Social Justice and Globalization: Are They Compatible? (Review of the Month)

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

Social Justice and Globalization: Are They Compatible? (Review of the Month)


Gindin, Sam, Monthly Review


In a speech in 1999, Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford, candidly remarked that "globalization" is another term for U.S. domination. (1) Such clarity tends, in itself, to negatively answer the question posed in the title of this talk. How can anyone argue that U.S. domination--or using the less polite term, "U.S. imperialism"--is compatible with social justice?

Similarly, if we agree that a minimum precondition for any notion of social justice is the extension of people's democratic ability to shape their lives, that too might reinforce skepticism about globalization's compatibility with social justice. Especially if we see globalization as being largely about establishing global rules that act as a constitution for investor rights, and which are beyond any parliamentary challenges. And if we went further and defined a socially just world as one that supported the full and mutual development of the potential capacities of every individual, I imagine that many--if not most of us--would judge globalization to be inconsistent with that ideal.

And yet things refuse to stay that simple or clear. Even if Kissinger has helped us see the obvious, aren't many countries, and citizens of those countries, anxious for U.S. investment? Isn't it true that the Canadian government, far from being forced into the free trade agreement, begged for that integration into the United States? Is China wrong when it argues that access to U.S. markets, technology, and capital will facilitate its development and that such development is a critical base for social justice? Would we disagree with the World Bank when it argues that countries that have either rejected globalization, or are now being ignored by globalization, do not seem better off for that fact?

Part of the confusion lies in ambiguities about what we mean by globalization and how we think about social justice. But it is more than that: it is also that our sense of social justice is affected by what we believe is possible. In the absence of alternatives to the U.S. Empire, and in the absence of the political capacity to put such alternatives on the agenda, our dreams are trimmed to fit the bed of "reality." Social justice is made compatible with globalization, not by transforming society, but by shrinking our ideals.

This limiting of hope was perhaps the main measure of the worldwide defeat of the last generation. In spite of the inspiration of Seattle and its aftermath, that sense of defeat is still pervasive. Social justice demands reviving the determination to dream. Its not just that dreaming is essential for maintaining any resistance, but because today, if we do not think big--as big as the globalizers themselves think--we will not even win small.

It's from this perspective that I'd like to consider, and draw some conclusions from, two apparently opposite alternatives that try to find some compatibility between globalization and social justice: one seeks a return to the social democracy of capitalism's "golden age," while the other emphasizes building a community-based "social economy." But first, a brief historical point on globalization.

Globalization is not new. A century and a half ago, Karl Marx noted the inherent capitalist drive to "nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere....In place of the old national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, the universal interdependence of nations." (2) By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, globalization was an assumed fact of life:

But if globalization was integral to capitalism, its long-term stability was far from inevitable. In fact, the very globalization which "only a madman might have doubted" at the end of the nineteenth century, came to a sudden and crashing halt early in the twentieth. That breakdown in world order came with the horrifying slaughter of the First World War, followed--after a brief respite in the 1920's--by the stunning collapse of national economies in the form of the Great Depression and the political rise of German, Italian, and Japanese Fascism. …

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