"A Left Politics for the 21st Century? or, Theory and Praxis Once Again"*
by Immanuel Wallerstein (firstname.lastname@example.org )
ã Fernand Braudel Center 1999
There is said to be a Yugoslav aphorism that goes like this: "The only absolutely certain thing is the future, since the past is constantly changing."1 The world left is living today with two pasts that have almost totally disappeared, and rather suddenly at that. This is very unsettling. The first past that has disappeared is the trajectory of the French Revolution. The second past that has disappeared is the trajectory of the Russian Revolution. They both disappeared more or less simultaneously and jointly, in the 1980s. Let me carefully explain what I mean by this.
The French Revolution is of course a symbol. It symbolizes a theory of history that has been very widely shared for two centuries, and shared far beyond the confines of the world left. Most of the world's liberal center also shared this theory of history, and today even part of the world's right. It could be said to have been the dominant view within the world-system throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its premise was the belief in progress and the essential rationality of humanity. The theory was that history could be seen as a linear upward process. The world was en route to the good society, and the French Revolution constituted and symbolized a major leap forward in this process.
There were many variants on this theory. Some persons, especially in the United States, wished to substitute the American for the French Revolution in this story. Others, especially in Great Britain, were in favor of substituting the English Revolution. Some persons wished to eliminate all political revolutions from the story, and make this theory of history the story of the steady commercialization of the world's economic processes, or the steady expansion of its electoral processes, or the fulfillment of a purported historic mission of the State (with a capital S). But whatever the details, all these variants shared the sense of the inevitability and the irreversibility of the historical process.
This was a hopeful theory of history since it offered a happy ending. No matter how terrible the present (as for example when the fortunes of Nazi Germany seemed to be riding high, or when racist colonialism seemed at its most oppressive), believers (and most of us were believers) took solace in the knowledge we claimed to have, that "history was on our side." It was an encouraging theory even for those who were privileged in the present, since it offered the expectation that eventually everyone else would share the privileges (without the present beneficiaries losing any) and that therefore the oppressed would cease annoying the oppressors with their complaints.
The only problem with this theory of history is that it did not seem to survive the test of empirical experience very well. This is where the Russian Revolution came in. It was a sort of codicil to the French Revolution. Its message was that the theory of history symbolized by the French Revolution was incomplete because it held true only insofar as the proletariat (or the popular masses) were energized under the aegis of a dedicated group of cadres organized as a party or party/state. This codicil we came to call Leninism.
Leninism was a theory of history espoused only by the world left, and in fact by only a part of it at most. Still, it would be fatuous to deny that Leninism came to have a hold on a significant portion of the world's populations, especially in the years 1945-1970. The Leninist version of history was, if anything, more resolutely optimistic than the standard French Revolution model. This was because Leninism insisted that there was a simple piece of material evidence one could locate if one wanted to verify that history was evolving as planned. Leninists insisted that wherever a Leninist party was in undisputed power in a state, that state was self-evidently on the road to historical progress, and furthermore could never turn back. The problem is that Leninist parties tended to be in power only in economically less well-off zones of the world, and conditions were not always brilliant in such countries. Still, the belief in Leninism was a powerful antidote to any anxieties caused by the fact that immediate conditions or events within a country governed by a Leninist party were dismaying.
I do not need to rehearse for you the degree to which all theories of progress have become suspect in the last two decades, and the Leninist variant in particular. I do not say that there are no believers left, since that would be untrue, but they no longer represent a substantial percentage of the world's populations. This constitutes a geocultural shift of no small proportion and, as I have said, has been particularly unsettling for the world left, which had placed most of its chips (if not all of them) on the correctness of at least the French Revolution version of this theory of history.
Why did this shift occur? There are many explanations that we are hearing today. From the world's center and right, the explanation comes that the world left misread this theory of history, and that it is still somehow true, but only if we define the good society as the predominance of an unfettered free flow of the factors of production, all in non-governmental hands, and most especially the free flow of capital. This utopia is called "neo-liberalism," and is quite popular today with politicians and so-called public intellectuals. It is however a mirage as well as a deliberate delusion, one whose acme of influence is already past, and one that is worth a lot less discussion than it has been getting. By 2010, I warrant, we will scarcely remember this momentary mad fantasy.
A second explanation, coming from parts of the world left, is that the original theory remains correct, but that the world left has suffered some temporary setbacks, which will soon be reversed. All we have to do is to reiterate forcefully the theory (and the praxis). Given the degree to which such a massive "temporary setback" was nowhere predicted in the theory, and failing a more detailed explanation, this explanation seems to me to be a case of wishful thinking by some ostriches. I cannot see how Leninism, as an ideological stance and an organizational reality, can be resurrected, even should one want to do so. And the French Revolution arouses passion today only among a restricted group of scholars.
