Launch Event: 17–18 January 2013

The Borders of Global Theory: Views from Within and Without

The Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society enjoyed a successful launch on 17–18 January 2013 with a special workshop entitled The Borders of Global Theory: Views from Within and Without.

Speakers included Professors Roland Robertson (Aberdeen), Jan Aart Scholte (Warwick), Heather Widdows (Birmingham), Gillian Youngs (Brighton), and Grahame Thompson (Open University and Copenhagen Business School).

The event began with a welcome by Professor Barrie Axford and Professor Gary Browning (Oxford Brookes) in which the future direction of the Centre was discussed. Aims include a collaborative venture with Brunel University on networks and the social sciences; a similar venture with the University of Hong Kong dealing with energy politics; an ambitious Visiting Fellow programme; the continuation of the weekly Doctoral Training Prpgramme Seminar Series; and more annual workshops. Axford and Browning also offered a flavour of the launch event itself. Questions to be considered included: what constitutes the global? How should it be used analytically in the social sciences? Does it require a scholarship committed to inter or trans-disciplinarity? To what extent, and in what directions, have the social sciences developed through employing “the global”? Is “globalization” just a scholarly Zeitgeist, or is it the catalyst of change in social scientific inquiry? What is its transformative potential?

The first talk, given by Professor Roland Robertson, addressed three main themes: the over-emphasis of the terms “connectivity” and “interconnectedness” to the detriment of a greater focus on “global consciousness”; the links between global consciousness and cosmology/astronomy; and the question “what is Global Studies?” Global consciousness, according to Robertson, does not mean a shared consciousness but refers, rather, to how people think about the world as a whole. Since 1870, when the term “light-year” was coined, as the vast size of our galaxy started to become clear, human beings have reflected increasingly upon the place of Planet Earth in the universe. Global consciousness thus has a religious or mythological dimension whose scholarly exploration has been catalyzed in response to the militant atheism of recent years. It also brings with it the recognition that anything in the cosmos can be put in its place. So all knowledge is subject to endless relativization, and, contrary to fundamentalisms, there is not one truth or universally valid form of commitment. In that sense, the true significance of the “Big Bang” theory had less to do with material factors than with our consciousness of the relative place of Planet Earth within the cosmos. Applying these insights to “Global Studies,” we find that the latter is not simply synonymous with “globalization”; nor is it a kind of “area studies plus one” paradigm. Rather, it requires a “trans-disciplinary” or “cross-disciplinary” approach as opposed to the prevailing “interdisciplinary” paradigm that, paradoxically, enforces disciplinarity.

The second address, given by Professor Jan-Aart Scholte, offered a methodological reflection upon his major project “Building Global Democracy” (2008-2012). The project was designed to combat a contradiction at the heart of Global Studies: the paucity of democratic inquiry into democratization. All too often work on democratizing global political economy has been overly narrow: too Western-centric, too academic, and too rooted in (Western) political theory and practices. In contrast, “Building Global Democracy” was rooted in principles of diversity, reflexivity, and praxis. In terms of diversity, the project’s convening group was comprised of ten people from ten different world regions. It also reflected sectoral diversity (journalists, businessmen, civil society representatives, political parties, academics), gender equality, and linguistic diversity through translation of outputs into eight languages (although English was made the working language for pragmatic reasons). Reflexivity was manifest in the constant challenge to one’s own perspective through the encounters with others. After all, if democracy is about giving publics the chance to shape their own destinies, there is no single “right” way of doing so. Praxis meant shifting knowledge production beyond academic methods and outputs to embrace, for instance, the use of twitter feeds or poster production in order to engage a wider audience. Some fifty case studies of democratization that were previously invisible arose from the project, which contributed to a manifesto for building global democracy.

