The Democratic Fraud and the Universalist Alternative

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The Democratic Fraud and the Universalist Alternative

The Democratic Fraud Challenges Us to Invent

Tomorrow’s Democracy

Samir AMIN

Universal suffrage is a recent conquest, beginning with workers’

struggles in a few European countries (England, France, Holland, and

Belgium) and then progressively extending throughout the world

Today, everywhere on the planet, it goes without saying that the demand

for delegating supreme power to an honestly elected, multiparty

assembly defines the democratic aspiration as well as guaranteeing its

realization—or so it is claimed.

Marx himself put great hopes on such universal suffrage as a possible

“peaceful path to socialism.” Yet, I have noted that on this score Marx’s

expectations were refuted by history (cf. Marx et la démocratie)

I think that the reason for the failure of electoral democracy to

produce real change is not hard to find: all hitherto existing societies

have been based on a dual system of exploitation of labor (in various

forms) and of concentration of the state’s powers on behalf of the ruling

class. This fundamental reality results in a relative “depoliticization/

disacculturation” of very large segments of society. And this result,

broadly designed and implemented to fulfill the systemic function

expected of it, is simultaneously the condition for reproduction of the

system without changes other than those it can control and absorb—the

condition of its stability. What is called the “grass roots,” so to speak,

signifies a country in deep slumber. Elections by universal suffrage

under these conditions, are guaranteed to produce a sure victory for

conservatism, albeit sometimes a “reformist” conservatism

This is why never in history has there been real change resulting

from this mode of governance based on “consensus” (i.e. the absence

of change). All changes tending toward real social transformation,

even radical reforms, have resulted from struggles waged by what, in

electoral terms, may appear to be “minorities.” Without the initiative

of such minorities, the motive force of society, no change is possible

Such struggles, engaged in by such “minorities,” always end up—when

the alternatives proposed are clearly and correctly defined—by carrying

along (previously silent) majorities and may by universal suffrage

receive ratification, which arrives after—never before—victory

In our contemporary world “consensus” (its boundaries defined by

universal suffrage) is more conservative than ever. In the centers of

the world-system the consensus is pro-imperialist. Not in the sense

that it implies hatred or contempt for the other peoples who are its

victims, but in the everyday sense that the permanence of the flow of

imperialist rent is accepted because that is the condition for overall

social reproduction, the guarantor of its “opulence” in contrast to the

poverty of the others. In the peripheries, the responses of peoples to

the challenge (pauperization resulting from the process of capitalist/

imperialist accumulation) is still muddled, in the sense that they are

fated always to carry with them a dose of retrograde illusions of a

return to a better past

In these conditions, recourse to “elections” is always conceived by

the dominant powers as the best possible way to rein in the movement,

to end the possibility that the struggles become radicalized. In 1968

some said that “elections are for assholes,” and that view was not

unconfirmed by the facts. An elected assembly, right away—as today in

Tunisia and Egypt—serves only to put an end to “disorder,” to “restore

stability.” To change everything so that nothing changes

So should we give up on elections? Not at all. But how to bring

together new, rich, inventive forms of democratization through

which elections can be used in a way other than is conceived by the

conservative forces? Such is the challenge

The Democratic Farce’s Stage Scenery

This stage scenery was invented by the Founding Fathers of the

United States, with the very clearly expressed intention of keeping

electoral democracy from becoming an instrument that could be used

by the people to call in question the social order based on private

property (and slavery!)

With that in mind, their Constitution was based on (indirect)

election of a president (a sort of “elective monarch”) holding in his hands

some essential powers. The “bipartisanism,” to which presidential

election campaigns under these conditions naturally gravitates, tends

progressively to become what it now is: the expression of a “single

party.” Of course, ever since the end of the nineteenth century this

has represented the interest of monopoly capital, addressing itself to

“clienteles” that view themselves as having differing interests

The democratic fraud then displays itself as offering “alternatives”

(in this case, the Democrats and the Republicans) that cannot ever

rise to the level required by a real alternative (offering the possibility

of new, radically different, options). But without the presence of real

alternative perspectives democracy is nonexistent. The farce is based

on “consensus”(!) ideology, which excludes by definition serious

conflicts between interests and between visions of the future. The

invention of “party primaries” inviting the whole electorate (whether

its components are said to be leftist or rightist!) to express its choices

of candidates for the two false adversaries accentuates still further that

deviation so annihilating for the meaning of elections

Jean Monnet, a true anti-democrat is honored today in Brussels,

where his intentions to copy the U.S. model were fully understood,

as the founder of the “new European democracy.” Monnet deployed

all his efforts, which were scrupulously implemented in the European

Union, to deprive elected assemblies of their powers and transfer them

to “committees of technocrats.”

