The Global Left: Past, Present, and Future
On the 31st August, renowned sociologist and the inaugurator of world-systems analysis Immanuel Wallerstein died aged 88. In this, a seminal late work published here in English for the first time, Wallerstein traces the contours of of the Western left both in the past and its future. In doing so, he raises fundamental questions about the left's relationship with internationalism, and asks how the left can chart a new way forward in the twenty-first century.
Originally published in French by Les éditions de la Maisons des sciences de l'homme as La gauche globale: Hier, aujourd'hui, demain, with responses by Étienne Balibar, Pablo González Casanova, James Kenneth Galbraith, Johan Galtung, Nilüfer Göle, and Michel Wieviorka. This text is published with the kind permission of the original publisher.
Capitalism and the Antisystemic Movements: 1789-1968
Left social movements and left-of-center political parties have almost always claimed to be internationalist in their values and their policies. As we know, their practice has been far from the rhetoric. What we shall attempt to do in three chapters is to explore the reality of the practice at three time periods, what we shall call past, present and future. We hope to demonstrate that there has come to exist today something we can call a global left, but it remains contested not only by the global right but by movements and parties that call themselves left, or at least left-of-center.
There have always been historical systems in which some relatively small group exploited the others. The exploited always fought back as best they could. The modern world-system, which came into existence in the long sixteenth century in the form of a capitalist world-economy, has been extremely effective in extracting surplus-value from the large majority of the populations within it. It did this by adding to the standard systemic features of hierarchy and exploitation the new and important characteristic of polarization.
The result has been a degree of exploitation that has been ever-increasing. This polarization is currently discussed by the terminology of the growing gap, now scandalously enormous between the 1% and the others. Within the modern world-system, resistance by the 99% initially took primarily two forms: either spontaneous uprisings or escape into zones in which it was harder for the 1% to reach and impose its authority. However, the increasing mechanization and concentration of productive enterprises within the modern world-system led, as we know, to an ever-increasing degree of urbanization. The urbanization of the modern world-system in turn opened new ways for the working classes to challenge the modes of extraction by the dominant forces.
The French Revolution further changed the structure of the modern world-system by unleashing two new concepts, whose impact was to transform the modern world-system. One was a concept concerning change. Change of course occurs constantly. Previously, change was thought to be abnormal and exceptional, destined always to be undone by a return to the traditional norms. This is illustrated by the word “revolution” whose original meaning is that of a wheel that turns 360 degrees, ending where it began. Today we associate the word primarily with the opposite meaning. The word revolution is used in social and political terminology to describe a break with the past, not a return to it. We can refer to this usage as a belief in the normality of change.
The second has to do with the concept of sovereignty. There are two issues here: what is sovereignty? and who is the sovereign? It is only since the sixteenth century more or less that we have been talking about the sovereignty of states. What we mean by this is double: Externally, it is the assertion by a state that it not subject to control of its laws or decisions by another state. Internally, it is the assertion by a state that its central laws and decisions are not subject to the veto power of any internal group. This meaning has been largely uncontested from the beginning, although it should be noted that states did not make such assertions until they were juridical structures within an interstate system.
The more difficult question is the debate about who exercises the sovereignty of a state. The long sixteenth century is often described by historians as one in which there came to be so-called absolute monarchs in certain states, and notably in England, France, and Spain. Absolute monarchs asserted that they were the sovereign. The word absolute means that they were said to be “absolved” from any review of their authority by anyone else, externally or internally. Of course, this was a claim, not a reality. But it was an important claim.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the absolutism of the monarch was often challenged by powerful persons we call aristocrats or nobles. They tended to claim that that the absolute monarch should yield his exclusive claim to a system is which the exercise of sovereignty would be shared between the monarch and a parliamentary body dominated by the aristocracy. The French revolutionaries challenged both notions. They insisted that sovereignty lay with the “people” as opposed to the ruler or the aristocracy.
This pair of concepts - the normality of change and the sovereignty of the people - was the basis of something very new, what we may call a geoculture that spread throughout the historical system and legitimated radical "change" of the system by the "people." It was in response to this danger to the dominant forces that the three modern ideologies - conservatism, liberalism, and radicalism - emerged.
Each of the ideologies represented a program of political action. Conservatism was the first and most immediate response, notably in the writings of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre. The core of the conservative ideology was to deny the prudence, even the possibility, of substantial change. Conservatives reasserted the priority of the judgments of traditional elites, locally situated, and supported by religious institutions.
Liberalism arose as an alternative mode of containing the danger. Liberals argued that reactionary conservatism, which inevitably involved suppressive force, was self-defeating in the medium run, pushing the oppressed to open rebellion. Instead, liberals said, elites should embrace the inevitability of some change and defer nominally to the sovereignty of the people, but insist that social transformation was a complicated and dangerous process that could only be done well and prudently by specialists whom all others should allow to make the crucial decisions. Liberals thus envisaged a slow, and limited, process of societal transformation.
Radicalism was the last ideology to emerge. It began as a small annex to liberalism. Radicals argued that relying on specialists would lead to no more than a slightly revised social structure. Instead, they said, the lower strata should pursue transformation of the system as rapidly as possible, guided by a democratic ethos and an egalitarian ideal.
The world-revolution of 1848 marked a turning-point in the relations of the three ideologies - rightwing conservatism, centrist liberalism, and leftwing radicalism. It began with a social uprising in Paris in February, in which the radical left seemed to seize state power, if only momentarily. This uprising was unexpected by most persons - a happy surprise for the working classes, a serious danger from the point of view of the elites. It so frightened both conservatives and liberals that they buried their voluble differences that had loomed so large up to then and formed a political alliance to repress the social revolution. The process of repression in France essentially took three years, culminating in the creation of the Second Empire under Napoleon III.
Nor was the social revolution all that was happening in the pan-Europeam world at this time. The same year, 1848, was the moment of nationalist uprisings in much of Europe - notably in Hungary, Poland, the Italies, and the Germanies. Historians have dubbed these uprisings "the springtime of the nations." Just like the social revolution in Paris, these various nationalist uprisings were repressed within a few years - at least for the moment, but a long moment.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
This pair of occurences in 1848 - social revolution in France and nationalist revolutions in many countries - forced a reconsideration of basic strategy by the tenants of each of the three ideologies. The conservatives noticed that the one major country in which nothing seemed to happen in 1848 was Great Britain. On the surface, the absence of revolt in Great Britain seemed very curious. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, radical forces had seemed to be the most extensive, active, and well-organized in Great Britain. Yet it was the one major country in which calm reigned amidst the pan-European storm of 1848.
What the conservatives then realized, and historians later confirmed, was that the British Tories had discovered a mode of containing radicalism far more effective than forceful repression. For at least two decades, the British Tories had been making constant concessions to the demands for social and institutional change. These concessions actually were relatively minor, but their repeated occurrence seemed to suffice to persuade the more radical forces that change was in fact taking place. After 1848, the British example persuaded conservatives elsewhere, especially in continental Europe, that perhaps they should revise their tactics to follow the British example. This revised analysis brought conservatives nearer to the position of the centrist liberals. The major rhetorical difference was that the conservative version, under the label of "enlightened conservatism," sought to maintain a major role for local, as opposed to national, institutions.
Meanwhile, the radicals were equally unsettled by what happened. The principal tactics radicals had employed up to 1848 had been either spontaneous uprisings or utopian withdrawal. In 1848 radicals observed that their spontaneous uprisings were easily put down. And their utopian withdrawals turned out to be unsustainable. The lesson they drew was the necessity of replacing spontaneity with "organizing" the revolution - a program that involved more temporal patience as well as the creation of a bureaucratic structure. This shift of tactics brought radicals closer to the position of the centrist liberals. The major difference was that, in the radical version, the radical bureaucrats now assumed the role of the specialists who would guide transformation.
Finally, the liberals too drew a major lesson from the world-revolution of 1848. They began to emphasize their centrist position, as opposed to their previously primary role of confronting conservatives. They began to see the necessity of tactics that would pull both conservatives and radicals into their orbit, turning them into mere variants of centrist liberalism. In this effort, they turned out to be hugely successful for a very long time - indeed until the much later world-revolution of 1968.
It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that we see the organizational emergence of what we consider to be antisystemic movements. There were two main varieties - social movements and nationalist movements - as well as less strong varieties such as women's movements and ethno/racial/religious movements. These movements were all antisystemic in one simple sense: They were struggling against the established power structures in an effort to bring into existence a more democratic, more egalitarian historical system than the existing one.
These movements were however deeply divided in terms of their analysis of how to define the groups that were most oppressed, and what were the priorities of achieving the objectives of one kind of movement relative to other kinds of movements. These debates between the various movements have persisted right up to today.
One fundamental debate was how to think about the role of the states in the achievement of a different kind of historical system. There were those who argued that states were structures established by the elites of the system, mechanisms by which the elites controlled the others. States were therefore an enemy, to be shunned, and against which the movements must ceaselessly struggle. The principal tactic therefore must be to educate and transform the psychology of those who were oppressed, in order to turn them into permanent militants who would embody and transmit to others the values of a democratic, egalitarian world.
