Judging from the reactions that my intervention provoked, I realize that I failed to adequately convey my intentions. I would like to this opportunity to make another attempt: I have inverted the order of my argument for the sake of clarity.
1. Make the Road by Walking
The struggle against capitalism, from below and to the left, is plural and open both in its origins and its goals, aiming to create a world where many worlds fit. This struggle requires no previous accord about the regime that is to follow. Neither does it require launching a shared vision about a current or future “society in general,” “national project,” “universal plan,” etc. While utopic designs have a clear value, it would be absurd to declare that in order to struggle together we must achieve consensus on any one in particular.
The global nature of the capitalist regime implies that it will only cease to exist when it is possible to dismantle it on a planetary scale. What’s more, there does not currently appear to be any corner of the world that escapes its destructive and oppressive impact. Despite this, it is possible to nourish the struggle against capitalism with transformative initiatives that have immediate effects. This can in fact be the most effective and convincing form of struggle. In the pockets of resistance that are in formation all over the world, it is possible to generate social relations and forms of social organization that escape the logic of capital and can be seen as anticipatory glimpses of a new society, even with the restrictions and threats that they must currently face.
Groups of discontented, rebellious nuclei are forming all over the planet. The deep pockets of finance will face a world of pockets of resistance. Yes, pockets. Of all sizes, of different colors, of varied shapes. Their only similarity is their resistance to the “new world order” and the crime against humanity implied by neoliberal war. (EZLN, “Seven Loose Pieces of the Global Jigsaw Puzzle,” June, 1997).
The zapatista communities, a clear example of these pockets of resistance, wage a constant struggle against the military and paramilitary aggressions to which they are subject, as well as against multiple other pressures. One of the principal sources of this resistance is the progress they have made in reorganizing social life and adopting new forms of self-government.
All over the world, these pockets of resistance are experimenting with innovative ideas and practices that recuperate traditions from the past, adapt them to contemporary conditions, and with social and political imagination unleash new paths of transformation that are in themselves images of tomorrow.
In order to advance in the struggle against capitalism, from below and to the left, we must carry out a systematic critique of our own ideas and practices, which are inevitably embedded in the mental and social framework generated by capitalism and extended throughout the world. We must clear our gaze, challenge dominant theories, and create the appropriate conditions for the autonomous generation of new knowledges. We must combine erudite knowledges with empirical ones in order to articulate a historical awareness of struggle that can lead us to a transformation from below and to the left.
2. Clearing our vision. We must know what oppresses, exploits, and attacks us, and carefully follow its shifts.
The Global “System”
We live under the most brutal, cynical, destructive, and ruthless “empire” in history: transnationalized capital. This empire instrumentalizes nation-states, including their militaries, in order to reach its goals. It acts with irresponsible arrogance, assuming that it is above any rule.
Though fatally injured by its own irreconcilable differences, this “system” will not fall on its own. It can however prolong catastrophically its own agony, negating one by one even its own premises—civil liberties, for example. And it can attempt to prolong its own forms of domination in a new “system” that could be even worse than the current one.
Only a concerted and purposeful struggle by those who radically oppose capitalism can modify this perspective and implement in its place a social organization that ends the current forms of oppression, exploitation, and aggression. It is indispensable, in order to organize the struggle, to be clear on the character of this new global empire and distinguish it from previous forms of oppression and exploitation.
Although the hegemonic power of the United States began to decline many years ago, losing its “imperial” capacity, that country continues to hold immense economic and military power which it uses in the service of corporate power to impose the war that it wages on people, within its own borders and all over the world.
The new situation we find ourselves in now generates as many opportunities as it does risks. The United States has intensified its aggressions against other peoples and nations, violating international norms and facing universal repudiation. Only a conscientious and deliberate struggle will be able to counter these new threats.
In the last decade of the 20th century, Mexico finally extinguished what had been the longest authoritarian system in the world. The end of that system was a consequence of a long struggle against it, the onslaught of neoliberalism, and of the zapatista uprising. No substitute has yet arisen to this regime. Within the current political transition, the constituted powers, battling to define the terms of a new order, have acted through authoritarian mechanisms to demolish the remains of the old regime in an exercise of domination as cynical as it is brutal and incompetent. We need a clear perspective of the new situation in order to orient with precision our current struggles.
* * *
All of these convictions can be formulated as hypotheses and submitted to observation and verification. Numerous authors have been busy doing so. In addition, these positions are being put to the test historically, as in the case of the United States empire. Beyond whatever technical dispute over terms, for the generations of Latin Americans who trained ourselves politically in a struggle against US imperialism, it is of great import to acknowledge that this struggle was a success. Here are facts to support this claim:
- Although the OAS (Organization of American States) continues to be an irrelevant bureaucratic apparatus, it has ceased to be the colonial office of Washington
- Despite inflicting enormous pressure, the United States was unable to achieve the creation of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas).
