The paper below was delivered at the October 2002 annual conference of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia: Blurred Boundaries: Australians and Globalisation: Negotiating Our Way, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, and published in the Conference Proceedings, 2003.


From belonging to brand name: globalisation and the redefining of shared territories

Globalisation means change and quick social response times. My argument here is that, with boundaries blurred, the moment has come to discuss our social programming for belonging so that we can negotiate a way forward during globalisation. The challenge now is to turn knowledge into know-how.

I am dealing here with globalisation as a social phenomenon. The current rate of globalisation is so fast that the natural process of social evolution cannot keep up. The social imagining of who we are is still anchored in real territory, even though globalisation, as a social process, has been going on since the beginning of human society because, as a species, we cannot resist the 3Ts of trade, technology and travel.

I began this work thirty years ago by puzzling over the repetition of a pattern in 17th-18th century English literature. I came across it again about seven years ago when I was asked to analyse a cultural problem in nursing. In both cases I found three criteria for a sense of security in belonging during cultural upheaval: they are authorisation for occupying a territory or role, appropriate knowledge of it, and familiarity with its limits. The recurring question of how to find meaning in life under new conditions and changing expectations surfaces again and again in cultural history. It can be traced back to the dawn of Western literature (7th century BCE). In every case, there is an imagined return to the agrarian certainties of belonging. As a post-graduate I had latched onto a cultural phenomenon brought to the surface by a critical change in modern Western societies. It was the social moment when commodification of land and labour in the new market society meant that territorial belonging was not an inevitable part of life. It had raised the possibility of multiple sites and new ways, of belonging. In the light of subsequent events and the organisational problems of the eighties and nineties, this turns out to have been a practical area for research.

Belonging as ethical space

Globalisation as brand name

Our politicians are chosen for a role in the ethical space called being Australian. It is our task to keep them aware of what this means and to keep it in context. At present they are opting out by using globalisation as a brand-name. The symbol economy operates outside the sphere of belonging. But, the real people who serve the symbol economy, live in a real economy; they cannot exist without exchange of goods and services. People in the real economy belong. Communities have an ethos. Ethos is shared in ethical space. I think we can as a nation work through to solutions if we keep our eye on the real economy, which operates in real territory, at a local government, state and national level and is intimately connected to people.

In fact, globalisation has been a gift for lazy politicians and policy-makers. First of all they brand globalisation as though it were a monolith. Yet it is, for all practical purposes, a two-level system: the symbol economy and the real economy. As I see it, the task of politicians and policy-makers is to work with that manageable reality. Instead, politicians put up a screen of brand-names from behind which they can snipe at their opponents or avoid issues, and depend on labels like change, privatisation, productivity, unAustralian. They are caught up in the reductionist habit of misusing labels like Left and Right to close up the ethical space needed to perform their roles as legislators.

The neglect of ethical space is systemic in modern government and organisational practice. Policy rhetoric is itself a series of catchy brand-names: for instance, inclusiveness, participation, non-discriminatory employment policies come as packages with a socially-approved name. Unfortunately, since high ideals are based on logic, not symbolic associations, they often turn into their opposite once put into practice (Musil, 1995; Bohn 1981 ): their outcomes are often not as intended and their processes can be rigid or tortuous. We should be looking at belonging as a mind program that holds groups together. We need to know how it functions as ethical space, and what this means about the symbol-rich social imagining of community. We need to be building on what cultural history and modern practice already suggest: that there are three sets of imagery that structure thinking within the ethical space; and that they are our authorisation for being there, the knowledge necessary to belong together there, and the definition of its boundaries.

Today, the big question to be faced by everyone, from the individual to the multinational is: how do you define your territory?

Authorisation, knowledge, limits

On the other hand, the testing of ethical limits can be an example of good parliamentary practice. Stem cell research has recently been a contentious but essentially benign example of politicians at work in the interests of present and future, although it has highlighted their lack of scientific knowledge.

Part of our contemporary malaise comes from denial. Denial, not so much of our past and our present situation as a small developed population, as of our basis for belonging. In Australia we are well placed to pioneer understanding of the importance of belonging as a pattern of programming that shapes cultures and the group response to all the changes in its environment. We should take careful note of several facts. Australia was settled on the authority of a foreign king. Europeans brought foreign knowledge to this land and are only now discovering how the land can be managed. We are uniquely placed in having natural boundaries that are also long and unprotected. Of all peoples, we should be concerning ourselves with the role of belonging in providing the ethical space to negotiate a way forward during the challenges of globalisation.