Today's date:
Winter 2008

Globalization's New Left

Spring 2006

In the shadow of the rising global middle class there resides another reality: the planet of slums. Cutting public budgets, deregulating markets and liberalizing trade may have generated new wealth on a global scale, particularly in Asia. But, as Mike Davis points out, these "structural adjustments" required to join the global marketplace have often fostered as much misery as prosperity.

While trimming the role of the state, they have been unable to produce enough jobs or housing in the metastasizing megacities of the Third World to absorb the "surplus population" either pushed out of the countryside or pulled by the illusive lure of vanishing urban opportunity.

"Informal survivalism" has thus become the way of life for 1 billion people around the world. From Lagos to Sao Paulo to Dhaka slum dwellers subsist outside the formal economy amid raw sewage and along toxic rivers, building shacks on unstable hillsides or in flood plains, picking through garbage or discarded electronics to earn a dollar a day.

Ivan Illich once described this population as "the technophagic multitude"—people who feed on the waste of development as their only means of survival. He marveled at the ragpickers in the vast garbage dump on the outskirts of Mexico City whom he saw as "survivors who reassert unsquashable hope with the chilling character of the gang."

For Davis, these slums are not only a moral affront to the rich world but also the hot zones of globalization. "The slums respond with suicide bombs," Davis warns, noting that Gaza is one of the largest slums in the world. Because of their density, unsanitary conditions and close proximity with animals, they are also incubators of contagious diseases like Avian flu and AIDs. "What HIV required to obtain the critical mass to become a world pandemic," says Davis, "was Kinshasa."

This challenge of the slums, along with the persistent growth of poverty and inequality, is nourishing the emergence of globalization's new left. In the last NPQ, even Milton Friedman felt bound to admit that, with the combination of spreading democracy and impoverishment of a majority in Third World nations, "the state might come back," especially when social mobility is blocked.

In China, the new left movement, which has highlighted corrupt privatization and mounting inequality, in recent years has gained sufficient momentum to propel the issue of rural and urban migrant poverty to the top of a Communist Party agenda hitherto concerned only with rapid growth. But Latin America, which hosts many of the world's largest slums, is the test case of whether the 21st century left can come up with solutions.

Jorge Castañeda, the former Mexican foreign minister, divides Latin America into the "irresponsible" populist left of Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina and the "sensible" left of Brazil and Chile. In his view, the former group makes promises to the poor, often with money it doesn't have and must print (though Hugo Chavez seems to make do for the time being with oil revenues), thus leading once again to the cycle of inflation, stagnation and authoritarian rule. While trying to reduce poverty, the latter group nonetheless holds to the fiscal discipline required to attract global capital. New wealth can be created through investment, thus breaking the one-step-forward, two-steps-back inevitability of redistributive politics built on empty coffers.

"Globalization is a reality," says Brazil's former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "And this makes most leaders today realize that populist illusions can't be sustained before they collapse into stagnation and leave their political supporters deeply disillusioned. You can't inflate away your troubles or allow mountains of debt to build up if, as a country, you have to make your living in a globally competitive environment....Building prosperity requires caution and patience. It requires time. Populism is a shortcut that doesn't work."

The great question in the decades ahead is whether this sensible new left can harvest the benefits of globalization for the poorest of the poor. As Mike Davis makes clear, leaving a billion people behind is not an option. Globalization is not sustainable for the few if it also doesn't work for all.