Global Social Democracy – Why I disagree with Walden Bello

February 2, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Just came across ‘The Coming Capitalist Consensus’, a thought-provoking polemic by Walden Bello, the Filipino anti-globalization guru and sociology professor based at Focus on the Global South. Walden argues that a new form of ‘Global Social Democracy’ (GSD) is emerging from the crisis of market fundamentalism and finance capitalism. He sums up its key propositions as:

· Globalization is essentially beneficial for the world; the neoliberals have simply botched the job of managing it and selling it to the public;
· It is urgent to save globalization from the neoliberals because globalization is reversible and may, in fact, already be in the process of being reversed;
· Growth and equity may come into conflict, in which case one must prioritize equity;
· Free trade may not, in fact, be beneficial in the long run and may leave the majority poor, so it is important for trade arrangements to be subject to social and environmental conditions;
· Unilateralism must be avoided while fundamental reform of the multilateral institutions and agreements must be undertaken – a process that might involve dumping or neutralizing some of them, like the WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs);
· Global social integration, or reducing inequalities both within and across countries, must accompany global market integration;
· The global debt of developing countries must be cancelled or radically reduced, so the resulting savings can be used to stimulate the local economy, thus contributing to global reflation;
· Poverty and environmental degradation are so severe that a massive aid program or “Marshall Plan” from the North to the South must be mounted within the framework of the “Millennium Development Goals”;
· A “Second Green Revolution” must be put into motion, especially in Africa, through the widespread adoption of genetically engineered seeds.
· Huge investments must be devoted to push the global economy along more environmentally sustainable paths, with government taking a leading role (“Green Keynesianism” or “Green Capitalism”);
· Military action to solve problems must be deemphasized in favor of diplomacy and “soft power,” although humanitarian military intervention in situations involving genocide must be undertaken.

As I read these, I found myself thinking ‘hmmm, sounds pretty good to me’ (with the possible exception of GM seeds, that is).  Which is disturbing because Walden is trying to alert us all to the new danger represented by GSD, arguing that ‘many progressives are still fighting the last war, that is, against neoliberalism’. He identifies four to my mind fairly unconvincing flaws.

1. ‘GSD assumes that people really want to be part of a functionally integrated global economy where the barriers between the national and the international have disappeared. But would they not in fact prefer to be part of economies that are subject to local control and are buffered from the vagaries of the international economy?’ Sounds alarmingly chauvinistic in the UK, where workers are currently striking to drive out foreigners, while in the US, Congress is backing ‘buy America’ legislation.

2. ‘GSD shares neoliberalism’s preference for the market as the principal mechanism for production, distribution, and consumption, differentiating itself mainly by advocating state action to address market failures…. This is very different from saying that the citizenry and civil society must make the key economic decisions.’ Not sure I want Oxfam et al running the Treasury, thanks all the same!

3. ‘GSD is a technocratic project, with experts hatching and pushing reforms on society from above, instead of being a participatory project where initiatives percolate from the ground up.’ Only if you discount trade unions, political parties and all the other organizations involved in constructing GSD as irredeemably elitist and ‘not civil society’.

4. GSD seeks merely to ‘minimize capitalism’s tendency toward crisis. Just as the old Social Democracy and the New Deal stabilized national capitalism, so…. GSD is, at root, about social management.’ Well the previous period of social democracy (the ‘golden age’ of the post war generation) produced unsurpassed progress for poor people around the world, so Walden’s alternative had better be convincing.

And I don’t think it is. His final call to arms says ‘Progressives should boldly aspire once again to paradigms of social organization that unabashedly aim for equality and participatory democratic control of both the national economy and the global economy as prerequisites for collective and individual liberation. Like the old post-war Keynesian regime, Global Social Democracy is about social management. In contrast, the progressive perspective is about social liberation.’

Which is pretty unspecific stuff, more concerned with process than policies or institutions. It reminds me of Omar Cabezas, the Sandinista comandante, who in the film of his wonderful autobiography describes arriving in triumph in the main square of Managua on 19 July 1979, the day of the Revolution, sitting down with all the other comandantes, and one of them saying ‘OK, so now what do we do?!’