A third explanation for the collapse of this theory of history is that the collapse is in fact both a cause and a consequence of the crisis of the capitalist world-system. This is an explanation I have myself been expounding in various recent works.2 I argue that the very theory of history widely espoused by the world left - that is, by what I call the antisystemic movements in their three historic variants: Communism, Social-Democracy, and the national liberation movements - was itself a product of the capitalist world-system. As a result, although these movements did of course mobilize large masses of people to struggle against the system, they also paradoxically served historically as cultural undergirding for the system's relative political stability. The very belief in the inevitability of progress was substantively depoliticizing, and particularly depoliticizing once an antisystemic movement came to state power. I believe further that the discrepancy between what was promised by these movements and what was realizable within the framework of the existing world-system once they were in state power inevitably became too great. As a consequence, the popular base eventually became disillusioned with the movements, which led to their ejection from power in a large number of states.
The decisive moment was the world revolution of 1968, during which the so-called Old Left (that is, the historic antisystemic movements) became an object of challenge by the participants in the various local expressions of this world revolution. One of the principal lasting results of 1968 was the rejection of the theory of inevitable and irreversible progress that had been preached by the movements. Thereupon, the world's populations began to turn away from the historic antisystemic movements themselves, and then began to delegitimize the state structures which the movements had been sustaining as essential mechanisms of progressive change. But 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 the anti-statism has been delegitimizing all state structures, not merely particular regimes. It has thus undermined (rather than reinforced) the political stability of the world-system, and thereby has been making more acute its systemic crisis, which has had of course many other contributing causes as well.
In my view, the situation of the world left at present is the following: (1) After 500 years of existence, the world capitalist system is, for the first time, in true systemic crisis, and we find ourselves in an age of transition. (2) The outcome is intrinsically uncertain, but nonetheless, and also for the first time in these 500 years, there is a real perspective of fundamental change, which might be progressive but will not necessarily be so. (3) The principal problem for the world left at this juncture is that the strategy for the transformation of the world which it had evolved in the nineteenth century is in tatters, and it is consequently acting thus far with uncertainty, weakness, and in a generalized mild state of depression. Allow me to elaborate on each of these three points.
1. Systemic crisis
One of the unhappy results of the disarray of the world left is the suspicion that today surrounds any argument concerning a crisis of capitalism. Once burned, twice shy - and we have been burned so many, many times. The basic problem, if I may say so, is that most of the major figures of the world left of the past two centuries had not read Braudel on the multiplicity of social times, and were constantly confounding cyclical ups and downs with structural crises. This is easy to do, and especially within a geoculture like that of the modern world-system, one that gives pride of place to "newness" because of its total faith in the upward linearity of history. The left was particularly reluctant to embrace any argument that invoked cyclical processes because it incorrectly identified all such arguments with the subset that asserted what I would call the "eternal cyclicity of history." The latter theory had indeed been pervasively utilized by conservative thinkers as an argument against any and all transformational movements. But the concept of cycles within structures (to which I am referring) is not only different from the concept of eternal cyclicity; it is virtually its opposite, since structures are not at all eternal, only long-lasting, and the cycles within the structures are what guarantees that a structure can never be eternal. There are thus no eternal cycles, for there really is an arrow of time, even if it is not linear.
What seems to me therefore methodologically essential in the analysis of any historical social system (and the capitalist world-economy is a historical social system) is to distinguish carefully between, on the one hand, the cyclical rhythms that define its systemic character and which enable it to maintain certain equilibria, at least for the duration of the system and, on the other hand, the secular trends that grow out of these cyclical rhythms defining its historical character and which mean that, sooner or later, a given system will no longer be able to contain its internal contradictions and that thus this system will enter into systemic crisis. In such a methodology, any historical system can be said to have three moments in time: its genesis (which needs to be explained, but which normally occurs as the result of the collapse of some other historical system), the relatively long period of what might be called the "quasi-normal" functioning of a historical system (the rules and constraints of which need to be described and analyzed), and its period of terminal crisis (which needs to be seen as a moment of historic choice whose outcome is always undetermined).
I believe that a number of trends have today at last reached points where they threaten the basic functioning of the system. I shall summarize briefly here what I have expounded at length elsewhere.3 Capitalism as a historical system is defined by the fact that it makes structurally central and primary the endless accumulation of capital. This means that the institutions which constitute its framework reward those who pursue the endless accumulation of capital and penalize those who don't.
