Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1739434
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise
of Human Agency
Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008
Abstract Globalization as a development model is generally now regarded as the sine qua
non for development policy with little room for alternative theorising on capitalist
development. Neoliberalism, as the supporting ideology of globalization, inflates the social
significance of the market and mystifies human relations. It therefore, gives a distorted view
of reality, how people are living and their agential capacity to improve their lives. Critical to
human agency is it the way it is exercised—does it reduce inequality or does it exacerbate
inequality? How is this human agency exercised by different groups of people? The paper
provides a discussion on the relationship between neoliberal ideology, globalization and the
exercise of human agency. It examines the social reality of globalization and neoliberalism
and how this affects the agential capacity of human beings to direct their development, as
individuals, communities and as nations.
Key words Globalization
Since the early 1990s, the subsequent ideological shift that accompanied the collapse of
socialism in Eastern Europe, suggests that development models based on liberal democracy
and capitalist economics must not deviate away from the route of development being led by
the USA and the European Union (EU) and by the three major international financial
Int J Polit Cult Soc
This is a revised version of a paper presented as “Human Agency in an Era of Neoliberal Globalisation”/
“Agencia Humana en la Época de la Globalización Neoliberal” at the 15th Annual Conference of the Radical
Philosophy Association and the Institute of Philosophy, Universidad de Havana, June 23–27, 2003 in
Havana, Cuba. Attendance was made possible by the School of Graduate Research, UWI Cave Hill.
T. Heron (*)
The Planning Institute of Jamaica, 10-16 Grenada Way, Kingston 5, Jamaica
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1739434
institutions—the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade
Organization (WTO), and followed closely by official development assistance organisations
such as United States Agency for International Development and the EU. The collapse of
Eastern European socialism and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) provided
the impetus for trade and financial liberalisation to occur at a global level. Global
specifications for trade between nations are being prioritized above national specifications.
Globalization, is, apparently the development model to be pursued. In many countries, the
space for national development policy formation is crowded by liberalization policies that
accentuate and exacerbate asymmetric globalization and social inequalities between nations
and among women, men and children (UN 2005). Thus, there is a disjuncture in the
relationship between local/national development and global requirements for those that lead
the ‘global’ economy and the financial and economic institutions that govern. This
disjuncture is critical as its social realities speak to the deterioration of the human condition
in the midst of materialist improvement, both in the developing and developed world
governments spending less on social services, followed by a decline in real expenditure per
person, the quality of life of the poor in particular has deteriorated. At the same time, the
cost of providing care has shifted to communities and households and is primarily borne by
women, in unpaid social reproductive roles. However, there has been the suggestion that
this disjuncture will dissolve, and that this is just a phase to the next level of development
(World Bank 1999; Randriamaro 2002).
Globalization began in the late sixteenth century when feudalism ended in Western
Europe and capitalism was born. In a very general sense, globalization represents the
consolidation of a western-led model of development marked by the establishment of the
European nation–state, which, has, by extension, never really existed within the confines of
its national boundaries. The nature and requirements of capitalism has meant the search for
products and the expansion of capital in other parts of the world. (Addo 1984 ; Wallerstein
1999, 2000; Watson 2000). To facilitate this, military force, violent removal/dislocations of
peoples, slaughtering of different groups, ‘expansion,’‘progress’ has always accompanied
the growth of capitalism in its global reach. No region of the world has been speared.
Therefore, und erstanding capitalism as a social relation leads to the core o f that
relationship: domination. It is the capacity to use force or to inflict suffering, Heilbroner
(1985, p. 39) opines, that “remains the essence of the capacity for domination.” At various
levels, this pattern of domination may be the common thread that significantly influences
relations between and often found among families, communities and nations, across
ethnicity, class and gender. Globalization is intricately tied up with the forces of
imperialism and is essentially, not really new in form, but rather new in the nature of its
manifestations of domination. Petras and Veltmeyer (2001) point out that globalization at a
minimum involves the creation of a world economy that is not just merely the sum of its
national economies, but rather a powerful independent reality, created by the international
division of labour and the world market, which, in the present epoch, predominates national
Developing countries/regions (49): All the countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific (excluding Australia, Japan
and New Zealand), the Americas (including Mexico, Central America and South America, and the
Caribbean). Developed countries/regions: North America (the USA and Canada, excluding Mexico) the G-7
industrialized countries, plus Southern and Western Europe (excluding Cyprus, Malta, Serbia and
Montenegro), Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Of note however, is that among the developed regional
grouping, first nation peoples in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA live in conditions of extreme
poverty and social exclusion comparable with t he developing world. See UNESCO for regional
markets. Large scale, long term flows of capital, commodities, technology and labour
across national boundaries, have always defined the process of globalization. The driving
force of contemporary globalization retains some of the key features of its earlier periods:
dominated and led by a set of core states (the G8 countries,
including the triad—USA,
Japan and Germany), supported by international financial institutions (IMF, World Bank,
etc.) and backed by transactional corporations (Petras and Veltmeyer 2001; Wallerstein
As the new telos of capitalism, globalization is much broader and fast in the scope and
scale of the movement of capital and commodities; and blurs the meanings of privacy,
freedom and agency due to technological advancements. All the relations of production and
of labour are geared towards capitalist and materialist accumulation. Dominance of capital
as a social relation may manifest itself in a very socially dysfunctional form that is often
supported by ideology. It may give the illusion of capital accumulation as the ultimate
satisfaction or a form of human happiness. In so doing, other forms of human activity lose
validity and ethical meaning. Disempowered human agency or human agency, which
unquestioningly submits to the technological demands of capitalism, is a life that exists
solely as a mere peg in the wheel of capitalism—a consumer citizen. Globalization, as the
technological era of global capitalism increasingly governed and led by the use of
technological instruments, tempts us to question the meaning and the value of human life.
More and more of the majority of the world's poor, women who may be producing for
exchange value, have to struggle to obtain basic food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation,
medicine and protection.
