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Social Justice and Globalization: Are they Compatible?

This article is adapted from the 2002 Phyllis Clarke Lecture at Ryerson College in Toronto, Ontario. Phyllis Clarke was a Communist and a feminist who taught at Ryerson and was honored for her commitment to social justice, her life-long courage, and her support for, and ability to inspire, a generation of activists. Her father, J. L. Cohen, was the legal advisor to the United Auto Workers in the historic strike against General Motors, at Oshawa, Ontario in 1937.

Sam Gindin holds the Packer Chair in Social Science, Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto. He was, for many years, Director of Research and Assistant to the President of the Canadian Auto Workers.

In a speech in 1999, Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford, candidly remarked that “globalization” is another term for U.S. domination.1 Such clarity tends, in itself, to negatively answer the question posed in the title of this talk. How can anyone argue that U.S. domination—or using the less polite term, “U.S. imperialism”—is compatible with social justice?

Similarly, if we agree that a minimum precondition for any notion of social justice is the extension of people’s democratic ability to shape their lives, that too might reinforce skepticism about globalization’s compatibility with social justice. Especially if we see globalization as being largely about establishing global rules that act as a constitution for investor rights, and which are beyond any parliamentary challenges. And if we went further and defined a socially just world as one that supported the full and mutual development of the potential capacities of every individual, I imagine that many—if not most of us—would judge globalization to be inconsistent with that ideal.

And yet things refuse to stay that simple or clear. Even if Kissinger has helped us see the obvious, aren’t many countries, and citizens of those countries, anxious for U.S. investment? Isn’t it true that the Canadian government, far from being forced into the free trade agreement, begged for that integration into the United States? Is China wrong when it argues that access to U.s. markets, technology, and capital will facilitate its development and that such development is a critical base for social justice? Would we disagree with the World Bank when it argues that countries that have either rejected globalization, or are now being ignored by globalization, do not seem better off for that fact?

Part of the confusion lies in ambiguities about what we mean by globalization and how we think about social justice. But it is more than that: it is also that our sense of social justice is affected by what we believe is possible. In the absence of alternatives to the U.S. Empire, and in the absence of the political capacity to put such alternatives on the agenda, our dreams are trimmed to fit the bed of “reality.” Social justice is made compatible with globalization, not by transforming society, but by shrinking our ideals.

This limiting of hope was perhaps the main measure of the world-wide defeat of the last generation. In spite of the inspiration of Seattle and its aftermath, that sense of defeat is still pervasive. Social justice demands reviving the determination to dream. Its not just that dreaming is essential for maintaining any resistance, but because today, if we do not think big—as big as the globalizers themselves think—we will not even win small.

It’s from this perspective that I’d like to consider, and draw some conclusions from, two apparently opposite alternatives that try to find some compatibility between globalization and social justice: one seeks a return to the social democracy of capitalism’s “golden age,” while the other emphasizes building a community-based “social economy.” But first, a brief historical point on globalization.

Globalization is not new. A century and a half ago, Karl Marx noted the inherent capitalist drive to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.…In place of the old national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, the universal interdependence of nations.”2 By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, globalization was an assumed fact of life:

world commodity prices were the central reality in the lives of millions of Continental [European] peasants; the repercussions of the London market were daily noted by business men all over the world; and governments discussed plans for the future in light of the situation on the world capital markets. Only a madman would have doubted that the international economic system was the axis of the material existence of the human race.3

But if globalization was integral to capitalism, its long-term stability was far from inevitable. In fact, the very globalization which “only a madman might have doubted” at the end of the nineteenth century, came to a sudden and crashing halt early in the twentieth. That breakdown in world order came with the horrifying slaughter of the First World War, followed—after a brief respite in the 1920’s—by the stunning collapse of national economies in the form of the Great Depression and the political rise of German, Italian, and Japanese Fascism. And then came another horrific world war. This catastrophic failure of capitalism’s globalization meant that, by the end of the Second World War, the former glory of this system was replaced, as one observer summarized it, by “…the amazing unpopularity of capitalism everywhere in Europe.…[and] everyone sought to appropriate left credentials.”4

