The problem

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GLOBALIZATION is a phenomenon that has caught people flatfooted. Both the left and right in India attempt to catch it with old butterfly nets. For many in the left, globalization is ‘late capitalism’ and any text of Ernest Mandel or Prabhat Patnaik seems adequate to capture the canvas. The right flirts with the market and thinks it can control globalization through old mothballed concepts like swadeshi or a fundamentalism which is itself an ersatz phenomenon, producing a cheap soap opera when something more basic is required. We have handbooks on how to fight globalization before we sense what it is.

At another level, there is a metaphysical pathos about globalization, a sense that nothing can be done, that it is inevitable, that it can corrode a civilization in weeks. Such an approach dissolves the possibility of play and politics. If some writer strikes out huge parts of the map, or claims that Africa is doomed, we listen seriously, convinced that action and agency no longer belong to the African people. We triage them out of our virtual map.

There is then the question of metaphors. Is it a juggernaut, a seduction, a genocide, a set of flows, a master narrative? Each choice then produces its own repertoire of responses. Sadly we don’t have the confidence of a Gandhi who when asked what he thought of western civilization said, ‘That would be a good idea.’ The problem is we can’t stop there, for globalization is a bundle of ideas, a multiplicity of sites, a network of ambiguities. We have to pick up the good and bad ideas while this Brownean movement is in process. For now, globalization is best seen as a set of experimental sites, theatres, where the ambiguities, crosscurrents, countercurrents can be explored and spelt out. This issue is a small move in that direction.

Globalization cannot be seen in a strictly definitional way. Definitions corset the term, create a procrustean bed for an amoeboid animal. The more interesting way may be to use the idea of the shifter, to unravel the meaning of the term as it emerges in use. One studies its lifeworld as it grows in polyvalent power, moving from site to site, adding value, creating ambiguities. The essays centre around a discussion of some sites. Let us begin by listing them out.

Firstly and inevitably there is the technological. At one level it seems the most playful and also the most inevitable. Globalization appears like an explosion of innovation chains, each road an equivalent of MITs route 128. The new technology not only appears inevitable and irreversible, it has completely pulverized the debate on alternative sciences and technologies. E.F. Schumacher sounds like an Old Testament prophet. What is the notion of labour, value and work in this technological world? Are value and work different for the citizen and the netizen? When finance capital moves in nanoseconds from one site to another creating and erasing value, what happens to Marx and Gandhi?

Luddism and the labour theory of value seem exotic, conceptual exhibits for the new diasporic tourist. Can the current technological processes be pluralized, modified or do we have to create our cybercities around the homogenized technologies with their new time-space compressions? Is it possible to secede from this global world before we are assimilated, colonized, or dumped or is the idea a Luddite fantasy? Can we meet it head on and create our own bricoleurian combinations? What would be an alternative technological answer to the silicon valleys and technology parks of today? Or are such questions a way of museumizing ourself?

True, globalization is an opening up of possibilities but can we pick or choose or do we follow its inevitable logic? What does the flooding of information do as it moves independently of the body, of the natural limits of sight and sound? As Paul Virilio stated, ‘From here on people can’t be separated by physical obstacles or by temporal distances. With the interfacing of computer terminals and video-monitors distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.’

Virilio of course exaggerates. But what technology does is not so much homogenize the world but create large domains of exclusion and inclusion. But this redrawing is not in the old territorial sense. At one level, given such mobility, localities lose their meaning. The new mobile elite feels extraterritorial exhilaration but what happens to those who remain transfixed, who have been rendered obsolescent? One man’s innovation is another community’s obsolescence. How do we gear to fight for it? Do we remain a proletariat or do we succumb to body shopping and become the electronic filariat or secretariat to these time compressed regimes? Is Bangalore the answer or can we dream of a different city?

We move from the technological to the political. The inevitable question of every IAS exam paper on globalization is: ‘What is the role of the nation state in globalization?’ Do we say the state is dead and publish an obituary that it has not internalized? The state is dead but it does not know it. Like the Stegosaurus. What do we mean by this? What does the death of the nation state refer to? A plasticity of boundaries where information can travel in a way every nomad envies.

Which state is this? Is it the African state which died out or the one being reinvented in Nigeria? And linked to this is the question of democracy. At one level democracy is the brand name everyone celebrates, from East Europe to South Africa. But is this democracy understood in Nigeria or India or is it a canned concept which equates democracy to electoral politics and has a restrictive notion of human rights which means free flow of capital but is hesitant about free flow of labour? There is talk of loss of national autonomy but whose autonomy is being lost: is it the autonomy of the U.S. as a global policeman or that of a South Asian country?

Is globalization a kind of political ethnocentrism which equates U.S.=Universal, as Frederic Jameeson bluntly put it. Is the U.S. us? Why is there so little talk of the globalization of evil, of genocide, of low intensity warfare? After all, low intensity warfare is diffusing as fast as the electronic chip across the world. And what kind of an ethics or politics do we create to meet the everydayness of this genocidal invention. Or do we write it off as a part of the risk systems of today?

It is not democracy alone that gets redefined. Culture and even citizenship gets reworked. Present in the debate is either the standard fear of Americanization or the affable theory of globalization which hyphenates, aestheticizes and commodifies, creating a seamless web between culture and economics. Worse, dissent itself might become a cultural commodity when globalized. One man’s dissent is another man’s Ph.D. Today the spread of culture is not merely through music or dance but through that dreary network of agencies like GATT, UNDP, WTO.

Next to technology, the real source of wonder is finance. It is financial capital and its relation to the city that rewrites the global landscape. It is the movement of finance capital that signals the helplessness of many regimes. It is once again the rootlessness of finance capital that raises questions of responsibility. Can one subject financial agencies to a Nuremberg like trial after the Asian meltdown? Who is responsible for the death of local communities or is responsibility a floating signifier to be picked up by an underemployed but opportunistic NGOs?

One must ask in this context where the sources of resistance and invention lie. One comes back to the nation state, the criminal syndicates, the family cronyism of certain forms of capital as sites of resistance. Can NGOs play a role or are they extension counters of global regimes commodifying disasters, poverty and other development processes? Reinventing the nation state, genocidal and inefficient as it is, might be one of the great challenges of the so-called Third World.

But the site par-excellence is the city. It is around the city that the theatres of globalization will enact their dramas. Hindi cinema has instant realization of this projecting the movement of plot as a movement across cities. The city is that confused ambiguous site where new experiments are being constructed. In fact, the first new hero of globalization is not the network but the city. Indian sociology is yet to recognize the global city. But the inklings are there. Chandrababu Naidu talks of Hyderabad as the cyber city. Bangalore is already touted as the informational capital. But our cities cannot live in virtual space. They are gatekeepers of a culture, sites for debates and experiments. Where does India stand in terms of a global urban imagination? Way back in the 1900s Har Dayal exclaimed, ‘Benares and Puri have had their day.’ The question is: have Bangalore and Hyderabad arrived or are they still in liminal space, caught between old and new?

Any issue on globalization is a beginning, an invitation to a quarrel, a request to reinvent it further. But most of all, it is an attempt to locate, hybridize the dreams of globalism and democracy. Indians desperately need an imagination beyond the old hybrid of Macaulay-IIT. Present in the papers may be ideas for such an outrageous exercise.

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SHIV VISVANATHN