The possible transition to a socialist world-system
An option forged by humanity in defense of itself
During the course of the twentieth century, two fundamental contradictions of the world-system expressed themselves. First, the system historically has expanded economically by conquering new territories and transforming them into peripheral zones of the capitalist world-economy; but during the twentieth century, it reached the geographical limits of earth and ran out of new lands to conquer. Secondly, the world-system, as a system of imperial domination, is inherently characterized by the resistance of the conquered, colonized, and peripheralized; during the twentieth century, the resistance became increasing advanced, such that by the 1970s, it had attained global organizational unity and ideological coherence.
During the 1970s, with consciousness of the fundamental geographical and political contradictions of the world-system, the corporate elite was at an historic crossroads. At that critical historical moment, the corporate elite demonstrated its moral and intellectual incapacity to serve as the de facto ruling class of the world-system.
First, the global elite turned to the imposition of the neoliberal project, utilizing as a weapon the Third World external debt, which itself was a consequence of the amoral and anti-social comportment of big banks during the 1960s and 1970s. The neoliberal project was an ideological attack on the state and an economic attack on Third World states, reducing their already limited capacities to provide social services to their peoples and to promote the social and economic development of their nations. Neoliberalism exposed the fundamentally undemocratic character of the neocolonial world-system. (See “Neoliberalism and the U.S. turn to naked imperialism: The sustained structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy,” July 9, 2021).
Secondly, with its economic capacity declining relative to other core nations, the United States increasingly turned to imperialist military aggression, with its failed war in Vietnam in the late 1960s, its “low-intensity war” in Central America in the early 1980s, its invasion of Iraq in 1991, its “humanitarian intervention” in Eastern Europe in the late 1990s, and its “war on terrorism” in the Middle East since 2001. With concern for possible popular resistance to military intervention, caused by the “endless wars” in the Middle East, the United States since 2014 has launched an “unconventional war” against four Latin American nations that have declared for socialism, namely, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua (“The doctrine of preventive war plus unconventional war: The aggressive face of imperialism in decadence,” July 23, 2021).
The historic turn of the corporate elite to economic and military aggression is shortsighted. It reduced the capacity of the Third World nations to purchases goods and services, thus contributing further to global economic stagnation. And it violates the rules of imperialism, according to which the national elites in the neocolonies are given a degree of economic and political space, so that a democratic façade, necessary for political stability, can be maintained. In reducing the capacities of already weak states and impoverished peoples, and in ignoring the need for a democratic pretense, the economic and military aggression of the core governments and financial institutions intensified political opposition from the peripheralized and semi-peripheralized zones.
During the period of 1994 to 2014, the peoples and nations of the Third World retook the radical Third World agenda that had been formulated by the charismatic leaders, social movements, and revolutions of the Third World during the period 1948 to 1979. The renewal was born in rejection of the neoliberal project by the people, who experienced the negative consequences of neoliberal policies, such as: the devaluation of their currencies; increases in the costs of water, electricity, natural gas, and buses; reduction in government programs and services; the undermining of local agricultural production; and higher levels of unemployment, crime and violence. In the case of Latin America, drawing upon decades of anti-colonial, anti-neocolonial, and anti-imperialist movements, leaders emerged who were able to reformulate the concrete demands of the people with respect to specific grievances into a broader political and social critique of neoliberalism, imperialist policies, and the neocolonial world-system. Thus, there emerged a popular movement across Latin America, the Movement for an Alternative World, proclaiming that “A Better World is Possible.”
The Alternative World Movement spawned new political parties that sought to take power away from the traditional political parties that had cooperated with the global powers and transnational corporations in the imposition of the neoliberal project. The new popular parties were able to win presidential and/or parliamentary elections in a number of Latin American nations, including Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Paraguay. The leaders of four of these nations (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua) proclaimed that they were seeking to build “Socialism for the Twenty-First Century,” and leaders from throughout the region affirmed their admiration for socialist Cuba as a “model of Latin American dignity.”