When it comes to human agency, people make choices, motivate and regulate their
behaviour on the basis of belief systems and cultural background. Unless people believe
that they can produce desired outcomes and forestall or prevent undesired ones, they have
little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties (Bandura 1986). Personal and
collective goals and aspirations are rooted in value systems and core of a culture. These
provide further incentives and guides for action. People also act out their life course based
on the outcomes they expect their efforts to produce. How people view the opportunities
and obstacles in their environment shapes the lives they lead. These are what form the
foundation of human agency (Bandura 2000).
With globalization the issue of human agency arises, both at the level of the global elite
and the ordinary citizen. Who are the human agents behind the forces of the globalization?
How do the political and economic elite contribute to the exploitation of the developing
world by the ways in which they exercise their human agency? The way power is used in
the international system, is a function of human agency. Western theorising on international
relations defines human nature as selfish, aggressive, competitive and given to primordial
anarchical tendencies if not tempered by international law, national law and the balancing
of powers by state–state relations. This further gives primacy to the human nature as
essentially individualist, whose agential expression are often separated from its membership
in a society. The rights of the individual are supreme, even in opposition to society (Amin
2001; Watson 2000). Agency, limited to this western and masculinist definition under
capitalist development would be individualist with a tendency towards autocracy for the
achievement of its own ends. A broader understanding would be to see human agency as
that inherent capacity in each person to think, make choices and act, within and based on
the socio–economic, political and cultural forces around them, in order to improve
themselves and their families and communities.
Canada, France, Germany, UK, USA, Japan, Italy make up the G7. The addition of Russia comprises the G8.
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
Ideology and Globalization
Ideology is a force that affects human agency; and it is the strength of globalization that lies
in its ideological influence in peoples' lives. If ideology has to do with social construction
of ideas and their promulgation via various media in order to shape one's thinking in a
particular direction; it definitely comes into play when one considers how globalization as
model of development is promoted. Ideology is not necessarily completely true or false;
rather its power lies in its manipulative capacity to obfuscate flawed social conditions,
giving an illusory account of their rationale or function, in order to justify and win
acceptance of them without protest or resistance in some form (Sypnowich 2001, p. 3).
Poverty and inequality are increasingly being regarded as a normality that facilitates and
“cradles the system of private capital accumulation and protects the system of capitalist
property rights” (Watson 2000, p. 388). The ideological meta-narrative that is communi-
cated is one of a plenty, where more is better and the general acceptance of the idea that
each person has the same chance at prosperity. If one is poor, it is the inability of that
person to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them by globalization. As such
poverty and inequality therefore have no connection to the structural issues of concern for
North–South relations such as trade regulations, financial flows, investment conditions, the
power of transnational corporations, levels of indebtedness and the rights of workers. The
role of international and political economic structures and interests as co-determinants to
poverty and continuing inequality is not recognized.
The role of ideology as far as globalization is concerned is that its ideas continue to
facilitate the relationship of inequality and depend ence that was created with the
establishment of imperialism in different regions of the world from its inception in Western
Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards, under ‘imperialism’, and/or the
‘civilising mission’ (Bessis 2001, p. 13). Addo (1984, p. 257) argues that this dependent
and unequal relationship that we find in capitalism need not have been there, but rather was
“induced by the initial inequality to complete the conditions for automatic and efficient
capitalist expansion”. To justify this, however, a new ideology which still prevails today
was developed: the road to development must be led by the West; the pinnacle of
civilisation belongs in the West; the West is mandated by God Almighty to determine the
rules and principles of living for everyone on the planet; and with this mandate, the rest of the
world, especially those representing “non-Western” civilisations, will only be to grateful to
follow this so-called universal truth (Bessis 2001,p.15;Said1993,p.3,Rist2006, p. 81).
Said (1993, p. 3) also noted, that it is more than acts of acquisition and accumulation, rather
“these practices are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive cultural formations,
that include ideas that certain people and certain territories require and beseech domination.”
Human agency is at the heart of this exploitative relationship insofar as it is a mutual
relationship where inequality and dependence come together in a distorted way among
different groups of people. Addo (1984, p. 258) points out that it is the “mutual unfolding
of the two processes (inequality and dependence) is what accounts for the stubborn
persistence of capitalism's historic theme of accumulation of capital” which flows primarily
from the developed regions (“the centre”) to the developing regions of the world (“the
periphery”). The induction of an exploitative relationship solely for financial benefit may be
perceived as an invasive sort of human agency, guided by greed insofar as it is a
relationship that is entered into with complete disregard of the social outcome for another
group or communities of people. Inequality begins with this dismissive approach of one
group of humanity towards another group of humanity in order to facilitate capital
accumulation. Dependency on the other hand, we could argue as the surrendering of a
community's agential capacity in the hands of, or control of another group which is more
powerful in some form or the other (especially militarily and is willing to use force to
impose an exploitative capitalist relation); and here we have exploitative human relations as
defined by capitalism.
Neoliberalism is the ideology that promotes its own brand of capitalist restructuring; that
which we call globalization. It continues along a line of thinking of knowledge, society and
history, emphasizing rationality, scientific objectivity, essentialism and the linear directions of
time, thought and development; and operates in rigid binaries of primitive–modern, black–
white, man–woman, first world–third world, developed–underdeveloped. In this vein, the
Western model of civilisation and/or development is put forward as the model to emulate and
the basis upon which a developing country must accommodate its market(s), policies and
populations in order to ‘catch up.’ Further, moving in linear progression from ‘developing’
to ‘developed’ is more likely to occur if one's economy is primarily directed to meet the
needs and interests of the web of global capitalist relations dominated by the ‘developed
countries’; and in meeting these needs will serve well for the developing country.
With thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman at its nucleus, in a truly
Gramscian sense of cultural hegemony, neoliberalism has achieved this dominance through
think tanks, research centres (e.g. the Project for a New American Century, the Brookings
Institute, the Cato Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, La Societé Politique,
among others), publications and the media despite the fact that it is a totally artificial
construct. As a set of ideas that have consequences, neoliberalism has proven to dominate
all spheres of economic and political discourse—with a strong sense of inevitability and
absolutism that no other alternative apparently exists (Watson 2000; Girvan 2000).
