The current crisis is casting its heavy shadow on the Davos Economic Forum, which has begun its annual meeting. This is only natural and in fact the crisis that has broken out over the last six months tacitly or explicitly appears to be the main preoccupation of our Forum as well.
However, there are some important differences in the way the Davos participants are approaching the crisis and the way we, the people gathered in Belém, are doing so. Besides the disproportionate publicity that the discussions among a few dozen individuals have received in Davos, as opposed to the virtual silence of the international media on the discussions, concerns and mobilisation expressed by the one hundred thousand participants of the WSF, there are two important differences. First, the people at Davos are struggling to analyse and define the crisis in such a way that will provide solutions for securing the reproduction of the structures, the relations and, first and foremost, the logic of capitalism. Second, the problem of the diagnosis in Davos is, as the reports have so far indicated, that it has systematically ignored the social forces that could possibly play a role in reforming and even in transforming the given (capitalist) social organisation of society.
In juxtaposition to this, we, the participants at the WSF, intuitively or systematically, tacitly or explicitly, are in effect attempting to approach and understand the crisis in such a way that the responses to it will not end up reproducing the previous regime ante, that is, a well-greased capitalist society. The technocratic and mainly economistic understanding of the crisis by the people at Davos does not focus on the interests of working people, at least in a direct way, and mainly discards the concerns of thousands of movements that have sprung from the contradiction and inequalities of the (capitalist) civilisation of our epoch. In contrast, we, the participants in Belém, see the crisis through the eyes of the billions of people who are, in a sense, represented in our Forum.
Having said that, I would like to put forward six points or axioms in an effort to establish an analytical framework for the issue under discussion.
First, it is very important for the left to realise that part of its struggle in the current conjuncture of the world capitalist crisis is to be present and to intervene effectively in the debates on the crisis. Its presence in the shaping of post-crisis hegemony, which will define the framework within which society will be organised after the current turmoil, is essential not just for its future but is vital to the prospect of changing the balance of power in a way that will undermine capitalism and its pillars of support. The left, in other words, cannot afford to be absent from the redefinition of the hegemonic orientation as it was in the early 1970s crisis when the left’s weakness led to a landslide victory for neoliberalism, which resulted in what has probably been the most aggressive capitalist onslaught of the last two centuries.
Second, the left should be tempted by short-sighted explanation of crisis. The media and mainstream political forces have attempted to define the crisis as an incidental disruption of a system that functions harmoniously overall. In fact, these popular explanations promoted by key opinion leaders attribute the crisis to the initiatives or the omissions of the governments in the last decades or to the capacities and/or the orientation of certain individuals in the central banks or to the composition of international economic institutions or even to the greed of the so-called golden boys. Although there is no doubt some truth in all these explanations, it is nevertheless naïve to imagine the current capitalist economic turmoil as the result of subjective factors and/or managerial mishaps. On the contrary, as the crisis unfolds, it is becoming more and more clear that it is mainly the result of the systemic contradictions of capitalism. These are contradictions which have to do with the way capital configured its domination over labour namely in the last three decades, domination that was based on the intensification of exploitation achieved through the freezing of real wages and the imposition of aggressive flexible industrial relations.
Third, the radical left should restrain itself from generalisations to the effect that “capitalism is in permanent crisis”. It is one thing to underline the fact that capitalism has inherent contradictions and another to deal with it as if it were in a state of constant crisis. The latter leads to passive political strategies, to strategies that expect capitalism to collapse as a result of the crises generated by its own contradictions.
Fourth, continuing the previous point, our understanding should eschew the conclusion that an economic crisis will resolve into a political crisis. This type of reductionism, which is quite common on the left, ignores the different modalities of crises and assumes that capitalist difficulties lead to progressive, and even radical, political solutions. This assumption is anything but verified by historical experience.
Fifth, the radical left’s analysis, and its response to crisis, should be based on the understanding that capitalism has enormous capacities to respond and even resolve crises. In fact, as historical experience has shown, capitalism has enormous capacities to absorb its contradictions and to adjust to ever changing conditions. In this capacity, the state plays a key role. The state has always been the pillar in securing the reproduction of capitalist relations and the overall logic of societal organisation. This was so even in the heyday of neoliberal domination in which the state is supposed to be minimal and most of its functions taken over by the deified market. Of course the state’s effective fulfilment of this role depends on the resistance offered by popular struggles. It is, in other words, the outcome of the political struggles that will define the direction, the content and the limits of the state’s intervention in its effort to regulate the rehabilitation of capitalism.
Sixth and finally, although the economic crisis does not necessarily lead to a political crisis, one should not exclude the possibility of the latter. Furthermore, given the key role of the state in social reproduction, when we witness a coincidence of economic and political crises we should not assume that the state has been incapacitated and cannot re-establish capitalist hegemony. In fact, the appearance right now of just such a dual crisis simply makes the challenges as well the opportunities for the radical left all the greater. This is because the coincidence of an economic and a political crisis usually reveals cracks in the hegemonic discourse of the system and could open great opportunities for those who wish to transform it. This opportunity will however not be on offer for long. The offer stands only until the ingenuity of state power manages to rise to the new tasks required by the conjuncture and manages to construct the new hegemony. And it will happen exactly as the (capitalist) state wants as long as it does not meet with intellectual and social resistance which will transcend the social and intellectual balance of power.
The World Social Forum and our seminar here constitutes a strong vibrant promise that the new hegemony which emerges from the current capitalist turmoil will be grounded in our social concerns that put people above profits and quality of life above the further exploitation of nature.
Paper for the Seminar “Analysing Global Crisis: Systemic, Capitalist or Just Financial Crisis?” organised by transform! europe at the World Social Forum in Brazil 2009.