It was in response to that earlier failure that a new globalization was reconstructed. The U.S. state, with its overwhelming postwar resources and power, consciously shaped that globalization. It didn’t follow market pressures, but led them. Determined to avoid the disaster of the previous era of globalization and its threat to capitalism itself, the U.S. state set out to minimize the opposition between national and international economies. The goal was to rebuild devastated national economies while also integrating them into global networks. The U.S.-led internationalization of economic, political, and military ties didn’t weaken national states but, by supporting growth and weakening domestic opposition, it actually strengthened the national status quo and the national state.

Those first postwar decades managed to combine a less aggressive globalization, a space for national autonomy, and states responsive to popular pressures—factors which, together, brought growing material prosperity and a measure of equality. It’s therefore not surprising that some are still hanging on to a return to the structures of that earlier period as a practical response to making globalization more compatible with social justice.

The discouraging state of the present tends, however, to a wishful enhancement of the past. That “golden age” of capitalism, in fact, fell far short of any ideal of social justice: internal poverty persisted; the gap between the first world and the third, in spite of decolonization, widened; it was hardly a “golden age” for women or for U.S. blacks; workers still sold their labor and potentials to others, gaining the power to consume but not actively to shape their community; and corporate rule was not reduced but reinforced. The youth rebellions of the 1960s, we should remember, went beyond opposition to the war in Vietnam and reacted against the empty materialism of the times and—in the case of young factory workers—reacted against the contrast between their civil rights in society and the authoritarianism of their workplaces.

In any case, such a return to the past is simply not possible. History doesn’t allow us to go into reverse that easily. It is crucial to understand that neoliberalism and the speed-up of globalization over the past two decades didn’t just happen. They were a reaction to particular domestic and international developments within that “golden age.” Capitalism, as a social system, could not live with the rise in equality and security for workers. The working class victories and concessions from business were not calming but raising expectations, and they were undermining discipline: they were threatening profits, class power, and class rule. What were earlier viewed as measures of progress—higher wages, better social programs, greater security—were redefined as barriers that blocked capitalism’s own needs. And it was those needs which demanded the deepening and expansion of market-logic known as neoliberalism.

The intensification of globalization fit perfectly with neoliberalism. The changes in the degree of globalization in the seventies, and even more so after the eighties, had roots in longer term developments and especially in the U.S. response to new challenges from Europe, Japan, and third world rebellions. But it was also a logical extension of neoliberalism. Globalization provided, on behalf of capital, an additional disciplining pressure on domestic populations and institutions that was faceless, placeless, and bloodlessly unsympathetic.

The point is that the distance between the “golden age” and the present is about more than particular restorable policies. Major structural changes have occurred in the distribution of power and this includes changes within capitalist classes everywhere. It is clear, for example, that, at least since the free trade debates, it is no longer possible to talk about a Canadian business class oriented to national economic development. Every major sector of business is now dominated by an international, or more accurately, continental perspective. A nationalist alliance between progressive forces and sections of business, which some doubted was possible in the seventies, is certainly no longer possible given the changes since then.

Without that base of business support, any attempt to significantly change Canada will have to depend more than ever on a more mobilized popular base and will, of necessity, have to be more radical in terms of replacing unified and antagonistic corporate owners with democratic public ownership.

A quite different set of alternatives, rooted in the new movements rather than in the past, has recently emerged and drawn excitement. It has been loosely labeled the “social economy.” It has strong roots throughout the world and has developed a very significant base in Québec. It is remarkably diverse, so I want to be careful in generalizing about it, but some perspectives do seem widely common to its various components. There is a common antipathy against competition and the drive for profits, and a counterfocus on solidarity and production/exchange for use. And, like many others in the antiglobalization protests, it is skeptical of traditional left politics—that is, of political parties, of concerns with capturing state power, and of addressing how corporate property relations might be socialized and democratized. While it is generally a committed participant in the antiglobalization movement, its energy has increasingly been directed to the immediate development of an alternative economy—a social economy—at the community level.

