Globalization and Coercive Violence

America is today the leader of a world-wide antirevolutionary movement in the defence of vested interests.  She now stands for what Rome stood for.  Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor, so far, have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome’s policy made for inequality, injustice, and for the least happiness of the greatest number.

Arnold Toynbee, 1961[1]

There are only two ways to govern: with consent or with fear.

Naomi Klein[2]

Coercive violence is a fundamental element of globalization.  Failure to adequately address the phenomenon of coercive violence could result in a reification of globalization’s worst conceivable outcomes.

In order to analyze the integral nature of coercive violence to globalization, it is necessary to place the phenomenon of globalization in its proper historical context.

The analysis will begin with a brief overview of the regional and imperial histories of globalization, and discuss the transition from the last self-identified imperial power—Great Britain—into the Anglo-American/Western European aggregation of nation-states that currently dominates much of the political and economic sphere.  The analysis will proceed to the present, where the U.S. and its Western allies have brought coercive global violence into a new phase.

Definitions of terms

Globalization can be characterized in many different ways, depending on one’s value judgments of the phenomenon.  For the sake of this analysis, a generic, value-neutral definition will suffice:

It is a term used to describe the changes in societies and the world economy that are the result of dramatically increased cross-border trade, investment, and cultural exchange (“Globalization”).

Coercive violence, in the context of this analysis, is a general description of the practical application of organized force.  It can apply to wholesale, industrial levels of violence, such as a Roman invasion and pacification of a rebellious vassal kingdom.  It may also describe a transnational beverage firm collaborating with local paramilitary forces to guard its assets and kill labor organizers (Ruggie).

It is important to stress that these two concepts have evolved not only concurrently, but also integrally.

History of Coercive Violence in Globalization

Rome and the imperial economy

In the 21st century conception, the Roman Empire is more precisely considered a regional power, not a world power.  There was at least one contemporary regional power that Rome did not command, namely China.  However, allowing for contemporary levels of technology, the reach and grasp of Rome was impressive enough to merit closer examination.

First, it is important to establish a working definition of empires, namely, that they are “political systems based on the actual or threatened use of force to extract surpluses from their subjects” (Woolf 283).  Furthermore, it is important to take only a finite view of Roman history, namely the economic implications that proceed from Woolf’s definition of empire.

As a pre-industrial empire, Rome lacked the capacity to maintain large government institutions.  The economies it ruled were agrarian, and the military and communications technologies it deployed were relatively primitive.  This necessitated time and labor intensive processes.  Given these relative physical limitations, Rome secured power by “promoting a community of interest among elites within the empire, and a sense of imperial membership based on participation in ruler worship and adherence to imperial cultural and symbolic systems” (Woolf 283).  This arrangement was enforced by the one of the most formidable contemporary war machines in recorded history.

This does not mean that the Roman world sustained an integrated market economy akin to that of the global North and West of the 21st century.  Woolf draws upon historical consensus to theorize that the Roman world probably contained a loosely integrated system of regional economies, and that for most of the empire’s history organized, long-distance exchange was not the norm (283).  Most exchange rarely occurred beyond the regional level (Woolf 289).  However, as Woolf informs,

… the rare degree of integration achieved by the Roman economy in the last two centuries BC was created by imperialism, not the infrastructure of a stable empire…(290).

Great Britain and the Boston Tea Party

“The principle that technologies of work and war move in tandem is well established” (Pieterse 5).  Throughout the history of the British Empire, developments in technologies of transportation, communication, and warfare went through several generations of evolution, as did British innovations and conventions in governance and commerce (“British Empire”).  This analysis will confine its scope to a specific episode in British imperial history.

The 1773 Tea Act allowed “the world’s largest transnational corporation—the East India Company—full and unlimited access to the American tea trade, and exempted the Company from having to pay taxes to Britain on tea exported to the American colonies” (Hartmann, “Boston Tea Party”).  Since the local importers and small merchants among American colonists were forced to pay the old, high taxes on any tea imported and sold, this granted the East India Company a virtual monopoly.  In addition, the colonists had no say over the passage and implementation of the Tea Act, which promised financial benefits to the Company’s shareholders (including the King and the wealthy English elite).

