SAR. Vol 12 No 4, September 1997
CRITIQUE OF COLIN LEYS
BY JONATHAN BARKER
Jonathan Barker teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
In his article on globalization ("The World, Society & the Individual" in SAR of April 1996, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 17 - 21) Colin Leys throws down a daunting challenge to progressive intellectuals. He describes the corrosive social impact, especially damaging in Africa, of economic globalization driven by powerful capitalist interests and institutions. He reminds us of Polanyi's idea of the double movement - the inevitable resistance and reaction as people try to protect communities and cultures to which they are accustomed and committed. But he fears that without the intellectual leadership that creates unifying ideas and supplies substantial analytical content, the movements of social protection will take direction from self-defeating and destructive ideologies of ethnic separatism and that they will fail to achieve a wide enough coherence to stem the damaging advance of global capitalism. The need for intellectual leadership is particularly urgent because cracks are beginning to appear in the neo-liberal edifice and its intellectual defenders are expressing misgivings.
The challenge Leys delineates so dramatically is real and I want to take up one of the important questions it raises: Where can we look for ideas and examples on which to build wide and effective collective action? But first I need to deal with some assumptions and assertions in his argument that give direction to the search for answers and that, in my view, call for discussion. Four stand out.
1. The reading of the past.
The era of evolving national capitalisms may have produced periods in which citizens felt confident control of their economic destinies (as the article asserts), but it also produced military and economic rivalries (some fueled by nationalism) that contributed to terribly destructive wars, colonialisms, and repression of progressive political forces. The 1950s and 1960s, Leys wishes us to remember as a time when we in Canada "had collective control over our lives," and when societies in sub-Saharan Africa "were in a process of relatively rapid coalescence assisted by the steady expansion of production and dramatic improvements of collective consumption ..." But were these not also the decades in which Canadian governments welcomed unprecedented amounts of U.S. investment, the PLQ set off bombs in Quebec, Nigeria suffered a terrible civil war, the National party won power and consolidated apartheid in South Africa, and the C.I.A. installed Mobutu in power in the Congo? Were not the high commodity prices for African exports that buoyed the transitions to independence stimulated by wars in Korea and Viet Nam and post-war reconstruction in Europe and Japan more than by the absence of global neo-liberalism? The mix of positive and negative in both the nationalisms and in the global trade economy of the 1950s and 1960s seems to need a much more careful sorting out than Leys suggests.
2. The view of markets.
It is not enough for our best progressive thinkers bravely to condemn the worst of what markets do. Markets, after all, do make possible the non-hierarchical regulation of many important social transactions. I think we need thoughtful analysis of how markets can be made part of a positive social project. Polanyi's notion of embedding markets offers an important indication of where to start. Controlling markets is crucial to making them work without destroying equity, community, and democracy. Even on an international scale it is worth thinking about the ways market power can be balanced or supervised by social and political controls and the conditions under which transnational market relations can function as counterforces to violent confrontations among nationalisms.
3. The discounting of local action.
The article claims that "the very capacity for collective political action itself is among the first casualties" of globalization and that "the death of meetings" is a change closely bound up with globalization. While there are theoretical grounds for thinking these claims to be valid and supporting examples to be cited, I wonder what research would show? (One set of research findings is noted below.) And what do these claims say to the resistors and movement builders in Chiapas, in Zaire, in South Africa; to labour union organizers in places like South Korea and Ghana who take advantage of the small but real scope for action; to party organizers in the many countries newly offering some opening for party political work? Do they build on sand and pursue causes lost in advance?
Polanyi's line of analysis would suggest that even under the heavy ideological pressure of globalizing neo-liberalism the impulses to embed the market will be evident. That is one moment of the "double movement" of capitalism. Should we not be looking closely for and at the countermovements, rather than breaking off after bemoaning the "death of society" and the hegemony of neo-liberalism? I was glad to see Colin Leys call for a "new discourse" and to note the presence of many of its elements in contemporary social movements, but then his text seems to disregard their actions and ideas.
4. What political vision?
Yes, such political work could benefit from the kind of intellectual effort Colin Leys calls for, an effort to define and promote a political and social analysis and vision "in which social surplus is used to serve society, not destroy it." But when he asserts that the aim of this effort is to construct "a unified hegemonic project" I am made uneasy. Leys appropriately takes the imperfect hegemony of neo-liberalism as the target of his critique, but he confines his critique to the doctrines of neo-liberalism without considering the political implications of the unified hegemony of ANY doctrine. I know that there is a special Gramscian notion of hegemony that implies widespread real acceptance of a set of ideas, but to me even that usage evades the crucial question: by what political process and under what rules of discussion and what distribution of power is that acceptance achieved? Unified hegemony is a question, not an answer, for it implies the very force of hierarchy that I hope to see people struggle against.
