Capitalist Hegemony: The Political Challenge of Alter-Globalization

By Jessica C. Tselepy
2015, Vol. 7 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

Concern regarding the inequity and commodification apparently necessary for the capitalist system to thrive is not new. Marx, in his work Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867), raised the idea of the fallibility of fetishism, including an “attribution of magical powers to the ‘global market’ as the Chief Good of all human action” (Haufler 2013: 74). The transnational bloc that dominates today is nonetheless predicated on the capitalist forces of ‘the market’ and a neoliberal conception of world order.

Commonly associated with the economic principles espoused by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her US counterpart Ronald Reagan, neoliberal globalization conceives of the market and private capital as the main drivers for the “restructuring of economic, political and life” (Bangura 1994: 787). After a decade of TINA (There is No Alternative) indoctrination, a momentous backlash emerged in the 1990s (Ramos 2006: 3). Intent on exposing the internal conflicts and failures innate in a system that allowed the propagation of global stratification, activists representing global civil society began to protest (Carasik 2008: 55). This principally entailed targeting “large multinational corporations and the governments and international institutions at the service of those corporations’ interests” (Utting 2005: 381). Drawing global attention to the inequalities existing between the “core and periphery” of the global order, alter-globalization began to articulate visions for a more democratic future (Wolford et al. 2009: 445).

Global Capitalism

Illustration: Cristina Bernazzani

However, alter-globalization has experienced shortcomings in mounting a challenge to the dominant ranks of the international political, social and economic world order. An evaluation of these limitations will be addressed in three points. Firstly, the lack of a common interpretation of the movement’s objectives has hindered its search for an alternative hegemonic ideology. The movement has conferred no entirely accepted priority on social causes in its quest for change, resulting in the absence of a centralizing element to unify disparate voices. Secondly, there is an absence of a feasible model for a globalized and democratic political structure, rendering the creation of substantive political goals unlikely. Ongoing ruptures and difficulties in negotiating differences, consequent of this lack of structure, have restricted alter-globalization’s legitimacy. Finally, points articulated in the ‘Porto Alegre Manifesto’ have prematurely targeted institutions at the core of the capitalist system, rather than creating a substantive strategy to unify the movement.

While the alter-globalization movement has inspired global contemplation of the flaws inherent in capitalist hegemony, the political impracticality of polycentrism has left the movement unable to articulate effective counter-hegemonic collective will.

While asserting a central belief in grassroots change, the manifesto’s top-level intent necessitates the cooperation of leading neoliberal political structures, reducing the movement’s chances of fulfilling their proposals. This essay will contend that while alter-globalization has affected global introspection of the flaws in capitalist hegemony, the inherent political impracticality of polycentrism has rendered it incapable of articulating counter-hegemonic collective will. Before an examination of these challenges can be conducted, attention must be given to both the theoretic and historical contexts in which the movement arose, alongside a clarification of the neoliberalism that is apparently core to its contention.

The notions expounded by Antonio Gramsci are commonly identified as the theoretic point of departure for conceptualizing the anti-globalization movement. His strategy for revolutionary social transformation has been extracted to create counter-hegemony in the form of transnational protest summits and world social forums (Allman 1999: 18). Using the “unorthodox Marxism of Gramsci” to examine the configuration of the global order, the focus of such meetings is on transforming the materialist problematic of the current global order (Holub 2005: 4). Since the rise of this counter-hegemonic contestation, there has also been a surge of attempts to theorize the movement retrospectively. Stemming from Gramscian inflection, Stephen Gill’s hypothesis is arguably the most notable, arguing that anti-globalization’s “protests form part of a worldwide movement that can be understood in terms of new potentials and forms of political agency” (Gill 2000: 137).

Writing in response particularly to the 1999 Seattle protests and the later Porto Alegre Manifesto, Gill believes alter-globalization is “a counterhegemonic and planter challenge to capital” (Ibid). Understanding this theoretical context assists in avoiding the trap of idealizing or miscomprehending the concept of a counter-hegemonic movement, such as alter-globalization, which according to this context acts as an alternative to the dominant capital structures of world order.

Two events must be highlighted since the turn of the century to provide historical context to alter-globalization’s current political challenge. Despite significant incidents that occurred in the 1990s, which provided a foundation for the movement’s rise, attention is given to these two events in particular as they severely altered the movement’s direction. The first is the historical breakdown of neo-imperial coercion in the years following September 11, 2001 (Ikenberry 2005: 141). The assault to confidence globally in the prosperity of the neo-liberalist world consequent of ‘9/11’ appeared to provide apposite timing for activists who fought against this hegemony, supporting the creation of the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001.

