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Steven L. Arxer, University of Florida
John W. Murphy, University of Miami

Globalization and the Politics of Time


A persistent but subtle mode of social control is now operating in the world. The central thesis of this paper is that this type of control is consistent with the view of time that has become dominant—namely, Newtonian time (Price, 1996). For accompanying this perspective on temporality is social imagery that may lead to repression and a truncated future.

Through the principles of Newtonian time, accordingly, social order is ensured because a developmental scheme is sustained by a rational temporal model rather than personal preferences. What is important at this juncture is that this pursuit of universals has fostered an extremely successful way to restrict change. Simply put, a mode of dualism is invoked that makes particular images of social existence appear absolute and effectively undercuts ideas and practices that are antagonistic to these universals

Nowadays persons are told that they should strive to adapt to historical necessity, thereby guaranteeing their social acceptance and success. In this regard, many societies have opted typically to use structural or mechanical images of time when describing progress (Adam 1990). In particular, Schmidtke (1999, p. 169) contends that “[t]he Newtonian model of time is the currently predominating conceptualization within … all the social sciences.” According to Hendricks (2001), to adopt a Newtonian model of time means to have an exact chronological image of the universe. By this he means that time is understood to be primarily linear and operate like a clock. Lacan (1977, p. 77, 98) explains that when time is viewed as a clock, temporality is “mathematized.” Consequently, time is viewed as a measure of distance, and temporality represents the side by side placement of an infinite number of moments.

At this moment, much of the world is suffering from the effects of globalization, and at the heart of this trend is the philosophy of neo-liberalism. What persons are told is that this process is inevitable, even beneficial. Furthermore, in some conservative circles this process is touted as irresistible and irreversible (Johnson, 2004, p. 260). This claim is predicated on the idea that globalization represents the culmination of both sort and long-term cycles, which result in increased economic efficiency and prosperity. Additionally, given this description, only those societies that are irrational and unwilling to join the modern world would dare to resist this trend.

The logic of globalization, as an important historical trend, is thus made apparent to all rational and informed persons. This process of modernization can be ignored only by those who are foolhardy and uninformed about the realities of economic expansion. According to this scenario, history can be turned backward, but at a high and unacceptable cost to human development.

In many ways, this perspective on development is reminiscent of Hegel' view of history. The idea is that, simply put, history delivers only rational and beneficial ends. And at the root of this portrayal of change is a Newtonian image of time. That is, history reflects a timeline that is autonomous and capable of transcending contingencies and disputes, so that the future is clear and enticing. Globalization, in this sense, is entirely legitimate and represents the best that humanity has to offer.

More recent theories of time, however, have undercut the dualism that sustains the Newtonian version of temporality. That is, time is understood to be based on experience rather than the abstract movement of history across an equally ethereal notion of space. With time grounded in this manner, phenomena such as globalization are not moved by time, but represent various ways of constructing the past and the future. The impact of this shift in understanding time is very important with respect to rethinking the future of globalization.

The main issue at this juncture is that because temporality is tied to the consciousness of people, the ability to understand their behavior depends on grasping their respective conceptions of time. Accordingly, as Husserl (1964, p. 28) argues, the passage of time must be approached as changes in the “lived experiences of time,” instead of the movement of an eternal clock But when time is experiential and intimately tied to consciousness, development does not represent an unrelenting line. For rather than a measure of distance and space, the movement of time consists of shifts of consciousness.

This rendition of time offers a new way to conceptualize social change. Since human praxis extends to the core of time, moments do not merely pass away but are ordered with respect to their relevance. The future, therefore, is thematic rather than a point on an autonomous and unrelenting timeline. No period of time is more valuable than any other, and thus none offers any more or fewer opportunities. What is signaled by time is the ability of people to make themselves in any number of ways. Time, in this sense, never closes horizons of possibility. Globalization is thus a story with many possible endings rather than a trajectory.

Social change, accordingly, is not a product of a universal temporal line of development. Something like globalization, instead, constitutes a “signifying system” and is the outgrowth of how time is experienced (Williams 1989, p.13). This change in viewing temporality alters significantly how the past and future are organized. The guidelines that people follow are still meaningful but no longer exist sui generis. Within the perspective of experiential time, globalization represents merely another transitory means of expressing human action. In this regard, people do not passively attain meaning by following or adapting to a specific historical trajectory, but rather through interpretation particular modes of behavior and conduct are given significance and established as meaningful, at least temporarily.

Undermining the autonomy of time, therefore, provides globalization with a new image. The current phase of neo-liberal economics is neither inevitable nor universal, but representative of certain commitments related to how persons should view themselves, other persons, and social development. There is nothing magical, in short, about this activity. Furthermore, the changes that many oppositional groups from below desire are not necessarily unreachable or unworkable. And neither is the "post-capitalist" logic that is often discussed is not necessarily wildly utopian. The options, instead, represent other historical possibilities, rather than the subversion of history.