The choice that is presented for us by global capitalism is as it currently stands – for it to survive one must sacrifice either the idea of national sovereignty or the concept of a fully representative, democratic society.
This past week three events of note took place that encapsulates perfectly the growing discomfort with how mankind – led by the West and in particular the United States – has organized social life around the world. While no one can predict the future, if these lurking problems are not dealt with in a serious manner soon then history suggests we could all be in for a bumpy ride as the century goes on.
First, from the great state of Texas comes word of a racist event that was to be staged by conservative students at the University of Texas at Austin – an ‘illegal hunt’ where some students were to be designated as undocumented immigrants, others as border enforcement agents, and a game of tag was to be played between the two wherein being tagged ‘it’ got one sent to faux detention facility. As reports show, a harmless game of red-rover, come-over this was not, and it followed upon an earlier event staged by UT conservatives that was also pointedly political – a bake sale where brownies sold to Hispanic students cost $1 while those sold to white students cost $2.
Second, and more seriously, is news from WikiLeaks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a huge new potential trade deal that would link Pacific Rim economies far more intimately than they are today and which is proving to be a template for an equally far-ranging trade deal between the United States and the European Union. Here the cause for concern are revelations that powerful corporate actors are pushing for sweeping new rules on intellectual property rights that will flout national, democratically-legislated rules in many countries – thus representing a corporate end-run around popular national rules on privacy, patents, and much else.
Finally, third, there is the dismal story and unremitting public-relations disaster for the Wal-Mart Corporation that has spread like wildfire on the internet – the fact that some stores are holding employee charity food drives for their fellow coworkers. That’s right; instead of paying these employees enough so as to not need charity, the company instead is asking its own under-paid employees to pick up the slack so as to ensure these poor souls don’t go hungry over the holidays – over which, of course, they are being commanded to work.
Taken individually, these stories can be ignored by the powers-that-be as one-off affairs that don’t reflect poorly on the system they are ostensibly running or their leadership over it. They are, goes the mantra, temporary problems or overblown issues that, though initially worrisome or disturbing, will be seen to be trifles in the long-run when the wealth and productivity unleashed by unrestrained global capitalism is allowed to work its magic. Just wait, they tell us, despite today’s hardships the best is yet to come.
As a theory, trickle-down, in either its national or global guises, has the great benefit of essentially being a religion for those who benefitting from it. Not only is it, like most things taken on faith, not true, but it offers up an ideological worldview that is extremely supportive of the status quo. Like eternal rewards that the good and the faithful are to receive in the hereafter for a well-lived life, the wealth that is to be created in the future by capitalism unleashed in the present is held out, like a dangling carrot before a draft animal, as enticement for hard work and obedience. If the less fortunate fail to succeed then the poor, like sinners everywhere, have only themselves to blame.
If one takes the stories above and the many others like them as a whole, however, the story becomes very different. Indeed, the carrot beguiling the draft animal into its slavery is revealed as a cruel joke even as the stick and the farmer wielding it becomes ever clearer. What people see then is not the wealth capitalism has created – though it is indeed substantial – but the economic inequality, threats to national independence, and discomforting cultural changes that necessarily come along with it. More importantly, it is these changes, more than anything else, that are now seriously challenging the received wisdom that globalized capitalism is an unabashedly good thing.
This is because there is increasing evidence that out of a policy mix consisting of unfettered global capitalism, an international political system comprised of sovereign national states, and democracy at the national and local level – you can only have two out of three. To see why, consider once again the three stories above, only now with the understanding that global markets are ultimately the forces behind them. In the case of the ‘illegal alien’ hunt, for example, it is demand for labor in the United States and the need for work amongst Mexicans, not racism per se, that has long been the root of the problem.
Put simply, the demand for cheap labor by American employers is such that there is a compelling economic rationale as to why undocumented immigrants should be sought out as workers. Not only are their wages inexpensive when compared to American workers, but their very status as illegals means they are not subject to federal and state labor rules and regulations – thus giving employers immense leverage over not just undocumented immigrant labor, but native labor, too. This new reality has helped swing the balance of power between capital and labor, at one time firmly in labor’s camp, back firmly in capital’s direction.
Labor supply is thus meeting labor demand in a way that goes against decades of established norms, but what makes this outrageous for many – enough to solicit a racist response in amongst UT conservatives – is not the fact that employers are gaining more power vis-à-vis workers, but that they are doing so by subverting national sovereignty. Indeed, if this change in the balance of power between capital and labor didn’t involve a national border being crossed then the outcome would be rather unremarkable. National borders, however, matter a great deal and the free-flow of people across them dramatically undermines the notion that sovereignty, domestic citizenship, and local norms on everything from labor standards to food and drink mean much of anything to those in charge.
