New Books | Essays on Global Capitalism

An alternative to capitalism will have to be transnational, with authority and decision-making organised from the bottom up, if power over the future is to be wrested from competing elites.

Global capitalism is predatory and parasitic. At the end of the 20th century, about 400 transnational corporations had come to own 66% of the planet’s fixed assets and control 70% of world trade.

With the world’s resources controlled by a few hundred global corporations, the lifeblood and the very fate of humanity is in the hands of transnational capital, which holds the power to make life-and-death decision for millions of human beings. Such tremendous concentrations of economic power leads to tremendous concentrations of political power at the global level. Any discussion of “democracy” under such conditions becomes meaningless.

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The paradox of the demise of dictatorships, “democratic transitions” and the spread of “democracy” around the world that took place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was to be explained by new forms of social control, and the misuse of the concept of democracy – the original meaning of which: the power, cratos, of the people, demos – has been disconfigured beyond recognition. What the transnational elite calls democracy is more accurately termed polyarchy, to borrow a concept from academia.

Polyarchy is neither dictatorship nor democracy, at the level of the political system. It refers to a system in which a small group actually rules, on behalf of capital, and participation in decision-making by the majority is confined to choosing among competing elites in tightly controlled electoral processes.

Consensual domination

This “low-intensity democracy” is a form of consensual domination. Social control and domination is hegemonic, in the sense meant by the great Italian socialist thinker Antonio Gramsci. It is based less on outright repression than on diverse forms of ideological co-optation and political disempowerment made possible by the structural domination and “veto power” of global capital.

Starting in the 1980s and coinciding with the onslaught of capitalist globalisation, polyarchy was promoted around the world (“democracy promotion”) by the transnational elite in the South as part and parcel of its agenda, and in tandem with the promotion of neoliberalism, in distinction to the earlier global network of civilian-military regimes and outright dictatorships (for example the Somozas, the Duvaliers, the Marcos, the Pinochets, white minority regimes), and before them, repressive colonial states that the Northern capitalist countries promoted and sustained for much of modern world history.

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Authoritarian systems tended to unravel as globalising pressures broke up embedded forms of coercive political authority, dislocated traditional communities and social patterns, and stirred masses of people to demand the democratisation of social life. Disorganised masses pushed for a deeper popular democratisation, while organised elites push for tightly controlled transitions from authoritarianism and dictatorships to elite polyarchies.

The trappings of democratic procedure in a polyarchy do not mean that the lives of the mass of people become filled with authentic or meaningful popular democratic content, much less that social justice or greater economic equality is achieved. The new polyarchies (“the new democracies” in the lexicon of the transnational elite) of emergent global society did not, and were not intended to, meet the authentic aspirations of repressed and marginalised majorities for political participation, for greater socioeconomic justice and for cultural realisation.

As the 21st century progressed, the contradictions of global capitalism became ever more explosive. It was not clear if the fragile polyarchies that still characterised the political systems of most countries around the world could absorb mounting crises of social control and legitimacy. There may be a return to dictatorial and authoritarian forms of control.

Systemic impoverishment

The concentration of wealth among a privileged strata encompassing about 20% of humanity, in which the gap between rich and poor is widening within each country, North and South alike, is occurring at the same time as inequalities between the North and the South are increasing sharply.

The worldwide inequality in the distribution of wealth and power is a form of permanent structural violence against the world’s majority. This is a widely noted phenomenon, but it needs to be linked more explicitly to globalisation.

In 1992, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) began publishing its annual Human Development Report, which chronicles levels of social development (or underdevelopment), poverty and inequality worldwide.

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The report that year indicated that the wealthiest 20% of humanity received 82.7% of the world’s wealth. Fast-forward to 2015: according to a report released that year by international development agency Oxfam, the richest 20% of humanity owned 94.5% of the world’s wealth, while the remaining 80% had to make do with just 5.5% of that wealth.

According to a 2010 UNDP report, 1.5 billion people worldwide lived in extreme poverty that year, defined as making less than $1.25 dollars a day, while another 900 million were at risk of slipping into extreme poverty. In other words, about 35% of humanity lived on the verge of life and death.

In all, three billion people earned less than $2.50 a day, one billion were without access to health services, 1.3 billion had no access to safe water and 1.9 billion were without access to adequate sanitation.

Race, ethnicity and gender

As global capital concentrates, it disproportionately locks out women and racially and ethnically oppressed groups, in particular, the working class and poor majority within these groups. As transnational capital moves to the South of the world, it does not leave behind in the North, or encounter in the South, homogenous working classes, but ones that are historically stratified and segmented along racial, ethnic and gender lines.

