22 April 2008

Neither flat nor round but bound

REVIEW: Ties that bind the world may not be easy to sever but global connections can be mediated.

22 April 2008
The Hindu

Neither flat nor round but bound


Ties that bind the world may not be easy to sever but global connections can be mediated

BOUND TOGETHER — How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization
: Nayan Chanda; Penguin-Viking, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 525.

Positioning himself somewhere between the irrational exuberance of Thomas Friedman and the rational scepticism of Joseph Stiglitz, Nayan Chanda has written a remarkable book on the multilayered history of what has come to be known as “globalisation” in today’s world.

Moving back and forth through space and time, Chanda presents the reader with a bewildering assemblage of facts to press home his point about the truly “global” nature of human interaction since time immemorial. From cotton and spices to sugar and slaves, Buddhism and Christianity to Islam and human rights, the movement of goods and humans across land and sea also led to the migration of ideas, religion, culture and technology. In every historical period, there were forces which contested this movement or benefited from it but the inevitability of human interaction triumphed over all attempts to close societies off from outside influence.

Agents of globalisation

In Chanda’s narrative, the agents of globalisation are of four broad types – traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors. The division is somewhat arbitrary and whimsical but it works well in the main. The first traders travelled to Çatalhöyük in Turkey in the 8th millennium BCE to buy obsidian for use as scythes. Eventually, trading routes opened all the way from Anatolia to Mesopotamia, India and China. Fast forward to the 21st century and you have call centres being opened in Senegal. If the Buddha’s message was the first manifestation of global evangelism, Christian and Islamic preachers quickly established a worldwide presence as well. But Chanda reminds us that not all preaching is necessarily benign, as the messages beamed out by al-Qaeda and other extremists today are testimony to. Given the role played by conquest in shaping the political contours of the world at any moment in time, it is hardly surprising that warriors should be given their due for leaving an indelible imprint on globalisation. As for “adventurers”, these are the explorers, scientists and migrants without whom the world would be a far less connected place than it is today. Throughout human history, the DNA of these change agents has remained constant. But in the modern world, the speed with which they are able to effect change has undergone a profound transformation. And that speed, says Chanda, brings new opportunities as well as challenges and threats.


Chanda’s purpose in providing a panoramic view of the history of global interaction is not so much to celebrate globalisation as to stress the inevitability of it. Unlike Friedman, he is alive to the contradictory and differential impact that globalisation has had on countries and people around the world. But he believes the extent to which it can effectively be resisted is limited. “The future will always bring surprises, but a reading of history does not suggest that globalisation – the integration that has grown over time – could ever be terminated,” he writes, in an argument that summarises the thrust of the book. “The complex process of interconnectedness that has gathered momentum over the course of millennia cannot be halted, nor can its myriad threads be neatly unwound.”

Redefining the terms

While Bound Together is brimming with fresh insights and interesting facts, the danger in discussing globalisation in such a broad historical manner is that one loses sight of its contemporary specificity. Beyond a point, equating globalisation with connectedness sidesteps the all important question of the terms of engagement. For example, the movement of Buddhism from India to China via Dunhuang was as much a global phenomenon as the forced sale of Indian opium to the Chinese by the British in the 19th century. But the first movement was brought about through geographical osmosis, the second through imperial power. How global mobility is mediated then is often more decisive than the underlying dissemination of goods, people and ideas. To the best of our knowledge, the good people of Çatalhöyük did not seek to patent the use of volcanic rock or insist on an annual service contract or a share in the ownership of fields where the scythes were used. And there is little sense in imagining there is anything in common between those first, innocent “global” exchanges and the highly monopolised, predatory practices of the international food industry today.

Globalisation evokes so much passion and contestation around the world not because of xenophobia or the fear of the unknown but because of the terms of engagement. And although social movements and governments cannot and should not hope to end their interaction with the outside world, redefining the terms of engagement does offer a way of turning “globalisation” into a more equitable and mutually beneficial phenomenon than it has been until now. Most sensible economists, for example, argue that there is no need for a globalising country like India to make its capital account convertible. Many communities in India are resisting the depletion of ground water that cola factories are causing. The victims of the Union Carbide disaster are demanding that Dow Chemicals be made to foot the bill for the environmental cleanup of Bhopal and its water as a precondition for it to be allowed back in India. These positions are not anti-globalisation per se; rather they envision an alternative vector of global interaction. Similarly, the rise of multinational companies from China and India opens up the possibility of a new kind of contestation as they enter into competition with established players from the advanced capitalist countries.

Chanda is right in saying globalisation cannot be terminated and he is sympathetic to the voices of those who have clearly lost out in the process. What the book needs, perhaps, is a more elaborate examination of alternatives which can redress the existing, unequal terms of engagement while preserving the emancipatory potential of global connectedness.

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