THE DE-GLOBALIZATION QUESTION


          A recent article on these pages poses the interesting question of whether globalization is on the way out (Mishra 2007). The author’s unqualified answer is yes, it’s dead and gone, and so much the better. This is wishful thinking, and misses the most crucial fact of all, which is the sheer contingency of the present globalist moment. Yes, globalization as we have known it is on the wane, but so are some of its worst enemies. The pressing question is whether reform efforts should be directed toward further de-globalization or at some form of non-hegemonic re-globalization. The recent eclipse of Third Way rhetoric in Europe and the United States should not remove that second option from consideration, especially since a very different Third Way is emerging in Latin America. First, however, it is necessary to get a better fix on the fault lines of the present globalization debate.

 

          Ten years ago globalists and anti-globalists could still agree on the cardinal fact that neoliberal globalization was on the march. Most “antis” only differed in holding that this trend was a) extremely unfortunate, and b) not inevitable. Globalization recognized no boundaries, and seemed to sanction nation states only insofar as they proved useful. Under Clinton, the US itself was proving so “useful” that in 1996, at the height of its economic hubris, America came to see itself — in the bodacious words of Madeleine Albright — as the indispensable nation. Europe as envisioned by Tony Blair had little choice but to join the same transnational “Empire,” to borrow the Hardt and Negri term. For better or worse, globalization was seen by both sides as the main event in post-Cold War world affairs.   

 

          That was then. Now, a short decade later, the word is out that globalization is in retreat (See, for example, Bello 2006). Even a card-carrying globalist like Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post must admit that US-directed globalization is not manifest destiny (Mallaby 2006). It ultimately depends as much on the public’s tacit acceptance as on mega-profits, and the Bush junta has managed to do what countless anti-globalist rallies could not: to kill the legitimacy that globalist hegemony requires (Bello 2006: 1345-67).

 

          To that extent, once again, the two sides can basically agree. The problem is that some are following John Ralston Saul (The Collapse of Globalism, 2005) in viewing this retreat in largely binary, seesaw terms. Much as neoliberal triumphalists once thought the Soviet fall spelled a total and irreversible victory for American-style capitalism, wishful anti-globalists now assume that if the globalists have lost ground, the “antis” must be winning. However, as Mallaby rightly notes, reality is not so cooperative. As we knew them in the more pellucid 1990s, globalism and anti-globalism are both losing ground (Mallaby 2006). Paul Kennedy locates the truth somewhere between Saul’s fuming jeremiad and Thomas Friedman’s blissfully myopic The World is Flat (Kennedy 2005), both of which are trying hard to bring closure to a stubbornly open question.

 

          Seeing how China enjoys the fruits of WTO membership while evading most of its putative constraints, Russia wants in on the action. Therefore it is struggling to overcome the last obstacles to its own WTO membership (Smolchenko 2007). Clearly it does not see globalist institutions like the WTO as defunct. They are all the more attractive to Beijing and Moscow because they are not doing their intended job. The fate of globalization does not rest with neoliberal TINA, since a host of very noxious alternative globalisms — Putinism and Huism being the major contenders — are standing in line to fill the globalist void.

 

          Granted, the Washington Consensus no longer commands the craven respect it enjoyed during the roaring 1990s. That particular hegemony, rather than globalization as such, no longer defines our era. The years of neoliberalism’s virtual monopoly over foreign affairs bears an eerie resemblance to early twentieth century globalization, prompting Walden Bello’s warning that this round could also end very badly (Bello 2002). Even if rising energy frictions do not lead to war between major powers or their surrogates, there is a growing risk of world depression, as no solution has been found for the crisis of overproduction that inspired the neoliberal turn in the first place (See Bello 2006).[1]

 

          Though Bello takes due note of the risks of a globalist meltdown, he recoils from any renewed effort to patch over the defects of globalism. In effect he says “burn the infamous thing,” for he sees no chance that a recycled Third Way will be less co-opted than the original one. By the turn of our new century the global power elite was actively courting NGOs and other representatives of civil society, such as Bono, in an effort to regain lost legitimacy. This stress on civility is of course a ruse, as was the whole Third Way movement of the previous decade. To curb such whitewash efforts, Bello calls upon labor unions and socially committed NGOs (as opposed to TNC fronts like Global Compact) to boycott all globalist meetings (Bello 2001).

 

          Given the collapse of the WTO’s Doha Round of July 2006, and with the IMF and the World Bank held in well-justified contempt through most of the developing world, it is understandable that many would see globalization as a sinking ship. Bello knows, however, that the ship is merely coming in for repairs, not for permanent dry dock. A new front line is being drawn between globalist “pros” and “antis,” as emphasis shifts from fully global multilateralism to regional or bilateral concords such as free trade agreements (FTAs) and economic partnership agreements (EPAs). With regard to center/periphery relations, however, these more focused terms of engagement actually intensify pressure on the weaker parties (Bello 2006). In that sense it is extremely premature to read the last rites over globalization, loosely defined.

 

          Fortunately there is a rising current of popular resistance to unfettered globalization, especially in Latin America. A close look at the Latin reaction reveals a surprisingly wide spectrum of anti- or alter-globalist experiments — not just the Chavismo that makes the headlines in North America. What distinguishes this nascent Third Way from its northern antecedents is its basic function: Whereas the original Third Way was designed to restore the lost legitimacy of First World capitalism in the midst of a growing class divide (See “Rich Man” 2007),[2] the Latin version is a grassroots expression of distinctly Third World interests.

