SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
THE WORLD, SOCIETY, AND THE INDIVIDUAL
BY COLIN LEYS
Our citation of recent works by Colin Leys on the African development prospect and the process of globalization (his article "Confronting the African Tragedy" in New Left Review, #204 and his new book, The Rise and Fall of Development Theory, for example) in the editorial that framed our last issue of SAR sparked considerable reader comment. We publish here a further text by Leys - a talk given at Carleton University last year but heretofore unpublished - that casts his analysis even more broadly. Here at SAR we have found this text a most useful reference-point for situating our own thinking about both southern Africa and Canada - and about the relationship between them. We are pleased to share it with our readers.
On October 5th, 1994, 25 members of the Church of the Solar Temple killed themselves, or were killed by their leaders, in a house belonging to the Church in Switzerland. The reaction of the media, and of most people, was one of amazement and horror. A community of people had destroyed itself, or had been destroyed by its leaders, in the name of some far-out utopian ideal. We saw it as sick, pathological. If it occurred to anyone that it might be a symbol of what was simultaneously happening to the surrounding, so-called normal society, I did not see it mentioned. Yet I believe that the self-destruction of the Church of the Solar Temple is a symbol of what is currently happening on the world's stage: that our leaders are directing a process of the self-destruction of our societies in the name of a utopia no less irrational than the beliefs of the Church of the Solar Temple, whatever they may have been. This utopia is the idea of a world-wide market in which the people of the world relate to each other directly as individuals, and only as individuals; "globalization" is the process of trying to reach this ideal.
As an idea, it is strictly nonsense. In reality individuals cannot survive on their own; we are social animals, totally dependent for our very psychic stability, let alone the material means of survival, on complex and constant connexions with others, i.e. on society. The doctrine on which globalization is based, however, is positively opposed to societies. Mrs. Thatcher expressed it accurately, if naively, when she declared that "there is no such thing as `society', only individuals and their families." The assumptions on which the globalization project rests, then, are literally absurd. But this does not, obviously, mean that the project is unreal. On the contrary, it is well under way.
There are some misconceptions about globalization which I don't have time to discuss. Let me just say this: it is not a question of how close we are to having a single global market, or of how big a percentage of total world production is traded internationally, and so on. Globalization is a policy in the service of an irrational idea, not a realizable world. But in the name of this idea a critical decision has been made to accept capital's freedom to move across national boundaries. Controls over the movement of capital were the linch-pin of the international economic system agreed on at Bretton Woods. As long as capital was not free to leave, states could pursue collective goals such as full employment, equitable income distribution, care for the helpless, preservation of the countryside, decent housing, a more highly educated or healthier population, and so on. Meeting such goals involved ensuring that capital was invested appropriately, through a mixture of incentives and sanctions, including taxes. Private owners of capital were obliged to accept this because they could not take their capital away. But as soon as capital became free to move across national borders, as it did by the early 1980s, these national policies could no longer be pursued.
The immediate subordination of social goals to the interests of private capital is only made more complete and immediate by the size of some countries' public debt, especially if foreigners are allowed to own it. Once the debt becomes very large, as it now is in Canada, where debt service consumes a third of all tax revenues and poses a problem for the balance of payments, the owners of the debt have the power to veto any new policies they dislike. In industrialized countries like Canada, this power is exercised through the credit ratings that "the market" awards to governments. A budget that meets with disapproval leads to a lowering of the credit rating, which raises the interest rate payable on the outstanding debt. As a result, national goals have been progressively abandoned. For example, corporate taxes have fallen sharply while corporate subsidies have expanded, which accounts for a significant part of the so-called "fiscal crisis" of the state.
According to Canada's former Auditor General, in the late, 1980s corporate "tax spending" (i.e. taxes due from corporations but not collected) came to about $35 billion annually; but it is not these expenditures that are cut in the budgets. Instead it is the social programmes that we put in place to make this the kind of society we wanted to live in that are cut, while people who try to defend them are denigrated as "special interest groups." In underdeveloped countries, the mechanism is cruder. Power over a government's policies is now exercised directly by its foreign creditors, as a condition of further lending. The principle is the same in either case: policies that serve to strengthen societies by serving collective goals are sacrificed in favour of those approved of by creditors.
Those policies that they approve include cutting government spending until the deficit is reduced. In practice, this is not compatible with the kind of society we have had up to now in Canada, let alone with that of Ghana or Malawi. The general impression given by the mainstream media is that things must get worse so that they can get better. But why should they get better?
It is significant that no one is talking about this. I do not have time to discuss the assumptions made by the neoclassical economists whose ideas are supposed to lead to this conclusion. I will only say that my secretary at Queen's has a notice over her desk that seems to me more plausible than the reasoning of the MacDonald Commission on the Economic Union; it says, "to save money, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off."
