For struggles, global and national

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with Samir Amin, political economist and director, Third World Forum.

The antecedents of the World Social Forum (WSF) can be traced to January 2000 when a small group of about 50 activists, representing trade unions, intellectuals, peasant organisations and other social groups, gathered in Davos. Samir Amin, an intellectual who is regarded as one of the foremost thinkers on the changing dynamics of capitalism, was among those assembled at the "Anti-Davos in Davos". Since then he has been actively associated with not only the WSF but also the regional forums that have evolved as a challenge to imperialist globalisation. He is director, Third World Forum (TWF), located in Dakar (Senegal) and Cairo and in Belgium, a network of social scientists and intellectuals from developing countries. Amin has also played a key role in the formation of the World Forum for Alternatives, which was launched in 1997. The WFA aims to service the needs of social movements that are engaged in challenging the dominant discourse on globalisation. It is also involved in the search for alternatives by developing the tools for "the globalisation of resistance and struggles".

Amin's seminal work, Accumulation on a World Scale, first brought to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1970, came as a whiff of fresh air to the nascent field of development economics because it challenged the then-ruling orthodoxy propounded by the American economic historian W.W. Rostow in 1960. Rostow had argued that the economically backward countries could be on the road to development if there was infusion of capital, in the form of foreign investment or aid. Amin first propounded the concepts of "centres" and "peripheries", linking the issue of development to the nature of capitalism and imperialism. He turned the ruling orthodoxy on its head by pointing out that the problem of underdevelopment was itself a result of the nature and dynamics of capitalism on a global scale.

He spoke to V. Sridhar in Hyderabad, where he participated in the Asian Social Forum (ASF). He spoke about the changes in the nature of imperialism and globalisation and its consequences for the countries of the South. Articulating an alternative vision for the peoples and countries of the South, he pointed out that the plurality of visions against globalisation is a positive feature in the search for social change. He argued that any alternative system must allow each country and society to negotiate the terms on which it engages with the rest of the world. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the significance of the WSF-ASF and the regional fora that have emerged in the last few years as a challenge to imperialist globalisation?

I consider these events important. I do not mean that there are no problems with them. There are many, and growing, social movements around the world. They are very different in nature, struggling either on social fronts, for the defence of labour and of the rights of the popular classes, or on political fronts for basic political rights. There are the feminist movements, ecological movements and many more. What is characteristic of the present time is that these movements are fragmented, in the sense that they are mostly national-based, or, in many cases, local-based. Most of them deal with a single issue or with a single dimension of the problem, without articulating it into an overall alternative political project.

This is the result of recent history. Social organisations that emerged after the Second World War gradually reached their historical limits. I am not only referring to the Soviet pattern of the alternative, but also what has happened and is happening in China, and the erosion of the social democratic pattern in the developed capitalistic West. I also refer to the erosion of the variety of what I call the `national populist' alternatives in the South...

You mean those such as the Nasserite and Nehruvite types...

Yes. As a result of these developments we have moved into a period characterised by fragmentation. There will be no alternative to the present powerful system, neo-liberal globalisation or imperialist globalisation, which is a new phase of imperialism, unless these movements come together to articulate an overall alternative. You cannot fight on a single front. Even if you are successful on that front, the success will be limited, fragile and vulnerable because things are inter-related and because, in the final analysis, we need an overall alternative in all its dimensions. The alternative vision obviously has to have an economic dimension. But the political, social, and cultural dimensions will also have to be addressed.

The WSF is not an organisation with a common political platform for devising strategies. But it is also not a forum that is open to everybody. It has a charter to which participating organisations must adhere. They must make it clear that they are opposed to neo-liberalism, not necessarily to capitalism. They must also be opposed to militarisation of globalisation - not necessarily imperialism, which means much more.

