Brian LangilleThinking about Globalization

Professor Brian A. Langille

I am a Canadian Labour Law Professor who has been drawn gradually into debates about globalization. It started with the debates about "trade and labour" in connection with the FTA in 1988 and the NAFTA in the early 1990s - (Remember the claims about "jobs, jobs, jobs" on the one hand and "the giant sucking sound" on the other?) Since those early days matters have only become more complex and the focus is now not only upon the direct impact of globalization upon jobs but has expanded to the indirect impact on domestic law, sovereignty, and the ability of any nation-state to articulate an independent policy on economic, fiscal, environmental and labour matters, among others.

I am often asked what my approach is to these issues. If there is time to do so, I respond as follows:

  1. Here are the most significant facts about our world. There are (roughly) 6 billion people living on our planet. Of these, 3 billion live on less than two dollars a day and 1.2 billion live in what the World Bank describes as "absolute poverty" of less than one dollar a day. This is our problem.

  2. Here is the most important and controversial phenomenon of our time - globalization. By globalization we mean not simply trade liberalization but international economic integration in which barriers to the mobility of capital, goods, services, data, ideas (but not, nearly to the same extent, people) are lowered and, in conjunction with revolutions in communications and transportation technologies, enable the construction of networks of international investment, production, and consumption.

  3. Here, then, is our most obvious challenge - how can the globalization and information revolution be channeled, harnessed, mobilized, called in aid of, and be put to work in overcoming our most significant problem? Or, more simply, how can globalization and the information revolution foster the development of a world which is more just?

  4. But there is a barrier to answering this vital question. While clear thinking is required in order to answer our question our thinking here is, in fact, often muddled and confused. Our thinking frequently falls into an unfortunate but very common pattern or way of understanding our crucial question. This "received wisdom" or conventional way of thinking goes, roughly, as follows. Globalization is an external phenomenon bearing or putting pressure upon our societies - including our labour markets and our labour market policies and institutions. Many people believe that this pressure exerted by globalization is, to say the least, unwholesome. On this view globalization increases inequality (both globally and within states), causes local job losses, imposes a set of Western, or American, or European or "market" values, undermines local cultures and patterns of social behavior, is unfairly tilted towards the already rich and powerful, exacerbates the existing disadvantages of those already marginalized, erodes domestic sovereignty by subjecting local policies to undesirable competitive pressures which lead to suboptimal policy decisions because of international collective action problems, challenges the ability of individual states to raise the revenue (taxes) to fund social programs, and so on. In short, globalization means a world run by economists, trade theorists, the chief executive officers of transnational corporations, whose chief goal is to advance market values over social values. The opposing view is equally familiar. Globalization means increased trading opportunities bringing with it the mutual windfalls of the theory of comparative advantage, increased international investment - a most critical requirement in a world in which wealth is so unevenly distributed, a world in which transnational corporations can introduce technology and knowledge which enhance the lives of local citizens, create jobs and the tax base for improved educational, health, and social services, in which states will be subjected to good competitive pressure which will illuminate and help eliminate harmful corruption, inept administration, and poor policy choices. In short, globalization means more and better distributed world wealth.

  5. While these scenarios are both familiar and very different they share a picture or vision of the relationship between globalization and individual societies. On this view globalization is an external force which bears upon individual societies and the causal arrow runs in one direction only. This is a shared view which unites the pro and anti globalization forces. They see globalization bearing upon societies but see different results flowing from the application of this force - one group sees bad results, the other sees good ones. This is a widely embraced framework of thought - even among those who have thought long and hard about these issues. It is sort of a glass bottle in which the debate has been placed. Without even seeing it the debate keeps bumping up - like a fly inside a bottle - against the limits imposed by the framework of thought in which the debate has been cast.1 So, for example, the distinguished economist Dani Rodrik writes that the most daunting challenge posed by globalization is "ensuring that international economic integration does not lead to domestic social disintegration"2, and the United Nations Millennium Declaration articulates its understanding of the problem as follows: "We believe that the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world's Peoples."

    While Rodrik articulates the problem in terms of avoiding the "bad", and the Millennium Goals stake their claim in terms of securing the "good", what unifies is the shared framing of the issue - that our problem is that globalization is, to put it simply, the "central challenge" to, or promise for, depending on one's view, the people and societies of the world. Globalization drives human societies - and the potential is seen as either positive or negative, depending on your view.

  6. This brace of familiar views - which still frames and organizes much of current thinking about globalization - has been researched, examined, tested, and argued about in forums ranging from obscure academic journals to the streets of Seattle, Genoa, Quebec City, and beyond. One of the most interesting outcomes of this study and debate has not been the resolution of our controversy. Rather, something more interesting has been going on. What we are witnessing is a gradual recognition that this received way of understanding the globalization debate is stale, unhelpful, inconsistent with our observed reality, and intellectually incoherent.

  7. This is true for two reasons. First, this received wisdom is locked into a very familiar and inadequate understanding of the central dynamic of globalization. It is based upon an outdated paradigm. But it is a powerful paradigm. Second, the received wisdom has lost touch with Nietzsche's warning - it has lost sight of what our real goals are.

  8. The old paradigm was a paradigm which underwrote much of modern labour law (in Canada, for example); international labour law (the ILO, for example), and development theory (the "Washington Consensus", for example) and on this paradigm there was a segregation (professional, conceptual, institutional) of the economic forces of globalization from "the social and political" realm. They were segregated, sequenced, and locked into a zero sum game. This old paradigm leads to a view, for example, of domestic labour law which sees its chief justification as the need to come to the rescue of workers thought of as people "in need of protection". And at the international level, it leads to a view of the ILO as protecting against real prisoners' dilemmas caused by states making rational choices to lower labour standards. On this view the economic (getting prices right) is prior to and separate from the social (including basic issues of democracy, sovereignty, human rights, equality concerns, etc.) which are conceived as a set of "luxury goods" which might be purchased with the fruits of economic progress generated elsewhere. All of this is reflected in an institutional division of labour, both domestically and internationally, between the financial institutions and ministries on the one hand (The Bretton Woods Institutions, Ministry of Finance), and the social ones (The ILO, Ministry of Labour) on the other.

