John G Bell
Winter '04 - Bohmer, Hahn & Vavrus

Synthetic Essay

Lessons from Assembly Lines for Collective Nation-State Resistance to Globalization

The intensification of global trade has created a situation where the role of nation states should be to act in solidarity with other nation states to condition the terms of their work within the world system. The hierarchical divisions within the world system mirror the structure of industrial work. The relationship between owners, managers and workers can be used to reflect on the relationship between the Core, Periphery and Semi-Periphery of the world system. The world economic system is intensifying global productive work and this incentivizes particular domestic policy that is actually counterproductive. To not resisting this global intensification of work removes necessary productive flexibility and makes the world system economically brittle when confronted by the need to adjust to changes or crisis. It is possible that some techniques of resistance to the control by owners and managers used by industrial workers can be translated into an effective strategy of resistance within the world system by the nation states of the Periphery to counter hegemonic coercion and globalization. This is a potential oppositional role for nation states in the Periphery.

The world system view defines class-like divisions between states. The Core, Semi-Periphery and Periphery are seen as having enforced hierarchical places within the global political and economic structure.1 The hegemonic power of the Core is expressed in both direct coercion and control over the various other elements of the system, but there's also an international internalization of that hegemonic control within the various other elements of the system that create self-management that amplifies the effect of hegemonic direct control. McCormick points out the use of “regional deputy policemen” like Israel to keep the world system behaviorally appropriate.2 McCormick also points to attempts by the United States to “make a plausible case that its hegemony served [other nation states']systemic interests as well as self-interests if others were to defer to it voluntarily.”3

In the past the nation state functioned as a paternalistic caretaker for national and international businesses; as a gatekeeper to the trade; to erect trade barriers and condition corporate charters toward public benefit; to protect industrial capital investment.4 At the turn of the 21st century, the globalization of the economy suggests the next visible stage in the development toward a trans-national economy. Friedman argues that this is a new international economic system, but fails to recognize that the conditions of global trade are not new.5 Hunt very clearly shows the acceleration of technology and the development of long-distance trade where essential elements in the birth of Capitalism in the Middle Ages and in the “disintegration of medieval society.”6 The new factor is that the global connections are more visible due to the speed at which the process operates. Friedman does recognize the mechanism of democratization and acceleration of technology, but doesn't seem to make the connection that the current appearance of this is a spike at the top of an accelerating curve with an origin point in ancient prehistory. Friedman's division of the world into fast and slow after the fall of the Berlin Wall is merely the point at which he noticed the trend,7 but is certainly not the start of the world becoming closer due to technology. The current events of globalization are not in isolation, but rather form the most recently visible glimpses of a historical trend. The global trade of goods during ancient history took years if not decades or more to fully cycle, but continued to accelerate during the medieval period through to the present. The international slave trade to the Americas in the Early Republic was not specific to one nation state, but was part of a global economy that took months to years to complete a full cycle – from collecting labor in Africa to the cultivation of cotton and tobacco in the Americas and then trade of those goods in Europe. The trans-national interests in the economy of the Americas did not suddenly arise at the turn of one century, millennia or another, but were simply too difficult for most observers to detect and recognize due to the still significant periodicity between the ends of the world trade system. With the quickening of the cycle of technology and communications infrastructure, the effect of transnational interests were observably above an arbitrary threshold in the system of trade. At this point the systemic needs observably impacted the daily lives of working people in the US as a nation state within a global economy.

In the globalized economy, nation states attempt to find for corporations a comparative advantage of production; raise the average wage of favoured workers, as a pool of consumers, while disabling the ability of marginal workers to dissent by creating greater inequity in wages; determine the largest relative production advantage within a nation and to subsidize industries within the context of a military-prison-industrial complex, such as the subsidizing of aerospace via military or space exploration expenditures. The role and focus of the state changed from national markets to support transnational markets and the transnational financial organizations, the IMF and World Bank, changed from supportive of third world firms to acting as acquisitive brokers for the first world.8 This is also seen in the competing local and system needs faced by nation states that lead states to make decisions that address systemic needs over their domestic needs.9 There is increased pressure for nation states to act appropriately within the context of how the world system desires that nation state to behave.

