Cover image for Seeking Social Justice Through Globalization: Escaping a Nationalist Perspective By Gavin Kitching

Seeking Social Justice Through Globalization

Escaping a Nationalist Perspective

Gavin Kitching


$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02288-8

360 pages
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Seeking Social Justice Through Globalization

Escaping a Nationalist Perspective

Gavin Kitching

“Gavin Kitching provides a readable argument about what the left should like about globalization and why most left critiques misunderstand the consequences of trade. He ably combines solid economic analysis and normative arguments into a revealing commentary on the post-Seattle world.”


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As demonstrations at meetings of world economic leaders have dramatically shown, the "globalization" of the world economy is now a subject of heated political debate. Generally supported for its positive benefits by neoliberals and attacked for its negative repercussions by the left, it is a multifaceted phenomenon, and even the term is much in dispute as both academic experts and political activists tend to define it in ways that best support their own biases.

In this book, Gavin Kitching is not interested so much in providing new information about globalization as an economic and social process as he is in clarifying how globalization is to be understood and evaluated as a "good" or "bad" thing. Central to his argument is that a proper evaluation requires historical self-awareness, both of the historical background of globalization itself and of the historical origins of the very norms by which such evaluations are made.

Unusual for a book written from a leftist perspective, Seeking Social Justice Through Globalization argues that those who care for social justice should seek more globalization, not try to prevent its development or roll it back. In his "modified Ricardian" analysis, Kitching warns especially about the constraints that the inherited discourse of economic and cultural nationalism places on the full potential of globalization to improve the welfare of poor people, which is his principal concern.

“Gavin Kitching provides a readable argument about what the left should like about globalization and why most left critiques misunderstand the consequences of trade. He ably combines solid economic analysis and normative arguments into a revealing commentary on the post-Seattle world.”
“In the chase for understanding globalization, this book cuts to the quick. It addresses: What are the propellants of globalization? How to diminish the harms caused by this powerful force and turn it to advantage? Readers may not agree with Kitching’s provocative argument but will certainly gain from grappling with it.”
“The debate on globalization is polarized between free-market champions and left wing (or nationalist) critics. This book breaks through the polemical divide by offering a defense of globalization from a leftist perspective. Kitching argues that the left has failed to understand the costs and benefits of trade and global economic integration.”
“In short, Kitching offers readers a well-argued yet controversial explanation of why leftists should engage globalization.”
“Although his ideas are controversial, Kitching’s arguments cannot be dismissed easily, and it is safe to say that no one will put this book down without rethinking at least some of their beliefs about global capitalism, inequality, and world poverty.
This book speaks more sensibly about globalization than any existing book-length treatment of this issue. Seeking Social Justice Through Globalization will inspire many and irritate some—but all will agree that it is a great read.”
“Kitching has performed a valuable service in calling for an ‘anti-nationalist left politics.’ What he has gotten profoundly right is that as globalization proceeds, we will have to adjust our sights increasingly away from the national to the international if our search for justice is to be fruitful. Kitching’s call to consider the interests of everyone, not just those who share nationality, is a challenge that will assume enhanced importance with the passage of time. That alone should make Kitching’s book required reading for all who would take seriously their commitment to a moral social order in an age of increased international economic integration.”
“Gavin Kitching has been a fascinating and original writer on the left for many years, looking at problems of development and underdevelopment and of Marxist epistemology. Seeking Social Justice Through Globalization is the best and most innovative book on globalization I have yet read. As the baseball analogy would have it, Kitching ‘comes out of left field’ with an argument that I have not previously seen but have expected sooner or later to find in some version or another. Kitching brings it off brilliantly—with one caveat, as explained below. I will certainly want to use this book as a core textbook for my intermediate-level course on The Politics of Globalization (especially as it is available in paperback).”

Gavin Kitching is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia. His books include Marxism and Science (Penn State, 1994).

Chapter 1: Globalization: Buzzword or New Phenomenon?

As well as teaching the upper-level undergraduate course in the Politics of Development which gave rise to this book, I also teach a first-year introduction to political sociology under the title “State and Society.” One of the prime aims of that course is to break down, or at any rate challenge, a very commonplace and commonsense way of thinking about politics and society. That commonsense understanding says that there are certain things happening “out there” in the real world, and that when those things change or are changing, the language that we use to describe and explain those things itself changes to reflect those real-world changes. Thus, to take the central topic of this book, if a global economy or a global society is emerging out there, then we will find new words (“globalization”) or new phrases (“global economy,” “global society”) appearing in our language in order to describe that new reality. However, as I will stress repeatedly, this commonsense idea is misleading because it underestimates the extent to which the appearance of the new word or words is itself a part of the creationof the new things out there that they describe.