Generally, neoliberalism is about facilitating freer movement of goods, resources and
enterprises across national boundaries, ultimately seeking cheaper resources to maximize
profit and efficiency. For the purpose of this paper, we may summarize it as a theory which
endorses the market as the mover and shaker of the economy and the key instrument
through which social problems can now be solved. It requires: state disengagement,
reduced policy autonomy by the state (and more toward the international financial
institutions which promote the implementation of a neoliberal programme); ideological
separation of economics from the political process; emphasizes a growth-first strategy as
‘development’; emphasizes international competitiveness as positive; and trade is viewed as
the engine of growth (Mengisteab 1999, pp. 140–144). Thus, power shifts from labour to
capital and from state to market and international financial institutions, and as such, citizens
are locked out of major decisions that affec t their social well-being. In essence,
neoliberalism promotes a ‘development strategy’ that emphasizes efficiency, growth and
competitiveness over social justice and redistribution.
The ideology of neoliberalism, works through specific institutions and regimes that
significantly controls the way in which globalization is directed. Neoliberalism is becoming
more far-reaching in its ideational impact. Imbued with a promethean impulse, this brand
of globalization presents us with a world of limitless opportunity of things: a world of
technological rapidity, a borderless culture of material contentment, available at the click of
a button or the swipe of a card. Increasingly the role that TV media plays and the news and
angles that the media takes, are controlled for the most part by these same corporations will
carry nothing serious or any kind of critical analysis of the conditions of a globalized world.
These dominant media firms, such as AOL-Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, and
Viacom, see themselves as global entities, where commercial deregulation, convergence
and consolidation of overseas markets is the order of the day (McChesney 2001). In short,
once you are hooked into US cable the world becomes pre-occupied with a world that does
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
not reflect the reality of the majority of the world's population (Wilkin 1996). This is
problematic because of a social preoccupation within American culture with material things
as objects from which happiness may be derived. Consumerism, such as going shopping, or
using different products or finding new products, are promoted as ways which should
actually make life easier. In some cases, this may be so as the ideology of neoliberalism
seeks to capture private life and define it under the regime of capital. Hence, more and more
aspects of daily living become commercialised, as there is a continuous search of business
in areas of social activity that can be subsumed within the capital-generating circuit
(Heilbroner 1985, p. 118).
Thus advertising images by McDonalds and Wal-mart for instance, presents us with
products of consumption as the glue of family life. Pepsi and Sprite become essential to
cultural connectivity and the quenching of thirst. However, the preoccupation with things as
significant to human happiness presents a false sense of reality at different levels, where the
widening gap between the rich and the poor, between men and women, is a prominent
feature of globalization. So it is difficult to fathom that happiness can be derived from using
a rose-scented soap, when one considers that 1.3 billion of the world's population have no
access to clean water much less being able to purchase a rose-scented soap.
Ideologically, the forces of globalization, seek to reshape the world in accordance with a
new global imaginary that serves the interests of some far better than most. A triumphant
account of globalization sees it as the imminent unification of the world when in reality it is
their vision of the world as their market (Pérez Lara 1999). The ideologues of globalization,
may promise plenty for all, but the actual forecast of what globalization spells for the future
could be seen as pessimistic, depending on your location. Box 2 demonstrates, however,
that poverty and inequality continues to be a feature of global capitalism and its
manifestations have been arguably more acute since the onset of contemporary
globalization. Economic marginalisation also implies political marginalisation as in the
midst of spreading democracy; the most important decisions about human life are
progressively removed beyond the reach of electorates. Women and the poor in particular
who are often not adequately represented in the upper echelons of political power where the
decisions that affect so many are made, will increasingly have less access to these avenues
of power and decision-making.
Thus the world may be reconfigured but the reconfiguration takes place under the regime
of capitalism which continues to reproduce under new circumstances, and in new forms, the
new inequalities built in its structuring of the world. The term itself is conspicuous. While it
suggests that globalization is a process encompassing the entire globe, again it is in
reference to the market that the globalizers envision—everywhere and anywhere that is
within their reach. Actual areas and peoples of the world are not necessarily significant in
and of themselves unless they facilitate capital accumulation.
Wilkin (1996) speaks of the representation of globalization whereby the global mass
communications promotes and disseminates the material commodities and become
significantly persuasive components to secure consumers and to maintain market share.
The suggestion here is not that people are devoid of agency and that all we do is sit back, shut
up and shop. Rather, the suggestion is that in selling the material commodity, a lifestyle of
consumption, abundance, wealth and luxury is also promoted. The idea is to promote a kind
of consumer citizen that may somehow attain bliss or happiness from reducing contact with
nature to the use of an apricot-scented shampoo or eating a fruit that is ‘perfect’ because it has
been grown in genetically controlled environment. And this Western lifestyle is a myth, an
empty, spiritless place, which has no bearing on reality in which one in five persons lives in
abject poverty. What is important about the propagandistic role of mass communication in
promoting this ideology is that it also promotes and reinforces a view of the world that serves
to mystify social relations (Wilkin 1996).
The ideological weight of globalization, suggests that market-driven economic policies,
and privatizing social services such as education, health, water, electricity and tele-
communications, and trade arrangements based on the purchase of cheap raw materials
from the third world and opening up third world markets to first world products will allow
for social development. Continuing this basic economic relation established with fifteenth
century imperialism from imperial power to colony, to date has not proved beneficial for the
developing world. Instead what has occurred has been the exacerbation of existing
structures of inequality, thereby linking neoliberal policies to new forms of social exclusion.
