• Critical Reflections on a Historic Crossroads

  • By André Tosel | 04 Dec 13 | Posted under: Contemporary Capitalism
  • Globalisation is a historically constituted phenomenon, a stage in capitalism’s becoming the world. It cannot be reduced to the simple connecting of national markets. On the economic level it indicates the creation of a true world market that is de-segmented and decompartmentalised, transmitting goods, services, capital’s factors of production, people, ideas and values.

    It implies a loss of the centrality of national markets, which cease to be the representative economic units, and, inversely, involves the construction of a new space in which transnational firms remake national markets. Trade regulation is transversal and imposes the same financialised capitalist system in all geographical spaces; but this identity is affirmed within a hierarchical territorial differentiation. The large countries which have emerged from what was called the Third Word – the BRIC countries, that is, Brazil, Russia, India and China – are entering a situation of unequally distributed global wealth. The inequalities between countries are increasing due to their growth differentials and demographic potentials.

    The equating of globalisation and the capitalist mode of production needs to be explained.

    What is it that is being globalised? What is leading to globalisation? There are two possible answers. The first is, with Marx, centred on the capitalist mode of production and indicates the mode of production recognised as historically specific, as founded on the extraction of surplus value and the exploitation of living labour by abstract labour commanded by capital. This approach has been and remains contested by important German sociologists like Weber and Simmel or by neoliberal economists like Hayek. In the latters’ approach, the exploitation of labour, the expropriation of all control over labour, which the workers undergo, constitute a condition of rationality, and world capitalism is not an image of reason but of an absolutely necessary instrumental rationality. For Marx or his disciples and world-system theorists and theorists of the world economy like Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin or Giovanni Arrighi, this rationality is only partial and superficial; it contains an irrationality demonstrated by crises and diverse dysfunctions accompanying the globalisation of the system. For the sociologists and the neoliberals, these crises are, on the other hand, are quite normal; they are functional in that they structure the dynamism of the system and help it to evolve towards the infinite growth of capital. In the first case, globalisation means the globalisation of a specific mode of production characterised by a provisional rationality and in the end doomed to self-destruction if no social relief appears. In the second case, globalisation is the culmination of a system founded on a rational and irreplaceable economy.

    We opt for the first approach and count on its heuristic fertileness to justify our choice, without being able here to go into a deeper discussion. It is a presupposition which we recognise as such. We opt for Marx’s approach as revised and corrected by world-system theory whose founder was Fernand Braudel who was not a Marxist. We situate ourselves within Wallerstein’s post-Marxist problematic. It is the capitalist mode of production which is globalising itself with its categorical imperative to increase the rate of profit and its current financial drive toward the infinite growth of money.


    Some methodology: The quaternary system of structural relations of the world system

    For the sake of clearer exposition, a word on my approach: I will summarise and update the analysis used in the fifty theses contained in the introduction to my study Du retour du religieux (Tosel, 2011). The theoretical difficulty in the critical analysis of globalisation is to grasp the concept of global without falling back on the concept of international. Too many approaches make the global into a level that absorbs and mixes the other levels and reduces its complex interplay of scales to an external relation between two elements without confronting the question of the relation between them. As a result, as far as the evolution of nation-states is concerned, it is tempting to conclude that they are tending to disappear, in accordance with the notion of Empire. In their famous book of the same name, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt come back to this notion specifying that it is all about a World Empire, unique, capitalist and belligerent, which is at once the summit of a pyramid crowning the other levels and a container of these levels which it reduces. This vision had the merit of pointing to a rich total view and opening up a critical perspective by positing that this Empire contained, and at the same time repressed, the possibility of its revolutionary transformation by producing a multitude called on to dominate capital. However, this perspective is in fact utopian: Through a sort of new philosophy of universal history it idealises the global as the end of a historical process and makes the multitude into the equivalent of the necessary development of the forces of production proper to vulgar Marxism. The problem, on the other hand, is to correctly conceive the interplay of levels which makes transnational processes – which take on the structure of cross-border networks, take away from countries their former margin of economic action and more or less completely dispossess the populations of their economic, social and political sovereignty – play out and manifest themselves on a local or national or international level. We could cite as an example of these ‘local’ places the global cities (of which there are some 40 in the world) which are decisive in commercial transactions, financial operations, high-value-added industries, communications circuits, the production of knowledge, cultural life and, of course, the actual political leadership functions which ad hoc institutions take over. As an example of these networks which cross through these cities and integrate them as essential nodes we could cite the complex digital networks gravitating around the European Union, which is neither a state nor a federation, but a composite entity. Devoid of democratic legitimacy, this entity condemns the component states to suffer its destructive and blind policies, and it sanctions the dominance of the strongest states while supporting the most powerful corporations and banks. These networks integrate diverse elected or coopted institutions, lobbying organisations, rating agencies, stock exchanges, private financial organisations or pressure groups, electronic information and management systems. They feed on a parasitical army of more or less competent experts with handsome sinecures, agents of an authority removed from all control.


    It is there, where the global, complex and reticulated ceaselessly develops its policies and imposes them on the other levels, that this play of levels takes place. The other levels have to inscribe these policies into their own textuality. Thus a factory, an enterprise established in a particular territory, is manoeuvred like a pawn. From the economic point of view, the diverse levels of enterprises – local, regional, national, international and transnational – are subject to the imperatives which condition their survival, such as the need to bring all of their profit rates into line with 15 % under penalty of the disappearance of a factory. The technical viability of a plant on the local level, the international skill qualifications of its personnel, its profitability on the national level – none of this is sufficient any longer to keep it going.

    It is impossible to privilege an exclusively, local, regional, national, international or abstractly global approach as if these levels were just added together. On the contrary, they condition each other in their core; they reflect and diffract each other, they both overlap and clash. We would have to develop the categories of these interactions, which at once imply over- and underdetermination, investments and disinvestments and localisations, delocalisations and relocalisations of enterprises. To this day there is no concrete analysis of the logic of the relational forms between these levels.


    We propose to analyse the contemporary world system according to four points of view which constitute just as many factors, practices structured around diverse transformations and relations (conditionings, determinations, oppositions) which need to be analysed in a precise way. We will attempt an approximation.

    • The first level is the economic. It is constituted by those networks which lay claim to the governance of the world economy as a free-market and total competition regime. Its units are the networks of corporations, banks and the various consulting and expert organisations, and it harkens to the imperative of infinite accumulation at the price of increasing inequities. It is differentiated according to the relation of forces. It generates a hierarchy that is permanently refounding itself, and it achieves political primacy. The economy has become politics, and politics tends to be re-absorbed into the capitalist economy. It has been profoundly transformed by the spread of communications networks which are simultaneously industries with high value added, unprecedented instruments of data collection and forms of control of populations in real time.
    • The second level is the juridical and political. It is made up of the territorial units which have the form of nation-states and are undergoing a vast process of denationalisation. This major phenomenon implies an empirically observable transformation of peoples and an obliteration of a fundamental juridical principle: popular sovereignty as represented by national sovereignty. Representative democracy, already reduced to an oligarchic principality that expropriates citizens of all effective power, is itself in danger of being deconstructed to the benefit of bureaucratic and authoritarian constructs immune from all public oversight.


    These two factors are characterised by the unprecedented deployment of considerable objective violence: the reduction of workers and employees to the status of object-object. Workers, who had been recognised at the level of the law and even of actual practice as subjects who were to allow themselves to be treated as an object and as instruments but while remaining subjects, are by now at the mercy of processes at work and in their daily lives, which make them objects manipulating themselves to produce objects, to produce themselves like objects – in short, they have become object-objects. The growth of inequalities and precarity is transforming former wage earners into a precariat, with the attendant development of throw-away populations, the de-industrialisation of the old states, ecological disasters and a horizon of ecological wars.

    • The third factor is the social factor, that of the social division and its transformations. There are important new features here. On the one hand, the traditional bourgeois ruling class has disappeared and made room for a transnational caste which wants to be cosmopolitan but which interprets the modern principle of free equality as the imperative for the exclusive exercise of an absolute liberty and above all else pursues the ‘surplus-jouissance’ of money. For it the world is commerce and business. This caste needs to contain the divisions born of competition, but it always conducts a class war against labour, and it immunises itself by occupying the state to divert it from its social functions and toward an entrepreneurial logic ruled by competition, a de-nationalising state. On the other hand, the core working class of the Fordist type has been downsized to the benefit of a multitude of disadvantaged social strata, of a diverse mass of subalterns who are resisting – workers and employees, unemployed or not, immigrants and natives, etc. However, for now this resistance is still not able to undo the price of the historic defeat that globalised and financialised capital, under the auspices of neoliberalism, inflicted on socialism, on communism and even on social republicanism. It is fragmented by the differentiations tied to identity affiliations.
    • The fourth factor is the cultural, the ideological/technical-scientific. This is where the sciences, arts, technologies, ethics and philosophies confront each other, where the diverse complex of ideologies and representations, of knowledge and reflection, of conceptions of the world and of religions are developed. It is structured by the large ideological apparatuses that represent the nervous system of daily life: schools and universities, media and cultural institutions that are penetrated by the dominant neoliberal conception, which is now in open crisis and is mobilising technologies and revolutionising our way of seeing and thinking. Philosophically, this is the moment when we see various attempts at reflecting on globalisation coming from politicians, economic leaders and specialist intellectuals. This involves interrogating conflicting historic universalisms and social and cultural particularisms. It is here that the hegemonic conception of the world which is called neoliberalism is being put to the test and arriving at a point where its limits become increasingly evident. This confrontation is particularly sharp due to the emergence of multicultural societies that are calling into question the western world’s conception and values: productivism, consumerism, individualism, the imperial version of the Rights of Man and the contempt for nature in the name of its domination by human beings. This is the level of daily coexistence and of communication between groups and conceptions of the world. The issue is that of the creation of a public space for discussion and confrontation and of determining what is the commons.


    An unprecedented subjective violence has appeared at the heart of these two factors. This violence has to do with the relations between ethnicities and peoples, between religions and visions of the world, between majorities and minorities. These relations concern the existence of communities, of processes of concrete socialisation and of the images informing individuation where ethno-cultural differentiation is realised. They are connected to migratory phenomena whose real breadth is limited but irreversible. The racialisation of the Other, the fear of the foreigner, impedes the creation of a concrete intercultural universalism and produces an ideology of war between the powers manipulating these antagonisms.

    These four factors have to be seen in their intermeshing and combinations within the savage process of urbanisation of the world. The global is the global urban. The global city is the indicator of these phenomena. Discriminatory structures, the creation of a hegemonic space side by side with marginalised and abandoned zones, the organisation of flows which cross through it unequally (transportation, information, capital, goods) make of it a concentrate of the World and of Monster Capitalism. The global city is one of the most terrible monstrosities of globalisation. This is where, in its cruel visibility, the division occurs between those whom the system makes live beyond their needs, endowing them with the relative power to be the cause of their existence, and those whom the system lets die while expropriating them of all capacity to be the relative cause of their existence. We say ‘relative’ because the power to be the cause of one’s existence is never total but is conditioned by the external causes affecting internal dispositions. Globalisation tends to reduce this power to the minimum for the subaltern masses and to concentrate it to the maximum in its new ruling castes.

    But let us stop there. There can be no question of being exhaustive, and it would be presumptuous to present an encyclopaedia as a résumé of all knowledge about capitalist globalisation. Instead we will try to clarify some pertinent points.


    What world today for tomorrow? What scenarios?

    Let us try to finish this reflection on thinkable future perspectives, on possible scenarios. We borrow from the work of the historian and theorist of world systems, Immanuel Wallerstein (2004). There we find the notion of hegemonic transition left in suspense. A systemic transition of this kind, according to Wallerstein, followed a phase of material expansion of production and commerce where accumulation mostly operates on the basis of investments in the chains of commodities (capital, goods, services). At a later stage a phase of financial expansion arose, a phase of the creation and circulation of the money mass. In this case it becomes more profitable to position capitals and make them grow by forms of speculation all the while retaining control over their liquidity. The political systems are then obliged to transform the type of governability. They need to make social and economic concessions, indeed also political and cultural ones, to shape the power necessary for their reproduction, in order to obtain a wider consensus and impose the logic of finance by attracting capital and neutralising social conflicts. This involves creating a new more efficient competitive environment. Powers at the centre of the system enter into competitive disequilibrium and suffer the weight of debt service.

    A redistribution of surplus has operated as a function of the relations of force where the submission of wage earners is a goal that implies a permanent deregulation and delocalisation of the labour force. The historic endeavour to reduce the cost of the labour force is reaching a point of no return because the spaces for delocalisation have been exhausted with the de-ruralisation of the world system and the dominance of the urban. On the other hand, the new ruling classes are no longer able, as they could before the 1970s, to externalise three types of cost: the management of toxic wastes, the renewal of raw and primary materials and the construction of infrastructure. The rise of the ecological question has made it difficult for public health reasons to dispose of waste in the public domain. It has also made it evident that the renewal of resources is coming up against limits, which is exacerbated by the growth of the world’s population. Finally, if the states have always assumed the cost of infrastructure when enterprises paid a small part of the total, today these costs are rising and cannot continue to weigh on the states with impunity. They are rising with the extension of global economic activity, and in order to pay them the states would have to increase the fiscal pressure on corporations.

    This fiscal pressure increased up to the 1970s due to pressure from social movements which demanded and got basic guarantees (education, healthcare and pensions) at times by including them in wages and rightfully defending them as elements of the wage. The deconstruction of the welfare state was the neoliberal response to the fall in the rate of profit against which capital waged an offensive. Capital is insatiable in this and has been able to drop its mask and show itself to be a monster. However, this (still?) does not mean the total destruction of social services. It is necessary to maintain a minimum if there is not to be social chaos due to the explosive impoverishment of the subaltern classes. Capital’s response to the rise of these costs which it has to bear through fiscal pressure has not yet reached the point of complete destruction, and in a number of countries these claims on the part of the subaltern classes are new (China, Brazil and India). The expansion of consumption, or rather the production of consumption, sustained by colossal private and public debt has made it possible to defer the weight of these costs, but as a whole they have risen and cannot disappear. The transition to wild financialisation – with its extraordinary speculative bubbles – was a new response. The banks have financed the private loans they knew could not be repaid, and they obliged the states to bail them out under penalty of general chaos, a big crash. The states had to borrow to face this set of obligations, and the strongest financial networks then demanded of the states that, in order to be reimbursed, they pursue austerity policies against the middle and disadvantaged strata. These policies rest on the disaggregation of the national realities of the states where there is high unemployment and de-industrialisation. These states can no longer reproduce themselves as states possessing the compactness and homogeneity of a nation; they are fragmenting, indeed dissolving in conflicts destroying their identity under the influence of foreign states attempting to have them as allies or servants of their power politics. These policies weaken the intervention of the nation-state and sharpen the inequalities between states and networks. A major structural crisis broke out in 2008. The system saw increasingly wider fluctuations which increasingly remove it from a situation of dynamic equilibrium. In response, social mobilisations have multiplied, and, most importantly they have become capable of having significant impact and creating a chaotic situation. The new ruling caste obtains a relatively easy consensus from broader classes or groups who have lost all sense of social and political alternatives and who submit themselves for lack of anything better. Social conflicts blend into identitarian conflicts which often seem to be the determining ones, although they are achieving objectives other than identitarian. Confusion is spreading, with each bloc managing to bring to bear different aspects of resistance and remaining incapable of coordinating itself and building unified alliances around clear and mobilising objectives that ensure hegemonic transition. The revolutions in Islamic areas of the Middle East are examples of this chaos in which great powers have difficulty in identifying the internal bloc they need to support.

    The crisis can continue and sharpen in a dramatic way because of this chaos in which the two blocs are compelled to act and identify their objectives while gathering around them the forces that are in agreement with them. If the system reaches a limit where the possibility opens up of a fork in the road, each camp will be divided on what strategic plan to adopt. Let us follow Wallerstein. Wallerstein (2004) identifies the fork that has appeared in the short term as a choice between what he calls the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre. He was referring to two famous international forums. For years the Davos forum brought together the cream of the CEOs of the big transnational firms and banks, of those in charge of international organs, private experts, high-level politicians and well-known official intellectuals. It defends capitalist globalisation and deals with the problems it faces within an exclusively market perspective, a spirit of liberalisation, of financialisation of economies and activities and of unlimited commodification. The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was the first alter-globalist forum of an ongoing series. From now on the spirit of Davos contends with the contradictions that structure the world system by opposing them to neoliberalism. The spirit of Porto Alegre attempts to find openings for resistance within contradictions which are aggravated by brutal fluctuations in all institutional spheres. However, it would be simplistic to believe that the fork is so simple and merely counterposes two paths. In fact, each path is split into two if one deals with the question of knowing what order will replace this system, bearing in mind that from now on the question is no longer the recovery of previous growth as if nothing happened. The span of the fluctuations in relation to a state of equilibrium is too great for this state – that of infinite growth through infinite compressions of the labour force and of raw materials to be maintained ad infinitum. It is difficult to imagine that the standard of living of the most developed countries and their mode of existence can be spread to other countries without chaos, without doing unspeakable violence and perpetrating unbearable barbarism on all the others and without the mode of production becoming a mode of self-destruction.

    There are thus two camps, each with two options, which means four scenarios.

    The Davos camp is thinking about two options, the choice of which will depend on the economic cycle.

