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»Left-wing critiques of globalization have not disappeared« An interview with Dominique Plihon (Attac France)

Founded in 1998, the non-governmental organisation Attac has fought against neoliberal globalization for almost twenty years. First emerging in France, today Attac is active in fifty countries around the world and is one of the most prominent NGOs in the anti-globalization, or »altermondialist« movement. These movements are the subject of Donatella della Porta’s essay in The Great Regression, a fitting occasion to discuss several topics from the volume with Dominique Plihon. Born in 1946, the economist has been Attac France’s public spokesperson since 2013.

Attac was founded in 1998, the heyday of the anti-globalization movement. Globalization has returned as a major topic these days, particularly on the political right. Trump questions the legitimacy of NAFTA; Marine Le Pen warned against a »savage globalization« (»mondialisation sauvage«) during her presidential campaign. How would you explain this rise in anti-globalization discourse from the right?

Dominique Plihon: There are two major causes for this development: firstly, the social and economic crisis wrought by neoliberal globalization, which has played into the hands of the right wing. Secondly, the failure of so-called progressive governments who shifted to implementing neoliberal policies. The case of François Hollande, who is seen as a traitor to socialist ideas and a cause of Marine Le Pen’s rise, is a good example.

Allow us to interrupt you on the point of social and economic crisis for a moment: in theory, left and progressive forces could also profit from this development. Why has the right managed to monopolize popular ire against globalization?

There are several reasons for this. One is that the right has been successful in convincing people that the crisis is due to a failure of government policies and excessive public spending and taxation. Another reason for the right’s dominance is the old TINA mantra: »There is no alternative«.


»Zu sagen, dass die Globalisierung am Ende ist, wäre ein Fehler« (© Guillaume Paumier, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

»Globalization has existed since the beginning of capitalism« (© Guillaume Paumier, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung recently launched a series of articles asking »Is globalization finished?« What do you think?

It would be a mistake to think that globalization is over. I prefer to say we are at the end of a cycle, entering a new phase of globalization. Some governments (China, the US) are changing their policies. In China, the export-led growth model is being called into question. In the US, the free market ideology is likewise up for debate. Moreover, we can see that transnational corporations (TNC), the major actors of globalization, are also changing their strategies (reducing their supply chains, for example) but not abandoning their role as global actors.

My view is that globalization has existed since the beginning of capitalism, as shown by French historian Fernand Braudel. It will persist, and take on new forms, as long as capitalism continues to exist.


»Globalization will persist, and take on new forms, as long as capitalism continues to exist.«


In the first article in that aforementioned series, SZ editor Johan Schloemann asks: »Whatever happened to left-wing critiques of globalization? Did they all move completely to the right?«

Left-wing critiques of globalization have not disappeared. Intellectuals and activists in the altermondialist movements are still very active in many countries. The 2016 World Social Forum in Montreal demonstrated that this left-wing movement is alive and well. That said, these movements are not always audible and visible, for reasons such as the power of corporate media controlled by the dominant economic forces, and the rise of a right-wing anti-globalization ideology. But even if they can’t always be seen, altermondialist movements are doing important underground work on social networks, and organizing mobilizations against tax evasion or free trade agreements.

In several German (and probably French) media, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was portrayed as »almost as dangerous as Le Pen« for his critical stance towards the EU and globalization in general. What is your position towards Mélenchon?

Yes, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is perceived as a danger by the hegemonic bloc, because he wants to change the existing economic and political order. The goals of France Insoumise (Mélenchon’s movement) are to restore democracy by reconfiguring political institutions, and to organize the social and ecological transition. It is a big mistake to think that this political movement resembles Marine Le Pen’s anti-democratic and xenophobic Front National. Mélenchon’s campaign was so successful because his project aligns with the aspirations of many young and middle class people. Although he didn’t make the second round of the presidential election, his electoral performance will be very useful for building a new radical political force on the left.


»Although he didn’t make the second round of the presidential election, Mélenchon’s electoral performance will be very useful for building a new radical political force on the left.«


Comparing Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen would be a big mistake, says Dominique Plihon (© thierryleclercq, Flickr, Pubic Domain)

You can’t compare Jean-Luc Mélenchon with Marine Le Pen, says Dominique Plihon (© thierryleclercq, Flickr, Pubic Domain)


What would a smart, progressive critique of globalization look like today?

One way to criticize neoliberal globalization is to say that we should reverse its goals, which are implementing global competition among countries with perfect mobility of capital and goods, and controlling workers for the benefit of transnational corporations. Altermondialists, by contrast, are not opposed to globalization as an idea, but rather fight for an alternative form of it, one that is based on solidarity between peoples and countries instead of competition, for the democratic organization of production instead of controlling workers, and tightly regulated financial systems and trade agreements that respect social and ecological goals, instead of dangerous free trade agreements like NAFTA, TTIP, or CETA.


