- Rohini Hensman
Text of a talk by Rohini Hensman introducing her recent Book Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India (Columbia University Press, New York, and Tulika Books, New Delhi) at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, on 23 January 2012
I started working on what became this book more than ten years ago, because I felt there was so much confusion in the way that large sections of the trade union movement and the Left responded to globalisation. They took a straightforward anti-globalisation position which, by default, reinforced a nationalist reaction against globalisation. This went against all my Marxist internationalist instincts. Also, having been involved in trade union research for decades, it was obvious to me that many of the evils attributed to globalisation, such as subcontracting and the shifting of production, had been rampant for years or decades prior to it. Most disturbing of all, much of the anti-globalisation rhetoric was indistinguishable from the rhetoric of the extreme Right. (I have given examples of this in my book.)
Therefore one of the first tasks I set myself was to come up with a working definition of globalisation that sorted out some of these confusions.
1. Anti-globalisation activists often called themselves anti-capitalist, and used the terms interchangeably. But if globalisation is capitalism by another name, why not simply call it capitalism? Substituting ‘globalisation’ for ‘capitalism’ implies that the real enemy is international capital: and that is dangerous. Opposition to global capital has been a defining feature of fascism since Hitler wrote, in Mein Kampf, ‘that the hardest battle would have to be fought not against hostile nations but against international capital’. At best, selective opposition to international capital propagates the illusion that capitalism can solve problems of poverty and unemployment so long as it remains national. At worst, it condones barbaric oppression and exploitation by indigenous capitalists, and encourages racism and xenophobia. Globalisation may be a phase of capitalism, but anti-globalisation can never be anti-capitalist, because genuine opposition to capitalism doesn’t distinguish between ‘national’ and ‘international’ capital, or support the former against the latter.
2. A large section of the Left identifies globalisation with imperialism, and opposes it from this point of view. I won’t go into all the debates around imperialism that I have covered in my book, but just refer to one aspect: the relationship between imperialism, especially from the mid-19th century onwards, and the nation-state. Colonialism required the imperialist power to set up an administrative apparatus in the colony and to maintain a substantial military presence to deal with uprisings, but less traditional forms of imperialism have also relied heavily on extensions of state power outside the imperialist country: for example, the ubiquitous CIA, and US military bases around the world. Moreover, imperialist bourgeoisies demanded protectionism from the state, which benefited the working class in those countries too. As a result of nationalist ideology in the imperialist countries, ‘there arose a sudden community of interest between capital and the proletariat, which finds expression in an identical inclination of both classes to imperialism,’ as Max Adler put it. Lenin was even harsher, denouncing sections of the labour movement that supported their own bourgeoisie in World War I (which he saw an as inter-imperialist war) as a ‘labour aristocracy’ who had betrayed their own class.
Thus nationalism and the dependence of capitalists on the military power of their own nation-state are central to imperialism. What is called globalisation, on the contrary, is marked by the emergence of advanced sectors of capital that rely on porous rather than protected national borders, and do not need military backing from a nation-state. It is very different from imperialism.
3. Equally common on the Left is the use of the terms ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ as being more or less synonymous. Neoliberalism is identified as what came to be known as the Washington Consensus: the policies enforced by the IMF and World Bank. The short-term stabilisation measures include cut-backs in government expenditure, high interest rates and currency devaluation, while the longer-term adjustment measures include deregulating the economy, liberalising trade and investment, and privatising state enterprises. The primacy given to ‘free markets’ results in an implicit hostility to trade unions, which are seen as interfering with the freedom of the labour market.