The success of the European Social Forum (ESF) in Paris last November is a striking illustration of the growing strength of the "alternative worldist" movement during the last decade. After some hesitation, the initially fairly limited audience (limited in kind rather than geographically, since the movement quickly attracted an audience amongst "thinkers" and academics) grew to take on all the hallmarks of a traditional ideological current: a popular reputation thanks to the radicalism of the demonstrations in Seattle 1999 during the summit of the World Trade Organisation (WTO); then the media figures, amongst whom José Bové is the uncontested star, and finally the major and unmissable events: the World Social Forum (WSF) which aimed to be an alternative to the Davos forum that brings together the world's major economic players, and whose first three meetings (2001, 2002, 2003) have been held in Porto Alegre (Brazil), a town supposed to symbolise "citizens' self-management".
Since then, the wave has continued to grow: the WSF has sprouted regional subsidiaries (the ESF is one expression, but there have been others, in Africa for example), and now is moving continents, to be held in India during January 2004. Newspapers, magazines, meetings, demonstrations, all are proliferating at a dizzying rate... It is barely possible today to give some thought to social questions without being immediately confronted by a tidal wave of "alternative worldist" ideas.
Such a rapid ascension immediately raises a whole series of questions: why has it happened so fast, so powerfully, and in so widespread a manner? And above all, why now?
For the "alternative worldists" the answer is simple: if their movement has met with such success, it is because it offers a real answer to the problems confronting humanity today. That being said, there is one thing that the "alternative worldists" need to explain: how is it that the media (largely controlled by the same "transnational companies" that they denounce so incessantly) are giving so much publicity to their words and deeds?
True, the success of the "alternative worldist" movement is a sign that it corresponds to a real need, that it serves real interests. The question then is: who really needs the "alternative worldist" movement and what interests does it serve? Does it serve the interests of the oppressed categories (poor peasants, women, pensioners, workers, the "excluded", etc.) that it claims to defend, or does it serve the interests of the social order that promotes and finances it?
The best way to answer these questions is to examine the ideological needs of the bourgeois class today. The fact is that the ruling class is looking for the best way to deal a decisive blow against working class consciousness.
The first point to consider is the economic crisis which - although it has been with us since the end of the 1960s - has now reached such a stage that the bourgeoisie is forced to adopt a relatively realistic language in this respect. The shameless lie which used the two-figure growth rates of the Asian "dragons" (South Korea, Taiwan, etc.) to demonstrate capitalism's good health in the period following the collapse of the Eastern bloc will no longer hold up: the "dragons" are no longer spitting fire. As for the "tigers" (Indonesia, Thailand, etc.) which were supposed to accompany them, they have stopped roaring and now are begging for mercy from their creditors. The lie that followed, and which replaced "emerging countries" with the "emerging new economy" lasted still less time: the cruel law of value cut its speculative flights down to size, and left a good many companies "out for the count".
Today, the "context of recession", which each national bourgeoisie blames on its neighbours, is a euphemism which can barely hide the gravity of the economic situation at the very heart of capitalism. At the same time we are endlessly told to "make an effort", to "pull in our belts" in order to return the economy to health. Such talk is unable to hide completely the attacks that the bourgeoisie is undertaking against the working class, which the gravity of the crisis demands should be harder, more widespread, and more simultaneous than ever if they are to preserve the interests of the ruling class.
Such attacks cannot but provoke a reaction from the working class, even if such a reaction takes different forms depending on the country and the moment, and lead to a development of the class struggle. And this situation is also igniting the spark of consciousness among elements of the working class. The development of class consciousness is not spectacular. Nonetheless, in the proletariat today a whole series of questions are arising as to the real reasons behind the attacks of the bourgeoisie, the real situation of the economic crisis, but also the real reasons behind the wars that are endlessly breaking out around the world. The question is also posed, of knowing how to struggle effectively against all these calamities, which can no longer simply be palmed off as due to the fatality of "human nature".
Such questions are still embryonic, and a long way from posing a threat to capitalism's political domination. They are nonetheless a concern for the ruling class, for whom it is much easier to nip the danger in the bud than to deal with it once it has bloomed. This concern lies at the heart of the "alternative worldist" ideological apparatus, which constitutes a reaction by the ruling class to the beginnings of a development of consciousness in the working class. We should remember what was the central, endlessly repeated theme after the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the so-called "socialist" regimes: "communism is dead, long live liberalism! The confrontation between the two worlds is dead, and so much the better since it was the cause of war and poverty. Henceforth, only one world exists or is possible: the liberal democratic capitalism, source of peace and prosperity".
