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Globalisation, the state and revolution

By Paul Feldman

There is a tendency among those who oppose global capitalism to suggest, at least by implication, that the world was a better place before Bush and Blair and certainly when corporations did not have so much power. The hope is, perhaps, that we can change the policies of corporations and outlooks of governments and return to this disappearing period of history. We could go back to the time when national governments had a greater degree of control over economic affairs and the welfare of their citizens was a priority.

What Philip Bobbitt does is demolish these arguments. Bobbitt, a notable academic and advisor on security questions to the Clinton administration, has written an analysis of the modern state, its origins and the question of war.* He confirms in some detail how the state has changed and continues to change beyond all recognition. The nation/welfare-state is giving way to what he, and others, call the “market-state”. The only difficulty, however, is that the new form of capitalist state lacks the legitimacy and authority that the post-World War Two nation-states established. For Bobbitt this means war, prolonged war at that, before humanity can create a new “society of market-states”. Gloomily he contends:

“The pattern of epochal wars and state formations, of peace congresses and international constitutions, has played out for five centuries to the end of the millennium just past. A new constitutional order – the market-state – is about to emerge. But if the pattern of earlier eras is to be repeated, then we await a new epochal war with state-shattering consequences…Yet we can shape future wars, even if we cannot avoid them. We can take decisions that will determine whether the next epochal war risks a general cataclysm.” Among those cited as architects of the new constitutional order are Clinton, Bush and Blair. Bobbitt adds: “The nation-state [which he argues is a form developed only in the last quarter of the 19th century] is dying, but this only means that, as in the past, a new form is being born. This new form, the market-state, will ultimately be defined by strategic threats that have made the nation-state no longer viable. Different models of this form will contend. It is our task to devise means by which this competition can be maintained without its becoming fatal to the competitors.”

In his analysis of the crisis of the nation-state, he cites a number of functions that are undermined by economic, technological and cultural transformations. On national security, Bobbitt maintains that international terrorist organisations have access to weapons and technology which the nation-state is “too muscle-bound” to deal with. Dealing with the provision of welfare, he explains how the world market is no longer structured along national lines, “but rather in a way that is transnational and thus in many ways operates independently of states”. Far from being dependent on local governments, the transnational corporation evaluates the state on the basis of whether its workforce has the necessary skills, and whether its infrastructure is good enough to attract investment. “At the macro level, this development applies to capital flows, in the face of which every country appears powerless to manage its monetary policy.” Bobbitt acknowledges that a consequence of these developments is that the state seems “less and less credible” as a means by which a “continuous improvement of its people can be achieved”. The inability of the nation-state to protect its own culture from globalisation is another key weakness. The result, according to Bobbitt, is the “disintegration of the legitimacy of the nation-state”.

Bobbitt basically describes the sort of structures and role the state has taken on principally in the United States and Britain. Instead of existing to serve the welfare of the people (the nation), the market-state exists to “maximise opportunities”; full employment is no longer a goal, whereas flexibility of labour is; in the market-state, men and women are consumers not producers; politics is presented not in terms of competing values but of the power relationships of the personalities involved. “This is characteristic of the market-state, with its de-emphasis on the programmatic and legalistic aspects of governance.”

Bobbitt sees the challenges to the emerging market-state in militarystrategic terms as the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the use of chemical or biological weapons. In economic terms and social terms, he outlines the danger of a trade war among developed states and/or the collapse of trade between richer and poorer countries, together with the transnational problems of protecting the environment. Then there is the potential conflict between the different types of market-states – the entrepreneurial (US and Britain – the withdrawal of the state); the managerial (Germany, France – continuing state intervention) and mercantile (Asian states like Japan, Malaysia).

His “what if” list is not at all fantasy land. For example, what if: North and South Korea collapse into a peninsular conflict; China does not peacefully resolve its differences with Taiwan; Japan rearms with weapons of mass destruction; nuclear conflict occurs in south Asia; a new incurable virus emerges; China disintegrates; the US economy suffers a sustained downturn; there is an Asian currency collapse; an anti-globalisation movement conducts a hi-tech war on capitalism;
global energy supplies are disrupted in a major way. Bobbitt’s scenarios are more exhaustive and all are possible. Some of them we are living through at the present time. His solution is most terrifying, however. Put simply, it is future peace through present war. He writes:

“We will seek a new constitutional order for the society of states…The bureaucratised nation-states struggling to satisfy the ever-escalating requirements of providing for the welfare of their
ageing publics are increasingly being denied their axiomatic legitimacy by those very publics… So long as the state’s legitimacy is a matter of ensuring the welfare of its citizens, then the globalisation and interdependence of the economy, the vulnerability and transparency of its security, and the accessibility and fragility of its cultural institutions, will increasingly deny the state that legitimacy.”

