Globalisation: a society of aliens?

Print edition : September 30, 2000
A Reflection on Our Times - V

'GLOBALISATION' is only a word, in some key respects a misleading word. We could simply say 'Empire'. That might even be more accurate. Perhaps 'American Empire'. Perhaps even more exact - but in other ways again somewhat misleading! Because what we actu ally have is, finally, for the first time in history, a globalised empire of capital itself, in all its nakedness, in which the United States imperium plays the dominant role, financially, militarily, institutionally, ideologically. We shall continue to use the word 'globalisation', however, because it is more familiar and serves the purpose. But we shall have to explain what it means and how it came about.

At a protest demonstration in front of the offices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. The regulatory regimes of the IMF, the World Bank and such other bodies are together fast emerging as a new world government for im posing uniform policies, obligations and conditionalities around the world, especially in the imperialised world.-MIKE THEILER / REUTERS

In a previous essay in this series ("Colonialism, Fascism and 'Uncle Shylock'," Frontline, September 1, 2000) I made a few points that are relevant to the present discussion. First, the drive toward an integrated world market has been inherent in the logic of capitalism from the beginning, and colonisation of the world was therefore not an incidental aspect but an integral basis for this system. Second, between the end of the 15th century, when it all began, until the end of the 18th, the process of real colonisation was mostly centred on the Americas and it was only in the 19th century that Asia and Africa were intensively colonised, dividing the world into a set of core industrialised countries of the advanced West and a vast hinterland of non -industrialised colonies and dependencies, many of them formally independent. The story of the 20th century is essentially the story of the crisis and dissolution of that system, brought about by wars of national liberation in the colonies and for social ism world-wide; but also the story, equally, of the rise of a new kind of non-territorial world empire and consequently a new kind of postcolonial, imperial sovereignty.

The full American domination of the world as it stands now is, in other words, a novel phenomenon in the history of capital and empire. We shall later comment briefly on the uniqueness of this new imperial arrangement. But how did it all begin? As in pre vious reflections in this series, the story begins again with the War of 1914 which had four major consequences germane to the present discussion.

That war propelled the process which finally led to the final dissolution of the colonial system, even though the main wave of decolonisation came only after the Second World War and continued for some more years. Second, the U.S. which was already the w orld's leading industrial power now emerged as the pre-eminent power in all spheres - industrial production, financial concentration, military strength, and so on. Third, the Bolshevik Revolution created the first socialist state, which had the effect of vastly energising anti-colonial movements and turning socialism into a world-wide challenge to capitalism even though the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) remained isolated and further socialist revolutions only came after the Second World War .

Finally, Germany, which too had emerged, alongside the U.S. as a more powerful industrial power than either Britain or France, lost the First World War, rose again under the Nazis with global ambitions, and was again defeated in the Second World War. Tha t German defeat ensured that the tottering British and French empires would be inherited by the U.S. instead. The U.S. was never again to vacate that pre-eminent position in the world system. Gore Vidal, an American novelist and hardly a man of leftist p ersuasions (a cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, actually), tells us that the U.S. has spent $7.1 trillion on military strength since 1946 to maintain that position. The position itself was essential if the U.S. was to keep Japan and western Europe dependent on its own power as it fought an unremitting war, both hot and cold, against national liberation in the imperialised zones and against communism world-wide, which cost the peoples of the Third World some 20 million lives.

It was in this larger context that the most implacable conflict of this century, between the U.S. and the USSR, was joined. Just a couple of things about the condition of the USSR, compared to the statistics of U.S. power given above, should prove how un equal the terms of conflict were. The losses and economic disintegration in consequence of the First World War, the civil war immediately after the Revolution and the invasion of the USSR by a coalition of Western powers which came quick on the heels of the civil war meant that by 1921 the economy had been cut to mere 10 per cent of its pre-war size. Between the two wars, the Soviet economy grew faster than any other on the planet but the Second World War again cost it 25 per cent of its material assets and 20 million of its citizens. The U.S. economy grew by some 10 per cent annually during both wars, and neither was fought on its soil. One might add that since the Second World War the resources of the rest of advanced capitalism have also been at the disposal of the U.S. so far as that War was concerned.

There were a few preconditions for the emergence for a full-scale globalisation in more recent years that can be summarised. 1. The divisions of the old colonial empires had to be overcome if the whole capitalist world was to be united under a single heg emony. 2. There had to be a pre-eminent power equipped to accomplish this. 3. The socialist states had to be dissolved and brought back into the capitalist market so as to make it truly global. 4. A degree of industrialisation of the former colonies was necessary if the reach of the capitalist market was to be deepened. 5. New kinds of technology were required to integrate the world financial markets and make productive capital itself more mobile. 6. Similarly, new types of military technologies, the fa mous 'automated battlefields' for example, were required which could deliver imperial power effectively and swiftly against various and largely elusive little enemies that were perceived to be proliferating all over the world. 7. Finally, a complex netwo rk was required for moral pressure, ideological legitimisation and cultural acceptance, ranging from all kinds of non-governmental organisation (NGOs) to high-minded postmodernism to the 'End of History' ideology.