It did not take long for this "brave new world" to show that it could still start wars, spread poverty and barbarity in its wake, even after the fall of the "Evil Empire" (to use the expression of US president Reagan). And less than ten years after the triumphant assertion that only one world was possible, we have seen the rebirth of the idea that an "alternative world" to liberalism is indeed a possibility. The ruling class has clearly taken the measure of the long-term effects that its systemic crisis is likely to have on class consciousness, and has laid down a thick smoke-screen to turn to working class away from its own perspective of "another world" where, contrary to that of the "alternative worldists", the bourgeoisie will have no place.
The foundations for the development of working class consciousness and the object of the bourgeoisie's attack
It is hardly surprising that the questioning expressed by elements within the working class should fall largely under the following three headings:
- what is the reality of the world situation?
- what is the perspective of a way out?
- and how are we to work towards such a perspective?
These three questions have been central concerns for the workers' movement since its beginnings. It is because the working class is able to understand the fundamental causes underlying the situation, because it can understand that only one perspective offers an alternative to this situation, and finally because it is able to reach an understanding of its own revolutionary role in the situation, that it will be able to arm itself to overthrow capitalism and start building communism.
There are almost two centuries of experience there to show us that we must never underestimate the bourgeoisie's ability to understand the process leading to this consciousness, and the historical dangers that it contains. This is why - despite its variegated appearance - the "alternative worldist" ideology is based essentially on these three themes.
Of these themes, the first - the reality of the world today - immediately highlights how much the "alternative worldist" ideology is an integral part of the bourgeoisie's apparatus of mystification, in that it wholly shares the lies about capitalism's current economic situation. For the "alternative worldists", as for the anarchists and leftists, the reality of capitalism's systemic crisis is hidden behind a constant denunciation of the "great trusts". When a whole region of the planet disintegrates in economic disaster, it is the fault of the multi-nationals. When poverty spreads to the very heart of the industrialised world, then it is the fault of the multi-nationals and their greed for profit. Everywhere, the world is full of endless wealth, which would be there for all if it were not seized by a heartless minority. There is one critical element missing from this apparently coherent schema, if we are to understand the reality of the world situation and its evolution: that is the crisis, the definitive crisis which marks the bankruptcy of capitalism.
It has always been a matter of critical importance for the ruling class to hide the reality that its system is not eternal, that it is condemned one day to leave the historical stage. This is why it tries to minimise capitalism's increasing economic convulsions with its talk of "light at the end of the tunnel", and the good times waiting for us just round the corner. And yet, the more they serve us up this talk, the worse the situation gets. The bourgeoisie hopes to rejuvenate the old lie by giving it a new "alternative worldist" veneer.
However, this does not prevent the "alternative worldist" movement from proposing an alternative to the present world. Or rather, several alternatives. This is its second fundamental theme. Each part of the movement has its own critique of the world today, slightly different from the others: its ideas may be coloured by ecology, by economic theory, by cultural, food, or sexual orientation... the list is endless. And these are not just criticisms: each one has to put forward its own positive solution. This is why the "alternative worldist" slogan has shifted into the plural: "other worlds are possible", from a world without GM foods to a self-managed world, by way of the most classical state capitalism.
There is obviously no danger for the ruling class in putting forward so many political alternatives, since none of them breaks out of the framework of capitalist society. They propose nothing but greater or lesser, more or less utopian improvements to capitalist society, which always remain compatible with the domination of the bourgeoisie. In fact, the latter is able to confront the working class with a whole panoply of "solutions" to the system's ills, all of which contributes to hiding the only perspective able to put an end to its barbarity and poverty: the overthrow of their fundamental cause, which is moribund capitalism.
The third theme of anti-globalisation flows naturally from the first two: after hiding the real reason behind capitalism's poverty and barbarity, after hiding the only perspective for putting an end to it, it only remains to hide the only force capable of doing so. To do so, the anti-globalists promote a multitude of revolts by the peasants in the Third World, or even in Europe as with José Bové's Confédération Paysanne, or of desperate attacks on corrupt banana republics by the local petty bourgeois strata. Obviously, all these revolts express a reaction against the misery imposed on the great mass of humanity, but none of them bears the slightest spark able to overthrow the capitalist order that they are attacking.
For more than a century and a half, the workers' movement has shown that the only force really capable of transforming society is the proletariat. It is not the only class in revolt against capitalism, but it is the only class that holds the key to overcoming it. To do so, it must not only unite internationally; it must act as an autonomous class, independently of all other classes in society. The bourgeoisie knows this perfectly well. By putting forward all these nationalist petty-bourgeois struggles, it aims to tie the proletariat up in a straitjacket where the latter's own consciousness and perspective cannot develop.
