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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2015 > April 2015 > Antisystemic Movements and the Future of Capitalism

Antisystemic Movements and the Future of Capitalism

Saturday 4 April 2015, by Immanuel Wallerstein

Unrevised version of talk at 39th Annual Meeting of the Political Economy of the World-System Conference, Berlin, Mar. 2015.

The antisystemic movements now find themselves in the midst of a fierce struggle about the future. Let me start by reviewing very briefly my premises, about which I have written much. I do this in order to analyze the role and dilemmas of the antisystemic movements in this struggle, what I now call the Global Left. The modern world-system is a capitalist world-economy functioning within the framework of an interstate system. This system has been in existence for some 500 years. It has been a remarkably successful system in terms of its objective which is the endless accumulation of capital.

However, like all systems from the very largest (the universe) to the smallest nano-systems, this system is a historical system, and as such has three phases - its initial coming into being, its long period of what I call ifs "normal" functioning according to the rules that govern the system, and its inevitable structural crisis. I contend that the world-system is now in this third phase, that of structural crisis.

There are several things to note about how the system operated in its previous “normal” period. It 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 imperfectly cyclical in the sense that they followed a consistent pattern of two steps forward followed by one step back. That is, after its upturn phase of the cycle, none of the cyclical rhythms returned all the way to where they had been at the beginning of the upturn, but only to a point somewhat higher. The downturn took the form more of a stagnation than of a true downturn.

To achieve its objectives, each of the two principal rhythms depended on constructing a quasi-monopoly, which brought great benefits to certain groups. However, the quasi-monopolies were necessarily limited in time because they were always self-liquidating.

The modern world-system came into its structural crisis for two reasons. The first is that the three basic costs of capitalist production - personnel, inputs, and infrastructure - rose slowly but steadily over time because of the ways in which producers sought to minimize each of these costs. Their efforts were therefore only partially realizable. Similarly, the mode of enforcing hegemonic supremacies also reached structural limits given the absences of new zones to incorporate into the now global world-system.

The costs of capitalist production had been rising steadily as a percentage of the possible price that could be obtained (effective demand). The consequence of the mode of operations of these two imperfect cyclical rhythms was an upward secular trend over 500 years, moving towards an asymptote. They eventually reached a point where the costs were so high and effective demand so constrained that it was no longer possible to accumulate capital, creating a problem for capitalists themselves. The system had moved so far from a possible equilibrium that they brought about, in conjunction with the limits of hegemonic power, the structural crisis of the system.

A structural crisis is not a cyclical downturn, with which it is regularly confused because of our looseness in using the word "crisis." It is far more than that. It is the point at which the system can no longer be brought back to equilibrium and begins to fluctuate wildly. This can only occur once in the life of a historical system. At the point when the structural crisis begins, the system bifurcates. For natural scientists, a bifurcation means that there are two different solutions to the same equation, something supposedly not normally possible. In ordinary language, we can say that there has come into being two possible and quite different outcomes, two paths along which the system can evolve.

In a bifurcation, one is absolutely certain that the system cannot survive. However, one is equally certain that it is intrinsically impossible to know which fork of the bifurcation will ultimately prevail and thereby result in the creation of a new historical system (or systems).

The origins and evolution of the Global Left can best be appreciated if one understands some major turning-points of the modern world-system. I start with the French Revolution. Most historians consider that the French Revolution brought about a fundamental transformation of France in either its political or economic structures, or both.

I think it did neither of these things. Politically, France had long been following an uneven trajectory of strengthening the central state. As Tocqueville showed a long time ago, the result of the French Revolution was to put this trajectory back on track. Economically, it did not transform France into a capitalist state, since France had been part of the capitalist world-economy for two to three centuries already. As for its supposed abolition of the remnants of feudal law, Marc Bloch showed that the presumed feudal remnants were still there as late as the early twentieth century.