Globally integrated finance is the central agent for the unification of this Empire. The problem with most discussions of globalisation, however, is that they give one the sense that it was a matter mostly of the velocity at which financial information a nd virtual monies now travel through cyberspace. As a fully-fledged imperialism, globalisation is an integrated system of economic, political, military and ideological powers and geopolitical arrangements supervised by real people in real boardrooms. The geopolitical aspect, for example, comes through very well in a recent formulation of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as the National Security Advisor in the Carter administration, supervised the beginning of the Afghan war and credits himself for having bought down the Soviet system. He begins by observing that "for the first time ever, a non-European power has emerged not only as the key arbiter of Eurasian power relations but also as the world's paramount power." Then, in the true spirit of the son o f a Polish aristocrat that he is, he starts speaking of "vassals and tributaries" of "the first and only truly global superpower" which seem to include states of Western Europe itself. Brzezinski then recommends: "The three great imperatives of geopoliti cal strategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant, and to keep the barbarians from coming together." [Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, New York, Basic Books, 1997]

The "barbarians" are of course the people of the Third World, but two other aspects of this formulation are worth emphasising. One is that far from representing it as the outbreak of equality, liberty and opportunity that many soft sellers of globalisati on would portray it as being, Brzezinski is a tough-minded professional, with aristocratic disdain for the weak, and describes globalisation as a three-tiered hierarchy, with barbarians at the bottom and a single superpower at the top, but one in which E urope and Japan, although dominant inside what he calls "Eurasia," are merely straggling in the middle.

Since it is in the nature of "vassals and tributaries" to connive and conspire against the feudal lord, the European Union and Japan must be prevented from colluding against the U.S. which can keep them "pliant" by keeping them dependent upon itself for their military security - as, for example, by ensuring access to petroleum from the Gulf region which the U.S. had done for decades now. Germany is of course the leading power in Europe, so in order to keep Germany "pliant" the U.S. may even help it achi eve its aims in Yugoslavia.

This pretty much sums up the geopolitical thinking that President Clinton has inherited and is now exercising through his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, whom Brzezinski had once tutored. This geopolitical vision at the end of the 20th century is consistent with President Teddy Roosevelt's statement at the beginning of this century that the U.S. has no choice but to take up the task of an "international police power." With this clarification of how the chief architects of U.S. policy themselves understand the geopolitical architecture, we can turn to a basic description of the system and then comment on some of its key aspects.

TERRITORIALLY, the empire covers the entire globe, thanks to the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the full integration of China into the world market, so that there are no significant spaces left which are outside the direct dominantion of capital. Thi s extensive expansion of the market is then combined with an intensive deepening, so that the partial industrialization of the former colonies, the assimilation of most agriculture around the world into money economy, and the rapid world-wide decline of non-monetised peasant production mean that almost the whole world has been brought effectively under the same law of value. This law is of course administered diffrentially around the world as wages and prices are set locally and nationally.

Washington D.C. serves as the capital city of this empire because it is, together with New York, the headquarter not only of the U.S. government, but also of most key institutions of this new imperial sovereignty: Wall Street, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the United Nations, and so on. The financial integration of this world takes the form not of an imperfect integration of autonomous and interlocking national markets, but that of a single organism funct ioning through a technology that has brought effectively to zero the time required to transmit from one end of the world to another the information incorporating key financial decisions of the world.

This whole edifice is upheld in a complex system of law and regulation which has two overlapping aspects. There are first of all the regulatory regimes of the IMF, the World Bank, the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and so on, which are, tog ether, fast emerging as a new world government for imposing uniform policies, obligations, and conditionalities around the world, especially the imperialised world. The debt crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, for example, was used by these agencies to establ ish a global regime of disciplinary neoliberalism which has defined the Third World side of globalisation ever since.

International agencies such as the IMF have been central in perfecting this system, and they of course have their own very complex legal frameworks and regulatory regimes that individual nation-states are to abide by. But an equally crucial aspect of thi s globalisation of law and sovereignty is that national legal systems are being constantly pressed into altering their own laws to make them more compatible with - often mere facsimiles of - American law. The non-territorial empire that has its capital i n Washington D.C. thus takes over the actual internal functioning of far-flung nation-states three times over: under the lure and power of private transnational capital, under the regulatory regimes of the supra-national institutions (the IMF and so on), and by turning the laws of various nations into replicas of American law.