The neoliberal policy package draws its social power from the political and economic
power of those whose interests it expresses: stockholders, financial operators, industrialists,
conservative politicians and high-level financial officials. Bourdieu (1998, p. 3) similarly
emphasizes that neoliberalism “to favour severing the economy from social realities and
thereby constructing, in reality, an economic system conforming to its description in pure
theory that is a sort of logical machine that presents itself as a chain of constraints
regulating economic agents.” Bourdieu carries this role of ideology further by elaborating
on it as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ by which he explains as the manner in which those
who wield power exert their domination with the tacit consent of the dominated. This
particular world order, being promoted as ‘logic’ and ‘natural’ indeed amounts to no more
than parochial ‘truths’ being elevated as universal (cited in Rist 2006, pp. 78–79) and
negatively affects the functioning of the world capitalist system and the exercise of human
agency embedded in the web of social relations within.
The Social Reality of Globalization and the Exercise of Human Agency
Each country is unavoidably a part of the world capitalist system, and most of the world's
economies are oriented towards satisfying the needs of the core/centre states and as such are
structured to continue to service the accumulation of capital to the centre. Valid movement
away from this dependent and exploitative relationship, or even strategic political decisions to
lessen this dependency, is to recognise the contradictions within the world economy and still
act upon them. Therefore, a country's location in the global capitalist system, combined with
its internal politics, may affect the way that country responds to these changes. The nature of
its internal dynamics will determine whether or not a country responds pro-actively or
passively towards globalization, or whether it chooses to respond at all. It is the internal
dynamics and the relationships that political elites have with the controlling agents of the
institutions, which command globalization that will determine the extent to which a country
questions the policies that are being promoted and adopts a more autonomous response.
Hernandez and Iyengar ( 2001 ) point out that human agency and the demonstration
thereof is determined primarily by cultural differences. In Western cultures, human agency
is characterised as individuals being motivated to act, unencumbered by the others,
establishing their distinctiveness from others and by remaining uninfluenced by collective
pressures. In collective settings, if an individual is perceived as detrimental to the collective,
that individual may be rejected and cast out as useless. Westerners emphasize Aristotelian
logical reasoning that is the adherence to rules and categories as essential.
By contrast, the agency of non-Western cultures, for want of a better word, has been
characterised as being interconnected, interdependent and collectivist. This is very general
at this stage but the point I want to suggest is that not only the inner self, but rather the
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
relationship that the self has with others is also of great consideration in terms of motivation
and actions. Hernandez and Iyengar (2001) point out that it is more culturally common
among various non-westerners toward dialectics, emphasizing complexity, change and
Human agency has its origin either in the individual person or in the collective,
depending on whether that culture promotes individualism or collectivism. Personal agency
dominates the cultural ethos of the West, while collective agency dominates in non-western
societies (Hernandez and Iyengar 2001). Since the development of capitalism and its
relationship with imperialism, (and the cultural undertones as well) the relationship between
the two is not simple. We note that generally, in western society, individual agency can be
traced to the Judaeo–Christian belief in the individual soul, the Bri tish legal and
philosophical tradition of individual rights and Adam Smith's economics of individual
self-interest and free markets, and the exaltation of individual freedom. Additionally, it
mystifies one's sense of control, inflating the individual and deflating the collective and the
Creator (Hernandez and Iyengar 2001).
Societies that are western as well as ‘non-western’ by virtue of a former colonial relation
have a more complex dilemma to work out in the relationship between the individual and
the collective in the exercise of human agency. Former colonised territories, now
developing countries, because of the cultural disjuncture created by several centuries of
colonisation and imperialism, there is often a schizophrenic relationship with individualism
and collectivism, insofar as the western ethos of that developing society may obtain bias
against its own non-western/indigenous/African/Asian part, and reflect individualist values
that are deeply rooted and originate from the western capitalist and cultural ethos. The non-
western side—that which embodies collectivism, managed to flourish in spite of the cultural
and psychological pressure brought to bear by colonialism. But the outcome of this is often
a love–hate relationship with both individualism and collectivism in the ways in which
human agency is exercised and the neocolonial elites of many developing countries; ensure
that the colonial umbilical cord is never really cut off, much less buried. Agency in such
situations, therefore reflect a more ambivalent relationship with those who control the
reigns of globalization as there is no clear and consistent vision by neocolonial elites who
maintains these relations that prioritises national needs above capitalist/profit making
interests, even though the political language of the elite may say otherwise. This ambivalent
exercise of agency perpetuates ‘undevelopment.’
Inequality or equality is highly dependent upon the amount of opportunities that are
afforded to an individual or group of individuals to improve their lives. Exercising agency
therefore, can either contribute to inequality or enhance equality. Where inequality exists,
human agency is diminished. Where equality is promoted based the design in social policy,
human agency is also enhanced. Reducing inequality and enhancing human agency is
entirely dependent on the policy environment and whether or not the state considers its
population as central to development, however defined.
According to the UN (2005) World Situation Report, Globalization has exacerbated
world inequality insofar as the wealthiest 20% of the planet Earth account for 86% of all
private consumption while the poorest account for just above 1%. Furthermore, the poorest
20% of the world's population saw their share of world income decline from 2.3% to 1.4%
in the past three decades; while that of the richest 20% grew from 70% (Human
Development Report 1996, cited in Girvan 2000).
Since national policies have been reduced to neoliberal policy reform, social inequality
among and between countries have risen. Social inequalities and gaps in income and wealth
have reached levels which provoke social unrest. Human agency translates increasingly into
human despair as inequality and the ability to do something about it, reduces with each
generation. With less and less investment in human capital by the state, individuals have
less opportunity and access to contribute to the betterment of their own lives. In short, the
human agency is diminished by the reduction of access to and quality of social services. In
the Caribbean for instance, reduction in social spending has meant that large segments of
the low-income population are excluded from many areas of public welfare. This exclusion
increases the likelihood of intergenerational poverty (World Bank 1999). Restrictive fiscal
policy environment can make poor families and communities vulnerable in their ability to
absorb and recover from market shocks demanded by neoliberal policy reform. The poor,
and women in particularly who are most vulnerable to those market shocks, will carry
increased burden. Women for instance, will carry the primary burden of providing unpaid
care in efforts to sustain the family, where as big corporations will be subsidised by
governments through tax breaks and other incentives.
