• The Dangers and Opportunities of the Global Crises

  • By Gustave Massiah | 20 May 09
  • The alter-globalist movement is faced with the crisis of globalisation, which can be characterised as a crisis of capitalist globalisation in its neoliberal phase. This crisis is not a surprise for the movement; it was foreseen and announced long ago. Several analyses put forward the hypothesis of an open crisis of globalisation. Now we’re in it! This is a structural crisis: economic and social, ecological, geopolitical, political and ideological. The current sequence of financial, monetary, real-estate, food and economic crises are many examples of it.

    The dangers of the globalisation crisis

    The old and venerable Chinese ideograms that represent “crisis” associate two, contradictory characters, as is proper for all good dialectics: that of  “dangers” and that of “opportunities”.

    The first, danger, concerns poverty. The exit to the crisis being sought consists of making the poor pay for the crisis, starting with the discriminated and the colonised. It also consists of thinning out the middle classes. And, as if that were not enough, even certain categories of the rich are made to pay. From this, sharp contradictions can be predicted.

    To effect make such policies, there will need to be repression, criminalisation of social movements, penalisation of solidarity; the use of terrorism, law-and-order ideology and racist, Islamophobic and nationalist agitation for political ends; and the exploitation of scapegoats, migrants, and the Romani. In some regions, this evolution will move toward authoritarian and repressive regimes, and even toward fascistic populisms.

    Another way out of the crisis targets countries that will be marginalised and ruined. The risks of war are also a classic outcome of great crises. Let us not forget that the world is already at war and that nearly one billion people live in regions in war. Conflicts are permanent and destabilisation systematic. The forms of war have changed along with the militarisation of societies, global apartheid, the war of the strong against the weak and torture having become commonplace.

    To fight against these dangers, we will have to strengthen the various resistances and expand alliances and coalitions for freedom, democracy and peace.

    The opportunities of the global crisis

    The dangers are known; the available opportunities less so. Yet, as Hölderlin said, as quoted by Edgar Morin, “Where danger grows, so does that which saves”. Let us remember six opportunities made available by the crisis. First, the ideological defeat of neoliberalism furthers the rise of public regulation. Next, redistribution of wealth and the return of the domestic market make possible again the stabilisation and guarantee of incomes, social protection and redeployment of public services. Likewise, the ecological emergency requires a transformation in the mode of social development.  Along the same lines, the crisis in the political model of representation reinforces the necessity for social and participatory democracy, and also for a new reflection on power. Furthermore, the rebalance between the North and the South is opening up a new phase of decolonisation and new world geopolitics. It is accompanied by new urbanisation and migrations that are the new forms of populating the planet. Finally, a system of global regulation makes it possible to think through and regulate social transformation at the global level and opens up the perspective of global citizenship. The alter-globalist movement offers these opportunities.

    However, none of these opportunities will impose themselves; they will be able to lead toward better situations only if resistance expands and if the social and ecological struggles and struggles for freedom and against war become sharper. All the more so as the crisis is also opening up opportunities for the managing elites who will be divided between those who lean toward renewed forms of oppression and those who will swing towards radical reform of capitalism. This radical reform is not inevitable, but it is not impossible. It will be credible only when all the paths enabling the elites to conserve the current forms of power turn out to be insufficient. Capitalism has shown, in particular after the 1929 crisis, along with the New Deal made explicit by Roosevelt, its capacity to “revolutionise” its social relationships. It is still capitalism. As in Visconti’s film “The Leopard”: “Everything must change for things to remain the same.”

    The alter-globalist movement will be challenged by attempts at radical reform, all the more challenging since, for the lower classes, the question of steps leading out of the initial, severe phase of crisis is urgent. Likewise, in the medium term there is no equivalence between a conservative tendency and reform tendency. The questions remain unanswered as to the capacity of these reforms to deal with the crisis and their insufficiency vis-à-vis true emancipation. Further, assessments of these questions will differ in the movement. The position to take vis-à-vis the political forces tempted by these reforms, which we will call in an oversimplified way a “Green New-Deal”, will remain to be worked out according to the context and to various situations in different countries and in the major regions. Two questions have already been asked: How can we avoid an alliance between the neoliberal/conservative forces, on the one hand, and the reformers, on the other, based on minimal reforms and on green and authoritarian regimes? How can possible reform movements be radicalised to the benefit of the lower classes?