It is important not to misunderstand what the above assertion means. It does not mean that if I (as an individual) start using the word “globalization” or the phrase “global economy” regularly, that will, in itself, create a global economy. Nor do I mean that if a restricted human group, such as students in my courses or readers of this book, start using such words, that will, in itself, have the same creative effect. Rather I mean that when new ways of speaking—new words or phrases, or new uses of words or phrases—appear in our language and are taken up not by hundreds or thousands of people, but by millions or even hundreds of millions of people, this is nearly always both a sign that something is going on and a part of that “going on” in itself. In other words, very widespread talk and writing employing the word “globalization” in a whole variety of different contexts is itself part of the real process of globalization.

But (and this is equally important) it is only part of that process. That is, the whole world simply talking and writing about a global economy would not create a global economy. Rather, it is hundreds of millions of people talking and writing about globalization and a global economy in conjunctionwith their doing a host of other things (investing in stock markets around the world, migrating for thousands of miles in search of a better life, doing business by internet and e-mail, ordering clothing to be produced in India from designs made up in Australia, but for sale in Australia, Europe and the United States) that creates, or may create, a global economy.

In short then, when some part of language changes and that language change is taken up in a very short space of time, this is, in itself, a fairly sure sign that something important is going on in, as we say, “the real world.” But it is not, in itself, a clear or infallible guide to what that something is, or to exactly how important it is. That is, it is still open to people to say (as for example Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson say in their recent book Globalization in Question)1 that the real significance or importance of globalization has been exaggerated, and that the real process has not gone nearly as far as (in their words) the “most enthusiastic proponents” of globalization have suggested in their writings and speeches. And that it is possible to be questioning in this way is both fortunate in itself and shows the profound misunderstanding of language embodied in the commonsense idea that I mentioned above. Because if the word “globalization” were simply a label for something already existing in the real world, then Hirst and Thompson (and other skeptics about globalization) could themselves not exist. That is, if the word “globalization” only appeared in our language when globalization as a real process had occurred, or if the phrase “global economy” only appeared when there was a global economy, then the question, but is there really a global economy? or the question, has the real extent of globalization been exaggerated? could not be asked. But such questions can be asked (and are indeed being asked all the time) so clearly the word “globalization” or the phrase “global economy” are not labels in this simple sense.

So what are they then? That is, if such words are not used simply as labels2 which we “stick” on something or some things that already exist in the real world, how do we use them? Well, as we shall see, we use these words and phrases in a whole variety of ways. We use them to describe what is going on, to explain what is going on, to recommend what is going on, to deplore what is going on, and to suggest that what is going on is not what others think is going on—and probably to do a lot of other things as well.

In the case of “globalization” in particular, the third point above is paticularly important. For as Hirst and Thompson also stress, the word “globalization” was originally put into linguistic circulation by people who were not just describing and explaining something that they thought was going on, but who wished to praise or commend what was going on and indeed to encourage more of it to go on. That is, and again in the words of Hirst and Thompson, “globalization” was a word originally coined by neoliberals. That is, it was coined by contemporary thinkers and theorists (often referred to in Australia as “economic rationalists”) who are enthusiasts for so-called free markets in general and for the new global free market in particular. They were people who, quite openly and explicitly, wished to see ever more free market globalization going on unhindered by what they would describe as “irrational” or “misguided” state or other regulations or by other forms of, what they would call, political interference with market forces.

However, although the first users of the word “globalization” were, overwhelmingly, those who wished to commend and encourage the process (and to do so, in part, simply by talking and writing about it), the word has now been taken up and used by many other people. That is, it is now used by those hostile to globalization, by those sympathetic to it (but on different grounds from the free market economic rationalists), as well as by those simply curious or puzzled about the phenomenon, and by those (like Peter Dicken,3 for example) who think it may have both positive and negative features.