But how does one accumulate capital? The crucial prerequisite is obtaining profit from economic operations, the more the better. And profit is a function of the differential between real costs and possible prices. I say possible prices because of course no seller can infinitely increase the price demanded for a commodity and expect to sell it. There are always limits. Economists call this the elasticity of demand. Within the limits of the rate of elasticity, the actual profit depends upon three costs: the cost of labor, the cost of inputs and infrastructure, the cost of taxation.
Now suppose we were to measure these costs globally as percentages of total sales prices and arrive hypothetically at average levels. Of course, this is an operation no one has ever done, and is perhaps not doable. But it is possible to conceive of it, and to approximate the results. I would suggest to you that, over 500 years and across the capitalist world-economy as a whole, the three costs have all been steadily rising as a percentage of total value produced. And the net result is that we are in, and ever more coming into, a global profit squeeze that is threatening the ability of capitalists to accumulate capital.
This is actually something capitalists discuss all the time. They use however other terminology. They discuss "efficiency of production," by which they mean essentially lowering costs as a percentage of total value. In effect, they are talking about using fewer people to produce the same amount of goods, or of obtaining cheaper inputs (which often includes fewer people to produce the input). It is of course the case that in inter-capitalist competition, the producer who is more efficient is likely to gain more profit than his competitor. But my question is different: is production, considered globally and in all sectors taken together, more "efficient" today than 100, 200, 300 years ago?
Not only am I skeptical that global production is more "efficient" from the point of view of the producer, but I am contending that the curve has been steadily downward. All the so-called triumphs of efficient production are simply attempts to slow down the pace of the downward curve. One can regard the entire neoliberal offensive of the last two decades as one gigantic attempt to slow down the increasing costs of production - primarily by lowering the cost of wages and taxation and secondarily by lowering the costs of inputs via technological advance. I believe further that the overall degree of success has been quite limited, however painful it has been for those who have borne the brunt of the attack, and that even the limited gains are about to be reversed.
What else is the issue in all the constant screaming about the threat of inflation, so often invoked by Alan Greenspan and his cronies in Germany and Great Britain? If you read what they say, the potential cause of this terrible monster called inflation is that workers might actually get higher wages or that governments might spend even more (and therefore tax even more). They at least seem to have no illusion about the source of the threat to capital accumulation. Mild inflation after all is the normal condition of the capitalist world-economy when it is functioning smoothly, and has been going on for a long, long time. But normal inflation is indeed the consequence of rising wage and taxation levels, and therefore is precisely the phenomenon to which I am pointing.
Why are these three prices steadily if slowly rising over time, despite the best efforts of capitalists to attempt to slow them down? Let me briefly outline the reasons for each of the rising costs. Wages rise because workers organize. This is an ancient truism, but it is nonetheless accurate. The modes of organizing are multiple. Whenever workers' syndical action becomes too expensive for capitalists, and particularly in Kondratieff B-phases when global competition is more acute, capitalists have sought to "run away" - from the city to the countryside, from loci where workers have been well organized to other loci where they have been less well organized.
If one regards the process over 500 years, one sees that this process has taken the form of transferring productive processes regularly (but not at all continuously) to zones newly-incorporated into the capitalist world-economy. The reason has been simple. In such zones one can locate a work force in rural areas that are less well commercialized who can be persuaded to engage in wage work at wage levels below the world standard. They can be so persuaded because, for them at that moment, such wages represent a real increase in total income. The hitch is that, once these now displaced workers have been in the new work zone (usually an urban one) for some time (say 25-50 years), they shift their standards of comparison, learn the ways of the new work world, and begin in turn to organize and demand higher wage levels.
The poor capitalist is reduced to running away once again. The problem today is that, after 500 years, there are few places left to which to run. The process of rising wages has become extremely difficult to slow down. Today, even in the miserable barrios of the large urban centers of the countries of the South, the real alternatives for income of a potential wage-worker is far higher than that of his rural grandparent and therefore, if one wants his/her services in the so-called formal economy, one has to pay for it at higher levels.
The same process of exhaustion of low-cost zones has been occurring in the cost of inputs. The main mechanism that capitalists have used to keep down the cost of inputs has been not to pay for some of them, but instead to obtain them at the expense of the collectivity. This is called externalization of costs. A producer externalizes costs primarily in three ways: he disposes of unprocessed waste outside of his property without paying anyone to process it; he purchases inputs at the cost of their being made available to him but without paying for the cost of their being replenished; he utilizes infrastructure built at collective expense. These three usages are no small part of reducing the cost of production and thereby increasing the rate of profit.
