The globalization debate, a new approach: Anti neo-liberal globalization hits the streets


Published September 25, 2002

The protests at this week's joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, in Washington, D.C., are the latest manifestation of a transnational social movement that has grown rapidly in the 1990s. Journalists and politicians have recently begun calling it the "anti-globalization movement," but this name is not an apt characterization of the movement's goals. The movement, which includes environmentalists, farmers, human rights activists, religious organizations, trade unionists, women's organizations, students and many others, is itself global in scope. Moreover, most movement participants do not want to eliminate the international flows of goods, services, capital and labor that are usually what is meant by economic globalization. Rather, they reject the "free market" or "neoliberal" vision of how best to regulate these flows which has been ascendant for the last 20 years. It would be more accurate, then, to call this the anti-neoliberal globalization (ANG) movement.

An essential part of the intensifying debate between proponents of neoliberal globalization and their critics in the ANG movement thus concerns the merits of rival claims concerning the best way to regulate national and global market economies. The different positions in these debates derive from a number of sources. One is divergent beliefs about what justice and fairness require. Is it right, for example, that some of us consume a hugely disproportionate share of resources, much of it spent on luxury goods, while the most basic human needs of millions of others are not met? What (if anything) do we owe to people who are not of our family, our tribe, our nation? Another source of difference is the different priority assigned to distributive justice as opposed to other values. For example, should we protect core worker rights (e.g., no slavery or forced labor and the right to form democratic unions) even if this has some negative impacts on economic growth rates, or is growth the most important thing? Who is the "we" who should decide this anyway? Divergent beliefs about how economic institutions currently work and how alternatives to them would work if tried, are another major source of difference. For example, is it true that higher wages - and unions, insofar as they contribute to them - increase unemployment and wage inequality other things being equal? And are other things usually equal?

All of these questions have been debated for at least 200 years, since the emergence of industrial capitalism and the construction of national market economies. In some ways, then, there is little new in the clashing economic world views that drive the globalization debate. Still, at least three aspects of the debate are truly novel. First, earlier debates focused mainly on the organization of national political economies, while this one focuses primarily at least as much on how we should organize the global market economy. Second, each side of the globalization debate is comprised of international coalitions, whereas (at least in the rich capitalist countries) national coalitions were the principal parties to the earlier debates. Finally, the globalization debate is informed by one question that was largely ignored in the past: How much economic growth is possible without destabilizing the global ecosystem via global warming, rainforest and biodiversity destruction and related environmental dynamics?

Both camps in the globalization debate are internally diverse. Still, I would venture the following generalizations. Most members of the ANG movement put a higher premium on social justice than the neoliberals, who tend to privilege the values of efficiency and increased material wealth and sometimes (e.g., von Hayek) deny that social justice is a coherent concept. Most in the ANG movement doubt that the trade-offs between social justice and genuine economic development are necessarily as severe as many neoliberals assert, though they would say that the neoliberal model is characterized by severe trade-offs of this sort. Finally, the ANG movement takes ecological constraints on economic growth more seriously than the neoliberals. The higher priority assigned to justice concerns, combined with the greater weight assigned to ecological constraints, results in an ANG movement that is much more strongly committed to policies that reduce economic inequality, particularly between rich to poor nations.

These differences are fundamentally political rather than technical or scientific. That is, at its heart, this is not a debate about how to minimize price distortions or maximize economic growth, but about what kinds of individual and social goals are most valuable. There is no right answer to these questions. Even second-order questions about how best to realize any given set of basic social priorities - in principle amenable to social scientific analysis - are in practice very difficult to resolve definitively.

Political differences of these fundamental sorts are resolved by some combination of persuasion, exchange (material compensation in return for acquiescence) and coercion. In the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the neoliberal vision was promoted in all three ways. Mainstream economics in the U.S. and beyond shifted toward neoliberal prescriptions providing them with some scientific legitimacy; new trade agreements (NAFTA, WTO) promised increased and more secure access to the lucrative U.S. market in return for new international investor rights and new restrictions on government economic regulation; and the threat of capital flight, combined with the consequences of defaulting on foreign debt payments, provided the gun to the head that induced many governments to sign "structural adjustment agreements" embodying a neoliberal agenda with the IMF and the World Bank.

With the growing breadth, depth and mobilization capacity of the ANG movement - and mounting evidence that neoliberal reforms have increased economic instability, reduced economic growth rates and exacerbated economic inequalities - the tide may now be turning. If that is indeed happening, we will enter a new phase in the globalization debate, in which some members of the neoliberal coalition seek compromise with their critics and are criticized by the hard-liners for so doing. At the same time, differences within the ANG movement that were submerged while the movement was focused on its critique of neoliberalism will become more visible as members debate the minimum conditions of acceptable compromise.

Robinson is a lecturer in the Residential College and the Sociology Department.