On markets and utopias

On markets and utopias

By Atilio Boron *

The societies that neoliberalism built throughout these years are worse than those that preceded them: more divided and more unjust, and men and women live under renewed economic, labor, social and ecological threats.

The ideological-cultural victory of neoliberalism

It is no mystery to anyone that this very special time, in which capitalism has undergone a regressive restructuring on a planetary scale, is dominated by an ideology: neoliberalism. This has become the common sense of our time, although it is true that its penetration and practical importance are extremely unevenly distributed according to countries and regions. Just as in the past even the most despotic and authoritarian leaders did not stop exalting the value of democracy and ensuring that the regimes they presided over were authentic expressions of it, in our time the rulers seem to compete in a contest to see who declares more strongly its adherence to the principles of the "free market." Both before and now these expressions have little to do with reality and, in the particular case of

competitive markets the rhetoric of neoliberalism far exceeds their objective reality. There is much less market than is said, perhaps because of what John Williamson recalled in a famous paper when he said that "Washington does not always practice what it preaches", and to which we could add that not only Washington but also Bonn, Paris, London and Tokyo seem overly concerned by the striking contrast between the hollow neoliberal rhetoric used in their exhortations to third countries - paying lip service to the World Bank, the IMF and the White House? - and the concrete course of their economic policies. Despite their claims in favor of the neoliberal proposal, developed capitalisms continue to have large and rich states; many regulations that "organize" the operation of markets; collecting a lot of taxes; promoting covert and subtle forms of protectionism and subsidies and living with extremely high fiscal deficits.

If one looks at the experience of the countries "reformed" according to the precepts of the Washington Consensus - Latin America, Eastern Europe and Russia - one can see that the triumph of neoliberalism has been more ideological and cultural than economic. This victory is based on an epochal defeat of the popular forces and the deepest tendencies of capitalist restructuring, and it manifests itself along four dimensions:

(a) the overwhelming tendency to commodify the rights and prerogatives conquered by the popular classes throughout more than a century of struggle, now converted into "goods" or "services" that can be acquired in the market. Health, education and social security, for example, ceased to be inalienable components of citizens' rights and became mere commodities exchanged between "suppliers" and buyers, regardless of any political stipulation. And, something of particular interest to many of us, the environment has also suffered an accelerated and very serious process of commodification that not only calls into question the injustice and inequity of an economic order such as the capitalist but also radically deteriorates the very sustainability of the economy. life on the planet.

(b) the displacement of the balance between markets and the state, an objective phenomenon that was reinforced by an impressive offensive on the ideological terrain that "demonized" the state while exalting the virtues of the markets. Any attempt to reverse this situation will not only have to face structural factors but, at the same time, will have to deal with powerful cultural definitions firmly rooted in the population that associate the state with the bad and inefficient and the markets with the good and efficient. ;

(c) the creation of a neoliberal "common sense", a new sensibility and a new mentality that have penetrated very deeply into the soil of popular belief. As we know, this has not been the work of chance but the result of a project aimed at "manufacturing a consensus", to use the happy expression of Noam Chomsky, and for which multimillion-dollar resources and all the mass-media technology of our time in order to produce a lasting brainwashing that allows the oiled application of the policies promoted by the capitalists. This conformism is also expressed in the most elaborate field of economic and social theories by what in France is called "single thought." It is enough to verify the absence of any significant economic debate in Latin America to assess the pernicious scope of that in our region.

(d) finally, neoliberalism achieved a very important victory in the field of culture and ideology by convincing very broad sectors of capitalist societies - and almost all of their political elites - that there is no other alternative. His success in this field has been resounding: not only did he impose his program, but he even changed the meaning of the words to his advantage. The word "reform", for example, which before the neoliberal era had a positive and progressive connotation - and which faithful to an enlightenment conception referred to social and economic transformations oriented towards a more egalitarian, democratic and humane society - was appropriate and " reconverted "by the ideologues of neoliberalism into a signifier that alludes to processes and social transformations of a clear involutional and anti-democratic sign. The "economic reforms" put into practice in recent years in Latin America are, in reality, "counter-reforms" aimed at increasing economic and social inequality and emptying democratic institutions of all content.

