Origins of Globalization

20 December 2015



The politics of a word

It is unfortunate to have to use the word “globalization,” as it is a word that rapidly came into vogue and then passed out of vogue with equal rapidity, and as it passed out of vogue it had become spattered with a great many unpleasant associations. I had already noted this shift in meaning in my book Political Economy of Globalization.

In the earliest uses, “globalization” had a positive connotation; while “globalization” could be used in an entirely objective economic sense as a description of the planetary integration of industrialized economies, this idea almost always was delivered with a kind of boosterism. One cannot be surprised that the public rapidly tired of hearing about globalization, and it was perhaps the sub-prime mortgage crisis that delivered the coup de grâce.

In much recent use, “globalization” has taken on a negative connotation, with global trade integration and the sociopolitical disruption that this often causes blamed for every ill on the planet. Eventually the hysterical condemnation of globalization will go the way of boosterism, and future generations will wonder what everyone was talking about at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. But in the meantime the world will have been changed, and these future generations will not care about globalization only because process converged on its natural end.

Despite this history of unhelpful connotations, I must use the word, however, because if I did not use it, the relevance of what I am saying would probably be lost. Globalization is important, even if the word has been used in misleading ways; globalization is a civilizational-level transformation that leaves nothing untouched, because at culmination of the process of globalization lies a new kind of civilization, planetary civilization.

I suspect that the reaction to “planetary civilization” would be very different from the reactions evoked by “globalization,” though the two are related as process to outcome. Globalization is the process whereby parochial, geographically isolated civilizations are integrated into a single planetary civilization. The integration of planetary civilization is being consolidated in our time, but it has its origins about five hundred years ago, when two crucial events began the integration of our planet: the Copernican Revolution and the Columbian exchange.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

Copernicus continues to shape not only how we see the universe, but also our understanding of our place within it.

The Copernican Revolution

The intellectual basis of of our world as a world, i.e., as a planet, and as one planet among other planets in a planetary system, is the result of the Copernican revolution. The Copernican revolution forces us to acknowledge that the Earth is one planet among planets. The principle has been extrapolated so that we eventually also acknowledged that the sun is one star among stars, our galaxy is one galaxy among galaxies, and eventually we will have to accept that the universe is but one universe among universes, though at the present level of the development of science the universe defines the limit of knowledge because it represents the possible limits of observation. When we will eventually transcend this limit, it will be due not to abandoning empirical evidence as the basis of science, but by extending empirical evidence beyond the limits observed today.

As one planet among many planets, the Earth loses its special status of being central in the universe, only to regain its special status as the domicile of an organism that can uniquely understand its status in the universe, overcoming the native egoism of any biological organism that survives first and asks questions later. Life that begins merely as self-replication and eventually adds capacities until it can feel and eventually reason is probably rare in the universe. The unique moral qualities of a being derived from such antecedents but able to transcend the exigencies of the moment is the moral legacy of the Copernican Revolution.

As the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the Copernican Revolution is also part of a larger movement that would ultimately become the basis of a new civilization. Industrial-technological civilization is a species of scientific civilization; it is science that provides the intellectual infrastructure that ties together scientific civilization. Science is uniquely suited to its unifying role, as it constitutes the antithesis of the various ethnocentrisms that frequently define pre-modern forms of civilization, which thereby exclude even as they expand imperially.

Civilzation unified sub specie scientia is unified in a way that no ethnic, national, or religious community can be organized. Science is exempt from the Weberian process of defining group identity through social deviance, though this not well understood, and because not well understood, often misrepresented. The exclusion of non-science from the scope of science is often assimilated to Weberian social deviance, though it is something else entirely. Science is selective on the basis of empirical evidence, not social convention. While social convention is endlessly malleable, empirical evidence is unforgiving in the demarcation it makes between what falls within the scope of the confirmable or disconfirmable, and what falls outside this scope. Copernicus began the process of bringing the world entire within this scope, and in so doing changed our conception of the world.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

An early encounter between the New World and the Old.

The Columbian Exchange

While the Copernican Revolution provided the intellectual basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization, the Columbian Exchange provided the material and economic basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization. In the wake of the voyages of discovery of Columbus and Magellan, and many others that followed, the transatlantic trade immediately began to exchange goods between the Old World and the New World, which had been geographically isolated. The biological consequences of this exchange were profound, which meant that the impact on biocentric civilization was transformative.

