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Globalization and the Politics of Resistance

Barry K Gills

...rebellion is one of man's essential dimensions. It is our historical reality. Unless we ignore reality, we must find our values in it...Man's solidarity is founded upon rebellion, and rebellion can only be justified by this solidarity...In order to exist, man must rebel...Rebellion is the common ground on which every man bases his first values. I rebel - therefore we exist.

Albert Camus The Rebel (L'Homme revolte), 1951.

The paradox of neoliberal economic globalization is that it both weakens and activates the social forces of resistance to it. As the ‘global crisis’ of 1998/9 demonstrated to all of the world, the on-going debate on 'globalization' is strategic for the coming era. The shape of the future depends on its outcome. This book sets out to alter the intellectual and political terms of the globalization debate, and thus its strategic direction. Firstly, this goal is to be accomplished by asserting the centrality of 'the political' and repudiating narrow economic determinism and the ‘teleology’ of neoliberal economic globalization. 

The key political tension in the coming era will be between the forces of neoliberal economic globalisation, seeking to expand the freedom of capital, and the forces of social resistance, seeking to preserve and to redefine community and solidarity. It is by acts of resistance that we will establish our solidarities and our identities in the 'era’ of globalization. 

The analytical focus of the study of the globalization phenomena must therefore shift from the technical to the political. It is no longer sufficient for critics of globalization simply to 'document transnational neo-liberalism'. (1) There is a profound need for re-thinking the question of what social practices now constitute viable political strategies in the world economy. (2) This implies a direct relationship between new practice and new theory, which can be best accomplished in conscious alignment with the dissenting social forces of resistance. 

A new 'politics of resistance' to neoliberal economic globalisation invokes an analogy with the resistance movements of the Second World War. (3) While the world may currently seem to be dominated by an entrenched ideology there is yet the necessity (and the possibility) of purposeful resistance. Thus, the politics of resistance is not merely reactive or defensive, or representing a minority interest. Rather, it is a form of political action which should represent the general or societal interest and with the potential to transform the political situation and produce a real alternative. 

What does the new politics of resistance seek to resist? 'Globalization' has become an extremely broad concept that can encompass everything, thus rendering the term either meaningless, confusing, or seductive to the unwary. (4) However, when the concept is expressed as 'neoliberal economic globalization' its meaning becomes clearer. I suggest that neoliberal economic globalisation has four defining characteristics: i.) to protect the interests of capital and expand the process of capital accumulation on world scale; ii.) a tendency towards homogenisation of state policies and state forms to render them instrumental to the protection of capital and the process of capital accumulation on world scale, via a new 'market ideology'; iii.) the formation and expansion of a new tier of transnationalized institutional authority above the states which has the aim and purpose of re-articulating states to the purposes of facilitating global capital accumulation; and iv.) the political exclusion of dissident social forces from the arena of state policy making, in order to de socialize the subject and insulate the neoliberal state form against the societies over which they preside, thus facilitating the socialization of risk on behalf of capital. (5)

The main historical thrust of neoliberal economic globalisation is to bring about a situation in which private capital and 'the market' alone determine the restructuring of economic, political and cultural life, making alternative values or institutions subordinate. Rather than capital and 'the economy' being embedded in society and harnessed to serve social ends, 'the economy' becomes the master of society and of all within it, and society exists to serve the ends of capital and its need for self-expansion. (6) It is a necessary aspect of this process that 'politics' itself, and 'democracy' in particular, should become increasingly formalistic, stripped of substantive radical, revolutionary, or even reformist content, any of which might challenge the consolidation of the hegemony of capital over society. 

