Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: Another World is Possible

[David McNally. Another World is Possible: Globalization & Anti-Capitalism, Revised Expanded Edition. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2006.]

This book was an invigorating read but I'm a little worried that the moment that it was intended to shape is long past.

The author's project is clear: He wrote the book with the aim of cultivating a more explicit and rigorous anti-capitalism among people active or interested in the global justice movement in North America. Except, of course, this edition came out in 2006. While presenting a solid yet accessible and struggle-oriented introduction to at least one strand of anti-capitalist thought is still useful, the scattering of the global justice energies in other directions in North America probably means this book is unlikely to have quite the impact the author hoped for when he initially wrote it. However, despite the fact that it did not present a whole lot of ideas or histories that were new to me, I still got a boost form reading it because it carries in it a certain kind of energy, a certain tone, that reminded me of that not-so-long-ago moment when North American movements were a bit more lively and visible.

The book opens with an overview of the uprisings against globalization -- these days I would be more likely to use the vocabulary of neoliberalism, but I'll mostly stick with his usage for this review -- in the '90s and more recently. Then it examines in more detail what the phenomena grouped under the label "globalization" actually are, with an emphasis on the fact that so-called free trade mostly has very little to do with trade. Then the book links globalization to the dynamics of capitalism more broadly, with some quite useful discussion of things like enclosure and primitive accumulation both during the initial formation of capitalism as well as today, and a look at globalization as an enhancement of some of capitalism's less savoury features. Then there is a chapter that focuses on the ways in which relations of white supremacy and patriarchy are integral to capital, and a chapter on war and empire. Finally, he reviews some of the actual struggles that have gone on across the world against capitalist globalization, which eases into a more analytical look at how struggles might most usefully develop.

I like this book, and think it is very useful. Most of the time when you read political economy marxism, it is awful at dealing with race and gender and it is very detached from actual struggle both in its content and in the form the writing takes. In contrast, this book takes social relations of racial and gender oppression very seriously and emphasizes that struggles against white supremacy and patriarchy must be completely integral to anti-capitalist struggle. It also encourages readers in a more general way to figure out the connections between apparently disparate struggles, which I think is an absolutely crucial practice to cultivate. Of course, there are limits -- I suspect that you would get an end product more different from conventional marxism by starting to investigate social relations from scratch with attention to the role that all such relations have in organizing our experiences than if you add race and gender to a preexisting marxism, however determinedly. And I think those differences probably matter, both in understanding how the social world is put together and in figuring out how to change it. Nonetheless, the ways that this book talks about race and gender are serious and useful.

My reaction to the ways in which it talks about struggle are of sort of a similar shape. I like that it is written specifically to be picked up by people, probably mostly young people, who are actively involved in struggle. I like the copious attention it gives to struggle around the globe. Yet this, too, has its limits. The chapter that looks at different ways that ordinary people have reacted to the increased hardships brought on as part of globalization takes the form of a sort of "greatest hits" approach that feels a bit flat. It emphasizes the collective and confrontational moments of struggle in ways that wouldn't really give much of a hint to people new to this stuff that such moments are just one part of the story. If we are going to do neat things here in North America, we need the whole story. The chapter that has a more generalized discussion of how social struggle can and should happen says a lot of really smart, really important things, but I think it settles on an approach that is too constrictive and prescriptive (for all that it works not to do that).

Also, the book is far too dismissive of the example of the Zapatistas, and their choice to embrace partiality and in-progress-ness from a place of not seeking state power versus the choice made by movements in Venezuela and Bolivia to embrace partiality and in-progress-ness as part of seizing state power. Not that it is uncritical of Venezuela -- I was worried there was going to be the sort of Chavez-worship you sometimes find in some parts of the left, but was happy to see that there was a much more reasonable kind of measured support accompanied by a recognition of limits and contradictions. There is also a more general dismissal of anti-authoritarian (or horizontalist or anti-statist or anarchist or whatever you want to call them) approaches to struggle -- I definitely agree with his call for moving forward in ways that draw on the best of many traditions, but I'm not sure his actual practice in attempting to do so always strikes the most useful balance.

I'm not sure who I would recommend read this book. I think there is probably a small group of folks out there who would react like me, and enjoy something of the energy and tone and all-in-one-placeness of the book while not really encountering much that was new. I think there is also probably a group of people for whom it would be a useful, concise, and exciting introduction to important struggles over the last twenty years in a context that also introduces some important anti-capitalist ideas in an accessible way, though I would encourage folks in this group to read a lot more widely as well. I could also imagine that this might be a useful tool in classroom settings, though I'm not sure exactly what classrooms would be open to its use. All in all, I'm glad I read it, and I think it is a useful resource and reference to be familiar with. And if there isn't exactly the collective-in-motion whose trajectory could be nudged in anti-capitalist directions that might originally have been in the author's mind when he wrote this, there are still plenty of us out here who can take up what it offers as individuals and in our small groups as we work our way back towards something bigger.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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