Whither Capital II: The Toughest Reparations, Research Time, 31/05/2018

Here’s something interesting and troubling that Jeremy Gilbert points out in his history of Cultural Studies integrating with anti-capitalist social movements. It starts from the fact that this social movement was against globalization.

From that perspective, you could almost co-opt that branch of the movement into an intense nationalism. After all, when political leaders across many ideologies call for slowing down globalization, or how globalization has hurt us and our industries, the call to build more walls becomes implicit.

Canadians are now rushing to defend NAFTA, but when it was being written, it was protested and mocked just as vigorously as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Those actions against the TPP, by the way, are still going on.

From a protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Santiago, Chile.
See, globalization is a powerful force for improvement in people’s lives across human civilization. Now, there’s plenty of Victorian-style mass poverty and exploitation. But the sweatshops of Bangladesh and Indonesia are a few labour movements away from proper reform. Democracy is a powerful social force – its fuel is human frustration with injustice, and that’s never going to run dry.

Globalization’s harm to the working class populations of the West was a form of reparations. The Western countries no longer had a monopoly on industry. So they were undercut by the competition. We were undercut by the competition.

This was the economic end to colonialism. The countries that European militaries used to occupy, control, and loot were free to become capitalistic themselves. They’d industrialize on their own terms as much as they can. Old-fashioned trade links have taken some time to fray. But many countries now hold economically dominant positions that used to be prostrate.

Ask a Chinese person about the Opium Wars, and you’ll see someone immensely proud of how his country has succeeded after such colonial degradation. Even if in the next breath, they call Xi Jinping a dictatorial megalomaniac and the Communist Party a living disaster area.

So that aspect of globalization is good. It’s the first time the Earth has had a globally integrated economy without the overpowering dominance of a single pole by military domination.

The problem is that it broke the possibility of the 20th century social democratic bargain. The welfare state – especially as it existed in Europe – required high taxes and full employment. Otherwise, it became unsustainable. But people had no problem working good jobs in diverse industrial economies, with generally solid benefits and wages, if that also got them cheap medical and welfare services from their governments.

Statist social democracy, in its traditional form, requires full employment. Otherwise, its tax base disappears. The employment rates of the West took a serious hit as globalization took full effect and local industries were opened to competition with Asian cities for the first time. A lot of those European firms didn’t make it through the heat.

So it had become impossible to return to the old answers. As Gilbert argues, Cultural Studies – those activist university scholars – were one of the few people to see how this would happen in the 1970s and 80s.

It remained an open question what you’d do about it.

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