic and environmental issues such as climate change, drugs, organized crime and human rights which transcend national jurisdictions and require international cooperation for their solution. A global polity of sorts has emerged with a suprastate layer of global agencies such the UN, IMF, World Bank and WTO and regional regulatory schemes such as the EU and NAFTA; a transnational layer of transnational civil society organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and
World Wildlife Fund and a substate layer of governance involving devolution from central to the subsidiary or local level with local municipalities taking on cross frontier initiatives on economic cooperation and crime control.

In response to the question of in whose interests this system of global governance works in aid of, Inter-nationalists assert that we are living in an era of global governance. They emphasise the critical importance of the dominant powers in shaping the contours of global governance, viewing the US as the main actor having emerged from the Cold War as the sole superpower with the capacity to determine outcomes in its own interests. However, superpowers do not directly control the institutions of global governance. Rather they do it through “hegemonic governance”; their capacity to veto and bypass international bodies such as the UN enables them to wield huge sway over the management of global affairs as the US did in going to war in Iraq in 2003 and Russia did in preventing no-fly zones in the Syrian conflict.

Internationalist perspectives on globalization are best viewed through the prism of the Good State. At a minimum the Good State is simply a state committed to moral purposes beyond itself, to a robust internationalism in its foreign policy. By Internationalism is meant a philosophy of foreign policy constructed around an ethical obligation on the part of states actively to pursue authentically other-regarding values and interests. In other words, the Good State is an idea that takes seriously the
ascription of moral responsibilities such as the state (Lawler, 2005: pp.441-42). The  internationalization of the state was evident at the 1998 G8 Birmingham Summit where the G8 leaders agreed to an action plan to coordinate their national programmes with respect to drug trafficking and organised crime which was followed by the announcement at the UN General Assembly of a new war on illicit drugs. The internationalization of the state is also evident by the international offices attached to almost every Whitehall department which deal directly with their counterparts in foreign governments.

Globalists do not see this hegemonic process as something related to the US or any other powerful state but to global corporate capital which has managed to form a new capitalist global order. According to this account, the institutions of global governance such as the IMF and World Bank and the apparatus of nation-states are in essence used by corporate capital for gaining control of and managing the global capitalist order for their own benefit. Globalists argue that while national governments are too small to deal with global problems affecting their citizens such as global warming and the drugs trade they are too big to deal with matters like recycling. Thus, in the UK, Whitehall power is being eclipsed by bodies above it (the EU), below it (Scottish and Welsh
Assemblies) and bodies beside it (Held, ed.: p.130)

Transformationalists contest both accounts of political globalization. They argue that rather than ceding power as having to adjust to a new context in which decision making and sovereignty is pooled with many other public and private agencies in parallel to the nation state. In the UK, this ‘powershift’ has expressed in the continuing disputes about national sovereignty in relation to the EU and devolution (Held, ed.: pp, 148-51)

On economic globalization, it is generally accepted that international trade and forms of financial activity (e.g. foreign direct investment (FDI), stock exchange transactions, etc.) have increased significantly in the last three decades. Globalists emphasise such structures as multinational corporations (MNCs), transnational economy and the emergence of a new global division of labour. They argue that the ability of nation states to control economic markets is steadily declining and in, for example, their control is already minimal (Ritzer and Dean, 2015).

Transformationalists respond by arguing that within the economy there are few genuine MNCs – most continue to be in their original national locations (e.g. Daimler in Germany and Toyota in Japan). They argue that it is regional blocs of nations as well as specific nations – not MNCs- that engage in new forms of economic imperialism. In addition powerful conglomerations of them, for example G-20 etc., continue and regulate and exert great control over the global economy (Ritzer and Dean: p.29). States do take action to deal with the negative effects of economic globalization e.g. French quotas on US cultural products, US restrictions on steel imports in 2002 and Malaysia’s restrictions on capital movement during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 (Held, ed.: pp.105-07)

Internationalists argue that globalisation is no more than the strengthening of long term and deeply entrenched patterns of inequality between rich and poor regions and countries. International economic governance is still directed by the stronger and richer States for their own benefit through global institutions established at the end of World War Two and GATT. Trade and investment are primarily regional, while companies and consumer markets remain predominantly national; e.g. since 1985 the US, Germany, Japan, the UK and France have been the home of almost 70% and host
of 55% of all FDI flows. (Held, ed., pp.110- 121)

Regarding culture, globalization sceptics reject the idea of a global popular culture especially one dominated by the USA promoted by globalists. They point to the reassertion of national and regional cultural independence (e.g. the Italian slow cooking movement as counterpoint to fast food culture), the growing nationalisation of the Internet and, on a related point, the resurgence of xenophobic national and regional Movements such as the French National Front and Legia Nord in Italy as evidence of strong counter trends to a homogenous global popular culture (Ritzer and Dean: p.30). The Brexit referendum result in the UK and the election of far right cultural nationalist governments in Hungary and :Poland furnish more of many such examples.

