Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-1999, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

The myth of "Globalization"
The World Market as an Objective Constraint

1. An idea makes it big…

When a word becomes a slogan, it starts getting treated as a concept. Yet, just because it gets used over and over again doesn’t guarantee that those who use the word, who consider it to be so meaningful, have actually conceived anything. In fact, people never start with an explanation of what exactly the discussion is about when they haul out their clever word. On the contrary, a proper slogan indicates someone in the know, spares the need for any further comment, and demands general agreement; this, no doubt, explains the popularity of slogans among those of our contemporaries intent on earning a bit of irrefutability for their otherwise quite personal opinions. On the other hand, slogans have earned a bad reputation among people mindful of the bad habit of using some shorthand to avoid reasons and explanations, and to kill off any attempts by others in this direction. To those who occasionally want to know something more precisely, fiddling about with slogans is a dishonest manner of discourse. It is a way of conjuring up necessities without any sensible basis and demanding general recognition for them — necessities that are in no way as necessary as the so eagerly bandied-about slogan would suggest. On the contrary, these necessities are intended to conceal interests and intentions that really deserve no recognition at all, but rather closer examination.

The slogan "globalization" has been spared any such suspicion. The intellectual community populating editorial offices and universities makes lively use of this "concept" as an argument; and thereby spares politicians and businessmen — the leading authorities of "democracy & market economy" — from accusations to the effect that they merely use their litany of "globalization" to justify what they would do anyway but for different reasons. Ever since governments and leading industrialists each started admonishing and urging the other to take up the challenge called "globalization," a considerable amount of literature on this topic has appeared:

  • Some thinkers, accustomed to taking the success of the state and the economy as the object of concern in their theoretical efforts, promptly accepted the news of a new "situation," with which politicians and entrepreneurs would have to cope; right away they knew all about a historical phenomenon that the business world has to fend off and which no political leadership can evade. They diligently depict what "globalization" supposedly consists in — some discover "the emergence of worldwide markets for products, capital, and services;" all of them are amazed at how money gets shoved around the globe in "fractions of a second." Of course they simply can’t fail to warn about worldwide environmental pollution, which also spreads in a jiffy, since the nations contributing the most to the global mess can’t agree on, much less implement, any regulations. Children’s toys are made of Chinese plastic instead of local material; millions of people are not staying put where birth has cast them but hie themselves instead over to foreign countries; and so on. To round out the image of "globalization," which numerous authors depict with plenty of illustrative material, they never fail to revert to the message they want to send. The above phenomena supposedly represent just so many problems, which states are not really up to dealing with; states are confronted with the concentrated power of "global players" on whom they are dependent without having them under control; at the very least, these states run the risk of "losing their economic and monetary sovereignty as a consequence of the globalization of private industry;" and nowhere to be seen is any kind of "global governance" — a possible response to the machinations of "global players," which "in any case cannot be undone." This doesn’t stop the globalization pundits from advising politicians to act resolutely in the face of globalization and prove their mettle. For then it could also represent an opportunity.
  • Others start where the narrators of stories that take place these days on the world market unerringly end. They share the diagnosis of economic internationalization causing nation-states a heap of trouble. Given that the successes of big and small business alike are after all based on profitable exports and imports, as well as on worldwide investments, these thinkers are just as convinced that "globalization" isn’t something that "can be halted or even turned back just like that." Since they also recognize that these successes are a matter of great importance for nation-states, they count on politicians following their advice to use their power to satisfy the requirements of "globalization." So there’s a second type of globalization literature appearing, one that takes into account all the responses to this striking phenomenon, forecasts and problematizes the inescapable consequences for "society" and pleads for adjustments, adaptation, rethinking, stuff like that.

