A version of this article appeared in Race & Class, Vol. 40 #2/3 1998/9

Rethinking Globalization[1]


What is globalization? Irresistable force? Ideological albatross? Strategy for capital?[2] I would like to approach the notion of globalization from a different direction. "Globalization" is simply a convenient description for a collection of processes under way today. Furthermore, globalization cannot be understood separate from its underlying technological foundation. What we think of as "globalization" -- a high degree of integration of world production, markets, finances, culture, politics, at the expense of the local or national -- only exists because of what new technologies like electronics, bioengineering, "smart materials", and so forth make possible. That is, in the absence of new technologies, what we think of as "globalization" could not be possible. Or, to put it another way, globalization describes capitalism in the age of electronics.

The discussion of the existence, or nature of, globalization, then is really a discussion of new technologies, and their relationship to capitalism, and what they make possible. This tack says that there is something new, epochal, different today from the capitalism of, say, 50 years, 80 years or 150 years ago. This is not to say that capitalism no longer operates according to the same laws. The notion that the laws of capitalism have been suspended, implicit in the talk of "the new economy", is crazy talk. But one can still recognize profound differences today that, rather than launching capitalism into 25 years of boom (Schwartz and Leyden 1997, Davis and Wessel 1998) (or even an upswing of a Mandelian long-wave (Mandel 1981)), inflame the deepest contradictions of the world economy.

To suggest that there is something new likewise implies that capitalism develops, and in the process of development, goes through stages. This is what Marx implied when he mapped out the development of capitalist production from the system of cooperation through manufacture to industrial production. (Marx, 1967a) Or when Lenin was able to describe imperialism as a stage of capitalism (originally published as "The Latest Stage of Capitalism", and at some point optimistically changed to "The Final Stage"). (Lenin 1971) This did not mean that at any of those stages the fundamental laws of value or the maximization of profit ceased to operate. Rather, due to different technological climates, different forms of production and distribution became possible, and the center of the class struggle shifted.

This is a conception of history not as "one damn thing after another," but an ultimately comprehensible process deriving from the dynamic interplay of mobile productive forces that at "a certain stage of their development come into conflict with the productive relations within which they have been at work hitherto." There is a determinancy here, not a dumb Rube Goldberg "technological determinism", but something much richer, much more human. The determinancy is such that technology sets certain boundaries of what is (economically at least) possible in society.

* * *

This stretching of the boundaries of the economically possible by new technologies happens at all points of the circuit of capital -- in production, and in the circulation of commodities and money.[3] As companies, driven to expand profits, take advantage of the new boundaries, the components of "globalization" take shape.

The cheapening of production via robotics and other forms of automation demands bigger, and hence more far-flung markets. New technologies have cheapened transportation, both in the means of transportation itself, e.g., the electronics or the sophisticated metals and plastics used in the aircraft, but perhaps more importantly in the computerized coordinating technologies used throughout the transportation network. Cheaper communication costs, made possible by a combination of computers, fiber optic cables, and satellite and microwave technologies have also made economically feasible the coordination of world production and distribution on today's scale.

The challenge of producing and marketing in many countries, with many currencies, has fed the creation of modern international money markets and currency trading. These markets, at their current scale and volatility, would not be feasible without computer technology. In fact, the growth in these markets has paralleled the development of computerized communication technology -- according to the Bank of International Settlements, the amount of currency changing hands doubled between 1986 and 1989, and it grew another 42 percent between 1989 and 1992. (cited in Henwood 1997a p. 45) Financial instruments such as derivatives to hedge against fluctuating currencies and interest rates themselves are such complex mixes of other instruments that they are only practically manageable by computers. (Millman, 1995) Nor could the volume of transactions on today's stock markets be handled without computers.[4]

This technology-enabled "globalization" reaches probably it's highest expression amongst those products most amenable to digital or electronic transmission -- software in all of it's forms: television programs, music, radio, computer software, money. As a result, a kind of world (albeit U.S.-centric) culture emerges.