    The alter-globalist movement is not refusing the possible improvements resulting from these reforms and is not hesitating to accept measures that will ameliorate intolerable situations. At the same time, most of its activists are interested in radical transformation and take very seriously the possibilities opened up by the crisis of going beyond capitalism. This going beyond capitalism is seen as a long-term possibility, one that is not predetermined. In current society, there are already social relations that foreshadow it, like the capitalist social relations that emerged within feudal societies. These are not new, finished relations; these are attempts at transcendence that emerge within social practices but are not completely free from the dominant relations. The rupture does not occur with the elimination of the former social relations, but coincides with thepoint at which new relations become dominant, subordinate the former social relations and profoundly transform them. The new world born within the old is built progressively; it starts from contradictions experienced and generates new ones. The alter-globalist movement is a bearer of these new relations through resistance and innovative social practices. The social forums are the spaces of experimentation and for making the new visible. They also facilitate the critical intellectual work that makes it possible to differentiate that which can consolidate the reproduction of capitalist relations from that which heralds new perspectives.

    The alter-globalist movement must take action today on three levels. In the short term, it must resist and reinforce resistance against dangers. In the medium term, it must have influence – influence on the strategies of the reformers. In the long-term, it must transform – transform in order to go beyond capitalism. For each opportunity, it is important first of all to indicate what the crisis highlights and what must be fought against to prevent preservation of the system and the dangers it harbours. It is then important to identify the emerging proposals envisioned by the reformers, which must be radicalised. Next there must be an outline of what is coming to the surface, so as to indicate the terms of, and possible ideas for, radical transformation.

    Public and citizen regulation

    The rise in power of public regulation will finish off the ideological defeat of neoliberalism. This collapse in ideology splits the neoliberal hegemonic bloc and announces a new phase of globalisation. Neoliberalism is still dominant, but it will be difficult for it to get back on its feet again. Nevertheless, it is essential to continue to take into account neoliberal rationality. On the one hand, neoliberal social forces are still powerful and are very likely to be part of the ruling blocs and to heavily influence the dominant policies. On the other, even if another system asserts itself, the social relations of neoliberalism will remain at work, even if transformed and subordinated, in the economic, social, ideological and political ways of thinking.

    Three major questions - that of the state, of the global market and forms of property -  fall within the perspective of a possible transcendence of capitalism and are already being addressed by the movements. The question of the state is present in several ways. First of all, the realisation of the contradictory nature of the state, both protector and oppressor, both bearer of the general interest and defender of privileges. Democratisation and citizen control of the state, as well as the relationship to what we, to simplify, call “civil society”, are at the centre of the reality of the democratic nature of societies. The nature of public policies is being called into question right now. Discussion of nationalisation will be one of the important stages of this questioning. The issue of the global market poses the need for an alternative to free market exchange. The emergence of major regions as a political, economic, financial and cultural space is opening real perspectives. It also implies a new conception of currency. The question of relations of property and their transformation is fundamental: land ownership at the core of agriculture, and control of urbanisation. Land ownership is still at the heart of the colonial reasoning still present in many situations. The legal and social relations of property determine the plurality of forms of production. This issue plays a role in discussions of the kind of economy that can be called social, not-for-profit, solidarity-based or local, as well as discussions of nationalisation, of state ownership, socialisation and democratic management, and also of the forms of collective ownership, that of the stakeholders, the employees, the users and customers, the subcontractors and suppliers, the stockholders and the local institutions.

    Redistribution of wealth and income

    The redistribution of wealth, necessary in view of the rationale of neoliberalism and its excesses, leads to the temptations of neo-Keynesian economics. It confirms the tendency to rehabilitate the domestic market, at the level of major regions rather than at the national level. It could lead to the rehabilitation of social protection systems and relative wage stability. The income levels and their progression would allow popular consumption to have a role once again as a motor of growth that could confront the over-indebtedness that set off the subprime crisis. Universal access to rights, of which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a pale substitute, would be restored. It would make possible the redeployment of public services, along with significant involvement by local institutions and a strong not-for-profit association-component.

    There are two conditions for this project and the hypothesis on which it is based, conditions that distinguish it from a simple return to the pre-neoliberal Keynesian model. The first condition is the need to respond to ecological limitations that make an extension of productivism dangerous. The contradiction between ecology and social sector has become decisive; it is essential to overcome it. The second condition is the need for regulation at the global level compared to the national regulation rounded out by the Bretton Woods system of the 1960s.

