Ten reflections on today's crisis
ROME – It is now clearly evident that we are in a period of transition, even though we remain uncertain as to its outcome. The political, economic and social system that has accompanied us since the end of the Second World War is no longer sustainable.
The exponentially growing inequalities have, according to Amnesty International, taken us back almost to levels seen in Victorian times – albeit now at a global level. Ten years ago, 652 people had the same wealth as 2.3 billion people. Now there are eight.
Today’s eighteen-year-olds, according to projections of the International Labour Organization, will retire with an average pension of 632 euros a month.
Despite official warnings, we are, with great indifference, breaching the 2 degrees centigrade temperature limit beyond which our planet will undergo irreversible changes.
Our financial system today operates largely disentangled from the economy in a parallel world privy of international controls, and where financial transactions on any given day are forty times higher than the production of goods and services around the planet.
The main banks have paid, since 2009, over $800 billion in fines for illegal operations. We must also note that political participation (voting in elect ions) has declined, from an average of 86% in 1960, to 63.7% today.
A profound analysis is very complex and involves all aspects of our life. But it is possible to identify important points for reflection and debate and on which we can jointly explore.
Hopefully they will also lead us to reflect on other points, since the them e of the crisis is in fact holistic and touches on all aspects of our lives. Reflect ions such as these are always subjective. What follows are facts that this writer experienced personally.
REFLECTION NO. 1: The crisis has distant roots.
It was in 1973 that the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a global governance plan, which aimed at reducing inequalities among its members: it was called the New International Economic Order. This plan was born with the support of the United States (even though originally launched by Mexico and Algeria).
The post-war international system, including the United Nations, was put together on the initiative of the United States, by the principal victors of the Second World War.
They were keen on preserving peace and pursuing development, after a war in which they lost about half a million soldiers out of a total population of 140 million people (in comparison, Germany lost more than 15 million out of 78 million inhabitants, and more than two million civilians, against none in the United States and twenty million in the Soviet Union).
The United Nations was therefore born with Washington’s commitment to contribute 25% of its budget (contrast this with the present day when the T rump administration threatens US withdrawal).
But until the Cancun Summit in 1981, which brought together the twenty-two most important heads of state in the world (communist countries excluded), we lived with the illusion of the end of inequality, based on a world democracy, where the majority of countries decide the course to follow for the common good.
At Cancun, the newly elected US President Ronald Reagan announced that the United States no longer accepted to be subject to the rules of an abstract world democracy.
The United States was an exceptional country, and on this basis would decide her foreign and economic policy.
Attending the same meeting was the UK Premier, Margaret Thatcher, who would become Reagan’s most important European ally.
In Cancun, a different vision of the world was born: society does not exist – only individuals (Thatcher). It is not the factories polluting, but the trees (Reagan). Poverty produces poverty: wealth produces wealth. As such, the rich should be taxed as little as possible because they distribute wealth.
REFLECTION NO. 2: Shortly after Cancun, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and with it, the end of ideologies, the straitjackets that gave us both Nazism and Communism.
The driving idea that followed was that we must be pragmatic. Politics must solve concrete problems, not pursue utopias. But the solution of a given problem without consideration for the final vision of the society (right or left, does not matter) is actually called utilitarianism; and politics aimed at administration and not at ideas reduces political participation and increases corruption.
Without programs driven by ideals, the politician’s personality (possibly telegenic), measured on TV and not in the streets, became the main tool for electoral campaigns supported by marketing campaigns, not ideas or programs.
REFLECTION NO. 3: At the same time, neoliberal globalization became the single most powerful guiding thought – think of Thatcher’s TINA “There is n o alternative”.
It was based on the socioeconomic and political model of the so-called Washington Consensus, the development paradigm imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury. It envisaged the adoption of the following reforms: macroeconomic stabilization, liberalization (of trade, investment and finance), privatization and deregulation.
It eliminated the barriers of national protection everywhere, reduced non-productive expenditure (education, health, social assistance), and promoted free competition among states.
Known as Kissinger’s dictum: “the new paradigm of American supremacy”, developing countries were forced to submit to the economic rules imposed by the North.
Kissinger did not see that once free trade was imposed, China and other countries would emerge as winners.
It is interesting to note that before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the term globalization does not appear in the media.