- The United States’ unprecedented pressures and threats for others to participate in the “coalition” to invade Iraq were ignored by almost all Latin American countries.
- The United States has been left virtually isolated in its embargo on Cuba. And while Cuba has suffered new aggressions, it has not only remained firm in its resistance but has also launched new initiatives.
A similar analysis can be applied to Mexico’s case, where we have gone from an “imperial presidency,” a species of a six-year monarchy to a stumbling regime in which the institution of the presidency has been seriously cast in doubt. The strictly vertical structure of the so-called “PRI-government” could only function when the president, in full possession of his powers, was the head of the party and of the entire system. It is this system that has collapsed. The new spaces and hierarchies generated in its place are being employed throughout all arenas of political and social life in the country.
None of this implies that it may be possible to “let down one’s guard” in the face of aggression. The war waged against peoples all over the world is fierce and without mercy. The aggressiveness of the United States and its irresponsible violation of international norms is nearly without precedent. The growing use of police and military force by Calderón, in compensation for his political weakness, is creating increasingly intolerable situations. The gravity of the situation, however, demands that we be precise in our endeavors, with a clarity and awareness of the changes taking place, rather than to continue fighting ghosts.
3a. Clearing our Vision: Understanding the Nature of the State
The modern nation-state, on whose altar many previous forms of social organization were sacrificed, was born as a sign and instrument of social change as well as the promoter and protector of institutions linked to industrial capitalism. It was the principal arena of capitalist expansion as well as the most important space capitalism to exercise its domination. In adopting representative democracy, it became the “best possible political wrapping for capitalism” (Lenin).
The situation of this political regime has been substantially modified. It has ceased to be the privileged arena of capital and is exposed to a double attack: on one side from corporate transnationalism and from the other by ethnic groups. Its political capacity has been undermined. The old nation-state mechanisms and the new macro-national structures are increasingly inadequate and insufficient, leading to the growing use of force as a substitute for politics. There currently exists on the planet a hundred “internal conflicts” that could be more accurately classified as “civil wars,” and in almost all countries repression against social movements is increasing.
Some specialists think that the nation-state as a political regime is today stronger than ever, even while it is increasingly reduced to what is more or less a policing of the population in the service of transnational capitalism. Others believe that the nation-state is clearly in a process of becoming extinct, reduced to a mere shell of rituals. These prognoses of the nation-state in the era of globalization—ranging as they do from living out the last throes of existence to experiencing a moment of unprecedented strength—are expressed from all points on the ideological spectrum, from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to anarchists and Marxists alike.
Beyond this debate, what we must be attentive to is the fact that it is increasingly clear that the current crisis of capitalism and the intensification of popular struggles have revealed the nature of this form of political organization (the nation-state) for what it is: a structure of domination and control. In addition, this reality has reopened the debate regarding the necessity to dismantle the machinery of the current state, conceived and operated for the capitalist system, if we are to transition to another regime of production. Historic experience has shown us clearly that it is not sufficient to merely give this machinery another ideological orientation.
Without losing sight of the necessity to confront the institutions of the nation-state and representative democracy where they are still in force, or the possibility of employing such institutions for other purposes, it has become indispensable to adopt a political horizon of reflection beyond the nation-state, with the goal of conceiving and putting into practice these acts of transformation.
3b. Clearing our vision: Socialism?
Throughout Latin America we have heard new calls for “socialism” that adopt various perspectives. These calls are made not only by isolated or clandestine groups, but by recognized political parties and even heads of state.
Socialism can be seen as a body of doctrine and ideals, or as a historical phenomenon. The majority of people living where socialist experiences have actually existed, even with diverse conceptualizations and practices, have risen up against them and ended those systems. From this perspective, it would seem necessary to accept that socialism, like all historical phenomenon, had a beginning and may very well be arriving at its end. This locates us at the beginning of its extinction.
If we take the perspective that socialism is a doctrine and a set of ideals, and that some of these were either “betrayed” or “seriously distorted” in the so-called socialist experiences, we must face the question of defining theoretically what “true” socialism is. Here discussion often takes on an almost religious tone, with claims of authority deriving from references to well-known authors. Often, it is as if we go back in time with discussions going so far as to appeal—as a source of socialist certification—to thinkers that Marx identified as “socialist utopians” at the time when the idea of “scientific socialism” was being developed. Within this position, diverse forms of contemporary organization and very distinct experiences and ideals are ticketed as socialism, this amid interminable debates about the characteristics that an “authentic” socialism should adopt in contemporary conditions.
