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What You Always Knew About Globalization but Were Afraid to Tell: Five Basic Lessons

July 18, 2000 by Administrator in July/August 2000

By Kanishka Goonewardena

Globalization is a code word for something else. That is why David Harvey has the good habit of reminding his audiences that by globalization he means “the latest stage in the development of capitalism.” If he were writing today, Lenin would have been even more direct; he would not have found much use for the term globalization, and called it simply “the development of capitalism.” We can start talking straight if only we can see what globalization has to do with capitalism or, more specifically, the universalization of capitalism.

Globalization, like capitalism, has a history. This history is revealed by the standard responses to the question “what is globalization?” – of which three are worth recalling. The first response says that globalization is nothing new, insisting that it is ancient, thousands of years old. There is some obvious truth in this view but it is usually marred by the ideology that nothing under the sun is new. The second and more sensible response demonstrates the fundamental relationship between globalization and the world market ushered in by capitalism. By far the best expression of this position comes from Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto: “The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” As a result, “in place of the old local and national self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.” Even more to the point, this globe-trotting bourgeoisie “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.” The Communist Manifesto, written rapidly in 1848, still describes the essence of globalization as we know it with unrivaled force and clarity.

Yet there is a third useful perspective on globalization, which could not have been formulated in 1848. This view identifies a new stage in capitalism – called global, multinational or late capitalism – by studying the history of its major systemic crises and long waves of growth and decline. Within the Marxist tradition alone one finds several such schemes for periodizing the historical geography of capitalism, such as Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism and Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century. They all agree on one point (as Harvey reminds us, in The Condition of Postmodernity): “something significant has changed in the way capitalism has been working since about 1970.” The term globalization signifies this “significant change,” which occurred sometime between the Parisian revolt of May 1968 and the global recession of 1973, somewhere between Watts and Woodstock, and which encompassed not only economics but also politics and culture.

Globalization and postmodernity stem from the same root. Capitalism responds to its systemic crises of accumulation in a predictable fashion: by expanding the system. This can happen basically in two ways. First, by expanding the system spatially, by opening up a wider territory for commodification. Secondly, by inventing radically new types of commodities. What we usually understand by globalization today refers to the first of these damage control mechanisms, the injunction to spread into underdeveloped or former socialist regions, or to perish at the center. Today this process takes place under the auspices of multinational capital and free-trade agreements, along with nation-states, provinces, and city governments that have been willingly or unwillingly mobilized for the project of expanding capital, like Marx said, on pain of extinction (if not annihilation). What we call postmodernity has to do with the second damage control strategy: the introduction of radically new types of commodities by subjecting entire ways of life to the logic of commodification, including whole regions of culture as well as nature, not to mention urban planning – all of which have been able in the past to maintain some autonomy from market forces. Globalization and postmodernity are inextricably linked because they follow from the same relentless logic of commodification – particularly, the commodification of culture. That is why Fredric Jameson has defined postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” In the first page of his book Postmodernism he explicitly states that “postmodernism is what you have when the modernization [i.e., commodification] process is complete.” Beneath the celebrated appearances of difference in many forms, then, both postmodernity and globalization reveal identity: “a picture of standardization on an unparalleled new scale; of forced integration as well, into a world-system from which ‘delinking’ is henceforth impossible and even unthinkable and inconceivable.” Lenin’s thesis that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism still remains true: globalization is the highest stage of imperialism.

The ideology of globalization is neoliberalism. The relationship between globalization and the cultural logic of late capitalism, otherwise known as postmodernism, explains how the economy is now becoming increasingly cultural, and the cultural ever more economic. But what is the ideology that sanctions this colonization of culture by the economy, along with the unprecedented territorial expansion of free-market capitalism? It is neoliberalism, the most successful ideology of the last decade, if not world history. This is the ideology that causally links free-markets with democracy and freedom, and thus claims the world-historical victory of Western liberal capitalism over all rival political-economic systems as the best and the last of all possible human worlds. No ideology has posed a greater threat to the kind of planning advocated by the Planners Network than neoliberalism, because neoliberalism legitimates and perpetuates a historical condition in which the economy subjugates human life to its own autonomous laws, often with inhuman consequences. Radical-democratic planning strives for quite the reverse: to guide the economy – society and culture too – according to human purposes.

Globalization doesn’t go away because we don’t like it. The hegemony of neoliberalism, the relentlessness of globalization, the spectacle of postmodernism. These have fortified the barriers against radical planning and revolutionary politics on the Left. In a recent editorial in the New Left Review (#1, 2000), Perry Anderson identifies two typical responses to this scenario. The first is accommodation: it is the realization that capitalism has come to stay and we must make our peace with it. Or, more affirmatively, if globalization is inevitable, why not sit back and enjoy it? Those who have left the Left and rallied to The Third Way are good examples of this tendency. The second reaction is consolation. When surrounded constantly by gloomy clouds, one looks for silver linings; and, in such darkness, a few streaks of North American sunlight feel like a tropical delight. The propensity here is to understate the forces of globalization and overestimate resistance. This temptation finds extreme expression in the academia, in theories that call themselves postmodern or poststructuralist, which have declared war on the concept of totality and on metanarratives, as if capitalism would somehow disappear if we refrain from totalizing thoughts and writing grand narratives in our term papers and refereed publications.

But if not accommodation or consolation, then what else can we do? Anderson recommends an “uncompromising realism. Uncompromising in both senses: refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power.” Anderson is right, especially if we also bear in mind, as Peter Marcuse has stressed, that globalization is an unevenly developing and internally contradictory process, driven by agents that stand to benefit from it at the expense of many others. Globalization is a social struggle. It is therefore not inevitable. The fundamental political contradiction to emerge out of globalization – to be played out in several arenas in the coming years, with the active involvement of progressive planners – is the one between global capitalism and radical democracy. This was demonstrated recently in Seattle, Washington D.C., and in Toronto a week before the PN 2000 conference, where a truly diverse group of protesters demanded the accountability of His Majesty the Economy to the people, only to be greeted by police batons, pepper sprays, and tear gas. Objectively viable subjective resistance to globalization, surely, does not flow from accommodation or consolation; rather, such resistance identifies and exploits the systemic contradictions of an otherwise uncompromising social totality. The contradictions of a totality, however, can only be discerned by a rigorous study of that totality, not by proscribing the concept of totality. It is one thing to “deconstruct” globalization; altering the reality of globalization is something else. Instead of slouching toward accommodation and consolation, as seen today in both practice and theory, radical planners would do well to adopt Antonio Gramsci’s great dictum: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!


Kanishka Goonewardena is Assistant Professor in the Programme in Planning, Department of Geography, University of Toronto.

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