Markets or nations?

Now, popular sovereignty that is expressed in a democratic regime must necessarily be embodied in a national state. It is possible that in the future this will not be the case and that the interstate system will give way to a new international political configuration. But in the meantime, the seat of democracy will continue to be the nation-state. Now, what is the drama of our time? That states, especially in the capitalist periphery, have been consciously weakened, if not savagely bled, by neoliberal policies in order to favor the unchecked predominance of the interests of big business. As a result of the above, they became true "paper tigers" incapable of disciplining the major economic actors and, much less, of ensuring the provision of public goods that constitute the nucleus of a conception of citizenship appropriate to the demands of the end of the century.

A brief indication of the scope of this phenomenon becomes evident from a simple operation. If we compare the sales figures of some of the large transnational companies with those corresponding to the gross product of Latin American countries in 1992 and compile a unified list of states and companies, we would find Brazil at the head of the list, with a gross product three hundred and sixty billion dollars. Then Mexico would come with three hundred and twenty-nine billion and then Argentina, with two hundred and twenty-eight billion. Then a series of very strange "countries" begin to appear: General Motors, with one hundred and thirty-two billion; Exxon, with one hundred and fifteen billion, Ford, with one hundred billion, Shell, with ninety-six billion, Toyota, IBM, and then Venezuela appears, with sixty-one billion, and finally Bolivia with just five thousand three hundred million. dollars of gross product.

What lessons can be drawn from a list as diverse as this one? That the capacity of our countries to negotiate with these giants of the world economy has been undermined over the last decades. As states on the periphery shrunk and weakened at the rate imposed by the neoliberal adjustments of the 1980s and 1990s, the range and volume of operations of megacorporations increased dramatically. As the aforementioned UNRISD report well recalls, between 1980 and 1992 the sales of the megacorporations more than doubled, while the states suffered the bleeding caused by the neoliberal orthodoxy sponsored by those same companies. The scissors movement made the former in an increasingly disadvantageous position in relation to the latter. Those states have little chance of dealing with these new "Leviathans" of the world economy. They are not totally defenseless, but the chances of exercising effective control over large companies are very limited. This is particularly true in the case of countries with small economies: what are the instruments that a democratic government of Bolivia has to negotiate with a corporation like GM, whose annual sales figure is 26 times higher than its gross product? ? How could all the sub-Saharan African countries, whose combined gross product is slightly higher than the annual sales of General Motors and Exxon, could do it?

The reality is that our states are today much more dependent than before, burdened as they are by an external debt that does not stop growing and by an "international financial community" that in practice strips them of their sovereignty by dictating economic policies that are meekly implemented. by the governments of the region. The seriousness of this process of increasing subordination of the states of the periphery to the oligopolies that control world markets is of such magnitude that even a person so little prone to expressing advanced ideas, such as President Fernando de la Rúa, recognized during the I celebrate Argentina's Independence Day, July 9, 2001, that the country was more dependent than before! But, due to one of those paradoxes of history, theorizations about dependency or imperialism are dismissed by the ruling groups and the organic intellectuals of capital as mere anachronisms, precisely when they acquire an even greater validity than those they had in the decade of the sixties. Our countries are much more dependent today than they were in the 1960s. To this must be added that the perspectives of national self-determination - a necessary corollary of popular sovereignty - are further closed under the aegis of neoliberalism when a self-incriminating ideology prevails that under the pretext of "reform of the state" leads it to its radical weakening and its almost complete destruction. Consequently, the phenomenal disproportion between states and megacorporations constitutes a formidable threat to the future of democracy in our countries. To face it, it is necessary to (a) build new social alliances that allow a drastic reorientation of government policies and, on the other hand, (b) design and implement supranational cooperation and integration schemes that make it possible to counterpose a renewed strength of the democratically constituted public spaces to the gigantic power of transnational companies.