In addition, led by socialist and progressive governments, Latin America and the Caribbean developed new regional organizations of economic, political, and cultural cooperation, seeking to develop alternatives to the structures of U.S. neocolonial domination. The new process of Latin American and Caribbean union and integration endeavored to by-pass existing exploitative structures of the core-peripheral relation and to replace them, step-by-step, with alternative structures for relations among nations, shaped by complementary and mutually beneficial intraregional commercial and social accords. This process constituted an effort to construct, from below, an alternative world-system. It is developing in practice an alternative civilizational project, one that draws from various political and cultural horizons. It presents itself as an alternative to the neocolonial world-system in crisis, which places markets above people, seeks military solutions to social conflicts, pays insufficient attention to the ecological needs of the earth, and induces consumerism and cynicism among the people.
The new Latin American political process proclaimed the fundamental principles and values that can constitute the foundation of an alternative and more just world-system. These principles and values include the primary responsibility of states to protect the social and economic rights of all citizens, including the rights to a decent standard of living, housing, nutrition, education, and health care; respect for the sovereignty of all nations, even those that are not wealthy or powerful; and the development of forms of production and distribution that are ecologically sustainable. The new political process, drawing upon the perspectives formulated by the movements of the peoples of the world during the last two and one-half centuries, has formulated “universal human values,” that is, values concerning which there is consensus in all regions of the world, and which various international organizations and commissions, including those of the United Nations, have affirmed.
The Latin American return to the source occurred in the Third World as a whole. The Non-Aligned Movement retook the principles that it had formulated in Bandung in 1955 and Belgrade in 1961, and had expressed in its proposal for a New International Economic Order, approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974. At the 2006 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, the 118 member nations unanimously called for a “more just and equal world order,” lamenting “the excessive influence of the rich and powerful nations in the determination of the nature and the direction of international relations.” The 2006 Declaration of Havana rejected the neoliberal project as promoting global inequality and “increasing the marginalization of countries in development.” It affirmed the principles of the UN Charter, including the equality and sovereignty of nations, non-intervention in the affairs of states, and “the free determination of the peoples in their struggle against foreign intervention.” The Declaration of Havana proclaimed that “each country has the sovereign right to determine its own priorities and strategies for development.” It called for the strengthening and democratic reform of the United Nations, and it proposed South-South cooperation as a complement to North-South cooperation. It rejected the politicization of the issue of human rights, and the double standard used by the global powers, as a pretext for intervening in the affairs of a nation of the Non-Aligned Movement. And the 2006 Summit proclaimed its support for the peoples of Palestine, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Iran in their conflicts with the global powers.
The renewal of Latin American and Third World resistance during the period 1994-2014 has given rise to a U.S. reactionary “unconventional war” against the four vanguard Latin American nations of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. Launched in 2014, the U.S. unconventional war seeks to overthrow governments by creating political instability through economic and ideological attacks and supporting opposition sectors. The techniques of the non-conventional war also have been used against Iran (supported by drone attacks), Syria (supported by proxy para-military forces), China (in an emerging new Cold War), and Russia. (See “The doctrine of preventive war plus unconventional war: The aggressive face of imperialism in decadence,” July 23, 2021).
In sum, the world-system began to experience structural contradictions, rooted in its having overextended the geographical limits of the earth, and in its inherent tendency to provoke resistance from the colonized. The global elite, led by the United States, responded with aggressive economic and military imperialism, which has intensified the economic and political contradictions. Since the 1960s, the comportment of the global elite has generated a sustained structural crisis of the world-system.
The sustained structural crisis of the world system creates four possibilities for the future. First, a global military dictatorship directed by the USA. There is definite movement in this direction, with the U.S. ignoring established international structures and engaging in unilateral action, including unilateral military action and the constant threat of military force. Secondly, the fragmentation of the world-system into regional authoritarian world-systems, which could result from a U.S. failure to attain a global military dictatorship. Thirdly, generalized chaos, with local violent gangs in control. This is already occurring in several areas, in a context of formal state control. And finally, a socialist world-system, that is, a world-system that accepts the option for the construction of socialism as a legitimate option for nations in the exercise of their sovereignty and self-determination. Several states have taken this road, including China, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and these nations have economic and diplomatic relations with Russia, Iran, and progressive governments in Latin America.
