Anti-Capitalism and the Terrain of Social Justice. (Review of the Month)

By Gindin, Sam | Monthly Review, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Anti-Capitalism and the Terrain of Social Justice. (Review of the Month)


Gindin, Sam, Monthly Review


The Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation was established last year for the purpose of building on the late journalist and author's agenda for a socialist future. To that end, the Foundation launched an annual essay contest. We're pleased to publish the contest's inaugural prize-winning essay, chosen by an international jury from entries representing ten states and five countries. Submissions for the 2002 prize of $2500 should be no longer than 5000 words in any language and should be sent to the Foundation at P.O. Box 334, Sherman CT, 06784, U.S.A. Professor Sam Gindin is the Packer Chair in Social Justice, Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto.--the Editors

Introduction: If Small Changes are Impossible, Then...

Until recently, a pervasive sense of there-is-no-alternative left us with a debilitating pessimism. Seattle was, arguably, the long-awaited antidote. Where social democracy had seen the power of capital and was cowed by it, the Seattle protesters recognized that building a decent world meant actively resisting it. In this defiant understanding that resistance creates the space for hope, the chain of protests initiated by Seattle fell in with a tradition that saw realism in historic terms, rather than in a fetishism of the present.

That tradition of an open future is, ironically, very much rooted in the social revolutions that gave birth to the same capitalism that the establishment was now deifying. Witnessing the transformation of what had, for centuries, been considered the only way things might be, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville observed how quickly "the evil suffered patiently as inevitable [becomes] unendurable as soon as one conceives the idea of escaping from it." Shortly after, John Stuart Mill echoed the same sentiment:

The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. (2)

The Seattle and post-Seattle protests had no ready-made alternatives. They did not signal, as some prematurely assumed at the time, the labor movement's readiness to join, if not lead, a new internationalism. Nor was the mobilizing capacity and sense of injustice they demonstrated directly transferable to other crucial domestic issues. There has, for example, been little evidence that the social movements that led to Seattle are as yet either inclined to embrace, or capable of realizing, the larger task of organizing sustained mass demonstrations within the United States against American poverty, racial oppression, and the most aggressively anti-union administrative practices in the developed world.

The importance of these protest-spectacles lay, rather, in their combining the energy of direct action with the visionary potential of abstract thought. If small changes were--as business, politicians, and editorial writers kept reminding us--impossible, then maybe it was time again to start thinking big. If social justice could no longer be discussed without addressing globalization, Seattle declared that globalization could no longer be addressed without addressing capitalism. And so, in the course of their resistance, a new generation of protesters dared to name the system that hath no name.

By naming the previously unspoken social system behind globalization, globalization was being politicized. Where "globalization" had become a weapon brandished by business, politicians, and the media to explain what we couldn't do, placing capitalism itself up for discussion and criticism was part of insisting that the limits we faced were socially constructed, and could therefore be challenged, stretched, and one day overcome. The protesters raised the stakes because enough of them didn't want in, but demanded something different. The term "anti-capitalism" arrived on the public agenda. …

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