What is most frightening about what is happening is that it has happened before, and its essential logic has been perfectly clear for at least half a century. In his famous book, The Great Transformation, the Hungarian Karl Polanyi, wrote that:
To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society . . . Robbed of the protective power of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed . . . (pg. 73)
But is this really what globalization implies? That depends, of course, on where you are starting from. In privileged parts of the world like Canada, we have still a long way to go before that limit is reached. Instead, what we are witnessing here is a series of staged reductions in expectations. Instead of looking forward to growing real incomes, as we used to be urged to do, people are induced, through the discourse of the deficit, to be grateful for modest annual real income reductions; and instead of being mobilized to bring capital back under control, they are set to fight each other over the incidence of these allegedly "inevitable" income losses - young versus old (the discourse of "Generation X"); public sector versus private (the intellectually scandalous discourse of the "Social Contract" of Ontario and Bob Rae, and the cheap rhetoric of "cutting bureaucratic waste"); recent immigrants versus the grandchildren of earlier immigrants (the Reform Party's racist discourse of "the burden on social services"); the employed versus the unemployed (the discourse of "repeat users" and "welfare bums"); and so on. This process also works to accelerate a necessary historical amnesia. What has to be erased is the memory of the 1950s and 1960s, the memory that we once had collective control over our lives, that we formed a society, as Canadians, Ontarians, Québecois, Ottawans and so on, and that as members of this society we made decisions about how it should evolve, and arranged the fiscal regime, interest rates, the money supply, public borrowing and spending to serve these decisions. We did not make these decisions perfectly, but we made them. Today we no longer do so. This we must be made to forget, or at least to look upon that epoch as unrepeatable (the left's fatalistic discourse of "the golden years", the right's discourse of "irresponsible socialistic government").
Furthermore, every month that passes sees the bonds that tie us together in society weakened, not just by the rhetoric of individualism and consumerism, but by the reduced level and quality of the things we do and provide for together, collectively - from garbage collection and road maintenance to a national train system, and independent public broadcasting service, and, next, unemployment insurance, broad-access higher education, and health care. At each stage in the decline there is less to defend, less we feel proud of, less we feel identified with. This slow way of killing a society through death by a thousand cuts can go on for a long time, but it is death all the same.
In less fortunate places, the death of society comes more quickly, even catastrophically. This is most clear in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, where pre-colonial societies were chopped up into some 40 colonies which later became 40 would-be post-colonial societies. Through the 1950s and '60s, these new societies were in a process of relatively rapid coalescence, assisted by the steady expansion of production and dramatic improvements in collective consumption, including transport, health and education. Then came neo-liberal globalization: commodity prices collapsed, leading to a decline in per capita incomes and the collapse of trade surpluses, followed by rapid increases in debt.
This opened the way for the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes which aimed at forcing these societies to "adjust," within the space of a few years and without serious thought about the social costs, to the alleged "realities" of world market prices. The result has not been a market-based social and economic recovery based on individuals and their initiatives in the marketplace. It has been, instead, an ethnic-based regression, as people have been pushed back into reliance on traditional social bonds for survival. And in some cases it has resulted in social and economic catastrophe, aggravated by the legacy of three decades of superpower-sponsored militarization.
Polanyi's statement about what taking the utopian doctrine of the market literally would mean, was meant as a warning, a dystopia: it was something that had only ever been imposed on colonial peoples, when (as he wrote) "unimaginable suffering [had] ensued." What would he think of a world that, thirty years after decolonization, is imposing it on those same peoples again? I am not arguing that Africa represents the fate of the rest of the world. The global logic of capitalism will work itself out unevenly, with some poles of accumulation appearing, while older ones decline. But what I am confident of is that any society that is not in a position to re-subordinate the market will be destroyed by it - each in its own way, at its own speed and by its own standards, but destroyed. The question then becomes, are there any reasons to think that this process can be reversed?
Polanyi noted that since the doctrine of the self-regulating market was first formulated, capital's attempts to free itself from social regulation had twice been effectively reversed, - once by the "social-liberal" reforms of the late nineteenth century, and a second time by the Keynesian reaction to the depression of the 1930s. In 1944 he wrote, confidently, that it was now "an absurdity" to think that "a community would remain indifferent" to the destruction that any fresh deregulation of capital would cause. But it is not so easy to be optimistic today. One of the most disturbing possibilities about the present project for the emancipation of capital from social control - about globalization - is that unlike the previous ones, the very capacity for collective political action itself is among the first casualties.
First, political action on an international plane is so much easier for capital to accomplish than for any more popular social movement, and the international plane has become increasingly important and difficult for any one even medium-sized state to influence. Second, national states are perceived as being weaker in a world of deregulated capital movements, and governments are exploiting this perception to reduce their accountability to voters. This aggravates people's sense of inefficiency.
