I agree that the left needs an agenda in tune with postindustrial problems and possibilities. But I am troubled by some parts of Dick Flacks’ argument. Flacks says that earlier left models have disintegrated, undercut because they depend on the state at a time when global economic competition has fatally weakened the ability of nation states to control their economies. While this is now the common wisdom on both the right and the left, there are reasons to pause and wonder.

The penetration of goods, labor, and capital from abroad is a real factor in the economy, and especially in some industries. But while European economies are far more exposed to trade penetration and capital flight, the impact of globalism on European politics seems smaller than in the United States. French and Italian workers, for example, do not act as if their efforts to influence the nation state are doomed; and the German economy with its high wages, short hours, and expansive welfare state, all sustained by state-centered politics, is not a mirage.

The United States, which has until now been less exposed to international economic currents, has the most strident rhetoric of globalization, as well as draconian wage cuts and welfare state budget rollbacks justified by the fear of global competition. This anomaly suggests that the spectre of trade competition and capital flight may be as important as the reality, and that the spectre has been used in the United States as part of an aggressive capitalist political strategy to weaken labor and the welfare state.

These issues are hugely important, not only for the future of left politics, but for the very possibility of democratic politics. After all, what does democracy mean if economic decisions are now lodged in supranational spheres entirely beyond reach? More immediately, an assessment of the bearing of international markets on the nation state is also important in appraising Flacks’ own proposals. If he is right, it is hard to see what becomes of his prescriptions for a new Progressive Agenda. How is it credible to call for an expanded federal social wage, or economic conversion, or federal labor law reform, or policies to promote local initiatives, if the nation state must knuckle under to global market imperatives?

I am especially troubled by Flacks’ call for community empowerment. While I think globalism has been exaggerated, I nevertheless think that capital mobility gives private wealth a great deal of influence in the United States, and one of the reasons is the decentralization of government decisions in the federal system. For over a century, American manufacturers have exerted leverage over state and local governments by threatening to move across state borders. Their power has been as great as it has precisely because state and local governments have substantial authority over important policies in the United States.

This pattern should make us wary of calls for further decentralization. Political movements are, of course, necessarily decentralized, because it is in the locales of everyday life that ordinary people build the solidarities and hopes that undergird movement. But Flacks is talking not about the decentralization of popular political action, but the decentralization of institutions of governance. If the national government is weakened by international markets, these local governments would be helpless in the face of threats of capital flight or job loss within national as well as international markets. That may indeed be what the Congressional Republicans, who have their own program for decentralization, have in mind.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review