A discourse on poverty and the necessity of reducing its magnitude, if not eradicating it, has become fashionable today. It is a discourse of charity, in the nineteenth-century-style, which is does not seek to understand the economic and social mechanisms that generate poverty, although the scientific and technological means to eradicate it are now available.
Capitalism and the new agrarian question
All societies before modern (capitalist) time were peasant societies. Their production was ruled by various specific systems and logics—but not those which rule capitalism in a market society such as the maximization of the return on capital.
Modern capitalist agriculture—encompassing both rich, large-scale family farming and agribusiness corporations—is now engaged in a massive attack on third world peasant production. The green light for this was given at the November 2001 session of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Doha, Qatar. There are many victims of this attack—and most are third world peasants, who still make up half of humankind.
Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of return on capital, which is localized almost exclusively in North America, Europe, Australia, and in the Southern Cone of Latin America employs only a few tens of millions of farmers who are no longer peasants. Because of the degree of mechanization and the extensive size of the farms managed by one farmer, their productivity generally ranges between 1 to 2 million kilograms (2 and 4.5 million pounds) of cereals per farmer.
In sharp contrast, three billion farmers are engaged in peasant farming. Their farms can be grouped into two distinct sectors, with greatly different scales of production, economic and social characteristics, and levels of efficiency. One sector, able to benefit from the green revolution, obtained fertilizers, pesticides, and improved seeds and has some degree of mechanization. The productivity of these peasants ranges between 10,000 and 50,000 kilograms (20,000 and 110,000 pounds) of cereals per year. However, the annual productivity of peasants excluded from new technologies is estimated to be around 1,000 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of cereals per farmer.
The ratio of the productivity of the most advanced capitalist segment of the world’s agriculture to the poorest, which was around 10 to 1 before 1940, is now approaching 2000 to 1! That means that productivity has progressed much more unequally in the area of agriculture and food production than in any other area. Simultaneously this evolution has led to the reduction of the relative prices of food products (in relation to other industrial and service products) to one fifth of what they were fifty years ago. The new agrarian question is the result of that unequal development.
Modernization has always combined constructive dimensions, namely the accumulation of capital and increasing productivity, with destructive aspects—reducing labor to the state of a commodity sold on the market, often destroying the natural ecological basis needed for the reproduction of life and production, and polarizing the distribution of wealth on a global level. Modernization has always simultaneously integrated some, as expanding markets created employment, and excludedothers, who were not integrated in the new labor force after having lost their positions in the previous systems. In its ascending phase, capitalist global expansion integrated many along with its excluding processes. But now, in the third world peasant societies, it is excluding massive numbers of people while including relatively few.
The question raised here is precisely whether this trend will continue to operate with respect to the three billion human beings still producing and living in peasant societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Indeed, what would happen if agriculture and food production were treated as any other form of production submitted to the rules of competition in an open and deregulated market, as decided in principle at the November 2001 WTO meeting in Doha. Would such principles foster the acceleration of production?
One can imagine that the food brought to market by today’s three billion peasants, after they ensure their own subsistences, would instead be produced by twenty million new modern farmers. The conditions for the success of such an alternative would include: (1) the transfer of important pieces of good land to the new capitalist farmers (and these lands would have to be taken out of the hands of present peasant populations); (2) capital (to buy supplies and equipment); and (3) access to the consumer markets. Such farmers would indeed compete successfully with the billions of present peasants. But what would happen to those billions of people?
Under the circumstances, agreeing to the general principle of competition for agricultural products and foodstuffs, as imposed by WTO, means accepting the elimination of billions of noncompetitive producers within the short historic time of a few decades. What will become of these billions of humans beings, the majority of whom are already poor among the poor, who feed themselves with great difficulty. In fifty years’ time, industrial development, even in the fanciful hypothesis of a continued growth rate of 7 percent annually, could not absorb even one-third of this reserve.
The major argument presented to legitimate the WTO’s competition doctrine is that such development did happen in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the United States where it produced a modern, wealthy, urban-industrial and post-industrial society with modern agriculture able to feed the nation and even export food. Why should not this pattern be repeated in the contemporary third world countries?
The argument fails to consider two major factors that make the reproduction of the pattern in third world countries almost impossible. The first is that the European model developed throughout a century and a half along with labor-intensive industrial technologies. Modern technologies use far less labor and the newcomers of the third world have to adopt them if their industrial exports are to be competitive in global markets. The second is that, during that long transition, Europe benefited from the massive migration of its surplus population to the Americas.
The contention that capitalism has indeed solved the agrarian question in its developed centers has always been accepted by large sections of the left, an example being Karl Kautsky’s famous book, The Agrarian Question, written before the First World War. Soviet ideology inherited that view and on its basis undertook modernization through the Stalinist collectivization, with poor results. What was always overlooked was that capitalism, while it solved the question in its centers, did it through generating a gigantic agrarian question in the peripheries, which it can only solve through the genocide of half of humankind. Within the Marxist tradition only Maoism understood the magnitude of the challenge. Therefore, those who accused Maoism of a “peasant deviation” show by this very criticism that they lack the analytical capacity to understand imperialist capitalism, which they reduce to an abstract discourse on capitalism in general.
Modernization through capitalist market liberalization, as suggested by WTO and its supporters, finally aligns side by side, without even necessarily combining, the two components: the production of food on a global scale by modern competitive farmers mostly based in the North but also possibly in the future in some pockets of the South; and, the marginalization, exclusion, and further impoverishment of the majority of the three billion peasants of the present third world and finally their seclusion in some kinds of reserves. It therefore combines a pro-modernization and efficiency-dominant discourse with an ecological-cultural-reserve set of policies allowing the victims to survive in a state of material (including ecological) impoverishment. These two components might therefore complement, rather than conflict with, one another.
Can we imagine other alternatives and have them widely debated? Ones in which peasant agriculture would be maintained throughout the visible future of the twenty-first century, but, which simultaneously engage in a process of continuous technological and social progress? In this way, changes could happen at a rate that would allow a progressive transfer of the peasants into non-rural and non-agricultural employment.
Such a strategic set of targets involves complex policy mixes at national, regional, and global levels.
At the national level it implies macro policies protecting peasant food production from the unequal competition of modernized farmers and agribusiness corporations—local and international. This will help guarantee acceptable internal food prices—disconnected from international market prices, which are additionally biased by the agricultural subsidies of the wealthy North.
Such policy targets also question the patterns of industrial and urban development, which should be based less on export-oriented priorities (e.g., keeping wages low which implies low prices for food) and more attentive to a socially-balanced expansion of the internal market.
Simultaneously, this involves an overall pattern of policies to ensure national food security—an indispensable condition for a country to be an active member of the global community, enjoying the indispensable margin of autonomy and negotiating capacity.
At regional and global levels it implies international agreements and policies that move away from the doctrinaire liberal principles ruling the WTO—replacing them with imaginative and specific solutions for different areas, taking into consideration the specific issues and concrete historical and social conditions.
The New Labor Question
The planet’s urban population now represents about half of humanity, at least three billion individuals, with peasants making up all but a statistically insignificant percentage of the other half. The data on this population allow us to distinguish between what we can call the middle classes and the popular classes.
In the contemporary stage of capitalist evolution, the dominant classes—formal owners of the principal means of production and senior managers associated with bringing them into play—represent only a very minor fraction of the global population even though the share they draw from their societies’ available income is significant. To this we add the middle classes in the old sense of the term—non-wage-earners, owners of small enterprises, and middle managers, who are not necessarily in decline.
The large mass of workers in the modern segments of production consists of wage-earners who now make up more than four-fifths of the urban population of the developed centers. This mass is divided into at least two categories, the border between which is both visible to the outside observer and truly lived in the consciousness of affected individuals.
There are those who we can label stabilized popular classes in the sense that they are relatively secure in their employment, thanks among other things to professional qualifications which give them negotiating power with employers and, therefore, they are often organized, at least in some countries, into powerful unions. In all cases this mass carries a political weight that reinforces its negotiating capacity.
Others make up the precarious popular classes that include workers weakened by their low capacity for negotiation (as a result of their low skill levels, their status as non-citizens, or their race or gender) as well as non-wage-earners (the formally unemployed and the poor with jobs in the informal sector). We can label this second category of the popular classes “precarious,” rather than “non-integrated” or “marginalized,” because these workers are perfectly integrated into the systemic logic that commands the accumulation of capital.
From the available information for developed countries and certain Southern countries (from which we extrapolate data) we obtain the relative proportions that each of the above-defined categories represent in the planet’s urban population.
Although the centers account for only 18 percent of the planet’s population, since their population is 90 percent urban, they are home to a third of the world’s urban population (see table 1).
The popular classes account for three-quarters of the world’s urban population, while the precarious subcategory represents two-thirds of the popular classes on a world scale. (About 40 percent of the popular classes in the centers and 80 percent in the peripheries are in the precarious subcategory.) In other words, the precarious popular classes represent half (at least) of the world’s urban population and far more than that in the peripheries.
A look at the composition of the urban popular classes a half century ago, following the Second World War, shows that the proportions that characterize the structure of the popular classes were very different from what they have become.
At the time, the third world’s share did not exceed half of the global urban population (then on the order of a billion individuals) versus two-thirds today. Megacities, like those that we know today in practically all countries of the South, did not yet exist. There were only a few large cities, notably in China, India, and Latin America.
In the centers, the popular classes benefited, during the postwar period, from an exceptional situation based on the historic compromise imposed on capital by the working classes. This compromise permitted the stabilization of the majority of workers in forms of a work organization known as the “Fordist” factory system. In the peripheries, the proportion of the precarious—which was, as always, larger than in the centers—did not exceed half of the urban popular classes (versus more than 70 percent today). The other half still consisted, in part, of stabilized wage-earners in the forms of the new colonial economy and of the modernized society and, in part, in old forms of craft industries.
The main social transformation that characterizes the second half of the twentieth century can be summarized in a single statistic: the proportion of the precarious popular classes rose from less than one-quarter to more than one-half of the global urban population, and this phenomenon of pauperization has reappeared on a significant scale in the developed centers themselves. This destabilized urban population has increased in a half-century from less than a quarter of a billion to more than a billion-and-a-half individuals, registering a growth rate which surpasses those that characterize economic expansion, population growth, or the process of urbanization itself.
Pauperization—there is no better term to name the evolutionary trend during the second half of the twentieth century.
Overall, the fact in itself is recognized and reaffirmed in the new dominant language: “reducing poverty” has become a recurring theme of the objectives which government policies claim to achieve. But the poverty in question is only presented as an empirically measured fact, either very crudely by income distribution (poverty lines) or a little less crudely by composite indices (such as the human development indices proposed by the United Nations Development Program), without ever raising the question of the logics and mechanisms which generate this poverty.
Our presentation of these same facts goes further because it allows us precisely to begin explaining the phenomenon and its evolution. Middle strata, stabilized popular strata, and precarious popular strata are all integrated into the same system of social production, but they fulfill distinct functions within it. Some are indeed excluded from the benefits of prosperity. The excluded are very much a part of the system and are not marginalized in the sense of not being integrated—functionally—into the system.
Pauperization is a modern phenomenon which is not at all reducible to a lack of sufficient income for survival. It is really the modernization of poverty and has devastating effects in all dimensions of social life. Emigrants from the countryside were relatively well integrated into the stabilized popular classes during the golden age (1945–1975)—they tended to become factory workers. Now those who have recently arrived and their children are situated on the margins of the main productive systems, creating favorable conditions for the substitution of community solidarities for class consciousness. Meanwhile, women are even more victimized by economic precariousness than are men, resulting in deterioration of their material and social conditions. And if feminist movements have without doubt achieved important advances in the realm of ideas and behavior, the beneficiaries of these gains are almost exclusively middle-class women, certainly not those of the pauperized popular classes. As for democracy, its credibility—and therefore its legitimacy—is sapped by its inability to curb the degradation of conditions of a growing fraction of the popular classes.
Pauperization is a phenomenon inseparable from polarization on a world scale—an inherent product of the expansion of really-existing capitalism, which for this reason we must call imperialist by nature.
Pauperization in the urban popular classes is closely linked to the developments which victimize third world peasant societies. The submission of these societies to the demands of capitalist market expansion supports new forms of social polarization which exclude a growing proportion of farmers from access to use of the land. These peasants who have been impoverished or become landless feed—even more than population growth—the migration to the shantytowns. Yet all these phenomena are destined to get worse as long as liberal dogmas are not challenged, and no corrective policy within this liberal framework can check their spread.
Pauperization calls into question both economic theory and the strategies of social struggles.
Conventional vulgar economic theory avoids the real questions that are posed by the expansion of capitalism. This is because it substitutes for an analysis of really-existing capitalism a theory of an imaginary capitalism, conceived as a simple and continuous extension of exchange relations (the market), whereas the system functions and reproduces itself on the basis of capitalist production and exchange relations (not simple market relations). This substitution is easily coupled with the a priori notion, which neither history nor rational argument confirm, that the market is self-regulating and produces a social optimum. Poverty can then only be explained by causes decreed to be outside of economic logic, such as population growth or policy errors. The relation of poverty to the very process of accumulation is dismissed by conventional economic theory. The resulting liberal virus, which pollutes contemporary social thought and annihilates the capacity to understand the world, let alone transform it, has deeply penetrated the various lefts constituted since the Second World War. The movements currently engaged in social struggles for “another world” and an alternative globalization will only be able to produce significant social advances if they get rid of this virus in order to construct an authentic theoretical debate. As long as they have not gotten rid of this virus, social movements, even the best intentioned, will remain locked in the shackles of conventional thought and therefore prisoners of ineffective corrective propositions—those which are fed by the rhetoric concerning poverty reduction.
The analysis sketched above should contribute to opening this debate. This is because it reestablishes the pertinence of the link between capital accumulation on the one hand and the phenomenon of social pauperization on the other. One hundred and fifty years ago, Marx initiated an analysis of the mechanisms behind this link, which has hardly been pursued since then—and scarcely at all on a global scale.
Imperialism is not a stage, not even the highest stage, of capitalism: from the beginning, it is inherent in capitalism’s expansion. The imperialist conquest of the planet by the Europeans and their North American children was carried out in two phases and is perhaps entering a third.
The first phase of this devastating enterprise was organized around the conquest of the Americas, in the framework of the mercantilist system of Atlantic Europe at the time. The net result was the destruction of the Indian civilizations and their Hispanicization- Christianization, or simply the total genocide on which the United States was built. The fundamental racism of the Anglo-Saxon colonists explains why this model was reproduced elsewhere, in Australia, in Tasmania (the most complete genocide in history), and in New Zealand. For whereas the Catholic Spaniards acted in the name of the religion that had to be imposed on conquered peoples, the Anglo-Protestants took from their reading of the Bible the right to wipe out the “infidels.” The infamous slavery of the Blacks, made necessary by the extermination of the Indians—or their resistance—briskly took over to ensure that the useful parts of the continent were “turned to account.” No one today has any doubt as to the real motives for all these horrors or is ignorant of their intimate relation to the expansion of mercantile capital. Nevertheless, the contemporary Europeans accepted the ideological discourse that justified them, and the voices of protest—that of Las Casas, for example—did not find many sympathetic listeners.
The disastrous results of this first chapter of world capitalist expansion produced, some time later, the forces of liberation that challenged the logics that produced them. The first revolution of the Western Hemisphere was that of the slaves of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) at the end of the eighteenth century, followed more than a century later by the Mexican revolution of the decade of 1910, and fifty years after that by the Cuban revolution. And if I do not cite here either the famous “American revolution” or that of the Spanish colonies that soon followed, it is because those only transferred the power of decision from the metropolis to the colonists so that they could go on doing the same thing, pursue the same project with even greater brutality, but without having to share the profits with the “mother country.”
The second phase of imperialist devastation was based on the industrial revolution and manifested itself in the colonial subjection of Asia and Africa. “To open the markets”—like the market for opium forced on the Chinese by the Puritans of England—and to seize the natural resources of the globe were the real motives here, as everyone knows today. But again, European opinion—including the workers’ movement of the Second International—did not see these realities and accepted the new legitimizing discourse of capital. This time, it was the famous “civilizing mission.” The voices that expressed the clearest thinking at the time were those of cynical bourgeoises, like Cecil Rhodes, who envisaged colonial conquest so as to avoid social revolution in England. Again, the voices of protest—from the Paris Commune to the Bolsheviks—had little resonance.