To be sure, the democratic fraud works without big problems

in the opulent societies of the imperialist triad (the United States,

Western Europe, and Japan) precisely because it is underwritten by

the imperialist rent (see my book The Law of Worldwide Value). But its

persuasive authority is also bolstered by the consensus “individualist”

ideology; by the respect for “rights” (themselves acquired by struggles,

as we are never told), and by the institution of an independent judiciary

(even though that of the United States is partially based—as in most

of the “sovereign” states—on elected judges who have to finance their

election campaigns by appealing to the ruling class and its opinionmakers);

and by the complex structure of the pyramidal institutions

charged with guaranteeing rights

Historically, continental Europe has not long experienced the calm

waters of the democratic farce. In the nineteenth century (and even up

to 1945) struggles for democracy, both those inspired by the capitalist

and middle-class bourgeoisies and those expressing the working

masses, ran up against resistance from the anciens regimes. Hence their

chaotic pattern of advances and retreats. Marx thought that such

resistance was an obstacle fortunately unknown in the United States

He was wrong, and underestimated the extent to which, in a “pure”

capitalist system (like that of the United States in comparison to

Europe) the “overdetermination” of political processes, that is to say

the automatic conformity of changes in the ideological and political

superstructure to those required for management of society by the

capitalist monopolies, would inevitably lead to what conventional

sociologists call “totalitarianism.” This is a term that applies even more

to the capitalist imperialist world than anywhere else. (I here refer

back to what I have written elsewhere about “overdetermination” and

the openings which it makes available.)

In nineteenth century Europe (and also, though to a lesser degree,

in the United States) the historical coalitions put together to ensure

the power of capital were, by the force of circumstance—the diversity

of classes and of sub-classes—complex and changeable. Accordingly,

electoral combats could sometimes appear to be really democratic

But over time, as the diversity of capitalist coalitions gave way to the

domination of monopoly capital, those appearances dwindled away

The Liberal Virus (as one of my books is titled) did the rest: Europe

aligned itself more and more on the American model

Conflicts among the major capitalist powers helped cement the

components of the historical coalitions, bringing about, by way of

nationalism, the domination of capital. It even happened—Germany

and Italy being particularly exemplary—that “national consensus” was

made to replace the democratic program of the bourgeois revolution

This deformation of democracy is now virtually complete. The

Communist parties of the Third International tried in their way to oppose

it, even though their “alternative” (modeled on the USSR) remained of

questionable attractiveness. Having failed to build lasting alternative

coalitions, they ended up capitulating, going over to submission to the

system of democratic electoral farce. So doing, the part of the radical

left consisting of their heirs (in Europe, the “United Left” grouping in

the Strasbourg parliament) gave up any perspective of real “electoral

victory.” It is happy to survive on the second-class seats allotted to

“minorities” (at most 5–10% of the “voting population”). Transformed

into coteries of elected representatives whose sole concern—taking

the place of “strategy”—is to hang on to these wretched places in the

system, this radical left gives up on really being anything of the sort

That this plays into the hands of neofascist demagogues is, in these

conditions, unsurprising

A discourse styling itself “postmodernist,” which quite simply

refuses to recognize the scope of the democratic farce’s destructive

effects, incorporates submission to it. What matter elections, they say,

what counts is elsewhere: in “civil society” (a muddled concept to

which I shall return) where individuals are what the liberal virus claims

them—falsely—to be, the active subjects of history. Antonio Negri’s

“philosophy,” which I have criticized elsewhere, is an expression of

this desertion

But the democratic farce, unchallenged in the opulent societies of

the imperialist triad, does not work in the system’s peripheries. There,

in the storm zone, the established order does not enjoy any legitimacy

sufficient to stabilize society. So, then, does the the possibility of a real

alternative reveal itself in the watermark of the paper on which the

“Southern awakenings” that characterized the twentieth century, and

which go on making their way in the twenty-first century, are written

by history?

Theories and Practices of the Vanguards and of the

Enlightened Despotisms

The current storm is not synonymous with revolution, but is only

the potential carrier of revolutionary advances

Not simple are the responses of the peripheral peoples, whether

inspired by radical socialist ideals—at first, anyway (Russia, China,

Vietnam, and Cuba)—or by national liberation and social progress

(in Latin America, in Asia and Africa during the Bandung period)

They bring, to varying degrees, components with a universalist and

progressive outlook together with others of a deeply retrogressive

nature. To unravel the conflicting and/or complementary interferences

among these tendencies will help us to formulate—further on in this

text—some possible forms of genuine democratic advances

The historical Marxisms of the Third International (Russian

Marxism-Leninism and Chinese Maoism) deliberately and completely

rejected any retrograde outlook. They chose to look toward the future,

in what was in the full sense of the term a universalist emancipating

spirit. This option was undoubtedly made easier, in Russia, by a long

preparatory period in which the (bourgeois) “westernizers” vanquished

the “Slavophile” and “Eurasian” allies of the autocracy and, in China,

by the Taiping Uprising (I here refer you to my work: The Paris Commune

and the Taiping Revolution)