This kind of mystification responds to a danger which, for the bourgeoisie, is far from new: the proletariat has had the potential capacity to overthrow capitalism ever since the onset of its decadence at the beginning of the 20th century. The ruling class has understood the danger since the First World War, followed as it was by the revolution of October 1917, and then by the revolutionary wave that threatened capitalism's power for several years, from Germany in 1919 to China in 1927. It did not wait until 1990 to lay down its plan of campaign. The working class has already been subjected to more than a century of ideological attacks as to the real nature of the crisis, the communist perspective, and the potential of the class struggle. The anti-globalist tidal wave is thus not without precedent in the history of bourgeois thought. However, the fact that it is happening expresses a change in the confrontation between classes at the ideological level, which forces the ruling class to adapt its methods of mystification against the proletariat.
The bourgeoisie needs an ideological makeover...
As the sports commentators like to say, "you don't change a winning team". Fundamentally, the mystifications that the bourgeoisie uses to prevent the working class from developing its revolutionary consciousness do not change, since the requirements that they have to answer do not change either, as we saw above. Traditionally, it is the parties of the left (Stalinists, social-democrats) which have served as vehicles for these mystifications aimed at hiding the historical bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production, at presenting the working class with false alternatives, and undermining any perspective in its struggles.
These parties have been completely worn out ideologically since the end of the 1960s when the present crisis began, and above all since the proletariat reappeared on the historical scene after four decades of counter-revolution (the immense strike of May 1968 in France, the Italian "hot autumn" in 1969, etc.). Faced with the impetuous rise in proletarian struggles, the left parties began by putting forward the idea of a governmental alternative, which was supposed to answer the aspirations of the working class. One theme of this "alternative" was that the state should play a much greater role in the economy, whose convulsions had been getting worse since 1967 and the end of the reconstruction period that had followed World War II. The left parties told the working class to moderate, or even call a halt to its struggles, in order to demand changes throw the ballot box and left governments which would supposedly favour the workers interests. Since then the left (particularly the social-democrats, but also the "communists" in countries like France) has participated in numerous governments, not to defend the workers but to manage the crisis by attacking their living conditions. Moreover, the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the so-called "socialist" regimes at the end of the 1980s dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of the "communist" parties which had defended these regimes, and deprived them of the greater part of their influence in the working class.
The deepening crisis of capitalism is pushing the working class to return to the struggle, while at the same time a reflection is beginning to spread within the class as to what is really at stake in society. At the same time, the parties which traditionally defended the interests of capitalism within the workers' ranks are thus seriously discredited, which makes it more difficult for them to play the same role that they used to in the past. This is why they are not in the front line of the grand manoeuvres designed to derail the questioning and the discontent within the working class. The anti-globalisation movement is in the limelight, having adopted most of the old themes that used to be the left parties' stock-in-trade. Indeed, this is why the left parties (especially the "communist" parties) are so at home in the waters of the anti-globalisation movement, even though they remain discreet and "critical" in order to allow the latter to seem really "innovative" and avoid discrediting it in advance.
This remarkable convergence between the mystifications of the "old left" and those of the "alternative worldists" can be seen in some of the latter's central themes.
...or how to repaint an old façade
To get an idea of the main themes of the "alternative worldist" current, we will base ourselves on the writings of ATTAC, which serves as the movement's main "theoretician".
This organisation was officially born in June 1998 after an upsurge of contacts that followed an editorial by Ignacio Ramonet in the December 1997 issue of the French paper Le Monde Diplomatique. An indication of ATTAC's success can be seen in the fact that it had grown to 30,000 members by late 2000. Amongst the membership are more than 1,000 organisations (unions, community groups, local council delegates' associations), some hundred French members of parliament, a large number of state employees especially teachers, and numerous political and artistic celebrities grouped in 250 local committees.
This powerful ideological organism was created around the idea of the "Tobin tax", which we owe to the Nobel prize-winner for economics, James Tobin. Tobin suggested that a tax of 0.05% on financial transactions would allow the regulation of these transactions and make it possible to avoid the excesses of speculation. According to ATTAC, this tax would above all make it possible to allocate the funds collected to aid the development of the poor countries.
Why such a tax? In order to both counter and profit from these exchange and other financial transactions (which is contradictory to say the least: why would one want something to disappear if one profits from it?), that symbolise the globalisation of the economy which - in short - enriches the rich and impoverishes the poor.