    • The hardened neoliberal partisans of the world system have enormous means at their disposal and can choose to continue by developing a very repressive system which would eventually have to liquidate the democratic process and reinforce hierarchies. They need a popular base which can only be mobilised by adding identitarian elements borrowed from the nationalisms and racisms which neoliberal politics contradictorily intends to submit to the abstract universalism of homo oeconomicus. Politically, for this faction of the Davos bloc, the path to take is that of an authoritarian neoliberal populism whose goal is to crush the opposition and in fact to go beyond the democratic principality in favour of a sort of populist feudalism.
    • Alongside them, a second group is choosing to maintain the privileges inscribed in the world system by developing a rigorous and exclusive meritocratic regime which makes use of the democratic regime to coopt a mass of indispensable cadres dedicated to the system. This then requires enormous expenditure on persuasion and rhetoric, with a minimum of brute force, in order to give a second wind to the dogmas. They will need to mimic and capture the language of the anti-systemic movements – which arose from labour and from independence struggles – in the sense of a relative libertarianism of mores, an ‘apple-green’ ecologism and a multicultural utopianism. All the subjects will have to aspire to ameliorate their position in a meritocratic system which needs to be seductive to make an inequitable and polarised system acceptable.


    The Porto Alegre camp is no more unified than the Davos camp, and it exhibits a similar fracture.

    • On the one hand, there is the group of those who envision a decentralised world which would abandon the myth of infinite economic growth and advocate the rationing of resources in the long term, that is an ecological transformation. They would carry out a sharing of wealth to reduce the monstrous inequities. This groups reasons that the world cannot live according to a mode of production and consumption that allows a small percentage of populations and states to enjoy a mode of existence that destroys chances for the majorities. This group counts on technological innovation and re-evaluates the diverse wisdoms which western instrumental rationality, dear to Weber and still too highly estimated by Marx, discredited with the pretext of representing the only possible version of economic rationality. Technical innovation cannot be rejected in the name of technophobia nor can it be simply identified with instrumental rationality and thus rejected. It is western rationality which must be rethought by integrating points of view deriving from non-western traditions of wisdom not founded on the limitlessness of desires but which must, on their part, come to understand human plasticity. The respect for the diversity of past and future humanity, of its cultural creations, is a resource for change that has to be made fruitful. A grassroots democratic process is the political form for hegemonic transition. It would be an eco-socialism or even an eco-communism, or even an eco-anarchism that would constitute a concrete universalism respectful of differences.
    • On the other hand, there is a group which, more classically tied to the modern anti-systemic movements, is updating the idea of a transformation from above, at the level of the state, of an implementation by cadres and experts capable of thinking systemically. The idea of a world state constitutes the horizon in a system that would be continually more coordinated and integrated, governed by a formal egalitarianism that expects nothing from unforeseeable innovations. This group considers the idea of a concrete, that is plural, universalism to be a pure hypothesis and still considers the nation the place for struggles against a background of formal universalism.


    The battle for hegemonic transition is thus proceeding in a context of confusion and the clash of four fronts. This complicates the binary opposition of two camps by allowing some reciprocal contamination between factions but also by precluding any predictability of result as regards the new system. It is impossible to foresee the outcome because historical contingency makes even the greatest probabilities not inevitable. The worst is not a certainty, nor is the best. A radical indeterminacy weighs upon the future even if the probabilities of catastrophe have lately increased. At any rate, all the present indicators are flashing red and point to a fork in the road in which choosing between paths is made all the more urgent because of the irreversible ecological crisis which constantly reminds us of the impossibility, or rather the major risk, of continuing with infinite immoderation. They invite us to exercise control over human malleability through a regime of positive finiteness, of production of a sociality which would no longer be asocial and absurd. This is what could be called prudence or wisdom. In the short term, an important electoral victory followed by a real amelioration of the fate of all those who have been reduced to a minimal level, an increased protection of the economic, cultural and political rights of all, accompanied by a struggle against the erosion of the planet’s wealth and a rigorous control of finance – this would be a step forward. It would make it possible to envisage the creation of another world system


    Think through an alternative and commit to it

    The merit of world-system analysis is clear: It at least makes us see, it reveals this state of affairs of a monster world to a broader range of men and women nearly everywhere. There are now more people who are able to participate in these debates and choose among the paths in the fork that has become visible. We have entered the ledger that records the intellectual choice of ‘either … or’. Either yes to the hegemony of the market and its human disasters, to the anti-democratic relations of force that have unmasked themselves or are still concealed, to social and ethnic wars, to the arms race and the degradation of the earth. Or: no to all that and yes to a sociality made of shared trust, without exploitation; yes to the most democratic possible resolution of conflicts and disagreements, yes to cooperation and to the re-establishment of relations with nature that allow everyone’s survival and the expanded possibility of a good life.


    translated by Eric Canepa



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