Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Global Transformation and Local Countermovements: The Prospects for Democracy under Neoliberalism

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Global Transformation and Local Countermovements: The Prospects for Democracy under Neoliberalism

Article excerpt


The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the beginning of a major transformation of international political economy, a sea change that continues to play itself out in the name of globalization. We stand at the center of these events, without a clear understanding of their outcome but with a palpable sense of the changing shape of our world. In many ways, our epoch is comparable to Karl Polanyi's "great transformation" that began with the rise of an international market economy and ended in fascism, war, and the collapse of nineteenth century civilization. The comparison is twofold. First, nineteenth century liberalism and twentieth century globalization each in its time reorganized the international capitalist system in new ways, initially through imperial rivalry and then by means of a global regime. Second, by extending the market economy to new terrain, each regime introduced contradictions revolving around social protection and currency. In Polanyi's language, these "disruptive strains" fostered "countermovements" or defensive reactions intent on saving society from the destructive effects of unfettered market competition. Without prejudging the direction of contemporary events, Polanyi's classic The Great Transformation provides a fertile model for analyzing today's global society.

The late twentieth century pivots on the creation of a new international system designed to promote stability and economic recovery at the end of World War II through the Bretton Wood accords. A Third World was created under the tutelage of the industrialized states, a world that was to be blandished and instructed in the ways of development. Economic growth was the object, a goal attainable through open markets, trade and aid, foreign investment, and coordination by an active developmental state.

In this paper, we analyze the state and social movements in the developing world. We are concerned with developmental policy, the limits of state autonomy, and the prospects of democracy. These themes require that we sketch the evolution of the developmental state--its political principles, moral economy, accomplishments, contradictions, and effective demise with the debt crisis of the 1980s. Our problem suggests several contemporary parallels with Polanyi's analysis. The debt crisis and subsequent austerity policies implemented by multilateral agencies of the new global regime were a classic effort to save the market economy from its own contradictions. Disruptive strains fostered in the process centered on currency devaluations and deteriorating social protections. Similarly, these events generated an international wave of countermovements, cases of popular protest and mobilization originating from a common root but manifest in varied societal forms. The countermovements begin in a strikingly similar set of popular uprisings beginning in the 1980s, an international wave of street riots protesting austerity policies identified with the International Monetary Fund. Although riots and demonstrations continued episodically, new forms of political mobilization began to emerge and supersede the premises of the developmental state. It is these emerging practices that we hope to illuminate.

In the sections that follow, first we describe the transformation in general terms, how it has been described and theorized. Then we turn to two case studies of political conflict: social movements around globalization and democratization in Mexico and India. The case studies focus on two of the world's major developing countries, yet ones that differ in their histories and paths to modernity. They are selected for comparison in the interests of variation, in order to show in detail the different avenues along which globalization and its countermovements proceed. In the end, we also propose certain similarities between these cases as well as some lessons for the unfolding transformation.

Theorizing the Politics of Transformation

Polanyi (2001) traced national trajectories through the great transformation as they were shaped by strains and countermovements associated with social interventions in the market, "the measures which society adopted in order not to be, in its turn, annihilated by the action of the self-regulating market" (Polanyi 2001:257). …

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.