    Sociologists and social philosophers expect businessmen to get their companies fit for "globalized markets;" they expect politicians to attend to their mandate to govern the country qua business location in such a manner that it withstands the pressure of globalization. All the measures taken in this regard, while reported in the newspapers, are touched on but little in the commentaries of authentic social thinkers. They are more interested in the changes "society" must go through, "society" by definition being for them nothing but a more or less stable social life of people who behave and relate to each other in accordance with norms and values that they have internalized. For this branch of science, "globalization" has many an effect in store that will be decisive for the "future" and "stability" of "society." That means readjustment for the world, many a value lost, new behavior demanded, and relationships governed by modern means of communication. Deep reflection is called for: what shall we do about the strange, global values descending upon us, possibly contrary to the local or regional traditions that we feel at home in and that convey a feeling of familiarity? Is there a home in the digital world of work for our acquired professions, or will we be forced to rush hither and thither with our computers after jobs whose requirements change from day to day? And what will we do with all our mobility and our CD-ROM-knowledge if — as is predicted — globalization isn’t able to provide us all with jobs? Are we then going to employ ourselves or merely occupy ourselves? While, for example, in deciding whether to buy Chinese gym shoes or good-old, locally made slippers, we are struck by the enormity of "global communication and information systems not failing to influence the various national and regional cultures, now and then altering them right down to our daily habits?"


If, as is here the case, scientific publications cannot be distinguished either from opinion pieces or from the harangues of soapbox orators, then the campaign for proper respect for "globalization" has gone down well. It means that this idea is making headway, and as is always the case when an inspiration catches on, does so because humanity is spared the unreasonable demand that something essential needs to be changed. On the contrary, the changes that globalization theorists report on have long since taken place, or are already under way anyway. The diagnosis of "globalization" is accordingly dedicated to those who are now and then mentioned as being responsible for the enormous upheaval. The process of globalization is described as being "to a great extent the result of decisions that states have made in the past and are still making. It is the governments, which have step by step torn down the bulwarks around their economies and continue to do so (liberalization of foreign trade)." It’s just possible their aim was and is to enable lots of companies to expand their business internationally: selling and buying, investing, merging and so on. Not that globalization theorists don’t know that, but it just isn’t important for the considerations they are intent on circulating. Neither do they attempt to explain the calculations coming into play in the modern world market in such a way that one could learn how governments and capitalists cooperate as well as get in each other’s way. Nor are they concerned that governments — bent on foreign trade in commodities, money and capital — together with the calculations of experienced businessmen make binding laws for the production and distribution of wealth around the world. They simply take it the other way around, putting themselves in the position of the decisive authorities of the world economy to certify to them that they have succumbed to foreign "entanglements." That’s why the diagnosis regularly leads to the worried recommendation that state and capital should take care, bearing in mind how dependent they are on the worldwide course of business. Giving themselves the air of neutral observers, globalization thinkers discover that the world market is indeed a market and thus an organized competition, in which the achievements of companies and nations do not complement one another — wouldn’t that form of "dependency" be a fine thing! — but rather, in the form of growth measured in money, exclude one another. And this outstanding discovery is designated as the very newest and latest objective constraint at the end of the twentieth century! Merely mentioning the slogan "globalization" is thus tantamount to, and understood as, a demand for one and only one practical conclusion: companies and states that make the whole world serve their interests are under enormous pressure — after all, they could lose out in the competition — and have to pay close attention to their competitiveness. Quote: "But in an extensively liberalized world, even whole states compete as production sites against each other in commodity and labor markets due to [?] their different social and societal relations. For that reason it’s even being discussed in Germany whether the [nation] is economically competitive…" Unquote.

This is really remarkable. Finally, at last there’s supposedly something truly new happening in this world of capitalistic haggling with its charming contrasts, familiar to and beloved by us all, between poverty and wealth, work and power. A veritable upheaval has unfolded before our very eyes: the void left behind by "imperialism," which made its exit long ago, has been filled by globalization — and what’s the outcome? The leading authorities of "democracy & market economy" are now experiencing the phenomenon of globalization, which they themselves had laboriously developed, as a regime of tyranny; the brave new world categorically forces them to stand up to international comparison. And in order to prevail despite the dependency they find themselves in, they must do almost exactly the same as they were intent on doing for their success long before the alleged turning point in the world economy at the end of the twentieth century. That hurts, but it can’t be avoided — not to mention for the many walk-on extras of the world economy who, for their part, are dependent on their nations’ and economies’ success. The guardians of their homelands and their employers carry the responsibility for them — as the means, as the victims, as the appendages, so to speak, of every competitive endeavor.


