Crisis and Alternatives | by Achin Vanaik

by Jul 9, 2012All Articles

crisis-and-alternativesCrisis for whom?
Why after all this is it business more or less as usual? Because those who benefit think they can get away with it. Where there is greater ground level resistance – for example in Greece, significant political forces have put forward specific alternatives of a fundamentally anti-austerity kind – debt renegotiation, partial cancellation, progressive taxation and redistribution, employment generating policies, reversal of privatization, moving towards public control of finance. What the elites of Europe fear is that this kind of upsurge from below can spread from Greece to other European countries hence their support to the conservative parties. The crucial lesson – whether at the national or at the transnational regional level is that it is politics, i.e., the changes in the political relationship of forces or, if you like, in the balance of class forces that will decide what kind of alternative economic and social policies will emerge. Why is it that in Europe there are greater prospects of a series of struggles from below erupting in different European countries and seeking to solidarise with each other but that this is largely missing when it comes to the countries of South, Southeast and East Asia? This is something to be taken up later but for now I wish to take up another matter of great import, namely that capitalism by its very nature necessarily causes crises.
Its fundamental propulsive force, the source of its world transforming dynamic of ever expanding capital accumulation, is competition between capitals. This capitalist accumulation process is always uneven and combined guaranteeing that there will be geographical and social divergences as well as convergences, and that there will be social, political and cultural hybridities (combinations of the old and new) of all kinds in the paths taken towards capitalist modernity by different countries and in different parts of the world. But capitalist functioning cannot be stable or cumulative unless there is also the operation of a principle that is not intrinsic to it but must be supplied from outside the accumulation process itself – that is to say, the principle of regulation /coordination. Only this can hope to ensure that a competition between capitals that does also translate in various ways into a competition between states, and therefore becomes all the more potentially dangerous and de-stabilizing, is not allowed to get so out of hand as to seriously threaten the overall capitalist system itself. It is, of course, states that provide at the national level the absolutely vital legal, regulatory, institutional, fiduciary and infrastructural frameworks. It is states that police capital-labour relations in favour of the former. They manage the macro-economy. They are the medium (especially if they are electoral democracies) that provide the popular legitimacy for elite rule. At the international level it is in turn the system of states, above all the sub-set of the most powerful states, that must similarly somehow provide the necessary stabilizing mechanisms. This is precisely what is meant by the requirement that there must be the striving to establish a hegemonic stability for the system as a whole if it is to properly function. But who will stabilize the stabilizing mechanism – the system of states?
In this neoliberal phase of capitalist globalization which has existed now for some 30 odd years, and which is marked as never before by the domination of finance capital, the most important stabilizing mechanism has been the US. For all its relative (but not necessarily absolute) decline economically, it continues to be the consumer of first and last resort for the world economy; the world’s banker with the dollar playing an indispensable role as the global currency which fact, to the annoyance of a number of emerging powers like China, gives distinct advantages to the US; and of course the US plays the role of the world’s sheriff usually getting various deputies to help it whenever it undertakes its global policing actions. The simple point is this: if we are to create a more just world order than this one, we will have to oppose the role of the US as the global hegemon. This is the necessary but not sufficient condition for creating a more humane and just world order.
This will not be easy. For the first time ever capitalism bestrides the globe and has created a scale and depth of inequalities never before seen. These are inequalities of income, wealth and therefore of power which has eroded the substantive character of democracy everywhere even as in its procedural form it has spread. These very inequalities have created a global elite of different nationalities whose absolute and relative weight is greater than ever before and which have a strong common vested interest in maintaining the existing neoliberal order conceding at best that it should be somewhat humanized to placate the masses, as it were. This current order is incapable of bringing to a halt let alone of forcing the dismount of what can be called the four horsemen of the apocalypse. These are (i) the scale and persistence of poverty globally as well as the accelerated growth and spread of the inequalities of income and wealth and therefore of power between both social classes and nations. (ii) The issue of ecological imbalances of various types. (iii) The rise and spread of the politics of cultural exclusivisms of all kinds in all parts of the world. These have generally been connected to the rise of ethnic hatreds, religious intolerances, nationalist irredentisms. (iv) The spread of militarism and nuclearism. Over the last 30 odd years – the era of neoliberalism — these four horsemen have been galloping at a faster pace and covering more and newer ground.