Thus the famous slogan ‘no taxation without representation’ can be seen to have concrete, economic motivations in addition to more abstract political and ethical foundations.  According to Hartmann, the colonists resented being used as objects of economic exploitation, and they were aware that this was a previously established pattern in America and in other British colonial holdings.  According to George R.T. Hewes, a participant in the ‘Boston Tea Party,’

Their Conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given simple Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men (qtd. in Hartmann, “Boston Tea Party”).

Hewes goes on to reference a catastrophically lethal famine in Asia that was caused not by drought or a poor harvest, but by the rapacious and oppressive policies of the Crown and the Company.  This perspective lends an existential weight to the insubordinate and militant actions of the colonists, actions that included the destruction of Company inventory as it sat in the harbor.

According to Hartmann, this episode helps explain this clause of the 1776 Declaration of Independence: “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”  The revolt against the Tea Act was resistance to transnational corporate hegemony.  When the British attempted to maintain this political and corporate dominance with military force, the colonists fought back.

Cold War and ‘Shock Therapy’: a spectrum of coercion

William Blum writes that its proponents generally present U.S. Cold War foreign policy as “a moral crusade against…a malevolent International Communist Conspiracy” (17).  Throughout the Cold War, certain aspects of the U.S. government deliberately exaggerated the threat of the Soviet Union (Blum 18).  Furthermore, it was standing policy to rebuff any Soviet advances at dialing down the simmering hostility (Blum 19).

These policies were enacted in a world gradually digging its way through the mess of post-WWII political and economic upheaval.  There were many people agitating and organizing against miserable living conditions, conditions that were often maintained by governments supported by the U.S. or erstwhile European colonial powers.

Blum compiles a list containing scores of specific U.S. interventions, all involving applications of violence, designed to subvert local governments deemed incompatible with U.S. or Western interests or to prop up U.S.-friendly governments unpopular with local populations (pp. 163-220).  Not every intervention on Blum’s list had a direct economic agenda.  However, they can all be seen as part of a larger trend, a loosely structured program of promoting and enforcing a preferred economic, social, and political global order.  The order preferred by elites in the U.S. and Western Europe was rarely the order preferred by majorities of the populations upon which it was being imposed.  Thus the interventions always required some measure of coercion, either directly or by proxy.

Naomi Klein describes this link between violence and globalization as a logical extension of an economic theory of Milton Friedman.  Friedman argued that, “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces change” (qtd. in Klein 6).  Thus it was the duty of capitalism’s architects and custodians to develop alternatives to popular policies, and be ready to implement them when “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”  It is no coincidence, then, that Friedman put his theory in practice in his capacity as adviser to General Augusto Pinochet, who came to power as part of a 1973 U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Chile’s left-leaning, democratically elected government (Klein 7).

Klein calls Friedman’s prescription “the Shock Doctrine,” and illustrates how many in Chile and the rest of Latin America saw a solid link between the economic “shocks” that mired millions in poverty and the epidemic of violence, oppression, and torture that was directed against those who believed in another way (7).  She quotes Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: “How can this inequality be maintained if not through jolts of electric shock” (7)?

As the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, and the U.S. by default became the world’s only remaining superpower, this ‘Shock Doctrine’ would be applied in new ways to a new, and in some ways familiar range of targets.

Maintenance of Western Hegemony

The 1980s were a transitional period for globalization.  As the Soviet Union entered its death throes—marked most dramatically by its disastrous involvement in Afghanistan—the U.S. under the Reagan administration put its designs for global economic hegemony into overdrive.

The original Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization) were given important philosophical changes to their global economic missions.  As it was, U.S. government and corporate influence had dominated the institutions, drawing them away from their original mission of fostering global economic stability and toward furthering U.S. corporate power (Juhasz 52).