A world market demands world standards in everything from the size and shape of shipping containers to information transmission protocols to DVD formats. From capital's point of view, it especially demands a harmonization of understanding about property rights (especially in the realm of "information products"). Hence the creation of international treaties like GATT and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and bodies like the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization to resolve disputes.

* * *

The early 1970s were watershed years in the shaping of the current period. To pick two events: Within months of each other, the Bretton Woods agreement was dissolved, and the first commercial microprocessor was introduced by a young start-up company, Intel.

The economic pressures brought about by, among other things, the rebuilt economies of Japan and Europe coming online forced the dissolution of the Bretton Woods agreement, which freed exchange rates from their moorings -- a policy necessity on the part of the United States. On a separate track, the microprocessor was developed and deployed as part of the search for new tools to cheapen production and coordination costs to compete and profit in this environment. That is, these two disparate elements of the "globalized" economy -- market-driven exchange rates and the heart-brain of automated systems -- were both products of the same process of post-World War II capitalism coping with changing conditions.

The development of the microprocessor was the culmination of a long line of advances in everything from philosophy to electronics. The selection of the microprocessor as a pivot point is not entirely arbitrary, because its cheapness, lightness and versatility has made possible practical robotics, and has made possible breakthroughs in other fields by cheapening and extending the tools of scientific production. It, like other critical breakthroughs in biology, materials science, computing, and electronics, is a product of a widening understanding of the workings of the universe.

The microprocessor has had a particularly radical impact at the heart of the production process. The widening understanding of nature has given us the ability to record workers' skills and encode it into tools, and to play back the skills in the absence, for all practical purposes, of workers. (Davis and Stack 1992) The microprocessor is the device that activates the production process, and brings to life, as it were, dead labor -- the knowledge and skills of past workers that has been encoded into the instruments of production. Through combinations of servo motors and switches this machinery is fleshed out. (Davis and Stack 1997) In this sense, it is a prime mover of a new type, as was the steam engine -- that central component of the production apparatus that sets the production process into motion.

This is not just a matter of replacing the worker-as-manipulator-of-materials with robotic equivalents. The English mathematician Alan Turing showed in the 1930s the possibility of constructing a machine capable of carrying out any computational task that a human being could do (with a few notable exceptions). As George Caffentzis points out, the Turing machine proved that any skill, whether physical or mental, can be replicated mechanically -- "computing, like tailoring and weaving, is just another aspect of human labor-power that can be exploited to create surplus value and, if its value is higher than a rival machine, it can be replaced." (Caffentzis, 1997)

These are technologies to squeeze the human being out of the labor process, not just in material production, but in mental production, and not just in the "advanced" economies, but globally.

Even though it was some 50 years ago now that Norbert Wiener coined the term "cybernetics" to describe machinery controlled by machines, we should not think that we are at the end of this process, but very much at the beginning. The rapid increase in speed and capability of computer chips -- doubling roughly every 18 months -- shows no sign of reaching the physical limitations of silicon for another eight years at least. Beyond current silicon technology, more exotic techniques -- protein/semi-conductor hybrid chips, DNA computing, quantum computing -- are being researched. Gordon Moore, chipmaker Intel co-founder claimed recently, "Even with the level of technology that we can extrapolate fairly easily - a few more generations - we can imagine putting a billion transistors on a chip. A billion transistors is mind boggling. Exploiting that level of technology, even if we get hung up at a mere billion transistors, could keep us busy for a century." (Leyden 1997)

With these rapid advances, the replacement of areas of human activity too complex to be cheaply done by current technology becomes economically feasible (i.e., cheaper than the human equivalent). So what was not possible five years ago becomes possible today, and what is only dreamed of today will be possible five years from now.

* * *

The process of transforming production from value-generating industrial-based production to labor-less, hence, value-less, electronics-based production is, like all processes, uneven. It is a process that operates at a deep level within the economy, not immediately visible, revealing its consequences in indirect ways. It's a process that began in advanced sections of the economy, and is being introduced in stages throughout the economy.