Policy environments become increasingly hostile to social development and do not
facilitate the average human being's agential capacity. Indeed, it basically reduces human
beings to living a life of insecurity and tension, resorting to survivalist strategies. Class
relations become more combustible as income disparities and class differences become
more pronounced. Increasingly more people may choose to become involved in illicit
income generating activities in order to survive. In such instances, the neoliberal policy
environment saps human agency.
An example from Indonesia and Malaysia demonstrate the opposite: that inequality has
been reduced because of government efforts aimed at redistribution and employment
generation since 2000 (UN 2005, p. 17). With a reduction in inequality, human agency is
enhanced. Nevertheless, in reference to South Asia in particular, Kamal Pasha ( 1999, pp.
234–250), argues that the major losers of the results of neoliberal policy reform in the
developing world, has been small scale producers, state workers, agricultural workers, small
farmers, small business entrepreneurs and industrial workers, especially women.
In the context of the pervasive trading and financial arrangements brought on by human
agency can be diminished at various levels. First, agency is diminished internally, through
the relationship with patriarchal nature of political systems, notably the overall economic
subordination and inadequate participation of women in decision-making processes at the
national level. Second, human agency also diminishes through the interplay between
internal and external relations of domination. Internally sapping human agency of women
and other marginalised groups enables to a large extent the perpetuation of the inequitable
trading and financial arrangements, and subsequently the domination of powerful countries'
interests and the perpetuation of aggressive-materialist agency (Randriamaro 2002, p. 10).
Similarly, human beings are increasingly being commodified and traded as sex slaves,
prostitutes or trafficking victims' as globalization has seen an unprecedented growth in the
underground sex industry (Poulin 2004, p. 3). More women and children are made
vulnerable to the already structurally discriminating environment and the hierarchical
relationships that exist between the developed countries and dependent countries and
between men and women. In recent years under the impact of structural adjustment and
neoliberal policies in numerous developing countries as well as in the ex-USSR and Eastern
Europe, poor women and children have become “new raw resources” within the framework
of national and international business development. According to Poulin (2004,p.2)
“globalization has created a market of sexual exchanges in which millions of women and
children have been converted into sexual commodities”. This sex market has been
generated through the massive deployment of prostitution (one of the effects of the presence
of military forces engaged in wars and/or territorial occupation in particular in the emerging
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
economies), the unprecedented expansion of the tourist industry, and the growth and
normalization of pornography (see Box 2). This industry is based on the systematic
violation of human rights, for it requires a market in commodified human beings and the
complicity of pimps and clients who are prepared to buy and sell women and children. It is
only one among many varied instances of the commodification of all of life which is a
defining characterization of current neoliberalism, a pattern which hits at the core of human
agency and robs one of the dignity inherent in each human being on one hand, and
diminishes positive use of agency on the other.
Consumption patterns in Box 1 provide an insight into individual well-being and the
extensiveness of inequality worldwide and further demonstrates the excessiveness of human
agency on the one hand, and the lack of it on the other hand.
Box 1. ‘Undevelopment’ Statistics
(Figures in billions of US dollars)
The estimates of the additional annual cost required to achieve basic social services in all developing
Basic education - $6bn
Water/sanitation - $9bn
Reproductive health for all women - $12bn
Basic health/nutrition - $13bn
Annual amounts spent on certain products in the USA, Europe and Japan:
Cosmetics (USA) - $8bn
Ice cream (Europe)- $11bn
Perfumes (Europe/USA) - $12bn
Pet foods (Europe/USA) - $17bn
Business entertainment (Japan) - $35bn
Cigarettes (Europe) - $50bn
Alcohol drinks (Europe) - $105bn
Narcotics drugs (worldwide) - $400bn/ USA - $185bn
Military spending (USA) -- $288 Billion (for 2000)
Source: UNDP Human Development Reports, 1998-2000; and
Such patterns demonstrate two extremes highlight excessive consumption and
deprivation by identifying who has access to resources to goods and services and who
does not have access to even the most basic of goods and services. Furthermore, Box 1
above, points to excessive materialist accumulation in the developed world that leads to
self-destructive life-styles such chronic addictions, over-eating and alcohol consumption. It
is a form of social pathologies that defy developed country status. Is this what the
developing world should be emulating? Human agency is individualist and dysfunctional
here insofar as enough never seems to be enough and so there is a continuous search for
some other material product that would provide happiness. While accumulation of material
things is no guarantee of happiness, the endless search and consumption of material things
There is danger in an idea or group of ideas amounting to an ideology that seeks to
reduce the value of human lif e to the facilitation and/or provision of materialist
accumulation and not much else. This is aggressive-materialist tendency in the agency
we see in globalization and some of the agents that have most of the decision-making and
financial power over the leading and directing the process of globalization. Another way of
looking at this aggressive-materialist expression of agency is to pay attention to the way it
affects the agency of the poor. For instance, technological advancements in science and
medicine have commodified nature and life forms and thus creating the possibility of
cheating disability and postponing death for those who can afford it. It has created a
‘demand’ for vital body parts that can be bought and sold. There is a rising demand for
kidneys in the global market; this demand is met from those among the poor in India,
Turkey, Romania and the Philippines, who have run out of things to sell: fish are gone,
coconuts are priced too low and the demand for unskilled labour is not as high as that for
kidneys. Poor persons who have surrendered their agency in order to improve a situation
end up being worse off because regular medical attention is required after kidney
transplants which they can ill afford and end up neglecting in order to feed their families
(Coronel and Dixit 2006, p. 15).
