It’s Not Only Necessary To Develop An Alternative To Globalization — It’s Entirely Possible

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Above Photo: StopFastTrack / Flickr

Free trade and the freedom of capital to move across borders have been the cutting edge of globalization. They’ve also led to the succession of crises that have led to the widespread questioning of capitalism as a way of organizing economic life — and of its paramount ideological expression, neoliberalism.

The protests against capitalism at the recent G20 meeting in Hamburg may seem superficially the same as those which marked similar meetings in the early 2000s. But there’s one big difference now: Global capitalism is in a period of long-term stagnation following the global financial crisis. The newer protests represent a far broader disenchantment with capitalism than the protests of the 2000s.

Yet capitalism’s resilience amidst crisis must not be underestimated. For trade activists, in particular, who’ve been on the forefront of the struggle against neoliberalism and globalization over the last two decades, there are a number of key challenges posed by the conjuncture.

Neoliberalism’s Surprising Strength

First is the surprising strength of neoliberalism.

The credibility of neoliberalism, to which free trade ideology is central, has been deeply damaged by a succession of events over the last two decades, among which were the collapse of the third ministerial of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98, and the Global financial crisis of 2008-2009, the effects of which continue to drag down the global economy.

Most of us in the field remember the time late in 2008, when after hearing accounts of the Global financial crisis from an assembly of orthodox economists at the London School of Economics, Queen Elizabeth posed the question: “Why didn’t anybody see this coming?” None of the dumbfounded economists could answer her then — and last I heard, the queen is still waiting for the answer.

What one finds puzzling is despite this loss of credibility, neoliberalism continues to rule. Academic economists continue to teach it, and technocrats continue to prescribe it. The false assumptions of free trade theory underlie the free trade agreements or economic partnership agreements into which the big powers continue to try to rope developing countries.

To borrow an image from the old western films, the train engineer has been shot and killed, but his dead hand continues to push down on the throttle, with the train gathering more and more speed. The takeaway from this is that so long as there are interests that are served by an ideology, such as corporate interests and knowledge institutions that have invested in it, even a succession of devastating crises of credibility isn’t enough to overthrow a paradigm.

Export-led Growth Is Still on Course

The second challenge is especially relevant to developing countries. It is the persistence of the model of export-oriented growth.

Now, this model of development through trade is shared both by neoliberals and non-neoliberals — the difference being that the former think it should be advanced by market forces alone and the latter with the vigorous help of the state. Now, over the last few years, the stagnation of the once dynamic centers of the global demand — the U.S., Europe, and the BRICS — has made this model obsolete.

It was, in fact, the non-viability of this once successful model of rapid growth in current global circumstances that pushed China, under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, to push the country away from an export-oriented path to a domestic demand-led strategy via a massive $585 billion stimulus program. They failed, and the reason for their failure is instructive.

In fact, a set of powerful interests had congealed around the export-oriented model — the state banks, regional and local governments that had benefited from the strategy, export-oriented state enterprises, foreign investors — and these prevented the model from being dislodged, even given its unsuitability in this period of global stagnation.

These same policy struggles are going on in other developing countries. In most cases, the outcome is the same: The export lobbies are winning, despite the fact that the global conditions sustaining their strategy are vanishing.

The Right Eats Our Lunch

A third challenge has to do with the fact that when major changes in trade policy do take place, it’s not because of the actions of progressive groups but of demagogues of the right. I think this is clearest in the case of the United States.

It was Donald Trump who shot down the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that had been the object of so much criticism coming from the left. Trump may be a demagogue and his motives may be opportunistic, but it was he who came through on one of the central demands of U.S. labor — not the Democrats — with the consequence that he’s been able to win over large parts of the white working class.

In Europe, working classes are moving to right wing parties in significant numbers as well, not only owing to a racist response to immigration, but also because these far-right parties are espousing anti-globalization and anti-free trade rhetoric. As in the case with the Democrats in the U.S., the Social Democrats in Europe are identified with financialization and free trade, and this is a central reason for their loss of credibility.

But it was the non-establishment left, the left of social movements, that began and developed the critique of globalization, neoliberalism, and free trade in the 1990s and the 2000s. But for a variety of reasons, we weren’t able to translate our politics into an effective movement. The extreme right, on the other hand, opportunistically expropriated our message, rebranded themselves as anti-neoliberals opposed to the center-right as well as the center-left, and now they’re eating our lunch.