Or, in other words, while the word “globalization,” and its derivative phrases, may originally have had a fairly clear ideological use (and perhaps still have that use predominantly), the linguistic water has now been much muddied by a whole variety of other people taking up the word and using it in quite different ways for quite different and varied purposes. So now there is, as they say in standard academic euphemism, “a widespread debate” about globalization, which means that there is now a whole cacophony of voices, using the idea in a whole variety of different ways, and often focusing on quite different dimensions of, as it is said, “this multi-dimensional process.”4 But always, it is to be noted, the ultimate point of all these varied analyses and descriptions of globalization is to come up with some judgment about it—to commend and celebrate it, to decry and denounce it, to declare that the whole thing is overblown or not original at all (which is usually a sotto voce way of denouncing it), or to provide a Solomonic inventory of both its merits and its demerits in the manner of Peter Dicken.

And this book will be no different. It too is not simply about what globalization is in some factual sense. Rather, I too wish to encourage the effort at judgment. That is to say, I too wish readers of this book to decide for themselves both how real they think globalization actually is, and whether, on balance, they think it is a good or a bad thing. But to properly accomplish this task, I must first of all emphasize how difficult these judgments are—both the judgment of fact (“How real is globalization?”) and the judgment of merit (“Is it on balance a good or a bad thing?”). In particular, it is vital to clarify the issue with which I have begun this book—the issue of the relationship between the language of globalization and the reality of globalization. For this relationship has a vital implication for the judgment of fact—an implication that works dialectically or double-sidedly—through the effect of language on action and the reciprocal effect of action, and the results of action, on language.5

So let me try to make that relationship clear by referring once again to Hirst and Thompson’s Globalization in Question. As the authors of that book rather indignantly point out (and with much quotation to back up their indignation), it is a hallmark of the more enthusiastic neoliberal writing on globalization to stress, not merely the desirability of free market globalization, but also its inevitability.6 That is, in the worldview to which Hirst and Thompson take objection, capitalism or the free market economic system has now simply outgrown the limits of the nation-state (and in particular, the European and North American nation-state) that gave it birth. The volume of physical commodities requiring consumption, the volume of financial capital requiring investment, the range of modern communications media (and of the messages they carry), have now simply grown too big—or so it is argued—to be contained within any nation-state (even the United States). Moreover, new electronic means of moving capital, new “space and time collapsing” technologies of production and distribution, new satellite-based communications media, now make all attempts at nation-state regulation (let alone control) of these phenomena effectively impossible. Hence, on this account, it is not a question of whether we want a global economy or not, it is simply a question of our adjusting ourselves to the global economy, which, as it were, we “have to have.”

Now, as Hirst and Thompson point out, any statement of the form “X is(present tense) inevitable”7 used of any present-day economic, social, or political phenomenon, carries a risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, if enough people come to believe (and if, in particular enough crucial nation-state politicians and policymakers come to believe) that globalization is inevitable, then they will take actions that will ensure that globalization becomes inevitable. In other words and more tersely, getting enough people, or enough powerful people, to believe that the linguistic proposition “globalization is inevitable” is true is itself part of making globalization inevitable, and, therefore, of making the linguistic proposition come true! Hirst and Thompson (and a number of other authors on globalization, such as Hans-Peter Martin and Harold Schumann)8 make a lot of this point. They stress repeatedly how a variety of governments have enacted deregulation legislation unleashing globalizing economic forces— and most especially vast global movements of speculative capital—and then justify what they have created on the grounds that they have not createdanything but are just “bowing to the inevitable.”

So we can put it this way. When we read a supposedly factual account of globalization which leaves us (and which is intended to leave us) with the strong impression that we are dealing with some massive, steamrollering “purely economic” or “purely technological” process that cannot be reversed and which must just be adjusted to in a variety of ways, we have to be aware that what we are dealing with here is an attempt to persuade—not, or not simply, an attempt to describe something. And we have to take that into account in trying to come to a judgment of fact about how real globalization is. But how do we “take that into account”? We do so by reading other factual accounts of the same processes which are trying to persuade us of the truth of some other judgment (accounts that, for example, are trying to persuade us that globalization is not inevitable, or that it partly is and partly is not, or that it is not a single process with a single cause at all).


Globalization is just one example of a very common phenomenon in history and especially in modern history (understood here as history since the first capitalist industrial revolution in Britain). This is the phenomenon of human societies changing when people act differently from how they have previously acted. Part of that acting differently consists in their talking and writing differently about both their own actions and those of others.9 But though the matter is essentially simple, its implications are very complex and apt to lead to a lot of confusion. One very common confusion arises from the question, are they acting differently because they are talking differently, or are they talking differently because they are acting differently?

