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Globalization And Postmodern Politics: From Zapatistas to High-Tech Robber Barons

Globalization And Postmodern Politics: From Zapatistas to High-Tech Robber Barons

by Roger Burbach


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745316505
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 01/20/2001
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Roger Burbach is Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas. He has written extensively on Latin America, US politics, and on post-communist societies and is the author, with Octavio Nunez and Boris Kagarlitsky, of Globalization and its Discontents: The Rise of Postmodern Socialisms (Pluto Press, 1996).

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The Epochal Shift

Over the past quarter century the global economy has come to exert an almost transcendental importance in our lives and societies. While the term "globalization" is generally used to describe this transformation, heated controversies abound over the significance and extent of globalization. Not even established economists and defenders of the neo-liberal order agree on how to assess the current era, while liberals, social democrats and those on the left are divided over how to interpret and respond to globalization.

Our position is that globalization marks an entirely new epoch in the world's economic history. As such it requires a shift in our Weltanschauung, the very way we view the world, its politics, societies and economies. To understand this epochal shift, we need to situate it in relation to other fundamental transformations in the history of capitalism.

First came the age of discovery and conquest. Capitalism, emerging from its feudal cocoon in Europe, began its outward expansion, symbolized by Columbus's arrival in the Americas. This was the epoch of mercantilism and primitive accumulation, what Marx referred to as the "rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production."

Next came the birth of industrial capitalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the forging of the nation state. This epoch spanned what Eric Hobsbawm calls in his seminal historical works the ages of revolution, capital, and empire. It is keynoted by the French revolution and the eighteenth-century manufacturing revolution in England.

The third epoch starts around the turn of the twentieth century with the rise of corporate ("monopoly") capitalism and the financial-industrial corporation, intensified wars among the imperial powers, and the emergence of a socialist alternative. This epochal change is exemplified by World War I and the Bolshevik revolution, the "Age of Extremes," as Hobsbawm titles his history of the twentieth century.

Today we are in the early phases of the fourth epoch of capitalism. Referred to as globalization, it is highlighted technologically by the microchip and the computer — the information age — and politically by the collapse of twentieth-century attempts at socialism. The latter was most graphically signaled by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter, and also by a lesser discussed event, the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1990 elections, which symbolized the failure of a whole generation of third world national liberation movements to offer an alternative to world capitalism.

Periodization is somewhat arbitrary. But we can say that the first epoch ran from 1492 to 1789, the second from 1789 to 1900, and the third from 1900 to the early 1970s. Perhaps the first event that signaled the beginning of the transition to the globalization epoch is when Richard Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971. Many have noted that this marked the end of the Bretton Woods currency agreements and the waning of U.S. supremacy. A single headquarters for world capitalism had become untenable as the process of transnational market, financial, and productive integration heightened.

Behind the economic turbulence that ensued in the 1970s was the transition from the nation-state phase of world capitalism and its distinct institutional, organizational, political and regulatory structures to a new, still emerging, transnational phase. Other markers include the formation of the Trilateral Commission in the mid-1970s, which foreshadowed the rise to hegemony of a transnational faction of the bourgeoisie, and a lesser-known event, the Cancun Summit in Mexico in 1982. Then the core capitalist states, led by the U.S., launched the era of global neo-liberalism and began imposing structural adjustment programs on the third world as part of this process.

There is a major current of dissenting voices on the left staking out the position that globalization is not a new epoch. These include some world systems theorists who believe in the continued primacy of the nation state. But the most vocal opponents over the past few years have been some Marxists who insist that globalization is an illusion fostered by the ideologues and pundits of the established order. The basic dynamics of capitalism have not changed in any way, these Marxists argue. Capitalism is still capitalism. If we break capitalism down into its most fundamental characteristics — the exploitation of labor by capital, commodity production, and the continued expansion of capitalism — then yes nothing has changed. However, to take this view one could argue that nothing has changed since Columbus, or perhaps since the industrial revolution, if one defines the earlier period as mercantile capitalism. As A. Sivanandan has argued in an exchange with Ellen Meiksins Wood: "Doubtless capitalism is capitalism is capitalism, but the failure to distinguish between its different avatars freezes us in modes and forms of struggle which are effete and ineffectual and blinds us to the revolutionary possibilities opened up by information technology."