At the same time, those historical Marxisms committed themselves

to a certain conceptualization of the role of “vanguards” in social

transformation. They gave an institutionalized form to that option,

symbolized as “The Party.” It cannot be said that this option was

ineffective. Quite to the contrary, it was certainly at the origin of the

victory of those revolutions. The hypothesis that the minority vanguard

would win support from the immense majority proved to be well

founded. But it is equally true that later history showed the limits of

such effectiveness. For it is certain that maintenance of centralized

power in the hands of these “vanguards” was far from uninvolved in

the subsequent derailment of the “socialist” systems that they claimed

to have established

Were the theory and practice of those historical Marxisms that

of “enlightened despotism”? One can say so only on condition of

specifying what were and—progressively—became the aims of those

“enlightened despotisms.” In any case, they were resolutely opposed

to volkish nostalgia. Their behavior in regard to religion—which they

viewed as nothing but obscurantism—testify to that. I have expressed

myself elsewhere ( “L’internationale de l’obscurantisme”) about the

qualifications which need be appended to that judgment

The vanguard concept was also broadly adopted elsewhere beyond

those (Chinese and Russian) revolutionary societies. It was the basis

for the Communist parties of the whole world as they existed between

1920 and 1980. It found its place in the contemporary national/populist

third-world regimes

Moreover, this vanguard concept gave decisive importance to theory

and ideology, implying in turn putting similar importance on the

role of (revolutionary) “intellectuals” or, rather, of the intelligentsia

“Intelligentsia” is not synonymous with the educated middle classes,

still less with the managers, bureaucrats, technocrats, or professoriate

(in Anglo-Saxon jargon, the “elites”). It refers to a social group that

emerges as such in some societies under specific conditions and

becomes then an active, sometimes decisive, agent. Outside Russia and

China, analogous formations could be recognized in France, in Italy,

and perhaps in other countries—but certainly not in Great Britain, the

United States, nor generally in northern Europe

In France, during most of the twentieth century, the intelligentsia

held a major place in the country’s history, as, for that matter, is

recognized by the best historians. This was, perhaps, an indirect

effect of the Paris Commune during which the ideal of building a more

advanced stage of civilization beyond capitalism found expression as

nowhere else (see my article on the Commune)

In Italy the post-fascist Communist Party had an analogous function

As Luciana Castillana lucidly analyzes it, the Communists—a vanguard

strongly supported by the working class but always an electoral

minority—were actually the sole makers of Italian democracy. They

exercised “in opposition”—at the time—a real power in society much

greater than when associated with “government” subsequently! Their

actual suicide, inexplicable otherwise than as result of the mediocrity

of their post-Berlinguer leadership, buried with them both the Italian

State and Italian democracy

This intelligentsia phenomenon never existed in the United

States nor in Protestant Northern Europe. What is called there “the

elite”—the terminology is significant—scarcely comprises anyone but

lackeys (including “reforming” ones) of the system. The empiricist/

pragmatist philosophy, holding the entire stage as far as social thought

is concerned, has certainly reinforced the conservative effects of the

Protestant Reformation—whose critique I stated in Eurocentrism. Rudolf

Rocker, the German anarchist, is one of the few European thinkers

to have expressed a judgment close to mine; but since Weber (and

despite Marx) it is has been fashionable to unthinkingly celebrate the

Reformation as a progressive advance

In the peripheral societies in general, beyond the flagrant cases of

Russia and China, and for the same reasons, the initiatives taken by

“vanguards,” often intelligentsia-like, profited from the adhesion and

support of broad popular majorities. The most frequent form of those

political crystallizations whose interventions were decisive for the

“Southern Awakening” was that of populism. A theory and practice

scoffed at by the (Anglo-Saxon style, i.e., pro-system) “elites,” but

defended and accordingly rehabilitated by Ernesto Laclau with solid

arguments that I will very largely make my own

Of course, there are as many “populisms” as there are historical

experiences that can be called such. Populisms are often linked to

“charismatic” figures whose “thought” is accepted, undiscussed, as

authoritative. The real social and national advances linked to them

under some specific conditions have led me to term them “national/

populist” regimes. But it must be understood that those advances were

never based on ordinary “bourgeois” democratic practices, still less by

the inception of practices going still further, like those possible ones

which I will outline further on in this text. Such was the case in Ataturk’s

Turkey, probably the initiator of this model in the Middle East, and

later in Nasser’s Egypt, the Baathist (Iraqi and Syrian) regimes in their

initial stages, and Algeria under the FLN. During the 1940s and 1950s,

under different conditions, similar experiments were undertaken in

Latin America. This “formula,” because it answers to real needs and

possibilities, is far from having lost its chance of renewal. So I gladly

use the term “national/populist” for certain ongoing experiments in

Latin America without neglecting to point out that on the level of

democratization they have incontestably entered on advances unknown

to those earlier “national/populisms.”

I have put forward analyses dealing with the reasons for the success

of advances realized in this domain by several Middle-Eastern countries

(Afghanistan, South Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq) which appeared more