We know the story of what happened — even if we do not know this story in detail — because it is the story that gave us the world that we know today. Human beings, plants, and animals crossed the Atlantic Ocean and changed the ways of life of people everywhere. New products like chocolate and tobacco became cash crops for export to Europe; old products like sugar cane thrived in the Caribbean Basin; invasive species moved in; indigenous species were pushed out or become extinct. Maize and potatoes rapidly spread to the Old World and became staple crops on every inhabited continent.

There is little in the economy of the world today that does not have its origins in the Columbian exchange, or was not prefigured in the Columbian exchange. Prior to the Columbian exchange, long distance trade was a trickle of luxuries that occurred between peoples who never met each other at the distant ends of a chain of middlemen that spanned the Eurasian continent. The world we know today, of enormous ships moving countless shipping containers around the world like so many chess pieces on a board, has its origins in the Age of Discovery and the great voyages that connected each part of the world to every other part.

earthlights - nasa picture from space

Defining planetary civilization

In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I proposed that civilizations could be defined (and given a binomial nomenclature) by employing the Marxian distinction between intellectual superstructure and economic infrastructure. This is why I refer to civilizations in hyphenated form, like industrial-technological civilization or agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The first term gives the economic infrastructure (what Marx also called the “base”) while the second term gives the intellectual superstructure (which Marx called the ideological superstructure).

In accord with this approach to specifying a civilization, the planetary civilization bequeathed to us by globalization may be defined in terms of its intellectual superstructure by the Copernican revolution and in terms of its economic infrastructure by the Columbian exchange. Thus terrestrial planetary civilization might be called Columbian-Copernican civilization (though I don’t intend to employ this name as it is not an attractive coinage).

Planetary civilization is the civilization that emerges when geographically isolated civilizations grow until all civilizations are contiguous with some other civilization or civiliations. It is interesting to note that this is the opposite of the idea of allopatric speciation; biological evolution cannot function in reverse in this way, reintegrating that which has branched off, but the evolution of mind and civilization can bring back together divergent branches of cultural evolution into a new synthesis.

globalization 1

Not the planetary civilization we expected

While the reader is likely to have a different reaction to “planetary civilization” than to “globalization,” both are likely to be misunderstood, though misunderstood in different ways and for different reasons. Discussing “planetary civilization” is likely to evoke utopian visions of our Earth not only intellectually and economically unified, but also morally and politically unified. The world today is in fact unified economically and, somewhat less so, intellectually (in industrialized economies science has become the universal means of communication, and mathematics is the universal language of science), but unification of the planet by trade and commerce has not led to political and moral unification. This is not the planetary civilization once imagined by futurists, and, like most futurisms, once the future arrives we do not recognize it for what it is.

There is a contradiction in the contemporary critique of globalization that abhors cultural homogenization on the one hand, while on the other hand bemoans the ongoing influence of ethnic, national, and religious regimes that stand in the way of the moral and political unification of humankind. It is not possible to have both. In so far as the utopian ideal of planetary civilization aims at the moral and political unification of the planet, it would by definition result in a cultural homogenization of the world far more destructive of traditional cultures than anything seen so far in human civilization. And in so far as the fait accompli of scientific and commercial unification of planetary civilization fails to develop into moral and political unification, it preserves cultural heterogeneity.

Incomplete globalization, incomplete planetary civilization

The process of globalization is not yet complete. China is nearing the status of a fully industrialized economy, and India is making the same transition, albeit more slowly and by another path. The beginnings of the industrialization of Africa are to be seen, but this process will not be completed for at least a hundred years, and maybe it will require two hundred years.

Imperfect though it is, we have today a planetary civilization (an incomplete planetary civilization) as the result of incomplete globalization, and that planetary civilization will continue to take shape as globalization runs its course. When the processes of globalization are exhausted, planetary civilization will be complete, in so far as it remains exclusively planetary, but if civilization makes the transition to spacefaring before the process of globalization is complete, our civilization will assume no final (or mature) form, but will continue to adapt to changed circumstances.

