Is a Globalization Backlash Occurring?
The full-length version of a faculty roundtable discussion

Do you think a globalization backlash is happening?
Answer an informal poll

Join an online discussion of the issues raised in this article.

The Academic Exchange asked Associate Professor of Sociology Frank Lechner to moderate a roundtable discussion on current topics in globalization studies. The following is the full-length, edited transcript of the conversation, a portion of which appeared in the printed version of The Exchange. Lechner has co-edited a forthcoming volume titled The Globalization Reader. Deborah McFarland is an associate professor in health policy and management and international health who works with the World Bank and the World Health Organization on health systems reform in the former Soviet Union and sub-Saharan Africa. Political Scientist Thomas Remington is Claus M Halle Distinguished Professor for Global Learning whose research interests include contemporary Russian and post-Communist politics. Jeff Rosensweig, associate professor of international business and finance in the Goizueta Business School, is the author of Winning the Global Game: A Strategy for Linking People and Profits (1998).

Lechner It has struck me that in the last few years there's been a change in the way people talk about globalization. About ten years ago, "globalization" was used in a very positive way: the free market was going to bring benefits; polarization in the world was disappearing. Yet in the last few years, there has been what you might call a kind of a globalization backlash occurring. People emphasize the dangers inherent in market expansion, threats posed by the possibility of one cultural model, a neoliberalism the Pope recently said was taking over as a kind of a global ideology. I'm wondering what your perception is of this globalization backlash, if there is such a thing. Have you encountered something like this increased skepticism about globalization in your own work or your own experience?

Rosensweig I think there is a huge globalization backlash. I feel it as a professor who believes that business should extend globally and that countries should have free markets--have regulation but have some free markets to try to attract business in. But is this a backlash against globalization, or is technology really changing people's lives and causing the lack of security they're feeling in their jobs? You really almost can't talk, at least in a business sense, about globalization and technology as two separate forces. A lot of people's jobs would be at risk whether or not we had NAFTA. To me, ultimately these technologies are things that will make it easier to do business, and that will help people around the world.

Lechner Are you primarily referring to the United States, or would the same point apply to people elsewhere?

Rosensweig People elsewhere as well. Unemployment in general is much higher in Europe, and there there will be an even much stronger backlash against globalization, and I think even elsewhere it has to do with the forces of technology not really matching up with some of their existing social structures. If you're in Japan, you're worried about hollowing out--Sony will be there but they move the jobs to China. And that's an obvious place where you could think. That's because of globalization, but it also has a lot to do with technology. But it's pretty amazing to me that ultimately these should be very empowering forces.

Having said that, I think there's a huge challenge ahead if you're in some place like Africa, where there's absolutely no on-ramp to the Internet. But if they ever get that on-ramp, all of the sudden those six million books in the library at Yale are just as available to them in Uganda as it is to someone in Yale, and that's why I always end up an optimist.

McFarland Perhaps because I work in countries at very different stages of development and work in human capital instead of business capital, I see the backlash in some sense not against this amorphous concept called globalization, because I'm not sure anybody in the countries I'm working in would even know the term globalization. That's not because they're not intelligent folks, but simply because they've never thought about words like that. But intrinsically they would know about "the global society" and be fearful of the short-term consequences of that global society in the forms of things like the World Bank, like the International Monetary Fund, like structural adjustment programs. In that sense I would think there would be a huge backlash. When I go to Lagos and Nigeria and see little girls on the street selling Coca-Cola, they have a fundamental awareness of what a structural adjustment program is, what free markets are, and what floating exchange rates are. They've never been to school, but they know that. I am an optimist as well, because I too believe that once you get an on-ramp, your life becomes very different. But globalization works itself out very differently when it's in the form of these multinational, international structures that have a kind of empowering, impaling sense and are on the front page of every newspaper in the developing world.

Rosensweig You've identified something I agree with. There could be a Washington consensus as imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, and that's neoliberalism, which has always been to me kind of too much one-flavor-fits-all: it worked in Bolivia, let's try it in Poland and then Thailand. That has me more worried, and I think you too, than McWorld--McDonald's or Coke--because ultimately those types of firms bring in training and create local entrepreneurs.

Remington It's interesting that people are identifying different targets for the backlash. In many parts of the world, the United States is seen as the chief conspirator in globalization, and the influences associated with economic and cultural imperialism are associated above all with the US. In other places as in the United States there's a sense that the source of the conspiracy is impersonal global forces--in particular, low-wage economies that cost us jobs and create giant sucking sounds. And yet, other places, such as what Deb was suggesting, would immediately finger the IMF and the World Bank--international financial organizations that are seen as sources of both capital and pressure on countries and public institutions. That very diversity of identified targets suggests to us how difficult it is to grapple with this phenomenon. I do think that there is a meaningful core notion of globalization. It's above all an economic phenomenon associated with technological advances, trade and investment and communications, the flow of capital, ideas, and jobs. It's a whole lot more efficient, and the efficiency can lift all of our boats. But it lifts some faster, and it does definitely create inequalities and strains within society. Part of the backlash is cultural, but it so often takes political forms as movements within societies, the heads of societies trying to resist being drawn into global forces. In Russia, for instance, we see political movements to assert a "Russian" way--some third way, some alternative to what they regard as their Communist past and the American, Western alternative.