Against this view were arrayed those who agreed that the state was the instrument of the ruling elites, and for this very reason could not be ignored in the political strategy of the social movements. They argued that unless the movements seized power in the states, the ruling classes would use their strength - military and police strength, economic strength, and cultural strength - to crush the antisystemic movements. Obtaining control of the state machinery was a critical element in their political strategy to transform the historical system. It followed that the first priority of the movements had first to be to take control of the state. Only then could they proceed to transform the world. We came to call this the "two-step” strategy.
The second argument was between the social movements and the nationalist movements. The former insisted that the modern world-system was a capitalist system and that therefore the basic struggle was a class struggle within each country between the owners of capital (the "bourgeoisie") and those who had only their own labor power to sell (the "proletariat"). It was between these two groups that the democratic and egalitarian gulf was enormous and ever-increasing. It followed that the natural "historical actor" of transformation was the proletariat.
The nationalist movements assessed the world differently. They saw a world in which states were controlled either by an internal dominant ethnic group or by external forces. They argued that the most oppressed persons were the "peoples" who were denied their autonomy and their democratic rights and consequently were living in an ever-increasingly inegalitarian historical system. It followed that the natural "historical actors" were the oppressed nations. Only when these oppressed nations came to power in their own state could there be expectations of a more democratic, more egalitarian historical system.
These two splits - that between those who abjured state power versus those who sought to obtain it as the first step; and that between those who saw the proletariat versus those who saw the oppressed nations as the natural historical actors - were not the only matters under debate. Both the social movements and the nationalist movements insisted on the importance of "vertical" structures. That is, they both insisted that the road to success in obtaining state power was to have only one antisystemic structure in any state (the existing state for the social movements, the envisaged virtual state for the nationalist movements). They said that unless all other kind of antisystemic movements subordinated themselves to the single "principal" movement, the objective of the antisystemic movements could not be achieved.
For example, take the women's or feminist movements. These movements insisted on the inegalitarian and undemocratic relationship of men and women throughout history, and particularly in the modern world-system. They argued that the struggle against what was termed "patriarchy" was at least as important as any other struggle and was their primary concern as movements. Against this view, both the social movements and the nationalist movements argued that asserting an independent role for feminist movements weakened their cause, which took priority, and was as a consequence "objectively" counter-revolutionary.
The "vertical" movements accepted that there could be women's auxiliaries of the social or of the nationalist movements. They however argued at the same time that the realization of the feminist demands could only occur as a consequence of the realization of the demands of the "principal" historical actor (the proletariat or the oppressed nation). In effect, the vertical movements were counseling deferral of the struggles of the feminist movements to a post-revolutionary era.
The same logic would be used against other kinds of movements - such as trade-union movements or movements of so-called "minorities" as socially-defined (whether by race, ethnicity, religion, or language). All these “other” movements had to accept subordination to the principal movement and thereby the deferral of their demands. They could only be adjuncts of the principal movements, or else they were considered to be counter-revolutionary.
In the nineteenth century, the social movements and the nationalist movements both grew slowly. They first came to be large enough to be politically noticeable in the last third of the century. There are two things one can say about them at that time. The first is that they were perhaps noticeable but in fact organizationally and politically still quite weak. The idea that either kind of movement could actually achieve state power seemed at best a matter of faith, one that was not sustained by a sober assessment of the real rapport de forces in the modern world-system.
The second is that their organizations were almost all organizations within a particular state. They professed to be “internationalist” in spirit and practice. But the reality was that both their leaders and their members sought objectives that were realizable within a given state and always gave priority to their state-oriented interests.
The most notorious instance of this occurred in the days leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. In the meeting of the Socialist international just prior to the outbreak, the parties all denounced nationalism and reasserted that the class interests of the proletariat required the rejection of the prospects of a war conducted by the bourgeoisie of one country against the bourgeoisie of another. When days later, the war actually broke out, the socialist members of the various parliaments nonetheless voted as nationalist patriots to endorse the wars. The one famous dissenter from this nationalist commitment was the Bolshevik party led by Vladimir Lenin. Their nationalism would not be evident until later when they achieved power in a single country.
While the political power of the antisystemic movements did continue to increase slowly from then on, they still seemed relatively weak as late as 1945. It is therefore somewhat astonishing that in the period 1945-1970 the vertical antisystemic movements actually did achieve the first of the two steps. They did indeed come to state power, almost everywhere. This sudden shift in the political arena of the modern world-system warrants a careful explanation.
The end of the Second World War marked the onset of two important cyclical shifts in the history of the modern world-system. It marked both the beginning of a Kondratieff A-phase and the moment of undisputed hegemony in the world-system of the United States. The sudden worldwide political success of the antisystemic movements cannot be understood without placing it in this context. It is most revealing to start with U.S. hegemony, which can be considered a quasi-monopoly of geopolitical power. Hegemonic cycles are very long occurrences. But their high point, true hegemony, is actually rather brief. There have in fact only been three such high points in the history of the modern world-system – those of the United Provinces in the mid-seventeenth century, the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century, and the United States in the mid-twentieth century. Each lasted for at most 50 years or so.
The phase prior to the achievement of full hegemony has been each time a struggle between a land-based power and a sea/air-based power. The one that took place in the seventeenth century has been given the name by historians of the "Thirty Years' War." The major contesting powers were the United Provinces (sea power) and Spain (land power). It was a single war but not a continuous war. It involved all the major powers of the time. There was no simple ideological line that divided the two sides, and therefore there were often shifts of alliances. It was very destructive of people, property, and infrastructure. At the end there was a clear victor.
By analogy, there was a “thirty years’ war” between Great Britain (sea power) and France (land power) from 1792-1815. And the most recent "thirty years' war" was that between the United States (sea/air power) and Germany (land power) from 1914-1945, which ended, as we know, in the total defeat of Germany
Hegemony is built on the existence of an enormous economic advantage, combined with political, cultural, and military strength. As of 1945, the United States was able to assemble all this to its advantage. In 1945, the United States was the only important industrial power in the entire world that had escaped major destruction of its industrial plants and major agricultural sites. Indeed, on the contrary, wartime production had made their productive enterprises more extensive and efficient than ever. At this time U.S. production was so efficient that it could sell its leading products in other countries at prices lower than these countries could produce these products themselves, despite the costs involved in transportation. These U.S.-based quasi-monopolies were guaranteed by the active role of the state in protecting and enhancing their exclusive privileges.
The result was by far the largest expansion of the world production of surplus-value in the 500-year-long history of the modern world-system. While the United States was the principal beneficiary - its state, its enterprises, its residents - the worldwide rise in production produced some benefits to most countries, if to a far lesser degree than to the United States.
The problem with quasi-monopolies in leading products is that they are self-liquidating over time. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the high rate of capital accumulation enjoyed by these quasi-monopolies in the leading industries makes them a very tempting target for penetration by other producers who sought to enter the world market for these products. These other producers stole or bought the necessary technical knowledge to produce competitive products. And they used their influence in other governments to counter the protectionist policies of the government that was primarily protecting the quasi-monopolies.
Furthermore, it is obvious that there is no point in having the most efficient products to sell if there are no customers for them. There were in fact too few customers, especially in the countries within the sphere of influence of the United States. Consequently, the U.S. government actively aided west European and Japanese economic reconstruction in order to provide customers for U.S. production as well as to maintain the political loyalty of these de facto satellite regimes.
Furthermore, as long as the quasi-monopolies were in effective operation, the leading enterprises feared most of all any stoppage of production, since stoppages involved irrecoverable losses. Hence it made short-term economic sense to make wage concessions to their workers rather than risk strikes. Slowly real wages rose. But of course over time this raised the cost of production and lessened the advantage of the quasi-monopoly vis-à-vis its potential competitors.
By the 1960s, the improved economic position of western Europe and Japan could be observed in the dramatic inversion in one key leading industry, automobiles. Circa 1950, U.S. automobile manufacturers could undersell competitors in their home markets and notably in western Europe and Japan. By the mid-1960s the reverse was true. West European and Japanese automobile producers began to penetrate the U.S. domestic market.[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
For all these reasons, non-U.S. enterprises did in fact succeed in penetrating the world market over time. The result was increased competition in the world market. This no doubt benefited many consumers, as many economic theorists had always argued. At the same time, however, it reduced the level of profitability of the erstwhile quasi-monopolies. U.S. producers had therefore to give thought to how they could minimize the losses they were incurring as a result of their declining rate of capital accumulation.
It was not helpful to U.S. capitalists that, as their quasi-monopoly of production was disappearing, so was the quasi-monopoly of U.S. geopolitical strength, which was beginning its inevitable decline. To understand how this happened, we have to see how it was established in the first place circa 1945. We have already mentioned the superiority in productive efficiency and the fact that this advantage underlay its political and cultural dominance.
There was however one last element in securing full hegemony, which was the military sphere. The fact that prior to 1939, the United State had not invested heavily in military technology and manpower had been one of the key elements in enabling them to achieve productive dominance. Before 1939, the United States instead invested its collective resources primarily in making their industries more efficient. It was not diverting too great a portion of its resources to improving military machinery. The Second World War changed that allocation of collective resources. Suddenly, the United States became a major military power. The United States won the race with Germany for the development of atomic weapons. Indeed when Germany surrendered in 1945 before the bombs could be used against them, the United States displayed its power by using them against Japan.
