Thursday, September 1, 2011

At the Heart of the “Crisis of Civilisation”: The Issue of “Living Well”

By Patrice Cohen-Séat
August, 2011

The crisis of civilisation and the crisis of capitalism are thus closely linked: on the one hand, because capitalism is the product of western civilisation and even of its conception of progress inseparable from “the Enlightenment” and that of “Reason” (which led Geneviève Azam to say that the “rational” should not be confused with the “reasonable”).

This conception of progress is likewise inseparable from the sense of what a human being is and from the way in which “society is produced”, the concept of work and its ends – and more generally the idea of well-being and of the modes of life, all of which today are in the spotlight. On the other hand, because the “crisis” is essentially due to contradictions which are insuperable between capitalism and the indispensible transformations of the existing order (except by overcoming the system itself), it is possible, thus, to say that the crisis is that of Western capitalist civilisation, gradually imposed on the rest of the world, starting with colonialism and now with financial globalisation.

The crisis is inseparably that of the West itself – at least of its centuries-old domination of the rest of the world. For example, where the conflicts of interest between diverse parts of the world were settled, in the past, by gunboat intervention, negotiations about climate, trade or solutions to international crises come up against the West’s inability to impose its views by force. China, India and perhaps others tomorrow, are about to replace the great western powers. In any case, it is impossible today to impose anything on them. However, this crisis of the West is only one of the aspects of the “crisis of civilisation”, so long as the rest of the world, on which the capitalist system was imposed, is unable spontaneously to be bearers of alternative civilisations. This is one aspect of the solidarity that links the peoples of the whole world: over and above the specificity of each national situation, the whole world is faced with the same challenge of change and the same obstacles.

Essentially, much of the motive force of the crisis lies in a deadlock of the capitalist system itself, which was described in various ways by the participants. They all agree in confirming a central contradiction: the permanent efforts of capital in maintaining or even in continuously maximising its rate of profit drags it into an endless spiral that links the reducing of “social costs” to a structural weakness of demand and therefore of outlets. Added to this, it is decisive that the amount of capital requiring remuneration has become so exorbitant: a “virtual” finance capital (Jean-Christophe Le Duigou talks of “fictitious” capital) dominates and crushes the “real” economy, increasingly extorting money from society.

This raises the question of whether capital still has any margin of manoeuvre, that is, possibilities of resolving certain contradictions, particularly by extending exploitation to new fields (this is the hypothesis of “green capitalism”) or of exploiting new technologies, the exploration of the ocean or the universe, etc. Some, like Immanuel Wallerstein, conclude that the capitalist system has been entering a (terminal?) phase of structural unbalance since the 1960s, continuously more chaotic (in the sense that physics uses the term) in which, unlike phases in which even big challenges to the system are followed by a return to equilibrium, small quantities of energy can have very great effects. This period is a “fork in the road”, one of uncertain, even dangerous change in which, nevertheless, the “free will” of the peoples can influence the outcome.

Apart from the deadlocks connected with the accumulation of a phenomenal mass of “real” and “virtual” capital whose yield leads to economic and social suffocation, the crisis’s other major mainspring is the impossibility of maintaining, let alone extending, a Western-capitalist conception of development throughout the world, wich is coming up against natural and social realities. On the one hand, there is the question of the limitations of the biosphere – the exhausting of resources, particularly of fuel and power, climate change, the threats to biodiversity – that raises the issue of the durability of the ecosystem in which human life has developed. On the other hand, there is the explosion of phenomena of social suffering, particularly in the world of work, which fundamentally contradicts the promise of well-being that is supposed to accompany “progress” and “growth”. Frédéric Lebaron showed how the link between growth and social well-being is today being challenged, giving rise to very diverse and important research efforts to seek to grasp and measure by new “indicators” the complex of this historic divorce between capitalism and human progress. He stressed that this debate over the “indicators of human development” necessarily leads to questioning the “purpose of work” and thus to a new conception of development. Rather than tying ourselves up in knots in a “tabooed” debate between growth and decline, he proposes, as does Edgar Morin, to question concretely what are the things we want to see grow or decline – human life, inequality, etc.

A crisis of meaning

As the title of the symposium suggests, these critical phenomena, taken as a whole, are accompanied by a deep crisis of meaning, which itself is a cardinal dimension of what really is a “crisis of civilisation”. Where is humanity going? What kind of humanity do we want to be, or in what kind of humanity do we want to live – depending on the formula used? This brings us to Immanuel Wallerstein’s analyses that, for some decades to come, we will be entering another state of the world, the crucial issue being to know whether it will be hard and authoritarian or more egalitarian and democratic, much worse than today or better. This, fundamentally, is the question that runs through all societies and is expressed in a thousand different ways by the idea: “things can’t go on this way” – but to go where?