This example of conflicting exercise of agencies demonstrates the extent to which the
tentacles of the global economy with its belief in the virtue of markets, and the invasion of
international corporate interests into every aspect of life; distorts the sheer sanctity of
Policies are directed by thought and followed through by action/agency. No action or
idea is fixed unless one wants it that way and makes a decision about it. As an inevitable
force, globalization is promoted as something out there that has no agency when indeed
there is. Actors, whether government officials, chief executive officers (CEOs) of
multinational corporations, or International Financial Institution (IFI) officials are mostly
responsible for the process of globalization but this agency is exceptionally individualistic,
that does not acknowledge that there is more to life than material wealth and individual
pursuit. Grumberg and Khan point out that the main engine of globalization, “technology
and the expansion and integration of markets, it is not a force of nature but the result of
processes driven by human beings” (Cited in UN 2005).
The Western universalism implicit in the neoliberal approach assumes that application of
these policies will amount to economic success in every country which undergoes neoliberal
policy reform. Rooted in neoclassical economics, neoliberal policies assumes that implemen-
tation of privatization, liberalization and deregulation will always guarantee very specific
results regardless of the social and cultural contexts within which they may be subjected to
(Girvan 2000, p. 71). At another level, universalism may be a diplomatic mask which
government officials, IFI officials, statesmen and leading transnational elites of the G7 wear
to disregard the power dimensions involved in the politics of neoliberalism. As such, this
could be argued as aggressive-materialist agency aimed at protecting and maximizing the
profits of a neoliberal project, at the expense of mounting social exclusion of people; and
further limiting more positive expressions of human agency. This issue of social exclusion is
important in understanding the destructive nature of aggressive-materialist behaviour and
how it can deprive persons of agency and overburden others unnecessarily.
These changes in the capitalist world economy have been exercised by the power of
governments and corporations, and far from being inevitable, uncontrollable or positively
integrating, they reflect concrete acts of human agency with specific goals and interests to
defend and uphold. This idea of governments as powerless to the forces of modern
capitalism/globalization serves only to mythologize the workings of the system itself. What
a policy has created another policy can alter. This assertion of inevitability, approaches
development in a very linear fashion, where each period is a culmination of the changes that
preceded it and therefore touted as a very ‘natural’ progression in the order of things
(Weeks 1999). Any prior policy is now deemed anachronistic and irrelevant to the ‘new’
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
times and more advanced stage of society that we are supposed to be living in. And we
must ask advanced for whom? And this leads us to ponder on the classism in such a
materialist approach that is by its very nature, devoid of seeing the history and the
development of human society as cyclical and transformative processes. We would do well
to recall the triumphalist call of imperial dominance of capital over labour in the nineteenth
century, when its ideologues proclaimed the dawning of a new era and that domination
would be eternal. That period ended in a devastating war among various European nations
and the Russian Revolution (Weeks 1999).
Box 2 below provides a snap shot of ‘how well’ the capitalist world economy has
functioned and statistically gives one a glimpse of how the role of human agency could
produce such outcomes.
Box. 2 Poverty Statistics and Facts Across the Globe
• 20% of the population in the developed nations consume 86% of the world’s goods.
• The top fifth of the world's people in the richest countries enjoy 82% of the expanding export trade
and 68% of foreign direct investment -- the bottom fifth, barely more than 1%.
• 1.3 billion people live on less than one dollar a day;
• 3 billion live on under two dollars a day;
• 1.3 billion have no access to clean water;
• 3 billion have no access to sanitation;
• 2 billion have no access to electricity.
• The richest 50 million people in Europe and North America have the same income as 2.7 billion
• The world’s 497 billionaires in 2001 registered a combined wealth of $1.54 trillion, well over the
combined gross national products of all the nations of sub-Saharan Africa ($929.3 billion) or those
of the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and North Africa ($1.34 trillion). It is also greater than
the combined incomes of the poorest half of humanity.
• Direct obstetric deaths account for about 75 per cent of all maternal deaths in developing
• Data shows that at least one in every three woman is a survivor of some form of gender-based
violence, most often by some one in her own family. [1999 Johns Hopkins global report]
• Over 110 million of the world’s children, two thirds of them girls, are not in school.
• Data shows that employment for women vis a vis men is less secure, more likely to be temporary
and is sometimes narrowed to low skilled under paid sectors.
• Data shows that poverty levels are higher among female headed households accompanied by
lower consumption patterns when compared to their male counter parts.
• Estimates of children brought into the sex industry every year: 400,000 children in India;
100,000 children in the Philippines, 200,000 to 300,000 in Thailand; 100,000 in Taiwan; 500,000
children in Latin America, 2.4 million in the USA; 200,000 to 500,000 in China; 500,000 to 2
million in Brazil.
Source: UNDP Human Development Reports, 1998-2001; www.globalissues.org/TradeRelatedfacts.html
UNIFEC gender facts and figures, Progress of the World’s Women 2005; UNICEF, 2003. Child Trafficking
Statistics. New York: UNICEF
While hunger and malnutrition haunts the poor, over nutrition imperils the affluent
demonstrating the commonality of human misery of different types. The scale of human
suffering in an increasingly technologically advanced, well-networked, informed world is
made more disturbing by surmounting contempt for the poor and structural biases against
women (Coronel and Dixit 2006, p. 17). Globalization and neoliberalism, being twin
processes at both ideological and empirical levels, often overlap in terms of policy
prescriptions that dominate the development agenda in this twenty-first century. With its
emphasis on economic growth, it becomes evident that social development is not being
enhanced; rather human dysfunctionality is increasingly more prevalent. The current
international policy environment does not appear to recognise the weaknesses in deviating
away from a socially oriented development model. As long as this environment is
dominated by issues such as free trade, intellectual property rights, financial and capital
liberalisation as well as investment protection, and the role of the state is continually
relegated to the guardian of law and order in the midst of a socially hostile policy
environment, there is great risk. A range of possibilities for resisting these changes exist
and not all positive. This may take the form of social implosion or social explosion with
increasing use of force as a method of solving problems. The implosion or explosion may
be acted out against the state, whether directly or indirectly through sabotage. Alternatively,
possibilities exist for the opening up of spaces for dialogue and transformative change. It
will remain a risk as long as the neoliberal response to resistance to globalization is
dismissive of inequalities and clamps down on law, order and civil liberties as an
expression of power and control of the status quo. This dismissive approach toward
humanity harbours resentment and promotes the resort to desperate measures and may not
be sustainable or positive for any one. Human agency therefore, is expressed through the
interactions which are fundamentally constructed through social and cultural structures and
power relations; each comes with their own position, and is implicated by patterns of power
predicated on structures of global injustice.
