Sketching Today’s Global Political Economy
During the latest phase of monopoly and finance capital (1945- to the present) enormous changes occurred in the global political economy. First, the United States emerged as a superpower and in an effort to crush the threat of socialism around the world committed itself to constructing a “permanent war economy.” This permanent war economy would create the military capacity to destroy alternatives to global capitalism, stimulate and maintain a high growth manufacturing economy, justify an anti-communist crusade to crush the left in the United States, and co-opt and/or repress working class demands for change. In addition, the permanent war economy would occasion the perpetuation of racism and patriarchy in public and private life.
As the years passed corporate rates of profit began to decline as a result of rising competition among capitalist states, over-production and under-consumption, an increasing fiscal crisis of the capitalist state, and rising prices of core natural resources (particularly oil). With a growing crisis, global corporate and finance capital shifted from investments in production of goods and services to financial speculation. Thus capitalist investment steadily shifted to financialization, or the investment in paper-stocks, bonds, private equity and hedge funds and other forms of speculative investment. Financial speculation was encouraged by state tax policies, “free trade” agreements, an expanded international system of indebtedness, and increased reliance on consumer debt.
Multinational corporations which continued to produce goods and services sought to overcome declining profit rates. This, they concluded, could only be achieved by reducing the costs of labor. To overcome the demand for higher real wages, health and other benefits, and worker rights, manufacturing facilities were moved from core capitalist states to poor countries where lower wages were paid. Thus, in wealthier countries millions of relatively high paying jobs were lost while production of goods increasingly moved to sweatshops in poor countries. Wealthy capitalist states experienced deindustrialization.
Finally, assisted by technological advances, from computers to new forms of shipping, financial speculation and deindustrialization fueled the full flowering of globalization, or the radically increased patterns of cross border interactions-economic, political, and cultural. Globalization began to transform the world into one integrated global political economy.
In short, we may speak of a four-fold set of parallel political and economic developments that have occurred since the end of World War II, in which the United States has played a leading role: creating a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization.
Should We Be Thinking About Socialism Today?
A rich and vital set of images of a socialist future comes down to us from the utopians, anarchists, and Marxists, the martyrs of the first May Day, and the variety of experiments with socialism attempted in Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Extracting from the multiple reasons why individuals and movements chose socialism one reason stands out; that is, that capitalism historically is and has been a cruel and inhumane system, a system borne and fueled by slavery, genocide, super exploitation of workers, tactics of division based on race and gender, and an almost total disregard for the natural environment that sustains life. Building a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization are merely extensions of the cruel and heartless pursuit of profit which has been the fundamental driving force of the capitalist mode of production.
Drawing on the history and the images of a better future coupled with the brutality of the capitalist era, we might conceive of a 21st century socialist future that has four main dimensions.
First, we need to create institutions that are created and staffed by the working classes and serve the interests of the working classes. While scholars and activists may disagree about what “class” means in today’s complicated world, it is clear that the vast majority of humankind do not own or control the means of production, nor do they usually have an instrumental place in political institutions. Therefore, socialism involves, in the Marxist sense, the creation of a workers’ state and since most of us are workers (more than 90 percent of the US population for example), a state must be established that represents and serves the interests of the many, not the few.
Second, our vision of socialism is a society in which the working classes fully participate in the institutions that shape their lives and in the creation of the policies that these institutions develop to serve the needs of all the people.
Third, socialism also implies the creation of public policies that sustain life. Socialism in this sense is about good jobs, incomes that provide for human needs, access to health care for all, adequate housing and transportation, a livable environment, and an end to discrimination and war.
Fourth, socialism is also about the creation of institutions and policies that maximize human potential. A socialist society provides the intellectual tools to stimulate creativity, celebrate diversity, and facilitate writing poetry, singing and dancing, basking in nature’s glow, and living, working, and loving with others in humanly sustainable communities.
Today we remain terribly far from any of these dimensions of socialism. But paradoxically, humankind at this point in time has the technological tools to build a mass movement to create a socialist future. We can communicate instantaneously with peoples all over the world. We can access information about the world that challenges the narrow ruling class media frames about the human condition. We have in the face of brutal war, environmental devastation, enduring racism, super exploitation of workers everywhere mass movements of workers, women, people of color, indigenous people, and youth who are demanding changes. Increasingly public discourse is based upon the realization that our future will bring either extinction or survival. Socialism, although it is not labeled as such, represents human survival.
Where do we who believe that socialism offers the best hope for survival stand at this critical juncture? We are weak. Many of us are older. Some of us have remained mired in old formulas about change. Nevertheless we can make a contribution to building a socialist future. In fact we have a critical role to play.
We must articulate systematic understandings of the global political economy and where it came from: permanent war, financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization. We need to articulate what impacts these processes have had on class, race, gender, and the environment. In other words, we need to convince activists that almost all things wrong with the world are connected and are intimately tied to the development of capitalism as the dominant mode of production.
We need to take our place in political struggles that demand an expanded role for workers in political institutions. We need to insist that the working classes participate in all political decisions.
We need to work on campaigns that could sustain life: jobs, living wages, single payer health care, climate change etc. Our contribution can include making connections between the variety of single issues, insisting that participants in mass movements take cognizance of and work on the other single issues that constitute the mosaic of problems that require transformation. We must remember that in the end the basic policies that sustain life require building socialism. Most struggles, such as those to achieve living wages or a single payer health care system for example, plant the seeds for building a broader socialist society. We can incorporate our socialist vision in our debates about single issues: if we demand a living wage, why not talk about equality for example?
We need to rearticulate our belief that human beings have a vast potential for good, for creativity, and given a just society, we all could move away from classism, racism, and sexism. We could pursue our talents and interests in the context of a sharing and cooperative society.
By working for institutional incorporation (empowerment) and life-sustaining and enhancing policies we will be planting the seeds for a socialist society.
“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.
For the union makes us strong”
From “Solidarity Forever,” Ralph Chaplin lyrics, 1915.