Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 6
2 November 1999

Kazi Stastna G L O B A L I Z A T I O N :
Perspective on Forum 2000:
Osvaldo Sunkel

Kazi Stastna

From 12 to 14 October a conference of international "thinkers" took place at the Prague Castle. The theme of this year's Forum 2000 conference was globalization, but only a handful of the delegates were able to place this term in the concrete context of existing realities. One of the handful was Chilean economist Osvaldo Sunkel.

In his speech, which he delivered on the second day of the conference following Hillary Clinton's feel-good take on "that rather long word" globalization, he outlined four main theses, or rather four key aspects which must be included in any discussion of globalization.

Ideology vs reality

The first aspect which Sunkel pointed to is the dualism which exists between the myths and ideologies associated with globalization, promoted by the financial press, international financial institutions, private transnational corporations, technocratic elites and members of the economics profession, and the actual experiences of the majority of the world's population. He pointed out the dichotomy of a "private globalization" versus the "public void" that has been brought on by the existing "global governability crisis." Sunkel criticized the prevalent neoliberal policy in which the market appears as the overriding principle, subsuming state and society, and proposed that a more favorable alternative would be a situation in which society and democracy control the state, and the state interacts in a regulatory manner with the market.

Historical perspective

His second thesis concentrated on the dispelling of another common misrepresentation: the view of globalization as a relatively recent, mechanical, ever-expanding, accelerating trend towards a final destination, that being the end of history, understood to mean democracy and free markets. In contrast to this, Sunkel suggested adopting a wider historical perspective and thereby recognizing globalization as a long-term cyclical process. Within this wider perspective, the current era of globalization is merely one phase in an on-going process, which in Sunkel's view probably started with Marco Polo's voyage to China.

Although he did admit that the recent phase is one of rapidly accelerating globalization, Sunkel pointed out that a similar period of growth and expansion of international investment, trade, finance and immigration occurred in the time between the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Following the two World Wars and the Depression of the 1930s, a period of contraction and disappearance of international systems ensued which in turn evolved again into a phase of expansion during the recent period. Sunkel stressed the necessity of this historical perspective in realistically dampening our expectations, both negative and positive, of globalization.

A discriminatory process

In his third thesis, Sunkel drew attention to the fact that globalization is an "unequal, partial, heterogeneous and biased participatory process." He suggested that the globalizing process has two dimensions - a widening and a deepening. Widening, according to Sunkel, is occurring in two respects: as the capitalist globalizing process expands territorially into the former Communist countries, where it is stimulating an increase in private wealth and a decrease in public support of middle and working classes; but also as what Sunkel called "frontier areas," that is underdeveloped countries with semi- or pre-capitalist systems, are incorporated into this process, often resulting in the displacement of people, destruction of resources and heightened inequality. Simultaneously, globalization involves a deepening, in the sense of the deepening of an "individualistic, utilitarian, competitive capitalist culture."

In combination, Sunkel sees these two dimensions as being part of process which discriminates between those who have the assets, abilities and willingness to get access to it and those who do not and hence get "bypassed and displaced." In Sunkel's view, this process is equally discriminatory against individuals, enterprises, sectors of production, regions within countries or even entire countries and continents. As a last accent of this aspect of inequality, Sunkel again pointed out the dichotomy between symbolic globalization, demonstrated in the incorporation of the " world mass media consumer civilization," and material globalization, that is the actual means to materialize this incorporation, which are lacking for the tremendous majority of the world's population.

A dialectical process

Lastly, Sunkel identified the globalization process as a dialectical one, in the sense of Marx's alternating modes of production, Joseph Schumpeter's cycles of creation and destruction or Karl Polanyi's double movement which describes the disruption of existing systems of social reciprocity through competitive monetary marketization and the ensuing social responses to this disruption. Sunkel suggested that we are currently witnessing four simultaneous movements in this dialectical process: transnational integration; national disintegration and the weakening of the nation state; reintegration efforts based on ideas of a civil society and responses on a local, regional, religious or community level and finally; exclusion and marginalization. In Sunkel's eyes, the outcome of this process will depend on the relative strength of the process of disintegration and the strength of the nation state. He proposed to lessen the weakening of the nation state by improving democracy while allowing a pluralistic mosaic of subnational cultures.

Concrete proposals

In his summary, Sunkel called for the inclusion of and direct confrontation with these four theses or realities of globalization in the program of the Forum 2000 conference. He urged a move towards concrete, constructive proposals for the lessening of the unfairness of the globalizing process and for the preservation of the aforementioned subnational identities within the weakening framework of nation states. Unfortunately, for the most part, his call remained unheeded.

Kazi Stastna, 2 November 1998


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