Whose Millennium? | The Nation


Whose Millennium?

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We want to change the world, and, therefore, we must ponder why people now have less confidence in the possibility of moving beyond the reign of capital than their ancestors did more than 150 years ago, when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, or simply at the beginning of this century, before the Bolshevik Revolution. There are two connected webs of explanation, woven around the declining popular belief in the inevitability of socialism and the unexpected resilience of capitalism.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

We quite rightly deny that socialism ever existed in Eastern Europe and refuse to accept Stalin's crimes as part of an alleged socialist record. But 1917 is a date in our heritage, and we must draw lessons from what happened afterward. Things that used to be taken for granted must now be scrutinized and often rejected. It was vaguely assumed--though, admittedly, never said plainly--that once the revolution occurred, there would be a more or less smooth, more or less inexorable advance toward a socialist future. We now know that even if forces seeking a socialist solution were to take power in the advanced countries of Western Europe, the transition would be a lengthy period, far from smooth, full of difficulties and risks, including not just reversals but possible restorations.

There are two reasons for the surprising longevity of capitalism. One is that it has taken much longer than Marx thought for the reign of capital to stretch across the world and to eliminate precapitalist forms in the conquered territory; passages in The Communist Manifesto about foreign expansion read as if they were written today about globalization. Naturally, capitalism does not have to invade the whole planet and mop up every nook and cranny before it makes its exit from the historical stage. It can and should be removed long before. Nevertheless, this room for expansion did help, and still does to some extent, in the process of its survival. The second reason lies in the system's underestimated capacity for what we called distorted growth, spurred by the creation of artificial needs and the purposely wasteful use of resources. Advertising and obsolescence, as somebody has remarked, are more sophisticated ways of destroying value than is coffee burning.

One of the great attractions of Marxism was its subtle association of economic necessity and political will: The capitalist system seemed historically condemned; the objective development of the productive forces was aggravating its contradictions, but it would only fall under the subjective pressure and the blows of the revolutionary labor movement. This could take the form of a very fatalistic version that may be summed up in terms closer to Calvin than Marx: You are predestined for paradise, but you will get there only if you deserve it through your own action or obedience. Before the First World War, under the Second International, the theory was reduced to a very mechanistic interpretation, the productive forces more or less doing it on their own, with the help of an expectant but passive movement. Then, under the Soviet Union and particularly in Stalin's hands, the whole combination was broken into pieces. There was no need for democratic pressure from below, because economic development was going to bring the stage of communism to Russia. At the same time, all sorts of shortcuts were possible; in 1936, at the height of the purges, it was proclaimed that the Soviet Union had achieved the penultimate phase, that it was already a socialist society, with communism on the horizon. To top it all, iron discipline was required from Soviet citizens and from the obedient foreign faithful so that the USSR could reach its historical destination. We know what happened to this unholy mixture of religious belief and barrack-room discipline.

If we want to recover the dialectical link between the movement and its objective, we must draw clear historical distinctions between actuality, necessity and inevitability. Socialism may be a historical possibility, or even necessary to eliminate the evils of capitalism, but this does not mean that socialism will inevitably take its place. This departure from the fatalistic conception is, in a sense, a return to the more distant past, when socialism was not considered as bound to happen, since there was always the possibility, to quote the terms of Rosa Luxemburg, that barbarism would win out. Above all, uncertainty as to the ultimate result should not imply passivity, obedience or resignation. On the contrary, it dictates greater participation, more activity and more militance, since, within the limits of objective conditions, the future will be what we make it. And this renewed conviction and activism would be particularly welcome today, because the power of the ruling class and the arrogance of its ideologues are largely due to our weakness, our surrender, our acceptance of the established rules of the game.

There is nothing discouraging in shedding illusions and dropping certainties that paralyze the critical spirit and, by the same token, the capacity for independent action. Indeed, if it were not for the time factor, which we shall see darkens the horizon, I would not be unduly pessimistic about the future. The West, particularly Western Europe, may be the place where the next opportunity will arise. But this is guesswork, not a scientific forecast. Above all, everything now has to be seen in its international context. The times they clearly are a-changin' once again. Without reverting to catastrophic predictions of capitalism's impending doom, it is legitimate to notice the growing gravity of the economic crisis and its implications.