This question confuses us because both the “becauses” in it are misplaced. That is, it is not a question of our acting differently because we are talking differently or vice versa. It is rather that our talking differently is part of our acting differently. That is, our talking differently and acting differently are not two separate “things” and because they are not two separate things they are definitely not two separate things that can have a causal relationship. Rather, they are just two aspects of one thing—one single process—which we usually call something like “structural social change.” But even this formulation does not capture the full complexity of what happens in periods of rapid economic and social change. It does not do so because formulated this way it leaves the false impression that during such periods of rapid change, everybody acts differently in the same way, and therefore talks differently in the same way. But that is not, typically, what happens at all during such upheavals. And it is certainly not what is happening now with respect to globalization. Rather, periods of rapid social and economic change are nearly always periods of enhanced political conflict and that for quite obvious reasons. Some people like and approve of those changes and others do not. Some people benefit from those changes and others do not. So they quarrel (in language) over such changes as they are making them and as part of the very process of making those changes. And sometimes those quarrels go beyond language into forms of conflict that we call social, political, or even military.

This conclusion enhances our first suspicions about globalization— that something historically important is going on here—not just because people are talking and writing about globalization a lot, but because they are quarreling about it in that talking and writing.10 And when people are quarreling (think of family quarrels) and when part of that quarrel is about the facts (that is, about some event or events present or immediately past), it can be very difficult for an outsider or arbitrator in the quarrel— even a fellow family member—to get a clear unbiased account of the facts over which people are quarreling.

“You agreed to pay me back at the beginning of last week!”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!”

“No, I didn’t. I just said I’d try to.”

“You’re such a liar!”

“No, I’m not!” And so forth.

In this book I am going to both review and take sides in the quarrel over globalization. This means that I will have to describe what’s going on with regard to globalization as fairly and as comprehensively as I can. But it also requires me to review the quarrelers as well as what they are quarreling about. I will have to find out who they are, what they want to see happen in the world and why, and what interests they have at stake in the quarrel.

All these issues are important because they will tend to lead quarrelers not, or not usually, to lie, but to selectthe facts they present to us in quite different ways—to emphasize some facts and to deemphasize (or even omit mention of) some others. Perhaps most difficult of all, however— especially for readers trying to make judgments of fact about globalization—the identities, values, and interests of the quarrelers over globalization will tend to lead them to run together descriptions of what is the case with prescriptions of what they want to be the case. (The use of the proposition “globalization is inevitable” being a classic example of doing just this.) Moreover, it will often lead them to do this in subtle ways that can make it difficult for unsuspecting readers to tell one from the other, or even to tell that this elision is occurring.

1. P. Q. Hirst and G. Thompson, Globalization in Question: The International Political Economy and the Possibilities of Governance (Cambridge: Polity, 1997), chap. 1.

2. On “labeling” conceptions of language and the confusions to which they can lead, see, for example, Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Wittgenstein and Justice: On the Significance of Ludwig Wittgenstein for Social and Political Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), chap. 2.

3. P. Dicken, Global Shift: Transforming the World Economy,3d ed. (London: Chapman, 1998), see especially 429–40.

4. For a very useful brief but comprehensive overview of the varied literature on globalization, see L. Sklair, “Globalisation,” in Sociology: Issues and Debates, ed. Steve Taylor (London: Macmillan, 1999), 321–45.

5. J. Israel, The Language of Dialectics and the Dialectics of Language (Brighton: Harvester, 1979), has this point as its unifying theme.

6. Hirst and Thompson, Globalization in Question, 1–7.

7. I stress the present tense use here because that is the interesting or nontrivial use. There is also a past-tense use, of course—“X was inevitable”—often found in history books or in writings about history. But so far as I can see this is a rather trivial use, being simply a synonym for “X happened” (although not always recognized as such). In other words the logic of the present- and past-tense uses of the word “inevitable” and its derivatives are significantly different. The former involves important and substantive claims about the future (important because uncertain and, therefore, disputable). The latter, however, usually amounts to nothing more than a portentous and overblown way of stressing the facticity or indubitability of a past event or events.

8. H.-P. Martin and H. Schumann, The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy (Leichhardt: Pluto Press Australia, 1997), especially chap. 8. A similar, though much less stridently expressed version of the same thesis is in Hirst and Thompson, Globalization in Question, chap. 8.

9. For a fine analysis of language change in the period of the industrial revolution, see N. W. Thompson, The People’s Science; The Popular Political Economy of Exploitation and Crisis, 1816–34(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

10. A useful survey of some of those quarrels, with abundant quotation of sources, is to be found in Dicken, Global Shift, 4.