From these reflections we can extrapolate the possibility of distinct large-scale structures of civilizational development. Civilization might transition from parochial, to planetary, and then to spacefaring, not making the transition to the next stage until the previous stage is complete. That would mean completing the process of globalization and arriving at a mature planetary civilization without developing a demographically significant spacefaring capacity (this seems to be our present trajectory of development). Alternatively, civilizational development might be much more disorderly, with civilizations repeatedly preempted as unprecedented emergents derail orderly development.

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13 Responses to “Origins of Globalization”

  1. You wrote, “and eventually we will have to accept that the universe is but one universe among universes,”

    Are you referring to theories about multiverse etc. or something more?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, I was referring to theories of the multiverse, but I haven’t elaborated on this because the idea of the multiverse is badly in need of clarification. The idea of a multiverse can be construed in many different ways — not only the now-familiar conceptions of quantum theory (the many worlds interpretation) and string theory, with its ekpyrotic scenario, or even simply entertaining extra dimensions, which themselves can be construed as compactified or macroscopic — so that careful conceptual clarification and distinguishing different interpretations is the necessary precondition to conducting a meaningful discussion.

      Best wishes,


  2. geopolicraticus, I like your open minded search for truth and reality and most importantly your logical and free way of thinking.

    The astronomers before Copernicus were thinking that they are observing the Sun, Stars and the universe from a stationery platform meaning that they, the astronomers, were not moving. Hence they did not factor in their own movements in their calculations of the movements of the Sun and planets etc. So they failed to consider the part which the observer was playing in the results which they were getting of their observations.

    This is the same mistake which humans are doing now also i.e. they do not see that all their understandings and knowledge is only from a certain perspective and is not absolute knowledge.

    They fail to consider the part which the observer’s own mind plays in all what is observed.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thank you for your kind words.

      One of the lingering consequences of positivism and its contemporary descendants (what I sometimes call post-positivist thought — even Stephen Hawking has called himself a logical positivist, so he is representative of this tradition) has been the rejection of any reference to mind, as a legacy of the positivist reaction against western philosophy, especially from Kant to Bradley. Idealist thought made everything contingent upon mind, and now there is a reluctance even to acknowledge mind as a constituent of the world (or, as a contemporary philosopher might say, part of the ultimate furniture of the universe). Perhaps someday, when we have emerged on the far side of this dialectic, human thought will be sufficiently comprehensive to embrace both naturalism and mind, and we will be able to deal with both philosophically without any sense of embarrassment.

      This reluctance to acknowledge the place of mind in nature has led to a lot of silly and vacuous claims (notably in AI research), and it has been especially difficult for quantum theory, since quantum measurements often involve the observer. If you’re going to shine a light when observing photons, then this is going to be a problem when the observing photons interfere with the observed photons. Quantum theory after philosophy once again becomes respectable in science will be a stronger science; now it is merely a mystery, without any intuitive interpretation, and even its most renowned practitioners assert that nobody really understands quantum theory. I argue that our failure to understand our own most advanced science is not an accident, but is a relic of the intellectual temper of our time.

      The relentless outward pursuit of the Copernican principle to ever-larger scales has led us from the Earth as center of the universe, to heliocentrism, to the “island universe” theory that put the Milky Way in the center of the universe, to the Hubble Deep Field View of our own time, in which galaxies fill the field of view like stars fill our night sky, and we begin to get an inkling of what the Copernican principle really means. Eventually, if civilization remains intact and scientific progress does not stall, we will continue to pursue Copernicanism until we see our universe as a universe among universes, as we now know our galaxy to be a galaxy among galaxies. And it won’t end there. The telos of the Copernican principle is an infinitistic cosmology.

      Sometimes I borrow a phrase from archaeology — floating chronology — to try to communicate the place even of Big History within an infinitistic cosmology: everything that science investigations from the Big Bang to the present moment is a floating chronology within an infinite universe, and we will require an infinitistic historiography in order to eventually place the floating chronology of our universe in an adequate temporal context.

      Best wishes,


  3. “This reluctance to acknowledge the place of mind in nature has led to a lot of silly and vacuous claims (notably in AI research), ”

    Would you like to expand on it, explain it.