This second phase of imperialism is at the origin of the greatest problem with which mankind has ever been confronted: the overwhelming polarization that has increased the inequality between peoples from a maximum ratio of two to one around 1800, to sixty to one today, with only 20 percent of the earth’s population being included in the centers that benefit from the system. At the same time, these prodigious achievements of capitalist civilization gave rise to the most violent confrontations between the imperialist powers that the world has ever seen. Imperialist aggression again produced the forces that resisted its project: the socialist revolutions that took place in Russia and China (not accidentally all occurred within the peripheries that were victims of the polarizing expansion of really existing capitalism) and the revolutions of national liberation. Their victory brought about a half-century of respite, the period after the Second World War, which nourished the illusion that capitalism, compelled to adjust to the new situation, had at last managed to become civilized.
The question of imperialism (and behind it the question of its opposite—liberation and development) has continued to weigh on the history of capitalism up to the present. Thus the victory of the liberation movements that just after the Second World War won the political independence of the Asian and African nations not only put an end to the system of colonialism but also, in a way, brought to a close the era of European expansion that had opened in 1492. For four and a half centuries, from 1500 to 1950, that expansion had been the form taken by the development of historical capitalism, to the point where these two aspects of the same reality had become inseparable. To be sure, the “world system of 1492” had already been breached at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth by the independence of the Americas. But the breach was only apparent, because the independence in question had been won not by the indigenous peoples and the slaves imported by the colonists (except in Haiti) but by the colonists themselves, who thereby transformed America into a second Europe. The independence reconquered by the peoples of Asia and Africa took on a different meaning.
The ruling classes of the colonialist countries of Europe did not fail to understand that a new page of history had been turned. They realized that they had to give up the traditional view that the growth of their domestic capitalist economy was tied to the success of their imperial expansion. For that view was held not only by the old colonial powers—primarily England, France, and Holland—but also by the new capitalist centers formed in the nineteenth century—Germany, the United States, and Japan. Accordingly, the intra-European and international conflicts were primarily struggles over the colonies in the imperialist system of 1492. It being understood that the United States reserved to itself exclusive rights to the whole new continent.
The construction of a great European space—developed, rich, having a first-class technological and scientific potential, and strong military traditions—seemed to constitute a solid alternative on which to found a new resurgence of capitalist accumulation, without “colonies”—that is, on the basis of a new type of globalization, different from that of the system of 1492. The question remained how this new world system could differ from the old, if it would still be as polarizing as the old one, even if on a new basis, or if it would cease to be so.
No doubt this construction, which is not only far from finished but is going through a crisis that could call into question its long-term significance, will remain a difficult task. No formulas have yet been found that would make it possible to reconcile the historical realities of each nation, which weigh so heavily, with the formation of a politically united Europe. In addition, the vision of how this European economic and political space would fit into the new global system, which is also not yet constructed, has so far remained ambiguous, not to say foggy. Is this economic space to be the rival of the other great space, the one created in the second Europe by the United States? If so, how will this rivalry affect the relations of Europe and the United States with the rest of the world? Will the rivals confront each other like the imperialist powers of the earlier period? Or will they act in concert? In that case, will the Europeans choose to participate by proxy in this new version of the imperialist system of 1492, keeping their political choices in conformity with those of Washington? On what conditions could the construction of Europe become part of a globalization that would put a definitive end to the system of 1492?
Today we see the beginnings of a third wave of devastation of the world by imperialist expansion, encouraged by the collapse of the Soviet system and of the regimes of populist nationalism in the Third World. The objectives of dominant capital are still the same—the control of the expansion of markets, the looting of the earth’s natural resources, the superexploitation of the labor reserves in the periphery—although they are being pursued in conditions that are new and in some respects very different from those that characterized the preceding phase of imperialism. The ideological discourse designed to secure the assent of the peoples of the central Triad (the United States, Western Europe, and Japan) has been refurbished and is now founded on a “duty to intervene” that is supposedly justified by the defense of “democracy,” the “rights of peoples,” and “humanitarianism.” The examples of the double standard are so flagrant that it seems obvious to the Asians and Africans how cynically this language is used. Western opinion, however, has responded to it with as much enthusiasm as it did to the justifications of earlier phases of imperialism.
Furthermore, to this end the United States is carrying out a systematic strategy designed to ensure its absolute hegemony by a show of military might that will consolidate behind it all the other partners in the Triad. From this point of view, the war in Kosovo fulfilled a crucial function, witness the total capitulation of the European states, which supported the American position on the “new strategic concept” adopted by NATO immediately after the “victory” in Yugoslavia on April 23-25, 1999. In this “new concept” (referred to more bluntly on the other side of the Atlantic as the “Clinton Doctrine”), NATO’s mission is, for practical purposes, extended to all of Asia and Africa (the United States, ever since the Monroe Doctrine, reserving the sole right to intervene in the Americas), an admission that NATO is not a defensive alliance but an offensive weapon of the United States. At the same time, this mission is redefined in terms as vague as one could wish that include new “threats” (international crime, “terrorism,” the “dangerous” arming of countries outside NATO, etc.), which plainly makes it possible to justify almost any aggression useful to the United States. Clinton, moreover, made no bones about speaking of “rogue states” that might be necessary to attack “preventively,” without further specifying what he means by the roguery in question. In addition, NATO is freed from the obligation of acting only on mandate from the UN, which is treated with a contempt equal to that which the fascist powers showed for the League of Nations (there is a striking similarity in the terms used).
American ideology is careful to package its merchandise, the imperialist project, in the ineffable language of the “historic mission of the United States.” A tradition handed down from the beginning by the “founding fathers,” sure of their divine inspiration. American liberals—in the political sense of the term, who consider themselves as the “left” in their society—share this ideology. Accordingly, they present American hegemony as necessarily “benign,” the source of progress in moral scruples and in democratic practice, which will necessarily be to the advantage of those who, in their eyes, are not victims of this project but beneficiaries. American hegemony, universal peace, democracy, and material progress are joined together as inseparable terms. Reality, of course, is located elsewhere.
The unbelievable extent to which public opinion in Europe (and particularly the opinion of the left, in places where it has the majority) has rallied around the project—public opinion in the United States is so naïve that it poses no problem—is a catastrophe that cannot but have tragic consequences. The intensive media campaigns, focused on the regions where Washington has decided to intervene, no doubt partly explain this widespread agreement. But beyond that, people in the West are persuaded that because the United States and the countries of the European Union are “democratic,” their governments are incapable of “ill will,” which is reserved for the bloody “dictators” of the East. They are so blinded by this conviction that they forget the decisive influence of the interests of dominant capital. Thus once again people in the imperialist countries give themselves a clear conscience.
Democracy is one of the absolute requirements for development. But we must still explain why, and on what conditions, because it is only recently that this idea has been, it seems, generally accepted. Not long ago the dominant dogma in the West, as in the East and the South, was that democracy was a “luxury” that could come only after “development” had solved the material problems of society. That was the official doctrine shared by the ruling circles of the capitalist world (by the United States to justify its support for the military dictators of Latin America, and the Europeans to justify theirs for the autocratic regimes of Africa); by the states of the Third World (where the Latin American theory of desarrollismoexpressed it clearly); and by Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, and many other countries which proved that the socialist states were not the only ones governed by single parties; and by the rulers of the Soviet system.
But now, overnight, the proposition has been turned into its opposite. Everywhere, or almost everywhere, there is daily official talk about the concern for democracy; a certificate of democracy, awarded in due form, is a “condition” for seeking aid from the big, rich democracies; and so forth. The credibility of this rhetoric is particularly doubtful when the principle of the “double standard,” which is applied with perfect cynicism, so plainly reveals in practice the real priority given to other, unacknowledged objectives, which the ruling circles attempt to achieve by pure and simple manipulation. This is not to deny that certain social movements, if not all, really do have democratic objectives, or that democracy really is the condition for development.
Democracy is a modern concept in the sense that it is the very definition of modernity—if, as I suggest, we understand by modernity the adoption of the principle that human beings individually and collectively (that is, societies) are responsible for their history. Before they could formulate that concept, people had to free themselves from the alienations characteristic of the forms of power that preceded capitalism, whether they were the alienations of religion or whether they took the form of “traditions” conceived as permanent, transhistorical facts. The expressions of modernity, and of the necessity for democracy that it implies, date from the Age of Enlightenment. The modernity in question is therefore synonymous with capitalism, and the democracy that it has produced is limited like the rest, like capitalism itself. In its historical bourgeois forms—even though they are the only ones known and practiced so far—it constitutes only a “stage.” Neither modernity nor democracy has reached the end of its potential development. That is why I prefer the term “democratization,” which stresses the dynamic aspect of a still-unfinished process, to the term “democracy,” which reinforces the illusion that we can give a definitive formula for it.
Bourgeois social thought has been based from the beginning, that is, since the Enlightenment, on a separation of the different domains of social life—among others, its economic management and its political management—and the adoption of different specific principles that are supposed to be the expression of the particular demands of “Reason” in each of these domains. According to this view, democracy is the reasonable principle of good political management. Since men (at the time, there was never any question of including women) or, more precisely, certain men (those who are sufficiently educated and well-to-do) are reasonable, they should have the responsibility of making the laws under which they wish to live and of choosing, by election, the persons who will be charged with executing those laws. Economic life, on the other hand, is managed by other principles that are likewise conceived as the expression of the demands of “Reason” (synonymous with human nature): private property, the right to be an entrepreneur, competition in markets. We recognize this group of principles as those of capitalism, which in and of themselves have nothing to do with the principles of democracy. This is the case especially if we think of democracy as implying equality—the equality of men and women, of course, but also of all human beings (bearing in mind that American democracy forgot its slaves until 1865 and the elementary civil rights of their descendants until 1960), of property owners and non-property owners (noting that private property exists only when it is exclusive, that is, if there are those who have none).
The separation of the economic and political domains immediately raises the question of the convergence or divergence of the results of the specific logics that govern them. In other words, should “democracy” (shorthand for modern management of political life) and “the market” (shorthand for capitalist management of economic activity) be viewed as convergent or divergent? The postulate on which the currently fashionable discourse rests, and which is elevated to the status of a truth so self-evident that there is no need to discuss it, affirms that the two terms converge. Democracy and the market supposedly engender each other, democracy requires the market and vice versa. Nothing could be further from the truth, as real history demonstrates.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment were more demanding than the common run of our contemporaries. Unlike the latter, they asked themselves why there was this convergence and on what conditions. Their answer to the first question was inspired by their concept of “Reason,” the common denominator of the modes of management envisaged for democracy and market. If men are reasonable, then the results of their political choices can only reinforce the results produced by the market. This, then, on the condition, obviously, that the exercise of democratic rights is reserved to beings endowed with reason, which is to say certain men—not women, who, as we know, are guided only by their emotions and not by reason; nor, of course, slaves, the poor, and the dispossessed (the proletarians), who only obey their instincts. Democracy must be based on property qualifications and reserved to those who are simultaneously citizens and entrepreneurs. Naturally, then, it is probable that their electoral choices will always, or almost always, be consistent with their interests as capitalists. But that at once means that in its convergence with, not to say subordination to, economics, politics loses its autonomy. Economistic alienation functions here to the full, concealing this fact.
The later extension of democratic rights to others besides citizen entrepreneurs was not the spontaneous result of capitalist development or the expression of a requirement of that development. Quite the contrary, those rights were won gradually by the victims of the system—the working class and, later, women. They were the result of struggles against the system, even if the system managed to adapt to them, to “recuperate” their benefits, as the saying goes. How and at what cost? That is the real question that must be asked here.
This extension of rights necessarily reveals a contradiction expressed through the democratic vote between the will of the majority (those exploited by the system) and the fate that the market has in store for them, the system runs the risk of becoming unstable, even explosive. At a minimum there is the risk—and the possibility—that the market in question may have to submit to the expression of social interests that do not coincide with the maximum profitability of capital, to which the economic domain gives priority. In other words, there is the risk for some (capital) and the possibility for others (the worker-citizens) that the market may be regulated in terms other than the workings of its strict unilateral logic. That is possible; indeed, in certain conditions it has come to pass, as in the postwar welfare state.
But that is not the only possible way of concealing the divergence between democracy and the market. If concrete history produces circumstances such that the movement of social criticism becomes fragmented and impotent, and that consequently there appears to be no alternative to the dominant ideology, then democracy can be emptied of all content that gets in the way of the market and is potentially dangerous for it. You can vote freely any way you like: white, blue, green, pink, or red. Whatever you do, it will have no effect, because your fate is decided elsewhere, outside the precincts of parliament, in the market. The subordination of democracy to the market (and not their convergence) is reflected in the language of politics. The word “alternation” (changing the faces in power so as to go on doing the same thing) has replaced the word “alternative” (doing something else).
This alternation that applies only to the meaningless remnants left by market regulation is in fact a sign that democracy is in crisis. It erodes the credibility and legitimacy of democratic procedures and can readily lead to the replacement of democracy with an illusory consensus based, for example, on religion or ethnic chauvinism. From the beginning, the thesis that there is a “natural” convergence between democracy and the market contained the danger that we would come to this pass. It presupposes a society reconciled with itself, a society without conflict, as certain so-called postmodernist interpretations suggest. But the evidence is conclusive that global capitalist market relations have generated ever greater inequalities. Convergence theory—the notion that the market and democracy converge—is today pure dogma; a theory of imaginary politics. This theory is, in its own domain, the counterpart of “pure economics,” which is the theory not of really existing capitalism but of an imaginary economy. Just as the dogma of market fundamentalism is everywhere wearing thin in the face of reality, we can no longer accept the popular notion propagated today that democracy converges with capitalism.
On the contrary, we become aware of the potential for authoritarianism latent in capitalism. Capitalism’s response to the challenge presented by the dialectic of the individual vs. the collective (social) does indeed contain this dangerous potential.
The contradiction between the individual and the collective, which is inherent in every society at every level of its reality, was surmounted, in all the social systems before modern times, by the negation of its first term—that is, by the domestication of the individual by society. The individual is recognizable only by and through his status in the family, the clan, and society. In the ideology of the modern (capitalist) world, the terms of the negation are reversed: modernity declares itself in the rights of the individual, even in opposition to society. In my opinion, this reversal is only a precondition of liberation, the beginning of liberation. Because at the same time it liberates a potential for permanent aggressivity in the relations between individuals. Capitalist ideology expresses this reality by its ambiguous ethic: long live competition, let the strongest win. The devastating effects of this ideology are sometimes contained by the coexistence of other ethical principles, mostly of religious origin or inherited from earlier social forms. But let these dams give way, and the unilateral ideology of the rights of the individual—whether in the popularized versions of Sade or Nietsche, or in the American version—can only produce horror and, if pushed to its limits, autocracy—hard (fascist) or soft.
Marx underestimated this danger, I think. Perhaps out of concern not to encourage any illusions stemming from an addiction to the past, he may not have seen all the reactionary potential in the bourgeois ideology of the individual. Witness his preference for the American society, on the pretext that it did not suffer from the vestiges of a feudal past that handicapped progress in Europe. I want to suggest, on the contrary, that Europe’s feudal past accounts for some of the relatively positive characteristics that argue in its favor. Should not the degree of violence that dominates daily life in the United States, which is out of all proportion to what exists in Europe, be attributed precisely to the absence of premodern antecedents in the United States? To go even further, can we not ascribe to these antecedents—where they exist—a positive role in the emergence of elements of a post-capitalist ideology, emphasizing the values of generosity and human solidarity? Does not their absence reinforce submission to the dominating power of capitalist ideology? Is it mere chance that, precisely, “soft” authoritarianism (alternating with phases of hard authoritarianism, as the experience of McCarthyism should remind all those who have systematically erased it from their memory of recent history) is one of the permanent characteristics of the American model? Is it mere chance that for this reason the United States supplies the perfect model of low-intensity democracy, to the point where the proportion of people who abstain from voting is unheard of elsewhere and that—another fact that is not just accidental—it is precisely the disinherited who stay away from the polls en masse?