Rather than a historical triumph of democracy and capitalist market ideology via globalization, (7) we face a danger of slipping ever deeper into a 'historic malaise' of capitalism engendered by globalization. (8) Existing democracies, and the complex social compromises on which they rest, confront a lingering death accompanied by growing social polarization and conflict, while new or 'low intensity democracies' are marked by the limited degree of progressive change they allow, rather than by their transformative capacity. (9) The democratic gains of the past, and potential gains of the future, are re-interpreted as being 'fetters' on the capital accumulation process, which the economy, we are told, can no longer afford. The claims of social justice are submerged beneath claims for 'natural justice' via the marketplace. Compete or die! Competition is life! These are the new slogans of ascendant capital over moribund society. However, as every school boy knows, wherever there is competition, only the few will be winners, and many will be losers.

Thus, the real impetus of neoliberal economic globalization is more likely to be socially and politically retrogressive than progressive. An historical retrogression of capitalist civilization would be a period characterized by greater social polarization between rich and poor, increasing inequality, growing concentration of wealth, intensified competition for market shares, crippling debt service payments for weaker economies, and an unstable political order both domestically and internationally. Many are so mesmerised by the idea of linear progress and the putative role of scientific rationality and technology within it, that they may be unaware even of the possibility of historical retrogression, though many societies have suffered such processes in the past.

By advocating a doctrine of the inescapable technological determination of the future, neoliberal economic globalization defines a single mode of reorganization of social practices. This teleology of capital, being both ahistorical and above all apolitical, attempts to inculcate the mythological notion that the political process is now merely a 'transmission mechanism' from 'capital logic' to society. Globalization discourse invalidates its critics as 'unrealistic' because they recognize neither the validity nor the inevitability of this single and 'mythological' mode of thought. But we must begin our critique of globalization precisely by challenging its 'myth' , and by recognizing that it is an abstraction deliberately cast in the mythological mode. As such, it is wielded as a power concept over society, endowed with emotive resonance drawing upon a heightening of the sense of compulsion, fear, and the imperative of speed. (10) 

I begin our critique, therefore, by challenging the idea that neoliberal economic globalization is either historically necessary or inevitable. Globalization is a contested concept, not a received theory. There is no single determinant economic logic external to society, to the state, and to political processes. Methodologically, it is necessary to insist upon the socially contested and historically open nature of all forms of political economy, 'globalization' foremost among them. Having made a 'historicist turn' we must begin by making the effort to 'bring people back in' to international political economy as the agents at the centre of historical change. (11) Otherwise, we are left with socially barren formulations that strip people and agency from history, leaving only 'structure' as the over-determining 'reality'. When 'globalization' implies 'the death of politics', it feeds on political cynicism, defeatism, and immobilism.

But 'wild capitalism' or 'savage capitalism' is as unacceptable as the boom and bust cycle and the extremes of exploitation and conflict with which it is so clearly historically associated. As the pendulum of history is urged to swing back to the norms and forms of pre-unionised, pre-welfare state, and pre-democratic capitalism, history teaches us that people will resist. They will not passively accept 'an open ended and long term challenge to the majority's quality of life'. Indeed, 'Once that majority also understands that the obstacles standing in the way of a reversal of these trends are not immutable historical laws or technological inevitabilities, but political choices imposed on them by a venal and short-sighted minority, the time will be ripe for change.' (12) 

To begin to reconstruct the politics of resistance in the 'era of globalization' we must first insist on the right to rebel, that is on the inalienable right of society and social forces to protect themselves from the destructive vagaries of the unregulated (or 'self-regulating') market and to choose their own meaningful ways of constituting their solidarities, their collectivities, and their identities to this end. Among the 'manifesto of social rights' vis a vis 'globalization', I would suggest the following: 

1) the right of individuals, families and communities to employment, welfare, social stability and social justice; 

2) the right of labour, whether in the formal or informal sectors, unionised or non-unionised, to resist unemployment, austerity measures, reduced life chances, increased insecurity, atomisation, alienation, dislocation and immiseration; 

3) the right of the poor, dispossessed and marginalized, wherever they exist, to resist the imposition of poverty and the intensification of social polarization;

4) the right of the people to reclaim and deploy government (state power) in their own self-defence, at all levels from local, national, and regional to global, and whether through radical, revolutionary or reformist forms; 

5) the right of all people to establish social solidarities and autonomous forms of social organization outside the state and the market; and finally

6) the right to imagine 'post-globalization' and realise alternative modes of human development. 