    At the heart of the crisis, there are the inequalities, poverty and the various discriminations. The draining of the lower and middle classes has reached such a level that it has wound up endangering the system as a whole. Redistribution of wealth involves an evolution toward greater social justice. It is more a matter of valuing the incomes generated by work than of distributing compensations. And, as the crisis is global, the response is that of a minimum income at the global level. Proposals exist. Peasant-farmer minimum income is one of the components, as we have been able to see in India. There, two years after the Mumbai Social Forum, a not-yet applied law was passed: a guarantee for each Indian peasant-farmer to have 100 days of work paid per year! In all the economies, the minimum salary in industry and services will have to be structurally valued and guaranteed. The proposal, which has been mentioned several times at the United Nations, is that each person in the world must have an income higher than the poverty level. This is calculated country by country: it is half of the median income, i.e. that which separates the population into two halves, one earning more than the median revenue and the other less. This measure has great virtue; it sets a lower limit to the collapse of real economies. To carry this out, taxation, which must also be international, is necessary to enable its financing. The question of an upper limit of income must also be dealt with. The discussion is an old one. Today, it does not address so much the scale of inequalities as it does the principle of limits. The global minimum income, and the upper level of income, are a response to the global crisis.

    The mobilisation of the movements will put all its weight behind the importance and nature of redistribution of wealth and the forms and methods of this redistribution. More radically, two major questions are already being put forward, that of the value of work and that of access to rights. First of all, the value of work, starting with the recognition of the value that work represents and challenging the reality and supremacy of a profit value. To do so, incomes must be connected to the prices of the products of primary labour more than to the fluctuations of the speculative labour markets.

    Access to rights for all is proposed as a strategic axis. What differentiates the more radical approach from the Keynesian one is the stess on equal access to rights in a context that defines the minimal rights that make up a social net.

    The ecological and social emergency

    The climate emergency and the exhaustion of resources makes a form of development based on productivism and waste impossible. The ecological emergency imposes a rupture, a transformation of societies that combines the social and ecological aspects along with peace and freedoms. It is a project for the future that cannot be summed up as concrete utopia.

    We have now gone beyond the stage of mere awareness of the ecological emergency. It is no longer a matter of simply realising the limits of the current form of development and importance of redefining it. The political discussion deals with the nature of the model to be promoted. The proliferation of environment industries and of productive processes without waste will probably be insufficient. The two discussions focus on the sharing of wealth between the social classes and societies, and the compatibility between ecological emergency, social emergency and freedoms.

    The ecological emergency can facilitate a more radical approach. It confirms the necessity of redefining incomes and of international taxation. It encourages the approach via the Common Good and Public Property. Further, it leads to a redefining of wealth, its production and its sharing. In order to reduce productivist growth while still meeting fundamental needs, the nature of these needs must be changed. The evolution of individual and collective behaviours is required, but moralising in the direction of voluntary simplicity and conservancy are not enough. Several ideas can be considered. The most important is that of the cancellation of mercantile categories, “demercantilisation”. This tendency, especially in the public services of education and health care, had made advances in the 1945-1980 period. Neoliberalism fought it constantly, especially by privatisations and the sanctification of the capitalist market. Other ideas are possible. The meeting of fundamental needs, reinforced by the equal access to rights for all, has to benefit from a reduction of military and arms expenditures. It would benefit from a reduction of the labour time resulting from a reorientation of productivity and the redefinition of production. It would be facilitated by a policy of economising on transportation, corresponding to the search for localisation and relocalisation, according to the economic access to resources and consumption, without taking low labour remuneration as the sole adjustment value. 

    The models and representations of freedoms

    The crisis of models of representation and power is one of the dimensions of the global crisis. The calling into question of freedoms is one of the main dangers stemming from the crisis. A “Green New-Deal” is not in itself a guarantee of freedoms and democracy. There can be state regulation and public interventions that in no way promote freedoms. Furthermore, the ecological emergency can act to justify authoritarian excesses. It is the mobilisation of social and citizen movements that will determine the evolution in the medium term in the various countries and at the global level.

    Among the opportunities, several concern the models of representation. The reconstruction of social ties could find new opportunities to challenge the legal and formal aspects of democracy imposed from above. The forms relationship between participatory democracy – whose strength is based on direct democracy – and representative democracy – which is very often carried out by proxies and “notables” – should progress and become diversified. The access to individual and collective rights for all should establish a social democracy without which political democracy would lose much of its meaning. Institutional and electoral systems could, and ought to, become more difficult to be seen as independent of social conditions.

