• The "Refoundation of Capitalism" and the New Challenges for the Left

  • Por Renato Soeiro | 20 May 09
  • We are dealing with a highly volatile reality, and many statements, documents and decisions of government leaders, namely in the framework of the preparatory process of the London G20 meeting in April 2009, are introducing new aspects to the question debated here. It may happen that these new elements will very soon render the present text out of date, perhaps even before you read it.

    One of the points in the paper I prepared for the WSF seminar dealt with Walden Bello’s proposal to name the new phase of capitalism “Global Social Democracy”, presented in a text published shortly before the WSF1. I fully share Walden Bello’s opinions on the subject, but I think this designation is not completely adequate nor very effective from the left political communication point of view.

    A new phase of capitalism?

    Will the present crisis, and will the measures being adopted by the governments to overcome it, lead to a genuinely new phase of capitalism? Or are the announced measures, which are intended to create a “refoundation of capitalism”, just provisional and reversible acts, wrapped in a lot of demagogic rhetoric, really aimed at changing only what is necessary in order to keep everything the same? 

    The truth is we still do not know the answer. It still seems difficult to find a solid solution to this question. Nevertheless, there is great need for an answer, which is of capital importance to our movement. 

    After the Bretton Woods agreements and the Keynesian post-war period had deeply changed the capitalist system, changing the form of society known up that point, and adapting the economic system to the new historical and geopolitical conditions of those times, and after, this “new” model had itself been replaced (with the decisive impulse of the governments led by Reagan and Thatcher) by the neoliberal approach, which became a new and dominant form of capitalism that lasted until the present, are we now witnessing the beginning of a new phase of capitalism and a new model of economic organisation that is going to replace neoliberalism, in Europe and globally?

    We still do not know. As we also do not know exactly what the eventual new economic and social configuration of this post-2009 capitalism will be. We do not know, but I think that even the protagonists who are designing and proposing it do not know themselves how to answer the same question, because the new model is still on the drawing board, and its guidelines are still to be defined more precisely. This starting period of the new phase is necessarily characterised by deep uncertainty, but also by a strong dynamic; the outline of the project (if there is one) will surely become sharper and clearer in the near future.

    Gaps and delays 

    In fact, we still do not have enough consistent and solid data to support the thesis that we are facing a real change of phase and that a post-neoliberal capitalism is at the door. But, although this is still not a clearly arguable thesis, it seems that we can see enough signs that we cannot avoid considering it as a hypothesis, and a quite plausible one.

    However, one thing we know for sure: if this change really takes place, it will have major consequences for all of the critical movements, because our tools for combating neoliberalism theoretically and politically will not be adequate for the struggle against, and the critique of, the new form of capitalism. If we engage in the new struggles equipped only with our existing anti-neoliberal arguments, we will surely miss most of the target.

    We must recognise that there will necessarily be a gap between the emergence of the new form of capitalism and the moment when we are able to form our answer to it. We cannot avoid this gap, because any critique can only be completed after the object of critique is minimally defined and consolidated.

    However, despite this unavoidable gap, what we do have to avoid is the danger that it may become too wide, that is, that the answers to the new situation take so much time to generate, that during the big European and national electoral challenges of 2009 – which will define our political landscape for some years to come – people will be presented with innovative (at least apparently innovative) proposals originating from the camp of “capitalist refoundation”, and with outdated anti-neoliberal positions from the anti-capitalist side, which refer mainly to the characteristics of capitalism’s previous phase, the same characteristics that our opponents will be rejecting and criticising.

    This would create an incommunicability in the political debate, very damaging to our side, which would appear out of phase with the historical transitional moment we are living through. 

    Producing theoretical analysis

    The left has to face the task of producing theoretical analysis on this new phase of capitalism, but it has also to be effective in communicating its criticism and proposals to the public in general. And we all know that we cannot really diffuse our critical ideas on the new “real capitalism” broadly without somehow naming it. “Naming the enemy” is known to be an indispensable step in any mass struggle. We have used the name “neoliberalism” for the preceding phase and this has helped us communicate (that is, render sharable) our critical view of this system of values and the economic and social policies associated with it. So far, we still do not have a name for the new policies that are being drawn up by most governments and institutions to face the present crisis. And we need it. This process of finding a good name must reflect the maturity of the analysis of the object, and the conclusion to be reached will be itself a result of this analysis. I think we are not there yet. However, Walden Bello has recently written an excellent paper published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) under the title “The Coming Capitalist Consensus” where, after asking “how decisive and definitive the break with neoliberalism will be”, he argues that a “new national Keynesianism along Sarkozyan lines, however, is not the only alternative available to global elites. Given the need for global legitimacy to promote their interests in a world where the balance of power is shifting towards the South, western elites might find more attractive an offshoot of European Social Democracy and New Deal liberalism that one might call “Global Social Democracy” or GSD” which “is neoliberalism’s most likely successor”. I fully share most of Walden Bello’s views on this issue (and on many others), but I find that his proposal for naming the new capitalist phase is problematic – at least from a European perspective. First, as mentioned above, because it is perhaps too early to draw a full portrait of the new capitalist solutions which are still being designed, and consequently it is too early to name them adequately. But second, because the expression “social democracy” corresponds to a set of ideas and solutions that have, still today, a positive connotation for a significant section of the European working class, especially after having resisted in the last decades the neoliberal destruction of their rights, won through what they perceive as social-democratic post-war policies. There are still some illusions in the European workers movements that leads it to find a solution to the present problems by looking back to the glorious 1930s and to social democracy. And, for them, if social democracy is to become “global”, so much the better, because the globalisation of the so-called European social model is a dream (better: an illusion) of many left, or rather centre-left, politicians and trade unionists. There is no advantage to linking this new Sarkozy-Merkel-Brown-Barroso project to this illusion. Not only because the wheel of history will not be turning backwards, not only because these times were far from unproblematic for the workers, contrary to what social-democratic propaganda sometimes suggests, but mostly because what the capitalists and their governments are preparing now is quite likely much different from any form of social democratic turn back. In conclusion, I find that this proposal by Professor Bello may not be the best solution. But, as the problem is so well presented in his papers, he is probably in a very good position to be the one to find a more adequate solution to the “naming” question, a solution that corresponds both to the analysis of the new phase and, at the same time, to the need for effective political mass communication. 


    This text is a summary of the paper read at a seminar organised by Transform! at the World Social Forum in Brazil in January/February 2009. It is an explanation of ideas which appeared in a short communiqué by the author published last October at  http://www.esquerda.net, http://www.rebelion.org and elsewhere. 



    1. Bello, Walden: The Coming Capitalist Consensus. http://www.fpif.org, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, December 27, 2008