promising than others, and also the causes of their tragic failures

Whatever the case, one must be on guard against generalizations and

simplifications like those of most Western commentators, who look

only at the “democracy question” as boiled down to the formula that

I have described as the democratic farce. In the peripheral countries

the farce sometimes appears as a fantastic burlesque. Without being

“democrats” some leaders, charismatic or not, of national/populist

regimes have been progressive “big reformers.” Nasser was exemplary

of these. But others have scarcely been anything but incoherent clowns

(Khadafi) or ordinary “unenlightened” despots (quite uncharismatic,

to boot) like Ben Ali, Mubarak, and many others. For that matter,

those dictators initiated no national/populist experiments. All they

did was to organize the pillage of their countries by mafias personally

associated to them. Thus, like Suharto and Marcos, they were simply

executive agents of the imperialist powers which, moreover, hailed

them and supported their powers to the very end

The Ideology of Cultural Nostalgia, Enemy of Democracy

The specific limits of each and of all national/populist experiments

worthy of the name “populist” originate in the objective conditions

characterizing the societies comprising the periphery of today’s

capitalist/imperialist world—conditions obviously diverse. But

beyond that diversity some major converging factors shed some light

on the reasons for those experiments’ successes and then for their


That aspirations for a “Return to the Past” persist is not the result

of thoroughgoing “backwardness” (as in the usual discourse on this

subject) among the peoples involved. Their persistence gives a correct

measure of the challenge to be confronted. All the peoples and nations

of the peripheries were not only subject to fierce economic exploitation

by imperialist capital: they were, by the same token, equally subjected

to cultural aggression. With the greatest contempt the dignity of

their cultures, their languages, their customs, and their histories were

negated. There is nothing surprising in these victims of external or

internal colonialism (notably the Indian populations of the Americas)

naturally linking their political and social liberation to the restoration

of their national dignity

But in turn, these legitimate aspirations are a temptation to look

exclusively toward the past in hope of there finding the solution to

today’s and tomorrow’s problems. So there is a real risk of seeing the

movements of awakening and liberation among these peoples getting

stuck in tragic blind alleys as soon as they mistake retrogressive

nostalgia for their sought-for highroad of renewal

The history of contemporary Egypt illustrates perfectly the

transformation from necessary complementarity between a universalist

vision open to the future, yet linked to the restoration of past dignity,

into a conflict between two options formulated in absolute terms: either

“Westernize!” (in the common usage of that term, implying denial of

the past) or else (uncritically) “Back To The Past!”

The Viceroy Mohamed Ali (1804–1849) and, until the 1870s, the

Khedives, chose a modernization that would be open to the adoption

of formulas reflecting European models. It cannot be said that this

choice was one of “Westernization” on the cheap. The heads of the

Egyptian state gave the highest importance to modern industrialization

of the country as against merely adopting the European model of

consumer markets. They committed themselves to assimilation of

European models, linking it with renewal of their national culture

to whose evolution in a secular direction it would contribute. Their

attempts to support linguistic renovation bear witness to that. Of

course, their European model was that of capitalism and no doubt

they had no accurate conception of the imperialist nature of European

capitalism. But they should bear no reproach for that. When Khedive

Ismail proclaimed his aim “to make Egypt into a European country,” he

was fifty years ahead of Ataturk. He saw “Europeanization” as part of

national rebirth, not as a renunciation of it

The inadequacies of that epoch’s cultural Nahda (its inability to

grasp the meaning of the European Renaissance), and the retrograde

nostalgia embodied in its main concepts—on which I have expressed

myself elsewhere—are no mystery

Indeed, it is precisely this retrograde outlook which was to take

hold over the national-renewal movement at the end of the nineteenth

century. I have put forward an explanation for this: with the defeat

of the “modernist” project that had held the scene from 1800 to 1870

Egypt was plunged into regression. But the ideology that tried to

counter that decline took shape in this retrogressive period and was

marked by all the birth defects implicit in that fact. Moustapha Kamel

and Mohamed Farid, the founders of the new National Party (Al hisb al

watani), chose back-to-the-past as the focal point of their combat—as

their “Ottomanist” (seeking the support of Istanbul against the English)

illusions, as well as others, reveal

History was to prove the futility of that option. The popular and

national revolution of 1919–1920 was not led by the Nationalist Party

but by its “modernist” rival, the Wafd. Taha Hussein even adopted

the slogan of Khedive Ismail—“Europeanize Egypt”—and to that end

supported the formation of a new university to marginalize Al Azhar

The retrograde tendency, legacy of the Nationalist Party, then

slipped into insignificance. Its leader, Ahmad Hussein, was in the 1930s

merely the head of a minuscule, pro-fascist, party. But this tendency

was to undergo a strong revival among the group of “Free Officers” that

overthrew the monarchy in 1952

The ambiguity of the Nasserist project resulted from this regression

in the debate over the nature of the challenge to be confronted. Nasser

tried to link a certain industrialization-based modernization, once

again not on the cheap, with support to retrograde cultural illusions. It

mattered little that the Nasserists thought of their project as being within

a socialist (obviously beyond a nineteenth century ken) perspective

Their attraction to volkisch cultural illusion was always there. This was

demonstrated by their choices concerning the “modernization of Al

Azhar,” of which I did a critique

Currently, the conflict between the “modernist, universalist”

