Book Review: Globalisation and Global Politics by Anthony McGrew (2014)

Image: IFF China Report 2018

Assessment: Global Political Economics, book review

Reading Anthony McGrew’s Globalisation and Global Politics in 2020 reveals just how long the six intervening years have been. His theorised “thick globalisation” has played out in dense webs of politicians and corporations on real time technology. An argument for the inevitable, intensifying impact of globalisation on global politics is set out in this book that now, sadly, matches lived experiences.

  • Globalised systems will thrive amidst intensifying nationalist populism.
  • A new age of globalisation will breed tension between sovereign democracies and multi-national corporations with “few democratic qualities”.

His prescience is chilling. Economists take note: be careful what you wish for.

Globalisation and Global Politics is an in-depth study of what globalisation is and what it is becoming. The conclusions reached are solid and well-developed but the reader is often reminded this is controversial stuff.. McGrew calls globalisation a “secular historical process” and his timeline of its effects on economies, cultures, societies, and politics is convincing. But in true academic style, the risks of what may lie ahead are carefully buried in syntax. There’s also an all-too-recognisable assumption at play: globalisation needs capitalism.

Global Politics: Globalization and the Nation-State | Wiley
Globalisation and Global Politics by McGrew et al

Globalisation is a large and contentious subject with acres of opposing arguments. McGrew trudges through this sludge; academics labelling globalisation a “conceptual folly” for Western capitalist hegemony and a misnomer for “internationalisation” or “international interdependency”.
His core argument to the sceptics is globalisation’s creation of a shared global social space. Advanced travel and communication technology have allowed a share of ideas and cultures unique to globalisation.

McGrew concludes the arguments of the sceptics all stem from the uneven, often violent, nature of globalisation’s effects. In local communities, globalisation has “exacerbated existing tensions and conflicts”. The resurgence of nationalism after 9/11 is convincingly called a consequence of globalisation. Global political, economic and social systems shifted in response to the War on Terror and the later Global Financial Crisis. But far from weaken in a politically insular, populist world, they intensified.

While nation states entered a period of loud declarations of sovereignty and even ethnicity, they were still heavily reliant on global entities that often limited their ability to govern. One of many shattering ideas timidly proposed is state sovereignty is not “eroded” by globalisation but “transformed”.

“Capitalisms insatiable requirement for new markets and profits leads inevitably to the globalisation of economic activities.”

Enter the effects of capitalism and the vision of the future begins to darken. Globalisation is presented as the inevitable offspring of advancing technology and capitalism. McGrew doesn’t like the word “imperialism”. But, he does perceive British and American hegemony as critical nurturers of globalisations ideas and infrastructure. The result of these hegemonic caregivers has been uneven, violent globalisation.

It’s interesting to watch McGrew develop this concept of “unevenness”. Is it endemic to globalisation? Has it been intentionally worsened by hegemonic powers, or their infrastructural offspring? It’s never made clear. But it’s conclusively argued, benefits of the global social space have been biased towards states and corporations with more capital or in countries housing globalisations political and economic infrastructure.
Globalisations effects on global politics make for disturbing reading 63 days from the potential election of a second Trump administration.

Step back off the page and it’s not difficult to find lived evidence for what you’re reading. The sovereignty of a nation state as uniquely entitled to govern is “transformed” by thick globalisation. “Sovereignty is bartered, shared and divided among the agencies of public power at different levels, from the local to the global.” This job lot division of democratic efficacy is labelled a “disaggregated state”.

In a disaggregated state, agencies and actors responsible to the state or acting for a profit inside the state consult across borders with their global equivalents to get results and consensus. Again, we’re presented with the inevitable development of a global system under capitalism. Is capitalism the only way for the free share of ideas without borders? In 2020, we’re watching the results of this dependency play out daily.

The disaggregated state is the blistering reality of the USA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government intentionally left internal institutions to cope with a global issue. State and local legislatures and institutions needed to regulate everything from public activity to the supply and the sharing of healthcare personnel and personal protective equipment. Local authorities communicated with global equivalents in other countries to share resources and techniques.

Sadly, McGrew’s transformative effect on sovereignty lives, as does the global political system he theorised will worsen as a result.

“As with Globalisation, inequality and exclusion are endemic features of contemporary global politics.”

Contemporary global politics are described here as “technocratic”. McGrew’s theories stumble on this label. Experts are too often ignored when they advocate policies to benefit a single global society. But the supporting arguments for the inevitability of inequality in global politics are deeply recognisable. The uneven interests of global power and capital increasingly exclude stakeholders.

The past two decades have seen an ongoing feedback loop as nationalist or populist rhetoric has increased the practice of politics through domination and competition. As states disaggregated, non-government entities rapidly expanded to facilitate. The global imbalance of influence and capital worsened.

Contemporary globalised systems have shifted power unevenly through an array of public and private networks. As with “imperialism,” McGrew is tentative with the phrase: “multi-national corporation,” but the picture he paints is plain enough.

Historically, MNC’s were few enough in number to be successfully checked in their excesses by the nations hosting them. In a world where $4 trillion flows daily through the foreign exchange market ($6.6 trillion in 2019), the weight of corporations with the assets of sovereign states can be crushing. MNC’s can mobilise political power and economic resources across borders quickly and effectively while democracies are hamstrung by increasing divisions.

A unique construct of globalisation identified is a growing awareness of the fragility of the global polity. Above national and cultural boundaries, global issues of common concern are more easily identifiable. But globalised infrastructure’s poor success rate is more a result of the interference of capitalism than of the failure of globalisation. The results remain distorted by a lack of effective accountability across global systems.

McGrew’s vision falters as he is unable to separate the two. He argues capitalism requires a globalised economic community. While he successfully identifies the damage of capitalist entities to local democracies and global outcomes, he’s not prepared to excoriate its influence or look beyond it.

The profound tragedy of globalisation has been its failure to evolve economic systems to match the needs of its global social unit. The dominant ideologies remain capitalism and socialism. Like werewolves and vampires, their minions fight blithely on in a world far advanced beyond a need for either. Contemporary economics, or at least contemporary economists, fail to properly absorb the vast differences in the social experience of the 18th and 19th centuries from the present.

When The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa and most of the Americas were still outside the global economy and humanity’s population sat just below 800 million. The idea of a super-sphere of advanced technology where information and resources moved instantaneously across almost 8 billion people, 197 countries and 75 federal democratic institutions was beyond science fiction.
McGrew cavalierly dismisses the idea of global government as “fanciful”, but a core tenet of his work is the need for a radical conceptual shift for globalisation and its infrastructure.

 McGrew’s understated academic language is a credit to his discipline but not necessarily his subject. Too often his statements glide over their gruesome outcomes. Six long years later, the work of the disaggregated states of the globalised community is a harsh lived experience for too many people.

Increasingly larger democracies flail in the face of the interests of the corporations they host. The distorted influence of capital on global society empowers darker, divisive nationalist rhetoric. Global regulation of economic actors and the infrastructure around them remains unrealised. Globalisation and Global Politics calls for a conceptual shift in thinking around both topics but then fails to do so itself. So far as “thick globalisation” is concerned, capitalism is here to stay.