Within a year, the famous "Asian tigers" disappeared as an economic species. In Thailand, South Korea and elsewhere unemployment has risen dramatically, living standards have tumbled and poverty has spread, as a growing number of factories and banks face bankruptcy. Japan, at the heart of the regional upheaval, keeps on exercising a downward pressure, and China, its foreign trade deeply affected, will sooner or later have to react. The crisis can no longer be described as purely Asian, which it never really was. The Russian default this past August 17, the ensuing fall of the ruble and the repercussions in Latin America underscored its international nature. The Western powers, particularly the United States, with the help of the International Monetary Fund, used this occasion to remove obstacles to their economic dominance in Asia. But at the same time, they seemed to be losing control over what looked like a classical capitalist crisis of overproduction aggravated by uncontrolled movements of capital. The immediate effects on the labor movement were on the surface paradoxical. The militant South Korean unions, while showing their fighting spirit, were thrown on the defensive, and their budding Indonesian counterparts may have difficulty harnessing the rage of the jobless and nearly starving millions into an organized assault on the regime propped up by the army after the departure of Suharto. But declining economic stability will have political consequences throughout the world. The assertive self-confidence of the establishment's propagandists has foundations that are no more solid than those of the shares rising to unprecedented heights on Western stock markets.
The other cause for cautious optimism is that the world now has the material and intellectual means to cope with the issues that must be solved. Not that we can take over the modern infrastructure, put another label on it and proclaim that we are living in a different society. The organization and the tools of work and, ultimately, the people themselves will have to be altered throughout a long period of transformation. Nor are we hankering after a paradise lost or ascetic purity. While the romantic reaction against the horrors of capitalism has inspired very valuable criticism, we cannot seek solutions looking backward. Not all contemporary needs, even those artificially created, are superfluous. To go back to the poverty and the scarcity of the past would be to return to another ghastly society that should not be idealized in retrospect. We have the level of education, the potential knowledge, to cope with a transition to a new society without reversion to scarcity or uncritical reliance on existing tools and social structures.
At the stage of development we have reached, the world is crying out for some kind of an international governance. We need it to rethink the purpose of growth, exercise control over development and decide rationally and carefully what chemicals can be used or biological changes tolerated if we want to avoid ecological disasters. We require coordination to deal with international crimes, but also to fight disease effectively on a global scale. If planned international cooperation were to replace our present combination of overproduction and underconsumption, we could fairly rapidly cut unemployment, eliminate starvation and reduce poverty worldwide. Indeed, with the knowledge at our disposal, work and a decent living standard for all is an obtainable goal. The maddening thing is that it is both so near and so far. While we could start working on this objective at once, we will never get there if we stick to the established order. The gap between the existing and the possible, the contrast between our fantastic technological ability and the absurdity of our social organization--though there is capitalist logic to this madness--is such that one is inclined to hope that in the not too distant future we shall be forced to change course.
Sooner or later? We need time. Time to get rid of the clever lessons distilled from the Soviet tragedy by the establishment and to revive the basic belief in the possibility and value of collective action. Time to re-establish closer links across frontiers, not in order to set up a new International with commanding headquarters and obedient members but to exchange information and experiences, and then gradually coordinate tactics and strategy. Time also for labor and other social movements to get together, again not to describe in every detail the future utopia but to agree on the broad features of the world toward which they are striving--a society not clashing with its ecological limits, not driven by capitalist accumulation, putting use value above exchange value, free from racial and gender discrimination, democratic and organized from below. We can argue over its shape and even its name, though I personally would call it socialist. It goes without saying that disagreement over details would not rule out common quests and joint action; quite the contrary.
Time indispensable, also, runs up against time available. Ecologists tell us that we are already doing things that are seriously damaging the whole planet. But they are not speaking of geological time. They give us stern warnings about our society's difficulties with nature in the near future. If we do not exercise control over an economic expansion driven inexorably by the search for profit, or if we limit that control to measures tolerated by the system (such as the purchase of pollution credits by the rich countries from the poor), we shall pay a price in the first century of the new millennium. Depletion of natural resources is not the most serious risk. The greatest danger is the impact of expanding production and waste on ecosystems. The large-scale use of all sorts of chemicals, whose long-term effects have been untested, threatens our soil, our atmosphere and our health. The disappearance of certain other species should be a sign that it is time to worry about human fate and study more carefully, say, the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the effects of global warming. True, views vary as to the extent of the danger and its timing. However, considering the impact of development on the environment in the past fifty years--qualitatively different from that of the past--it is perturbing to think of the consequences were it allowed to proceed in roughly the same way for another century. If we do not get rid of a social system that can deal only with the symptoms but not the cause of the problem--the expansion posed by capital accumulation--we are preparing unenviable tomorrows for ourselves and our children.
Yet there is an even more immediate danger, which is political. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. If the left fails to provide rational, progressive solutions to the growing economic and social traumas, the extreme right will come up with reactionary and irrational ones, playing on the fears aroused by globalization and on the prejudices reinforced by apprehension. Hatred of the other, the different and the alien, spurred by racism, jingoism or religious fanaticism, can lead to major tragedies. The genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda is an extreme example. The dismantling of Yugoslavia reveals what the combination of exacerbated nationalism and religious bigotry can still achieve in the heart of "civilized" Europe: You start with kith and kin, or symbols of faith; you move on to the historical recollection of battles between Christians and Muslims; and you end with the slaughter of neighbors, the rape of women and buckets and buckets of blood.