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Globalisation is good for you

Many socialists look to the state as the decisive instrument of social change. Nigel Harris argues that, on the contrary, nation states, with their priorities and resources focused on maintaining power through military might, hold back the reduction of poverty. He insists that globalisation, despite all of its ambiguities, is essentially a liberation from the shackles of the competing nation state. We have to look to NGOs and social and labour movements to constrain the market, he says.

December 3, 2007
13 min read


– It took half a century for Britain and the US to double their real income per head in the 19th century – but just nine years for China to do so today

– World output increased between 1870 and 1913 by 1.3 per cent per year; by 2.9 per cent per year between 1950 and 1973; and by 3.2 per cent per year from 2000

– If the so-called third world keeps up its current growth rate, by 2027 it will produce two thirds of world output


Living longer, living better

Consider this. In 1950, the average life expectancy of someone born in India was 32. Imagine what that means in terms of the slaughter of infants, of mothers in childbirth, of the sick, the aged, and the disabled. By the end of the century, the average Indian could expect to live for 66 years. Life itself had been doubled in the course of less than a lifetime.

This staggering enhancement of the life expectancy of hundreds of millions of human beings has been accompanied by an unprecedented growth in their material prosperity, particularly in recent decades. According to India’s official figures, 45 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line (surviving on less than one US dollar per day) in 1983; in 2005, it was 27.5 per cent. The material progress has been even more dramatic elsewhere. For example, in 1981, 64 per cent of the Chinese population lived below the poverty line. By 2001, this was down to under 10 per cent.

Similar stories can be told about much of the rest of the so-called third world (with some well-known exceptions, especially in Africa). Of course, such statistics can conceal as much as they show – most notably, growing inequality. Indeed, reports from the recent Chinese Communist Party congress point to increasing rural poverty (largely due to lousy medical and school services) – as well as widespread revolt. India, despite its progress, is still notorious for infant and maternal mortality, for undernourished infants and atrocious village schools.

In the end, though, whatever the qualifications, we have to rejoice that never before has there been such a gigantic reduction in global poverty. Nelson Mandela’s slogan about ‘making poverty history’ may sound dottily utopian to some, but it is, on this economic record, realistically within our grasp.

Alongside the great technical triumphs of capitalism – from the steam engine and electricity to the worldwide web, air travel and astronauts – this massive reduction in poverty and the implied reduction in the sum of human misery has to be one of the greatest achievements ever. It is part of a process – globalisation – that has stimulated and enhanced unprecedented and sustained high and rising rates of world economic growth. The increased body weight of Chinese or Indian babies and the improved protein intake of their mothers is the accidental – and unintended – spin off of this extraordinary process of the pursuit of profits and the development of global markets.

Monstrous sacrifice

Getting here was never guaranteed. Getting further is equally dodgy. Why?

It is because national governments invariably subordinate or sacrifice the welfare of their own – and the world’s – population to maintaining their own grip on power and their position in the world. They are all Mugabes at heart.

You can see this in the monstrous scale of sacrifice in the four decades of the cold war between east and west, constantly sucking resources out of welfare and into waste – the means to kill and destroy. Once that terrible burden was eased, the world economy began to grow with unprecedented speed and its effects have spread throughout the globe as never before.

Yet despite the high hopes at the end of the cold war, the burden was only eased, not ended. Washington soon resumed its long march to global military dominance. And the rest of the world’s governments were forced to compete in the madness.

Consider the extraordinary sacrifices required of the American people to finance the Iraq and Afghan wars. The total cost up to 2017 has just been put at £1,175 billion. What wouldn’t that do for the reduction of world poverty, not to mention a lasting peace in Afghanistan and Iraq?

George Bush has also just asked for a $200 billion supplementary military budget. That’s about four times the official aid flows from all developed to developing countries – more than enough to lift the 40 million US families who live in poverty above the poverty line, or radically cut infant mortality rates or improve the position of the 815 million people worldwide who are chronically undernourished (without enough food to meet their daily energy requirements).

