We are staring down a major crossroads
We have come to a new world order
in a scenario that is without precedent:
a major crossroads at a time of eco-social crisis
that has produced a metabolic fracturing of the
relationship between human society and Nature
and threatens the very existence of life on this planet.
Religions can help stop human excesses in this new orderm.
But optimism—which is a trivializing of hope—
keeps us from fully recognizing what’s happening.
These are some of his ideas from his new book.
discussed by the author in interviews.
Santiago Álvarez Cantalapiedra
My book is titled La gran encrucijada (The great crossroads). The crossroads I write about is the product of the world’s current multidimensional—ecological, social, economic and political—crisis, which is also affecting the bio-physical, productive and reproductive spheres. It is also multi-scale, manifesting at levels ranging from local to global.
History is not written for us,
we write it ourselves
This eco-social crisis places us at a giant fork in the road, a crossroads of complexities presenting a double challenge for critical thought. Challenge one is the need to include in our analysis all the different dimensions of the crisis, overcoming reductionism and avoiding “isms”; like “economicism” from those who only see the economic dimension as cause and/or solution; “ecologicalism” from those who find cause and/or solution only in the ecological dimension; or “politicism” from those who only see the political angle.
Challenge two is in knowing how to handle the temptation to focus exclusively on system dynamics and how to take into account the rationale fueling social action. History is not written ahead of time; we write it every day. Critical thought aspiring to understand the crossroads we face must be able to connect structure and agency, since history is made by humans, even, to echo Marx, if in circumstances not of our choosing. Our current circumstances are certainly very difficult and offer little time and scope for action. Be that as it may, the image of a crossroads is clear and can help us know where we are coming from, propose reflection on where we want to go and which destinations to avoid, and weigh the options or pathways still available for getting there.
When I speak of “the rationale fueling social action” what I want to highlight is that collective action makes a difference, a big one. Reality is not just about structures and trends; those are there, and much more besides. There are people with class interests and those who decide to abandon class interests. There are variable power relations that are shaped minute by minute depending on the agreements and alliances made by the different groups comprising the social structure. Individual behavior encompasses a diversity of motivations, habits, beliefs and reasons, including deeply rooted perceptions of reality that were shaped in the past, live in the present and, if they are not changed, determine the future.
What I’m trying to say is what many others have already said: that capitalism will not die a natural death, and neither the energy or climate crisis, nor any other crisis, will on its own lead to a new order if we fail to take action starting right now, with awareness of our strengths, our social position and what we are, think and feel.
An indivisible dual crisis:
ecological and social
We are facing an eco-social crisis because there are not two separate crises: one social and the other ecological. There is only one unique, indivisible crisis: eco-social.
More than a sum, it’s an interrelation, result of a dialectical relationship between the two. The ecological issue is immediately intertwined with social issues in a fundamental, radical sense. Ecological decay and social decay share the same causes. Both processes are the product of capitalist industrial civilization, which has profoundly redefined social relations and the system of exchange society establishes with Nature. Based on predatory ownership, it is fueled by the exploitation of human effort and ecosystems, such that the history of this crisis is that of a double pillaging, both social and ecological.
Capitalism is a means of production and domination with its own features. Throughout history and continuing to this day there have been other forms of oppression and social domination. While the workforce has been exploited in different ways over history; the exploitation takes on a peculiar form under capitalism.
Markets have always existed in societies, but an economic system based on the idea of a self-regulating market made its appearance in history with capitalism. The appropriation and use of natural resources vary significantly depending on whether they are managed as common resources or as commercial goods. Likewise, the way social surpluses are appropriated and used varies with the type of ownership—private, social or public—of the objects and facilities used to transform those resources.
What I’m interested in highlighting is that capitalism has redefined in its own image both social relationships and the system of exchange society establishes with Nature. Starting with its industrial phase, capitalism has completely transformed societal metabolic systems, leading to a historic rupture in the way the materials and energy necessary for its operation are exchanged with the environment.