REFLECTION NO. 4: The reaction of the left to this “pensee unique” was the “Third Way” which was successfully proposed and promoted by Tony Blair.
In substance, it argued that it was time to abandon the old ideas of the left and ride the wave of globalization, accepting the lack of alternatives.
Social democracy, from Blair (in UK) to Renzi (in Italy), sought to transform itself into a transversal party, one that embraced the centre, with an active policy on concrete facts stripped of outdated ideological cages.
The result? The parties of the left were abandoned in droves by their voter s, and the 2008 crisis, largely due to the absence of controls on American banks and subsequently those in Europe (and with left-leaning governments in power in most Western countries), eliminated its ability to redistribute surpluses.
Blue-collar workers and middle classes in crisis, all victims of globalization, sought new defenders who promptly appeared in the form of Le Pen, Farage, Wilders and so on, and today will still vote for Salvini and the 5 Star Movement (in Italy).
REFLECTION NO. 5: Numerous historians believe that greed and fear were amongst the main engines of change in history.
Riccardo Petrella, in his latest book “In the Name of Humanity”, believes t hat these engines were made using three traps: In the name of God, in the name of the nation and in the name of profit.
There is no doubt that since the fall of the Wall, the values of globalization (competition, profit, individualism, exaltation of wealth), together with the disappearance of social justice, solidarity, transparency, equity, etc. from political debate have created an ethics based on greed.
And twenty years later, in 2009, the economic and financial crisis, first in the United States with the sub-prime collapse, and then in Europe with sovereign bonds, gave way to a second cycle – that of fear.
REFLECTION NO. 6: The cycle of fear, in whose grip we are fully now (without having abandoned that of greed, and the traps of God, the Nation and Profit are once again being put to good use) has led to the emergence of a new right – which is not based on ideas, but emotions.
Brexit and Trump are easy-to-see phenomena. But the phenomenon is much deeper. We are in a liquid society, not structured around ideologies or class. And in such societies, it is easy for leaders, riding the waves of fear and greed, to easily rise to the forefront.
The 2009 crisis kicked off the massive immigration from countries invaded b y the West, to depose dictators and automatically introduce democracy (but the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a modern and European country, after Tito’s death, should have warned us).
Democracy did not immediately take over – rather we have seen chaos, civil war, bloodshed and destruction. In 2003, George W Bush began the invasion of Iraq.
In 2011, civil war broke out in Syria and rapidly became a confrontation between Arab, European, American and Russian forces (leading to over six million displaced persons and over half a million dead).
In 2013, Sarkozy pushed for an invasion of Libya ostensibly to depose Gaddafi.
From the ruins of Iraq we have seen the emergence of ISIS, terrorism in the name of God, for a return to original Islam (Wahhabism, financed by Saudi Arabia in excess of 80 billion dollars in the last twenty years).
All of this took place fifteen years after the veterans of the US-funded war against the Russian occupation in Afghanistan gathered together as Al-Qaeda under B in Laden to launch the first attack in history on American soil.
As the famous cartoonist El Roto in El Pais remarked, “we send bombs and they send us refugees”. The resultant refugees are caught in the jaws of two traps: in the name of God and of the country.
Today in Europe, the identity and sovereignty parties are the second larges t political force, outnumbering the socialists. If European elections were held today, the radical right would have forty million votes.
It is in government in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria, but it also plays a key role in the governments of the Netherlands and now, Germany, since the AFD won 92 seats in the last elections.
Viktor Orban of Hungary has launched the so-called “illiberal democracy”, Poland denounces the secularism of the European Union and has called for a great m arch with the populists and sovereigns of all Europe, to the cry of “In the name of God”.
The Visegrad Group (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and now Austria) denounces the capitulation of Europe to Islam and is creating an East-West fracture of a Europe, which joins the North-South fracture on the vision of economy: austerity or solidarity.
But there is something new. The United States is intervening in Europe, openly supporting nationalist and xenophobic right-wing parties, which at the same time look not only to Trump but also to Putin (who is also intervening in Europe an elections), as a point of reference.
As Italy’s Salvini shouted at an electoral campaign rally at Piazza del Popolo in Rome “good work Putin and Trump”.
