A Challenge to Remake the World

A review of Derek Wall’s Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements (London: Pluto, 2005).

Many throughout history have been oppressed. Yet few attempt to create new institutions and fewer still succeed. How has it happened? How can it happen? This we will not learn from Derek Wall’s book. However, he provides an extensive overview of contemporary movements, organizations, and individual critics. If there are slim pickings on the practical alternative side, that isn’t his fault. The desert isn’t blooming.

Wall teaches economics at the University of London and is an active member of the UK Green Party. His aim here “is to explain the economics of this anti-capitalist movement and, in so doing, to examine how a fairer and more ecologically sustainable world can be created.” He begins with a brief history of anti-capitalist ideas and protests. He sagely includes in the case against capitalism the testimony of the World Bank itself that poverty is increasing despite all the years of international development and globalization, despite even the free marketization of communist nations.

The usual evils are cited (and tend to be repeated in each chapter): inequality, poverty,burdensome debt, underdevelopment, monopolies, loss of democratic control, environmental degradation, destruction of unions and social protection, racism, cultural uniformity, etc. In contrast, there is only brief mention of death squads, government overthrows, and war in the pursuit of overseas capitalist expansion.

Furthermore, Wall provides no critique of the “missionaries” in the shape of foundation grant programs and human rights, development, and environmental non-governmental organizations, which soften the blow of international capitalist penetration and keep local intellectuals (i.e., activists) busy with worthy causes and good salaries. Even in the overdeveloped world, international NGOs and governmental organizations (IGOs), such as UN or EU advisory committees, lure activists away from home where they might be vitalizing grassroots political parties.

Wall warns against anti-corporate “conspiracy theorists,” stating that they are often racist and anti-semitic. This may create an aura of “political incorrectness” over those who wish to explore the significance of Bilderberg or the World Economic Forum. Surprisingly, the World Social Forum is mentioned only once, very briefly. Is this event (and its regional counterparts) an arena for remaking the world, or is it mainly to blow off steam? The latter is at least a possibility, in view of foundation support for the gathering and participating NGOs (and the ban on revolutionary movements and political parties).

Wall has a chapter on Keynes, Stiglitz, Soros, Tobin, and other inside critics who want to regulate capitalism to make it work better. He relates their ideas to those of Karl Polanyi, an important critic of the market. The insiders, Wall finds, are of limited help; they even hinder by channeling anti-capitalist energies. Why devote so much space to them, especially Soros, whose international operations might be well worth examining, but aren’t discussed here?

Another chapter describes the anti-corporatists David Korten and Naomi Klein. Korten’s nostalgia for Adam Smith’s small producer economy is dismissed as neither feasible nor likely to provide for fairness. Populism, Wall suggests, provides no institutional innovation beyond capitalism; Nader and Michael Moore merely view the world in terms of good guys and bad guys.

Genuine alternatives emerge in the chapter on Green localism. Edward Goldsmith (of The Ecologist) who opposes free trade and wishes to revive tribal society is deemed too conservative to have much appeal. Green authors Mike Woodin, Caroline Lucas, and Colin Hines are worth further study; they have been connected to political organizations, unlike some of the free-lancers discussed. Vandana Shiva is notable because of her non-Western, feminist, and Green anti-corporate perspective. I wish Wall had included more information on the extensive activism in India. What has permitted institutions of the oppressed to emerge and survive? He does discuss, in his summary chapter, an Indian Fair Trade tea collective that has found export markets. How could that model be applied to the computer call center or shrimp farming industries?

In other chapters Wall discusses the Social Credit and Jubilee movements, ATTAC, Local Exchange and Trading Systems (LETS), anarchists, situationists, post-modernists, ecosocialists, Parecon, and Hardt and Negri’s Empire. All reinforce the critique of globalism, but are short on practical measures for significant transformation.

Wall notes that Marxists have joined the broader movement. However, they have always been divided over the issue of globalization, some citing Marx’s belief that global capitalism is a necessary precursor to communism. Castro’s mixed view on the matter is fairly presented. Wall acknowledges the benefits resulting from the international diffusion of Cuban doctors and medical technology. He is fair throughout the book, often conceding that globalization has some advantages. On Castro, he makes sure to modify his praise with an indictment of Cuba’s civil liberties record and one-party system.

In his final chapter, Wall discusses promising contemporary experiments. These include Italism (Rastafarian localism), Fair Trade arrangements, Argentina’s factory occupations, consumer boycotts, urban gardens, citizen’s budgets in Brazil, open source software, wild rice gatherers’ commons protection, slow food, and relentless disruptive protest. Will this brew bring about something new? Wall has faith in the approach of Alex Callinicos and Robert Went, who argue that incremental changes can pave the way for transformation.