    The strategic alliance between the local communities and the movements of associations will be the foundation of the relationship between local populations and local communities and will give greater legitimacy to a citizenship of residence. It will modify the representation of social change that today rests exclusively with two social actors: businesses and the state, the latter reduced to  administrations. The relationship between economic power and political power that gives its meaning to the forms of democracy will have to take into account the active presence of citizens and local powers.

    A more radical approach will have to leave plenty of room for the cultural dimension. It will give legitimacy to multiple identities that will renew the relationship between the individual and the collective body. It will give room to democratic self-managed and self-organised activities. It will enable the forms of civil society, in Gramsci’s sense, to go beyond the sole reference to counter-powers in order to expand citizen control and to build spaces of people’s autonomy. This approach will make it possible to give a foundation to freedoms by linking rights and responsibilities, as rights start with the respect of the rights of others.

    A new phase of decolonisation

    The rebalance between North and South opens up a new phase of decolonisation and new  geopolitics. It could close the phase that went from 1979 to 2008 by regaining control via the management of the debt crisis, the control of raw materials and military interventions, establishing new terms of internatioanl exchange. Between 30 and 50 emerging countries, including the three most representative, i.e. Brazil, India and China, can now defend their point of view and their interests. It is not a question of a multipolar world, but a new international geopolitical system. There could be considerable consequences, especially for the terms of international exchange and for the nature of immigration.

    There are two conditions for this evolution, which will not be established without upheavals. The first condition is that the emerging countries be capable of changing their model of growth, by giving priority to the domestic market and to consumption by the lower and middle classes over exports. This disconnection is possible. The second condition is that the emerging countries build forms of unity between the Southern countries. The first phase of decolonisation failed in great part when the oil countries, after the 1977 shock, allowed the emergence of divisions among the Southern countries, allowing the G7, backed by the IMF and the World Bank, to impose structural adjustment.

    The social and citizen movement can, in this stage, put forward several proposals. These are, among others, debt cancellation, the stabilisation of raw material prices, food sovereignty and the respect of immigrants’ rights. From a geopolitical point of view, this evolution will correspond to a double transformation: the reinforcement of one of the counter-tendencies of globalisation in its current form, that of major self-reliant regions; and that of going beyond the contradiction between the North and the South in the building of a balanced international system and of global public regulation.

    Global public regulation

    The failure of the international institutions of globalisation is patently obvious. The WTO was to have rounded out the Bretton Woods system and NATO to have absorbed all military alliances. This project in the end could not succeed. Regulation via the global capital market foundered in the crisis of neoliberalism, highlighting the importance of global public regulation.

    Looking for alternatives for the transformation of each society implies another international system. Wars linked to control of resources and territories are still current events; the identity dimension of conflicts is becoming more pronounced, combining spatial segregation and so-called “ethnic” purification. The dialectic of network terrorisms and state terrorisms is making civil and political rights regress in the name of a “shock of civilisations” that justifies the doctrine of preventive war, “lawlessness” and torture. The strategy of wars by the strong against the weak is combined with the surprise of discovering the ability of the weak to locate the vulnerable points of the strong.

    Backed by the struggles for democratisation, a reform of the international system can be proposed. It includes: the democratisation of the functioning of the institutions that must implement international regulation; the setting up of effective arbitration and recourse bodies; an international system of complaints that can be submitted by citizens associations; priority in the international system to the fight against impunity; effective integration of international financial and trade institutions, IMF, World Bank, International Finance Corporation and WTO into the direct system of the United Nations; a new architecture, which could be based on regional cooperation groups, and a system of regional representation at the global level; and obligation for the international agreements and treaties of all the international institutions to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    A new system to be defined must take into account three essential dimensions: the building of peace and the settling of conflicts; the reduction of ecological risks; and the system of international relations that further the transformation of societies along the lines of freedom, equality and solidarity. The approach through rights and through equality of access to rights lays out the perspective of global social contract. It renews the conception of social transformation.

    To go further in defining a strategy, let us propose a guideline organised around two necessities: a new constitution of the world based on global democracy; a global social contract founded on the respect and guarantee of rights that are as much civil and political as economic, social and cultural. Today the evolution of international law is, from the angle of this guideline, the strategic point of confrontations. International law can be based only on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter. It’s the fixed point around which to build the system of international relations, the fulcrum that gives the United Nations its legitimacy in the global system.

    The indispensable global regulation will require an overhaul of the system of international relations, based on radical reform of the United Nations and progression of international law founded on the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that rejects the subordination of individual and collective rights to commercial law and business law. This global regulation could make the reality of global citizenship progress.