When Japan in turn surrendered, the United States faced a new problem. Sentiment within the United States was heavily in favor of reducing the size of the armed forces. The war was over, and the call was for the soldiers who were drafted to be discharged and return home. The problem for the United States was that a hegemonic power cannot abstain from military commitment. It comes with the position. And in 1945 there was one other power that had a very strong military, the U.S.S.R. Unlike the United States, it showed no signs of rushing to dismantle its military forces. It was clear that, if the United States was to exercise hegemony, it had to make some deal with the Soviet Union.
They did make such a deal, and we have dubbed it rhetorically "Yalta." “Yalta” does not refer really to the actual decisions of the meeting in Yalta in February 1945 of what were then called the Big Three - the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. "Yalta" was rather a set of unsigned tacit arrangements to which the United States and the Soviet Union were committed and which were maintained in place for quite some time.
There were in fact three such tacit arrangements that have never been openly acknowledged and indeed quite often denied. The first was that there would be a division of the world in terms of zones of influence and control. The line would be drawn more or less where the two armies ended up in 1945, a division in the middle of Germany going from north to south called the Oder-Neisse line, and the 38th Parallel in Korea. In effect, these lines meant that the United States would have primacy in about two-thirds of the globe and the Soviet Union in the other third. The deal was that neither side would try to change these frontiers by the use of military force.
The second part of the deal had to do with economic reconstruction. As we noted, U.S. producers needed customers. The Marshall Plan plus comparable arrangements with Japan provided for the economic assistance that would provide these customers. The tacit U.S.-Soviet agreement was that the United States would provide such economic assistance to countries in its zone but not to any country in the Soviet zone, where the Soviet Union was free to arrange matters as it saw fit. The Soviet Union then created COMECON, an economic arrangement that was strongly beneficial to the Soviet Union at the expense of its satellites.
Finally, the third part of the deal was the so-called Cold War. The Cold War refers to the mutual denunciation of both sides, each proclaiming its virtues and its inevitable long-term ideological victory as well as the evil machinations of the other side. The deal was that this was not to be taken seriously, or rather that the function of the mutual denunciations was meant in no way to countermand the first part of the deal - the de facto freezing of frontiers indefinitely. The actual objective of Cold War rhetoric was not to transform the other side but to maintain the loyalty of the satellites on each side.
Although the first and third parts of the deal largely prevailed until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the second part until at least the 1970s, the cozy arrangement began to be eroded by several factors. The de facto international status quo that Yalta represented was not at all to the liking of a number of countries in what we then called the Third World. The first major dissident was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which straightforwardly rejected Stalin's advice to come to a power-sharing deal with the Kuomintang. Instead, the CCP's army entered Shanghai, and it proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
This dissidence was followed by the insistence of the Viet Minh to achieve control over all of Vietnam, the insistence of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale to obtain total independence, and the insistence of the Cubans to arm themselves against U.S. intrusion. In each of these cases, it was the Third World power that was forcing the hand of the Soviet Union and not the other way around. On the other hand, the Soviet Union and the United States successfully sought to ensure that there was no use of nuclear weapons by anyone, which would have violated the pledge of mutual restraint.
The Vietnam War, in which the United States committed its troops actively, weakened U.S. hegemony in several ways. The United States paid a high economic price for the war. It forced the United States to go off the gold standard and thereby reduced its economic leverage with the rest of the world.
But there was an even bigger problem, political in nature. The U.S. armed forces were at the time using a system of a draft to obtain the needed troops. This meant that middle-class youth, notably university students, were being called to military service – and of course dying or being badly wounded in great numbers. They rebelled in growing numbers, forcing a very public discussion of the merits of U.S. involvement in the war. The debate eventually turned U.S. public opinion against involvement there. Indeed, it turned U.S. public opinion against any similar kinds of military involvement - the so-called Vietnam syndrome. The United States had to abandon a draft system of compulsory military service and substitute voluntary enlistment. But this simply changed the focus of the political problem, as later governments were to discover.
Worst of all, from the perspective of the United States as a hegemonic power, the United States lost the war. It was eventually forced to withdraw all its troops ignominiously, and its opponent, the Viet Minh was able to occupy the entire country and establish a single, unified regime. In the wake of this defeat, Communist regimes came to effective power in Laos and Cambodia as well. The whole world observed this defeat of the hegemonic power. The defeat strengthened the views of others around the world that U.S. military power was less effective than it had seemed to be. The Maoist concept of the "paper tiger" gained credibility.
It is thus reasonable to state that, as of this point, the United States ceased to be an unquestioned hegemonic power, and was entering the phase where its problem was how to slow down a decline in real power in the world-system.
It is in this context that the world-revolution of 1968 took place. It was a world-revolution in the simple sense that it occurred over most of the world, in each of what were at the time considered three separate "worlds." And it was a world-revolution in the remarkable repetitions of two main themes almost everywhere, of course garbed in different local languages.
The first main theme was the rejection of U.S. hegemony ("imperialism") by the revolutionaries, with however an important twist. These revolutionaries equally condemned the "collusion" of the Soviet Union with U.S. imperialism, which was how they interpreted the tacit Yalta accords. In effect, they were rejecting the ideological themes of the Cold War and minimizing the difference between the two so-called superpowers.
The second main theme was the denunciation of the Old Left (that is, Communist and Social-Democratic parties and the national liberation movements) on the grounds that these movements were not in reality antisystemic but were also collusive with the system.[book-strip index="3" style="buy"]
They pointed to the historic two-step strategy and said that the Old Left movements had in fact achieved the first step - state power - but had not in any serious way changed the world. Economic inequalities were still enormous and growing, internally and internationally. The states were not more democratic, possibly even less so. And class distinctions had not disappeared, merely renamed, the bourgeoisie becoming the Nomenklatura, or some equivalent term. The revolutionaries rejected therefore the Old Left movements as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
While it is true that the revolutionaries were not able to remain in a position of real political strength very long and were repressed as movements, just like those in 1848, their efforts did have one absolutely major consequence. The world-revolution of 1968 transformed the geoculture. The dominance of centrist liberalism over the two other ideologies came to an end. Centrist liberalism did not disappear; it was simply reduced to being once again only one of three. The radical left and the conservative right re-emerged as fully autonomous actors on the world scene.
What happened next to the movements was largely the consequence of the global economic stagnation of the Kondratieff downturn. The attempts to create new movements of the global left - the various Maoisms, the so-called New Left Green movements, the neo-insurrectionist movements - all turned out to have fleeting support in the face of the economic difficulties that had suddenly become so central to people's lives, again almost everywhere.
Meanwhile, the United States was undertaking a major shift of strategy in order to slow down the rate of its decline. To do this, the United States launched a threefold set of projects. The first had to do with its relation to its erstwhile principal satellites, western Europe and Japan. It offered a new arrangement to the now economically much more powerful and therefore politically more restless regimes. The United States offered to redefine their role, turning them into "partners" in the geopolitical arena. Institutions were created to implement this new relationship, such as the Trilateral Commission, the G-7, and the World Economic Forum at Davos. The U.S. proposed in effect that it understood that the partners might engage in geopolitical moves of which the United States disapproved - for example, West Germany's Ostpolitik, the building of the oil pipeline between the Soviet Union and western Europe, a different policy towards Cuba. The U.S. accepted this policy independence, provided it was limited and did not go too far.
The second reorientation was the abandonment of the advocacy of developmentalism as a policy. In the 1950s and 1960s, everyone (the West, the Soviet bloc, and the Third World) seemed to endorse the concept of national "development" - by which was meant essentially increased urbanization, the growth of an educated stratum, protection of infant industries, and the construction of state institutions and bureaucracies. Suddenly, the global language of the United States and of its so-called partners radically changed. They now advocated almost opposite practices for what were now being called developing countries. Production for export was to replace protection of infant industries. State enterprises were to be privatized. State expenditures on education and health were to be radically reduced. And above all, capital was to be permitted to flow freely across frontiers.
This set of prescriptions received the name of the Washington Consensus, about which Mrs. Thatcher famously proclaimed: "There Is No Alternative" or TINA. The mandate was enforced primarily by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which refused to give states the loans they badly needed because of the economic downturn unless they agreed to observe these new rules.
The third part of the new strategy was to erect a new world order that ended what is called nuclear proliferation. Essentially, the United States had to accept the reality that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council all had nuclear weapons, but they wished the list to stop there. It made this offer to all other counties. A treaty would provide that the five nuclear powers would seek both to the reduce their nuclear weapons and offer aid to the other signatories in the obtaining of nuclear power for peaceful uses to all the rest of the world, provided the others abandoned all pretention to obtaining nuclear weapons. As we know, four countries refused to sign the treaty and went on to test nuclear weapons. The four were Israel, India, Pakistan, and South Africa. But very many others that were in various stages of developing nuclear weapons acceded and ended their programs.