visions of some and the “integrally medievalistic” visions of others

holds center-stage in Egypt. The former are henceforward advocated

mainly by the radical left (in Egypt the communist tradition, powerful

in the immediate years after Second World War) and getting a broad

audience among the enlightened middle classes, the labor unions, and,

even more so, by the new generations. The back-to-the-past vision has

slipped even further to the right with the Muslim Brotherhood, and

has adopted its stance from the most archaic conception of Islam, the

Wahhabism promoted by the Saudis

It is not very difficult to contrast the evolution that shut Egypt into

its blind alley to the path chosen by China since the Taiping revolution,

taken up and deepened by Maoism: that the construction of the future

starts with radical critique of the past. “Emergence” into the modern

world and, accordingly, deploying effective responses to its challenges

including entrance onto the path of democratization, guidelines for

which I will put forward further on in this text, has as its precondition

the refusal to allow retrograde cultural nostalgia to obscure the central

focus of renewal

So it is not by chance that China finds itself at the vanguard of

today’s “emerging” countries. Nor is it by chance that in the Middle

East it is Turkey, not Egypt, that is pedaling in the race. Turkey, even

that of the “Islamist” AKP, profits from Kemalism’s earlier breakaway

But there is a decisive difference between China and Turkey; China’s

“modernist” option is supposed to reflect a “socialist” perspective (and

China is in a hegemonic conflict with the United States, that is to say,

with the collective imperialism of the Triad) conveying a chance for

progress while the “modernity” option of today’s Turkey, in which no

escape from the logic of contemporary globalization is envisaged, has

no future. It seems successful, but only provisionally so

In all the countries of the broader South (the peripheries) the

combination of modernist and retrogressive tendencies, obviously in

very diverse forms, is to be found. The confusion resulting from this

association finds one of its most striking displays in the profusion of

inept discourses about supposed “democratic forms in past societies,”

uncritically praised to the skies. Thus independent India sings praises

to the panchayat, Muslims to the shura, and Africans to the “Speaking

Tree,” as though these outlived social forms had anything to do

with the challenges of the modern world. Is India really the biggest

(in number of voters) democracy in the world? Well, this electoral

democracy is and will remain a farce until radical criticism of the caste

system (a very real legacy of its past) has been carried through to the

end: the abolition of the castes themselves. Shura remains the vehicle for

implementation of Sharia (Islamic canonical law), interpreted in that

word’s most reactionary sense—the enemy of democracy

The Latin American peoples are today confronted with the same

problem. It is easy, once one realizes the nature of Iberian internal

colonialism, to understand the legitimacy of the “indigenist” demands

Still, some of those “indigenist” discourses are very uncritical of the

Indian pasts at issue. But others are indeed critical and propose concepts

linking in a radically progressive way the requirements of universalism

to the potential to be found in the evolution of their historical legacy

In this regard, the current Bolivian discussions are probably able to

make a rich contribution. François Houtart (El concepto de Sumai Kwasai)

has made an enlightening critical analysis of the indigenist discourse in

question. All ambiguity vanishes in the light of this remarkable study,

which passes in review what, as it seems to me, is probably the totality

of discourse on this subject

The contribution, a negative one, of retrograde cultural illusion to

construction of the modern world such as it is, cannot be attributed to

the peripheral peoples. In Europe, outside its northwestern quadrant,

the bourgeoisies were too weak to carry out revolutions like those

of England and France. The “national” goal, especially in Germany

and Italy and, later, elsewhere in the eastern and southern parts of

the continent, functioned as means of popular mobilization while

screening off the nature of such nationalism as a compromise, half

bourgeois/half ancien regime. The retrograde cultural illusions in these

cases were not so much “religious” as “ethnic,” and were based on an

ethnocentric definition of the nation (Germany) or on a mythologized

reading of Roman history (Italy). Nazism and fascism—there is the

disaster that illustrates the arch-reactionary, surely anti-democratic,

nature of volkisch cultural nostalgia in its “national” forms

The Universalist Alternative: Full and Authentic

Democratization and the Socialist Perspective

I am going to speak here of democratization, not of democracy. The

latter, reduced as it is to formulas imposed by the dominant powers,

is a farce, as I have said (in “The Democratic Fraud Challenges Us

to Invent Tomorrow’s Democracy”). The electoral farce produces an

impotent pseudo-parliament and a government responsible only to

the IMF and the WTO, the instrumentalities of the imperialist triad’s

monopolies. The democratic farce is then capped off with a “humanrightsish”

discourse that provides for respect of the right to protest—

on condition that protest never gets close to mounting a real challenge

to the supreme power of the monopolies. Beyond that line it is to be

labeled “terrorism” and criminalized

Democratization, in contrast, considered as full and complete—

that is, democratization involving all aspects of social life including,

of course, economic management—can only be an unending and

unbounded process, the result of popular struggles and popular

inventiveness. Democratization has no meaning, no reality, unless it

mobilizes those inventive powers in the perspective of building a more

advanced stage of human civilization. Thus, it can never be clothed

in a rigid, formulaic, ready-to-wear outfit. Nevertheless, it is no less

necessary to trace out the governing lines of movement for its general

direction and the definition of the strategic objectives for its possible


The fight for democratization is a combat. It therefore requires

mobilization, organization, strategic vision, tactical sense, choice of

actions, and politicization of struggles. Undoubtedly these forms of

activity cannot be decreed in advance starting from sanctified dogma

But the need to identify them is unavoidable. For it really is a matter

of driving back the established systems of power with the perspective

of replacing them with a different system of powers. Undoubtedly any

sanctified formula of “THE” revolution which would completely and

at once substitute the power of the people for the capitalist order is to

be abandoned. Revolutionary advances are possible, on the basis of the

development of real, new, people’s powers that would drive back those

power centers that continue to protect the principles underlying and

reproducing social inequality. Besides which, Marx never expounded

any theory of “the great day of revolution and definitive solutions”;