In perhaps the most sinister sentences in this extremely long book, Bobbitt insists:

“There is a widespread view that war is simply a pathology of the state, that healthy states will not fight wars… War, like law, sustains the state by giving it the means to carry out its purpose of protection, preservation and defence.”

He concludes: “If we wish to ensure the new states that emerge are market-states rather than chronically violent nation-states it may be that only war on a very great scale could produce the necessary consensus. We should not exclude the democracies from idealistic ambitions that could lead to conflicts on such a scale.”

Bobbitt urges the use of the tactics of relentless air strikes, special forces teams and indigenous allies to deal with the threat posed by opponents of the market-state. “Out of this epochal conflict can come, some day, the consensus that will provide the basis for a constitution for the society of the new form of the state.” He concludes:

“If these missions are avoided or postponed, a new, horrifying kind of conflict may emerge in which an authoritarian market-state challenges the contentment of the rest because they are weak, and because their weakness is a threat, enabling non-state terrorists and aggressors they cannot suppress to bring chaos everywhere. The market that encouraged this passivity will have destroyed the marketstate.”

This gruesome picture is actually what we are beginning to live through as the component parts of globalised capitalism come into conflict with each other, as well as those areas that are not yet integrated into the world market.

By showing the dangerous tendencies inherent in the emergence of “market-states”, Bobbitt reinforces – inadvertently – the argument that globalised capitalism is tearing itself apart and that this threatens the future of humanity itself. Bobbitt’s theoretical framework leads him to conclude that there is no alternative to current social relations. He shares with others, notably Francis Fukuyama, the notion that alternative political systems have run their course. History has pronounced on “communism”, Bobbitt argues. The Soviet state was unable to provide for the welfare of its people and this was a key reason for its collapse, he says. The only game in town, therefore, is market capitalism. It alone can provide opportunities, services and goods for its citizens. The only barrier to further historical progress is that epochal wars are needed to give the emerging “market-state” their legitimacy.

The notion of progress through war is a deeply reactionary one; it is an idea that far right forces have embraced before in history with catastrophic consequences for millions on every continent. Bobbitt ends up with this prognosis as a result of a one-sided approach to social history and development. While it is useful and even necessary to write a history of the state, an essential requirement is to establish the connections with the underlying economic processes at any given period of history. Bobbitt’s failure to do so leads him to deal with political developments as if their source were simply internal to the state itself. The logic of the state and the logic of capitalist economic relations are not the same. Yet they are part of a contradictory whole, pulling in opposite directions. They are a dialectical unity and conflict, with the state interpenetrating economics and vice versa, leading to a transformation and the emergence of something qualitatively new. This is how capitalism itself came into being in Europe, with social revolutions in England and then France bringing a new ruling class to power. The state and social formations came into conflict and were transformed by armed struggle.

In his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx explained the relationship between what he called the “political superstructure” and the “economic structure” of society extremely well:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

“At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

“No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” (emphasis added).

This theoretical framework, although almost 150 years old, remains valid for the contemporary world. The material productive forces have well and truly come into conflict with the existing relations of production – private ownership of production for profit – in a variety of ways. Productive capacity, driven on by the revolution in technology, is far greater than the possibilities that exist for people to buy all the goods that could be turned out. As a result, over-production leads to falling profits and the shutting down of capacity. Workers lose their jobs while others are subject to super-exploitation. In south China, workers are paid 20 cents an hour to produce Nike trainers. On the other hand, there remains a great unsatisfied need for commodities like food, shelter, transport and healthcare, not only in the advanced countries but especially in areas like Africa. Poverty levels are on the increase in every country while global corporations tune their production levels and marketing to areas of profitability. The conflict, therefore, is between what humanity can produce and the narrow organisation of this along the lines of private ownership in pursuit of profit.

At the same time, the “legal and political superstructure” that Marx refers to is in increasing conflict with the “real foundation” of society, the “relations of production”. Two imperialist wars in the 20th Century had their origins in the inherent need for capitalism to expand into new markets and the resistance of rival nation-states to their competitors. Capitalism itself drives to war – not the state, as Bobbitt believes. This urge is, of course, of necessity expressed through the state as we have just witnessed in the invasion of Iraq.

