• Are We Capable of "Reading" the World as it Really is?

  • By Jacques Fath | 20 Apr 10 | Posted under: Theory
  • Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most of the discussion about the world has been structured by two theses emerging from American neo-conservatism: Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” and Samuel Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilisations”. The fact that these two ideological theses of the 1990s were able to underpin most of the political-media debate at a time in history when neoliberal rhetoric was crumbling speaks volumes for the inability of those who want to change society and the world to propose alternatives equal to the challenge and so impose new terms of debate.

    Are we capable of changing the terms of the debate? Indeed, are we capable of “reading” the world as it really is?

    With the emergence of new powers, particularly in Asia, with the failure of George Bush and his project of global US hegemony, we have a situation in which the end of Western domination in the history of capitalism and imperialism has become a question – to such an extent that the defence of the Western world is presented by some as an existential issue. Hence the reaffirmed importance of “law and order” and of armed force in the dominant Euro-Atlantic world view.

    An upheaval in international relations

    Before the collapse of the wall, the overall shape of international relations was clear-cut. There was a system of international relations – a strategically stable system, even though accompanied by many regional conflicts.

    This system disappeared with the system of blocs. It gave way to a uni-polar view of the world, marked by domination by the US super-power. Indeed, the collapse of one bloc suggested that the other had triumphed. It was nothing of the kind.

    The rise of new powers (emergent or re-emergent) like China, India, Brazil and Russia and yet others, has burst the former pattern asunder, particularly in what used to be called the Third World.

    The North/South confrontation, which structured the Third World’s diversity of political options, its anti-imperialism and demands for a new order, has also disappeared as an overall political reality.

    The United States was rapidly put in check despite its quasi-total hegemony. It had considerable difficulty in inventing a fresh strategic initiative in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It was countered by Russia in the Caucasus. Its policy towards Iran is not working. It is coming up against a Latin America that is affirming, in myriad ways, a will to sovereignty and transformation, which goes so far as to call neoliberalism into question – and even the rules of capitalism. It no longer controls international relations at will. Even the Atlantic Alliance and NATO are challenged to adapt to this world, in a state of multiple crisis and upheaval.

    Are we in a “multi-polar world”? What do we mean by that term? If we just mean that other powers are emerging in the world, the expression “multi-polar world” is not wrong – but it doesn’t explain anything. While the concept of “bi-polarity” was significant, since in itself it synthesised the then existing system of international relations as a whole, the expression “multi-polarity” does not take into account the essential characteristics of the new state of the world.

    The ideological, political and strategic contradictions and antagonisms East/West and North/South have been swept away by history. This strategic compass of the 20th century no longer exists. We are living in a world in which the problems are essentially born of the crisis in the mode of capitalist growth and development, of the consequences of power politics and the dead end created by dozens of years of domination strategies that are increasingly rejected by the peoples.

    It is also a world of rival powers and of inter-capitalist contradictions. It has reached the point where even the mode of waging war has changed. The traditional conflicts of the 20th century are obsolete. Nuclear weapons no longer play the same role. They no longer structure the strategic antagonism of power. Today the armaments race no longer turns around nuclear weapons. It is no longer quantitative. It turns on classical weaponry, on sophisticated technologies, on communication, etc. There is also a rivalry between armament industries. Most of the conflicts today, in Africa for example, arise from underdevelopment, poverty, injustices and democratic deficits … and also from rejection of the principles of power. We are living with a real mutation of international conflict, which is profoundly altering the conception of security (which has become a major global issue), of peace and of the political responses needed.

    Limitations and thresholds have been reached in the modes of capitalist management and in power politics

    It is not only international relations that have been drastically changed. Moreover, the collapse of the wall, while it is a decisive factor in the world’s transformation, is not the sole cause. The 1990s constituted a decisive decade, with the rise of neoliberalism that makes the whole planet into a commodity, with the explosion of new information and communication technologies in the “information revolution”. Everything has changed in a globalisation that suddenly brought out all the problems and contradictions of the capitalist mode of development. Everywhere, in all fields, limitations and thresholds have been reached.