Experiences like those of what was called real socialism, which were self-proclaimed alternatives to capitalism, could not divorce themselves from the capitalist development horizon, falling into a more or less exacerbated productivism with catastrophic environmental consequences. This shows that one of the basic errors of real socialism’s bureaucratic experiences—and we venture to say of the Left in general—has been their inability to respond to the metabolic fracturing produced by capitalism. They traditionally limited themselves to proclaiming how the economic pie should be shared, failing to discuss either its size or ingredients, or even how the pie was made.
Today’s societies are highly
vulnerable to this crisis
I have the impression that we have no idea how vulnerable today’s societies are to what we’re going through. Heat waves, droughts, flooding from torrential rains and, in general, ever more frequent extreme climate events are escalating the risks of collapse of a social system in which the organizing principles governing it are characterized by low levels of resilience.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented scenario for which we are barely prepared, where a growing scarcity of strategic resources converges with the catastrophe in biodiversity and sudden climate destabilization. Based on the best scientific knowledge available today, the sixth United Nations Global Environment Outlook report, presented in Nairobi, Kenya, parallel to the March 2019 UN Environment Assembly, has taken stock of the planet’s main problems: climate change; loss of biodiversity; reduction of available fresh water; air, sea and ocean pollution; over-fishing and depletion of other resources; deforestation and desertification.
Although some of these aspects may partially recover, the planet’s overall situation has substantially worsened since publication of the first edition over 20 years ago. The cause of this deterioration is rooted in the mode of production and consumption undergirding the capitalist modernization paradigm. Exclusively guided by instrumental rationality; a materialist, technocratic mentality and blind faith in the market and technology; and obsessed with conquering Nature and with the growth and accumulation of wealth and power, the current paradigm is a deadly dangerous one.
When a civilization stops civilizing and demonstrates an inability to offer answers to its own contradictions, the times demand the adoption of new paradigms. The categories, concepts, values and ways of thinking in force today are preventing us from fully recognizing what is happening.
Today information abounds
while wisdom is scarce
Facing the major crossroads before us, we must make a choice; and since this choice is imperative, we’d better spend some time on discernment first. It is foolhardy to think that having information available is enough. If our awareness of what’s happening is incomplete, it’s not due to lack of information—just the opposite. We’re suffering today from an excess of information that blinds us, a “white blindness” that, as in Saramago’s famous novel (Blindness), results not from lack of light but the contrary. We live in an “infoxicated” world, with an oversaturation of data and information that keep us from knowing what’s happening.
We too often forget that data only become information when joined together, and that information only becomes knowledge when we can organize our ideas into a coherent argument. Knowledge can only provide the answer to our questions if it is strengthened with wisdom.
Information, knowledge and wisdom are three very different ways of knowing. We are drowning in the first, we have just enough of the second and, in today’s society, wisdom is openly derided. Meanwhile, wisdom is what we most need to answer the question of how much is enough to live on this planet in a just and sustainable way. With great wisdom, Gandhi put things in perspective when he stated that “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” He showed the way when he exhorted us to “live simply so that others may simply live.”
We need a paradigm that once again puts things into perspective, capable of harmonizing knowledge with wisdom based on full awareness that all abilities acquired in the current development of productive forces compromise our existence insofar as they are transformed under capitalism into forces that destroy the natural foundations of human life on this planet.
Without wisdom we
confuse value with price
The term ‘wisdom’ refers to people’s capacity to act with common sense, prudence or sound judgment. We can know a lot about atomic physics and genetics, and still act irresponsibly. Of course knowing how society, life and the physical world function helps us proceed with prudence, common sense and sound judgment, but the mere fact of knowing it doesn’t seem to be enough to make us prudent, responsible actors. The truth is that though many current lifestyles are built on scientific knowledge, they don’t appear very wise.
I believe there’s much wisdom in the experience of our elders, in farming cultures, in the ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples, and in religions, philosophy, literature or the arts in general. For the current times, wisdom mainly has to do with all that contributes to informing desire, guiding it and setting its limits.
In these times of eco-social crisis, when exceptionality is becoming the norm, we need wisdom—now a rare commodity—to become a normal personal attribute, offering individuals common sense, prudence and sound judgment in each of their daily acts. Capitalism, anchored in the exploitation of desire, makes us into fools, to the point where we confuse value and price, as Antonio Machado said. Or where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing, in the words of Oscar Wilde.