The Alternative

The final challenge has to do with coming up with a credible alternative paradigm.

My first two points stressed the importance of powerful interests in sustaining a paradigm despite its loss of intellectual credibility. But this isn’t sufficient to explain the continuing powerful influence of neoliberalism. Our failure to move from a critique of neoliberal capitalism to a powerful alternative model — like socialism provided to so many marginalized classes, peoples, and nations in the 20th century — is part of the problem.

The theoretical building blocks of an alternative economic model are there, the product of the work of so many progressives over the last 50 years. This includes the rich work that has been done around sustainable development, de-growth, and de-globalization. The task is to integrate them not only into an intellectually coherent model, but into an inspiring narrative that combines vision, theory, program, and action, and one that rests firmly on the values of justice, equity, and environmental sustainability.

Of course, the work towards this goal will be long and hard. But we must not only be convinced that it’s necessary but also confident that it’s possible to come up with an alternative that will rally most of the people behind us. Ideas matter. To borrow the old biblical saying, “Without vision, the people perish.”

These are some of the central challenges confronting trade activists. We cannot leave the field to a neoliberalism that has failed or to an extremism that has appropriated some of our analysis and married them to hideous, reactionary values.

A progressive future is not guaranteed. We must work to bring it about, and we will.

  • Aquifer

    I would strongly suggest that a really good place for the left to start is in re-evaluating its traditional eschewing of the concept of “protectionism” with regard to trade, to stop buying that nonsense that it is equivalent to “isolationism” – to reclaim it for themselves and redefine it – to couple it with the other forms of “protection’ that the left espouses – of resources, the environment, workers rights, etc – it seems to me it is not only a natural outgrowth of, but a necessity for the insurance of, those other forms of protection …. when we tell workers of the world to unite – perhaps we need to tell them to unite in protecting their locales – that the answer to the “free flow” of global capital is not the “free flow” of global workers but putting the brakes on that free flow of capital – bust that defense of so much of our policies that says we need to be “competitive” in the international market of goods and services – by asking the simple question “Why?” Why do we need to expand our “markets” beyond our own borders? Cui bono” Cui REALLY bono?”What part of this is rooted in dovetails into my polemic above about the 1980’s.

    That is how the Right ate our lunch in this area – they seized on that rhetoric of “protection” – never mind that they the only ones they they really care about protecting are the big money guys …. the Left, in the meantime, mumbles about Fair Trade and all that, hardly a match – if we gave a damn, we would talk about restricting for profit exports of our resources and protecting our domestic industry from imports – if we export anything it should be ideas and technology transfer, not toward the end of cornering markets but to help other countries develop their own industry and agriculture for the benefit of their own people – and if our products need to leave our shores, it should be only when they are needed to help after catastrophes in other places – as a bridge until those folks can rebuild ….

    For example with regard to pipelines and fracking, – while it has been mentioned here and there that a lot of it is for export – why not ask those “Make America Great Again” supporters – how the hell can we expect to do that when we are exporting our natural resources, huh? Please, answer that – and how much more fracking and drilling and pipelines do you suppose we would have if the companies knew they couldn’t export this stuff ….

    The same with our Ag policies, and i am sure we could think of more …

    And if folks in other countries could meet their own needs in their homelands – how many of them would want to emigrate, let alone be forced to …

    Is this being discussed at all in the lofty halls of lefty policy making?

  • Jon

    Thanks Aquifer–”on the money” in all senses! We need to think OUTSIDE the BIg Box(es). Politically, we need to be very vocal that we on the left began the anti-globalization effort, and are continuing it. Further, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, the Dems are NOT in any way “left”, but are center-right. Promoting corporate globalism has NOTHING to do with left ideology, and it is bizarre to think it does.

  • Aquifer

    Frankly Jon – i am addressing my critiques to the actual left – i think we don’t really need to spend a lot of time pointing out how the Dems are NOT “left” – that is pretty obvious to all – I think the left itself needs to do some serious introspection ….

    As said in the piece – without a vision the people perish – not just “Left” people, or “Right” people but all people – where is that common vision we at heart all share – what has the possibility of incorporating the good tendencies, inclinations that exist on both sides – when will we decide to find and nurture the “baby” instead of focusing on the bathwater ….