Under the influence of the ‘free trade’ disciples of the Reagan era, the World Bank and the IMF moved away from being economic aid organizations and toward being dictatorial neoliberal syndicates.  In the early 1980s, nowhere was this new shift more evident than in the struggle over control of fossil fuels.  According to Antonia Juhasz, “Reagan used the World Bank to force countries to change their laws so that U.S. corporations would gain direct access to their oil (65).”

This heavy-handed approach was by no means wielded solely against oil-producing nations, but nowhere has it been more militantly and brutally applied.

The U.S. conquers Iraq

Behind the translucent veneer of the Bush administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq was a set of priorities Juhasz labels “the Bush Agenda.”  She sums it up thusly:

The Bush administration used the military invasion of Iraq to oust its leader, replace its government, implement new economic, political, and oil laws, and write a new constitution (7).

The oil revenues of the Middle Eastern countries had largely shielded them from the necessity of signing the demanding and often debilitating trade agreements visited upon developing nations.  The Bush administration’s actions in Iraq demonstrated a willingness to use decisive, wholesale violence to enforce its will.  Several Middle Eastern governments subsequently signed on to trade agreements (Juhasz 8).

Writer Michael Parenti notes that under what Juhasz calls “corporate globalization” (Juhasz 4),

What is being undermined is not only a lot of good laws dealing with environment, public services, labor standards, and consumer protection, but also the very right to legislate such laws (Parenti 46).

Iraq became an experiment in executing this process on a national scale.  After the initial bombardment of human life and infrastructure was completed, and the military defenses of Iraq were smashed, the process of economic conversion began immediately.  The new U.S. viceroy, Paul Bremer, instituted a regime of economic laws that completely transformed Iraq’s economy.  Overturned and replaced were “existing laws on trade, public services, banking, taxes, agriculture, investment, foreign ownership, media, and oil, among others” (Juhasz 7, 8).  The civil chaos that ensued, and the inability of the shattered, occupied country to repair the catastrophic damage of the invasion, were a direct result of the instability fostered by these new laws.

U.S./NATO overthrow the Libyan government

As of this writing there are conflicting reports, or at least differing accounts, of the nature of Moammar Gaddafi’s overthrow in Libya.  Mahmood Mamdani places the intervention in the larger context of Western involvement in Africa; he claims that Western powers are using an increasingly militarized approach to their attempts to wield political and economic influence on the continent; he offers the contrast of China and India, whose involvement consists primarily of economic and infrastructure investment; he implies that remaining autocratic leaders seek to solidify their positions by entering into strategic military alliance with Western powers while still attempting to engage China economically (DemocracyNow).

Michel Chossudovsky compiles statistics indicating that prior to the uprising Libya boasted some of the highest living standards—measured by food and clean water availability, literacy and education, poverty rates, etc.—and far better conditions for women than other Arab countries.  “Libya is considered to be the Switzerland of the African continent…” (de Vito, qtd. in Chossudovsky).

Now that much of Libya’s renowned public infrastructure—including the Libyan Central Bank—has been damaged or decimated by NATO firepower, the World Bank and the IMF have been asked to “examine the need for repair and restoration of services in the water, energy and transport sectors…and…to support budget preparation and help the banking sector back on to its feet” (Chossudovsky).

Samir Amin suggests that the U.S. and its Western allies seek to establish the U.S. military command for Africa (Africom, currently headquartered in Germany) in Libya, since African countries had refused to allow its establishment on the continent (cited in Ahmed).  James Petras submits that the ‘Arab Spring,’ the recently initiated series of popular rebellions against autocratic Arab governments, encouraged the U.S. and NATO to overthrow Gaddafi as “a message from the imperialists to the newly aroused masses of North Africa, Asia and Latin America: The fate of Libya awaits any regime which aspires to greater independence and questions the ascendancy of Euro-American power” (qtd. in Ahmed).  The two preceding views are not mutually exclusive, and the available evidence supports them.