How will a dialectical synthesis, beyond capitalism, make it possible to reconcile the rights of the individual and those of the collectivity? How will this possible reconciliation give more transparency to individual life and the life of society? These are questions that we shall not attempt to answer here, but that definitely present themselves, indeed challenge the bourgeois concept of democracy and identify its historical limits.
If, then, there is no convergence, least of all a “natural” one, between the market and democracy, are we to conclude that development—understood in its usual sense of accelerated economic growth through an expansion of markets (and up to now there has hardly been any experience of development of a different kind)—is incompatible with the exercise of a rather advanced degree of democracy?
There is no lack of facts that would argue in favor of this thesis. The “successes” of Korea, of Taiwan, of Brazil under the military dictatorship, and of the nationalist populisms in their ascending phase (Nasser, Boumedienne, the Iraq of the Baath, etc.) were not achieved by systems that had any great respect for democracy. Further back, Germany and Japan, in the phase when they were catching up, were certainly less democratic than their British and French rivals. The modern socialist experiments, which were scarcely democratic, occasionally registered remarkable growth rates. But on the other side, one might observe that postwar democratic Italy modernized with a speed and to a depth that fascism, for all its bluster; never achieved, and that Western Europe, with its advanced social democracy (the postwar welfare state), experienced the most prodigious period of growth in history. One could strengthen the comparison in favor of democracy by enumerating countless dictatorships that engendered only stagnation, and even devastating masses of intertwined difficulties.
Could we then adopt a reserved, relativist position, refuse to establish any kind of relation between development and democracy, and say that whether they are compatible or not depends on specific concrete conditions? That attitude is acceptable so long as we are content with the “ordinary” definition of development, identifying it with accelerated growth within the system. But it is no longer acceptable once we acknowledge the second of the three central propositions set forth at the beginning of this study. To wit: that globalized capitalism is by nature polarizing and that development is therefore a critical concept, which implies that development must take place within the framework of the construction of an alternative, post-capitalist society. That construction can only be the product of the progressive will and action of people. Is there a definition of democracy other than the one implicit in that will and that action? It is in this sense that democracy is truly the condition of development. But that is a proposition that no longer has anything to do with what the dominant discourse has to say on the subject. Our proposition comes down to saying in effect: there can be no socialism (if we use that term to designate a better, post-capitalist alternative) without democracy, but also there can be no progress in democratization without a socialist transformation.
The “realistic” observer who is lying in wait for me will lose no time in pointing out that the experience of really existing socialism argues against the validity of my thesis. True. The popular version of Soviet historical Marxism did decree that the abolition of private property meant straight away that it had been replaced by social property. Neither Marx nor Lenin had ever made so far-reaching a simplification. For them, the abolition of private ownership of capital and land was only the first necessary act initiating a possible long evolution toward the constitution of social ownership. Social ownership starts to become a reality only from the moment when democratization has made such powerful progress that the citizen-producers have become masters of all the decisions taken at all levels of social life, from the workplace to the summit of the state. The most optimistic of human beings could not imagine that this result might be achieved anywhere in the world—whether in the United States or France or the Congo—in “a few years,” like the few years at the end of which it was proclaimed that in one place or another the construction of socialism had been completed. For the task is nothing less than to build a new culture, which requires successive generations gradually transforming themselves by their own action.
The reader will have quickly understood that there is an analogy, and not a contradiction, between 1) the functioning, in historical capitalism, of the relation between utopian liberalism and pragmatic management; and 2) the functioning, in the Soviet society, of the relation between socialist ideological discourse and real management. The socialist ideology in question is that of Bolshevism which, following that of European social democracy before 1914 (and making no break with it on this fundamental point), did not challenge the “natural” convergence of the logics of the different domains of social life and gave a “meaning” to history in a facile, linear interpretation of its “necessary” course. That was no doubt one way of reading historical Marxism, but it was not the only possible way of reading Marx (at any rate, it is not mine). The convergence is expressed here in the same way: seen from the point of view imposed by the dogma, the management of the economy by the Plan (substituted for the market) obviously produces an appropriate response to the needs. Democracy can only reinforce the decisions of the Plan, and opposing these is irrational. But here too imaginary socialism runs up against the demands of the management of really existing socialism, which is confronted with real and serious problems, among others, for instance, developing the productive forces so as to “catch up.” The powers-that-be provide for that by cynical practices that cannot be, and are not, acknowledged. Totalitarianism is common to both systems and expresses itself in the same way: by systematic lying. If its manifestations were, plainly, more violent in the USSR, it is because the backwardness that had to be overcome was such an extremely heavy burden, while the progress that had been made in the West gave its societies comfortable cushions on which to rest (hence its often “soft” totalitarianism, as in the consumerism of the periods of easy growth).
Abandoning the thesis of convergence and accepting the conflict between the logics of different domains is the prerequisite for interpreting history in a way that potentially reconciles theory and reality. But it is also the prerequisite for devising strategies that will make it possible to take really effective action—that is, to make progress in every aspect of society.
The intimate relation between real social development and democratization, so close that the two are inseparable, has nothing to do with the chatter on the subject offered by the proponents of the dominant ideology. Their thinking is always second-rate, confusing, ambiguous, and in the end, despite what may sometimes appear, reactionary. As a consequence, it has become the perfect tool of the dominant power of capital.
Democracy is necessarily a universalist concept, and it can tolerate no lapse from that essential virtue. But the dominant discourse —even the one that emanates from forces that subjectively classify themselves as “on the left”—gives a sliced-up interpretation of democracy that in the end negates the unity of the human race in favor of “races,” “communities,” “cultural groups,” etc. Anglo-Saxon identity politics, the aggregate expression of which is “communitarianism,” is a blatant example of this negation of the real equality of human beings. To wish naively, even with the best of intentions, for specific forms of “community development”—which, it will be claimed afterwards, were produced by the democratically expressed will of the communities in question (the West Indians in the London suburbs, for example, or the North Africans in France, or the Blacks in the United States, etc.)—is to lock individuals inside these communities and to lock these communities inside the iron limits of the hierarchies that the system imposes. It is nothing less than a kind of apartheid that is not acknowledged as such.
The argument advanced by the promoters of this model of “community development” appears to be both pragmatic (“do something for the dispossessed and the victims, who are gathered together in these communities”) and democratic (“the communities are eager to assert themselves as such”). No doubt a lot of universalist talk has been and still is pure rhetoric, calling for no strategy for effective action to change the world, which would obviously mean considering concrete forms of struggle against the oppression suffered by this or that particular group. Agreed. But the oppression in question cannot be abolished if at the same time we give it a framework within which it can reproduce itself, even if in a milder form.
The attachment that members of an oppressed community may feel for their own culture of oppression, much as we may respect the feeling in the abstract, is nevertheless the product of the crisis of democracy. It is because the effectiveness, the credibility, and the legitimacy of democracy have eroded that human beings take refuge in the illusion of a particular identity that could protect them. Then we find on the agenda culturalism, that is, the assertion that each of these communities (religious, ethnic, sexual, or other) has its own irreducible values (that is, values that have no universal significance). Culturalism, as I have said elsewhere, is not a complement to democracy, a means of applying it concretely, but on the contrary a contradiction to it.
The scenarios for the future remain largely dependent on one’s vision of the relations between the strong objective tendencies and the responses that the peoples, and the social forces of which they are composed, make to the challenges those tendencies represent. So there is an element of subjectivity, of intuition, that cannot be eliminated. And that, by the way, is a very good thing, because it means that the future is not programmed in advance and that the product of the inventive imagination, to use Castoriadis’s strong expression, has its place in real history.
It is especially hard to make predictions in a period like ours, when all the ideological and political mechanisms that governed the behavior of the various actors have disappeared. When the post-Second World War period came to an end, the structure of political life collapsed. Political life and political struggles had traditionally been conducted in the context of political states, whose legitimacy was not questioned (the legitimacy of a government could be questioned, but not that of the state). Behind and within the state, political parties, unions, a few great institutions—like national associations of employers and the circles that the media call the “political class”—constituted the basic structure of the system within which political movements, social struggles, and ideological currents expressed themselves. But now we find that almost everywhere in the world these institutions have to one degree or another lost a good part, if not all, of their legitimacy. People “don’t believe in them any more.” Thus, in their place “movements” of various kinds have pushed to the fore, movements centered around the demands of the Greens, or of women, movements for democracy or social justice, and movements of groups asserting their identity as ethnic or religious communities. This new political life is therefore highly unstable. It would be worth discussing concretely the relation between these demands and movements and the radical critique of society (that is, of really existing capitalism) and globalized neoliberal management. Because some of these movements join—or could join—in the conscious rejection of the society projected by the dominant powers; others on the contrary, take no interest in it and do nothing to oppose it. The dominant powers are able to make this distinction, and they make it. Some movements they manipulate and support, openly or covertly; others they resolutely combat—that is the rule in this new and unsettled political life.
There is a global political strategy for world management. The objective of this strategy is to bring about the greatest possible fragmentation of the forces potentially hostile to the system by fostering the breakup of the state forms of organization of society. As many Slovenias, Chechnyas, Kosovos, and Kuwaits as possible! In this connection, the opportunity of using, even manipulating, demands based on separate identity is welcome. The question of community identity—ethnic, religious, or other—is therefore one of the central questions of our time.
The basic democratic principle, which implies real respect for diversity (national, ethnic, religious, cultural, ideological), can tolerate no breach. The only way to manage diversity is by practicing genuine democracy. Failing that, it inevitably becomes an instrument that the adversary can use for his (less often her) own ends. But in this respect the various lefts in history have often been lacking. Not always, of course, and much less so than is frequently said today. One example among others: Tito’s Yugoslavia was almost a model of coexistence of nationalities on a really equal footing; but certainly not Romania! In the Third World of the Bandung period the national liberation movements often managed to unite different ethnic groups and religious communities against the imperialist enemy. Many ruling classes in the first generation of African states were really transethnic. But very few powers were able to manage diversity democratically, or, when gains were made, to maintain them. Their weak inclination for democracy gave results as deplorable in this domain as in the management of the other problems of their societies. When the crisis came, the hard-pressed ruling classes, powerless to confront it, often played a decisive role in a particular ethnic community’s recourse to withdrawal, which was used as a means of prolonging their “control” of the masses. Even in many authentic bourgeois democracies, however, community diversity is far from having always been managed correctly. Northern Ireland is the most striking example.
Culturalism has been successful to the degree that democratic management of diversity has failed. By culturalism I mean the affirmation that the differences in question are “primordial,” that they should be given “priority” (over class differences, for example), and sometimes even that they are “transhistorical,” that is, based on historical invariables. (This last is often the case with religious culturalisms, which easily slide toward obscurantism and fanaticism.)
To sort out this tangle of demands based on identity, I would propose what I think is an essential criterion. Those movements whose demands are connected with the fight against social exploitation and for greater democracy in every domain are progressive. On the contrary, those that present themselves as having “no social program” (because that is supposed to be unimportant!) and as being “not hostile to globalization” (because that too is unimportant!)—a fortiori, those that declare themselves foreign to the concept of democracy (which is accused of being a “Western” notion)—are openly reactionary and serve the ends of dominant capital to perfection. Dominant capital knows this, by the way, and supports their demands (even when the media take advantage of their barbarous content to denounce the peoples who are its victims!), using, and sometimes manipulating, these movements.
Democracy and the rights of peoples, which the same representatives of dominant capital invoke today, are hardly conceived to be more than the political means of neoliberal management of the contemporary world crisis, complementing the economic means. The democracy in question depends on cases. The same is true of the “good governance” they talk about. In addition, because it is entirely subservient to the priorities that the strategy of the United States/Triad tries to impose, it is cynically used as a tool. Hence the systematic application of the double standard. No question of intervening in favor of democracy in Afghanistan or the countries of the Persian Gulf, for example, any more than of getting in the way of Mobutu yesterday, of Savimbi today, or of many others tomorrow. The rights of peoples are sacred in certain cases (today in Kosovo, tomorrow perhaps in Tibet), forgotten in others (Palestine, Turkish Kurdistan, Cyprus, the Serbs of Krajina whom the Croatian regime has expelled by armed force, etc.). Even the terrible genocide in Rwanda occasioned no serious inquiry into the share of responsibility of the states that gave diplomatic support to the governments that were openly preparing it. No doubt the abominable behavior of certain regimes facilitates the task by providing pretexts that are easy to exploit. But the complicitous silence in other cases takes away all credibility from the talk of democracy and the rights of peoples. One could not do less to meet the fundamental requirements of the struggle for democracy and respect for peoples, without which there can be no progress.
That being (fortunately) the case, in the new phase we are already witnessing the rise of struggles involving the working people who are victims of the system. Landless peasants in Brazil; wage earners and unemployed, in solidarity, in some European countries; unions that include the great majority of wage earners (as in Korea or South Africa); young people and students carrying along with them the urban working classes (as in Indonesia)—the list grows longer every day. These social struggles are bound to expand. They will surely be very pluralistic, which is one of the positive characteristics of our time. No doubt this pluralism stems from the accumulated results of what has sometimes been called the “new social movements”—women’s movements, ecological movements, democratic movements. They will, of course, have to confront different obstacles to their development, depending on time and place.
The central question here is what the relation will be between the overriding conflicts, by which I mean the global conflicts between the various dominant classes—that is, the states—whose possible geometry I have tried to outline above. Which will carry the day? Will the social struggles be subordinated, contained within the larger global-imperialist context of the conflicts, and therefore mastered by the dominant powers, even mobilized for their purposes, if not always manipulated? Or, on the contrary, will the social struggles win their autonomy and force the powers to adapt to their demands?
Post-Imperialist Empire or Renewed Expansion of Imperialism?
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have chosen to call the current global system “Empire.”* Their choice of that term is intended to distinguish its essential constituent characteristics from those that define “imperialism.” Imperialism in this definition is reduced to its strictly political dimension, i.e., the extension of the formal power of a state beyond its own borders, thereby confusing imperialism with colonialism. Colonialism therefore no longer exists, neither does imperialism. This hollow proposition panders to the common American ideological discourse according to which the United States, in contrast to the European states, never aspired to form a colonial empire for its own benefit and thus could never have been “imperialist” (and thus is not today anymore than yesterday, as Bush reminds us). The historical materialist tradition proposes a very different analysis of the modern world, centered on identification of the requirements for the accumulation of capital, particularly of its dominant segments. Taken to the global level, this analysis thus makes it possible to discover the mechanisms that produce the polarization of wealth and power and construct the political economy of imperialism.
Hardt and Negri studiously ignore every analysis that has been written in this regard, not only by Marxists but also by other schools of political economy. Instead, they take up the legalism of a Maruice Duverger or the vulgar political science of Anglo-Saxon empiricism. Thus “imperialism” becomes a common characteristic shared across space and time by various “Empires,” such as the Roman, Ottoman, British or French colonial, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Soviet. The inevitable collapse of these empires is related to “analogous causes.” This is much closer to a superficial journalism than to any serious reading of history. But again, they pander to the current fashion (after “the fall of the Berlin Wall”).
There is no question that the evolution of capitalism and the world system in the course of the last twenty years has involved qualitative transformations in all areas. It is another thing to subscribe to the dominant discourse according to which the “scientific and technological” revolution will, by itself, produce forms of economic and political management of the planet that “surpass” those associated, until recently, with the defense of “national interests” and, further, that this evolution would be “positive.” This discourse proceeds on the basis of serious simplifications. The dominant segments of capital indeed operate in the transnational space of world capitalism, but control of these segments remains in the hands of financial groups still strongly “national” (i.e., based in the United States or Great Britain or Germany, but not yet in a “Europe” that does not exist as such on this level). Moreover, the economic reproduction of the system is, today as yesterday, unthinkable without the parallel implementation of the “politics” that modulate its variants. The capitalist economy does not exist without a “state,” except in the ideological and empty vulgate of liberalism. There is still no transnational, “world” state. The true questions, evaded by the dominant discourse of globalization, concern the contradictions between the logics of the globalized accumulation of central capitalism’s dominant segments (the “oligopolies”) and those governing the “politics” of the system.
