Globalization: Ever since the word came into common use during the 1980s, it has been both the problem to explain and its own explanation – a puzzle and a prediction. Wonderment or dismay, even horror, ran through the burgeoning literature, conveying a vertiginous sense of looking over the edge of a precipice into we know not what. That sticky little suffix "-ization" calls to attention something very much in process – not yet history and, possibly, beyond history.
Implicit here is the notion of a destination – where historical processes were headed – or, alternatively, the triumphant assertion of a post-historical age, in which movement is everything, but nothing ever changes. Global-ization became a condition that is always becoming and also forever not yet. As prophecy it bore a distancing relationship to the past, carried along by a shallow language of "er" words – faster, denser, deeper – that cascaded through the present toward a future of both imminent fulfillment and unlimited transformation.
What a global history must seek to explain is the shocking reality of what is – how we got to where we are and how we deal with a condition in which who we are and what we might become is irreversibly linked, for good and bad, with everybody else. We need a hold on the realities of a world that is defined by its globality. This is a world in which, for better or worse, everybody is entangled in everybody else's affairs. Interactions unfold in all directions on a global scale as people, goods, money, information, and ideas put all into engagement with all others – ever unevenly and asymmetrically, to be sure, but in ways that make any part of and any action in the world relevant to all others. That people now live in a global condition – that localities are not just affected by, but constitute themselves within a global environment – has upended the idealist and universalist conventions that shaped histories of the world – whether of the human species, progress, capitalism, the rise of the West, or the human condition – in previous epochs. In contrast to the philosophers and sages of the past, we do not have to imagine or invent the world in order for the world to happen; for both the world and humanity are being made before our very eyes. If world history shaped the desire to think the world as one, global history sorts and maps the entanglements that throw us together.
We need to understand the explosive dynamism and often catastrophic instabilities – the "turbulences" – of this condition; how people have organized their lives and their polities within this condition or gone crazy trying; and how and with what effect the natural world is transformed and eaten up by it. There are unusual turns to be defended, complex configurations to be disentangled, surprises to be launched. For clearly the exertions of this kind of history, a global history, makes only sense if it makes a difference. Not the least of the surprises will be that an actual story can be told of this global condition being worked upon, torn apart, and being put together again over and over. The world has been made over, radically and dramatically, in the age of globality – not just once, but several times.
The future is not going to be part of our history, but the quickly changing present must, per force, be its vantage point. The basic contours that framed a connected history of the global condition in the long 20th century are now undergoing fundamental reorganization. The possibilities opened up in the mid-19th century passage have been played out, modes of explanation authorized by that passage no longer explain what is happening.
From this vantage point, several things become clear. First, we can describe a discreet historical era of globality – the first in world history. The chronology of a long 20th century is reasonably established: a global condition, congealing in the middle passage of the 19th century, experienced two periods of extraordinarily intense acceleration in the movement of goods, people, information, and knowledge (the 1880s to the 1910s and the 1980s to the 2010s), during which, arguably, production and exchange outweighed restriction and control. These periods were punctuated by a long middle-period (1920s through the 1970s) of contestation among rival empires, protracted civil and international war, and economic instability during which, arguably, great – at times utopian – faith was reposed in state power and nationalized production. We mark in this not a forward march of globalization, but protracted, open-ended struggles over the terms of an enmeshment in which various strategies and essays of engagement were tried, tested, consolidated, and reproduced or, alternatively, defeated and cast aside.
Secondly, while it may seem that the initial responses to this condition were competitive, even defensive ones – preclusive nationalism, protected industry, the reproduction of cultural difference – they were all, in fact, inherently transnational expressions – made by people in awareness of others, drawing on the examples of others, and pursuing separate survival through a deeper engagement with all others. Throughout the entire period state strengthening, protected industrialization, and cultural renovation went hand in hand with, and depended upon constant transnationalization – understood not simply as "flows" and exchanges, but as a vital facilitating force (technology transfer), a mediating and enabling energy (capital), a regulating power (standards setting), an enabling imaginary (comparisons and roadmaps), and even a utopian dreamworld (the desire for consumption and the modeling of identities).
The habits, institutions, rules and practices that congealed from these struggles only deepened the entanglement that first required and then shaped strategies of engagement. At the end of this era of global history it is clear that global enmeshment remains, even as initial strategies and responses exhaust themselves, and that global entanglement is the principle subject of a connected history of the global condition.
Finally, we may begin to discern the contours of globality that will shape the history of the next century. Most strikingly, human beings have taken over the entire earth – not just in numbers that may exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, a concern of thirty years ago, but also in the sense that the world we inhabit is now entirely man-made, a human device. The gradual amplification of an environmental awareness has made plain the scale of the planetary human footprint. These are principle effects of the competitive struggles and the socio-political solutions of the last century and a half. Similarly, grappling with modernity in an effort to cope with and make meaningful the vertiginous movement of global forces has, in recent times, moved into new realms of spirituality – fundamentalist faiths being prominent in this – turning away from the materiality of the global condition in the absence of earthly answers towards less secular, and often less worldly, solutions to the human and now totally global condition. These changing parameters of debate and contestation become new arenas of engagement that cut through the familiar ligatures of globalization as it is imagined: the transformation of production and finance, the speedy networks of communication and information retrieval, the circuitry of consumption (inclusion) and desperation (exclusion), and the new patterns of sub- and trans-national violence that shape conflicts over self-provisioning or ultimate ends.
The condition of globality which congealed in the 19th century has irreversibly changed human history in the last 150 years, and the contours of that condition are now being transformed. There is openness in this moment of a specific kind: Will this man-made world turn into a wasteland or be made a habitable place by human effort? It is a global question in which the conditions of entanglement and the question of global order is the central concern.
Charles Bright is Arthur J. Thurnau Professor of History atUniversity of Michigan.
Michael Geyer is Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History, and Faculty Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago. The text is an adapted excerpt of their forthcoming book, The Global Condition: 1850-2010.