History, as if to warn us continuously against any tendency toward complacency, is full of ironies. As recently as a few months ago, the close of the twentieth century had come to be associated, in the prevailing view of the vested interests, with “endism”: the end of class struggle, the end of revolution, the end of imperialism, the end of dissent—even the end of history. The new century and new millennium were supposed to symbolize that all of this had been left behind and that we could look forward to a new era of infinite progress based on the New Economy of the information age, which would usher in a gentler, kinder, virtual capitalism. The main worry was a technical glitch known as Y2K. Would computers across the world malfunction on January 1, 2000?
Hence, the powers that be could not have been more surprised when, at the end of November 1999, massive protests involving seven hundred organizations and upwards of forty thousand people—workers, environmentalists, students, religious groups, etc.—suddenly brought the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle to a halt, grabbing not only the nation’s but the entire world’s spotlight. There had been large militant protests against globalization before—against the WTO and its sister institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. What was startling this time around, though, was that such massive, militant protests took place in the United States, the stronghold of global capitalism. For most people in the world, the Seattle protests—and, even more, the unleashing of forces of repression which broadcasted an image of “fortress America”—demonstrated what had perhaps been long-forgotten: that there are forces of resistance and international solidarity in the United States. The protests exposed as a lie the carefully cultivated, widely projected image of the United States as a hegemonic power lacking internal social contradictions. Hope suddenly dawned of a new internationalism—the struggle for an alternative future—emerging along with the new millennium. Suddenly, the question heroically raised only a year ago by Daniel Singer’s book, Whose Millennium?: Theirs or Ours?, seemed to have leaped from his book to the pages of history itself.
Seattle itself is now old news. But in subsequent months, the rays of hope that it helped to bring into being have not died away; they have only increased, along with what appears to be a rapidly growing movement. The first months of 2000 have seen impressive demonstrations on university and college campuses across the country, as students have protested against university licensing agreements with corporations such as Nike, Reebok, the Gap, and Disney that rely on sweatshop labor located in the third world to produce their products. In Washington, DC, in April, mass protests against the IMF and the World Bank required extraordinary procedures to keep these global institutions of capital working.
One of the most important developments in this period of growing rebellion has been the partial revival of the labor movement that is finally showing signs of attempting to chart a new course. The fact that the AFL-CIO took a central role in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle is a concrete indication of this. The focus on organizing initiated by the New Voices leadership has renewed hope that organized labor is at last rising phoenix-like from its ashes and that the long decline in membership will be reversed. The AFL-CIO has also backed away from continuing a history of Cold-War labor alliances, opening the way to a broader labor internationalism—a shift that first appeared as a result of the anti-NAFTA struggle. The emergence of a labor-popular movement alliance, of a kind and a scale not seen since the 1930s, now seems possible.
What makes this new era of protest so distinctive is that it is aimed not so much at the state (as in the sixties) but at global corporations and international economic institutions, and thus raises fundamental issues about class power and international solidarity with third-world workers. It also demonstrates the capacity of labor, environmentalist, and other left forces to act in tandem when confronted by the commonly perceived threat of a globalizing economy. Many—if still far from a majority—of those engaged in the struggle in the United States have extended their criticisms of corporate globalization to a critique of global capitalism in general.
But the obstacles to a successful challenge to neoliberal globalization are enormous. Perhaps the biggest such obstacle is the ideological hegemony exerted by the capitalist order, which attempts to channel such mass revolts into largely meaningless efforts to reform particular institutional arrangements while the underlying structure of power remains unquestioned. Here we are immediately faced by the reality that much—in the United States, most—of this new wave of protest, insofar as it takes an articulated form, is directed at corporate globalization rather than global capitalism. A great deal of the confusion surrounding the concept of “globalization”—especially when regarded as the key concept for understanding contemporary trends—stems from the fact that it is often seen as a reality that has displaced capitalism, the nation-state, imperialism, and class struggle. In this sense, it becomes a grand, all-encompassing, culturally defined ideal-type. For establishment pundits like New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), globalization is a new technological-economic system based in the microchip and ruled by an “electronic herd” of financial investors and multinational corporations, sweeping away everything that came before.
