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