To be sure, leftist critiques of the concept of globalization are railing out against some very disturbing developments. The process of capitalist globalization is used increasingly to justify the continued dominance of capital. On the one hand, most of the establishment politicians of the world, from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, demand concessions from working classes in the name of "national competitiveness" in the global economy. Transnational capital in this way attempts to reify global capitalism as a reality external to its own agency and interests.

Some on the left, or the former revolutionary left, who feel overwhelmed by the seeming power of global capital and are unable or unwilling to adjust their revolutionary outlook and strategy to fundamentally altered circumstances, conclude that no alternative to global capitalism is currently possible — the TINA syndrome, or "There Is No Alternative." The only "realistic" strategy is to try to negotiate the best deal possible with capitalists and to achieve the best "competitive" reinsertion of each country into the global economy. This position is put forth in its most coherent form by Jorge Castaneda in Utopia Unarmed. He believes that the left has to accept "the logic of the market" and limit itself to choosing what type of capitalist system it buys into — neoliberalism, or preferably the "social market" of western Europe or Japan, which he argues can be adapted to Latin America necessities.

In terms of practical politics, the TINA stance has been adopted by current leftist supporters of the British Labour Party. To a greater or lesser extent, this critique also prevails among most social democratic and communist parties in the core and among many of the formerly revolutionary parties in the third world. Its adherents include the socialists and communists who are leading France and Italy respectively into the European Union by providing the type of legitimacy for capitalist restructuring that the right could never accomplish. It also prevails among important groups within the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, the Workers Party of Brazil, the Democratic Revolutionary Party of Mexico, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to cite some other examples.

But the Marxist critics of globalization do not stop at rejecting these disturbing critiques of the current epoch and the political strategies they bring forth. They dismiss the very notion that something is fundamentally new in the world. And they conflate a justified and vital opposition to the process of capitalist globalization with an unwarranted and increasingly dogmatic opposition to the concept of globalization, as if disarming ourselves intellectually is somehow to our advantage in the fight against capital. The problem with their argument that "capitalism is still capitalism" is less its tautology than its ahistoricism. Its logic writes off as insignificant or illusory earlier epochal transitions in the development of world capitalism, such as from mercantile to competitive manufacturing, and then to "monopoly" corporate capitalism. In this way it precludes from our examination the changing historic conditions under which popular classes may mount resistance and construct alternatives. Here we will argue that the current epochal shift, like the previous ones, profoundly affects the roles of governments and the nation state, the way in which class struggle is conducted and manifests itself, and the very contours of societies and the world views of the populations exposed to capitalism.

To demonstrate some of these changes let us compare and contrast the two most recent epochal shifts — that which occurred around the turn of the twentieth century and that which is unfolding today. First, the most critical difference is the organization of capital. Around the turn of the century it is large-scale capital that takes hold, which some call the system of monopoly capital, and others, like Rudolf Hilferding, have referred to as the triumph of financial-industrial capital. These large enterprises were concentrated in particular core nations, mainly those of western Europe and the United States. In virtually all cases these corporations advanced their interests through their nation states. Perhaps the most well-known example of these developments are the large trusts, particularly in Germany, in which the national government coordinated industrial policy so the corporations in a given area of production could better conquer international markets in the interests of the country with which they identified.

The beginning of the end of this system occurred after World War II when the seeds of globalization were sown. The period from the war on is widely recognized as the era of U.S. supremacy. But what is less discussed is that the global capitalist umbrella established under U.S. supremacy enabled the different national capitals to begin to interpenetrate it. A critical development in this process was the formation of the European Common Market. By merging markets and capital, in a relatively short span of perhaps a decade and a half, the scourge of the innumerable wars fought as a consequence of the competition between national capitals that went back centuries was brought to an end. Today, due to the integration of capital and markets, it is inconceivable that there would be a war among the western Europeans nations. World conflict is no longer based on inter-imperial rivalry but is increasingly between global capital and descendant national factions of dominant groups and ascendant transnational factions.

While many detractors of globalization focus on global trade, and therefore, the market, in developing their argument, we believe that the process of globalization is driven by the transnationalization of production and the transnationalization of capital ownership. These very processes in turn lead to the rise of a transnationalized bourgeoisie that sits at the apex of the global order. The analyses of world trade are very important, but we need to focus on the production relations that underpin market relations, and in turn, the social forces that drive production relations, so as to identify what is qualitatively new in the current epoch.