»Altermondialists, by contrast, are not opposed to globalization as an idea, but rather fight for an alternative form of it.«


In the heyday of the first wave of globalization critique, many activists and scientists argued that once the world is flat and the economy operates on a global level, nation states will lose their capacity to influence economic outcomes. Thus, we needed more transnational coordination among nation states, »global governance« was the buzzword. What would you say, have there been any positive moves in this respect?

I think that’s a wrong view of the current situation, because national and regional spaces still play a very important role for most economic actors today – and also for most people, particularly workers. It’s important to state this fact clearly, because if you agree that national and regional spaces are important, it means you can have policies, you can have regulations, you can have democracies, based on national and regional spaces. It is a utopian or at least misleading view to think that today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world is or could be flat.

If you look at the world today, as well as prospects for the future – let’s say the coming year, the coming decade – with groups of large countries playing a very important role at the regional level, like in Europe (although it’s now in crisis), you can see that it is extremely important. And some countries, like Germany but also France and Spain, play an even more important role. If you look at Asia, you can see that China and Japan play major regional roles. And although sometimes there is political tension between them, they are building spaces of trade, regional monetary policies, similar to those in the EU. Thus, the idea that we live in a flat world is clearly wrong.


»It is undeniable that political control of globalization doesn’t work yet.«


Tax havens are considered a prime example of the failure to control globalization politically. Isn’t that frustrating?

Today, it is undeniable that political control of globalization doesn’t work yet. If we take the example of tax evasion – maybe I’m overly optimistic – but if you look at tax evasion today, there has been some progress. Also, we are witnessing the rise of important counter-movements in some parts of the world, which are sometimes even successful. In Europe, for instance, where we are fighting tax evasion, we have had some victories. I don’t think we have won yet. But we have had some victories, and we’ll have more in the future. Why? Because public opinion is shifting. People in our countries, in our regions know what’s going on with respect to tax evasion. It has a lot of negative effects and people are aware of that. It creates public deficits, as a lot of money fails to enter government revenue streams. People know it is one of the major obstacles to financing public policies for health, for education, and so on. This makes them angry. The current system creates a kind of tax injustice. Who profits from tax evasion? The rich, the transnational corporations – whereas the middle class and the workers can’t avoid paying taxes. Public outrage is now growing in our countries, and will help us fight tax evasion more successfully in the future.

So, we’re working in the right direction. It will take time, but we will win. It’s different if you look at free trade agreements like CETA or TTIP. Here we can see that, so far, we have not won. A majority of people are very much opposed to free trade agreements, but elites and economic forces continue to push them forward at the same time. So far, they have been very successful in doing so. Nevertheless, we think that public opinion and social movements will win victories in the future simply because these agreements are very dangerous, as we’ve seen in the past.


Hunderttausende demonstrierten 2015 gegen die Freihandelsabkommen TTIP und CETA in Berlin. Auch Attac kritisiert solche Abkommen (© Charlie Rutz, Mehr Demokratie, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Thousands of people demonstrated against the free trade agreements TTIP and CETA in Berlin in 2015. Attac is criticising these kind of agreements as well (© Charlie Rutz, Mehr Demokratie, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)


Quite a strange turn as far as NAFTA is concerned, no? Originally, it was the universalist left which opposed it, arguing it would be bad for Mexican farmers (potentially triggering migration) and bad for industrial workers in the US (potentially triggering xenophobic resentment). Now Trump acts as if Mexico or some anonymous power forced NAFTA onto the US. How do you explain this shift in perspective?

NAFTA was pushed by US and Canadian transnational corporations with the support of the governments and economic elites of the three countries involved. From the outset, we knew that NAFTA would pit the majority of workers in the three countries against each other. It is thus not surprising that protectionist and xenophobic political forces are now taking advantage of the social disaster NAFTA created.

What is Attac doing in France at the moment?

One of our actions right now is pushing forward what we call civil disobedience. We go into banks or transnational corporations like McDonald’s, for instance, who do not pay taxes. We organize demonstrations and actions like painting their windows to get the media interested, which in turn puts more public focus on tax evasion. Public opinion is now behind these actions and does not criticize us for them. The political forces, the governments and the transnational corporations, now have to take this into account, this mobilization of public opinion against tax evasion.

Attac has been in favour of unitary taxation for years now. What would be the advantages of such a tax?

Unitary taxation could be an efficient way to reduce tax evasion, as it would force transnational corporations to pay taxes where their real activity takes place.

Mr. Plihon, thank you for the interview.