This past Sunday I attended Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s presentation and Q&A on their book The Making of Global Capitalism in the Bookshelf Cinema. I’m not going to write about their book per se, since that’s been done so capably by our guest blogger Terry Moore; this is more a consideration of ideas given in the presentation itself. It’s too bad we didn’t host Panitch and Gindin fifty days earlier. If we had, these incisive Marxist economists would have found themselves at the front of the Bookshelf cinema sitting next to Frank Hasenfratz, the owner of Linamar and the very model of a modern rags-to-riches industrialist. I’m sure the audience would have been treated to a lively exchange of views!
As it was, Panitch and Gindin’s own talk was informative, perceptive, and intellectually bracing. Among the many ideas they presented, two points stood out for me. The first was how we often interpret the world in an terms of conflicting sides when what is happening is in fact a more subtle form of interrelationship. For instance, take US-based multinationals versus local governments and business institutions. Panitch and Gindin convincingly argue that the spread of American capitalism is indeed a form of economic imperialism, but it’s not a matter of blue-suited American hordes pouring over borders to seize the control of foreign economies away from local institutions. Rather, historical evidence shows that US-based multinationals have most often been invited by foreign governments and business elites to participate in local economies. Instead of a hostile takeover, it’s more “Empire by invitation.”
Or take unions versus businesses. While unions often serve as a bulwark against exploitation, Panitch and Gindin also point out that if unions narrowly focus on the financial advancement of their members and blind themselves to a larger view of their possible role in fostering social and economic justice, they can become cogs in a larger economic machine that is itself unjust. Their victories may even be pyrrhic, as when increased union power in the 1970s led to large wage increases that then fueled high inflation and subsequently provided rationales for the anti-union actions of the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
Or, finally, take the idea that there’s an ongoing struggle for social control between multinational corporations that are fundamentally undemocratic, accountable only to foreign shareholders, and citizens who are represented by their democratically-elected governments. Yet when populations define themselves mainly as consumers, they often trade the power they have as citizens for the opportunity to acquire more stuff, essentially handing power over to corporations through their economic choices. To me, one of the main strengths of Panitch and Gindin’s analysis was their constant emphasis that, while conflicting aims exist, relationships are never as simple as they seem.
Given how capitalism in general is so successful at re-absorbing resistance (this week’s fashion rebellion is next season’s runway sensation in Paris), for those who want to explore alternatives to global capitalism, this could be a pretty depressing picture. To paraphrase critic Slavoj Zizek, it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is for us to imagine the end of capitalism. But the second main point I took away from the presentation concerned agency. In order to counter simplistic assertions that we are all free, rational agents whose poverty or affluence, impotence or power, is totally a result of our own personal choices within a free economic system, a lot of modern political and social theory has emphasized the degree to which we are embedded in, influenced by, and limited by the social systems we are born into and inhabit. But when the pendulum swings too far in that other direction, passivity can result: if my context determines who I am, how can I change anything?
But while Panitch and Gindin offer a thorough, evidence-based analysis of how the world is becoming increasingly entangled in American economic colonialism, they also insist that, for those who want to change the system, action is possible. The first stage is to step back and take a look at the big picture: for individuals to re-assess what the good life is and to think about how consumerism affects the world we live in, and for progressive organizations like unions to take stock more broadly of their purposes and the roles they might play. And they argue that for systemic change to take place, the actions of individuals and smaller groups need to be coordinated with the actions of larger bodies that have more political pull. The exact shape of this synergy and of the new possibilities it could give rise to remains to be seen, but Panitch and Gindin’s presentation cleared the space for a larger imagining of both.