The point of departure of ATTAC's analysis of present society is the following: "Financial globalisation aggravates economic insecurity and social inequality. It bypasses and degrades the choice of peoples, democratic institutions, and sovereign states in charge of the general interest. It substitutes instead the strictly speculative logic that expresses the sole interests of transnational companies and financial markets".
What, according to ATTAC, caused this economic evolution? We find the following answers: "One of the most striking facts of the late 20th century was the rising power of finance in the world economy: this is the process of financial globalisation, the result of the political choice imposed by the governments of the G7 countries". The explanation for this change at the end of the 20th century comes later: "In the framework of the 'Fordist' compromise, which worked until the 1970s, the leaders came to an agreement with the wage-earners, organising a share-out of the increase in productivity within the company, which made it possible to preserve the share-out of added value. The appearance of shareholder capitalism meant the end of this regime. The traditional model, known as the 'stakeholder model', considered as a community of interest within the company between three partners, has given way to a new 'shareholder model', which gives absolute priority to the interests of the holders of stock capital, in other words to the funds of the company itself". Moreover: "The primary objective of companies quoted on the stock exchange is to 'create shareholder value', in other words to increase the value of shares in order to generate surplus value and so increase the wealth of the shareholders".
Still according to the anti-globalists, the new choice of the G7 governments caused a transformation in business. The multi-nationals and great financial institutions no longer made a profit from the production of commodities, and therefore "put pressure on companies so that they distribute the greatest possible dividend at the expense of productive investment with a return in the longer term".
There is no need to go on with more quotations from the anti-globalist movement. Those we have just given demonstrate three things clearly enough:
- that this movement has invented nothing new,
- that its ideology is perfectly bourgeois in nature,
- and that the ideas being peddled by the anti-globalist are a danger for the working class.
The "transnationals" of today, which are supposedly breaking free of the authority of the state, are remarkably like the "multi-nationals" that the left-wing parties attacked for the same sins in the 1970s. in reality, whether they be called "multi-nationals" or "transnationals", these companies have a nationality: that of their majority shareholders. In fact, the multi-nationals are generally the great companies of the most powerful states - first and foremost the United States - and they are the instruments of these states' imperialist policies, along with their military and diplomatic arms. And when this or that national state (like those of the "banana republics" is subjected to the dictates of this or that great multi-national, this is fundamentally nothing but the expression of that state's domination by the great power where that multi-national is based.
Already during the 1970s, the Left was demanding "more state" in order to limit the power of these "modern monsters" and guarantee a "fairer" share-out of the wealth they produced. ATTAC and Co have invented absolutely nothing at this level. Above all, we should underline the profoundly deceitful nature of the idea that the state has ever been an instrument for the defence of the interests of the exploited. Quite the reverse: it is fundamentally an instrument for the defence of the existing order, and therefore of the interests of the ruling and exploiting class. In some circumstances, and the better to assume its role, the state may oppose this or that section of the ruling class. This is what happened at the dawn of capitalism, when the British government passed laws to limit the exploitation of the workforce, and of children in particular. Although some capitalists considered this detrimental to their interests, the measure ensured that the labour power which is the source of all capitalist wealth was not destroyed en masse before reaching adulthood. Similarly, when the Nazi state persecuted certain sections of the ruling class (notably the Jewish bourgeoisie), this was obviously not in defence of the interests of the exploited.
The Welfare State is basically a myth aimed at making the exploited accept the perpetuation of capitalist exploitation and the rule of the bourgeoisie. When capitalism's economic health declines, the state - whether "right" or "left" - shows its true face, freezing wages, slashing "social budgets", health spending, unemployment benefit and pensions. And when the workers refuse to accept such sacrifices, it is also the state which reasons with them in the language of the truncheon, teargas, arrests, and if all else fails, bullets.
The anti-globalists, in the best tradition of the classical Left, are in fact trying to spread the idea that the state could protect the interests of the oppressed from the multi-nationals, and that therefore there could exist such a thing as a "good" capitalism as opposed to a "bad capitalism".
ATTAC's "discovery" - with all their talk about "shareholders" and "stakeholders" - that the capitalists' main aim is to make a profit, is the most ludicrous caricature of such an idea. Capitalists have been investing to make a profit for a long time - ever since capitalism came into existence in fact.
