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Report from Fellows' seminar July 2005

30 January 2005

IIRE Fellows rethink global justice

Changes in the capitalist system and the rise of the global justice movement are posing big challenges for the kind of political education we do at the IIRE. We took these challenges into account three years ago when we renamed our annual fall North-South School a Global Justice School. But until now the lecturers who do the teaching at it have not had a chance to discuss the new challenges in depth with each other.

Last November many of the activists who attended our Global Justice School had been at the World Social Forum or European Social Forum and were feeling pressure from the movements to come up with strategic answers. Sometimes they demanded more from the IIRE Fellows who did the lectures than the lecturers were prepared for. Clearly it was time to "educate the educators" and discuss the political and economic debates the movements are having. The results were first, an in-depth weekend of discussions at a Fellows' Seminar here in Amsterdam on July 12-13, and second, a new curriculum and vision for the next Global Justice School.


Discussions of globalization on the left begin with the understanding that capitalism has always been international and often getting more international. So what's new? Economist Bruno Jetin summed up our Fellows' consensus at the seminar: there are new aspects compared with earlier periods of internationalization (e.g. 1896-1914); but globalization is not a completed process that has made national markets and states irrelevant. A new book by IIRE Fellow Robert Went (author of the IIRE Notebook Globalization: Neoliberal Challenge, Radical Responses) argues that the current wave of globalization goes beyond any previous one inasmuch as all three circuits of capital described by Marx in Das Kapital - not only trading capital and finance capital but also productive capital - are being internationalized. In a whole series of industries (high-speed trains, pharmaceuticals, etc.) the only market on which research and development costs can be recouped is the world market. But everyone agreed that no multinational today is truly "footloose", truly autonomous of any single national market. Jetin raised the question of whether the process of internationalization and concentration of capital will continue until there are only two or three companies dominating any given sector of the economy (given that the US, European Union and Japan will presumably each insist on having a multinational "of its own" in key markets).

Jetin suggested that there is a limit to the international unification of markets set by national differences in consumer tastes. Other Fellows were sceptical. In many cases consumer tastes (e.g. the demand for artificial sweeteners instead of natural sugar) are created by corporate strategies rather than vice versa. McDonald's provides evidence that global multinationals can take account of local variations without much difficulty.

If today's globalization is unprecedented and even irreversible, then that undermines some of the radical strategies put forward in the global justice movement. Prominent figures like Walden Bello and Martin Khorr for example advocate strategies of "de-globalization". Their arguments are that the nation-state is still the privileged site for democracy, so that a strategy for economic democracy has to be nationally based and require a high degree of national economic self-sufficiency; and secondly that diversity is a good in itself, so that more uniformity across the world is necessarily a bad thing. Jetin criticized these arguments as being blind to class and gender dynamics, treating national "communities" as monolithic, and exaggerating the progressive character of the nation state. All our Fellows seem to agree with his critique. Strategies for social transformation must move more quickly than ever before from the national level to the regional or the international and global level.

On other issues there was less of a consensus. When Jetin argued against the demand to open imperialist countries' markets to dependent countries' products (e.g. agricultural), for example, that raised some doubts. Is it possible to reject the orientation of "everything for export" and at the same time defend the perspective of "asymmetrical protectionism", defending dependent countries' protectionist measures while rejecting imperialist countries' protectionism? Is the vision of returning to small farm production flatly reactionary, as one Fellow maintained? Is the perspective of some kind of neo-Keynesian exit from the crisis ruled out?


Labour remains a key actor in the scenarios for social transformation discussed at the IIRE; that makes updating our analysis of labour crucial. IIRE Co-Director Susan Caldwell focused on the sex-segregated nature of the workforce and the gendered structure of the globalization process through the maquiladoras, sex-trade, etc. She also raised the issue of the family as the primary location of working class solidarity and the increasing radicalization of workers and women's movements in the advanced capitalist countries based on the reality that our children's future is a step backward from what the previous generation had achieved.

Fellow Claude Jacquin introduced a discussion of how changes in capitalist production and corporate restructuring have drastically changed the face of the working class. Corporate restructuring has led to a process of industrial deconcentration and segmentation of the proletariat, with workers in different categories and regions having increasingly different situations and even to some extent different interests. This raised questions in some participants' minds - beyond our already existing consensus (formulated by Stephanie Coontz) that class is not the only "moving contradiction" in patriarchal capitalism - of in what sense the working class is still the central subject of social transformation today.

