Two words change meaning in a changing world

The formerly important words totalitarianism and globalisation have shifted and changed meaning in recent years, depending on who is using them.

Globalisation at one time was viewed as the exploitation of the world's poor by a plutocratic and technocratic elite.
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Globalisation appears to be on its way out.

The term first swept the world in the 1990s and reached its high point of popularity at the turn of the century. In 2001, the French newspaper Le Monde contained more than 3,500 references to the word.

But over the following five years, that figure fell more than 80 per cent and since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007, its use in major newspapers has fallen further still. A brief history of the concept, and a comparison with another term that also became discredited by overuse, helps to explain what happened.

The 20th century's two key conceptual innovations - totalitarianism and globalisation - were originally Italian. The first term defined the tumultuous middle of the 20th century; the latter its benign ending. Totalitarianism finally disintegrated in 1989 and globalisation prevailed.

Both terms originated as criticisms that were supposed to undermine and subvert the political tendencies they described. But both ended up being just as frequently and enthusiastically used by the respective philosophies' proponents.

Totalitarianism began its conceptual life in 1923 as a criticism or parody by the liberal writer Giovanni Amendola of the megalomaniacal pretensions of Benito Mussolini's new regime.

In the course of a few years, it had become the proud self-definition of Italian fascism, endorsed by Mussolini's education minister, Giovanni Gentile, who became the official philosopher of fascism, and then incorporated in a ghost-written article by Mussolini himself in an essay called Doctrine of Fascism.

In both the hostile and the celebratory use of the word, totalitarianism was intended to describe a movement that embraced all aspects of life in what purported to be a coherent philosophy of politics, economics, and society. Fascists liked to think of themselves as imbued with total knowledge and total power.

But it is unclear where the term globalisation originated. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives as the earliest reference to its current use an academic article from 1972. The word had been used earlier but in a rather different sense. It was a diplomatic term conveying the links between disparate policy areas, such as negotiating simultaneously on financial and security matters.

The OED etymology ignores the non-English origins of the term, which can be found in the inventive linguistic terminology of continental European student radicalism.

In 1970, the radical left-wing Italian underground periodical Sinistra Proletaria carried an article entitled The Process of Globalisation of Capitalist Society, which was a description of IBM, an "organisation which presents itself as a totality and controls all its activities towards the goal of profit and 'globalises' all activity in the productive process".

Because IBM, according to the article, produced in 14 countries and sold in 109, it "contains in itself the globalisation of capitalist imperialism". This obscure left-wing publication is the first known reference to globalisation in its contemporary sense.

Since then the term has had ups and downs. It became increasingly faddish in the 1990s but mostly as a term of abuse.

In the late 1990s and early years of this millennium, anti-globalisation demonstrations targeted the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, the World Economic Forum and McDonald's. Globalisation was seen at this time - as in the vision of the 1960s Italian leftists - as the exploitation of the world's poor by a plutocratic and technocratic elite.

But now the meaning of globalisation shifted and began to take on a semi-positive note, in large part because it increasingly looked as if the major winners of globalisation included many rapidly growing emerging markets.

Indeed, countries that had previously been described as under-developed or Third World were becoming incipient major powers. Furthermore, many former critics began to recognise global connectedness as a way of solving global problems such as climate change, economic crisis and poverty.

Historians have started to project globalisation backwards. It is no longer seen only as a story of the capital market-driven integration of the past two decades of the 20th century, or even of an "early wave of globalisation" in the 19th century, when the gold standard and the Atlantic telegram seemed to unite the world.

Instead, the wider and deeper historical vision is of a globalisation that encompasses the Roman empire and China's Song dynasty, and goes back to the globalisation of the human species from a common African origin.

The terms that we use to describe complex political and social phenomena and processes have odd ambiguities. Some concepts that are designed as criticisms are quickly inverted to become celebratory.

By this year, anti-globalisation rhetoric had largely faded and globalisation is thought of as a fundamental characteristic of the human story, in which disparate geographies and diverse themes are inextricably intertwined.

In short, globalisation has lost its polemic bite, and with that loss its attractions as a concept have faded.

Harold James is the professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University. Matteo Albanese is a researcher in history at the European University Institute