And why is Washington fighting in Iraq anyway? The US is supposed to believe in free trade – the policy agenda of globalisation. But that would mean letting Iraq freely sell its oil on world markets.

In practice, of course, Washington does not at all trust free trade to deliver its oil. The US employs its military muscle to secure and hold privileged access to Iraqi oil, to capture and hold oil reserves by physical violence – to the heavy cost of Iraqis, Americans and the world at large.

It’s worse than that, moreover. Washington sets the military standards that the rest of the world must try to match.

If China wasn’t squandering resources on arms (and space travel – for military purposes), it could provide decent medical and educational services for its rural poor. If India wasn’t doing the same – including the monster extravagance of nuclear weapons – it could radically reduce its appalling infant mortality rates. All the powers, rich and poor, bleat about not having enough resources to help the poor, yet when it comes to their military budgets, resources are thrown to the wind. In the worst cases, Washington patronises whole military states – Turkey, Israel and Pakistan, for instance – where the military sucks civil society dry.

Free movement

War is only the most blatant example of the insanity of the system whereby states blithely sacrifice the welfare (and lives) of the world’s people to maintain their own power. Take the different example of the way that nation states prevent the free movement of people.

It is clear that an increase in immigration to America and Europe (a relaxation of immigration controls) would do more to reduce world poverty – through workers sending home part of their earnings – than any reforms of trade or increases in aid. The latest estimates put this flow to the developing countries at $300 billion. If increased immigration brought in new workers equal to three per cent of the existing European and American labour forces, that figure could be doubled and more. That would make a real dent in world poverty.

But governments in developed countries won’t do this because they believe it undermines their own state power. They face a contradiction. They know they do not have enough workers and need to import them if they are to sustain economic growth. But they also believe that they need to isolate their citizens from the world, supposedly pure in culture if not any longer in race, to reinforce their loyalty – and therefore willingness, if required, to go out and murder foreigners (or, if need be, the ‘disloyal’ native-born).

In the end, the needs of the nation state override anything else. All the din of world politics, the babble of the ‘world community’, is about this hypocrisy – governments holding on greedily or trying to expand what power they have while conceding to markets only so much as is needed to maintain their revenues.

No wonder US president Bill Clinton sympathised with the anti-globalisation demonstrators against the WTO’s easing of trade barriers at Seattle in 1999, just as Jacques Chirac of France had done earlier over negotiations to ease international capital flows. Governments are delighted to have popular support for a chauvinistic resistance to the rest of world. Clinton was not dreaming that another world was possible, only that he needed to rally the xenophobes to shore up Washington’s power.

Capital’s escape

The state – the concentrated force of society’s violence – has always been the biggest obstacle to social transformation, to socialism. It has always functioned both to defend the existing national order of society (even if on occasions it has been forced to concede reforms) and to fight foreigners.

That order in the old days included a defined share of world capital – hence ‘British capital’ or ‘American capital’ or whatever. But globalisation has been the process whereby capital escaped the state and went global. The state has been forced to give up significant powers of economic decision making to global markets.

It is a blind process. As always under capitalism, markets reinvent the world. Nobody intended – or even envisaged – the outcome. Everyone merely reacted to the imperatives of global markets, themselves the unforeseen – and unintended – outcome of millions of individual decisions.

Being blind, as always, the world cannot design, let alone implement, an acceptable human outcome to the transition to a single world economy, one that would protect those most vulnerable to radical economic change and minimise the damage. And we know from the past record that just as markets and competing capital have a spectacular ability to increase output and generate innovations, so they also tear the heart out of social collaboration, reducing all to competing atoms.

