Another World Is Possible

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

Anthony Arnove

Another World Is Possible: Globalization and Anti Capitalism
by David McNally
Winnipeg, Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2002, $14.95 paper

Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy
by Michael D. Yates
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003, $16.95 paper.

THE PERIOD SINCE George Bush Sr. declared a “new world order” has been marked by growing global inequality and war. The failures of neoliberalism mean that more than fifty countries have seen declining per capita income in recent years, while millions every year die from easily preventable diseases and lack of access to safe drinking water. The costs of the last fifteen years have been immense, whether for those cut off from electricity in Durban, sacked from factories in Mexico City, or bombed in Baghdad.

New forces of resistance can also be seen around the world, from students, to peasants, to workers, proclaiming as both of these books conclude, “another world really might be possible” (267), to use the specific formulation of the Canadian scholar and socialist David McNally.

As these books point out, another world is certainly necessary. Both start from the premise that another economic system is necessary, not merely a change in the face of capitalism. Yates expresses the need to “transcend” capitalism (264), a system based inextricably on exploitation, inequality, oppression, bent on maximizing profit at the expense of the environment and based on competition that routinely expresses itself in dangerous military conflicts.

Yates and McNally both show why capitalism, especially in the contemporary phase of neoliberalism, has failed to meet human needs and why a systemic alternative is needed. In effect, they have each set out to address activist audiences, particularly younger people who are part of the global justice movement or, as some have called it, the anti capitalist movement.

Consciously Anti-Capitalist?

The use of the label “anti capitalist movement” presents a problem. Many in the global justice movement have an antisystemic politics, but do not consciously think of themselves as wanting to overthrow capitalism itself.

As McNally writes, “Inspiring as the new movements are, they can easily find themselves in a variety of dead ends if they fail to understand the nature of the system they oppose and the sorts of social and political strategies necessary to radically change it.” (12)

McNally notes that “[t]here is an amazing shyness in much of the anti globalization movement, particularly in North America, about using the term capitalism,” a political approach that “comes with a cost: it encourages the movement’s supporters to see the problem not as the system that organizes our lives, but merely as a set of policies pursued by those currently at the top.” (60)

One need not underestimate the significance of these movements by pointing out that, in the main, the prevailing ideology in the so called anti globalization movement is a localist critique of certain features of capitalism particularly associated with the large multinationals. That is, the movement is more accurately understood as being anti corporate in outlook, setting itself against corporate globalization.

Yates similarly emphasizes we have to “‘name the system’  capitalism  if we want to have a better world.” (31)

Yates, who draws on his experience as a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a labor activist, goes on to elucidate in detail the impact of global capitalism on work, unemployment and inequality, and to offer an ideological challenge to capitalist economics from a Marxist standpoint.

Yates dismantles dogma after dogma of neoclassical and neoliberal orthodoxy, cutting through the elitist language of professional economics to reveal the real issues at stake. His chapters on working conditions in the United States and internationally are rich with data, stories, and analysis exposing the reality of “actually existing capitalism,” in stark contrast to the myths of its apologists and cheerleaders. (See also Yates’s important book Why Unions Matter, an important resource, on these subjects.)

McNally likewise offers a systematic challenge to neoliberal economics, extending his analysis to take up at greater length than does Yates questions of imperialism, “humanitarian intervention,” and the modern history of warfare, even if at times he seems to be trying to include everything at once, at the price of focus of his arguments.

But ultimately both books must be judged by the extent to which they can convince us not only that capitalism is fundamentally unjust and that an alternative is “possible,” but what that alternative is and how it can concretely be achieved. And on those admittedly very challenging criteria, both books fall short.

In his final chapter, “Fighting for a Better World,” Yates accepts to a remarkable degree the identification of a socialist alternative to capitalism with Stalinist models (to use Hal Draper’s formulation, “socialism from above”).

