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A Conversation with Walden Bello, Director of Focus on the Global South, Bangkok, March 10, 2001 (page 1 of 2)
with Jerry Harris

JH. 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. Others
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?

WB. 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 about.

JH. 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 greater solidarity?

WB. 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.

JH. 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?

WB. 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 equality.

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.

JH. 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?

WB. 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 financial crisis.

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.

JH. 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?

WB. 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 >>


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