A paradoxical consequence of globalization in the realm of theory is that it has reconfirmed the hollowing out and final exhaustion of the idea of progress. Indeed, this idea had lost its appeal long before the recent history of globalization, notably as soon as it has been uncoupled from the desire for emancipation and from aspirations to equality and fraternity. Emptied of its last shreds of meaning, it is nothing other than a rhetorical resource, deployed mostly by conservatives in politics and by neoliberals in the economic sphere in order to justify their proposals to keep on “advancing,” growing, developing, come what may.
Curiously—though it may be a mere coincidence—, the idea of progress was rendered absent from our intellectual panorama in the same measure and at the same time that the idea of globalization was becoming more prominent. Should we interpret this by arguing that globalization is the end result of progress’s secularization?
The notion of progress is quite recent. You will not find it in any religion (where the figure of the circle predominates, except in Christianity, which sees in Incarnation a point of no-return) nor in any philosophy of antiquity (so, Aristotle saw history as a series of growth and decay processes similar to those in plant and animal kingdoms). “Progress” was not even something evident for the early thinkers of modernity, such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, Vico or Voltaire. While they could recognize something as progress, they did not consider it to be a continuous phenomenon.
Faith in progress properly so called emerges only in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is then that a tie is forged, on the one hand, between eschatological hope born in Christianity in crisis and meant to assuage the experience of radical disorientation, and, on the other, the rising power of science, technology, and industry, themselves in crisis, albeit one from which they drew their strengths.
In this context, we should understand globalization as a highly ambiguous process of overcoming limits. Its inherent ambiguity is that it implies not only an opening and a surge in communication but also exploitation and domination. After all, the ideal of progress has been applied in practice exclusively to economic realities, while disregarding the ethical and socio-political dimensions of life. In other words, there has been an economicist takeover of the progressivist project. Therefore, the fall of the Berlin wall represents the suppression of limits to the spread of market economies throughout the world and the infiltration of market rationality into the previously non-economic spheres. This historical event that has instigated purely economic progress finally enabled everything to enter the circuits and the logic of the commodity, not sparing the rest of human (ethical, social, political…) existence.
It follows that globalization is the moment of secularization, or, better yet, of the commodification of the idea of progress, the commodification that corresponds to the reduction of human being to the condition of homo economicus. The expression homo economicus, which has become a kind of fetish in economic and organizational thought, alludes to a perfectly rational model of human behavior that consists in rigorous calculations undertaken in order to choose the most advantageous among a plethora of alternatives (i.e., “cost-benefit analysis”). Already Adam Smith sketched out this model of the human, which imposes itself on us in the process of globalization:
“In all countries where there is tolerable security, every man of common understanding will endeavour to employ whatever stock he can command in procuring either present enjoyment or future profit. If it is employed in procuring present enjoyment, it is a stock reserved for immediate consumption. If it is employed in procuring future profit, it must procure this profit either staying with him, or by going from him. In the one case it is fixed, in the other it is a circulating capital. A man must be perfectly crazy who, where there is tolerable security, does not employ all the stock which he commands, whether be his own or borrowed of other people, in some one or other of those three ways.”[i]
Using a metaphor from informatics, we might say that the project of globalization began with the elaboration of a hardware, with the extension of a network that now communicates nearly instantaneously the information deriving from any place on the planet to any another place. While such hardware holds an enormous potential, globalization is yet to develop the multiple versions of the software that could fill the content of the project. Its operators, however, do not for the most part experience such lack as lack, because the system itself has installed, as though by default, the program homo economicus. Without any resistances, this program threatens to spread everywhere, to overwrite all else, and, controlling the project in its totality, to ensure that calculation and technology dominate everything.
As the idea of progress is commodified, human beings are straightjacketed in a condition of automata, calculating and utilizing technical means to maximize their benefits. Without the ethical software, benefits supplant the Good, which was pursued by the metaphysical tradition in a way that eluded the question of evil, negated and projected outwards. Upon automatizing the human following the cybernetic model, one achieves an extraordinary capacity for control. In addition, one instantaneously resolves (or, better, one further empties out) the problem of evil, along with which the problem of the political becomes something trivial. Obviously, seen from the perspective of power, this is the best possible scenario, a utopia of order, parodied a long time ago by Huxley and Orwell.
What now goes under the name of political economy is the neoliberal reduction of the psychosocial and the political to the economic, a hardware that dictates and that is its own software. Neoliberalism associates the perfection of the economic machine, of the market as a gigantic automaton, with the lessening of human participation in it (something that, for Marx, invites a crisis of its own, with the falling rates of profit shadowing the automation of labor). According to neoliberal logistics, although they do not take part in running it, human beings are to be modeled after their economic creation, with the mutual indifference among them, coldness, and impersonality serving as guarantees that the processes of impersonal regulation would function smoothly. In a sad sort of irony, that would be the only thing safeguarding whatever remains of the common good.
Translated by Michael Marder.
[i] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, edited by Edwin Cannan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 372.