    This situation is provoking a multitude of resistances and struggles. This is the case in Latin America, where the peoples are forcibly rejecting Washington’s neoliberal policies and will to hegemony. It is the case in Europe with the NO votes to building the EU on neoliberal and Atlanticist premises, and with the rise of concrete and real responses to popular expectations regarding wages, employment, and new rights. The question of the conditions of an alternative policy is being raised with increasing force. With the crisis, the idea of overcoming the capitalist system itself is beginning to appear essential in people’s minds.

    Thus the 1990s marked a dramatic change in the state of the world. The collapse of the wall, the worsening of the capitalist crisis, the rise of rivalries between the powers, all present a totally new situation in permanent and rapid evolution. This is decidedly not the end of history but, on the contrary, its “acceleration”.

    This is indeed, an historic process. The world today is the fruit of a deep-seated structural transformation of capitalism that began in the 1960s. The 1968 movements expressed the economic, technological, social, societal and ideological upheavals of that modernisation of capitalism, which today is resulting in a crisis that is affecting its foundations, a crisis that has taken the whole of the system, and management methods, to its limit. For some people, this is an existential crisis or “terminal phase” of the system. Whether this understanding is accurate or not, the question raised is, in any case, that of the political factor and its consequences – that is, of the struggles, the popular movements, the alternative to be built and, let us say, of the revolution that is called for by the loss of steam, the decline, of a mode of development born of the Second World War.

    Thus the new epoch in which we are now living must be translated into decisive social and democratic progress, into advances in civilisation to which the peoples aspire. At issue is, indeed, human emancipation and political choices and strategies that can contribute to this, and starting now.

    The 21st century is opening with global instability

    With the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the Warsaw Pact and what used to be called “real socialism”, capitalism no longer has any external adversary. With its structural and financial crisis it has become … its own worst enemy.

    Let us take full measure of how untenable this situation is for the political and economic powers that be. They have continuously to deflect the criticisms, rejections and the struggles onto targets other than the capitalist system and its associated policies. The rising aspirations must be channelled into areas other than those of genuine political change of structures and management modes. Hence the crucial importance of the ideological issue.

    This is what the Bush Administration had fully understood in making terrorism a new adversary following September 11 –an “existential” adversary, an external adversary against which war must be waged, a “global enemy” that would be all the more credible since terrorism is a reality.

    However, terrorism has causes and a history that tend to be confused with the dead ends and crises of capitalism and the consequences of power politics. Today, terrorism is essentially the product of a system in a state of permanent violence, not an external “enemy”. As if the better to affirm its “exteriority”, it is principally linked with the Moslem world, thus fuelling the idea of the cultural and religious clash against a world so distant from the Western world that it could not be ours. This is how they legitimise prioritising “law and order” and the policies of force.

    Not everything that characterised the Bush period has been abandoned in the strategy of the new US Administration – far from it. However, Barack Obama should turn over the neo-con page to reaffirm an ideologically acceptable and politically manageable “leadership”. A new phase of international relations should necessarily open up to validate a new mode of orientation and management of American capitalism in globalisation

    Globalised capitalism constitutes a really new state of the world. It has not knocked down the borders. It has not made nations disappear nor their nationalisms. The crisis has even given birth to some protectionism. However, globalisation has “erased” time and distance. Every problem echoes throughout the world. All the problems inter-react. It is one single system, with its own contradictions, that structures the present world. The “information revolution” is a decisive driving force of this global capitalism.

    A global world, however, is not a “smooth” world. Capitalist globalisation is, in fact, a powerful machine for producing inequality, injustice and exploitation. There is no more “exteriority” but there are extraordinary break-ups and antagonisms born of the system itself.

    Let us take an example. There is no longer a South or a globally under-developed Third World faced with an “industrialised” and prosperous North. This economic, ideological and geopolitical antagonism characterised a period of the 20th century that today is over. The capitalist system, the neoliberal policies and the constraints of structural adjustment (we can see how this is being imposed on Greece) have created polarised wealth for the benefit of certain privileged strata and dominant classes while contributing to the marginalisation of the poorest and most exploited (when they are not simply excluded from the system).

    This is a major factor that is found everywhere, in a topsy-turvy hierarchy of dominant powers, of emerging powers and in an exploded Third World.

    Is not the world today becoming, in the North as in the South, to very different degrees, a world of generalised inequalities, of immense wealth and great fortunes that accompany, in each country, mass poverty and exclusion? The system even produces states that are bankrupt or decaying.

