“Deglobalization”? Sure, but…

[Patrick Bond, 2003] My favorite haunt, Zimbabwe, is the delight of aggressive bourgeois commentators, one of whom wrote a month ago about that country’s meltdown in the Economist (30 November 2002):

“An interesting economic experiment is being conducted in Zimbabwe. To the foes of globalisation, President Robert Mugabe’s views are unexceptional. He argues that ‘runaway market forces’ are leading a ‘vicious, all-out assault on the poor’. He decries the modern trend of ‘banishing the state from the public sphere for the benefit of big business.’ What sets him apart from other anti-globalisers, however, is that he has been able to put his ideas into practice.”

Aargh. The Economist wants readers to think that Mugabe is a deglobalizing anti-capitalist, and that the unfolding meltdown associated with his alleged rejection of the market is the necessary outcome of the policies those of us in the movement advocate. The reality is far different, as can be attested by many Harare and Bulawayo leftwing activists and students subjected to proto-fascist official brutality for more than a decade.

Perhaps the freshest antidote to Economist logic is Walden Bello’s new book “Deglobalization: Ideas for a New World Economy”. I’ve just added it to the required reading list for my main political-economic masters seminar at Wits University this year. Bello’s book is part of the worthy Zed Press series called Global Issues. At 132 pages, it’s an easy-reading companion to his other recent book, “The Future in the Balance”–a collection of 20 eloquent essays published in 2001 by Food First, the San Francisco advocacy NGO that he once directed.

Bello probably needs no introduction; his hectic schedule includes participation in virtually all confrontations with the global power structure; a professorship at University of the Philippines; leadership of a leftwing Filipino political party; and most importantly from the standpoint of international anti-capitalism, directorship of Focus on the Global South, a people’s movement thinktank based at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok (http://www.focusweb.org).

Humble and humorous, Bello–who holds a Princeton doctorate in sociology–has a long history of social mobilisation. Six months ago, the New Left Review published an engaging interview that explored his political trajectory, including an important break with the Communist Party of the Philippines (http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR25004.shtml).

What are the main arguments for deglobalization? The book opens by arguing, tightly and persuasively, that the existing world system is untenable, on several grounds captured by the first chapter’s main subheadings: multilateralism in disarray; the crisis of the neoliberal order; the corporation under question; the degeneration of liberal democracy; the specter of global deflation; the rise of the (anticapitalist) movement; September 11; and “imperial overstretch”. Bello closes the introductory chapter with a hint that “progressive responses are coming together under the canopy of the Porto Alegre process”–though here the argument becomes distressingly vague, particularly in relation to previous traditions of anticapitalism.

Analytically, Bello is influenced by Robert Brenner’s two major marxist studies of intercapitalist competition, resulting systemic overcapacity and declining profitability: “The Economics of Global Turbulence” in New Left Review, May/June 1998 and “The Boom and the Bubble” published by Verso last year. But Bello hesitates to more forcefully ground his anti-capitalism, beyond the coy signals and codewords.

Instead, Bello’s great strength is the lucidity of a largely institutional critique. Although the second chapter reviews the half-hearted anti-imperialism of Third World governments through the 1970s and the subsequent rightwing reaction that has left most Southern leaders mere lackeys of Washington, it is a journalistic approach. (In contrast, I had hoped for something approaching the theoretical clarity that makes, for example, Robert Biel’s book “The New Imperialism”, published by Zed in 2000, so rewarding.)

Bello’s third chapter adds analyses of the World Bank, IMF and WTO. The fourth shows how these organizations–and global capitalism more generally–came to suffer a late 1990s legitimacy crisis. He demolishes both the actual “vicissitudes of reform” (Chapter Five) and the main bourgeois proposals for future restructuring of global economic governance, by commentators ranging from the UN to the Meltzer Commission to Bretton Woods System revivalists to the recently-convicted insider trader George Soros (Chapter Six).

Then comes “The alternative: Deglobalization” in Chapter Seven. Although the book is short, it is sad that only 11 pages carry the concrete strategic options for the anticapitalist movement, because they are worthy of amplification. Bello’s description–“I am not talking about withdrawing from the international economy. I am speaking about reorienting our economies from production for export to production for the local market”–recalls the way, more than a decade ago, Samir Amin described his own conception of deglobalization: “Delinking is not synonymous with autarky, but rather with the subordination of external relations to the logic of internal development… Delinking implies a ‘popular’ content, anti-capitalist in the sense of being in conflict with the dominant capitalism, but permeated with the multiplicity of divergent interests.”

But this begs the question of whether to conceptualise the problem as one of deep-seated tendencies towards the commodification of everything under capitalist relations of production, or simply pernicious globalists and hostile, excessively powerful institutions. Indeed the weakest possible conception of deglobalization is Bello’s suggestion at the 2002 World Social Forum that, as one option, we seek to reduce existing neoliberal institutions to “just another set of actors coexisting with and being checked by other international organizations, agreements, and regional groupings. These would include such diverse actors and institutions as UNCTAD, multilateral environmental agreements, the ILO, the EU, and evolving trade blocs such as Mercosur in Latin America, SAARC in South Asia, SADC in Southern Africa, and a revitalized ASEAN in Southeast Asia. More space, more flexibility, more compromise–these should be the goals of the Southern agenda and the civil society effort to build a new system of global economic governance.”

