The accepted narrative of globalisation places it as a phenomenon born out of post-Cold War American capitalism; a creation of the late twentieth century manifested in the inescapable homogenising successes of McDonalds, Apple and liberal democracy. However, as Conrad, Tyrell and Cooper attest, processes of globalisation have long had significant influences on societies, centuries before the supposed global age of the present century.
As Sebastian Conrad argues in Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany, the creation of a global labour market in the 19th century created a high turnover of migration in and out of Germany. The resulting increased experience of foreign cultures, according to Conrad, reinforced notions of German identity – thus globalisation in fact predated nationalism, turning the traditional narrative on its head. Similarly, Tyrrell argues, in Transnational Nation, that far from globalisation being an invention of the United States, globalisation in fact played a defining role in forging the economic, social and political identities of the USA.
Cooper, in his study of globalisation in Africa, perhaps describes this reassessment of globalisation the best – arguing that globalisation should not be seen as inevitably building to the present day, but rather as a phenomenon that has ebbed and flowed to various extents throughout history. In fact, noting the extent of global interaction present in Africa during the imperial period in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Cooper contends that Africa may have entered a period of de-globalisation – contrary to the notions generally held about Africa when we are told of growing Chinese investment or the increasing popularity of European football teams. Cooper even points to the wide reaching influence of the Mongol Empire in the 14th century to find an example of a period that was in many ways as ‘global’ as our own.
It is possible, then, that current observers of global relations have fallen into an all too common trap. We often are prone to thinking that any phenomena we observe is new, that we are living in somehow special and extraordinary times. Like the medieval monks, seduced by the millennial craze, who thought they were living in end times, maybe we have wrongly convinced ourselves that we are living in a new global age. Globalisation, then, should not be seen as a process beginning in the twentieth century and ending in the present day, but rather as a set of inter-linkages and connections between geographically disparate people that have always been present, albeit to greatly varying degrees throughout history.
Conrad, S. Globalisation and the Nation in Imperial Germany (Cambridge; New York: 2010)
Cooper, Frederick. “What is the Concept of Globalization Good for? An African Historian’s Perspective.” African Affairs 100, no. 399 (April 2001): 189-213
Tyrrell, I. Transnational Nation, United States History in Global Perspective since 1789 (Basingstoke: 2007)