    Thus the world’s globalism is at once violent, chaotic and profoundly unequal. In the absence of a regulative system of international relations, this is what makes the world uncertain and unstable. A dangerous world, but very different from the previous one.

    What does this alter in the struggle for social transformation?

    This worldwide upheaval of historic dimensions forces us to think differently about the relation of human beings to the world. It compels us, in particular, to be vigilant in the face of worrisome developments in practices, strategies and ideologies.

    Thinking differently about the relationship of human being to the world is, nevertheless, not an easy path, in the absence of intellectual and political discussion today, in the qualitative retreat from crucial debate about the future. This difficulty is all the greater, as the essential characteristic of today’s world is an uncertainty that weighs on both the present and the future, an uncertainty that, evidently, produces deep anxiety and confusion. Thus it is essential to propose a path, a project and a future for the transformation of the world.

    First, we must know and say what is legitimate today and what is politically useful. The inadequacy of political thinking about change, the mixture of conformism and radicalisations, often reactionary or without perspective, the hesitation about values … all these weaken the guidelines needed for any politics of progressive transformation.

    In a cynical political exercise, doubt is sometimes cast on the very validity of values. Nevertheless, the crisis in the mode of development is also an ethical crisis, which comes from the rules and practices inherent in the capitalist system and the politics of power and domination. The workings and the deviations of financialised capitalism illustrate this, as well as the retreat in freedom and democracy, the contempt for human rights and the way extreme policies of “law and order” have become accepted as normal.

    We must combine, in political action, fundamental ethical guidelines with the strategies needed to carry weight in the balance of power. From a progressive point of view, there can be no political action unless legitimised by human values. The fight for social transformation is both an aspect of humanism and a revolution.

    Second, we must think differently about international relations. The strategic East/West and North/South antagonisms having disappeared in the great mutation of international conflict, we no longer have to choose a bloc or camp as against another as we could have done before the collapse of the wall. Certainly, the major geopolitical balance of power weighs on our struggle.

    However, our essential responsibility starts from our aims for society, for Europe and the world and our need to show what we want to build, how and with whom and in what dynamic spirit of openness and broad unity. The political issues come before any geopolitical ones.

    Hence the importance of defining the conditions of internationalism suited to our times – of a new generation, so to speak – as an alternative to globalised capitalism. Today’s capitalism has a neo-imperialist power whose domination is relatively weakened by the crisis, and also by the emergence of new powers and by the rising tide of a variety of resistances.

    This challenge is, evidently, not an easy one to face, to the extent that the interested forces have been divided and weakened. Nevertheless, there are no other ways forward than a European and worldwide convergence of struggles.

    In this context, the question of Europe takes on a crucial importance. The three principal contemporary themes for the construction of Europe – Europe as a protector, Europe as a power and Europe as a social project – have all collapsed. The legitimacy of the project has been undermined. This raises, as an immediate issue, the question of its refoundation, of joint political struggles at the European level, so as to re-orient – right now – the course of this construction and to change its very conception.

    We will probably have to change the view we have of the world. The opening of the European Centre for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the French-Swiss border shows that the most extraordinary of scientific tools ever created raises philosophic questions and enables completely new (European) research into both the nature of matter and the origin of the world.

    Thus human beings are now exploring all the dimensions of this world of ours, including the most extreme ones: the dimensions of the individual person and his/her conquest of individual freedom right up to the global issues of the mode of development; from the infinitely small to the planetary and cosmic level, from the origins to the future.

    Because the world is one and because consciousness of the uniqueness of the world has progressed in a remarkable way, it can be said that there is no solution or perspective outside of bringing people together, outside of cooperation, of solidarity, of respect and dialogue, of the mixing of cultures.

    This requirement is common and universal and specific to a new international order – as against a globalised capitalism that divides. This must be made our political aim and ambition. Capitalism, indeed, is opposed to popular interests but, at the same time, it fuels this need for universality, for equality, for multilateralism and collective responsibility.

    We cannot say that we have to “opt out” or withdraw from worldwide trade – as one sometimes hears – and close ourselves up in the hope (or rather illusion) of protecting ourselves. We must now think of change in every country as an integral part of the political confrontations and advances possible – in Europe and in the world.

    Globalism also affects politics and that is what is at stake right now.


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