The first two of these three ways have depended on finding new areas to dump waste and new sources of raw materials whose previous sources are being exhausted. With the steady expansion of the areas included within the capitalist world-economy and the steady increase of the rate of their utilization, the globe is running out of replacement locales. This is the problem addressed by the ecology movement, who have pointed as well to the fact that inexpensive modes of disposal (by producers and by the collectivity) have wreaked major damage to the ecosystem, which is in urgent need of expensive repair. The third form of externalizing costs requires a steady increase in taxation, to which issue we are coming. The only real long-term solution to these problems is the internalization of costs which, given the limits of the elasticity of demand, means a long-term profit squeeze.
Finally, taxes have been going up, as we are constantly reminded by all and sundry. It matters not that taxes are unevenly distributed. They have been going up for just about everyone, and this includes all producers. They have been going up for one simple reason, which political scientists refer to as the democratization of the world whose consequence has been the expansion of the welfare state. People have been demanding higher state outputs on education, health, and guarantees of lifetime income. Furthermore, the threshold of demands has been steadily rising and spreading geographically to include more and more parts of the world. This has been the price of relative political stability, and there is no indication that the pressure from the bottom is letting up in any way.
One final point. It is not as though all these rising pressures on the rate of profit were only the result of the demands of persons other than the producers. Capitalists have been themselves partially responsible for this rise in costs. They (or at least some of them) have favored some rise in wage levels as a means of creating effective demand. They (or at least some of them) have favored internalization of some costs, as a mode of guaranteeing future production possibilities. They (or at least some of them) have wanted the welfare state as a way of appeasing the working classes. And they have favored other kinds of state expenditures (and therefore of taxation) as a way of repressing the working classes. And finally they (or at least some of them) have favored all of these measures as a way of creating financial pressures on their weaker competitors.
The net result of all of this however has been a massive rise in costs which is leading to a worldwide squeeze on profits. The very madness of our current speculative mania, most acute in the stronghold of the system, the United States, is not disproof of this hypothesis but further evidence for it. I cannot however argue this thesis further here if I am to discuss the prospects for fundamental change and the strategy of the world left.
2. Systemic Transition
What does it mean to say that a system enters into systemic crisis? It means that the secular trends are reaching asymptotes that they cannot cross. It means that the mechanisms that have been used up to that point to return the system to relative equilibria no longer can function because they require moving the system too near to the asymptote. It means, in Hegelian language, that the contradictions of the system can no longer be contained. It means, in the language of the sciences of complexity, that the system has moved far from equilibrium, that it is entering into a period of chaos, that its vectors will bifurcate, and eventually a new system or systems will be created. It means that the "noise" in the system, far from being an element that can be ignored, will come to the forefront. It means that the outcome is intrinsically uncertain, and is creative.
This description of crises in systems applies to any and all systems, from that of the entire universe to that of subatomic worlds, from physical to biological to historical social systems. It applies most fully and with greatest complexity to historical social systems, since they are the most complex of all systems other than that of the cosmos itself. Using such a model is not reducing social phenomena to physical phenomena. It is exactly the reverse. It is interpreting physical phenomena as though they were social phenomena, with agents, imagination, self-organization, and creative activity.
I have always found it curious that this description has been thought to be mechanistic and, even more strange, pessimistic. It is a form of analysis that directly denies the validity of what we have termed "mechanical" in the social thought of the last few centuries. And it is not at all pessimistic because it is necessarily neutral in its prediction of outcome. Neither good nor bad outcomes are predicted. No outcomes can be predicted, since alternative outcomes depend on an infinity of unknown and unknowable choices.
The way we might think about a chaotic period of systemic transition is that it is one in which "free will" more or less reigns supreme, unfettered (as it normally is) by the straightjacket of custom and structural constraints. The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution were both incredible efforts to transform the world, engaging the mobilized energies of many, many people in many parts of the world, and over a long period of time, and yet they changed so much less than they were intended to change. And to the extent that they thought they were implementing changes, many of these changes were later reversed or subverted. By the yardstick of their hopes and their proclamations, they cannot be said to have been notable successes, despite the fact that they left indelible marks on everything that has occurred since their time.
The politics of the transition are different. 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 we have been accustomed and for which we have 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. Thus antisocial crime seems widespread and this perception creates fear and the reflex of the expansion of privatized security measures and forces. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is happening, and in varying degrees throughout the world-system.
