To offer a critique of David Helds openDemocracy essay Globalisation: the dangers and the answers especially without having read the book in which its argument is more fully elaborated carries two risks: both of not doing the argument justice, and of making conceptual distinctions with potential allies, of sharpening the lines of difference for the sake of clarity, maybe beyond the point of comradeship.
But David Held runs even greater risks by abbreviating his imaginative work on cosmopolitan democracy (which emphasises process, something the recent essay omits), and by emasculating his essays twin core themes, dangers and answers. As a result, I fear he isnt yet genuinely engaging the passions, analytical perspectives and concrete programmes of radical global justice activists. I suspect that the anticapitalist comrades in Johannesburg from where I write, for example, will have fundamental disagreements with Held on a range of issues: analysis, strategy, organisational orientation, alliances and tactics.
David Helds openDemocracy essay Globalisation: the dangers and the answers with responses to it from Martin Wolf, Maria Livanos Cattaui, Meghnad Desai, Roger Scruton, John Elkington, Grahame Thompson, and David Mepham is here
It may be that Held gives a low priority to addressing this more radical audience, but the points of divergence with it are still important to debate because of their substance. Three are worth highlighting here:
▪ the importance of a tougher, deeper critique
▪ the need to avoid what I call reformist reformism reforms that do not challenge economic, social and political structures that reproduce inequality, but which actually reinforce them
▪ the opportunities for a more radical, nonreformistreform strategy based on principles and scalepolitics that we can summarise as decommodification and deglobalisation.
What is the danger?
There are multiple dangers in any political strategy. But for many of us who have experienced a liberated South Africa during these past ten years, when income distribution in the worlds already most unequal society actually worsened, the most serious is that reformist reforms of neoliberal capitalism amplify the adverse consequences of both globalisation and global governance.
From a growing literature of politicaleconomic work arguing this case more fully than space here permits, there are three critiques of David Helds approach.
First, isnt the dramatic rise of globalisation actually a function of what might be termed capitalist crisis? Robert Brenner, Robert Pollin, John Bellamy Foster, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Robert Biel and Harry Shutt, among others, provide conceptual underpinnings and updated empirical accounts of sustained crisis tendencies in the world economys core regions.
The symptoms of these tendencies include:
- three decades of lower GDP growth (indeed, negative per capita GDP if we factor in pollution and exhaustion of nonrenewable resources)
- a much lower rate of profit on productive activity
- consequently untenable financialisation (where returns are much higher) and periodic financial collapses
- frantic outsourcing of production across the world and hyperactive trade
- the emergence of systemthreatening ecological problems
- soaring inequality, and
- a nearuniversal reduction in workers remuneration and in the social wage.
Second, in order to displace rather than resolve the crisis, the response of capitalism in its imperialist phase is to amplify combined and uneven development. David Harvey, drawing upon Rosa Luxemburgs insights into the interactions between capitalism and noncapitalist ecosocial processes, explains how the permanent process of primitive accumulation evolves into what he terms a system of accumulation by dispossession. The system updates and deepens traditional problems, including (in his words):
- commodification and privatisation of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations
- conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state) into exclusive private property rights
- suppression of rights to the commons
- commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption
- colonial, neocolonial and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources)
- monetisation of exchange and taxation (particularly of land)
- slave trade
- usury, the national debt and ultimately the credit system as radical means of primitive accumulation.
Hence, the sphere of reproduction where much primitive accumulation occurs through unequal gender power relations remains central to capitalisms looting, particularly in areas (like Johannesburg) characterised by migrant labourflows. This labour is cheap thanks in part to the superexploitation of women (in childrearing, healthcare and eldercare) which replaces advanced capitalisms statesupplied (or in the US, firmbased) schooling, medical aids and pension schemes.
This neoliberal agenda represents not merely too narrow a set of policies to help create sustained growth and equitable development, as Held quaintly puts it. Rather, the core point of neoliberalism is to restructure ecologicalsocialeconomic relations in fundamental ways, in the interests of capital.
