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The term “globalisation” first swept the world in the 1990s; it reached its highpoint of popularity in 2000 and 2001, write Harold James, professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, and Matteo Albanese, a researcher in History at the European University Institute. In this commentary provided to Fortune by Project Syndicate, they argue that its meaning is changing and that its contemporary usage is on its way out.

Waving “Globalisation” Goodbye


In 2001, Le Monde referred to mondialisation more than 3,500 times. After that, the figure steadily fell and had dropped by more than 80pc by 2006. Since the advent of the financial crisis in 2007, the word’s usage in major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Financial Times has fallen still further.

A brief history of the concept, and a comparison with another term that also became discredited by overuse, helps to explain what happened.

The twentieth century’s two most important conceptual innovations, “totalitarianism” and “globalisation,” were originally Italian. The first term defined the tumultuous middle of the 20th century, the latter its benign ending. “Totalitarianism” finally disintegrated in 1989, and globalisation prevailed.

Both terms originated as criticisms that were supposed to undermine and subvert the political tendencies they described. Both ended up being just as frequently and enthusiastically used by the respective tendencies’ proponents.

“Totalitarianism” began its conceptual life in 1923 as a criticism or parody of the megalomaniacal pretensions of Benito Mussolini’s new regime by the liberal writer Giovanni Amendola. In the course of a few years, it had become the proud self-definition of Italian fascism, endorsed by Mussolini’s Education Minister, Giovanni Gentile, who became the official philosopher of fascism, and then incorporated in a ghost-written article by Mussolini himself in the “Encyclopaedia of Fascism.”

In both the hostile and the celebratory use of the word, totalitarianism was intended to describe a movement that embraced all aspects of life in what purported to be a coherent philosophy of politics, economics, and society. Fascists liked to think of themselves as imbued with total knowledge and total power.

Few know where the term “globalisation” originated.

The “Oxford English Dictionary” (OED) gives as the earliest reference to its current usage an academic article dated from 1972. The word had been used earlier, but in a rather different sense, as a diplomatic term conveying the linkage between disparate policy areas, e.g. in negotiating simultaneously on financial and security matters.

The OED etymology ignores the non-English origins of the term, which can be found in the inventive linguistic terminology of continental European student radicalism. A description of IBM as an “organisation which presents itself as a totality and controls all its activities towards the goal of profit and ‘globalises’ all activity in the productive process,” was found in an article headlined, “The process of globalisation of capitalist society,” published in Sinistra Proletaria, a radical leftwing Italian underground periodical, in 1970.

IBM produced in 14 countries and sold in 109; it “contained in itself the globalisation (mondializzazione) of capitalist imperialism,” according to the article.

This obscure leftwing publication is the first known reference to globalisation in its contemporary sense.

The term has since experienced ups and downs. It became increasingly faddish in the 1990s, but mostly as a term of abuse. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, anti-globalisation demonstrations were targeted against the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the IMF, the World Economic Forum (WEC), and McDonald’s. At the time, globalisation was seen, as in the vision of the 1960s Italian leftists, as the exploitation of the world’s poor by the plutocratic and technocratic elite.

However, in the 2000s, the meaning of globalisation shifted and began to take on a semi positive note, in large part because it increasingly looked as if the major winners of globalisation included many rapidly growing emerging markets. Countries that had previously been described as “under-developed” or “Third World” were becoming incipient global dominators. Moreover, many former critics began to recognise global connectedness as a way of solving global problems such as climate change, economic crises, and poverty.

Globalisation has begun to be projected backwards by historians.

It is no longer seen only as a story of the capital market driven integration of the last two decades of the 20th century, or even of an “early wave of globalisation” in the 19th century, when the gold standard and the trans-Atlantic telegram seemed to unite the world. Instead, the wider and deeper historical vision is of globalisation that encompasses the Roman Empire and the Song Dynasty, and goes back to the globalisation of the human species from a common African origin.

The terms used to describe complex political and social phenomena and processes have odd ambiguities. Some concepts that are designed as criticisms are quickly inverted to become celebratory.

By 2011, anti-globalisation rhetoric had largely faded, and globalisation is not thought of as something to be either fought or cheered, but as a fundamental characteristic of the human story, in which disparate geographies and diverse themes are inextricably intertwined. Globalisation has lost its polemical bite and, with that loss, its attractions as a concept have faded.


By Matteo Albanese, a researcher in History at the European University Institute


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