Professor Heather Widdows’ talk was entitled Public Goods and the Possibility of Theories of Justice ever being Global. Widdows’ objected to the commonplace logic in ethics of seeking to expand local theories of justice to the global level. Her objections were two-fold. First, adding a global dimension to any theory of justice presents serious challenges to how we construe ideas about the nature and recipients of justice. Second, global theories are flawed from the start because of their focus on the individual as the primary unit of analysis. Distributive theories of justice, Widdows noted, are easily applicable to individuals living in relatively close proximity to one another, less so when applied to the global condition. Justice between relative equals is far less demanding than justice in the real world of stark inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and imagination. Justice is about more than giving individuals the opportunity to choose: what actually improves the lives of individuals are often public goods that individuals will not always choose for themselves. For example, individuals’ capacity to choose to take malaria drugs in cases where they are medically unnecessary has helped make most malaria drugs ineffective, raising the risk of a pandemic. In some cases where individual rights conflict with public goods, such as in the case of herd mentality applied to clinical immunity, individual choice must be limited. Of course, this raises the question of how to prioritise which goods matter most if choice and consent are not regarded as primary. Resistance to this way of thinking derives from an exaggerated fear of paternalism and the human capacity for self-delusion that must be overcome if we are to preclude foreseeable disasters such as those involving the environment or healthcare.

The fourth presentation, Virtual Globalization: Directions in Digital Thinking was given by Professor Gillian Youngs, who sought to expound the concept of “sociotechnical spatiality.” Pointing to the anticipation of many digital developments in the early globalization literature, Youngs discussed the ways in which developments in the new media increasingly break down traditional distinctions between public and private, real and virtual, market and society. Technology is not neutral: increasingly we interact with, and place our trust in, automated systems more than actual human beings: we trust lifts in tall buildings not to fail just as we trust banking systems not to lose our personal details. Ours is a sociotechnical world: states are reconfiguring themselves through the digital, be it in terms of cyber-warfare or the fight against paedophilia via the internet. Social relations are being altered by the “seek and find” model of search engines: it is increasingly hard not to be found, or to keep one’s personal data private, when everyone else is sharing information about you. Market forces are taking advantage of these changes. Facebook, for instance, epitomes the marketization of the private sphere: although most users still regard their data as private, Facebook’s terms and conditions clearly stipulate otherwise. At the same time, however, the new digital media also open up new possibilities for agency and empowerment; innovation does not just trickle down, it also trickles up. Grassroots projects such as and Monmouthpedia are good examples of this.

Finally, Professor Grahame Thompson presented a summary of his new book in which he expressed concern about the rise of what he called “global quasi-constitutionalization.” He began by noting the way in which private companies such as Tesco and Coca Cola now perform tasks previously reserved for states in many parts of the world, such as providing schools and clean water. New mechanisms of governance are thus increasingly arising alongside, and sometimes even replacing, traditional, state-based forms of governance. This in turns feeds the “quasi-constitutionalization” of the corporate world: “a surrogate process of constitutionalization, not a coherent ‘program’ or set of rounded outcomes but full of half-contradictory, half-finished currents and projects: an ‘assemblage’ of many disparate advocates.” Thompson’s key distinction was between the “rule of law” and the “rule by law.” The former is more legitimate than the latter because it involves such features as an independent judiciary, whereas the latter tends to be adjudicated by private agents including self-appointed lawyers and judges. Contrary to the claims of businesses, “corporate social responsibility” is not the same as being a “global corporate citizen”: the latter involves a commitment to social, environmental and ethical virtues as opposed to financial and business returns. Although companies differ greatly in this regard, most are either “bottom feeders” for whom such concerns are irrelevant, or “cynics” who pursue such concerns only to improve their public image. At the global level, Thompson argued, the increasing rise of bilateral trade agreements, which favour “rule by law,” need to be rolled back in favour of multilateralism, which is indirectly committed to the “rule of law.”

The launch of the Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society was concluded by Professor Barrie Axford, who expressed his heartfelt thanks to the speakers for overcoming ill- health and braving their way through the snow to attend, as well as to all who had contributed to the event.