Naturally this will cause a reaction in many, if not all, of those who have a vested emotional interest in preserving a cohesive sense of national identity or otherwise generally feel threatened by foreigners. More to the point, this feeling manifests itself not just in the United States and not just against people with a different skin color or religion, but everywhere where people have an established collective identity – just witness the infamous encounter between an average British voter and the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown during the 2010 British parliamentary elections where said voter – a Labor stalwart, voiced her concerns about Polish immigration into the United Kingdom. This uneasiness with outsiders – even if they are of the same skin color and the same basic religion as you – is a very human reaction that, while regrettable, is nonetheless universal. Humans are tribal, and tribes don’t like seeing their space invaded and their ways of doing things meddled with by outsider newcomers who may be needed economically, but aren’t necessarily welcome to stay.
In turn, this makes trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its brethren agreements governed by NAFTA and the World Trade Organization implicitly suspect in the minds of many people. While free trade does lead to a much more efficient global economy, the wealth so created is produced, as in the case with immigration, by ignoring national borders, institutions, and cultural norms. Since trade openness often makes many at home economically vulnerable there is a sense in many communities that they have in fact been sold out by those within their own country – very often the elite and the rich – in favor of foreigners for purely financial reasons.
While the economic losses of the losers in trade deals are bad enough, this lingering feeling that they have been betrayed by their own kind creates an embittered cynicism that, like acid, eats away at the shared sense of community that these different parts of the collective nation share. If left to fester, they can create pools of disaffected and alienated voters that parties like the National Front in France or the Tea Party here in the United States can exploit for political advantage. When this happens, polarization and paralysis of the type we seen in Washington today is but one of the depressing results that can occur.
So, unfettered, global capitalism tramples on the notion of national sovereignty as a matter of course, and sees even democratically imposed rules and norms that create barriers to cross-border trade and investment as a mere inconveniences to be ignored and sidestepped whenever necessary. As a consequence unrestrained capitalism has become increasingly unpopular as those constituencies hurt by it use their remaining political influence to stop what they see as a colossal, globalist danger to their way of life and national independence. Moreover, this is felt on both the political left and the political right, though for very different reasons as the right fears loss of cultural sovereignty while the left fears loss of economic equality.
In places like Russia and China, both of which have become deeply ensconced in the global trading regime that modern capitalism has created, such opposition can be easily brushed aside with a policeman’s truncheon. Not so in the United States and other democratic countries where voters and their opinions still matter. Instead, those in democratic countries that favor globalized corporate capitalism have long pointed to the gains that come with trade and the wealth it creates even if said wealth is not always distributed evenly as justification for their preferred policies. So much is gained, they argue, that the losses, though deeply felt at the individual or even the community level, are nonetheless trivial.
As the Wal-Mart story above dramatically points out, however, such justifications are increasingly hard swallow at a time when globalized finance, unrestricted speculation on Wall Street, and historic levels of economic inequality have all conspired to create one of the most severe and prolonged slumps in post-war Western history. After all, if one of the richest, most profitable companies on Earth will not or cannot pay its workers enough to eat, something must be terribly, fundamentally wrong with the system as it actually operates in practice.
Since voters are now waking up to this fact and beginning to vote accordingly, it comes as little surprise that here in the United States the political party most heavily invested in the system of globalized capitalism as it currently exists is now hard at work reconfiguring our political system to be as undemocratic and unrepresentative as possible. In Europe, meanwhile, economic decision-making has increasingly been shifted – with the support of Europe’s transnational capitalist elites – into the hands of the hugely unpopular and largely undemocratic European Union – which has accordingly pushed fiscal austerity, a hard monetary policy, and neo-liberal reforms as far and as fast as Europe’s sleeping populations will let them.
Thus the choice that is presented for us by global capitalism as it currently stands – for it to survive one must sacrifice either the idea of national sovereignty or the concept of a fully representative, democratic society. Two of these three can exist at the same time indefinitely, but when all three are present the system is, as we see so clearly today, terribly unstable. Given this, the natural inclination of most voters in the West is to sacrifice global capitalism so as to preserve the tried and tested national institutions that have protected them for so long and to which they have rightly become emotionally attached. Whether Western leaders, in thrall to monied interests as never before, will allow their voters to make this choice remains very much to be seen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.