to the contrary, he always insisted that revolution is a long transition

marked by a conflict between powers—the former ones in decline and

the new powers on the rise

To give up on the question of power is to throw out the baby with

the bathwater. Only someone of extreme naïvete could ever believe that

society can be transformed without destroying, albeit progressively,

the established system of power. As long as the established powers

remain what they are, social change, far from dispossessing them, leaves

them able to co-opt it, to take it over, to make it reinforce, rather than

weaken, capitalist power. The sad fate of environmentalism, made into

a new field for the expansion of capital, bears witness. To dodge the

question of power is to place social movements in a situation in which

they cannot go on the offensive because they are forced to remain on

the defensive in resistance to the attacks of the power-holders who, as

such, retain the initiative. Nothing astonishing, then, in Antonio Negri,

the “prophet” of that modish anti-power litany, fleeing back from

Marx to St. Francis of Assisi, his original starting point. Nor anything

surprising in that his theses should be played up by the New York Times

I will here put forward several major strategic objectives for the

theoretical and political discussion about social and political struggles

(inseparable one from the other), which must perpetually confront the

practical problems of those struggles, of their successes and failures

First of all, to reinforce the powers of workers in their workplaces,

in their daily struggles against capital. That, it is said, is what

they have trade-unions for. Indeed, but only if the unions are real

instrumentalities for struggle. Which they scarcely ever are any more,

especially the “big unions” that are supposedly powerful because they

group together large majorities among their target groups of workers

Such seeming strength is really their weakness, because those unions

believe themselves bound to make only those extremely modest

demands that might be acceptable to the employer

What reason is there to be astonished that the working classes of

Germany and Great Britain (called “strong union” countries) have

accepted the drastic downward adjustments imposed by capital

over the course of the last thirty years whereas the “French unions,”

grouping as members only minorities of the class and thus supposedly

“weak,” have better (or less badly) resisted such adjustments? This

reality simply reminds us that organizations of activists, by definition

minoritarian (since it is impossible that the class as a whole should be

made up of activists), are more able than “mass” (and thus made up

largely of non-activists) unions to lead majorities into struggle

Another possible field of struggle to establish new forms of power is

that of local government. I certainly want to avoid hasty generalizations

in this area—either by affirming that decentralization is always a gain

for democracy or, on the other hand, that centralization is needed to

“change the power-structure.” Decentralization may well be co-opted

by “local notables,” often no less reactionary than the agents of the

central power. But it can also, as a result of the strategic actions of

progressive forces in struggle and of local conditions—sometimes

favorable, sometimes unfavorable—fill out or substitute for general

advances in the creation of new popular power structures

The Paris Commune understood this and so projected a federation

of Communes. The communards knew that on this question they were

carrying forward the tradition of the Mountain (Jacobins) of Year One

(1793). For the latter, contrary to what is unreflectingly said (how

often do we hear that the Jacobin “centralists” completed the work

of the Monarchy!), were federalists (is the Fête de la Fédération to be

forgotten)? “Centralization” was the later work of the Thermidorian

Reaction, capped off by Bonaparte

But “decentralization” is still a dubious term if it is counterposed as

an absolute to another absolute, that of “centralization.” The challenge

confronting the struggle for democratization is to link the two concepts

to each other

The problem of multiple—local and central—power centers is

of crucial importance for those countries that, for various historical

reasons, exist as heterogeneous agglomerations. In the Andean

countries, and more generally in “Latin America”—which ought to be

termed Indo/Afro/Latin America—the construction of specific power

structures (“specific” here denoting that they are endowed with areas

of genuine autonomy) is the necessary condition for the rebirth of the

Indian nations, without which social emancipation has scarcely any


Feminism and environmentalism are likewise fields of conflict

between social forces whose perspective is that of overall social

emancipation and the conservative or reformist power centers

consecrated to the perpetuation of the conditions for perpetual

reproduction of the capitalist system. It is certainly out of place to treat

them as “specialized” struggles, because the apparently specialized

demands that they put forward are inseparable from overall social

transformation. However, not all movements that consider themselves

feminist or environmentalist see matters that way

Coherent linkage of struggles in the diverse fields mentioned

here—as well as others—requires constructing institutionalized forms

of their interdependence. It is a matter, again, of displaying creative

imagination. There is no need to wait for permission from the actual

laws to start setting up institutionalized systems (informal, maybe

“illegal”), by permanent and de facto compulsory employer/employee

negotiation, for example, to impose equality between men and women,

or to subject all important public or private investment decisions to

thorough environmental review

Real advances in the directions here advocated would create a duality

of powers—like that which Marx envisioned for the long socialist

transition to the higher stage of human civilization, communism. They

would allow elections by universal suffrage to go in a direction quite

different from that offered by democracy-as-farce. But in this case, as

in others, truly meaningful elections can take place only after victory,

not before

The propositions put forward here—and many other possible ones—

have no place in the dominant discourse about “civil society.” Rather,

they run counter to that discourse which, rather like “postmodernist”