More than ever then do we need to have a vision of a new kind of world order and some kind of a roadmap to show us the broad direction we must take even if the location of that final destination point cannot yet be precisely charted. That is as it should be. It is in the course of the journey itself that we will discover new problems, new resources and capacities to deal with them, newer pathways to take. The main thing is to embark on that journey and for that we need to a) have some idea of the kind of society we want as our long term goal; b) an agenda of more immediate demands and policy perspectives whose achievements will create an ever stronger momentum towards reaching the longer term goals; c) to develop and unify a range of progressive political and social forces that can push states to pursue the desired policy alternatives and even themselves achieve state power, for let us not fool ourselves the ultimate terrain at which there will be resolution of social and class struggles is the state, just as collectively dealing with global problems will require us to operate through states as well as across, beyond and besides them.
So what alternatives, shorter-term and longer-term are we talking about? Let me make my own position clear. In the longer term we have to transcend capitalism. It cannot ensure a decent livelihood for all – this is the incontrovertible evidence of the last 30 years and more. Its existence is not compatible with preserving necessary ecological balances, a task that goes beyond simply the issue of preventing global warming. There cannot be a stationary state capitalism. Its driving force is the never-ending search for profits which in turn demands the never-ending pursuit of growth. Kenneth Boulding, one of the earliest ecologically sensitive economists put it neatly – to believe that you can have unlimited growth in a finite world you have to be either a fool or an economist! Moreover, enduring ecological sustainability does not simply require energy generation based overwhelming on renewable sources, it requires a fundamental change in economic goals – a shift everywhere but particularly in the North from the pursuit of growth to that of equity. But such a change is inconceivable without a profound transformation in the nature of political and social life within and across nations.
There is, in fact, an already rich existing literature about such possible ‘structural reforms’ or measures that can and should be adopted. There are the more theoretical discussions pivoted around three possible post-capitalist economic organizational models – market socialism; an electronic socialism using modern information technology to carry out ex ante coordination of production and distribution; participatory planning with prior coordination of the scale and pattern of major investments including inter-industry linkages through a negotiated process involving social owners at all levels. Market exchanges would then take care of other economic transactions. All three approaches would have a range of forms of social and public ownership. Then there are the more empirically grounded studies based on actual experiences the world over from the stunted promise and potential of former Yugoslavia’s self-management workers’ councils to the insights gained by Cuba’s organically based urban farming experiments to the lessons learnt in participatory democracy from participatory budgeting in Brazil, communities of peace in Colombia, panchayat-based resource planning in Kerala, India, the tradition of democratic unionism and base-level organizations forged in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. There are further lessons to be garnered from the rich and diverse history of various efforts to establish industrial and workplace democracy, the opening up and complete transparency of employer’s books and accounts, of the experiences, successful and failed, of worker and peasant cooperatives and the creative activities of radicalised local government bodies such as the once upon a time ‘municipal socialisms’ of Manchester and London, the historical experiences in institutionalizing direct forms of democracy alongside traditional forms of indirect representative democracy.
At the extra-national level, the existing Constitutional order of neoliberal capitalist globalization must be replaced by agencies motivated by the same socialist values and thus deeply committed to equitable and sustainable distribution of wealth. There could be a Global Asset and Investment Agency, a Fair Trade Organization, an International Clearing Union with its own international currency along the lines first envisioned by Keynes and then further developed by other experts deeply concerned about matters of global justice. Of course, there would also be the cancellation of debt of poor countries and the elimination of tax havens.
The problem then is not that we lack ideas or reasonably worked out models of institutional alternatives for constructing a more just world order. Of course we realize that how workable these are or how much more we would have to rework and modify them to make them stable and effective, would depend on their actual practice and our experiences of their functioning. We cannot anticipate all or even most of the answers and solutions. It is in the process of pursuing our goal that we will get many answers as to what and what is not workable. What this means is that though we need an inspiring vision of a possible future to generate support for our quest, our most important challenge is a strategic-political one – to recognize, confront and politically overcome our opponents. These are those social layers who have most to lose from the collapse of the American Empire and thereby the great weakening of the powerful pillar it provides to supporting the current edifice of a neoliberal capitalist world order.