An inexcusable vice of many economists, a product of the theoretical crisis and the astonishing narrow-mindedness that characterizes the discipline these days, has been to view countries and states simply as markets. However, despite the dominant economism, our countries are first of all nations and, only later, market headquarters. In the years of the Mexican oil boom, Carlos Fuentes wrote a memorable article in the New York Times with the following title: "Mexico is not an oil well!" The dominant ideology does not by chance resignify countries by turning them into gray markets, all made uniform by the incessant dynamics of supply and demand. It is that the weakening of the nation states facilitated, on the one hand, by the practical extinction of the idea of ​​nation -supposedly subsumed under the "civilizing" current of globalization- and, on the other, by the empire of policies "oriented towards the market "culminates in the degradation of the nation to the rank of a market. In addition, this means accepting -as the dominant discourse of economics does- that the men and women of democracy are stripped of their civic dignity and become instruments, in simple means, at the service of the businesses of the Business. Reducing the meanings, the destiny and the purpose for which we live in a society to the mere obtaining of a profit rate seems to us, in the light of ethics and political theory, unspeakably sordid, apart from being an operation that it ominously seals the fate of the democracies so laboriously conquered in Latin America.

The necessary vindication of utopia

Remember and avoid being overwhelmed by the dominant ideology. Submerged under its influence, and impressed by the sudden "conversion" of numerous intellectuals - another vehement critics of capitalism - to its creed, large segments of our societies seem resigned to thinking that the world will, from now on, be neoliberal to the end. of the times. Although belatedly, the markets would have "gotten their revenge" for so many decades of contempt or hostility at the hands of socialists and populists of all colors.

However, the times of neoliberalism will be much shorter than is supposed. Its "great promise" has been painfully undermined by the facts: both in developed capitalisms and in the periphery, neoliberal restructuring was done at the expense of the poor and the exploited classes. Ownership of the means of production was not "democratized," economic and social inequalities were not attenuated, and prosperity did not spill down, as the "spillover theory" comfortingly asserted.

The societies that neoliberalism built throughout these years are worse than those that preceded them: more divided and more unjust, and men and women live under renewed economic, labor, social and ecological threats. The serious problem that characterizes our time is that while neoliberalism exhibits obvious symptoms of exhaustion, the replacement model still does not appear on the horizon of contemporary societies. How long will this agony last? We do not know. What we do know, and it revitalizes us in our struggles, is that "historically, the turning point of a wave is a surprise," and that neoliberalism can succumb much earlier than expected.

Showing off his talents as a historian, Perry Anderson argued that progressive forces should draw three lessons from the historical vicissitudes of neoliberalism. The first advised not to have any fear of being absolutely against the current political consensus of our time. Hayek and his colleagues had the merit of maintaining their beliefs when conventional wisdom treated them as eccentric or crazy, and they did not flinch from the "unpopularity" of their positions. We must do the same, but avoiding a danger that many expressions of the left did not know how to avoid: sectarian self-enclosure, which prevents critical discourse from transcending the limits of the chapel and going out to dispute bourgeois hegemony in civil society. The most radical opposition to neoliberalism will be inoperative if old and deeply rooted conceptions of the left are not reviewed in terms of language, communicational strategy, insertion in social struggles and in the dominant ideological-political debate, updating of political projects and organizational forms , etc. In short: being against the current does not necessarily mean "turning your back" on society or isolating yourself from it.

