Visions of a Post-Corporate Society

Visions of a Post-Corporate Society

at Parkland Institute, November 2000

I just came from the streets and it’s hard to make the transition. So help me out here with a little chant. “Disease & Starvation. Will not be cured by corporations. That’s Bullshit. Get Off it. The enemy is Profit.”

Good morning. I’m very happy to be here, finally. I’m sorry to have missed the first part of the conference and the opportunities for dialogue.

Well here I am again, me & the socialist talking about how we ought to rebuild the world. Last time I did this I had Ramona Africa in my corner, which was a great help, but I’ll have to go it alone this time. I do want to begin by repeating Kevin Danaher’s point that our most important priority right now is building the movement. It is not up to us in this room to make vanguard proclamations about where to go and how. What we can do, and what the International Forum on Globalization has been particularly helpful in doing, is to provide scholarship that encourages, inspires, and instigates all kinds of struggles and helps people get through the many difficulties they will face as they struggle. So I want to put my comments, my drawing of some distinctions, into that context. And I also want to remind us all that from the day I got this invitation to speak, I was ridiculed by my activist community for believing that it was worthwhile to put energy into this sort of thing and there were also some questions raised about why I had more legitimacy than other people in the movement to come here and speak.

Now my assignment, as I understand it, is to talk about post-corporate visions within capitalism, and to give you a kind of political economic tour of those. My intellectual and political life has been organized around making connections between analyses and politics of third world communities, fourth world communities, and marginalized communities in the first world. Long before I heard the world ‘globalization’, I noticed that much of what I was trying to understand in low income urban communities was far better explained by third world critical development scholars’ discussions of margins, peripheries, modernization, dependency, and colonialism. I wondered if some of the solutions used in the third world could be used by oppressed communities in the first world.

More recently, in studying international anti-corporate movements, I have found that the third world analyses are increasingly relevant and resonant in the first world. When we analyze Wal-Mart, we see the international processes of colonialism and the creation of dependency which paved the way for capitalism. And I refer you here to an excellent book put together by the Ecologist Magazine, entitled Whose Common Future? which extends into the present the whole concept of enclosure as the most basic process of appropriation which, as Marx argued, enabled the emergence of capitalism but which pre-dated it in the form of colonialism.

What we here call “capitalist globalization” is called in the third world “recolonization”, and that analysis has actually a great deal of usefulness in understanding the many complex processes of globalization, which include not only economic force, but also political, cultural, ideological, social, and as we have been faced with lately, military. And what is the solution to colonialism? Well, sovereignty, of course. But I fear that sovereignty is often confused with facile forms of “re-embedding”. Karl Polanyi encouraged us to get the economy back where it belonged, under the jurisdiction of political, social, or cultural structures. There is of course a contradiction between believing, as a Marxist, that the economy is the base and the idea that it could be re-embedded. But that is a relatively arcane matter. On the ground, the problem is that calls for democracy often do not include recognition of the rights of peoples to sovereignty.

Such calls are most problematic when made under the banner of “globalization from below”, which is basically international socialism, with a broadened idea of who counts as the revolutionary class. I think you don’t actually have to have a job to participate. And I hope they didn’t pick out this cover to their book, but it’s a great example of all the old and new problems of this basic vision the cover of Brecher & Costello’s new book on “globalization from below”… Into whose cosmology shall we re-embed the economy? Now we may all agree that this artist just didn’t get it, and that globalization from below has lots of respect for different lifeways, but the problem is that the theory really doesn’t account for it. First world progressives, most of whom are some degree of socialist, rely heavily on a centralized, universalistic, bureaucratic, representative democracy type of system, with the power to police and enforce. This is the vision of how to enforce civil and human rights, to administer redistribution, and to achieve social justice! Now because Progressives are anti-nationalist (believing it to be always already nascent fascism), they want to build a new and different centralized governance structure, that wouldn’t have the characteristics of a nation, but would still do these kind of functions that we have come to expect of states.