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Even if these four comments have validity, the questions Leys raises for our consideration remain absolutely crucial. How can progressives construct a way of thinking that gives meaning and direction to concerted action? Where should we look for inspiration and ideas for a counter movement against capitalist fundamentalism? How, in fact, is the discussion itself to be structured and by whom? What kind of searching and researching will best inform and energize the intellectual process? How can intellectual work connect with political and social action? To canvass these questions, even briefly, in the light of the above sets of comments may not make globalization seem any less destructive, but it may make room for more hope about the prospects for better understanding and positive action than Leys's article appears to do. And it may point the discussion in a rather different direction than Leys indicates.
A logical place to look for ideas about countering capitalist globalization is in discussion with people who are now taking such action. In countries hooked into globalization in many different ways there are thousands of activist groups addressing issues of conserving jobs and livelihoods, community health, power of women, provision of housing, functioning of local markets, availability of local social services, provision and standards of education, and abusive and damaging working conditions. People who work in industries threatened with ecological collapse like small-scale fisheries or marginal agriculture have, in some places, founded organizations to protect themselves, and some of them have achieved practical successes (such as getting the government of India to cancel deep sea fishing licences and to re-orient policy to support small-scale fisheries). Even where they are of limited or purely localized effectiveness, they are still sources of highly relevant analysis, information, and moral thought about why and how to project social interests and values in the context of market globalism.
Leys writes of "the death of meetings," but recent research I have been involved with over the past few years with a group at the University of Toronto (Khamisa Baya, Anne-Marie Cwikowski, Christie Gombay, Katherine Isbester, Kole Shettima, Aparna Sundar) has discovered an enormous number of meetings on local issues in places as disparate as fishing villages in southern India, a refugee camp in Kenya, large urban markets in Kampala and Quito, farming towns in northern Nigeria, the women's movement in Nicaragua, and mosques in Pakistan. Some of the meetings were inspired or strengthened by a kind of progressive globalism: liberation theology, social ecological analysis, and global defense of small-scale fisheries in southern India; institutionalized participatory development in northern Nigeria. Others were stimulated by a need to control market relations: market vendors making markets work in Uganda and Ecuador. Still others were mobilizing claims against political or hierarchical power that seemed excessive or dangerous or misdirected: the case of southern Sudanese refugees in a camp in Kenya and of mosques in Pakistan.
Readers of SAR will know of many examples of local activism in southern Africa. It turns out that a wide variety of places afflicted by globalization still have sources of leadership and networks of influence sufficient to generate and sustain significant political action. And people have an astonishing capacity to create spaces for discussion, wrangling, and coordination of action. Leys is right to notice the danger of localisms of tribe and religion, but many local people see those dangers clearly and work hard to seek commonality of action across such social divides. It doesn't take an intellectual to recognize the threat of sectarian bloodletting.
The new kind of politics that is emerging may undermine globalizing liberalism without replacing it with a coherent and hegemonic alternative. To wish and to search for such an outcome may lead to just the kind of weaknesses I thought I detected in Leys's essay; in seeking to construct a new "hegemonic ideology" intellectuals may miss the rhythm of the double movement. The same actions and movements that are draining power from global liberalism and awakening doubt in the minds of neo-liberal thinkers are also likely to deny power to unified party-type alternative hegemons of the left. In other words the challenge Leys identifies goes deeper and further than he envisions. Progressive intellectuals are indeed called to "the task of analyzing globalization, alerting our society to its real meaning, and working out and propagating a new post-capitalist social project," but they are also called to rethink the shape of politics and to find new ways of constructing a process of coherent action. I think it better and more realistic to regard the new social projects as plural rather than singular.
The challenge is daunting, but the pluralistic and multiform double movement evidenced in myriad local, national, and transnational actions to control and resist globalizing neo-liberal capitalism offers both hope and hard grist for the intellectuals' mill. It also suggests that intellectuals carry on their important work with an appropriate admixture of humility and willingness to look at and listen to the people.