For this purpose we also need immediate demands and short term policy perspectives capable of attracting the support of the large majority of peoples everywhere. Here we need to start out with basic social democratic demands and needs whose fulfillment the peoples of Europe once took for granted and those in Asia continue to aspire to – food security, free universal public provision of quality health care and education up to and even including tertiary levels, cheap and efficient mass transport systems, low cost and decent public housing on a massive scale, assured pensions, full employment through shorter working weeks, assured pensions, clean environment, etc. In our times given the primacy of finance capital the demand for nationalizing banks and making them a public utility is crucial. By doing this a) you take away the institutional ballast of the most powerful section of capitalist classes in this neoliberal phase of global capitalism causing thereby a shift in the balance of social forces towards the large majority of working people. b) You can renegotiate debt, even cancel much of it, and transform the uses of finance by redirecting it away from speculation and the obsession with money making money from money as quickly as possible for the few, to promoting investment, production, employment and demand in the real economy and to do this in a much more green way. c) You can establish capital controls not just at the border but within the country as the precondition for moving towards a truly democratic and participative form of reorganization of the economy through developing new forms of social ownership and democratic decision-making at different spatial levels for production, consumption and investment.
What about the efforts to forge stronger coalitions of progressive forces to pursue such actions? Do not underestimate the importance of defensive struggles which at the moment are the kind of struggles most of us are engaging in given the existing unfavourable relationship of forces between the rich and the poor, the included and the excluded, the oppressed and the oppressors. There is always a dialectic that exists between defensive and offensive struggles. If there is one lesson from Latin America in particular, it is that if there is a broad enough coalition of forces engaged in even a defensive struggle e.g. Cochabamba, then victory on that front can very rapidly create the momentum for going on to the offensive to give a much more holistic political challenge to dominant classes and groups. The key is not so much the particular issue fought over as in the enthusiasm, energy and self-confidence that is created in that collective agent of change as it grows and unites and struggles.
To come finally to the question of why struggles in civil societies in South, Southeast and East Asia have not reached the same levels as yet as in Europe. One important reason is that for all the travails of the EU today it is not vitiated to anywhere near the same degree by various nationalist tensions and hostilities as is the case in different parts of Asia and which therefore allow the US in particular to insert itself as a geopolitical balancer against for example the presumed threats of a Chinese expansionism even as the economies of East and Southeast Asia including those of China and Japan are getting ever more closely integrated in the same way as in the case of the member countries of the EU itself. The fear of a much more unlikely future possibility of Chinese hegemonism in the region becomes the justification for accepting the reality of US dominance in the present with every indication of it continuing well into the future as well.
Is it possible to put forward certain perspectives that are also compatible with the drive of contemporary governments to enhance their strategic autonomy from the West and which would also promote greater pan-Asian cooperation of a modest yet progressive kind? Three issues come to mind.
1) We need to oppose US attempts to set up, in effect, an Asian NATO aimed at containing China based on its string of military bases and various forms of military-naval cooperation. Here the key nodes are the US, India, Australia and Japan with supplementary roles being offered to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. Alongside sustained campaigning in opposition to this US strategy there can also be new thinking on what a more cooperative and peace promoting alternative security architecture involving Asian powers themselves to the exclusion of the US could look like.
2) Even as we pursue the promotion of renewable energy sources over the next several decades, there will nonetheless continue to be reliance on oil and gas (the latter is a much cleaner energy source) and here the idea of building an Asian Collective Energy Security Grid with oil and gas pipelines running horizontally and vertically across Asia from Iran via Central Asia across Russia and Siberia to the eastern coast of China is an idea whose time as come. Not only would such a network once built be much more beneficial cost wise to both producers and consumers, it would necessarily transform the geopolitics of the region in the very process of its construction. It would deny the US the leverage it enjoys currently over India, Southeast Asian countries, China, Japan and even Europe by its control over the Middle East (and its efforts to do the same in Central Asia) and over the key sea routes for tanker transportation. As for land routes, the US currently wants to help construct and control oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia that will bypass Iran and Russia via Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey and run to ports in allied countries.
3) The time has also come to push for an Asian Monetary Fund run much more democratically by its member governments to replace the role of the dollar and current neoliberal institutions like the IMF and WB in this part of the world. Such a body could become a regional clearing house with its own regional currency (in addition to existing national currencies) whose purpose would be to smooth out trade imbalances in ways that would ensure that there are no permanent debtor and creditor nations, thereby creating a much more powerful foundation for permanent cooperation among Asian countries of a kind that would also be greatly conducive to resolving conflicts and tensions of a more political-territorial kind.
Situations of crises are invariably also situations where opportunities of various kinds present themselves. The question is do we have the political will and can we generate the political momentum to take advantage of such opportunities? The task then for us and coming generations of progressives is to help generate that political will and momentum. There is a world to fight for.
Achin Vanaik
Paper presented at the Sub-regional Conference of the ASIA-EUROPE PEOPLE’S FORUM in Jakarta last 28-29 June 2012, organized by IGJ, SPI, API, PRP, Inkrispena, KIARA, WALHI and KPRI.
28 June 2012
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