Globalization and the Historic Course

For the past several years, Internationalist Perspective has attempted to grasp the profound changes that have occurred in the functioning, and in the economic and political operation, of world capital. This has resulted in the rejection of a vision of a world divided into two imperialist blocs; by a recognition of the significance of the passage from the formal to the real domination of capital, with all its consequences for the recomposition of social classes; by a better understanding of the meaning of the decadence of the capitalist system; and by a renewed emphasis on the very bases of the functioning of the economic system, and to the roots of its crisis.

As a contribution to this ongoing effort, we present this text, which focuses on three fundamental aspects of the present period :

1. Globalization

Extension is a tendency inherent in the capitalist system, one necessary to its development. The centralization of capital, the constitution of trusts and cartels, was a phenomenon that existed at the end of the 19th century. However, it is necessary to distinguish that tendency from the process of globalization. The latter, is a function of the way in which the capitalist class creates the economic and political structures that permit it to surmount the limits of the world market and to attenuate, though only temporarally, the effect of the internal contradictions of the system. To focus on the concept of globalization, then, makes it possible to grasp the modifications that this phenomenon has imposed on the form and content of the world market.

We have shown on many occasions how the capitalist system is afflicted by its internal contradictions and by the deepening of the world economic crisis. At the same time, the ruling class seeks by every means possible to attenuate the effects of this crisis and these contradictions. It is important to emphasize that we are far from a perspective in which the capitalist system is resigned to its demise, without resources, acknowledging the "brake" on the development of its productive forces, in its death throes, thereby opening the way to the "years of truth", a moribond capitalism that the proletariat need only pluck like some over ripe fruit. In our view, that mistaken perspective must give way to one in which the ruling class desperately fights and utilizes its formidable weapons to assure its own survival -- weapons that can relieve the impact of the contradictions that ravage its economy.

The phenomenon of globalization is the way in which the international bourgeoisie attempts to (re)organize itself, and constitutes the general framework in which competition, imperialist tensions, and the opposition between social classes, now play themselves out.

In the face of the recession of the 1990's, the dominant economies, with the US in the lead, intensified the restructuring of their capital -- begun in the 1980's -- so as to make it more competitive, and to attempt to surmount the limits of the world market. That entailed, among other things, the introduction of new technologies in production (such as the spread of computers and information technology), the creation of ever larger industrial entities through vast mergers, the liquidation of outmoded sectors, all resulting in a dynamic of integration of industrial sectors and capital, as well as an unprecedented interdependence. That movement of globalization has only accelerated, and scarcely a day goes by without the announcement of the merger of industrial giants combining their forces to become titanic entities that now operate on a global scale, or the establishment of control by a capital entity over sectors sometimes far removed from their own sphere of production. That qualitative leap in the process of globalization means that industrial production is now spread out across the world, delocalized so as to take advantage of the low wages in one country, or the tax breaks in another, or the central geographical location of a third. That also implies the creation of structures of supranational administration, suitable to the functioning of a globalized economy. That whole economic and political reorganization has changed the very face of world capital and production.

One of the effects of globalization is immediately positive for capital: it increases the general rate of profit, and enlarges the world market, thereby provoking an increase of profits and purchasing power in the strongest countries, as well as in the countries that benefit from the fallout from these positive effects on the strongest economies. Superficially, that can make it seem as if capitalism has succeeded in overcoming its contradictions and can develop without limits. Superficially, this can also make it seem as if we inhabit a unified world, without interimperialist tensions, the image of a "super-imperialism" à la Kautsky, a situation that can only stengthen the hegemonic position of the United States.

Yet, it is nothing of the kind, and globalization must be understood as an attempt by the strongest economies to strengthen their competitive position, to attenuate and contain the contradictions that ravage the system, and that, moreover, manifest themselves in the breakdown of national economies, such as that of Russia, or the Asiatic countries, in the exclusion or marginalization of whole populations, or in the development of famine in those zones now abandoned -- after their pillage in the colonial epoch -- as is the case with sub-Saharan Africa. Globalization provides no solution to the fundamental problems of capital, it can only work on its symptoms, and besides, even in that sense, the positive effects of globalization can only last for a limited time, inasmuch as they end up exacerbating the historic contradictions of the capitalist system. So, if certain economies, like that of the US, now benefit from this process, it is not the same for all national economies. That's why there is so much resistance to the processes of globalization in countries like China or Russia. Nonetheless, it is necessary to recognize that the present period is marked by a growing integration of the diverse national economies, by a growing interdependence of different capitals, and, that as a result, the immediate perspective is not one of world war as a "solution" to the economic crisis. We must emphasize this contradictory movement between a dynamic of integration and unification on the one hand, and the deepening of the contradictions and the exacerbation of violence -- imperialist among others -- on the other hand.