I think that it is a duty of all people, who think they should articulate an alternative, to participate, and not to boycott... I saw some people calling for a boycott of the ASF. They are wrong and sectarian. There might be a number of NGOs [non-governmental organisations], about which I personally have doubts. Some may be corrupt and may also be manipulated by imperialism. Okay, but that is life. We must realise that such organisations do not represent a major force. The major forces are the popular organisations such as the trade unions, peasant organisations, organisations of professionals, feminist movements, ecological movements and many other social groups. We have to respect diversity of concepts and views. Different points of view also need to be articulated at different levels - at the national level, but also at the global level, because globalisation is a reality. Imperialism has been a reality for a long time (laughs).

You have said that a unified movement of the peoples of the South is a prerequisite for change in the present situation. What is the role of the peoples of the North in this?

I am an internationalist. I am a Marxist, socialist, internationalist and a universalist. I am not a chauvinist, certainly not a Third Worldist. The world is one, but a very unequal one. Capitalist development, which has shaped the modern world, has done it on the basis of growing inequality among nations, and within them as well. For the last five centuries there have been countries at the centre and, there have been countries that have been at the periphery. Thus, one of the major elements of the global system is its imperialist dimension. Imperialism is synonymous with growing polarisation among nations. It is based on the rationality of capitalist profitability. The awareness of popular forces in the South, which is at the periphery of the global system, is a fundamental prerequisite for any change.

After the Second World War there was a gigantic movement of the peoples of Asia and Africa for national liberation. They had one target: independence. This was correct, because it was the first step. But the forces that united around this demand represented different classes. In countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba, the leadership was with the radical Left. But in countries like India the leadership was with the middle classes during the fight against British imperialism. In Africa and in the Arab countries, a variety of forces led the movement. The leadership in these countries understood that they not only needed to support one another but also build a common front after independence, based on their common demands vis-a-vis the global system. That is how Bandung happened in 1955.

The common front did yield results. It created a space for these countries to achieve several decades of relatively high rates of economic growth. There was industrialisation and also gigantic efforts in education and in other fields. In political terms, it enabled these countries to transgress ethnic, local and national chauvinisms. The alliance among nations was based on politics, depending heavily on the countries' position against imperialism. That explains why someone like Nasser in Egypt was an ally of India, and not Pakistan. It was because India had an anti-imperialist position, unlike Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan was predominantly Muslim, like in Egypt, was not of any importance.

During the last 20 to 30 years, the visions that came out of socialism, whether of the Russian or the Chinese kind, and out of the more radical of the national liberation movements, reached their historical limits.

Were these countries also not bargaining between the two camps - imperialism, on the one hand, and with socialism, on the other?

Sure, that is true. The Soviet Union could provide ideas - good in some cases, but bad in many cases - and, in some cases, good armaments (laughs) to these countries, which acted as a check against imperialism. It was not possible for the U.S. to act like a gangster as it does today, when it can unilaterally decide to bomb any country in the world.

But owing to the erosion of the leaderships' support bases, these countries entered a vacuum, resulting in regression on all fronts. Afro-Asian solidarity was also eroded. This has opened the way for other patterns of pseudo-solidarities, which are very reactionary, based on ethnic or pseudo-ethnic chauvinisms or, on religious fundamentalism. Let me put it polemically: If the majority of the Indian people accept Hindutva, if the majority of people in the `Muslim' countries accept the nonsense of political Islam, there will be no change on the world scale if these are not transgressed by another vision of human solidarity.

How were the limits in these countries reached?

There was some room for development because colonialism resulted in low levels of industrialisation in a few countries, and none at all in many others. So, there was room for industrialisation after national liberation. But as they moved along, it became costlier, in terms of cost of investment and technology. These countries also inherited social systems with very low levels of education, which offered enormous room for upward mobility for people, through education. As long as the children of the popular classes (the lower middle class and the peasantry) could move up through education - and this happened in a huge scale in India, Egypt and many other countries - the system benefited from legitimacy. Even if they were not democratic, they were seen as delivering something. Countries that had high rates of economic growth, accompanied by not-increasing levels of inequality (I do not mean socially just), and those that offered upward mobility for large sections of society, enjoyed credibility and legitimacy. Some of these countries were semi-democratic, like India. Others, like Nasserite Egypt, were not democratic at all. But they were equally legitimate and credible because they delivered. Once the system reached a point where it could not progress within the same logic and on the same basis, the political system became more corrupt and lost legitimacy. This created a vacuum, which reactionary forces started to occupy.

