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Marx and globalisation

Marx and globalisation

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Gail Omvedt

Today, as India faces the challenge of an unprecedented globalising world, with goods from Korean automobiles to Australian apples and Chinese toys coming into its markets, most of the marxists in the country are confronting it as a demon, trying to erect something like a “Great Wall” against the threat from without, though China itself has long since relegated its own to a tourist attraction.

The rhetoric is moving to new heights, but opposing “liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation” has become such a mantra of the Left, often contradicted by its proponents when they are in power, that we may be excused from seeing this opposition simply as a way of maintaining and arousing its traditional trade union base.

In fact, the whole depiction of globalisation as “neocolonialism” is in many ways against the very spirit of Marx, who proclaimed the immense creative-destructive forces of capitalism with the intention not of preventing their growth, but of moving through them, going beyond history to the establishment of a socialist society.

The Communist Manifesto itself reads almost like a paean to the forces of globalisation, describing capitalism as giving “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country… In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations… The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National onesidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature”. As capitalism revolutionises the means of production and social relations, it smashes the barriers of feudalism and mercantilism everywhere, destroying old feudal bondages and old medieval certainties and antiquated dreams. Capitalism is ever-moving, ever-changing, and forces humans to face the reality of change and their own role in it: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life…”

The purpose here is certainly not to celebrate capitalism, and the new forms of wage slavery replacing the old. But nor is it to demonise them or suggest that the process can or should be avoided. It is to recognise what was new and transformative in capitalist relations of production. Marx’s view of capitalism was not so simple as that propagated by some of his followers in India. He never saw it as an unmitigated evil, to be resisted at all costs. Indeed, if it came to a choice between capitalism and feudalism, or between advanced and backward capitalism, there is no question where he stood. Marx was a proponent not of maintaining old forms of production, whether idealised feudal villages or “subsistence” production; he was unalterably an Enlightenment proponent of that much-scorned word, “progress” – or what we today call “development”. He saw it with open eyes, as costly, often destructive, but he hailed the creativeness in this destruction.

Behind this lay his view of the human being as a creature of tremendous potential development, a creator of productive forces and intellectual achievements. History itself, with all its tumult, unevenness, exploitation and even misery, was basically a process of increasing these capacities. The famous “growth of the productive forces” which to him lay at the basis of change, was in fact the growth of the forces of human beings itself; technology represented human capacities. Capitalism was the final stage of class society and laid the basis for socialism in two ways- first by creating the productive forces, the technology that could produce a truly wealthy existence, and second by creating the human beings, the “proletariat”, who could manage this technology. The very term “destructive” in Marx often carries a revolutionary connotation, destructive of the confining, narrow, stagnation of backwardness. Capitalism was thus a necessary stage through which humanity must pass, to be undertaken as rapidly as possible and with as little cost as possible.

Further, Marx was a resolute internationalist; “independent” or nationally-based capitalist development as opposed to global development was never his concern. His disdain for backward feudalism and for backward and narrow nationalism, lay behind his attacks in the Manifesto on backward forms of socialism. Marx and Engels were scathing in their criticism of “utopian socialism” based on the romanticisaton of small-scale producers, of “Bismarckian socialism” or the welfare state whose measures were just being introduced in Germany as a way of binding the working class, and of the “feudal socialism” of the aristocracy, which tries to rally the people behind it by ‘waving the proletarian alms-bag” – “half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future”. All of these were rejected as illusory and even ridiculous. Socialism, for Marx, had to be based on a scientific and realistic understanding of the potentialities of the society of the time, not on dreams.

Somewhat surprisingly, Marx supported, not opposed, the “free trade” measures of his day. The most significant of these were the Corn Laws, which protected English agriculture. When these were proposed to be abolished in one of the most important movements of the time to open up world trade, Marx, in a speech on January 9, 1848, before the “Democratic Association of Brussels”, unleashed a sarcastic, scornful attack on the hypocrisies of both supporters and opponents of free trade. Nevertheless, because he believed that free trade meant, on the whole, growth, and, “The most favourable condition for the worker is the growth of capital. This must be admitted”; his conclusion was on the side of free trade. As he put it, “in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up the old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade.”

Thus, classical marxists opposed the destructiveness of capitalism, but never did so in a way that would maintain feudalism or earlier non-market “subsistence” forms of production; they rejected economic nationalism. Even Lenin, in his decisive “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”, believed that the export of capital led to the growth of capitalism, not its stunting, and argued that capitalism was growing fastest in the colonies and overseas dependencies.

Imperialism was the “highest stage”, because the concentration of capital and development of production it represented was the immediate stage before socialism, creating new productive forces and laying the basis for the proletarian capture of power. Capitalism for Lenin also was not simply a demon to be resisted, but rather an aggregation of opportunities for human society to move ahead.

 What has been lost today in the political programme of the Left is precisely this vision of an opposition that is not simply negative but moves towards socialism, that can use and harness the immense development of human productive powers that capitalism, with globalisation, represents.

From the 1950s onwards, most of the newly-independent colonies and dependencies switched to policies of protectionism, disengagement from the world market and heavy state controls, including nationalisation of basic industries and planning. India’s “Nehru model” was only one example of this process. The suspicion of capitalism and the market was quite understandable. Unbridled free market capitalism had resulted in unprecedented economic crisis with the Great Depression of the 1930s followed by war and turmoil throughout the world, and capitalist countries themselves had responded with a move to planning and state controls, including the “New Deal” in the United States. The evident success of early Soviet industrial development and opposition to the imperialist world was also inspiring to many poor countries and supported an upsurge in marxist ideology and socialist trends throughout the world.

