We live at a time when capitalism has become more extreme, and is more than ever presenting itself as a force of nature, which demands such extremes. Globalization--the spread of the self-regulating market to every niche and cranny of the globe--is portrayed by its mainly establishment proponents as a process that is unfolding from everywhere at once with no center and no discernible power structure. As the New York Times claimed in its July 7, 2001 issue, repeating now fashionable notions, today's global reality is one of "a fluid, infinitely expanding and highly organized system that encompasses the world's entire population," but which lacks any privileged positions or "place of power." (*)
Even the revolutionary figure of Karl Marx has been enlisted in support of this view of inexorable global destiny, which seemingly determines everything, but which has no manifest agent of change. Thus the World Bank quoted from The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels on the opening page of its 1996 World Development Report, arguing that the transition from planned to market economies and the entire thrust of neoliberal globalization was an inescapable, elemental process, lacking any visible hand behind it:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation...All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices, and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air...
Gone-spirited away by ellipses in the World Bank quotation from the Manifesto-were Marx and Engels' allusions in the same passage to "the bourgeois epoch" and their subsequent reference to how "the need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe."
It is no doubt largely in response to this atmosphere of inevitability, in which globalization is divorced from all agency, that the movement against the neoliberal global project has chosen to exaggerate the role of the visible instruments of globalization at the expense of any serious consideration of historical capitalism. Radical dissenters frequently single out the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and multinational corporations-and even specific corporations like McDonalds-for criticism, while deemphasizing the system, and its seemingly inexorable forces.
These two distorted viewpoints, one generally in support of globalization, the other generally opposed, are mutually reinforcing in their unreality. Those who wish to intervene in these processes are thus left with no real material basis on which to ground their actions. Both perspectives have in common an emphasis on the decline of nation state sovereignty. Adam Smith described capitalism in the late eighteenth century as a system that eliminated all need for a sovereign power in the economic realm, replacing the visible hand of the absolutist or mercantilist state with the invisible hand of the market. "The Sovereign," he wrote, "is completely discharged from a duty" with respect to the market (Book 4, section 9). Now we are told that this invisible hand has been globalized to such an extent that the sovereign power of nation states over their territorial domains themselves has been vastly diminished. For New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, globa lization is a new technological-economic system based in the microchip and ruled by an "electronic herd" of financial investors and multinational corporations, free from any nation state or power structure, and beholden to none.
Those seeking to dispel such views might reply that capitalism with all of its contradictions remains. But most current conceptions of capitalism are too lacking in historical specificity and concreteness, and too wrapped up in the notion of unfettered competition, to be useful in countering this dominant ideology. …