Welcome to the System

By Gonzalo Santos

[Article published in AMPO: Japan Asia Quarterly Review, Vol 22, No. 1, 1990. Note: the article was published before the demise of he Soviet Union in 1992-93.]


What is the nature of the world historic events of 1989? How should the antisystemic movements in the capitalist world-system respond to them?

The short answer to the first question is that the iron bubble of state-centered antisystemic space, better known as the Communist World and hereafter referred to as the anti-system 1, after misspending most of its tremendous revolutionary energy over the course of the last three-quarters of a century, and after weakening its protective membrane beyond repair in the 1970s and 1980s, finally and abruptly burst last year. Erected and maintained at great social cost and for a good original cause, it was, in the end, defeated as much from within as from without; it was universally abandoned by the very peoples for whom it was built, and it was greatly out-distanced by its much older capitalist rival.

Initially, the anti-system 1 was set up to overthrow and supplant the five-centuries-old capitalist system, a desirable and necessary historic objective, but that proved to be an elusive goal. All attempts to even "catch up" with the rich capitalist countries in material well-being, to surpass them in the rate and quality of scientific-technological innovations, to eclipse their political and cultural life with a much richer and more egalitarian political and cultural life, failed.

The gap between the rival systems actually closed during the Great Depression, but after the Second World War the capitalist system was radically reorganized. It abandoned its under consumptionist, market-choking, territory-warring, colonialist, bank-centered mode of accumulation. Once it did that on a global scale, it began to out produce, out-shine, and out-distance its only serious global challenger, eventually leaving it exhausted and bankrupt. The first historically constructed, self sustained anti-system, though a deadly threat to the various nineteenth century modes of capitalist life, was no match to the post Second-World-War mode of life of the capitalist system, what some called Fordism and others the U.S. model of accumulation. It did temporarily de-link roughly a third of humanity from the capitalist system, achieving some autonomous material development and some internal distributive goals, but it did not do enough to prevent its re-incorporation into a re-invigorated capitalism.

Lenin and his successors were profoundly mistaken in believing they were combating a moribund historic capitalism. They overlooked what the Americans were doing to save capitalism from itself. When their mass consumption, throughput maximizing, free enterprise model became generalized, sparking the long boom of economic growth under global U.S. hegemony, historical socialism had to fast innovate its model and its thinking or find itself increasingly left behind. Seeped in official, outmoded dogma, it did not do this in time, or, as in the case of the Chinese Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, successfully. Instead, the Sino-Soviet split, the axial struggle within the anti-system 1 for thirty years, was fought essentially around the question of contested hegemony over an anti-system still committed to the old state-centered model of socialist development. Lenin, Stalin and Mao were not defeated by Churchill, Hitler or Hirohito; however they were defeated by Roosevelt. The horizontal monopolies of central Communist state ministries lost out to the transnational, vertically integrated, capitalist oligopolies. Globalizing capital defeated the Communist party-state. It took the last forty years of world history to clarify that the anti-system 1 was a dead end.

In the end, the anti-system 1 was just a dam to keep the other system out. In 1989, after years of seepage, the dam collapsed in Eastern Europe and the capitalist system's waters found their level there after a bit of turbulence. In the Soviet Union, the flood gates were and are being opened deliberately to the same result. In China, the flood gates were closed in Tiananmen Square last June, after the deliberate capitalist inundation of the previous years, leaving a submerged dam serving no purpose at all, like the Great Wall itself. Only, North Korea, Cuba, and Albania remain un-re-incorporated, and probably not for long. Even in young Sandinista Nicaragua, never really a member of the anti-system 1, the defiant but badly battered people recently voted themselves back into the fold of U.S. hegemony, reinforcing the new, post bi-systemic, era. We are now essentially back to one system and no anti-system. That is the world-historic significance of 1989.

