john a. powell and S.P. Udayakumar
john a. powell and S.P. Udayakumar, Poverty & Race
(May/June 2000), Global
Economic Exchange, (Last Visited: October 28, 2002).
The world economy is in a state of what is commonly viewed as
unprecedented growth. But with this growth has come dangerous and
destructive economic disparity. On the one hand, we see the
"impressive" economy in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in the
United States, where Silicon Valley, a region of 2.3 million people,
has produced tens of thousands of millionaires, with 64 new ones every
day. There are regular U.S. reports of historically low unemployment
rates, labor shortages and booming economy.
On the other hand, many people of color, particularly those in the
Southern Hemisphere, do not have enough food to eat, resulting in
malnutrition and disease. They face growing inflation while their
governments, which used to subsidize some aspects of their marginal
living, are urged to stop subsidies for food and adopt a more
market-oriented economics. Many workers in these economies are trapped
in poor working conditions with low pay. Women are often expected to
do back-breaking farm and domestic work, with few rights or
benefits. Yet many of the fiscal policies pushed onto developing
countries and adopted in northern countries exacerbate the problem of
the most marginal while celebrating the wealth of the rich.
In the North as well, people of color often find themselves being
left farther and farther behind. Even as states in the U.S. and the
nation as a whole report budget surpluses, we seem unable or unwilling
to provide adequate housing for the growing number of working-class
and homeless families, to repair the physical structure of schools
that house low-income students of color, or to provide social services
or medical attention for those most in need.
Sweatshops that employ people of color working as virtual slave
laborers are tolerated -- even encouraged -- as part of the new world
trade. The public space people of color and marginal groups are most
dependent on -- whether it is public hospitals, schools, parks, or a
social welfare system -- is constantly attacked as inconsistent with
the needs of capital and the market. Indeed, we are encouraged to
remake public space to mimic private space with a market,
anti-democratic orientation where we are consumers, not citizens.
How are these disparate conditions related to globalism, and why
are people of color under the most severe threat from this process?
Certainly, other people are also under a threat from this
globalization process, and some would assert that democracy and
capitalism itself may be undone by this process if it is not
checked. To answer the above question and to understand why minorities
and other marginal populations are most at risk, it is first necessary
to better understand what globalism is, particularly the type of
globalism that dominates today's markets.
What Is Globalism?
In the most general sense, globalism refers to the process in
which goods and services, including capital, move more freely within
and among nations. As globalism advances, national boundaries become
more and more porous, and to some extent, less and less relevant.
Since many of our early industries, such as steel, were
location-sensitive, there was a natural limitation to
globalization. To be sure, some things remain location-sensitive, but
mobility is the trend. It is assumed that liberalizing laws and
structures, so that goods and services can become more globally
focused, will produce more wealth, and indeed this seems to be
true. Using this general understanding of globalism and globalization,
it would be accurate to say this process has been developing and
growing for well over a hundred years.
But there have been many changes in the globalization process in
the last two decades that makes it distinct from earlier
incarnations. The major thing being traded in today's global market is
information and capital itself, rather than commodities or other
products. Technological change allows capital to move almost
instantaneously. Changes in monetary policies, as well as in what is
being traded and the importance of capital, have created a global
market distinctively different from previous eras. Earlier products
and capital were more rooted to a place. Today, many of the things
traded and produced in the global market, such as knowledge and
computer technology, are extremely mobile or rootless.
The United States has emerged as the only world superpower. This
has allowed the U.S. tremendous influence in setting the terms for
global trade. The style of globalism pushed by the United States has
favored the free movement and protection of capital, while being at
best indifferent and at worst hostile to the more place-dependent
labor. It is the dual relationship of mobile capital and fixed,
unorganized and unprotected labor that has created the conditions for
capital to dominate. This has been greatly enhanced by the
U.S. position toward organized labor and capital. While the U.S. has
been aggressive in protecting capital both at home and abroad, it has
encouraged both the weakening of organized labor and removing
protections for workers.
While both Japan and Europe have aggressively pushed for globalism, each has been more willing to protect labor, the
environment and certain markets -- at least within their own
borders. It is the United States that has consistently been the most
radical on liberalizing capital and protecting it as it moves across
boundaries, and the most hostile to protecting labor and fragile
markets. Protecting labor expresses itself not only in strong unions
and workers' benefits but also in a strong social welfare system. The
United States has purposefully moved toward weaker labor unions, as
well as an anemic social welfare system. It has used the globalism it
advocates as justification for keeping workers' jobs insecure, pay and
benefits relatively low. Workers are told that pushing hard for
benefits will cause capital to leave to another location in the
country or the world where workers are willing to work for less with
The United States and the international organizations over which
it has substantial influence, such as the International Monetary Fund,
have demanded protection of capital and encouraged or tolerated the
suppression of labor and the environment in the weaker southern
countries. Capital is actively being directed to markets with low
wages, where workers are sometimes abused and labor organizations
suppressed. The wealth this globalism is creating is being forcefully
subsidized by vulnerable workers and the environment, especially in
the Southern Hemisphere. This logic is then used to weaken the
position of labor in the North, as we are required to compete with
unorganized, suppressed labor in the South.
While sweatshops and slave labor may attract capital investments,
what about the futures of black welfare mothers in Detroit or the
Aborigines in Australia, who need government assistance to take
advantage of, say, the educational system? How or why does U.S.-style
globalism affect their needs? U.S.-style globalism not only attempts
to suppress labor, but also seeks to suppress social welfare systems
and support for public expenditures that do not directly benefit the
expansion of capital. The social welfare system and other public
services, such as schools, social services in the North and food
subsidies in the South, are supported through taxes, and taxes reduce
short-term benefits to capital.
In the North, it is women and minorities who are most dependent on
the public sector. These racial and gender correlations make it all
the easier to attack the legitimacy of taxation for this
purpose. Taxes are seen as undesirable because they reduce profits and
interfere with the market. But the public space, including the welfare
system, can only be supported by the public in the form of
taxes. Whether we are talking about education or other public
services, we are encouraged to believe that they should be as limited
as possible and made to mimic the market. Those who cannot thrive in
the market environment without help, especially if they are people of
color, are seen as free-loaders and illegitimate. In many ways, much
of the public space in the United States becomes associated with
people of color.
Goodbye, Democratic Vision?
Public purposes and civic goods -- to the extent they are even
recognized -- are no longer to be achieved through public institutions
but are to be privatized. The democratic vision associated with public
functions is to be abandoned or seriously curtailed in favor of the
ideal of efficiency. There is an abiding belief that democracy must be
limited because it interferes with the private decisions of market
experts, thereby reducing wealth and capital. And anything that is
perceived as interfering with the growth of capitalism -- be it the
social welfare system, labor unions, civil rights or government
programs -- is being curtailed, while government policies and
structures that protect capital, including the military, are enhanced.
Although proponents of this style of globalism purport to support
democracy, it is only in a role subservient to capital. In the United
States, we are softly encouraged to vote, while being constantly
reminded that in these global matters that shape our everyday life, we
have no say. We are told that no city, state or nation can or should
try to influence this powerful but uncontrollable process. We are
reminded that one can regulate capital, and any attempt to do so will
hurt the economy.
The deregulation of capital is made to appear both good and
natural. Our attention is drawn away from the fact that there are
powerful organizations supported by the U.S. government's leadership
that protect and facilitate the flow of capital. These institutions
include the World Bank, International Development Association,
International Finance Corporation, International Monetary Fund, World
Trade Organization, etc.
Unfortunately, there are no organizations of equal stature to
protect the interests of workers, racial minorities, the environment,
or women and children. There are, of course, several treaties and
international instruments dealing with some of these issues, such as
the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species,
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or
Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, and so forth.
However, they are nearly impotent, compared with the institutions
with far-reaching and substantial goals of protecting capital. When
citizens try to raise such issues, it is simply asserted that making
working conditions or the environment part of trade agreements would
unduly interfere with free trade. American-style globalism has not
just transformed the flow of capital, it has transformed the role of
government and the meaning of citizenship.
People are now brought together as consumers but kept apart as
citizens. The transformed role of government is not to protect
citizens or the precious safety net of public space but to protect and
facilitate the flow of capital. So today we speak of free markets but
not of free labor. We speak of an expanding global market, but a
diminishing public space, and we hardly speak at all of citizen
participation and justice. This is an authoritarian vision where
armies police people and nations, so capital might be free.
It is very doubtful that capital, despite advances in technology,
would be nearly as mobile as it is without the nationally brokered
agreements that have the force of law and the coercive power of the
state behind them. But while capital relies on the government to do
its bidding, we enjoy freedom as individuals without the power that
only comes from the collective action of informed citizens. While it
might be true that cities and states, and certainly private
individuals, can do little to influence globalism, it is clearly false
that nations, especially the United States, are powerless in the face
Undermining Social Movements
During the last part of the 20th century, the Civil Rights
Movement, the women's movement and the environmental movement advanced
their claims for inclusion and justice. An attack on the public role
of the state is a powerful strategy to limit the aspirations of these
groups. They aremade impotent in a forum where wealth, not votes,
dictates policies. These groups are marginalized in an economic arena
that transforms the market, with decisions made behind closed doors,
and not in public and civic spaces.
Destruction of the public space also results in a decline of the
public voice. In the United States, this decline in the role and scope
of democracy in the relationship to the market occurred just when the
Civil Rights Movement began to make significant gains in securing for
blacks and other minorities real access to the political process.
This article, then, is not an attack on globalism per se but on
the excess and undemocratic nature of the U.S.-style globalism popular
now, which is particularly hostile to people of color and other
marginal groups. This style of globalism disempowers average Americans
in every way, except as consumers. Globalization has been happening
for over a century and will continue. It must be re-envisioned to
appropriately protect capital, but also to protect labor, the
environment and people of color. These concerns must be seen as
interrelated, not as separate. Furthermore, we must create the
necessary international structures with transparency and
accountability in order to make this vision a reality and to develop
suitable remedies for the plight of marginalized peoples. These steps
should not be seen as hostile to business, but as an appropriate cost
of doing business in a justice-oriented and sustainable global
Despite the rhetoric about the unmitigated good that can come from
U.S.-style globalism, there is an increasing call to look more closely
at the process as it relates to people and the environment throughout
the world. Some assert that U.S.-style globalism threatens
democracy. Others argue that this style of globalism threatens
capitalism itself. We think that both claims may be right.
We believe it is critical to look more closely at what globalism
means for people in general and people of color in particular. Given
its more recent history of developing a social compact that includes
all people, the United States should not be championing a style of
globalism that is blind to the needs of some sectors. If this process
continues, we are likely to permanently re-inscribe a subordinated,
life-threatening status for people of color all over the globe and
rationalize it with an invisible hand. We can change this by working
to make the invisible visible.
john a. powell (email@example.com) is Executive
Director and S. P. Udayakumar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Research
Associate of the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of
Minnesota Law School.
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Focus on the Global South, Walden Bello/Nicola Bullard, c/o CURSI
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People-Centered Development Forum, David Korten, c/o Positive
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