We have lived through a “great acceleration” that has led to the world economy becoming too large for its development to be compatible with the planet’s health. We have lived through an exceptional period of exponential growth that brings us to the over-reach we face today.
Starting in the late 20th century, a huge increase in the extraction of energy-producing resources and minerals has taken place, leading to skyrocketing levels of waste and emissions.
This injection of resources revved the engine of industrial civilization, in turn setting off the growth of the world population, urbanization, transportation, international production and trade, fertilizers, overall water consumption, fishing, etc. Virtually nothing has escaped this voracious impulse.
Even sand—until recently a cheap, abundant raw material—is becoming scarce as a result of the heightened rhythm of urbanization and the huge amount of infrastructure spreading around the planet.
Each year around 59 billion tons of materials are extracted from the earth, with sand representing approximately 85% of the total. We have consumed half of all fossil fuels just in the last four decades of world capitalism’s accelerated expansion, this period we know as globalization.
capacity for destruction
The effect of this accelerated growth is that ecosystem deterioration has also worsened exponentially: loss of biodiversity, disappearance of tropical forests, acidification of the oceans, concentration of harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, massive expansion of plastics and other harmful new substances flooding even the remotest corners of the planet.
Capitalism’s acceleration has provoked a dual fracturing: metabolic and social. A society’s functioning is a type of metabolism, dependent on the continuous, fluid exchange of resources with Nature. This is what we call “socioeconomic metabolism.”
Capitalist industrial civilization induced the transition from a metabolic system based on biotic (renewable) resources, which living Nature provided us, to a dependence on nonrenewable fossil and mineral resources extracted from the Earth’s crust. The result, throughout the 20th century—and especially in its latter half—has been to provide virtually all human societies a never-before-seen capacity to destroy the natural world.
We are already living in
“the age of consequences”
Humanity has progressed in the last 200 years, but it is superficial progress, as it undermines the very natural and social bases that prop it up. This is capitalism’s great contradiction: development with a strictly monetary rationale that gives rise to a deep social irrationality threatening to erode the natural underpinnings supporting life. Today we have come to “the age of consequences,” a period in which we must inevitably live with the consequences of the eco-social crisis.
There was an opportunity to reverse much of this around 40 years ago, when the gravity of the ecological crisis became known. But instead a neoliberal order was put in place that went in the opposite direction: more trade over longer distances, more deregulation and commodi¬fication, fewer mechanisms to protect society and Nature.
Now we must accept that climate change is here, and we’re suffering its consequences, which have irreversibly surpassed several critical thresholds. For some time now some parts of the world have already been suffering the combination of ecological crisis and the impacts of other pre-existing crises linked to poverty and inequality, thus multiplying and amplifying conflicts.
In the last decade armed conflicts have proliferated, most of them internal. Today 36 armed conflicts are registered around the world, as well as 96 tense situations triggering millions of people to flee their land. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), forced displacement reached a level in 2014 unseen since World War II.
And alongside the undisputed fact that armed conflicts lead to mass population flight, we are faced with other, less evident processes: land grabs, mineral and energy extraction, desertification, flooding of densely populated areas. For mere survival reasons, these conflicts are also displacing many people from their habitats at an ever-increasing rate.
The poor are hardest hit
This is the world in which we must learn to co-exist if we wish to last, seeking formulas for living and organizing social life to meet people’s needs and respect natural limits. Lavish societies, especially those in Europe, are obliged to meet the global challenge by shouldering their responsibilities.
Climate change is a deeply cruel phenomenon that most punishes those who have least contributed to it. The poorest, whose ways of life are characterized by low emissions levels, are the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate catastrophes. The rich have bought their exit plan. They will move to safer locations away from flood-prone areas near rising oceans, and will make do with the highest lands whenever other areas become uninhabitable. They will insure their property against the risks associated with extreme events and enjoy more air conditioning in their houses when heat waves increase.
An injustice that’s a “sin”
An injustice lies at the heart of this. It isn’t new, having always been present in any eco-social issue. Some people participate in the advantages that progress brings, and others only bear the costs and risks associated with the material prosperity enjoyed by the former. And together with the unequal distribution of the fruits of progress—in the form of advantages and opportunities, costs and risks—people’s luck also depends on the protection mechanisms or safety nets available to them. The poor overwhelmingly depend on the existence of public safety nets.
