A little belatedly, some thoughts on After the New Economy. Other Timberites are still in the throes of writing their posts, so we’ll do a linkage post pulling the various responses together (as well as the responses of non-CT people such as Brad DeLong), when we’ve all reported. First take – this is a very good book indeed. It provides a trenchant response, not only to the New Economy hype, but also to the political project that it implies. Most importantly (and unusually, for a book about the US economy) it’s solidly based in a comparative framework, examining not only the relationship between the US and the world economy, but also showing that the experience from other countries (European social democracies) suggests that large welfare states aren’t necessarily a drag on growth. Brad DeLong notes somewhere or another on his blog that the economic success of the statist Scandinavians is a real puzzle for economic theory; this is something that should give pause to gung-ho US advocates of unfettered free markets, but rarely does. It’s nice to see the lesson being drawn out in a book that isn’t aimed at an academic audience. Furthermore, as Kieran has already noted, After the New Economy avoids falling into the trap of bucolic communitarianism; Henwood makes a guarded – but thoughtfully argued – case for the potential benefits of globalization for societies in both the West and the developing world. He’s right on all fronts, I think – but there’s still something missing in the book, which reflects a wider absence in the political debate. Not only is there not much in the way of a pro-globalization left; what there is doesn’t have much in the way of a positive alternative vision to offer. This means that Henwood is able to make a strong case for the prosecution, but doesn’t have very many positive arguments to defend his own vision of globalization.
This is important, because “After the New Economy” isn’t merely an effort to debunk. Henwood believes that many of the stated aspirations of New Economy evangelists are worthwhile, but rightly resents how they’ve stolen the imagery of social revolution, without any intention to deliver on the concrete reforms that would make such a revolution possible. Still, it’s evident that the myths of democratization of ownership, of non-hierarchical workplaces and the like have real appeal – which suggests to Henwood that there is a real appetite for social change that the left can build upon. But it’s not clear to Henwood (or indeed to me) how best the left can do this, precisely because there isn’t a clearly articulated alternative political program that builds on the good bits of the globalized economy and information technology revolution, while avoiding some of the pitfalls.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is Michael Hardt’s and Toni Negri’s book, Empire. Henwood acknowledges that the book has flaws, but sees it as a good starting point for left-wingers who want to take globalization seriously. However, the weaknesses of Hardt and Negri’s vision not only weaken, but perhaps even cripple their argument. Empire proposes that there’s a confrontation between the Empire (roughly speaking, the forces of global capitalism) and the Multitude of workers, who are empowered as well as disempowered by globalization. It’s a nice story – but like the political program of the autonomous Marxist movement that Negri founded in the 1970’s,1 it’s remarkably scant on detail. As Henwood more or less acknowledges, it’s a celebration of agency that shows no particular interest in the actual social agents that are involved in globalization. Nor does it have any concrete political proposals to offer beyond a couple of pie-in-the-sky aspirations towards global citizenship.
The same is true of what Henwood describes as the “utterly wonderful” growth in activism over the last few years, which has been associated with the fight against the MAI, Seattle etc. Henwood is right in pointing to these activists, and the international social movement that they’re creating, as evidence that globalization and communications technologies can cut both ways, facilitating not only the advocates but the opponents of neo-liberalism. Skeptics for their part can point to the pronounced lack of a coherent set of ideas uniting these activists; their principal (and perhaps only) point of agreement is what they’re against. “Teamsters and Turtles: Together at Last” will only go so far without a concrete vision of why it is that Teamsters and turtle-lovers should be cooperating in the long run, and what sort of global society it is that they should prefer over the neo-liberal alternative.
There are real dangers in celebrating the counter-movement against neo-liberalism without spelling out a clear alternative vision of what globalization and the New Economy should involve. First, it’s all too easy to fall into Hardt and Negri’s trap – fetishizing resistance and counter-power as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. Second, it obscures the very difficult task of constructing a realistic and coherent vision of global politics that more closely matches the egalitarian priorities of the left. Henwood’s dissection both of right-wing New Economy boosterism, and of the back-to-the-Stone-Age inanities of some anti-globalization activists is lovely to behold. But I suspect that he would agree that it’s only a first step – the second, and far more difficult one, is to construct an alternative. As Henwood correctly points out, it’s hard to continue to maintain the argument that socialism can be maintained in one country. However, the difficulties in creating a global alternative are enormous and obvious – for better or worse, there are few of the same solidaristic feelings on the global level that there are at the national. But that, I suppose, is the matter for another book.
1 Negri’s life history reads like a bad novel; political science professor and founder of autonomist Marxism; arrested for the kidnap and murder of Italy’s Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, and also charged with being the ‘secret leader’ of the Red Brigades; release from prison after his election to Parliament as a Radical deputy; flight to France when Parliament decided to revoke his immunity; a decade of exile followed by a voluntary return to prison in 1997 as part of a deal that the Italian government then went back on.