However, the global atmosphere of uncertainty in the aftermath of September 11 allowed labels of terrorism and disloyalty to be ascribed to such activists (Judt & Lacorne 2005: 167). This significantly undermined the legitimacy of the demands of anti-globalization. The second event seems a potentially more accommodating circumstance for the movement, as it directly demonstrated the flaws of the global capitalist system. The renewed feeling of urgency ensuing the 2008 ‘Global Financial Crisis’ (GFC) sparked attention towards finding a ‘humane heir’ to neoliberal globalization (Tittawella 2008: 24). This crisis, as it was predicted to “consume the real economy of jobs and welfare,” was argued to be an opportunity for social movement to get their foot in the door (Clarke 2010: 382). However, while the dominant global arrangements fell into crisis, the failure to conceive a practical and popular alternative resulted in an elitist reaction retaining its dominance, which was favorable to capital becoming dominant in the aftermath of the GFC (Stephen 2009: 495).

In both of these instances, alter-globalization diverged its attention from constructing a strategy to unite socio-economic polarities in the face of fractured local responses. This inability to address the gulf between convergence and diversity during global crisis has left the alter-globalization movement continually dominated by the hegemony it contests.

There is a final key clarification that must be made before delving into an evaluation of alter-globalization. A crucial oversight that numerous authors have made is characterizing alter-globalization as a response to ‘neoliberalism’. The sheer variety of conceptions of neoliberalism, present most notably within and around the Mont Pèlerin Society, has resulted in it being selectively applied to suit contrary arguments (Peck & Tickell 2007: 34).

For instance, divergent from its common application, Foucault observed in 1978 that, “neoliberalism should not be confused with the slogan ‘laissez-faire,’ but on the contrary, should be regarded as a call to vigilance, to activism, to perpetual interventions” (Mirowski 2008: 114). It is the impression of the author that the majority of commentators utilizing this term in regards to alter-globalization employ it as a freedom “unequally distributed as the riches of the marketplace” (Mirowski & Plehwe 2009: 445).

The hegemony that the alter-globalization movement contends must therefore refer most appropriately, according to the literature, to the existing dominance of the financial austerity measures introduced by Reagan and Thatcher that have caused ubiquitous inequities to pervade the global structure (Pleyers 2010: 19). Any analysis of the political challenges of the movement must comprehend the multiplicity of meaning of neoliberalism within this broader context.

The first political challenge of the alter-globalization movement is the lack of a common interpretation of their objectives, hindering their ability to construct a viable alternative hegemonic ideology. The importance of a central political ideology to act as a shared normative and comprehensive belief system cannot be overstated when vying for legitimacy in a politically structured global order (Robinson 2003: 270). Many within alter-globalization have been cautious of forming such an ideology, should it “force a reconciliation of diversity” (Stephen 2009: 493). As such, the movement has tended to avoid transition to a level of leadership and doctrine. In such contempt for existing ideological dominance, a leading difficulty they face is the linking of a range of diverse factions together.

The main drawback lies in the inherent and interminable difficulties of “gigantic” collective action.

This includes “associations of unemployed, homeless, and immigrant people, as well as developmental and environmentalist associations together” (Dahlgren 2013: 238). Further, these are often transnational in nature. For example, the Network of Global Resistance, an international coordination of youth movements, links a variety of nationalities together (Juris 2008: 213). As such, many of these collectives have shown a tendency to preference encouragement of a wide variety of ideological strands, rather than formulating a coherent overarching doctrine to guide action. While indeed this contends the notion of the world order as “a place of absolute, unilateral power,” the main drawback lies in the inherent and interminable difficulties of “gigantic” collective action (Stephen 2011: 210). While alter-globalization is clearly designed in an attempt to depart from reliance on traditional collective agency, it is unclear how global reconstruction can be achieved in its absence.

Some argue that the ‘Porto Alegre Consensus’ is a demonstration of alter-globalization’s ability to pursue reconstruction in the absence of a dominating political ideology. As Ignacio Ramonet claimed, a figure closely involved in the creation of the ‘Action for a Tobin Tax to Assist the Citizen’ (ATTAC), “now, nobody can say that we have no programme’ (1998: 17). However, given the overt alienation felt by many activists given the inevitably self-selective nature of the proposal, the creation of objectives in the absence of a central ideology seems to “create intense controversy and an uncomfortable divide between participants” (Larson 2010: 10).

Further, while the WSF has constructed a Charter of Principles, these arguably remain “vague and unsubstantial” (Funke 2008: 468). Without a cohesive and centralizing power, as Gramsci purports, “the multitude would scatter into an impotent diaspora and vanish into nothing” (Stephen 2009: 497). Conferring no clear priority on social causes, and thereby taking no stand as to the substantive points that would unify contrasting voices, lies at the heart of alter-globalization’s political challenge.

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