One has to ask what are the likely reactions of different political forces in such a situation. The easiest to predict is the reaction of the upper strata of the world-system. They are of course a complex mix and do not constitute an organized caucus. But they probably can be divided into two main groups. The majority 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.
And then there is 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 which preserves their privileged position. The only strategy for such a group is the Lampedusa strategy - to change everything in order that nothing change. This group will 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 will do so. They may have already been doing so.
I do not know what this group 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. The most deceptive aspect is that such proposals may 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. This has already been happening for a long list of relatively minor proposals concerning various specific types of problems, such as ecology or genetic engineering, and the list could go on.
On the other side of the virtual battlefield will be all those who would seek to reconstruct the world such that it would be more democratic and more egalitarian. I use these two criteria as a minimal but in fact crucial definition of the world left. Were the disparate groups who share this objective to get their act together, this is a moment of great possibility to achieve a significant transformation in the direction of their hopes. But, as I have said previously, their present state is that they are acting with uncertainty, weakness, and in a generalized state of depression. Uncertainty I can understand, though it is possible to overcome this. But there is no inherent need for the world left to be either weak or depressed, even if I can appreciate how the shocks of the last 30 years have induced such reactions.
We do not know who will prevail in this struggle to resolve the systemic bifurcation between those who wish to move in the direction of a new historical social system which shares with the present one the crucial characteristic of hierarchical privilege and those who wish to move in the direction of a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system. We do not know and cannot know it. If we act, we must act within the framework of an uncertain outcome. There is no bandwagon to climb aboard. There is only a harsh struggle in which we must try to make prevail the primacy of substantive rationality. It is to the possible routes of action that I now turn.
3. A Strategy for the World Left
What is wrong with the strategy the world left evolved in the course of the nineteenth century? There must be many things, since the strategy has not been successful. The centerpiece of the overall strategy was the concept of "two steps": first obtain state power, then transform the world. This sequence made sense insofar as control of the state machinery seemed the only way to overcome the accumulated economic and cultural power of the privileged strata and the only way to ensure that new kinds of institutions could be constructed - and maintained against counterattack. Any other route to social transformation seemed utopian (in the pejorative sense of being a pipedream), and this view seemed to be confirmed by the fact that various other routes to transformation, whenever tried, met with aggressive counterattack and ultimately suppression.
So the two-step strategy seemed to be the only one that would work. And yet it failed. We know in retrospect what happened. The two-step strategy failed because, once the first step was achieved - and it was indeed achieved in a very large number of countries - the new regimes did not seem to be able to achieve the second step. This is precisely the source of disillusionment with the Old Left. But why did the movements falter at the second step? For a long time it was argued that, if a given regime did not transform the world as it had promised, it was because the leadership had in some sense "betrayed" the cause and had "sold out." The idea that leaders sell out, just like the idea that the masses are falsely conscious, seems to me analytically sterile and politically disabling. To be sure, some leaders do place personal ambition above their proclaimed principles, just as some ordinary people do seem not to believe in the same principles that many (even most) of their fellows do. The question however is why do such people prevail.
The basic problem is not ethical or psychological but structural. The states within a capitalist world-system have a lot of power, but they simply are not all-powerful. Those in power cannot do just anything they wish to do and still remain in power. Those in power are in fact rather severely constrained by all kinds of institutions, and in particular by the interstate system. This is a structural reality which one after the other of these movements that have come to power have confronted. Like trees in a storm, such regimes have either bent or been broken. None has ever stayed straight, or could have stayed straight. And in many ways, it was dangerously naive to have expected them to do so.
It is not that no one on the left had ever warned about the dangers of the two-step strategy. It is that those who argued its dangers could never convince the majority that there was any efficacious alternative route. The fact that the powerful of the world controlled the weapons (via state armies and state police forces) seemed to make it impossible that any truly fundamental changes could be made before the movements obtained state power. And the majority on the left was probably right about this. There was indeed no alternative way, as long as they were operating within the ambit of the capitalist world-system that was still basically stable.
But there is more to it than this. The left analysis involved multiple biases which pushed it towards this state-orientation. The first bias was that homogeneity was somehow better than heterogeneity, and that therefore centralization was somehow better than decentralization. This 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. 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 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) 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 world left fell for it. The world left, and in particular its Leninist variant, 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 his/her choices are constrained by an unequal position. And no one can be "equal" if he/she 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 this is all water under the bridge. The left made its case, and it has had to live with it. Today, as a result and as we are very well aware, the world left is in great difficulty. I am arguing however that this should not be seen in isolation. The errors of the left, the failed strategy, were an almost inevitable outcome of the operations of the capitalist system against which the left was struggling. And the widespread recognition of this historic failure of the left is part and parcel of the disarray caused by the general crisis of the capitalist world-system.