This contradiction expresses itself on other levels too, notably in the image that the working class can have of itself. One fundamental element is that of the consequences of the passage from the formal to the real domination of capital. That has had the effect of eliminating the barriers between the different spheres of production, circulation, and consumption to the benefit of a single process of reproduction, valorization, and accumulation, at the national level. It's a matter, therefore, of a global process of the valorization of capital that renders null and void the definition of social classes that prevailed in earlier stages of capitalism, where there were clearly defined lines between blue collar workers and capitalists, large and small. To cite our comrade Lazare:

A second element is surely the context of globalization, which further accentuates the global collective character of this process. And here, too, we face a contradictory movement, that, on the one hand, leads to the integration and development of production on an international scale, distributed over a proletariat situated in a multitude of complementary sectors and different countries, and, on the other hand, provokes an exacerbation of competition between those same workers, because of the constant threat of delocalization permitted by the current mobility of production, as well as the difficulty in perceiving the links that unite workers, beyond sectors or countries.

2. The historic course

Today, when we attempt to understand the activity of our class, to evaluate its struggles, we are irremediably caught in the vise of the either/or: "course towards war" or "course towards class confrontations." In that logic, if one does not see a development of class struggle, then the perspective of the defeat of the proleatariat, and of world war, immediately looms. Still, embroiled in this same schema, if you want to continue to affirm the historic role of the proletariat, you must have an understanding of the balance of forces between the classes in favor of the proletariat, which constantly marches forward, enlarging its struggles and its class consciousness. Or, if you hesitate, if you have the impression that no clear perspective in favor of either fundamental class has clearly emerged, then you fall into the idea of "parallel courses," impossible to defend in the face of a theory that demands that the "course" must necessarily go in one direction or the other, or that society be "frozen," immobilized, rotting from the head down. Now, what do we really see in social reality itself? Local wars throughout the world, which bear witness to the exacerbation of imperialist tensions, but which do not indicate the imminence of a third world war; an unprecedented economic crisis, which instead of impelling the capitalist system to generalized war, is contained by an equally unprecendented concentration of industry and capital; finally, a proletariat that is not defeated, but which has enormous difficulties in formulating its own perspective, which is not mobilized under the bourgeois flag, but which also does not assume an active role as a "brake on war," such as we understood it in the past.

Confronted by this situation, we have been led to question the very notion of the historic course. How can the historic course be configured? In what period is the term meaningful? And is this concept still valid today?

There is a link between the either/or of a course towards war -course towards class confrontations, and the trio "crisis - war - reconstruction”. Essentially, these schemas have made it possible to understand the period around the second world war: faced by the impasse of its economic crisis, and in particular, the shock of 1929, capitalism was led along the path of world war. This latter would culminate in the division of the world into two great imperialist blocs, redivide markets and zones of influence, and bring about a significant destruction of infrastructures which would then have to be reconstructed. At the same time, it delivered a devastating blow to the proletariat and made it march in lock step. Faced with the perspective of war, the proletariat had only two choices: either actively oppose it, or be destroyed. The various elements in play at that time lent credence to the concept of an historic course such as the ICC defined it, with its image of a tightrope from which one of the two protaganists must fall. In today's situation, we can only say that this perspective is too mechanistic and does not take account of the complexity and the globality of the balance of forces between the two classes, nor of the way in which the antagonism between the two classes, linked in a social relation in which one, the proletariat, is subjected in a permanent fashion to the ideological domination of the other, expresses itself. This concept of the historic course does not allow us to develop a clear understanding of the period in which we now find ourselves, nor to work out a global appreciation of the balance of forces that takes into account the contradictory movements that characterize it.

The period of reconstruction ended long ago, and the world economic crisis is of an unprecedented amplitude; so, what's happened? One extremely important factor to emphasize is the capacity of the bourgeoisie to draw the lessons of the crisis of 1929. The way in which it has attempted to attenuate and contain the effects of the crisis are very different, and globalizations is one of these mechanisms. Therefore, we are not at the moment of the massive destruction of values and a redivision of markets through world war, but rather at a time of modernizing economies so as to make them as competitive as possible and to permit them to counteract -- to a certain extent -- the fall in the rate of profit and the saturation of markets. One sign of that was apparent in the implosion of the Russian bloc. The Russian bloc was not defeated by its imperialist rival or by it proletariat, but rather by the world economic crisis, and its own incapacity to adapt its economic system to its imperatives.