Never in human history, perhaps, has this fundamental question been raised so directly. This is because, for the first time, progress seems to be going permanently backwards, and coming generations seem condemned to live less well that the previous ones. And this is at a time when advances in knowledge, which used to give a rhythm to “progress” to the point of being considered its cause, are becoming increasingly brilliant – an incomprehensible paradox that has led to the questioning of the future of humanity itself. In its radical depth, this question also sketches a very true issue of civilisation that, as Alain Hayot suggested, obliges us, in order not to be impotent, to “name what we want”. “What is missing”, said François Miquel-Marty in the same spirit, “is an ideology, a vision of history that gives meaning to what people are living through”, which, he added “calls for an immense intellectual and political effort”.

A crisis of politics

However, the fact is that politics is devastated. Buttressed by a narrow vision of the power issues at stake, it is less than ever concerned with knowledge, let alone with theory. Yet the latter is beginning a (still timid) return to the public arena. The symptoms of the illness from which it suffers are particularly spectacular in the countries that had a long and important democratic tradition. The left, in all its trends, is in retreat and is often beaten, while politics as a whole is disparaged. Social suffering is only expressed, principally, by abstention and voting for the extreme right, for potentially fascist and racist parties. Democratic institutions are undermined. A poll taken a few years ago indicated, for example, that a majority of French people essentially felt that the abolition of parliament would not be a catastrophe.

Maryse Dumas and Marcel Gauchet, although from very different ideological horizons, agreed during the symposium to condemn the political scene for becoming a shadow theatre. At the heart of this assessment is the incapacity of politics to think about the state in a period of globalisation, and of globalisation itself. “What’s the use of politics?” Maryse Dumas asked, “Where are the places where real decisions are taken?” Marcel Gauchet stated that “the European left says nothing relevant about globalisation” and finds itself “caught in the trap of one of its most fundamental ideals: internationalism”. “The elites have detached themselves from the national arenas”. “The blind spot is politics’ absence of thought”. He concluded that we need to “rethink what the framework is that allows democratic life, particularly in controlling the economic process”.

A severe indictment of the various lefts apparently deaf and blind to the warning signals that are accumulating. Faced with a vast project of such crucial importance, no answers are forthcoming. As an example, one only needs to read the ridiculous programme of institutional change proposed by the French Socialist Party on the eve of the major election deadlines of 2012: there is no longer a question of challenging the “permanent coup d’état” it has attacked since … 1958, nor of proposing a 6th Republic but only some mini-reforms of no real consequence – but this is the heart of the problem! As Maryse Dumas and Marcel Gauchet’s contributions affirm, the reality is that “the democratic order” no longer has any hold on “the economic processes”. Capitalist financialisation and globalisation have broken the territorial links that obliged big companies to take into account, to some measure at least, the needs of populations. Barely a few months after the “crisis”, the multinationals are again making record profits, 50% of which will be distributed as dividends to the shareholders. Their powers over the life and future of the world’s peoples have become fantastic – yet “the state can’t do everything”, as only six years ago a French left-wing Prime Minister said, meaning that he couldn’t do anything about it.

It is clear why, in these circumstances “the lefts” seem to have no project and leave the field more or less open to the right, including the extreme right. Immanuel Wallerstein analysed the problem on the basis of the Latin American example where a fundamental debate (or a debate on civilisation?) opposes what he calls “native left movements” to “political left movements”. The latter seem to propose transforming the countries and turning them towards growth and increasing the national income and accuse the “indigenous left” of curbing this movement and acting like objective allies of the USA, while the “indigenous left” counterposes the idea of “living well” to that of growth and accuses the “political left” of making the same choices as the right and thus destroying the country’s autonomy. This tension between the two poles of the left seems to him to be general and wider than the Latin American context. He hopes for a “reconciliation” between the two left movements, without which there is the risk that capitalism will be replaced by an even worse system, and he thus feels the need of an internal debate of the left on the kind of civilisation that needs to be built – on whether it should be based on unlimited growth or on another way of understanding life. There, in his view, lies the “crossroads” before which the whole world stands. This effort could result in the possibility of finally “naming what we want”, in a context where the words “socialism” and “communism” have ceased to describe a desirable future without having been replaced by other words.

