Globalisation, Ideology and Critique, The

Politics of Change: Globalisation, Ideology and Critique, The

Kerr, Derek

The Politics of Change: Globalisation, Ideology and Critique. Palgrave, Houndsmills, Basingstoke and New York, 2000. pp. 212. ISBN 0-333-76088-3 (hbk) 42.50

The debates on globalisation, postfordism, post-modernism, and other `post-isms’ are expressive of the undoubted and profound economic and political changes that are reforming the capitalist world. Unlike many of these, often sterile, debates, however, The Politics of Change does not fetishise change. Rather, with its recognition of social form and the desirability of change grounded in human self-emancipation, The Politics of Change embarks on a project of defetishisation. As the book’s editors put it, ‘[T] his volume offers a critique of contemporary assessments of economic and political change. Its central theme is the relationship between the politics of contemporary global change and the theoretical uncertainty concerning the meaning and significance of this change (p.x).’

The book advances this critique in three parts. Part I, comprising two chapters, assesses ‘change’ in terms of the contemporary debates on globalisation. Part II, also comprising two chapters, furthers this assessment in terms of recent developments in modern social theory. Both are found wanting and limited by their grounding in the neo-classical theoretical tradition. Within this tradition, the concept of change is predominantly one of reproduction, devoid of emancipatory potential. Part III, comprising three chapters, furthers the standpoint of the previous parts by explicitly focusing on ‘change’ as an emancipatory concept.

In Part I, Peter Burnham and Werner Bonefeld both address the ‘changing’ relationship between the state and the market in the wake of so-called globalisation. Burnham argues three points. First, most approaches to globalisation are undermined by their autonomisation (and hence fetishisation) of state and market, with the contemporary state having ‘lost’ power to the (global) market. Second, and following from this critique, global capitalism is to be grasped as still structured as an antagonistic state system. Furthermore, many of the changes that characterise the global political economy are introduced by states in an attempt to solve problems that have their roots in the contradictory constitution of the capital relation. Third, Burnham argues that current governing strategies are usefully characterised in terms of depoliticisation: `The “language of globalisation” as depoliticisation has enabled state managers to capitalise on changes in the global system placing the political character of decision making at one remove thereby enhancing the efficacy of policy implementation (’Werner Bonefeld offers a penetrating and cogent critique of the claims of globalisation theory by drawing upon and developing Marx’s conceptualisation of the world market and his critique of fetishism. Contrary to the debate on globalisation, the state and the economy are not two separate social entities, one of which (the global market) determines the other. Rather, argues Bonefeld, the global and the national are different-in-unity.They are moments of the capital relation that constitutes their distinct forms of existence, suffuses their interrelation and contradicts their differentiation. This `living contradiction’ disrupts the enchanted world of the globalisation debate. In this enchanted world, the Keynesian state, as the space of democracy and social welfare, has become displaced by abstract, depersonalised, global forces which are destined to eternal reproduction by the `hidden hand’. In Bonefeld’s hands, however, ‘change’ becomes an emancipatory category.

Many of the ‘globalisationists’ who fail to grasp the emancipatory potential in ‘change’ nevertheless suggest that the global world of capital can be made more accountable to democratic values and normative rights. A `taming of capital’ can turn the `end of history’ into a more humanised, global capitalist world. Part II deals with the theoretical and methodological foundations of such views and finds them wanting. Kosmas Psychopedis addresses the value judgements of contemporary social theory and its abandonment of the emancipatory idea that the subject matter of the social sciences is the human being. He argues in favour of critical theory. As the chapter by Helmut Reichelt reveals, however, this cannot include the so-called critical theory of Jurgen Habermas. Reichelt delivers a devastating critique of the work of Habermas, including his notion of communicative action. As Reichelt concludes, `Insofar as Habermas is a critical theoretician, he does not connect his theory to reality; insofar as he connects it to reality, his theory is not critical-a twice half-baked theory’ (p. 144). The fetishism of global forces as revealed in Part I therefore finds its complement in Part II.

For many, globalisation and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc have replaced for good the spectre of communism by that of the market. In contradistinction, Part III of The Politics of Change discusses change as an emancipatory project. In a wideranging discussion questioning the Marxian concept of transition, Maurice Godelier argues that the division between revolution and evolution is passe (p. 168). He suggests that the broadening of democracy constitutes the terrain of convergence and point of integration for all the struggles against inequality or the denial of rights and liberties.This form of democracy is antithetical to bourgeois democracy in that it leads to a society based on human dignity. Such a notion of change is taken up in a stimulating chapter by John Holloway in terms of the `Zapata on Wall Street’. While this phrase conjures – up an unlikely juxtaposition, it does bring into immediate relation the most important revolutionary uprising of recent years and the chronic financial instability that is a central feature of contemporary capitalism. The issue is not one of causality. Rather, the point is that the fragility of the capitalist financial system is such that the Zapatista action did precipitate a flight of capital. The resulting turbulence of the world’s financial markets, however, was a measure of insubordination and non– subordination, not just in Mexico, but throughout the world. In terms of the politics of change, the Zapatista action is a measure of how the `uniting of dignities’ made the power of money tremble. Johanes Agnoli addresses the issue of the fragility of capital’s triumphalism in the final chapter of the book. For him, in opposition to triumphalism, social practice should be guided by the `utopian ideal of the society of the free and equal’ (p.201).

The Politics of Change is clearly an important and thought-provo king book that deserves to be read by readers of Capital & Class.

Reviewed by Derek Kerr

Derek Kerr was Book Review Editor of Capital & Class and works at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Autumn 2001

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