Conversation with Walden Bello, Director of Focus on the Global
South, Bangkok, March 10, 2001 (page
1 of 2)
with Jerry Harris
One of the debates on globalization is whether or not it’s
a new era of capitalism. One argument is that digital technology
has revolutionizing the means of production creating important changes
throughout the system. Historically globalization has become to
information capitalism what imperialism was to industrial capitalism.
say that nothing has essentially changed. That to emphasize the
newer aspects blinds us to the principals necessary to understand
world capitalism. How do you see this debate?
I think what characterizes the period of globalization is that national
economies are being disarticulated by the processes of global capital
and rearticulated mainly as production sites and financial nexus
points for corporate capital. What’s happening therefor is
the protections that national economies had in the traditional international
economy have broken down, and what you now have are economies that
are in the process of disintegration. They are being reintegrated
into the global economy as part of the production, market and service
chains of global capital. So I think this disarticulation, disintegration
and the reintegration is what characterizes this period of capital.
This is what
people all over the world are really reacting to. The loss of place,
the loss of one national economy and of having some space from the
volatility of the growth. The loss of sense that the state could
act as a protective mechanism visa vi the global economy. That corporations
have completely taken over. This is really what we’re talking
It seems this creates new problems for labor. How do you see the
growth of global capitalism reconfiguring labor, and how do we overcome
splits between labor in the Third World and the developed countries?
Historically these differences often appeared as splits between
reformism and more revolutionary unions. Is globalization deepening
this divide, or is there the possibility of a common agenda and
I think definitely the possibilities for an internationalist response
along class lines has increased precisely because corporations have
gone all over the world relocating, taking advantage of the differences
of labor costs. The possibilities for cross border union organizing
at this point are very positive, very immense. But at the same time
I don’t think the traditional labor movement has really seen
the potential that has emerged here. To some extent the reaction
is still quite tentative. Although there is a lot of rhetoric about
Third World workers being our brothers and sisters in arms, in fact
there is no global organizing drive that makes a primacy of organizing
Third World workers where contradictions in fact are sharpest. Much
of the energies go into trying to get mechanisms like the social
clauses in the WTO and trade agreements. These are basically defensive
in character and are really meant mainly to protect the interests
of northern workers, rather than advancing the interests of workers
as a whole.
What we still
have to see and appreciate is that this period of globalization
has created tremendous opportunities for real progressive, revolutionary
working class organizing. Part of the hesitation and fears and inability
to understand this is much of the unions in the North, as well as
their extensions in the South, are still very much caught up in
the structures of the cold war. The bureaucracies were mainly geared
for that period, and there has not been that reconstruction of the
international trade union movement to really understand and insert
itself into the conditions of the current period.
A lot of the anti-global movement is firmly anti-capitalist, but
not socialist. What role do you think Marxists should be playing
in the anti-global movement? Do you think our vision of socialism
will have to be reinterpreted and redefined for the current period?
I would agree with you that this anti-global movement is anti-capitalist.
But I think it is quite suspicious of socialism because it is associated
with either the bureaucratic socialism of the Soviet Union, with
all that entails in terms of lack of democracy; or with the social
democratic variant of Western Europe which helped stabilized capitalism
between 1950 and 1980, but which collapsed under the onslaught of
neo-liberalism and the Washington Consensus. So this is the image
that young people in the anti-globalization movement have of socialism.
But the values
that inform this movement are very much the values that flow from
socialism. A strong emphasis on equity and equalitarianism are very
central aspects of this movement. Also a very strong emphasis on
democracy, including sometimes an over emphasis on direct democratic
mechanisms, which of course have very good roots in Rousseau.
Also there are
values here that are not against socialism but can enrich socialism.
One is the value of community and community integrity, which in
the past whenever you would talk about community and community solidarity
that was something associated with the right. There is a very strong
emphasis on gender, and the importance of gender both in terms of
equality and diversity. That was not in the old socialist movement.
In many ways they paid lip service to gender and staid at the level
of liberal feminism in the ways they addressed the issue of gender
There is also
a strong emphasis on the environment, and I think this is something
new. The old socialism very much shared a trust in constant and
ever increasing production, higher growth rates, and in the belief
that technology would solve everything. I think this is a big difference.
We now have a movement that is very distrustful of technology, and
certainly sees constantly higher growth rates as part of the problem.
The new movement has very strong views that we must coexist in a
harmonious way with the rest of the biosphere, instead of dominating
it as in classical expressions of the whole Judeo-Christian traditions,
parts of which are incorporated in Marxism.
The last thing
is diversity. The old socialism talked about one model whether it
was the Marxist-Leninist sort or the Social-Democratic sort. People
were thinking about one model into which the rest of the world could
be organized. In that sense it was very similar to the way of thinking
of the IMF and World Bank - one model or structure that can be applied
to everybody. I think part of this problem is the common origins
of neo-liberalism and Marxism in the enlightenment. So you do have
right now a movement that is post-enlightenment in this sense.
I would not
minimize the differences between this new movement and the old socialist
movement, because I do think there are differences. But both could
learn from one another. There are certain values from the new movement
that Marxists can mull about and think about and incorporate in
their own work. Progressive activists who have interacted with the
developments have not had a problem in terms of shifting. The problem
is more with intellectuals and academics of the left whose main
mode of perception of change are intellectual rather than activists.
