The Deadly Myths of Globalisation

What follows is the introduction to a talk I gave at the 3rd Innis Christie Lecture & Symposium in Labour and Employment Law.  My sister was educated at the Dalhousie School of Law and I was Lucky enough when visiting her to attend a lecture by Innis Christie.  I am not going to brag I am just going to say that as a young MA student at the time he encouraged me to soldier on based on some comments I made.  So it was a real pleasure for me to be invited to give a presentation at introductory session.  Here, in part, is what I had to say:

The Deadly Myths of Globalisation


Globalisation may be defined as the tendency towards the development of a fully integrated network of capitalist markets.  The international integration of capitalist markets has been most complete with respect to financial markets, manufacturing, commodities and services in that order.  It has been least integrated with respect to agricultural products and labour markets.  On the latter this has been partially bridged via the internationalisation of production.  What brought this process of globalisation about?

The most common origin myth is that technology made it happen.  That is to say, that a technological revolution in communications and transport made possible a highly integrated global market from CDO’s through to soy beans.  This explanation is misleading in at least two respects.  This is not the first time the vast majority of national economies have been integrated into a dense network of production and finance.  To be sure in globalisation 1.0 this occurred through the aegis of a series of imperial states and their colonies.  But if the nature of the political containers and hierarchy was different at the level of integrations it is not so much different.  Second, the technological determinist argument fails account for the institutional pre-requisites that made possible the deployment (and indeed development) of technological innovations in transport and communications.  The consequence of this technological origins thesis is that globalisation often appears to its protagonists and antagonists as the inevitable outcome of some natural evolutionary process.  This naturalistic and thus inevitable view of globalisation has been shared by those on the right, centre and left.

It was two obscure pamphleteers after all who, in 1848, argued in a rather forgotten document:,The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”… It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade…

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. …

Globalisation 1.0 thus contained its fair share of confrontation with tradition.  With its innovations and flexibility laying the groundwork for what the great English historian Eric Hobsbawm would much later call the Age of Extremes in reference to the twentieth century.  However what Hobsbawm knew like every good historian, and even not so good historians like Marx and Engles, is that none of this was inevitable.  Not globalisation 1.0 and certainly not globalisation 2.0.  Marx and Engles may have rooted for capitalism hoping that in the spread of private property relations human beings would finally be stripped of all soft and hard bigotries, be forced to finally confront each other in a truly human to human fashion; to confront the fact that between equal rights force decides as it were.  But none of this is inevitable it is just history which weighs on the living like a couche mort.

But whether you see the present as a nightmare or as a bounty of opportunities or somewhere in between the fact is that none of it is a function of technological innovation: at least not sequestered from its institutional and legal foundations.  This is an important point because when we speak about the ‘reality’ of global competition and its confrontations with tradition; its fetishisation of innovation to the point where toxic crap is graded AAA and sold into the morass of institutional investors looking for a ROI that can justify their management fees and keep the clients happy, or the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector none of it is, in the true sense of the word, inevitable.

Globalisation is the product, by and large, of the successes and contradictions of the Golden Age.  Founded as it was on the spread of American multinationals spurred on by the Marshall plan and the desire to rebuild Europe as a junior partner in the project of the American Empire, AKA the free world; enabled by the progressive liberalisation of trade as embedded in the GATTS and later fully institutionalised in the WTO; the suppression of finance and for a time productivity bargaining between capital and labour.

And therein lies the rub: the suppression of finance both in terms of its balkanisation and restrictions on its transnational mobility combined with the enhanced capacity of workers to productivity bargain in the context of mounting set of welfare entitlements put the managers of capital and the owners of labour-power (workers) on a collision course.  The very success in the reconstruction of Europe and Japan led to increased international competition in the context of the increasing liberalisation of trade.  North American workers were moving from being on the short side to the long side of the transaction.

The very openness to trade and investment that allowed North American capital and workers to export their products to foreign markets was in turn feeding back into to dwindling profits and thus downward pressures on workers expectations.  When, by the late 70s push came to shove profits won-out over wages.