Friday, November 27, 2009

Stopping short (2005)

Book Review from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Babylon and Beyond: the Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements. by Derek Wall Pluto Press

This is a textbook-like survey of various trends in the anti-globalisation movement. As such, it covers a great deal of material in less than 200 pages, from avowed supporters of capitalism such as Joseph Stiglitz to autonomists like Toni Negri, via Naomi Klein and (but why?) Major Douglas and social credit. There are too many direct quotations, and too many typos (e.g. references to Lenin on imperialism as 'the highest state of capitalism'). But not many readers will be familiar with all the writers and activists mentioned here, so the book does serve a useful purpose, though it is scarcely a full guide to the ideas of particular thinkers.

On the whole Wall summarises other views rather than expressing opinions of his own, but he does sometimes let his own attitudes show through. For instance, he is sceptical about the ideas of some 'green localists' that a decentralised economy would naturally lead to ecological sustainability and social justice.

The chapter on 'Marxisms' (note the plural) starts well, with a photo of the Socialist Party's founding conference, but ends weakly with references to Russia, Cuba, etc., as if these dictatorships constituted a valid reason for rejecting Marx's ideas. He discerns a 'pro-globalisation strand of Marx's thought', which is correct to the extent that Marx saw capitalism as expanding into more and more parts of the world, but it is simplistic to transfer what he wrote in this regard 150 years ago to the present day.

Capitalism has long been a world system and created the potential for abundance, so there is no need for further globalisation and the concomitant wars and impoverishment.

As a Green Party member, Wall himself seems to support what he calls 'ecosocialism'. Certainly we can accept that Socialism needs to include ecological concerns, indeed that this will be a crucial aspect of a society based on common ownership. We can also agree with his description of the ideas of Joel Kovel: "The use of what is useful and beautiful must be pursued, while exchange values must be rejected. . . . The rejection of exchange values is essential to reducing resource consumption and human alienation."

Unfortunately Wall stops short of advocating the abolition of the wages system, and it's just not clear what sort of society he does stand for. There are some remarks about "moving beyond the market" and "extending the commons", and some praise for the open source software movement, where software is put on the web for free (Wall suggests that Marx would have used the open source browser Firefox!). This is OK as far as it goes, but it needs to be taken that crucial bit further.
Paul Bennett

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