Then there are some closely related changes that are bound up with globalization, though not necessarily resulting directly from it. One, the forms of life have been rapidly individualized over the past three decades, through consumerism, the media, and computers. These and other changes have gravely weakened the labour movements and lethally weakened the mass-membership political parties that used to express the most active sociality of ordinary people. Second, the death of meetings (whether public, or intra-party, or union) leaves the diffusion and testing of information, and the formation of opinion, largely to the media, and especially television. But the media have been made into a field of capital accumulation, not a neutral, equal-access arena in which information is circulated, and any idea tested and formed. Third, public education does not provide most people with any systematic understanding of modern history. Its main focus is on adapting young people to be useful employees. For all these reasons we cannot rely on the automatic reappearance of the kind of social forces that twice succeeded in recovering control over capital in the past.
On the other hand, I do not believe in Orwellian dystopias. I conceive that somehow, at some point, some effective coalition of social forces will turn against the rule of capital that is now being represented to us as both rational and inevitable. I think we can already see a belated recognition of the threat to society beginning to occur at the reflective, socially conscious margin of the mainstream liberal intelligentsia in the west: not exactly a counter-current, but more like a sort of nervous hand-wringing about the apparently uncontrollable momentum now reached by unregulated international capital. Maybe I am wrong; but what else can it mean when magazines like Harpers and Atlantic Monthly and even Vanity Fair headline articles full of fin-de-siècle angst, when the Toronto Globe and Mail's Business Week runs excerpts from Kevin Phillips's book Arrogant Capital, when financial mega-capitalists like George Soros and Sir James Goldsmith publish urgent calls for the regulation of currency speculation, and when the Economist suddenly rediscovers the merits of public ownership and planning? Could the organic intellectuals of capital be experiencing some anxiety about the disappearance of the allies they could have turned to in the past, now that the ordinary working population has been so comprehensively neutralized politically?
The conclusion I draw from this and other evidence is that a fresh organic crisis (in Antonio Gramsci's sense of the term) is already on the horizon. The hegemony of neo-liberalism has not been firmly established, even among the mainstream Canadian intelligentsia, and its contradictions are beginning to show. We - I at any rate - cannot foresee how it will be resolved, by what combination of social forces: all that presently seems clear is that it will not be a combination just like the last one, any more than that resembled the coalition of the late nineteenth century. But what we can and must do is prepare the ground for a new social project in which the social surplus is used to serve society, not destroy it.
We need to take Gramsci seriously, as Stuart Hall spent the early 1980s reminding us. Historic blocs do not put themselves together and become politically dominant except on the basis of a common project within which each element in the bloc finds its aspirations expressed and potentially fulfilled. Hegemonic ideologies - that is to say, world-views, interpretations of national history, analyses of the current conjuncture and a moral and practical utopia (a vision of a new social order) - emerge from conscious intellectual effort. Of course, they do not emerge in the form proposed by any one intellectual, or even one intellectual current: their form crystallizes in debates between social groups in the emergent bloc. But intellectual work is an indispensable precondition. Otherwise the commitment of effort and acceptance of costs that any successful political project needs from huge numbers of people will not be forthcoming. There has to be a coherent, convincing, morally persuasive discourse, offering answers to big questions about identity, meaning and dignity, as well as offering practical solutions to material questions, and pointing to a way of living that makes sense, and that appeals.
I think that many elements of such a discourse are present in the various discourses of contemporary social movements of all kinds, but constructing them into a unified hegemonic project remains largely to be attempted. There is also the fundamental problem of capital's control of "the means of mental production" to be confronted, which most social democrats have not yet taken seriously. This set of tasks - the task of analyzing globalization, alerting our society to its real meaning, and working out and propagating a new post-capitalist social project - is very urgent, and one to which anyone with a grounding in the essentials of political economy can, if they wish, make a contribution. There is a distinctive role to be played here by intellectuals (in Gramsci's sense of people who exercise the social function of intellectuals). I think this is the permanent truth in Kautsky's observation that socialism was brought to the working class "from outside," i.e. by people of non-working class origins. Today the boundaries of class have become much less distinct, and the genesis of the new post-capitalist project will occur neither "outside" nor "inside" the working class, but be the work of intellectuals (of varying class origins) involved in a fairly wide range of class and non-class struggles. But the task is still a task, work that has to be undertaken. The reassertion of Polanyi's "double movement" will not be a revival of either of its two previous incarnations, but a new one, that must be constructed. According to Marx, Hegel said that everything important in history happened twice, only he forgot to add, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. But what if it occurs a third time? We have to ensure that the third time will be the last, and that it will not end in a world-wide catastrophe.
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