Category Archives: anti-globalization

111: Mike Davis’ City of Quartz

Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles is about “the contradictory impact of economic globalization upon different segments of Los Angeles Society,” where LA is both a specific place (that David clearly loves and is frustrated by) and a global city that “has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.”  Davis researched this book in the 1980s, when Reaganomics, the crack wars, increased socioeconomic disparity, law-and-order policing, and other anti-urban developments were wreaking havoc on LA; by putting LA in a global economic context, he is able to show that many of these problems are related to globalization, not poor domestic policy, and that fighting capitalism will have the biggest impact on urban welfare.

In an allusion to LA’s film industry, Davis calls his method “noir,” because 1940s film noir “insinuated contempt for a depraved business culture while it simultaneously searched for a critical mode of writing or filmmaking within it.”  Accordingly, the book is both a critique of LA and an investigation of how to make it better.  Davis details the migration of LA’s power elites from a post-WWI Downtown/Westside divide to suburbia to international banks, land monopolies, and global real estate holdings; the development of SoCal homeowners associations as racist, classist privatization; “fortress LA” and the privatization and militarization of urban life as a spatialized class war; the history of cocaine in LA as evidence of increasing wealth disparity; the dirty politics of LA’s Catholic archdiocese, which is a huge employer and landholder in LA that prefers to be a space of law-and-order rather than one of resistance; and the plight of the suburbanized working class in an era of deindustrialization and decay.  

Throughout, Davis’ muckraking journalism digs through LA’s many layers of complexity in expose after expose.  As against other urban studies folks who write about globalization (like Saskia Sassen, for instance), Davis brings LA alive, reminding us of the power of its residents even as he implicates the city’s elites in global networks of power.


108: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman cautions against jumping on the PoMo bandwagon to make sense of the world.  Against Postmodernism, which he sees as a dead-end way of interpreting the world that only leads to the I, death, and fragmented searches for authenticity in depthless space, he argues that Modernism, and the larger Enlightenment project of which it is a part, have room for human agency, collectivity, and social change.  Further, instead of being the way out of global capitalism, Postmodernism is just a phase in the modernist dialectic, one of those moments when Marxism and modernism collide.

Berman accepts that Modernism in the mid-20th century became the top-down, monolithic grand narrative that Postmodern theorists reject, but for his definition of Modernism he points instead to the 19th century, when Modernism was a way of making sense of a chaotic new “modern” world and asserting human agency in the face of totalizing industrial development.  Modernism is a dialectic between top-down and bottom-up culture, and the Enlightenment project of Progress proceeds not in a

smooth grand narrative but through the public resistance, systematic rebellion, protests and other struggles by which “modern men and women assert… their right to control their future” and their right to “make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”  Within this dialectic, if modernization involves social fragmentation and detachment from place, Modernism is about reattaching, creating roots, and connecting to the past through history and memory and to each other through shared experiences.  If this interest in place and developing roots sounds like a Postmodern project, that’s because Postmodernism is a phase of Modernism; Modernism, Postmodernism, anti-modernism are all interrelated in the same project.

Two things that Berman finds essential in Modernism that he doesn’t see in PoMo are time, which he associates with progress, and dialectic, which is the process by which structure and agency struggle to move history forward.  He also hones in on modernity as contradiction: between place and placelessness, subject and object, old and new modernities, global corporations and individual workers.  Mired in a search for authenticity among the depthless surfaces of Postmodernism, we are likely to become so obsessed with our navels that we don’t even realize we’re being increasingly controlled and oppressed.  Like Marx, Berman argues that we need to make ourselves both subjects and objects of history; to peel back the surface and see how the system really works, and then to work together to make sure modernization doesn’t eclipse human agency altogether.

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.

89: Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory is both energetic activist scholarship and history from the bottom up.  Louie, a lifelong activist, builds on interviews with Chinese, Korean, and Mexicana immigrant sweatshop workers from five independent community-based workers’ centers in New York, El Paso, Oakland, San Antonio and LA (from 1997-2000) to argue that “grassroots immigrant women [are] agents of change… the very heartbeat of the labor and anti-sweatshop movements.”  By combining the experiences of these women with a structural analysis of the global sweatshop industry, Louie turns the story of their progress form workers to warriors into a handbook for other activists for social change.

Plenty of theorists and historians have explored the development of global capitalism.  Where Louie’s account is unique is in her focus on (and identification with) immigrant sweatshop workers in the United States.  Working from this perspective, Louie shows that, first, the global sweatshop pyramid of exploitation takes advantage of the “exceptional” and the “different” in order to “relegate certain strata of the population into super-exploited positions and other to more privileged buffer positions;” the “exceptions” being gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, and so on.  She thus exposes the exploitation of social difference as the heart of the global capitalist enterprise.  Second, she shows that immigrant sweatshop labor in the US is itself a product of US expansion abroad: many of the women argue that “we are here because you were there.”  And third, this perspective also allows her to show concretely and in detail how global capitalism can and is being resisted by the people at the very bottom of the pyramid, who use both their differences in language and in origin AND their common experiences to fight for basic rights like a minimum wage, safe working conditions, a cap on hours, greater corporate accountability… as well as food, education, rights to housing, and so on.

Louie brings the voices and experiences of women who have turned their differences into an asset and begun working together for social change.  And, conscious of her readers’ probable ignorance of these women’s lives, she asks that we not be voyeurs or consumers of their work and their lives, but that we join to help them in their struggles.