The vision being put forth by voices from what is being called now “the global south”, meaning the third world, is quite different. What do they want? They are not demanding democracy, they are not asking for participation, for a seat at the table, for a better system. They are asserting their right to say “no” in the anti-colonial tradition. They already have decision-making systems. They are not asking for new structures, but asserting their right to refuse the advances of outsiders, most particularly corporations. For indigenous people, sovereignty and self-determination is the most important thing and is essential to cultural survival. Every indigenous declaration you read, including the recent Seattle Declaration, says this. Increasingly peasant organizations are saying the same thing. The adivasis in India refused to let a WB representative speak to them. They said “dialogues had only the object of betraying, misleading, and deceiving adivasis while pushing through commercial & industrial interests.” The Jubilee South coalition recently developed the phrase “don’t owe, won’t pay” as their approach to humanitarian attempts to reorganize third world debt.

These movements are refusing totally and demanding the destruction of the WTO, IMF, and WB. So they seem quite radical. But they are not socialist. Their preferred alternative to globalization is a return to small scale production and local trade. Via Campesina, the international farmers movement, is saying “Everything good produced in our land is for somebody else. The cheap imports we eat have no nutritional value. We reject the export model.” The Korean Confederation of Trade unions is saying that policy should protect & promote small and medium enterprises. They also have a strong alliance with farmers, who they credit with being the main force in opposing indiscriminate liberalisation. The 50 years is enough debt relief network is proposing “small-scale community solutions that promote economic self-reliance”. The land reform movements are saying that dependence on markets or subsidies for food endangers community sovereignty.

First world people of all political varieties need to be aware that what the third world people participating in (and often being acknowledged as the moral, if not political, leaders of) this movement want is to protect small-scale enterprise, to protect the millions of tiny farmers and micro-scale producers who make up the economy. The Third UN of the Peoples in Parugia in 1999 emphasized support of informal sector economies, self-employment, and food self-sufficiency. The Indigenous Peoples’ Seattle Declaration says that indigenous people have viable alternatives to the dominant economic growth, export-oriented development models. Their alternatives are based on traditional knowledge, cosmologies, collectivity, and traditional forms of sustainability. Peoples Global Action and many other international coalitions from the South say the same thing. Basically their political economic vision is pre-capitalist rather than anti-capitalist.

The closest thing in western economic terms is a quite strict Smithian system in which no enterprise should become too large and ownership must be rooted in place. Rousseau and Jefferson endorsed this particular vision of an economy, which they believed provided the basis for a democratic polity. But all of these folks came from a universalistic perspective, which flattens issues of culture. The next closest thing in Western political economic theory is anarchism, which unlike the universalistic visions of small-scale economies, acknowledges and encourages diversity both among and within communities.

Alongside the critical voices from the global south, anarchism envisions local communities as the appropriate basic unit of economy and politics. On a small scale, direct participatory democracy is possible, and people can organize themselves to meet their needs in ways most appropriate to their environment and amenable to their preferences. These two views also converge on the question of knowledge, with global south voices documenting quite impressively that local knowledge is the most efficient, sustainable, and secure. Where the two part ways is on the word ‘capitalism’ and the issue of private property. Third and fourth world pre-capitalist forms of property remain in constant struggle to assert themselves against capitalist conceptions of it. Yet anarchists fail to acknowledge the appropriateness of multiple modes of property use and production in traditional communities.

Now here is how I’m going to get away with talking about anarchism when I’m supposed to be talking about non-anti-capitalist visions. First, I have chastised the anarchists for their obsessions with getting rid of private property and collectivizing all enterprise because they misunderstand the social implications of third world economic forms. How, then, do we think radically about small businesses? In the third world, pre-capitalist enterprises are livelihoods. Are these small businesses on the verge of being large ones? Hardly. There are millions of them. They belong to people who hardly have the capital to expand. They are embedded within communities which regulate them through social and ethical principles. Moreover, small enterprise is the basis of artisanal creativity and production. When I think of my favorite bread, I don’t want to mess with private enterprise. Would you force collectivization on your favorite restaurant? We also see now small businesses in the first world articulating their ethics. [Newspaper.] In here several small businesses claim that they treat their employees far better than chain retail stores and one even says that employees’ personal lives should take precedence over their work responsibilities. I see a new ethic of small business being developed, particularly in resisting chain stores, in which they are theorizing their relationship to community. It’s very promising.