Defining the Sociological Interest in Globalisation

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Globalisation Dynamic as Seen by “early Sociology”

Three outstanding sociological authorities referred to globalisation as such roughly in the mid 1840s and at the turn of the 19th century: Auguste Comte with his idea of ‘global sociology’, Karl Marx with his idea of spatially aggressive capital, and Georg Simmel with his outline of possible consequences of the spatial expansion of cultural artefacts from one cultural environment to another, with which he anticipated the cultural process of ‘Americanisation’.

Marx’s idea concerned the economic sphere and read thus, ‘History slowly becomes the world’s history in the sense that the satisfaction of the needs of each civilised nation and each individual in the nation has become dependent on the entire world and that the naturally occurring isolation of nations has been reduced,’ (Marx, German Ideology). It read in a different way elsewhere, ‘Thus, while capital has to strive to eliminate all local limitations to contact, that is, conquer Earth as a whole as its market, on the one hand, it also strives to conquer space with time on the other hand, that is, to minimise time required for movement from one place to another.’ (Marx, Grundrisse) Therefore, ‘The tendency to create a global market is defined directly in the notion of capital. Every limit appears as a limitation that has to be outstepped.’ (l.c.:15). Both the texts were written by Marx in the 1840s and 1850s. However, Marx says nothing else than that the tendency to globalise (a term which he of course did not know of and did not use) is coded in the economic nature of modern society, symbolised, driven and geared by capital according to Marx.

Immanuel Wallerstein made perhaps the most consistent elaboration on Marx’s inspiration, establishing a so-called world system theory. In this theory, an organically connected ‘world system’ has been evolving gradually but unstoppably since the mid 16th century, in which capitalist economy has played the decisive role. The dynamics of the world system (divided into the centre, semi-periphery and periphery) has increased substantially after 1945, when the capitalist economy expanded extremely, be it in terms of population movement (migration), production value, technology, accumulation of capital, or environmental change (Wallerstein 1999). However, unlike Marx, Wallerstein is no optimist: he fears that ‘the menace of global chaos, both economic and political, is going to grow’ (Wallerstein: ibid), so it is high time (if not too late) we searched for an alternative. The searching for an alternative is all the more difficult when done in the conditions of a so-called risk society (i.e., one in which any significant threatening change may induce catastrophic consequences of global proportions, cf. Beck 1986), and in a situation where the belief in progress, in a possible radical change for the better, has disappeared. Ulrich Beck has shown that the global menace, paradoxically, leads to people ‘displacing’ it, considering those who alert to the danger more dangerous than the danger itself. In such a situation, however, they turn themselves into a ‘herd of scapegoats’.

Originally Marxist thought about conquering and subjugating space with time, however, is considered by contemporary globalisation analysts to be the principal thesis for the understanding of the process. Anthony Giddens says quite clearly that there are three fundamental sources of the dynamic development of modernity leading to globalisation:

  • separation of time and space, which is both a method of precise time and space zoning and a process of conquering space with time,
  • development of so-called disengaging mechanisms, which force social activity out of local contexts and reorganise social relationships across great time-space distances (this the Marx’s destruction of the naturally occurring isolation of nations), and
  • reflexive appropriation of knowledge, meaning nothing else than that the production of systemic knowledge of social life becomes the integral part of the reproduction of the system which forces life out of fixed tradition (Giddens 1998 a 1999).

The last quote is another, however related story – concerning culture: ‘Europe’s suicide in favour of America has triggered a new epoch of world history, which continues its move East to West. Several millennia ago, history culminated in Asia, then moved west to Europe; nowadays it seems it can go even further – to America – and Europe is going to become what Greece was to Old Romans: an interesting place for the Americans to visit, a place full of ruins and great memories, a place for artists, philosophers, and windbags. Not only has the reality of Europe vanished: its idea has vanished, as after all, it is not a timeless one, like Humanity or Beauty, but a historic idea. If Europe was not … to disintegrate completely, it should still fight a battle against America. But of course I can be so supranational to say – Surely one day a world American culture will emerge the forms of which we can foresee as much as Old Egyptians could foresee the present forms of the state. But there is no reason for complaints. For what reason should Europe have the right to rent culture eternally at no cost? And so, if Europe recedes culturally, or is forced to recede, then that means nothing but that it does not deserve otherwise.’ (Simmel 1994)

The above words were not produced by a Neo-marxist critic of Americanisation or an elitist promoter of High Culture, but by sociologist Georg Simmel, who wrote them just before death as a desperate German patriot, very much concerned not only about the fate of Germany, but fearing for the fate of all of Europe after World War I. The text comes from a letter addressed to Count Hermann Keyserling, dated 18 May 1918; it is but eighty-one years old.

Simmel opened an issue which is perceived nowadays as an ‘organic’ part of the everyday life – diffusion of different cultures, because globalisation (a) is not exclusively an economic phenomenon, but cultural as well, and (b) is not a one-way process (from the West to the rest of the world). Naturally, the existence of the influential so-called cultural imperialism theory cannot be ignored: economic and political globalisation leads to disappearing cultural differences in favour of one dominant culture – American, or at least Euro-Atlantic culture. Well-known symbols of the Americanisation of the world exist (Hollywood, Coca-Cola). On the other hand, the cultural process termed hybridisation cannot be ignored either, in which different cultures influence each other and merge in a new union. Finally, there is one phenomenon with no historical precedence: a sort of global youth subculture emerges thanks to new technologies (media), where youth in the parts of the world affected by globalisation dress in the same ways, listen to the same music, go skating, do graffiti, etc. This dimension of globalisation, nonetheless, leads to the formulation of another big virgin topic: the generation conflict issue. We are therefore witnessing not only ‘mutual influencing of cultures’ but also a mutual relation between generation subcultures, which may become more conflicting than ever before.