On Glocalization coming of Age

by Zygmunt Bauman

One is tempted to say: social inventions or re-inventions (as the newly invented/discovered possibility of restoring to the city square the ancient role of the agora on which rules and rulers were made and unmade) tend to spread “as forest fire”. One would say that, if not for the fact that globalization has finally invalidated that time-honoured metaphor. Forest fires proceed byspreading. Today’s social inventions progress by leaping.

In order to explain what I have in mind, let me recall one of the less hyped aspects of the recent, though already half-forgotten experience of the “Arab Spring”…

What we could and should learn from that experience, is that geographical distances matter no longer. Distances are no longer obstacles, and their sizes no longer determine the distribution of probabilities. Nor do the neighbourhoods and physical proximity – this is why the “domino effect” metaphor, implying a close proximity, indeed a contiguity of cause and effect, loses much, perhaps even most of its accuracy. Stimuli travel independently of their causes: causes may be local, the reach of their inspirations is global; causes may be global, their impacts are shaped and targeted locally. Entangled in the world-wide-web, copycat patterns fly in an extraterritorial space almost randomly – without scheduled itineraries and encountering few if any barriers or checkpoints – but they come down, invariably, on locally build landing strips.

You can never be sure in advance on which strip they would land, by which one of innumerable control towers they would be spotted, intercepted and guided to the local airfield, and how many crash landings they would suffer and where. What renders the time spent on predicting wasted, and the prognoses unreliable, is the fact that the landing strips and control towers share the habits of the floating patterns – they are constructed ad hoc, with catching but one selected trophy in mind, hunting after one single quarry, and tend to foil down the moment the mission has been accomplished. Who is that “Al-Chahid” (“Martyr” in Arabic) who single-handedly summoned the crowds to transform the Tahrir Square for a few days into a (temporary, ad hoc) agora? No one heard about her or him before (read: s/he was not there before), and no one recognized the man/woman on the square beyond the nickname (read: s/he was not there) when the crowds answered his call… The point is, though, that this hardly matters.

The distinction between far-away and close-by, or here and there, have been all but made null and void once transferred to the cyberspace and subjected to the online or on-air logic; if not yet in the notoriously inert, lagging and sluggish imagination, then in their pragmatic potency. This is a condition at which glocalization, the process of stripping locality of its importance while simultaneously adding to its significance, aimed from its very start. The time has come to admit that it has arrived there: or, rather, that it has brought us (pushed or pulled) there.

Stripping the place of its importance means that no place can any longer consider its own plight and potency, fullness or void, dramas played in and spectators they attract, as its private mattes. Places may (and do) propose, but it is now the turn of the unknown/uncontrolled/intractable/unpredictable forces roaming in the “space of flows” to dispose. Initiatives are as before local, but their consequences are now global, staying stubbornly beyond the predicting/planning/steering powers of the initiative’s birthplace, or any other place for that matter. Once launched, they – just as the notorious “intelligent missiles” – are fully and truly on their own. They are also “hostages to fate” – though the fate to which they are nowadays hostages is composed and perpetually re-composed of the on-going rivalry between locally laid out and hastily paved landing strips for the ready-made copycat patterns… The extant map or extant rankings of the established airports are here of no importance. And similarly of no importance would be the extant composition of the global air-traffic authority, were such an institution in existence – which it is not – of which the pretenders to such a role learn currently the hard way.

“Every time the administration uttered something, its words were immediately overtaken by events on the ground,” said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa program director for the International Crisis Group. “And in a matter of days, every assumption about the United States relationship with Egypt was upended” – so informed at the time the NY Times. And according to Mark Mardell’s, the BBC’s North America Editor, information, “US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has telephoned the new vice-president and intelligence chief of two decades, Omar Suleiman, to tell him immediately to seize the opportunity for a transition to a more democratic society. That transition must start now. She said that the violence was shocking and told him that they must investigate the violence and hold those responsible accountable”.

A few hours later, leaders of the countries believed to be the most important places of Europe – Merkel, Sarkozy, Cameron, Zapatero and Berlusconi – in an uncharacteristically unanimous declaration, repeated Hillary Clinton’s appeal/demand. They all said what they did roughly at the same time when Al-Jazeera cameras caught a demonstrator carrying a placard “Obama, shut up!”… The significance of the place, rising in opposition to its importance, is precisely in the ability of the place to accommodate the carrying of such placards and of people to carry them. Hands too short to meddle with things in global space, are just long enough (or at least seem to be enough) to embrace the locality and press it close to one’s breast, while (hopefully) kicking off the intruders and false pretenders.

One day after Hillary Clinton’s announcement, the NY Times informs about the full re-casting of American foreign policy: “The Obama administration seemed determined to put as much daylight as possible between Mr. Obama and Mr. Mubarak, once considered an unshakable American supporter in a tumultuous region”. Well, that global power would hardly ever make such a acrobatic volt-face were it not the distant locality deciding to make use of its newly found significance… As Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker in Yemen, suggested – it was not that the people were afraid of their governments that surrendered their powers to the “global forces” in exchange for being free of their obligations to their own people. As he put it: “It is the opposite. Governments and their security forces are afraid of the people now. The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.” The knowledge that governments in the form in which they have been squeezed by “global forces” are not the protection against instability but instability’s principal cause, has been forced into the heads of the self-appointed “world leaders” by the spectacular display of the glocalization’s illogical logic in action.

“Glocalization” is a name given to a marital cohabitation that has been obliged, despite all that sound and fury known only too well to the majority of wedded couples, to negotiate a bearable modus co-vivendi – as the separation, let alone a divorce, is neither a realistic nor a desirable option. Glocalization is a name for a hate-love relationship, mixing attraction with repulsion: love that lusts proximity, mixed with hate that yearns for distance. Such relationship would have perhaps collapsed under the burden of its own incongruity, if not for the pincers-like duo of inevitabilities: if cut off from the global supply routes the place would lack the stuff of which autonomous identities, and contraptions keeping them alive, are nowadays made; and if not for the locally improvised and serviced airfields, global forces would have nowhere to land, re-staff, replenish and refuel. They are inevitabilities and are doomed to cohabitation. For better or worse. Till death do them part.

Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and one of Europe’s foremost sociologists. He is author of 'Liquid Modernity' (Polity 2000) and many other books on contemporary society. His most recent books are "44 letters from the liquid-modern world" and "Living on borrowed Time" (with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo).