The economic globalization that transformed the world at the turn of the century promised, according to its advocates, a glorious vista of prosperity that would provide unprecedented economic growth and raise billions of people out of poverty. In practice it generated personal and national insecurity, growing inequality, and a race to the bottom in which every community, nation, and workgroup had to reduce its social, environmental, and labor conditions to that of its most impoverished competitor.
But economic globalization also gave birth to a new convergence of global social forces that opposed this kind of globalization. People all over the world fought back against this “globalization from above” with their own “globalization from below.” They used asymmetrical strategies of linking across the borders of nations and constituencies to become a counter power to the advocates of globalization. They created a movement – variously known as the global justice movement, the anti-globalization movement, global civil society, or as we call it, “globalization from below” -- that some in the media even characterized as “the world’s other superpower.”
The anti-globalization/global justice/globalization-from-below movement developed in response to the expansive phase of globalization and neoliberalism. Now the global economy has entered the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. The financial crisis has turned out to be the start of a cascade of other economic crises that are reshaping the global economy as definitively as an earthquake reshapes a city. Current leaders of the world’s nations have utterly failed to develop a solution. The likely impact of their failure on ordinary people around the world will be incalculable.
A Vision for Hard Times
The crisis of the global economy provides new challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities for the diverse social, labor, environmental, and other movements that have constituted globalization from below. It also raises the question of what the role of globalization from below should be in the new situation.
In October, a group of activists, social movements, and NGOs who were in Beijing for the Asia-Europe People’s Forum met nightly to discuss the crisis. Their “Beijing Declaration” provides a brilliant first expression of a globalization-from-below alternative to the failures of globalization from above.
The basic vision of the Declaration is summed up in its title: “The global economic crisis: An historic opportunity for transformation.” Its goal, in other words, is not to shore up the status quo and return to the destructive form of globalization that preceded the crisis. Its objective is almost the opposite of the five trillion dollars of bail-outs, rescues, and subsidies provided to business in the past couple of months by the world’s governments. It aims instead to provide “a transitional program for radical economic transformation” to a “different kind of political and economic order.”
“Transitional program” may sound like antiquated socialist rhetoric – a call to take state power and nationalize industry. But both the goals and the methods are very different. Indeed, the Declaration points a path between merely reestablishing the status quo and assuming that actions must be “revolutionary or nothing.”
No “maximalism” here. “To capture people’s attention and support” the Declaration argues, proposals must be “practical and immediately feasible.” That is possible because, even under the domination of globalization from above, people have been developing alternatives within the world’s nooks and crannies. The unfolding economic provides the opportunity “to put into the public domain some of the inspiring and feasible alternatives many of us have been working on for decades.”
The goal linking these alternatives is “the well-being of people and the planet.” And that requires a focus not primarily on restoring the financial system, but first and foremost on the great human and environmental crisis the world is facing in relation to food, climate, and energy.
Such common human interests are not the principal concerns of the people and institutions that now call the shots in national governments or the global economy. The “well-being of people and the planet” will not be achieved by economic jiggering. Instead, “democratic control over financial and economic institutions are required.”
The vision of such democratic control, however, is not of either a centralized national or a centralized global economy. It is closer to what Walden Bello elsewhere described as the “co-existence” of a variety of “international organizations, agreements and regional groupings” that would allow “a more fluid, less structured, more pluralistic world with multiple checks and balances” in which nations and communities can “carve out the space to develop based on their values, their rhythms, and the strategies of their choice.”
The current economic crisis creates opportunity for transformation because it “severely weakens” the power of the US, the EU, and the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. It undermines the legitimacy of the “neo-liberal paradigm.” And, where global pseudo-consensus once asserted that “there is no alternative” to liberal capitalism, the future of capitalism is now becoming an open question.
Of course, this moment can also be seized by “fascist, right wing populist, xenophobic groups” who will try to “take advantage of people’s fear and anger for reactionary ends.” The
What is the agency for pursuing constructive alternatives and resisting destructive ones? It starts with the “powerful movements against neo-liberalism” that have been built over past decades. These will grow along with public anger at the abuse of public funds for private subsidy, the crises of food, energy, and the environment, and the deepening recession.
Subsequent posts will deal with the Declaration’s concrete proposals and next steps in implementing its vision.