Progressive Globalism: Challenging the Audacity of Capital

By Tabb, William K. | Monthly Review, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Progressive Globalism: Challenging the Audacity of Capital


Tabb, William K., Monthly Review


I will address some aspects of globalization in our time and what they mean for working people. I will start with some general definitions and suggest that the most significant features of what is called globalization have always been part of capitalist development, even if the forms are different in different periods (including our own). I will then discuss the arrogance of capital as it tries to remake our world in its preferred image. In this regard, I will contrast U.S. initiatives in the area of labor standards with worker demands for labor rights. I will then consider the institutions of an internationalized capitalist regime, which seeks to impose itself using vehicles such as the International Monetary Fund and the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment. Finally, I will talk about resistance.

Globalization refers to the process of reducing barriers between countries and encouraging closer economic, political, and social interaction. Globalization could vastly increase the ability of people everywhere to improve their living standards by sharing knowledge and the fruits of human labor across those barriers. This, of course, does not happen. The point, and it is one too easily glided over and too often ignored, is that, as Richard Walker has written, "Accumulation is the main driving force of the world economy, along with its correlates, capital-capital competition and capital-labor exploitation. This is why it makes sense to speak of 'the capitalist system' rather than 'the global market.' The greatest economic myth of all is that the market has as its principal purpose the service of human needs rather than the aggrandizement of capitalists and their corporations."

So when we hear that "Nothing can be done, the global market is just too powerful, and governments are helpless," it is important to ask whose government we are talking about. The state in a capitalist society is the capitalist state. The government is not a neutral arbitrator with weak powers against market forces, but a structural part of the capitalist system in which we live. Globalization is not a steamroller against which the U.S. government is helpless; the state is an active participant in the structuring of globalization. If the United States has lost power to the international market, the loss has been largely self-inflicted. As British political scientist Susan Strange argues, "In order to make the rest of the world safe and welcoming to American capitalism, successive U.S. governments have broken down barriers to foreign investment and promoted capital mobility." These changes may be increasing the asymmetries of power between states to the advantage of the more market-oriented. Opting out of the world market economy is no longer an option. That, as Strange argues, "is what dependency means today." The state is forced to become, as the Canadian theorist Robert Cox writes, "a transmission belt from the global to the national economy, where hithertofore it had acted as the bulwark defending the domestic welfare from external disturbances." Since opting out is not possible, the questions are about what kind of relationship state formations will have to global capital, and how they will use the power they have, individually and collectively, to shape their own and global institutions. The present is threatened by the strength of hyper-liberal globalization. The assertion of social control and pursuance of a leveling-up and, in sum, a more balanced and positive development, could change the nature of the globalization process. Surely it is our task to push things in that direction as much as we can. The idea that this is impossible, the sense of inevitability, is an ideological construct and the product of political forces acting through powerful mechanisms in the realms of government and media.

Globalization is not simply a technologically driven force. The spin put on globalization and the politics of the period combine to misrepresent much of what has happened and why it has been able to take place. …

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