logo LDH

Global Economy off their Backs

François Partant


Published in Development: Seeds of Change 1985: 2, p74-77, this is an abridged version of "L'économie-monde".

For the forces of production to develop at all there must first be an accumulation of capital; and this, thanks to a higher output and a higher productivity of labour, can lead to an enhanced material well-being of society. Or part of it. Capital and society have this in common (besides their common European origin -the one explaining the other) that both favor the creation of wealth by turning to good account any progress in technology.
Since the nineteenth century, development has been very rapid in those countries where the industrial revolution took place. Having colonies or other areas of influence at their disposal, these countries were able to promote, at home, a wide range of productive activities using the rest of the world as a source of supply (energy, raw materials, agricultural commodities) and at the same time as an outlet for their manufactured goods. In addition these areas were a field were they could give free rein to the many service activities. where, even today, they hold the monopoly. It is they who have brought about the great North-South imbalance - an imbalance in terms of world production potential - and their own development has spelled underdevelopment for those colonies and areas of influence. However, even if one disregards the highly particular historical conditions in which underdevelopment made its appearance, the industrialized countries claim to be "advanced" on the road to development that should be open to all. This advance would be "historical", But they would invite the other countries to catch up with them.

And yet, the sort of development we are referring to - that of the developed countries - is coming in for criticism of an ever more radical kind. We have had the criticism levelled by Marx (on production relationships, on the social conditions of the accumulation process), and latterly, a school of thought, originating in the United States and brought into relief by Ivan Illich, calling in question the social value of the progress that bas been accomplished, including that of the achievements most representative of development such as our systems of education, health and transport. What Illich does is to point to the deterioration in social relations. Thus, in countries where population growth is near to zero, the spread of deliquency and violence and the refusal of society are markedly sustained and regular. Those who put their faith in a correlation between prosperity and social harmony can only acknowledge that there is no such correlation. And, at the same time, along with the abundance come the grave negative aspects bemoaned by the ecologists in the abuse of non-renewable resources, the destruction of nature's gene pools in order to make way for plant and animal species that are high-yielding yet "standardized" and for that reason vulnerable, and, finally, the various forms of pollution with their nefarious synergism already beyond the danger level in the northern hemisphere as a whole. Are we to call a halt to growth - as the Club of Rome would have us do? The type of development we have been used to cannot go on indefinitely; nor can it be generalized to the rest of the planet, for it can only lead to the destruction of the biosphere and of the human race with it.

Growth as Social Imperative

Unfortunately, it is not possible to call a halt to development either. For the evolution in technology and in the economy is a resultant of the dynamism imparted to it by industry - and countries - in competition. Competition dynamics are, almost by definition, never mastered, and are not susceptible of being mastered. And the same is true of the evolution that it entails. For Capital has turned the world into its field of action, whereas the political power of the state is exercisable only within the confines of a nation, which is also the context within which social forces are able to organize themselves. In this "world-economy", no-one can withdraw from the competition without becoming the victim of it. This inexorability of competition, tragically illustrated by the arms race between the super-powers, has the entire human race in its grip as a consequence of its being organized in terms of nation-states (the apotheosis of collective selfishness) and as a resultant, also, of the underlying economic organization, which touches off conflicts of interest between closely interdependent nations. This is why all nations, the more so in the case of the industrialized one, are doomed to have to outdo themselves in order to outdo each other .

Since techno-economic evolution can only lead to catastrophes of all kinds, the halt in growth in the early '70s should have been seen in a positive light. At the time, however, it was noted that growth also answers a social need, given that society is structured hierarchically and is highly inegalitarian. Moreover, the hardening competition in a no longer expanding world market spurred on this evolution in technology. To be more competitive, firms would strive to gain in productivity by turning to technological progress, yet a progress that called for fewer people to do the work. Un- employment, which has always risen as a result, could only be absorbed by a return to a vigorous growth rate.

For a decade now the debate has been focused on this economic crisis that the capitalist world is bogged down in a crisis, moreover, that does not spare the socialist camp either. Yet "crisis", is a misnomer since by definition it is al- most always something essentially transitory (the term is used here merely for convenience). What we really have is a process of economic disintegration and the falling apart of the social fabric. All countries are caught up in it, though to an unequal degree, whether or not they are industrialized. But there is no parallel yet, in any real crumbling of the world's production apparatus. This is why countless firms, particularly the large multinational corporations, continue to reap handsome profits, and economists like Jacques Attali can say that the crisis is over .