Rather, in my view the significance of the French Revolution lay in 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. The combination of the two had very radical implications. The sovereign people could change the system more or less as they wished. For the dominant classes, this belief severely threatened their interests. The immediate problem was how to handle this new reality. There were three different ways, resulting in the three fundamental ideologies of the post-1789 world - rightwing conservatism, centrist liberalism, and leftwing radicalism. Each of these ideologies was a different way of responding politically to these new beliefs. I call this array of responses the newly-constructed geoculture of the modern world-system.

I interpret the world-revolution of 1848 as a critical confrontation of the three post-1789 ideologies, in which both rightwing Conservatism and leftist Radicalism were outmaneuvered by centrist Liberalism, which was able to assert supremacy over the two rival ideologies.

The Global Left took a crucial turn in the wake of the severe repressions it suffered following the world-revolution of 1848. The key political shift was from relying either on spontaneous rebellions or on utopian withdrawal (the two principal tactics prior to 1848) to the creation of organizational and therefore bureaucratic structures to prepare the base for the long struggle. Such structures began to take shape only in the 1870s.

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 subordinate status to centrist liberalism. After 1968, they were able to become once again autonomous ideologies, recreating the original triad. Centrist liberalism did not disappear but was reduced to being once again simply one of three competing ideologies.

Organizationally what I call the original version of the antisystemic movements, sometimes called the Old Left, began to be constructed in the last third of the nineteenth century. These movements took two main forms: that of social movements, which considered that the basic struggle was a capitalist struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; and that of the national movements, which considered that the basic struggle was between oppressed peoples and their oppressors.

There were parallel debates about strategy that occurred both in the social and in the nationalist movements. One was whether the movements should seek state power. There were those who said that the state was their principal enemy and that therefore they should combat it permanently and unremittingly. The state could not be reformed. And there were others who insisted that precisely because the state was their enemy, they needed to disarm it by taking it over. In social movements, this was the difference between the Anarchists and the Marxists. In national movements this was the difference between the cultural and political nationalists.

The second great debate was over the relation between what each considered to be the primary historical actor (the proletariat for the social movements, the oppressed people for the national movements) and all other movements. There were those who insisted that the victory of the primary actor had to take precedence over the realization of any other demand. Feminist movements, movements of social minorities, peace movements, environmentalist movements all were told to subordinate their actions and demands to those of the primary actor. Otherwise, it was argued they were acting objectively counter-revolutionary. We call this view verticalism. And there were those who insisted that the demands of other groups for their rights could not wait on the victorious "revolution" of the self-styled primary movements. We call this horizontalism.

In the case of both the social and the national movements, the statist, verticalist strategy won out in a formula we came to call the two-step strategy - first obtain state power, then transform the world. This strategy failed in 1968 precisely because it had succeeded in the preceding twenty-five years. The revolutionaries of 1968 (what the French called the soixante-huitards) were responding to what they saw as several realities. The first was the pervasive imperialist role of the hegemonic power, and what the revolutionaries defined as the collusion thereto of the Soviet Union (the Yalta tacit deal). The second was the failure of the movements, having realized step one of the two-step strategy, to implement the second step and change the world in any significant way. The third was the limitations and misdeeds of a verticalist strategy from the perspective of other movements.

The world-revolution of 1968 came within a particular historical context, that of the acme of the operation of the modern world-system. This was the period running more or less from 1945 to 1970. This period saw the highest historical level of accumulation 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.

Initially after 1968, it was the Global Right that was able to take most advantage of the post-1968 situation. These took the form of the so-called Washington Consensus that imposed on virtually all governments a series of measures that undid the so-called developmentalist thrusts of an earlier period. It would not be until 1994 that the Global Left could resume its initiatives. There 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 then 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, even if it was thought to apply merely to certain particular 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 period of normal operation of the world-system. 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 structural reality rather than an accidental variable. The economics of everyday life is subject to wilder swings than those to which the world had been accustomed and for which there had been easy explanations. Above all, the social fabric seems less reliable and the institutions on which we rely to guarantee our immediate security seem to be faltering seriously. Thus, antisocial crime as well as so-called terrorism seems to be widespread and this perception creates high level of fear. One widespread reflex to increased fear is the expansion of privatized security measures staffed by non-state hired forces.