Wall does a fine job cataloging reality. The anti-capitalist movement appears small, individualistic, and inchoate. What is missing? What might move the work along? Perhaps to answer that we may need an ongoing entity to figure out what changes are democratic and desirable; how change comes about; how those who are dissatisfied may be mobilized; how to conjure co-optation; and how new institutions will embody values important to majorities.

These questions suggest some regrettable omissions from Wall’s history of anti-capitalist thought and action. For example, Charles Fourier was not only a significant precursor of ecosocialism (and Marxism), but his writings presented an alternative considered feasible by many people, and even inspired some (who were not noticeably suffering) to give up their ordinary lives and create new institutions (mostly communities in the US, but some in France and elsewhere). Needless to say, the communitarian socialist project, although localist and often ecosocialist, involved colonization, often at the expense of Native Americans. A contemporary futurist writer, André Gorz, also deserves mention.

Wall includes Robert Owen and William Morris in his historical account, but he ignores much of the very rich British anti-capitalist tradition. He doesn’t mention Robert Blatchford, or Fabians R. H. Tawney, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and G. B. Shaw. It is true that the Fabians at first embraced not only globalization, but worse, imperialism. However, by the 1920s, they were plotting localism and even ecosocialism. Fabians are considered very politically incorrect, especially by Marxists, but check out Beatrice and Sidney Webb, The Decay of Capitalist Civilization or A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain. They didn’t reject Marx, but took into account what was useful, along with other influences: Owen, Fourier, Christian Socialism, Henry George, etc. Furthermore, they had a think tank (not called that in their day) focusing on socialist planning that would preserve and expand liberty while promoting equality. Hundreds of studies were produced on, e.g., how to socialize the pet food industry, the tombstone industry, the greeting card industry, etc. This is not to ridicule them, but to indicate how detailed their plans were. More seriously, they outlined institutions that might allow local councils to exercise democratic control over essential services, such as gas, electric, and water; and over factories producing a wide variety of consumer goods.

Obviously, times have changed, but we can learn from the Fabian process. Even Lenin, a London resident in 1902, was impressed. He had not been working on local public administration scenarios. This brings us to the problems of a research or planning entity:

1. There is little agreement on globalization’s problems or solutions. Some in the movement want better regulation, some believe that underdevelopment rather than development must be challenged, some in the poorer nations simply want better prices and fewer quotas and tariffs for their products, and a very few want localization or semi-localization. Many people are more concerned about their own status and losses from globalization than the principle of the thing.

2. A “think tank” or research organization for change or alternatives is often regarded as elitist. Nevertheless, there have been fleeting examples of political parties (e.g., in Europe) having centers for policy development that incorporated all elements of the party: leaders, parliamentary members, constituents in geographical districts, constituents in affiliated organizations, youth groups, etc. Parties are wide open for members, and we can estimate by voters how many they represent. In contrast, nongovernmental organizations can look good and be strong if they can garner big bucks. Whether from foundations or supporters, it still has no relation to democratic accounting. So, despite the “iron law of oligarchy” a broadly representative strategy and policy body might be possible.

3. Outside funding is unlikely, and not to be trusted in any case. Today, there are few disgruntled and footloose who will work for nothing (many have fine berths in NGOs). Shabby quarters and facilities will turn off many people, whereas 100 years ago the brightest flocked to smoky back rooms with mimeograph machines. Furthermore, you can’t do much without adequate IT equipment, and you really must meet the safety and accessibility regulations. This problem might be resolved if there were political parties with moderate dues, which could support research organizations and cable channels as well.

Babylon and Beyond serves the important purpose of describing what’s afoot, indicating what’s missing, and challenging the reader to stop fiddling and get to work on the exciting project of creating a new world.

JOAN ROELOFS, Professor Emerita at Keene State College, NH, is the author of Greening Cities (1996), Foundations and Public Policy (2003) and Victor Considerant: Manifesto of 19th Century Democracy (translation and introduction; forthcoming, 2006). She can be reached at

JOAN ROELOFS, Professor Emerita at Keene State College in Keene, NH, is the author of Greening Cities (1996), Foundations and Public Policy: the Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Victor Considerant: Manifesto of 19th Century Democracy (translation and introduction; forthcoming, 2006). She can be reached at Joan.Roelofs@verizon.net.

 

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site: www.joanroelofs.wordpress.com  Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net

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