The tension between the desires of the world system and the domestic needs of the nation state itself are exacerbated by the levels of inequity and injustice within these nation states. The way that the economic elite are more likely to conform to the systemic demands of the world system than to address domestic needs within the nation state is seen repeatedly across the globe. In Venezuela, the economic elite initiated a coup with support by the Core against the government of Hugo Chávez because of policies that were counter to the systemic proscription for Venezuelan attempts at social reform.10 Another example is the way in which opposition to the world system leverages domestic inequality can be seen in the Philippines, where workers are kept in poverty within an economic system that is in aggregate successful.11 McCormick also points out that Ho Chi Minh's “ideology and policy” was to withdraw from the world system, and this was the motivation for the support for the French and the subsequent direct involvement of the United States in Vietnam.12

One method that the world system pressures nation states to conform is the constant threat that investment will flee to another nation if conditions are not kept favourable to international investment. This constant flight of investment to localities with the most favourable market conditions has been a feature of the globalizing economy that is responsive to the pressure to constantly increase profit. Expansion is one method of increasing profit. Economies of scale may help increase the ratio of profit to expenditure, but even if the ratio does not increase the level of profit does marginally increase. However, even if expansion is possible, it can be detrimental to expand to fill all capacity. Unfettered expansion incurs capital costs but also runs the risk of commoditizing output. Also, increased recurring capital costs sap a firm's ability to respond to changing market conditions. For example, many fast food chains and retail outlets expand beyond their ability to provide effective infrastructure and are forced to shutter. In my personal experience with Natural Wonders, a retail company that has since gone bankrupt, the only way to maintain increased profits year after year was to open new stores. The books would show increased profits over the previous year, but only at the expense of more capital and more long-term commitments to retail space and infrastructure. Each new store would initially create a surge of profits for the overall company performance, but when the store settled into a long-term norm the company needed to demonstrate increased profits by creating more stores. Another response to the need to constantly show profits is for a firm to rely on contingency workers and leased office space. This is common in most high-tech companies or call-centers which outsource jobs and lease office space, such as Microsoft where I have also worked. When expansion is not possible, it becomes paramount to reduce expenditures in a way that does not reduce productive capacity. Keeping costs low increases profits, but runs the risk of reducing quality and capacity or disabling institutional memory. In many industries, especially industries that have to re-tool manufacturing plants, such as the Aerospace sector, it is just as or more cost effective to build a new plant at is is to re-tool an existing plant. This lessens the burden of moving plants to other states or even countries. Globalization creates an outlet for firms that cannot expand, but must reduce costs to meet demand for ever increasing levels of profit. A firm can move production or outsource production to offset pressure to expand.

The ideal of globalization is to open the productive capacity of the world in a way that makes it possible for small firms to leverage economies of scale and scope. When relatively unfettered access to global markets is available, this productive capacity can be brokered to feed potentially unfettered global demand.

Productivity is a measure of how much can be produced using the same effort. For example, for each marginal investment there is a marginal increase in the output of a manufacturer. This can be from hiring additional workers, but is enhanced by technology and more efficient methods. Using machines is one way that technology has increased productivity, so also has the development of scientific management and assembly line style structures. The effects of pressure for continually increasing productivity on both individuals and communities can be seen in the inability for textile workers to organize, the loss of community memory of resistance to management after failed organizing attempts and the seemingly inexorable movement of textile work from the industrialized northern states to the reconstructed south and beyond over the history of the United States.13

There is a phenomena in assembly lines that the workers tend to normalize their level of productivity in aggregate when compared to the demands of management. This is when laborers “soldier” their work.14 While management would clearly benefit from a sustained productive capacity at the peak of possible efficiency, this is not the level at which workers normalize. Slow workers are encouraged by their working group to speed up, certainly, but more interestingly fast workers are encouraged to slow down. The slow workers are seen as getting a free ride, but the fast workers are increasing not only the expectation of management about the possible speed of the whole group. This makes the other members of the group look bad, and they are therefore led to express pressure on peers to normalize speed of the work.