Heilbroner (1985, p. 46) argues, that the nature of capitalism will always rest on
considerations of power especially where the possibility of wealth maximization resides,
there will always be a drive to accumulate more. He argues that “the additional stimulus
given to the drive for wealth by its generalization as capital does not supplant its
unconscious meanings of personal pre-eminence and social domination but sharpens and
intensifies its energies that must be devoted to its protection and to its accumulation”
(Heilbroner 1985, p. 58). In this regard, is it pointless to question the use of this kind of
agency which at its base is greed, especially if it entails a structural inequality of life
conditions? Is it sustainable?
There is a need for the actors, who lead the process of globalization, to recognise and
accept responsibility for their dysfunctional acts of agency. The blind transposition of
economic, political and cultural structures harms people and affects their own agential
capacity to chart their life course. When global actors exercise this kind of dysfunctional
agency, be they the analysts at the World Bank and the IMF, officials of the WTO, CEOs of
transnational corporations, trade and finance ministers at summits, make decisions to
compel a nation to adopt Western economic systems and practices they should bear the
responsibility of the outcome of those decisions. More so, high-ranking officials and
advisers of the developing world need to question their own agency in agreeing to policies
that exacerbating their countries' impoverishment; and their role in limiting the agency of
their own populations.
The rhetoric of inevitability and the promise of profit if we leave the market to work its
magical wonders, allows proponents to push aside the ethical responsibility for the
consequences. The agency is misplaced and driven by greed; indeed the agency is not very
humane. What it also indicates is the extent to which the West dominates and leads the
process of globalization, the individualism which stands at their cultural core, which marks
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
their manifestation of human agency, works to the detriment of the developing world. It
also points to the possibility of excessive dependency on the part of the developing world,
and their acts of agency, in certain quarters, where political elites may have the power to do
otherwise. While it may be dependency, insofar as, political elites of developing countries
cannot foresee any other way of relating to the developed world, we also have to consider
greed and the financial benefits that may accrue to politico–economic elites if they sustain
the status quo. This agency is distorted and ambivalent, for at the same time, we may also
hear cries from some political elites of the developing world of unequal trade relations, and
the wretchedness of globalization, and where many of their elites are not really interested in
affecting, for the better, the relations of inequality and exploitation internally.
The complexity of exercising human agency also reflects the extent which, regardless
the problems of capitalism, many have bought into it as a model. The controlling elites of
this process of gl obal capitalist development become more and more exploitative,
constantly trying to find people (read: markets and untapped or ‘undertapped’ regions of
the world). There is a lack of compassion in the model. Instead of using this as an
opportunity to improve the social aspects of capitalism, the agency is being directed to
deepen inequalities and relations of domination and exploitation. The dysfunctional forms
of how human agency is manifested demonstrate a problem of dealing with the real reality,
rather than the ideological one. The willingness of those who adhere to the model to more
aggressively seek ways in which to discard life when it is not related to the business of
accumulating capital demonstrates the urgency of addressing this absence of spiritual base
for living and an absence of universal love for the diversity and value of human life in the
capitalist model of development.
The raison d'etre of capitalism is purported to be profit generation and maximization. It
is the continuous generation of profits that promotes this euphoric atmosphere often found
in neoliberal dogma. From this perspective, there is no other way and is evidence that the
regime is fulfilling its mission—namely to organize the world according to the principles
and ends for which it exists. Heilbroner (1985, p. 76) succinctly gives the reminder that
“profits are for capitalism the functional equivalent of the acquisition of territory or plunder
for military regimes, or an increase in the number of believers for religious ones....” Thus
while capitalism still functions as an economic system; albeit it's exploitative tendencies, it
would be difficult to envision a radical overturning as possible or even practical. The model
has been accepted by the exploiters and well as the exploited. But disgruntling will be there
because of the absences of social justice, equity and compassion in the model, which, at the
level of human development, are basic requirements; one has to have a love for humanity in
order to develop it. This is the dilemma that needs to be addressed in capitalism at socio–
economic, epistemological and political levels. We will have to reconsider the way in which
human agency is exercised, while recognising the complexity of it.
We have to not only look at the outcomes of exercising human agency but also what
produced the outcomes both internally and externally and the relationship between the two.
Acting out agency is an independent act driven by decision-making capacities. Therefore,
while the current international trade and financial system as adopted in most countries is
severely limited in terms of opening up new policy spaces, policies are not fixed in stone.
Girvan (2000, p. 84) suggests that universalistic neoliberal policies need to be replaced with
policies that respect economic and cultural diversity as well as creating policies that seek to
reduce social exclusion, marginalization and poverty. We therefore, have to question the
ideological framework that gives power to globalisation as a model of development, and
weakens and distorts the positive potentiality of human agency. In other words, one has to
deconstruct the epistemological conditions that made neoliberalism possible and offer
alternatives outside of mainstream thinking. Efforts offered by the World Social Forum and
the “What Next Project” by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation are cases in point, where
alternative proposals to the hegemonic model of globalization are put forward; and these
emphasize equity, social justice structural transformation, self-reliant economic participa-
tion and ecological sustainability.
Invariably an alternative policy environment has to not only question neoliberalism and
its rules and terms of engagement, but it also has to deemphasize economic growth and
embrace social policies that improve the agential capacity of human beings. Further more,
such alternatives has to envision possibilities; ones that seek to make structural
transformation of political and economic arrangements within and among states that are
more equitable in nature; and most importantly has the political will to move from
alternative ideas on development to implementation and social practice. Four core
principles to guide policies and programmes for an alternative development are suggested
1. Agential capacity—enhancing basic agential capacity as measured by education, health
and nutrition. These capabilities are fundamental to human well-being and are the
means through which individuals access other forms of well-being.