How do you characterise the current phase of globalisation, in contrast to previous ones in history?

Globalisation and imperialism are nothing new. The history of capitalism since the very beginning has been the history of imperialist expansion. And, the system was always global. The contention of some people that globalisation is something new is laughable. After all, what was the colonisation of India, if not globalisation? The building of the Americas since the 16th century was globalisation. The slave trade, which played a crucial role in the building of the Americas, was globalisation. Later, colonialism was globalisation. And globalisation has always been imperialist globalisation. It has never been achieved by peaceful and equal negotiations between peoples. That is history. But we would be wrong if we think that it is the same old story. We cannot develop an efficient counter-strategy if we do not focus on what is new.

The dominant discourse, the Rightist one, says: "Well, change is always for the better and happens spontaneously. Change is always painful, but it is only transitional. The market, that is, capitalism, will by itself solve the problem in the long run (when everybody is dead)." That is not even ideology. It is propaganda. But this is what is repeated daily by the politicians, written everyday in the newspapers, shown daily on television and even presented as There Is No Alternative (TINA).

We have to look at what is new in a different way. How can the popular forces reorganise to reduce the damage associated with global capitalist expansion? What can they do to impose their own agenda in the short run, to create the conditions for an alternative? The alternative, in my opinion, has a name. It is socialism. It had the same name in the past and will remain the same in the future too. But the way we imagine socialism will not be the same as our fathers imagined it to be.

You said that the nature of imperialism today is different from that of the past. Has it anything to do with the way globalisation is different today?

Yes. Imperialism had always been characterised by rivalry among the major powers. The Spanish and the Portuguese, against the Dutch in the 17th century; the British against the French later; and, the German-Japanese against the others, still later. Rivalry among the imperialist nations had been a major feature. It was on this basis that Lenin - correctly at the time before the First World War - thought the system must lead to a revolution because it will lead to war, which the proletariat, being the victims of the war, will revolt against. History proved Lenin right. There was a revolution. Whatever happened afterwards is another story, but there was a revolution.

After the Second World War, the U.S. and Japan became allies, Japan in a subaltern position. The U.S. and Western capitalist Europe came together after the Marshall Plan and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In geographical terms, the world capitalist system includes the U.S. and its outer province, Canada; capitalist Europe, at that time limited by the Iron Curtain, now a little further east; and, Japan. At that time (after the Second World War), we had an explanation, an easy one, but one which was only partly true. The imperialist powers put an end to their rivalry because they had a common enemy, the Soviet Union. They paid more attention to their common interests rather than the rivalry among themselves.

Since then, however, though the Soviet Union disappeared, these countries have not become rivals again. This is reflected in the economic management of the global system - the functioning of the G-7, a group of the most powerful nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO [World Trade Organisation]. These are not global organisations; these are organisations of the Global North - of the capitalist centre. We also do not see any major differences among these countries within these organisations. We ought to ask ourselves a number of questions. First, why are we in this situation? Second, does this mean there are no contradictions among these countries? Third, if there are contradictions, in what ways are they different from contradictions of the earlier period, in which imperialist countries were in rivalry? Fourth, how do the contradictions relate to North-South relations?

