Image credit: Modern world caricature illustration by Steve Cutts. Source: - Photo: 2018

Reflection on Today’s World and Our Era

Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*

The author wrote this as a reaction to the article by Roberto Savio entitled ‘Ten Reflections on the Crisis‘ which was published by IDN on 8 April 2018. – The Editor

ROME (IDN) – The reflections of Roberto Savio touch problems which have roots that are not recent and have become increasingly serious over time. His arguments coincide with mine, which are directed both to the present and to a re-reading of the past in the light of contemporary needs. With no claim to being exhaustive, the following are a number of considerations stimulated by Savio’s article.

1) When one asks seriously if we are in transition towards a new world, then it means that in all probability a step has already been taken. The concept follows the idea, but the real is not rational: it is full of contradictions. And it is for this reason, and because of the misalignments between different temporal and spatial scales, that possibilities for action open up.

On a longer and wider time and space scale, the world in which we live is marked by two transitions. The first is the one marked by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the development of nuclear arsenals and their proliferation. With the atomic weapon we entered an era in which conceiving the end of humanity or civilisation is no longer a mystical fantasy or a literary vision but a real possibility: humanity can put an end its history, not through divine judgment or the random motion of an asteroid, but by its own hand.

That the atomic weapon has not been used to hit an enemy since 1945 does not mean that it has no very concrete effects. It has, and they are many and pervasive, even though they are often not easily perceivable in everyday life. The threat of the nuclear weapon always exists behind the use of conventional forces; and this is formally the last resort to defend power: which is why – in addition to the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, Israel, India and Pakistan – the “national bomb” is useful for a tyrannical regime like that of North Korea and constitutes a hope for Iranian theocracy.

Possession of the nuclear weapon shows that the power of the state in question has an anti-human and potentially exterminating nature. I am convinced that the fight against all nuclear arsenals, of any state, should come first in the battle against militarism and imperialism. The destructiveness of the nuclear weapon is the exact opposite of the international solidarity of peoples fighting against their oppressors; defence against nuclear threats is a powerful means of justifying militarism and gathering consensus around the ruling classes and political castes.

Nuclear arsenals and climate change

The second transition has already taken place, but as for the first, it is a matter of controlling its effects and reducing the damage, if it is still possible.

We discuss the cumulative importance of the ecological effects of the First Industrial Revolution, but everything suggests that the few decades after the Second World War – an infinitesimal period on a geological scale – produced the extraordinary effect of determining what is now considered by most experts a new and particular geological era: the Anthropocene. This refers to the impact of human activity on the planet which is so widespread and profound that it rivals the forces of nature and deserves a place on the scale of geological time. It is not good news for humanity: it is progress, so to speak, of which we cannot be proud, because it threatens catastrophes.

The battle against global warming has its own specificity, but at the same time it is the condensation of contradictions within world society and in the relationship between modern social systems and nature. For example, that battle also passes through the reduction in population growth, but the transition on a global scale to a demographic regime of low birth and low mortality also requires that the drama of the inequality of living conditions among the peoples of the planet be faced. This is something that requires both social and technological change, but is an unprecedented enterprise for which all the existing economic and political powers are absolutely inadequate.

Nuclear arsenals and climate change are evidence of the lack of sustainability of the current world system. They are the product of the most modern technology and science, but they are not determined by them. Technology is a material cause, but the real cause lies entirely in the sphere of relations among human beings, that is, in the relations and institutions in which economic and political power are concentrated.

The transition in the era of the possible atomic annihilation of civilisation was intentional and consciously organised by the holders of political power, above all – but not only – the United States and the Soviet Union. The transition towards the Anthropocene was instead a spontaneous product due primarily to a form of abstract wealth, and therefore without limits in its accumulation: the search for maximum profit. It is therefore the result of the development of capitalism and universal commodification, starting from human labour.

However, industrialisation of the so-called socialist states has also contributed to the Anthropocene as a means of consolidating and increasing the power of the dominant castes of the states themselves; and the particular contradictions of that industrialisation, which can be summarised in the enormous waste of all possible resources – from human to natural resources – with a rhythm (to be distinguished from total volume) even higher than that of capitalism, for which the saving of labour time contributes positively to profitability, but also – depending on the circumstances – the saving of matter and energy.

Nuclear arsenals and global climate change have this in common: they are the result of technological and scientific rationality applied in a type of society which is as a whole irrational; that is, not aimed at consciously meeting the needs of the majority of the population and maintaining a balance in the relationship between society and nature.

Technology as a material cause, capitalist classes and political castes as an efficient cause, reproduction of relations and institutions of economic and political power as the final cause: this is how the forces of production have been converted into forces of destruction.