In fact this threefold redefinition of U.S. strategy, followed essentially by all U.S. presidents from Nixon to Clinton, was partially successful. It did slow down decline without stopping it entirely. The newly-regenerated conservative right, now being called neo-liberals, found this new geopolitical framework very conducive to the rapid growth of their movements. World discourse moved rightwards steadily. Most regimes that didn't adjust to this new discourse fell from power. Finally, what had been symbolically defined as the symbol of successful Old Left politics and considered (by both partisans and opponents) to be unchangeable - the Soviet Union - collapsed from within.
This collapse was hailed in the Western world as its victory in the Cold War. This interpretation forgot that the whole point of the Cold War had not been to "win" it but to maintain it as a pillar of the world-system. It turned out in fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union would both accelerate the decline of U.S. hegemony and undermine the movements of the neo-liberal right.
The crucial geopolitical event was the first Gulf War (1990-1991), which commenced with the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Iraq had contested the creation of Kuwait as a separate state by the British for almost a century. However, it never had been in a position to do much about it. During the period in which the Baath party had been in power, the Iraqi regime was supported by the Soviet Union. It had however also been supported by the United States during the 1980's when the United States encouraged it to engage in the futile war with Iran.
As of 1990, the situation from the Iraqi point of view was dismal. They had paid an enormous price for the destructive war and now owed considerable sums to creditors, one of the largest of which was Kuwait. In addition, they believed Kuwait was appropriating Iraqi oil through slant drilling. But most importantly, the collapse of the Soviet Union, then in process, removed the constraints that Iraq would have felt during the Cold War. It seemed a propitious moment to liquidate Iraqi debts and undo the long-resented "loss" of Kuwait to Iraq.
We know what happened. The United States, after initial hesitation, mobilized the troops necessary to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. This very action, however, revealed U.S. geopolitical weakness in two ways. First, the United States was unable to bear the costs of its own participation and was subsidized at a 90% level by four other countries - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan. And secondly, U.S. President George H.W. Bush was faced with the question of whether victorious U.S. troops would proceed to Baghdad or not. He prudently decided that this would be politically and militarily unwise. U.S. action in Iraq thereafter was limited to the imposition of various sanctions. Saddam Hussein remained in power.
Meanwhile, the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the possibility for all its ex-satellites to pursue independent policies led to a rapid adoption by all of them of neo-liberal policies. However, within a few years, the negative effects of these neo-liberal policies on the real standard of living of the lower strata provoked a reaction wherein erstwhile Communist parties (now renamed) returned to power to pursue a mildly social-democratic program. At the same time, rightist nationalist parties began to gain strength as well. The magic realization of a "Western" style of government with a "Western" level of real economic uplift turned out to be very difficult to realize, and many of these governments became quite unstable.
It is at that point that the antisystemic movements began to revive. The initial reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union had been an emotional shock and even resulted in depression for left movements everywhere, even those that had been long very critical of the Soviet experience. After however a few years of this morose perspective, new light appeared on the horizon for the global left. Some movements refused the sense of inevitability of a triumphal right discourse of the now global right. There could be a renewed global left discourse.
Thus far, we have been discussing the impact on antisystemic movements of the global stagnation that the Kondratieff B-phase involves. However, there was a further factor, which is the result not of cyclical shifts in the world-economy but of the long-term secular trends. In the ongoing life of historical systems, each cyclical downturn returns not to the previous low point but always to a point somewhat higher. Think of it as two steps upward, one step backward on percentage curves that move towards the asymptote of 100 percent. Over the long term, the secular trends must then reach a point where it is difficult to advance further. At this point the system has moved far from equilibrium. We can call this point the beginning of the structural crisis of the historical system.
But that brings us to today and the explanation of why the capitalist system is in terminal crisis. And this will be the theme of our next chs[ter in this book.
Structural Crisis of the Modern World-System: Dilemmas of the Left
To analyze what difference the structural crisis of the world-system made for the Global Left, we have to look at what we established previously.
The Global Left rose from a very weak position as of what I called the world-revolution of 1848 to a seemingly very strong position worldwide in the period from circa 1945 to what I called the world-revolution of 1968. They did this by pursuing the so-called two-step strategy, which was the view that the movements had first to obtain state power and then secondly to transform the world.
This strategy enabled them to arrive at state power in most of the world-system in the period 1945-1968. This was however the very period of the greatest expansion of surplus-value in the history of the modern world-system via quasi-monopolies of leading products. It was also the period of uncontested world hegemony by the United States, the most extensive and intensive quasi-monopoly of geopolitical power. One might have thought this was the least favorable atmosphere for the assumption of state power by the anti-systemic movements. Far from being anomalous, it was the only period in which this could have happened.
However, the first step – the assumption of state power by the anti-systemic movements - did not at all lead to the second step –the transformation of the world. On the contrary, it marked the quasi-abandonment by the anti-systemic movements of this second step. This quasi-abandonment in turn explained the world-revolution of 1968, in which the revolutionary forces had as one of their main objectives the dethronement of the so-called Old Left, that is, the anti-systemic movements that had come to power.
As always, the Kondratieff A-phase was followed by a B-phase of global stagnation, in which in fact we are still living today. In addition, the United States started on its slow decline as a hegemonic power, culminating in a precipitate decline as a result of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2001 that was intended to restore U.S. hegemony and in fact did the opposite, putting the United States into the paralyzing quagmire in which it presently finds itself.
Since the world-system, like all systems (from the universe as a whole to the tiniest nano-system) was not eternal but had a historical life that could be divided into three moments: creation of the historical system; the functioning of its normal life utilizing the rules of the system; and the structural crisis that marks the impossibility for the system to continue to function, entering into a bifurcation and chaotic turbulence, and culminating in the struggle of all the actors to tilt the system into one prong or the other of the bifurcation.
Most people ask why the two major rhythms of the modern world-system - the Kondratieff cycles and the hegemonic cycles - could not simply continue indefinitely. The very short answer is that the system as a whole had, because of its secular trends, moved too far from equilibrium and it was no longer possible to bring it back to equilibrium. It is these secular trends that we must now explain in some detail.
In the ongoing life of historical systems, each cyclical downturn returns not to the previous low point but always to a point somewhat higher. Think of it as two steps upward, one step downward on percentage curves that move towards the asymptote of 100 percent. Over the long term, the secular trends reach a point where it is difficult to advance further. At this point the system has moved far from equilibrium. We can call this point the beginning of the structural crisis of the historical system.
Historical capitalism reached its structural crisis because of the steady increase over time of the three fundamental costs of production: personnel, inputs, and taxation. In a capitalist system, producers make their profits by keeping the total of these costs as far as possible below the prices at which they are able to sell their products. However, as these costs rise over time, they also reach levels at which the willingness of prospective buyers to purchase the goods is reached. At this point it is no longer possible to accumulate capital via production. That is to say, worldwide effective demand begins to go down. This establishes a squeeze between increasing real costs and decreasing effective demand.
Each of the three costs is complex, since each is composed of several different sub-costs. Personnel costs have always been the one that is most transparent. And among these costs, that of unskilled labor has been the one most discussed. Historically, the costs of unskilled labor have risen as workers in Kondratieff A-phases found some way to engage in some kind of syndical action. The principal response of producers during Kondratieff B-phases has been the runaway factory, moving production to areas of "historically lower wages." This curious phrase actually refers to the ability of entrepreneurs to attract laborers from rural areas less tied into the world labor market who would work for lower real wages because these lower real wages offered higher real income for these workers than their previous work. In that sense, both employers and the unskilled work force can feel that they are gaining. This happy confluence of views does not last forever. After a number of years, these workers become more accustomed to their new environments and learn how to engage in syndical action. Once that happens, producers begin to think of fleeing to still other areas. This solution for the entrepreneurs depends of course on the availability of rural workers located elsewwho are largely uninvolved in the world market. The worldwide supply of such workers has now begun to be exhausted, as can be measured by the considerable deruralization of the world-system today.
The costs of unskilled labor are only one part of personnel costs. A second part has been the relentlessly increasing costs of intermediary personnel (sometimes called cadres). Their numbers have been growing since they are needed by the producers for two reasons. Organizationally they are needed to handle the complexities of larger corporate structures. And politically they serve as a barrier to the rising syndical demands of unskilled labor in two ways. They can assist in repressing the unskilled work force if they assert syndical rights. But they can also serve as an example to unskilled labor of the rewards of individual mastering of new skills. This example often serves to detach some of the most effective leaders of the unskilled work force.
The regular solution to increasing costs of unskilled labor has been to eliminate them almost totally from the work force through mechanization. New jobs then emerged, replacing so-called blue-collar workers with white-collar workers. In recent years, however, the elimination of the work force has also come to affect the white-collar workers whose tasks are also being taken over by mechanization.
It is actually in the third personnel cost, that of top managers, that the biggest increase in personnel costs has occurred in recent decades. Those in managerial positions have been able to use their positions as gatekeepers to exact enormous rents, which are extracted from the profits of investors (the shareholders). The bottom line is that today personnel costs are extremely high compared with past costs and are constantly increasing.
