'Globalization From Below' Tackles the 'Great Recession'

[As tens of thousands of activists from around the world gather in
Belem, Brazil for the World Social Forum, social movements everywhere
are debating how to respond to the ever-deepening economic crisis.
This article is excerpted from the longer Discussion Paper "GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW" TACKLES THE "GREAT RECESSION" prepared by Global Labor Strategies.]

[As tens of thousands of activists from around the world gather in
Belem, Brazil for the World Social Forum, social movements everywhere
are debating how to respond to the ever-deepening economic crisis.
This article is excerpted from the longer Discussion Paper "GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW" TACKLES THE "GREAT RECESSION" prepared by Global Labor Strategies.]

At the pit of the Great Depression in 1930, an American country
music group named the Carter Family recorded a song called The Worried
Man Blues. It began:

"I went down to the river and I lay down to sleep
When I woke up there were shackles on my feet."

Though many subsequent
verses describe the horrific outcome, there is no explanation of what
had happened or why - just an awakening to a seemingly endless
catastrophe. The song immediately became an unprecedented national
hit. It's hard to imagine that its success didn't have something to do
with capturing the sense of being the helpless victim of
incomprehensible disaster that so many felt in the face of the Great
Depression.

The seemingly sudden
collapse of the global economy in 2008 has similarly left millions,
indeed billions of people all over the world a victims of a catastrophe
that appears both inexplicable and unending.

But what's now being
dubbed the "Great Recession" is neither incomprehensible nor
irremediable. On the contrary, it can be understood as an expectable
result of a capitalism that has been globalized and at the same time
"freed" by neoliberalism of control in the public interest.

The economic
globalization that transformed the world at the turn of the century
promised, according to its advocates, a glorious vista of prosperity
that would provide unprecedented economic growth and raise billions of
people out of poverty. In practice it generated personal and national
insecurity, growing inequality, and a race to the bottom in which every
community, nation, and workgroup had to reduce its social,
environmental, and labor conditions to that of its most impoverished
competitor.

But economic
globalization also gave birth to a new convergence of global social
forces that opposed this kind of globalization. People all over the
world fought back against this "globalization from above" with their
own "globalization from below." They used asymmetrical strategies of
linking across the borders of nations and constituencies to become a
counter power to the advocates of globalization. They created a
movement - variously known as the global justice movement, the
anti-globalization movement, global civil society, or as we call it,
"globalization from below" -- that some in the media even characterized
as "the world's other superpower."

The anti-globalization/global justice/globalization-from-below
movement developed in response to the expansive phase of globalization
and neoliberalism. Now the global economy has entered the most severe
financial crisis since the Great Depression. The financial crisis has
turned out to be the start of a cascade of other economic crises that
are reshaping the global economy as definitively as an earthquake
reshapes a city. Current leaders of the world's nations have utterly failed to develop a solution. The likely impact of their failure on ordinary people around the world is incalculable.

The advocates of
globalization from above propounded as an article of faith that markets
are self-regulating and that all would be for the best in the best of
all possible worlds if only governments, labor unions, citizens
organizations, and the unruly mob let them alone to do their thing.

The times they are
a-changing. US government officials long known as market
fundamentalists seize banks, buy mortgage and insurance companies, and
commit $7.7 trillion - half of the US annual product -- to government
intervention in financial markets.

The Clintonite
"moderates" who once gutted the social safety net and sacrificed
commitments to jobs programs in order to build up budget surpluses now
propose vast public works programs financed by budget deficits. The
IMF, scourge of "irresponsible" countries that didn't balance their
budgets, advocates a trillion-plus dollars in global government
deficits and claims to have replaced "structural adjustment
conditionalities" with condition-free loans.

These programs may well
fail in halting the downward spiral of the global economy. But they
open the door to new forms of more social and public economy. That's
one reason conservatives normally oppose them - and one indicator of
how serious the present crisis really is. The economic crisis makes it
possible to put proposals on the table that have long been ruled
inadmissible.