Social constructivism provides an interesting fourth perspective on globalization. Constructivism is based on a social ontology which insists that human agents do not exist independently from their social environment and its collectively shared systems of meaning or culture. Human agency creates, reproduces and changes culture through our daily practices. From a social constructivist viewpoint, there is very little “given” about globalization. For example, depriving anonymous market forces of human agency overlooks, for example, that the liberalization of capital markets occurred at certain points in time by concrete political decisions (e.g. deregulation of the London Stock Exchange in the “Big Bang” of 1986)). Thus, human agency is involved (Held & McGrew: p.128).

Furthermore, social constructivists would likely contend that the concept of “globalization” itself constitutes a particular interpretation of a social reality which itself being interpreted and reinterpreted by social agents. In relation to one particular account of globalization, it is hard to recognize a worldview of American unipolar hegemony with globalization and inter-connectedness. (McGrew and Held
: p.129)

They use the concepts of communicative action developed by J├╝rgen Habermas and discursive practices as developed by Michel Foucault to examine the means by which power relationships are established and maintained to deconstruct received wisdom on globalization. In other words, who is allowed to speak in a discursive arena, what is regarded as a sensible proposition and which meaning constructions become so dominant that they become taken for granted? For example, the all-pervasive neo-liberal discourse on globalization in the 1990s generated a counter-discourse from the so-called “anti-globalisation”, transnational social movements (which are actually constituted by the globalization process, only “globalization from below”. (McGrew andHeld: pp.131-32), Habermas and Foucault thus enable us to introduce transformative potential into the supposed inevitability of globalization (McGrew and Held: p.142).

In conclusion, I have argued that the story of the “Good State” given in ‘classical’ internationalism married to the insights of social constructivism offer the best analytical and normative accounts of globalization. That the advent of the Internet and other forms of social media has made the globe more accessible to more people at least in the virtual sense is undeniable. But the world has not been homogenized to the extent that globalists either welcome or decry and the capacity of states or groups of states acting in concert has very much survived in parallel to the multiple levels of governance that have emerged to deal with the contingencies of globalization. The notions of agency advanced by social constructivism provide powerful tools to those who challenge “inevitability” narratives of globalization.


Ikenberry, G. J “Globalisation as American Hegemony” in Held, D. and McGrew, A. (eds.) (2007) Globalisation Theory. Approaches and Controversies pp.41-61 Cambridge: Polity Press

Kelly, B. and Prokhovnik, R. “Economic Globalisation? In Held, D. (ed.) (2004) A Globalising World? Culture, Economics, Politics pp.85-125 Second Edition London: Routledge

Lawler, P. (2005) The Good State: In Praise of ‘Classical’ Internationalism Review of International Studies 31: 427-449

McGrew, A “Power Shift: From National Government to Global Governance” in Held, D (ed.) (2004) A Globalising World? Culture, Economics, Politics pp.127-168 Second Edition London: Routledge

Ritzer, G and Dean, P (2015) Globalisation/ A Basic Text Second Edition Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd

Robertson, R, and White, K.E. “What is Globalisation?” in Ritzer, R. (Ed.) (2007) The Blackwell Companion to Globalisation Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

⏩ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.


  1. Barry Gilheany

    "But the world has not been homogenized to the extent that globalists either welcome or decry and the capacity of states or groups of states acting in concert has very much survived in parallel to the multiple levels of governance that have emerged to deal with the contingencies of globalization"

    For the time being.

    The inter-connectivity you mention in the digital sense is the reason why now more than ever the politicians are being held accountable in their own nation-states. Corruption and rule by diktat will not be tolerated much longer. I'd argue Brexit is a symptom of this.

    The divide between the obscenely wealthy and the destitute will continue, until the mass communication between the people conveys the stark truth; Capitalism has failed the vast majority of the people.

  2. Steve R

    Thanks for your comment

    I would argue that one aspect of Brexit was a cri de couer from those feeling left behind by globalisation; a cry shamelessly exploited by transnational dark money.

  3. Globalisations main facet is unrestrained Capitalism, what is the 'Dark Money' you speak of, Barry?

  4. Steve R

    From Robert Mercer and Arran Banks for starters.