Marxists themselves turned away from the idea that countries had to go through a stage of capitalism. Those who supported protectionism and withdrawal from the world market became known as “dependency theorists”. All social science theories recognised the problems of industrialism along with its unprecedented growth, but they fell into two trends in explaining how growth took place and how it could spread. The dominant “modernisation theories” emphasised internal factors; capitalism, it was argued, could develop in the West because of inherent values supporting individualism, accumulation and technological innovation, and could spread to non-Western countries as well if existing barriers of feudal values and social relations could be overcome. Trade and exchange of ideas were seen as engines of growth, while the more ethnocentric sociologists emphasised the supposed “backwardness” of many non-Western cultural systems as the major factors in holding back change. In contrast, dependency theorists argued that economic growth in the West had been based on imperialist exploitation, and that the very success of developed countries was at the cost of the misery and continued backwardness of others. In the words of one of the most famous of these, Andre Gunder Frank, it was said that “development creates underdevelopment”. Not only forms of direct colonisation, but trade itself was seen as keeping the poorer countries backward. Thus dependency theorists recommended not only state controls and nationalisation as steps towards socialism, but also protectionism, autarchy and withdrawal from market forces as necessary to “independent capitalistic development”.

In fact, Marx himself was a modernisation theorist of a very particular type. Unlike those economists and sociologists who saw the process as harmonious, Marx viewed the historical process as one of contradiction and exploitation; unlike conventional social scientists he did not see it as ending with capitalism. With all of this, though, he still believed that capitalism produced growth, that this was transmitted through market relations and foreign investment, and that there was no road directly from feudalism to socialism. Thus dependency theorists, though calling themselves Marxists, were rejecting crucial themes of Marx himself, and found their social base in the intellectuals and nationalist elites of the third world rather than in working class movements. In this sense, they were “revisionists”.

There is nothing, of course, wrong with “revisionism”; sciences, unlike dogmas, progress through engagement with the changing real world and through developing and revising their hypotheses and theories. But in this respect, Marx seems to have been more correct than his dependency theory followers of the current period. If we look at the broad paradigms of modernisation theory and dependency theory simply in terms of the predictions about increasing inequality, it is clear that from 1800 to the 1960s or so – the classic period of imperialism and colonialism – economic social inequalities increased dramatically throughout the world. In this sense, dependency theory was correct: industrialisation did have internal sources of dynamism, but its effect throughout the world was to increase inequality and exploitation, to extract resources from the third world for the development of capitalism in the West.

From the 1960s onwards, however, the picture is different. Economic inequalites (though these are hard to measure, given problems of exchange rates) have remained in many respects; however, there are two counter trends. First, according to the Human Development Reports, as measured in terms of most material indicators, such as calories of food available per capita, maternal mortality rates, child mortality rates, life spans etc., the gap between the North and the South has on the whole declined, not increased.

During the “decade of globalisation” in the 1990s almost all countries, with the notable exception of the former Soviet bloc, improved in terms of human development. Further, during the 1990s, the share of the U.S. in world GDP increased marginally from 26 per cent to 28.8 per cent (after declining from over a third of the world total in the 1960s), but the share of China increased from 1.6 per cent to 3.3 per cent, the share of East and South East Asian developing countries as a whole increased from 4.3 to 6.2 per cent, while India’s share increased marginally from 1.1 to 1.5 per cent. Developing countries, especially those in Asia and Latin America, have moved from dependence on agricultural, mineral and oil production and exports fostered by the colonial regime to increasingly sophisticated manufactured goods.

Dependency theorists have partly recognised this by talking of “dependent development”, but this would have been a rather meaningless category for Marx, who spoke from the viewpoint of the working class for whom the crucial factor was overall development and the increase in capacities of the majority of toilers in a country, not the skin colour of the capitalists; the ability of Asian and Latin American capitalists to gain a role in the world industrial hierarchy would not have been a major criterion for him.

It is also undeniable that there have been dramatic differences among the growth rates and poverty reduction achievements of different third world countries. Generally speaking (except for the crisis in the former Soviet bloc, which has its own dynamic), those countries most marginalised in terms of the world market – including most of the African countries – grew the slowest and remained poorest. Those which engaged intelligently with the world market, for instance with policies of export orientation, grew. South Asian countries such as India had some of the highest degrees of state involvement in production and in regulating the market forces and at the same time had among the slowest growth rates. In China also, the communist period could produce an equalitarian spread of education and health, but it was only after economic reforms began in 1978 that rapid economic growth took place. Today many Chinese see the state sector as providing stability, while the private, capitalistic sector is the engine of growth.

Marx himself would not have disagreed. Capitalism to him meant not simply exploitation, which has existed in all pre-capitalist class societies, but specifically the rapid advancement of the forces of production, the overturning of old ways of life and the increasing integration of the world – all factors he saw not as negative, but as laying the basis for socialism. While those speaking in his name today are taking opposition to “liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation” as a simple slogan, Marx himself would have looked to the ways the new developments in capitalist, science-based information technology and biotechnologies provide both opportunities for growth in welfare and the liberation of the masses of working people and the basis for using the contradictions they represent for moving towards socialism. If the old ways of trying to build socialism have seemingly failed, people themselves through their movements will find out the new ways on the basis of the reality of the world today.

[Courtesy: Published in The Hindu in two parts, on March 1 & March 5, 2001]