World economic productivity functions in a similar but different way. In the world-system view presented by McCormick, the various nation states function as a reinforcing loop on each other and exert systemic pressures to behave in particular ways.15 Friedman's idea of the Electronic Herd is an example of this pressure being exerted trans-nationally by investing funds and firms.16 Generally, these forces are incentivizing nation states to behave in a way that speeds up production at the expense of the workers. In other words, the trans-national, systemic forces function like management to demand efficiency and maximal productivity, whereas the domestic needs often pull in the direction of normalization of productivity. The account of collaborative control over a team's behaviour is illustrated in the way that social norms were enforced within the fictional context of LeGuin's The Dispossessed.17

In manufacturing, it seems that a steady increase in productivity could be sustained given sufficient workers, organization and technology. However, the pattern is less clear in retail and the service sector. In retail, there is a current tendency to limit the need for workers by implementing automated checkout lanes. However, even these automated checkout lanes must be supervised and, even more importantly, maintained. In retail, there is a pretty obvious ceiling to the way in which worker efficiency and technological automation can increase productivity. In order to increase productivity in retail, the sales people are instructed to increase the units of merchandise per sale. For example, the cashiers are encouraged to add on items to purchases, such as the infamous pair of socks at The Gap, or with point-of-sale items that crowd the register areas. In the case of automation, for example, this is not as possible because the add on sale requires a sales person to be most effective. Of course, it should be noted that online retailers such as Amazon do attempt to create this through the use of a technological interface designed to make add on recommendations based on what similar items were purchased by others, but even this implementation cannot be as effective as a personal sales experience which can make both intuitive and non sequitur connections based on interaction with the customer.

The example of retail is important because the economy of the of the United States and the Core countries has been moving toward the service sector by exporting manufacturing and other work that can be most efficient when normalization toward the aggregate level of productivity is consistently broken. The importance is that the work that has the greatest range of possible productivity increase is exported while the work with the least possible productivity gain is maintained. This is a lack of productive flexibility that could lead to disaster. For example, during WWII the flexibility of productive capacity created a massive and unexpected increase in the manufacture of machinery for the war effort. Prior to the 1940's, the United States armed forces were not within the top 12 in the world. However in the face of a looming war and in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt told Congress that the US would increase the number of planes produced from below 6,000 up to 50,000 planes each year.18 Ultimately, the demands on plane manufacturing increased to 125,000 in 1943, a 2000% productive increase from 1940.19 If productive flexibility is exported, then it will be impossible for a similar manufacturing event to take place. Further, if the export of productive flexibility creates a significant enough imbalance that could create a situation that will lead to nations with flexibility to turn to militarily exploiting other nations. In other words, normative productive flexibility is in the interest of not only working groups, but to the nation states. There must be a steady state of productive capacity to maintain peace, and the only steady state that can be maintained is a normative one.

It is affirmatively in the best interest of any nation state to retain productive flexibility and to encourage other nation states to do so as well. Just like the workers on an assembly line respond to the pressures for increased efficiency, so too should nation states in the face of systemic pressures to increase productive capacity, which is one face of the race to the bottom, resist as an aggregate body by normalizing production toward a median level. This is in distinct opposition to the claims of Friedman, for example, that nation states must do what the Electronic Herd commands or it will “sell you out,”20 or the observation from McCormick that the nation states must respond to the hegemonic agenda or face pressure from peer states or worse.21 The point is that it is in the best interest of the aggregate to normalize not maximize production. Nation states that undercut or overshoot the normalized level of production in response to systemic demands should be encouraged to resist for the good of all. This good is not just specific to the stress of higher levels of production, but also a serious threat to world peace if the levels of productive flexibility across nation states becomes unbalanced.

