Year L, 2008, Number 1, Page 3
Politics at a Crossroads
The current era of economic and commercial globalisation presents three important new features that set it apart from the past.
The first is the sheer scale and pace of the phenomenon. Never before has a process of integration of trade and of the global economy occurred on such a vast scale, in terms of the number of individuals involved, or so rapidly (within the space of just a few decades) that it has left the institutions unable, by adapting the traditional instruments of government, to equip themselves to respond efficiently to the changes taking place.
The second unprecedented feature is the degree of disintegration both of production processes and of services. Thanks to the new technologies, these can now be broken down into innumerable subprocesses which, distributed all over the world, keep production costs to a minimum. This situation, together with the liberalisation of trade and of the movement of capital, is undermining the states’ power to manage their own economic and fiscal policies. All this is producing a worrying weakening of the legitimacy of the states in the eyes of their citizens and an increase in the political influence, within them, of oligarchies and particular interest groups.
The third new feature concerns the environment. It is a fact that the growth of the world economy threatens, within a few decades, to ruin the climatic equilibria and the natural balances that, for centuries, have guaranteed regular cycles of life and allowed mankind to inhabit this planet. Mankind, for the first time, is having to confront the problem of what limits must be placed on growth, and of how to apply and enforce these limits globally.
The scale of these problems is so great, and the institutions and politicians so clearly inadequate, that many people now doubt that there is scope for further economic integration, and find it difficult to envisage a progressive and peaceful future for mankind. All this is a far cry from the benefits that civilisation was expected to reap when, in the second half of the last century, the new mode of production generated by the scientific and technological revolution began to bear its first fruits. In the attempt to respond to these concerns and give politics a role once again, the first question we should be asking ourselves is why globalisation is looking more and more like a failure than a success, and how exactly we got to this point.
In the 1950s, the founder of this journal, Mario Albertini, realised that the European nation-states no longer represented the framework of reference and the driving force of the course of history in Europe and in the world. This realisation allowed him to appreciate better than others the scope of the revolution that was taking place in one of the fundamental sectors of the new mode of production, that of automation.He predicted, first of all, that this new organisation of production could revolutionise the structure of society and its customs, and lead to a deep crisis of civilisation, unless politics developed theoretical and practical instruments to cope with the changes that were coming. He understood the structural reasons why both the European states and the Soviet Union were proving unable to adapt to the needs of the new mode of production (the former too small and impotent and the latter too centralised and autocratic), and could also see the huge advantage over the rest of the world that the USA was gaining in practically every field.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight and our knowledge of events that half a century ago were still only just beginning to take shape, it is easy to object that Albertini was only able to intuit and to predict what has since become fact. To appreciate the sheer scale of the developments that were gathering force in North America, and were subsequently to spread to the rest of the world, one need only consider the two innovations (then just beginning to evolve) that have come to epitomise the whole globalisation phenomenon: the Internet and container transportation. Both the manner and the ambit in which these innovations came into being are emblematic of the effects and transformations that the interaction between science, technology and raison d’état, in given situations, is capable of producing. For the forerunners of the Internet and of the containers, the United States of America, with its continental market and democracy (then still politically vital and a cultural driving force), together with the strategic needs created by the competition between the USA and the USSR, was the ideal environment for the development of the remarkable technological applications made possible by the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.
As regards the Internet, its original conception was nothing other than an attempt to realise the idea, which the Encyclopaedistsof the Enlightenment period had merely outlined, that it should be possible for every individual to have access, at any time and in any place, tomankind’s entire store of knowledge. Without this profound intellectual motivation, it is most unlikely that the group originally entrusted by the Pentagon with the task of laying the foundations of a reliable network for the exchanging of information — initially between research laboratories, and only later between points of military command — would have created the instrument whose enormous potential for development the world has since witnessed. The early evolution of the Internet wasaccompanied by a theoretical elaboration that was conducted with the aim of creating not a simple, closed, national network, but rather a galactic network that would allow real-time sharing of knowledge on a global scale.