In a parallel move within this new, evolving law of empire, all kinds of moral philosophers and jurists, mainly from the U.S., are being mobilised to expound theories of 'just war' and laws pertaining to the 'right of intervention'. The use of the U.N. t o legitimise American military designs is as old as the Korean War of the 1950s. Then, in the period of revolutionary upsurge of the next 20 years, this unholy alliance receded. For a transitory moment in the mid-1970s, just about the time of the liberat ion of Vietnam, the U.N. had even tried to patch up with the revolutionary temper of the times. Thus, in 1974 it enacted a Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States which proclaimed that members-nations had the right to "regulate and exercise autho rity over foreign investment" and to "regulate and supervise the activities of multinational corporations"... even to "nationalise, expropriate or transfer ownership of foreign property."

Those were the old days, before the defeat of socialism and national liberation. By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union the U.N. had again become a tool of American policy and legitimising American interventions became one of its major responsib ilities. The Gulf war, which began the systematic destruction of Iraq with full connivance of the U.N. Security Council, was a turning point in this regard and served as a test case both in the military sphere and in the moral claims of empire. The use o f military force was preceded and later legitimised by the mobilisation of moral force. The media, sections of the Church and prominent NGOs such as the Amnesty International actively collaborated in the demonising of Saddam Hussein on the issue of 'huma n rights' and 'minority rights'. Rarely was it said that the record of the Kuwaiti monarchy, which the U.S. had set out to restore, was hardly better on this score; you only have to ask the immigrant labour which has in fact produced Kuwait's fabulous we alth and served its masters.

Then came the high-minded moral philosophers from the elite U.S. universities speaking of "just war" - a concept, interestingly enough, first developed in imperial Rome - and the 'right of intervention' on the side of human rights. This had a remarkable effect globally, starting with the imperial centres but spreading among the empire's clients in the Third World. If Saddam Hussein was indeed a demon, then the whole rhetoric of the "Evil Empire" from the days of the Cold War could now be remobilised and the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis, from soldiers to children, could then be represented as a regrettable aspect of a just war.

Meanwhile, the new military technology was fused into this new moral economy of the imperial mission. The basic fact is that only those whom Brzezinski calls "the barbarians" were dying. No one among the "civilised" who had gone to exorcise the demons wa s dying. Civilisation was safe from barbarism, indeed triumphing over it. In the high visibility of television screens, tables were turned. The victims were made invisible, and the evils of empire were represented as 'the right of intervention' against t he evil that lurks in all corners of the world occupied by "the barbarians". By the time Kosovo came along, no one cared any longer.

It is the nation-state, or coalitions of them, that make war; and it is the nation-states that are the objects of war. Yet, the mythology of globalisation includes the sizeable myth that the nation-state is on the way out. We hear of 'the global village' and of 'world citizens', mostly from people who carry passports and citizenships of advanced capitalist countries. When the socialist countries were still there, Western ideologues used to talk a lot about "free movements of people." Now, in the days of global neo-liberalism, we only hear of free movement of capital and commodities, even as the advanced countries themselves have high tariff walls wherever such walls are to their advantage. As for 'free movement of peoples', all they have to do is to ab olish the system of passports. Then all the Western capital can come to India and all the Indian labour can go to the imperialist countries.

In reality, imperialism itself needs not the abolition of nation-states in the Third World but the strengthening of them for its own purposes. What has happened is that with the defeat of the socialist countries and the retreat of workers' movements gene rally, the bourgeoisies no longer feel compelled to retain a strong role of the state in ensuring at least a minimum degree of citizens' welfare. In deed, this role is being cut back systematically across the globe and people are being left to the discip line of the market more and more brutally ever since the new offensives of the Right began in the mid-1970s. However, it is the state that is dismantling welfare and implementing liberalisation in all the countries across the globe. In other words, the n ation-state has become weaker in relation to capital, whose will it must implement most savagely, and weak in relation to labour, whom it treats with hateful contempt. In other words, the state is now not even pretending to be anything but the managing c ommittee of the whole bourgeoisie - and this time, not only the whole but also the transnational bourgeoisie. In the Third World, the state no longer even pretends to represent the people against imperialism. It represents imperial i nterest to the people.

One of the side-effects of this 'retreat of the state' from the realm of popular entitlements, health, education, employment, preservation of natural resources, and so on is that it leaves a vast vacuum which is to be filled, more or less fitfully, by di verse NGOs and 'social movements', always narrow and local in focus and frequently dependent on foreign funding agencies. As these NGOs lay claim to what had been conceived of as the social responsibility of the nation-state, they seek also to occupy the space previously claimed by such historic forms of mass organisation as the trade union and the political party, which then disorients large sections of the well-meaning and idealist youth. Great many of these NGOs are funded from the imperial centres a nd have channels to such things as the World Bank; their opposition to the nation-state combined with the myth of the 'disinterested' nature of their funding - an interest in 'disinterest' that the donor and the recipient share equally - then grea tly strengthens the claim of the imperial centres that they represent a higher morality than that of the local 'barbarians'. For the participants themselves, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the politics of moral force and the politics of opportunism. This phenomenon is a major component in the moral economy of empire and a major source of corruption among activists in an age of the imperial management of protest.

