The politics of globalisation

Pierre Bourdieu
20 February 2002

The term ‘globalisation’ suggests the inevitability of economic laws. This masks the political reality. It is an altogether paradoxical reality which relies upon a politics of depoliticisation.

It is a politics which threatens to confer a lethal status on economic forces unleashed from all control or constraint. It is a politics which secures the submission of governments and peoples to those very economic and social forces it says must be ‘liberated’.

The term ‘globalisation’ is simultaneously descriptive and normative. Everything encompassed in it is the precise result, not of economic inevitability, but of a politics, conscious and calculated, which has led the liberal and even social democratic governments of several economically advanced countries to divest themselves of the power to control economic forces.

They have at best relinquished those powers to see them concentrated in the ‘green rooms’ of big international concerns, such as the WTO; or in such multinational ‘networks’ as the network made up of fifty multinational companies, which through all manner of ways and means, including legal ones, are in the process of imposing their will.

A different politics

We need to counter this politics of depoliticisation and disempowerment. To do so it is necessary to retrieve a politics both of thought and action: a politics capable of addressing itself beyond the nation-state at the same time as it engages with the political and labour movement battles within the nation states. For many reasons, this is a dauntingly difficult task.

In the first place, it poses sets of political challenges which appear to be removed from one another, are apparently inaccessible and seemingly have little in common, either in terms of they way they work or with the familiar, formative political battles of the past.

Second, the powerful agencies and institutions which today dominate our world, economically and socially, can draw upon an extraordinary convergence of all forms of capital – economic, political, military, cultural, scientific, technological – amounting to a fundamental, unprecedented symbolic hegemony over all channels and means of communication through which opposition will be reported.

It is important to concede that some of the instruments for the politics which is needed are to be found at the European level (at least to the extent that European institutions and businesses can have a causal effect on the dominant forces of the world stage). It follows that the construction of a unified Social Europe, capable of bringing together the different forces in all their divisions, as much in the national arenas as in the international, is the priority of all those who wish to resist effectively the dominant forces of our time.

Cooperation without unification

The social movements that are essential to a politics of resistance are very various, thanks to their different origins, aims and objectives. Nevertheless they undeniably share a set of what we might call family traits.

In the first place, this is because they are often the result of a refusal of traditional forms of political mobilisation, particularly those typical of the soviet-type communist parties. Typically, they reject any kind of monopolisation of their organisation by a minority, and positively elevate and encourage the direct participation of all the various stakeholders, resembling in this regard the libertarian tradition.

They are particularly prone to those forms of individually motivated politics requiring a light, streamlined apparatus which will allow its members to maintain control over their own activity (in stark contrast to those party machines with which they battle for political hegemony).

A second common characteristic of social movements is the way their priorities lie with specific social issues such as housing, employment and health.

A third typical feature is a fondness for direct action, a desire that protests and demands should manifest themselves in exemplary actions which have a direct bearing on the relevant campaign.

The fourth distinctive and shared characteristic is that solidarity is the tacit moving force behind the greater part of their activities.

Such similarities in the objectives of disparate political struggles highlight the usefulness, if not of the complete unification of the disparate movements that young militant groups often urge, at the very least of some coordination of their action and demands. Such coordination might take the form of a network able to bring together groups and individuals in such a way that no one group dominates another; a network able to conserve all of the advantages of the diversity of experiences, perspectives and programmes of each group.

Its main function would be to direct social movements away from dispersed and fragmented actions, ensuring that they do not become entangled in the specifics of one-off local struggles (whilst at the same time avoiding concentrations of bureaucracy). This would have the benefit of empowering the groups to overcome the inconsistencies between the moments of intense mobilization and the latent, slower forms of existence essential to their preparation.

Any such network would seek to define a set of shared objectives at the intersection of the interests and concerns of all the different groups, a set of values that they could all recognise and collaborate in, at the same time as bringing to bear their own competencies and methods.

Reviving trade unionism

The neo-liberal politics of globalisation has also contributed to the weakening of trade unions. The flexibility and precariousness of a growing number of workers’ jobs has had the effect of hindering any unified action, at the same time as social security is extended to fewer parts of the workforce.

This illustrates simultaneously just how difficult and how indispensable the task of reviving trade union action is. It will entail rotating responsibility, and re-examining the model of unconditional delegation, as well as inventing new techniques that are essential for mobilising the fragmented and insecure workforce.

Any such organization would have to be capable of overcoming the fragmentation both in terms of objectives and nationalities, in addition to the divisions within movements and trade unions. Bringing trade unions together in circumstances of lively debate and discussion must have a revivifying effect upon them.

The existence of a stable and efficient international network should allow the development of an international trade union movement which has nothing to do with the official bodies in which unions are represented, and would integrate the actions of all the movements which are tackling very specific, and therefore limited situations.

In addition to the development and coordination of new social movements and the willingness to work at a European level, it is also important to renew the more traditional area of trade unions, in any politics that seeks to respond to globalisation and defy the efforts to ‘depoliticise’ the way we are ruled.

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