As a result, in a rapidly aging Europe (for example, in Italy young people between 18 and 25 years are only 3% of those entitled to vote), immigration has become a great flag of the populist and xenophobic right wing.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund has launched a warning: Europe needs to rapidly absorb 20.5 million immigrants, to support its pension system and productivity.
Statistics show that immigrants contribute to the system more than they cos t; they constitute the great majority of the new small businesses; that their dream is to be quickly integrated into the system. But there is no debate on migration, and what kind of immigrants to welcome.
They are now all seen as dangerous invaders, intent on destroying European identity, on crime, and taking work away from European citizens, the latter victims of intense unemployment.
Even Trump, in a country made up of immigrants, has made immigration control one of his battle cries. A tragic phenomenon is that young people, much less so than pensioners, are no longer politically active.
Since time immemorial, young people burst onto the political scene to change the world they found. Had they voted, Brexit would not have happened.
But the political system, by and for the elderly, ignores them. In Italy, the Renzi government allocated 30 billion euros to save four banks. In the same year the total in the budget for Italian youth was a paltry two billion.
From the creation of the United Nations in 1945, we have gone from a global population of 2.5 billion people to 7.5 billion people today.
The growth will stop only in 2050, when we will be 9.5 billion people. In the period to 2050, Africa will double her population. Either we are able to find accords to govern mobility flows according to needs, or we will have to shoot on immigrants, as some already propose.
REFLECTION NO. 7: Intellectuals and political scientists are increasingly surprised by the passivity of citizens who seem completely anaesthetized and no longer react to anything, even if politics goes against their interests. The history of Brexit, for instance, has been the subject of many analyses.
How is it possible that the most depressed areas, which received so much from Europe, voted to leave Europe?
How is it that Poland, the largest recipient of European funds (three times the Marshall plan) votes against Europe?
How is it possible that Trump, who promised to drain the swamp from the special interests in favour of the people ignored by the same special interests and government, now is a firm ally of big capital and the military (not excluding his family interests) and the voters remain faithful?
Today 92% of those who voted for him say they are ready to re-elect him.
There are many possible interpretations to this paradoxical situation. But as Talleyrand said, every people has the government it deserves.
And we should recognize that since the 2009 crisis, the political class has lost the most credit. We should be examining the impact of reality shows like “Big Brother” TV since 1989: the feeling of extraneousness from political power.
Like the shelter of a virtual space, like the Internet, it has contributed to an individualism that is the result of frustration and the lack of debate on ideas.
The macroscopic example of this anaesthesia is climate change. Citizens see it every day in their daily lives: impressive photos of disappearing glaciers, snowfall in the Sahara, hurricanes, forest fires, storms …
They also have all the data of the scientific community, which in Paris, obliged the world’s governments to sign an insufficient agreement without controls. But they do not need to study, to know.
They can also see how governments speak, but do not act. They continue to s pend to finance the fossil (fuel) industry three times what they invest in the renewable energy industry.
Italy even called a referendum to continue exploiting the oil fields in the South. The Spanish government is fighting its electricity producers, who want to c lose their coal-fired power stations.
In the same Spain, pensioners have organized an impressive march to defend their pensions: but no country has announced a march to raise awareness on the climate peril we face.
On the surprising absence of citizens’ reactions to vital problems, one could write a lot. And this is the basis of the epochal change in which we find ourselves.
REFLECTION NO. 8: The impact of technology: Let us consider the impact of the imminent fourth industrial revolution.
Let us recall: the first was at the beginning of the 1800s, when mechanization replaced the individual work, with mechanical looms taking over. It was easy to recycle the workers, who passed from the frame of the house to that of the factory.
The second was at the end of the 1800s, thanks to the use of machines powered by mechanical energy and the use of new energy sources such as the use of steam which led to the birth of, and development of railway networks, the construction of steam ships and faster means of communication, to important discoveries in the chemical and medical fields, to the assembly line, electricity, telephone, etc.
Even here, thanks to the transfer from the fields to the factories, humans remained vital for production. And the political battles born out of the desire for a fair recognition of work done gave way to what we now consider modern politics.
The Third Revolution began after the end of the Second World War, where technology increasingly changed the way people work, culminating in the internet revolution today.
And we are now on the cusp of the fourth revolution, which is based on Artificial Intelligence and robotics.