If you look at activists coming from Marxists backgrounds of the
1960s and 1970s that have remained engaged you find many of them
being central to the anti-globalization movement.
I would cite
the example from Thailand where many of the cadre of the old Communist
Party became central to the new progressive politics. The new movements
in Thailand put a lot of emphasize on environmental struggles, on
the connections between the environment and farm struggles, and
the struggles over resettlement that incorporate a whole series
of demands. What I see here in Thailand are movements for the poor
that blend the best of the old progressive traditions with the best
of the new progressive traditions. So I think the key thing is participation
in activists struggles. The level of activism is where you see much
of this recent blending going on.
Perhaps we can turn the discussion towards some of the theoretical
aspects of globalization. It seems there has been a revolution in
the means of production because of digital technology and this has
built a global command and control system for transnationals. Also
the incredible size and speed of the financial markets would be
impossible without information technology. These factors have laid
the foundation for a new system of production that is engendering
a global bourgeoisie. This is taking formation through global mergers,
complex alliances, and the vast spread of tightly interconnected
financial markets. This is essentially different from Lenin’s
imperialism where international corporations had a single national
base. How do you see these developments? I know from reading your
work you see globalization as mainly a project of US hegemony. Would
you like to respond to some of these ideas?
My sense is the ties and interactions among capitalists groups have
definitely intensified during the last three decades with neo-liberalism,
globalization, and the integration of markets and economies. But
the driving force of globalization when you look at it is principally
US corporations. The cutting edge of the technological revolution,
especially in the 1990s, were definitely American information corporations
like Microsoft. In fact, if you look at the 1980s and 1990s there
was real competition between Japanese corporations closely tied
into the Japanese state, and US corporations who were very tied
into Republican administrations.
Basically you had competition at the level of capitalists groupings
between Japan and the United States. And one can say that Japan
as a capitalist country dominated by the Sonys, Toyotas and karitsus
basically lost that battle. At the same time European capitalists
groups were moving towards a more supranational integration in the
economy and state. This was precisely a reaction to both the Japanese
and American challenge.
So I don’t think national capital at this point has vanished.
It is there and still as strong as ever. We just saw a manifestation
of US capital making use of the US state. After the Asian financial
crisis US capital, working closely with the US state and using the
IMF, basically created American type rules for Asian capital. They
also used this opportunity to buy depreciated assets from Japan
to Korea to Thailand. And through mergers and acquisitions picked-up
Asian capitalist assets that had been severely depreciated by the
So in terms
of inter-capitalists competition it continues to persists as a future
of globalization, and the US state continues to be very much a state
of US capital. We can see this now in the IMF and World Trade Organization.
The arguments with Europe, the fights with Europe, the intensifying
contradictions with Europe, over issues as Boeing and Airbus, agricultural
interests, on a whole range of industrial policy, the role of subsidies,
GMOs, name it. Here is where European corporations and the European
superstate are listening and reacting to the demands of their own
civil society. While we also see the efforts of the US corporations
working with the US state to push their own policies. I don’t
think that we can eliminate the national aspects of this struggle
between Europe and the United States. So yes, globalization is making
the interaction of national or regional capitalists more intense,
but that interaction continues to maintain a very strong level of
competition. And that states, the European superstate and European
Union, and the United States, are principally responsible to their
own capitalist groupings.
Well lets take a look at the IMF, World Bank, the WTO, and the growth
of these organization. Can we say that this is an effort, whether
by capitalists groupings or a global bourgeoisie, to build a new
legal, contractual, legislative and financial superstructure to
house this new capitalist system? Of course there is competition
within these structures, we know capitalism is a competitive system,
but the basic process is that capitalists groupings in Europe, Japan
and America are building these common structures and creating rules
that they all share and compete within. So that in important ways
this is superseding the role which national states would have played
before. In fact, today in many ways what the national state is focused
on is building a global structure. For example, the US Treasury
Department under Ruben and Summers spent more time debating what
the IMF should be doing, rather than what the Treasure Department
should be doing inside the United States.
How do you analyze this formation of a global superstructure?
When you talk about the WTO, IMF and World Bank I don’t think
you can talk about one project, but several projects. The main project
within the WTO was what we can call the Anglo-American project.
The rules and priorities of the free market, the role of the state,
you know comes from the Anglo-American way of capitalism. And this
principally benefits US corporations because these are the sorts
of rules culturally that they have lived with and achieved their
dominance in the economy.
The same thing
with the IMF. When we talk about the construction or reconstruction
of the IMF and World Bank, when we talk about the generalization
of neo-liberalism and structural adjustments, what we are really
talking about is the Anglo-Americanization of capitalism. The definition
of other roots of capitalism, an Asian or Japanese capitalism, or
a European capitalism where the state plays a far more comprehensive
role than the United States, are somehow illegitimate to capitalism.
This cultural economic stamp in globalization can not be underestimated
because it uproots the right of certain national cultural experiences
and disadvantages certain groupings that derive from other experiences.
So part of the problems that we see within the IMF and WTO are precisely
conflicts over this cultural capitalist contradiction. More