Globalization vs. localism: an assessment

Contribution by Andy Robinson on the p2p research list, which I’m upgrading, because of its thoughtfullness, to a full blog entry.

(please note though that I strongly disagree with the use of the concept of fascism to explain both China and some western states – mb)

Andy Robinson:

“The Chinese political model is very close to fascism (nominally Stalinist but pretty much contentless in that regard) – bear in mind the state-controlled media, world’s biggest firewall, one-party state, vicious policing of dissent, bans on opponents and minorities (Falun Gong, Tibet, Xinjiang, Tiananmen Square), “biopolitical” practices such as organ harvesting, literally massive use of the death penalty after unfair trials, everyday control such as street wardens, etc. Worryingly, David Harvey argues that China’s success has led to the corrosion of liberal democracy in America, Britain, Europe etc – once capitalists realise they don’t need liberal democracy, they dispense with it. The summit “red zone” model is partly developed from Chinese practices (keeping protests out of view of leaders – a practice demanded by the Chinese during state visits) and so are some of the neo-totalitarian practices elsewhere (e.g. Britain now has Chinese-style police wardens). This said, China’s regime is also suffering from the impact of technologies which make censorship difficult – they’ve had to liberalise both their protest control model and their media censorship model recently, and are facing a wave of protests and unrest each year – given the lack of formal channels, protests in China nearly always turn into mass revolt with police routed and official buildings/vehicles torched or trashed, and with tools like proxies in widespread use, the regime is finding it impossible to suppress public knowledge of events (in contrast to Tiananmen, which I gather from word of mouth is still not public knowledge in China).

I also suspect the Chinese economic / development model is short-lived – it’s a rehashing of the Korean-Taiwanese-Indonesian-Malaysian-Singaporean models, cheap sweatshop production for export, which went into crisis in these other countries and is vulnerable to undercutting the moment standards of living or currency values start to rise. The (relative) stability of the regime is mainly based on its economic (relative) success, and will collapse the moment some of the longer-term effects of its development trajectory manifest themselves – notably massive urbanisation due to land grabs, mass unemployment and shortages – all of which have been deferred by slowing the process of dispossession of the peasantry (and by other means such as population “control”), but which are manifest in most of the instances of revolt (often in rural areas and focused on land grabs, pollution, corruption, brutality and mistreatment).

The Finnish model would seem to be rather different – a niche model based on high-value-added skilled production and rents on resource extraction – and while I’d be delighted to see the rest of Europe become more like Finland, I wonder if this isn’t a continuation of the German and Japanese economic model of the 80s and early 90s. For a long time this model was posited as the main alternative to neoliberal capitalism because Germany and Japan were outshining America and Britain, but it disappeared from the discourse on economic models when both countries went into crisis in the 90s (Germany largely because of reunification, Japan along with Korea etc, because of punishment of East Asia by neoliberal stock-marketeers). Germany, Japan, Korea, even Denmark and Sweden have since moved towards more neoliberal models, though none of them are anywhere near as neoliberal as Britain or America.

I think something akin to fascism (at least to the “normalised” kind of fascism or Stalinism which existed, say, in Spain or Czechoslovakia in the 70s), which I term neo-totalitarianism, is coming into existence, indeed already exists, in Britain, and possibly also America, Australia etc, and is sadly rather expansive at the moment (countries like Holland, Greece, France, Denmark are moving in the same direction albeit from further away to begin with). I think it’s similar to totalitarianism because of the micro-regulation of everyday life, the impossibility of “legal and tolerated opposition” beyond a very limited sphere (dissent automatically renders one a “dissident” and at risk), the promotion of a near-monolithic public discourse, the unshackling of various state agencies to operate with impunity and without effective limits, the rejection of limits to state power in relation to various professions and groups (lawyers, journalists, academics, doctors, etc), the creation of agencies of political and microsocial policing/control, extremely harsh surveillance and punishment practices, requirements to adopt a model of the subject (neoliberal “employable” citizen) as a condition of social inclusion, and the systematic denial of liberal and democratic values (albeit disguised as affirmation of these values – one might speak of de jure democracy alongside de facto totalitarianism). There are only three ways in which Britain today differs from classical totalitarianisms of this kind: it still has a nominally multi-party system, it still has a nominally free press, and it still has some judicial limits in terms of human rights. I suspect these are all due to insertion in the EU system and especially the ECHR, and further, that only the third is really disruptive at all – the main parties are now really sub-factions of a ruling party (similar to the electoral factions in Iran), and the media is so successfully integrated that direct media control is not needed, being replaced by subtle media control (it is the case that minor parties and media are periodically persecuted and even shut down, as with al-Muhajiroun, the Indymedia server raids etc; street activities of small parties have been viciously attacked, so small parties and media have mainly survived via the Internet – which of course, is notoriously hard to control). Neo-totalitarianism does practice very effective media control in terms of how the regime’s frame infiltrates and spreads to the population through the media – acceptance of categories such as extremism, security concerns, a constant terrorist threat, various feared Others, “preachers of hate”, “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe” and tropes of this kind… through the way repression is used by the media as proof of a problem needing repression (3000 under-fives excluded for offences such as “threatening behaviour” and “sexual misconduct” is universally taken as proof of growing indiscipline rather than ridiculous repressiveness)… granted they cannot control the Internet or samizdat media, but nor could the classical totalitarianisms control the media of their day – nearly everyone in Nazi Germany listened to BBC World Service radio broadcasts for instance.

