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what's so new about globalization?

There is a common view which states that global economic integration is not only new but one of those rare earthly joys: a win-win situation. It's called the Washington Consensus, because every president in the last 20 years has bitten deeply into that apple and pronounced it delicious. Bill Clinton embraced globalization with the same schoolboy's enthusiasm as did Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes.

The reasons seem simple enough. Globalization is good for U.S. business because it creates overseas markets and a field of dreams for investment. It's good for U.S. workers overall because, while some lose jobs, others get better ones from the export opportunities. It's also good for poor countries because they get desperately needed foreign investment. And it's good for world peace because trade helps link nations together. In sum, the argument that mainstream economists make is that globalization reflects mutual gain, economic safe sex. But the argument is blind to history.

Globalization has been going on for at least 700 years. Through much of history, what we might call "globalizing projects" have knit together distinct tribes, city-states, or nations. The knitters have most often been agents of commerce, like the Venetian merchants who traveled the Silk Road to join Europe with the exotic markets of the Orient. But whether they were ambitious traders or conquering generals like Alexander the Great, bold explorers like Columbus or ruthless entrepreneurs like Cecil Rhodes, they helped build a larger integrated market and a new regime.

They may not actually have encompassed the whole world (in fact, they might have occupied only a small slice), but in the more successful of these ventures, economic systems were created that bloomed into a far greater order than the tribes or societies comprising them. Examples range from the Mediterranean economy of the Italian city-states to the British Empire. Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. may have been the first.

In all of these instances, we find one universal truth: Globalizing projects created economies marked by polarization into cores and peripheries, winners and losers. Often they degraded into violence and wars between the core and the periphery. In the Roman Empire, Rome was the core, and all its far-flung dominions the periphery. In the British Empire, London was the core, and the colonies, from India to Palestine to South Africa, the periphery. Colonialism was the world system in which the core and periphery were legally and militarily linked in a clearly exploitative division of labor. But in virtually all globalizing projects, from the Egyptian Empire of the pharaohs to the city-states of Florence and Milan, "unequal exchange" has been a more apt tag than "free trade."

Today, globalization continues to not only integrate but distinguish the core developed nations of Europe, Japan, and the United States with regard to the peripheral Third World. The average income in the world's richest 20 countries is 37 times the average in the poorest 20, and the per capita income gap between rich and poor nations tripled between 1960 and 1993.

But the core/periphery distinction is now being de-territorialized. We increasingly find large parts of the periphery in the core. Think of the impoverished immigrants from Mexico, China, Pakistan, and Nigeria who work in the sweatshops of New York and Los Angeles. We also find more members of the core in the Third World—superwealthy business leaders in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Chile, and Mexico who are part of a new global plutocracy.

This denationalization is a sign that today's globalization may be a radical departure from all former systems. The wealth gap today is growing—not only between, but within, nations. Could anything be more dangerous in our already deeply polarized world?

Charles Derber

BC sociology professor Charles Derber's essay is drawn from People Before Profit: The New Globalization in an Age of Terror, Big Money, and Economic Crisis (2002), by agreement with St. Martin's Press.

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