As for the "strictly speculative logic" supposedly caused by "financial globalisation", this was hardly brought into being by some G7 meeting or by the arrival in power of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. Speculation is as old as capitalism itself. Marx had already pointed out in the 19th century that when a new crisis of overproduction approaches, the capitalists have a tendency to prefer speculation to productive investment. The bourgeois understand pragmatically that if the markets are saturated, then the commodities that they produce with the machines they have bought are likely to remain unsold, thus preventing both the realisation of the surplus-value that they contain (thanks to the exploitation of the workers who have set the machines in motion) and even the value of the initial capital. This is why, as Marx noted, commercial crises seemed to be a result of speculation, when in reality speculation is nothing but an early warning of the crisis. In the same way, the speculative movements that we witness today are not the result of this or that group of capitalists' lack of civic feeling, but an expression of the general crisis of capitalism.
Behind the ludicrous stupidity of the anti-globalist "experts'" "scientific analyses", there is an idea that capitalism's defenders have used for a long time to prevent the working class from turning towards its revolutionary perspective. In the middle of the 19th century, the petty bourgeois socialist Proudhon tried to make a distinction between the "good" and "bad" sides of capitalism, in order to promote a sort of "fair trade" and industrial self-management (the co-operatives).
Later, the reformist current in the workers' movement, like its main theoretician Bernstein, tried to to suggest that capitalism could increasingly satisfy the interests of the exploited, as long as it was forced to do so by the pressure of the working class in the framework of bourgeois institutions like parliament. The aim of the working class' struggle should therefore be to ensure the triumph of the "good" capitalists over the "bad" capitalists who whether by egoism or by short-sightedness opposed the "positive" evolution of the capitalist economy.
Today, ATTAC and its friends propose to return to the "Fordist compromise" that supposedly existed before the arrival of the brutes of "financialisation", and which "preserved the share-out of added value" between workers and capitalists. The "alternative worldist" current thus makes a choice contribution to the bourgeoisie's apparatus of mystification:
- by giving credence to the idea that capitalism could go back on its attacks against the working class, when in reality these spring from a crisis which the system is incapable of overcoming;
- by implying that a possible ground for "compromise" exists between labour and capital.
In short, the workers are being called not to fight the capitalist mode of production which is responsible for their worsening exploitation, their misery, and the barbarity unleashed on the world today, but to mobilise to defend a fantastic chimerical version of the same system. In other words, to give up the defence of their own interests in favour of defending the interests of their mortal enemy, the bourgeoisie.
The unbending denunciation of the anti-globalist movement, and the widest possible intervention in order to fight its dangerous ideas, are now priorities for all those proletarian elements who have realised that the only alternative world that is possible today is communism, and that communism can only be built through the most steadfast opposition to the bourgeoisie and all its ideologies, of which "alternative worldism" is only the latest avatar. It has to be fought as energetically as Social-Democracy and Stalinism.
1 In order to get away from the somewhat negative and too overtly nationalist ring of the "anti-globalisation" slogan, a new expression has come into fashion during the last year or so: rendered in French as "alter-mondialisation", this translates roughly into English as "alternative worldism". We have thus used this latter rather barbaric expression in this article, interchangeably with "anti-globalism".
2 It is worth noting that one favourite anti-globalisation theme does not figure in the classical left tradition: ecology. This is essentially because the theme of ecology is relatively recent, whereas the traditional left bases its ideology on older references (even if they are still up to date in mystifying the workers).
3 Association pour la Taxation des Transactions Financières et l'Aide aux Citoyens ("Association for a tax on financial transactions and aid to citizens")
4 It should be pointed out that James Tobin has refused to have anything to do with ATTAC's use of his ideas, unsurprisingly since the purpose of the tax was originally to encourage free trade (ie globalisation). Tobin himself remarked that "the loudest applause is coming from the wrong side" (see Tobin's obituary published in the New York Times of 12th March 2002.
5 "Plateforme d'ATTAC", adopted by the founding assembly on 3rd June 1998, in Tout sur ATTAC 2002, page 22.
6 The term refers to the ideas proposed by Henry Ford I, founder of one of today's largest multi-nationals, after World War I. Ford suggested that it was in the capitalists' interests to pay their workers high wages in order to enlarge the market for their products. Ford workers were therefore encouraged to buy the cars that they had contributed to build. These ideas could have a semblance of reality in a period of prosperity, and had the advantage of promoting social peace in "good king Henry's" factories, but they disappeared like snow in the sun when the Great Depression hit the United States in the 1930s (editor's note).
7 "Licenciements de convenance boursière: les règles du jeu du capitalisme actionnarial", Paris , 2nd May 2001, in Tout sur ATTAC 2002, page 132-4.
8 Idem p137.