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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 351-374

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Towards a Critique of Globalcentrism:
Speculations on Capitalism's Nature

Fernando Coronil *

The end of a millennium is a time that invites speculations about the future as well as reckonings with the past. In his Confessions, Saint Augustine suggested that it is only at the end of a life that one can apprehend its meaning. The current fashionable talk about the end of History, of socialism, even of capitalism--or at least the long-announced demise of its familiar industrial form and the birth of an era defined by the dominance of information and services rather than material production--suggests that the close of the millennium is generating fantasies inspired by a similar belief. In a striking coincidence, the end of the millennium has also marked the victory of capitalism over socialism after a protracted confrontation that polarized humanity during much of the twentieth century. Its triumph at this time makes capitalism appear as the only valid social horizon, granting it a sacralized sense of finality that conjures up what Sylvia Thrupp identified as the millennial expectation of a "perfect age to come" (1970: 12).

As an expression of this millennial fantasy, corporate discourses of globalization evoke with particular force the advent of a new epoch free from the limitations of the past. Their image of globalization offers the promise of a unified humanity no longer divided by East and West, North and South, Europe and its Others, the rich and the poor. As if they were underwritten by the desire to erase [End Page 351] the scars of a conflictual past or to bring it to a harmonious end, these discourses set in motion the belief that the separate histories, geographies, and cultures that have divided humanity are now being brought together by the warm embrace of globalization, understood as a progressive process of planetary integration. 1

Needless to say, discourses of globalization are multiple and far from homogeneous. Scholarly accounts generally contest the stereotypical image of an emerging global village popularized by the corporations and the media. These accounts suggest that globalization, rather than being new, is the intensified manifestation of an old process of transcontinental trade, capitalist expansion, colonization, worldwide migrations, and transcultural exchanges, and that its current neoliberal modality polarizes, excludes, and differentiates even as it generates certain configurations of translocal integration and cultural homogenization. For its critics, neoliberal globalization is implosive rather than expansive: it connects powerful centers to subordinate peripheries, its mode of integration is fragmentary rather than total, it builds commonalities upon asymmetries. In short, it unites by dividing. From different perspectives and with different emphases, these critics offer not the comforting image of a global village, but rather the disturbing view of a fractured world sharply divided by reconfigured relations of domination. 2

While I too am drawn by the desire to make sense of capitalism's history at the millennium's end, I will explore its life not so much by chronicling its biography from the vantage point of the present, as Saint Augustine suggests, but by discerning its present configuration and speculating about its future in light of its dark colonial past. My brief sketch of capitalism will be highly selective, drawing on certain strands in order to paint, with broad strokes, a rough image of its [End Page 352] changing dynamics at this time. To bring forth this image as I see it emerging at the millennium's end, I will trace some links between the colonial past within which capitalism evolved and the imperial present within which neoliberal globalization has gained hegemony. Needless to say, there is a risk in referring to capitalism by a single word (and in the singular) and attributing to it features that may give the impression that it is a bounded or self-willed entity, rather than a complex, contradictory, and heterogeneous process mobilized by the actions of innumerable social agents. Against the opposite danger of missing the forest (or forests!) for the trees, I opt for the risk of producing what may be no more...


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pp. 351-374
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Archived 2004
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