Hardt and Negri’s system, presented under the pleasant-sounding term “Empire,” proceeds, then, from the naïve vision of globalization offered by the dominant discourse. In this vision, transnationalization has already abolished imperialism (and imperialism in conflict), replacing it with a system in which the center is both nowhere and everywhere. The center/periphery opposition (that defines the imperialist relation) is already “surpassed.” Hardt and Negri here take up the commonplace discourse in which, since there is a “first world” of “wealth” in the “third world” and a “third world” of poverty in the first, there is no point in opposing the first and third worlds to each other. Certainly there are wealthy and poor in India, just as in the United States, since we all still live in class divided societies integrated into world capitalism. Does that mean that the social formations of India and the United States are identical? Does the distinction between the active role of some in shaping the world and the passive role of others, who can only “adjust” to the requirements of the globalized system, have no meaning? In reality, this distinction is more pertinent today than ever. In the earlier phase of contemporary history (1945–1980), the relations of force between the imperialist countries and the dominated countries were such that the “development” of the peripheries was on the agenda, leaving open the possibility for the latter to assert themselves as active agents in the transformation of the world. Today these relations have changed dramatically in favor of dominant capital. The discourse of development has disappeared and been replaced by that of “adjustment.” In other words, the current world system (the “Empire”) is not less imperialist but more imperialist than its predecessor!
Hardt and Negri would have realized this if they had only taken note of what the representatives of dominant capital have written. As incredible as it may appear, they have not done that at all. However, all major parts of the U.S. establishment (Democrats and Republicans) make no secret of the objectives of their plan: to monopolize access to the planet’s natural resources in order to continue their wasteful mode of life, even if this is to the detriment of other peoples; to prevent any large or mid-sized power from becoming a competitor capable of resisting Washington’s orders; and to achieve these aims by military control of the planet.
Hardt and Negri have simply taken up the current discourse in which, “nationalism” and “communism” having been definitively defeated, the return of a globalized liberalism constitutes objective progress. The “insufficiencies” of the system, if there are any, can only be corrected from within the logic of the system itself and not by combating it. Thus it is easy to understand the reasons why Negri has joined the ranks of Atlanticist Europe and called for supporting its project of an ultra-liberal constitution subservient to Washington. But the real history of “nationalism” and “communism” has nothing in common with what liberal propaganda says about it. The social transformations inspired by nationalism and communism across three decades in the welfare state of the western social democracies, in the countries of really existing socialism, and in the experiences of radical national populism in the third world forced capital to make adjustments to the social demands arising from the logic of its own domination and pushed back the ambitions of imperialism. These transformations were huge and largely positive despite the limits imposed by the insufficiently radical character of the projects in question. The (provisional) return of liberalism made possible by the erosion and then collapse of the projects from the preceding period of contemporary history is not a “step forward,” but a dead end.
The true questions concerning the contemporary world can only be formulated by abandoning Hardt and Negri’s liberal discourse. Important and, of course, diverse theses have been produced on these questions, among others from the perspective of a renewed historical materialism, which Hardt and Negri ignore. I will be satisfied here with recalling the broad outlines of the theses I have proposed on the subject. In the past, imperialism appeared as the permanent conflict among the imperialist powers (in the plural). The growing centralization of oligopolistic capital has now given rise to the emergence of a “collective” imperialism of the triad (the United States, Europe, and Japan). In this respect, the dominant segments of capital share common interests in the management of their profit from this new imperialist system. But the unified political management of this system comes up against the plurality of states. The contradictions within the triad have to do not with the divergence of interests among the dominant oligopolistic capitals but with the diversity of interests represented by the states. I have summarized this contradiction in a phrase: the economy unites the partners of the imperialist system, politics divide the nations concerned.
The Multitude—Constituting Democracy or Reproducing Capital’s Hegemony?
The liberal ideology specific to capitalism places the individual in the forefront. It does not matter that in its historical construction during the Enlightenment the individual in question had to be an educated and property-owning man, a bourgeois capable, as a result, of making free use of Reason. This was an indestructible liberating advance. As a movement beyond capitalism, socialism cannot be conceived of as a return to the past, as a negation of the individual. Bourgeois democracy, despite the narrow limits in which capitalism encloses it, is not “formal,” but quite real, even if it remains incomplete. Socialism will be democratic or it will not be. But I add to this phrase its necessary complement: there will be no more democratic progress without calling capitalism into question. Democracy and social progress are inseparable. The really existing socialisms of the past certainly did not respect this requirement and thought they could achieve progress without democracy or with as little democracy as in capitalism itself. But it is also necessary to add that the great majority of democracy’s defenders today are hardly more demanding and think that democracy is possible without any visible social progress, let alone calling into question the principles of capitalism. Do Hardt and Negri leave this category of liberal democracy behind?
The individualist basis of liberal ideology establishes the individual as the subject of history in the last resort. That assertion is not true, neither for the history of earlier systems (which by the Enlightenment definition were unaware of the individual) nor even for the history of capitalism, which is a system based on the conflict between classes, the true subjects of this chapter of history. But the individual would be able to become the subject of history in a future advanced socialism.
Hardt and Negri think that we have arrived at this historical turning point, that classes (along with nations or peoples) are no longer the subjects of history. Instead the individual has become such (or is in the process of becoming such). This turning point gives rise to the formation of what they call the “multitude,” defined in terms of the “totality of productive and creative subjectivities.”
Why and how would this turning point occur? Hardt and Negri’s texts are quite vague on these questions. They talk about the transition to “cognitive capitalism” or the emergence of “immaterial production,” the new “networked” society or “deterritorialization.” They make reference to Foucault’s propositions concerning the transition from the disciplinary society to the society of control. Everything that has been said over the past thirty years, whether good or bad, depending on one’s viewpoint, whether indisputable because platitudinous or strongly debatable, is thrown pell-mell into a great pot in preparation for the future. A compendium of current fashions does not easily lead to conviction. The similarity to the theses formulated by Manuel Castells concerning the “networked society” and to the ideas popularized by Jeremy Rifkin, Robert B. Reich, and other American popularizers is such that one is entitled to pose the question: what is new and important in all this hodgepodge of ideas?
I will propose then another hypothesis to account for the invention of the “multitude” in question. Our moment is one of defeat for the powerful social and political movements that shaped the twentieth century (workers’, socialist, and national liberation movements). The loss of perspective that any defeat involves leads to ephemeral unrest and the profusion of para-theoretical propositions that both legitimate that unrest and give rise to the belief that it constitutes an “effective” means for “transforming the world” (even without wanting to), in the good sense of the term moreover. One can only gradually solidify new formulations that are both coherent and effective by distancing oneself from the past, rather than proposing a “remake” of it, and by effectively integrating new realities produced by social evolution in all its dimensions. Such contributions, both debatable and diverse, certainly exist. I do not include Hardt and Negri’s discourse among them.
The propositions that Hardt and Negri draw from their discourse on the “multitude” bear witness, even in their very formulation, to the impasse in which they are trapped. The first of these propositions concerns democracy that, for the first time in history, is supposedly on the verge of becoming a real possibility on the global scale. Moreover, the multitude is defined as the “constitutive” force of democracy. This is a wonderfully naïve proposition. Are we moving in this direction? Beyond a few superficial appearances (some elections here or there), which obviously satisfy the liberal powers (particularly Washington), democracy—both necessary and possible—is in crisis. It is threatened with losing its legitimacy to the advantage of religious or ethnic fundamentalisms (I do not consider the ethnocratic regimes of the former Yugoslavia as democratic progress!). Do elections that overturn the power of one criminal gang (for example, one in the service of the Russian autocracy) to replace it with another one (financed by the CIA!) constitute progress for democracy or a manipulated farce? Is not the unfolding of the imperialist project for control of the planet at the origin of the frontal attacks that are reducing basic democratic rights in the United States? Is not the liberal consensus in Europe, around which the major political forces of right and left have united, in the process of delegitimizing electoral procedures? Hardt and Negri are silent on all these questions.
The second proposition concerns the “diversity of the multitude.” But the forms and contents that define the (diverse) components of the multitude are barely specified any more than are the forces that produce and/or reduce this diversity. Major contradictions consequently traverse all of Hardt and Negri’s texts. For example, the current globalization, according to them, is supposed to reduce the “differences” between centers and peripheries (otherwise this globalization would remain imperialist). The real world is evolving in the exact opposite direction by accentuating “differences” and constructing apartheid on a world scale. The diversity within the local components of the system cited by Hardt and Negri (in fact only in North American and Western European societies) is itself of a “diverse” nature: there are (sometimes, as in the United States) ethnic or para-ethnic “communities,” there are diverse religious or linguistic regions, there are also classes, perhaps (!), that it would be good to redefine on the basis of the transformation of social realities! Even when all these diversities have been lined up, nothing much has been said. How are they articulated with one another in the production, reproduction, and transformation of social systems? It is impossible to respond to these fundamental questions without conceptualizing what I call “political cultures.” There are serious and positive contributions in these areas also. Certainly, they are debatable, but they cannot be ignored. Hardt and Negri have contributed nothing here that one can mention in support of their thesis.
The reversal establishing the individual as the subject of history and the multitude as the constitutive force of its democratic project is an “idealist” invention. It supposes that a reversal has occured in the world of ideas without a transformation of real social relations. I am not suggesting here that ideas are always only passive reflections of reality. I have developed the opposite point of view, founded on the recognition of the autonomy of “instances.” Ideas can be in advance of their time. The question here does not concern this general proposition. It concerns postmodernist ideas in vogue today (inclusive of the ideas of Hardt and Negri themselves): are they in advance of their time? Or are they only the naïve, confused, and contradictory expression of the reality of the moment, a moment of defeat not yet surpassed? In these conditions the “multitude” may become a constitutive reality of indecisive, various, and disjointed “diversities.” It can take on the appearance of acting as a “real force” (a strong electoral majority, for example). But this is no more than ephemeral, destined to give way to a contradictory articulated structure, as always in history. In several years, the page of the “multitude” will probably have turned, as happened with the workerism (opéraïsme) of the 1970s and for the same reason: the fixation on the partial and the ephemeral, as noted by Atilio Boron in Empire and Imperialism (Zed Books, 2005).
The political culture that stands out behind Hardt and Negri’s discourse is that of American liberalism. This political culture considers the American Revolution and the Constitution adopted at that time as the decisive event in the opening of modernity. Hannah Arendt, the inspiration for Hardt and Negri, writes that this revolution opens the era of the “unlimited quest for political liberty.” Today, the emergence of the multitude, the constitutive force of a democracy “possible for the first time on the world scale,” crowns the (positive) victory of the “Americanization of the world.”
The rallying to American liberalism is necessarily accompanied by the devaluation of the different paths of other nations, in particular of “old Europe,” as formulated by Hannah Arendt when she counterposed the American Revolution to the “limited struggle against poverty and inequality” to which she reduces the French Revolution. In the Cold War era, all the great revolutions of modern times (French, Russian, and Chinese) had to be denigrated. They were vitiated from the beginning by their “totalitarian tendency,” according to the American liberal discourse that became the spearhead of the counterrevolution after the Second World War. The exclusive survival of the “American model,” whose pioneering revolution and constitution did not question any of the necessities of capitalist development, implied that the heritage of those revolutions that had indeed questioned capitalist exigencies (as was the case beginning with the Jacobin radicalization of the French Revolution) was repudiated. The denunciation of the French Revolution (François Furet), banal anti-Sovietism, and the charges brought against Maoism constitute some of the major planks of this counterrevolution in political culture.
Now in this area Hardt and Negri remain utterly silent. They systematically ignore all the critical literature (a large part of it from the United States, moreover) on the American Revolution that established a long time ago that the Constitution of the United States was systematically constructed to rule out all danger of a “popular” deviation. The success in this sense is real, arousing the envy of all the European reactionaries who never succeeded in doing it (Giscard d’Estaing said that the constitution of the ultra-liberal European project was “as good” as the U.S. Constitution!).
The “aspirations” of the multitude established as the constitutive force of the future are reduced to very little: freedom, particularly to emigrate, and the right to a socially guaranteed income. In the undoubted care not to venture outside what is permitted by American liberalism, the project deliberately ignores everything that could be qualified as the heritage of the workers’ and socialist movement, in particular the equality rejected by the political culture of the United States. It is difficult to believe in the transformative power of an emerging global (and European) citizenship while the policies implemented fundamentally deprive citizenship of its effectiveness.
The construction of a real alternative to the contemporary system of globalized liberal capitalism involves other requirements, in particular the recognition of the gigantic variety of needs and aspirations of the popular classes throughout the world. In fact, Hardt and Negri experience much difficulty in imagining the societies of the periphery (85 percent of the human population). The debates concerning the tactics and strategy of building a democratic and progressive alternative that would be effective in the concrete and specific conditions of the different countries and regions of the world never appear to have interested them. Would the “democracy” promoted by the intervention of the United States permit going beyond an electoral farce like the one in the Ukraine, for example? Can one reduce the rights of the “poor” who people the planet to the right to “emigrate” to the opulent West? A socially guaranteed income may be a justifiable demand. But can one have the naiveté to believe that its adoption would abolish the capitalist relation, which allows capital to employ labor (and, consequently, to exploit and oppress it), to the advantage of the worker who would from that point on be in a position to use capital freely and so be able to affirm the potential of his or her creativity?
The reduction of the subject of history to the “individual” and the uniting of such individuals into a “multitude” dispose of the true questions concerning the reconstruction of subjects of history equal to the challenges of our era. One could point to many other important contributions to oppose to the silence of Hardt and Negri on this subject. Undoubtedly, historic socialisms and communisms had a tendency to reduce the major subject of modern history to the “working class.” Moreover, this is a reproach that could be leveled at the Negri of workerism. In counterpoint, I have proposed an analysis of the subject of history as formed from particular social blocs capable, in successive phases of popular struggle, of effectively transforming the social relations of force to the advantage of the dominated classes and peoples.
At the present time, to take up the challenge implies that one is moving forward in the formation of democratic, popular, and national hegemonic blocs capable of overcoming the powers exercised by both the hegemonic imperialist blocs and the hegemonic comprador blocs. The formation of such blocs takes place in concrete conditions that are very different from one country to another so that no general model (whether in the style of the “multitude” or some other) makes sense. In this perspective, the combination of democratic advances and social progress will be part of the long transition to world socialism, just as the affirmation of the autonomy of peoples, nations, and states will make it possible to substitute a negotiated globalization for the unilateral globalization imposed by dominant capital (whichEmpire praises!) and thus gradually deconstruct the current imperialist system. The deepening of debates on these real questions is, without a doubt, far more promising than pursuing the examination of what the “multitude” could be.
Is the Political Culture of Empire and Multitude Equal to the Challenge?
The fashion today is “culturalism,” a vision of human plurality founded on some supposed cultural invariants, particularly religious and ethnic. The development of “communitarianism” and the invitation to recognize “multiculturalism” are the products of this vision of history. Such a vision is not that of the historical materialist tradition, which attempts to articulate the class struggles of modern times with the forms and conditions of the participation of peoples affected by the system of globalized capitalism. The analyses produced within the context of these questions make it possible to understand the variety of paths traveled by different nations and to identify the specificity of the contradictions that exist within the societies in question and at the level of the global system. These analyses, then, revolve around what I call the formation of the political cultures of the peoples of the modern world.
The question I pose here concerns the political culture underlying the writings of Hardt and Negri. Does it lie within the historical materialist tradition or in that of culturalism? I proposed in my book The Liberal Virus (Monthly Review Press, 2004) a reading of two itineraries “European,” on the one hand, and American, on the other, forming the political cultures of the peoples in question. I will only very briefly recall the broad outlines of my argument here.
The formation of the political culture of the European continent is the product of a succession of formative great moments: the Enlightenment and invention of modernity; the French Revolution; the development of the workers’ and socialist movement and the emergence of Marxism; and the Russian Revolution. This succession of advances certainly did not ensure that the successive “lefts” produced by these moments would assume the political management of European societies. But it did form the right/left contrast on the continent. The triumphant counterrevolution imposed restorations (after the French and Russian Revolutions), a retreat from secularism, compromises with aristocracies and churches, and challenges to liberal democracy. It successfully induced the peoples concerned to support the imperialist projects of dominant capital and, to this end, mobilized the chauvinistic nationalist ideologies that experienced their greatest glory on the eve of 1914.
