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Theories and Concepts of Economic Globalisation


We live in a globalised, capitalist world of the mass flow and exchange of services, goods, and people across national borders (Joshi, 2009) made possible by developments in science, technology, and communication (Archibugi & Iammarino, 2002, p. 99; Hrynyshyn, 2002, p. 84). The consequence of this acceleration—"globalisation"—continues to ignite debate and discussion over definition, themes, scale, and its repercussions (Bromley, 1999, p. 280; Conley, 2000, p. 88; Robinson, 2003, p. 353).

Although the Norwegian social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen outlines several “dimensions” in scale and speed shaping the globalising process, he concludes that globalisation has “no end and no intrinsic purpose” (Eriksen, 2007, p. 7). Its complexity was discussed by the eminent British sociologist Anthony Giddens in 1996: “There are few terms that we use so frequently but which are in fact as poorly conceptualised as globalization” (Giddens, 1996, quoted in Scholte, 2002).


The confusing nature of globalisation has also been expressed by Professor Jan Aart Scholte, author of the highly-acclaimed textbook Globalization: A Critical Introduction: “People have linked the notion to pretty well every purported contemporary social change” (Scholte, 2005). Terms such as “multidimensional” (Gopinath, 2012), “amorphous” (Ethier, 2002) and “all-embracing” (Pooch, 2016, p. 15) are further evidence of globalisation’s ambiguity.


An interpretation is offered by the late Emeritus Professor Sandro Sideri: “Globali[z]ation is essentially a process driven by economic forces. Its immediate causes are . . . the spatial reorganisation of production, international trade and the integration of financial markets” (Sideri, 1997, p. 38). Viewed as an economic process, globalisation is considered “the worldwide extension of capitalism” by the renowned Turkish economist Professor Dani Rodrik (Rodrik, 2011, p. 233). In globalisation research and literature, there appears to be a consensus on the role of national markets, trade, and commerce: “the interdependence of economies of countries” (Surugiu & Surugiu, 2015, p. 132); “increasing interdependence of world economies as a result of the growing scale of cross-border trade of commodities” (Shangquan, 2000); and “the increasing interdependence between internationally dispersed economic activities” (Cantwell & Janne, 2000).


Figure 1: Our globalised world (Openclipart, 2017).

This integration has increased the flow of capital within the global economy. The social and political repercussions of network “interconnectedness” and technological "acceleration," two characteristics identified by Eriksen (2007), can be used to describe the ongoing capital flow of economic globalisation in this article.


Time-space Compression

Modern economic globalisation involves a drastic increase in the cross-border or international exchange of financial capital (Brady et al., 2005, p. 316; Joshi, 2009), made possible by the historical developments of multiple technologies in communication, information, transportation, and manufacturing (Eriksen, 2007; Allen, 2016). This technological acceleration has created “time-space compression," a concept coined by the distinguished Marxist geographer David Harvey in his 1989 book Conditions of Postmodernity. Harvey believes the developments in capitalism, driven by the increased transfer of capital, have compressed the relationship between time and space (Harvey, 1989). His geographical concept expands Karl Marx’s 19th-century theory of the “annihilation of space by time," outlined in his 1973 manuscript Gundrisse, in which Marx first explored the altering of time and space caused by capitalism’s need for expanding markets, since “[c]apital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier.” The essence of today’s economic globalisation.


Despite the insistence of the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama on the “monumental failure of Marxism” at the end of the Cold War (Fukuyama, 1989), Karl Marx’s in-depth, critical analysis of historical materialism and international capitalism, namely the hugely influential Communist Manifesto co-written with Friedrich Engels (1820-95), continues to shape modern theories of economics, politics, and society (Gurley, 1984; Gamble, 1999). Professor Scholte believes the writings of Marx “offer important contributions to understanding economic globali[z]ation” (Scholte, 2005:129). Indeed, in 1848, Marx and Engels observed capitalism as a global system requiring: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere” (Marx et al., 2002). Evidence of the “revolutionizing force” of capitalism in scale and transformation is described by American globalisation and political economy author William I. Robinson (Robinson, 2001, p. 160).


