An exchange on Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World
William Robinson's Marxist analysis of the dire situation and probable further ruin of global capitalism is compelling in its focus on the globalization of class conflict, without any recourse to hand-waving about historical determinism and dialectical materialism. The global elite, united at Davos, promise salvation by growth, but the profitable growth-promoting new technologies generate surplus labor and environmental destruction faster than they generate new goods and services. Global capitalism is promising economic growth to the poor while generating net uneconomic growth in the aggregate, with whatever increase in wealth is still left going to the elite. I think this is indeed what is happening, and Robinson nails it.
The solution advocated, as I read the essay, is “global ecosocialism,” which is defined minimally as something better than global capitalism. Fair enough, one can’t do everything in a short essay. Ecosocialism is different from “green capitalism,” although the differences might be more specifically identified. More importantly, both options are characterized as global. Can we really be so sure that global economic integration of formerly national communities is either ecologically sound or socially just, as presumed by the new ideal of global ecosocialism? Granted that capitalism is responsible for major problems, maybe globalism has its faults as well, faults that will remain under global socialism? And if the goal of global ecosocialism remains growth, then the “eco” prefix will quickly lose its meaning. Traditional socialism has been growthist. What institutional features of ecosocialism will constrain growth? Or is that thought unnecessary?
Different nations follow different policies: some succeed, others fail, and presumably all could learn from each other’s experience. In an integrated globe, there is one grand policy experiment, so failure has huge consequences. In evolutionary terms, there can be no group selection with only one group—success and failure are blended within the whole rather than separated by groups. Furthermore, cultures really are different, and what works in one country might not be right for another, much less for all. People exist as members of national, linguistic, cultural, and religious communities, not as global secular cosmopolitan individuals all speaking Esperanto at Davos. In other words, cosmopolitanism seems to be assumed in global ecosocialism as well as in global capitalism, while the legitimate claims of communitarianism are relatively neglected in both cases. Likewise, the larger scale of organization seems to be privileged over the local. By contrast, Reinhold Niebuhr thought that “the larger the group, the more certainly will it express itself selfishly in the total human community.” This would suggest that even the nation-state is usually too large.
We need global community, but there are at least two types: a single integrated global community whose one economy is specialized geographically by absolute advantage and centrally administered, or a federation of separate but interdependent national communities, specialized and trading according to comparative advantage. The first is the WTO vision of a single integrated global economy; the second is the original Bretton Woods vision of interdependent but sovereign economies trading when mutually advantageous. Does global ecosocialism assume the WTO vision in preference to the original Bretton Woods vision? Does it reject both as already too compromised by global capitalism? What alternative does it suggest?
We certainly need global institutions to deal with the irreducibly global problems of arms control and of climate change. If a federation of nations could agree on these goals, that would be as much as I can presently hope for from our limited capacity to reach global agreements. Even then, the parties to the global agreement would have to return to their countries and enforce the agreement by national means. Or is there some supranational enforcement power that is included in global ecosocialism? Is global ecosocialism democratic, with direct global elections? Will the goal of global ecosocialism be continual global growth, even if equitably distributed?
Herman Daly is an ecological economist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. He previously served as a Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank and was the co-founder and associate editor of the journal Ecological Economics. He has written extensively on theorizing the steady-state economy and co-developed the Index of Sustainable Welfare.
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