Corporate-led globalisation creates transnational forces that continue to undermine nation-state structures, as Bobbitt himself has shown. The real economic relationships in society were for more than a century disguised by political rulers through the use of various kinds of political facades and symbols. Institutions like parliaments and concepts of “democracy”, “freedom” and “choice” have been used to blur the nature of the real power in society. Now the economic foundation has burst through the form and is seen for what it is. New Labour, for example, is the management team for the corporations in Britain, for Britain PLC as Blair’s ministers like to call the country.

Globalised capitalism is in some ways attempting to do the impossible – to overcome its very nature, both in the way it produces and in how it manages its own organisation. The typical global corporation is owned by a variety of stockholders, including workers’ pension funds, located in every major country. Ownership, therefore, is much more diffuse than early capitalism, when individual entrepreneurs were the norm. Capital is raised on international markets in a variety of forms. The corporations themselves engage in financial speculation. Production is organised through a highly-complex division of labour. Hierarchies are disappearing as the firm stresses the benefits of co-operative working through electronic communication. High-level strategic thinking and planning are used to try and create a smooth production process and look ahead to future trends. Centralised control is kept to a minimum and local units of the corporation are given relatively autonomous powers.

Bobbitt himself, as we have seen, describes in some detail how the nation-state is rapidly giving way to the “market-state”, in which the functions of the state in terms of welfare, education, social security and so on are given up in favour of the market. For him, this is the working out of some sort of pre-ordained historical process, whereby the capitalist market economy is the end, beneficial result. This view is a challenge that the old “left” cannot answer. Bobbitt explains how in the nation-state, the “left” (i.e. Old Labour, reformist parties etc) was “always a critical organ in government, reproving, harassing, questioning the status quo; it sought a governing role even though whenever Left parties held office, they quickly moved to the centre, co-opting (or being coopted by) the right. Now with the discrediting of the Left in the marketstate, this competitive critical function has been taken up by the media”. This is truly an end of a period of history – the period when the “left” could win elections and carry out some reforms, ometimes in opposition to capitalist interests. Instead, we have New Labour, champion of the market economy and much praised by Bobbitt. This merging of the state, politics and corporate power is what we have to grasp. For helping our understanding, Bobbitt deserves recognition. His conclusions, however, are not only unacceptable but wrong. There are alternatives to his period of “epochal wars” and our task is to elaborate what they are and present them in an accessible form.

For the so-called market-state cannot succeed in overcoming the inherent contradictions of capitalism as a social system. The market cannot provide what the state once delivered because the bottom line for the corporations is profit. You only have to look at the pensions disaster that has struck millions in the US and Britain to see how the private sector is no fairy-godmother. Capitalism cannot deal with the environmental disasters it has created because each state and each corporation wants to maintain a competitive advantage. That’s why Bush has refused to sign up to environment treaties. The market economy is not "virtuous" as Bobbitt maintains, but destructive of resources, indifferent to health and safety, exploitative of labour and unstable. Even Bobbitt has to acknowledge, as we have seen, that under certain conditions "an authoritarian market-state" might emerge that "challenges the contentment of the rest". Signs of this regime emerging are already apparent in Washington.

The major impediment to a free association of states remains the unbridled power of the corporations and their relentless drive to expand and accumulate. Alongside this are “parties” like New Labour which exist to facilitate the operations of the transnationals, with their emphasis on markets, consumers and competition above all else. The creation of a world society of states is dependent upon taking forward the social transformation that corporate-led globalisation has taken us to the edge of. Giant corporations based on advanced technology clearly have the capacity to solve a number of pressing issues, including hunger. Instead, genetically-modified food is launched on to markets without any clear indication of the consequences. Farmers in poorer countries are already at the mercy of the bio-tech corporations. The existing order has, as Bobbitt has shown, lost its legitimacy and authority. Humanity cannot afford the consequence of a devastating period of war. The corporations are well on their way to capturing the state. Our objective is the democratic ownership and control of the corporations’ productive and technological capacity alongside new forms of political representation. These will replace the discredited parliamentary systems that offer only war and destruction.

* The Shield of Achilles Philip Bobbitt. Penguin Books £9.99

This article was first published in Socialist Future Review Summer 2003

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