The failure of the left yesterday and its recognition today is precisely what will make it possible for the world left tomorrow to achieve its objectives. Possible, but not at all certain! A new kind of historical system will be constructed in the next half century. The worldwide battle has already begun over what it will look like. So what is it that we can do?
I think the first thing we can do is analyze. I say this not because I am addressing a group of social scientists, that is, persons who presumably engage in social analysis as their life work, but because one of the problems of the world, and in particular of the world left, is that our previous analyses have not been all that good and seem to have been part of the cause of why we are in the dilemmas we are in today. Here I can only repeat a number of themes I have been plugging for a while now. The first is the importance of the choice of the unit of analysis. I think the relevant unit of analysis is the modern world-system, which is a capitalist world-economy. The second is to analyze this system in the longue durée, which is however distinctly not eternal. What this does mean is that for any given historical system, such as for example the capitalist world-economy, we need to distinguish cyclical rhythms and secular trends, and use that to distinguish the periods of genesis, of quasi-normal operation, and of structural crisis of the system as a whole.
The third is to understand systemic processes in terms of their complexity, that is, their long-run tendency to move far from equilibrium, arriving at moments of bifurcation with indeterminate outcome. The fourth is to place particular emphasis on the institutional role within the capitalist world-economy of (a) the antisystemic movements and (b) the structures of knowledge. And the fifth is to place all this analysis within the context of unthinking (which is different from rethinking) the categories bequeathed to us largely in the nineteenth century to meet the needs and reflect the geoculture of the present world-system.
Analysis is of course always a necessary component of praxis. But it is particularly urgent and central when we are confronting a structural crisis because it is just then that accepted categories of thought provide the greatest hindrance to useful action. However analysis by itself is never action. Action requires organization. The world left has believed for the last 200 years that this meant highly coordinated action, preferably within a single hierarchical structure, believing it to be the most, perhaps the only, efficacious form of action.
I think that this assumption has been proven wrong. The social components that potentially make up the world left are too diverse, face too many different immediate problems, originate in too many diverse cultural loci for a system of democratic centralism, even one that were genuinely democratic, to work. This has been recognized in recent years by the emergence of two slogans that point in another direction. One is the U.S. slogan of the "rainbow coalition," a phrase that has been copied in other parts of the world. It was generated by the sense that, for very many people, their politics are rooted in, or deeply affected by, their social position and their identities. The other phrase is the one launched in the last few years in France, that of the "plural left." This phrase too is being copied. It refers less to the reality of different identities than to that of the multiplicity of political traditions and priorities.
However we appreciate the actual attempts heretofore to create a new style of left coalition, the core of the idea seems to me to be absolutely correct, and indeed essential if we are to make any significant political progress. We are strengthened collectively, not weakened, insofar as people organize in forms and structures meaningful to them, provided only the groups they form are ready to talk to each other, and to operate meaningful coalitions. This is far more than a matter of parliamentary politics. It can and should operate at all levels from the global to the local. But most of all, it cannot be merely a matter of political logrolling but one rather of constant debate and collegial analysis by these movements in concert one with the other. It is a question of creating and reinforcing a particular culture of collegial as opposed to hierarchical political action. It will not be easy.
What is it however that such coalitions 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 choice - 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 survives on the basis of the non-fulfillment of liberal rhetoric. The world left should be systematically, regularly, and continuously calling the bluff.
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 1960 and 1999. 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 terribly inadequate, but at least they feel it necessary to say something. On the other hand, there is virtually no party or movement today that considers itself on the left which advocates further socialization or nationalization of the means of production, and a number which are actually proposing moving in the other direction. It is a breathtaking turnabout. Some hail it, some denounce it. Most just accept it.
There is one enormous plus in this cataclysmic shift of emphasis. The world left had never addressed with sufficient seriousness the biggest problem of all for almost everyone, which is the day-by-day reality of worldwide multiple inequalities. Equality means very little if it is equality only amongst the wealthy. The capitalist world-system has resulted in the greatest geographic polarization of wealth and privilege the planet has ever known. And the top priority of the world left must be to decrease the gap radically and as rapidly as possible. But this is not the only gap that needs to be addressed. There are all the ones we have talked about for a long, long time: class, race, ethnicity, gender, generation. In short, we have to take the issue of equality as one about which something can indeed be done.