What are the characteristics of a nation that takes the option of seeking to construct socialism? Of primary importance is the development of political structures that put authority in the hands of the delegates of the people. I have in previous commentaries described the Cuban political process of people’s power, the most important and least understood achievement of the Cuban Revolution.
A nation seeking to develop socialism believes that the most important human rights are social and economic: nourishment, shelter, education, and health care. It believes that the state, acting with the authority of the delegates of the people, has the responsibility to plan, direct, and regulate the national economy; with recognition of various forms of property, including private property. It believes that the development of the economy should not be left to market demands; nor should economic policy be shaped by the interests of the capitalist class, the owners of large-scale economic enterprises.
A nation seeking to develop socialism has an anti-imperialist international projection. It hopes to participate with other nations in the development of a world order that respects the sovereignty of nations. It is committed to the principles of cooperation among nations and solidarity among peoples. A nation seeking to construct socialism sees the need to transform many of the national economies of the world, which as a legacy of colonialism, are assigned the role of providing raw materials and cheap labor the core nations of the world-economy; accordingly, it cooperates with other nations in their efforts to diversify their economies.
A nation seeking to construct socialism places the major media of information under public control, eliminating the dissemination of information that is distorted in the service of particular interests. It views the establishment of public media not as a restriction of freedom of speech, but as a necessary limitation on the rights of property. It believes that decisions concerning what the people see, hear and read about the world should not serve particular interests.
A nation that seeks to construct socialism believes in gender equality, in the full and equal participation of women in the national project of social and economic development. And it believes that the production of goods should be guided by the principal of ecological sustainability; but without idealism, because immediate practical needs have to be taken into account.
A nation building socialism recognizes the importance of national identity and patriotism in the subjectivity of the modern world. It invokes patriotic sentiments, calling the people to the defense of the nation and its socialist project, in many cases involving a defense of national sovereignty in the face of imperialist interventions and interference.
Socialism today is guided by spirituality, a belief in the essential dignity of the human species, and a faith that ultimately, social justice will prevail. It maintains that fidelity to universal human values and fundamental moral and ethical principles is the foundation to a sustainable and prosperous future for humanity.
As early as 1982, the U.S. sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, principal formulator of the world-systems perspective, expressed the idea that the world-system has entered a terminal crisis, and that it could possibly be replaced by a socialist world-system. However, whereas Wallerstein saw the emergence of a just and democratic world-system as a theoretical possibility, we today are able to see that an alternative world-system, with space for socialist projects, has in fact been emerging in theory and practice from below since 1994. The peoples of Latin America and the Third World have begun to construct an alternative world-system. They are doing what Wallerstein had imagined as a possibility. They are attempting to make real the dreams of the various social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, precisely at the historic moment in which the unsustainability of the world-system has become increasingly evident.
The outcome cannot be known in advance. However, we academics and intellectuals of the North should be aware that the transformation from below is occurring, and it therefore is a real emerging possibility. Furthermore, we cannot wait until the outcome is known before giving our attention and our support to the movements from below. We have the duty to cast our lot with the more just and democratic world-system emerging from below, as against a new form of domination imposed from above, or global fragmentation into separate authoritarian regional empires, or chaos; because among these options, a just, democratic, and sustainable world-system is the most consistent with human knowledge and universal human values. We have the moral responsibility to participate in this process of change, even as the outcome remains in doubt, by doing intellectual work that clarifies the choices that humanity confronts and by taking an unambiguous political and moral stand. For those of us in academic institutions, this will require that we liberate ourselves from the assumptions of the academic disciplines and from the priorities imposed by the academic bureaucracy.
The post-1994 resurgence of revolution by the neocolonized peoples of the earth provides the option of support for an emerging dignified alternative to the neocolonial world-system, led by charismatic leaders whose gifts of discernment, commitment to social justice, and denunciations of the powerful remind us of the prophet Amos, who condemned the structures of domination and privilege of the ancient Kingdom of Israel as violations of the Mosaic covenant, a covenant that was a sacred agreement between a homeless and marginalized people and a God who acts in history in defense of the poor.
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