Capitalist Globalization and the Promise of Democratic-Republicanism

Globalization, broadly defined as the movement of human beings, social practices, and cultural attitudes over great distances through time, has been a phenomenon for millennia, beginning with the out-migration of peoples from Africa into West Asia and beyond, tens of thousands of years ago. The earliest out-migration of modern humans was around 70-50,000 years ago and spread across Europe by 40,000 years ago. By 5,000 years ago, human beings could be found on every continent.

For most of this history, people lived in egalitarian societies based on communal production. Around 10,000 BCE, what is known as the Neolithic Revolution, the development of agriculture would profoundly transform the human life-way. At that time there were between one to ten million people. Some five thousand years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, social segmentation, class and sex inequality, state and law, city life, writing, and religion emerged, and civilization was born. By the first century of the common epoch (2020 years ago), world population stood at probably no more than 350 million people.

Some 800 years ago (the thirteenth century), a radically different economic system began stirring in Europe, one in which private power captured the forces of production and commandeered the political and legal apparatus for the generation of profit. This elite, the bourgeoisie, or the capitalist class took command of Western civilization and became the ruling class. This development was aided by many changes, but two stand out: the emergence of the printing press mid-fifteenth century, which allowed for the distribution of subversive ideas, and the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, which, by breaking up Catholic hegemony over culture, law, and family life, allowed for the emergence of secularism and the emancipation of economic activity from state control. By that time, world population had grown to around a billion people.

Within a few centuries, a new phase of globalization had emerged, eventually spreading across the planet, an economic system, and its attendant social logic, based on commodity production, pulling other civilizations into its sphere of influence and integrating their peoples in a global political and legal web of human and natural exploitation. By the twentieth century it was clear that a new phase of globalization was underway.

Today, capitalism is the primary economic system encountered by the vast majority of the world’s nearly eight billion people. This encounter turns most of them into proletarians (workers or employees), persons who, deprived of direct access to the means of production, must sell, at the expense of their liberty, their labor power to capitalists to obtain the means of consumption, of survival, in effect they live by renting their bodies and their minds to others who profit from these arrangements. Because their labor power usually comes with their bodies, the proletariat sacrifice their time to get by, time they could be spending on their own creative endeavors. In some parts of the world, thanks to the emergence of social democracy, many proletarians enjoy relatively comfortable lives. In other parts of the world, the life of the worker is quite precarious. But across all of these situations, the fruit of proletarian labor is appropriated by those who do not produce it, under conditions largely unchosen by the proletarian. This is why capitalism must be replaced by socialism.

Beginning in the latter eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the capitalist class, allied with other social classes, established the system of modern nation-states. Following the conceptualization of anthropologist Robert Carneiro, I define the state as an autonomous political unit, encompassing many communities within a territory, and possessing a centralized government and a common legal system with coercive institutions to enforce the law. By nation-state, I mean a state as defined above marked by a common culture and language. The institutions that the various states organized during this period strived to establish a shared national identity, rooted in an organic national identities we now more commonly refer to as “ethnicity.” Shared identity provided a framework for building solidarity beyond familial and tribal identity. The nation-state detribalized Europe and, with the minimization of the monarchy, elevated persons from subjects to citizens.

In time, the modern nation-state replaced the feudal legal and political arrangements that had become fetters on the development of the capitalist mode of production. This development, which changed the character of life in many undesirable ways, also provided enormous benefits, the opportunity for emancipation from the shackles of primitive superstition and religious duty, from the oppressions of patriarchal sexual and heterosexual structures—that is, liberation from the backward norms and values limiting self-actualization.

For the first time in history, because of democratic-republicanism, ordinary people enjoyed conditions that made it possible to break the chain of elite rule. This development triggered democratic and libertarian movements, the worker movement to empower workers, the civil rights movement to emancipate individuals from racialized categories, the feminist movement to empower women, the movement for gay and lesbian rights, and the struggle for free speech and expression. All these movements culminated in the recognition of human rights, albeit their full recognition awaits and there is presently in the West a countermovement to thwart human rights by retribalizing populations along the artificial lines or race and religion. 

Moreover, by putting science to work, the modern world generated the technological means to provide for needs of all persons. The aforementioned democratic and libertarian movements represent the struggle to more freely access these means. In turn, these developments challenge the bourgeois legal and political arrangements that mark the current epoch. This is why the working class needs a nation-state founded on the cultural values of secularism and individualism. Identity politics is the bourgeoisie means to preserve economic privileges for a few by disorganizing citizens. Citizens defeat this strategy by rejecting tribalism and demanding equality before the law.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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