Lechner How do you account for this more skeptical edge?

McFarland I think there's an immediate impact like never before. We know theoretically that in the long run lowering exchange rates in fact is going to increase exports and decrease imports in developing countries. But in the short run, there are some enormous social consequences that occur, usually to the poorest of the poor. They started out with nothing, and they end up with less. They are participating in a global world that they don't understand but want to rail against. On the optimistic side, those same countries are experiencing globalization in the imperatives and visibility for things like polio eradication, issues that can only be addressed at a global level because bugs don't recognize national boundaries. Eastern Europe is particularly prone to increasing numbers of epidemics, and the only way we can deal with them is on a global basis. We're bringing new partnerships to bear, public-private partnerships that we've never seen before.

Rosensweig One reason I push for globalization in business is a lot of modern businesses are characterized by huge, up-front research and development costs. One more pill is cheap; it's the cost of research to try to find a cure for AIDS that's prohibitive. Maybe that's an argument on a human basis for globalization of business. Botswana is one of the few economic successes in Africa, and yet they're getting decimated now by HIV. It would never be economically feasible to do this huge amount of research and development unless there was a much larger potential market for the drug. If public-private partnerships, or even private firms, can do the research and development and find a cure, that's Botswana's best hope.

Remington The partnerships will not have the effect we want unless there are local partners with the institutional capacity to organize the most elementary forms of public goods--of distribution, information, medication, transportation, communications, education. And in many parts of the world, elementary public order has broken down. In these places, we're worse off than we were fifty years ago partly because of the impact of global phenomena. It's the impact of weakly organized societies in encounters with more strongly organized pressures, the global arms market being a good example. It's very easy for local field commanders and warlords in weakly organized societies to get hold of incredible sophisticated weaponry in the world arms market. So you've got this bizarre and grotesque juxtaposition of global technologies in the military sphere and the breakdown of basic social organization.

McFarland You said two things that at least on the face of things contradict themselves to me. I agree with you, that these local partners do provide some sense of cohesion and order. But at the same time you're saying that individuals or local groups can gain access to the weapons of the world that create the powers of destruction that fragment us from the bottom up, and it's hard to pull those together in positive ways.

Remington It's a contradiction not I think in the way I framed it but in the response of many local individuals who are politically ambitious or have some influence. They may then represent a local, regional, national community to the outside world to provide some stream of resources. But do they actually then provide some benefits to their constituents and make their communities better off, or do they aggrandize their own power? And why would they behave one way as opposed to another? If they are truly rapacious and simply collect benefits simply to manipulate their own position on the ground, then there's no response possible except for the outside world to come in and govern the country or the community. And that's the dilemma we're in. What little capacity for collective action there is politically on the part of organized countries and institutions is greatly strained.

Rosensweig I'd like to explore the concept of relative deprivation. If you read the Human Development Report of the UNDP [United Nations Development Program] over the last few years, you would learn that the world is more unequal and that the rich are getting richer. But often when that report shows what the world really looked like in 1970 compared to now, you see there was even more illiteracy back then. There were much lower life expectancies. Some societies are in serious crisis, but the bulk of the world's peoples, on measurements such as life expectancy and literacy, have really moved, in absolute terms, toward an ascendance of more globally free capitalism. But if a person used to have ten and now they have fifteen, if they lived in a society where some other people had twenty and now they have eighty, would they feel worse off with fifteen now than they used to feel with ten?

Lechner I think you're absolutely right. The disparities have increased tremendously while at the same time there has been a kind of rising tide. Just as a slight qualification, there are significant exceptions--I think life expectancy for example in Russia has been declining, as have economic and some of the basic health criteria in parts of Africa.

Rosensweig But in the last five years--not over decades.

Lechner Still, I think that makes the 1990s look special. I think you're also right about the increased significant advances. And that suggests that the costs of internal breakdown have become that much greater. While significant advances are happening culturally, scientifically, economically, and technologically in other places, as well as politically in countries that are pulling themselves together, for example, the new democratic systems, those places that are losing it lose that much more. There's a kind of multiplier effect on the negative side. That's also a factor in the backlash, because it creates a completely different perception of globalization as a worldwide phenomenon. The world is passing a lot of people by, and they have no way to even conceive of catching up.

Remington It's not so much a question of absolute or even relative disparities as it is the breakdown of any sense of public good. This comes back to whether people are willing to sacrifice to provide public goods. People grab what they can for the moment and will not put away for the future, even with all of the benefits that has for the rest of society. As inequality grows, people have less and less in common. And they are less and less willing to construct great public institutions such as libraries, museums, roads, Emory University.