Second: neoliberalism was ideologically intransigent, and did not accept any dilution of its principles. It was their "toughness" and radicalism that made it possible to survive in an ideological-political climate extremely hostile to their proposals. Commitment and moderation would only have served to completely blur the distinctive profiles of his project, condemning it to inoperative. The left must take note of this lesson, being aware that the reaffirmation of socialist principles does not exempt us from the obligation to elaborate a concrete and realistic agenda of policies and initiatives that can be assumed by post-neoliberal governments. Hayek and his folks had these recipes available when Keynesianism was showing signs of exhaustion. We still do not have it, but nothing authorizes us to think that the obstacles that exist are insurmountable. In the 1930s, many said that the bourgeoisie had found in John M. Keynes "the bourgeois Marx." Paraphrasing these sayings, it could be said that the popular forces and the entire social arc condemned by neoliberal experiments are awaiting the appearance of the "Marxist Keynes", capable of synthesizing Karl Marx's critique of capitalism with a concrete program of economic policy capable of to bring our societies out of the morass in which they find themselves. The mere exposure of the scourges and misery produced by capitalism will not be enough to find a way out "from the left" to the current crisis.

Third lesson: do not accept any institution established as immutable. Historical practice showed that what seemed like "madness" in the 1950s - creating 40 million unemployed in the OECD, re-concentrating income, dismantling social programs, privatizing steel and oil, water and electricity, schools, hospitals and even prisons - it could have already been possible at a very low political cost for the governments that engaged in this undertaking. The "madness" of trying to end unemployment, redistribute income, regain social control of the main productive processes, deepen democracy and strengthen social justice is no more unreal and "utopian" than that which, in its moment, embodied neoliberal proposal of von Hayek and Friedman. His triumph demonstrates the "unbearable lightness" of the seemingly more consolidated institutions and the supposedly more stable and entrenched power correlations. Or are we to believe that, with the triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism, history has indeed come to an end?

We must, therefore, be aware that a socialist project, thought for the 21st century, is also possible and that it is no more utopian than the one that the neoliberals endorsed in the post-war years. They persevered and succeeded. If the left perseveres and has the audacity to review its premises and its theories, its agenda and its political project - as Marx and Engels did from 1845 on - it too will be able to savor the honeys of triumph and the noblest dream. of humanity may begin to be fulfilled earlier than suspected. A curious coincidence allows us to finish off this argument about the "realism" of utopias. Curious, because it takes place between two intellectuals who could hardly be more at odds with each other: Max Weber and Rosa Luxemburg. Let us remember that the former, with his usual mixture of contempt and irritation for the socialists, went so far as to affirm, as witnessed by one of his most important scholars, that "Liebknecth must have been in a madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in a zoo." In 1919, and in a tough fight against the pessimism and disillusionment that raged in a defeated and demoralized Germany, Max Weber had the opportunity to reflect, probably without realizing it, on the role of utopias. As we know, if there was a subject very foreign to his epistemological premises - founded on a rigid separation between the universe of being and that of values ​​- it was precisely the question of utopias. However, in "Politics as Vocation" he wrote some remarkable lines in which he recognized that "in this world the possible is never achieved if the impossible is not tried again and again", and at the same time exhorted to endure with boldness and lucidity the destruction of all hopes - and, we would say, of all utopias - because, otherwise, "we will be unable to carry out even what is possible today." A reflection no less acute had formulated - a few months before, and in the same country - Rosa Luxemburg. On the eve of her arrest and subsequent assassination, and envisioning with her penetrating gaze the ominous future that loomed over Germany and the young Soviet republic, the Polish revolutionary said that "the blacker the night, the brighter the stars." Far from being extinguished, the need for socialism is accentuated by the dense darkness that the dominance of savage capitalism casts on our societies. These were twinned words, by two brilliant intellectuals who, to varying degrees, agreed, however, not to give up their hopes and to refuse to capitulate -Weber before the "iron cage" of the formal rationality of the modern world, Rosa before capitalism and all its sequels. His words suggest a fundamental attitude that should not be abandoned by those who do not resign themselves to an intrinsically and insanely unjust social order such as capitalism and who, despite everything, continue to believe that it is still possible to build a better society.

* Atilio Boron [email protected]
Executive Secretary of the Council
Latin American Social Sciences CLACSO

Video: Harsha Ram: Khlebnikov, Tatlin, and the Utopian Geopoetics of the Russian Avant-garde (January 2022).