Globalisation and My Discontents: A Few Teething Issues for Sustainable Globalisation

Opinion piece written by Giancarlo de Vera (c) 2009

“If we do not have equality and social justice, there will be no political stability and without political stability no amount of money put together in financial packages will give us financial stability.”

–       James Wolfenson (Address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank, October 1998)

A broad definition of globalisation allows one to argue convincingly that a degree of ‘globalism’ has existed for millennia, for humans are fundamentally social creatures; and as such it has had an impact on our planet, governance and society. However, the contemporary debate surrounding the implications of globalisation is much more complex and spurious. In light of this, the underlying globalisation and sustainability issue is the lack of definition within the literature that addresses the epistemological question: what is globalisation? As such, each academic discipline and the theories that drive industry and commerce, are operating in the absence of a shared set of values and assumptions, that otherwise would result in logical and uncontested analyses and theories of globalisation. If this trajectory is sustained then the disciplines that inform how we understand globalisation will result in unchartered outcomes that provide the platform for detrimental as well as nuanced effects on the planet, governance and society.

The second issue is a practical one, and the most pertinent manifestation of the underlying issue described above: the incongruence between economic globalisation, the internationalisation of democratic politics, and the seeming inviolability of the ‘nation-state’ as the supreme unit of the global society. To discuss this nexus in on itself assumes three things: economic globalisation’s omnipotence, the increasing interconnectedness of nation-states, and as such the ‘nation-state’, as the basic unit of macro and micro social enquiry, is becoming increasingly problematic.

The social sciences have noted that economic globalisation has involved a drastic reshaping of the overall structure of world politics, which has resulted in a fundamental rearrangement of international regimes. Academics like Jorge Nef (2002) and Dani Rodrik (2005) observe how the global economy distributes its economic output. To this end, Nef stipulates the effect is a ‘stratified disorder’, which upholds the power structures that disproportionately benefit global elites, whom are regulated by the global society; which in turn derives its legitimacy from the elites conveying and strengthening the beneficial image of a global society.  Rodrik arrives at a similar conclusion, but he foresees this as increasingly incompatible with the ‘nation-state’ and international democratic politics, coining it the ‘political trilemma’.

Herein we begin to see the need for commonality to guide our inquiry into ‘what is globalisation?’. The nexus purported by Nef and Rodrik are informed by multiple disciplines. While they can observe effects, they are unable to prescribe solutions. And as such, they fall into a rather common postrstructural trap. The reason for this is the absence of shared values and assumptions that, as earlier argued, would have guided logical and uncontested analyses and theories of globalisation.  These would be at once progressive and cognizant of the pace of the potentially undefined undercurrents of the paradigm-shifting era that contemporary globalisation represents.

Hence, related to the above issue, is the third issue relating to the formation of policy in all levels of government. This is important as the current trajectory can be described as global markets that lack global governance. International norms and practices that script policies to date are not written by Platonic philosopher kings, or even the present-day pretenders – the academic economists – but rather stem from a poorly articulated multilateral and multidisciplinary desire to seek a balance between nation-states and markets. As a result, the issue of international policy formation (that is supra-territorial in nature) keeps the epistemological conundrum described so far intact. And what results is what I label as ‘discourse problematics’.

Discourse problematics represents the notion that policy formation is crowded by liberalisation policies that accentuate and exacerbate asymmetric global power structures that affect social inequalities and the international development project. While these are political and economic in nature, it can be generally observed that the two have not converged in a meaningful way. As such, policies occupy a grey space whereby both political and economics theories neglect the interrelationship between the two – something which contemporary globalisation seemingly embodies.

The effect of this is most apparent in the theorising of feasible and sustainable models for holistic development in the South. The current neoliberal formula essentially locks out citizens of any given territorial nation-state to contribute to the major decisions that affect their social wellbeing. The resultant development strategy emphasises efficiency, growth and competitiveness over social justice and redistribution, and herein we can begin to appreciate what Wolfenson stated in the opening quote.

Conclusively, it is within this context that we can at once address the three teething issues outlined above, to then arrive at a destination full of hope, progress and the recognition that we all must be our brother’s keeper.  


Nef, J. (2002), ‘Globalization and the crisis of sovereignty, legitimacy and democracy’, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 22, no. 4: 479-289.

Rodrik, D. (2005), ‘Feasible globalizations’, in Weinstein, M.M. (ed.) Globalization: what’s new?, Columbia University Press, New York: 177-194.



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