At the pit of the Great Depression in 1930, an American country music group named the Carter Family recorded a song called The Worried Man Blues. It began:
“I went down to the river and I lay down to sleep
When I woke up there were shackles on my feet.”
Though many subsequent verses describe the horrific outcome, there is no explanation of what had happened or why – just an awakening to a seemingly endless catastrophe. The song immediately became an unprecedented national hit. It’s hard to imagine that its success didn’t have something to do with capturing the sense of being the helpless victim of incomprehensible disaster that so many felt in the face of the Great Depression.
The seemingly sudden collapse of the global economy in 2008 has similarly left millions, indeed billions of people all over the world a victims of a catastrophe that appears both inexplicable and unending.
But what’s now being dubbed the “Great Recession” is neither incomprehensible nor irremediable. On the contrary, it can be understood as an expectable result of a capitalism that has been globalized and at the same time “freed” by neoliberalism of control in the public interest.
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 is incalculable.
The advocates of globalization from above propounded as an article of faith that markets are self-regulating and that all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only governments, labor unions, citizens organizations, and the unruly mob let them alone to do their thing.
The times they are a-changing. US government officials long known as market fundamentalists seize banks, buy mortgage and insurance companies, and commit $7.7 trillion – half of the US annual product -- to government intervention in financial markets.
The Clintonite “moderates” who once gutted the social safety net and sacrificed commitments to jobs programs in order to build up budget surpluses now propose vast public works programs financed by budget deficits. The IMF, scourge of “irresponsible” countries that didn’t balance their budgets, advocates a trillion-plus dollars in global government deficits and claims to have replaced “structural adjustment conditionalities” with condition-free loans.
These programs may well fail in halting the downward spiral of the global economy. But they open the door to new forms of more social and public economy. That’s one reason conservatives normally oppose them – and one indicator of how serious the present crisis really is. The economic crisis makes it possible to put proposals on the table that have long been ruled inadmissible.
While economists have asserted with great confidence that one after another trillion dollar “solution” would save the global economy, one after another has failed, raising the specter that it cannot be saved in its present form. Peter Boon and Simon Johnson of the website baselinescenario.com recently raised that possibility in the Wall Street Journal. They note that economists generally believe even the Great Depression of the 1930s could have been stopped by proper monetary policy. But, Boon and Johnson argue, governments may simply not be able to prevent such huge deflationary spirals. “Perhaps the events of 1929 produced an unstoppable whirlwind of deleveraging which no set of policy measures would truly be able to prevent.” Their implication seems evident: The same could be true today.
The multi-trillion dollar rescues and bail-outs so far just attempt – possibly futilely -- to save the status quo. But what can we do if the status quo can’t be saved? Can globalization from below really provide an alternative solution to the great recession?