Naturally, critics of globalization reject this narrow, technologically determined view that declares all resistance futile. Nevertheless, uncritical acceptance of the notion that globalization as an entity in itself is somehow the underlying force now transforming the world is appearing everywhere, even on the left. This idea carries with it certain built-in assumptions: (1) there is no alternative to the present world economic order—or, in other words, capitalism itself (as distinguished from globalization) is no longer in question, and socialism no longer a possibility; (2) the global economic landscape is a constellation formed primarily by multinational corporations, international finance, and a few international economic institutions such as the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank; (3) the only real oppositional force is a collection of nongovernmental organizations that represent “global civil society;” and (4) the goal is to reverse neoliberal policy and make corporations and the key international economic institutions more democratic and responsive to human rights. Sometimes we also hear, in a radical mirror-image of the Thomas Friedman argument, that the change that has occurred with the rise of the microchip and the consequent globalization is the creation of a new international of capital. In this view, not only is the nation-state thought to have been displaced economically, but national struggle is considered largely ineffective.
Confusion about the basic workings of imperialism is a crucial ideological obstacle to internationalism today. The period of neoliberal economic restructuring in response to decades of stagnation has undermined the living conditions of workers everywhere and has provided the objective basis for a renewal of internationalism. Workers are faced with a greater necessity and, at the same time, a greater possibility of building international solidarity than at any time since the Second World War. Yet the idea of globalization has often been promoted in such a way that the suggestion is that what has changed is the fact that third-world economies and populations are gaining at the expense of workers in the United States and other rich countries, as U.S. plants are shifted to the third world. Rather than promoting genuine international solidarity, this frequently leads to debilitating forms of economic nationalism. If around half of the U.S. population, as a series of recent polls have revealed, are currently critical of globalization and the WTO (suggesting that an antiglobalization politics has a vast constituency to draw upon), there are reasons to be cautious about what this means. Many of those who have adopted this position have done so on the basis of a strong nationalist viewpoint, which obscures the realities of imperialism—even more so in fact now that globalization (not capitalism) has become the main area of concern.
Viewed in this context, the AFL-CIO’s decision to hold a rally in Washington, DC, against most-favored-nation status for China, and to demand that China not be admitted to the WTO—only a few days before the April 16th and 17th protests in Washington against the IMF and the World Bank—symbolized a tendency to exploit sentiments of economic nationalism, fear of imperialism in reverse, and even the xenophobia of many workers. To be sure, this stance is being taken in the name of workers’ rights and human rights (although outside of any strong alliance with Chinese workers). But it has also served as a powerful diversion—since labor chose to put its weight on the side of the anti-China lobby, joining with the Republican Right in denying most-favored-nation and WTO status to China, rather than getting solidly behind the anti-IMF and anti-World Bank protests.
Organized labor in the United States today remains wedded to the Democratic Party, and hence to one wing of the business party, as the AFL-CIO’s early support of Gore indicates. Its overall structure and emphasis is still one of business unionism. It has not yet attempted to transform itself into a political or social movement. Nevertheless, objective forces seem to be pushing labor toward a new radicalism, and radical, rank-and-file labor activists are clearly in motion. More than any time in the post-Second World War period, a genuine internationalism is rapidly making gains within labor’s ranks. It is these internal battles within labor—between business unionism and democratic unionism, between economic nationalism and internationalism—that will largely determine the future of U.S. labor: both the effectiveness of the U.S. workers in the class struggle nationally and in the larger internationalist struggle of workers against global capital.