A second important factor to be aware of is the fact that if imperialist tensions and violence continue under capitalism, and even constitutes one of its hallmarks, we can see that these tensions can be temporarally attenuated to the benefit of the movement towards integration produced by globalization. The pseudo-unanimity of Europe at the time of the Gulf war or Kosovo bears witness to this. Even if we have had a tendency to see in certain conflicts, like the war in Afghanistan or the Gulf war, the harbingers of a third world war, we must insist that that is not the immediate perspective, and that we must extricate ourselves from this schema of crisis - war, by grasping the fact that -- for the present moment at least -- capitalism disposes of other means than war to deal with its crisis.

The perspective that a third world war is imminent has also induced a feeling of urgency amongst many revolutionaries: it is imperative for the proletariat to deploy its class perspective under pain of seeing itself definitively mobilized behind the national flag. Confronted by the difficulty that our class is having in fighting under its own flag, many have drawn the conclusion that the moment of revolution has passed, and that there is no alternative to a frank recognition that the present period is one of triumphant counter-revolution.

But, here too, we must take into account the complexity of the present situation of the proletariat, and not see it through the lens of the past. If capitalism has restructured itself, then this restructuring has also had a profound impact on our class. To appreciate today's struggles no longer means (even assuming that it once did) simply measuring the degree of autonomy belonging to the class, or its capacity to launch struggles. It is also necessary to consider things as a whole, by extricating ourselves from ready-made schemas. The concept of the historic course does not seems to us to be valid for an understanding of the present situation, whether with respect to an appreciation of the class struggle or the immediate perspective of a third world war.

3. The evaluation of the class struggle today

We already focused, in an article in Internationalist Perspective # 34, on the criteria for evaluating the class struggle and what it means to set up such criteria. These criteria don’t allow us to paint a picture that reflects the principal and contradictory elements which are present in the activity of our class and thus to make a general evaluation.

If one wants to understand the general movement of our class, there is one important question to answer: does the proletariat have enough distance from the dominant ideology to remain able, if only potentially, to see itself as a class and thus to perceive the antagonistic relation between its interests and those which it is serving? Whatever the weaknesses of the struggles, the faults one might find in them, if the answer to this question is positive, it means that the proletariat remains capable of asserting itself as revolutionary subject and agent of social change. This is absolutely fundamental!

We have already talked a lot about globalization and its repercussions on the recomposition of the classes. But we haven’t sufficiently measured the impact that these consequences have on the proletariat’s capacity to see itself as a distinct social class. If we make a little digression into the individual psyche, we see that what makes it possible for an individual to form a personal identity, to become conscious of it and use it in his social and relational daily life, are the linkages. The link with those who surround him will make it possible for the individual to see himself as distinct and similar at the same time. If we use this process to understand the situation of the proletariat, we can see that this link is what it strongly lacks, precisely because of the very way in which capitalism has organized things. The link with his class brothers, to whom he’d be close enough to recognize himself as a member of the same social class, and thus sufficiently distinct from the other social class to see the antagonism between them.

Capitalism has dispossessed man from his labor, making him a stranger to himself and a stranger to others. But it has also destroyed the possibility to easily see what unites workers and all those victimized by the exclusion from work. The great workers’ bastions, carriers of a tradition of struggle and solidarity, are increasingly being dismantled, either because they have become obsolete or because delocalization has dispersed production throughout the world. There is no longer a "workers’ culture" and the changes that have occurred in the working class impede the transmission of past class’ experience. Whereas the bourgeoisie is pleased to see the disappearance of the proletariat and prefers to call workers "agents of production" now, we must see a working class whose outline has been redrawn by the restructurations of capital and which does not easily perceive its own class identity and interest. All the more so because of the increased mobility of labor, which dismantles work teams and makes it ever more difficult for workers to feel part of a collectivity at work. Everything is seen as provisional, subject to sudden change.

The profound impact of the recomposition of the classes on the consciousness of the proletariat, and on its capacity to see the bond that unites, it is a fundamental element if we want to understand why it’s so difficult for the class to react globally and to draw its own perspectives for the future. In order to find your “class terrain”, you have to define it first and know which class is meant. We wonder, for instance, what image young workers have of the proletariat and whether the current transformations still allow them to recognize themselves in it, or whether the current period is one in which the proletariat must first reappropriate its own, modified identity.

We could also hypothesize that this difficulty in seeing the links that unite the community of the exploited, tends to foster a search for substitute bonds, which today’s society, with all its ideological power, is only too eager to provide. And so the only identifiable criterion today is one of inclusion: either you have work and therefore have a place and social recognition, or you’re nothing. The link is no longer defined in terms of belonging to the same class, you’re either part of the included or you’re out. This helps to understand why workers sometimes cling so desperately to their machines. To lose your job not only spells economic misery, but can also mean a fall into nothingness. And this also helps to explain the rise of the extreme right in areas of economic distress.