The story is similar concerning the cost of inputs. Producers have tried to keep these costs low by externalizing three major types of expenditures: getting rid of toxic waste; renewing raw materials; and building and repairing infrastructure. For some 500 years, toxic waste was eliminated simply by dumping it into public space, with minimal cost to the producers. But the world has nearly run out of public space, which has led to a worldwide environmentalist movement pressure to clean up the toxicity. This could only be done by the states, which inevitably involved the need for higher taxes. It also led the states to seek to force producers to internalize the costs, which has also cut into profitability.
The exhaustion of public space as a cause of higher costs for producers is analogous to the exhaustion of rural zones largely uninvolved in the market economy as a cause of higher costs for producers.
Similarly, the renewal of raw materials was not a problem at the beginning. But there was the cumulative effect of 500 years of usage during which there was almost no renewal. The non-renewal was combined with an expanded world population. Lless supply and more demand led rather suddenly to worldwide acute shortages of energy, water, forestation, and basic foods (especially fish and meat). The shortages have led in turn to acute political struggles over distribution of all such material needs, both within and between countries.
Finally, infrastructure is a crucial element in commercial outlets for production. However, here again historically producers have paid only very partially for their use of the infrastructure, foisting the costs on others, especially the states. Given the ever-rising costs of repairing and extending the infrastructure, the states have found themselves unable to bear the costs, which has led to a serious worldfwide deterioration of necessary aids to transport and communications.
Finally, taxes have been steadily rising as well, despite what seems to be constant and enormous tax evasion. First of all, there are multiple kinds of governmental taxes - not only the national taxes that are widely noted but all kinds of local and intermediate structure taxes. These are used, when all is said and done, not merely to pay for the bureaucracy but also to meet the ever-increasing demands of the anti-systemic movements for educational and health services and the provision of lifetime income guarantees such as pensions and unemployment insurance, which collectively constitute the "welfare state." Despite all the reductions of welfare state provisions that have been forced upon the states, the reality is that these expenditures continue to be significantly larger worldwide today than they were in the past.
Nor does governmental taxation exhaust the story. We are daily bombarded with reports of corruption not only in relatively poor countries but even more in relatively rich ones, where there is more money to steal. From the point of view of the entrepreneur, the costs of corruption are every bit as much a tax as those imposed by governments. Finally, the constantly expanding reality of mafia type operations resulting from the other constraints (especially the shortages) imposes real taxes on the entrepreneur.
As the costs of production have steadily risen (in the pattern of two steps forward, one step backward), the ability to raise the prices of products have been seriously limited by the vastly increased polarization of world income and wealth.
Effective demand has fallen as persons have been eliminated from the work force. As the possibilities of capital accumulation diminish, there has been increasing fear about survival and therefore willingness of both individual consumers and entrepreneurial producers to risk expenditures, which further reduces effective demand. Hence, the world-system has arrived at its structural crisis, in which neither the underclasses nor the capitalist entrepreneurs find acceptable returns within the modern world-system. Their attention necessarily has turned to the alternatives available.
Once we are into a structural crisis, the system becomes chaotic. That is, the curves begin to fluctuate wildly. The system can no longer function in its traditional manner. It bifurcates, which means two things.
One, the system is absolutely certain to go out of existence entirely. But it is intrinsically impossible to know what the successor system or systems will be. One can only outline in general terms what are the two alternative ways in which the chaotic situation can be resolved into a new systemic order.
Two, the bifurcation leads to a great political struggle concerning which of the two alternative possibilities the totality of participants in the system will "choose."
That is to say, while we cannot predict the outcome, we can affect it. It is here that the anti-systemic movements have a potential role. The 1970s and 1980s were periods in which the rightwing so-called neoliberal movements seemed to be able to impose their views on governments, even governments that had emerged historically from the coming to power of the Old Left movements. The most dramatic achievement of the neoliberal movements was the collapse of the Soviet Union and its breakup in 1989-1991. Even for those post-1968 movements that had been highly critical of the Soviet Union and its policies, the collapse of Soviet structures seemed a major blow against the Global Left .A pessimistic outlook among left forces prevailed almost everywhere.
For the Global Left, the worldwide situation finally began to change, with a renewal of their energy. It seems to me that the turning point occurred on Jan. 1, 1994, when the Zapatistas (the EZLN in its Spanish initials) rose up in Chiapas and proclaimed the autonomy of the indigenous peoples.
An obvious question however was why on Jan. 1, 1994? The Zapatistas chose that date ecause it was the day on which the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) came into operation. By their choice, the EZLN was sending the following message to Mexico and the world. The dramatic renewal of the 500-year-old demand of the peoples of Chiapas for self-government was in opposition both to imperialism throughout the world and to Mexico's government for its participation in NAFTA as well as for its oppression of the peoples of Chiapas.
The EZLN emphasized that they had no interest in seizing power in the Mexican state. Quite the contrary! They wished to withdraw from the state and both construct and reconstruct the local ways of life. The EZLN was quite realistic. They realized they were not strong enough militarily to wage a war. Therefore, when sympathetic forces within Mexico pushed for a truce between the Mexican government and the EZLN, they fully agreed. To be sure, the Mexican government has never lived up to the truce agreement, but it has been constrained in how far it has been able to go because of the national and international support that the EZLN could muster.
This worldwide support was the result of the second major theme the EZLN pursued. It asserted its own support for all movements of every kind everywhere that were in pursuit of greater democracy and equality. The EZLN convened so called intergalactic encounters in Chiapas to which they invited the entire Global Left. The EZLN also refused sectarian exclusions in these meetings - the pattern of the Old Left. They preached instead inclusiveness and mutual tolerance among the movements of the Global Left.
The revival of the Global Left received its second strong reinforcement in 1999. One of the principal objectives of the Global Right had been to institutionalize the Washington Consensus by adopting within the framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO) a treaty that guaranteed what were called intellectual property rights in all signatory countries. Such a treaty would have effectively barred these countries from producing their own less expensive products for their own use and for sale to other countries - for example, in pharmaceuticals.
There were two remarkable aspects to Seattle. First of all, there was a major protest movement demonstrating outside the meeting The demonstration had three major components that had hitherto never joined forces: the labor movement (and specifically the AFL-CIO, the principal union movement in the United States), environmentalists, and anarchists. In addition, the members of these groups who were present were largely U.S. persons, giving the lie to the argument that only in the Global South could one mobilize opposition to neo-liberalism.
The second remarkable aspect is that the protests succeeded. They enabled some sympathetic delegations within the WTO meeting to hold out against adopting the new treaty. The WTO meeting disbursed without a treaty. It was a failure. And ever since, any attempt to adopt the treaty has been blocked. The WTO has become largely irrelevant. Furthermore, the Seattle protests led to widespread copying of the protest technique at international meetings of all kinds, to the point that conveners of such meetings began to schedule them for remote locations where they had a better possibility of blocking the presence and size of demonstrators from such protest movements.
This then brings us to the third major development in the second wind of anti-systemic movements. After Chiapas and Seattle came Porto Alegre and the World Social Forum (WSF) of 2001. The initial call for the 2001 meeting was a joint effort of a network of seven Brazilian organizations (many of left Catholic inspiration but also including the principal trade union federation) with the ATTAC movement in France. They chose the name of World Social Forum (WSF) in specific contrast with the World Economic Forum (WEF) that had been meeting at Davos for some 30 years and was a major locus of mutual discussion and planning of the world's elites. They decided to meet at the same time as the Davos meetings to emphasize the contrast, and they chose Porto Alegre as the site of the 2001 meeting to underline the political importance of the Global South.
The organizers made the crucial decision that the meeting was open to all those who were against imperialism and neo-liberalism. They also made the more controversial decision of excluding political parties and insurrectionary movements. Finally, in their most innovative decision, they decided that the WSF would have neither officers nor internal elections nor resolutions. This was in order to frame a "horizontalist" approach to organizing the world's anti-systemic forces, as opposed to the "verticalist" and therefore exclusionary approach of the Old Left movements. To summarize all this, they chose as the motto of the meeting its now famous slogan, "Another world is possible."
Porto Alegre was unexpectedly a major success. The conveners had hoped to attract 5000 people and they in fact attracted 10,000. To be sure, the initial participants came primarily from Brazil and neighboring countries and from France and Italy. The WSF, at this first meeting, immediately made two major decisions. They decided to continue with the Porto Alegre meetings, seeking to expand the participation geographically. And they created an international council, more or less by co-option, to oversee the organization of future meetings.
In the years that followed, the WSF met in different parts of the Global South and with an enormous increase of the number of participants. In this sense, it has been a continuing success. However as the first decade of the twenty first century went by, the dilemmas of the WSF came to the fore. They can best be understood in the context of the evolution of the world-system itself.
There were two major elements in this evolution. The first was the bubble crisis in the U.S. housing market in 2007-2008, which led commentators around the world to recognize the existence of some kind of "crisis" in the world-system. The second was the economic and geopolitical rise of the "emerging" economies - in particular but not only the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
Together, the two issues led to a public debate about the enormous wealth gap and about the future of the geopolitical dominance of the Global North - and to great uncertainty among commentators about how to assess these events. Were we to think of it as a fundamental change or as a passing bump on the world economic and geopolitical scene? The anti-systemic movements and their partisans have been equally ambivalent about how to assess the debate about inequality and the rise of the "emerging" nations. It has also led to an acute debate within the WSF about its successes and failures.