This developing episode in Libya represents not a departure so much as an adaptation.  The Obama administration has chosen to enforce Western economic hegemony without directly occupying the country; it has sought and obtained the direct material and diplomatic support of other Western powers; it has been careful to limit (or at least obfuscate) its armed footprint on the ground.  In this sense, the overthrow of Gaddafi is a synthesis of Cold World proxy interventions and the overt militancy of the ‘Bush Agenda.’  It is an evolution of coercive violence in service of global economic and political goals, and the lack of official international resistance may well be interpreted as a green light for more of the same.

Violent Coercion on the Home Front

The ‘Miami Model’

In November 2003, as trade ministers from dozens of countries met to plan the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, tens of thousands of protesters from around the world gathered about the city of Miami.  Those largely peaceful protesters were met with an organized response of oppressive and excessive police violence as law enforcement jurisdictions from across the state of Florida had been assembled and organized under the auspices of securing the conference.  Fittingly, the budget for the security apparatus was covered with $8.5 million from an $87 billion Iraq spending bill (Scahill).  According to independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, protesters and “non-embedded” journalists were subjected to brutal police violence, often when assembled with the expressed consent of the very law enforcement authorities that gave the order to assault them.

This episode is not unique.  Similar security apparatuses accompanied nearly every major subsequent U.S. political event (“Miami model”), often with similar outcomes.  At the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, the police apparatus was particularly brutal.  The excuse for the heavy-handed tactics was the violence of alleged ‘anarchists.’  However, photographic evidence and numerous eyewitness accounts suggest that the ‘anarchists’—known as the ‘Black Bloc’—were predominantly if not exclusively undercover police agents (Burrows).  Furthermore, the majority of police violence occurred at times and places where the supposed anarchists were not active.

The willingness of states to apply such violence against their own citizens—often in response to actions staged to justify the response—is not a new phenomenon.  It bears scrutiny, however, given the context (organized resistance to corporate globalization) in which it is regularly applied.

Other Viewpoints

Not everyone accepts or recognizes the strong correlation between globalization and coercive violence.  Griswold claims that the global liberalization of trade promotes democracy.  However, his analysis relies upon specious evidence and wishful thinking.  For example, he submits the following:

During the decades of the Cold War, Republican and Democratic presidents alike in the United States advocated international trade as a necessary tool for promoting human rights and democracy abroad, and ultimately a more peaceful world (25).

This construction may be technically true; U.S. presidents may well have been vociferous in their advocacy of the utopian benefits of liberalized international trade.  However, beyond a strictly literal interpretation of ‘advocacy’ there are significant chunks of history (including the Vietnam War and the long list of interventions cited by Blum) that contradict Griswold.

Griswold also claims that thirty years of economic liberalization have brought democracy to Latin America (28).  This turns history on its head, ignoring the brutal, U.S.-sponsored subversion and suppression of democracy that was normally applied as a foundation for implementing widely unpopular liberalization schemes.

Erich Weede conducts an exhaustive analysis of the links between trade liberalization and peace.  He claims that democracies, by virtue of their superior transparency and institutional constraints, are far less likely than autocracies to initiate war, if for no other reason than to avoid crushing debt (29).  He also claims that high per capita incomes (an assumed byproduct of successful trade liberalization) promote democracy (31).

The parameters of Weede’s analysis (interactions between sovereign states) leave a multitude of Cold War interventions (such as cited by Blum and Klein) outside of scrutiny.  Furthermore, his theory is jeopardized, if not completely inverted, by the U.S. enterprise in Iraq.  A wealthy democracy (the U.S.) waged war on a non-offending smaller state for primarily economic ends and incurred colossal debt; for all of this democracy’s purported transparency, a majority of its citizens believed the blatant falsehood—promoted by agents of the state and repeated faithfully in corporate media—that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (USA Today).