Obviously this process is by no means complete: It is often cheaper to deploy labor, in many cases, monstrously-exploited labor, in place of more expensive technology. Profits may surge at times, or in specific industries. Employment may jump. New arenas of human activity may be commodified, becoming new centers of value production (but here the tendency asserts itself, as these new arenas become candidates for technologization). Nevertheless, the general tendency pushes inexorably in one direction.

Many objections have been raised in relation to this formulation of a general tendency towards the broad diffusion of labor-replacing new technologies that cripples the valorization process and sets the stage for crisis. Doug Henwood, for example, argues that there is no empirical basis for either the notion of "the end of work" given employment data, or that new technologies present anything qualitatively new, in that they have had little, if any, effect on productivity figures (Henwood 1997b).

But... How is one to measure the impact of new technologies on production? That microprocessors are doubling in capacity approximately every 18 months, or that their price has fallen at an average rate of 35% a year in the 1985 - 1996 period (Grimm 1998) are objective, measurable things. And there are many anecdotes about how technology has transformed various industries from docking to mining to agriculture to oil drilling.[5] Given the same, or fewer inputs, more outputs can be realized. On the other end, though, in official productivity figures, measured as the total output divided by hours of labor, these advances have not had a distinguishing impact.[6]

Productivity figures, however, measure the results of technology after it has been run through the social blender. They therefore will reflect the degree to which society can optimally use the new technologies. In a true technology revolution one could argue that the old order is unable to make the best advantage of what new technologies have to offer -- "from forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters." For example, conscious or unconscious worker resistance and efforts towards autonomy shows up in the "futz factor" (Sichel 1997), where workers spend hours personalizing their computer workstations, or roaming the Internet or sending personal email to co-workers. Superfluous work is conjured up (Madrick 1998). Computer and software companies are compelled to survive via "perpetual innovation" (Morris-Suzuki 1997), rapidly and continually upgrading products. The constant upgrading means technology investment must be depreciated prematurely, and substantial amounts invested in technology upgrades and worker retraining. Or companies fire workers from increasingly efficient production, while hiring other workers in sales and marketing because more effort is required to circulate commodities in the hyper-competitive environment. These drags on productivity don't contradict the power or impact of new technologies, but only highlight capitalism's inefficiencies in deploying them.

In a similar way, the introduction of new technologies, at least in the United States and much of the rapidly developing economies, has not had a dramatic effect on unemployment statistics.[7] In the U.S., official unemployment is at historic lows; while there has been an absolute increase in manufacturing employment worldwide. But again, this does not contradict the labor-replacing quality of the technology, but rather the unevenness and complexity of the process of introducing new technologies into the social mix. (Hirschl 1997)

To maintain profits, under all conditions, but especially so under the condition of heightened competition in the midst of new technologies, capitalists seek out the cheapest production costs, regardless of whether production is done by robots or muscle, or whether it is carried out in Detroit or Jakarta. So as electronics extends throughout the global economy, workers around the world are compelled to compete not only with each other but with their electronic counterparts -- robots and automated machinery of increasingly diverse types.

For a number of reasons, employment under these circumstances can increase while new technologies is at the same time destroying the value of labor power.[8] The capitalist does not care if production is done by the "gratuitous labor of machines" or by the "free" labor of slaves. With electronics driving down the value of labor power, and therefore wages, more members of the household are compelled to enter the job market, or to work past the traditional retirement age, or to take on multiple jobs in attempts to maintain a slipping standard of living. Workers pushed out of the top of the labor market scrabble to hold on by re-entering waged work at lower wages. Others are driven into the job market, at the bottom, by the end of welfare programs, temporarily providing a cheaper alternative to technology. And others are driven by circumstance into the sex trade or the illegal drug industry or other illicit activity, and from there into forced-labor in prisons.