There is no unifying identity common to all the forces joining in the global justice movement today. That does not detract from the central analytical importance of class. Socialist feminists have always made a key distinction: the autonomy of the women's movement from class and political organizations doesnot mean its autonomy from class struggle. But that does not automatically resolve the issue of whether a new unifying identity will emerge for today's movements, unifying class, gender, "civic" and "human" identities, and if so how and what form it could take. Fellow Livio Maitan reported that the Italian Party of Communist Refoundation calls for building a "new workers' movement"; is that ultimately the answer?

The lack of a unifying identity in the global justice movement also complicates the question of democratic organization. Former IIRE Director Pierre Rousset defended the global justice movement in the seminar against charges that it is undemocratic. Our conception of democracy is too much based on the old "representative pyramid", he said, or on a juxtaposition of the old representative pyramid to an old model of direct democracy. Networking meets a need of the constantly expanding and shifting movements today that neither the representative pyramid nor simple direct participation ever could. Efficiency is not the central issue here; inclusion is, so as to sustain the dynamic of the movement. Even "network" is an inaccurate concept as networks are usually composed of equals while the global justice movement is made of radically different components from individuals to mass organizations.

What then is the role of the party in all this, Rousset asked? One answer was that political organizations embody the choices that movements need to make. As Fellow Penelope Duggan pointed out, this does not necessarily mean that the party is the privileged place where programme is developed. We have certainly been aware since the rise of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s that we must take on board the programmatic and analytical developments made within such movements but the party consciously strives to develop a programme that defends the interests of the majority of society. This leaves the question open whether the party must still ultimately be the "keystone in the seizure of power".

The problem is, participants agreed, that this discussion is not happening in the global justice movement today. The movement is not discussing issues of political power; or, as Rousset put it, it has no "strategic horizon". The question was raised: how can these crucial issues be raised inside the global justice movement?


IIRE Co-Director Peter Drucker defined a further series of political challenges that the radical left is facing, particularly in light of experiences like theargentinazo (Argentinean revolt of December 2001) and Lula's presidency in Brazil. How can the left make an idea of politics credible to people that would be fundamentally different from the failed or inadequate politics of reformism, vanguardism and the rejection of politics by anarchistic currents in the global justice movement? The neoliberal state order lacks the capacity to manage resistance movements by buying them off with concessions, as the welfare state used to do. But the capitalist order survived the rebellion and crisis of the past two years in Argentina through a whole set of other mechanisms at the neoliberal state's disposal for defusing resistance: co-optation through subsidies, marketing, polarizing the population along ethnic, communal or traditional political lines, manipulating the rules of the political game, and outright fraud. The radical left needs to insist on the continued necessity of developing medium-term political alternatives and not abandoning the political terrain, Drucker argued, while distinguishing its politics more clearly and explicitly from the kind of failed reformism represented today by Lula in Brazil on the one hand and various, sectarian, self-proclamatory vanguards on the other.

Among Fellows' contributions to this discussion: The evolution of the Brazilian PT need not be a surprise, given that ten years ago the South African ANC was also co-opted by the neoliberal state inside six months. Nor should we underestimate the crisis of politics: look at the immigrants in the Parissuburbs who have literally nothing to say about any issue. Fundamentalism is sometimes the only visible alternative in these communities, given that the old traditional reformist labour organizations no longer play the role they used to. The depth of the social crisis can make politics incredibly volatile, with far right and far left forces capable of making big gains very quickly. This gives the left a particularly big responsibility to be as prepared as possible.


Discussion on the purpose of the IIRE concluded that its primary purpose is to help train leaders for national organizations who can also be leaders of an international movement. A corollary purpose is that through this process they develop a political analysis that allows them to intervene in the global political debate. For the IIRE, the key question is how to integrate the lectures and lecturers into an ongoing discussion, so that sessions have an overall coherence and the conscious links are made among the reports.

The first test of the insights gained from the Fellows' Seminar will be the Global Justice School 2003. The programme is being finalized and additional students are still applying as we write. But we can already see how the July discussions will reshape the session's curriculum. The economic discussions will tackle issues that were unresolved in July. Lectures on gender, peasantry and ethnicity will be brought together in a bloc on "globalization and social recomposition", which will have a new, stronger focus on developments in the global working class. The section of the new world imperial order will link the discussion of US wars and world domination more clearly to the world's economic architecture, international institutions and regional blocs, and be followed by a section on "globalization and political representation: movements, parties and rethinking democracy". The already existing section on "confronting neoliberal globalization, the globalization of resistance", finally, will be linked to more concrete discussions of alternative trade and financial policies and strategies against neoliberal globalization.

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