In the advanced countries, meanwhile, the neo-liberal cry of 'too much government' and celebration of 'the retreat of the state' has come at the time when the information technology upon which globalisation rests has come wholly out of state-funded progr ammes, and it is the state that oversees monetary stability in the face of wild speculations, channelises investments into the military-industrial complexes and systematically redistributes incomes from the poor to the rich through sweeping legislation.

American capital is the most mobile and aggressive in the world because only the U.S. has the military power to guarantee its safety in all corners of the globe. Japanese capital is both transnational and aggressively Japanese. Germany has achieved its e xpanded national unification only recently, and it is the combined determination of the German state and German capital that is pushing the frontiers of German power eastward and southward, into the territories left to its mercies by the defeat of the so cialist states in those regions.

Moreover, even as capital internationalises itself, labour regimes are enforced by nation-states. Capitalism makes labour relatively mobile, but capital is always immeasurably more mobile than labour. In this equation, labour always remains relatively ve ry immobile. So, the control of labour is always local and national, even where immigrants are involved. In the new imperial sovereignty, it is the laws of the nation-state that are made to conform to the imperial law. Inside India, it is the Indian stat e that guarantees the conditions in which foreign capital makes money in India and exploits Indian workers. Why would multinational capital undermine a state in which Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee can represent, in chaste Hindi, the illicit embrace of lib eralisation and Hindutva?

MUCH could be said about the social, cultural and ideological aspects of this imperial system. In this realm, globalisation today is where internationalism once was. Globalisation, as the form of the world market in our time, is a system of infinite comp etition. Internationalism, in revolutionary ideology, was a system of solidarities transcending race, religion, nation and so on, in the pursuit of a common humanity. Globalisation is said to be, above all, the effect of a technology which facilitates th e velocity of financial transactions which, in turn, transform the world. Internationalism was a human compact, face-to-face here, nation-to-nation there, universal above all.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The geopolitical strategy of the U.S. formulated by Brzezinski, who describes globalisation as a three-tiered hierarchy with a single superpower at the top, is consistent with President Teddy Roosevelt's statement at the beginning of the century that the U.S has no choice but to take up the task of an "international police power."-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Universal equality was the fundamental social and cultural value of internationalism. Globalisation's only commitment to something universal is that in perfecting the market it turns everything, including all cultural products, into commodities, universa lly, and sells locally produced cultural goods both locally and on the global market. It is the selling that is universal, while production is always local. In social relations, meanwhile, the basic ideology of globalisation is not - cannot be - Equality ; it is Difference. Not cooperation for common ends and common dreams, but individual or group competition for separate ends - resulting in countless nightmares.

Religion, region, language, caste - and in the international frame, nationality and ethnicity - anything and everything has been used to break working class solidarities, or to prevent such solidarities from emerging, at the work place and in the residen tial communities alike. In all the former socialist countries, a re-discovery of religious and communal hatreds is considered a fundamental necessity for a transition from socialism to capitalism. Irrationality is the order of the day, because irrational ity of human beings must correspond to the irrationality of the market. Meanwhile, globalisation unites the market and divides human beings, because human beings can be best used for purposes of the global marketing if they act as individual consumers an d not as a people in solidarity with each other. Postmodernism on a global scale, and postcolonial theory in relation to the Third World, are the main instruments in this battle to replace the politics of Equality with the politics of Difference, the soc iety of Cupertino by the society of infinite competition.

None of it would eventually work if people still believed in the possibility of revolution. Globalist ideology must destroy that belief. Postmodernism accomplishes part of that mission. If every little group can be sundered away from every other, on the pretext of identity, then there is no collective humanity to make the revolution. Only international finance capital is then united and its victims can then be infinitely divided and subdivided. But the other part is played by a twin ideology, that of th e 'End of History'; revolution is impossible, socialism has been defeated, the triumph of capitalism is final. Names of famous Americans are attached to the authorship of that ideology. But none of it would matter if that was not brought to us daily by o ur own leaders. When External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh refers to the period of non-alignment in our past history as 'wasted decades' he means precisely that any idea of independent national development is an illusion and we must all accept the supr emacy of the global market. The subjection of the whole nation to imperialism through liberalisation is the other face of dividing the nation on the axis of religion and community.

We could in fact say of globalisation what Saint Augustine once said in a somewhat different context: "While this Heavenly City is on pilgrimage on earth, it calls out all peoples and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages." Turning this "society of aliens" into a solidarity of common, forward-looking people is the real task.

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