I am suggesting - as I said at the WSF in Porto Allegre, at the Egyptian Social Forum in Cairo, and at the ASF - that capitalism has entered a new phase, of a higher level of centralisation of capital. This has laid the basis for the solidarity of capitalist interests at the global level. During Lenin's time, before the First World War, and continuing till about 30 to 40 years ago (I shall not put a date to it), monopoly capital needed a large market that could be accessed as an empire. A capitalist centre or metropolis with a number of colonies or areas of interests was thus the norm. That was the basis on which rivalries among the imperialist powers existed - on the sharing or re-shaping of colonies and the control of the global system. Now it is being said - not only by us, but by the bosses of big business - that in order to be efficient, transnational corporations (TNC) need to access markets on a global scale. They cannot be successful even if they enjoy overwhelming market shares of even the big regional markets such as the European Union or in North America or other parts of the global market. Therefore, the globe is the terrain on which competition among them is fought out.

But these monopolies also need a global system to operate. The change in the nature of imperialism does not negate the importance of changes in the processes of labour and other dimensions, which need to be taken into account so that the popular classes can reinvent efficient forms of organisations. But in order to be efficient at the global political level, and in North-South relations, we have to take into account the basic fact that imperialism now operates collectively as a triad, represented by the U.S., the E.U. and Japan.

Does this mean that there are no contradictions among these powers? I say there are. We can see them developing, but the nature of the contradictions is different. Basically, there is no common state. And, capitalism cannot operate without a state. The claim that capitalism is ruled by markets, without a state, is complete nonsense. There is no single state, even confederal, of the North. Even Europe with its Union is built on national states, which in many cases have deep historical roots. Therefore, how is the political dimension of collective imperialism to be run? That is an unsolved question.

You have said that there is a tendency for the "centres of gravity" of countries to fall outside the domain of nation states. What does this mean for the peoples of these nations, in terms of a search for an alternative? And, how does such a system operate and what are the contradictions in such a system?

I would like to think I am right, without appearing to be arrogant. But yes, the centre of gravity has moved from inside nations to somewhere else. This has happened to all the nations - to the U.S., the European nations, and to the big and small nations of the Third World. This change is related to the size of dominant capital, which is global in scale. Since these are major decision makers, they cannot be submitted to a national logic. That creates problems. The issue was discussed at the European Social Forum, in Florence. Many people felt that a new Europe should be built. They said that a political Europe was needed, not necessarily with a unified state because, for historical reasons, there are nations with a long history of a common language and culture. Some suggested a kind of confederation. The point is that such a Europe cannot be based only on a common market; it also has to have a common political reality. Another Europe, like another Asia, is possible. This new Europe ought to be based on a social compromise between capital (because we cannot imagine the end of capital immediately) and labour and other popular classes. But I also believe we cannot achieve this other Europe without changing its relationship to the South. Europe cannot change if it continues to be a partner in the collective imperialist system.

Regionalisation will enable the countries of the South to strengthen their capacities vis-a-vis the global system. This can be based on, for instance, history and culture, as in Latin America. The countries of Latin America have a lot in common. Two closely related languages, Spanish and Portuguese, link these countries together. The other common factor is a common enemy for over two centuries - the U.S. I do not think Islam can provide the basis for such regionalisation. But the Arab countries, with a common language, could be the basis for unity among nations. There has never been a history of these countries being unified by a single state, except in the imagination of the nationalists. But this alliance among countries must be based on politics, not merely common market.

Even the larger countries face the menace of imperialism. The Americans do not like large countries. China and India are too big. We need to recognise that there are differences within countries. Let me address frankly the case of India. There are different nationalities, languages and groups, apart from the fact that there are Hindus and Muslims. The way the power system is dealing with this diversity even in India - which is certainly not among the worst in the world (it is at least a semi-democracy) - there are problems such as the rise of communalism.

What is the position of the nation-state in this search for the alternative?

The need for a common front does not negate the crucial importance of the nation-state. For a long time in the future, we will need the nation-state. Markets have to be regulated. But markets cannot be regulated at the global level or even at the regional level if they are not first regulated at the national level.