ravings à la Negri, is the direct heir of the U.S. “consensus” ideological

tradition. A discourse promoted, uncritically repeated, by tens of

thousands of NGOs and by their requisite representatives at all the

Social Forums. We’re dealing with an ideology that accepts the

existing regime (i.e. monopoly capitalism) in all its essentials. It thus

has a useful role to play on behalf of capitalist power. It keeps its gears

provided with oil. It pretends to “change the world” while promoting

a sort of “opposition” with no power to change anything

Three Conclusions

1.) The virus of liberalism still has devastating effects. It has resulted

in an “ideological adjustment” perfectly fitted to promoting the

expansion of capitalism, an expansion becoming ever more barbaric. It

has persuaded big majorities, even among the younger generation, that

they had to content themselves with “living in the present moment,”

to grasp whatever is immediately at hand, to forget the past, and to

pay no heed to the future—on the pretext that utopian imaginings

might produce monsters. It has convinced them that the established

system allows “the flourishing of the individual” (which it really

does not). Pretentious, supposedly novel, academic formulations—

“postmodernism,” “postcolonialism,” “cultural studies,” Negri-like

animadversions—confer patents of legitimacy to capitulation of the

critical spirit and the inventive imagination

The disarray stemming from such interiorized submission is

certainly among the causes of the “religious revival.” By that I refer

to the recrudescence of conservative and reactionary interpretations,

religious and quasi-religious, ritualistic and “communitarian.” As I

have written, the One God (monotheism) remarries with alacrity the One

Mammon (moneytheism)

Of course I exclude from this judgment those interpretations of religion

that deploy their sense of spirituality to justify taking sides with all

social forces struggling for emancipation. But the former are dominant,

the latter a minority and often marginalized. Other, no less reactionary,

ideological formulas make up in the same way for the void left by the

liberalism virus: of this “nationalisms” and ethnic or quasi-ethnic

communalisms are splendid examples

2.) Diversity is, most fortunately, one of the world’s finest realities

But its thoughtless praise entails dangerous confusions. For my part,

I have suggested making conspicuous the heritage-diversities which

are what they are, and can only be distinguished as positive for the

project of emancipation after being critically examined. I want to avoid

confusing such diversity of heritage with the diversity of formulations

that look toward invention of the future and toward emancipation

For in that regard there is as much diversity both of analyses, with

their underlying cultural and ideological bases, and of proposals for

strategic lines of struggle

The First International counted Marx, Bakunin, and followers of

Proudhon within its ranks. A fifth international will likewise have to

choose diversity as its trump suit. I envisage that it cannot “exclude”: it

must be a regroupment of the various schools of Marxists (including even

marked “dogmatists”); of authentic radical reformers who nevertheless

prefer to concentrate on goals that are possible in the short term, rather

than on distant perspectives; of liberation theologians; of thinkers and

activists promoting national renewal within the perspective of universal

emancipation; and of feminists and environmentalists who likewise are

committed to that perspective. To become clearly conscious of the imperialist

nature of the established system is the fundamental condition without which there is

no possibility of such a regroupment of activists really working together for a single

cause. A fifth international cannot but be clearly anti-imperialist. It

cannot content itself with remaining at the level of “humanitarian”

interventions like those that the dominant powers offer in place of

solidarity and support to the liberation struggles of the Periphery’s

peoples, nations, and States. And even beyond such regroupment,

broad alliances will have to be sought with all democratic forces and

movements struggling against democracy-farce’s betrayals

3.) If I insist on the anti-imperialist dimension of the combats to be

waged, it is because that is the condition without which no convergence

is possible between the struggles within the North and those within

the South of the planet. I have already said that the weakness—and that

is the least one can say—of Northern anti-imperialist consciousness

was the main reason for the limited nature of the advances that the

Periphery’s peoples had hitherto been able to realize, and then of their


The construction of a perspective of convergent struggles runs up

against difficulties whose mortal peril to it must not be underestimated

In the North it runs up against the still broad adhesion to the

consensus ideology that legitimizes the democratic farce and is made

acceptable thanks to the corrupting effects of the imperialist rent

Nevertheless, the ongoing offensive of monopoly capital against

the Northern workers themselves might well help them to become

conscious that the imperialist monopolies are indeed their common


Will the unfolding movements toward organized and politicized

reconstruction go so far as to understand and teach that the capitalist

monopolies are to be expropriated, nationalized in order to be

socialized? Until that breaking point has been reached the ultimate

power of the capitalist/imperialist monopolies will remain untouched

Any defeats that the South might inflict on those monopolies, reducing

the amounts siphoned from them in imperialist rent, can only increase

the chances of Northern peoples getting out of their rut

But in the South it still runs up against conflicting expressions of an

envisioned future: universalist or backward-looking? Until that conflict

has been decided in favor of the former, whatever the Southern peoples

might gain in their liberation struggles will remain fragile, limited, and


Only serious advances North and South in the directions here

indicated will make it possible for the progressive historic bloc to be



References that would assist the reader to find the path of the formation of the concepts utilized in these articles

Recent Works By Samir Amin

Spectres of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. Unity and changes in the ideology of political economy;

overdetermination or underdetermination; withering away of the law of value; pure economics, the contemporary witchcraft

Obsolescent Capitalism. London: Zed Books, 2003. Return of Belle Époque; historical Marxism and historical Keynesianism;

financialization, a temporary phenomenon; the collective imperialism of the triad