This type of debate has historically turned out to be sterile and in general has stimulated division and confrontation between those interested in transformations beyond capitalism. This is why today it is appropriate to establish a position that would reclaim socialism for those who are its true heirs: the groups and peoples that currently struggle against capitalism. The socialist critique of the capitalist regime has been one of the longest-lasting, and it is possible to find in socialist ideas and experiences specific inspiration for current struggles and for the conceptualization of forms of economic, social, and political organization that will succeed capitalist forms.
In carrying out a reflection of this nature, it is important to take into account that capitalism, like socialism, was conceived and put into practice within the mold of the Enlightenment, a mold which it is indispensable to transcend in order to seriously approach the question of cultural pluralism.
1. There is abundant literature about these themes. On the empire of transnational capital, see, in particular David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (West Harford: Kumarian Press, 1995) y Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 2000). Both have been the object of much controversy, due to various weaknesses in their analyses, but they put forward very useful information and orientation. The work of Wallerstein is valuable in noting the significance of the current terminal phase of the “capitalist world economy.” See, in particular, Critica del sistema-mundo capitalista/ [Criticism of The Capitalist World System], (México: Era, 2003); La crisis estructural del capitalismo/ [The Structural Crisis of Capitalism], (México: CIDECI-Unitierra Chiapas/Contrahistorias, 2005); The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World, (New York: New Press, 2003); and World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004). The work of Iván Illich, during the last 20 years of his life in particular, demonstrates the horrors of the “systems era” that could follow the currently declining economic society (though with a notion of “system” very different to that of Wallerstein), and even points to signs in our current world that would signal the coming of such an era. Almost all of the texts in the collection edited by Valentina Borremans in La perte des sens (París: Fayard, 2005), have been published in English and some also in Spanish.
2. Over the last 500 years, innumerable people have suffered under the colonial domination of various European Countries. This form of domination lasted until the end of World War II, which marked the beginning of its end. Even while maintaining to this day territorial control over Puerto Rico, the United States has, since 1949, actively opposed the exercise of domination based on the extension of national sovereignty to the territory of other countries, something characteristic of the modern European “empires.” This was really simply a matter of displacing those empires to exercise its own form of domination. That which Latin America suffered most acutely was called “US imperialism,” in both popular and technical terms. It is commonly assumed, and with good reason, that the OAS (Organization of American States) operated basically as Washington’s colonial office, faithfully following Washington’s mandates. The United States installed and removed governments in the region, attempting to justify its actions within the framework of the cold war. “Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” said Truman. I maintain that this specific exercise of domination is over, as demonstrated by multiple instances in which the people and governments of Latin America and other parts of the world have recently succeeded in resisting the United States’ attempts to exercise the form of domination it had used without constraint for over 40 years.
This observation is of a practical rather than a heoretical nature. It is based on the supposition that it is useful to distinguish between the “imperial” capacity for domination exercised by the United States government, and that exercised by transnational capital, for which state governments, including that of the United States, are appropriated as instruments. I do not intend to enter a sterile academic discussion on the term. I am aware that the term empire is highly charged with technical significance. Some specialists associate the word only with Rome and Han’s China, while others use it to refer to any exercise of domination. A Marxist read of imperialism holds prominent the theories of Rosa Luxembourg and Lenin, but the contributions of Baran and Sweezy should also be included. Among non-Marxists, social-democratic theories stand out, such as those of Hobson or Kautsky and Hilferding, as well as that of Schumpeter (who examined pre-capitalist imperialism,) those of the “estado-potencia” (Max Weber, for example), and the school of Anglo-Saxon federalist thought (Robbins), among others. But at the margin of these political and academic disputes, the reality and imaginary of Latin American peoples were for many decades subject to the form of domination habitually called “US imperialism.” This form which has now reached its end. It is important to recognize this fact, particularly now that a segment of the United States’ elite has re-employed the language of empire. In 2002, a high ranking White House official declared to journalist Ron Suskind that the leaders of the country believed the following: ”We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” These attitudes, which nurtured US policy over the years, have in fact accelerated that country’s decline and have reached their limits of possibility, due as much to internal factors as to external ones.
3. A close reading of Fidel Castro’s discourse over the last two years demonstrates his clear awareness of these changes in the condition of the United States.
4. A myriad of forms of the nation and the state suffered a grotesque metamorphosis in being constituted as a modern nation-state. The modern nation-state was born with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, but only acquired its contemporary character with the French Revolution, which fused together the history of the State with that of nationalism.
5. The credibility of the nation-state and its political classes, and by extension its political capacity, deteriorated when its functions as the regime of social regulation and structure of crisis-generation were dissolved. This deterioration reached such a degree as to erode or even erase the nation-state’s functions as administrator of the economy (which were transnationalized) and as a space in which socio-cultural conflicts are processed (a space rapidly losing legitimacy).