Capitalism, Globalization, and Epochal Shifts: An Exchange

By Sivanandan, A.; Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, February 1997 | Go to article overview

Capitalism, Globalization, and Epochal Shifts: An Exchange


Sivanandan, A., Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


Ellen Meiksins Wood wants to know what is epochal about the shift in capitalism wrought by the new technologies (Monthly Review July/August 1996). Capitalism, she maintains, is still capitalism and is still bent on "extracting more value from labor" - only now, "the logic of the old mass production economy" can be "diversified and extended," reaching "whole new sectors" and affecting "types of workers more or less untouched before."

What is it but epochal:

* when the whole of the industrial working class has been disaggregated, de-skilled and re-composed into highly-skilled "core" workers at one end of the production process, and unskilled or semi-skilled "peripheral" workers at the other?

* when factories, which once housed thousands of workers under one roof, are no longer fixed in time or place, but are stretched across the world in global assembly lines - and capitalism, instead of importing labor, can take up its plant and walk to any part of the world where labor is cheap and captive and plentiful;

* when, as a result, working-class organizations have become fragmented or been destroyed altogether, and the working-class movement rendered impotent, and

* thereby removing that tension between Capital and Labor which once produced not only social reforms such as the factory acts, the education acts and the public health acts but also the so-called bourgeois freedoms of speech, of assembly, and of universal suffrage - while engendering, at the same time, the values and mores of solidarity and community and fellowship;

* when governments owe their power not to the voters, but to business conglomerates, media moguls, owners of the means of communication, who massage the votes, manipulate the voters - and governments go where multinationals take them, to institute policies at home or set up regimes abroad that are hospitable to global capital. (Ms. Wood, of course, has doubts about "the growth of multi-national corporations" and the "weakness of the nation state");

* when, as a consequence, the bourgeoisie of the Third World is no longer a national bourgeoisie working in the interests of its people but an international bourgeoisie working in the interests of international capital. (Ms. Wood accepts that capitalism, for the first time, has become "a truly global phenomenon," though she disdains "the tired old formula, 'globalization'");

* when the "knowledge workers" who run the Information Society, who are in the engine room of power, have become collaborators in power.

I could go on, but the point I want to make - at the risk of appearing technologically determinist - is that the qualitative changes brought about at the level of the forces of production have brought about changes in the mode of production which, in turn, have led to changes in social relations. If "the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord and the steam-mill gives you society with the industrial capitalist," the microchip gives you society with the global capitalist. To insist, as Ms. Wood does, that the emphasis should be on "the logic of capitalism, not some particular technology or labor process but the logic of specific social property relations" is to overlook the way that such technology or labor process have altered social property relations. (Whatever happened to Braverman?).

Doubtless capitalism is capitalism is capitalism, but the failure to distinguish between its different avatars freezes us in modes and forms of struggle which are effete and ineffectual, and blinds us to the revolutionary possibilities opened up by information technology. By the same token, it fails to see the dangers posed by the "culture of postmodernism" which is organic to information capitalism, and not some sort of psychological mutation spawned in the aftermath of the post-war boom.

If I take passionate issue with Ms. Wood, it is because I am concerned that, in recoiling from the post-Marxist heresies all around us, we ourselves do not overbalance into an abstract, academic Marxism which does not speak to the everyday struggles of people in their fight for survival against a marauding capitalism. …

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