Saturday, January 20, 2007

On Mr. Walden Bello's "Globalization in Retreat"

To view Mr. Bello's full article from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, click here.
For a counterpoint from Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post, click here.

There is an honest sentiment among neo-marxist thinkers that globalization is a bid to further the ends of the global capitalist. The Communist Manifesto makes a clear and prophetic description of the way that capitalism will cross national borders and create the sort of world that we see today. It could be frighteningly prophetic, but it skips out on some major points that are transforming the world in a very different way. As a result, Mr. Bello's article fails to do justice to some of the finer (and I believe more relevant) points of what globalization is all about.

When Marx and Engels published their theories on historical materialism, they were operating from the premises of polarization between the bourgeosie and the proletariat within the context of institutionalized oppression, and of economic activity as the singular force that drove the progress of nations. They described a world of a global conflict, between the few bourgeousie owners and the mass proletariat. They saw a globalized world as a world of globalized industry. Communication, they argue, would serve as a catalyst between the scattered proletariat, to unify them in their struggle against the oppressors.

This entire thought is based on the assumption that turn-of the century industrial society (with its technology, philosophies, communication and culture), would continue unchanged. However, it didn't turn out that way. We are seeing a globalized world that is being driven by a lot more then just transnational industry. Information is not merely about coordination; it's about empowerment. People are using global information to expand their choices. People are taking advantage of the tools-- not in an effort to overthrow power structures-- but to become part of the power structures. A middle class, that Marx and Engels foresaw and dismissed as allies of the proletariat, are increasing and effectively neutralizing the polar conflict between proletariat and bourgeousie . Instead, the middle class are engaged in what I call mutual exploitation. They live satisfying lives by working, both for themselves and for their employers. For themselves in the sense that labour both gives them a place in society, and gives them an income that is liquid in the economy, constantly trading hands, paying for goods, services and information. The oppressed proletariat seeking liberation from the chains of the selfish industrialist is a thing of the global past. Instead, society is flattening at its own accord, finding an equilibrium in a larger middle class: some on top (like Donald Trump and the Texas oil barons), some on the bottom (slums in Mexico City and Southeast Asia) and a lot in the middle (you, me, everyone else who lives a 9-5 schedule, commutes to work, complains around the water station, reads Dilbert and has a life online). We're not the "bourgeousie" that Marx and Engels were whining about. We're just normal people.

Conceded, in developing countries, there is still a large number of people living in destitute situations, who are exploited, who are oppressed by regimes that still operate on feudal or industrial paradigms of thought. But put into a global context, the trend is towards moving the population curve to the middle of the income demographic. China, India, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Malaysia... all moving towards the middle, moving into the 21st century not on the backs of oppressed citizens, but on the efforts of unified, increasingly information-based economies.

Mr. Bello's point of a receding globalization is correct, if globalization is simply the action of a few institutions (IMF, WTO) with vested interests. But that is globalization 2.0 (Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat). Globalization 3.0 is what is happening today, and that is happening, not on the efforts of a few, but at the fingertips of the many, within the context of culture, not industry. The "nation-state" is still relevant today; but as the concept of "nation" is deconstructed, and the idea of "state" is superceded by regional institutions, the 17th century creation of the "nation-state" will no longer be as powerful or as persuasive. That's real globalization, and Marx and Engels never saw it coming.


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