Research by Isabella Bakker, Stephen Gill and their colleagues shows how reprivatisation of social reproduction involves at least four shifts in social institutions and livelihood, particularly in poorer countries:
- household and caring activities are increasingly provided through the market and are thus exposed to the movement of money
- societies seem to become redefined as collections of individuals (or at best collections of families), particularly when the state retreats from universal social protection
- accumulation patterns become premised on connected control over wider areas of social life and thus on provisions for social reproduction
- survival and livelihood become more pressing, with a large proportion of the worlds population having no effective health insurance or even basic care.
In sum, the dangers Held highlights arent a crisis of globalisation but of world capitalism. By adjusting the analysis, a different sense of strategy emerges.
Where are the answers?
If David Helds assessment of the dangers is misconceived, his answers also disappoint, because the overarching global governance agenda is already off the mark.
Without suitable reform, he writes, our global institutions will forever be burdened by the mantle of partiality and illegitimacy. But these are not our institutions they are the tools of global capital and the petromilitarists in the White House and Pentagon. In any case, suitable reforms have proven impossible, given the terribly adverse globalscale balance of forces prevailing in recent years, and for the foreseeable future. Hence, virtually all feasible globalscale reforms actually legitimise, strengthen and extend the system of accumulation by dispossession.
The radical activist community perceives the need to see the displacement of the crisis into the wider institutional and social spheres outlined above as a challenge to be fought, not conceded at the outset. This can be seen in two areas.
First, the institutional rearrangements and slightly more serious postWashington policy adjustment promoted by Held have already done far more harm than good, especially since the aim of the worlds rulers thus far has been to augment not transcend neoliberalism. (Held seems grudgingly to admit this in his albeit unnecessary defense of John Williamson). In this light, Helds worries about the potential collapse of the regulation of world trade in such a way that it will worsen not redress global inequality; the failure to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG); worsening global warming in the absence of the Kyoto protocols implementation; or the Bush regimes systematic attack on the multilateral order are misconceived. In short, reformist reforms dont and cant work, if the objective is to solve the problems, not stabilise the system.
Second, under these circumstances, the radical activist community will continue to find ideas like humanitarian interventionism what Held calls the Washington security consensus fatally flawed. Instead, for strategic and alliance purposes, we need a far more serious antiimperialism than Held offers an approach that can raise the costs of belligerence to the WashingtonLondonCanberraRomeWarsaw nexus, and that does not merely channel the next US presidents aggression through the multilateral bureaucracies. After all, the UN has proven persistently useless and indeed collaborative in settings like Iraq, notwithstanding Kofi Annans recent pronouncement on the illegality of the war.
The problems that Held identifies are indeed crucial, but the perspective from which he approaches them concedes too much. For example, Held fails to make the case for alleged reforms of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) within the Doha Development Agenda (a euphemism for liberalisation, as Robert Wade has pointed out). The radical internationalist flank of the global justice movements, as well as most third world nationalists (of both progressive and authoritarian tendencies), were thrilled when the Cancún summit failed; unlike Held, they did not see Doha as a step forward, nor bilateral trade agreements as the only alternative to the WTO.
Indeed, Held is on very weak ground (with Geoffrey Garrett and Jagdish Bhagwati) in attempting to distinguish good trade liberalisation from bad financial liberalisation. He should take more seriously the countervailing ideas of Walden Bello, Vandana Shiva, Jayati Ghosh, Lori Wallach and especially HaJoon Chang and Ilene Grabel.
Held worries that because of the Cancún breakdown, there is a real danger that the Doha trade round will collapse or produce derisory results. No: a further collapse would have been preferable, given the awful renewed WTO framework established in Geneva a few weeks ago, notwithstanding some rhetorical (not yet real) agricultural subsidy cuts.
Held regards the Millennium Development Goals as the moral consciousness of the international community. It was, though, the elite United Nations which (nontransparently) generated the MDGs, at the same time as the organisation moved to embrace the socalled Washington consensus with its procorporate Global Compact, its endorsement of Type2 (publicprivate partnership) privatisation strategies, and its collaboration with the World Bank. In any case, the bogus 2015 targets are far less important than the actual social struggles underway across the world for basic needs and democracy. An obsession with MDGs is a diversion from solidarity with the real agents of development history.