Considering that at the time of its publication, Britain was regarded as the only industrialised nation and, consequently, “by far the most organised labour force of any capitalist country in the world” (Sewell, 2003), the Communist Manifesto has proved to be a prophetic publication in regards to future globalisation, a world market, and the emergence of multinational corporations: “All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home but in every quarter of the globe” (Marx et al., 2002).


Figure 2: The influential philosopher Karl Marx (1818-83) explored the “annihilation of space by time” caused by the increased movement of capital (Wikipedia, 2023 [cropped]).

“Globalization of the financial sector has become the most rapidly developing and most influential aspect of economic globalization” (Shanquan, 2000). De-territorialisation, the spatial realignment of state borders, cultures, and peoples (Brenner, 1999; Scholte, 2005), has transformed the financial sector, especially since the deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s (Prasad et al., 2003; Kotz, 2015). This is prolific today with the twenty-four-seven banking system and the evolution of online and wireless service technology, allowing vast amounts to be moved instantaneously. Echoing the beliefs of the distorted time and space relationship explored by Karl Marx and David Harvey, Eriksen (2007, p. 35) believes “there is no longer a connection between duration and distance” as a consequence of the speed of global interconnectedness created by modern technology.


Global Restructuring and Fragmentation

Again, developments in communication and technology have been identified as playing a pivotal role in the apparent interconnectedness of globalisation, forming an open, cross-border global economy (Singh, 2003, p. 181). Since the 1970s, however, a global transition of capitalism has taken place (Antonio & Bonanno, 2000; Robinson, 2001), disrupting the historic supply chains forged by Fordism—the standardised factory system of mass production associated with the American industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947)—to create the modern, automated post-Fordism world (Sewell, 2003; Antonio & Bonanno, 2000) of flexibility and deregulation in capital, production, and labour (Peters, 2008). The significance is that these decisions and directions are increasingly exercised or influenced by corporations rather than governments (Seidman, 2012).


A consequence of this restructuring has been the creation of a “networking-based economy” (Shangquan, 2000), a theory associated with the prominent sociologist Manuel Castells, and “the network enterprise” (Castells, 2000) of a fragmented workforce—"generic" and “self-programmable"—individually judged on education and employment skills. This systemic division, based on an individual’s economic worth (Börjesson, 1999, p. 31), has created both social and employment insecurity (Eriksen, 2007, p. 74) and exclusion (Marcuse, 2010, p. 254).


Expendable workforces and the development of cheaper manufacturing techniques caused by globalisation have considerably affected workers’ wages, employment rights, and working conditions (Aguirre & Reese, 2004; Rayp, 2013). Although the Dutch trade unionist Edo Fimmen (1818-1942) advocated for a stronger international trade union movement, as opposed to national organisations addressing domestic issues, to counteract the global growth of capitalism in the early 20th century (Hampson, 2004; Hyman, 2005), continuing deindustrialisation and a neoliberal approach to employment relations have severely impacted, but not entirely weakened, global workers’ politics today, namely trade union membership (Ebbinghaus, 2002; Kelly, 2015; Jansson, 2020).


Figure 3: Ford cars became a symbol of the effective mass production of Fordism (Wikipedia, 2007).

“Globalization . . . is unifying the world into a single mode of production and a single global system” (Robinson, 2001, p. 159). To confront the impact of globalisation on the labour movement, the Argentinian sociologist Ronaldo Munck believes: “If the creation of a global economy is producing a global workforce, then global unions seem a logical development” (Munck, 2008, p. 16). Trade unions are the principal voice of organised labour to enforce and implement rules, “a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment” as defined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their influential book The History of Trade Unionism, first published in 1894 and republished in 1920 (Webb & Webb, 1920). Economic globalisation’s scale and scope have forced national trade union organisations to transform to address the impact of global concerns and challenges in the domestic arena (Scruggs & Lange, 2002; Vachon et al., 2016), including the fragmentation of production by multinational corporations (Schmidt, 2007), working conditions (Donado & Wälde, 2012), and the influx of migrant workers (largely unprotected and low-paid) (Cowie, 1999, quoted in Hanagan, 2003, p. 485).