While economists have
asserted with great confidence that one after another trillion dollar
"solution" would save the global economy, one after another has failed,
raising the specter that it cannot be saved in its present form. Peter
Boon and Simon Johnson of the website baselinescenario.com
recently raised that possibility in the Wall Street Journal. They
note that economists generally believe even the Great Depression of the
1930s could have been stopped by proper monetary policy. But, Boon and
Johnson argue, governments may simply not be able to prevent such huge
deflationary spirals. "Perhaps the events of 1929 produced an
unstoppable whirlwind of deleveraging which no set of policy measures
would truly be able to prevent." Their implication seems evident: The
same could be true today.

The multi-trillion
dollar rescues and bail-outs so far just attempt - possibly futilely --
to save the status quo. But what can we do if the status quo can't be
saved? Can globalization from below really provide an alternative
solution to the great recession?

It has already started
to do so. A landmark was the meeting of a group of social movements
and NGOs in October, 2008 on the occasion of the Asia-Europe People's
Forum in Beijing that developed a sketch for a "transitional program
for radical economic transformation." The "Beijing Declaration"
laid out alternatives that are "practical and immediately feasible"
that put the "well-being of people and the planet at their center."
This requires "democratic control over financial and economic
institutions." It includes proposals for finance, taxation, public
spending and investment, international trade and finance, environment,
and agriculture and industry. It provides a brilliant first expression
of a globalization-from-below alternative to the failures of
globalization from above.

The basic vision of the
Declaration is summed up in its title: "The global economic crisis:
An historic opportunity for transformation." Its goal, in other words,
is not to shore up the status quo and return to the destructive form of
globalization that preceded the crisis. Its objective is almost the
opposite of the eight-trillion-dollars-and-counting of bail-outs,
rescues, and subsidies provided to business in recent months by the
world's governments. It aims instead to provide "a transitional
program for radical economic transformation" to a "different kind of
political and economic order."

"Transitional program"
may sound like antiquated socialist rhetoric - a call to take state
power and nationalize industry. But both the goals and the methods are
very different. Indeed, the Declaration points a path between merely
reestablishing the status quo and assuming that actions must be
"revolutionary or nothing."

No "maximalism" here.
"To capture people's attention and support" the Declaration argues,
proposals must be "practical and immediately feasible." That is
possible because, even under the domination of globalization from
above, people have been developing alternatives within the world's
nooks and crannies. The unfolding economic crisis provides the
opportunity "to put into the public domain some of the inspiring and
feasible alternatives many of us have been working on for decades."

The goal linking these
alternatives is "the well-being of people and the planet." And that
requires a focus not primarily on restoring the financial system, but
first and foremost on the great human and environmental crisis the
world is facing in relation to food, climate, and energy.

Such common human
interests are not the principal concerns of the people and institutions
that now call the shots in national governments or the global economy.
The "well-being of people and the planet" will not be achieved by
economic jiggering. Instead, "democratic control over financial and
economic institutions are required."

The vision of such
democratic control, however, is not of either a centralized national or
a centralized global economy. It is closer to what Walden Bello elsewhere described
as the "co-existence" of a variety of "international organizations,
agreements and regional groupings" that would allow "a more fluid, less
structured, more pluralistic world with multiple checks and balances"
in which nations and communities can "carve out the space to develop
based on their values, their rhythms, and the strategies of their
choice."

The current economic
crisis creates opportunity for transformation, the Declaration argues,
because it severely weakens the power of the US, the EU, and the IMF,
World Bank, and WTO. It undermines the legitimacy of the neo-liberal
paradigm. And, where global pseudo-consensus once asserted that "there
is no alternative" to liberal capitalism, the future of capitalism is
now becoming an open question.

Of course, this moment
can also be seized by "fascist, right wing populist, xenophobic groups"
who will try to "take advantage of people's fear and anger for
reactionary ends."

What is the agency for
pursuing constructive alternatives and resisting destructive ones? It
starts with the "powerful movements against neo-liberalism" that have
been built over past decades. These will grow along with public anger
at the abuse of public funds for private subsidy, the crises of food,
energy, and the environment, and the deepening recession.

As social movements
from around the world converge in Belem, Brazil at the end of January
for the World Social Forum, they will be in a position to take the next
step toward realizing their potential as the world's "other
superpower." Indeed, it is the convergence of the already existing
networks and understandings of globalization from below with the new
outrage at what neo-liberalism has done to the world that provides the
opportunity to show that another world is indeed possible.