Politicians and leading businessmen quickly noticed how useful the new ideology was. After all, their job isn’t merely restricted to making decisions. It is also always a matter of giving the rest of the world — which is always afflicted by their decisions — good reasons for the use of their political and financial power. And this slogan handed them a reason on a plate: a reason that makes no fuss whatsoever about their responsibility for the conditions of life of the entire community, a reason that therefore at best allows only for the demand that they do "their job" well; a reason that exempts the fundamental rules for the capitalistic dealing with labor and for political calculations with money and power from any further discussion, in that it transfigures the bearers of political and economic control into mere executive bodies for objective constraints at whose mercy they stand; and finally, a reason which promotes them as honest heirs of Martin Luther (who stood there, and couldn’t do otherwise)[1] by claiming that the acquisition of money to the exclusion of others and the accretion of political power were never their aim, but rather just an inescapable method of competition. Even for the dumbest politician or industrialist who otherwise only distinguishes between plus and minus, such a reason is just what the doctor ordered — so to speak, the multi-tool for justifying whatever measures the managers of state and capital can think of. Ever since this slogan became available, absolutely everything — from wage and spending cuts to privatization and the launch of a new European currency, is passed off as a reaction to globalization.

2. … and finds suitable material

Subsuming every capitalistic affair under the category of competitive pressure is, from the standpoint of logic, a clear case of abstract thinking. Nobody is really interested in this point, however; at any rate not from the point of view that said thinking shows certain defects in its judgment concerning the world market and its movers and shakers. Abstract thinking is unpopular because it isn’t "concrete," which is understood these days by educated people as a call to supplement their slogans with a collection of examples so that everybody is able to understand what is thereby meant.

In our case, for example, misunderstandings would possibly have arisen had the pundits of globalization simply pronounced: "On the world market, where we are active, there is competition!" This might not have been met with the desired, unanimous response, something like: "Well, if that’s the way things are, then there really isn’t any alternative." Instead, a curious youth might have even raised the question: "So, what is your competition all about then?" — and found an answer; namely, that competing is somewhat the opposite of international "cooperation" and "division of labor;" being rather only the form in which the nasty business of making money at the expense of other people and nations takes place. Yet in our case, it hasn’t come to that, since young and old have been successfully hoodwinked — by the slogan of "globalization" and the flood of examples coming along with it. The latter demonstrate "concretely" to the audience what exciting upheavals it is witnessing, thereby showing what you supposedly can’t rely upon any more due to globalization, what kind of difficulties those at the top have to contend with, and how many objectively-constrained situations meanwhile reflect globalization at work. In the end, everybody, from bankers to tabloid readers and unemployed voters, frankly wishes nothing more than that the world economy could, at last, be controlled — by whom is not in question. The responsibilities have already been assigned; what is required is, of course, carrying them out responsibly.

a) Every study on "globalization" feels obliged right off to strike the blow that will somehow unsettle the citizen’s mind. Each text deals with globally active capital that is allegedly beyond the control of a political power sadly restricted to its national sovereign territory. "Diminishing government influence" is one of the more feeble findings. More thought-provoking is the assertion that the state can no longer fulfill its tasks, even less so democratically (meaning with the people participating somehow) when the economy is run by multinationals. This is not at all meant as a critique of the system, as it would have been decades ago, but rather spurs concerns for the state of health of the nation. Some just as urgently illuminate the problem that has arisen with globalization with the warning that the state is endangering itself by gambling with its sovereignty. This hits home; this is just what you get for single-mindedly not paying attention to the economic symbiosis of business and state power. But when globalization theorists get to their point, they show rather little concern for everything they already know so well. Certainly nobody need tell them that states have indeed exercised their sovereign power in "paving the way" for domestic and formerly foreign companies to go about their global business. Nor would they take it for an eye-opening pronouncement were the aim of market economy internationalism to be recited — that growth is supposed to come about by earning money abroad at the expense of foreigners. Nor have they in any way failed to notice that the governments of market economy democracies, for each of whom the status of "leading industrialist nation" is beyond doubt, have indeed during the last decade pursued their budgetary, monetary, and economic policies in a very sovereign way; and further that there is no lack of "influence" as far as events beyond their borders are concerned. So is there no way of getting one up on the folks spreading the myth of the weakness of states by reminding them of the achievements of "national states" in the creation and utilization of the world market.