    • geopolicraticus said

      The short version is that the decline of philosophy and the rise of science has led to a denial of anything that science cannot currently explain. Consciousness, because it is private, is ipso facto excluded from the possibility of pubic verification, empirical evidence, and duplication of results, so science as it is currently constituted (this could change) cannot even research consciousness, much less construct a theory of conscious. An account of consciousness parallel to psychology and cognitive science, in which subjects report their internal states, can contribute to a theory of mind, but until we find a way to expand the scope of science, that which is sui generis about consciousness — subjective self-awareness — will remain beyond the reach of science. Consciousness will be experienced, inferred, and occasionally acknowledged, but it cannot be studied for what it is.

      The rejection of conscious is eclectic, as there are those deny consciousness based on a reductionist account of consciousness while others outright deny that there is any such thing as consciousness — borrowing from computer science, consciousness is sometimes called a “user illusion.” Turing’s vision of mind has turned out to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. Many today will assert that we will have to admit that anything is conscious if it passes the Turing test. That is to say, consciousness is judged to be indistinguishable from its appearance. This judgment is often held passionately even in the face of contrary evidence. There is a funny passage in a lecture by John Searle when he talks about how upset some people become when he presents his “Chinese room” thought experiment. So there is more at work here than dispassionate philosophical argumentation.

      The paradigm of AI research has been based on Turing’s conception of mind, and no systematic distinction is made between strong AI and machine consciousness. Although those pursuing AI research do a good job of defending their research, and it has yielded impressive results in recent years, there is a whole class of demonstrably non-computable functions that even the most sophisticated computer now or in the future will never be able to solve. This could be employed as an objective and quantifiable way to distinguish minds from machines (at least, non-conscious machines), except that most human beings do not know what a non-computable function is any more than a non-conscious machine can understand non-computable functions. However, non-computable functions certainly could be used to distinguish machine consciousness from non-conscious machines in a rigorous way. Thus this could be a “Turing test” to demonstrate genuine machine consciousness. Generally speaking, non-constructive and infinitistic thought can be employed as a technical Turing test that could distinguish between consciousness and the imitation of consciousness.

      That’s the short version. The long version would require significantly more exposition and detail.

      Best wishes,


  4. “This reluctance to acknowledge the place of mind in nature has led to a lot of silly and vacuous claims (notably in AI research), ”

    What do you think is the place of mind in nature?

    • geopolicraticus said

      The place of mind in nature is that it has a place. I affirm the reality of mind as a part of nature; in other words, mind is part of the ultimate furniture of the universe, and, as such, minds constitute a sui generis class of existents.

      My preferred ontological framework is emergentist, so I think that the best account of mind is as a form of emergent complexity that becomes possible after a certain threshold of complexity is crossed. There’s a bit more to it than that, of course. Mind itself emerges gradually as organisms become more complex; it doesn’t just pop into existence, fully formed, at the first opportunity. I don’t doubt that reptiles and amphibians have a certain rudimentary consciousness, and that mammals with their more complex brains including a limbic system have minds of greater sophistication, and hominids with their large cerebral cortex are capable of expressing their minds in abstract terms. We can even imagine the possibility of further neurological evolution that would add capacities to terrestrial minds that they do not have at present.

      So what I am trying to say here (albeit very imperfectly) is that while minds constitute a distinct category of existents and cannot be “reduced” to anything else, and ought not to be denied on pain of contradicting experience, this distinct class of existents is still to be understood naturalistically, as very much embedded in our world. And this is nothing unusual in an emergentist account. When stars and galaxies formed from hydrogen and helium, they were part of the same universe as the hydrogen and helium from which they formed. And when new elements were formed in stellar nucleosynthesis and by supernova explosions, these new elements were part of the same universe as the stars and the galaxies. The same holds true for geologically complex planetary systems, life in these planetary systems, and mind that emerges out of life.

      Best wishes,


      PS — You may find another recent post to be of interest, in so far as it touches upon AI and machine consciousness: Gödel between Constructivism and Non-Constructivism

  5. When a human becomes brain dead, does his mind cease to exist?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, consciousness disappears upon brain death, just as life disappears upon death — unless we learn some future physics that shows us that mind has a substratum outside the brain. This may change in the future, if it proves possible to transfer the mind to some other substrate (i.e., consciousness uploading). For more on this latter possibility, you can look at one of my least read essays, Technologies of Life Extension.

