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Top down or bottom up? A reply to David Held

About the author
Patrick Bond is a political economist and global justice activist. From October 2004, he directs the Centre on Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu–Natal in Durban, South Africa. Among his books are Unsustainable South Africa (Merlin Press, 2002), (with Simba Manyanya) Zimbabwe's Plunge (Merlin Press, 2003), Against Global Apartheid (Zed Books, 2003 ), and Talk Left, Walk Right (Pluto Press, 2004).

To offer a critique of David Held’s 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 essay’s twin core themes, “dangers” and “answers”. As a result, I fear he isn’t yet genuinely engaging the passions, analytical perspectives and concrete programmes of radical global justice activists. I suspect that the anti–capitalist 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 Held’s 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, “nonreformist–reform” strategy based on principles and scale–politics – 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 world’s already most unequal society actually worsened, the most serious is that “reformist reforms” of neo–liberal capitalism amplify the adverse consequences of both “globalisation” and “global governance”.

From a growing literature of political–economic work arguing this case more fully than space here permits, there are three critiques of David Held’s approach.

First, isn’t 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 economy’s 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 non–renewable 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 system–threatening ecological problems
  • soaring inequality, and
  • a near–universal reduction in workers’ remuneration and in the social wage.
All of these symptoms are associated with the neo–liberal project during a period of persistent capitalist over–accumulation.

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 Luxemburg’s insights into the interactions between capitalism and non–capitalist eco–social 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.
Accumulation by dispossession intensifies with the onset of capitalist crisis and the widespread adoption of neo–liberalism by political elites, as the system seeks to mitigate and displace (though never fully resolve) crisis tendencies. Harvey interprets these as “spatial and temporal fixes” for over–accumulated capital, which in turn serve as crisis management tools.

Hence, the sphere of reproduction – where much primitive accumulation occurs through unequal gender power relations – remains central to capitalism’s looting, particularly in areas (like Johannesburg) characterised by migrant labour–flows. This labour is cheap thanks in part to the super–exploitation of women (in childrearing, healthcare and eldercare) which replaces advanced capitalism’s state–supplied (or in the US, firm–based) schooling, medical aids and pension schemes.

This neo–liberal 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 neo–liberalism is to restructure ecological–social–economic 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 world’s population having no effective health insurance or even basic care.
Third, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin (among others) have anatomised the power and centrality of Washington to the management of empire: in the form of the neo–conservative petro–military–industrial complex in the Bush White House and Pentagon, and of the “Washington consensus” nexus of the US Treasury, Bretton Woods institutions and Wall Street. The fusion of global justice activism and anti–war protest has exposed these two sides of the Washington coin (and if Held wanted to apply the same spirit of critique to the earlier epoch of global–institutional restructuring, an understanding of the same themes would also be helpful).

In sum, the dangers Held highlights aren’t a “crisis of globalisation” but of world capitalism. By adjusting the analysis, a different sense of strategy emerges.

Where are the answers?

If David Held’s 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 petro–militarists in the White House and Pentagon. In any case, suitable reforms have proven impossible, given the terribly adverse global–scale balance of forces prevailing in recent years, and for the foreseeable future. Hence, virtually all feasible global–scale 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 post–Washington policy adjustment promoted by Held have already done far more harm than good, especially since the aim of the world’s rulers thus far has been to “augment” not transcend neo–liberalism. (Held seems grudgingly to admit this in his albeit unnecessary defense of John Williamson). In this light, Held’s 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 protocol’s implementation; or the Bush regime’s “systematic attack on the multilateral order” – are misconceived. In short, reformist reforms don’t – and can’t – 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 anti–imperialism than Held offers – an approach that can raise the costs of belligerence to the Washington–London–Canberra–Rome–Warsaw nexus, and that does not merely channel the next US president’s aggression through the multilateral bureaucracies. After all, the UN has proven persistently useless and indeed collaborative in settings like Iraq, notwithstanding Kofi Annan’s 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 Ha–Joon 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 (non–transparently) generated the MDGs, at the same time as the organisation moved to embrace the so–called Washington consensus with its pro–corporate Global Compact, its endorsement of “Type–2” (public–private 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 Held’s essay) the “how” – by which I mean the process, not the top–down 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 capitalism’s 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, Held’s 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 Trade–Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) regime, by demanding generic anti–retroviral medicines instead of branded, monopoly–patented 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 “non–reformist 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, sub–national, 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 society’s] 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 anti–retroviral 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 export–oriented mining and smelting, to basic–needs consumption)
  • extensive land reform (hence de–emphasising cash–cropping and export–oriented 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).
All such services should be universal (open to all, independent of income levels), and (where feasible) financed through higher prices that penalise luxury consumption. This potentially unifying agenda could serve as a basis for large–scale social change, in the manner that Gosta Esping–Andersen has discussed with respect to Scandinavian social policy. In most of the campaigns above, substantial concrete victories have already been won, and sophisticated mobilisations taken the struggles forward.

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 re–examine the conditions of their entrenchment, against the background of the changing global constellation of politics and economics”. Today, it is the world’s 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.


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