I don't mourn the demise of the anti-system 1, costly as it was to build it. Not after it became clear it was congenitally afflicted with severe and grotesque deformities, the worst being its common tendency to grow authoritarian partidocracies and nomenklaturas, but also its big power chauvinism and empire building, its cultural self suffocation and ideological ossification, its economic ineptness, its eco-predatory "big is better" mentality, and its paradise-in-the-future way to avoid facing-up to oppressive social relations in the present. Many of these flaws the anti-system 1 shared with - or even proved worse than - the capitalist system, profoundly compromising its claim of being "anti." And yet, it shared none of the abilities of the capitalist system to innovate, to change, to tolerate dissent, to experiment, to back out of wrong turns. No wonder the peoples of Eastern Europe see themselves today as breathing freely for the first time in four decades. They are!

I say that the antisystemic movements of the capitalist world-system ought to extend a warm welcome to the peoples of the now-defunct anti-system 1. It is much better to have them back in the system with the rest of us, where we can now link up with each other and where they can make, after decades of isolation, a significant contribution to the unfolding, colossal, world historic task of building the anti-system 2. They know many of the pit-falls involved and our combined thinking should produce wonders. Furthermore, for more than three decades, the antisystemic movements of the East and West, North and South, have been fighting a losing battle against the capitalist system, constantly forced to advocate and defend our positions in the con- text of a Cold War between the demonized system and the demonized anti-system 1, constantly undermined by the Manichean, false portrayal of these movements as the brain-children or the sub- servient tools of one or the other system. Now the demons of the Cold War have vanished and all corners of the single system are illuminated by the intense glare of instant, global telecom- munications. We are all watching each other and in touch with each other like never before, rediscovering our common humanity, our common problems, and our common destiny.

Now the richly-textured nature, legitimacy, and urgency of all the antisystemic movements will increasingly dawn on the hundreds of millions of ideologically terrorized victims of the Cold War. From now on, the unitary global system will have to answer for its manifold shortcomings, inegalitarian tendencies, and destructive actions, without recourse to pointing at a worse system. The driving logic of the capitalist world-system, the endless accumulation of capital in a global self-regulated market, will become more easily exposed for what it is, an aber- ration in human history increasingly at odds with humans, with the biosphere, with life itself. Now the system will have increasing trouble defending its organizing themes of ecocidal "progress," impoverishing "modernization," managerial vertical authority at the workplace and "national security" secrecy in government, meritocratic elite systems, racism and sexism, can- cerous consumerism and waste, commodified political and social relations, use of force in international relations, and the cultural idiotization promoted by commercial television and film.

Most important of all, as humanity faces the five-hundred- year anniversary of the modern European capitalist world-system, symbolically marked by Columbus's first encounter with the New World, the most conspicuous failure of this system remains the unhealable wound of poverty it has inflicted and continues to inflict on the vast majority of humanity, residing mostly in the Third World. This system has not overcome in five hundred years, and cannot overcome in the next five hundred years, the struc- tural pauperization of peoples around the globe, because it feeds on it. The per capita income of the richest one-fifth of the world's population was 50 times greater than the bottom one-half ten years ago, and the gap has since increased dramatically. At the rate of per capita GNP growth that the countries of the Third World achieved during the most favorable period of the "long boom," it would have still taken them 150 years before they could have risen to half of the GNP per capita the rich countries had in 1980.1 But forget that. At the negative rates of growth of the 1980s, the Third World is desperately locked in an endless hell of "modern" poverty reproduced by capitalist "development:" 100 million human beings are homeless, 400 million are severely undernourished, a billion live in absolute poverty, and 40,000 children die every day, all to keep the rich countries affluent.2

Tens of millions more are poverty-striken and doomed in the urban jungles of the rich capitalist countries themselves. Only the accumulators and the world yuppies have something to celebrate in 1992. The rest of us must pledge on that date to renew our efforts to achieve the demise of historical capitalism.

