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Moving on to globalization’s central political question

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates. 


Moving on to globalization’s central political question

By  Jeff Faux 

Nathan Newman’s comment gives us some traction that might move this conversation out of the tiresome rut that defines globalization as an issue of free trade vs. protectionism. The central questions are: what rules should guide the global social contract and what is the politics that could get us there?

The first question should not be in much dispute among American progressives. The integrating global market ought to have the same sort of social protections that we want in a domestic market economy. Labor rights, social safety nets, environmental standards, etc. Of course, we should distinguish between rights and standards. Every worker in every country should have the right to join an independent trade union to bargain collectively. But standards, i.e., the minimum wage, would obviously be a function of that nation’s level of development.

But it’s all pie in the sky without a political strategy.

To get one, we have to start with the understanding of how formidable are the obstacles to a decent global society. Nationalism is the strongest secular political sentiment in the world. And now we have the global investor class organized into the Party of Davos (feel free to coin a better label) – absolutely opposed to anything that smells like social regulation — dominating the global institutions and much of the domestic politics of the most important countries. That’s why we have so little to show for 25 years of trying to get labor rights into the rules of the international economy.

A global social contract will only come about when we have a global political movement to support it. Such a movement would require shared consciousness among the world’s working people (the vast majority in every country) that they have more in common with each other than they do with the global capitalists who happen to share their nationality. Today, many in the trade union movement are making a valiant effort to generate that common consciousness. But it is an agonizingly slow process, further hobbled by that natural tendency for those fighting global capital to use nationalism to rally their troops. Moreover, trade unions represent only a fraction of the global labor force.

My proposal for developing a cross-border movement to support a social contract in North America is not a brief for stopping that effort. (Nor is it the solution for the US trade deficit. For that, see my paper at I’m simply suggesting we open up another front in the battle for a global social contract.

In the current world of six and a half billion people and 200 countries, full of religious and ethnic hatred, the task of developing shared consciousness among ordinary people seems impossible. But if we think about it as a step-by–step, the odds get better. The European Union is furthest ahead. Yes, one step backward for two steps forward and plenty of problems, but slowly a sense of European identity is being developed – particularly among the young – and the European progressives are developing a social agenda and forcing parts of it into the law. There are similar nascent efforts in the cone of South America, in Africa and Southeast Asia. I think we need a North American progressive movement for its own sake (as we blog, the continent is becoming more and more integrated under NAFTA’s reactionary framework.) But a serious effort on this continent, involving Americans, would also reinforce and inspire progressives in other regions as well.

Yes, to some degree this implies regional economic blocs. Global purists may think this would be a step backward. I think it would be a step forward.

Jeff Faux is the founder and a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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