The succession of moments constitutive of the political culture of the United States is quite different. These moments are: the establishment in New England of anti-Enlightenment Protestant sects; control of the American Revolution by the colonial bourgeoisie, in particular by its dominant slave-holding faction; the alliance of the people with that bourgeoisie, founded on the expansion of the frontiers that, in turn, led to the genocide of the Indians; and the succession of waves of immigrants that frustrated the maturation of a socialist political consciousness and substituted “communitarianism” for it. This succession of events is strongly marked by the permanent dominance of the right, which made the United States the “surest” country for the unfolding of capitalism.
Today one of the major battles that will decide the future of humanity turns around the “Americanization” of Europe. Its objective is to destroy the European cultural and political heritage and substitute for it the one that is dominant in the United States. This ultra-reactionary option is that of the dominant political forces in Europe today and has found a perfect translation in the project of the European constitution. The other battle is that between the “North” of dominant capital and the “South,” the 85 percent of humanity who are the victims of the imperialist project of the triad. Hardt and Negri ignore the stakes in these two decisive battles.
The ill-considered praise that they make of American “democracy” strongly contrasts with the writings of analysts critical of North American society, rejected up front because their “anti-Americanism” disqualifies them (in the eyes of whom? the American establishment?). I will cite here only Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism(Oxford University Press, 2004) whose conclusions largely coincide with mine despite our different ideological and scientific starting points. Lieven links the American democratic tradition (the reality of which no one would contest) to the obscurantist origins of the country (which is perpetuated and reproduced by successive waves of immigrants). U.S. society in this respect ends up resembling Pakistan much more than Great Britain. Further, the political culture of the United States is a product of the conquest of the West (which leads to considering all other peoples as “redskins” who have the right to live only on condition of not hindering the United States). The new imperialist project of the U.S. ruling class requires a redoubling of an aggressive nationalism, which henceforth becomes the dominant ideology and recalls the Europe of 1914 rather than the Europe of today. On every level, the United States is not “in advance” of “old Europe,” but a century behind. This is why the “American model” is favored by the right and unfortunately by segments of the left, including Hardt and Negri, who have been won over to liberalism at the present time.
Beyond the two theses of Empire (“imperialism is outmoded”) and Multitude (“the individual has become the subject of history”), Hardt and Negri’s discourse exhibits a tone of resignation. There is no alternative to submission to the exigencies of the current phase of capitalist development. One will only be able to combat its damaging consequences by becoming integrated into it. This is the discourse of our moment of defeat, a moment that has not yet been surpassed. This is the discourse of social democracy won over to liberalism, of pro-Europeans won over to Atlanticism. The renaissance of a left worthy of the name, capable of inspiring and implementing progress for the benefit of the people, requires a radical rupture with discourses of this type.
*Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) andMultitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004). These authors do not directly take up a great number of fundamental issues of “what is new” in capitalism, such as those concerning “cognitive” or financial capitalism, the organization of work and production, and geopolitics. I want to make clear that I do not reproach them for that, but only for having drawn unwarranted conclusions in support of their ideas from these unexamined new developments. Very different readings of the transformations in question exist that I will discuss on other occasions. Empire was written before September 11, 2001, which does not justify in any way Hardt and Negri’s acceptance of Washington’s vulgar propaganda discourse, claiming that it intervenes only at popular request, for humanitarian reasons, for the defense of democracy—without the least consideration of self-serving material interests!
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted by acclamation in September 2000 by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly called “United Nations Millennium Declaration.” This procedural innovation, called “consensus,” stands in stark contrast to UN tradition, which always required that texts of this sort be carefully prepared and discussed at great length in committees. This simply reflects a change in the international balance of power. The United States and its European and Japanese allies are now able to exert hegemony over a domesticated UN. In fact, Ted Gordon, well-known consultant for the CIA, drafted the millennium goals!
The claim is made that the MDGs follow up on the conclusions reached in the cycle of summits organized in the 1990s. That’s going a bit too far. The preparatory meetings to these summits had tried something new by organizing assemblies of so-called civil society representatives parallel to the official conferences where only state representatives were seated. Although things had been organized to reserve the best places for the charitable NGO’s, which are beneficiaries of financial support from large foundations and states, and largely to exclude popular organizations fighting for social and democratic progress (authentic popular organizations are always poor by definition), the voices of the latter were sometimes heard. In the official conferences themselves, the points of view of the triad and of the South often diverged. It is often forgotten that the triad’s proposals were rejected in Seattle not only in the streets, but also by states from the South. It is also important to remember that the reconstruction (or at least the first signs of reconstruction) of a group (if not a front) of the South took place at Doha. All of these divergences were smoothed away by the supposed synthesis of the MDGs. Instead of forming a genuine committee for the purpose of discussing the document, a draft was prepared in the backroom of some obscure agency. The only common denominator is limited to the expression of the pious hope of reducing poverty. In what follows, I will examine how these goals are formulated and the conditions required to reach them.
The Official Millennium ‘Development’ Goals
Eight sets of goals were defined for the next fifteen years (2000–15). The accomplishment of each of the targets that specifically define them is based on measurable indicators, generally altogether acceptable in themselves.
Each of these goals is certainly commendable (who would disapprove of reducing poverty or improving health?). Nevertheless, their definition is often extremely vague. Moreover, debates concerning the conditions required to reach the goals are often dispensed with. It is assumed without question that liberalism is perfectly compatible with the achievement of the goals.
Goal 1: Reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half.
This is nothing but an empty incantation as long as the policies that generate poverty are not analyzed and denounced and alternatives proposed.
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education.
UNESCO devoted itself to this goal beginning in 1960, hoping to achieve it in ten years. Progress was made during the two decades that followed, but ground has been lost since. The almost obvious relationship between this lost ground, the reduction in public expenditures, and the privatization of education is not examined in fact nor in theory.
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.
The equality in question is reduced to access to education and the empowerment is measured by the proportion of wage-earning women. The neoconservative Christian fundamentalists of the United States, Poland and elsewhere, the Muslims of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other countries, and the fundamentalist Hindus agree on eliminating any reference to the rights of women and the family. Without discussion, declarations on this question are only empty talk.
Goals 4, 5, and 6: (Concerning health) reduce infant mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-fourths; stop the spread of pandemic diseases (AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis).
The means implemented in these areas are assumed to be completely compatible with extreme privatization and total respect for the “intellectual property rights” of the transnational corporations and, curiously enough, are recommended in Goal 8 concerning the supposed partnership between North and South!
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.
A general principle is asserted (“to integrate the principles of sustainable development” into national and global policies), but no definite content is made explicit. Moreover, any mention of the refusal of the United States to promote conditions necessary for environmental protection (i.e., their rejection of the Kyoto Protocol) is carefully avoided.
It is presupposed, then, that the rationality of capitalist economic strategy is compatible with the requirements of “sustainable development.” That is obviously not the case since capitalist strategy is founded on the concept of the rapid discounting of economic time (with the timespan governing investment decisions never exceeding a few years at maximum), while the questions raised here relate to the long term. The specific goals are thus in fact reduced to nothing much: reduce by half the population having no access to clean water, improve living conditions in the slums—two ordinary goals of simple public health.
The criteria for measuring the results (CO2 emissions, change in the ozone layer) undoubtedly make it possible to monitor the degradation of the environment, but certainly not to curb it. Note the strange timidity of the writers concerning biodiversity (there is no question of infringing on the greater rights of the transnationals!): they propose only “to observe” the evolution of land areas protected from the destruction of biodiversity! But above all not to stop it!
Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development.
The writers straightaway establish an equivalence between this “partnership” and the principles of liberalism by declaring that the objective is to establish an open, multilateral commercial and financial system! The partnership thus becomes synonymous with submission to the demands of the imperialist powers. Progress in access to the market is measured by the share of exports in the GDP (an increase in this ratio is thus synonymous with progress regardless of the social price!), progress in the conditions of nondiscrimination by the reduction in subsidies.
To carry out this “liberal partnership” would require, in the end, nothing more than the fight against poverty (the only “social” goal allowed). To this is added, like hair in soup, “good governance,” a phrase favored by the U.S. establishment that is never defined and is taken up uncritically by the Europeans and the institutions of the global system (UN, World Bank, etc.).
Many targets are added to this completely contradictory text, which fill in its gaps and offer recommendations. I am singling out five of them for further examination:
Enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries.
In fact, the program implemented in this regard for the heavily indebted poor countries imposes a genuinely colonial tutelage on them. That the governments of the countries in question have internalized the abandonment of their sovereignty changes nothing. Indeed, in the past, heads of state had sometimes abdicated in the face of colonization. But such abdication had never been accepted as legitimate by the peoples involved.
Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term.
This exhortation is not accompanied by any further information concerning what is to follow (international negotiations? within what framework?) or the principles on which such a measure should be founded. However, certain reasonable things can be said on the subject, such as the necessity for an audit that makes it possible to classify the debts (immoral, illegal, acceptable…) and an elaboration of legislation that makes it possible to define for the future the legal conditions of debts and the creation of courts charged with deciding the law in this area. It is perfectly obvious that all of this is ignored by the writers of the MDGs!
In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries.
The significance of the generous intention to provide access to drugs is immediately nullified by the specification that this would be “in cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry,” precisely those who prohibit anyone from calling their abusive monopoly into question!
In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies—especially information and communications technologies.
Here again an intention is subjected to a condition that empties it of any meaning—“in cooperation with the private sector”!
More generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction.
Is there a better comedy than this proposal, endlessly repeated for the last fifty years by those who are responsible for implementing it and yet never do it?
The Real Goals of Dominant Capital
A critical examination of the formulation of the goals as well as the definition of the means that would be required to implement them can only lead to the conclusion that the MDGs cannot be taken seriously. A litany of pious hopes commits no one. And when the expression of these pious hopes is accompanied by conditions that essentially eliminate the possibility of their becoming reality, the question must be asked: are not the authors of the document actually pursuing other priorities that have nothing to do with “poverty reduction” and all the rest? In this case, should the exercise not be described as pure hypocrisy, as pulling the wool over the eyes of those who are being forced to accept the dictates of liberalism in the service of the quite particular and exclusive interests of dominant globalized capital?
Besides, the MDGs cannot truly be taken seriously by their promoters in the imperialist triad, which implements them only when it is convenient and ignores them otherwise, nor by states in the South that, not wanting to take any risks at the present time, refrain from formally rejecting the proposals. In another time, a text of this type would not have been adopted and the states of the South would have, at least, imposed a compromise.
The MDGs are part of a series of discourses that are intended to legitimize the policies and practices implemented by dominant capital and those who support it, i.e., in the first place the governments of the triad countries, and secondarily governments in the South. The real goals, openly recognized as such, are:
1. Extreme privatization, aimed at opening new fields for the expansion of capital. Such privatization calls into question the existence of national state property, which should be liquidated on open markets, by foreign capital among others. Beyond that, privatization aims at eliminating public services, particularly in education and health. Here, the ideas developed in the MDGs concerning the elimination of illiteracy and the improvement of health lose all credibility. The privatization of property and access to important natural resources, in particular petroleum and water, facilitates the pillage of these resources for the wastefulness of the triad, reducing the discourse of sustainable development to pure, empty rhetoric.
2. The generalization of the private appropriation of agricultural land. Just as with agricultural and food products, land, too, must be subjected to the general law of the market. This general offensive aims at nothing less than extending the policy of “enclosures” (referring to the “enclosures” implemented in England in the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries and then extended to the rest of Europe in the nineteenth) to the entire world. Its success would lead to the destruction of the peasant societies that make up nearly half of humanity. This destruction, now underway (and liberalism would like to see the tempo accelerated), is already the major cause of pauperization in the third world, which results in emigration from the countryside to the urban slums. But that is of little importance, since the minority of so-called modernized rural producers who will survive the massacre, and be subjected to the demands of agribusiness, will produce the superprofits that the latter aspires to capture. Nothing else matters.
3. Commercial “opening” within a context of maximum deregulation. This is a way of lifting all obstacles to the expansion of a trade that is as unequal as it can possibly be in conditions characterized by a polarized world development and a growing concentration of power in the hands of the transnationals that control the trade in raw materials and agricultural products. The example of coffee illustrates the disastrous social effects of this systematic choice. Twenty years ago, all coffee producers were paid nine billion dollars and all the consumers paid out twenty billion for this same coffee. Today these two figures are respectively six and thirty billion. The gap between them is the gigantic profit margin captured by a handful of oligopolistic intermediaries. It goes without saying that in these conditions campaigns in favor of so-called fair trade, even when their promoters are moved by the most impeccable moral intentions, are not up to the challenge. The correction of these deteriorating terms of trade for the producers can only be obtained by the political intervention of government authorities—both national legislation and international negotiations and legislation.
4. The equally uncontrolled opening up of capital movement. The fallacious pretext advanced is that deregulation would make it possible to attract foreign capital. Yet it is well known that China, which attracts more of this capital than other countries, has maintained a tighter control over foreign enterprises. Elsewhere, direct foreign investments are targeted at little more than pillaging natural resources. In fact, the IMF imposed the opening of “capital accounts” in order to facilitate the indebtedness of the United States, allow speculative capital to engage in pillaging raids, and subject the currencies of the South to systematic undervaluation. This undervaluation, in turn, makes it possible for local assets in these countries to be purchased for next to nothing, to the evident advantage of the transnational corporations.
5. States are forbidden in principle from interfering in economic affairs. Internally, the state is reduced to narrow police functions. Internationally, it is reduced to guaranteeing debt service, as the first (and almost exclusive!) priority in public expenditures. The debt is hardly anything more than a particularly primitive form of exploitation and pillage.
This model is presented as being without an alternative because it is imposed by the “objective” requirements of globalization, which negate the power of national states. In reality, the causal relation is just the reverse: this particular form (among other possible ones) of globalization is allotted the objective of destroying the ability of nations and states to resist the expansion of transnational capital.
That is why all these principles, openly adopted by the writers of the MDGs, can only produce what I have elsewhere described as apartheid on a world scale, reproducing and deepening global polarization. As a counterpoint, the restoration of a margin of autonomy for states and the recognition of the legitimacy of state intervention (the definition even of democracy) within a multipolar perspective are the inescapable conditions required to attain the social objectives proclaimed by the MDGs.
In fact, then, the social goals proclaimed by the MDGs do not constitute the real goals of the whole exercise. Their supposedly democratic packaging must, in turn, be subject to a legitimate doubt. No democracy can possibly take root if it does not support social progress, but, instead, is associated with social regression. This is undoubtedly the reason why the vapid term “governance” is served up as an accompaniment to the empty rhetoric of the MDGs.
The writers of the document appear to have paid no attention to the facts. In the course of three decades following the Second World War, the highest rate of growth known in history took place, along with full employment and notable upward social movement and, if not always a reduction in inequality, the stabilization of structures aimed at more equitable income distribution. But it appears that because the systems in existence at that time regulated markets, these procedures were “irrational” and their results “bad.” In the course of the following three decades, accompanying the welcome deregulation, there has been a collapse of growth, a breathtaking increase in unemployment, precariousness, and other manifestations of pauperization, and mounting inequalities. Yet it appears that this system is nevertheless better and more rational. That is undoubtedly because in the preceding systems the rate of return for capital was in the range of 4 to 8 percent and since then it has doubled, moving to between 8 and 16 percent.
The New Doctrinaire Liberalism
The central question concerns the concept of development maintained, explicitly or implicitly, in the Millennium Development Goals. It can be formulated in this way: In the successive globalized economic and political systems of modern times, who was forced to adjust to whom? The subjects in question can be class or social groups, regions or nations.
In capitalist logic founded on private property, it is capital (the firm) that commands and employs labor. Workers do not have direct access to the means of production, which are not used to their liking. In its global expansion, capitalism is polarizing, that is, it is founded on asymmetrical adjustment. The peripheries are shaped to serve the model of accumulation in the dominant centers. The ideology of capitalism ignores the concept of substantive development, for it recognizes only expanding markets.
