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A Note on Du Boff and Herman

Ellen Meiksins Wood is co-editor of Monthly Review.

I’m taking the liberty of appending this note because, though Du Boff and Herman’s article is directed mainly at Bill Tabb, it refers to some of the things I’ve written about globalization.

Recently, I got a letter from Bill Doyle, who wrote, “After reading Ed Herman’s comments in Z (magazine), I re-read your article and couldn’t see why Ed was so exercised. I’d be interested to know if you see a substantial difference between the two of you, and, if so, what it is.” Here, with some minor changes and additions, is what I wrote back:

I have to admit that I’ve been having the same problem myself understanding why [Ed Herman] is so worked up about my comments on globalization. It seems—or seemed—to me that there is so much common ground between us, and even our differences aren’t (or so I thought) of the kind that should generate this kind of indignation. But he and Dick Du Boff have just submitted an article to MR replying to a recent piece by Bill Tabb, with some side-swipes at me, and now that I’ve read it I begin to understand at least part of the problem.

Their main disagreement with me has to do with the state. First, though, here’s what I think we have in common on that score—which is substantial: we agree, as I understand it, that the state in today’s global capitalism still has a major role to play in advancing the interests of capital. I’m not even sure they disagree with my argument that the state has in some respects become more, not less, important to capital. So we seem to be joined in our opposition to the conventional assumption that globalization by definition means an increasingly irrelevant nation-state. So what’s the problem?

Well, it seems to come down to this: for Herman and Du Boff, the (increasing?) role of the state in support of capital testifies to the limits of state power in relation to capital, or, more specifically, the limits on the power of anti-capitalist forces. They castigate me (and Bill Tabb) for failing to acknowledge the “adverse effects of globalization on politics.” We even, they maintain, have an almost Panglossian view of state power. We seem to think that “If the United States has made a ‘political choice’ to encourage the race to the bottom for its working class, it can choose to do otherwise.” It’s just a question of political will. They suggest, with some contempt, that our political message is simply “Let’s just do it!” But, they say, while the state may be technically capable of regulating and controlling capital (it always has been), globalization has limited its political capacity to do so.

But isn’t there something odd about their argument? Starting with the same premises, you could come to just the opposite conclusion. I do so myself, and not at all because I focus on the purely technical capacities of the state at the expense of the economic and political context in which it has to operate. On the contrary, it’s because I think globalization (or some of the trends that go under that name, often with a lot of misleading baggage, some of which Herman and Du Boff themselves disclaim) is creating new economic and political conditions which make anti-capitalist struggle not less but more possible and potentially effective.

I talk about some of these things in this year’s summer issue (vol. 49 no. 3), so I’ll just say this much here: globalization implies, among other things, those ruthless state actions we associate with neo-liberalism, policies designed to enhance “competitiveness” and “flexibility,” not just for individual firms but for whole national economies, in the global market. Those policies are there not just because capital wants them but because it needs them to guarantee maximum profitablity in an integrated and competitive global economy. Even the World Bank in its latest World Development report, The State in a Changing World, insists on the importance of an “effective” state, which, “harnessing the energy of private business and individuals…acts as their partner and catalyst, instead of restricting their partnership.” We know all too well what that “partnership” means.

Such ruthless actions by the state in partnership with capital certainly reflect an adverse distribution of power between capital and labor. But I’d like to know, first, when was this golden age that wasn’t marked by an “adverse” relation between capital and labor, and when the state didn’t act above all in the interests of the dominant class? I thought that was the whole point of capitalism—and indeed any kind of class exploitation. And “globalization” is surely more a result than a cause of those adverse class relations. But, in any case, hasn’t the issue for socialists always been how to change the distribution of class power? Isn’t that, after all, what class struggle is all about?

Of course, capital gains advantage over labor by holding out the threat of moving elsewhere. I don’t deny this reality. And while I don’t think Du Boff and Herman adequately deal with the question of how much of this threat is reality and how much is saber rattling which derives much of its credibility from the nearly hegemonic ideology of “globalization,” that’s not my main point. My main point is that, however adverse the balance of class forces may be, globalization is laying the foundation for a different reality.

Globalization, precisely because it implies capital’s dependence on the state to sustain competitiveness, represents new vulnerabilities in capital and new possibilities for organization and struggle against it. The more capital depends on the state for its own reproduction, the more susceptible it is to frontal attack and the more it presents a concentrated target for oppositional forces. And by offering this concentrated target, it enhances the possibility of overcoming the hitherto intractable fragmentation of anti-capitalist forces and of the working class in particular. It’s not an accident that we’ve been seeing so many protests in the streets of so many countries which have in common the actions of their respective states in pursuit of “globalization.”

I’m not suggesting there’s an easy option. I do think that (as Sam Gindin argues in the summer issue, and as I suggested in the conclusion to my book, Democracy Against Capitalism) globalization is polarizing the options and eliminating much of the apparently easier middle ground between just giving in to the harshest forms of capitalism and confronting it head-on. As Gindin points out, the real casualty here is not the socialist project but the social democratic one. It’s in that sense that I accept globalization’s “adverse effects on politics.” But this also implies that the possibility of a truly anti-capitalist option is growing, not diminishing.

As for Du Boff and Herman’s “Let’s just do it!,” this seems a wilfull misunderstanding of what I (and I dare say, Bill Tabb) have in mind. Of course “we” can’t “just do it.” For one thing, “we” don’t control the state. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s where the struggle comes in, isn’t it? The point is that political power in the right hands, a truly democratic political power, could make a big difference—which obviously wouldn’t be true if the state and control of it had been made irrelevant by globalization.

So contrary to all those on the left who have given up on class politics (or, for that matter, on class organization and struggle of any kind, at any level—and if Du Boff and Herman haven’t encountered people like this, they must lead very sheltered lives!), and contrary to all those who think that the state is irrelevant, I’m suggesting that political organization of the working class is now more important and potentially effective than ever. But we have to stop thinking about the state as simply an instrument for “intervening” in the capitalist economy or providing a “safety net” against the ravages of capitalism. It’s time to start thinking about how democratic political power can be an alternative to capitalism, a means of detaching material life from the logic of capital accumulation and market imperatives.

1997, Volume 49, Issue 06 (November)
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