COLIN LEYS REPLIES
Jonathan Barker raises some important questions and I am in agreement with him on many of them. Above all, I agree on the importance of listening to what activists involved in struggles against global market forces are saying. Intellectuals - meaning not just professional researchers, academics and the like, but anyone who is willing and able to think through, sum up, and articulate ideas about society - intellectuals have a special responsibility and task in constructing a new project (or projects, I will come back to that). But intellectual work will not accomplish anything useful if it is not closely linked to practice. It has to incorporate the lessons of practice, and to respond to the motivations and hopes of the people who are engaged in practice; Barker is absolutely right to insist on this.
On the other hand it is as important not to romanticise grass-roots struggles as it is not to underrate their importance. Ordinary people can show immense resourcefulness, organising ability, leadership and vision; but popular movements also make mistakes, become narrow in their goals, become backward-looking, tired, exclusivist, and so on. It is not self-evident which popular movements have the potential to go beyond their original goals, to become self-sustaining, to be inclusive not exclusive, to avoid factionalism and personalism, to link up in a principled and reliable way with other struggles; to work this out calls for drawing historical comparisons, for theoretical analysis.
We also need to acknowledge that popular struggles tend to be reactive; their hallmark is resistance. Forging them into hegemonic projects looking for long-run transformation, into movements capable of imposing themselves on events, successfully displacing the power of the global mega-corporations and the handful of economic superpowers in the shaping of our world -this is another matter. Barker is afraid of any `unified hegemonic project', saying any such project implies a hierarchy.
I must say I don't see why it should; for example, the social-democratic culture and institutional system established in Sweden over three generations is certainly the result of a unified hegemonic project but is about as un-hierarchical as you can find in a complex industrial society. But in any case, the sort of `unified hegemonic project' we need can hardly be some new `totalising' doctrine on the lines of historical communism (or neo-liberalism). Looked at in one way it will necessarily be a multiplicity of projects, in different sectors, nations, and regions, the aspirations of different groups, movements and peoples. But unless these are also unified enough to confront the political and economic power of the transnationals and the states that back them, they will ultimately fail.
In saying that the capacity for collective action is being undermined, I was referring to the countries of advanced industrial capitalism; there, the individualisation of life has broken up old solidarities, privatised people's thinking and leisure activities, made us into passive viewers of television rather than citizens giving time to the `public sphere'. Conferences abound, but open meetings, either to organise collectively for political change, or to hear from, challenge and assess politicians, are becoming rare, and this makes long-term collective action difficult, although not (yet) impossible. In still underdeveloped countries the case is different: there solidarities are still being formed and meetings certainly are central, as Barker points out. The danger is rather that if conditions become too extreme these solidarities can become last-resort defences against disaster, based on ethnicity - or even on violent, atavistic forms of bonding, as in the so-called `rebel' armies of teenagers in Mozambique or northern Uganda, held together by fear and forced complicity in appalling mutilations and murders.
But in saying that the capacity for collective action is being undermined I was also referring to the fact that re-regulating capital - resubordinating it to social goals, making it serve society and not the other way round - now requires joint action by the national states that only yesterday authorised its deregulation. This is not going to be easy. As a minimum, it will require nation-wide movements and/or parties capable of exercising state power, and making it felt in supra-national institutions. Barker doesn't mention this problem; as it stands, his suggestion that `the new kind of politics that is emerging [based on multiple forms of local activism] may undermine globalizing liberalism' seems rather unconvincing.
Two final points. First, on the history of the 1950s and '60s, when, I suggested, people had - in the industrialised democracies - some collective control over their lives. Barker points out that this was also an age of imperialist exploitation and oppression, and bloody liberation wars. This is true. I didn't say we always used the collective control over our lives well, or that we had enough control (we didn't - the effective power of even social-democratic parliaments was very limited). But does Barker really prefer not having any control? Surely not?
And second, on markets. Barker argues that they `make possible the non-hierarchical regulation of many important social transactions' and that we need to control them, not do without them. I would only say that we need to confront markets as they are, not as they exist in textbooks. One French analyst estimates that a dozen firms now strategically control much of the world's markets - and tell any worker that labour markets are non-hierarchical and see what he or she says. The problem is not controlling markets, it is controlling the forces that operate in them, i.e. huge firms and all the interests vested in them, from shareholders and corporate executives to bankers, lawyers, insurers, forex dealers and so on and on. Perhaps `transnational market relations' act as counterforces to nationalist conflicts, as Barker hopes, though the historical record is not reassuring on this point (is the arms industry currently readying itself to disappear?); but what is hard to deny is that `transnational market relations' are meantime driving developed societies towards levels of inequality, insecurity and social tension not seen since early Victorian Britain, and African societies towards forms of social disintegration - Liberia, Somalia, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zaire ... - not seen since King Leopold's Congo.
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