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Fetishes, New and Old

Seth Weiss
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

Globalization Unmasked
James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer
Zed Books 2001

In Globalization Unmasked, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer attempt to dispell the mystification and fetishism which, perpetuated by advocates and adversaries alike, envelops much of contemporary thought about globalization.

The anodyne discourse of globalization --"free markets", "global village", "the end of history"–- obscures, show Petras and Veltmeyer, the realities of deep and growing social inequality, poverty and immiseration. The beginning of the 21st century, they contend, looks eerily like the 19th. Real wages have declined sharply, work hours are up, job security and health care are ever more elusive, and social spending has been gutted.

Latin America, a central focus of Petras and Velmeyer’s work, has been particularly hard hit. By 1994 wages in Mexico were some 40% of their 1980 value; and in Venezuela and Argentina wage levels remain below their 1970 values. Poverty throughout the region climbed, by some estimates, to 60% of households in the 1990s.

Lost in the discourse of globalization as well, Petras and Veltmeyer argue, is the decisive functioning of class and state power in our era. This world-transforming process, which tears whole peoples from lands they have cultivated for millennia in exchange for Madonna t-shirts and wage-slavery, has its roots not in rapid technological change and inexorable market forces, but in the designs of multinational corporations and banks, financial institutions like the IMF, and imperial states.

Globalization, they argue, is really nothing new: capital has been a global force from its inception; our epoch is simply the latest stage of imperialism. And the U.S., Petras and Veltmeyer maintain, is the leader of this new imperialism, using its military and economic might to plunder much of the world.

Globalization Unmasked provides a salutary antidote to both the hallow posturing of globalization’s dutiful ideologues and radical academic fashions, like Antontio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, that proclaim imperialism’s demise.

Nothing new?

Still, one wonders if Petras and Veltmeyer in dispelling new fetishes are not also reproducing old ones. Yes, as Petras and Veltmeyer contend, capital has always been global. The Transatlantic slave trade, for instance, played a crucial role in 17th century English capital formation.

But is everything old really new again? Is there nothing qualitatively different in the current transnational integration of capital and markets? Can we today imagine inter-imperial rivalries leading to war among Western European nations? Does the nation-state remain a central site of class formation? And what is to be made of the geography of exploitation? There is a massive and growing North-South gap, but do notions of north/south and core/periphery continue to have the same meaning, given growing inequality and social polarization in the first world?

Conspicuously absent in Globalization Unmasked is the whole constellation of social movements –teamsters and turtles, anarchists and religious folk, Zapatistas and cyber-activists -- conjured up with the word "Seattle". So too the strategies and alternative worlds envisioned by these movements.

Petras and Veltmeyer talk at length of alternatives, but in the end the only one that they can imagine is the old state socialism, with some platitudes about democracy and accountability for seasoning. The fact that state socialism, better understood as state capitalism, was rejected and overthrown by the workers of the lost 2nd world is of no concern. The false binary of state and market, wherein the market engenders social inequities and the state offers the power to redress these inequities, still haunts the left.

But the transnational networks, de-centralized and democratic, created by the new movements for global justice push beyond the narrow confines of the nation-state -–our imagination and our lived experience demand more.