Nationalism & globalisation

Gavin Kitching

When speaking about my book Seeking Social Justice Through Globalisation (Penn State Press, 2001), I always feel the need to begin by saying that it is not a book about Australia and globalisation, or about the impact of globalisation in Australia. But until I sat down to write these remarks, the significance of this felt need, and of the slight discomfort that the very making of this statement (I almost want to say 'admission') generates in me, had not really struck home. But it ought to have done, because in some ways it strikes to the heart of my book, and of what the book is trying to say.

This is because one of the leading threads of argument which runs through Seeking ... is that globalisation as a process - its social and human consequences and its economic dynamics - are subtly but deeply misunderstood if that process is looked at from a national perspective (any national perspective). A friend and colleague from Sydney University's Political Economy department, Dick Bryan (who unfortunately cannot be here tonight), has spent a lot of time and hard work over the last few years trying to demonstrate that, as tools for analysing global financial movements and their implications, so-called 'national accounts' are now so misleading as to be positively worthless. He has argued, for example, that in our contemporary world, interest rate movements, exchange values of currencies and, indeed, 'national' balance of payments surpluses or deficits, are far more determined by activities in global financial markets and by the locational and purchasing decisions and investments of transnational and other companies, than they are by any 'national' economic variables, including policy decisions by national governments. In fact Dick, I know, is of the view that one of the technical tasks now confronting economists (a task yet hardly addressed) is the creation of global economic accounts, partly to supplement, but actually partly to replace, national accounts; the kind of accounts in fact that would allow us to plot the dynamics of a global capitalist system more accurately - where it is expanding, where contracting or stagnating, both as a total system and by sectors.

But as I try to argue in my book, these 'technical' problems with analysing a global economic system (or more accurately, a globalising economic system - the process is far from complete) is just the tip of an iceberg; just the technical expression in fact of far deeper and more intractable contradictions - contradictions of which the discomfort I alluded to at the beginning of this paper is also an expression - and perhaps in some ways a much more important expression. For why do I feel this discomfort? Why do I feel constrained to make this 'admission' as an opening remark about my book? Because, quite simply, I know I am addressing an audience of Australians, and I therefore just assume that, in so far as that audience is interested in globalisation, it is interested in it from the 'point of view' (as we significantly say) of its impact (positive or negative) on something called 'Australia'. (I should stress of course that there is nothing uniquely Australian about that. I would make the same assumption about an audience of Britons, or French people or Indians, and would make the same admission, just changing one word).

'And what is problematic about that?' I seem to hear you say. Well one thing that is problematic about it (apart from the technical economic issues mentioned above) is that it simply may not be possible now for us to understand at all accurately who is benefiting from and/or who is losing or suffering from globalisation by seeing its processes through national lenses. That is to say, if we want to state clearly who benefits from the profits made by the Ford Motor Company or by Sony electronics or by the Ripcurl surfwear company, or who gains and loses from the investment and purchasing/sub-contracting decisions such companies make, the empirically accurate answer always requires us to put qualifiers before national categories. So the answer to those questions in the case of Ripcurl, for example, is "the owners of Ripcurl" (all Australian, Ripcurl is not a public company), "some workers in Australia" and "a lot more workers in China and India". In the case of the Ford Motor Company, the answers would be "a large cosmopolitan conglomerate of its institutional and individual stock holders", "some workers in America" and "rather more workers in various countries of Europe and Asia".