A Note on Du Boff and Herman

By Wood, Ellen Meiksins | Monthly Review, November 1997 | Go to article overview

A Note on Du Boff and Herman


Wood, Ellen Meiksins, Monthly Review


I'm taking the liberty of appending this note because, though Du Boff and Herman's article is directed mainly at Bill Tabb, it refers to some of the things I've written about globalization.

Recently, I got a letter from Bill Doyle, who wrote, "After reading Ed Herman's comments in Z (magazine), I re-read your article and couldn't see why Ed was so exercised. I'd be interested to know if you see a substantial difference between the two of you, and, if so, what it is." Here, with some minor changes and additions, is what I wrote back:

I have to admit that I've been having the same problem myself understanding why [Ed Herman] is so worked up about my comments on globalization. It seems - or seemed - to me that there is so much common ground between us, and even our differences aren't (or so I thought) of the kind that should generate this kind of indignation. But he and Dick Du Boff have just submitted an article to MR replying to a recent piece by Bill Tabb, with some side-swipes at me, and now that I've read it I begin to understand at least part of the problem.

Their main disagreement with me has to do with the state. First, though, here's what I think we have in common on that score - which is substantial: we agree, as I understand it, that the state in today's global capitalism still has a major role to play in advancing the interests of capital. I'm not even sure they disagree with my argument that the state has in some respects become more, not less, important to capital. So we seem to be joined in our opposition to the conventional assumption that globalization by definition means an increasingly irrelevant nation-state. So what's the problem?

Well, it seems to come down to this: for Herman and Du Boff, the (increasing?) role of the state in support of capital testifies to the limits of state power in relation to capital, or, more specifically, the limits on the power of anti-capitalist forces. They castigate me (and Bill Tabb) for failing to acknowledge the "adverse effects of globalization on politics." We even, they maintain, have an almost Panglossian view of state power. We seem to think that "If the United States has made a 'political choice' to encourage the race to the bottom for its working class, it can choose to do otherwise." It's just a question of political will. They suggest, with some contempt, that our political message is simply "Let's just do it!" But, they say, while the state may be technically capable of regulating and controlling capital (it always has been), globalization has limited its political capacity to do so.

But isn't there something odd about their argument? Starting with the same premises, you could come to just the opposite conclusion. I do so myself, and not at all because I focus on the purely technical capacities of the state at the expense of the economic and political context in which it has to operate. On the contrary, it's because I think globalization (or some of the trends that go under that name, often with a lot of misleading baggage, some of which Herman and Du Boff themselves disclaim) is creating new economic and political conditions which make anti-capitalist struggle not less but more possible and potentially effective.

I talk about some of these things in this year's summer issue (vol. 49 no. 3), so I'll just say this much here: globalization implies, among other things, those ruthless state actions we associate with neo-liberalism, policies designed to enhance "competitiveness" and "flexibility," not just for individual firms but for whole national economies, in the global market. Those policies are there not just because capital wants them but because it needs them to guarantee maximum profitability in an integrated and competitive global economy. Even the World Bank in its latest World Development report, The State in a Changing World, insists on the importance of an "effective" state, which, "harnessing the energy of private business and individuals. …

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