A critical component in the consolidation of transnational capital is the dramatic increase in the flow of foreign direct investments (FDI) among the nations of the world in the 1980s and 1990s. From 1983 to 1987 the average annual FDI outflows were $76.8 billion, a growth rate of 35 per cent per year. In the early 1990s, a slump occurred due to the global economic downturn that affected most of the core countries, which explains why the annual growth rate was only 4 per cent from 1988 to 1992. By 1993, however, the dramatic increase in FDI flows had resumed led by the banner year of 1995 when the increase was 38 per cent. By contrast, other important international economic indicators showed much more modest increases; for example international trade in 1996 increased by 6.6 per cent while the world's gross domestic product grew by 4.5 per cent (see below).

By 1996, the global FDI stock was valued at $3.2 trillion, with its rate of growth over the previous decade more than double that of gross fixed capital formation throughout the world. Moreover, FDI by no means represents the sum total of international corporate holdings; in 1994 it is estimated that the worldwide assets of corporate foreign affiliates was $8.4 trillion. And as of 1995, some 280,000 affiliates of transnational corporations produced goods and services estimated at $7 trillion, which represents some 25 per cent of total world output (calculated on the basis of UNCTAD World Investment Report, 1997, which reports that world output in 1993 was $24 trillion). Small wonder that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) declared in the introduction to its 1997 World Investment Report that we are witnessing the "internationalization of national production systems."

One could argue, however, that this internationalization of production represents only the expansion of national capital, that is, U.S. corporations and investors, for example, could simply be expanding their control of the global economy. But here again the facts and figures belie this interpretation. In 1996, U.S. FDI was $85.4 billion dollars, slightly less than a quarter of the total. Even more important to note is that FDI flows into the United States by foreign corporations were $84.6 billion in 1996. This transnationalization of U.S.-based industries is part of a pattern that began in the early 1980s when foreign corporations, particularly from western Europe and Japan, began to make new investments and to buy up established U.S. companies.

Beyond the issue of the transnationalization of U.S.-based companies, it is important to note that, of the $317 billion in total global FDI outflows in 1995, $229 billion went into mergers and acquisitions. This means that less than one-third of FDI was in new or start-up investments: the remainder was used to buy up other companies across national borders. This data, rather than belying the notion of globalization, indicates, in fact, that the assets of many national enterprises, and those social forces bound up with these enterprises, were "internationalized." In the case of mergers, it meant the integration of capitals from at least two distinct countries. If an acquisition, it meant a given firm incorporated a foreign company with its employees, managers, and "national" interests. In 1995, the purchase of the U.S.-based Marion Merrel Dow pharmaceutical firm by Hoeschst of Germany for $7.1 billion was the largest acquisition while the second largest was the buyout of Hollywood's MCA Studio (which was owned by Sony of Japan) for $5.7 billion by Seagrams of Canada.

As in the previous epoch of national capital, the bulk of direct foreign investment outflows, about 85 per cent, continues to originate from the core, or developed, countries of the world, while about 90 per cent of that comes from what is referred to as the Triad, or the European Union, Japan and the United States. Those who argue that globalization is overstated note that the vast majority of these capital outflows are destined for other core countries. However, it is crucial to place the direction of capital outflows in the context of the restructuring of capital globally and of the historic tendencies underway.


Excerpted from "Globalization and Postmodern Politics"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Roger Burbach.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Globalization, New Resistances and the Postmodern Age
Part I: Globalization
1. The Epochal Shift: Co-Authored with William I. Robinson
2. Epochal Clashes: Third Worldization and the New Hegemony: Co-authored with William I Robinson
3. High Tech Robber Barons
Part II: Politics in a Postmodern Age
4. Shades of Postmodern Politics
5. The (Un)defining of Postmodern Marxism
6. The Virtually Existing Global Revolution
Part III: Zapatistas and the Latin American Context(ualization)
7. Socialist and Postmodern Politics in the Americas
8. Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas
9. Zapatismo and the Intergalactic Age: Authored by Fiona Jeffries
Epilogue: The Millennial Cracks

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