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Globalization and Its Discontents

April 25, 2012

I had the honor this morning to participate in a conference at Long Island University that featured some truly extraordinary scholars, activists and students.  Loosely organized around the theme “Globalization and Its Discontents,” the line-up of speakers addressed various aspects of the rolling series of economic and fiscal crises that have come to define the current era of globalization.

The New School’s Gemma Adaba, former Representative of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) to the United Nations, kicked things off with an incisive and provocative presentation of the current jobs crisis roiling world politics. Gemma noted that in the period in which banks were being bailed out left and right by governments around the world, global youth unemployment was allowed to reach alarmingly unprecedented heights. At current, some 200 million people are unemployed, 75 million of whom are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Instead of throwing more money at the world’s financial behemoths, Gemma concluded by reminding the audience that better investments  could be directed at people  in the form of job training, infrastructure renewal projects that would create employment opportunities, and green technologies.

John Krinsky followed Adaba’s remarks with a tour de force presentation that–to my mind–offered students and teachers in the room a lesson in what academia should be about.  In a remarkable lecture on the rise of new labor organizing “from crisis to crisis,” John delivered to the audience a inspired, sweeping history of local organizing efforts, from the New York bankruptcy crisis of 1975 through to the current moment and Occupy Wall Street. There are few, if any, people that know more about this subject than John, and certainly none that speak and write about it as eloquently. He closed his presentation by encouraging the students in the audience to make a point of participating in this year’s May Day celebration–whether at the “open university” in Madison Square Park, at the rally in Union Square, or in any of the other activities and actions planned that day.

Marina Sitrin, who among other impressive things is a lawyer, an academic, a post-doctoral fellow at the Committee on Globalization and Social Change, and one of the original organizers behind what has come to be known as Occupy Wall Street, spoke next.  Marina discussed the pre-history of OWS, and offered a nice analysis of the ways in which the Occupy movement fits within the beautiful variety of social movements witnessed around the world during the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, noting that all the movements, whether in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia or in the United States share in common a message to political and economic authority: “No, enough.” What counts as a “yes” in its place, Marina argued, has proved different in each context, a variety that should be recognized and celebrated.

Claudia Acuña, a simply amazing academic and social activist at the Cátedra Autónoma de Communicación Social in Buenos Aires and a founding member of the Lavaca collective, followed next, offering her thoughts on the legacy of the Argentine workers movement known as “Sin Patron” which took root following Argentina’s economic crisis in 2001, and the ways in which it can inform the Occupy movement today in the United States.  Among other things, Claudia rejected out of hand the term “globalization,” noting that the term suggests a predetermined mold of market arrangements and an inexorable liberalism that crowds out alternative arrangements that might better serve the world’s majority of people.

For my own part, I echoed Claudia’s distaste for what I consider to be a conceptually hollow and limiting framework of “globalization.” Instead, I proposed an alternative model of integrated networks of economic and social relationships that reflect the promise of and challenges to labor in the neoliberal order of world politics. At the end of the day, and despite critiques of Occupy that castigate it for lacking an articulated agenda of demands, I argued that the very amorphousness of the 99 percent provides unique spaces–physically and intellectually–to identify and work through the problems and tensions of the working class within and across borders.

My thanks, again, to the Long Island University, and more particularly to Dr. James Clarke and the Honors Program in International Studies, for inviting me to participate and for assembling such a diverse and remarkable group of speakers. While it’s true that the 1 percent enjoys a massive capital advantage in its struggle against everyone else, this morning’s program was an emboldening reminder that the 99 percent–in partnership with organized labor–has the people, energy and ideas which hold out the promise that another world is, in fact, possible.

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