You have to fight on two fronts. I am of the opinion that the crucial front is the one at the national level. Nothing will change from above. Things will change only when the balance of political forces within countries creates the possibilities for changes at the regional and even at global levels. Change has to start from inside countries. That is why the nation-state is so important.

What are the elements of an alternative to neo-liberal globalisation?

I shall summarise the principles that could possibly govern another kind of global system. The first is the logic of the transition to socialism. This will combine the criterion of capitalism, that is, efficiency as measured by profitability; and, the criterion of social justice. Although the term social justice is very elastic, certain elements can be defined in concrete terms. I am sure any Indian citizen from the popular classes can tell you what he/she means by social justice. It would necessarily mean jobs, reasonable and decent wages, schools for his/her children and decent health care. That is social justice, not socialism. These are not going to be produced by the market, but these will be imposed on the market by a social policy of the state. This kind of system associates capitalistic criteria with social criteria, which will be in conflict. But the system recognises that they are conflicting and therefore must be managed without allowing the market to dominate society unilaterally. It also recognises the fact that the free play of markets creates problems for society. Therefore, society will solve the problem through the exercise of political power. If such a system obtains in several countries, then we can create the conditions for regional arrangements among them, and of changes in the global system.

The second condition that is needed for substantial change is genuine democracy. Social change in the past - whether of the Soviet or Maoist type or of the national populist types in the Third World - had very little democracy or no democracy at all. But whatever their achievements, very little was left to the initiative of the popular classes. They were controlled and directed in many ways, with varying degrees of the negation of democracy. The fact that the people want progress but that they also want liberty is also progress from the earlier situation. We cannot have a remake of the Soviet Union or a remake of Nehru's India. There are no remakes in history. Democracy in the dominant discourse is based on delinking it from the issue of social justice. That does not work, because if democracy does not result in social progress, people no longer find it credible. The main reason for the move backwards towards religious fundamentalism, ethnic solidarities and so on is the failure of democracy.

What is the role of religious and ethnic movements in the context of neo-liberalism and the search for an alternative?

Imperialism and cultural fundamentalism go together. Market fundamentalism needs religious fundamentalism. Why is this so? Market fundamentalism says: Subvert the state and leave it to the market at the global level to run the system. How can such a system be run? It can be done only when states are disempowered completely; and, within states, if the popular classes (the victims) are disempowered by the negation of their class identity. Moreover, the system can be run politically if the South is completely divided, with nations and nationalities hating one another. Religious fundamentalism and ethnic fundamentalism - they are similar - are perfect instruments for ruling the political system. This is the reason why they are supported - ideologically, politically, even financially - by imperialism. The U.S. has always supported Islamic fundamentalism. It has always supported the Saudi Arabian regime, just as it has always supported Pakistan and the Taliban. It continues to support such regimes even today, though they are now compelled to do this in a covert manner. In Europe it uses ethnic movements to achieve its goals, as in Yugoslavia.

Can you tell us the ethos in which you grew up to be an intellectual?

I am a Marxist and have always been a part of the communist movement. That is not a secret. As a child, during the Second World War, I was enthused by the Soviet resistance against Nazi Germany. In those days, Egyptian society was highly politicised; even 13-14 year-old youth were quite politicised. While in elementary school, only about 20 per cent of those in my age group were non-political. The rest were distributed equally in two camps, communists and nationalists. The nationalists used to say that the main enemy of the Egyptian people was Britain; but the communists said that capitalism, operating through Britain, was the enemy. Egyptian society is not as politicised now. Many of my contemporaries were or are communists. I came from a relatively privileged family. I came from a family of the intellectual bourgeoisie, a family of doctors. My father belonged to the Waqf party, very much like the Congress party here. My mother owed allegiance to the radical socialists, the Jacobins, in France. Incidentally, my great great-grandfather was among the first republicans in Egypt, in the 1860s.

As a student in Paris, between 1947 and 1956, I was associated with organisations of students from Third World countries. This created a strong link with many youth who later became leaders of national Left movements in Africa and West Asia.

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