It is significant that the term “development” appeared only after the Second World War (during the colonial period, the exploitation of the colonies was cynically spoken of), supported by the governments of the Asian and African states that arose from national liberation movements. In this sense, the 1955 conference of Asian and African states at Bandung was the birth place of the project of developing the new third world. It was a multidimensional project of modernization: of the economy (through industrialization), the society, and the state. This modernization project appears within a type of globalization and is not at all an invitation to economic and cultural autarky. But it does imply that in this process the North would adjust to the requirements for the development of the South, development conceptualized as a “catching up.” Globalization in this context is then recognized as having to be the result—beyond the conflicts—of negotiations between partners who recognize the divergence of their interests. In Latin America, desarrollismo proposes an analogous model of development.
At each of these steps, capitalist globalization rests on transnational social alliances, without which the models of accumulation in the dominant centers and dominated peripheries could not be reproduced. The “colonial” model, challenged after the Second World War, involved the management of the societies of the peripheries by local comprador classes of a given type (merchant intermediaries, large landowners). The new model resulting from decolonization involved social reforms that deprive the older comprador classes of their power and substitute hegemonic blocs of a new type (national populist). This model is the basis of the successes (not the failures!) of the economic and social transformation of the third world in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. But it was always fought—with violence—by the powers of the imperialist triad.
The turnaround in the political conjuncture beginning in the 1980s brought us back to former times, before development, which has, in effect, been shown the door. It is significant that the new language of the dominant economics even abandons this term and substitutes “structural adjustment,” i.e., adjustment of the societies and economies of the South to the requirements of the pursuit of accumulation in the North. Simultaneously, this turnaround in the balance of power to the benefit of capital appears everywhere—in the North as well as the South—as a strengthening of the subjection of labor to capital. The new doctrinaire liberalism acknowledges only expanding markets, not the deliberate political transformation of social and economic structures.
Although imposed on the societies of the South with extreme brutality, the new model (neocolonial some say, but the term is poor—it is really a question of “paleo-colonial” thought) had to be clothed in a discourse that gives it the appearance of legitimacy. It was necessary to reintroduce the word “development” (as in the Millennium Development Goals) but empty it of all meaning. This was done by reducing it to the fight against poverty and for good governance.
A series of documents prepared this revision in the meaning of words. The agencies set up to manage the rest of the world (85 percent of the earth’s population, the dominated peripheries) by collective imperialism (the triad) here fulfilled the functions expected of them. The World Bank (which I call the Ministry of Propaganda for the G7) produced, in this spirit, distressing documents called Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP). The IMF (the triad’s collective colonial monetary authority) imposed the priority of debt service, the debt itself being the means of imposing structural adjustment. The WTO, far from being an institution responsible for managing world trade, is devoted to the objective of shaping the productive systems of the peripheries to the needs of the commercial expansion of the North, that is, to operate like a collective ministry of colonies. The European Union —lined up with the general offensive of the imperialist triad—integrates the relations between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) within this same context, pursued literally in the convention for the development of the ACP.
It could be asked why the governments of the countries of the South have subscribed to all of these commandments drafted in the imperialist centers. The response, in general terms, is that we should look to the social hegemonic blocs mentioned above that make possible the reproduction of asymmetric globalization. There is a new comprador class in the countries of the periphery that actually derives its existence from the new model of globalized liberalism. This comprador class participates in the new government arrangements that followed the erosion of the national populist models inspired by Bandung.
To be more precise, it is possible to distinguish among the reasons that led the South to “rally to liberalism.” There are those that are probably unique to so-called emerging countries (China in the first place). In these countries, the current governments live on illusions: they think about “catching up” (through strong growth) while they are constructed as the industrialized peripheries of tomorrow, and dominated by the new monopolies on the basis of which the imperialist centers reproduce their domination (monopolies of technology, access to the planet’s natural resources, and weapons of mass destruction). They think of building a “strong and independent nation,” but in that connection must ignore that the United States prepares “preventative wars” against them that will not allow them this opportunity. History will undoubtedly be given the responsibility to dissipate these illusions.
Here I will place more emphasis on the rationales offered with respect to the most vulnerable peripheral regions, Africa in particular. The discourse developed in this regard by dominant thought is well known: Africa is marginalized in the new globalization. This is by its own fault, having sunk into an excessive nationalism during the Bandung period. It can only get out of this difficult situation if it accepts being “more integrated” into globalization by a totally uncontrolled opening that will allow foreign capital to “develop” it. The miseries associated with this option, for which there is no alternative, will only be “transitory” and can be attenuated by programs that “fight against poverty.” This option will require, moreover, democratic political management called “good governance.”
This discourse abounds in contradictions and inadequacies. Africa is no less integrated into globalization than other regions, but it was and is differently integrated. The forms of the new proposed integration, based on agro-mineral specialization, are not new but are, on the contrary, a return to the old (paleo-colonial). These forms can only accentuate the pauperization and exclusion of huge masses of the population, in particular the peasants. But simultaneously and independently, they facilitate the pillage of the continent’s natural resources (petroleum, minerals, and wood), which is probably the principal objective of large transnational capital in Africa. Foreign direct investments will come to Africa for nothing else.
The responsibility of the current government teams—and behind them the new comprador classes—should not be excused. But that does not absolve the dominant forces in the imperialist centers of the global system from responsibility either.
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is undoubtedly part of the new liberal thinking, but not with any great conviction it seems. It should be remembered that originally behind this initiative was the justified refusal of the racist “afro-pessimist” discourse and the proclamation by Thabo Mbeki in 1998 that “Africans should and can appropriate modernity,” a way of indicating the renaissance of Africa that he called for. But Mbeki rushed into the same discourse of specifying that that appropriation should be done “in cooperation with the developed countries,” ignoring, or pretending to ignore, that that has never been the case up to now. NEPAD even includes in its title the term “partnership,” commonly used for a long time by the European Union and adopted, in turn, by the Millennium discourse of the United Nations.
In its content, NEPAD’s founding document, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is not, in fact, very coherent.* It identifies the bottlenecks that block development in Africa, which it identifies in all aspects of reality (infrastructure and energy, education and health, family agriculture and environment, and modern technologies, notably computer technology), giving the impression that it takes into consideration the hostile practices of world trade. But at the same time, the document lines up with dominant liberal thought: it abandons the centrality of industry that the Lagos Plan had, in its time and with good reason, taken as the axis of development for this least industrialized of the earth’s continents. It adheres to an agro-mineral model of growth (paleo-colonial), and it adopts the discourse on the reduction of poverty.
Unquestionably even more serious, the NEPAD document lines up with liberal thought on the discourse of “good governance.” This is a concept that is useful as a way to dissociate democratic progress from social progress, to deny their equal importance and inextricable connection with one another, and to reduce democracy to good management subjected to the demands of private capital, an “apolitical” management by an anodyne civil society, inspired by the mediocre ideology of the United States. This discourse comes at the very moment when the interruption in the construction of the state (begun in the Bandung period) imposed by structural adjustment has created, not conditions for a democratic advance but, instead, conditions for the shift towards the primacy of ethnic and religious identities (para-ethnic and para-religious, in fact) that are manipulated by local mafias, benefit external supporters, and often degenerate into atrocious “civil wars” (in fact conflicts between warlords). As Bernard Founou-Tchuigoua argues, it is less a question of a North-South partnership (here EU/ACP) than a new phase in asymmetrical structural adjustment.
The NEPAD document’s exposition, its hesitations or anodyne character, acquires its meaning in this context. For example, the wish to alleviate the debt is expressed, but this is done precisely because the debt has fulfilled its function of imposing structural adjustment. NEPAD also proposes an “integrated” (Pan-African) development, just like the EU, giving its preference to arrangements with regional African groups. But, in the end, this document remains, as far as its proposals on trade, capital transfers, technology, and patents are concerned, aligned with liberal dogmas.
I will say in conclusion that a system of this type hardly has any future. Neither the MDGs nor NEPAD will make it possible to attenuate the seriousness of the problems and curb the resulting processes of political and social involution. The legitimacy of governments has disappeared. Thus conditions are ripe for the emergence of other social hegemonies that make possible a revival of development conceived as it should be: the indissociable combination of social progress, democratic advancement, and the affirmation of national independence within a negotiated multipolar globalization. The possibility of these new social hegemonies is already visible on the horizon. I bet that at the end of 2015, no one will propose a balance sheet of the achievements of the MDGs or NEPAD, which will have been long forgotten.
*The NEPAD framework document was adopted by the 37th Summit of the Organization of African Unity in July 2001 at Lusaka, Zambia and is available athttp://www.nepad.org/nepad/knowledge/doc/1767/nepad-framework-document.
Appendix: The UN Millennium Development Goals
Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
- Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day
- Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
- Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling
Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
- Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015
Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality
- Reduce by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five
Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health
- Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
- Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS
- Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases
Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Substainability
- Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; reverse loss of environmental resources
- Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water
- Achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020
Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development with developing countries, develop and implement strategies for decent and productive work for youth
- Develop further an open trading and financial system that is rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory, includes a commitment to good governance, development and poverty reduction—nationally and internationally
- Address the least developed countries’ special needs. This includes tariff- and quota-free access for their exports; enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries; cancellation of official bilateral debt; and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction
- Address the special needs of landlocked and small island developing States
- Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term
- In cooperation with the developing countries, develop decent and productive work for youth
- In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries
- In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies—especially information and communications technologies
The principle of endless accumulation that defines capitalism is synonymous with exponential growth, and the latter, like cancer, leads to death. John Stuart Mill, who recognized this, imagined that a “stationary state of affairs” would put an end to this irrational process. John Maynard Keynes shared this optimism of Reason. But neither was equipped to understand how the necessary overcoming of capitalism could prevail. By contrast, Marx, by giving proper importance to the emerging class struggle, could imagine the reversal of power of the capitalist class, concentrated today in the hands of the ruling oligarchy.
Accumulation, which is synonymous with pauperization, provides the objective framework of the struggles against capitalism. But accumulation expresses itself globally mainly by the growing contrast between the affluence of the societies in the center of the world system that benefit from imperialist “rent,” and the misery of the societies in the dominated peripheries. This center-periphery conflict becomes, therefore, the central axis of the alternative between socialism and barbarism.
Historically, “really existing” capitalism is associated with successive forms of accumulation by dispossession, not only at the beginning (primitive accumulation), but also at each stage of the unfolding of the capitalist system. Since the seventeenth century, Atlantic capitalism has sought to conquer the world, which it has remade on the basis of permanent dispossession of the conquered regions, transforming them into the dominated peripheries of the system.
But this victorious globalization has been unable to impose itself in a durable manner. Just about half a century after its triumph, marked by Britain’s Great Exhibition in 1851 (which already seemed to inaugurate the “end of history”), this model was questioned by the revolution of the Russian semi-periphery and the (victorious) liberation struggles in Asia and Africa. These constituted the defining global historical events of the twentieth century — the first wave of struggles in favor of the emancipation of the workers and the peoples.
Accumulation by dispossession continues in front of our eyes in the late modern capitalism of the contemporary oligopolies. In the centers, monopoly rents — the beneficiaries of which are the oligopolistic plutocracies — are synonymous with the dispossession of the entire productive basis of society. In the peripheries, this pauperizing dispossession manifests itself in the expropriation of the peasantry and the plundering of natural resources of the regions in question. These practices constitute essential pillars for the expansion of the late capitalism of the oligopolies.
In this spirit, I situate the “new agrarian question” at the heart of the challenge of the twenty-first century. The dispossession of the peasantry (in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) is the major contemporary form of the tendency towards pauperization (in the sense that Marx ascribed to this “law”) linked to accumulation. Its implementation cannot be separated from the strategies of imperialist rent-seeking and rent-capturing by the oligopolies, with or without agrofuels. I deduce from this that the main historical results will be a product of these struggles over the future of the peasant societies in the South (almost half of humanity). They will largely determine the capacity of the workers and peoples to progress on the road of constructing an authentic civilization, liberated from the domination of capital — for which I see no name other than socialism.
The plundering of the South’s natural resources, required by the pursuit of the model of wasteful consumption that exclusively benefits the North’s affluent societies, destroys any prospect of development worthy of the name for the peoples in question, and therefore constitutes the other face of pauperization on a worldwide scale. In this spirit, the “energy crisis” is neither the product of the absolute scarcity of certain resources necessary for production (oil, obviously) nor the outcome of the destructive effects of energy-devouring forms of production and consumption that are currently in place. Reference to an “energy crisis” — which is not wrong — fails to go beyond banal and immediate evidence. The real “energy crisis” is the product of the will of oligopolies and a collective imperialism to secure a monopoly of access to the planet’s natural resources, whether these be scarce or not, in such a way as to appropriate the imperialist rent. This is true whether the utilization of these resources remains the same as it is now (wasteful and energy-devouring) — or whether it is subject to “environmentally friendly” measures and new correctives. I deduce from this that the pursuit of the expansionist strategy of the late capitalism of oligopolies will inevitably clash with the growing resistance of the nations of the South.
The current crisis is, therefore, neither a financial crisis nor the sum of multiple systemic crises, but the crisis of the imperialist capitalism of oligopolies, whose exclusive and supreme power risks being questioned once more by the struggles of the entire popular classes and the nations in the dominated peripheries, even if they are apparently “emerging markets.” This crisis is, at the same time, a crisis of U.S. hegemony. Taken together, the following phenomena are inextricably linked to one another: the capitalism of oligopolies; the political power of oligarchies; barbarous globalization; financialization; U.S. hegemony; the militarization of the way globalization operates in the service of oligopolies; the decline of democracy; the plundering of the planet’s resources; and the abandoning of development for the South.
The real question, therefore, is as follows: will these struggles manage to converge in order to pave the way — or ways — on the long road to the transition to world socialism? Or will these struggles remain separate from one another, perhaps even clashing with each other, leaving the initiative to the capital of the oligopolies?
From One Long Crisis to Another
The financial meltdown in September 2008 took most conventional economists and advocates of “sweet spot” globalization entirely by surprise, while disconcerting some of the manufacturers of liberal discourse, triumphant since the “fall of the Berlin wall” — as they are accustomed to say. If, however, this event did not surprise me — I expected it (without of course predicting its date, like Mrs. Soleil*) — it is simply because, for me, this event was to be understood as part of the unfolding of the long crisis of an aging capitalism, begun in the 1970s.
It is good to return to the first long crisis of capitalism, which gave shape to the twentieth century, because the parallel between the stages of the unfolding crises is so striking.
Industrial capitalism, triumphant in the nineteenth century, entered a crisis from 1873 onwards. Profit rates dropped, for the reasons highlighted by Marx. Capital reacted by a double movement of concentration and globalized expansion. The new monopolies confiscated, in addition to their profits, a rent levied on the massive value-added generated by the exploitation of labor power. They reinforced the colonial conquests of the planet. These structural transformations allowed a new surge in profits and led to the “belle époque” — from 1890 to 1914 — the first period of global domination by financialized monopoly capital. The dominant discourses of that time praised colonization (“civilizing mission”) and described globalization as synonymous with peace, earning the support of the workers’ social democracy.
However, the “belle époque,” announced as the “end of history” by the ideologues of this period, ended — as only Lenin had foreseen — in the First World War. And the period that followed and lasted until the aftermath of the Second World War was the period of wars and revolutions. In 1920, after the revolution in Russia (the “weak link” of the system) had been isolated following the defeat of revolutionary hopes in Central Europe, financialized monopoly capital managed, against all odds, to restore the system of the belle époque. This restoration, denounced by Keynes at the time, was the origin of the financial collapse of 1929 and the consequent Great Depression that endured until the start of the Second World War.
The “long twentieth century” — 1873-1990 — is therefore both the century of the deployment of the first systemic and profound crisis of aging capitalism (to the point where Lenin thought that this monopoly capitalism constituted the “highest stage of capitalism”) and that of the first triumphant wave of anti-capitalist revolutions (Russia, China) and the anti-imperialist movements of Asia and Africa.
