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Keith Rankin: Globalisation and Anarchism

Keith Rankin: Globalisation and Anarchism

Keith Rankin, 26 July 2001

I'm no dogmatic free trader, neoliberal, managerialist or economic rationalist. I favour "world development" but not "world government" [sorry for my typo last week]. Yet I would hesitate before calling myself anti-globalisation. Globalisation, like the tides, needs to be understood rather than opposed. It can be steered into an inclusive (public) rather than an exclusive (private) form.

I am frustrated and bemused by the global anti-globalisation protest movement. It is very much a manifestation of the thing it purports to protest against. Further, the events that it seeks to disrupt are manifestations of the old nationalist world order rather than of than of globalism. US President Bush repudiates the globalist Kyoto accord on the grounds that it will hurt American companies and jobs. He is no flag-bearer for globalisation.

Political leaders - and their entourages - have been meeting together to negotiate extranational agreements for many years. Most of what they do could today be done by teleconferencing. Possibly - after Genoa - it will be. If the likes of Bush and Blair and Putin and Chretien wanted to plot against poor nations or against the poor wherever they live, they could do it - without going to Genoa - by using the same electronic means that the protestors themselves use.

I am not sure how many of those protesting against the G8 meeting in Genoa would call themselves 'anarchists'. While the whole of this protest movement is anarchic (and almost all would claim Noam Chomsky as an intellectual leader of their movement), it was just an extremely biased sample of that subset identifying themselves as anarchists who got most of the media attention.

It's time to reflect more on anarchism and anarchy, and less on the globalisation that can mean very different things to different people.

In my 'introduction to economics' lecture (I am an economics lecturer), I include anarchism as one of six economic systems. In particular, I contrast it with the pure market economy (which Karl Marx regarded as an anarchy). Both share a strong cynicism towards government, so it should be no surprise that our tendency to become increasingly cynical towards all aspects of government should have led to a resurgence of support for both laissez- faire capitalism and anarchism.

One of my students asked for an example of a society whose economy was organised in accordance with the principles of anarchism. I said there were none at present. I could have done a spiel about Spain in 1936, but that's not really part of the curriculum of Economics 120.

I could have talked about the power vacuum that the anarchists, as a matter of principle, were unable to fill; or of the war that followed as a result of the failure of the anarchists to form a government; or of the dispute between the various revolutionary forces that destroyed the revolution and gifted Spain to fascism.

The more topical example - of anarchy if not anarchism - is in fact the global economy. It is literally an anarchy, an economic society without a government. (Some people see it as an economic society of about 200 nations which are themselves self-contained societies; others see it as a borderless economic society of 6 billion people.)

Although it is an anarchy, the global economy can hardly be said to be built upon the principles of anarchist thought. Rather it is built on historical opportunism.

What are the principles of anarchism? You would think that the news organisations which relish reporting the misdeeds of "anarchists" might pause to discuss the agenda that is anarchism. Instead we get the impression that these anarchists stand for nothing other than protest and chaos.

A quick search on the Internet (key words "modern" "anarchist" "economic" "thought") assures me that these anarchists are, by in large, aware of the 19th century history of the ism they identify with. (Many places, including New Zealand, had very strong syndicalist/anarchist movements in the 1890s and 1900s.) My greater concern is that there are too few 20th century anarchist intellectuals; that too many of our modern day protesters look too literally to the 19th century writings of Bakunin and Kropotkin as the basis of a manifesto for the 21st century.

Anarchism, as I understand it, is about organising society on the basis of mutual respect rather than through political power and rigid laws. In that sense, anarchism represents the diametrically opposite view to that of Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham, the true founders of the economic managerialism that became the dominant form of public administration worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s. I believe that it is the predominance of economic managerialism in the dominant nations - the mixture of extranational privatisation and national political control - that has generated the protest movement we saw last weekend. The one thing that Hobbesian governments do do - policing in the fullest sense of the word - is the one thing that anarchists believe that, in socialised societies, governments need not do.

So anarchism does not suppress the public side of economic life, as economic managerialism does. It just believes that our economic lives can be coordinated in a respectful, democratic, socialised, cooperative way. It opposes government, but not governance. It emphasises voluntary action, civility, trust.

What do I mean by 'socialised'? It means being brought up to understand that we share our planet with others with both common and differing interests. It means to understand that individual wellbeing is maximised by maximising collective wellbeing. If we are socialised, we simply do, without being ordered to, what would be the right things for all of us to do. Socialised people do not pollute, do recycle, do not drink then drive, do return their library books, do vote in elections, do use public transport, do pay taxes - and so on. They do these things because they understand the collective consequences of the alternatives. Socialisation is 'social capital'.

The more we acquire social capital, the less we need the control apparatus of government.

We live in a global community that neither has the formal apparatus of government nor has anything like the level of social capital that it needs. Therefore there is a power vacuum which has been filled by private capital; a power vacuum that is aggravated by an intellectual vacuum. The intellectual vacuum relates to our weak development of the concept of 'publicness', and about how a re-emergence of 'publicness' can synergise with our well- developed principles of private property.

An anarchist solution to the problems of our world is not at present viable. Mutual governance, social capital and a respect for public property will take many decades to evolve. But they are evolving, in part through the very attempts at global cooperation that are targeted by anarchist protesters. (Indeed I look to the emergence of regional commonwealths as a way of averting world government.)

I don't believe that the new protest movement is making a constructive contribution towards an equitable, tolerant and empathetic global society. Rather they are following the Roger Douglas fallacy that destruction is a prerequisite for change. It is not necessary to destroy what we have in order to build a better alternative. Destruction begets destruction and creates new vacuums that are filled by the opportunistic and unscrupulous. It is dialogue and mutual respect that are prerequisites for the social growth that is in turn the precursor of a mutually beneficent global economic order.

Dialogue and mutual respect were conspicuously absent in Genoa.

2001 Keith Rankin

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