power in the global age (book review)

Vitalie Sprînceană

E un eseu la cursul de Sociologie a  Globalizării. Poate interesează pe cineva.

Beck, Ulrich. Power in the Global Age: A New Global Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity, 2005

Ulrich Beck`s “Power in the global age: A new global political economy” attempts to accomplish two ambitious goals: one methodological and one ideological (understood as a connection between an understanding of the world and the practice to transform the world derived from this understanding). On the one hand, Beck aims to formulate a new scientific paradigm that would take into account the transformations brought by the second modernity, defined by global and ecological crises, widening transnational inequalities, individualization, precarious forms of paid work and the challenges of cultural, political and military globalization (xvii). On the other hand, based on the knowledge acquired as a consequence of this new perspective, a new practice is proposed, the practice of cosmopolitan realism – a set of attitudes that focuses not only on the crucial role of global economic power, but also on global business actors in relations of cooperation and competition among states.

Beck’s epistemological innovation, captured in the powerful metaphor of cosmopolitan imagination (analogous to C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination) is the paradigm shift from methodological nationalism (a theoretical approach that considers nation-state society to be equated with society per se, while states and their governments are considered to be cornerstones of political science analysis) to methodological cosmopolitanism (i.e. dismantling of space and politics, despatialization of state and society, the emergence of the world civil society, plural political membership, and pluralized religions and ethnicities). This methodological conversion is motivated by the logic of globalization and the “great transformation” induced by the economic and political developments associated with globalization: the power, argues Beck, has moved into another place, and if political science still wants to study the power in an adequate manner, it has to go to this other place, and to change the conceptual framework.  The power shift has to be understood not only in a spatial/geographical sense (from nation-states, with particular and well defined boundaries to transnational business corporations, impersonal undemocratic bodies that exert economic sovereignty – a new, non-public organizational form of private, law-making violence that stands above sovereign states without itself possessing state sovereignty, 144), but also in a societal and cultural sense – the very criteria upon which power resided in the first modernity – force, military strength or intervention, democratic consensus and territorial principle, have been transformed into a different kind of domination based on efficiency, knowledge and economic flexibility, understood as the ability of investing more cheaply elsewhere, in other countries. This homelessness of the global capital has tremendous implications both for state policies, life and for the well being of citizens around the world. Accordingly, states are constrained to compete between them in order to attract flows of money while citizens become increasingly depend on voluntaristic actions of transnational corporations in the pursuit of profits.

Surprisingly enough, this theoretical pessimism (the belief in the backwardness of traditional concepts and the impetuous need for change) is associated with a quite optimistic ideological and praxiological standpoint: “globalization is not destiny; it can be shaped and influenced” (xiii). As a result, global processes appear not as an inevitable fate (as the narrative of global capitalism claims), but an open-ended course of actions that could be transformed and directed according to the equilibrium of forces existing at any given moment. Consequently, the ideological efforts of Beck are intended to investigate how this equilibrium of forces emerges and changes, what the strategies and assets are and, finally, how the “good players” (here the sympathies of Beck are evident) can avoid losing their advantages.

First of all, the very game of globalization, argues Beck, is very different from the old games. In contrast to the old political game (in the nation state era) which worked by applying a certain set of rules, the new world politics works by constantly changing them. Neither players, nor their strategies are pre-determined; instead, participants gain their status in the meta-game, by organizing themselves politically within the game (15). Since the scenario is open, other players can, and usually do enter the stage: for example, terrorist networks (NGOs committed to violence, as Beck defines them). Three main actors acquire, usually, the power to participate in this process of shaping and influencing globalization: nation-states, the capital (the new neoliberal economic order) and the global civil society (a confusing term that incorporates occasionally world citizens grouped into global parties and sometimes the generic type of “global customer”). Each of these players has a set of available strategies and resources of all types (discursive, financial, ethical and political), as well as different levels of self organization. The outcomes of the globalization game rely upon the abilities of players to take advantage both of their strengths and of the weaknesses of their rivals. In essence, suggests Beck, a disadvantaged player can only be marginalized but not annihilated from the table – there is a reciprocal link between them that makes the destruction of any actor undesirable. The global business needs a strong state (market deregulation, privatization of public services and enforcing global business norms cannot be achieved by a weak state), as well as obedient global citizens that would consume the goods and services provided by the corporations. By the same token, the state needs both big capital (in order to pay for security and military force) and citizens (for, the very legitimacy of the state is built on citizens’ will). Thus, coexistence is not only possible, but necessary.

For now, the main game is being played by the state and the big capital, since global civil society appears to be a future project, rather than a palpable reality. Capital uses various stratagems to weaken the state that can be grouped into 4 main categories: autarchic strategies (to make the state easily replaceable and fully interchangeable), substitution strategies (to put the state in a competition with the greatest number of comparable states as possible), monopolization strategies (the state must have internalized the neo-liberal world market regime, a monopoly on economic rationality for global business) and strategies of preventive dominance – the state must use its monopoly on violence in order to enforce autonomy and the binding power of global business actors (122).

Thereupon, state policies and efforts will be directed to combat these strategies of global capital, and states can choose between: strategies of indispensability, strategies of irreplaceability, strategies aimed at reducing competition between states, strategies aimed at repoliticizing politics, strategies aimed at cosmopolitanizing states (169-170)

As for global civil society (surprisingly, only 12 pages out of 365 are dedicated to the effort of understanding its role and possibilities), its main source of power resides in rhetoric and narratives. Beck conceives this situation in a kind of legitimation trap: transnational corporations and business organizations have a great deal of power but little legitimacy; social movements, on the other hand, have only little power but a high level of legitimacy (75). This legitimacy originates in the prestige of morality as a source of power in the global age.  The basis of the counter-power of global civil society mainly contains two amazing tools: NGOs (through which citizens can impose a global ethical regime of human rights that can depreciate the assets of global capital in perspective) and the global customer, which possesses the tremendous global power of refusal, of non-purchase that can influence the policies of global capital here and now.

States appear to occupy an intermediary role between big capital and citizens, and the future battles, suggests Beck, will be fought for the access and manipulation of it.

Philosophical and political difficulties arise when speculative and highly abstract notions such as cosmopolitanism, world parties, and global civil society are translated into political practice: Beck fails to offer discursive and institutional frameworks through which these notions come into being. How a global discourse of human rights could emerge if the very content of the concept “human rights” varies across cultures and communities? How the humanistic substance of “cosmopolitanism” and “global civil society” could resist the rich imagery of capitalism that can pervert these notions and impose on them different new meanings through advertising and publicity? In other words, will the global citizen choose the mustached militant figure of José Bové or the seductive bodies of Pamela Anderson look-a-likes on tropical beaches – the standard imagery of the capitalist paradise?

Similarly, Beck’s cosmopolitanism (the struggle for a human culture in which very different traditions are able to live alongside one another) seems to be inspired from the Habermasian “public sphere”, where actors are equally empowered with the capacities of discourse (the ideal speech situation). Beck commits the same error: despite the proclaimed ideological neutrality, cosmopolitanism embeds in it a strong and dangerous illusion. It is based on unawareness (or repression) of the conditions of access to the political sphere and the factors of discrimination which limit the chances of access, i.e. the equality of traditions is a rhetorical illusion rather than a kind of reality: the discursive resources that a community posses are different and unequal.  Also, big capital is able to buy and use more discursive resources than an NGO or a network of NGOs in order to buy ethical legitimacy and prestige (see, for example, how companies position themselves as “green” or “ecologically friendly”).


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