Globalization and Crisis
The prospects for the reemergence of radical struggle depend ultimately on the larger evolution of the world capitalist economy. We therefore need to analyze the laws of motion of capitalism in our time—in ways that neither succumb to the dominant view that changes in the scale and workings of the system have eliminated the possibility of fundamental change, nor deny the existence of new constraints on our action. Above all two issues have to be addressed: globalization and the prospects for a new internationalism.
Capitalism has always been a globalizing system. As Marx and Engels pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, it has a tendency to penetrate every nook and cranny of the globe. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, world trade and capital flows as a proportion of world production and savings, respectively, were on a scale comparable to today. What intervened to break those international economic linkages was the Age of Crisis, represented by the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. It is only in the last few decades that global trade and capital flows—as a share of world production and savings, respectively—have again risen to the scale preceding the First World War. One thing that this ought to tell us is that there is a relation of globalization of economic activity to the globalization of crisis. Increased transnational economic activity does not mean that the laws of motion of the system have been dispensed with and that capitalism has transcended its contradictions. Rather, it reveals that the more globalized the system, the greater the danger of global waves of crisis.
This was illustrated quite dramatically as recently as July 1997. In that month, two influential periodicals in the United States raised the question of the end of the business cycle and the unleashing of a process of almost infinite economic expansion rooted in the information technology revolution. One of these periodicals was Foreign Affairs, the leading journal of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which published an article entitled “The End of the Business Cycle?” The answer given in the article was that the question mark needed to be dropped—“globalization of production and consumption have reduced the volatility of economic activity in the industrialized world.” The other journal was Wired, a periodical which has come to symbolize the heady optimism of the information revolution and the so-called “New Economy.” Here, in an article that read like advertising copy, readers were exposed to a wildly enthusiastic discussion of “The Long Boom: A History of the Future” that gloried in the “transition to a networked economy and a global society”—one which would produce steadily rising world economic growth rates.
Yet, one of history’s numerous ironies intervened at this point. On July 2, 1997, only two days into the very month in which these articles declaring the business cycle to be over were published, Thailand devalued the baht, commencing what came to be known as the “hot phase” of the Asian economic crisis, which spread rapidly from country to country and shook the entire capitalist world economy. Suddenly, globalization seemed to stand not so much for a new stable world order but for the globalization of capitalist crises on a world scale not seen since the Great Depression.
Each of the major assumptions of globalization as a process of rationalization of world capitalism were immediately called into question—as if a veil had suddenly been stripped away from the system. The idea that all countries were essentially in the same boat and that imperialism no longer existed was contradicted by the speed with which capital based in the core countries proceeded to take advantage of the “fire sale” in Southeast Asia to grab assets. The inability of nations to intervene in a globalizing world economy was called into question by Malaysia’s decision to impose capital controls—without the predicted disaster following. The end of class struggle and the weakness of labor in the face of globalization pressures was refuted by the mass uprising of Korean workers in defiance of the IMF. The image of a smooth globalizing process that would end in a rational treatment of global environmental problems was symbolically undermined as Indonesia’s forests burst into flames at a speed that matched its economic crisis. The fantasy that globalization is a process controlled by a handful of corporations, international institutions and Friedman’s “electronic herd” was dispelled by the systematic nature of crisis of accumulation and the vast range of financial speculation, revealed as economic distress spread around the world—from Southeast Asia to Japan, Russia, and Brazil. Above all, neoliberalism—the idea that everything should be left to the self-regulating market—was shown to be not simply a form of instrumental rationality directed at shared goals, but an ideology of those in power.
At present, the world economic crisis, centered in Asia, has abated, “but not before,” as Fortune magazine (May 15, 2000) put it, “millions were reduced to the poverty many of them had so recently escaped.” The world power-structure, so visibly shaken by the Asian crisis as recently as two years ago, has now by all appearances largely forgotten it. Yet, even a mainstream commentator like economist Paul Krugman reminds us in his The Return of Depression Economics that the underlying problems generating instability have not gone away, and that we may be simply waiting for the third act of a three-act play: the first in Mexico in 1995, the second in Asia in 1997 and 1998, and the third yet to occur.