The use of containers for commercial transportation, on the other hand, stemmed from the application, in the civil sector, of military logistics developed by the USA in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The period after the Second World War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam were the test bed for this method of transporting, over long distances, the huge quantities of material needed to supply US military bases and troops — a method that was later to become the backbone of global trade when, after centuries of decline, the great trade routes between West and East were rediscovered.Theseroutes, in turn, could not have been guaranteed and sustained had they not been governed by a federal agency directed by Washington: theDefense Logistic Agency. This agency can, to all intents and purposes, be regardedas the prototype of today’s large consumer goods sales and distribution chains.
The high expectations and the ferment of ideas produced by the first, still limited, applications of the innovations produced by the growing interaction between science and technology were thus a far cry from the diffidence that such applications generate today.
By the end of the 1960s, it seemed that everyone could have access to more: more goods and more free time. In short, the era, described in Aristotle’s Politics, in which “the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them”, and in which there could be an end to man’s enslavement to man and to machine, seemed to be on the point of abandoning the realm of myth to become reality, or at least, that is what many scholars in the industrialised world hoped.
This prospect generated expectations, both in democratic countries and in those with socialist regimes, that extended far beyond the possible advantages in the commercial and production sectors. What it seemed possible to envisage, first of all, was an unlimited increase in the material wellbeing of single individuals, but above all, greater democratisation of the institutions at all levels and an urban revolution that, by organising cities around educational and self-governing institutions, would make them better places to live in.The West and East were not — as they are today — talking of increasing the working week, but rather of cutting it drastically — to well below thirty hours —, and even of abolishing, in the scientific-technological production system, therelationship between the manager and the managed. Today, all these ideas sound like the products of abstract theories and naivety, but one need only take a look at the 1968 writings of philosopher Radovan Richta on the scientific and technological revolution to see that many of these expectations had already assumed the character and substance of out-and-out designs and proposals, which were being brought to the attention of political class of the time.
But in the 1960s and ’70s, neither the democratic West nor the socialist East was able to see that the bipolar world order, which the world credited with the great historical and political achievement of having defeated Nazi fascism and favoured the birth of countless innovations, was starting to show that it was incapable of guiding development in a rational way. There were signs — in the deepening imbalances present in the economic and environmental field and in the arms race — that the existing institutions and the dimensions of the states were not adequatefor governing progress, but these signs were not picked up. Politics, both in the West and in the East, failed to find the instruments that would have made it possible to rise to these challenges. What was called for was the laying of the foundations of a new system of world government and of a new model of state, an initiative that it was up to the Europeans to take, since they, by completing on a political level the process of unification begun in 1950, were the ones who could have broken the rigid bipolar system — thereby restoring fluidity to international relations — and, above all, who could have provided the world with a template for the building of supranational state institutions. However, the Europeans, instead of overcoming the intergovernmental model on which the working of the European Community was based, chose to advance gradually along the road of economic and monetary integration, preferring to hold onto their respective sovereignties for as long as possible and to remain tied to the US-guaranteed framework of production, growth and security. In other words, they chose to remain divided and impotent in the face of the new and rapid evolutions, while the USA and USSR, forced by the logic of their head-to-head confrontation, continued to pour vast material and financial resources into a geopolitical contest that would ultimately see the former winning the Cold War, but also losing much of its federal identity and many of the attributes of a democracy, and the latter caving in entirely, both as a state and as a leader of the process of the political and social emancipation of the working class.
Much euphoria greeted the end of the Cold War and the advent, ushered in by globalisation, of a sort of universal commercial society with few rules and no binding legal authority. But now that this euphoria has died down, what is the position as regards the process of freeing individuals from their dependence on repetitive manual labour? What are the prospects for economic growth, and for improving democracy?
Paradoxically, from the point of view of the automation of industry, the thing that has perhaps contributed most to slowing down development has been the progressive integration into the global economy of the huge resource of low-cost labour available in developing countries like China and India, and in industrially backward countries like those of central and eastern Europe. Indeed, according to estimates by the International Federation of Robotics, although the cost of industrial robots has fallen by half in the past twenty years, the expansion of the automation phenomenon that was hoped for in the ’70s and ’80s has failed to materialise. Japan is the only exception to this. Even in Germany, which in the 1980s, through companies like Volkswagen, led the bid to reduce working hours in Europe, the density of industrial robots is still only around half the level recorded in Japan. In the USA, the country that has led the way in technological innovation in the past half century, the density of industrial robots (ratio of robots to people employed: ninety robots for every ten thousand workers) is currently 90 per cent lower than that recorded in Germany. Meanwhile, in the main Asian countries (China included), in Latin America, and in Africa, the density of robots is very low, a situation that does not look likely to change significantly in the coming years.
