The World Is (Not) a Commodity

Ernst Lohoff
Deutsche Version

The anti-globalization protest has formed as a movement against neoliberalism. Across the spectrum of protest, certainly the ideas on how the ruling order is to be critiqued differ widely. There is also not exactly consensus on how the path to a more humane society could look. But all realize that the neoliberal dream of a total market is a nightmare.

This concentration on critiquing neoliberalism explains the remarkable response that the protest has gotten in the last years. But at the same time, because of this, it has to face fundamental orientation problems. Even though the policy of the capitalist powers and international organizations has not become more ecological or social by even a millimeter, the protest is in danger of losing the familiar front-line position. The official policy has long since backed off from the classical neoliberal project. Because of the crash of the New Economy, the USA has followed Japan in radically altering its course. In order to steer the setback of the burst speculative dreams of prosperity back toward the real economy and to prevent a devaluation shock, the Bush administration has no choice but to dip into the Keynesian instrument box. The staccato of interest-rate lowerings by the American central bank and the exploding budget deficit stand for a curious turn: the continuation of the dynamic stock-market capitalism with exactly those control policies, with which ATTAC wanted to slow it down.

When the ATTAC spokesperson Bernhard Cassen proclaims “that Bush was never so close to ATTAC as today” (the German weekly Die Zeit, 10/19/01), then his joy is pretty shortsighted. The stock-market etatist turn of policy does not at all demonstrate that a return to a postwar Keynesianism is possible or can even be implemented. On the contrary, it stands for a helpless crisis administration which unscrupulously shrugs off its own dogmas as long as the valorization of capital can be continued. However, every attempt to give the this crisis administration a “humane face” has already lost, because its the priorities and criteria must be accepted. It is not an arbitrary political decision when money is pumped into the financial markets and not into the social sector, but only follows the inner logic of a system which clings to “fictive capital” because its basis, the valorization of living labor-power, irrevocably erodes.

A better life can therefore no longer be struggled for as a by-product of the state-regulated capitalist modernization. A movement that racks its brain on how the path to a “better,” socially regulated and lasting globalization could look, hunts a phantom and paralyzes itself. The practical impulse of the anti-globalization protest is legitimate as well as dangerous. It leads straight to a dead end, when it agrees to the guidelines of politics and only allows demands which are compatible with the market and statehood. It is forward propelling, however, when it makes an issue of the concrete phenomena of devastation that arise from the imperatives of economization and business rationality. Whether in public health care, in the question of old-age pensions, or in the relations to the Third World–everywhere it can be shown that it is the worst of all possible solutions to transform everything into commodities.

It is a welcome development when, at the ATTAC grass-roots level, the demand for the Tobin Tax has lost popularity and topics such as the privatization of the pension system or the repression of the unemployed come to the fore. What can be wrong about confronting the neo-liberal project on the same ground, on which it carries on? Every illusion about the reform potential of the state, however, stands in the way. The improvement of living conditions by means of health care, nutrition, or housing can only be carried through by overcoming the logic of the eroding valorization of capital and its political administration. It is a matter of snatching the material wealth, the means of production and existence, from the clutches of the market and state.

In comparison with the self-image the critical-of-globalization spectrum has, it is rather paradox when etatist-Keynesian concepts now call the tune in the discussion. How can a movement, which rightly sees itself as transnational, place its hope in getting its rights on the nation state? Why would a movement, which understands diversity as being positive, want to get its rights restored by the state, the great standardizer? The great strength of the anti-globalization protest does not lie in the makeshift answers that one or the other person has at hand, but in the questions which are brought up. The motto from Chiapas, “preguntando caminamos” (asking we walk), is suited for the protest as a whole. The false etatist answer certainly hinders this sort of movement.

The way in which the world community can escape the economic irrationality and the terror of the economy is known by no one and cannot be known beforehand. There is no “one way,” but many paths, and their discovery is essentially to be found by practical activity. Much can be said about the ruling order, but above all, one thing: The diversity, of which the protest is always so proud of, contrasts violently with the monotony of the commodity society makeup. For the anti-globalization movement, this insight is not new. Certainly the outward forms of the market totalitarianism are as diverse, as the conditions which it meets in the different continents and social terrains. But the Procrustean bed of business rationality, which everything is to be subjugated under, is always the same. The innocent little sentence, “The world is not a commodity,” gets to the heart of the matter. The wealth and diversity of the world community can only unfold in the battle against the negative univeralism of the commodity form.

Translated by Richard Torres