The model seems to be spreading, though not from efficiency (it has been economically disastrous for all the countries which have tried it) – more because neo-totalitarian regimes act as a focus of attraction for authoritarians and “deep states” elsewhere, and because they viciously promote their own regime-type through international institutions. Ultimately I think it has the same flaws in economic terms as classical totalitarianism – it can make very systematic, programmed use of the latest economic forms for awhile, but it is unable to pioneer new models or forms due to its social closure, and has difficulties adapting to new models or forms from elsewhere (look at the fear instilled in such regimes by the Internet for instance), plus it is horribly corrupt (out-of-control individual power-holders and institutionalised quasi-corporations can extract resources with impunity), and it is unable to produce effective commitment, only a kind of grudging conformity out of fear (of the regime or of its others), which hits its ability to perform in sectors requiring active worker commitment (I’ve witnessed first-hand the horrible decline of British academia and earlier of schooling along these lines, the replacement of self-motivation with kafkaesque standards and procedures which homogenise at a very low level the process of intellectual production) – but it will seek, and is seeking, to prolong a kind of decadent primacy in spite of its lack of economic vigour, by means of military control, blackmail, imperialism, etc. Capitalism relies on addition as well as subtraction of axioms – it depends on life-flows for its force, even though it also has to contain and exploit these flows – and neo-totalitarianism cuts off or decomposes flows to such a degree as to take away the life-force (it grows, I think, from the statist as much as the capitalist logic). I also suspect that, while in the short-term it has drastically decomposed movements of protest and resistance, in the long-term it will lead to the emergence of more militant autonomous movements, from a generation growing up with the regime and fed up of it. (I say this because early types of similar regimes can be detected in the emergence of autonomous movements in Italy, Germany, Japan, Greece, Latin America and eastern Europe in earlier periods – sometimes inducing liberalisations of these societies).

The model you’re discussing, Ryan, sounds to me very similar to the idea of the “global city” in Sassen (to a lesser degree also the diffuse smoothed capitalism of Hardt/Negri and William Robinson). Where I think it differs is that the “global city” model is actually very exclusionary – a few nodes become very dense sites of capitalist intersections while most others are marginalised; so one ends up with a dense web of small local sites drawing in resources from a massive, geographically proximate periphery. Since the periphery gains little from this, and since neoliberalism undermines the old mechanisms of integration (patronage, buy-offs, developmental nationalism, etc), the centrifugal forces of the periphery are pulling away from the global cities, resisting the extraction of resources for use in these core nodes (think of MEND, Tata Nano, Chiapas, Bougainville, Papua, Manipur, the piqueteros, Niger’s Tuareg, NWFP, etc etc). Rural China already has a similar status, and I would not rule out the margins of Europe (semi-core sites such as Finland) or margins within European countries (such as the British North) and within America (such as Michigan, Illinois, and the west and south) developing along the same lines. I see the space of alternatives emerging in this periphery through delinking and relinking (transversality), the assertion or re-emergence of indigenous and ecological forms of life combined with the creation of new kinds of transversal connection between otherwise disconnected localities by means of tool-like technologies such as the Internet. What I’d hope to see is a kind of network of affinities and resonances where an attack by the system (the global cities and their military allies) at any one point produces negative effects throughout the entire web of delinked and partially delinked sites. Also hopefully a reconfiguration of technologies to disempower the core sites (negation of the advantages of air power is crucial – this is currently the core’s one form of reach into marginal areas). “

5 Comments Globalization vs. localism: an assessment

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Ryan Lanham, via email:

    You make a number of interesting points, Andy. Very provocative.

    It seems to me that three issues drive the future of the world, some of which you address a lot, and some less so.

    1. The diffusion of p2p technologies unfettered by institutionalized censorship.
    2. The costs and feasibility of large-scale transportation-based living in developed and developing worlds.
    3. The future of debt.

    Under point 1 I would put the future of religious faith (which will naturally decline as people interact and gain access to information). I’d also put the question of institutionalization through education systems, which will also decline accordingly.