Computerization drives the value of labor power down to the wage of the robot, and the tightly integrated world economy generalizes this process. In the new regime, made possible by new technologies, "flexible manufacturing" needs a "flexible" workforce, "just-in-time" inventory requires just-in-time labor, decentralized and dispersed production means outsourcing. The old social contract of long-term employment, and rewards for long service is over.[9]

That is, the consequences of the technology revolution shows up in the general destruction of the social relations of capitalism. Much of the "end of work" arguments have focused on just one aspect of these social relations -- "work" or "the job" (Rifkin 1996, Aronowitz and DiFazio 1995). The end of the "job" -- formal waged work -- is only one possible future, as George Caffenztis pointed out in a recent paper; while a renaissance of new or old forms of slavery are equally as likely under the new technological regime (Caffentzis 1998). However, to focus in on just this aspect of the process, and to counter that in fact, jobs are being created, or that surplus value is still being expropriated, ergo the process doesn't exist, misses the bigger picture.

The result of introducing "labor-replacing" technology is a deeper process of destruction, of "the job" and its implication of a social contract, and from the job, a wider network of social relations: worker-to-worker and worker-to-employer (via the attack on trade unions); worker-to-family (as more household members are driven into non-domestic work); worker-to-nature (via the destruction of the environment); worker-to-community (via the criminalization and imprisonment of broad sections of society); worker-to-homeland (via the dislocation of millions of workers, turned into migrant labor, as industrialized, computerized, bio-engineered and world-marketed agriculture has destroyed the base of traditional peasant and small-farm life); worker-to-commons (via the privatization of public space, now demarcated by tollbooths and turnstiles), and worker-to-self (via the evaporation of privacy as each moment is surveilled, recorded, commodified).

In the midst of these crumbling relationships, the critical indicator of the impact of new technologies on production is not "employment" statistics, but the polarization of wealth and poverty. With the destruction of the value of labor power and wages, wealth polarizes and the center disappears. This polarization is not just between the rich north and the impoverished south, but also within the advanced economies. In the U.S. at least, the polarization is greater than at any time since the 1920s (Henwood 1997a).

The most profound relationship in capitalism is between capitalist and worker. On this foundation -- the private ownership of the means of production, the commodification of labor power, the mutual dependency of capitalist and worker (the capitalist for the worker's ability to work; the worker for means of sustenance controlled by the capitalist) -- the whole edifice of capitalism and world society today ("universalized capitalism" (Wood 1997)) has been raised.

Yet this relationship is in the process of being destroyed. It's not that there once were waged workers, and now there aren't (which of course is not true). Rather, the social fabric which enables the reproduction of capital -- through the reproduction of labor power, through the circulation of commodities, through the maintenance of a social and natural order conducive to production -- is being shredded. The situation is rather similar to the period of the enclosures, or primitive accumulation -- a process of divorcing the producer from the means of production -- fencing them out. Today, the enclosure is also a process of locking out. Not everywhere, not all at once. But the worker is transformed into a contingent element, outside the fence, hoping to be summoned for some work too expensive or still too complex for an electronic or bioengineered equivalent.

A. Sivanandan's words seem to get truer and truer:

[T]he more Labour tries to hold Capital in thrall by withholding its labour, the more Capital moves towards its emancipation through yet more information technology, yet more labour-less productive regimes, yet more recourse to the captive labour force in the periphery. The relations of production, that is, have changed with the changes in the level of the productive forces ... Capital no longer needs living labour as before, not in the same numbers, in the same place, at the same time; Labour can no longer organise on that basis, it has lost its economic clout and, with it, whatever political clout it had, whatever determinancy it could exercise in the political realm (Sivanandan, 1990, p. 8)

Perhaps this was always the capitalist dream, but not technically possible until now.