There are appealing aspects to this orientation. Where it is involved with concrete issues of survival—addressing desperate community needs for food, water, health—it is clearly doing crucial work. Its diversity and role in mobilizing and developing technical and democratic skills is impressive. Its criticisms of traditional politics include observations that are clearly valid. And its determination to experiment with alternative forms of ownership and community participation include valuable lessons for any progressive movement.

Yet an obvious question emerges. If globalization is really so large in scale and scope, how can it be overcome by a movement that leaves corporate and state structures intact; that (implicitly at least) accepts continued private control of the overwhelming proportion of our common resources and society’s accumulated knowledge; that restricts itself, apparently permanently, to the fringes of social decision-making and power?

The global establishment, in spite of some initial nervousness, has come to understand that this movement for a social economy, when it does not aim higher, is not a threat. It has consequently been rather accommodating to it, describing it as the newly emerging “global civil society” and as “globalization from below.”5 Corporations, banks, private foundations, governments, and regional institutions have been happy and sometimes anxious to provide funding. And in the absence of a political context, all have been happy to incorporate the abstract language of “empowerment,” “community democracy,” and “capacities.”

It is not just that the elites view this trend as being safe, but that they also see it as being functional to globalization. With privatization and the erosion of social services, the attempt to provide decentralized alternatives may—inadvertently—legitimate, or at least act to limit opposition to, the regressive changes. In extreme but not uncommon cases, like the Québec Solidarity Fund with its tax breaks to create worker-investors, government partnerships directly integrate social economy institutions into the state.

Again, I want to be careful not to ignore differences within this movement. It is one thing, as in Porto Alegre, where the movement includes many activists tied to a larger, politicized, anticapitalist project. But where this is not the case, the social economy movement ironically suffers from the same limits it sees in the social democratic parties it has so much contempt for. Not oriented to mobilizing against corporate power, it becomes either peripheral to change or is incorporated into the system.

Just as globalization can’t be changed by a retreat into the past, it can’t be changed by a retreat to its margins. What Marx understood so well when he criticized the Utopians of his time was that if you don’t bring your dreams into the belly of the beast—if you try to build around, rather than against global power—you ultimately offer illusions rather than hope. Globalization and social justice can’t be made compatible by leaving globalization intact and confining social justice to the world outside globalization’s walls.

But is there any basis for believing that globalization, that is to say modern capitalism, can be challenged? There are those who believe that capitalism will collapse from its internal contradictions; I consider this to be one of the weakest aspects of the Marxist legacy. There are, I believe, particular developments within capitalism that leave openings for its legitimacy to be challenged, and the authority of its elites questioned. But capitalism will only end when there is a movement with the vision, confidence, and capacity to replace it.

In the third world, the basis for mobilizing a challenge to capitalism revolves around one particular fact, increasingly evident after a half century of failures of various models: capitalism/globalization cannot, in general, bring to the third world the kind of material development achieved in the first. In the first world, the opening lies in the question of whether what has been achieved is in fact the best humans can strive for.

Global inequality has been rising relentlessly. The World Bank—a prominent player in articulating globalization as both good and necessary, and keenly aware of the political implications of this historical record of growing global inequality—has acknowledged that globalization has left billions of people behind. Its argument now is that some countries have grown through entering the global economy and that these “globalizers” suggest a positive future for the rest of the third world, that “globalization is the key to social justice.”6

This sham argument ignores, first, that where growth has come, it has come not with a general improvement in social justice but with costs in terms of internal democracy, human rights, and equality. In the mid-fifties, a Latin American general, when asked about economic development in his country, responded with words that still capture so much of the present reality in third world so-called success stories like Brazil and Mexico: “The economy is doing great, but the people in it aren’t.”

Second, the few success stories, like those in South East Asia, have proved to be fragile, and in any case have been rooted in particular circumstances that can’t be duplicated. The most prominent example, South Korea, did not achieve what it did because its policies were so clever—though they were relevant—but because of its special importance to the United States during the Cold War. This meant that, like Europe before (and unlike the third world more generally) it received a form of Marshall Aid (military spending during the Korean and Vietnam wars) and was also given free access to the U.S. market even as it protected its own markets.

Third, as long as the successful development model is focused on poor countries competing to export to the West, universal development is a contradiction in terms. Some “winners” might indeed emerge, but only by condemning other countries to being losers (not to mention the losers within their own countries). The third world can only move towards overall development if there is a focus on mobilizing and developing their human and natural resources to address internalneeds. They do not have to cut themselves off from trade and investment, though they must insist on tightly regulating them to strengthen their internal development.

A look at the history of U.S. development—as well as that of Germany and Japan—exposes the hypocrisy of lecturing the third world against nationalist intervention. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury called for “energetic” government to ensure growth and argued:

all the difference is lost to a community which, instead of manufacturing for itself, procures…its supply from other countries. The substitution of foreign for domestic manufacturing is a transfer to foreign nations of the advantages occurring from the employment of machinery.

Sometime later, James Madison, a principal author of the U.S. Constitution and later president of the United States, asserted:

The power [to regulate trade] has been understood and used by all commercial and manufacturing nations, as embracing the object of encouraging manufactures. It is believed that not a single exception could be found.

Later in the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln added:

I do not know much about the tariff, but I do know this much, when we buy manufactured goods abroad, we get the goods and the foreigners get the money. When we buy the manufactured goods at home we get both the goods and the money.

And at the beginning of the twentieth century another U.S. president, William McKinley, boasted that:

We lead all nations in agriculture; we lead all nations in mining; we lead in manufacturing. These are the trophies we bring after [several decades] of a protective tariff.7

There have of course been movements within the third world—some inspired by their reading of the history of the West, some inspired by Marxism—that have clearly understood that another path to development was crucial. This implied that domestic conflict was necessary to change internal social structures and relationships—the problem has never simply been that of external domination. But where this threatened corporate and particularly U.S. interests, then the reality of Kissinger’s definition of globalization as U.S. dominance stepped to the fore. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in full support of that power, explained to readers the other side of free trade, “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist…the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”8

The movements of any country—whether communist, socialist, or nationalist—that aimed to break out of the rules established by the West were ruthlessly crushed, condemning those countries to continuing misery, issuing a warning to others contemplating a similar path, and—by destroying the secular opposition—opening the door to the alternative of religious mobilization and extremism. As the events of September 11 showed, and common sense should have forewarned, the costs of decisions made by elites in the first world could ultimately not be confined to the third world. Globalization did create one world—however unequal—not three, and aside from moral and human responsibilities, we are now implicated and affected by what happens everywhere.

In the developed West, the internal issue is not so much whether capitalism can deliver on economic growth as it is the nature of that growth. The welfare state emerged as a response to the issue of legitimating power in a class society. As the erosion of the welfare state continues, will capitalist legitimacy again be questioned? Liberal democratic rights—parliament, union rights, open access to the media and communications, civil liberties—also contribute to legitimating capitalism. Will the dramatic shift in power to global corporations, with its blatant declaration that only certain kinds of freedoms—those linked to private property—have any real priority under capitalism, raise questions about how democratic our society really is?