Yet even as capital has escaped the national state, and the old institutions that embodied national political power – from parliament to parties to trade unions – declined, new forces have been created on an extraordinary scale, still so new we barely have concepts to describe them. These range from great multinationals like Oxfam, Care, Save the Children and Greenpeace, through global monitoring agents such as Amnesty and occasional glittering campaigns like Band Aid, to unknown local activist outfits in the slums of Mumbai or Sao Paulo or Sheffield, to the thousands of lobbies that agitate on particular issues around the old structures of national and global political power. And the World Social Forum process, with heroic ambition (and, it must be admitted, the support of local and, in Brazil, national state support), has begun to focus a global opposition to world capital and its state allies.

It is a new civil society, vast, inchoate, constantly changing and creative, far removed from the conventional political categories, and with no easy ‘progressive’ agenda. The decline of national politics has not at all involved a decline in politics, but rather a liberation that goes well beyond the national prisons imposed by governments.

Half a century ago it would have seemed inconceivable that this public space could be so densely occupied. Then, the state – or aspirant state – agencies smothered all the ground. Indeed, alongside the defeat of the old statist left, the rise of the green agenda, penetrating now the highest echelons of the world political order, is a quite spectacular triumph.

The NGOs are urgently needed. Globalisation, in weakening the state, has also weakened the formal structures of national democracy. What now is the point of voting, it is asked, if it is world markets, not governments, that alone can deliver on the politicians’ economic promises?

The counter to this, of course, is that nation states still loom so large politically that struggles within them, on them and around them are inevitably of key significance. This remains the case even if the restoration of the old forms of national state power as an alternative to the present order is now utopian – and reactionary.

States – or quasi-states – are still needed to establish and implement common standards, to regulate individual territories, to deal with crimes and natural catastrophes and so on. And even (perhaps especially) in the era of declining national state power, they will continue to have the capacity to destroy themselves and all the rest of us – just as, at various stages in history, those who control them have been willing to destroy their own countries in order to hang on to power.

On the other hand, the burgeoning NGOs are as mixed a bag as capital. Indeed, some NGOs are no more than opportunistic private businesses, often trading on the gullibility of donors and public. Establishing the democratic credentials of the NGO sector itself is a long process of creating democratic governance through state and self-regulation.

In the midst of all this immense diversity of creative activity and agitation, however, the task of creating a new world social order is, in the end, overshadowed by the jungle of warring states – led by the biggest and most ferocious tiger of all, Washington.

The warring states try to shore up their national control by blocking any bonds of solidarity that go beyond their borders and enforcing national subordination. Yet patriotism has become chronically dysfunctional. It is the glue that simultaneously holds together the American armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dragoons the American population in support of the state system. The urgent need of the hour is not patriotism but mutiny in the world’s armed forces.

It is possible, though, that the competition of states is producing its own antidote: the increasing paralysis of the military machine. As their powers of destruction rise exponentially, their capacity to win grows increasingly weak – as in Vietnam, as in Iraq, as in Afghanistan.

A global left agenda

So what should be the agenda of the left in this era of declining state power? It is, of course, immense – but above all the following:

– to push on the process of globalisation that capital has begun but states increasingly resist – as, for example, in the exposure of the fraud by the dominant powers in the WTO;

– to recover and expand society – social cooperation – against the insidious reduction of people to competitive atoms by markets;

– to relentlessly expose and challenge the attempts of states to control the world through physical violence, secrecy and fraud;

– to protect people in transition, facing the violence of structural economic change, through all the available mechanisms of governance – international, national and civil society, including trade unions;

– to make the system increasingly transparent and accountable, as the alter-globalisation movement has done with the apex global organisations – the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and so on;

– to make the system, by whatever means possible, increasingly subject to democratic rule.

We do not know what structures of governance will emerge, but emerge they must. The left’s role is to ensure they are directed to protecting all equally – to establishing the equality of all in the world, and, insofar as national governments survive, that they are obliged to accept the free flow of people internationally and the protection of all within their territories, not merely their supposed citizens.

In essence, the left has to help and lead in recreating a world society that corresponds to the new world economy. Within that poverty really can be conquered and war eliminated.

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