As regards the continuation of global economic growth, which is the other crucial aspect of development, we find ourselves faced with two possible scenarios, and both are alarming. Should economic growth continue for several more decades at its present level, and resources continue to be consumed at the current rate, the world’s environmental balance runs the risk of being irretrievably upset. Should growth come to a halt, on the other hand, the world would likely feel the effects of a fierce contest between states all pursuing a condition of wellbeing and security increasingly fragile and difficult to achieve.
As regards the first scenario, it must be borne in mind that the economic development of around two-thirds of mankind will inevitably unleash an unstoppable consumer revolution characterised by levels of consumption far greater than anything already seen in the western world. There are already clear signs that this is true: it took nearly a century for the number of cars in the world to increase from the few hundreds of thousands present at the start of the twentieth century to the half billion registered by its end, and, in the field of air travel, less than half a century to go from tens of billions to thousands of billions of miles travelled per year by the world’s air passengers. If the growth of consumption in China and India continues at its present rate, it will only be a few years before even these figures to pale into insignificance.
It is, after all, inconceivable that the citizens of countries that have only just reached the brink of the consumer revolution should be willing, in an international framework characterised by strong competition and conflicts between the old and the new major powers, to limit their participation in the race for the wellbeing that the opulent West, which accounts for less than 15 per cent of the world’s population but owns two-thirds of the world’s cars, proved unable (or unwilling) to restrict in conditions that, in terms of international cooperation and peaceful coexistence, were far more favourable.
With regard to an arrest of growth, it is precisely the likelihood of a severe global environmental crisis that is making this a possibility. The scientific community now widely accepts that should mankind as a whole record the same per-capita carbon dioxide emissions as the United States, emissions of greenhouse gases would be fivefold the level they are today, an increase that would have inevitable repercussions on the climate and thus on the world’s economies; and the same applies to energy consumption. As we have already indicated, the development of China and India alone is such that this scenario is both plausible and imminent (within the natural lifespan of the generations already born). And since, at the present time, policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions cannot simply be divorced, at a single stroke, from policies for economic growth, it follows that only by stopping global growth, and keeping it at a standstill until such time as it is possible, on a large scale, to abandon the use of fossil fuels, can we really hope to interrupt the process of global warming. Obviously this cannot and will not happen, because no government of any state, nor any international organisation, in spite of the “green” rhetoric that permeates all the political alliances, can or is willing to decree such a freeze. Having said that, economic growth could be brought to a prolonged standstill anyway, precisely because of the web of global emergencies that mankind is becoming entangled in, and which need to be contained.
From an environmental point of view, then, it has to be realised that the problem today is not so much one of ignorance of planet Earth’s alarming conditions — indeed, these have now been extensively studied, well documented and even authoritatively divulged; the problem, rather, is the fact that mankind has already entered the phase in which he should be preparing to manage the consequences of climate change, having failed in his efforts to prevent it in the first place. The real challenge, then, is to create, right now, the form of global government best equipped to tackle the imminent crises, in the full awareness that any hesitation and delay will only increase the threat of disorder and anarchy among the states, exacerbate the environmental emergencies, and, at the same time, damage dramatically the prospects of economic growth.
Problems of the magnitude of those briefly described here, in a situation, like today’s, characterised by the total interdependence of the whole of mankind, cannot be tackled effectively by single political leaders or governments, however enlightened they are. They can be dealt with only by a strong and well organised system of global government that is capable of developing long-term plans and implementing them on a vast scale — a government founded on the broadest possible consensus and on the fullest possible participation of all the citizens; in other words, on democracy.