While global labour movements and trade unions do exist, represented by the likes of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) (established in 1919) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) (established in 2006), respectively, the diminishing, traditional influence and cooperation of the state has forced national trade unions to also ‘globalise’ by thinking and acting beyond state borders (Hodkinson, 2005), interconnected acts of cross-border transnational labour solidarity (Hanagan, 2003), for example, to confront vigorous foreign competition and the dominance of multinational corporations.


Figures 4 & 5: Logos of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) (Logowik, n.d.) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) (Wikipedia, 2019).

Multinational Corporations

Factors such as technology, deregulation, and the drive for continual growth and profits have led to the dominance of multinational corporations (MNCs) (Stopford, 1998; Rees & Edwards, 2017; Roach, 2023), “the most advanced form of the organisation of capital” (Janardhan, 1997). There are approximately 60,000 MNCs operating today (Huang et al., 2021, p. 68). These stateless entities, with operations in more than one country (Caves, 1996; Kogut, 2001, p. 10197), typify the “imagery of ‘a borderless world’” (Clark, 2000, p. 79) that globalisation has created. By dividing their production systems, labour, and finances among multiple nations (Sideri, 1997, p. 38; Buckley & Ghauri, 2004, p. 82), MNCs continue to remain close to the expanding markets “according to the principle of profit maximi[s]ation” (Shangquan, 2000).


MNCs account for roughly two-thirds of world trade (Gooderham & Nordhaug, 2005; Aharoni, 2010, p. 37). The combination of new technology and the speed at which capital can be exchanged, linked to economic globalisation, has increased the global competitiveness and expansion of MNCs, resulting in a rise of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&As) (Keenan & Wójcik, 2023); a strategy of corporate restructuring by merging two different companies into one (Ghauri & Buckley, 2003, p. 207). In this era of globalisation, in which “capital is more mobile internationally” (Coeurdacier et al., 2009, p. 9), cross-border M&As are particularly lucrative as they provide the opportunity for a company to target another in a different country, thereby acquiring knowledge of and entry into new markets (Norbäck & Persson, 2008). Any subsequent monopoly removes competition and strengthens the control of a single company over labour and supply (Chernenko et al., 2021; Keenan & Wójcik, 2023).


The target for any company is to maximise profits through lower production and labour costs (Igrobe, 2013). Deregulation of employment protection means MNCs have the advantage of globally sourcing cheap labour (Peck, 2004, quoted in Morris et al., 2020). At the beginning of the 21st century, as a result of the vast accumulation of capital and profits by MNCs, less than half of the top 100 economies were countries (Anderson & Cavanagh, 2000); Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, and Exxon, the American multinational oil and gas corporation, were listed as two of the world's richest “economies” (Grauwe & Camerman, 2002). Consequently, “all of these restructuring activities will exert far-reaching influence on the world’s industrial competition pattern” (Shangquan, 2000).


Figure 6: The Dutch East India Company (VOC), formed in 1602, is considered to have been the world's first MNC (Wikipedia, 2021).

Global Equals Inequality?

The pursuit to maximise profits by MNCs, acts of M&A, and deregulation has intensified the debate over the scale and repercussions of the already contentious process of economic globalisation. The focus of inequality is aimed at the historical influence of MNCs in the development, or lack thereof, to the extent of being undemocratic and menacing in countries of the economic Global South (Brecher & Costello, 1998, p.20, quoted in Kiely, R. (2003); Igrobe, 2013). Globalisation supporters highlight economic integration, openness, and exchange as forces of positive change (Dollar & Kraay, 2002), while critics of the process voice their concern about “a race to the bottom," prominently in 2002 by Nobel recipient Joseph Eugene Stiglitz (Stiglitz, 2017), in labour rights, wages, and working conditions (Aguirre & Reese, 2004) by corporations purposely locating where the world’s poorest live.


With the de-territorialisation of production, finance, and capital, especially since the 1970s and rapidly followed by the deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s, modern economic globalisation marks the excesses of what the American author William I. Robinson calls “the triumph of the capitalist mode of production” (Robinson, 2001, p. 158). Yet, in recent years, we have witnessed the consequences of this so-called global “triumph"—the rise in living costs, environmental degradation, climate change, neoliberal policies affecting housing, employment rights, and social wellbeing, and a growing immigration crisis (to name just a few)—brought to account by a growing network of technologically and socially connected global citizens, trade unions, NGOs, and pressure groups.


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