By Roberto Savio (*)
It should be remembered that since the end of the Second World War and the creation of the UN, we have seen an extraordinary process of political modernisation built on constitutional foundations: social justice and democratic participation. Economic expansion was accompanied by a major process of reform, in particular agrarian, and the expansion of labour rights and health and employment protections.
At the global level, the UN General Assembly adopted in the 1970s a declaration on the New International Economic Order which postulated “global social justice” and recognised the Third World’s right to participate equitably in the world economy. In this period, the values of human development were the basis of political debate. A North-South dialogue was inaugurated involving 22 heads of state, with a first summit held in Paris and a second in Cancun in 1980, attended by the newly-elected Ronald Reagan - a man uninterested in international justice but very interested in trade.
Reagan introduced the famous slogan, “Trade, not aid". And with his allies, like British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he began to change the course of history. In the 1980s the World Trade Organisation was created outside of the UN system, which was targeted by a campaign to delegitimise it as a forum for international decision-making.
Then came the replacement of the New Information Order and the New Economic Order with the so-called Washington Consensus, which imposed a single neoliberal orthodoxy as the basis of international economic relations. At the same time, Reagan and Thatcher undertook a focused assault on the power of labour unions, beginning a liquidation of state social services that continues to this day.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The claim was made that what had been defeated was not an enemy -the Soviet Union- but rather the entire opposition to capitalism. Neoliberal author Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached “the end of history",because from that point on there would only be capitalism and continuous growth, unrestrained by noxious regulation.
In the face of this colossal lie, the left, in Europe especially, sought to be as unobtrusive and ahistorical as possible, remakingitself according to the styles and the collective imagination of the moment. In general, it split into two groups: “widows” and“virgins".
The widows of the left, except in ex-socialist countries, withdrew from politics. The virgins, in contrast, began to speak of the end of ideology and to espouse pragmatism. “You have to be pragmatic,” was the slogan of the 90s.
Many words were dropped from the political lexicon, which did not help the virgins: social justice, solidarity, transparency, participation, progressive imposition, etc. But pragmatism has a major flaw: without a conceptual framework, it becomes a mechanism that undertakes only that which is possible, and therefore what is useful. Which means it is not pragmatism but utilitarianism.
Politics then focuses its energies only in administrative goals, without a larger social vision and without a defined set of values.
It is a left without an identity, locked into a chronic polemic with the right over personal and administrative questions.
At the same time as this transformation was taking place, a more significant economic change was occurring. After the abolition of banking regulation decreed by Bill Clinton in 1989 and during the neoliberal binge of the G.W. Bush administration, there was an explosive creation of new unprecedentedly high-risk financial instruments. The real economy of goods and services becamesubservient to the financial sector, which grew twenty times faster. The relation between politics and economics underwent a drastic change. Production ceased to be the primary economic referent. And with finance completely globalised and unregulated, the national arena and its laws and institutions began to grow inconsistent.
In the current debate, the old terms have been captured to use in a new Cold War. Republicans are attacking Barack Obama as a socialist. Similarly, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi denounces the opposition as communists.
And the left?
The list of concessions made by the left in the countries of Europe would fill volumes. In the United States, after the exceptional election of a black man as president in a massive popular vote, we now see that Obama was accompanied into office by the old economic team that was responsible for the current crisis. This blocks any possibility for reform of the bankrupt financial system, which has created hundreds of millions of new poor and will probably suffer another collapse in the not-so-distant future if reform is not forthcoming.
Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz has said that the winners when the Berlin Wall fell are the losers today as the other wall (Wall Street) falls. How can a young European who has not lived through this stretch of history grasp the paradox Stiglitz points to andbelieve that a left without any identity could be the road to a society different from that of today?
(*) Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.