One might suppose, too hastily, that the left debate in Europe between the “social liberal” left and the “radical ” or “transformative” left is part of this debate on civilisation. That would be a very optimistic view, especially as this confrontation is still largely dominated by the traditional opposition between two visions of society (to simplify, liberal or statist). Indeed, in the absence of a veritable renewal of political thought able to define the terms of such a debate, society does not see any difference between the liberal left and the right – and virtually ignores the “transformative transformation” which remains limited to an average 5% in the countries of the European Union. Moreover the electorate for transform this polities is often elderly and relates mostly to older concepts. This is, perhaps, the fundamental reason why, despite their efforts, the lefts are accused of not having a project. This criticism masks the fact that these political forces are still unable to pose the question of an alternative politics based on the “choice of civilisation” which implies a progressive exit from the crisis. Is this not typical of what takes place in discussions on pensions that have shaken many European countries – essentially technical discussions mainly focused on financial issues but ignoring the essential by failing to tie them, for example, to a conception of work, its place in society and in life as well as its purpose, to that of enterprise, of the wages system, of human needs, etc – and finally to “living well”?

New conditions of the class struggle

The problem is that it is useless if the “crossroads” just remains in the firmament of ideas; thus the symposium ended with an attempt to think about the “new conditions of the class struggle”. First, by the now classical observation of the asymmetry between, on the one hand, an ever narrower financial class (caste?) more than ever aware of its interests and organised for their defence, and, on the other hand, a proletariat (subject to work and life conditions determined by others) which is an overwhelming majority but very diverse, riddled with many contradictory interests, not very “class conscious” or organised.

Indeed, what does “conscious” mean? The reply seems self evident: it means being aware of sharing some interests that are opposed to those of another social class, so much so that the defence of these common interests can lead to putting forward a political project around which to mobilise. There, probably, is the rub. As Roger Martelli said, “this requires a class polarisation, not the juxtaposition of actors” – a polarisation that comes about “when a group is capable of summing up, on the basis of hopeful expectations, a project that proclaims the end of the domination to which a class is subjected”. In other words, the lack of class consciousness is not due to a lack of people concerned but from a collective political incapacity of drawing up and carrying out such a project. All of which brings us back to the issue of the debate about civilisation, which the left absolutely must conduct, in order to lead towards fresh hopes and expectations.

What lesson from the Arab revolutions?

Oddly enough, these discussions took place at the end of January, in the middle of the development of the Arab revolutionary upsurge, without anyone really feeling able, so soon, to link these important events with the reflections being made. Indeed, it was only several days later that, at the World Social Forum in Dakar, some people asked themselves what connection (or lack of connection) these revolts had with the alter-mondialiste movement. Perhaps, with some hindsight, we may be able to draw a first fundamental lesson from them, which touches on the relations between social transformation and democracy. It seems evident that one of the mainsprings of these powerful revolts was the social suffering caused by the systematic plundering of these countries’ resources and by the confiscation of rights and of civil and political freedom. However, one (the confiscation of liberties) is the precondition for the other. It is this awareness that led these revolutionaries to take their stands first of all on the terrain of freedom and democracy. And it was by setting themselves such a precise and immediately achievable political objective that these movements have created hopeful expectations and mobilisations that gave them their strength.

Rather than thinking that these movements are tackling problems that our societies already resolved over the last three centuries, should we not consider that the question of rights, freedom and powers – that is, in the broad sense, the question of democracy – is always, faced with the necessity of deep-seated social transformation, a key issue around which a “realistic” political mobilisation can be built? This amounts to saying that a political project, particularly when it is tackling a project of civilisation, can only prosper or even be drawn up, when the political conditions (in the sense of balance of forces) are created to carry it out. This line of thought that the Arab revolts open up for us could turn out to be decisive – because, in politics, there is a direct link between the feeling of powerlessness and the fact of being powerless – like that between consciousness of one’s power – a corollary of class consciousness – and the real ability to transform the order of things.

The “shadow theatre”, of which Marcel Gauchet spoke regarding the political scene, then takes on another meaning. It is not only the product of deterioration in the power of states, but a condition created in order to make people feel powerless – which consequently makes the peoples of the world powerless in reality. The priority, as Maryse Dumas proposed, is indeed to identify the real seats of power – from the local to the world scale— in the political as well as the economic, media, cultural, etc. spheres, so as to be able to propose concrete transformations in all areas, giving new powers to the wage earners, to the citizens, to the peoples and consequently giving birth to a feeling of power in them, which will thus become a real power.

It thus appears that the question of democracy, and so of institutions, is central: it is the condition for ensuring that the discussion of the project of civilisation extends beyond the circles of intellectuals and politicians and is placed at the very heart of society itself

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