Xavier Rambla Sociologia

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jul. 25 2013

Early and current globalisation

In the late nineteenth century a small (but heterogeneous and influential) array of social agents including investors, traders, migrants, politicians, journalists and intellectuals already took the whole world as a relevant scale for envisaging collective projects and making decisions. Therefore, it would be an over-simplification to state that globalisation is a completely new phenomenon. Not only the roots of the current global transformations are really old, but also a type of significantly globalised society was emerging one hundred years ago (vid. David Held).

Short historical references may be helpful tools for teaching globalisation, particularly if the differences between the earlier and the current forms are highlighted. Here you have a couple of examples.

* The campaign against the Congo Free State and the action of the Inter-parliamentary Union pioneered the activities of the global civil society. The campaign was launched in the press published in the US and the UK so as to denounce the collusion of private and public interests in exploiting the population of this territory by means of slave labour. The government of this state was attributed personally to King Leopold of Belgium in an international conference hold in Berlin in 1885. The campaign was successful since the king had to relinquish his personal power due to international pressure, and the state was formally annexed by Belgium in 1908. The IPU was an association promoted by French and British politicians that played an important role in the setting of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 1899. This court tried to avoid war by solving commercial conflicts through negotiation according to established rules. Although both initiatives were the initial spurs of a global civil society, it is noticeable that their success depended on the decisions of state governments (e.g. embassies putting pressure on Leopold, the tsar proposing The Hague Conference). In contrast, nowadays the global civil society consists of a more dense, heterogeneous and complex set of movements and advocacy networks that put pressure on multilateral agencies.

* At the end of the nineteenth century the British Empire managed to maintain its financial hegemony despite the increasing obsolescence of its industrial basis, mostly due to competition by the US and Germany. The Empire manipulated trade between its colony in India and the Chinese Empire in order to generate a surplus that underpinned the financial institutions based in London. In essence, it forced destitute Indian peasants to produce opium and other export crops that were afterwards sold in China, often by coercive means too. The resulting surplus was enough to compensate for the trade deficit of the British economy. Certainly, this example shows to what extent finance was global at that time, but it also shows how it was embedded in imperial politics. On the contrary, current denationalized financialisation is not submitted to politics, but has patterned some important transformation of politics (see S. Sassen)

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