There has been a wealth of discussion and study aimed at improving, democratizing, and bringing more transparency and fairness to the various processes that compose globalization.  In February 2004, the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization released an exhaustive and comprehensive report on the current and developing state of globalization, and it offered a detailed set of guidelines for improving the process (“A fair globalization”).

Within these groundbreaking diagnoses and prescriptions must be recognition that the current incarnation of globalization is dominated by a natural outgrowth of imperialism (Parenti 46).  It has used and will continue to use coercive violence to protect, maintain, and expand itself even as it evolves.

C.K. Prahalad warns that, “all the development models we’ve used in the West are inappropriate for dealing with global development in the long term.”  The advances in communications technology will allow billions of emerging consumers to see what another billion has been enjoying, and this knowledge will alter their aspirations and consumption patterns (Prahalad).  In addition to the ecological strain of such growth, it is logical to presume that it will lead also to widespread social and political unrest.

The political and economic elites of the world have clearly established a propensity for protecting the status quo through coercive violence; it is vital that citizens of all countries recognize the danger of this and work to demand more productive policies from their governments.   The World Commission’s prescription for emphasis on democracy, social equity, respect for human rights and the rule of law should be the central, guiding ethos (“Module 5”).


“A fair globalization: creating opportunities for all.” The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, Apr 2004. Web. 5 Oct 2011. <–en/index.htm&gt;.

Ahmed, Rahnuma. “NATO bombings, al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring.” Shahidul News. N.p., 09 Oct 2011. Web. 9 Oct 2011. <;.

Blum, William.  Rogue state: a guide to the world’s only superpower.  Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2005.  Print.

“British Empire.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Web. <;.

Burrows, Terry. “The Toronto G20 Riot Fraud: Undercover Police engaged in Purposeful Provocation.” Centre for Research on Globalization, 27 Jun 2010. Web. 26 Oct 2011. <;.

Chossudovsky, Michel. “Destroying a Country.” Centre for Research on Globalization, 20 Sep 2011. Web. 8 Oct 2011. <;.

“Globalization for Better or for Worse: Civilization and the Environment .” Photograph. C.K. Prahalad. 2007. Web. 19 Oct 2011. <;.

Griswold, Daniel T. “Globalization promotes democracy.” Globalization. Ed. David Haugen and Rachael Mach. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2010. 22-36.

“Human rights and transnational corporations.” Video. John Ruggie. New York: United Nations, 2009. Web. 21 Oct 2011. <;.

Johnson, Chalmers. Nemesis: the last days of the American Republic. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006.

Juhasz, Antonia. The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time. 1. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. 1st. ed. New York: Metropolitan, 2007. Print.

“Mahmood Mamdani on Libya, an African Union in “Crisis” & the Outlook for South Sudan.” DemocracyNow. 14 Sep 2011. Web. 25 Oct 2011. <;.

“Miami model.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Web. <;.

“Module 5.” A fair globalization: creating opportunities for all. The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, Apr 2004. Web. 16 Oct 2011. <;.

Parenti, Michael. “Globalization undermines democracy.” Globalization. Ed. David Haugen and Rachael Mach. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2010. 37-49.

“Poll: 70% believe Saddam, 9-11 link.” USA Today 06 Sep 2003. n. pag. Web. 26 Oct. 2011. <;.

Scahill, Jeremy. “The Miami Model.” CounterPunch. N.p., 24 Nov 2003. Web. 25 Oct 2011. <;.

Weede, Erich. “Balance of Power, Globalization, and the Capitalist Peace.” Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty: Philippine Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct 2011. < of Power, Globalization and Capitalist Peace.pdf>.

Woolf, Greg. “Imperialism, Empire, and the Integration of the Roman Economy.” World Archaeology. 23.3 (1992): 283-93. Web. 26 Oct. 2011. <;.

[1] Quoted in Blum 163.

[2] Quoted in Johnson 38.

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