Rosensweig On many measures, Singapore, which thirty years ago we called a third-world country, is now ahead of the United States. It has a lower infant mortality rate, and on some measures, a higher income per person. It's clear that where there could be economic security, more public spiritedness and success, there are gross inequalities, getting more gross all the time.

Lechner I wonder if there's some tension between the point you just made, Jeff, and the points you made earlier, the general sense that you are a strong advocate for globalization of business, the expansion of economic opportunities in more societies. Many people interested in political economy within sociology and perhaps political science might argue that very expansion actually exacerbates the inequality because it adds to the disparities between the new class of people who participate in global business institutions and others who lose out. Isn't your advocacy and the general thrust of global business in tension with your concern about the increased disparities?

Rosensweig Not really, because I think what we'd discover is societies that get their own internal act together can benefit from global business. Singapore benefits from global business. Singapore made sure all its people got up to say ninth grade and many into universities. The tragedy of Africa is that a lot of the spending in the twenty or thirty years on global education has been on the lowest level of primary education. The internal political and civic and social institutions are crucial, but if they get it right, they can use global business. Trained, educated people can work hard in conjunction with global business. For example, Motorola is not just a company. Motorola is a university, and they are certainly efficient at what they do. And they're doing it in China. They're wise enough to know you're not going to sell Motorola phones in China unless you're also seen as part of the education infrastructure. Even though I worry about gross inequalities, there's a heck of a lot more literate people, especially literate women, in China, than there's ever been in human history.

McFarland The very groups we want to label as exploitative, the Motorolas, the Coca-Colas, are the ones doing the very thing we look to governments to do, and that's to provide that sense of civic order, those public goods that those governments cannot or do not or will not. We're looking to a very different source, and that raises issues of public accountability questions that are much broader than one particular company or group.

Remington Another solution is flight--massive, massive movements of people. If you don't have voice, you have exit. The refugee flows are primary evidence of an utter lack on the part of individuals of any instruments to join with others and demand accountability of their leaders. They end up participating in their own victimization by joining some warlord's army or fleeing. The young men join the army, and the women and children are left behind. It's a tragic situation for which we have good analytical tools for understanding but very few tools at the global level for actually solving them.

Lechner I think the meaning of exodus has changed, as well. That is, I think because of the technological infrastructure primarily, it is much easier to maintain relations across the world, with family, with colleagues in far-flung places. Even intellectuals who flee oppressive regimes or the breakdown of civil order in many cases are not exiled as permanently as they would have been some years ago. In many instances these transnational relations can work out very positively--perhaps not right away, perhaps not within one generation, but over time, there's a kind of human capital, cultural capital, built up in these networks that can return to their countries of origins.

Rosensweig I agree it's going to be the private sector that's going to get more African kids on the Internet. And it will probably be a combination of political scientists and sociologists and people in public health with business professors that can inspire the process. At least 80 percent of the people in the world aren't even at the starting line. But if they're not there, it's a huge lost opportunity for business. We've got to be able to help business see the benefit in providing what you'd have to call the public goods, some of the public health infrastructure. It's the World Health Organization [WHO] working with SmithKline Beecham that's going to get elephantiasis cured.

McFarland They've just given us a half-million dollar grant to work on the economics of distribution of the drugs. It wasn't WHO that gave us that. It was SmithKline Beecham that gave us the half a million dollars, presumably because we work in public health and we understand public health, the economics of distribution, public goods, the systems into which these drugs are being put, and the public health consequences of having elephantiasis. That's a good partnership.

Lechner I want to ask you about your own experiences in teaching about international affairs and global phenomena. I'm not referring so much to the international student body as the U.S.-born student body. What do you find in their current outlook?

Remington Students suffer from now-ism. They live in the present. I think their sense of being in the stream of history has weakened, and consequently it's difficult for them to compare their situation with that of others. They were born yesterday; they will forget today tomorrow. And a reality which is mediated through television seems to be truer for them than other versions of reality.

Rosensweig As happy as I am about some ways that the Internet can build networks and help people access great libraries, no one's reading anymore. They're all watching TV. In the business school we suffer from the fact that the now-ism is getting worse. Our students are focused on getting a good job now before they really hit the library. And I've always felt that political science is one of the strongest departments we have here and probably on a national level, looking at the professors. They're all well-read. But I'm not even sure their best students are particularly well read. I think we're all suffering from this.

McFarland I think one of the things that contributes to an appreciation in students for being part of the world is that now-ism. It's the CNN phenomenon. In that sense, it's easier to educate and train them because they know where Kosovo is. In terms of their knowledge about current events and about global issues, I'd say they're far better than students I've taught in the past. But what they don't have is any sense of history and context, so that events are not part of a chain. They have no appreciation of the economic, political, social, and cultural dynamics.

Return to contents page