In fact, since the economic field covers the entire world thanks to the competition dynamic of Capital. certain deep-seated flaws in the productive set up are brought to light. Economic activity continues to ensure a widespread reproduction of Capital and an ever dwindling labour force, but it does not ensure such a "reproduction" in society as a whole. Underemployment and poor wages, hitherto typical of third-world underdevelopment, are now to be met with all over the world. Can one expect that the social problems arising from such a situation - and they are insoluble, save at the price of creating fresh problems in the economic sector - will lead to a transformation of the socio-political and economic system? Or will they permit the emergence of an "alternative"? An attempt at answering these questions can be made by taking in turn the situation in the third world and that in the industrialized countries (the capitalist world indeed forming a heterogeneous, but indissoluble, whole).

The South Falling Apart

A first point to be borne in mind is that underdevelopment can connote two very different factual situations. A society is said to be underdeveloped when the means of production that it brings to bear are at a low level of technology com- pared with that of the industrialized countries (which continue to raise their own levels). It does not necessarily follow, however, that such a country will be in a miserable condition any more than was ancient Rome or the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Indeed, it may well enjoy a certain level of material well-being, especially if its socio-political organization is a harmonious one and if the added value is equitably distributed.

The sort of underdevelopment with which we are acquainted, and have been since the days of European colonial expansion and the industrial revolution, is of a different nature altogether. Underdevelopment in this sense is the resultant of trade between a dominant economy and a dominated economy, and it is to be seen in an impoverishment of the latter, at least as compared with the former. An underdeveloped country is condemned by competition not to produce all that it needs (means of production and consumer goods). As a consequence it must ex port ever greater amounts of its own commodities, and thus work ever harder in order to be able to purchase the same quantity of goods and services supplied by the industrialised country.

In order to overcome this impoverishment, logic demands that the technical means that enhance the productivity of labour should be imported, on credit, even. And all third world countries, whether they have adopted the capitalist system or the socialist system, have done precisely this. Such a policy (passing for one of development) has for a quarter of a century contributed mightily to the prosperity of the countries who did the supplying or provided the others with "aid". And in order to pay for the capital goods, the underdeveloped countries have had to increase their exports. Caught up like cogs in this meshing, they became ever more dependent on a world economy organized precisely by the industrialized countries for their own profit. Until the day came when they could no longer pay.

At this point the traditional social fabric crumbles. Being associated with a system of government (the State) that concentrates power in the hands of a few, the new mode of production - highly productive but also highly capitalistic - means that those who own the land and possess the modern means of production can drain off for their own benefit the financial resources generated by productive activities. While the elite, living in a western style, enriches itself and comes to form a middle class consisting almost exclusively of people with government jobs (especially the military), the masses sink even more deeply into poverty. And hunger grows year after year .

"In this 'world economy', no one can withdraw from the competition without becoming the victim of it"

Agricultural policy continues to be dependent upon general economic options, and governments hitherto have always favoured a growing integration of underdeveloped countries into the world economy. Given the many failures that have occurred, some voices have advocated an autonomous development, at once endogenous and self-reliant. This type of development implies a retreat from the process of integration and "homogenization" engendered by Capital and its internationally enforceable rules. Rather, each country would adopt the rules which best correspond to the physical milieu, with its culture, with its specific problems (e.g. unemployment) and with the needs of its people. The severe protection against competition and the major reduction in foreign trade that the countries must resort to if they take up this option could well lead to a collapse of the world economy, to the splintering of the capitalist world, and thus to a slump (if not the total falling apart) of the industrialized countries. The question thus arises as to how the development of the third world can be autonomous when that of the advanced countries is not.

For all that has been said, an underdeveloped country must still seek to rebuild its economy along autonomous lines, even if for a time it must accept the kind of development that was the norm before colonization and the industrial revolution. Hitherto the desire to rebuild has not been in the interests of the governing classes in third world countries or of those in the industrialized world. Autonomous, endogenous development was thus politically a non-starter. But this is much less true today.