The Liberal Virus. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004. Pauperization, the new agrarian question, the new conditions for the

working class; ideology of modernity

(and Ali El Kenz). Europe and the Arab World. London: Zed Books, 2005

(and Karim Mroué). Communistes dans le monde arabe. Paris: Le Temps des cerises, 2006

Beyond US Hegemony. London: Zed Books, 2006. The drama of great revolutions; imperialism and the global expansion of capitalism

The World We Wish to See. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008. Convergences in diversity

From Capitalism to Civilization. New Delhi: Tulika, 2010. Contribution of Maoism; formal logics or materialistic dialectics; productivity

of social labor; the globalized law of value; market economy or capitalism of the oligopolies; critique of the multitude; on the cultural

front, full speed backward; no democracy without social progress

Eurocentrism, Second Edition. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009. Reason and emancipation; the flexibility of religions;

Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism

L’Éveil du Sud. Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, 2008

Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism. Cape Town: Pambazuka, 2011. From one long crisis to the other; accumulation

by dispossession; humanitarianism or internationalism of peoples?

The Law of Worldwide Value. New York: Monthly Review, 2010. The monopoly rent, the imperialist rent; at the origins of Bandung

Délégitimer le capitalisme. Bruxelles: Contradictions, 2011

Demba Moussa Dembélé, Samir Amin, intellectuel organique au service de l’émancipation du Sud (Dakar: CODRESIA, 2011)

Le monde arabe dans la longue durée, le printemps arabe. Paris: Le Temps des Cerises, forthcoming

Global History, A View From the South. Cape Town: Pambazuka 2011

Older references:

Class and Nation. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980. Communitarian social formations, tributary social formations: transitions:

decadence or revolutions

(and Andre Gunder Frank) “Let’s not wait for 1984: Discussion of the Crisis,” in Andre Gunder Frank. Reflections on the World Economic

Crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981

Important recent articles, in English:

“Spectres of Capitalism.” Monthly Review 50, no. 1 (May 1998): 36–39

“History Conceived as an Eternal Cycle.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 22, no. 3 (1999): 291-326

“Post-Maoist China: A Comparison with Post-Communist Russia.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 22, no. 4 (1999): 375–85

“Imperialism and Globalization.” Monthly Review 53, no. 2 (June 2001): 6–24

“Confronting the Empire.” Monthly Review 55, no. 3 (August 2003): 15–22

“U.S. Imperialism, Europe and the Middle East.” Monthly Review 56, no.6 (November 2004): 13–33

“Empire and Multitude.” Monthly Review 57, no. 6 (November 2005): 1–12

“China, Market Socialism and U.S. Hegemony.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 28, no. 3 (2005): 259–279

“Samir Amin, interviewed by A. A. Dieng.” Development and Change 38, no. 6 (November 2007): 1149–59

“Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism.” Monthly Review 59, no. 7 (December 2007): 1–19

“‘Market Economy’ or Oligopoly Finance Capital?.” Monthly Review 59, no. 11 (April 2008): 51–61

“Capitalism and the Ecological Footprint.” Monthly Review 61, no. 6 (November 2009): 19–22

“Seize the Crisis!” Monthly Review 61, no. 7 (December 2009): 1–16

“The Trajectory of Historical Capitalism and Marxism’s Tricontinental Vocation.” Monthly Review 62, no. 9 (February 2011): 1–18

Important recent articles, in French:

“Marx et la démocratie.” La Pensée, no. 328 (2001)

“Cinquante ans après Bandoung.” Recherches Internationales, no. 73 (2005)

“Vers une théologie islamique de la liberation.” La Pensée, no. 342 (2005)

“L’Islam, une théocratie sans projet social.” La Pensée, no. 351 (2007)

“Pour des initiatives indépendantes des pays du Sud.” Utopie critique, no. 50 (2010)

“Capitalisme transnational ou impérialisme collectif?.” Recherches Internationales, no. 89 (2011)

“L’internationale de l’obscurantisme.” Contradictions (December 2011)

“Critique des propositions du rapport Stiglitz,” July 11, 2007,

Other authors cited:

Altvater, Elmar, “The Plagues of Capitalism: Energy Crisis, Climate Collapse, Hunger, and Financial Instabilities,” February 1, 2009,

Castellina, Luciana. personal conversations

Étiemble. L’Europe chinoise, Vol 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1988

Garo, Isabelle. Marx, un critique de la Philosophie. Paris: Seuil, 2000

Herrera, Rémy. Les experiences révolutionnaires de l’Amérique latine. Lyon: Parangon/Vs, 2010

———. Un autre capitalisme n’est pas possible. Paris: Syllepse, 2010

Houtart, François. Délégitimer le capitalisme. Bruxelles: Colophon, 2005

———. Agrofuels: Big Profits, Ruined Lives and Ecological Destruction. Pluto, 2010

———. “El concepto de sumak kawsai (buen vivir) y su correspondencia con el bien común de la humanidad,” June 2, 2011, http://

Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. New York: London: Verso, 2007

Rocker, Rudolf. Nationalism and Culture. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997

Uzcategui, Rafael. Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle. Tucson: See Sharp Press: 2011

Winock, Michel. Le siècle des intellectuels. Seuil, 1999