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The agony of neo-liberalism or the end of civilization?

The defeat of neo-liberalism is no longer a question for debate. The triumph of neo-liberalism never occurred, the economic model of the free market is disintegrating before our eyes, and in the countries of Eastern Europe the words and expressions comprising the liberal lexicon have taken on the force of obscenities.

It would seem that the time for alternatives has now come. But where are these alternatives?

When the U.S. philosopher Francis Fukuyama declared that with the triumph of neo-liberalism the end of history had arrived, people first argued with him, then began laughing at him, and finally forgot about him. This, however, was a mistake. When Fukuyama declared the end of history, he did not by any means base his thesis on the economic or social successes of capitalism. In practice, he measured the success of the victorious ideology by a single criterion: the ability of the world ruling class to destroy, suffocate, corrupt, or discredit any constructive alternative to itself. If there were no alternatives to capitalism, everything would stay the same whether capitalism was good or bad.

In this sense, we are now even closer to the end of history than in 1989.

The economic failure of neo-liberalism has not led and will not lead automatically to the collapse of its ideological hegemony. The elites of modern-day capitalism cannot resolve the system's objective contradictions, and cannot and do not want to solve its growing problems, but they are capable of paralyzing any attempts to solve these problems.

Technological development is not paralyzed by social structures that are clearly outdated and increasingly absurd. This development continues; the only difference is that it ceases to improve people's lives. Indeed, technological development becomes a negative factor. With every turn in the spiral of technological revolution, more and more new contradictions and disproportions accumulate. Relationships become confused, the structures and systems of rule grow steadily more complex, and the processes become less and less predictable.

The "repressive tolerance" of the 1960s has been replaced by repressive or coercive hegemony. The official ideologies no longer convince anyone, but this scarcely troubles the authorities, since they do not allow alternative ideologies to be propagated. Or else, such ideologies are disseminated in fragmentary form, and in this way simply demonstrate their inadequacy as genuine alternatives.

The new information technologies, which in theory have the potential to undermine the dominance of a mass media that is monopolized by the elites, themselves retain an elitist character. Even the "massive" spread of computers has not made them available to the slum-dwellers of Rio de Janeiro or the miners of Prokopyevsk in Central Siberia. In short, the new technologies serve not only to unite people, but also to divide them.

Paraphrasing Lenin, one could say that despite the obvious crisis, those on top do not want change, and those underneath cannot achieve it.

The lack of a revolutionary perspective has led to a profound crisis of reformism. Nowhere have the forces of the left been prepared for the new situation. Moreover, the left is itself undergoing a deep moral crisis. Instead of an indispensable reevaluation of values following the events of 1989, there has been massive ideological desertion. Serious discussion on how to interpret the traditions and values of the workers' movement in contemporary circumstances has been replaced by agitated chatter about what should replace these values.

The traditional program of the left is not only a real alternative, but quite simply the only alternative. The system now is in such a tangle that the only way to deal with its Gordian knot of contradictions is to slice through it. Partial reforms and gradual improvements are becoming possible only as the result of radical shifts in the whole structure of society and the economy. Without a broad nationalization of private capital ("the expropriation of the expropriators"), without overcoming the "free market," it is impossible to carry out even a minimal reform of the health care system or to improve social welfare.

Most left parties, however, are not afraid of anything so much as of their own traditions. Instead of discussing what nationalization means today, they are wasting their time trying to prove to the ruling elites that there will not be any nationalizations. The ruling classes, meanwhile, have less than complete trust in these promises, and prefer not to allow leftists to gain access to the levers of real power unless these leftists have proven their complete political impotence.

The lack of alternatives is leading to the erosion of all forms of representative democracy. But in this case the crisis of democracy, unlike the case in Europe in the 1920s or in Latin America during the 1970s, is not leading to the rapid collapse of democratic institutions. Instead, these institutions are slowly degenerating and dying out. They are increasingly by-passed not only by economic decision-making, but even by the political process itself.

The rebirth of fascism in Europe is an important symptom of the crisis. But what is involved is not just the rise of extreme right-wing organizations. The organizations of the political establishment itself are increasingly becoming infected with authoritarian populism. And this is only natural in circumstances where trust in the institutions of representative democracy has been undermined.

A crisis without an alternative is a sign of imminent shocks. In this sense the catastrophe in Rwanda provides humanity with a warning. The West should not comfort itself with the hope that the hunger, bloodshed, and economic collapse on the periphery will not touch the centre.

The fall of the civilizations of antiquity also began with collapse on the periphery. In this respect, the past has a terrible lesson to teach us. The "end of history" is not a foolish joke by a person who has read too much Hegel but a real possibility. Of course, what is at stake is only our own history and our own society. Humanity as a biological species has survived the fall of a series of civilizations. It will also survive the collapse of the "global" bourgeois civilization of our time.

Nevertheless, there is a basis for optimism in the often-demonstrated ability of various societies to find a solution even when organized political forces, traditional institutions, and generally recognized elites have shown their total bankruptcy. In such a situation the spontaneous resolution of contradictions "from below" is accompanied by the collapse of all these institutions and elites. What this signifies is shocks on no less a scale than during the ill-fated epoch from 1914 to 1945.

Twenty years ago not even the most hardened pessimist could have imagined an "optimistic" scenario such as this. But it is precisely this scenario that represents the global-historical result of the "success" of neo-liberal reforms. It seems that for the majority of the earth's population, social cataclysms are the only hope left for the future.
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Author:Kagarlitsky, Boris
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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