      If you are of a mystical disposition, you might observe that, while the individual mind disappears, mind itself does not disappear, but continues on in other members of the same species, just as, when then individual body dies, life itself continues for others. It would be interesting to attempt to formulate this traditional mystical insight in terms of what we know about biology today, and what the possibilities are for embodiment in the future. If an entire species dies out, does their distinctive form of consciousness die with them, or if there is a “daughter” species will the form of mind of the parent species continue on? The obvious line of reasoning here leads to the speciation of mind (what I elsewhere called cognitive speciation), though as a trailing indicator of biological speciation.

      Best wishes,


  6. “Yes, consciousness disappears upon brain death, just as life disappears upon death — unless we learn some future physics that shows us that mind has a substratum outside the brain.”

    If it is true that consciousness disappears upon brain death, then how can our learning or not learning anything is relevant to the truth of that fact. If some thing is true then it is true whether we know of it or not. If mind has a substratum outside the brain, then our knowing or not knowing this fact is irrelevant to the truth of this fact and vice versa.

    • geopolicraticus said

      This is a very complex question as it touches on several deep metaphysical problems — problems that are usually treated separately. Take this sentence: “If some thing is true then it is true whether we know of it or not.” This is a classic statement of Platonism, formulated in epistemological terms. This is precisely the point at which constructivists part company with classicists, i.e., a constructivist will insist that truth and provability are tightly coupled, and to uncouple them is to descend into nonsense (Platonist nonsense). But our intuitions are strong on this point, and only the few people who study logic know the difference between accepting or rejecting tertium non datur. Most of us feel in our bones that a given proposition is either true or not-true irrespective of our knowledge or beliefs about the proposition, but when confronted with problematic examples (e.g., is the continuum hypothesis true or false?) intuition is silent. So this is a point of logic that reaches down into metaphysics.

      The other deep metaphysical question raised here is that traditionally known as “internal relations.” At the end of the nineteenth century it was a hot question in philosophy whether all relations are “internal” or “external.” This question is not so hot today, so it is not so easy to summarize as the terms of debate are no longer current. Internal relations is a doctrine of holism that holds everything is connected to everything else, so that anything that changes in the world changes everything else in the world. This sounds a bit like contemporary chaos theory, but it’s not the same idea. There is an anecdote explaining internal relations that goes like this: a teacher arrives at the front of a classroom, picks up a piece of chalk, and throws it across the room. Then the teacher says, “Students, I have just changed the coast of China.” The idea here is that, since everything is connected to everything else, the coast of China now stands in a changed relationship to the piece of chalk. Here, again, our intuition, which seems so strong on one aspect of a question, don’t give us much guidance when faced with a problematic example.

      So from your question I can derive your Platonism as regards tertium non datur, and you seem to be taking a position on external relations that is derived from this Platonistic intuition. Taken together, this not unlike the position of the early Russell, which he once called “absolute pluralism” but which became better known as “logical atomism.”

      Thus, if mind has a substratum outside the brain, knowing this or not knowing this is, yes, irrelevant to the truth of this proposition, if one holds a metaphysic like logical atomism. But if you hold with a kind of intuitionistic constructivism that rejects tertium non datur, or if you hold that relations are internal (and not external), then this simple proposition becomes problematic, and in order to adequately formulate it you’ll be in for a lot of work. Intuition is not a sufficient guide when working with concepts at this level.

      But all of this deals with your question as a technical matter, and I know, I can feel, that I have not really gotten at what is bothering you. Why should it be any concern as to whether our knowing the nature of the mind affects or does not affect the relationship of mind to brain death? I could make several conjectures here, but your question doesn’t furnish me with enough material to definitively understand your position. So here’s my suggestion: write a cri de cœur laying bare your anxieties about brain death and philosophical knowledge, or try coming at the problem from another angle in the attempt to find a fresh perspective. For example: instead of thinking this through from the perspective of the end of consciousness upon death, ask yourself how the problem appears if you consider the origins of consciousness in the emergence of a new individual life. This, too, poses profound metaphysical problems, but it may be less disturbing than thinking about death.

      Best wishes,


  7. […] The origins of globalization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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