I’m intrigued when a commentator gives high praise to a work by someone who comes from a political vantage different from his own. I get even more interested when another take on the same piece seems straight out of Rashomon, a radically different account with only a few facts in common.
The opus in question is a new book, Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, by David Singh Grewal. It caught the attention of Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard (who also writes regularly for the Financial Times), who gave it high marks, and Tyler Cowen, who was singularly unimpressed.
I have to say that although I have never mentioned him in this blog, I very much like Caldwell, and therefore am prejudiced in his favor. He often has a fresh perspective (which is hard in and of itself to pull off), is fair minded and well reasoned, and even when I don’t agree with him, I have to give him credit for making a good case.
We’ll get to the balance of Caldwell’s article on the book in due course, but I want to give his description of what it’s about versus Cowen’s so you can see how they come from parallel universes. First, Caldwell in the Financial Times:
At the heart of globalisation is a basic, and politically explosive, mystery; globalisation proceeds through the breaking down of boundaries, the unfolding of diversity and freedom of choice – so why is it experienced by so many people as a constriction, an oppression and a loss of freedom? In a brilliant and subtle book*, a Harvard graduate student has solved this mystery – even if he has not solved the problem. David Singh Grewal believes the answer lies in something called “network power”. Networks are the means by which globalisation proceeds. All networks have standards embedded in them. In theory we can choose among the standards and become more free. In practice, Mr Grewal shows, our choices tend to narrow over time, so that standards are imposed on us.
Here is how it works. Networks tend to grow. As time passes, one of the most attractive things about a network will be simply that a large number of people have already chosen it. This is network power. Once a network reaches “critical mass”, Mr Grewal says, the incentives to join it can become irresistible. Certainly some standards are intrinsically better than others. “But as the network power of a standard grows,” Mr Grewal writes, “the intrinsic reasons why it should be adopted become less important relative to the extrinsic benefits of co-ordination that the standard can provide.” People defect from alternative networks. Eventually those alternatives disappear altogether. The choice of networks becomes a Hobson’s choice. You remain free to choose your network, but the distinction between choosing to join a network and being forced to join one is less evident.
Mr Grewal sees such a “merger of reason and force” in many areas, economic and non-economic – from the Windows operating system to the ISO 9000 standard of industrial control to Britain’s adoption of the metric system. Since English has become the first global lingua franca, many non-native speakers have freely chosen to speak it. But, for someone who wants to participate in the global economy – which is to say, the economy – to what extent is this really a choice?
Cowen is guardedly positive about the book. Yet (if you believe Caldwell’s account), Cowen picked up on what appears to be a secondary thread as the focus of his comments:
Indeed, while this convergence in ways of thinking and living may extend to influence cultural forms like music or food, it need not necessarily do so. It is striking that in this moment of global integration producing massive convergence in economic, linguistic, and institutional standards, we should be so worried about restaurant chains and pop music, neglecting much more significant issues. Famously, Sigmund Freud argued that nationalist rivalries between neighboring countries reflected the “narcissism of minor differences,” a pathological focus on relatively trivial distinctions driven by the desire to keep at bay an anxiety-provoking recognition of fundamental sameness.
That is from David Singh Grewal’s Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization, one of the most interesting books on cultural globalization in recent years. He uses the ideas of social networks and peer effects to argue that widespread cultural convergence is occurring, most of all in ways of life. Here is the book’s home page.
There is much wrong in the central thesis. “Ways of thinking” may be less diverse across countries (France is more like Germany than it used to be) but ways of thinking are now much more diverse within countries and in fact within the world as a whole. What’s so special about having diversity distributed according to geographic or political criteria? …
Nor is he capable of simply coming out and saying that lots of countries in the world *ought* to be doing more to emulate Anglo-American ways of thinking.
The following claim is also questionable:
To reshape or reduce the power that the social structures we create have over us, we can only summon the organized power of politics. The large-scale voluntarism of sociability, by contrast, has always delivered the most varied and elaborate forms of individual subjugation.
Cranky Tyler is about to come out of his shell, so maybe it is time to end this post. It’s still a book worth reading and thinking about.
These may not be bad observations, but it appears that Cowen has mischaracterized what Grewal’s main thrust is. Cowen appears to have been set off by the mention of socio-cultural issues, which seems a comparatively minor aspect of Caldwell’s reading (as in, having to conduct business in English, a second language for most of the world’s population, requires years of effort to attain reasonable competence and is a bloody nuisance, but given our world’s Tower of Babel, any lingua franca will inconvenience many. But I don’t see American cultural influence stemming from that but from the fact that the film industry was born in Hollywood and still has a considerable scale advantage).
Guess this means we all have to read the book to see who got it right.
Grewal indirectly gives support to one of Dani Rodrik’s notions, that globalization presents a trilemma. You can have any two of democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration, but you cannot have all three at once. The notion of network power is a detailed working through of how networks, which are both a force for and an element of international economic integration, are at odds with local/national power structures (e.g., the EU’s ongoing battles to get Microsoft to comply with its anti-trust rules).
From the balance of Caldwell’s article:
Networks, Mr Grewal believes, can impinge on our political autonomy, channelling it into situations where dissent is possible but pointless. Although people enter them freely, networks, like political systems, can bias outcomes. A new order can be camouflaged as a broadening of options. Networks vary along three dimensions, Mr Grewal thinks: “compatibility” (with other networks); “availability” (openness); and “malleability”. They tend to be open and compatible in the early stages, and open and incompatible in the later ones.
The transition from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to the World Trade Organisation in the mid-1990s demonstrates this process, Mr Grewal believes. The logic of the WTO’s core principle of non-discrimination among trade partners gives the body and authority that goes far beyond regulating trade, into areas of domestic policy that were protected by sovereignty under Gatt. Mr Grewal does not deny that there are intrinsic efficiencies to a transparent and uniform trading standard. But he believes that most countries join the WTO for the extrinsic benefits of participating in the network, and find the standard the network upholds intrinsically undesirable.
Mr Grewal nails his own anti-capitalist colours firmly to the mast. But his political engagements never outrun his diagnoses. Network Power leans on Marx, Keynes and the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, to examine the more general problem of “power structures” – how power can be exercised over people even when no one is visibly giving orders. But he avoids attributing network power to “false consciousness” – the Marxian idea that people are easily fooled out of knowing their own interest. Indeed, he grants that most standards are the product of consent, although of a funny kind. “One of the interesting things about globalisation is the extent to which people consent to structures that are consciously and explicitly viewed as undesirable.”
This is a patient and powerful argument. The book’s concepts are presented with such extreme theoretical clarity that all readers, even those who do not share Grewal’s commitment to trammelling global capitalism, will be able to deploy his insights to other ends. What network-power effects explain the sudden spread of anti-smoking activism? How was the US institution of the Social Security number transformed into a financial tracking system? Is “political correctness” just old-fashioned cant or does it draw a sinister new force from network power?
Mr Grewal calls for a reassertion of democratic sovereignty to counter the unintended (and undesired) consequences of network choices. But he admits that the political solutions to network power are not yet obvious. Networks are transnational, while politics remains national, and Mr Grewal does not consider global government either feasible or (as far as one can tell) desirable. What is valuable about this book is its diagnosis, not its prescriptions. It may be the richest and most hard-headed explanation yet of the relationship between globalisation and diversity. Clearly the two are closely related. Since there seems to be more variety right in front of our noses than there was in the world of our parents, we are tempted to think globalisation has fostered diversity. But this is an optical illusion. Globalisation merely reveals diversity that was already there. It flushes diversity out from the places it was hidden, much as a hunter flushes his quarry out of a thicket, and to similar effect.