During the Hurricane Dorian disaster, which devastated Great Abaco Island in the northern Bahamas, private security forces serving wealthy residents turned out to be critical in performing evacuation tasks. It is not hard to guess that the last to be evacuated were the poor. The same will happen in other countries during other catastrophes. Europe partakes of an imperial lifestyle, which means it bears greater responsibility. We are talking about a structural injustice that is impossible to put on trial, but is basic for politically and morally prosecuting both the socioeconomic system ruling our day and the daily behaviors of this industrial capitalist civilization.
The problem is that today these unjust situations are not considered to be beyond the pale. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s not unthinkable to recover ideas such as that of “sin,” which in a lay person’s reading brings us face to face with the unacceptable. These are the issues I am referring to when I speak of the role of religions in the eco-social crisis.
Two criteria to differentiate
needs from desires
There are two criteria for identifying human needs: universality and indispensability. Universality tells us that the good identified is a human need when it is present in all human beings from any society and time period. Indispensability warns us that this good may only be considered a need if, when it is not met, it leads to a loss by or serious harm to people. With these two criteria we have a useful guide, although the solution remains elusive. In the end, we will always be left with the fight over the interpretation of how to meet our needs.
These two criteria are useful in differentiating needs from subjective desires and the specific aspirations forged by privilege. And of course, the satisfying of human needs must not be done turning a blind eye to the needs of other living species, because we are part of an ecosystem; if we do not correct our anthropocentrism, we run the risk of shooting ourselves in the foot.
Quality of life: what I have and do,
who I spend time with and where
The idea of quality of life is multidimensional. One of these dimensions has to do with guaranteeing coverage of the most basic material needs. Quality of life entails having access, for example, to income, enough goods and services to be able to meet the states of necessity in a society. But quality of life is more than that. If we were to ask people about quality of life, their answers will most commonly include allusions to health or enjoying leisure time and the company of their loved ones.
As a multidimensional concept it involves both what we have and what we do, without forgetting where we spend time and with whom. Having, doing and being are ever-present dimensions in the assessment of quality of life. In turn, each of these dimensions contains both objective and subjective aspects.
The objective aspects refer to the opportunities spread before us in terms of the resources we have access to, the activities we can develop or the circumstances in which we must live. The subjective aspects have to do with the appraisal we make and the sentiments—positive and negative—all this brings up for us.
Once the dimensions of quality of life are highlighted, the concept is open to different meanings. The key here is in the fact that people must give their own account of what quality of life is. One cannot bow out of the public debate, saying that this is just my opinion, period. No, we must reason together on its meaning when the consequences affect us all.
Talking about good life, living well, brings us to a debate that overflows the merely scientific plane and aims at the meaning and value we assign to life. We can dive into this task ignoring what science says or using it as our foundation. Obviously by indicating that this issue overflows the scientific field I am defending the idea that answers to these issues, which are philosophical, are better addressed using scientific knowledge than ignoring it.
We need a culture
that slows human excess
Interdependencies are a framework establishing our freedom as social beings who are members of one species that shares the planet with other species. Age-old religious traditions bear much wisdom in this regard.
From a historical perspective, religious phenomena have a dual character: they have displayed obscurantist versions, legitimizing and collaborating with oppressive forms of power; but they have also shown enormous potential for rebellion. In his highly recommended book, Christianity of liberation: ecosocialist and Marxist perspectives (2019). Michael Löwy recalls that appreciating the first aspect of this duality requires what is called the “cold stream of Marxism,” but it is the “warm stream of Marxism” that has demonstrated the utopian excess and liberating force found in Christianity.
Jorge Riechmann, a poet, translator and professor I have quoted, is a charming person, enormously cultured and creative, whose contributions to the field of ecological ethics and the construction of a culture of self-restraint are inescapable in the task of tempering human hybris (excess) and making peace with ourselves and with Nature. All that contributes to this culture of restraint will build a new paradigm.