As John Kenneth Galbraith argues, in the present era many elites seem increasingly preoccupied by the pursuit of 'socially barren trade policy'. (13) The weakening of society and the state in terms of their organizational capacity to resist globalization threatens national welfare systems, privileging tighter international economic integration at the expense of some of the social gains of the past century. This 'mindless course' marches under the banner of the new market ideology. (14) As states compete for the favours of transnationally mobile capital, the 'race to the bottom' threatens to increase the rate of exploitation of labour at global scale. The deregulation of finance and decentering of production contribute to the de stabilization of national societies and their political frameworks. As state capacity decreases the structural power of capital increases, as do social and class conflicts. All states and societies seem under pressure to make ever greater concessions to capital, including greater capital mobility, flexibilization of labour, lower social burdens and higher (indirect) social subsidies for capital., the upshot of which is a redistribution of wealth from labour to capital. All states are potentially vulnerable to sudden capital movement, whether by productive or 'speculative' capital. 

What is needed is the political will to develop an alternative global political agenda of social and economic restructuring. This agenda should involve the building of new coalitions of social forces working directly with each other and where possible through governments to bring about a new diplomacy of co-ordination. This co-ordination should encompass improving social, welfare, and employment standards, aligning fiscal and monetary policies, international labour standards (especially in transnational firms), universal and binding corporate 'codes of conduct', and tighter controls on cross-border capital movement, especially short-term speculative capital movement. 

As Richard Falk argues, elitist 'globalization-from-above' must be met by an assertive and effective 'globalization-from-below'. (15) The countervailing forces include labour, social movements, and the state. All three forces are needed, but with the necessity to transcend exclusionist practices of the past and avoid retreat into narrow localism or traditional nationalism. 'Globalization-from-below' should also mean establishing new roles for leadership from the global 'South', and by labour and women from the South in particular, in constructing the new practices of global civil society. As Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Peter Waterman point out, the re-articulation of 'global solidarity' requires networking and new communicative and organizational modes of practice linking local, national, regional, and global level strategies for reform. (16) The internal flaws of past movements, including racism, sexism, xenophobia and 'protectionism' vis a vis other groups, imply the need for a significant attitudinal change among the social forces of resistance in order to enhance the effectiveness of new attempts to achieve broader social and international solidarity.(17) In the labour movement, a legacy of exclusionist practices, native prejudice, bureaucratic organization and corporatist structures still hampers international solidarity efforts, but the possibility of overcoming some of these problems does exist and is made imperative by the new conditions of the world economy. (18) Cultural prejudices that stereotype rather than illuminate the nature of social movements must be transcended, and this is particularly the case at present in the attitude of Western observers to Islamic social movements. (19) It is only by seizing the opportunities of global communication that emancipatory movements can create via new practice a new human consciousness, aimed directly at the civilising of global society. (20) It is thus that by acts of resistance that the necessary connection between new practice and new theory is to be established, from which may flow an alternative global civilization. 

There is a need for 'unifying strategies' by resistance and emancipatory movements in order to confront globalizing capitalism with commensurate organizational capacity. However, this should certainly not take the form of the homogenizing imperialist modernization which constituted the dominant universalism of the past era. What is needed is perhaps an ‘indigenization’ of universalism, by which I mean that any new form of universalism must flow, in the first instance, from the 'bottom' upward, that is from the people to their organizations and not the other way around. It is by confronting common experiences, derived from the common impetus of neoliberal economic globalization and its effects on the majority, that such a common consciousness can emerge. 'Global solidarity' will not replace local and national society, nor the privileging of these sites of social action, but it will become an ever more necessary and useful supplement to them. We seem to be moving beyond the era of the religious universalist, the liberal cosmopolitan, and even the socialist internationalist. Nor can we make a universal prescription to turn or return to either the liberal /Keynesian democratic welfare state nor to the national social democratic state of the past era. Both have been criticized for having done much to disarm civil society, thus preparing the way for the onset of neoliberal economic globalization. (21) 