    The crucial point is that the foundations upon which all this simple and shallow view rests are shifting. Recent factual findings and clearer normative thinking (especially that which focuses upon the need to think carefully about our true ends as opposed to our means, or instrumentalities, for achieving them) have led to a wide variety of claims about an emergent "integrated theory" of development, of the Human Development Index, of the World Bank's Comprehensive Development Framework, among other things. This involves a re-conceptualization of development theory (and of domestic labour law, and the ILO, as well). At its core is the idea that the formulation underlying the shallow view (globalization _ society), needs to be supplemented by another formulation (society _ globalization), and to see the two as linked in a (potentially, at least) virtuous circle of mutual reinforcement. To return to the words of Rodrik and the Millennium Goals, our real problem is not simply to ensure that "international economic integration does not lead to domestic social disintegration" but also that domestic social disintegration does not lead to international economic disintegration, and, more positively, that domestic social integration drives international economic integration.

  9. The second reason that our old paradigm and structure of thought was inadequate is that it was not based upon, and in fact disconnected from, a real normative foundation which would generate not only the political support for, but the intellectual case for, globalization. This was because the old debate and old paradigm proceeded without any real clarification or identification of our true ends - what it is all about - as opposed to our mere means, modalities, instrumentalities, methods, for achieving those ends. To put it simply, the old paradigm had no account, other than self-serving technical ones, of what it was we were trying to do. As a result it fell prey to Nietzsche's observation that the most common form of stupidity is forgetting what it is we are trying to do.  

    Successful globalization is driven by and can and should drive the creation of successful and just societies. The trick is to see this truth, and act upon it.

    In short, we need an account of why we are discouraged and disheartened by the fact that 3 billion live on less than two dollars a day and 1.2 billion live on less than one dollar a day. This will in turn explain to us our own understanding of what constitutes a just society and why we pursue that end. It will let us understand the link between just societies and globalization. This is a and globalization. This is a tall order. But it is one that has been filled by some much needed modern thinking, especially that of Amartya Sen.3 Sen's core insights are as follows. First, our concern - our true goal - is not simply to raise GDP per capita. Raising GDP per capita is a means to our true goal which is to improve the real lives of real human beings - to make those lives longer, healthier, happier, more fulfilling - to let people be subjects of their lives rather than mere objects buffeted by forces over which they have no control. In short, our goal is to give people the "real capability to lead lives we have reason to value". This is what Sen calls human freedom. So, raising GDP per capita, the drafting of an international labour code, or the creation of a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas - all of these are not ends in themselves - but means to the end of real human freedom.

    Human freedom can be blocked in a number of ways. As Sen writes:

    Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or, sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases, the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities of social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programmes, or of organized arrangements for health care of educational facilities, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order. In still other cases, the violation of freedom results directly from a denial of political and civil liberties by authoritarian regimes and from imposed restrictions on the freedom to participation in the social, political and economic life of the community. 4

    Development is the process of removing these obstacles to human freedom.

    Human freedom is not only the goal - the destination - it is also the path. This is because different sorts of human freedoms - economic, political, and social - interact in complex ways. For example:

    Political freedoms (in the form of free speech and elections) help to promote economic security. Social opportunities (in the form of education and health facilities) facilitate economic participation. Economic facilities (in the form of opportunities for participation in trade and production) can help to generate personal abundance as well as public resources for social facilities. Freedoms of different kinds can strengthen one another.5

    This is a view which takes market freedoms seriously - indeed sees them as an important aspect of human freedom in and of themselves and not just instrumentally justified. It also sees various sorts of human freedom as interconnected and mutually supported.

  10. These insights are both profound, yet very obvious. These are the ideas animating the quest for a post-"Washington consensus" - a Comprehensive Development Framework - the Human Development Index - the Millennium Goals - and explain what our best research shows us. The fundamental failure of the old paradigm was the isolation of economic freedoms from social and political ones. This led to a belief that freedoms could be sequenced and segregated - a view of social and political freedoms as a set of "luxury goods" which could be purchased, after the event, and if so desired, with the fruits of prior economic progress generated by economic freedoms alone. This was the core idea of the old Washington consensus. The problem is, the world does not work that way. What we now see is that our empirical reality, and best theoretical reasoning, not to mention our most fundamental beliefs, lead to the demonstration of the shallowness of this view. We now know, for example, that respect for core labour rights attracts rather than repels investment, improves trade performance, rather than hinders it, promotes stability and growth, etc. Thus we need and have at hand a new view. At its core is the idea that human freedoms, including but not exclusively economic freedoms, are valuable in themselves but even more critically from a policy perspective, interact and are mutually supporting in complex ways. In short, development of just societies is a "package deal". Successful globalization is driven by and can and should drive the creation of successful and just societies. The trick is to see this truth, and act upon it.


1. I borrow this idea from Wittgenstein who famously said the aim of philosophy is "to shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 309. back

2. Rodrik, D. Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (Institute International Economics, Washington D.C. 1997) p. 2. back

3. Sen, Development As Freedom (1999). back

4. Sen, Ibid., p. 4. back

5. Sen, Development as Freedom, p. 11. back

This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Nexus, which focused on Law and Development.