The Global Right are a complex mix and do not constitute a single organized caucus. The majority of those who identify with them will share in the general confusion and will resort to their traditional short-run politics, perhaps with a higher dose of repressiveness insofar as the politics of concessions will not be seen as achieving the short-run calm it is supposed to produce.

But there is also the small minority among the upper strata who are sufficiently insightful and intelligent to perceive the fact that the present system is collapsing and who wish to ensure that any new system be one that preserves their privileged position. They probably can be divided into two main groups advocating two possible alternative strategies. One is fierce repression and one is the de Lampedusa strategy - to change everything in order that nothing change. Both sub-groups have firm resolve and a great deal of resources at their command. They can hire intelligence and skill, more or less as they wish. They have in fact already been doing so.

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 will favor. I do know that, whatever it is, it will seem attractive and be deceptive and is far more dangerous to the Global Left that 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 Global Left who wish to move in the direction of a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system necessarily act within the framework of an uncertain outcome. This is not easy. There is no bandwagon to climb aboard. There is only a harsh struggle.

Pre-1968 left analysis involved multiple biases that had pushed it the Global Left 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, even those who claimed to be Marxist, the centralizing, homogenizing path seemed easiest and fastest. It required no difficult calculation of how to balance complex sets of choices. They were arguing in effect 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. Whereas 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, 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, an instrument more relevant for the large majority within each state than 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, but 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 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 as a multi-party parliamentary system) 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, in particular its Leninist variant, which 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 politically, if one’s choices are constrained by an unequal position. And no one can be "equal" economically if one does not have the degree of political freedom that others have, that is, does not enjoy the same political rights and the same degree of participation in real decisions.

Still this is all water under the bridge. The errors of the 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? 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 choices - say choice of doctor or school dependent on wealth is anti-liberal. Patents are anti-liberal. One could go on. The fact is that the capitalist world-economy has survived 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.

But of course, calling the rhetorical bluff is only the beginning of reconstruction. We need to have a positive program of our own. There has been a veritable sea-change in the programs of left parties and movements around the world between as late as the 1960s and today. In the 1960s, the programs of Old Left movements 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 these programs are terribly inadequate, but at least the movements feel it necessary to say something. On the other hand, there is virtually no party or movement today that considers itself on the left that advocates further socialization or nationalization of the means of production, and a goodly number that 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 in the sense that the murderous mutual denunciations and vicious struggles of yesteryear have considerably abated, a positive development we have been underestimating. I would like to suggest some lines along which we could develop further the idea of an alternative strategy.

(1) Expand 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 movements to push for (a) intellectual clarity, (b) militant actions based on popular mobilization that can be seen as immediately useful in people’s lives, (c) simultaneously argue for 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. It is militant, both intellectually and politically. Intellectually, it is not in search of a global consensus with the spirit of Davos. And politically, it is militant in the sense that the movements of 1968 were militant. 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 a force difficult to suppress, while encouraging centrist forces to be neutral, if hesitantly.

(2) Use defensive electoral tactics. If the Global Left commits itself to loosely structured, extra-parliamentary militant tactics, this immediately raises the question of our attitude towards electoral processes. Scylla and Charybdis are thinking that they’re crucial and thinking that they’re irrelevant. Electoral victories will not transform the world; but they cannot be neglected. They are an essential mechanism of protecting the immediate needs of the world’s populations against losses of achieved benefits. The electoral battles must be fought in order to minimize the damage that can be inflicted by the Global Right via control of the world’s governments.