The role of religion
at this crossroads
Religions are a source of wisdom for the crossroads we face. Many can be considered ecosophies: wisdom about our condition as interdependent and eco-dependent beings. With good reason the term religion is etymologically related to “reconnect” or “link”; religious experience is thus the consciousness and experience of connection and dependence. In these times in which common sense and prudence are so sorely lacking, I fear we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring the sources of wisdom that are within our grasp. Many religions criticize utilitarianism and assert the intrinsic value of each living being, as well as the sacred nature of the biosphere as a whole. Furthermore, they provide spiritual and moral strength, motivation and inspiration. When they take the form of protest and rebellion, of the utopian dimension and high doses of critical consciousness, they tend to materialize in admirable commitments to justice, nourished by hope.
Broadly speaking, nearly all religions present criteria for differentiating the permissible from the unacceptable and offer reconciliation rites that heal and rebuild trust in the community and in individuals. Religions are a form of consciousness acting in the symbolic realm in which human beings think about themselves and about the natural world.
At this great crossroads, it is necessary to generate new subjectivities. In the 1970s, Pier Paolo Pasolini warned of the anthropological mutation that mass-consumption capitalism was unleashing in Western society. Today digital capitalism, using commercial surveillance mechanisms, has managed to perfect this capacity to shape people’s subjective preferences.
However, in contrast to Pasolini’s era, the technological capitalism of our times is not content to just shape consumers; it also impels people to manage their lives as if they were companies or brands, in never-ending competition with their peers.
If we want to save the planet—and ourselves with it—from this invasive capitalism, we must construct a different subjectivity. Thus the importance of thinking about the relationship between social change and personal conversion/transformation. On this point it is worth recognizing the teachings and role of religions, since through communal experiences, pastoral practices and celebrations, many have been able to open pathways of social learning that cultivate renunciation, sobriety, solidarity and mercy.
I appreciate Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ for the honesty and clarity it conveys. Moreover, it provides concepts I believe are crucial in the face of the eco-social challenge, such as “throwaway culture” and “integral ecology.” Internally the Church is incorporating important elements of innovation in its social doctrine. In particular, I believe it is reinterpreting the Judeo-Christian tradition with regard to understanding the natural world. Outside the walls of the Church, I believe we are witnessing a highly relevant contribution to installing a critical ecological consciousness. Several aspects have seemed to me of particular interest: the connection of “the cry of the Earth” to the “cry of the poor,” identifying the same causes for their respective suffering; criticism of the techno-scientific paradigm and “tyrannical anthropocentrism”; and the call to “ecological conversion.”
Demand for care here and there
The social fragmentation generated by globalized capitalism is the result of having drowned community connections in the frigid waters of mercantile calculations. The dawning of a society regulated by market forces and capital led to social dislocation, affecting the system of care needed to perpetuate human existence.
The greater need for care and the lower number of traditional caregivers could be compensated by a greater commitment by society as a whole through government action; in particular, this could take the shape of a greater assumption of responsibilities by men inside the home. However, neither one nor the other has come to be.
We are still far from thinking of care as a collective responsibility pertaining to the whole community. We are even farther still from distributing time and engagement equitably among all members of a society.
Feminist economy has for some time now been pointing out an important aspect, one that more than offsets any progress on this issue: the global dimension of care. As a result of the aging of the population and the epidemic of loneliness ravaging rich countries, a large part of the demand for care is being covered with work originating in a few poor countries. But the migrant women who care for our elderly and sick here in Europe leave a gaping hole in their countries of origin, one only covered with the overextension of mothers, sisters or daughters there. As a result, much of the progress in one area comes at the cost of generating a greater problem in another, like when I pull the blanket to cover myself and leave you exposed to the cold.
No social progress
is guaranteed forever
Since the late 19th century there have been three social orders in contemporary capitalism, each of which has begun and ended with a structural crisis.
According to Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, two French Marxist economists whose works are highly recommended, the structural crisis of 1890 ushered in the liberal order. The Great Depression of the 1930s opened the door to the social democratic order, in force in Western society until the crisis of the 1970s, which hastened the emergence of the neoliberal order.
