HISTORY: NOT OVER YET

I was surprised to see Ross Douthat, in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, invoke Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a post-Cold War tract whose star has fallen somewhat since 9/11. Fukuyama argued that whereas the 20th century was marked by intellectual crisis between liberal democracy and its ideological competitors, fascism and communism, once the Soviet Union fell, only liberal democracy was left standing. Now, Fukuyama argued, there is no viable, transnational ideology remaining to compete with liberal democracy, which satisfies a human aspiration for freedom that the Cold War proved to be universal. Thus: the end of history. Liberal democracy is here to stay, and things will not get too much better or worse from here on out. Since his book came out, of course, Fukuyama has gotten slammed by critics on the right convinced that with the Islamist Menace, what we’re actually in is not the End of History a la Fukuyama, but the Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington.

The stronger critique of Huntington, I’d say, comes from the left. Fukuyama describes, in Douthat’s words,

the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Like Huntington, Douthat places “liberal democracy” and “free market capitalism” in the same breath. Like two syllables on Sesame Street that inch closer together until they become a single word. On a global scale, the ideological competitor to democracy – to one person, one vote, people’s meaningful exercise of voice over the decisions that impact their lives – is laissez-faire capitalism.

Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God offers a great (and very funny) exploration of how acts of consumerism get rebranded by elites as the new acts of citizenship and the market is christened as democratic. But markets are not democratic. And as Michael Moore reminds us with a confidential CitiGroup memo in his new movie, the people who the markets award the most power know this (as he says, the bottom 99% of the population “have 99% of the votes”).

Who will decide what happens to natural resources or public sector jobs in a third world country? The majority of the people who live there, or international elites with structural adjustment plans and threats of turmoil? Who will decide whether a group workers for a union? The majority of the people who work there, or managers that wield the power to harass and fire them?

Those questions will make history.

IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME

Last week, the New York Times reported on the move in China to better protect workers’ rights, and in so doing stem the tide of rising social inequality. And it discussed the instant blowback from American companies:

Hoping to head off some of the rules, representatives of some American companies are waging an intense lobbying campaign to persuade the Chinese government to revise or abandon the proposed law. The skirmish has pitted the American Chamber of Commerce — which represents corporations including Dell, Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike — against labor activists and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Party’s official union organization…One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

This episode is an object lesson in how corporate-driven globalization works. While orthodox world systems theorists debate when we will shift from an era of American dominance to one of Chinese dominance, and the globalization gurus estimate how long it will take for “open markets” to unleash a new era of liberalism and freedom, corporate-driven globalization is lived by millions as a cudgel wielded not by a national government but by an economic clique, and wielded in the service not of human freedom but of management power.

When workers have the freedom to organize without retaliation and bargain collectively for better futures, they win better working conditions for themselves and their families, and they make it harder to treat them as infinitely flexible and fully disposable resources. That increase in the freedom and democracy of the workplace breeds understandable resistance from people who would otherwise get to call all the shots. Without global standards, global markets ease a global race to the bottom.

This is easy to lose track of in the bipartisan haze of “competition” and the elite faith that if a given nation just does enough to keep its workers cheap and contingent, it can outdo another nation’s efforts at the same. That’s a competition most everybody loses.