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Social Sci LibreTexts

8.2: Individual Actors

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  • A convenient way to accommodate individual actors in the global economy has been to see them as economically dependent workers rather than as citizens capable of bringing about social change. The economic globalisation process has modified this perspective to some extent, with greater recognition of the integration of a diverse, but nationally based, workforce into production patterns that can span several sovereign jurisdictions and world regions. This is in contrast to what was mentioned above in classical approaches that envisioned goods and services produced from start to finish within a nationstate rather than anticipating the system of today where production spans across borders. Technological changes have made it possible to control transnational production processes and bring together people from different parts of the world to add value to a specific good or service. By engaging in this practice enterprises can transform their business into a global operation thriving on different wage levels and a diverse set of skills in the workforce. This naturally raises the question of how such changes in the organisation of capitalism influence the lives of everyday people. For example, if people produce only part of a good, such as a microchip for a computer, how are their wages determined?

    More recently, the 2008 global financial crisis has shed light on non-elite actors at the receiving end of failures in the banking system and the reckless behaviour of financial elites. Not just blue and white-collar workers, but mortgage holders, house buyers, owners of small and medium-sized businesses, small-scale investors, shareholders, farmers, civil servants, selfemployed people and students had to struggle with the implications of rescue efforts taking place simultaneously in several of the major industrialised countries. In the aftermath of government intervention and bail-out measures, many businesses had to restructure and streamline their operations for the sake of cutting costs and maintaining competitiveness. At the same time, individuals in their capacity as voters were asked to support far-reaching reform packages, austerity policies and new government strategies for job creation and employability. Non-elites have also been able to promote new alliances among a range of individual actors with more charitable goals such as income redistribution and equality in mind. Many left-leaning political economists have therefore placed their hope in transnational solidarity and broader social movements unified under the banner of alter-globalisation – which styles itself as an alternative to neoliberal forms of globalisation.

    A fundamental requirement for any such processes to work is an increasing number of people-to-people contacts developing various types of crossborder relationships. International migration offers an example where Polanyi’s key argument is relevant. Although governments have closely cooperated for the sake of liberalising the flow of goods, services, and capital, the same cannot be said about the flow of people. Restrictions to migration movements have become the rule rather than the exception. In a market economy, key decisions about investment, production and distribution are driven by supply and demand. This has led, as a side effect, to diverging approaches to migration control within liberal political systems. Canada, for example, was the first nation to implement a points-based system by which entry visas are granted on the basis of specialist skills or aptitude tests. Moreover, relative population density and regional distribution is also taken into consideration when residency permits are linked to particular jobs or states within the federal system. Such restrictions on personal freedom are accepted precisely to achieve a better goodness of fit with the demand side for immigration and the requirements of regional economies. Only gradually, and over time, are individual restrictions reduced, thus slowing down the pressures for adaptation that is expected from new arrivals as well as society as a whole.

    Another example of the Polanyi-type adjustment process can be found in the area of philanthrocapitalism. These accounts show personal characteristics and entrepreneurial spirit through the activities of billionaires such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, George Soros and Mark Zuckerberg. This elitist circle is not just known for its wealth, but also for individual ambitions to transcend the business world and influence political leaders in their decision-making process. Through the funding of global campaigns, each of these entrepreneurs has tried to make a difference in terms of poverty reduction, public health, educational reform and democratisation. In other words, corporate elites are actively translating individual success into altruistic behaviour on a global level. Broadly speaking, the institutional arrangements surrounding philanthrocapitalism help to safeguard core business activities while branching out into new sectors with genuine global reach and potential. The individual actors of this emerging system use their personal wealth to construct new global policy networks that specifically include individuals from governmental and non-governmental organisations susceptible to a particular vision of the future (Cooper 2010, 229). Therefore, personal gain, shareholder benefits or compensation for aggressive business tactics may not be at the forefront of their considerations. Instead, corporate social responsibility in this interpretation can be seen as a form of enlightened self-interest, recognising the danger of a potential backlash from society at large to excessive market power and business influence.

    The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is a useful example of philanthrocapitalism. Its aims are to administer the donation of 99 per cent of the married couple’s Facebook shares to a range of global projects, which amounts to tens of billions of US dollars. Its founders chose the institutional form of a limited liability company (LLC) rather than extending the model of a charitable trust or social fund to the global level. This ensures that as an organisational form it can continue to generate profit and donate money to specific political causes. More traditional non-profit organisations have stricter requirements for the disclosure of information to qualify for tax exemptions, whereas LLCs have fewer rules in this respect and still allow for investment in profit-driven projects in addition to philanthropic activities. Thus, this type of business structure offers new degrees of flexibility to move shares between separate business operations and to extract profits for the owners, if so required. In this way, the core of the Facebook business model that generates the wealth held by Chan and Zuckerberg remains unchanged. The ambition to do good at a global level is clearly counterbalanced by the need to generate revenue and income through a lucrative commercial service.

    Whether financially successful entrepreneurs with celebrity status can have a truly transformative capacity when it comes to the finding of solutions for international policy problems is open to debate. Their activities, as observed at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, at least suggest that they are increasingly recognised as important contributors to global public policy. Fame and fortune, however, is not always the main criterion to be part of an international gathering. The independently organised World Social Forum is deliberately non-elitist in that it welcomes a broad range of civil society organisations and social movements to its annual convention. The 2016 meeting in Montreal, Canada, carried the slogan ‘another world is needed – together it is possible’ and aimed to ‘gather tens of thousands of people ... who want to build a sustainable and inclusive world, where every person and every people has its place and can make its voice heard’. What both events have in common is the continuing effort to build transnational alliances that gradually dissolve any neat distinction between the public and the private sphere and make the global count in the study of political economy.