In light of the proletariat’s profound difficulty in recognizing itself as a class, with interests opposed to those of the bourgeoisie, I want to point out some characteristics of recent movements, in particular those which rocked Europe in 1995-1997, as well as the more recent protests against globalization.

But first, let’s make clear that our concern is not to sacralize a struggle nor to gloss over its weaknesses in order to pretend that everything is going well. And even less do we want to use the importance of the questions raised in 1995-1997 to prove a linear progress of the class struggle, in the way the ICC claimed that there are consecutive waves of struggles, each one starting at the level of consciousness that the previous one had reached. Still, these struggles contain elements that are relevant in regard to what we said earlier on the difficulty of the class in seeing its common interests.

In regard to the movements which have shaken France and Belgium between 1995 and 1997, the strikes, the demonstrations, the struggles of the unemployed, the ‘Marches for Work’, the 'White Marches' 2 and, on another level, the recent protest movements against the effects of globalization, we can discern the following characteristics: A mobilization that goes beyond the framework of a sector, a country and a specific demand, which brings together workers and non-workers, students, French, Belgians, Germans …, with the idea that "we’re all in this together." This carries the potential recognition of the bond that links all the exploited in a community of interests.

  • An understanding that the perspectives advanced by society are opposed to the needs of the people that are mobilized. Slogans such as “We want a Europe for the people, not for money” and the refusal of globalization and its effects illustrate this. This shows the potential to perceive the global functioning of the system and the logic which drives it, despite all that’s done to prevent this understanding.
  • The beginning of an understanding that it’s the whole political structure in its very way of functioning which is rotten, so that nothing good can be expected from it, even if the international bourgeoisie shrewdly recuperates this movement and derails it towards restructurations, human rights campaigns, political excuses or ideological comedies and the like.

    This leads us to the conclusion that, despite the enormous weaknesses of these movements and protests, despite the reformist recuperations to which they easily fell prey, they contain a potential which we haven’t seen before and which can lead in time to the perception of the bond which unites members of the same class and of the antagonism between the perspectives imposed by the dominant class and those of the exploited class.

    We can hypothesize that the easy recuperation of these movements by the dominant ideology was made possible by the proletariat’s incapacity, at this stage of development of its consciousness, to know what it should do with the elements that it brought forward, in other words, how to push these protests further by drawing its own perspectives.

    Generally speaking, despite the silence of our class, despite its relative indifference to certain wars (but we had the occasion to nuance this in regard to the Kosovo war), despite the current incapacity to free the struggles from union and reformist straitjackets, despite the isolation, despite the racist reactions, and all that can be deplored when we look at the activity of the proletariat, despite all this, the movements of recent years contain a new potential which comes as a response to the biggest current problem for the working class: its need to perceive itself as a class with its own interests and perspectives. This also shows that the proletariat maintains the capacity to continue the development of class consciousness, despite the ubiquitous presence of the dominant ideology. Therefore we don’t think that we are in a period of counter-revolution, but in one of profound restructuration which demands that the working class redefine itself in its turn, through its class activity.

    Conclusion ...

    The goal of this text is to contribute to the reflection on the profound modifications that we see in the current capitalist system, in order to grasp their implications. The concept of globalization, while its background is the movement of extension inherent in capitalism, must be seen as the way in which the international bourgeoisie, especially the strongest countries, reorganizes its economic and political structures on an unprecedented worldwide scale. This shows the bourgeoisie’s capacity to adapt and also underlines the difference between the current and past periods. One of its implications is the contradictory situation of a deepening crisis and worsening inter-imperialist tensions and, at the same time, a movement of integration and interpenetration which can temporarally attenuate these problems. Many questions remain to be explored in order to grasp the current changes. Such as whether the national states remain adequate at a time when everything tends to an international scale, and the depth of the positive effects of globalization on the world economy. The counter-tendencies and the potential resistance to this process also must be analyzed more.

    Since the perspective of a third world war has, at least in the short term, receded, we have had to reexamine what had been, up to now, a theoretical tool: the concept of the historic course. In our view, this concept does not acknowledge the complexity of the balance of forces between the two classes in a context in which the dominant class keeps its grip permanently on the working class. The concept of the historic course seems to reflect a mechanistic view in which the two protagonists are on an equal level in the fundamental antagonism between them – though their relation is not like that in reality.

    One of the fundamental stakes for the working class today is to redefine itself as a social class, digesting all the modifications which capitalism has imposed on its functioning and composition. As long as it keeps the capacity to respond subjectively to the questions raised by the current period, it maintains its role as an active agent and motor of historic change.

    March 2000


    1 M Lazarre, "The Recomposition of Classes Under State-Capitalism," IP 15.
    2 Translator's note: the "White Marches" were massive but vague protests against the state in Belgium, following political and corruption scandals involving the kidnapping and murder of young girls.

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