In this sense, it is important to recognize the function of bodies like the World Trade Organization in incentivizing nation states to achieve maximal productive capacity. Irwin holds that world trade should not be conditioned to recognize local, domestic issues of inequality or injustice because such issues should only be the purview of domestic governments.22 Quite in opposition to the ideas expressed by Irwin, these bodies cannot be separated from the way that nation states manage domestic response to the systemic pressures of a globalized economy. If a nation suppresses unions in order to compete on a world market, it is because of the systemic pressures being exerted on it from transnational governance and investment. If foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, then the domestic needs of a nation state are the direct purpose of engaging the world-system not independent of each other. To ignore this connection is to miss the fundamental interdependence of the people that make up the foundation of international commerce and the productive foundation on which international financial speculation is based.

The way out of a systemic impasse is not in addressing the needs of the system, but rather in addressing the system itself. An attempt to alter the function of the system toward a goal is the way to change the effects. Far from being outside the purview of international treaties, it is exactly in the interest of the collective body of nation states to exert collective control over each instance of domestic policy that fails to address domestic needs in favour of systemic concerns. The response to the ills of economic globalization is not to abdicate responsibility for the way in which systemic needs are pushed ahead of the domestic needs of the nation states of the world. The various elements in the world system can condition the way that production is accomplished by exerting pressure on their peers to slow the speed of work internationally. The Periphery can resist the way that the Core and Semi-Periphery attempt to control them in the same way that the workers resisted owners and managers in factories by creating and enforcing solidarity over the speed of industrial work. It should be seen as a collective necessity for all productive nation states to stand together for the good of all and refuse to deviate from a progressive agenda of normative domestic policy that resists the international intensification of production and trade.


Bartley, Kim and Donnacha O Briain, The Revolution will not be Televised. Leipzig, Germany: Deckert Distribution Gmbh, 2003. Film.

Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

Collins, Jane L. Threads: gender, labor and power in the global apparel industry. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.

Davidson, Joel. Building for World War II: The Aerospace Industry. <> (Feb 5, 2004)

Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and The Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. New York: Anchor, 2000

Hunt, E. K. Property and Prophets: The Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.

Irwin, Douglas A. Free Trade Under Fire. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.

LeGuin, Urslua K. The Dispossessed. New York: Eos, 2001.

McCormick, Thomas J. America's Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995.

Pilger, John. The New Rulers of the World. Olay, Pennsylvania: Bullfrog Films, 2002. Film.

Pollin, Robert. Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity. New York: Verso, 2003.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. Address Delivered by President Roosevelt to the Congress, May 16, 1940. <> (Feb 5, 2004)

Tabb, William K. The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001.

1Thomas J McCormick, America's Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995), 3-5.

2McCormick, 12.

3McCormick, 48-49.

4E. K. Hunt, Property and Prophets: The Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2003)

5Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalism. (New York: Anchor, 2000), 7.

6Hunt, 16-17.

7Friedman, 45-46.

8Willam K. Tabb, The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001)

9McCormick, 5-9.

10Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain, The Revolution will not be Televised (Leipzig, Germany: Deckert Distribution Gmbh, 2003), film

11John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World. (Olay, Pennsylvanis: Bullfrog Films, 2002), Film

12McCormick, 117

13Jane L. Collins, Threads: gender, labor and power in the global apparel industry. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003)

14Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), Ch 4, especially 67-70.

15McCormick, 5-9

16Friedman, Ch 7.

17Ursula K. LeQuin, The Dispossessed. (New York: Eos, 2001), 219

18Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Address Delivered by President Roosevelt to the Congress, May 16, 1940.(Feb 5, 2004) <>.

19DDavidson, Joel. Building for World War II: The Aerospace Industry. (Feb 5, 2004) <>.

20Friedman, 113.

21McCormick, 3-5.

22Douglas A. Irwin, Free Trade Under Fire. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.)