The Left Needs a Counter-Globalization Focus
2 October 2023
Historian Djene Bajalan recently made an excellent point on a Leftist podcast that it seems like online Leftists do not want to “eat their vegetables” ever since the failures of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns. This is to say that online Leftists seem to prefer, via the revealed preferences of which podcasts they click on, drama and infighting over content that tries to be more charitable and educational. Djene and co-guest Kuba Wrzesniewski traced this phenomenon as part of a wider disintegration of civil society under neoliberalism. I agree, and I think this problem has its origin in the rise of globalization in the 1970s.
We need to ask why online Leftists, and people in general, don't seem to want to “eat their vegetables.” Sociologists like Robert Putnam do a good job of describing the symptoms in works like “Bowling Alone,” but I don't think they adequately explain the causes.
I don't think the problem is with the individuals themselves being more defective than before. The problem is that the vegetables taste much nastier and are much less nutritious than before.
What do we mean when we talk about people “eating their vegetables”? Concretely, we mean organizing things like reading groups, unions, local political campaigns, or other civil society organizations. The problem is, these civil society organizations have become politically inert under globalization, and people sense this.
What can a local political campaign actually achieve in today's world? It can fight culture-war battles, but it cannot infringe on the interests of capital without risking capital flight from that locality. It can ape class struggle rhetoric, but it cannot really engage in class struggle, and local Chambers of Commerce know that they can call these bluffs.
What can a labor union actually achieve in today's world? Not much. Listen to how C. Wright Mills described the position of labor when this excerpt from “White Collar: The American Middle Classes” was written in 1951:
“The big businessman continues his big-business-as-usual through the normal rhythm of slump and war and boom; the big labor man, lifting his shaggy eyebrows, holds up the nation until his demands are met; the big farmer cultivates the Senate to see that big farmers get theirs. But not the white-collar man. He is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb. He is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which his is the most helpless position.”
Can labor lift up its “shaggy eyebrows” and hold the nation hostage until its demands are met nowadays? Whether or not it can, it dare not even try to. Today American labor is in a position more similar to that of the pitifully atomized middle-class American of the 1950s. At times it almost appears as if by choice. Why did American workers not turn out in droves for Bernie Sanders in 2016 or 2020 despite agreeing with his platform across the board?
At this point, one standard response is to “blame the victim.” Perhaps it is false consciousness that keeps American labor atomized today. Perhaps it is a defect of character, an unwarranted apathy, or a susceptibility to being hoodwinked by the media or party establishments. No. The problem is structural. The problem is capital flight.
From the 1970s onwards, American labor witnessed the consequences of collective action. Capital flight, de-industrialization, and the Rust Belt. American labor dare not make the same mistake again, so long as capital flight remains a threat in the arsenal of capital. For good reason, then, the center-piece of anti-establishment politics in the 1990s and early 2000s was the issue of globalization. The fact that this unresolved issue is no longer the central focus speaks to a regression of the Left since then, not an advance.
On the paleo-conservative right, this central focus on globalization took the form of the anti-globalization movement. On the radical left, this took the form of the alter- (i.e. “alternative-”) globalization movement.
Capital has two ways of influencing politics, “Voice” and “Exit.” Voice means directly influencing a decision, whereas exit means indirectly influencing a decision by the ability to secede from the consequences of that decision. The voice of capital can be targeted by cracking down on campaign contributions (contra the Citizens United Supreme Court case) and other direct operations that aim to influence politicians. But capital also has “exit” as the nuclear option—capital flight.
The radical left alter-globalization movement attended to the issue of capital's voice via attempts to disrupt the venues in which capital gave voice to their concerns (institutions like the WTO, the G8, and so on). Hence the famous 1999 Seattle WTO protests. However, the alter-globalization movement did not adequately attend to the problem of capital exit, of capital flight. To propose “capital controls” at the national level would be “right-wing” and “reactionary.”
The paleo-conservative right attended to the problem of capital exit via calls for tariffs and other capital and trade barriers, but did little to attend to the problem of capital's overweening voice that dominated the internal affairs of each nation-state. The paleo-conservative right correctly recalled that the post-WW2 Fordist Compact was largely a product of American capital lacking any exit; they had to swallow whatever bitter medicine was offered to them, whether that be 90% top marginal tax rates, or 35% unionization rates, or wage demands that advanced side-by-side with productivity. The paleo-conservative right correctly understood that, when capital was divided along national lines during WW2 and afterwards, workers in the US prospered. But the paleo-conservatives mistook the reasons for these national divisions and did not foresee how they would be undone by the rebuilding of economies after WW2 and the re-integration of these rebuilt and newly-built economies into the dollar world order.
Each critique of globalization had a fatal blind-spot that left its critique of globalization incomplete.
To remedy this, I would call for a renewed Leftist focus on “counter-globalization,” which I will distinguish from the preceding anti-globalization and alter-globalization movements by proposing:
A strategy on combating the mechanisms of both voice and exit that capital utilizes. In particular, we must eliminate the threat of capital flight before we can expect people to get excited about local or union politics, as those struggles will remain boxed in by the threat of capital flight and thus politically inert until capital is de-fanged of its ability to retaliate against such struggles.
A strategy of attempting to heighten the peaceful international fraternity of all working classes (the alter-globalization approach) while also heightening the conflicts between each national capitalist class (the paleo-conservative approach). The problem of globalization has been that the international capitalist class has been more united and the international working-class less united. We need to turn the tables.
This last point might sound impossible. We are accustomed to expecting that, where the national capitalist classes go, the national working classes inevitably follow as loyal foot-soldiers and cannon fodder. How could we encourage the national capitalist classes to go at each other's throats while their respective working-classes sing “Solidarity Forever” hand-in-hand with each other and refuse to fight each other? How could we preach nationalism for the capitalist classes, and internationalism for the working classes? If we are strategists, not moralists, we should feel no contradiction in preaching nationalism and division for our enemies, while also preaching that it is in the interests of workers to practice internationalism and unity among our own. I say, preach neither nationalism nor internationalism as abstract principles, but rather, nationalism for thee, internationalism for us, while making it clear that we are not wholly without abstract principles, but that our guiding abstract principle is always, above all, the dictatorship of the proletariat by whatever means as a step towards the proletariat's self-abolition as a class. It ties back to the age-old question of how to get the working class to think for itself as a “class for itself.”
Regardless, I predict that we will see no revitalization of civil society or amiability among Leftists until we tackle the issue of capital flight. People cannot be expected to fight together unless they have something to fight together TOWARDS, and right now there is virtually no economic victory the Left can hope to win that would not be immediately menaced by capital flight, and people know to avoid wasted effort. People know to not eat their vegetables if they are going to have to vomit them up immediately afterwards.
 “Interview W/ Djene Bajalan & Kuba Wrzesniewski!,” YouTube, August 16, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNUo1QMxh8Q.  C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle-Classes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), 15.