Perhaps this third act has already begun. For the real third act in these events may not be an economic one (which is surely to come) but a resurgence of social revolt. The tarnished image of globalization arising from these world outbreaks of crisis and the militant responses that this has engendered among populations throughout the globe—from Korean workers to Mexican students to anti-WTO protesters in the United States—demonstrate that neither are forces of production all-powerful nor social relations in complete abeyance. This can be contrasted to the view of Perry Anderson, writing in the January–February 2000 issue of New Left Review, who states that “the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its [capital’s] equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself—the forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when the socialist movement was still alive.” For Anderson, revolutionary social relations are no more. The productive forces of capital reign supreme. But this is too defeatist. We do not know what may result from this new, increasingly internationalist phase of struggle but the fact that such struggles are occurring, and are increasingly directed at the system itself, tells us that millions of people worldwide are stirring.
Those on the left who have abandoned all hope in social relations or who, in desperation, have turned to the idea that only global (no longer national) struggle is now possible and that we have to think and act in cosmopolitan terms—as a “global civil society”—are simply the dialectical twins of those who preach that globalization has ended all possibility of change. What has really disappeared is the kind of middle-ground, mixed economy often lauded in the Cold-War years. Social democratic and Keynesian strategies, supposedly the result of a class accord, are no longer viable under today’s global neoliberalism. But all of this merely points to the need for a much more radical, universal, internationalist strategy, rooted in national realities and struggles as the only way forward for the movement.
If this is the case, then a host of organizational and strategic issues have to be engaged directly—which is the purpose of this special issue, where we address some of the following topics: Peter Marcuse questions the term “globalization” itself, pointing to the ideological baggage associated with the most common conceptions of the word. Bill Tabb asks, “What is the nature of the present movement against globalization?” Martin Hart-Landsberg and Patrick Bond explore what new strategies this movement might adopt. David Bacon, Khalil Hassan, and Michael Yates pose the question, “How is the labor movement to break out of its old Cold-War stagnation and generate a more radical and internationalist phase of struggle appropriate to the neoliberal era?” Elizabeth Martinez and Fidel Castro discuss the ways in which we can cross divides formed by the color line and imperialism, and John Foster wonders, “What is the historical legacy of internationalism that we can turn to?”
The greatest danger under these circumstances is to believe that these organizational and strategic issues are beyond reach, that nothing will or can happen, that there is no alternative. Here we encounter another of history’s ironic wake-up calls. In the aftermath of the anti-WTO protests, and even more so following the protests against the IMF and the World Bank in April, the mainstream press sought to mock the efforts of the growing grassroots movement, which was caricatured as consisting mainly of untutored youth and “flat-earth advocates” of no particular significance. Such views could be seen in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and Time, together with the various network broadcasting outlets. The antiglobalization movement is portrayed as a movement without a history or a future, irrelevant to the future course of events—merely an irritant, or a temporary roadblock at best.
Yet, the more astute Fortune (May 15, 2000) recognized that support for these protests is very broad—so broad that even elements of the establishment are echoing some of the sentiments expressed, in an attempt to get ahead of the parade and redirect it. “The movement appears to have legs. The world’s financial and corporate elites would do well to listen up,” the magazine opined. For Fortune, it is clear that the direction of globalization, if not capitalist globalization itself, is at stake: “New technologies will continue to make the world a smaller place no matter what, but economic integration is still very much driven by discrete political decisions. ‘The rules are not predetermined,’ says Harvard economist Dani Rodrik. ‘Globalization is not something that’s just falling into our laps from another planet.’”
If Fortune has thus articulated the fears of capital when faced with this growing movement, our role is to articulate the hopes of the larger population—of all those who seek a more humane, democratic, and egalitarian future. But more than mere hope is called for. On the left, much will depend on our analysis and organization. It is to these ends that this special issue of MR is dedicated.
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