The anti-systemic movements now face a number of serious dilemmas. The first is whether or not to recognize explicitly the existence of a structural crisis of historical capitalism. The second is what should be the priorities of their short-term and middle-term activities. The most noticeable thing about anti-systemic movements in the second decade of the twenty-first century is the degree to which the debates that embroiled them in the last third of the twentieth century, presumably exorcised and buried in the world-revolution of 1968, have returned to plague them, virtually unmodified.
There were three principal debates, which we outlined earlier. The first concerned the role of the states in the achievement of a different kind of historical system. The second was that between social movements and nationalist movements about who was the leading historical actor in the struggle for a more just historical order. The third was between the verticalists who insisted that multiple oppressed groups had to subordinate their demands to the priorities of the principal historical actor and the horizontalists who insisted that the demands of all oppressed groups were equally important and equally urgent, and that none of them should be deferred.
Well, here we are again! Inside the WSF and in the larger global justice movement, there are those who shun state power in every way and those who insist that obtaining state power is an essential prerequisite. There are those who insist on the priority of the class struggle (99% vs. the 1%) and those who insist on the priority of the nationalist struggle (South vs. North). And there are those who are verticalist, insisting on joint political action, whether within the WSF or the wider global justice movement, and those who are horizontalist, insisting on not neglecting the truly forgotten groups, the lowest global strata.
These debates have been most visible in Latin America because it has become a prime locus of global developments on all these fronts most vividly. For various reasons, including the decline of U.S. geopolitical power, there came to power in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century a large number of governments in Latin America that were on the left or at least left of center. There has also been a movement, led in different ways both by Venezuela and by Brazil, to create South American and Latin American structures (UNASUR and CELAC) that exclude the United States and Canada. There have furthermore been steps towards creating regional economic zones and structures (Mercosur, Bancosur).
At the same time, these governments of the left, center-left, and of course the few on the political right) have all pursued developmentalist objectives, which involve extractive policies that violate the traditional zones of indigenous peoples. These latter groups have accused the left governments of being as bad in this respect as their rightwing predecessors. The left governments in turn have accused the indigenous movements of acting objectively and deliberately in accord with rightwing internal groups and the United States geopolitically.
The net result is a divided Global Left in the political struggle over the new systemic order it is trying to build by tilting the bifurcation in the direction of a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world-system (or world-systems). Of course, the Global Right is also engaged in an internal debate about tactics, but that is of little comfort to the Global Left.
One way to analyze the options for the Global Left is to put them in a time frame that distinguishes short-term and middle-term priorities. All of us live in the short term. We need to feed ourselves, house ourselves, sustain our health, and just survive. No movement can hope to attract support if it doesn't recognize this urgent need for everyone. It follows, in my view, that all movements must do everything they can to alleviate immediate distress. I call this action to "minimize the pain." This requires all sorts of short-term compromises, but it is nonetheless essential.
At the same time, one must be very clear that minimizing the pain in no way transforms the system. This was the classic social‑democratic illusion. It merely minimizes the pain.
In the middle‑run (that is, the next 20‑40 years), the debate between the Global Left and the Global Right is fundamental and total. There is no compromise. One side or the other will win. I call this the battle between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre. The spirit of Davos calls for a new non‑capitalist system that retains its worst features ‑ hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization. They could well install a world‑system that is worse than our present one. The spirit of Porto Alegre seeks a system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. I say "relatively" because a totally flat world will never exist, but we can do much, much better than we have done heretofore. There is, in this sense, possible progress. Progress is possible; it is not and never will be inevitable.
We do not know who will win in this struggle. What we do know is that, in a chaotic world, every nano‑action at every nano‑moment on every nano‑issue affects the outcome. That is why I continue to end discussion of these issues with the metaphor of the butterfly. We learned in the last half‑century that every fluttering of a butterfly's wings changes the world climate. It does this because it changes ever so slightly the parameters of the world climate. And over time, a tiny change in the parameters expands and expands until it is becomes substantial.
In this transition to a new world order, we are all little butterflies and therefore the chances of tilting the bifurcation in the direction we prefer depends on us. It follows that our efforts as activists are not merely useful; they are the essential element in our struggle for a better world.
The odds are fifty‑fifty. But fifty-fifty is not little; it is a lot,[book-strip index="4" style="buy"]
Bifurcation and Collective Choice: Tactics of the Transition
Up to now, I endeavored to do two things. One was to outline the context within which one can analyze the dilemmas that the Global Left face in the future. This context for me is the modern world-system, which is a capitalist world-economy based on the endless accumulation of capital. I explained how I thought that system has functioned over the past 500 years. I argued that, like all systems from the very largest (the universe) to the smallest nano-systems, this system was a historical system that had three phases - its initial coming into being, its long period of "normal" functioning according to the rules that govern the system, and its inevitable structural crisis.
During what I called its normal period, the modern world-system had discernible cyclical rhythms, of which the two most important were the so-called Kondratieff long waves and the hegemonic cycles. Each of these rhythms was cyclical in a consistent pattern of two steps forward followed by one step back. That is, they did not return all the way to where they had been at the beginning of the previous upturn.
To achieve its objectives, each of these rhythms depended on constructing a quasi-monopoly. The quasi-monopolies were necessarily limited in time because they were always self-liquidating.
In addition, I analyzed the three basic costs of production - personnel, inputs, and infrastructure - and the ways in which producers sought to minimize each of these costs. These efforts were however only partially realizable. The result of how these imperfect cyclical rhythms operated was an upward secular trend over 500 years. These costs rose steadily as a percentage of the possible price that could be obtained (effective demand). They eventually reached a point where the costs were so high and so far from a possible equilibrium that they brought about the structural crisis of the system.
The key feature of this structural crisis is that the system bifurcated. That is, there were now two possible and quite different paths along which the system could evolve. In a bifurcation, one is certain that the system cannot survive. However, one is equally sure that it is intrinsically impossible to know which fork of the bifurcation will ultimately prevail and thereby create a new historical system.
Within this framework, I outlined certain turning-points of the historical evolution of our modern world-system. One was the French Revolution, whose historic importance was not what most historians discuss. The result of the French Revolution was neither the political nor the economic transformation of France. It was rather the cultural transformation of the modern world-system as a whole.
The French Revolution bequeathed to the world-system the tacit worldwide acceptance of two cultural concepts: the normality of change and the sovereignty of the people. I call this the construction of a geoculture of the world-system.
The combination of the two had potentially very radical consequences. The sovereign people could change the system more or less as they wished. This belief was of course very threatening to the dominant classes. There then emerged three versions of how to handle this new reality. These three versions were the three ideologies - rightwing conservatism, centrist liberalism, and leftwing radicalism. Each of these was a mode of responding politically to these new beliefs that I call the newly-constructed geoculture of the modern world-system.
I interpreted the world-revolution of 1848 as a moment of critical confrontation of the three ideologies. The confrontation ended with the dominance of centrist liberalism in the geoculture. The other two ideologies were reduced to becoming mere avatars of the dominant one. This dominance of centrist liberalism essentially lasted until the world-revolution of 1968, whose major consequence was precisely to liberate both the conservatives and the radicals from their subordination to centrist liberalism. After 1968, all three ideologies became once again autonomous ideologies, recreating the original triad. Centrist liberalism did not disappear but was reduced to being, as before 1848, simply one of three competing ideologies.
During the period running more or less from 1945 to 1970, the world-system enjoyed the highest historical level of accumulation of capital as well as the most extensive and powerful degree of hegemonic control of the system that had ever been known. It was precisely the fact that the modern world-system worked so well in this period in terms of its objectives that pushed the system too close to the asymptotes and brought on the structural crisis of the world-system.
Remember however that what I am trying to do in this book is to analyze something that I call the Global Left. I sought therefore first to explain why and how the Global Left took a crucial turn in the wake of the severe repressions following the world-revolution of 1848. I considered the key element in this political turn to be one from ending its dependence on spontaneous rebellions towards creating longer-turn organizational and therefore bureaucratic structures. Such structures began to take shape only in the 1870s.
The two kinds of movements – the social and the nationalist movements - showed significant parallels in their internal debates on three issues: the relation of movements to their states, the identity of the primary historical actor, and the degree to which the movements should be vertical structures. In both the social and the national movements, the strategy that won out was the so-called two-step strategy - first obtain state power, then transform the world.
This strategy failed precisely because it succeeded. The world-revolution of 1968 was a response to several realities. The first was the imperialist role of the hegemonic power, and what the revolutionaries defined as the collusion of the Soviet Union (the tacit Yalta deal). The second was the failure of the movements, having realized step one of their strategy, to change the world in any significant way. The third was the limitations and misdeeds of a verticalist strategy.
Initially, the Global Right was able in the following two decades to take advantage of the post-1968 situation. This was followed by the resumption by the Global Left circa 1994 of its own thrusts for change.
There were three successive moments of this reawakening of the Global Left: the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994; the ability of the demonstrators at the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999 to scuttle the proposed new world treaty guaranteeing so-called intellectual property rights; and the founding of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001.