The second systemic crisis of capitalism began in 1971, almost exactly a century after the commencement of the first, with the abandoning of the gold convertibility of the dollar. Profit rates, investment levels, and growth rates all collapsed (and never again reverted to the levels in the period 1945-75). Capital responded to the challenge, not unlike its response in the previous crisis, by a double movement of concentration and globalization. As such, capital established structures that defined the second “belle époque” (1990-2008) of financialized globalization, allowing oligopolistic groups to levy monopoly rent. The same discourse accompanied this process: the “market” guarantees prosperity, democracy, and peace; it’s the “end of history.” The same eager support occurred, this time by European socialists, for the new liberalism. However, this new “belle époque” was, from the onset, accompanied by war: the war of the North versus the South, begun in 1990. Just as the first financialized globalization had led to 1929, so the second produced 2008. Today we have reached a crucial moment, suggesting the probability of a new wave of wars and revolutions. The more so, since the ruling powers do not envisage anything other than the restoration of the system as it was before the financial meltdown.
The analogy between the unfolding of these long, systemic crises of aging capitalism is striking. There are, nonetheless, differences whose political significance is important.
Behind the Financial Crisis: A Systemic Crisis of the Capitalism of Oligopolies
Contemporary capitalism is, first and foremost, a capitalism of oligopolies in the full sense of the term (in previous capitalism, oligopolies were only partial). What I mean by this is that the oligopolies alone command the production of the economic system in its entirety. They are “financialized” in the sense that they alone have access to capital markets. This financialization grants to the monetary and financial market — their market, in which they compete only with each other — the status of dominant market, which, in turn, structures and commands the labor and commodity exchange markets.
This globalized financialization expresses itself by a transformation of the ruling bourgeois class, which has become a rent-capturing plutocracy. The oligarchs are not only Russian, as is too often presumed, but also, and much more often, U.S., European, and Japanese. The decline of democracy — to the exclusive benefit of the oligopolies — is the inevitable product of this concentration of power.
The new form of capitalist globalization that corresponds to this transformation — in contrast with the one that characterized the first “belle époque” — is also important to specify. I have expressed it in a sentence: the passage from imperialisms (that of the imperialist powers in permanent conflict with each other) to the collective imperialism of the triad (the United States, Europe, and Japan).
The monopolies, which emerged in response to the first crisis of profit rates, constituted themselves on a basis that reinforced the violence of competition between the major imperialist powers of the time, and led to the armed conflict begun in 1914, which continued through the “peace” of Versailles and the Second World War until 1945. That is what Giovanni Arrighi, André Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, and I described in the 1970s as the “thirty years war,” a notion that has been taken up by others since.
By contrast, the second wave of oligopolistic concentration, begun in the 1970s, constituted itself on totally other bases, within the framework of a system dominated by the “collective imperialism” of the triad. In this new imperialist globalization, the domination of the centers is no longer exercised by a monopoly of industrial production (as had been the case hitherto) but by other means: control of technologies, financial markets, access to the planet’s natural resources, information and communications, weapons of mass destruction. This system, which I have described as “apartheid on a global scale,” implies a permanent war against the states and the people of the recalcitrant peripheries, a war begun already in the 1990s by the deployment of military control over the world by the United States and its subordinate NATO allies.
According to my analysis, the financialization of this system is inextricably linked to its clearly oligopolistic aspect. What pertains between them is a fundamentally organic relation. This point of view is not prevalent, either in the expansive literature of conventional economists or in the majority of critical writings on the current crisis.
It Is the Entire System that Henceforth Is in Difficulty
The facts are clear: the financial collapse is already producing, not a “recession,” but a profound depression. But beyond this, other dimensions of the crisis of the system have surfaced in public consciousness, even before the financial meltdown. We know the main headings — energy crisis, food crisis, environmental crisis, climate change. Numerous analyses of the aspects of these contemporary challenges are produced on a daily basis, some of which are of the highest quality.
Nonetheless, I remain critical of this mode of treating the systemic crisis of capitalism that excessively isolates the different dimensions of the challenge. I would, therefore, redefine the diverse “crises” as facets of the same challenge — that of the system of contemporary capitalist globalization (whether liberal or not), founded upon the principle that the field of operation of imperialist rent is now global — benefitting the oligopolies of the imperialist triad.
The real battle is fought on this decisive ground between the oligopolies that seek to produce and reproduce the conditions that allow them to appropriate the imperialist rent and their intended victims — the workers of all the countries in the North and the South, the peoples of the dominated peripheries, condemned to give up any perspective of development worthy of the name.
Exiting the Crisis of Capitalism or a Capitalism in Crisis?
This formula was suggested by André Gunder Frank and me in 1974.
The analysis we developed about the new great crisis that we thought had begun led us to the major conclusion that capital would respond to the challenge by a new wave of concentration, followed by massive dislocations. Later developments largely confirmed this. The title of our intervention at a conference organized by Il Manifesto in Rome in 1974 (“Let us not wait for 1984,” referring to the work by George Orwell) invited the radical left at that time to renounce any strategy of coming to the aid of capital by looking for “exits from the crisis,” but rather to seek strategies aimed at an “exit from capitalism in crisis.”
I have pursued this line of analysis with a kind of stubbornness that I do not regret. I have suggested a conceptualization of new forms of domination on the part of the imperialist centers, grounded in new modes of control that replaced the old monopoly over exclusively industrial production. This has been confirmed by the rise of “emerging market” countries. I have described the new globalization now being constructed as an “apartheid at the global level,” requiring the militarized management of the planet, and in this way perpetuating, in new conditions, the polarization that always accompanies the expansion of “really existing capitalism.”
There Is No Alternative to a Socialist Perspective
The contemporary world is governed by oligarchies. The financial oligarchies in the United States, Europe, and Japan dominate not only economic life but also politics and daily life. The Russian oligarchy, which the Russian state tries to control, was created in their image. Statocracy in China and autocracies common throughout the periphery (sometimes hidden behind the appearance of an electoral democracy — of “low intensity”) are inscribed into this worldwide system.
The management of contemporary globalization by these oligarchies/autocracies is in crisis. The oligarchies of the North seek to remain in power once the present crisis is over. They do not feel threatened. By contrast, the fragility of the power held by the autocracies of the South is clearly visible. The model of globalization that is currently in place is therefore vulnerable. Will it be called into question by the revolt in the South, as was the case in the previous century? Probably so, but that could prove tragic. For humanity as a whole will only commit itself fully to the socialist road — the only humane alternative to chaos — once the powers of the oligarchies, their allies, and their servants, have been broken, both in the countries of the South and those in the North. Long live the internationalism of the people in the face of the cosmopolitanism of the oligarchies!
Is the Reinstatement of the Global Oligopoly-Finance Capital Possible?
Capitalism is synonymous with “liberalism” if, by this we mean not the beneficent image that the “liberal” label frequently brings to mind, but the plain and total exercise of the domination of capital, not only over work and the economy, but over all aspects of social life. There can be no “market economy” (a vulgar expression for capitalism) without a “market society.” Capital stubbornly pursues this distinct objective — money; accumulation for its own sake. Marx, and after him other critical thinkers like Keynes, understood this perfectly. But not our conventional economists, including many of those ostensibly on the left.
This model of total and exclusive domination by capital was imposed ruthlessly by the ruling classes throughout the previous long crisis until 1945. Only the triple victory of democracy, socialism, and the national liberation of peoples in innumerable struggles made possible the replacement for a time of this capitalist ideal. From 1945 to 1980, it was supplanted by the conflictual coexistence of three socially regulated models: the welfare state of Western social democracy; the “really existing” socialism in the East; and the popular nationalisms in the South. The demise and collapse of these three models made possible the return of the exclusive domination by capital, this time described as the neoliberal phase of capitalism.
I have linked this new liberalism to a series of new aspects that appear to me to merit the description of “senile capitalism.” My book of this title, published in 2001 (Au-delà du capitalisme senile, Presses Universitaires France), is probably one among the very rare writings at the time that, far from viewing globalized and financialized neoliberalism as the “end of history,” analyzed the system of aging capitalism as unstable and condemned to eventual collapse, precisely by reason of its financialization (its “Achilles Heel,” as I wrote then).
Conventional economists have remained persistently deaf to any questioning of their own dogma — so much so that they were unable to foresee the financial collapse of 2008. Those whom the media have portrayed as “critical” hardly deserve this description. Even Joseph Stiglitz remains convinced that the system as it stands — globalized and financialized liberalism — can be fixed by means of some corrections. Amartya Sen preaches morality without daring to see “really existing” capitalism as it is.
The social disasters caused by the deployment of liberalism — “the permanent utopia of capital,” as I wrote — have inspired quite a bit of nostalgia in relation to the recent or distant past. But such nostalgia cannot respond to the present challenge. It is the product of an impoverished theoretical critique that has gradually blocked understanding of the internal contradictions and the limits of the post-1945 systems; their erosions, diversions, and collapses appeared as unforeseen cataclysms.
Nonetheless — in the void created by this retreat of critical, theoretical thinking — a consciousness about the new dimensions of the systemic crisis of civilization managed to chart a path. I am referring here to the ecological movement. But the Greens, who have purported to distinguish themselves radically from both the Blues (the Conservatives and the Liberals) and the Reds (the Socialists), are locked into an impasse, since they have failed to link the ecological dimension to the challenge of a radical critique of capitalism.
Everything was therefore ready to ensure the triumph — in fact, ephemeral but experienced as final — of the alternative of “liberal democracy.” This reflected a poverty of thought — a veritable non-thinking — disregarding Marx’s decisive argument about bourgeois democracy’s failure to acknowledge that those who decide are not those negatively affected by the decisions. Those who decide and benefit from the freedom reinforced by the control over property are nowadays the plutocrats of capitalism’s oligopolies, and states are their debtors. Perforce the workers and the people in question are little more than their victims. This sort of liberal nonsense might, at some point, have been credible, at least for a short while, as a result of the decline of the three post-1945 systems, East, West, and South. But the prevailing dogmas, in their poverty of theory, could no longer understand the origins of the crisis. Under these conditions, liberal democracy might well have appeared to be “the best of all possible systems.” Yet, its hegemony was threatened by a deepening crisis of its own making.
Today the powers that be — those who did not foresee anything — are busy attempting to restore the same system. Their possible success, as in the case of the conservatives in the 1920s — which Keynes had denounced without much of an echo at the time — will only exacerbate the scope of the contradictions that are the root cause of the 2008 financial collapse.
No less serious is the fact that economists on the “left” have long since embraced the essential tenets of vulgar economics and accepted the erroneous idea that markets are rational. The same economists have focused their efforts on defining the conditions for this market rationality, thereby abandoning Marx, who had discovered the irrationality of markets from the point of view of the workers and the peoples — a perspective deemed “obsolete.” According to this “left-wing” perspective, capitalism is flexible, and adjusts itself to the requirements of progress (technological and even social) if it is properly constrained. These “leftist” economists are not prepared to understand that the crisis that has erupted was inevitable. They are even less prepared to confront the challenges that are faced by the peoples as a result. Like other vulgar economists, they will seek to repair the damage without understanding that it is necessary to pursue another route if we are to overcome the fundamental logic of capitalism. Instead of looking for exits from a capitalism in crisis, they think they can simply exit the crisis.
U.S. Hegemony in Crisis
The recent G20 Summit in London in April 2009 in no way marks the beginning of a “reconstruction of the world.” And it is perhaps no coincidence that it was followed by a summit meeting of NATO, the right hand of contemporary imperialism, and by the reinforcement of NATO’s military involvement in Afghanistan. The permanent war of the North against the South must continue.
We already knew that the governments of the triad — the United States, Europe, and Japan — would pursue the singular goal of restoring the system as it existed before September 2008, and one must not take seriously the interventions at the G20 Summit in London by President Obama and Gordon Brown, on the one hand, and those of Sarkozy and Merkel, on the other. Both were aimed at amusing the spectators. The purported differences, identified by the media but without any genuine substance, respond to the exclusive needs of the leaders in question to make the best of themselves in the face of naïve public opinion.
“Recreate capitalism,” “moralizing financial operations”: such similar grand declarations are made in order to avoid the real questions. That is why restoring the system, which is not impossible, will not solve any problem but will, in fact, exacerbate the gravity of the crisis. The “Stiglitz Commission,” convened by the United Nations, is part of this strategy of tricking the public. Obviously, one could not expect otherwise from the oligarchs who control the real power and their political debtors. The point of view that I have developed, and that puts the emphasis on the inextricable links between the domination of the oligopolies and the necessary financialization of managing the world economy, is confirmed by the results of the G20.
More interesting is the fact that the invited leaders of the “emerging markets” chose to remain silent. A single intelligent sentence was said throughout this day of great spectacle, by the Chinese President Hu Jintao, who observed “in passing,” without insisting and with a (mocking?) smile, that it would be necessary to envisage the creation of a global financial system that is not based on the U.S. dollar. Some commentators immediately linked this — correctly — to Keynes’s proposals in 1945.
This remark is a rude awakening to the fact that the crisis of the capitalist system of oligopolies is inextricably linked to the crisis of U.S. hegemony, which is on the ropes. But who will replace it? Certainly not “Europe,” which does not exist apart from or outside Atlanticism and has no ambition to be independent, as the NATO summit meeting once more confirmed. China? This “threat,” which the media repeat ad nauseam (a new “Yellow Peril”?) in order to justify the Atlantic alignment, has no foundation in reality. The Chinese leadership knows that the country does not have either the means or the will. China’s strategy is confined to promoting a new globalization without hegemony — something which neither the United States nor Europe deems acceptable.
The likelihood of a possible evolution in this direction depends once more on the countries of the South. And it is no coincidence that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is the only institution within the UN umbrella that has taken initiatives that are fundamentally different from those of the Stiglitz Commission. It is also no coincidence that UNCTAD’s Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi, from Thailand, hitherto considered to be a perfect liberal, has dared propose, in a March 2009 report entitled “The Global Economic Crisis,” realistic ideas that are part of a second wave of a Southern awakening.
For its part, China has begun to build — in a gradual and controlled manner — alternative regional financial systems rid of the U.S. dollar. Similar initiatives complement, on the economic level, the promotion of political alliance within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is a major obstacle to NATO’s belligerence.
The NATO summit meeting, also convened in April 2009, agreed to Washington’s decision not to start a gradual military disengagement but, on the contrary, to reinforce the scope of its military involvement, always under the misguided pretext of the “war against terror.” President Obama deploys his talents to save Clinton’s and Bush’s program of imposing global military control, which is the only way of prolonging the days of U.S. hegemony, now under threat. Obama scored points and obtained a total, unconditional surrender from Sarkozy’s France, which has now rejoined NATO’s military command — the end of Gaullism — something that was difficult to achieve during Bush’s reign when Washington spoke without intelligence but not without arrogance. Moreover, Obama has acted like Bush by giving lessons, with slight concern for Europe’s independence, about how Turkey should be allowed to enter the Union!
Are New Advances in the Struggles for the Emancipation of the Peoples Possible?
The political management of the worldwide domination by oligopoly capital is necessarily marked by extreme violence. For, in order to maintain their status of affluent societies, the countries of the imperialist triad are henceforth obliged to limit access to the planet’s natural resources to their own exclusive benefit. This new requirement is at the origin of the militarization of globalization that I have elsewhere described as the Empire of Chaos(Monthly Review, 1992), an expression others have since taken up.
In line with Washington’s project of military control over the planet and the waging of “pre-emptive wars” under the pretext of the “war against terror,” NATO has portrayed itself as the representative of the international community and has thereby marginalized the United Nations — the only institution entitled to speak in this name.
Of course, these real goals cannot be openly acknowledged. In order to mask them, the powers in question have chosen to instrumentalize the discourse on democracy and have arrogated to themselves the “right to intervene,” so as to impose “respect for human rights”!
At the same time, the absolute power of the new oligarchic plutocracies has hollowed out the substance of bourgeois democratic practice. In former times, political negotiation between different social parties of the hegemonic bloc was necessary for the reproduction of the power of capital. By contrast, the new political management of the capitalism of oligopolies, established by means of a systematic de-politicization, has given rise to a new political culture of “consensus” (modelled on the example of the United States) that substitutes the consumer and the political spectator for the active citizen, necessary for an authentic democracy. The Liberal Virus (the title of another book of mine published by Monthly Review Press, 2004) abolishes the possibility of alternative choices and replaces it with a consensus centered on respect only for a procedural, electoral democracy.
