Notes on Giddens and the New Universalism

In Beyond Left and Right, The Third Way, The Third Way and its Critics and On the Edge (Giddens’ edited volume with Will Hutton) Giddens has been fairly consistent in his support for the global environmental movement, feminism and what he calls variously ‘global government’ or the ‘control of the global economy’. Giddens sees these social movements as countervailing forces against uncontrolled capitalism or market fundamentalism on a world scale. He has many positive things to say about the European Union and sees it as much more than a simple regional alliance. It is a prototype of he hopes many such organisations which would serve as, among other things, a buffer against global capitalism. While there is much in his comments on these matters that any Marxist would agree with, there are many problems in his presentation of which we'll here identify just a few.

  1. While he does make a few distinctions within the environmental movement he does not deal with the inherent contradictions between conservative resource orientated groups (Liberals for Trees) and more fundamentally radical organisations within the environment movement (Greenpeace). Just how these two groups could close ranks to oppose Australia’s (or the US’s) shameful environmental policy is not clear.
  2. Giddens in our view clearly overestimates the power of the global environmental movement. While it is true that communication is much more rapid and organisational problems are reduced because of this, it is totally inappropriate to assume that somehow these movements are the political equal of the economic power of global capitalism. It’s just very bad politics to assume this strength.
  3. Much the same criticism can be made of the feminist or more broadly the human rights movement. While this movement is global in reach it is also fractured and relatively powerless against certain religious states, for example fundamentalist Islamic and orthodox forms of Catholicism.
  4. Under the general heading of global government or regulation of corporate power Giddens makes interesting comments about the desirable state of corporate responsibility. For example, he says in The Third Way and its Critics (p147) under the stem of governments should seek to:

Just how governments are to do what Giddens wants them to do is not addressed. in all his writing. To talk about the activities proposed above to be carried out at the very time that the US government seems to be pulling out of any commitment which might stem the tide of ecological destruction seems quite inadequate.

It’s important that in looking at Giddens’ support for universal movements like environmentalism to remember that he does it against the background of neo-liberalism. Will Hutton in On the Edge (p 43) argues that while in intellectual economic circles neo-liberalism is pretty much stone dead it nevertheless lives on in politics. He points to the document that Schroeder and Blair presented in June 1999 as their model of updated social democracy. They believe that ‘markets are essentially benevolent, a wealth creating process that generates efficiencies. The argument is settled’. It is clear that Hutton attributes this position to Giddens and we think he is right.

Giddens places the social movements identified above as part of globalisation from below, a concept coined by Richard Falk. It might be useful here to provide you with a paper we wrote several years ago on student exchange and globalisation from below (see separate attachment).

In conclusion we would like to quote from a recent paper by Robert Ware, a good Canadian friend of ours,

Contemporary politics has to be international in order to have any influence over international economics. Just as international economics is structured with connections between multinationals with their national bases, international politics is structured with national concentrations of power and coordination of national organisations. So goes the class struggle. It will involve national organisations, and international interconnections of them, on both sides.

This is the practice that we see today, and perhaps, not a bad one after all. Why not have people organise themselves and coordinate their activities in those regions where they understand the language and are familiar with the culture and institutions? These can still be international in the sense that we can exchange our ideas, knowledge, and customs with others.

This is compatible with a view expressed by John Maynard Keynes: “Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel - these are things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and above all, let finance be primarily national”. Keynes is obviously not the economist of the contemporary ‘ commonsense’ of globalisation, and it may be that we should have new ideas about what should and should not be national, but it seems obvious that much is, and even always will be, national. The propaganda about globalisation ignores politics, and much of the discussion of politics ignores nations. Canadians know this can be dangerous. The world is complex, politicised (along class lines), regionalised (along national lines) and globalised. It is still true that the workers (including all oppressed people) of all countries should unite.


Roger and Fiona
11 July 2001