In the North, for instance, labour of colour, drawn originally (and often by force) from the periphery to the core as menial labour, is disproportionately excluded from strategic economic sectors, relegated to the ranks of the growing army of “supernumeraries”, made the most vulnerable sectors in a racially segmented labour market (which is becoming more, not less, rigid under globalisation) and subject to a rising tide of racism, including the dismantling of affirmative action programmes and repressive state measures against immigrant labour pools.

Although globalising processes are undermining the existence of precapitalist classes, they are also intensifying stratification among labour, often along racial and ethnic lines, in both North and South.

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However, I suggest that such hierarchies of labour are becoming spatially organised across the North-South axis, given global integration processes, new migration patterns and increased concentrations of Third World labour in the First World, as well as the increasing impoverishment of once-privileged “labour aristocracies” of European origin.

The roots of the subordination of women – unequal participation in a sexual division of labour on the basis of the female reproductive function – is exacerbated by globalisation, which increasingly turns women from reproducers of labour power required by capital into reproducers of supernumeraries for which capital has no use.

Female labour is further devalued, and women denigrated, as the function of the domestic (household) economy moves from rearing labour for incorporation into capitalist production to rearing supernumeraries. This is one important structural underpinning of the global “feminisation of poverty” and is reciprocal to, and mutually reinforces, racial and ethnic dimensions of inequality.

Commodification and the threat of environmental collapse

Global capitalism is tearing down all nonmarket structures that have in the past placed limits on the accumulation – and the dictatorship – of capital. Every corner of the globe, every nook and cranny of social life, is becoming commodified. This involves breaking up and commodifying nonmarket spheres of human activity, namely public spheres managed by states and private spheres linked to community and family units (local and household economies).

This complete commodification of social life is undermining what remains of democratic control by people over the conditions of their daily existence, above and beyond that involved with private ownership of the principal means of production.

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The incompatibility of the reproduction of both capital and of nature is leading to an ecological holocaust that threatens the survival of our species and of life itself on our planet.

Yet “most analyses of the environmental problem today are concerned less with saving the planet or life or humanity than saving capitalism, the system at the root of our environmental problem,” note John Bellamy Foster and his colleagues.

“Not only has this generated inertia with respect to social change – indeed a tendency to fiddle while Rome burns – but it has also led to the belief that the crisis can be managed by essentially the same social institutions that brought it into being in the first place.”

Global resistance

We should harbour no illusions that global capitalism can be tamed or democratised. This does not mean that we should not struggle for reform within capitalism, but we should recognise that all such struggle should be encapsulated in a broader strategy and programme for revolution against capitalism.

Globalisation places enormous constraints on popular struggles and social change in any one country or region. The most urgent task is therefore to develop solutions to the plight of humanity under a savage capitalism liberated from the constraints that could earlier be imposed on it through the nation-state.

An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project. The transnational bourgeoisie is conscious of its transnationality, is organised transnationally and operates globally. Many have argued that the nation-state is still the fulcrum of political activity for the foreseeable future. But it is not the fulcrum of the political activity of this global elite.

The popular mass of humanity must develop a transnational class consciousness and a concomitant global political protagonism and strategies that link the local to the national and the national to the global.

A bottom-up process

A transnational counterhegemonic project would not entail resisting globalisation – alas, we cannot simply demand that historic processes be halted to conform to our wishes, and we would do better to understand how we may influence and redirect those processes – but rather converting it into a “globalisation from below”.

Such a process from the bottom up would have to address the deep racial/ethnic dimensions of global inequality, parting from the premise that, although racism and ethnic and religious conflicts rest on real material fears among groups whose survival is under threat, they take on cultural, ideological and political dynamics of their own, which must be challenged and countered in the programmes and the practice of counterhegemony.

A counterhegemonic project will have to be thoroughly imbued with a gender equality approach, in practice and in content. It will also require alternative forms of democratic practice within popular organisations (trade unions, social movements and so on), within political parties and – wherever the formal state apparatus is captured, through elections or other means – within state institutions.

New egalitarian practices must eschew traditional hierarchical and authoritarian forms of social intercourse and bureaucratic authority relations, and they must overcome personality cults, centralised decision-making and other such traditional practices.

The flow of authority and decision-making in new social and political practices within any counterhegemonic bloc must be from the bottom up, not from the top down. Transnational political protagonism among popular classes means developing a transnational protagonism at the mass, grassroots level – a transnationalised participatory democracy – well beyond the old “internationalism” of political leaders and bureaucrats, and also beyond the paternalistic forms of Northern “solidarity” with the South.

More than prolonged mass misery and social conflict is at stake: at stake is the very survival of our species. A democratic socialism founded on a popular democracy may be humanity’s “last best”, and perhaps only, hope.

This is an edited excerpt from Into the Tempest: Essays on Global Capitalism by William I Robinson, which has just been published by Haymarket Books.

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