Forms of Discourse about Globalization

Globalization has been discussed at length in the last decade, within academic, political, and business circles. It is hardly surprising that theologians, church members, and church leaders have also commented on it (Stackhouse and Paris 2000; Selby 1997). The churches are seen as the defenders of local culture, welfare states, and sustainable economics against the imperialism of global forces, harsh multinationals, and the trivializing of culture. However, within the secular debate there are distinct discourses, which have particular forms of dialogue.

Economists discuss the extent to which the market approximates to perfect competition, as in neoclassical theory, by the perfect, global mobility of goods, labor, and capital. Capital in turn can be created by both financial and social, or institutional, investment. A global market has been created by deregulation, financial liberalization, and the changes created by information and telecommunications technology. It is sometimes called a "technological revolution," although it should be noted that the time between a technological advance and its full implementation in business and society may be considerable.

In a similar, related, but nevertheless distinct area, political economists debate whether these economic processes contribute to the diminution of the power of the state. In one way it is clearly true. In my own quite short lifetime, the British government has ceased to ration mortgages through indirect controls on lending by financial companies, withdrawn to a large extent from its management of the export of capital, and ceded the setting of interest rates to the national Bank of England. Capital mobility and the power of the markets may weaken the authority of national governments in fiscal and monetary policy.

Sociologists have also argued about whether there is a global civil society, especially in the growing number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). A similar debate occurs about the increased urbanization of our world, and how far such cities share common features. Finally, cultural theorists, and urban theorists, seek to explain how vast (essentially trivializing) cultural forces may overwhelm tradition and local communities. Even before any theological reflection on these realities begins, it is worth noticing that this literature analyses flows of people and information. These flows might be of capital, people, culture, technology, or images. Such dynamic realities have different textures and shapes, and changing identities. Any response, including that of theology, must be complex and multidisciplinary. However, even this caution is not enough. An interdisciplinary approach might suggest either that there is one process of globalization, or that globalization is itself a discrete, identifiable process. Political scientists since the late 1990s have come to be critical of this way of describing globalization, as though it were a thing, or an irresistible force. Instead, it is better to envisage multiple global processes, interacting in contingent ways, which are unevenly developed in different places and times.

The reason for caution lies in the way in which, again and again, history gives examples of economic transformation coming to a stop and instead turning into a slow, inexorable process of decline, for a variety of cultural and political reasons (Landes 1998). The first example comes from the fact that the European economy, and especially that of Russia, went into reverse after 1914, initiating a series of protectionist economic policies, civil wars, and ultimately a total breakdown of economic relations, which finally created the global catastrophe of World War II. It took many years to recover from the catastrophe, so that only since the 1990s have politicians and academics begun to use the language of world trade and international relations common before 1914. A second example is that of fifteenth-century China, where the state controlled technical progress. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) prohibited overseas trade for over a century. The country's lead, built up over several centuries, in the skills of ironmaking, printing, and other industries declined. Existing knowledge fell into disuse. Since there was no private enterprise to challenge the state, as happened in medieval Europe where the guilds supplanted the power of the monarchy and feudal aristocracy by means of civic political representation, China regressed for centuries in technology, economics, and eventually national and international political power (Coyle 2000). These examples show cogently, if proof were needed, that there is nothing inevitable about economic progress or cultural change.

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