Ethics & International Affairs Volume 17.2 (Fall 2003): Special Section: The Revival of Empire: Network Power and Globalization [Excerpt]

Sep 11, 2003

Against the celebratory view of globalization comes the charge that globalization represents a kind of empire. But this charge requires a framework in which we can identify the power at work in apparently voluntary processes, such as learning English or joining the World Trade Organization. I advance a concept of "network power" to explain the dynamic that drives many key aspects of globalization. A network is united via a standard, which is the shared norm or convention that enables coordination among its users, such as a language that allows communication among its speakers. A widely used standard is more valuable than a less used one, simply because it governs access to a larger network of people. The idea of network power generalizes this fact to describe globalization as the rise to global dominance of standards that have achieved critical mass in language, high technology, trade, law, and many other areas. It also characterizes the rise to dominance of a successful standard as involving a form of power. While these new standards allow for global coordination, they also eclipse local standards, rendering them unviable to the extent that they prove incompatible with dominant ones. Therefore many of the choices driving globalization are only formally free and, in fact, are constrained because the network power of a dominant standard makes it the only effectively available option. It is this dynamic that generates much of the resentment against globalization and the criticism that it reflects a new imperialism.

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