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A fundamental challenge to alter-globalisation?

25 January 2005

Our editor, Anthony Barnett, thinks that the following is one of the most cogent yet also sympathetic arguments directed against some of the thinking that lies behind the World Social Forum. It is by David Held who published his argument for a Global Covenant in openDemocracy last year. One of his critics was Patrick Bond. David replied.

The debate is behind the archive barrier on the openDemocracy site, which means you need to be a subscriber to openDemocracy to read it, so Anthony has asked that David’s article be opened, and you can read it here on the openDemocracy site

Please tell us what you think.

Here is David Held's reply to Bond

Patrick Bond does indeed reject globalisation as we know it. Bond argues that my critique is not tough or deep enough. I respect that he takes a different view of the form and limits of contemporary capitalism. His response to me is a clear and concise overview of the thinking behind the global justice movement. It deserves a fuller counter–critique than I will present here. But to make the fundamental differences between us as clear as possible in a short space, it seems there are four key issues over which we disagree profoundly.

First, Bond believes that political reform will always make things worse. He calls them “reformist reforms”. By this he means politics as we know it. His is an argument that grossly underestimates the hugely significant welfare, democratic and human rights agendas that have made positive differences to millions of lives. Moreover, the counterfactual – that sweeping the existing system away with genuinely “non–reformist reforms” would make for a radically better basis for human development – is entirely unproven. The history of Soviet communism starkly warns against such ambitions.

Second, he thinks that “bottom–up” is always better and wiser. But this is surely not the case. Social movements are by no means necessarily noble or wise. They are (naturally) riddled with disagreements and conflicting views. They may generate many important ideas and pressures, and his list of ideas that have emerged recently from the South African social justice movement is impressive. Against this, it needs to be borne in mind that opposing social groups exist on almost every issue and that is why the institutions and mechanisms of a responsive democracy matter.

Third, he clearly takes the view that all politics is essentially an _expression of economic interests. Hence his disparaging remarks about how I characterise the post–Holocaust international reforms. His view here is typical of the deep Marxist misunderstanding of politics. Many currents of Marxism have tried to explain the political solely by reference to the economic and so have missed what they must learn from liberalism and other political traditions: that politics exists in its own distinct realm and that a preoccupation with the nature and limits of politics is a question independent of economic matters. True, liberalism massively underestimates the significance of economic power. But critics of liberalism should not countenance the reverse error.

Bond believes that the current crisis of globalisation is really a crisis of world capitalism. I am unconvinced of this for many reasons. Among these are the diversity of forms of capitalism that exist in different regions of the world, the extraordinary durability of capitalism in its various guises (always underestimated by critics), and the clear absence of alternative political economies. Where we agree is that the “neo–liberal project” has often had pernicious effects and the move to replace it is of the utmost urgency for the life–chances and life–expectancy of the many.

These four positions typify a certain left attitude which bases its appeal on a humanism of the exploited but rests its logic on an unacceptable economic determinism. The two come together because the economic system of global capitalism is projected as one of systemic overproduction and super–exploitation whose crisis will open the way for those untainted by their allegiance to the false–consciousness of “non–reformist reforms”.

However, for all the appalling and well–recorded consequences of contemporary globalisation, it is a dynamic system that helps engender development and growth. That the United States may be heading for a crisis thanks to its trade and fiscal deficits and the recklessness of the Bush administration does not mean that capitalism is on its last legs. On the contrary, the all too likely brutal “correction” which many expect will be a sign of its continuing vitality and durability.

A revolution, driven solely by bottom–up politics and aiming to sweep aside liberal democracy and a supposedly fatally–weakened global capitalism, is a wholly implausible objective. This leads us back to the debate about how most effectively to transform globalisation today. 

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