It won't be easy. Appropriate, sustainable, egalitarian, universal, eco-friendly development cannot occur unless a number of specific, essential ideas and values contradicting the capitalist world view are held. Since the 1960s, a myriad of new people's movements have sprung all over the planet, not centered on the state or seeking state power, not led by professional-cadre parties or self-segregating vanguards, but community-based and community-oriented, decentralized, fluid and conjunctural. Their struggles are forging a vision for a new world-system, one where technological complexity and socio-cultural diversity are in harmony with the environment and with the many aspects of human liberation. Human rights, environment, gender, ethnic, racial and national rights, peace and justice, labor, anti-nuke, indigenous peoples, democracy and freedom, homelessness and shanty town people, education and health, students, solidarity, farmers and food, consumer rights, culture, migrants and minorities, etc.; these people's movements are like the chromosomes of a single gestating spermatozoid that collectively carry much, but not all, of the genetic information for a future world-system.

A new world-system, to be born as the anti-system 2 on the ashes of the the anti-system 1 and from the womb of globalizing capital itself, requires that our antisystemic movements in the West reach and fertilize the ovum just released by the peoples of the East, an ovum that contains an indispensable, cleansing, active ingredient: the Socratic Revolution of 1989. From Gorbachev to Havel, the Post-Communists now admit how profoundly mistaken they (or if not they, their tormentors) were in thinking the human phenomenon could be so easily understood and molded, how easy it is to become de-railed by a few absolute ideas, how humble words carry arrogance and truncheons. The survivors of the "scientific" anti-system 1 are now unburdened from such arrogance. They say, through Gorbachev, that "they no longer think they know better than others;" that invading Czechoslovakia and waging war against Afghanistan was "wrong and violated inter- national law." Or through Havel, they say that we must "be on guard against the arrogance hidden in our words and deeds;" that we must learn to "make politics subject to morality."

As we look back at the many failed experiments to build a new system, at the rivers of blood and lakes of tears and the landscapes of devastation of this century, our brothers and sisters from the East carry the important message that we hardly know ourselves and the world around us, that we must tread more carefully on human matters. We should listen to them, because our ubiquitous Homo Accumulator is still basking in anthropocentric arrogance, essentially and increasingly toxic to its surroundings and to itself. Homo Western urgently needs to hear the message coming from the East and from within its own new people's move- ments in the coming decades. It needs to undergo metamorphosis, or it and its surroundings will perish. Homo Sovieticus, another variety of Homo Modernus, already died from a combination of untreated encephalitis and premature arteriosclerosis. Quo Vadis, Homo Sapiens?

Where are we to turn for wisdom, for a new vision of ourselves? The four currents most needed for the construction of the future are: the World of Indigenous Life, the World of Modern Science, the World of the Socratic Revolution in the East, and the World of the New People's Movements. The first will contribute a way of re-earthing humans. The second will facilitate a sustainable, adequate development of material complexity. The third will keep us out of trouble with our modern absolutes. And the fourth will forge transborder peoplehood, and contribute and mobilize the peoplepower.

The next world gathering of PP-21 should be in Prague, Berlin, or Moscow.3 The historic 1989 Minamata Declaration should be expanded and updated then to include the many experiences and the Socratic spirit of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, to add a new constituent to the emerging Transborder People of the Earth, and to further build Janakashaba, or "a world standing not like this."


1. F.E. Trainer, "Reconstructing Radical Development Theory," Alternatives, XIV, 1989, pp: 481-515.  back

2. See Lester R. Brown et al., The State of the World 1990, A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990), Chap. 8.  back

3. On the Summer of 1989, 120,000 Japanese and 280 representatives from grass-roots movements from 33 countries, met in Japan in a series of 16 international conferences and festivals, all under the theme of "People's Plan for the 21st. Century" [PP-21]. At the end of it, participants met, drafted, and approved the Minamata Declaration, subsequently published in AMPO: Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, Vol. 21, Nos. 2-3, pp: 6-11.  back

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