Feeding the Global Spider

Feeding the Global Spider

2001-01-01
Globalization: The Human Consequences.
Globalization: The Human Consequences.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Linda Brigham sees Zygmunt Bauman’s Globalization: The Human Consequences as a provocative introduction to our current environmental and economic predicament.

For Zygmunt Bauman, the term “globalization” is extravagantly misleading. Far from describing a homogenizing world process, the becoming-one of the contentious diversity of the planet, Bauman depicts globalization as radically polarizing, splitting populations into two streams: emergent “exterritorial” power flows and the slower-moving localities increasingly buffeted by - and subjected to - those more powerful flows. “Globalization divides as much as it unites,” Bauman claims; “it divides as it unites - the causes of division being identical with those which promote the uniformity of the globe” (2). Globalization separates the minority whose mobility means independence from space from the vast majority whose relation to space, whether mobile or immobile, is not a matter of choice - for whom space becomes an obstacle and an imprisonment.

Bauman is careful to distinguish contemporary globalization from historically similar situations in the past. The schism between global and local is nothing new, and it is not the division itself that distinguishes the current phenomenon. What’s changed is the power relations between the two, and, with that, the “character” of each pole. Both early modernity and premodern empire featured strong sociopolitical distinctions between geographically particularized cultures and the more abstract culture that sought to colonize them. Prior to globalization, local languages and networks constituted resources for resistance, and they remained so until the abstract colonizing system reached a critical level of efficiency, a threshold attained only recently. As Bauman puts it,

The so-called “closely knit communities” of yore were, as we can now see, brought into being and kept alive by the gap between the nearly instantaneous communication inside the small-scale community (the size of which was determined by the innate qualities of “wetware,” and thus confined to the natural limits of human sight, hearing, and memorizing capacity) and the enormity of time and expense needed to pass information between localities. (15)

What’s changed is the gap between the speed of INTRA-local communication and INTER-local communication: with the advent of electronic connectivity, this gap has all but disappeared, and with that disappearance the resistant difference of locality itself evaporates.

So globalization is a function of the difference between global and local when this difference is no longer resistance, but compliance, a constitutive rather than oppositional difference, dysfunctional co-dependence rather than vigorous cultural alterity. For this reason, Bauman finds it crucial to distinguish modern mechanisms of power from contemporary late modern, or postmodern, mechanisms of power. Nineteenth-century modernity, whose most well-known exemplar has become Foucault’s Panopticon, pursued the explicit project of producing transparency and docility from “recalcitrant reality,” and this project dovetailed with the demand for disciplined factory labor. In the context of the Panopticon, modern power enforced an asymmetry of information between the designers and overseers of production systems and the laborers within those systems: in a nutshell, it is an artificial space in which the few watch the many. However, in our time, it is no longer as cost-effective to discipline labor as it is to force labor to compete against itself on a global scale: virtual corporations are far more mobile than embodied workers. Consequently, the production of a work force is no longer the primary purpose of control. Accordingly, control no longer consists of discipline, but seduction: the Panopticon is reversed into a “Synopticon” (Thomas Mathiesen’s term) in which the many disenfranchised locals watch the few global celebrities whose glitz channels desire into unworldly fantasy. Again, Bauman: “Segregated and separated on earth, the locals meet the globals through the regular televised broadcasts of heaven” (54).

The globals, in essence, have no real conditions of existence. For the locals, though, globalization enforces an unbridgeable alienation of desire from a faded and dull resistant reality, and strips away all values but global values. This is what it means to define global society as a consumer society: the only aspiration possible is to be a consumer, and the gates to this condition are monitored by the immense apparatus of credit agencies, enforcing localization on those whose consumer undiscipline disqualifies them from entry into commodity paradise. These excluded locals - vagabonds, as opposed to tourists - are “dark vagrant moons reflecting the shine of bright tourist suns and following placidly the planets’ orbit; the mutants of postmodern evolution, the monster rejects of the brave new species” (92). Those who rebel have no independent resources, no independent identity from their synoptical Others, and thus no means of signifying difference other than in the pure opposition, the pure negativity of the permanent criminal, whose incarceration is no longer even theoretically rehabilitative, but only segregating, a symbol to those outside of the need to fight crime, more and more often the dominant civic concern.

Bauman’s version of globalization is stark, a relentless double-bind. And it is this very schematic, derived from the systems theory of Gregory Bateson, whom Bauman cites, that gives pause. Most of us who read the book, and probably this review, find ourselves somewhere between global and local. Few are as disembodied as Bauman’s exemplary globals, whose world consists of the internet, cell-phones, jets, and gated communities. Few are likely to be as disgusted with their environment as Bauman’s thwarted locals, who seem to live in an eternal twilight of Trailways bus stations. And there is nothing in the book about the resurgent energy of populism, dubiously manifested in xenophobic, bigoted, and sexist militias, but also in environmental justice initiatives, sustainability movements, and the array of protests at the meeting sites of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. In fact, the environment gets no mention at all in Bauman’s brief, self-described discussion paper.

Yet it is precisely in the global nature of ecology that another systems-oriented sociologist, Ulrich Beck, locates the inevitable breakdown of the double-bind. In Beck’s view, the globals’ strategy of expropriating environmental hazards onto the locals must eventually fail; even globe-trotters are not immune from ecological disaster. Perhaps such a solution to global polarization is both too optimistic and too overdetermined for Bauman; perhaps it demands too little of the conscious and deliberate understanding Bateson requires of us to transcend double-binds. And so while I cannot but think that the middle zone evacuated by the double-bind scheme is the cauldron brewing our future, I find Bauman’s sketch of late modernity a critical asset to any consideration of our current predicament. Globalization is a lucid, provocative, even brilliant little introduction to thinking about problems of a scale that dwarfs us all.