    Under point 2 I’d put most aspects of climate change. How suburban the world becomes will depend on the feasibility of the private auto or similar. Moving freight globally also requires large air and sea fleets that cannot maintain speed without significant carbon expenditure (for the foreseeable future). Power consumption will be driven by transportation related economies and work one place, live another arrangements.

    Under point 3, I’d put the prospect of long-term business institutions of large scale.

    Architects have long said look at the skyline to determine a time’s values. Churches once ruled. Then the institutions of the state grabbed the sky. Then those of the service economy–eventually mostly banks and lawyers who task banks–took over. Now I see a future where the skyline will be filled with green apartments linked to mass transit nodes. I suppose that suggests a future with fewer institutions–at least in the brick and mortar sense–and more small-scale p2p type functions.

    I agree with Andy’s point that skill wins, but I see little evidence that Asia isn’t advancing skills at a rate quite a bit faster than anyone else. My own experience with Chinese technologists suggest they are leaping generations every few years. Singapore is relentless–yes there are sweatshops, but the real growth is in technology–electronics, pharma, materials, even R&D. I look at the US and see it surrounded by Canada, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, and South America. China is surrounding by Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia… Sounds like a better neighborhood for innovation to me. Europe also has a good neighborhood.

    I differ with Andy in seeing long-term stability to the current scenarios of nation strategy he underscores. I think these modes are sickly and weak. I’d say the same thing about the world Saskia Sassen has described (and keeps describing…) She strikes me as sort of an academic Faith Popcorn…one good idea played out over and over ad nauseum. Yes, cities are linked and, to a degree, autonomous, but so what? And where does that lead? And what does it mean? And why did it happen? The Marxian geographers had a big idea of core/periphery, but that doesn’t seem to hold much either. Everyone I talk to thinks the future is as much Africa as Asia. It all feels too macro and too falsifiable.

    I’d argue that skills and R&D transfer are moving rapidly, IMO, from institutions to p2p. Points 2 & 3 above also facilitate this transformation. So the question I keep asking myself is, what forms of governance derive from rapid evolution toward high p2p reliance? What happens as BitTorrent destroys Blockbuster and the college library? What is a university if classes become less important? What is a company when, like Apple, the iPhone is designed and constructed across a range of global partners and designers? Who governs those things and by what rules?

    I may be wrong but I think capitalism just died to a large extent in this bank bailout. The question now is how can people mobilize assets through p2p to deal with large scale actions (or small scale ones…) Picking up the pieces of capitalism is a Gone With the Wind sort of exercise in my view. Figuring out what’s next is what interests me. What’s next certainly isn’t some warmed over socialism from the 1930s any more than it is the world as Scandanavia.

    Ryan Lanham

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    I do not have time to chip in substantially, still on the road until mid-April

    – it seems likely that the financial class has taken over policy making even more, and wants to use state support to survive. However, I don’t think a return to the debt-driven money and US-China axis is even remotely possible; they are going to attempt a new system, but I’m assuming they do not know where to go themselves; the real danger is hollowing out of social state policy due to the excessive support of failing banks; social explosions, and other forces within capital will likely derail any continuation scenario

    – the current form of globalization is not sustainable, so both national protectionism, and localisation will make a resurgence; as ryan indicates, there is nothing positive about this by itself, but alternative social forces could possibly turn this into a positive

    – whatever one may see about the current national security state, it is not fascism in any remote sense, fascism was totalitarian and relied on total thought control and used the state in a radical/revolutionary way for aims that were not subservient to the financial class and classic establishment

    – one form of capitalism died, but it may re-establish itself under a new form, say green capitalism with participation, or something much more ugly, in 7 to 15 years time; butmy contention is that if this long-cycle returns, it cannot in any way solve the deep structural problems (infinite growth in finite environment, increased hunger crises, resource depletion), leaving the issue of an alternative plainly on the table,


  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Andy, via email:

    I suspect you’d find plenty of Marxists who would quarrel with the claim that classical fascism was independent from finance capital. However, I don’t term today’s regimes fascist in the literal sense, I term them “neo-totalitarian” meaning they have many of the features of totalitarianism but in a new combination. The big difference from classical totalitarianisms is that neo-totalitarianism is closely tied up with capitalism as such… not so much with racialism and the petty-bourgeoisie, or with bureaucratic anti-capitalism… I see it converging however, with the Chinese model and the likes of Malaysia and Singapore.