    I am very frustrated – having spent a LOT of time on-line defending the GP as a “viable” and desirable alternative – I see it engaged in squabbling and infighting – it seems to me the way for the GP to truly distinguish itself from BOTH major parties is not to engage in recriminations over stuff like recounts – good grief, frankly rather petty stuff, IMO – but to advance some of the ideas i talked about here – take the argument out of that “Capitalism v Socialism” box – surprise the hell out of people by asking Why do we have to “compete on the international stage” – because as long as we accept the “legitimacy” of that argument then all we will talk about is how to get “enforceable” environmental and labor agreements into our trade deals – what a joke, there is no way we can “enforce” such stuff on any other country any more than we can design election computers that can’t be hacked –

    I am a Gordian Knot kind of person – stop dicking around at the edges – get to the heart of the matter – I think the approach that is being taken now, finally, re SP is the way to go in many areas – do not accept less than what we need – what the planet needs, what the rest of the world needs – with regard to trade – lets act as if we have “suffered” from the “trade war”, as we in fact have, that we are “threatened” with if we put protectionist barriers in the way of trade – let us embark on a plan to foster and build “import substitution” in all areas – vow to live on what we can make here with our own resources and our own labor – make domestic labor necessary again – let’s make the idea of “independence” apply to all areas, not just energy – let us unleash good old fashioned American ingenuity in other areas besides the next clever “ap” for our I-Phones – THAT is what could go a long way to “make America Great” – an idea that could, IMO, appeal to a wide swath if the American public – in which we would perforce need and welcome the talents of ALL our people … And guess what – if we did that, the backs of those transnationals would be broken, and once chopped down to “national size” they could be dealt with in the way they have been before …

    But I see no one arguing for such a “radical” idea – we seem to prefer to limit our arguments to the old traditional “this v that” instead of taking tools out of “both tool boxes” and fashioning a synthesis – and i am not talking about that “Third Way” of compromise on the one hand or “ideological purity” on the other – As i said, there seems to be a lot of bathwater, on both sides – lets see if we can get more and more of us “on the same page” – i think we can, and i think we are screwed if we don’t …

  • Jon

    Overall. I love your response, Aquifer! I am very much on the same page with you. This is just the outside the Big Box(es) thinking to which i referred. I am doing my own deep thinking as well. Remember that within Green Party there is a wide range of consciousness–from long-time anti-imperialists to Demexit people,and we need to accommodate both as we move forward. I think it is necessary to defend Jill’s recount effort which was so badly misunderstood,including some, I think, within GP. YES to more localized semi self-sufficiency. More to say, but have to go somewhere. We need to rethink the concept of socialism, as I wrote in my recent article in Green Horizon, and steer it away from the idea that it represents what in actually has been state capitalism in the USSR and China. My aloha.

  • Aquifer

    When i first started working with Green campaigns somewhere round the turn of the century (the 21st one, that is :) ) I was a registered Dem and i know i was looked upon with some suspicion – i stayed that way for awhile, but finally registered Green so i could theoretically, at least, have some input – my attempts at that were quite frustrating, to say he least, among other encounters – i was unceremoniously, with no warning, and no explanation cut off from a listserve on a Green committee in the middle of a conversation because somebody didn’t like the way I said something or what i said – I complained to a local Green bigwig and got – no reply – i said, “That’s it! If that is the way the GP treats folks – fuhgeddabout it! and promptly changed my registration to indy – which i am now – and i have seen, on line, a number of folks who have reported similar experiences and gotten fed up – i pretty much ditched the GP until Stein came along – she resonated with me in so many ways, and i contributed to and worked on her campaign – didn’t always agree with her decisions at the time, but have come to think they were the result of basically good political instincts – there are still some things i think really need to change, like including more “identities” in the “identity politics” approach …. but reading several articles lately in which she gets trashed it has occurred to me that, ironically, the election that was supposed to bring down the duopoly, making room for 3rd parties, may wind up fracturing the GP instead – and that really sucks, IMO – folks point out how low the numbers were in the election – but please tell what other lefty party even made it to the boards! Might there be a movement, e,g. to “draft Stein” to start another party, as there is with Sanders?

    So why is this relevant to a discussion on trade – well how can any lefty party put forward the vision talked about here when the people who could be talking about it are engaged in throwing brickbats at each other – about who did what to whom, when etc. etc. as the saying goes when elephants fight the grass gets trampled …

    I have no venue for my “contributions” such as they are – and apparently joining the Party won’t cure that ..:)

  • Jon

    My experience as a Green since 1989 is far different. I think I had given you my email before, and from that we might have a phone conversation. Much to talk about. Write me at, OK?