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The Spirit of Davos vs. the Spirit of Porto Alegre

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
24th March 2011


After an interesting and ‘must-read’ analysis of the current world situation and the prospects for change, Immanuel Wallerstein posits the dual alternative that the world population will have to choose from:

“All in all, it is not a pretty picture, and brings us to the political question, What can we do in this kind of situation? But first, who are the actors in the political battle? In a structural crisis, the only certainty is that the existing system—the capitalist world-economy—cannot survive. What is impossible to know is what the successor system will be. One can envisage the battle as one between two groups that I have labeled “the spirit of Davos” and “the spirit of Porto Alegre.”

The objective of the two groups is totally opposite. The proponents of “the spirit of Davos” want a different system—one that is “non-capitalist” but still retains three essential features of the present system: hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization. The proponents of “the spirit of Porto Alegre” want the kind of system that has never existed heretofore, one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. I call these two positions “spirits” because there are no central organizations on either side of this struggle, and indeed, the proponents inside each current are deeply divided as to their strategy.

The proponents of the spirit of Davos are divided between those who proffer the iron fist, seeking to crush opponents at all levels, and those who wish to co-opt the proponents of transformation by fake signs of progress (such as “green capitalism” or “poverty reduction”).

There is division as well among the proponents of the spirit of Porto Alegre. There are those who want a strategy and a reconstructed world that is horizontal and decentralized in its organization, and insist on the rights of groups as well as of individuals as a permanent feature of a future world-system. And there are those who are seeking once again to create a new international that is vertical in its structure and homogenizing in its long-term objectives.

This is a confusing political picture, compounded by the fact that large parts of the political establishments and their reflections in the media, the punditry, and academia still insist on talking the language of a passing, momentary difficulty in an essentially equilibrated capitalist system. This creates a fog within which it is difficult to debate the real issues. Yet we must.

I think it is important to distinguish between short-term political action (the short term being the next three to five years at most) and medium-term action aimed at enabling the spirit of Porto Alegre to prevail in the battle for the new “order out of chaos” that will be collectively “chosen.”

In the short term, one consideration takes precedence over all others—to minimize the pain. The chaotic fluctuations wreak enormous pain on weaker states, weaker groups, weaker households in all parts of the world-system. The world’s governments, increasingly indebted, increasingly lacking financial resources, are constantly making choices of all kinds. The struggle to guarantee that the cuts in revenue allocation fall least on the weakest and most on the strongest is a constant battle. It is a battle that, in the short run, requires left forces always to choose the so-called lesser evil, however distasteful that is. Of course, one can always debate what the lesser evil in a given situation is, but there is never an alternative to that choice in the short term. Otherwise, one maximizes rather than minimizes the pain.

The medium-term option is the exact opposite. There is no halfway house between the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre. There are no compromises. Either we shall have a significantly better world-system (one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian) or we shall have one that is at least as bad and, quite possibly, far worse. The strategy for this choice is to mobilize support everywhere at every moment in every way. I see a medley of tactics that might move us in the right direction.

The first is to place great emphasis on serious intellectual analysis—not in a discussion conducted merely by intellectuals, but throughout the populations of the world. It must be a discussion animated by a large openness of spirit among all those who are inspired, however they define it, by the spirit of Porto Alegre. This seems anodyne to recommend. But the fact is that we have never really had this in the past, and without it we cannot hope to proceed, much less to prevail.

A second tactic is to reject categorically the goal of economic growth and replace it with the goal of maximum decommodification—what the movements of indigenous nations in the Americas are calling buen vivir. This means not only resisting the increased drive to commodification of the last thirty years—of education, of health structures, of the body, of water and air—but decommodifying as well agricultural and industrial production. How this is done is not immediately obvious, and what it entails we shall only know by experimenting widely with it.

A third approach is an effort to create local and regional self-sufficiencies, especially in the basic elements of life such as food and shelter. The globalization we want is not a single totally integrated division of labor but an “alterglobalization” of multiple autonomies that interconnect in seeking to create a “universal universalism” composed of the multiple universalisms that exist. We must undermine the provincial claims of particular universalisms to impose themselves on the rest of us.8

A fourth derives immediately from the importance of the autonomies. We must struggle immediately to end the existence of foreign military bases, by anyone, anywhere, for any reason. The United States has the widest collection of bases, but it is not the only state to have such bases. Of course, the reduction of bases will also enable us to reduce the amount of the world’s resources we spend on military machines, equipment, and personnel, and permit the allocation of these resources for better uses.

A fifth tactic that goes along with local autonomies is the aggressive pursuit of ending the fundamental social inequalities of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexualities—and there are others. This is now a piety among the world left, but has it been a real priority for all of us? I do not think so.

And, of course, we cannot expect a better world-system circa 2050 if, in the interim, any of the three pending supercalamities occurs: irrevocable climate change, vast pandemics, and nuclear war.

Have I created a naive list of non-realizable tactics by the world left, the proponents of the spirit of Porto Alegre, for the next thirty to fifty years? I do not think so. The one encouraging feature about a systemic crisis is the degree to which it increases the viability of agency, of what we call “free will.” In a normally functioning historical system, even great social effort is limited in its effects because of the efficacy of the pressures to return to equilibrium. But when the system is far from equilibrium, every little input has great effect, and the totality of our inputs—made every nanosecond in every nanospace—can (can, not will) add up to enough to tilt the balance of the collective “choice” in the bifurcation.”

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