The protestors are winning. They are winning on the streets. Before too long they will be winning the arguments. Globalisation is fast becoming a cause without credible champions.
(Financial Times, 17th August 2001)
Advocates of market economics continually portray capitalism as the most efficient and effective means of distributing scarce resources by a free, competitive market. Every election time without fail, the politicians queue up trying to persuade us of the efficacy of their party’s programme to stimulate growth and revive the flagging economy. There’s an almost unquestioned assumption that both the market and power structures which protect it are innately good, and that there is no alternative. But is this really the case? The answer to this question, as millions across the world are finding to their enduring cost, must be a resounding ‘no’.
In the aftermath of the recent G8 forum in Hokkaido, we examine why neo-liberalism has been an unmitigated global disaster and offer suggestions as to the way forward for the anti-capitalist movement.
Imperialism and inequality
Few could deny the impressive productive power of industrial capitalism, but the resulting outputs have been realised only at the cost of growing inequality, the perpetual threat of war, a dwindling and contaminated natural environment as well as mounting social problems.
The global market, which in the current neo-liberal era has never been so powerful or unrestrained, has produced a wealth gap both domestically and internationally that has never been wider. The three richest people in the world now have assets exceeding the combined gross domestic product of the 48 least developed countries. The income of the one fifth of the world population living in the wealthiest countries was 30 times more than the one fifth living in the poorest countries in 1960 – by 1995 it was 74 times higher.
The system we live under is one where necessities such as food, sanitation, medicines and clean water abound for those who can afford them, but those in greatest need go without. A tiny minority bask in untold riches, while thousands starve on a daily basis because it is simply not sufficiently profitable to feed them.
Recent trade liberalisation policies and treaties, implemented by organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and G8, have accelerated the plunder of poor nations by corporations based in richer ones. This continues a trend set in motion at the start of the industrial revolution, and coincides with the rising prominence of the corporations (in fact, 52 of the world’s largest economies are now corporate economies).
Indigenous communities and cultures are being systematically devastated by economic imperialism, with stolen land and deforestation making way for corporate-friendly farming, mining, and logging enterprises.
Patent laws are another means of preserving corporate profits, but in doing so deny millions access to life-saving HIV combination therapies and other medicines. More recently, steps have been undertaken to afford corporations exclusive rights to water or staple foods such as basmati rice, as part of the wider globalisation agenda to privatise everything.
militarism and religion
A competitive economy pits nation against nation, stimulating conflict in the remorseless drive to feed the fortunes of the all powerful ruling elites. Total global military spending now equates to an amount of money less than half of which could comfortably alleviate world poverty and hunger. With western superpowers waging a ‘war on terror’ to conceal their true aspirations to acquire control of world oil supplies, marginalised groups turn to religious fundamentalism, and are provoked to commit horrific acts of terrorism. Without question, the ‘war on terror’, and the proliferation of nuclear, biological and conventional weaponry have made modern times very dangerous ones in which to live.
A strange oddity of the contemporary world perhaps, is the resurgence of retrogressive religious fundamentalism. Religion, largely discredited by science and philosophy, is founded upon a set of myths harking back to primitive times when superstition and irrationality ruled. Allied to tribalism, bigotry, intolerance, and hostile to free critical enquiry, religion is used as the pretext for politicians and suicide bombers alike to wage war on non-believers. But the much vaunted ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Western and the Islamic worlds is a myth which has been carefully contrived by an uncanny alliance of competing political and religious figureheads to strengthen their own positions, conveniently sidestepping the real (financial) forces underlying imperialism. The strong bond between the Saudi and US ruling powers illustrates precisely that religious differences matter little when massive profits are at stake.
Military might and economic power are inextricably linked. As the world’s only superpower, the US has bombed 22 countries since World War 2, and destabilised countless more in Central America – with CIA-inspired coups – to advance its interests. Even the US’s nemesis, Bin Laden, received covert backing during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, as did Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq war. Spending over $1 billion per day on the military domestically, the US currently exports $18.6 billion worth of arms per year, many of which go to poor countries. The British government has also excelled in arms dealing, supplying the Indonesian government with weaponry used in their genocidal campaigns in East Timor and Papua. Exposures like the ‘sweeteners’ paid by BAE Systems to the Saudi Royal family to secure lucrative jet fighter contracts come as little surprise.