Today, there is no prospect of a government of this kind, or even of the convergence of the respective raisons d’état that might favour a move in this direction, given that the imbalances in the world are still so great and the new powers are still in the process of establishing their positions. Neither can the international organisations be expected to move in this direction: in the current phase, they are the mirror reflecting the evils and divisions in the world, certainly not the expression of a still embryonic, developing international democracy. But this certainly does not excuse us — if our intention really is to guarantee mankind a civilised future — from making absolutely every effort to guide politics in this direction, not least because it is already clearly apparent just how urgently such efforts are needed. The protracted and continued absence of an opening for the development of democracy at a truly supranational level is, in fact, already having negative effects on the working of democracy even in countries where the ideals of political equality and freedom originated and developed, and not just in those (such as Russia and China) where these ideals are not yet established. The situation in North America and in Europe illustrates this.
The degeneration of federalism and democracy in the USA has reached such a point that it has provoked a strong current of protest even in some sectors of American public opinion. The disproportionate weight of legislative and judicial power wielded by the central executive has dramatically undermined the functioning of the US system based on federal and democratic principles, and there is no real prospect, in the immediate future, of a reversal of this trend, even under a new administration in Washington. It is only by reducing the huge pressure generated by the USA’s foreign policy, and by its domestic corollary (the subjugation of the whole system of government to military security needs), that American society can hope to muster, internally, the energies needed to restore strength to the federal democratic institutions and return to the front line of the battle to affirm a system of global democratic government.
In Europe, the European nation-states’ prolonged dependence on the American superpower has severely weakened the legitimacy of their democratic institutions and governments, as their security and wellbeing have depended for too long on a foreign power over which the Europeans have no control. European integration served to temper this phenomenon up to a point, that is, while it still represented a credible channel for the realisation of the world’s first supranational democracy. But today this possibility is clearly excluded, first, by the fact that European institutions were created but were not attributed the powers, or the executive, legislative and judicial competences typical of a government, a parliament and a court, and, second, by the fact that the design for a political Europe has been gradually emptied of all its significance by the EU’s progressive enlargement and watering down into a free-trade area.
In this scenario, hopes must lie in the fact that there is still scope for proposing a political alternative that might steer, in a positive direction, the expectations and attitudes of public opinion, of the governments, and of the states. For the Europeans, like the Americans, a return to democracy and to a role in efforts to promote a responsible and just system of global government demands a radical change in the framework of international power. But, unlike the Americans — and, in truth, unlike the citizens of all the other continents right now — the Europeans could, if they so wished, take the initiative in changing the very way in which men think and act in the world, creating a new power capable of radically altering the existing framework. It is up to the Europeans alone, but primarily up to those Europeans who, with the declared intention of building a European federation, created the first Communities, to take the decision to overcome the national sovereignties in favour of the building of the core of a European federal state, this is to say, of that crucial element without which the transition to a more balanced multipolar order, more likely to favour the creation of a democratic world government, remains inconceivable.
If the state lacks the dimensions and the instruments needed to tackle the problems that the course of history and the transformation of society present it with, and if, therefore, it is increasingly perceived by the citizens as inadequate, and less and less able to be a mechanism for their participation in the democratic process, then this is because in Europe, the continent in which the state in its modern and conscious form came into being, the process of democratic evolution and of the states’ expansion has ground to a halt.
The world is in its current, perilous position largely because the Europeans have not yet made any real contribution to promoting the creation of a more governable world order.
In conclusion, politics has reached a crossroads. Either it sets out towards the construction of responsible system of government on a global scale, or it will be forced to succumb to the destruction that will derive from man’s uncontrolled use of the enormous power that he has now gained over nature and over the evolution of our planet’s natural balances. On the level of individual responsibilities, this means that whoever decides to engage in politics, and is thus committed to making some contribution to improving the world in which he or she lives, must be aware that the priorities to be tackled today are linked, primarily, to the backwardness of the system of global government, to the inadequacy of the nation-state in most of the continents (Europe primarily), and to the need to create, in Europe, a lever that will make it possible to shift the burden of the world’s pressing problems from their present, ungovernable position into a potentially governable one.
The first task facing politics, in Europe, is to found the core of a European federal state and, outside Europe, to favour its development.