* * *

We can appropriate "globalization" to describe this phenomena in the same way Lenin could appropriate "imperialism" to describe capitalism at the beginning of this century. The term "globalization" does not need to imply that we used to have "nice" capitalism and now we have "mean" capitalism; or that we didn't have international trade before, and now we do. It does imply, though, that the network of relationships that defined "imperialism" are being replaced by new ones. National monopolies are replaced by supranational ones. The export of finance capital, typically to build productive assets in the colonies, is being replaced by a kind of speculative, money-trading capital (Henwood 1997a, p. 109). The old colonial system has by-and-large been dismantled, and replaced by new (but not necessarily any more equal or more humane) relationships. Capitalism is compelled to destroy whatever social base it may have maintained in the old imperialist center through the restructuring of the domestic economy. That is, the bribery of the worker in the center to purchase political allegiance for the super-exploitation of the worker in the periphery is withdrawn, putting the worker and non-worker in the center on the same precarious footing as his or her counterpart around the world.

At the same time, though, the struggle to shape these new relationships around means of production and property are also the crucible in which a new class is forged. This new class is composed of what was once considered a "worker" -- a propertyless human compelled to sell the ability to labor -- but the broader relationship has changed, because the labor market has transformed, the ability to survive as worker compromised, with no retreat to a pastoral haven possible. The "worker" is no longer a "worker" but something transmuted -- perhaps into a "proletarian" in the Roman sense of the of the term, and not the Marxist sense (Peery 1997). This new class is composed of the cast-off, of the contigent worker in the old center, or the former peasant or tribal communities, leapfrogged to new proletarian. (Alkalimat 1997). The new class is a smear of social strata, from the homeless and the prisoner, through the temp, the workfare slave, and the micro-entrepreneur to the "consultant" and the "self-employed."

The old relationship of buying and selling, ordered by accepted notions of property are replaced under desperate circumstances by redistribution "by any means necessary", as demonstrated in the food "riots" in Indonesia, or the looting of supermarkets by landless peasants in Brazil.

In response to the claim that such a new class is not visible, one is reminded of E. P. Thompson's lyrical response to similar charges with regards to a previous period:

Sociologists who have stopped the time machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class. They can only find a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest. Of course, they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion - not this or that interest, but the friction of interests - the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise... (Thompson, 1968, p. 939)

Or to those who might claim that the new proletarians, because of their tenuous relationship to the production process, have no historic role to play, might bear in mind Marx and Engels critiques of the "utopian socialists". The "utopian socialists" pre-dated the development of industrial capitalism, and with it, the formation of the industrial working class. As a result, the utopian socialists could not, and thus did not see, any important role for the then nascent working class in the socialist struggle of that day. "But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement." (Marx and Engels 1968) Likewise, today's "utopian socialists," fail to see a new class forming alongside of the new productive forces, and consequently fail to see that that class has any "historical initiative."

In much of the left anti-globalization writing, globalization is seen as an ideology that is sapping the working class of its power ("paralyzed by the bogeyman of globalization", quashing the "socialist project," and playing into the hands of a resurgent capitalist class (Henwood 1997c, Wood, 1997)). It is true that unless some counter-understanding of globalization is phrased, the ideology of libertarian capitalism unbound implicit in "bourgeois globlization" may in fact have its deadening effects. In the process of destruction, what is erected to take the place of the old system is not fore-ordained. The world-system that is being constructed, of a relatively small number of elites, perhaps one or two percent of the world's population, controlling their property via an emerging electronic police state and supported (technically, and politically) by a privileged twenty percent of the population engaged in some kind of symbolic processing activity, with the other three-quarters or so of the world's population comdemned to a marginalized existence (at best), is not a pretty sight.

This suggests then the importance of consciousness, of ideas that can shape people's understanding of this period as one not necessarily of barbarism and enslavement, but of opportunity and promise. An accurate assessment of "globalization" means understanding where things are coming from and where they are going, so that the "working class", or the elements being thrown off of it are not victorious in just a "socialist project" but in what might be called a "communist project". That is, for perhaps the first time in history, the technical means exist, or are coming into existence, to realize the vision of a society free of want, with the abundance made possible by new technologies distributed on no other basis than need.

