Labor Day weekend, I flew to Toronto for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Not surprisingly, complexity, globalization and unpredictability were themes of the conference. Globalization has become a catchword to celebrate every aspect of modern capitalism. Yet globalization has more than one source and can take many forms. Our future may depend on reshaping the reigning understanding of globalization.
I had an opportunity to reflect on globalization while engaging in one of its most problematic manifestations — air travel. My return flight on US Airways from LaGuardia to Bangor was uneventful. I read a book recommended at the conference, “The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond” by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Not wanting to lose my place during a snack break, I inserted an airline napkin in the text. Returning to my book, I noticed the napkin’s headline juxtaposed with my book title, “It is a big world. We’ve got it covered.”
This accidental encounter between Santos and US Airways’ napkin stimulated further reflections on globalization. Like most global firms, US Airways is a beneficiary of the Washington consensus. Open foreign markets to competition, deregulate industries, privatize public services, allow capital goods and money to cross borders at will. Crush unions, ignore the environment and trim safety nets. Consumers everywhere will benefit.
Airline and trucking deregulation, however, undermined one source of good working-class jobs. Its advocates respond that at least it made air travel more accessible to working-class folks. Yet as economic journalist Doug Henwood points out, when government economists factor in the increasing number of transfers and reductions in nonstop flights, the real cost of flying has outpaced increases in the overall consumer price index for the last two decades.
Airline competition over many routes is limited to one or two carriers, giving airlines considerable pricing power. Adding competitors would entail airport expansion, with significant traffic and noise pollution. “Covering” the globe with more air flights also increases atmospheric carbon dioxide. Despite airlines’ ability to quash labor, displace environmental costs, and increase prices, the industry has been perpetually in the hole.
US Air’s napkin goes on to brag that the airline covers the world with new nonstop flights to Paris, Birmingham, Oslo and Tel Aviv. Apparently, the only globe that matters is the materially affluent.
Critics of a consensus that pits workers against each other, exacerbates inequalities among nations and treats the environment as an open sewer are often called “anti-global.” Yet from its inception participants in the World Social Forum have been committed to finding global alternatives to international corporate capitalism. The WSF’s motto, “another world is possible,” implies globalization with two big differences. The emphasis is on initiatives from the bottom up. Just as basically, the WSF rejects not only the corporate dominated model but also even the underlying assumption that the world can be united through one underlying ideology, philosophy or worldview. As one commentator puts it, the WSF “was constituted as an important initiative of mobilization and articulation of the global civil society. From then on it has maintained a central role against ‘single thought’ offering a rich space for sharing experiences, drawing up campaigns and for debates on alternatives to social problems at the global level.”
In order to remain a focus for continuing debate and inspiration, WSF takes no positions as an organization, Its only membership requirements are opposition to corporate domination, an international outlook, nonviolence, and open participation, terms whose meaning it continually re-examines. Thus WSF participants have generally opposed the anti-labor thrust of Washington deregulators. But the body does not serve to foster “socialism” as conventionally defined.
Some labor and left parties have seen as their mission greater equality in material standards achieved primarily by endless growth in wages and affluence, including more and more air travel, for poor and working class citizens. But as an organization that includes first people’s movements and others moved by reverence for the Earth, the WSF challenges conventional left to explore the limits of their preconceptions. More broadly, its ongoing dialogue is premised on and seeks to advance responsiveness to new and emerging injustices. Only a flexible, self-organized mesh can cover a globe that may be more volatile and unpredictable than monomaniacal corporate globalizers and old-time socialists assume.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.