    However, I think current regimes attempt thought control through political uses of the media, education etc, and that they do attempt to “use the state in a radical/revolutionary way”, namely the reconstruction of subjectivities as conformist, “employable” etc. This is the difference between “Third Way” social control and classical neoliberalism. I think if you subtract the aspects of polyarchy, nominal independence of the media and formal rights protections, and bracket out the content of the ideology imposed, neo-totalitarianism is almost indistinguishable from classical totalitarianism (at least in its “weaker” form, in Brezhnev’s Russia or eastern Europe for example). Perhaps the mistake is made that totalitarianism is assumed to be something it isn’t… for instance that it could only possibly apply to things like high Stalinism or wartime Nazism, and not their successors and little brothers; and the false assumption that totalitarians actually sought to destroy ALL space of dissent (rather than to drastically narrow its expression) and that they succeeded in total thought control (which empirical research has shown was not achieved even in high Stalinism or wartime Nazism). I think the biggest resistance in recognising regimes like contemporary Britain as neo-totalitarian is that people balk at the idea that a totalitarian regime can also have de jure features of liberal democracy – yet the Nazis retained aspects of the architecture of Weimar institutions, and Stalin introduced the world’s most democratic constitution.

    Key to totalitarianism is the attempt at total mobilisation of society within a state-controlled scheme (high-intensity passive revolution), with zero tolerance for difference, general closure of social space and a requirement of active participatory conformity (not simply an absence of active revolt). This aspect, which differentiates totalitarianism both from (even the most degenerated) liberal-democracies and from conservative authoritarianisms (based on patronage), is certainly present in regimes like Britain. To be included, one has to accept the mantras of “employability”, anti-“crime” fanaticism and so on. And everyday life is micro-regulated in very minute ways, greater if anything than historical totalitarianisms – cameras on every corner, DNA and fingerprint databases, card-access systems, constant state propaganda through “public information” posters, mobilisation of fear by the state PR machine through a pliant media, etc. The included are supposed to be totally mobilised in the regime – not only as providers of abstract labour-power but as self-motivated learners, possessers of “skills” (a kind of doublespeak, meaning to have a particular “attitude” and way of communicating, meaning to hold a particular conception of the world) which fit with neoliberal capitalism, reacting as “any decent person” would react to the climate of fear, avoiding any association with “extremism”, participating in mechanisms of regulation such as reporting “anti-social behaviour” and taking part in regulated forms of “community”, etc. And any deviance, however small, is instantly taken to be completely outside the field of legitimacy – not just a little bit naughty but absolutely abhorrent and needing to be stamped out with zero tolerance. So we get the “dissident phenomenon” similar to the “anti-Spain” in Francoism or the “dissidents” in eastern Europe – those who are not totally inside are very radically outside, and potentially at risk.

    Even if you’ve a problem with the idea of Britain or America being totalitarian, surely the status of China leaves little to the imagination?

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Andy,

    sorry, but no time to engage in depth for now.

    In short: China is a former totalitarian state, now authoritarian, in which many alternatives are possible, as long as you not directly challenge the rule of the party. In Britain and the USA, despite the neoliberal consensus, now broken, there are many different systems of thought both within and without the elite, and this despite obvious authoritarian/surveillance/national security inclined tendencies.

    Any new neo-totalitarianism would be predicated on a severe social defeat of popular and democratic forces, that has not happened in any way.

    When, if, it really arrives, we will be out of a conceptual toolbox, for having called its former very soft ‘possible predecessor trends’, with that same brush, and we will look back at it as a paradise to return to ..


  5. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Kevin Carson, via email:

    I think part of the hesitancy to label it “totalitarian,” on the part
    of many, is an equation of totalitarianism to mass movements like
    fascism in the mid-20th century: uniformed political parties marching
    in the street, giant posters, torchlight rallies, shouted slogans,
    bullyboys disrupting meetings, etc.

    But totalitarianism can take a bureaucratic form, characterized by
    Weberian rationality. Amaury de Riencourt contrasted the caesarism of
    the post-Augustan period with the tyranny of the Greek city-states and
    the personalized populism of the Gracchi of the late Roman Republic.
    He applied the contrast, by way of analogy, to the caesarism of the
    American welfare-warfare state vs. the classical tyrannies of the Axis

    It’s perfectly compatible with certain forms of “democracy,” like what
    Noam Chomsky calls “spectator democracy” and the neocons call “rule of
    law.” I believe Bertram Gross coined the term “friendly fascism.”

    In this sense, America has been evolving toward this sort of
    totalitarianism since the 1930s (when FDR adopted much of the
    corporatism of Hitler and Mussolini, without the slogans and marching
    mobs), or the 1940s (the beginning of the perpetual warfare/garrison
    state and the perpetual militarized economy). Since then it’s
    ratcheted upwards: the McCarran INternal Security Act, a whole slough
    of executive orders proviidng the legal and administrative framework
    for martial law, GARDEN PLOT and CABLE SPLICER, the militarization of
    local police forces via SWAT teams, the creeping authoritarianism of
    the Drug War and the GWOT, Clinton’s 1996 “counter-terror”
    legislation, USA PATRIOT, etc. The only respite was the
    post-Watergate Church Committee, and Obama’s making it clear he has no
    such fundamental rollback on his personal agenda.

    Kevin Carson
    Center for a Stateless Society
    Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

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