Since the 1970s social progress has been inverted. The reformist option represented by the social democratic order of the second postwar period showed its limits and ceded its place to the neoliberal counterreformation in the last half of the 1970s. Of course, that social democratic period was developed under very peculiar conditions (an abundance of cheap oil, a periphery at the service of metropolitan areas, a reproductive sphere subordinated to the productive imperatives of patriarchal capitalism, etc.) such that not everyone ended up equally well off. In general, however, those were decades of progress in the social arena and of material prosperity.
Something was achieved that is extraordinarily difficult to obtain under capitalism, given the tensions and contradictions at its heart: a relative pacification of social relations. There were both integrating and redistributive forces, as well as institutions providing certain social protections. The neoliberal counter-offensive has tried to put an end to all this, generating disintegrative tensions and a dynamic of expulsion. The lesson to be had from this transition from social democratic to neoliberal order is that no social progress can be achieved without struggle, and nothing that is achieved is guaranteed for all time.
order is emerging
The Great Recession of 2008 represents the beginning of the end of the neoliberal order and the transition toward a nascent order whose fate is still being debated and defined.
Let us remember that at the beginning of this crisis, French President Nicholas Sarkozy defended the need to restart capitalism. In those days, it was common to speak of the return of Keynes and the temporary suspension of market rules. The exit from the crisis has taken place on the path of cutbacks and adjustments very much to the liking of neoliberals; but we must not forget the number of unorthodox measures implemented in the area of monetary policy. Economic nationalism has begun to be practiced. In the international arena, we’re seeing trade, technology and currency wars that would have been unthinkable in the neoliberal globalization stage. Today we’re facing an emerging order that is still undecided. Thus it is also useful to think of the current moment as a crossroads.
Digital, financialized capitalism
We can only meet the challenges posed by the eco-social crisis if we fully recognize the world that is emerging. I would like to sketch out some characteristics present in this transition toward a post-neoliberal order. This transition is stamped by the development of digital capitalism, the power of finances and the ways proposed for addressing the consequences stemming from the combination of ecological impact with the problems of poverty and inequality.
If we compare the principal global companies by stock capitalization in the last ten years, we see that the first places are currently occupied by digital companies in the following order: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. A decade ago the ranking was headed by ExxonMobil and General Electric, companies that now hold 10th and 30th place, respectively.
No financial entities occupy leading places on either of the two lists, but this is a red herring. The only thing it tells us is that financial entities are not among those with the greatest social capital. It says nothing about them being the ones that most determine economic functioning. In fact, finances—through the range of collective investment instruments (investment, pension, sovereign funds, etc.)—back the ownership of the main non-financial corporations and their presence as stockholders is shaping the governance and business models of these companies, guiding them toward short-term financial profitability. This is what is known as “financializing” or financialized capitalism, still in force even though the last crisis in 2008 redefined things somewhat.
We are facing a global change
in a scenario without precedent
Another manifestation of the involution brought about by the neoliberal counterreformation has been the gradual hollowing out of democracy in our societies. When it comes to choosing between capitalism and democracy, the choice of the elites is clear. The expression “democratic capitalism,” which is so pleasing to neoconservative thought, is the greatest oxymoron I know.
Today all signs point to the end of a stage of history. The eco-social crisis we are facing is the crisis of many crises, the expression of a crisis of civilization manifesting itself in all spheres: the material (bio-physical), structural (social order) and political (hollowing out of democracy).
The great metabolic fracturing we’ve been engaging in since the industrial revolution, the magnitude of the fast-approaching crisis in care, the restructuring of capitalism since the Great Recession of 2008, the serious involution afflicting our societies and the hollowing out of democracy, taken both as a whole and in their related parts, show the magnitude of a global change that is firmly placing us in an unprecedented scenario.
The fledgling new social order is manifesting itself in both the domestic and international spheres. In the international arena tensions are flaring up, leading to talk of a return to geopolitics. Geopolitical tensions are erupting on multiple fronts. With fewer and fewer economic and energy-related possibilities for starting new accumulation cycles, the only resource left for this capitalism that’s slinking around areas of ecological excesses seems to be accumulation by dispossession.
The main international tensions are consequently erupting around places key to energy supply—Iran or Venezuela—or are arising from battles for control of new trade routes, such as the silk road proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping or the Arctic Route, which combines interest in the resources surfacing due to the melting produced by global warming, with the possibility of opening new maritime routes to shorten the distance between Asia and the West.