What remains to be discussed are the useful and possible strategies of the Global Left during the remaining 20-40 years of the structural crisis of our present system. To do that, I need to remind you of the reasons why the classic two-step strategy failed.
The very belief in the inevitability of progress was substantively depoliticizing, and particularly depoliticizing once an antisystemic movement came to state power. After 1968, the Global Left espoused a sort of anti-statism. This popular shift to anti-statism, hailed though it was by the celebrants of the capitalist system, did not really serve the interests of the latter. For in actuality anti-statism served to delegitimize all state structures, not merely those of left regimes. It thus undermined (rather than reinforced) the political stability of the world-system, and thereby has been making more acute its systemic crisis.
The politics of the transition are different from the politics of the last 500 years. It is the politics of grabbing advantage and position at a moment in time when politically anything is possible and when most actors find it extremely difficult to formulate middle-range strategies. Ideological and analytic confusion becomes a pervasive reality rather than an accidental and momentary variable. The economics of everyday life is subject to wilder swings than those to which the modern world-system had been accustomed and for which there were relatively easy explanations. Above all, the social fabric now seemed less reliable and the institutions on which people relied to guarantee their immediate security seemed to be faltering seriously. Thus, both antisocial crime and so-called terrorism came to seem to most people more widespread than in the past they think they remember. And this perception, correct or not, created fear. One widespread reflex has been the expansion of privatized security measures staffed by non-state hired forces.
The Global Right today are a complex mix and do not constitute a single organized caucus. They probably however can be divided into two main groups. One group favors repressive tactics against the Global Left. The other favors a politics of co-optive concessions.
In the past, co-optive concessions seemed to work, in the sense of maximizing short-run calm. In the ever-increasing tumult and uncertainties brought about by the structural crisis, a larger percentage of ordinary people have begun to embrace repressive tactics. They turn on scapegoats and support more repressive leaders.
There has always been a group who have argued that repression does not work in the long-run, that it provokes rebellion rather than makes it less likely. They are today perhaps a minority among the upper strata but they are insightful and intelligent. They perceive the fact that the present system is collapsing. They counsel everyone not to panic. Rather, they promote an alternative tactics, one that aims to construct a new system that is non-capitalist but still preserves their privileged position. What this latter group promotes is what we might label as the de Lampedusa strategy - to change everything in order that nothing change.
Both sub-groups of the Global Right have firm resolve and a great deal of resources at their command. They can hire cadres – politicians, lawyers, media professionals, university intellectuals - who possess great intelligence and skill. With the money at their disposal, they can hire more or less as many as they wish. They have in fact been doing so for some time now.
I do not know what the de Lampedusa faction will come up with, or by what means they will seek to implement the form of transition they favor. I do know that, whatever it is, it will seem attractive to many people and be deceptive. Therefore, it is far more dangerous to the Global Left than the policies pursued by the advocates of repression. The most deceptive aspect is that such proposals will be clothed as radical, progressive change. It will require constantly applied analytic criticism to bring to the surface what the real consequences would be, and to distinguish and weigh the positive and negative elements of the measures they propose.
The objective of the Global Left is to move in the direction of a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system. One major dilemma is that they necessarily act within the framework of an uncertain outcome. This is not at all easy. There is no bandwagon to climb aboard, no path guaranteed to succeed. There is only a harsh and lengthy struggle, which they may win but which they may lose. The uncertainty of the outcome is disconcerting.
The pre-1968 Left analysis involved multiple biases that had pushed it towards a state-orientation. The first bias was that homogeneity was somehow better than heterogeneity, and that therefore centralization was somehow better than decentralization. This bias derived from the false assumption that equality means identity. To be sure, many thinkers had pointed out the fallacy of this equation, including Marx who distinguished equity from equality. But for revolutionaries in a hurry, the centralizing, homogenizing path seemed easiest and fastest. It required no difficult calculation of how to balance complex sets of choices. The argument in effect was that one cannot add apples and oranges. The only problem is that the real world is precisely made up of apples and oranges. If you can't do such fuzzy arithmetic, you can't make real political choices.
The second bias was virtually the opposite. The preference for unification of effort and result should have pushed logically towards the creation of a single world movement and the advocacy of a world state. But the de facto reality of a multi-state system, in which some states were visibly more powerful and privileged than other states, pushed the movements towards seeing the state in which they lived as a mechanism of defense of collective interests within the world-system. They tended to see the states as instruments more useful for the large majority within each state than they were for the privileged few. Once again, many thinkers had pointed to the fallacy of believing that any state within the modern world-system would or could serve collective interests rather than those of the privileged few. However, weak majorities in weak states could see no other weapon at hand in their struggles against marginalization and oppression than a state structure. They thought (or rather they hoped) they might be able to control it for themselves.
The third bias was the most curious of all. The French Revolution had proclaimed as its slogan the trinity: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." What has in practice happened ever since is that most people have tacitly dropped the "fraternity" part of the slogan on the grounds that it was mere sentimentality. And the liberal center has insisted that "liberty" had to take priority over "equality." In fact, what the liberals really meant is that "liberty" (defined in purely political terms) was the only thing that mattered and that "equality" represented a danger for "liberty" and had to be downplayed or dropped altogether.
There was flimflam in this analysis, and the Global Left fell for it. This was particularly true of the Leninist variant of the Global Left. Leninists responded to this centrist liberal discourse by inverting it, and insisting that (economic) equality had to take precedence over (political) liberty. This was entirely the wrong answer. The correct answer is that there is no way whatsoever to separate liberty from equality. No one can be "free" to choose, if one's choices are constrained by an unequal position. And no one can be "equal" if one does not have the degree of freedom that others have, that is, does not enjoy the same political rights and the same degree of participation in real decisions.
Still we do not wish to tell a story about the past. The errors of the Global Left, the failed strategy, were an almost inevitable outcome of the operations of the capitalist system against which the Global Left was struggling. And the widespread recognition of this historic failure of the Global Left is part and parcel of the disarray caused by the general crisis of the capitalist world-system.
What is it however that the Global Left should push for now and in the decades to come? I think there are three major lines of theory and praxis to emphasize. The first is what I call "forcing liberals to be liberals." The Achilles heel of centrist liberals is that they don't want to implement their own rhetoric. One centerpiece of their rhetoric is individual choice. Yet at many elementary levels, liberals oppose individual choice. One of the most obvious and the most important is the right to choose where to live. Immigration controls are anti-liberal. Making choice of doctor or of school dependent on wealth is anti-liberal. Patents are anti-liberal. One could go on. The list is long. The fact is that the capitalist world-economy has survived precisely on the basis of the non-fulfillment of liberal rhetoric. The Global Left should be systematically, regularly, and continuously calling the bluff of centrist liberals.
Of course, calling the rhetorical bluff is only the beginning of reconstruction. The Global Left needs to have a positive program of its own. There has been a veritable sea-change in the programs of Left parties and movements around the world between 1960 and today. In 1960, their programs emphasized economic structures. They advocated one form or another, one degree or another, of the socialization, usually the nationalization, of the means of production. They said little, if anything, about inequalities that were not defined as class-based.
Today, almost all of these same parties and movements, or their successors, put forward proposals to deal with inequalities of gender, race, and ethnicity. Many of the programs are extremely inadequate, but at least these parties now feel it necessary to say something. On the other hand, very few parties or movements today that consider themselves on the Left include further socialization or nationalization of the means of production as part of their program. Indeed, a large number are actually proposing moving in the other direction. It is a breathtaking turnabout. Some hail it, some denounce it. Most just accept it.
In the period since 1968, there has been an enormous amount of testing of alternative strategies by different movements, old and new, and there has been in addition a rather healthy shift in the relations of antisystemic movements to each other. The murderous mutual denunciations and vicious struggles of yesteryear have considerably abated, a positive development that has been insufficiently noticed and appreciated.
I would like to suggest some lines along which the Global Left could develop further the idea of an alternative strategy.
(1) Promote the spirit of Porto Alegre. What is this spirit? I would define it as follows. It is the coming together in a non-hierarchical fashion of the world family of antisystemic and global justice movements around a common minimal program: (a) seeking greater intellectual clarity, (b) militant actions based on popular mobilization that can be seen as immediately useful in people's lives, (c) simultaneously insisting on pursuing longer-run, more fundamental changes.
There are three crucial elements to the spirit of Porto Alegre. It is a loose structure that has brought together on a world scale movements from the South and the North, and on more than a merely token basis. Its militancy is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, it is not in search of some global consensus with the spirit of Davos. And politically, it emphasizes the extra-state modes of acting that had been espoused by the movements of 1968. Of course, we shall have to see whether a loosely-structured world movement can hold together in any meaningful sense, and by what means it can develop the tactics of the struggle. But its very looseness makes it difficult to suppress. As it becomes stronger and more visible, it encourages many centrist forces to become les antagonistic, if hesitantly.
(2) Pursue defensive electoral tactics. If the Global Left engages in loosely-structured, extra-parliamentary militant tactics, this immediately raises the question of its attitude towards electoral processes. It faces Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, elections are not crucial to long-run change, and therefore cannot be the priority of the Global Left. On the other hand, elections do matter and cannot simply be ignored as irrelevant.