The issues on which the new resistance movements campaign may seem diverse, ranging from indigenous peoples' land rights, national land reform and social justice, resistance to structural adjustment programmes, opposition to 'corporate welfare' subsidies, women's empowerment, environmental protection, to the struggle for national and international labour rights (22), but all are part of a societal response to market-driven globalization . There can be no new grand strategy or grand narrative across such a diversity of struggles, nor need there be such. These movements and the new practices of global solidarity will form new sources of democratic and progressive change at local, national and global scales, as well as constituting new sources of knowledge and epistemology for 'global civilization.'

The 'guiding ideology' of these new global practices of solidarity need not entail the grand strategies of the past. It can consist of a small core of values, which can be interpreted through a variety of cultural understandings. I would suggest the following credo: 

Neither the market nor capital logic ever create equality or social justice automatically. The creation of a just and prosperous society always requires conscious normatively committed human action, recognizing our moral duty to fellow humanity. Wealth and prosperity are socially determined outcomes and are achieved through a fair distribution of resources and social product. Human progress is measured by the achievement of social justice and the elimination of poverty and oppression, not by the unbridled accumulation of private wealth or the naked exercise of power. 

It is time to overturn neoliberal economic globalization, and by doing so to create a new world.


1. The original version of this argument was made in the opening Editorial 'Globalisation and the Politics of Resistance' in New Political Economy, Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 1997), in the Special Issue on 'Globalisation and the Politics of Resistance' , edited by Barry Gills. See also: Andre C. Drainville, 'International Political Economy in the Age of Open Marxsim', Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1994) pp. 105-32, p. 425.

2. See the chapter by James H. Mittleman and Christine Chin in this volume.

3. I am indebted to Susan George for this analogy, made at a Fellows meeting of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.

4. For discussion of the exaggerated claims of 'globalization' and the comparison to other concepts, such as 'interdependence' see the chapter by R.J. Barry Jones in this volume. 

5. See the chapter by Louise Amoore, Richard Dodgson, Barry K. Gills, Paul Langley, Don Marshall, and Iain Watson in this volume.

6. For further discussion of the Polanyian perspective on the relations between society, the state and the market see the chapter by Robert Latham in this volume.

7. Examples of the triumphalist perspectives on globalization can be found in Foreign Policy (Summer 1997), 'The Globalization Debate'. For a discussion of populist interpretation in North America see the chapter by Mark Rupert in this volume.

8. See: Barry Gills, 'Whither Democracy? Globalization and the "New Hellenism"', in Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkin (Eds), Globalization and the South, (Macmillan, 1996)

9. See; Barry Gills, Joel Rocamora, and Richard Wilson (Eds) Low Intensity Democracy: Political Power in the New World Order, (Pluto, 1993); and Steve Smith, ‘US Democracy Promotion: Theoretical Reflections’, in Michael Cox, Takashi Inoguchi and John Ikenberry (eds) US Democracy Promotion, Oxford University Press, 1999; and Barry Gills ‘American Power, Neoliberal Globalization, and Low Intensity Democracy: An Unstable Trinity?’, in Michael Cox, Takashi Inoguchi and John Ikenberry (eds) US Democracy Promotion, Oxford University Press, 1999.

10. See the chapter by Ian Douglas in this volume.

11. See: 'Historical Paths to International Political Economy', by Louise Amoore, Richard Dodgson, Randall Germain, Barry Gills, Paul Langley, and Iain Watson, in Review of International Political Economy, forthcoming.