Most anyone involved in local struggles in which these institutions play a role know them to be part of the problem, not the solution, as currently constituted. Thus Bello has come under sharp criticism from the left (e.g., Alex Callinicos, Victor Wallis and Ray Kiely), and for good reason in view of some past and ongoing advocacy gaffes:

* two years ago he advanced the idea that the international Left could “unite” (sic) with Republicans against the World Bank and IMF–which may have been merely a mistake in wording (if he meant simple tactical convergence), but which says volumes about clarity on alliances;

* in “Deglobalization”, he suggests “a demand that has potential to unite a broad front of people is that of converting [the IMF] into a research agency”–this, after Bello has demolished the IMF, in “The Future in the Balance”, for stupidity and blindness when it came to East Asia’s crisis; and

* he also remarks in passing that deglobalization will entail more “microcredit schemes such as the Grameen Bank”–perhaps unaware that in late 2001 the Wall Street Journal wrote that, “To many, Grameen proves that capitalism can work for the poor as well as the rich” but then had to unhappily concede how Grameen’s recent “steep losses” and unethical accounting practices had left the international microcredit industry “alarmed” (in spite of Grameen’s more assertive debt collection method: removing tin roofs from delinquent women’s houses).

These may be picky, outdated and largely semantic points. (On alliances, for instance, Bello and “Future in the Balance” chapter coauthor Anuradha Mittal blasted the AFL-CIO and some environmentalists for their “Faustian bargain” with the xenophobic right at the time of the Chinese accession to permanent normal trading nation status with the US.)

Indeed, Bello completely convinces me with the more radical components of the strategy, especially “deconstruction” techniques to defund and disempower global capitalist institutions. It was, in particular, his shift towards advocating the abolition of the World Bank in April 2000 that helped most to provide intellectual buttressing for the great militancy witnessed in that year’s Washington and Prague protests.

But for the sake of intra-movement discussions, is there not a more expansive way to address deglobalization, by departing from dual-reformist notions of globalized-regulation and utopian-localization strategies? Would it be so difficult for intellectual leaders like Bello to mention the prospect of revolution–namely, defense of a takeover and total transformation of state power, in the manner carried out so often historically, but so rarely taken to fruition?

Wouldn’t nurturing the economy and society of such a radical Third Worldist state presume the expropriation of key local/national assets and an immediate rejigging of the local/national economy towards meeting needs which had not been met previously? Would this revolutionary state not also automatically reject the World Bank/IMF and WTO, the French/British water companies, the international property rights restrictions on medicines, and most other international capitalist relationships, as a short-medium term strategy? In turn, would this not require capital controls, default on the odious debts left by previous regimes, and import/export management (of a very different type than was practiced under previous bourgeois Third World nationalist regimes)?

Such a project–which is not, as Amin puts it, synonymous with autarky along the lines of old Albania, Burma or North Korea–will necessitate breaking economic linkages to the worst forces of global finance, commerce, investment and capitalist culture. This could be one half of the future of the idea of deglobalization.

The other half is the struggle to implement “decommodification” at home by way of transitional demands flowing directly from organic social and labour struggles. Some of the most exciting in my hometown of Johannesburg involve the battles over access to electricity, water, land, housing, food and anti-retroviral drugs–topics for future updates because with my remaining words I want to testify to applied deglobalization activities that Bello and the Thai progressive eco-social movements are engaged in.

When I visited Bangkok a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed the sort of gathering that should really worry the international and Thai ruling elites: a seminar in which, as the year drew to a close, 70 invigorated labour, community, radical environmental, feminist and Trotskyist activists came together for strategic debate in two languages, hosted by Focus on the Global South-ironically, located within the country’s most bourgeois university, Chulalongkorn.

The same week, two combative protests unfolded: one was the heightening of pressure on the ghastly prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, by victims of the infamous Pak Mool dam project. Protesters had occupied space outside Government House until this week, when they were finally forced back to the hills by increasing state brutality, divide-and-conquer strategies, and paramilitary thugs who have destroyed the Pak Mool peasants’ temporary dwellings on two occasions. But the anti-dam activists certainly seem to have won hearts and minds across Thailand, and their activism has compelled Thaksin to consider writing off the hydropower project–though the battle is far from over.

The second was an amazing demonstration on December 20 during a Thai-Malaysia cabinet meeting at a luxury hotel in the southern town of Hat Yai. A thousand activists protested an ecologically-damaging Petronas gas pipeline between the two countries. As they sat down to eat and pray in an area that Thaksin’s main assistant had approved as a green zone, hundreds were clubbed by the police. Leaders were jailed and several dozen people (including police) were hospitalized in the ensuing melee. The Thai Forum of the Poor and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development were among groups offering solidarity.

These activists, amongst whom are the tough young staff at Focus (admirably connected into a variety of struggles across Southeast and South Asia), look up to Walden Bello for inspiration. Minor cavils aside, I certainly do too.