Market forces channel vast amounts of labour, technological and advertising resources into manufacturing artificial needs and then, in turn, supplying a multitude of products and services to satisfy these. But the cycle of (over-)production and consumption that results, is simply unsustainable. Combined with the short-sighted reliance of the world economy on fossil fuels, the melting polar ice caps, polluted stratosphere and shrinking rainforests attest the limits of a system which treats the natural world as an inexhaustible, expendable commodity.
Multinational treaties, allegedly designed to curb the output of pollution-causing greenhouse gases, have proved to be spectacularly ineffective in restraining market forces. Rising global temperatures and sea levels have already created climate refugees in the Indian Ocean and further “catastrophic” consequences of climate change are predicted by the UN without prompt and robust action.
Capitalism is alienation. It cultivates consumerism through celebrity hype and brand-label worship. The increasing mediation of our leisure by commodities engenders a uniform and homogenised culture, eliminating diversity in the process. The corporate vision is a world in which each and every one of us aspires to the same false consumer dream, a dream enacted in shopping malls that differ little from Bristol to Bombay.
Capitalism propounds competition, exalts greed and worships opulence. It rewards selfishness, exhorts ruthlessness and delights in making us enemies of each other. It thrives on a carefully-contrived climate of fear, which state bodies exploit by scrutinising and spying on our every move. With endemic social problems becoming ever more acute, it deploys huge amounts of resources in a desperate bid to curb the very social ills it generates. As the prisons brim to overflowing, the rich flaunt their fortunes and the politicians their corruption with seeming impunity. Meanwhile the press and media that support them do everything in their power to convince us that there really is no alternative. Communism? Ha! If you think we’re bad, just look at Russia, China, Vietnam and North Korea. (All of which are capitalist economies).
Dissent is managed not only by the mass media, but also via the ballot box, carefully-stewarded protest marches and compliant, defensive trade unions. When these methods fail, more overt and brutal forms of repression inevitably step in. This is especially apparent where the transnationals realise their greatest profit margins. In these countries, puppet dictatorships flourish by crushing organised labour and denying basic human rights to workers; maintaining wages and manufacturing costs at the absolute minimum. Child labour and sweatshops thrive under conditions akin to slavery.
Even the benefits enjoyed by the populations of more affluent ‘democratic’ countries – such as the welfare state – have been conceded only through years of tireless workers’ struggle. But in times of crisis such as the present, even these redistributive mechanisms are under concerted attack from the twin evils of privatisation and disinvestment. The deadly hospital superbug epidemic – which is rarely out of the news – has occurred against a backdrop of outsourcing of cleaning services and major spending cuts.
Cutbacks in affordable housing, welfare benefits, and education have also been expedited. The ultra-rich have been allowed to escape taxation while a raft of anti-union and protest-curbing legislation has been introduced. That these legislative reforms have been proactively pursued by a Labour government demonstrates exactly where the balance of power truly resides. Corporate bodies that profit exclusively by ‘persuading’ workers not to join unions form a growing industry in the US, and are now plying their grubby trade in the UK.
divide and rule
The destruction of livelihoods and the concentration of wealth in privileged countries have seen workers uproot en masse in a bid to seek employment. Migrant workers are typically employed in precarious, illegal and casual working situations. As such, they are open to a higher degree of exploitation than the workforce of the host country. That their deployment serves capital by forcing general wage levels down, breeds resentment which racist right wing groups and politicians manipulate for their own ends. A classic case of blaming the victim, calculated to divide and rule and prevent solidarity between workers with similar interests.
Patriarchy and the subjugation of women remain all pervasive into the 21st Century. Honour killings and female genital mutilation are still commonplace in cultures subsumed by archaic religious beliefs, beliefs which also propound a repressive morality and the persecution of homosexuals. In parts of the world where organised religion’s influence has waned, racism, sexism and homophobia still permeate society’s powerful institutions. The commodification of women by the sex industry has simultaneously seen the trafficking of females into the seedy but profitable business of sex-slavery. Women are paid less than men, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, and are socialised to fulfil clearly-defined, subservient roles. So whilst relationships based on domination predate capitalism, these are still actively reinforced to maintain oppressive social relations and serve the needs of the economy.
an uncertain future
Finally, as if all the above wasn’t enough, capitalism is also inherently unstable. The market system and its expansive forces are subject to calamitous fluctuations, often becoming the precursor for war. The current US ’credit crunch’ has precipitated a major downturn in the world economy, exacerbated greatly by skyrocketing food and fuel prices. These factors in combination have resulted in mounting inflation, homelessness and poverty. As the poor go hungry, food riots spread like wildfire across the economically-polarised world. With global warming, drought and foreseeable conflicts over diminishing food, water and oil supplies, the future looks very grave indeed.
For all these reasons and more, the global capitalist system and the organisational structures which sustain it, must be seen for what they are – brutal, unjust, destructive and fundamentally untenable.
enough is enough
But the cracks in the system are getting ever bigger. Neo-liberalism, free trade and the corporatocracy aren’t having things all their own way. The Zapatistas uprising in Mexico in 1994 against the North American Free Trade Agreement epitomised a spirit which has since coalesced into wider opposition to globalisation. The people of the Bolivian region of Cochabamba successfully thwarted attempts by the US Corporation Bechtel to privatise their water supplies. Indigenous peoples the world over are defying the corporate take-over of their lands and culture. With waves of international strikes, determined opposition to G8 forums, culture-jamming and an expanding underground media, the tide of popular resistance is snowballing. Many of these forms of organised resistance are in their embryonic stages, but together exemplify a current which rejects the failed vanguardism and centralist dogma of leftist parties which have brought only more misery.
We cannot afford to engage in delusional triumphalism; there are long, hard roads ahead. The workers’ movement has been severely weakened by decades of anti-union legislation and casualisation and employment precarity. We see rank and file workers’ organisations, strong communities and a generalised culture of resistance as the way ahead. Our workplaces, as the heart of the capitalist system, provide the arena where a crippling blow can be delivered by us taking control of the means of production. As anarcho-syndicalists we emphasise industrial direct action and the general strike as the means to achieve this. Protest must morph into organised community and workplace-based resistance. Mobilising every time a G8 summit comes along is not enough on its own. If we want a new world, we can’t wait for the politicians to do it for us. We must do it ourselves and do it now.
Our movement needs to be imaginative, coherent and multidimensional; offering both a vision of how things could be and championing prefigurative forms of horizontal organisation to build a new society within the shell of the old. We need a strength of conviction and robust approach to all who would take control on ‘our’ behalf; already the SWP and other leftist parties are attempting to hijack the anti-capitalist movement with front organisations such as ’Globalise Resistance’. Power is never given, it has to be taken. Through solidarity and direct democracy, we can dissolve and decentralise power, and restore decision-making to its rightful place, to local communities. But we must be mindful of the need to forge links across national borders, for just as capitalism has gone global, so must organised resistance to it.
Industrial capitalism and hierarchical society has long since reached the pinnacle of its development. Like it or not, we cannot continue as we are. Social anthropology and the history of autonomous workers’ struggles shows that another, better world is an infinite possibility. The abolition of capitalism and the state and its replacement with a system of libertarian socialism is no longer a desirable, utopian pipe-dream, but a compelling and practical necessity.
In the words of the People’s Global Action manifesto:
“The need has become urgent for concerted action to dismantle the illegitimate world governing system which combines transnational capital, nation states, international finance institutions and trade agreements. Only a global alliance of peoples’ movements, respecting autonomy and facilitating action-orientated resistance, can defeat this emerging global monster. If impoverishment of populations is the agenda of neo-liberalism, direct empowerment of the peoples through constructive direct action and civil disobedience will be the programme of the Peoples’ Global Action against ‘free’ trade and the WTO.
We assert our will to struggle as peoples against all forms of oppression. But we do not only fight the wrongs imposed on us. We are also committed to building a new world. We are together as human beings and communities, our unity deeply rooted in diversity. Together we shape a vision of a just world and begin to build that true prosperity which comes from human empowerment, natural bounty, diversity, dignity and freedom.”