A generation-long series of promises made to facilitate neoliberalism—restraints and concessions today will provide a better life and security tomorrow—have been broken. Will this lead to asking why the corporate executives who failed to deliver on those promises have been rewarded with incomes that reach the stratosphere? Will people see these incomes for what they are—a tax on the rest of us, but one we had no decision-making input into at all? Global financial instability and corruption are spread across the business pages. Will people look behind the scandals and beyond the Enrons to ask whether the rot, rather than being limited to any particular corporation, lies at the core values and workings of what capitalism has become? With the increased pressures in the workplace and at home, the longer hours and increased debt, will exhaustion turn into frustration and anger, anger into a re-evaluation of personal priorities and some kind of constructive action?

People do know something is wrong. You hear it in bars, on the streetcar, in classrooms, in general conversation, from characters in popular novels, and in the words and mood of contemporary songs. The issue, therefore, doesn’t lie so much in pointing out that something is wrong, but in developing a confidence to do something about it, developing an understanding of what that entails, and developing the organizational commitment to go ahead and do it.

The much-abused old left, for all its faults, did understand that the problem wasn’t just globalization, or finance, or neoliberal policies, or this or that scandal. The issue was the inherent lack of democracy in a society where a minority own the means of production we all depend on and the means of communications we need to speak to each other. They understood that moving toward a society that supported the full development of each of our potentials meant that capitalism had ultimately to be replaced.

Critics sympathetic to that project nevertheless and rightfully pointed to the left’s own lack of internal democracy, its narrow view of class and rigidity with regard to other forms of oppression, its overemphasis on the state relative to the movement from below, and its loss of creativity. A new generation is entering this debate. Any success in building a movement to challenge capitalism in the name of social justice will depend on whether the insights of the old left, the criticisms leveled against it, and the energy of the new activists can find that elusive common ground.

One particular question will have a special influence on that coming together: how we relate the national to the international. Any movement for social justice must be solidaristic and internationalist in its sentiments and actions. Yet any movement that hopes to sustain itself and grow must be rooted locally and nationally; it must not only link up with students abroad, but win over workers at home.

The Canadian antiglobalization movement is currently preparing for the G-8 meetings in Kananaskis, Alberta. As in Québec, the Canadian movement wants to use this opportunity to confirm its place and responsibility within the international movement. Perhaps we can add to that contribution by acting concretely to link the national and the international more closely. In addition to the pro forma demands to end the debt and increase aid, why don’t we make demands on our own government, as host, to show some leadership and act unilaterally to end our share of that debt, and raise our aid commitments to at least the levels promised but never delivered? Why not use this moment to demand that our government do something about the third world within our first world—for example, responding to poverty and homelessness by establishing housing as a universal right in Canada; or by extending legal status to immigrants who are welcome to work here, but are especially vulnerable because they are denied the formal rights Canadian workers have.

Conventional wisdom has it that the national state, whether we like it or not, is no longer a relevant site of struggle. At one level, this is true. If our notion of the state is that of an institution which left governments can “capture” and push in a different direction, experience suggests this will contribute little to social justice. But if our goal is to transform the state into an instrument for popular mobilization and the development of democratic capacities, to bring our economy under popular control and restructure our relationships to the world economy, then winning state power would manifest the worst nightmares of the corporate world.

When we reject strategies based on winning through undercutting others and maintain our fight for dignity and justice nationally, we can inspire others abroad and create new spaces for their own struggles. In that way we internationalize the struggle for social justice. The hope for social justice lies in this kind of national-internationalism, not globalization.


  1. Henry Kissinger: “The basic challenge is that what is called globalization is really another name for the dominant role of the United States.” Lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, October 12, 1999.
  2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Works, vol. 2 (Moscow: Foreign Publishing Press, 1962), 37–8.
  3. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 18.
  4. Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism (London: Fontana Press, 1997), 140.
  5. World Bank, Globalization, Growth, and Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)3.
  6. Ibid., 3–7.
  7. All quotes are from Thomas K. McGraw, ed., Creating Modern Capitalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 308–12.
  8. Thomas Friedman, New York Times, March 28, 1999.
2002, Volume 54, Issue 02 (June)
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