 

          Unfortunately this new reformism has to compete not only with First Way globalization but with a resurgent Second Way as well. The fall of the Soviet Union presumably eliminated the Second World, and hence any possible Second Way, but a functional Second Way has been born on Asia’s capitalist periphery. Together with Russia’s Putinism, Thai Thaksinocracy (now bereft of Thaksin himself) has set a ghastly precedent for the whole developing world by producing a virulent new model of “democratic” statism.

 

          However, as China’s double-digit growth amply proves, the democratic element is purely optional. It says much about the real priorities of neoliberal globalization that China’s “miracle” of the 1990s, fueled largely by Western investors, took place under the long shadow of Tiananmen. The PRC’s pogrom on its own best and brightest was a high-stakes gamble that TNCs would put profits over principles. They grandly fulfilled that expectation, sending a message to the whole developing world that the unreformed China model had received a green light. In effect the new Second Way was given clearance for takeoff.    

 

          Grafting the statist control of Maoism to the economic engine of capitalism, the China model avoids the economic drag of democracy, environmental standards, and liberal bottlenecks such as unions and a free press. The gravest danger is that this archetype of maldevelopment will be widely imitated throughout Asia and the Global South. And why not? The Western “free market” has made it clear that it prefers investing in anti-democratic China over the democratic alternatives. Money talks, and repression pays — or so it seems. The question is how far Sino-globalization can be pushed before it is dragged down by the weight of its largely unreported byproducts: graft, waste, environmental spoilage, and a burgeoning class divide. The future of the new Second Way hinges on that question.

 

          Thus, in place of the epic clash between First World capitalism and Second World communism, we now have a contest of rival capitalisms. Having far less moral baggage to carry, Sino-globalization is winning the race in Africa and gaining ground in the Middle East. But it is in Central Asia that its weight is most felt. Here China is the major player in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a de facto “NATO of the East” that links Russia and China with like-minded regimes of Central Asia (See Chan 2006). The big question is whether the SCO model has much global appeal. Do its Second Way devices point toward a resurrected Second World?

 

          The litmus test is whether the SCO mentality can resonate in Latin America. The bad news is that Latin countries are buying all the arms they can afford, much of them from Russia. The good news is a broad regional preference for global cooperation, including close but not subservient relations with Washington. That duality belies the standard report on Latin America’s political reorientation. What is emerging, most notably in Chile, is an ideological pragmatism that eschews the traditions of both Castro and Pinochet. The new reformists want social justice and equitable economic distribution, in line with the World Social Forum, but they also want to be sure there will be plenty of wealth to distribute. If that means accepting some form of globalization, so be it.

 

          This alter-globalist imperative is reflected not only in the administrations of Lula and Bachelet, but even, sotto voce, in those of Chávez and Morales. So far their practice has tended to be much less incendiary than their rhetoric. The Latin Third Way, in turn, remains solidly on the Left, embracing an activism that is sorely lacking in its European and North American counterparts. It is willing to deal with the devil, which is to say the global market, but will not accept an unregulated market society. So long as it can hold that line, there is yet hope that the developing world will not have to make the fateful choice between globalization and social justice.

 

 

NOTES:

 

[1] Hence Bello argues that neoliberal globalization, far from being a manifestation of exuberant capitalist confidence, was in fact a desperate response to the capitalist crisis of stagnation and disequilibria in the global economy of the 1970s and 1980s.

 

[2] In just twenty years the pay of the average manager in America has increased from 40 times that of he average worker to 110 times.

 

 

REFERENCES:

 

Bello, Walden. 2006. “Globalization in Retreat.Foreign Policy in Focus (December 27).

 

_________. 2006. “The Capitalist Conjuncture: Over-accumulation, Financial Crises, and the Retreat from Globalization.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 8.

 

_________. 2002. “A Global ConjunctureFrontline, Vol. 19, Issue 18 (August 31-September 13).

 

_________. 2001. “The Global Conjuncture: Characteristics and Challenges.International Socialism Journal, Issue 91 (Summer).

 

Chan, John. 2006. “Shanghai Summit: China and Russia Strengthen Bloc to Counter the US in Asia.The World Socialist Web Site (June 23).

 

Kennedy, Paul. 2005. “The Collapse of Globalism by John Ralston Saul.Times Online (May 22).

 

Mallaby, Sebastian. 2006. “Why Globalization has Stalled.Washington Post (April 24).

 

Mishra, Girish. 2007. “Is Globalization on its Way Out?ZNet (January 17).

 

Rich Man, Poor Man,” The Economist (January 18, 2007),

 

Saul, John Ralston. 2005. The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World. London: Penguin Books.

 

Smolchenko, Anna. 2007. “Two Piracy Cases Test Readiness for WTO.The Moscow Times (January 24).

 

 

William H. Thornton is professor of globalization and cultural studies at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. His publications include New World Empire: Civil Islam, Terrorism, and the Making of Neoglobalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), Fire on the Rim: The Cultural Dynamics of East/West Power Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), and Cultural Prosaics: The Second Postmodern Turn (Edmonton: Research Institute for Comparative Literature — University of Alberta, 1998).

 

 

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