Electoral victories cannot transform the world, but they do accomplish something. They are an essential mechanism of protecting the immediate needs of the world's populations against efforts by the Global Right to reduce or terminate benefits that the Global Left had obtained and on which large numbers of people depend to survive. Elections therefore must be fought in order to minimize the damage that can be inflicted by the Global Right via control of various governments throughout the world. In that sense, winning elections is a defensive tactic.
Consequently, electoral tactics are a purely pragmatic matter. Once the Global Left doesn't think of obtaining state power as a mode of transforming the world, elections always become a matter of the lesser evil. And the decision of what is the lesser evil can only be made case by case and moment by moment. They depend in part on what is the form of the electoral system. A system with winner-takes-all must be manipulated differently than a system with two rounds or a system with proportional representation.
Furthermore, there are many different party and sub-party traditions amongst the Global Left. Most of these traditions are relics of another era, but many people still vote according to them. Since state elections are a pragmatic matter, it is crucial to create alliances that respect these traditions, aiming for the 51% that is the pragmatic objective. But it is very important that in the case of electoral victory there is no dancing in the streets because “we have won!” Victory is merely a defensive tactic, and electoral victory is a matter of relief that we have minimized the damage, especially for those who are the poorest, most oppressed parts of the population.
(3) Democratize, democratize unceasingly. The most popular demand the vast majority of people everywhere have made on the states is "more" - more education, more health, and more guaranteed lifetime income. This is not only popular; it is immediately useful in people's lives. And furthermore, obtaining the “more” makes still more difficult the possibilities of the endless accumulation of capital. These demands should be pushed loudly, continuously, and in all zones of the world-system. There cannot be “too much” in these demands anywhere.
To be sure, expanding all these "welfare state" functions always raises reasonable questions about the efficiency of expenditures, the bane of corruption, and the fear of creating over-powerful and unresponsive bureaucracies. These are all questions the Global Left should be ready to address. But they should never drop the basic demand of “more, much more” because of these problems.
It is particularly important that popular movements not spare the left-of-center governments they have elected from these demands. Just because a Left government is a friendlier government than an outright rightwing government does not mean that the Global Left should end the demand for more, and more now. The effect of pressing friendly governments to the left tends to push rightwing opposition forces to the center, even the center-left, in electoral competition. Conversely, failing to push the center-left governments to the left tends to result in the left-of-center movements moving to the center-right. While there may be occasional special circumstances to obviate these truisms, the general rule on democratization is more, much more.
4) Call upon the liberal center to fulfil its theoretical preferences. This is otherwise known as forcing the pace of liberalism. The liberal center notably seldom means what it says, or practices what it preaches. Take some obvious themes, say, liberty. The liberal center used to denounce the Soviet Union regularly because it didn't permit free emigration. But of course the other side of free emigration is free immigration. There's not much value in being allowed to leave a country unless you can get in somewhere else. The Global Left should be pushing for open frontiers.
The liberal center regularly calls for freer trade, freer enterprise, keeping the government out of decision-making by entrepreneurs. The other side of that is that entrepreneurs who fail in the market should not be salvaged. They take the profits when they succeed; they should take the losses when they fail. It is often argued that saving the companies is saving jobs. But there are far cheaper ways of saving jobs - pay for unemployment insurance, offer retraining, and even creating job opportunities. None of these actions requires salvaging the debts of the failing entrepreneur.
The liberal center regularly insists that monopoly is a bad thing. But the other side of that is abolishing or grossly limiting patents. The Global Left should not be asking the government to protect industries against foreign competition. Will this hurt the working classes in the core zones? Well, not if money and energy is spent on trying to achieve greater convergence of world wage rates.
The details of these propositions are complex and need to be discussed. The point however is not to let the liberal center get away with its rhetoric and reaping the rewards of that, while not paying the costs of its proposals. Furthermore, the true political mode of neutralizing centrist opinion is to appeal to its ideals, not its interests. Demanding the enactment of the liberal rhetoric is a way of appealing to the ideals rather than the interests of the centrist elements.
Finally, we should always bear in mind that a good deal of the benefits of democratization are not readily available to the poorest strata, or are not available to the same degree, because of the difficulties they have in navigating the bureaucratic hurdles. Here I return to the 40-year-old proposition of Cloward and Piven that one should "explode the rolls," that is, mobilize in the poorest communities so that they take full advantage of their legal rights.
5) Insist that anti-racism is the defining measure of democracy. Democracy is about treating all people equally - in terms of power, in terms of distribution, in terms of opportunity for personal fulfillment. Racism is the primary mode of distinguishing between those who have rights (or more rights) and the others who have no rights at all (or fewer rights). Racism defines which group is in which category. And simultaneously it offers a specious justification for the practice. Racism is not a secondary issue, either on a national or a world scale. It is the mode by which the liberal center's promise of universalistic criteria is systematically, deliberately, and constantly undermined.
Racism is pervasive throughout the existing world-system. No corner of the globe is without it. Everywhere it serves as a central feature of local, national, and world politics. In her speech to the Mexican National Assembly on Mar. 29, 2001, Commandant Esther of the EZLN (Zapatistas) said:
The Whites (ladinos) and the rich people make fun of us indigenous women for our clothing, for our speech, for our language, for our way of praying and healing, and for our color, which is the color of the earth that we work.
She went on to plead in favor of the law that would guarantee
autonomy to the indigenous peoples, saying:
When the rights and the culture of the indigenous peoples are recognized,….the law will begin to reconcile its position (hora) the position of the indigenous peoples.... And if today we are indigenous women, tomorrow we will be the others, men and women, who are dead, persecuted, or imprisoned because of their difference.
6) Decommodify. The crucial thing wrong with the capitalist system is not private ownership, which is simply a means, but commodification which is the essential element in the accumulation of capital. The history of the modern world-system has been one of ever-expanding commodification. Still, even today, the capitalist world-system is not entirely commodified, although there are efforts to make it so.
Nonetheless, if we wanted to, we could in fact move in the other direction. Universities and hospitals (whether state-owned or private) were long defined as non-profit institutions. Ever since the 1970s, there has been a massive push to turn them into capitalist structures seeking to accumulate capital. In addition to resisting this shift in the role of universities and hospitals, the Global Left should be thinking of how it can transform steel factories into non-profit institutions, that is, self-sustaining structures that pay dividends to no one. This is the face of a more hopeful future, and in fact could start now.
7) Remember always that we are living in the era of transition from our existing world-system to something different. This means several things. We should not be taken in by the rhetoric of globalization or the inferences about TINA. Not only do alternatives exist, but the only alternative that does not exist is continuing with our present structures.
There will be immense struggle over the successor system, on one that will continue for 20-40 years. It is a struggle whose outcome is intrinsically uncertain. History is on no one's side. It depends on what we all do. On the other hand, this intrinsic uncertainty offers a great opportunity for creative action. During the normal life of an historical system, even great efforts at transformation (so-called "revolutions") have limited consequences since the system exercises great pressures to return to its equilibrium. But in the chaotic ambiance of a structural transition, fluctuations become truly wild, and even small pushes can have great consequences in favoring one branch or the other of the bifurcation. If ever agency operates, the structural crisis of a system is its moment.
The key problem for the Global Left is not its organization, however important that be. The key problem is lucidity. The forces who wish to change the system so that nothing changes, so that we have a different system that is equally or more hierarchical and polarizing, have money, energy, and intelligence at their disposal. They will dress up the fake changes in attractive clothing. And only careful analysis will keep the Global Left from falling into their many traps.
The Global Right will use slogans with which the Global Left may find it very difficult disagree with - say, human rights. But the Global Right will give this slogan content that combines a few elements that are highly desirable with many others that perpetuate the "civilizing mission" of the powerful and privileged over the non-civilized others. The Global Left must carefully dissect these proposals and call the bluffs of centrist liberals. For example, if an international judicial procedure against genocide is desirable, it is only desirable if it is applicable to everyone, not merely the weak. If nuclear armaments, or biological warfare, is dangerous, even barbaric, then there are no safe possessors of such weapons.
In the inherent uncertainty of the world, at its moments of historic transformation, the only plausible strategy for the Global Left is one of intelligent, militant pursuit of its basic objective - the achievement of a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world. Such a world is possible. It is by no means certain that it will come into being. But then it is by no means impossible. The future of the Global Left depends upon itself, in its ability to push its alternative vision of a world-system against a very powerful opponent in a complicated, confusing, and chaotic situation.
Published with the kind permission of Les éditions de la Maisons des sciences de l'homme. The full text, with responses by Étienne Balibar, Pablo González Casanova, James Kenneth Galbraith, Johan Galtung, Nilüfer Göle, and Michel Wieviorka is available here.
 Frances Fox Piven & Richard A. Cloward conclude their book on public welfare with this summation: "In the absence of fundamental economic reforms, therefore, we take the position that the explosion of the rolls is the true relief reform, that it should be defended, and expanded. Even now, hundreds and thousands of impoverished families remain who are eligible for assistance but who receive no aid at all" Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, New York, Pantheon, 1971, p. 348 (italics in original).