Globalising reformism

Submitted by AWL on 11 October, 2002 - 8:39

Paul Hampton looks at the TUC's report Globalisation: Myths and Realities

This report seeks to give a labour movement perspective on the question, but misses the whole point about a working-class response to globalisation.

The report points out that "globalisation" is a category used to explain a series of apparently contradictory phenomena, from poverty in the Third World, deindustrialisation in the West, and new technologies, to world production and trade trends. This is a fair point: except the report doesn't say that it is capitalism that should be the subject of the enquiry, and that's why the term "globalisation", without further explanation, doesn't say much about what the system is or where it's going.

The report does identify some real myths about globalisation and shows why they are wrong. Globalisation, defined as "a rapid increase in trade across national boundaries", is not a new phenomenon without precedent in economic history - as the 40 years before the World War One indicate. But the increase in trade, and in foreign direct investment since 1945, and even since 1980, has largely been between the advanced capitalist states, rather than the whole world.

Secondly, globalisation has not led to a "race to the bottom" - real wages have not, and do not automatically decline as a result of trade. Nor indeed has sub-Saharan Africa, where wages are the lowest in the world, been the destination for most multinational investment. The rise of the Asian tigers are not a "threat" to living standards in the developed world. In fact imports to the European Union from Asia accounted for less than two per cent of EU GDP in 2000, as against 23 per cent from other industrialised countries. And the wage gap between newly industrialised countries in Asia, the USA and the UK has been narrowing since the mid-1970s, at least until recently.

Although it is true that jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector in the West over the past 30 years, it is not clear how much of this is due to wage competition. Also, while some call centres and office tasks have been moved, these represent a tiny proportion of services in advanced capitalist states. Again, it is not at all clear that multinational companies are able to move most service industries from where they are located now, even if they wanted to.

The report makes a token attempt to sympathise with the anti-capitalist movement on questions such as the role of multinationals, IMF structural adjustment programmes, heavily indebted nations and on the environment. However its tone is to seek a middle, even "third" way between rapacious international capital, with its view that globalisation is inevitable, and the follies of what it calls "globalised resistance". It may be the case that some anti-capitalists use poor arguments, but at least they are trying to identify the enemy - capitalism!

The report is weak on strategy. It says: "At the very least a European-style bargain is required that balances the power of newly unleashed market forces with concern for labour standards, the environment and the developing world… Instead the aim must be to argue for a framework of properly enforced global standards." The problem with this view, which is revamped, internationalised social democracy, is that it lacks the agency which the nationally-focused social democrats had, at least until 1980 - i.e., the state. It is ridiculous to expect the United Nations, and its agencies like the ILO (or the IMF for that matter), to enforce global labour standards. The UN/ILO is weaker than most advanced capitalist states, never mind the leading corporations.

Most importantly, the report does not identify the most significant agency that could indeed enforce labour standards - the international working class. The argument that is completely absent from the report is the power of the working class, and the growth of this power as capitalism develops. The answer to capitalist globalisation is not autarky, localisation or super-state regulation. Short of socialism it is international workers' solidarity, the organisation of free trade unions across the globe, and independent working class politics to fight for better laws.

The labour movement should be promoting workers' action internationally, taking a global perspective for solidarity, not globalising reformism. We aim not to stop globalisation, but to win real improvements in workers' lives now, and to prepare for doing away with capitalist exploitation altogether. If this is the era of globalisation, our slogan should still be: "Workers of the world, Unite".

The TUC report can be downloaded as a pdf from

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