Despite many an exaggeration in their portrayals of the world market, where big business high-handedly pursues its free trade ventures while condemning the state to respect its concerns, the ideologists of "globalization" still never go so far as to put forward a critical theory of the world economy that would maintain that states no longer had a role to play in the movement of internationally engaged capital, much less shut themselves out of it! On the contrary, it is precisely in depicting the state’s predicament, thanks to the global economy, that they discuss nothing but the necessity of government action that worldwide "integration" demands. They unfailingly end up with proposals to their favorite state power recommending what use they ought to make of their power. The preparation of a country qua business location for "competitiveness" is as obvious for them as is their own government’s forceful interference in the governmental business of other nations — after all, these are the undeniable requirements of "globalization."

The advantage of limited perception for the formation of a theory is not to be underestimated. People who, in their view of the contemporary world economy, content themselves with the observation that there "is" competition have obviously already made up their minds. First of all, they find it quite correct that capitalists all over the world try for business success at home and abroad because growth, on which jobs and well-being all over the world depend, results from this success. As far as this goes, they have no problem admitting this is capitalism; after all, why deny something when there is no alternative? Secondly, they take it for granted that states, indeed especially states, "live" on this business success and so, in the interest of their own power, simply have to clear away any and all barriers to business. That’s why they stick to the hollow phrase that there is no way back from the internationalized economy. Thirdly, they agree that states must see to it that enough of the cross-border accumulation of capital accrues for their own balances of payments and budgets, which puts them into conflict with like national capital sites. Fourthly, they want their favorite nation to firmly ward off the risk of coming up the loser. The friends of globalization never weary of warning against the risk that their country could fall behind in the competition of nations should the proceeds of the globalized economy end up being delivered to the wrong address. So that without any theory of imperialism they come up with a forceful call for politico-economic nationalism, and without any sense of shame they — after having discovered competition to be an "objective constraint" — recommend imperialistic practices.

b) People at home in the dialectics of the risks and opportunities of "globalization" are animated by an ideal that they demand their nation realize: politics must see to it that the international rough and tumble of capital takes place smoothly, and that the economic success achieved thereby coincides with the increase of power of their favored nation(s). And it is not only competitors’ parallel efforts that make a bad impression on those who sympathize with the successful national utilization of the world market. Danger also threatens from another corner; namely, from a very powerful creation of international capital. Of course, we’re not talking about the billions of human beings who have been turned into dependent variables of global growth and who have plenty of good reasons to get the regime of the market economy off their backs. No, we are talking about finance capital, which is profitably shuttled back and forth among all the nations. This branch of the markets has repeatedly raised suspicions among fans of the globalization myth — always in those cases where business fails. In this respect, the attention paid to the markets that deal with money and debts and nothing else has turned out to be as scanty as that paid to the rest of capitalism.