2. Access to resources and opportunities—enhancing equality and equity in the
opportunity to use or apply basic capabilities through economic assets (e.g. land and/
or housi ng) and resources (e.g. income and employment) as well as political
opportunity (representation in parliament etc.). Without these opportunities, both
political and economic, neither women nor men will be able to employ their
capabilities for their well-being and that of their families.
3. Human security—that is, freedom from violence and the threat of violence and conflict.
Violence and conflict result in physical and psychological harm and lessen the ability
of individuals, households and communities to fulfill their potential.
4. Rights facilitation—enhancing a basic legislative/judicial and programmatic framework
that facilitates the granting of human rights as outlined by the United Nations
Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Beijing
Plan of Action, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women; and guided by other rights-based approaches, among others.
A policy or group of policies can be changed, if a country or group of countries want to
alter the way in which their society addresses this technological era of capitalist
development. It is clear that a new paradigm for development is necessary, one that aims
to satisfy or facilitate basic human needs on the basis of independence, intergenerational
equity, environmental sustainability, rights facilitation and adequate access to health,
education and living conditions—the very things that facilitate the positive expression of
human agency. It is not so clear how the transition will occur whether from people
participating in social movements or from people within governments, or even a variety of
combinations. The very nature of how new paradigms emerge for development
transformation is structural, complex and tense as it speaks to the heart of interactions
between people and nations and the social relations of power within and the way in which
For information on the World Social Forum, see http://wsf2007.org/process/wsf-charter. See also What Next
volume 1: Setting the Context, Development Dialogue, no. 47, June 2006.
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency
human agency is exercised. However, what is clear is that the neoliberalism and
globalization as a model of development is unsustainable. So when “the centre” may no
longer hold, the question is what will “the periphery” do?
Addo, H. (1984). Approaching the new international economic order dialectically and transformationally. In
H. Addo (Ed.) Transforming the world economy. London: Hodder & Stoughton in association with the
United Nations University.
Amin, S. (2001). Imperialism and globalization. Monthly Review, 53(2), 19–27.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Bandura, A. (2000). Growing primacy of human agency in adaptation and change in the electronic era.
Keynote Address at the Conference, “New Media in the Development of the Mind”. Naples, Italy,
Bessis, S. (2001). Western supremacy: The triumph of an idea? London: Zed Books.
Bourdieu, P. (1998). Utopia of endless exploitation: The essence of neoliberalism. Le Monde Diplomatique,
Coronel, S., & Dixit, K. (2006). Setting the context: The development debate thirty years after what now.
Development Dialogue What Next, 1(47), 13–27 June.
Girvan, N. (2000). Globalisation and counter-globalisation: The Caribbean in the context of the South. In D.
Benn, & K. Hall (Eds.) Globalisation: A calculus of inequality. Kingston: Ian Randle.
Heilbroner, R. L. (1985). The nature and logic of capitalism. New York: WW Norton.
Hernandez, M., & Iyengar, S. S. (2001). What drives whom? A cultural perspective on human agency. Social
Cognition, 19(3), 269–294.
Kamal Pasha, M. (1999).). Liberalization, globalization and inequality in South Asia. In F. Adams, S. Dev
Gupta, & K. Mengisteab (Eds.) Globalization and dilemmas of the State in the South. New York: St
McChesney, R. (2001). Global media, neoliberalism and imperialism. Monthly Review, 53(3), http://www.
Mengisteab, K. (1999). Globalization and South Africa's transition through a consociational arrangement. In
F. Adams, S. Dev Gupta, & K. Mengisteab (Eds.) Globalization and dilemmas of the State in the South.
New York: St Martin's.
Pérez Lara, A. (1999). Los Nuevos actors sociales en América Latina: ¿Sujetos del Cambio? In GALFISA
(Ed.) Las Trampas de la Globalización: Paradigmas Emancipatorios y Nuevos Escenarios en América
Latina. Havana: Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial José Martí.
Petras, J., & Veltmeyer, H. (2001). Globalization unmasked: Imperialism in the 21
century. London and
Halifax: Zed Books and Femwood.
Poulin, R. (2004). Globalization and the sex trade: Trafficking and the commodification of women and
Randriamaro, Z. (2002). Gender, neoliberalism and the African State. Paper prepared for the ILRIG
Globalisation School 2002, Cape Town, South Africa, 30 September–4 October.
Rist, G. (2006). Before thinking about what next: Prerequisites for alternatives. Development Dialogue What
Next, 1(47), 65–95 June.
Said, E. (1993). Culture and imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.
Sypnowich, C. (2001). Law and ideology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/
UN (2005). Report on the world social situation. New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and
Wallerstein, I. (1999). Globalization or the age of transition? www.binghamton.edu/fbc.papers.htm.
Wallerstein, I. (2000). The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system, the essential Wallerstein.
New York: New Press.
Watson, H. A. (2000). Global imperialism, the third technological revolution and global 2000: A perspective
on issues affecting the Caribbean on the eve of the twenty-first century. In K. Hall, & D. Benn (Eds.)
Contending with destiny. Kingston: Ian Randle.
Weeks, J. (1999). The essence and appearance of globalization: The rise of finance capital. In F. Adams, S.
Dev Gupta, & K. Mengisteab (Eds.) Globalization and dilemmas of the State in the South. New York: St
Wilkin, P. (1996). New myths for the South: Globalization and the conflict between private power and
freedom. Third World Quarterly, 17(2), 227–238 June.
World Bank (1999). World Development Report 1999/2000. New York: Oxford University Press for the
Taitu Heron is currently Manager of the Social Development and Gender Unit at the Planning Institute of
Jamaica. She formerly lectured in international political economy, gender and political philosophy at the
University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus. She has written several articles on international relations,
the epistemology of development and gender relations in the Caribbean. The perspectives expressed here, do
not necessarily reflect those of the Planning Institute of Jamaica.
Globalization, Neoliberalism and the Exercise of Human Agency