Network Power by David Grewal and The Power of Place by Harm de Blij (Review)
August 20, 2008            



Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalization by David Grewal. Yale   

            University Press, 405 pp, $30.


The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization's Rough Landscape

            by Harm de Blij. Oxford University Press, 280 pp, $27.95.



By George Scialabba



            Freedom is Americans' supreme value, but how well do we really understand it? Consider this proposition: "Your money or your life!" Strictly speaking, we are perfectly free not to give up our money. But most of us would agree that this isn't really much of a choice; and if the thief were caught, no judge or jury would accept as a defense that we had freely given him or her the money. Choices can be coerced: blatantly, as in this example, or more subtly.

            One of the subtle ways is through what David Grewal, in an ambitious and original new work of social theory, calls "network power." Every large-scale social activity requires networks: groups of people whose interaction is coordinated by some standard or practice. Language is a standard; so are systems of measurement, currencies, engineering and quality-control regulations, even dress codes and the Social Register. Some standards are more widespread than others; hence some networks are larger and more powerful than others. The network of English-speakers is larger than that of Swahili-speakers. The network of dollar-users is larger than that of cowrie-shell users. The metric standard is gradually overtaking the imperial (ie, Anglo-American, yards/feet/inches) standard - in fact, England is about to switch. Is America next?

            The answer depends on the network power of metric system users. Under certain  conditions - specifying them is one important contribution of Grewal's book - the choice of whether or not to join a network may not be coerced but will not be entirely free, either. Every time a country or manufacturer switches to the metric system, pressure increases on all others to switch too. The more programs are compatible only with Microsoft operating systems, the more inconvenient it will be to use any other kind.  The larger the network, the higher the costs of not joining.

            Arguably the most important standards in today's world are the ones driving globalization: multinational agreements on trade, investment, and intellectual property rights. Every developing nation desperately wants access to the markets of the developed nations, which means joining the World Trade Organization and other global or regional trading networks, like NAFTA. But the developed nations (above all the United States) insist that their poorer brethren first accept a standard: a whole framework of tax, regulatory, and other policies intended to give American banks and corporations free rein.  

            Of course, developing nations are perfectly free to demur and go their own way. But this, they protest, isn't really much of a choice. There's such a thing as (in Grewal's words) "the compulsion of having no viable alternative." Why should weak economies have to go without capital or else agree to remain mere adjuncts of stronger ones? It's not fair.

            But is it unjust? Are anyone's rights being violated? Grewal answers this question with an elegant philosophical analysis of justice. He deftly undermines the conventional distinction between positive and negative rights, demonstrating that to define basic rights - rights that trump even the most powerful network standards - is a matter for democratic decision. Or should be.


            Grewal wants to keep people and cultures from being flattened by the power of global networks. Harm de Blij, a noted geographer, believes there's no danger of that - unfortunately. Pace Thomas Friedman, the world is nowhere near flat, de Blij argues. Even as skyscrapers rise and McDonalds proliferate, globalization "creates a high-relief topography of privilege and privation." What isolates a majority of humans from the processes of globalization - language, religion, endemic disease, disaster-prone environments - is far more salient than anything that tends to integrate them. "For all the liberating changes that have already occurred, place of birth still has a powerful influence over the destinies of billions. ... For all the 'flattening' perceived and relished by globals, the world is still dauntingly rough terrain for many more locals."

            Familiar and unfamiliar statistics follow. Malaria, "driven out of the global core and left to fester in the periphery," kills as many people daily as died on 9/11, while "hundreds of millions of children live in housing without windows or screens." Diarrhea kills even more children than malaria, in part because more than a third of the world's population has no plumbing. Female literacy lags far behind males'. The new megacities - Lagos, Karachi, Bogota, Lima, Jakarta, Sao Paolo, and others - are enclaves of wealth surrounded by vast human wildernesses in which tens of millions swarm.

            Solutions are intractable. There is one, though, that de Blij overlooks. We could have the courage of our apparent convictions and simply declare the superfluous billions non-human. This would mean giving up Christianity and democracy, with their sentimental fiction that all human beings are equal before God and have certain fundamental rights. A pity; but then, we've never made much use of them.