Global Production, Neoliberalism, and the Puzzle of Rules

Tim Bartley
Dept. of Sociology
Indiana University

Neoliberal globalization is simultaneously unruly and filled with rules. On one hand, the globalization of production has meant that firms can move their orders and investments rapidly across national boundaries, allowing for a kind of regulatory arbitrage that undercuts existing rules for labor, environmental, and consumer protection. Indeed, most major consumer products brands–especially in apparel, footwear, home furnishings, and electronics industries–have built their success on using this model of sourcing to nimbly alter product styles and keep prices in check. In these and other ways, the increased scale, speed, and contingency of connections across places has produced forms of economic, social, and cultural life that sometimes appear ungovernable–and are, at the very least, hard to manage effectively and democratically. On the other hand, neither global production nor the flow of people and ideas are truly without rules. Neoliberal globalization has been both facilitated by and productive of many sets of rules–not only for trade, investment, and accounting, but also for environmental management and natural resource governance, the safety of food supplies, and the protection of consumers, and sometimes even workers and migrants. Some of these rules have been developed by national governments, some by international and regional bodies, and some by NGOs and other moral entrepreneurs, who have sought to promote norms and standards of fairness, sustainability, and justice.

In both senses of the term, global arenas are “lousy” with rules. This presents scholars with a puzzle: How can global social formations be simultaneously unruly and rule-filled? Put differently, how does the tearing apart and putting together of rules fit together? One way to answer is to view the development of new rules as compensation for the gutting (or suppression) of protective rules. Here, the construction of new rules and standards for labor, the environment, and safety is a Polanyian reaction to the neoliberal project of treating labor and environmental regulation as little more than barriers to trade; it is a way to re-embed capitalism in socially-defined standards and rein its tendencies toward both destruction and instability. Many scholars have argued that precisely this process is behind the resurgence of standards–both public and private–for sustainability, Fair Trade, consumer protection, and labor rights. A second answer views the tearing down and building up of rules not as compensatory but as cut from the same cloth–that is, both driven by a neoliberal script about the appropriate character of regulation. Notably, much of the growth in environmental and labor standards has come in the form of private, market-driven systems of regulation. For instance, programs that certify products as fair, sustainable, or made under decent working conditions depend largely on consumer markets (and sometimes investment markets as well) to reward or penalize firms.

In this paper, I explore how each of these stylized accounts makes sense of the emergence and effects of “transnational private regulation” of labor and the environment. Specifically, my work examines private, voluntary standards for fair labor conditions (especially in the apparel and footwear industry) and sustainable forestry. In each case, systems have arisen to push standards through global supply chains, audit compliance, and certify best practices.