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Globalization from Below

By Patrick Bond


Review of 'Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity', by Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith, Cambridge, MA, South End Press.

There are more than a dozen new english-language books aimed mainly at an audience of international-justice activists, strategists and intellectuals. I've got the pleasant task of reading these in my role as coordinator of a seminar of 20 masters and doctoral students which starts next week in Johannesburg.

Because it raises issues so well and so forthrightly, honestly considers competing arguments, I chose to make one book - Globalization from Below - required reading (as I will do again in a similar seminar at York University in Toronto this summer).

But let me disclose quickly that my enormous admiration for Connecticut-based writer/film-maker Jeremy Brecher and his coauthors Tim Costello and Brendan Smith (hereafter 'BCS') has not kept me from engaging in lively e-mail debates with Jeremy over analysis, strategy and tactics. This review is written in that spirit of comradely give-and-take.

Like so much of their previous work (e.g. Global Village or Global Pillage, which is also a compelling video), the latest BCS primer offers a very fine mix of empirical observations, political commentary, forays into intellectual debates, programme-sconstruction, and applied tactical suggestions. The style is warm, friendly, readable, and efficient. At 164 pages, this is an ideal little back-pocket tome to pull out on those long bus-rides to the next demo in Quebec City, Genoa, Gothenburg, Washington, Jo'burg or wherever. I hope everyone in the ZNet community will get a copy and consider its line of argument enthusiastically and carefully (

The greatest strength of the book, in my view, is its assessment of nonviolent social movement theory. BCS draw upon relevant practical examples as well as deep-theory arguments by Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ken Sharp and Michael Mann. From warnings of how social movements tend to fail comes a 'Lilliput strategy' that works through myriad people's movements, coordinated by radically-decentralised network structures that, tactically, gain advantage in NGO-Swarm mode.

BCS, the Rand Corporation and The Economist magazine agree that the merits of a swarm are that it 'has no central leadership or command structure; it is multi-headed, impossible to decapitate. And it can sting a victim to death.'

That's fine for defense, but what happens once Our Team moves to offense? BCS bravely offer a 'Draft Global Program' (similar to one introduced with BCSs' help by Rep. Bernie Sanders in the US Congress). It's a roadmap that covers virtually the entire international terrain of contemporary eco-social struggle. Yet I don't find it completely satisfying, since it mixes up campaigning strategies and specific sectoral demands. (Not that anyone else has constructed a better international-scale manifesto.)

BCS also deliberate fruitfully upon weaknesses and contradictions in both the organisational forms and the strategic paths chosen by movement leaders from South and North. This is difficult terrain, with no easy formulas. On the society-nature contradiction, BCS endorse tobacco control advocacy as a transcendental example, and the 'Just Transition' process of socialising costs involved in cleaning our fouled environments.

On First/Third World debates concerning resource allocation, BCS lean overheavily (in my opinion) towards international-scale regulation of wages, health/safety, and environmental conditions. Correctly, they slag off Jimmy Hoffa Jr for his 'some guy in a loincloth' xenophobia during the debate over normalising trade relations with China. In contrast, the BCS recipe for international solidarity entails dialogue, mutual aid, joint struggles, common norms and programs, cultural accommodation and conflict attenuation.

Still, as helpful a text as this is, I have concerns about the formulation 'globalization from below,' especially in a context in which many of friends are saying, 'roll back globalization!'

First, I think it's important to more effectively locate the source of what we call economic globalization: capitalist crisis. Notwithstanding their coverage of diverse political-economic and geopolitical readings, BCS don't really consider *why* globalization has emerged with such a vengeance this past quarter-century. Their descriptive list of surface-level phenomena is no substitute for seeking globalization's root causes.

Here in South Africa, for example, the leading intellectuals of the African National Congress wrote a paper in 1998 arguing that 'It is precisely declining profitability in the most advanced economies that has spurred the last quarter of a century of intensified globalization.' Joel Netshitenzhe, Jeremy Cronin, Blade Nzimande and Mbhazima Shilowa thus saw globalization as the logical outcome of capitalism's vulnerability, not strength.

(I have just finished a book manuscript - 'Threatening Global Apartheid' - vigorously questioning the implications that these comrades draw for Pretoria's international strategy, which is very reformist and ineffectual even on its own limited terms, but I think that they at least begin by formulating the problem correctly. Inspired by UCLA historian Robert Brenner's recent work, Netshitenzhe et al invoke the idea of 'overaccumulation crisis,' which is the combination of excess output, unutilised capacity, financial-speculative bubbling and massive unemployment that follow excessive intercapitalist competition and declining manufacturing-sector profit rates.)

Without analysing why globalization has intensified, BCS can dispense with historical evidence (aside from a couple of footnotes). Specifically, we are never informed that trade, investment and finance do not inexorably increase over time, but instead ebb and flow - e.g., only recently did we reach 1913 levels of international economic integration.

The danger, here, is that BCS fall into the trap of conceding, uncritically, the 'irreversibility' (their word) of globalisation. Once that leap is taken, the agenda becomes the 'need to control the forces of global capital,' and the assumption is made that since capital is global, so too must regulation be global.

Here we enter the raging debate in movement circuits about whether to 'fix' or 'nix' institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund and World Bank. (A year ago, this was the subject of my first ZNet commentary so I won't redo the full nix-it argument here.)

The preferred formulation of BCS - and of the swarm harassing the WTO, guided partly by the indefatigable Lori Wallach of Public Citizen - is a subtle combination called 'fix it or [else we'll] nix it,' subsequently retitled 'shrink or sink' to emphasise that no conceivable WTO fix is possible, only a reduction in its power and reach.

To translate, if they don't reform, we'll campaign to shut them down. The 'or' hangs there threateningly, but it makes Our Team sound a bit more reasonable, since the option for reform remains.

The Qatar meeting of the WTO in November will (by design) be very very difficult for a Seattlesque lockdown. So I assume (hope!) that Lori and her comrades around the world will spend the coming months campaigning to defund the WTO and withdraw national delegations, given US trade negotiator Robert Zoellick's inevitable failure to meet shrink/sink demands. (To illustrate, Zoellick is now attacking Brazil's anti-AIDS drug program for violating pharmaceutical corpos' patent rights.)

In other words, the 14 months since Seattle have, for international trade activists, been a strategic pause period because of clever 'fix- it-or-nix-it' wording that avoided the hard 'either/or' choice: you either try to fix the WTO, or you try to nix it. To assert the 'both/and' option (as do BCS) is just confusing.

The same debate continues in relation to the World Bank. At last month's Porto Allegre World Social , my colleagues in the '50 Years is Enough!' South Council very explicitly sent the message back to northern allies (you in ZNet!) that the October annual general meeting of the Bank/IMF in Washington really must be their last.

For reasons that escape me, BCS retain a quaint confidence the Bank can be fixed, partly because they view the World Bank Inspection Panel with some respect. (To consider some reasons that Jo'burg township activists are dubious about the mealy- mouthed Panel, drawing on their experience fighting mega-dams in Lesotho for which they as consumers are paying way too dearly, see

In fact, if BCS came out to visit places like my neighbours Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland or Zimbabwe, they would retract their baffling comment that 'the poorest countries survive only through World Bank support.'

This is my main point of dispute with BCS: whether there are any prospects of meaningful global state-reform given the prevailing balance of forces.

If not, you see, then we would want to reinvoke the 'delinking' strategy (advanced originally by Africa's greatest economist, Samir Amin). Delinking - not, by the way, N.Korea-style autarchy - proposes a reduction in Third World countries' engagement with harmful international financial, trade and direct investment.

BCS have two objections to this approach. First, they insist, 'there is not some national political structure which, if delinked from global capital, would start eagerly to pursue an alternative national development strategy.'

My reply is to reverse the order, and consider that if we ever want to see such a Cuba-style national revolution succeed and generate an alternative development strategy, such a nation-state would *have* to delink as much as is technically feasible, or risk sliding down the slippery slope associated with dependency; declining terms of trade; debt repayments for the previous regime's odious borrowing; downward competition to attract foreign investment; class-formation via comprador allies of global capital; and so on. I've worked in the offices of Nelson Mandela (1994, 1996) and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1995), and confidently assert that it was mainly the relinking of post-apartheid South Africa and post-coup Haiti into circuits of finance and international aid, that doomed their alternative character.

Second, say BCS, such a revolution would get pounded by imperialism:

"Imagine a single country withdrawing from the WTO, refusing to service its debt, and putting a full array of progressive requirements on foreign investment. Aside from the obvious short-term consequences (e.g., inability to acquire parts, machinery, or raw materials, except by barter), it would be cut off in the long run from modern technology, the Internet, and everything else that is developed in the global economy. This is a formula for permanent underdevelopment."

No, not necessarily. In Dakar, Senegal in December, the cutting edge strategists of the Jubilee anti-debt movement, for example, discussed ways in which Northern solidarity could prevent retribution by Northern bankers in the event of debt repudiation by a progressive Third World government (for example, a hypothetical radical finance minister in Pretoria refusing the repayment of apartheid-era debt). Keeping open channels of trade finance might be essential in such a case, but I feel BCS are too fearful of challenging the international markets.

As another example of delinking from WTO- regulated trade, BCS describe how ACT UP protested Al Gore's early presidential campaign events 18 months ago, so as to pressure him against prohibiting the South African health minister from implementing a pharmaceuticals-access law. That law would have South Africa withdraw from the WTO's protection of corporate patent rights (by invoking a clause providing for health emergencies, of which AIDS surely qualifies).

ACT UP is mistakenly described by BCS as a 'gay advocacy group' but that's not the point: this ongoing campaign shows the capacity of far-sighted activists to politicise anti-retroviral drugs as part of a more universal strategy based on radical rights- discourses. The only way to move such a strategy forward is delinking (or 'exclusion') from the WTO (see the new Socialist Register 2001: Working Classes, Global Realities for an argument to this effect by Hong Kong labour activist Gerard Greenfield).

The activists and South African health ministry face countervailing pressure from the IMF, World Bank and WTO, so the movement for abolition of the institutions is vital, even if so as to give us a bit more breathing room by removing Washington's boot on Third World necks. Isn't polishing that boot, by advocating global regulatory arrangements that can undo the damage done from the neoliberal centre is doing, both naive and counterproductive?

In the short term, an abolition strategy against the IMF, Bank and WTO is vital, because these institutions are the policemen and ideologues of corporate globalization. Only when their boots are removed will nation-states again have the capacity to take more radical turns. And only once enough radical states can regroup can we then talk about the globalization of regulation.

Indeed, we used to openly call this globalization phenomenon by the names 'imperialism' or 'neo-colonialism.' I do sometimes worry about semantics. The Santa Cruz guru of marxist eco-sociology, James O'Connor, tells me to try using 'international' when we talk of Our Team's agenda, and 'global' for Their Team. That gets us away from the 'irreversibility' of globalization-from-above.

For all the reasons BCS so eloquently provide, globalization-from-below is the right sentiment. But what that really means, I still assert, is rolling back capitalist globalisation, initially to national boundaries by removing its global-scale police and ideologues in Washington and Geneva. That will take all the undiluted energies of those who believe, instead, in the globalisation of people, and of radical politics.

(Patrick Bond teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand; for his seminar reading list, write to  

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Emanzipation Humanum, version 03. 2001, criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired