Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Fall 2011 - Volume 14 Number 4
Relations of Global Power: Neoliberal Order and Disorder
Gary Teeple and Stephen McBride, eds.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

As we lurch through the early years of the twenty-first century, chronic pessimists have no trouble finding problems about which to agonize. Environmental fragility combined with human ignorance, malevolence and plain bad luck can serve up a vast menu of lethal hazards to humanity. There is an ample supply of peril and risk for a stunning variety of crises de jour—enough for a newly announced impending disaster every day of the month, if not the year.

Those of us who resist the temptation to withdraw into bedrugged ecstasy, romantic fantasy, self-absorbed careerism, the "virtual" life of twitter addiction and "reality" television, the collective guilt of sexual debauchery and garden-variety moral turpitude, the bliss imposed by a DNA sequence featuring a dominant god-gene, or the call to become foot soldiers in the clash of various quasi-civilizations, have a lot of time on our hands with which to contemplate looming doom. Good thing too, for we have a task at hand.

Those who are able to stare into the abyss and maintain our gaze even when the abyss stares unperturbedly back have a big job to do. This is especially true if we are educators who feel the moral compulsion to inform our students of the clear and present dangers that envelope us and them, and to urge, inspire, cajole or scare them into doing whatever can be done to kick the can of exterminism down the street just far enough to give ourselves an undeserved opportunity to come up with a slick idea about how to extricate ourselves from the mess in which we have so willfully immersed ourselves.

To help us in such projects, there are lots and lots of books and professional journals to provide moral encouragement, useful information and practical advice. Unfortunately, some of the most potentially valuable readings are rarely read except by dreamy philosophers, meticulous scientists, stern public policy advisors, relentless researchers and unbearably earnest activists.

The reason is that, whatever the particular field—climatology, immunology or even cultural anthropology—the elevated and necessarily difficult concepts and specialized vocabulary are apt to fly well above the heads of an ordinary student audience and not a few teachers. As a result, too many become discouraged and convinced either that the subject matter and its implications for their near and distant futures is "boring" or, worse, that it is unfathomable. So, premature exposure to puzzling and seemingly arcane ideas and arguments becomes one more reason for shoulder shrugging and a further descent into existential twitching or sullen withdrawal.

Some of the more engaging pop cultural invitations to take our collective situation seriously—at least to the wired youth now in thrall to YouTube—may offer jolts of perception, but no follow-up, either in terms of deeper understanding or practical advice. An "awesome" revelation of various catastrophes-in-the-making in human and non-human affairs does not normally send young people scampering to the library or the research lab in search of well-framed questions, never mind constructive answers. Tweeting, moreover, isn't necessarily part of the solution, though it may be part of the problem.

Of course, for those of us who teach in the area of environmental, economic, equity and ethical issues, there are piles of standard four-colour glossy text books recommended by huge multinational corporations and marketed to guide our charges through contemporary social and ecological storms. Unfortunately, they all carry with them the ideological constraints of their brand. Since, except in certain benighted American school districts where Thomas Jefferson is being removed from history books (Texas) with the same enthusiasm that evolution is disappearing from biology (Tennessee), it is no longer easy to ignore or deny the parameters of the human condition circa 2012. So, it has become fashionable to address certain "challenges" without seriously rocking, never mind upsetting, the boat. The result is a plunge into banalities and bromides that offer up allegedly "objective" or "balanced" accounts of troubles and recommend "problem-solving techniques" which ensure that concerns are accommodated, but that nothing much gets done. Genuine threats to social and environmental sustainability are easily and safely finessed, any sense of urgency is diluted and these freshly minted adults are let loose to pursue careers doing whatever is demanded of them to maintain their "lifestyles."

Relations of Global Power: Neoliberal Order and Disorder isn't like any standard text. In a premature summary, the best I can say is that I wish it had been in print when I taught courses on globalization mostly between 2006 and 2010; I'd have boosted the sales by a few hundred copies, a modest but well-deserved reward for its editors and authors.

This is what's good about it. It is readable. By this I do not mean that it panders to the lowest level of literacy currently available in college and undergraduate university classrooms. Instead, I mean that it is not encumbered with self-consciously esoteric terminology; but, it nonetheless conveys serious information and ideas, but in language that competently communicates with attentive and authentic readers. It is devoid of gimmicks—whether in "production values" or academic distractions. It looks like a book, and not a marketing ploy. It is a refreshing alternative to "accessible" textbooks that seem conjured by marketing committees and focus groups composed of fairly unfocused people. And, it has a point of view, which is to say that it does not promote bland concessions either to mediocrity or to the "she said/he said" theory of education in which arguments are presented on behalf of two safe sides of what is normally at least a three-dimensional issue, and as a result of which students are invited to flip a coin (sorry, "choose sides") normally between idealism and realism, while being quietly encouraged to land in the dead centre of positive pragmatism.

The result is a book that provides structure and substance, a distinctive narrative flow—an unusual quality in anthologies with eleven different writers dealing with eleven separable topics. It is a book that properly introduces readers to the specifics of subjects from human rights to health care and from monetarism to Marxism. It does so by presenting essential ideas and enough information to allow the formation of thought without undue abstraction and factual material without excessive detail. It is advertised as a "comprehensive and coherent overview of the contemporary global political economy." The promise is fulfilled.

The principal theme of "neoliberalism" ought to be familiar even to novices approaching issues of political power and economic production both domestically and globally. Setting aside the whimpering claims of political ideologues on the right wing of the political spectrum—especially but not limited to "talk radio" hosts, FOX television entertainers and politicians exemplified by the likes of temporarily marginalized American presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann—that the mainstream media, institutions of higher education and other "elitist" cultural organizations are "liberal-lefty" instruments of socialist indoctrination, neoliberals also promote a persistently hard-headed and increasingly hard-hearted ideology that espouses "social Darwinism," "market determinism" and the virtues of capitalism, the less fettered the better.

Contrary to the protestations of its most lively supporters, neoliberalism has been the dominant ideology in the Anglo-American democracies for well over three decades. As well, it is what is sometimes called the "hegemonic discourse" in an increasingly large proportion of the world—now including not only the United States and its associates, but increasingly Russia, China and India, albeit in a distorted but recognizable form. And, of course, it is the prevailing doctrine in international economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Gary Teeple, Stephen McBride and their contributors not only explain the main themes and present some fascinating nuances within neoliberalism, but they also show clearly how this ideology and, of course, the political and economic arrangements that produce and sustain it, influence all of our lives, in and out of the classroom with no one exempt from its effects.

Teeple, who first gained a following with his report on Canadian nationalism some forty years ago, has already written strong books on important aspects of globalization; namely, its consequences for social programs and human rights.1 In this latest volume, he demythologizes the economic collapse of 2008, pointing out that the "casino capitalism" that brought terms such as "subprime mortgages," "toxic assets" and "derivatives" into water-cooler and coffee-shop vocabulary were not some indicator of especially egregious criminality on the part of Wall Street, but merely an extension and a fulfillment of the process of de-Keynesianization that had been going on since Teeple edited his first book.

Stephen McBride, Teeple's co-author/editor, contributes an excellent essay on "the new constitutionalism," in which contemporary governance is revealed as an increasingly powerful turnover of regulating capacity to the private sector. It fits nicely with David M. Kotz's opening gambit into "financialization" and with Claire Cutler's exploration the current crisis of political authority, which has been marked by the success of advocates of self-regulation and corporate control under conditions of late capitalism and what is deemed the postmodern society. Anyone who is deeply concerned with the apparent ability of both national and international corporations (now almost fully established "persons" with regard to freedoms, though not responsibilities, at least in the United States of America) to govern themselves and others, but who do not cope well with stiff economic terms such as "financialization" and "capital accumulation" will find all three chapters edifying without being overly taxing (so to speak). To conclude, Kavaljit Singh addresses the argument of the other side. Private business resents public interference with its profit-making powers, insists that regulations are largely unnecessary and cumbersome and claim that it can deal effectively with public issues through self-regulation. Singh, however, exposes three sorts of weaknesses with the deregulation argument. First, the burden of regulation is nowhere near the level about which private firms complain. Second, government regulations ensure stable market arrangements and actually facilitate trade, especially across national borders. Third, self-regulation simply doesn't work, as amply demonstrated by the Wall Street fiasco to say nothing of regular recall of under-regulated automobiles, children's toys and meat.

Relations of Global Power then addresses some important policy fields in which neoliberalism has played an especially mischievous role. Few fields are as instructive as labour relations when the topic is the so-called "race to the bottom." Free trade agreements have emphasized the fluidity of capital and modern technology has vastly reduced the annoyances of space and time. So, apart perhaps from the manufacture of railway locomotives and the growing of tropical fruit, almost anything can be produced almost anywhere and sent speedily and economically to market, with investment decisions more and more reflecting questions such as who will work harder than others, for longer and cheaper, and under the unhealthiest conditions possible?

The only obstacles to the global exploitation of labour arise with international unionization, which is rare, and international labour regulations, which are set against the combined power of multinational enterprises and enabling neoliberal governments. In very helpful articles on "globalization and the labour process" and "emerging approaches to global regulation," by Bob Russell and Mark Thomas respectively, an informative picture of the tribulations of workers is drawn. Russell takes the discussion away from traditional concerns with craft and industrial unions and focuses on working life in the "postindustrial society." His analysis of the impact of computers on contemporary work, the growth of "managerialism" (in conjunction with the deskilling of middle-class jobs) and what he calls "spatial disembedding" (otherwise known as "outsourcing") is both effectively written and extremely pertinent to teachers and others. Thomas, meanwhile, tackles the question of daunting issue of international unions and regulations, largely in terms of a discussion of the role of the International Labour Organization. The outcome may not be cheery, but the formation of an agenda for political action makes the essay worthwhile.

Three other themes are addressed. First, David Coburn, professor emeritus and something of a fixture at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, contributes a solid diagnosis of the social determinants of health and the effect of neoliberalism on both health and health care systems as they are found in poor, developing and developed societies. Distinguishing between a narrow economistic model of health care and a political economy of health, he finds a welcome measure of hope in the fact that globalization's support for multinational enterprises is at least somewhat modified by the emergence of a more informed global community that might, in turn, provide the basis for a genuinely international approach to human health issues. Second, James M. Cypher rehearses some and extends other arguments that Teeple made in his scathing critique of human rights activism. It's not, of course, that either of them have anything against free speech, free association or even freedom of religion; rather, the tendency to disconnect human rights from the structure of economic and political power makes resolution of concerns about rights and liberties problematic (to say nothing about instances of apparently equal rights such as gender equity and freedom of religion). Finally, James M. Cypher offers a stark reminded of former president Eisenhower's far-famed warning about the "military-industrial complex." Although there is no shortage of condemnation for American imperialism, the connection between arms suppliers and what Gore Vidal has called the American policy of "permanent war" is less often drawn, as though the domestic political economy of the United States and the tendency toward military misadventures abroad were separate issues. (The same applies, of course, to other countries, though at a lower level of intensity.)

Perhaps the most intriguing chapter in Relations of Global Power is the penultimate contribution by Elaine Coburn. After the collapse of the USSR, triumphalist capitalists and a slew of social democratic apostates mutually agreed that Marxism, as a philosophy, a science and a guide to practical politics was, finally, dead. This judgement was premised on the decidedly false assumption that the Soviet Union was the apogee of Marxism in practice or the only slightly less absurd claim that it was a reasonable facsimile of what Marxism would look like in practice. It was also based on the assumption that, once established not as the dominant but as the exclusive economic system, all countries (even the previously dreaded Russia and China) would embrace the emancipation from slavery and poverty promised by neoliberalism, all boats would rise in the sea change of prosperity and, in time, democracy would flourish around the world. As Francis Fukuyama proudly proclaimed, humanity had reached the "end of history" and all would henceforth be well in the best of all possible worlds.2 This, of course, was nonsense.

On the other side of the now imbalanced equation, critics of capitalism took a "cultural turn." Complaints were made about "identity politics." Postmodernism in general and a variation of "second-stage feminism," racism and postcolonialism took centre-stage on the left (so to speak), and the name of Karl Marx (never mind Friedrich Engels) was less and less heard in the salons and the bistros on the left bank, no matter what the rivers.

Elaine Coburn reintroduces him—quietly and politely, of course, and also about time. Her claims are modest. Marx's insight, she observes, was not of the vulgar variety. Economic reductionism, like most reductionisms, is simply not a credible form of social explanation. Not everything is a direct consequence of an economic system. Simplistic causation is actually unscientific. What political economy does, however, is set the parameters within which variation will take place. In any mode of production—primitive agriculture, feudalism, industrial capitalism or what you will—certain social relations and certain ideologies are possible and certain others are not. She credits Marx with two main principles. First, she says that:

… the boundaries of political life and even what is considered politically possible are profoundly shaped by the economy. Indeed, the mode of production shapes all aspects of social life, including human beings' most intimate thoughts and hopes, with important implications for political struggle.

Second, she explains that:

… economies are not natural and inevitable. Social reality is ultimately contingent: human beings make (and re-make) the economic world and therefore can change the rules of the game to which they are, at any given time, collectively and individually subject. No political economy is forever. Feudal economies preceded capitalist economies, and capitalist economies, in all their variations, will one day be superseded by different ways of organizing social life.

That capitalism will one day be undone is as confident a prediction as we can make about the future of our species (other, of course, that we will rendered extinct at some later time unless we take Stephen Hawking's advice and scoot out of our solar system before the Sun explodes). In the meantime, we need to pay attention to what's coming, terrestrially speaking.

Elaine Coburn examines a number of potential sources of inspiration (or fear, depending on one's perspective); she identifies several intimations of the kind of material forces that may provide a prelude to a transition from corporate capitalism to a new and possibly more equitable set of social arrangements. The communist vision, discussed but never described in detail by Marx, is of course not the only possibility. Dystopian nightmares are as credible as utopian dreams. What's more, capitalists can be a clever bunch. They show a remarkable gift for survival, so their demise may be some distance off (as the Jewish theological Maimonides mentioned: "the messiah will come, but he may tarry"). In the meantime, Coburn's counsel is moderate, though her ambitions are less so: her hopes come "despite … the strengths of an adaptable capitalism system and of the limits of the alternative [progressive] globalization movement." Her optimism is not based so much on evidence, much less messianic faith, but because it is "necessary [her emphasis] as a spur to political action." This acknowledgement of voluntarism and the need for human agency may not be what previous generations saw as an essential element of Marxism, but it is apt today.

Long before he died and long before he set aside his own progressivism to become a shill for George W. Bush's attack on Iraq, Christopher Hitches put it this way:3

Socialism was an idea before Marx. Democracy was an idea before Marx. Social revolution was an idea before Marx. What he argued was that you can't have any of the above until you are ready for them, and you can't have one without the others.

Gary Teeple, Stephen McBride and their associates provide an excellent account of where we are now. Elaine Coburn points cautiously to the future. We shall wait and see, or if moved to do so, help to push the process along, at least a little.

Endnotes:

1. See Capitalism and the National Question in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972); Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform: Into the Twenty-first Century, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000); and The Riddle of Human Rights (Aurora ON: Garamond Press, 2004).

2. See Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). We must never tire of reminding ourselves, as well, of Daniel Bell's previous comments on The End of Ideology: The Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (New York: Free Press, 1960), and Seymour Martin Lipset's grand pronouncement, also about half a century ago, that liberal democracy and free market economies had rendered political philosophy redundant since, especially in the United States, humanity was witnessing "the good society in operation" (Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (New York: Doubleday, 1960), p. 403.

3. Christopher Hitchens, "The Old Boy," in Prepared for the Worst (New York: Hill and Wang, 1988), p. 242.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches Political Economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com

Contents