The demise and collapse of the three above-mentioned social models (i.e., “really existing” socialism in the East, social welfarism in the West, and populist nationalism in the South) is at the origin of this drama. The first page of the wave of struggles for emancipation has now been turned; that of the second wave has not yet been opened. In the twilight that separates them, one can discern “monsters,” as Gramsci writes.
In the North, these developments have caused the loss of a real sense of democratic practice. This regression is masked by the pretensions of the so-called “postmodern” discourse, according to which nations and classes have already left the scene and ceded the political space to the “individual,” now the sole active subject of social transformation.
In the South, other illusions dominate the political realm. The illusion of a capitalist, national, and autonomous development that is part of globalization is powerful among the dominant and middle classes in “emerging markets,” fuelled by the swift successes of the last few decades. Or, in the countries excluded from this process, nostalgic (para-ethnic or para-religious) illusions about the past.
What is worse, these developments have strengthened the general embrace of the “ideology of consumption” and the idea that progress is measured by the quantitative growth of consumption. Marx had already shown that it is the mode of production that determines the mode of consumption and not vice-versa, as is claimed by vulgar economics. What is lost sight of in all this is the perspective of a humanist and superior rationality, the basis for the socialist project. The gigantic potential that the application of science and technology offers the whole of humanity, and that would enable the real flourishing of individuals and societies in the North and the South, is wasted by the requirements of its subordination to the logics of the unlimited pursuit of the accumulation of capital. What’s even worse, the continuous growth of the social productivity of labor is linked to the breathtaking use of mechanisms of pauperization (visible at a global scale as the wholesale attack on peasant societies) — as Marx had already understood.
Embracing the ideological alienation caused by capitalism adversely affects not only the affluent societies of the imperialist centers. The peoples of the peripheries, who are, for the most part, deprived of access to acceptable levels of consumption and blinded by aspirations to consume like the opulent North, are losing consciousness of the fact that the logic of historical capitalism makes the extension of this model to the entire globe impossible.
We can, therefore, understand the reasons why the 2008 financial collapse was the result of a sharpening of the internal contradictions peculiar to the accumulation of capital. Only the intervention of forces that embody a positive alternative can offer a way of imagining an exit from the chaos caused by the sharpening of the internal contradictions of the system. (In this spirit, I have contrasted the “revolutionary way” with the model of overcoming the historically obsolete system through “decadence.”) And, in the current state of affairs, the movements of social protest, despite their visible growth, remain, as a whole, unable to question the social order linked to the capitalism of oligopolies — in the absence of a coherent political project that can match the challenges.
From this point of view, the current situation is markedly different from that which prevailed in the 1930s, when the forces of socialism clashed with fascist parties, producing Nazism, the New Deal, and the Popular Fronts.
The deepening of the crisis will not be avoided, even if reinstatement of the system of domination by oligopoly capital were to be potentially successful, which is not impossible. In this situation, the possible radicalization of the struggles is not an improbable hypothesis, even if the obstacles remain formidable.
In the countries of the triad, such a radicalization would imply that the agenda would be to expropriate the oligopolies — a struggle that seems to be off the table for the foreseeable future. In consequence, the hypothesis that — despite the turmoil caused by the crisis — the stability of the societies of the triad will not be questioned cannot be discarded. There is a serious risk of a “remake” of the wave of struggles of emancipation, as happened in the twentieth century, that is to say, a questioning of the system exclusively by some of its peripheries.
A second stage of “the South’s awakening” (the title of yet another book of mine that offers a reading of the period of Bandung as the first stage of awakening [L’Eveil du Sud (Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, 2007)]) is now on the agenda. In the best possible scenario, the advances produced by these conditions could force imperialism to retreat, to renounce its demented and criminal project of controlling the world militarily. And, if this were the case, then the democratic movement of the countries at the center of the system could make a positive contribution to the success of this strategy of neutralization. Moreover, the decline of the imperialist rent, which benefits the societies in question — itself a result of the reorganization of the international equilibria of production to the advantage of the South (especially China) — could help the awakening of a socialist consciousness. Nevertheless, the societies of the South could remain mired in the same challenges as in the past — a situation that would produce some of the same limits on their progress.
A New Internationalism of the Workers and the Peoples Is Necessary and Possible
Historical capitalism is all things to everyone, except being durable. It is but a short parenthesis in history. The fundamental questioning of capitalism — which our contemporary thinkers, in their overwhelming majority, deem neither possible nor desirable — is nonetheless the inescapable condition for the emancipation of the dominated workers and the peoples (those of the peripheries, i.e., 80 percent of humankind). The two dimensions of the challenges are inextricably linked with one another. There will be no exit from capitalism by way of the sole struggle of the people of the North, or by the sole struggle of the dominated people of the South. There will only be an exit from capitalism if and when these two dimensions combine with one other. It is far from certain that this will occur, in which case capitalism will be overcome by the destruction of civilization (rather than the malaise of civilization, to use Freud’s terminology) and perhaps life on the planet. The scenario of a “remake” of the twentieth century falls short of the requirements of a commitment by humankind to the long route of transition to worldwide socialism. The liberal catastrophe requires a renewal of the radical critique of capitalism. The challenge is the permanent construction/reconstruction of the internationalism of the workers and the peoples in the face of the cosmopolitanism of oligarchic capital.
Constructing this internationalism can only be envisaged by successful, new, revolutionary advances (like those begun in Latin America and Nepal) that offer the perspective of an overcoming of capitalism.
In the countries of the South, the battle of the states and the nations for a negotiated globalization without hegemonies — the contemporary form of de-linking — supported by the organization of the demands of the popular classes, can circumscribe and limit the powers of the oligopolies of the imperialist triad. The democratic forces in the countries of the North must support this battle. The pseudo-democratic discourse (the support for low-intensity democracy) proposed, and accepted, by a majority on the left, and the “humanitarian” interventions conducted in its name — just like the miserable practice of giving “aid” — repels real engagement with this challenge.
In the countries of the North, the oligopolies are already clearly forms of the “commons,” whose management cannot be left to sectional private interests alone (the crisis has highlighted the catastrophic results of such an approach). An authentic left must dare envision genuine nationalization as the first inescapable stage of the socialization of the oligopolies, deepening democratic practice. The current crisis makes it possible to conceive the crystallization of a common front of the social and political forces, bringing together all the victims of the exclusive power of the ruling oligarchies.
The first wave of the struggles for socialism, that of the twentieth century, has shown the limits of European social-democracies, of the communisms of the third international, and of the popular nationalisms of the Bandung era — and the demise and collapse of their popular, social-democratic, socialist ambitions. The second wave, that of the twenty-first century, must draw lessons from this. In particular, one lesson is to associate the socialization of economic management and the deepening of the democratization of society. There will be no socialism without democracy, but equally, no democratic advance outside a socialist perspective.
These strategic goals invite us to think about the construction of “convergences in diversity” (referring here to the formula used by the World Forum of Alternatives), of the forms of organization, and the struggles of the dominated and exploited classes. It is emphatically not my intention to condemn from the outset the convergences of the forms that, in their own way, would retrieve the traditions of social-democracy, communism, and popular nationalism, or would diverge from them.
According to this perspective, it seems to me necessary to conceive of the condition for the renewal of a creative Marxism. Marx has never been so useful and necessary in order to understand and transform the world — today even more so than yesterday. Being Marxist in this spirit is to begin with Marx and not to stop with him — or Lenin or Mao — as conceived and practiced by the historical Marxisms of the previous century. It is to render onto Marx that which is owed him: the intelligence to have begun critical thinking, a critique of capitalist reality, and a critique of its political, ideological, and cultural representations. A creative Marxism must pursue the goal of enriching this critical thinking par excellence. It must not fear to integrate all reflection, in all areas, including those that have wrongly been considered “foreign” by the dogmas of past historical Marxisms.
- * French television astrologer, popular in the 1970s.
|From Two Essays on Imperialism, New York 1966.
Transcribed by Joseph Auciello.
I would like to focus this interview on three distinct but related questions: your vision of the world and the possibilities of changing it; your conceptual and political proposal on the implosion of capitalism and delinking from it; your analysis of the global context, seen especially from Africa and the Middle East. What is your vision of the world, seen from the South and from the perspective of the South?
To respond to this question, which isn’t a simple one at all, it is necessary to divide the theme in three parts. First of all, let’s examine: What are the important, decisive characteristics of contemporary capitalism — not of capitalism in general, but of contemporary capitalism? What’s really new about it? What characterizes it? Secondly, let’s focus on the nature of the current crisis, which is more than just a crisis — I define it as an implosion of the contemporary capitalist system. Thirdly, in this very framework, let’s analyze: What are the strategies of the dominant reactionary forces, that is, of dominant capital, of the imperialist triad of the United States-Europe-Japan and their reactionary allies in the entire world? Only having understood this can we size up the challenge that the peoples of the South, in the emerging countries as well as the rest of the South, confront.
My thesis on the nature of the contemporary capitalist system — which more modestly I will call “hypothesis” for it’s open to discussion — is that we have entered in a new phase of monopoly capitalism. It’s a qualitatively new stage, given the degree of concentration of capital, now condensed to the point that today monopoly capital controls everything.
To be sure, the concept of “monopoly capital” is not new. It was minted at the end of the 19th century and developed as such, through successive distinct phases, during the 20th century; but, beginning in the 1970s-80s, a qualitatively new stage emerged. Before that, it existed but did not control everything. In reality, there is now no capitalist economic activity that is autonomous or independent of monopoly capitalism — it controls each and every one of the capitalist economic activities, even those that preserve an appearance of autonomy. An example, one among many, is agriculture in developed capitalist countries, where it is controlled by monopolies that provide inputs, selected seeds, pesticides, credits, and marketing chains.
This is decisive — it is a qualitative change which I call “generalized monopoly,” that is, monopoly that is extended over all spheres. This characteristic entails substantive and significant consequences. In the first place, bourgeois democracy has been completely nullified: if it was once based on a left-right opposition — which corresponded to social alliances, more or less proletarian, more or less bourgeois, but differentiated by their conceptions of political economy — now, for example, Republicans and Democrats in the United States, or the Hollande current of socialists and the Sarkozy current of rightists in France, are the same, or just about the same. In other words, all of them are united on a consensus commanded by monopoly capital.
This first consequence constitutes a change in political life. Democracy, thus nullified, has turned into a farce, as is seen in electoral primaries in the United States. Generalized monopoly capital has very serious consequences. It has turned the United States into a nation of “fools.” It’s serious because democracy has no way of expressing itself any longer.
The second consequence is that “generalized capitalism” is the objective basis of the emergence of what I call “collective imperialism” of the US-Europe-Japan triad. It is a point that I strongly emphasize, since, though it is still a hypothesis, I can defend it: there are no major contradictions among the United States, Europe, and Japan. There is a little competition on the economic level, but on the political level the alignment with the policies defined by the United States as what the world’s policy should be is immediate. What we call the “international community” copies the discourse of the United States: in three minutes there appear European ambassadors with some extras, great democrats such as the Emir of Qatar and the King of Saudi Arabia. The United Nations doesn’t exist — its representation of states is a caricature.
It is this fundamental transformation, the transition of monopoly capitalism to “generalized monopoly capitalism,” which explains financialization, for these generalized monopolies are capable — owing to the control that they exercise over all economic activities — of suck up a bigger and bigger part of surplus value produced in the entire world and converting it into the monopolist launching pad, the imperialist launching pad, which is the cause of inequality and growth stagnation in the countries of the North, including the US-Europe-Japan triad.
That leads me to the second point: it is this system that is in crisis. Or rather it is not just a crisis — it is an implosion, in the sense that this system is incapable of reproducing itself from its own foundations, in other words, it is a victim of its own internal contradictions.
This system is imploding, not because it is being attacked by people, but because of its own success. Its success, having managed to impose itself on people, has led it to cause a vertiginous growth of inequalities, which is not only socially scandalous but unacceptable and yet ends up being accepted, accepted without objection. However, that’s not the cause of the implosion, but the fact that it cannot reproduce itself from its own foundations.
That leads me to the third dimension, which has to do with the strategy of the dominant reactionary forces. When I say the dominant reactionary forces, I refer to generalized monopoly capital of the historical imperialist triad of the United States-Europe-Japan, joined by all the reactionaries forces around the world, which are grouped, in one form or another, in local hegemonic blocs that sustain and are part of this reactionary global domination. These reactionary local forces are extremely numerous and enormously different from one country to another.
The political strategy of the dominant forces — that is, generalized, financialized monopoly capital of the historical, traditional collective imperialist triad, the United States-Europe-Japan — is defined by its identification of enemies. For them, the enemies are emerging countries — in other words, China. The rest, like India, Brazil, and others, are for them semi-emerging.
Why China? Because the Chinese ruling class has a project. I am not going to get into details about whether this project is socialist or capitalist. What is important is that it has a project. Its project consists of not accepting the diktats of generalized, financialized monopoly capital of the triad, which imposes itself through its advantages: control of technology; control of access to natural resources of the planet; control of mass media, propaganda, etc.; control of the integrated global monetary and financial system; control of weapons of mass destruction. China has come to challenge this order, without making any noise.
China is no mere subcontractor. There are sectors in China that function as subcontractors, as makers and sellers of cheap toys of poor quality, only because the Chinese need to get their hands on foreign exchange, and subcontracting is an easy means to do so. But that is not what China is all about. What characterizes China is its development and rapid absorption of high technology, its own development and reproduction. China is no mere workshop of the world as is claimed by some. It is not “Made in China” but “Made by China.” This is now possible only because they made a revolution: socialism paradoxically built the path that made it possible to practice a certain kind of capitalism.
I would say that, next to China, the rest of the emerging countries are secondary. If I had to grade them, I’d say that China is 100% emerging, Brazil is 30%, and the rest are 20%. The other emerging countries, in comparison to China, are subcontractors: they do major subcontracting business because there is a margin of negotiation, due to conformity between generalized, financialized monopoly capital of the triad and emerging countries like India, Brazil, and so on. Not so with China.
That is why a war against China has come to be part of the strategy of the triad. 20 years ago there were already crazy Americans who advocated the idea of declaring war on China before it would be too late.
The Chinese have been successful, which is why their foreign policy is so peaceful. Now, here comes Russia to join the Chinese in the category of truly emerging countries. We see Putin proposing the modernization of the Russian armed forces, planning to remake the Soviet-era navy, which once constituted real counterweight to the military power of the United States. This is important. Here I’m not talking about whether or not Putin is a democrat, or whether or not his perspective is socialist; it’s not about that, but about the possibility of countering the power of the triad.
The rest of the world, the rest of the South, all of us — you the Ecuadorans, we the Egyptians, and many others — do not count. Our countries interest collective monopoly capitalism for the one and only one reason, access to our natural resources, because this monopoly capital cannot reproduce itself without controlling, wasting, the natural resources of the entire planet. This is the only thing that interests monopoly capital.
To guarantee exclusive access to natural resources, imperialists must ensure that our countries will not develop. Hence “lumpen-development,” as was defined by Andre Gunder Frank. Frank discussed it in much different circumstances, but I borrow the term here to apply it in new circumstances, to describe how the only project that imperialism has for us is non-development. Development of anomaly — oil-rich pauperization, fake growth fuelled by gas, timber, or whatever, in order to obtain access to natural resources — that is what is about to implode because it has become morally intolerable. People no longer accept it.
Hence the implosions. The first waves of implosions originated in Latin America, and it’s no accident that they happened in marginal countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. It’s no accident. Then, the Arab Spring. We’ll see other waves in Nepal and other countries for it’s not something that would happen only in a particular region.
For the people who are the protagonists of this, the challenge is enormous. That is to say, the challenge cannot be contained within the framework of this system, within an attempt to transcend neoliberalism to achieve capitalism with a human face, to enter into the logic of good governance, poverty reduction, democratization of political life, etc., because all those are modes of managing pauperization which is the result of this very logic.
My conclusion — from the position mainly focused on the Arab world — is that this is not just a conjuncture but rather a historic moment, a great moment for people. I’m talking about revolution. Though I don’t want to abuse this term, there are objective conditions for building broad alternative, anti-capitalist social blocs. There is a context for audacity, to propose a radical path.