But what? Decreeing equality as an objective is not achieving it. For, even with good will all around - and this of course cannot be assumed; indeed quite the contrary - it is not easy to find equitable solutions. Here is where I think we need to reintroduce, indeed revive, Weber's concept of substantive rationality. We should note here incidentally a problem of translation. The term Weber used in German was "Rationalität materiel" - "material" as opposed to "formal." The accepted English translation, "substantive," only conveys "materiel" if we associate it with "substance" and not with "substantial" in our minds. What Weber was talking about was that which is rational in terms of collective widely-applicable value systems as opposed to that which is rational in terms of particular, narrowly described sets of objectives an individual or an organization might set itself. Weber himself was ambivalent about the attitude to take vis-a-vis "substantive rationality." He sometimes described it in ways that made it seem his priority and sometimes in ways that underlined his fears that ideological organizations (read, the German Social-Democratic Party) might impose their views on everyone else.4 Most of Weber's post-1945 acolytes have only noticed the latter sentiments and ignored the former. But we can make our own use of this important concept and the insights it gives us.
What it seems to me that Weber was pointing to is that, in a world of multiple actors and multiple sets of values, there can be resolutions of the debates that are more than the result of simple arithmetic (counting the votes) and more than a free-for-all in which everyone pursues his own fancy. There can exist substantively rational ways of making social decisions. To know what they are requires a long period of clear, active, and open debate and a collective effort to balance priorities over the short run and the long run.
Take a very obvious issue, the problem of generational priorities. There is at any given time a given social surplus, which can be divided among four generational groups: children, working-age adults, the elderly, and the as yet unborn. What is the right proportion to allocate in terms of collective expenditures? There surely is no easy or self-evident answer. But it is a question that needs some measured decisions, arrived at democratically (that is, involving the real participation of everyone, at least everyone living, in some meaningful way). At the present time, in the present system, we have no real process by which this can be done, not even within a single state, not to be speak of doing it globally. Can we construct such a process? We must. If we cannot, we renounce forever the traditional objective of the world left, a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world. I am not ready to renounce this objective. Thus, I am in principle optimistic that humanity can construct such procedures. But remember, not only is it difficult, but there are many, many powerful persons who do not wish to see such procedures established.
What we can say about these issues of multiple inequalities and the ways in which they might be overcome is that at least, and at last, they are the subject of serious debate today. They are on the agenda of the world left. And if we have not come up with very good answers up to now, we do seem to be working at it, and with far less internal backbiting than one might have feared and seemed to be happening 20-30 years ago.
But the great plus on the issue of the multiple inequalities has gone along with a great minus on the side of reconstructing our basic economic institutions. If capitalism collapses, do we still have an alternative that fulfils the traditional socialist objective - a socially-rational system that maximizes collective utility and fair distribution? If the world left is putting forth today such proposals, I haven't heard of them. Between those at one end of the left spectrum who are proclaiming "new" ideas that are simply watered-down versions of centrist administration of the capitalist system and those at the other end who are nostalgic for the nostrums of yesterday, there seems a real poverty of serious ideas.
The world left needs to face up to the most systematic and effective critique of historical socialist rhetoric, the suggestion that non-private ownership of the means of production leads to waste, disinterest in technological efficiency, and corruption. This critique has not been untrue of what we today call "real-existing socialism." This has been recognized by such of these regimes as still survive (or at least most of them), but their response has been to create a large place for private ownership within their regimes and label this "market socialism." While this may seem to solve some short-run economic difficulties, it fails utterly to address the underlying issues which the world socialist movement sought to address in the first place - gross inequality and gross social waste.
I suggest there may be another route, one that has in fact been tried partially and which is rather promising. I think one might be able to get most of the advantages of private ownership yet eliminate most of the negatives by ensconcing productive activities within medium-size, decentralized, competitive non-profit structures. The key is that they would be non-profit, that is, that no one would receive "dividends" or "profit distributions" and that any surplus either went back to the organization or was taxed by the collectivity for reinvestment elsewhere.
How might such structures work? Well, actually we know how, in the sense that there are parallels. Most major universities and hospitals in the United States have worked on such principles for two centuries now. Whatever we can say of their functioning, it is not the case that they have been "inefficient" or "technologically backward" by comparison with the few for-profit institutions that have existed. Quite the contrary. I'm aware that there is currently a move to try to transform such structures into for-profit institutions, but insofar as this has occurred in hospital structures the results have not been very good and the move to profit-oriented institutions has not yet been seriously tried in universities. Of course, in most countries, hospital and university structures are state-financed but traditionally they have usually been allowed enough autonomy for us to consider them examples of decentralization. These state-financed non-profit structures have not in any case been notably less efficient than the private non-profit ones.
