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On the Global Economic and Political Order and Its Insecurities

Samir Amin (1931–2018)

Barbara Harriss-White ( is an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University.

Samir Amin was an activist–scholar whose work stands the test of time. Hopefully, Amin lives on in the activist scholarship, and the internationalism and local commitment of new generations.

This tribute to Samir Amin’s greatness as a political economist is a digest of the outstanding lecture he gave in Wolfson College, Oxford in 1999 at a time when he was directing the African Office of the Third World Forum, in Dakar, Senegal. The lecture was published in 2002,1 just as our conceptions of globalisation and its insecurities were being immensely deepened by 9/11 and the announcement of the war on terror.

Samir Amin asks what lies behind the sacred mantras of market and globalisation on the one hand, and of democracy and its universalising politics on the other?

Taking each in turn, the concept of the market embodies a binding law of value generated by the forces of supply and demand. Despite the idea of the markets being riddled with theoretical contradictions (he discusses the institutional conditions for perfect competition as one example), in the real world, unequal market exchange penetrates society by commodifying it. Without a political brake, the real market will displace the non-market preconditions for social life to reproduce. In the absence of regulation by society, the self-regulating market is a contradiction in terms. Actually existing markets must have states to regulate them. States are also vital to mediate the compromises, visions and contracts that constitute “incorrigibly plural”2 societies.

‘Low-intensity Democracy’

In contrast to the market, and as a result of its millennially long histories, democracy is subject to multiple meanings: a society where rights prevail; states of law; electoral politics (which were, towards the end of the 20th century, being scaled down and out from citadels to villages). Against theorists who see democracy as the only way in which reason can be harnessed for human emancipation, Amin argues that democracy has never existed unpressured by religious or cosmological orders. While it has evolved alongside the open-ended project of modernity, in which space is being wrenched for new agents of history to develop, democracy is now as firmly constituted within capitalism as are markets.

This means that there are—as B R Ambedkar famously saw—severe limits to the political power of rights-bearing, formally equal, voting citizens faced with political power derived from private property in the market. And in the market, the relation of capital to labour is the most fundamental of contradictions. As a good economist, Amin also appreciated the tensions between coherent doctrines of development (left or right) and the chaotic fragmentation of thought born of inevitable crises in the capitalist “order.” We are in one such era. He called the combined effect “low-intensity democracy.”

Amin then develops this analysis at the global level. The difference between contemporary globalisation and that of the period 500 BCE to 1500 CE (which he had researched extensively) is not only a shift in the hub of economic power from China, India and West Asia to the Americas and Europe but also a shift in the relation between power and wealth such that economic wealth now dominates political power. Instead of trans-regional integration, where inequalities might have been contingent, he saw polarisation as immanent to global capital. The new hubs are structuring the rest of the world to enable the control by their capital over weapons of mass destruction, technology, finance, natural resources, information and communications—Amin’s “five monopolies.” This is possible because the labour force of peripheral countries is, by and large, trapped and fixed in space, and because the varied development projects of their countries have been quashed. Imperialist forms of capitalism have prevailed over Soviet and third world development templates. Neo-liberal, financialised capital has thrived on geostrategic conflicts and global militarisation, the vicious suppression of social struggles, economic volatility, widespread social alienation from the commodity economy as well as from nature itself.

Now we see how the slogan that market and democracy are universally relevant and appropriate is being used by the holders of economic power to mask over the reality of rampant commodification and “commodity-based alienation.” Other universals of emancipation—enterprise and creativity, respect for law and pluralist opinion—are then ridden over roughshod by reactions to this alienation. To illustrate such responses in the hubs but more intensely in the periphery, Amin summons ethnicism, religious fundamentalism and the neurotic celebration of fabricated pasts.

By means of these arguments, he exposes “market” and “democracy” as seductive terms of “explosive nonsense.”

Appeal to Activist Scholars

Despite the explosive nonsense, Amin reasoned that new principles for global development can quite easily be devised—what he elsewhere called “delinking”: polycentrism with United Nations reform and global institutions to replace those of Bretton Woods; the regulation of markets to ensure full employment; the rebuilding of finance so that it serves the development of regions; a unified democratic project of citizens’ rights, work and welfare rights; and even a citizen’s income. Equally—and as André Gorz maintained—if they are to be effective, ideas and principles must be grounded in social and political forces and, while not lacking, these are inadequate.

Given the disorders left by the collapse of alternative development projects, Amin saw the need to preserve and defend the achievements of technological change and progressive struggles. He saw the need to “manage plurality.” In an era of “social exhaustion,” he saw the need to organise conviviality. The political activities of defence, management and organisation are also routes by which the social and political order imposed by post-war systems of capitalist regulation might eventually be transcended.

The lecture on global markets and politics ends with an appeal to activist scholars to uncover the specific logics and local social processes through which contemporary competition for control over the power of technologies and struggles for human emancipation are both produced and constrained. Giving the green light to micro-level research and local activism, he thought that without this groundwork, the replacement of the rule of market (as idea and as practice) by economically emancipating democratic practices could not take place.

Amin’s tour de force was written just two decades ago in what he saw as a crisis of globalisation: before the war on terror, the rise of religious fundamentalisms, the seeds and practices of the new fascism, the commodification of states and the domination of new forms of politics driven by capital, the financial crisis, the rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the increasing wastefulness and waste of national and global capital, the ecological crisis and climate change-driven movements of desperate people. Nevertheless with the prescience of the best activist scholarship, it stands the test of time. We mourn the passing of its writer but have confidence that Samir Amin lives on in the activist scholarship, the internationalism and local commitment of new generations.


1 “Economic Globalisation and Political Universalism,” Globalisation and Insecurity: Political, Economic and Physical Challenges, Barbara Harriss-White (ed), London: Palgrave, 2002, chapter 2, pp 43–74.

2 The phrase is from “Snow,” a poem by Louis MacNeice, and is also the title of Fran Brearton and Michael Longley’s celebration of MacNeice’s poetry.

Updated On : 31st Aug, 2018


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