We must not forget that the other front in this return to geopolitics has to do with the fact that the center of gravity for economic dynamism has been shifting from the West toward the East. In these times of eco-social crisis, geopolitics is being developed in an increasingly post-occidental world.
What has the globalizing
project left us?
The globalizing project held high during the neoliberal order is being seriously challenged. We are seeing national retreats that lead to the rebirth of protectionist impulses, with trade, technology and currency wars. The discarding of multilateralism and Donald Trump’s preference for bilateralism, the Brexit mess, the confusion drowning the European project and the appearance of new actors—China, India, Brazil or Russia—demanding their role in an increasingly multipolar world are all symptoms of this process.
Neoliberal globalization has had unexpected winners and losers both in the international arena and within societies. At the risk of oversimplifying, it has very distinctly benefitted global plutocrats and relatively broad segments of salaried employees in China and a further handful of Asian countries, while seriously harming the farming population in the poorest countries and both white- and blue-collar workers of Europe and the United States.
In the political realm, the impact on social structure and the challenge to globalization are being interpreted through demands for more state sovereignty, together with nationalist populisms of one kind or another. And since economic sovereignty is very difficult to achieve, these separatist demands take on a distinct national and cultural character.
Faced with the impossibility of succeeding in the economic arena, the yearning for sovereign control is shifting to the cultural. This gives a larger role to aspects related to national identity and restoring the splendor—real or imagined—of bygone days. This is where Trump and Putin are in sync with their imperial nostalgia: making the United States or Russia “great again.” We also see the resurgence of nationalism, including what happened in Catalonia with the procés. The axis of political debate is centered on the cultural: national religious roots, traditions, language, a glorious past and the implicit threat of migrants who bring with them a different culture, all crowding out of the discussion any attention to the material conditions of existence.
Those in Europe who have best taken stock of the current discontent have been the most reactionary political movements: Matteo Salvini [Italy], Viktor Orbán [Hungary], Vladimir Putin [Russia], the conservative Law and Justice government in Poland, Geert Wilders in Holland, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, etc. Europe’s most active Right is not a liberal Right, it is the one laden with conservative values and xenophobic ideas, combined with a high dose of resentment toward urban, cosmopolitan elites.
in the digital era
While the well-deserved challenge to globalization and the liberal credo grows, financial and technological power remain in the shadows, reaching new heights, with some hard-to-ignore social and environmental impacts. Digital capitalism, too, is taking up the baton with its aura of hyper-modernity, barely encountering any opposition, even though the possibilities are increasing of being spied on and monitored by companies and governments.
The digital capitalism hogging the limelight today cannot avoid metabolic fracturing; it can only deepen it. Far from dematerializing the economy, it needs enormous amounts of energy and minerals to function, putting new pressures on eco-systems.
And its effects are no less disastrous in the social arena. Capitalism has basically become surveillance capitalism in the digital era. The result is greater control of people’s lives, more unregulated labor relations and a concentration of oligopolistic power in a few huge technology companies.
I am a hopeful pessimist
Despite it all, I have hope. In the great crossroads we’re facing, I see greater awareness and a coming together among different liberating traditions related to the eco-social question, and young people who are not resigning themselves to of the threat of having their future taken away.
The greater the severity of the situation, the higher the value of hope. But hope is not synonymous with optimism. On the contrary, optimism trivializes hope. I am a pessimist regarding the current situation, but I am hopeful because I harbor a hope that is neither naive nor passive. We must cultivate this hope, without the blindfold of optimism that keeps us from seeing the situation we’re in.
I advocate for “hopeful pessimism” or “hope without optimism,” which leads us to shoulder responsibilities based on the conviction that history is not written beforehand and that, if we organize and become aware of what’s happening, we will be actors who cast history in a different direction.
Santiago Alvarez Cantalapiedra is an international economist and educator. This article is extracted from interviews with him in El Viejo Topo, Rebelión and Noticias Obreras in November and December 2019 about his book, La Gran Encrucijada, published by Ediciones Hoac in July 2019. Subtitles by envío.