Looking at History in the Light of Globalization

Although there is nothing totally new under the sun, there is merit in studying the past from the newly acquired global perspective. The traditional way of looking at history - bound in geographical space and bracketed in a particular time period - is no longer adequate. Scientific and technological advance allows us to look at the earth from “outside” as a unit, and challenges us to trace developments of ideas and institutions more holistically over a greater expanse of time. To make sense of globalization today, historians must take a multi-disciplinary approach and examine many factors of globalization that have been in play over a long stretch of time. - YaleGlobal

Looking at History in the Light of Globalization

To make sense of an increasingly complex and interdependent world, historians have to approach their work from a new global perspective
Bruce Mazlish
Friday, January 3, 2003
The Global World

As all historians know, there is nothing completely new under the sun. Yet, more than in any moment in the past, now is the time to look at history in a new global light. Before addressing the question why, it is instructive to see that path that has led up to it. The tale begins with Adam Smith, who revolutionized economic thinking by emphasizing the division of labor and its promise of almost endlessly increasing production. Its only limit, as he announced in The Wealth of Nations, was the extent of the market.

Building on Smith's perception, Karl Marx , in the "Communist Manifesto," described how "Modern industry has established the world-market, for which the discovery of America paved the way." His analysis of world economics is uncanny in its anticipation of what is occurring today in the process of globalization. "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe," Marx wrote, "It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country." Friedrich Engels, the co-author of the "Communist Manifesto," wrote that "A new machine invented in England deprives millions of Chinese workers of their livelihood within a year's time. In this way, big industry has brought all the people of the earth into contact with each other, has merged all local markets into one world market, has spread civilization and progress everywhere and has thus ensured that whatever happens in civilized countries will have repercussions in all other countries."

It is astonishing how portentous the words of Smith, Marx and Engels, have turned out to be. They seem to have recognized some of the forces of globalization - science, technology, capitalism - in their early manifestations and sensed their future implications. A more contemporary appreciation of the change comes from Manuel Castells. In his The Rise of the Network Society, Castells writes that "The informational economy is global. A global economy is a historically new reality, distinct from a world economy. A world economy, that is an economy in which capital accumulation proceeds throughout the world, has existed in the West at least since the sixteenth century, as Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein have taught us. A global economy is something different: it is an economy with the capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale."


While employing a multi-disciplinary approach in our effort to understand globalization today, we must comprehend that process in a wide-ranging historical perspective. I would like to suggest that our "imaginings" must leap from world history to new global history. In making this jump, a look at the etymology of the words, world and globe, is helpful. World comes from the Middle English for "human existence"; its central reference is to the earth, including everything and everyone on it. The word 'globe' on the other hand occupies a different valence, deriving from the Latin, globus, the first definition of which is "something spherical or rounded," like a "heavenly body." Only secondarily does the dictionary offer the synonym, earth. Global thus points in the direction of space; its sense permits the notion of standing outside our planet and seeing "Spaceship Earth" This new perspective is one of the keys to new global history, where, indeed, a new space/time orientation is observable.

The fact is that we are entering upon a global epoch. What are some of the major features of the emerging global epoch? Indeed, the very term "epoch" marks from the first a global perspective. It came into general usage in the early nineteenth century in the field of geology, where the new science was seen as addressing the entire earth. Geological processes were viewed as world wide. As William Buckland, one of the pioneers in the new field, remarked, "The field of the Geologist's inquiry is the Globe itself." Serialization of any kind is central to the human effort to organize time (whether human or geological). We impose boundaries on the otherwise chaotic happenings of the past, seeking to order them by restrictive names. Decades, eras, centuries--these are alternate divisions to that of epochs. Of course, such orderings can, on occasion, mislead rather than guide us through the chaos of events. So, too, can the larger periodizations of Western history: the famous ancient, medieval, modern divisions. We may take for real what is only an illusory reification of time.

The New Global History, in contrast, focuses on the history of globalization; that is, it takes existing developments encapsulated in the factors of globalization, and then studies them as far back in the past as seems useful. The second part of the definition stresses that New Global History is simply about processes that are best studied on a global rather than a local, national, or regional level. The starting point for New Global History lies in some of the following innovations: a thrust into space, imposing upon us an increasing sense of inhabiting a concrete global entity--"Spaceship Earth"--which can be viewed from outside the earth's atmosphere; satellites in outer space that link the peoples of the earth in an unprecedented fashion; nuclear threats, whether in the form of either weapons or utility plants, which demonstrate that the territorial state can no longer adequately protect its citizens from either military or ecologically related "invasions" (e.g., Chernobyl); other environmental problems, such as ozone holes and global warming, that refuse to conform to lines drawn on a map; and multinational corporations that increasingly dominate our economic and cultural lives.

Numerous other such factors could be added: global consumerism (obviously related to multinationals); the displacement of an international political system by a global one; the globalization of culture, especially music (fostered as it is by satellite communications); the increasing spread of human rights as a global standard of behavior; and so forth.