This is not a paralyzing idea, but rather a liberating idea, an empowering idea. Struggles as seemingly disparate as the dockers and wharfies and United Parcel Service workers, joined by their counterparts at other ends of the transportation network, or the various worldwide and coordinated struggles against the MAI or ownership of genes; or the rebellions that toppled Suharto, or in Chiapas, or Los Angeles, 1992 are expressions of this new class flexing its muscles. Globalization creates new forms of oppression, but also calls forth new forces of resistance, and initiative.



[1] Thanks to Michael Stack, Brooke Heagerty, and Rally, Comrades! editorial board for help with this article.

[2] Respectively, cited in Tabb 1997; Wood, 1997; Wood 1997 again.

[3] One could also add the circuits of the reproduction of labor, and the (non) reproduction of Nature. See Witheford, 1997 for more on this and how worker autonomy is expressed in each of these four circuits.

[4] See "How Computers Calmly Handled Stock Frenzy" in the Wall Street Journal, October 30, 1997. "As stock markets around the world went on a roller coaster ride of buying and selling Tuesday, legions of bulky black computers at the New York Stock Exchange handled 1.2 billion shares -- 76% more than ever before -- without missing a beat." Or Henwood: "Because of the stability of the [pre-1914] gold-sterling system, there was no need for today's hedging instruments like options, swaps, and futures -- and it's hard to imagine a deep market in such alchemy in a computerless age." (Henwood 1997a p. 109)

[5] Respectively, "Delta Terminal: North Europe Nerve Center", SeaLand Advertising Supplement to the Journal of Commerce, November 29, 1993; William Booth, "Weed whacking", Wired. October 1996; Michael M. Phillips, "Business of Mining Gets a Lot Less Basic", Wall Street Journal, March 18, 1997; "Keep On Pumping: Crude-Oil Price Falls, But Firms Still Profit And Sink New Wells", Wall Street Journal, March 17, 1998.

[6] Of course, one does not know what the economy, or productivity figures, would look like in the absence of new technologies. Or what exactly a technology revolution should look like in the numbers. Still, a number of hypotheses have been advanced for low productivity growth in the face of new technologies, ranging from weaknesses in the way these things are measured (Brynjolfsson and Yang 1996) to an observation by Daniel Sichel that, despite the large amounts invested in new technologies, it is still small given the overall size of the economy (Sichel, 1997). But Sichel looks at just computers in the office, while the broad range of new technologies infects all aspects of constant capital. A Marxist analysis of productivity figures (Shaikh and Tonak 1994) shows that productivity has continued to increase over the 40-year period from 1948 - 1988 (although at a decaying rate), but at a higher rate than official productivity figures (by removing "unproductive labor" -- labor expended in the consumption of goods as opposed to the production of goods -- from calculations, overall productivity rises). Henwood makes a similar suggestion with regards to higher capital investment in "unproductive" sectors dragging down overall productivity figures (Henwood 1997c). Still, in some sections of economy, particularly sections of manufacturing and mining, annual productivity growth in the last 10 years has been over 5 percent, well above historic rates. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1997) Paul David, noting the experience with electricity at the beginning of this century, theorizes that it takes the economy years, even decades, to reorganize production to take advantage of new technologies. (cited in Sichel 1997)

[7] Much of the argument regarding unemployment figures has a U.S.-centric cast to them. The U.S. has opted for a low-wage strategy to deal with structural changes in the labor market, while much of Europe continues to suffer from double-digit unemployment.

[8] Marx pointed out this contradictory phenomenon in an earlier technological revolution in his remarkable chapter on machinery and "modern industry" in Volume I of Capital (Marx, 1967a).

[9] A management seminar on dealing with downsizing teaches companies to "blur the distinction between full-time, part-time , and temporary employees. To develop a truly flexible workforce, organizations must remove artificial pay, benefits and status distinctions among employee classifications. Full-time permanent employees have become an endangered species. Under the new employment contract, an employee's leaving is cause for celebration, not lament." (from an article by David M. Noer, based on his book Healing the Wounds. Excerpted in Harper's Magazine. May, 1996.)



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revised 8/8/98