The main thread running through the warnings about this financial sphere likewise concerns the experience of helplessness that the directors of the market economy have to undergo. Yet these troubles haven’t materialized as they have in the conflicts with competitors due to their achievements; rather, economic interests are damaged in this case once "investors" of money capital fail in their trading in currencies, shares and derivatives. Globalization theorists are from the start in agreement with economic policymakers and industrial managers that the services provided by finance capital are indispensable — services that, however, only come about when the calculations on profit-yielding scraps of paper and computer-expedited orders work out. Once some banks go bust, a stock exchange crashes, and a currency gives up its purchasing-power ghost, then they know it all, but the other way around — after all, they’re on the receiving end. Due to the effects on their own business, the "markets" come in for severe criticism. This has its comical side too, considering that the authorities that not only provide the international credit business with "products" to trade in and speculate with but also take an active part in it complain about what these "markets" are doing to them:

  • Even slightly more abrupt movements on currency exchanges that mess up a nation’s foreign trade occasionally induce financial policymakers to scold that "merely speculative" movements have led to an incorrect valuation of their monetary power and/or an undermining of their nation’s competitiveness. Nobody is then supposed to raise the objection that this criticism is being brought forward by those very same people who, as their nation’s officeholders, continually create money and expose the national credit to the test of the ominous "markets," thereby speculating on the speculation, and who, in those cases where their speculation is confirmed, brag about the trustworthy strength of their nation and its economy. In this area as well, success proves who is right. Failure, on the other hand, is always the work of foreign agencies and, as a matter of fact, of inadmissible interests.
  • If the financial shocks are somewhat more severe, as was the case during the currency crises of the 90’s, the tone of criticism is turned up a notch to reflect the degree of damage. Statesmen and bankers, journalists and industrialists, who would never allow a harsh word to be spoken against capitalism, rail against "casino capitalism." That governments, banks and large companies equally and repeatedly share in this economic deterioration — as suppliers of the stuff that the casino can and should speculate in; and additionally as potent "institutional" investors attempting with their "puts and calls" to draw as many millions as possible from the casino — that they do all this is pretty much irrelevant to the critics. What is most important is that no one mentions who it is that vests these unpredictable "markets" with the power that enables them to mess up entire national economic accounts with just a few decisions. It is entirely sufficient to point to the disastrous effects on future business that an unleashed speculation can give rise to as soon as it withdraws its favor from state, industrial or financial projects, a favor it had been granting them up to that point.
  • The globalization philosophers take to heart the troubles besetting capital and state due to the dangerous unpredictability of international financial markets as much as they do those stemming from foreign competition. In the latter case — after having studied the "constraints of globalization" — they have not made any proposals to abolish the worldwide, capitalistic competition of nations; neither do they do make proposals for prohibiting the credit business after examining this branch of the economy. They do not deign to look into the nature of this business, which is in fact founded to make money regardless of any producer’s credit needs. On the contrary, they appreciate the function of this business as being all the more indispensable. It is clearly possible to attest to the achievements of a sphere in which credit is amassed in the interest of a functioning competition without being able to name a single one of them. And the "blunders" that precipitate crises, i.e., the general disruptions of the worldwide course of business, are characterized rather childishly by the friends of globalization: first of all, there is too much interest-bearing credit in circulation because secondly, thanks to modern means of communication, it all happens too fast.

3. The effects of the globalization debate

Considerations about the practical difficulties that plague economy and nation in their efforts to become big and strong on the world market have one virtue: regardless of the quality of the judgments, they are recognizable as efforts to contribute to the success of projects being carried out. Such considerations are always appreciated.

But they also have a disadvantage. As a corroboration of the calculations that have already been made by the authorities, as an outline of strategies which have long since been pursued, they are superfluous.

However, such well-meant offers are not refused by political and economic authorities merely because there is no demand for them. In order to get the nation qua site for capital accumulation shipshape for advancing against competing nations as categorically as possible; in order to make common cause with the competition in the IMF and elsewhere in watching out for erroneous moves of the markets so as to establish a bit of world order — for these initiatives, the decision-making masters of the world market certainly wouldn’t have needed hundreds of publications on "globalization." Once, however, the members of the politicizing intelligentsia have wasted so much paper on the success of capital and state, which they see as standing or falling with timely responses to "globalization," then the issue can be stood on its head. From this point on, every rationalization and merger, every international venture, from the launch of a new currency to a war, is a response to "globalization."

Translators’ Note

[1] "Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders!" Apocryphal remark of Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms, 1521.

© GegenStandpunkt 2002