So why wouldn't this work for steel firms, for computer technology giants, for manufacturers of aircraft and biotechnology? No doubt there would be a lot of details to argue about, especially the degree to which such non-profit corporations should be taxed, but per se it seems to me viable, and promising, and an alternative road that would not be out of sync with the commitment to a worldwide higher standard of living for everyone. At the very least, it would seem to me to something we should be seriously discussing and an idea we should be elaborating.
What I think we should keep in the forefront of our minds is that the basic issue is not ownership or even control of economic resources. The basic issue is the decommodification of the world's economic processes. Decommodification, it should be underlined, does not mean demonetization, but the elimination of the category of profit. Capitalism has been a program for the commodification of everything. The capitalists have not yet fulfilled it entirely, but they have gone a long way in that direction, with all the negative consequences we know. Socialism ought to be a program for the decommodification of everything. Five hundred years from now, if we start down that path, we may not have fulfilled it entirely, but we can have gone a long way in that direction.
In any case, we need to be debating the possible structures of the historical social system we want to construct as the present system collapses. And we ought to be trying to construct the alternative structures now, and in the next half-century, during the period of transition. We need to pursue this issue forcefully, if not dogmatically. We need to try out alternatives, as mental experiments and as real experiments. What we cannot do is ignore this issue. For if we do, the world right will come up itself with new non-capitalist alternatives that will involve us in a new, hierarchical, inegalitarian world order. And then it will be too late, for a long while thereafter, to change things.
Allow me to say one last word that is obvious, but needs to be said. Social scientists are specialists. Of course, we are not the only brand of specialists. In a sense, the world is constituted by an endless series of specialists, some of whom have had longer periods of training than others. How do specialists relate to non-specialists? How should they? The world left has tended to define this as the issue of how middle-class left-oriented intellectuals should relate to the working classes. And we have tended to favor the theory that they must be "organic intellectuals," by which we have meant that they must be involved in social movements, working with them, for them, and ultimately under them. The collapse of the movements has left a bad taste in the minds of erstwhile and putative organic intellectuals about the whole idea.
There is however another way to look at the issue. Consider how a client relates to a lawyer or a physician. As we know, it is basically a matter of class. The working-class client may feel ignorant and helpless vis-a-vis the professional, and accept the judgment of the professional, sometimes gratefully, sometimes with great resentment, but usually accepting it nonetheless. A wealthy or otherwise powerful person may treat the lawyer or the physician as a subordinate, whose primary function it is to give technical advice to a superior.
Is there some way in which the specialist can relate to the non-specialist as an equal? Obviously, the specialist has some specialized knowledge. That is the whole point of multiple, differential training programs. And obviously again, the specialist knows many things that are relevant to solving particular kinds of problems of which the non-specialist is unaware. That is why the non-specialist consults the specialist, to get the benefit of the expertise the specialist has. But it is also obvious that the non-specialist knows many other things - about his needs and preferences, about other problems he/she is facing - of which the specialist is unaware, or if aware, on which the specialist has no specialized knowledge.
Somewhere along the line, a total judgment has to be made, as to whether or not a particular line of action the specialist recommends is substantively rational. I am of course assuming that it is formally rational, that is, that it will achieve the narrowly-defined objective the specialist has taken into consideration. But who will make this decision? And how? If one transposes this issue from the realm of an individual encountering a specialist to resolve a personal problem to that of a collectivity encountering a group of specialists to resolve a collective problem, we see immediately that once again there is no simple answer. But I think once again this is a conundrum not impossible to overcome, merely difficult. Neither of two extremes is acceptable: that the specialists impose their solution on the collectivity; that the political decision-making bodies ignore the knowledge and the recommendations of the specialists. We need somehow systematically to intrude public debate on the issues, and the balancing of multiple needs and interests. We are thus back to the issue of substantive rationality.
This whole program for the left would be hard enough were we to face it amongst only ourselves and in all tranquillity. But we face these issues while under constant attack by those who wish to prevent our basic objectives from being achieved, and who have powerful resources at their command. Furthermore, we shall not be doing it in times of tranquillity but in times of chaos. It is the transitional chaos that offers us our opportunity, but at the same time this chaotic ambiance confuses us and presses us to turn away from the long-run reconstruction of a historical social system to the short-turn solution of urgent problems.
Finally, those of us in the United States find ourselves before one further obstacle, which C. Wright Mills saw clearly in 1959, and which has not fundamentally changed since then:
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