Socialism and Democracy

Yates is quite inconsistent in how he describes the Soviet Union. He calls it both “noncapitalist and socialist” in one phrase (221), but then notes that it was “extremely repressive” and “[e]xecutions, gulags, crowded prisons and psychiatric hospitals, constant fear … were all routine features of life.” (222)

Yates also argues that the Soviet “economy was not directed by the blind market forces of supply and demand but by highly skilled planners” (221), ignoring the ways Stalinist regimes oriented production not toward human need but accumulation, the needs of the elites, and military competition. Yet he also acknowledges that “alienating and undemocratic workplaces led to inefficiencies and widespread cynicism.” (223)

In the end, these comments can barely be distinguished from standard issue apologetics of “actually existing socialism.” The Russian Revolution did not come to “an ignominious end” with the collapse of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “revolution from above,” as Yates suggests (223), but with Joseph Stalin’s counter revolution more than sixty years earlier. The idea that you can have socialist society that “lacked rank and file democracy” (225), as Yates observes of Russia and China, is an oxymoron.

(A brief aside on China is necessary. Yates remarkably writes that “[e]xcesses occurred” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, echoing the worst apologetics of the 1960s, but says “in the end these were not the main problem. Mao’s enemies had too much power in the government, and they were able to defeat the Cultural Revolution” [225]. For a clear refutation of this view, see Nigel Harris’s powerful The Mandate of Heaven.)

This is not merely a question of historical interpretation or nitpicking, but a vital question for how one sees the nature of a socialist alternative today.

In this final chapter, Yates holds up as examples of groups struggling against capitalism the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, and the Maoists of Nepal. “[I]n defiance of the hopelessness felt by large segments of the left after the fall of the Soviet Union, two remarkable efforts to defeat capitalism militarily are taking place in the South American country of Colombia and in the Asian nation of Nepal,” he writes, saying a “more objective picture” is needed of “[b]oth revolutions.” (253)

But to equate armed struggle with revolutionary politics is to distort the meaning of revolution beyond recognition. Yates argues, “When so many people live without hope, events that make them understand that their circumstances are inevitable and can be changed can create revolutionary conditions” (258; emphasis added). But no minority, however enlightened or bold, can create revolutionary conditions through heroic actions.

As Draper puts it, “Unlike the utopian socialists who looked to an elite to change things for the masses, Marx argued that the masses had to free themselves. Freedom could not be conquered for and handed over to the working masses. Socialism could only be brought into being through the mass democratic action of the oppressed.” (The Two Souls of Socialism)

One need not side with the Colombian, Nepalese, or U.S. state or the status quo to point out that the Nepalese and Colombian guerrillas are both following an elitist, minority strategy that in the end is based on a pessimism about the working class as an agent for social change (a pessimism Yates elsewhere in the book directly challenges). Such strategies repeatedly generate politics completely at odds with liberation.

As Héctor Reyes has observed of the FARC, “Its military strategy at best ignores the role of the millions of ordinary Colombians in fighting for their rights  to the detriment of building the popular and working class movements. At worst, ordinary people become unintended but inevitable targets in the FARC’s battles with the Colombian army and the paramilitaries.” (Socialist Worker, May 24, 2002, 5)

McNally’s vision, in contrast, draws on the tradition of socialism from below. He quotes Draper’s identification of the “two souls” of socialism  socialism from above and from below  and suggests that “socialism from below can serve as a useful touchstone for anti capitalists” globally. (236)

“There can be no real transformation from below unless huge numbers of people work together, reflect on their successes and failures, and debate how to move forward together…. [R]eal democracy comes from below, or not at all,” he rightly stresses (230 31).

However, McNally’s conception of socialism from below is too loosely defined and inclusive. In the end, it resembles not so much socialism as the various liberal conceptions of “radical democracy” developed by academics and anarchists as a conscious alternative to socialist politics.

“An anti racist, feminist class politics is … the only meaningful politics of radical democracy today,” McNally comments (223). But in the end his commendable desire for solidarity among divergent elements of what he broadly terms the “anti capitalist” left leads him to downplay the serious arguments and divisions within it, and to gloss over the important differences between anarchism and socialism from below.

McNally poses socialism from below as a potential “reference point [to] enable activists from both anarchist and Marxist traditions to explore their common ground.” (237)

But to quote Draper again, from The Two Souls of Socialism, “Anarchism is not concerned with the creation of democratic control from below, but only with the destruction of ‘authority’ over the individual, including the authority of the most extremely democratic regulation of society that it is possible to imagine.” This dilemma cannot be so easily resolved.

Another world is indeed necessary, and McNally and Yates both make a contribution to the discussion of why such a world is possible. Getting there is the challenge, and to do so we will need to be able, as a movement, to air our debates in the most open, democratic ways we can find.

ATC 110, May-June 2004