A Critique of Tabb on Globalization

By Du Boff, Richard B.; Herman, Edward S. | Monthly Review, November 1997 | Go to article overview

A Critique of Tabb on Globalization


Du Boff, Richard B., Herman, Edward S., Monthly Review


In "Globalization Is An Issue. The Power of Capital Is The Issue" (MR, June 1997), William Tabb rejects what he calls "the strong version of the globalization thesis" as based on the "myth" that "technology and irresistible market forces [are transforming] the global system in ways beyond the power of anyone to do much to change." He prefers "a more nuanced view," which would give "a major role to national-level policies and actors, and the central position not to inexorable economic forces but to politics."

But Tabb has set up a straw man: by definition, those who espouse the "strong version" believe that capitalism has triumphed for good, that the nation-state is no longer relevant, and that "there is no alternative" to the existing social and economic system. Tabb is not the first MR contributor to interpret globalization this way, nor the latest. In the July-August 1997 issue, Ellen Wood embellishes Tabb's strong version by claiming that it "cuts the ground from under class politics [and] socialism as a political objective," and implies that "the best we can do is liberate a little more space in the interstices of capitalism, by means of many particular and separate struggles ... that sometimes go under the name of identity politics."

Not only do we reject these propositions, we reject the arguments used to support them, namely, that globalization has little basis in economic fact, is no more advanced than it was during the pre-1914 years, and has no significant political consequences. Our version, both "strong" and "nuanced," would be that since the early 1970s changes in technology and politics have greatly increased the ability of capital to do what it has always wanted to do - turn the world into one "free market" for finance, production, and wage labor. Ideologically strengthened by the collapse of communism, corporate capital has used its initiatory power in the realms of investment, employment, pricing, industrial location, and selective implementation of new technologies to leapfrog ahead of the ability of progressive forces to mobilize and fight back - which takes time, organization, and, if history teaches us anything, decades of struggle. This is not exactly the first time workers, and the entire left, have faced this situation; nor is it the first time that capital has been able to use the nation-state to accomplish its ends easier and faster, this time in significant measure through the creation of supranational institutions promoting the needs of transnational finance and production (NAFTA, EU, WTO, MAI, and multilateral trade agreements, including the latest "Uruguay Round").

Tabb argues that "the first need is to critique the strong version of globalization" because its political implications are "defeatist" and have "disempowered much of the left." But he gives no evidence that the strong version has disempowered anybody. He asserts that "Much of the U.S. labor movement has embraced the strong version of globalization, placing almost exclusive emphasis on runaway shops and the threat of low wage production venues in the Third World to American workers." We question this characterization of the views and policy emphases of American labor unionists. Tabb may be confusing labor's perceptions of the threat from globalization with their actual behavior: they may perceive trade and runaway shops to be threats, but they do not spend all their time fighting them while abandoning struggles for worker welfare at home (see the comments of Hector Figueroa of the Service Employees International Union, In These Times, 31 March 1997).

We believe that a "strong version" is no more "defeatist" than an analogous strong version would have been a century ago, when the industrial system had been dramatically altered in the previous 20 years by the rise of continent-spanning oligopolies and the virtual destruction of the labor movement by the Supreme Court and Pinkerton's police, and any political response had to face these intimidating new realities. …

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