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Beyond Globophobia | The Nation

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Beyond Globophobia

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This essay was adapted from After the New Economy, just
published by the New Press. Click here for more info and to order copies online.

Nationalist Nostalgias

About the Author

Doug Henwood
Doug Henwood, who edits the Left Business Observer, is working on a study of the current American ruling class, whoever...

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Among some antiglobo activists, there's a strange nostalgia for the nation-state, as if it's one of the innocent structures that globalization is undermining. At least two aspects of the nostalgia for the nation are worth picking apart. First, in the narrow economic sense, fond memories of the pre-1980 protectionist regimes are often evoked. Like many nostalgias, the historical record doesn't justify the sentiment. Even the most protected developmental state is shaped by external forces; the height of the tariff walls and the vigor of the state intervention themselves are testimony to that. But they seem to flourish in particular historical enclaves, like the Latin American import-substitution model from the 1930s through the debt crisis of the early 1980s, and run into trouble when their moment passes. By the late 1960s, for example, growth slowed in Latin America as import-substitution reached its limits. Domestic firms were inefficient, and average incomes were too low to sustain a home consumer market. Labor agitation was met with repression. As sociologist Ankie Hoogvelt wrote, "Politically, the easiest option for the national bourgeoisie was to suppress internal revolt by blaming the continuation of imperialist forms of domination of their countries, while masking their own complicity in this domination."

Instead of chasing nationalist chimeras, why not go "globalization" one better? Many activists in the wrongly named "antiglobalization" movement still talk locally, even as they're acting and thinking globally. This might be a good time to junk local self-reliance as an ideal and embrace a deeply global perspective.

Along those lines, there's an inspiring quote from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire. The book itself is not without its problems--prolixity and abstraction to start with--but at least two things are welcome about its megahit status. One is its theoretical ambition, its attempt to think about the dispersed, hard-to-specify nature of power today. Another is its optimism, thanks to its roots in autonomist Marxism, an approach that emphasizes the creative and revolutionary power of workers on their own, and not expressed through state or party. Next to typical left pessimism, autonomists can seem dreamily optimistic, seeing struggle and victory where others see apathy and defeat. And closely related to that cheeriness is its absolute refusal to look backward. A lot of supposedly progressive thinkers and activists would love to recover a lost world of nation-states or self-sufficient localities. Hardt and Negri will have none of this:

We insist on asserting that the construction of Empire is a step forward in order to do away with any nostalgia for the power structures that preceded it and refuse any political strategy that involves returning to that old arrangement, such as trying to resurrect the nation-state to protect against global capital. We claim that Empire is better in the same way that Marx insists that capitalism is better than the forms of society and modes of production that came before it. Marx's view is grounded on a healthy and lucid disgust for the parochial and rigid hierarchies that preceded capitalist society as well as on a recognition that the potential for liberation is increased in the new situation.

In our normal work lives, we're all linked--often invisibly-- with a vast network of people, from across the office or factory to the other side of the world. Standard globalization narratives, mainstream or critical, often efface this fact, seeing capital, rather than the billions who produce the goods and services that the world lives on, as the dominant creative force. That cooperative labor deserves to be acknowledged in itself, as the creative force that it is, but also as a source of great potential power. Empire uses a lyric from Ani DiFranco as one of its epigraphs: "Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right." They could have also used a line from Patti Smith: "We created it. Let's take it over."

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