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.

The ghosts of Europe's terrible past are embodied in Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. He and his xenophobic National Front took off in the early eighties thanks to the economic crisis and the popular disenchantment with the French left, which came into office "to change life" and rapidly took on the conservative policies of its predecessors. Le Pen consolidated his position as unemployment and deflationary policy made European integration seem to many people not an opportunity but a threat to their way of life. The political consensus on economic policy enabled Le Pen to appear as the only outsider, offering scapegoats instead of solutions: immigrant workers, sinister Muslims, invading aliens. This foreigner-bashing has gained him fellow travelers elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Belgium and Austria. Naturally, the immediate threat should not be exaggerated. Short of economic catastrophe, the extreme right is unlikely to take over anywhere in Western Europe. Still, the fact that nearly one French voter out of six is now ready to cast his or her ballot for a leader for whom--and he stresses the point--the Holocaust is no more than a "detail" in the history of the Second World War is a sign that the evil ghosts of the past have not yet been laid to rest.

Our society contains the elements of its potential transformation, and in this interaction of the existing and the possible--a possibility perceived realistically but lying beyond the confines of our society--lies the burden of our responsibility and the mainspring of political action.

The defenders of the established order not only argue that human beings are driven by narrow self-interest. Echoing the words of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, they claim that people are frightened of freedom, that they want to be led like a herd, to obey and not to challenge. Our premise, on the contrary, is that human beings want to shape their lives, that they want to be actors in their own drama. One could argue that history itself, with a different class playing the crucial role in different periods, is really the story of humankind's struggle for mastery over its own fate.

I venture to add a personal thought, prompted by the contrast between historical time and the time of our lives. The rough half-century that has elapsed since Stalin's death in 1953, and the close to a third of a century that has passed since those heady days of 1968, when young people from Berkeley to Tokyo prematurely proclaimed that imagination was seizing power--these are in the eyes of a true historian relatively short periods. In our own lives, however, they correspond to the passage of many of us from adolescence to old age, or to middle age. In moments of weariness and despondency, one tends to wonder what is the use of struggle if one is not going to see the outcome. There is consolation in the thought that "revolution is the only form of 'war' in which ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats" (Rosa Luxemburg). Still, one would not mind an occasional success and a few more signs that events are quickening their pace. Yet let us not be too weighed down by ineluctable moments of discouragement. History clearly does not belong--even if superficial, immediate rewards may--to the contemptible turncoats who want everything here and now and, when there is no instant revolution, promptly offer their services to the other side, in fact to the highest bidder. The only lasting effect of the contrast between historical and personal time scales is the tendency to look to a younger generation for hope.

We are at a moment, to borrow Whitman's words, when society "is for a while between things ended and things begun," not because of some symbolic date on the calendar marking the turn of the millennium but because the old order is a-dyin', insofar as it can no longer provide answers corresponding to the social needs of our point of development, though it clings successfully to power, because there is no class, no social force, ready to push it off the historical stage. This confrontation between the old and the new--the sooner it starts, the better--will now have to be global in its very nature. France, Italy and Western Europe are the first probable battlefield, though skirmishes are already taking place from Chiapas to Jakarta and from Seoul to São Paolo. Tomorrow Moscow, Warsaw and Prague may emerge from the utter confusion following their conversion to capitalism, while after tomorrow explosive struggles may even erupt in the heart of the capitalist fortress, from New York to California.

On the ground littered with broken models and shattered expectations a new generation will now have to take the lead. Chastened by our bitter experiences, they can advance with hope but without illusions, with convictions but without certitudes, and, rediscovering the attraction and power of collective action, they can resume the task, hardly begun, of the radical transformation of society. But they cannot do it on their own. We must follow their lead and, to the dismay of the preachers and propagandists shrieking that the task is impossible, utopian or suicidal, and to the horror of their capitalist paymasters, proclaim all together: "We are not here to tinker with the world, we are here to change it!" Only in this way can we give a positive answer to the question: Whose millennium, theirs or ours? It is also the only way in which we can prevent the future from being theirs--apocalyptic or, at best, barbarian.

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