Today this accounts for 17% of the production of goods and services but it is estimated that this will be 30% by 2030.
The automation of the transportation sector will lay waste to six million jobs as taxi drivers, truck drivers, drivers of public transport in Europe find their services no longer needed. This automation will totally change the transport system, the automotive industry, insurance companies, etc.
But this time, will the taxi drivers be able to recycle themselves in a society that will privilege technological knowledge over traditional work?
We are rushing headlong towards a structural problem, which politics, with its short-term horizons, seems determined to ignore.
Will this transition risk increasing unemployment, fear, social and politic al tensions? It is just an example of how large the gap between politics, technology, finance and globalization has become.
REFLECTION NO. 9: The crisis of multilateralism: From the ruins of the Second World War, the conscience was born that only through multilateral cooperation could one seek lasting peace, after the tragedies provoked by nationalism and the idea of domination over others.
International organizations such as the United Nations, with all its agencies and funds, from UNICEF to FAO, from the World Health Organization to the International Atomic Energy Agency, were born; and in Europe the great project of the European Community, together with all the regional projects, from ASEAN to the Organization of African Unity, the Organization of American States, Mercosur, etc.
Today, the whole multilateral system is in crisis. Trump’s trade wars are destroying the multilateral trade system.
From Roosevelt’s world democracy to Reagan’s free trade and competition, we have moved on to American interests only, America first.
Next on the horizon are monetary wars. The idea of competing and not cooperating, greed as a value to replace the value of cooperation, which helps the weak and controls the powerful is ending.
But just as Kissinger did not see that free competition would one day turn against the United States, Trump does not see that opening a politics of confrontation could turn against the United States one day. Russia, China and the United States are returning to the era of gunboat policy, which seemed to have disappeared.
The present and the immediate future seem a dangerous re-enaction of the Thirties, which resulted in the Second World War.
Are those who vote for nationalism aware of this? As Pope Francis says, we are already in a fractional Third World War … we have exceeded the number of refugees at the time. To wars in the name of the homeland in Africa, we are adding those in the name of God, from Rohingya to Burma, to Islamic terrorists … we have spent decades breaking down walls, and we are creating more than be fore …
The future seems to go against the interests of humanity, which now knows planetary threats that did not exist in the 1930s, from climate to nuclear, in a process of social and economic Darwinism whose outcome we can only imagine.
REFLECTION NO. 10: It is evident that the final reflection is the need to find a governability of globalization and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It is not true that we lack ideologies.
Neoliberal globalization is an ideology of an unprecedented force, which has produced new phenomena, such as global finance, a multinational system stronger than governments, where the example of the use of Facebook to use citizens as merchandise, to influence political and commercial choices, shows us how profound the crisis of democracy is.
We are entering a dystopian world described by the pioneers of science fiction: the world of Orwell and Clark, based on the machines and power of the few.
Only ten years ago, the ascent to total power like Xi in China, Erdogan in Turkey or Putin in Russia was unthinkable. Both Brexit and Trump were unthinkable.
It was unthinkable that tax havens could amass the colossal figure of 80 trillion dollars. It was unthinkable that eight people could have the same wealth as 2.3 billion people. It was unthinkable that Norway would see a winter whose temperatures would be close to those of spring.
Ten years ago, the financial crisis opened a period of deep and dramatic transformations. With this rhythm of the acceleration of history, as Toynbee called it, where will we be in ten years?
We must immediately find a dialogue between everyone, which can only be based on the rediscovery of common values, on the construction of peace and cooperation, on international law as a basis for relations between states, and rediscover the sense of sharing, peace and social justice as the basis for cohabitation, which brings man back to the centre of society – not capital, finance or greed, and which frees us from fear.
Will we be able to find the way to do it?
In these 10 reflections, I have found it useful to consider where we have come from and contemplate as to where we are headed.
We are called upon to reflect keenly as to our fate: ours is a society that is increasingly becoming barbaric, one in which we read and dialogue less.
We spend twice as much on advertising as we do on education; the average voter is today lost and without a compass to guide them.
The reader is not obliged to agree with me. You are welcome to your own views and reflections. After all, what matters is that we reflect!
*Italian-Argentine journalist, Roberto Savio is the publisher of OtherNews, adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global Cooperation Council. He is also co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.