Shrinking Pie in the North

Whereas the mode of production of the industrialized countries can be said to demand an ever greater expansion of outlets, the solvent countries, among which those of the third world are no longer numbered, come to represent an ever more restricted market, even in domestic terms as a result of the swelling ranks of the unemployed and proliferation of precarious forms of part-time and poorly paid employment. Added to all this, the means of production, of an ever greater efficiency from the technical standpoint, nevertheless spell diminishing returns from the financial standpoint. The profit margin being insufficient, there is no question of raising wages. On occasion it is even necessary to reduce family allowances, social security payments, unemployment benefit and old-age benefit, which until now (at least in Europe) have made it possible to maintain purchasing power disjunct from the employment situation and thus avoid a brutal contraction in consumption and the recession that would otherwise ensue. One can leave aside excessive interest rates or fluctuations in the rates of exchange, since these are phenomena associated with here-and-now situations and, when the situation has passed, would do nothing to alter the underlying problems any more than would a rise or fall in oil prices. In the social context, one must take into account the segmentation of the world of work, along with the question of unemployment.

The advocates of economic liberalism, with their prediction, hitherto, that class division in society would become blurred, thanks to generalized prosperity, now lay claim to merits for a dual socio-economy. Even though most workers are employed in a global economy with comfortable wages and a certain job security, there is a minority living off petty trades, and precarious employment. With these two socio-economies - and they are complementary - flexibility can be imparted to the economy of a country, as the cases of Japan and Italy seem to exemplify. Without disputing this point of view, we may nevertheless note that the two socio-economies described are well and truly installed in most industrialized countries, just as they are installed in the third world countries (where, however, only the minority is employed in that part of the economy which is also part of the world economy).

Seeds of Change

No "alternative" can be conceived other than as the product of a minority that decides to live differently from the majority yet at the same time seeks to solve the world's problem. And this is something that nations are unable to do. For an "alternative" is true to its name only if it is clearly something capable of replacing at some time in the future a system that is itself of world-wide proportions by gradually taking over the entire social field (thanks perhaps, to the worsening of "the crisis").

Now, the marginal minority in favour of the alternative is there already. Throughout the West, experiments in associative democracy and economic autonomy are legion, and see themselves as alternatives. For all their heterogeneity, their unequal success and their different degree of ambition, they can well prove to be the priming element in a more general movement whose historic importance will be determined by its conscientization and the role it undertakes.

For the moment, however, these are no more than experiments. They are few in number, dispersed, uncoordinated and without a territory they can call their own, so that they remain to a greater or lesser extent integrated in the present system. In order for this situation to change, they must gradually detach themselves from the system and acquire economic independence, rather as the farmers of the third world have done. But even now they prefigure the basis implied by the fact of being independent, independence being inconceivable save in a wholly democratic context. This is because the workers (who are also consumers) must agree to produce and to trade among themselves in conditions that are not market conditions, even if it means accepting a lowering of their standard of living. They will make their choice as to these objectives only if collectively they have the economic power in their hands. Now, the experiments made here and there are in almost all cases marked by a true will to democracy - the production cooperatives with their non-hierarchical structure and low specialization, where each member has his share in the decision making and receives the same pay.

Again, even though they are dependent on the market, experiments of the kind favor interpersonal and social relations rather than economic efficiency or profit. They reverse the accepted order of priorities, and eschew any relationship of dominant and dominated. They are called upon to work out the conditions in which production and trading shall proceed in such a way as to obviate conflicts of interest, since it is these that are also at the root of most institutionalized dominant/dominated relationships. They cherish individual and collective ambitions that are diametrically opposed to those that the system, because of its competitive dynamic, demands of each and everyone: produce more; beat the other man - in particular by having possessions, by affirming oneself socially, by one's consumption. And so on. In a word, they postulate a new system of values such that a different economic and technological system seems to be possible after all.

