Letter and reply on globalisation – is it progressive or not?

We recently received this letter from a reader who made some criticisms of an article published some time ago on this website, The ILO and the myth of “fair globalisation”. We are also publishing a reply from the author.

Dear Editor,

Your article by Luca Lombardi on the ILO and globalisation is far too simple. It ignores most crucially the fact that the world that we live in is still less than 50% urban, and rural people in today's level of production tend to be very poor, so that even poorly paid urban work can be a considerable step up for them.

Globalisation is predominantly progressive if it encourages urbanisation, and the development of urban skills of all kinds; it is indeed vital that we increase many forms of consumption so as to increase the numbers of people who have regular well-paid jobs.

I submit that globalisation is at least 51% progressive for these reasons, and figures about the lowest paid workers, e.g. in South America, experiencing a fall in their real incomes, whilst quite possibly true, miss this predominant point.

Perhaps Ms Lombardi can reply to me? I would welcome a good argument on the points that she raises.

Ian Mordant,

September 25, 2005, UK


Dear Ian,

Thank you for sending us your comments. Criticism is always welcome, especially if it is constructive and presented with a comradely spirit with the intent of achieving greater clarity in our understanding of the processes taking place in the world economy and therefore sharpening the exposition of our ideas.

I would like to start by clarifying that we do not ignore the fact that only in recent years has the urban population worldwide reached almost half the total world population, neither do we deny the horrible situation faced by the peasants in the countryside. It is not our aim to keep millions of people in the abject poverty, which exists in many of the rural areas of the “underdeveloped” countries. Having millions, hundreds of millions of people eking out a miserable existence, working the land with rudimentary tools, with no irrigation or fertilisers is not our ideal. What these peasants aspire to is a better life, and this can only come about through the development of industry, the application of modern technology to agriculture and so on. In this, urbanisation is an inevitable and necessary part of the overall process.

We are not inventing anything new here. Marx dealt with it more than 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto. From a general historical point of view industrialisation and urbanisation are progressive. Indeed even capitalism was a progressive step forward from feudalism. But Marxists don’t stop there. Capitalism was progressive, but it had within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It is a system that inevitably generates crisis at some stage. This is an integral part of the system. It also creates a massive working class, its own “gravediggers” as Marx defined it.

Coming back to today, it is not enough to point to the industrial development of China or India if you do not also look at the way it is being achieved. Capitalism is expanding literally over the dead bodies of millions and millions of workers, miners, peasants... It is forcing them into terrible conditions both in the factories and in their neighbourhoods. Should we renounce any struggle to defend the rights of these workers simply because industrialisation and urbanisation are “progressive”?

You speak about “regular well paid jobs”. Of course, for a peasant to move from the abject poverty he or she lives in in the countryside to a waged job in the cities is an improvement. But I would ask myself whether we can really define Chinese wages in the urban areas as regular and well paid when a third of the workers receive their wages with a delay of months and in some cases only see their wages once a year, and also when we consider that the rate of profit is so high that they are paid something like the equivalent of 10 minutes of the revenue produced by their daily labour in terms of the commodities they produce. The level of exploitation in China is on an unprecedented level.

When we look at these historical trends we must maintain a sense of proportion. I will give just one example. Slavery in the southern states of the USA was a fundamental part of the development of the country, for a period. Marx and many historians explained that without slaves in the countryside, the development of US capitalism would have been impossible, and without US development a true world economy and world market would have been ruled out. Does this mean that Marx actually supported slavery? And does this mean that we should support slavery today? Of course, the obvious reply is absolutely not!

The same applies today in China or in India. The role of capitalism is to develop industry. This is a historical necessity. But it is not enough to say this. We must also analyse the concrete conditions in which this comes about. The Chinese working class, now made up of hundreds of millions of workers, is paying a terrible price for the alliance that has been established between imperialism and the Chinese bureaucrats. The fact that deaths in Chinese mines have increased dramatically and that most of deaths in the mining industry worldwide take place in China gives us an idea of how this process is unfolding.

Furthermore, we have to ask ourselves whether the development of Chinese industry can only come about in this way. Does it have to take place through so-called “market reforms”? We believe not. China had a state controlled, planned economy. The problem was not the planned economy, but who controlled it. Instead of genuine workers' control and management we had a parasitic state bureaucracy deciding on everything. This inevitably led to problems (this was particularly obvious in the Soviet Union) and the state bureaucracy at a certain point turned to capitalism for help. They would rather guide China back towards capitalism than see the workers take over control of industry. In doing this they care little about the material conditions in which the workers are forced to live. All they can see is rapid development with themselves still at the helm. This way they maintain their material privileges.

Thus what was once considered public property to be used for the benefit of all, has now been largely privatised and handed over either to foreign multinationals or closed down. In the process a section of the state bureaucracy is transforming itself into capitalists. Although, this is bringing about industrial development, it is at a great human cost. If the planned economy had been under the control of the workers, a far more harmonious development could have taken place. For this to come about a struggle between the workers and the bureaucracy/emerging capitalist class would have to take place.

On what side should a Marxist, or any progressive person for that matter, be in this struggle? We think it is our duty to defend the Chinese working class against the terrible economic, as well as political, dictatorship they are forced to live under.

I have concentrated mainly on China, where in spite of the terrible conditions there is at least genuine industrial development. But what about Africa? What is globalisation doing for this continent? IMF and World Bank imposed policies are destroying what little there was of any welfare. Poverty is growing by the day. The truth is that capitalism in many parts of the world – Africa, Latin America and so on – is pushing millions of people into abject poverty. Far from development, we have the opposite. Under capitalism things can only get worse for these parts of the world.

Now to return to the main thrust of my article. The article had a title: The ILO and the myth of “fair globalisation”. The role of the ILO was one of the main threads running through the article. The article analysed a recent ILO report and underlined all the contradictions and limitations contained in it. It showed that the ILO, while complaining about some of the excesses of globalisation ‑ in reality the excesses of capitalism ‑ continues to support “market reforms”, i.e. privatisation, cuts in welfare and increased exploitation.

Thus, organisations such as the UN or even the ILO are mere fig leaves covering this exploitation. The UN does not defend the workers at all, and the ILO in many cases collaborates with the very exploiters of the working class, as we can see clearly in Iran and many other countries. Other international organisations such as the IMF, far from defending the workers, actually promote and impose policies that are detrimental to the welfare of workers and peasants around the world. Every government in the so-called "Third World" is under pressure to privatise, cut pensions, impose fees for education, cutback on healthcare and so on.

How can we define the closing of state-run hospitals, the imposition of fees for education, cuts in pensions, cuts in subsidies on basic foods, growing unemployment in many parts of the world, as “progress”?

This was what the article was trying to put across.

One last thing, Luca is a man’s name in Italian, the equivalent of the English ‘Luke’.

Luca Lombardi,

Italy, October 27, 2005