This book is an investigation into capitalism, democracy, imperialism, nationalism, and political change. These turn out to be intimately related themes in a drama which has been unfolding for the past two centuries. Corporate globalization, or what many call the neoliberal project,is a crisis turning point in this drama, with profound consequences for all of our topics.
Corporate globalization (I’ll just call it globalization) is indeed a project — a coordinated, coherent suite of initiatives — and it is unfolding on a canvas much broader than is generally appreciated. Tight budgets, competitive markets, downsized companies — these aspects of globalization are known to nearly everyone. Those who inform themselves — and there are many useful books available — learn that globalization also brings accelerating environmental damage, increased poverty, destabilized societies, a house-of-cards global financial system, and a severe threat to democracy.
But even that does not adequately capture the scope of the globalization project. I hope it will become clear, as this investigation unfolds, that globalization amounts to an overall restructuring of the world order, a political rebuilding project that goes very deep. The image that comes to mind is a block of small shops being bulldozed away to make room for a shopping center. Globalization is a revolutionary project, not an evolutionary one.
In globalization’s new world order, it is democratic governance and national sovereignty which are to be bulldozed clean from the global building site. The system of strong national republics, which was the West’s heritage from the Enlightenment era, is being systematically dismantled. Political arrangements are being scraped way back, and old political strata, so to speak, are re-emerging.
In some ways, globalization scrapes us back to the robber-baron era of the late nineteenth century, when laissez-faire capitalism reigned supreme, boom and bust cycles were frequent, and politicians were “in the pockets” of magnates such as John D. Rockefeller and the J. Pierpont Morgan. Today they call it deregulation instead of laissez-faire, and it is giant transnational corporations (TNCs) that exert the political influence instead of colorful robber barons, but the game is the same, and the results are identical.
In other dimensions, the globalization project is scraping back even further, taking us back to the feudal era, with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a super-rich elite, and with the rest of us reduced to a kind of disenfranchised serfdom. We are to have no-entitlements employment, instead of fiefs, and the relationship of the person to the TNC is becoming that of vassal to lord.
In still other aspects, globalization takes us all the way back to the Roman Empire, only this time on a global scale. Instead of an Emperor and Roman Legions, we have a World Trade Organization (and associated agencies) and a high-tech US/NATO strike force. And again the once-sovereign citizens of republics are being reduced to consuming bread and circuses — and to unquestioned obedience to arbitrary imperial pronouncements, as Korea recently learned at the hands of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), and as Iraq learned under the barrage of Desert Storm.
Globalization also takes us forward in time, to the worst nightmares of science-fiction lore. ID-card technology, already being tested around the world, and the rapidly developing global digital network, are ushering in an era when every person can be tracked from birth, and every activity can be monitored in real time. Meanwhile, thousands of genetic experiments are being unleashed on the world, with utter disdain for the awesome risks involved, and with complete disregard for the ethical and spiritual questions raised by playing God with the very fabric of life. Technology, under globalization, is being developed systematically and recklessly, with the dual aims of defending corporate power and enhancing corporate profits.
US President Bill Clinton opened a recent speech to the UN in Geneva, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of GATT, the first of the global free-trade agreements, with the statement “Globalization is not a policy choice; it is a fact.” He is well aware that it is a policy choice, but in the broader sense is he right? Is globalization politically inevitable?
In every crisis, according at least to the Chinese ideogram for crisis, there is both danger and opportunity. The opportunity brought by globalization is for people everywhere, from all walks of life, to wake up to the dire threat that faces them, and to do something about it.
The globalization regime is too thoroughly entrenched for meaningful reform to be accomplished through standard political channels. And the corporate system is too dependent on endless “growth” for economic reform to be possible within the terms of that system. Only a radical restructuring of economic arrangements can provide for livable, sustainable societies. And only a radical shift of political power — the dethroning of the corporate establishment — can create a political environment in which such a transformation can be accomplished.
History shows that radical political change of this kind comes about only under certain conditions. There must first be some constituency, or class if you prefer, that is aware of itself. Next, that constituency, in its collective self-awareness, must be motivated: it must be faced by unacceptable conditions, and there must be a shared vision of a preferred alternative. Finally, there must be a means available, by which the constituency can effectively achieve political power and implement its changes.
The central thesis of this book is that these conditions are potentially present today, latent in the circumstances of globalization. The constituency for radical change are ordinary people everywhere. In much of the Third World, people have already identified globalization as a source of dire danger, and are organizing themselves into peasant movements and other modes of mass resistance.
But the mechanisms by which the West dominates the Third World are formidable, having been perfected over centuries of colonialism. Only when people in the leading Western nations wake up to the threat as well — and in their shared danger achieve collective self-awareness — can a constituency arise that is sufficiently powerful to overcome the globalization juggernaut.
The means available to such a constituency, to achieve radical change, is a global grass-roots political movement. The bulldozers have not yet completed their tasks — our democratic institutions still exist, for the time being, and nations, the major ones, still have the power to undo the globalization project — but only for a while, only until the institutions of globalization have fully consolidated their absolute power. Until then a mass movement could achieve political power through peaceful elections, and implement programs of radical transformation before it is too late.
This investigation will take a critical look at various past movements, seeking to understand how they succeeded and how they failed. We will learn that every movement has a predictable set of obstacles to overcome, ranging from internal divisiveness to co-option at the very gates of would-be triumph. The most serious obstacles, however, are to be found following victory. From the unlikely lips of George Bush was articulated the central principle of radical change, it’s “that vision thing.”
Martin Luther King understood about vision. He said to millions “I have a dream!” and he articulated the importance of keeping ones “eyes on the prize.” Gandhi’s vision was particularly deep and far-sighted, and he was up against odds that could only be overcome with the help of such outstanding vision. A movement must have a sound vision, a vision that inspires, and a vision that can be translated into workable policies and programs.
Indeed the vision of a livable world is being articulated by people everywhere. A wealth of useful published material is available, regarding sustainable systems, appropriate technologies, locally-based economies, electoral reform, financial stabilization, stronger civil societies, corporate reform, etc. ad infinitum. This investigation will develop an overview of this emerging vision, and will provide references to further information. The basic elements of a societal vision have been developed, and the technical problems are solvable.
There is one primary area, in this author’s opinion, where an adequate vision has not been articulated, and that area is democracy. This investigation will look closely at the question of democracy, from a broad historical perspective. In particular the experience of the Western Democracies will be reviewed critically, and we will ask the unthinkable question: Have we been living under democracies or under plutocracies? We will also look beyond the standard democratic models, and dare to examine the Cuban system, and systems used by indigenous societies. A vision of grass-roots democracy — genuine democracy — will be developed, grounded in successful precedents, as a contribution to the “vision thing.”
In fact the question of genuine democracy arises when the movement is still in its early stages. A massive global movement must find a way to coordinate itself, to find a sense of common direction, and of solidarity. This movement won’t be led by an existing aristocracy, as was the American Revolution, nor does it come with a pre-packaged ideology, as did the Russian Revolution. It is rising from the people themselves, starting from a thousand places around the world, and a thousand circumstances, and with a thousand agendas.
As the movement evolves, one can hope that it develops democratic ways of operating, and finds ways to develop consensus agendas that originate from the grass roots. Such a movement, in fact, can become the vehicle of genuine democratic governance. Not a political party, such a movement would be better characterized as an empowered civil society — a sound basis, I will argue, for a robust and lasting democratic system, which is in turn a sound basis for a sustainable, humane, and livable world.Globalization