It is their interaction with one another, in ever increasing extent and force, that is truly new, for each of the factors, singularly, has its origins in a differentiated past. Globalization is the sum and synergy of their continued presences. Thus, globalization, a process, takes on concrete historical features, rather than floating as a vague abstraction high above actual, even everyday life.

There are many ways of looking at globalization. It can be looked at primarily as an economic development, e.g., as a stage of late capitalism. It can be viewed as a mainly political development, where the nation-state is seen as the prime actor losing vital functions. Or the focus can be on the cultural changes, with a presumed homogenization occurring among peoples.

In further seeking to understand globalization, especially from an historical perspective, we run into a number of problems. A major one concerns the actors to be studied. For the last few hundred years, the writing of history has circled around the activities of the nation-state - its wars, its economic activities, its nationalistic culture, and its political leaders. Profound shifts are underway in this regard. Although the nation-state will still be a major player in new global history, its role must be reassessed in terms of the larger process unrolling around it.

At the same time, other players than the nation-state crowd the stage of history. Especially prominent are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and multinational corporations, both of whose increase in numbers recently has been phenomenal. In a fuller treatment, we would wish to consider their emergence in relation to the notion of civil society, for certainly they have grown in the soil first laid down in the Enlightenment cultivation of the public sphere and public opinion. Forsaking such a digression, I will focus first on two prominent forms of NGOs, those related to human rights and to the environment.

Human rights is a global assertion, rising above the national rights restricted to citizens by earlier democratic movements. Today, although this view is hotly contested in some quarters, one has rights not because one is a German, Frenchman, or an American, but because one is a human being. As we all know, however, there are few if any institutionalized "global" courts to enforce these rights (though they are enshrined in the United Nations Declaration). It is the court of public opinion that mainly gives whatever strength there is to their observation. And that public opinion is shaped and given voice by NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other such organizations. In other words, in our informational/computer age, human rights proponents, in the guise of NGOs, are the conscience of the globe.

Another proliferating form of NGO relates to the environment. In this area, private, not-for-profit groups mobilize on both a local and a global basis to deal with threats to ecology. It is these groups that prod national governments to take international actions. Using the new informational technology, NGOs such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and innumerable others mobilize forces around the world to combat what are clearly global as well as local crises.

Increasingly, then, it is these NGOs, along with multinational corporations and an adapting nation-state, that are the actors to be studied by the historian or other social scientist. Alongside these forces, of course, must be placed the UN. A cross between a forum for nations with their pursuit of national aims by international means, and an institution seeking to transcend its members and their parochial concerns, the UN still is unsure of its mission. That mission, it dimly senses, is a global one, but how to move to fulfill it is clouded in ambiguity and dissent. Justice and Force would seem to be the two key terms in this regard: how to adjudicate local power squabbles in global terms, which must include prevention, and how to enforce UN judgments militarily are the clear challenges. For the student of globalization, the evolution of UN military forces deserves all the attention he or she can give it.

Turning now to multinationals, as our other selected actor, they have been traced back two thousand years by classical scholars. This is accurate, in the sense that certain trading groups were transnational. It is anachronistic in that nation-states did not exist at the time, thus giving a different meaning to multinational. If we add the word "corporation", we again must realize that that is a legal term given precise meaning only recently. In any case, modern multinational corporations can be discerned emerging in the seventeenth century and flourishing, for example, in the shape of the Dutch and British East India companies.

Eschewing a continuous history, let me jump to our global present. Today, according to the UN, of the 100 largest wealth-producing entities, 52 are multinational corporations, which means that the wealth they produce ranks greater than the Gross Domestic Product of some 120 nation-state members of the UN. Another figure: today there are said to be over 60,000 multinationals, a dramatic increase over the numbers existing only a few years previously. And yet another figure: in the past quarter of a century, the list of the top 500 industrial multinationals has shifted from almost entirely American/European to almost two fifths Japanese/Asian.

How are we to understand what is happening? As a preliminary, we necessarily must define what we mean by a multinational corporation. Then we must describe and analyze the features that we think characterize it: where is it headquartered? where is its workforce? where are its sales? where go its capital flows? etc. Then we must look at these features dynamically, seeing them develop over time. Then we must compare companies with companies and countries with countries, arriving at a global picture.

To complement the atlases featuring nation-states and their boundaries, it is necessary to compile an atlas depicting the multinational corporations as they leap across such boundaries. We need to "see", not only understand the new globe coming into being. At this point, we may feel somewhat overwhelmed. There is such a plethora of problems to be found in the seemingly simple notion of globalization. Are we to take everything as our object of study? In one sense, the answer is "yes"; globalization must be seen holistically, for each feature is connected to every other. Realistically, however, we can ignore huge swathes of ordinary history and concentrate initially on the factors of globalization enumerated earlier. Doing so, our tasks become limited research projects. Only gradually do we seek to reassemble the pieces, in turn further illuminating our empirical research efforts.


Difficult as it is to pin down, and correlated as it is with profound scientific, technological, and economic developments, a revolutionary transformation in consciousness is taking place. This, in fact, may be the most important consequence of the globalization process. In sum, we are not only transforming the globe but ourselves as well. What could be more challenging than a prospect such as that?

Bruce Mazlish is Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

© Copyright 2002 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization