Revista Globalización (Home page)


Werner Bonefeld


The pros and cons of the globalisation debate have been well rehearsed and the contest between its proponents and critics are well established. This paper does not add to this debate. It focuses on the common basis upon which the argument of both side of the debate rests. The critique of this common basis opens up a discussion about the real alternative to 'globalisation', and that is, the project of human emancipation.

For the proponents of globalisation, globalisation is the best of all worlds: it has freed capital from the dependent masses, rendering them powerless. This view is understandable. The bourgeoisie knows what class divisions are and what the class struggle entails. It is its business to pursue its interests with relentless vigour. And the critics? Here, too, the project of emancipation is seen to have been made redundant by globalisation and the foremost task of the Left is to humanise capitalism through regulative reform (cf. Held, 1995; Hirsch, 1995). The critics of globalisation, in short, are concerned with the transformation of the state so as to achieve a democratically based regulative political control over global capital. Globalisation, then, is not seen as a crisis of capitalist accumulation. Instead, it is seen as a regulative crisis. The paper assesses this view and argues that this critique of globalisation, a critique for the state, is self-contradictory: the humanisation of inhuman conditions presupposes these same conditions as eternal. The project of human emancipation is not concerned with the humanisation of inhuman condition. It is concerned with the inhuman conditions themselves, their transformation in favour of the society of the free and equal - communism.

The Debate on Globalisation: Regulative Crisis or Crisis of Capital?

Were one to follow the debate on globalisation uncritically, one would have to conclude that the state is 'withering away'. Unfortunately for Lenin, this withering away is seen to have taken hold within capitalism itself. Its precise beginning is unclear but it is generally agreed that it started around the time of the collapse of the Soviet communism. The 'end of history' and the 'retreat of the state' (Strange, 1996) appear thus to coincide. It is argued that only 'residual functions' are left to the state; and these remaining functions are seen, without even a hint of irony, to be those that ensure capital competitiveness (Cerny, 1996). The state, then, that is supposedly withering away is not withering away completely: the capitalist state remains! What, then, is withering away? The state is seen to have transformed from a 'welfare state' to a 'competition state' (cf. Cerny, 1990; Hirsch, 1995) that makes its territory ready for capital investment regardless of social costs. This characterisation of the state presupposes that, before globalisation, the state regulated 'its' economy in a socially comprehensive and democratic way (see, for example, Hirsch, 1995). Leaving aside the crude Eurocentric view of this 'transformation', globalisation is seen to have tipped the balance between the 'state' and the 'economy' entirely in favour of the 'economy', according autonomy to the economy in relation to the national state making the economy the determining force (see de Angelis, 1997).

The critics of globalisation, then, focus their critique not on capital but, instead, on the neo-liberal character of globalisation. The globalisation of capital is thus seen fundamentally as a crisis of the form of political regulation. The 'de-nationalisation' of the previously nationally constituted economy has undermined the regulative functions and powers of the national state. These regulative functions were adequate to the pre-globalisation capitalism and have been hollowed out by globalisation. In order, then, to 'make' capital again accountable, and to rescue it from its own self-destructive force, globalisation is seen to require the transformation of regulative political intervention adequate to globalisation.

Supported by impressive empirical evidence, these critics charge, for example, that multinational companies are not as footloose as the proponents of globalisation argue and that the national state retains considerable regulative power over the economy and that we witness a regionalisation, rather than a globalisation, of the world economy (Boyer and Drache, 1996; Hirst and Thompson, 1999). This then is the basis for the proposal for a nationally or inter-nationally coordinated institutional strategy to contain globalisation's destructive force. All depends on the development of 'governance mechanisms' (cf. Hirst and Thompson, 1999) and the Left is called upon to 'reorient strategic discussions...towards the transformation of the state' (Panitch, 1994, p. 87), so as to achieve 'a radical redistribution of productive resources, income and working time' (ibid., p. 89). For this to occur, a shift in the balance of class forces is essential (Panitch, 2000). The demand, then, is either for a 'shift towards a more inwardly oriented economy' (Panitch, 1994) or the creation of international regulative mechanisms to anchor domestic forms of economic regulation and redistribution (Hirst and Thompson 1999). In sum, the argument in the debate on globalisation is whether capital has indeed escaped the state irretrievably or whether the state is able to regain control over capital. The notion of the competition state serves both sides of the debate. For the proponents of globalisation, this notion indicates a 'state in retreat'; and for the critics, it indicates a state that is powerfully engaged in the restructuring of social relations, a restructuring which is conceptualised as globalisation.

Both sides of the debate, then, focus on the state. 'Laissez-faire too is a form of State regulation, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts' (Gramsci, 1971, p. 160). This, then, is the so-called neo-liberal transformation of the state that the proponents endorse. For the critics, on the other hand, this neo-liberal state is not able to safeguard the 'free' economy from self-destruction. This is the basis of their claim that the crisis of the state, a crisis brought about by globalisation, amounts to a regulative crisis, i.e. a crisis of the political regulation of capital. For this reason, they castigate the capitalist character of the competition state, demanding regulative reform so that it is more than a capitalist state!

The two 'sides' in the debate on globalisation are, despite their differences, distinctive only as variants of a common theme. According to Burnham (2000), both sides see the relationship between the 'state' and the 'national economy' in terms of two distinct and competing forms of social organisation. The proponents of globalisation argue that it is the economy that determines the political, and the critics charge that the state remains capable of regulating the economy over and above 'capital'. The question, then, is that of 'relative autonomy'. Should it be accorded to the economy or does it remain with the state?

Regulation: Market and State

The proponents of globalisation argue that the market works best if left unattended by the state. State 'intervention' is seen to restrict and limit private initiative, strangle economic development on the basis of national protectionism and, ultimately, undermine bourgeois cosmopolitanism on the basis of nationalism and war (James, 2001). Globalisation is the best of all worlds (Ohmae, 1995) and social distress is regarded, if it is acknowledged at all, as a transitory side-effect that will disappear once the 'famous' trickle down effect has taken hold. Globalisation, then, has somewhat 'solved' the crisis of capitalist accumulation and economic downturns are merely seen in terms of the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction whose political form is summed up by the notion of the competition state.

The critics of globalisation argue that the instability of the world economy since the early 1970s has led to the emergence of a qualitative different phase of accumulation, transforming the fordist Keynesian welfare-state into a post-fordist neo-liberal competition state. Neo-liberalism is seen to be appropriate to this phase of transition. Nevertheless, for the critics, neo-liberalism's destructive force demands a political resolution and that is, the creation of new forms of regulation at the national and international level. These new forms are conceived either in terms of anti-globalisation forces, elevating the national state as the principle agent of economic regulation (see Panitch) or in terms of cosmopolitan democratic structures, that is, forms of regulation appropriate to the new phase of accumulation (see Held, 1995).

The attraction of the proposal of regulative transformation resides in its ethical appeal to make the world a better world without destabilising the relations of exploitation. Yet, what are these new regulative mechanisms meant to regulate? The answer is capital. Capital is to be regulated so that it attends social needs, containing its 'neo-liberal' self-destructive force in favour of the common good. What, however, is the common good in a capitalistically constituted form of social reproduction? The 'good' appears to amount to the creation of wealth that capital is able to achieve for all, if it is rendered accountable to liberal-democratic forms of regulation. Capital is thus viewed as a mere economic mechanism that, if regulated well, supports social well-being. In short, the common good refers to the well-functioning of capitalist accumulation. The demand for regulative transformation supposes that capital's destructive force is correctable and that it needs to be corrected to safeguard the common good of a capitalistically organised form of social reproduction.

The demand for the political regulation of capitalist reproduction is appealing. Who would seriously object to a socially comprehensive and 'fair' regulation of capital! Yet, the demand is short-sighted. It distracts attention from the enduring features of capitalism and it therefore fails to take into account the lessons of history (cf. Clarke, 2001). The demands for new regulative forms of political intervention in relation to the global economy echo earlier remedies to globalisation. During the 1930s, the effects of globalisation on national societies had led, in the wake of the breakdown of the Gold Standard and the failure of the League of Nations, the BIS, and the ILO to provide an inter-national framework for domestic adjustment, to demands for the transformation of the state to achieve a shift towards a more inwardly oriented economy. Keynes described this development in his 1933 essay 'National Self-Sufficiency' where he argued: 'ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel - these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonable and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national' (Keynes, 1982, p. 236). We know what happened. The so-called Keynesian era of the post-war world did not come about as a result of either cosmopolitan reason or commitments to redistributive justice. It developed through fascism and war.

If, then, the global crisis of capitalist accumulation is not merely a crisis of regulation but, in fact, an expression of the contradictory constitution of the capitalist mode of production, different conclusions have to be drawn. Theoretically, these have to be based on the understanding that the world market was a historical precondition of capitalism. The 'creation in the 16th century of a world-embracing commerce and a world-embracing market' laid the 'historical ground-work' from which capital social relations emerged (Marx, 1983, p. 145). Furthermore, this inter-state system was, from its inception, embedded within the 'global context of production and exchange in which capital is in the process of constituting itself as historical real world capital' (von Braunmhl, 1978, p. 163). In other words, from capitalism's inception, the 'world market is integrated into the national economy' (ibid., p. 168), a nationally defined space through which the global class relations subsist (Burnham, 1995, p. 94). The world market, then, is not the sum of distinct national economies. Nor is it a force that has undermined the integrity of national economies and their states. Such 'integrity' never existed and it makes little sense to construe it retrospectively to indicate the 'novel' character of today's capitalist world. Rather, the capitalist world market subsists, from its inception, 'in and through the territory of states' (Burnham, 1994, p. 23). In short, the contradiction between the global character of capitalist accumulation and the national form of the state is not a new phenomenon but, rather, a characteristic of capitalism since its inception.

Adam Smith was certain in his own mind that capitalism creates the wealth of nations. Hegel concurred but added that the accumulation of wealth renders those who depend on the sale of their labour power for their social reproduction, insecure in deteriorating conditions. He concluded that despite the accumulation of wealth, bourgeois society will find it most difficult to keep the dependent masses pacified, and he saw the form of the state as the means of reconciling the social antagonism, containing the dependent masses. Ricardo formulated the necessity of capitalist social relations to produce 'redundant population'. Marx developed this insight and showed that the idea of 'equal rights' is in principle a bourgeois right. In its content, it is a right of inequality (see Marx, 1968). Against the bourgeois form of formal equality, he argued that communism rests on the equality of the individual, that is, the equality of individual human needs.

The ethical appeal of the demand for regulative transformation resides in its critical comparison between the less than perfect reality of capitalist relations and the pleasant norms of equality and freedom. Such critical comparison allows merely for a moralising criticism which fails to see that the pleasant norms are adequate to their content, the bad reality of a mode of production where Man exists for the economy rather than the economy existing for Man, satisfying his needs in freedom from coercion. In relation to an earlier resolution to global crisis, Adorno's (1990) insight demands serious consideration: Auschwitz, he argued, not only confirmed the violence of the bourgeois relations of abstract equality and abstract identity. It also confirmed the bourgeois exchange relations of pure identity as death.

At issue here is not some scholastic debate between theoretical perspectives and the meaning of history in the present. The issue is not to establish the verities of either Marxism or social liberalism or social democracy. The issue is simply this: what is discussed under the heading of globalisation is destructive, inhuman, ruinous to the environment and human life. This, then, calls for an understanding of globalisation's constitutive force. Why does human social practice take the form of capital? The answer to this question also entails the relationship between the political and the economic: what is the constitution of this relationship?. In contrast, the presupposition of the political as an instrument of economic regulation does not inquire about the constitution of the political. If the world of capital can really be humanely regulated by the state, then, the world of capital is destructive only to a degree and thus correctable by political means. In short, the presupposition of the regulative capacity of the political is based on the presupposition of capitalist social relations as destructive relations. Yet, each presupposition is the negation of the other. The presupposition of the regulative capacity of the political negates the presupposition of capital as a destructive force. If capital is presupposed as a destructive force, the idea of the regulative ability of the state would not hold and if the state is presupposed as a capable force of regulating capital in socially just ways, the presupposition of capital as a destructive force would not hold. In sum, the presupposition of the regulative capacity of the political is based on shaky theoretical foundations. Nor does history, pace the deceitful idea of the golden age of the socially just capitalism of the 1950s, provide much comfort.

Commenting on the relationship of the national state to the global relations of capital, Adam Smith noted that 'the proprietor of stock is properly a citizen of the world, and is not necessarily attached to any particular country. He would be apt to abandon the country in which he was exposed to a vexatious inquisition, in order to be assessed to a burdensome tax, and would remove his stock to some other country where he could either carry on his business, or enjoy his fortune more at his ease' (1991, pp. 848-49). What, then, is to be understood by the liberal state? Liberals, since Adam Smith, have argued that the state is indispensable for the provision of the exact administration of justice to resolve clashes of interest; the protection of property; the military defence of its territory; for the provision of public goods that are essential for, but cannot be provided by, the market; and for facilitating relations of equality and freedom, including the 'encouragement' of competition and therewith of conditions of so-called market self-regulation. Have these liberal 'notions' of the state been undermined by globalisation? This does not seem to be the case. What, then, do we make of the idea that the state has transformed into a competition state? What are the states competing about? Are they competing to extend, safeguard and exploit their comparative advantages? Is the competition state something like this: the state should not and cannot try to protect jobs by interfering with investments because, 'if a capital is not allowed to get the greatest net revenue that the use of machinery will afford here, it will be carried abroad' leading to 'serious discouragement to the demand for labour' (Ricardo, 1995, p. 39). The capitalist state has always been a liberal state, regardless of its historically changing forms (Agnoli, 1997, Clarke, 1992). That is, the function of the capitalist state has always been to secure the bonum commune of a capitalistically organised form of social reproduction: capitalist accumulation (cf. Agnoli, 2002).

Anti-globalisation in Critical Perspective

During the last decade we have seen the deep recession of the early 1990s, the European currency crises in 1992 and 1993, the plunge of the Mexican peso in December 1994 which rocked financial markets around the world, the Asian crisis of 1997, the Brazilian crisis of 1999, the Argentinean crisis of 2001. Japan teeters on the edge of depression and then there is the speculative bubble in the New York Stock Exchange and the dramatic global slowdown. As Itoh (2000, p.133) comments, 'the nightmare of a full-scale world economic crisis cannot easily be excluded'; indeed, there is hardly a day without warnings about the immanent burst of the bubble and a world wide depression. And then there is war. How many wars have been fought since the end of the cold war and how many will follow in the years to come? And then there is terrorism. The events of September 11th demonstrated with brutal force the impotence of sense, significance, and thus reason and ultimately truth. The denial of human quality and difference was absolute. Their death was total - not even their corpses survived. And the response? It confirmed that state terrorism and terrorism are two sides of the same coin. Between them, nothing is allowed to survive.

The gloomy prospect of a full-scale world economic crisis and world war is not inevitable. The crisis might be contained on a permanent basis. It is possible too that the crisis will not be permanent, that it will in fact be resolved: what the resolution of 'permanent crisis' can mean stands behind us as a warning of a possibly nightmarish future. 'We know how rapidly an epoch of global prosperity, underpinning prospects of world peace and international harmony, can become an epoch of global confrontation, culminating in war. If such a prospect seems unlikely now, it seemed equally unlikely a century ago' (Clarke, 2001, p.91).

The resurgence of anti-capitalist movements across the globe, is a hopeful sign. Yet, there is no place for complacency. The most disturbing is the contemporary disinterest in revolution. What does anti-capitalism in its contemporary form of anti-globalisation mean if it is not a practical critique of capitalism and what does it wish to achieve if its anti-capitalism fails to espouse the revolutionary project of human emancipation? Anti-capitalist indifference to revolution is a contradiction in terms. Such contradictions seek resolutions and these do not necessarily lead to revolution in the proper sense of the word: the project of human emancipation.

The struggles in which capitalist development is 'embedded and the outcomes to which those struggles give rise are not imposed by any economic logic' (ibid.). Contemporary anti-capitalist movements, from Chiapas (Holloway and Pel ez, 1998) to the Piqueteros of Argentina (Dinerstein, 2002), from Seattle to Genoa (de Angelis, 2001; Federici and Caffentzis, 2001) and beyond, gives ground for optimism (Leeds, 2001). Yet, what is meant by anti-globalisation? 'The renunciation of internationalism in the name of resurgent nationalism' is the biggest danger (Clarke, 2001, p.91). The critique of globalisation fails if it is not a critique of the capitalistically constituted form of social reproduction. 'Anti-globalisation' gives in to the most reactionary forces if its critique of globalisation is a critique for the national state. The history of protectionism, national self-sufficiency and 'national money' has always been a world market history (Bonefeld, 2000), with the possible exception of North Korea and Albania during the Cold War. Further, the critique of globalisation fails if it is merely a critique of speculative capital and that is, a critique for productive accumulation. It was the crisis of productive accumulation that sustained the divorce of monetary accumulation from productive accumulation (Bonefeld and Holloway, 1995). The critique of speculation has to be a critique of the capitalist form of social reproduction. Without such a critique of capital, the critique of speculation is reactionary. It summons the idea of finance and banks and speculators as merchants of greed. In the past, such views underpinned modern anti-semitism and its idea of a community of blood and soil (Bonefeld, 1997). The fact that Nazism espoused 'industry' and rejected what it saw as vampire like finance, should be sufficient to highlight the rotten character of such a critique of globalisation.

Further, the idea of a Third Way has to be exposed to reveal its meaning and that is, that money must manage and organise the exploitation of labour. The historical comparison with the 1930s shows what this means in practice. The so-called golden age of Keynesianism emerged from a human disaster of incomprehensible dimensions. Besides, and without sinister associations, the idea of a Third Way emerged for the first time in Italy at the beginning of the 1930s. Its proponent was Mussolini. Now, at the beginning of the new Century and beyond the traditional opposition between capitalism and soviet communism, the Third Way entails something else. What is the opposite term to the unfettered global accumulation of capital? Is the opposing term the national state that, with transformed regulative powers, forces capital to attend human needs and guarantee human dignity? Something seems strangely amiss with the Third Way. May be Agnoli is right when he argues that 'in the misery of our time, we find the "positive" only in negation' (Agnoli, 1992, p. 50). Paraphrasing Marcuse (1998), the human being is a thinking being and if thought is the site of truth, then the human being has to possess the freedom to be led by thought in order to realise what is recognised as truth, namely that the human being itself is the constitutive basis of a world which seems to exist as if it were a person apart. Anti-globalisation has, thus, to mean complete democratisation so as to make all social forces accountable to human needs. In sum, the demand for a new democratically constituted regulation of capital should be taken seriously. Though, it should be deepened and not restricted to legitimate the social engineering of discipline. It should first of all be taken on in the tradition of Enlightenment thought: Doubt everything! Second, it should be taken to its logical conclusion: the democratic organisation of socially necessary labour by the associated producers themselves, that is, the utopia of the society of the free and equal that Marx summed up with one word: communism.

Lastly, moaning about the 'excesses' of capital has to stop. A lamenting critique merely seeks to create a fairer capitalism, conferring on capital the capacity to adopt a benevolent developmental logic. Capital is with necessity 'excessive' in its exploitation of labour. To lament this is to misunderstand its social constitution. Further, the critique of politicians, however necessary that might be, fractures the understanding of the essence of the political in bourgeois society. Politics is the system of the seizure of power and the retention of power and the exercise of power. It might be necessary to ask politicians to go away. However forceful and understandable the proclamation of this 'leave us alone', it is not enough. What needs to be comprehended is that the constitutive basis of the state does not rest with the political class. What needs to be negated is the form of the state which Marx summarised as: 'the concentration of bourgeois society'. In short, discontent with politicians amounts to, paraphrasing Marx, a critique of charactermasks, deflecting from the social constitution of their existence and because of this it affirms the state as if it were an 'independent being which possesses its own intellectual, ethical and libertarian bases' (Marx, 1968, p. 28). It thus amounts to a mere rebellion for a virtues state - a state, that is, which secures the bonum commune of bourgeois society. Discontent is important. However, if it wants to take itself seriously, it has to reveal the rotten character of bourgeois society and its state and it does this by recognising that it is its own social practice that constitutes the topsy-turvy world of capital.


Adorno's (1994) statement that one cannot live honestly in the false totality of bourgeois society is only partially correct - an honest life begins already in the struggle against the falsehood of bourgeois society (Negt, 1984, p.90). As Agnoli (2001, p.14) has argued in a different context, history shows that the interests of the ruling class has always entailed violence and destruction. For us that means that those who do not engage in the negation of the capitalist mode of production, should not speak about freedom and peace. Put differently, those who seriously want freedom and equality as social individuals but do not wish to destabilise capitalism, contradict themselves.

The struggle for the society of the free and equal is a struggle over the principles of the social organisation of labour. Instead of a social reality where the products of social labour appear to have mastery over, instead of being controlled by Man, social reproduction has to be 'controlled by him' (cf. Marx, 1983, p.85). Marx's critique of political economy does not rest in its macro-economic interpretation by those self-declared charactermasks who claim to possess the scientific insights into economic laws and the technical expertise and capacity to regulate 'the economy' through the good offices of the state. Rather, it is realised in its negation (Marcuse, 1979, p.242). In sum, 'all emancipation is the restoration of the human world and of human relationships to Man himself' (Marx).

The theoretical and practical orientation on the utopia of the society of the free and equal is the only realistic departure from the inhumanity that the world market society of capital posits.

The demand for a regulative reform of global capital is an unquestionably useful, and that is consensus creating and therewith pacifying, or peace-making, deceitful publicity. Against the background of the contemporary indifference to the project of human emancipation, we have again to dream revolution. The principle of hope in the society of the free and equal has to be rediscovered. 'The more improbable socialism appears, the more desperate one has to stand up for it' (cf. Horkheimer, 1974, p.253).


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