Globalisation on the march &&

Issue 

By Agnes Bertrand

The word "globalisation" was given currency by US mass marketing strategists who, from the 1980s onwards, talked nothing but "global products" and "global communication". According to their logic, a product should be able to use the same advertising worldwide to reach a maximum number of consumers in record time.

When Sony launched its Walkman, images of adolescents roller-skating with headphones on and mini radio-cassette hooked onto their belt went immediately around the world. A global product was launched. The company wagered that its advertising did not need to be adapted to different cultures, but rather to inculcate a "global culture". Judging from Walkman sales worldwide, it won the wager.

It was only a short step from the global product to globalisation. We are persuaded by every means available that economic globalisation is highly desirable. Praise of "the market" in the press and advertising 365 days a year brings about a sort of collective anaesthesia. The interconnection of multinationals and media organisations dulls people's awareness at the same time as it blurs the distinction between reality and advertising. Annual advertising budgets worldwide now run to half the amount spent on education.

We are told by its proponents that globalisation is inevitable. Yes, as inevitable no doubt as "things go better with Coke". Today, all over a globe which is shrinking beneath a network of satellites in geostationary orbit, interlinked economic empires seem to have seized control of the direction of change. From genetic engineering to the information superhighway, from the management of marine resources to the mapping of the human genome, every living thing is tested, scrutinised, dissected and redefined in terms of market shares.

The "free" play of market forces means systematic transformation of every natural resource into cash, of genetically manipulated living species into commodities and of social relationships into financial transactions. But, as it proceeds via scientific and technological innovation, this transformation goes almost unnoticed. The combined power of the market and technology manages to redefine reality without people being aware of it.

Seeds from the Third World are patented by western corporations, so that what began as a resource ends up as a commodity. By a similar sleight of hand, public services, under pressure from GATT and the Maastricht treaty, now have to meet not community needs but the terms of "competitiveness" dictated by private service providers.

The speed of technological innovation leaves legislators and administrators for dead, and technology becomes a law unto itself. Thus, whether it is financial speculation, new media or genetic engineering, new techno-economic monopolies dictate the terms of "competition".

The pro-globalisation message can usually be reduced to a few simplistic axioms. Science will enable us to understand everything, technology will enable us to solve everything, and the market will enable us to buy everything. To get to this paradise, we need to stimulate growth but maintain financial discipline. Unprofitable state expenses must be reduced.

Social and human factors are left out of the equation. When they are mentioned, it is just to remind us of the need to reduce the deficit and government expenditure. On the other hand, globalisation means that taxpayers keep paying for new technologies that bring about job losses. From management of supermarket stocks via satellite to the planned replacement of a third of bank employees and receptionists by computer terminals and voice recognition devices, the globalisation spiral expands with no regard for people or common sense.

Within this context of the market as sole regulator of human activity, the information superhighway is presented to us as promising progress for civilisation. Mass marketing strategists who are also experts in media manipulation were the first to understand that television has become the primary means of cultural reproduction.

This globalisation of culture, as well as favouring the rise of new monopolies, has an impact that is almost impossible to evaluate. The worldwide projection of identical images and messages colonises the imagination of social groups and paralyses their judgment. Homogenisation being the opposite of culture, globalising information means marginalising cultural differences.

"There is no alternative", declared Alain Juppé after three weeks of strikes that shook France last December. "There is no alternative", was one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite expressions, which is how she got the nickname TINA.

But as more and more people worldwide are locked out of these planetary transactions, resistance to the TINA system is growing. It's up to us to speed up the learning process.
[Abridged from Rouge et Vert, June 26. Translated by Brendan Doyle.]