Held is absolutely correct that there may have been no point in setting these targets at all, so far are we from attaining them in many parts of the world but this is also because the institutions which set the goals are so far from the people who need to own the struggles and their victories. As for a sustainable framework for the management of global warming, Kyoto definitely is not the answer as Carbon Trade Watch , CornerHouse and the TransNational Institute demonstrate.
Held is right that the world needs social democratic globalisation and a human security agenda. The big questions are: how, what and when? But if (as in Helds essay) the how by which I mean the process, not the topdown reform idea is wholly ignored, then the balance of forces associated with winning reforms may lead to a regressive what: a pale 20th century definition of social democracy that merely polishes capitalisms roughest edges as a gambit to artificially (and unsustainably) keep it looking fresh on the outside, well beyond its expiry date.
Instead, the task now is to inspire our progressive movements to remake globalisation from below, through deglobalising capital and intensifying international solidarity in spheres where people are struggling against accumulation by dispossession.
The third question, when, is also crucial; for without showing how to change the balance of forces, Helds strategy could entail prematurely putting in place new institutional forms which could exacerbate, not resolve, the crisis. Hence many activists celebrate what Held laments: that the value of the UN system has been called into question, the legitimacy of the Security Council has been challenged, and the working practices of multilateral institutions have been eroded.
Indeed, given the power structures, the militarism and the neoliberal processes that are continually reinforced in the UN, why not let it instead (as Tariq Ali advocates) go the way of the League of Nations? That would leave two other possible approaches at this present stage, ahead of a future global governance system when conditions are more amenable: decommodification and deglobalisation.
Bridges to the future: deglobalise, decommodify
The strategic formula implied by deglobalisation does not imply the revival either of autarchy (as in the former Albania or current Burma or North Korea), of corrupt third world chaos (contemporary Zimbabwe), or of authoritarianism (Malaysia). Instead, movements like the South African independent left articulate it in a way that combines internationalism with demands upon the national state to lock capital down. This could begin, as an example of what must be done, by removing the boot of the Bretton Woods institutions from the necks of the poor in the global south. The World Bank Bonds Boycott is having remarkable success in defunding the institution that is in the vanguard of international neoliberal repression.
In addition, South African and other activists have won dramatic victories in deglobalising the TradeRelated Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) regime, by demanding generic antiretroviral medicines instead of branded, monopolypatented drugs. Similar struggles are underway to deglobalise food, especially transnational corporate GMOs, to halt biopiracy, and to expel the water and energy privatisers.
These are typically nonreformist reforms insofar as they achieve concrete goals and simultaneously link movements, enhance consciousness, develop the issues, and build democratic organisational forms and momentum.
This is a matter for nuanced scale politics: determining whether local community, subnational, national or regional strategies can best mitigate and reverse global economic tyranny for particular issues. To his credit, Held does endorse the central deglobalisation strategy, favouring internal economic integration the development of [a societys] human capital, of its economic infrastructure and of robust national market institutions, and the replacement of imports with national production where feasible. But does he not see that his emphasis on legitimating and strengthening the WTO, and extending its range, will make that strategy even harder to pursue than it is today?
The main reason to deglobalise is to gain space to fight neoliberal commodification. The South African decommodification agenda entails struggles to turn basic needs into genuine human rights, including:
- free antiretroviral medicines to fight Aids (hence disempowering Big Pharma)
- fifty litres of free water per person per day (hence ridding Africa of Suez and other water privatisers)
- one kilowatt hour of free electricity for each individual every day (hence reorienting energy resources from exportoriented mining and smelting, to basicneeds consumption)
- extensive land reform (hence deemphasising cashcropping and exportoriented plantations)
- prohibitions on service disconnections and evictions
- free education (hence halting the General Agreement on Trade in Services), and a
- free basic income grant allowance of $15 per month (advocated by churches, NGOs and trade unions).
David Held is right to argue that while the concepts and values of social democracy are of enduring significance, the key challenge today is to elaborate their meaning, and to reexamine the conditions of their entrenchment, against the background of the changing global constellation of politics and economics. Today, it is the worlds radical activists, especially in the new social movements springing up across the global south, who are addressing that challenge most seriously. It really behooves a great thinker like Held to seriously engage with and endorse the social democratic agenda where it is emerging and where it offers hope of advance: from the bottom up.