We cannot neglect such battles because all of us live and survive in the present and no movement can tell people that short-term survival is unimportant. This makes, however, electoral tactics a purely pragmatic matter. Once we don’t think of obtaining state power as a mode of transforming the world, they are always a matter of opting for the lesser evil, and the decision of what is the lesser evil has to be made case by case and moment by moment.

The choice depends in part on what is 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. In addition, 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 counts pragmatically. But no dancing in the streets, when we win! Electoral victory is merely a defensive tactic.

(3) Push democratization unceasingly. For at least two centuries, what left movements and ordinary people have most loudly demanded of the states can be resumed in one word “more” , more education, more health, more guaranteed lifetime income. This is not only popular; it is immediately useful in people’s lives. And it tightens the squeeze on the possibilities of the endless accumulation of capital. These demands should be pushed continuously, and everywhere. There cannot be too much.

To be sure, expanding all these "welfare state" functions always raises questions of efficiency of expenditures, of corruption, of creating over-powerful and unresponsive bureaucracies. These are all questions we should be ready to address, but they should never lessen the basic demand of more, much more.

It is crucial that popular movements not spare the center or left-of-center governments they have elected from the pursuit of these demands. Just because it is a friendlier government than an outright right government does not mean that we should pull our punches. Pressing friendly governments pushes rightwing opposition forces towards the center-left. Not pushing them pushes center-left governments towards the center-right. While there may be occasional special circumstances to obviate these truisms, the general rule on democratization is more, much more.

4) Make the liberal center 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 no value in being allowed to leave a country unless you can get in somewhere else. We should push for open frontiers.

The liberal center regularly calls for freer trade, freer enterprise, keeping the government out of the market decisions that entrepreneurs are making. 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, retraining, and even starting job opportunities. But none of this needs involve assuming the debts of the failing entrepreneurs.

The liberal center regularly insists that monopoly is a bad thing. But the other side of that is abolishing or grossly limiting patents. The other side of that is not involving the government in protecting 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 the proposition 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 most effective political mode of neutralizing centrist opinion is to appeal to its ideals, not its interests. Calling the claims on the 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 easily available to the poorest strata, or not available to the same degree, because of the difficulties they have in navigating the bureaucratic hurdles. Some thirty years ago, Cloward and Piven proposed a mode of aiding the poorest strata. They said we should "explode the rolls," that is, mobilize in the poorest communities so that they take full advantage of their legal rights. (1 )

5) Make anti-racism 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 or fewer rights. Racism both defines the groups and simultaneously 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, and without it as a central feature of local, national, and world politics. In her speech to the Mexican National Assembly on Mar. 29, Commandant Esther of the EZLN 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. (2)

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 bring together its hour and the hour of the indigenous peoples.... And if today we are indigenous women, tomorrow we will the others, men and women, who are dead, persecuted, or imprisoned because of their difference.

6) Move towards decommodification. 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. Even today, the capitalist world-system is not entirely commodified, although there are efforts to make it so. But we could in fact move in the other direction. Instead of transforming universities and hospitals (whether state-owned or private) into profit-making institutions, we should be thinking of how we 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 doesn’t exist is continuing with our present structures.

There will be an immense struggle over the successor system, which shall continue for 20-40 years, and whose outcome is intrinsically uncertain. History is on no one’s side. It depends on what we do. On the other hand, this 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 creates great pressures to return to its equilibrium. But in the chaotic ambiance of a structural transition, fluctuations become wild, and even small pushes can have great consequences in favoring one branch or the other of the bifurcation. If ever agency operates, this is the moment.

The key problem is not 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 even 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 us from falling into their many traps.

They will use slogans we cannot disagree with - say, human rights. But they will give it content which includes 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. If an international judicial procedure against genocide is desirable, then it desirable only if it is applicable to everyone, not merely the weak. If nuclear weapons, or biological warfare, are 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.

(1) Richard Cloward & Frances Fox Piven, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, New York, Pantheon, 1971, p. 348.

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