To be sure, these "alternatives" scarcely think of solutions such as those described at present. Experiments of the kind often take their inspiration from the Illich school of though and agree with the definition of autonomy as proposed by André Gorz in his Adieux au prolétariat, namely that of an individual autonomy whereby each and everyone can produce a part of what he himself consumes, while enjoying the benefits of an integrated production geared to the consumption of the masses. Individuals in an autonomous and organized micro-society are in a position, being on the fringe of the production apparatus, to enjoy many of the benefits that the latter offers. Nevertheless, a deeper understanding of the socio-economic difficulties might, if they are to ???serve this individual autonomy, oblige them to enter into association with others and bring into being a collective autonomy.

Less than a century ago, in Europe and North America a host of micro-regions lived practically on their own resources. This is still true of certain, very restricted social groups (Tibet, Andes, etc.) who are forced back to autarchy or have made this their choice because it gave them a chance of survival. The level of living of an autonomous society is governed by several factors - the resources of the territory that it occupies (it cannot acquire much beyond its own boundaries), its population numbers (which condition the diversification of its activities), and its production techniques. As regards the latter, it should be recalled that whereas certain techniques can only be employed for mass production, many other techniques can be adapted to short-run production. Energy sources in particular could be far more decentralized than they are at present without the price of energy having to rise. The standard of living, being less geared to consumer goods, would imply a different organization of society: it would be all the higher the more democratic that society. For, with rank done away with, direct democracy sweeps away, too, a whole series of parasitic functions and activities whose only justification is the existence of a hierarchy, so that the work demanded of society is to that extent reduced. To work less, to choose along with others what shall be produced, for a society whose organization and aims it sets itself and approves of - all these are the criteria by which any standard of living should be judged.

The bringing into being of any autonomous economy presupposes the existence of a technical organ to coordinate projects and secure their compatibility - a sort of flexible planning body that does not become a centre of power, the organ of economic democracy being no more than the forum where the collective decision is arrived at. Without going into a definition here, of the sort of organization and the principles governing its operation this might be, one may note that such an organ would need to have at its disposal the financial resources for starting up new lines of production. It would also function as a sort of think tank, able if the occasion arises, to plan the bringing into being of other autonomous socio-economic entities in the third world, too, and determine the economic relations that should be obtained with them.

Let us take such a project as already under way. Prompted by self-exiles from the system, these alternatives can be opened to those who are forced out of it: the unemployed and farmers ruined by the worsening of the terms of trade. In this case they take on an altogether different scope. The state, which at first opposed them, as in France and the Federal Republic of Germany, only to allow them later to develop (they help to ease social tensions and reduce slightly the numbers of unemployed), will no doubt encourage them in the end. For they may well prove to be the only way out, once the state has given up trying to solve problems that the unemployed represent for the active population; but they will lead to a cleavage within the nation and to a redistribution of a national territory - and to neither process will the liberal democracies be able to offer resistance in the manner of the Latin-American dictatorships. The state must race up to realities and recognize that the fraction of the population marginalized by the evolution in technology and in the economy is something to be round in all countries and is increasing world-wide. And there will be nothing left for it to do but allow it to organize itself, for it will never be able to eliminate it.

If the "alternatives" we are speaking of reach the point where they constitute a society, this will be neither national nor regional, even if the economic choices that it makes are governed by the specific factors of the physical environment and the original elements of its culture. More than any other society, it will be welded together by its ideology - by those principles which preside over its organization, by the values subtending the choices that it makes, by what it believes in and by whatever determines its way of living in relation to nature, to its aims, and so on. Even if the individuals making up such a society seek only to solve their personal problems (as the "alternatives" do today), from the mere fact that they re-adapt, albeit out of necessity, their production apparatus to their specific environment, they contribute to creating a context within which it will be possible for the peoples of the third world to solve theirs, too.

And this in any case is one essential political dimension of their project. Moreover, the original thing about their enterprise is that is presupposes a radical change in one's attitude to the "other". Now, the "other" is not only within the society made up by "alternatives", but wherever similar societies are to be round.

New Terms of Trade

And what they engage in is not disjunct from the attempts made by the farmers of the third world. It is important that they should help each other whenever possible; and it is important that, the world over, micro-societies should set themselves up and coordinate among themselves and in so doing call others into being. Politics and economics must no longer be dissociated in the disastrous fashion that they have been hitherto. To be sure, it is possible for a given pair of autonomous socio-economies to merge, if their organization is identical and in their objectives can be reconciled to such a point that they are able to form a single joint project.

Retour haut de page