12. Manfred Bienefeld, 'Capitalism and the nation state in the dog days of the twentieth century', in Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch (Eds) The Socialist Register, (Merlin Press, 1995) p. 103.

13. See the foreword by John Kenneth Galbraith in this volume and his , 'Preface' to the Special Issue on 'Globalisation and the Politics of Resistance', New Political Economy, Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 1997), pp. 5-9.

14. Ibid.

15. See the chapter by Richard Falk in this volume.

16. See the chapters by Peter Waterman and Jan Nederveen Pieterse in this volume.

17. See the chapter by Adam David Morten on the Zapatista movement in this volume. For an example of the consequences of failure to build sufficient social alliances at national and regional level see the chapter by Cyril I. Obi in this volume.

18. See the chapters by Dimitris Stevis and Terry Boswell, and Johannes D. Schmidt in this volume.

19. See the chapter by Mustapha Kemal Pasha in this volume.

20. See the chapters by Peter Waterman and Jan Nederveen Pieterse in this volume.

21. See the chapters by Jeffrey A. Hart and Aseem Prakash, by Robert Latham, and by R.J. Barry Jones in this volume.

22. See the chapters by Sandra J. Maclean, Fahimul Quadir and Timothy Shaw; Kenneth Thomas; Dimitris Stevis and Terry Boswell; Johannes D. Schmidt; Cyril I. Obi; Adam David Morten; and Mustapha Kemal Pasha; and Louise Amoore, et. al. in this volume.


Table of Contents


John Kenneth Galbraith

The Social Left and the Market System

Part I: Globalization and Resistance: Thinking Through Politics

Chapter One: Introduction: Barry K. Gills

Globalization and the Politics of Resistance

Chapter Two: Louise Amoore, Richard Dodgson, Barry Gills, Paul Langley, Don Marshall and Iain Watson

Overturning ‘Globalization’: Resisting Teleology, Reclaiming Politics

Chapter Three: James Mittelman and Christine Chin

Conceptualizing Resistance to Globalization

Chapter Four: Richard Falk

Resisting ‘Globalization-From-Above’ Through ‘Globalization-From-Below’

Chapter Five: R.J. Barry Jones

Globalization versus Community: Stakeholding, Communitarianism and the Challenge of Globalization

Chapter Six: Robert Latham

Globalization and Democratic Provisionism

Chapter Seven: Jeffrey A. Hart and Aseem Prakash

Rearticulation of the State in a Globalizing World Economy

Chapter Eight: Ian R. Douglas

False Prophets and the Politics of the Retreat of the State

Part II: Strategies of Resistance: From the Local to the Global

Chapter Nine: Peter Waterman

Social Movements, Local Places and Globalized Spaces: Implications for ‘globalization from below’

Chapter Ten: Dimitris Stevis and Terry Boswell

From National Resistance to International Labor Politics

Chapter Eleven: Mark Rupert

Globalization and American Common Sense: Struggling to Make Sense of a Post-Hegemonic World

Chapter Twelve: Jan Nederveen Pieterse

Globalization and Emancipation: From local empowerment to global reform

Chapter Thirteen: Kenneth P. Thomas

‘Corporate Welfare’ Campaigns in North America

Chapter Fourteen: Johannes Dragsbaek Schmidt

Neoliberal Globalization, Social Welfare and Trade Unions in Southeast Asia

Chapter Fifteen: Mustapha Kamal Pasha

Globalization, Islam, and Resistance

Chapter Sixteen: Adam David Morton

Mexico, Neoliberal Restructuring and the EZLN: A Neo-Gramscian Analysis

Chapter Seventeen: Cyril I. Obi

Globalization and Local Resistance: The Case of Shell Versus the Ogoni

Chapter Eighteen: Sandra J. MacLean, Fahimul Quadir, and Timothy M. Shaw

Structural Adjustment and the Response of Civil Society in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe: A Comparative Analysis.

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