However distinct they are as social forms, capitalism and pseudo-socialism also have this in common: the reproduction of power relations – concentrated in the state and in companies – implemented through the “free” market or state planning denies the possibility of social control over political and economic dynamics. In different ways they deny the possibility of conscious self-management of society at all levels. In this sense they condemn humanity to live in a sort of prehistory.

The above considerations are highly generalised, but are necessary for taking stock of the qualitative leap in human history that took place during the twentieth century. They are also sufficient reasons for concluding that the control and overturning of the two transitions requires the rejection of the two social forms that produced them: capitalism and statist pseudo-socialism.


2) Paradoxically, the advent of the atomic era and the progressive intensification of the processes resulting in global climate change coincide with the creation of a set of multilateral institutions and, over time, of regional international agreements of various kinds: the United Nations and its various agencies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Economic Community, NATO, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the Warsaw Pact, ASEAN and so on.

Never as in the post-Second World War period has international society been so widely structured and institutionalised. And, another paradox, never as in the Second World War period has international society denied the legitimacy of war as a means of resolving disputes between states and affirming the right of peoples and individuals to equality, freedom, self-determination and even certain economic and social rights.

This while nuclear missiles, military alliances and the dynamics of economic power have severely limited – where they existed (that is in a small part of the world) – the extent and possibilities of the exercise of democratic rights and the sovereignty of people.

These paradoxes demonstrate the contradictory nature of social forms of modernity: a promise of progress and liberation, but at the same time an intensification of risks and problems on a global scale.

The fact is that the real globalisation is not of economics or politics but is of risks and problems. While the incorporation of the nuclear weapon in missiles, the development of capitalism and the industrialisation of totalitarian pseudo-socialism have produced global risks and problems for the whole of humanity, institutions of power have remained particular and national, albeit with a radius of action that goes beyond territorial boundaries and with dense diplomatic relations.

The shape and dynamics of world society are not static but continue to be based on reproduction of the differences in levels of socio-economic development and economic and political power. While interdependence grows, social inequality is reproduced and its forms become complicated.

It follows that the answer to global risks and problems cannot be at the national level. Or rather, the territorial state constitutes the area in which political action begins a process of change – overthrowing the institutions of power – but can only fully and permanently achieve its objectives at higher levels: regional, continental and global.

Fear and insecurity

3) Consideration on Savio’s “greed and fear”.

In our times, fear and insecurity are powerful forces into which more fears blend: the precariousness of work and unemployment, the future of children, the mortgage, the immigrant and terrorism. The insecurity and fear of the immigrant demonstrated by many European citizens are the result of precise European economic and social policies, articulated in the different EU states and the euro zone. Fear of the immigrant is equivalent to the definition of a scapegoat, to a false target.

Regional and national policies, in turn, have inscribed in them a given structural configuration of macroeconomic imbalances according to which, schematically, the United States is the pole of world demand and Germany, China and Japan the poles of world supply. The precariousness of employment in Europe is therefore the result both of a structure and of political decisions (and non-decisions). And it is this precariousness, moved by greed, which in turn feeds the fear of immigration.

Remaining at the national level, how is it possible to solve a dual problem which results from both a structure of the world economy and from policies and institutions operating on a regional, almost continental level?

If the dual problem of fear of the immigrant and of the greed that produces precariousness cannot be solved at a national level, it is at the regional level that we can start to deal with it. However, not from a nationalist point of view and by putting the cart before the horse, that is not, for example, by demanding to leave the European Union.

We have to start facing it with partial and sectoral struggles, with defensive movements, but which with their unification start to change the balance of forces with national economic and political power. Only then can the question of national government and of the relationship with the other governments of the European Union be raised.

In addition to it being ridiculous to set the goal of leaving the European Union when you are not even able to conduct defensive struggles or have a political entity that can govern (the cart before the horse referred to above), any social movement and any government that seriously intends to fight fear and greed must be able to relate to other movements and possibly other governments of Europe.

In other words, problems like those of precariousness and immigration cannot be solved effectively if not on a continental scale. What we need to fight for is not the destruction of the European Union. The fact is that what is missing is a common budget, and social and economic policy, aimed at satisfying the needs of citizens rather than those of competitiveness between states of the region and in the world. In other words: we must fight for the United States of Europe.

This is a process that must be thought of as conflicting and unequal, and the outcome of which depends a great deal not on closing up a priori inside presumed national independence. Wherever the process begins, we need to act as a stimulus for all European workers and citizens so that movements converge on the fundamental objectives. If this were to happen, objectively the pillars of the economic and political power of capitalism and imperialism of European states would also be questioned: the United States of Europe is impossible within the framework of the various European capitalisms and imperialisms.

And this is all the more necessary for the following reasons: first, precariousness does not result from either technology or immigration as such, but from policies that do not have employment as an objective; and secondly because, in its turn, extra-EU immigration is not only the result of the demographic growth of underdeveloped countries – which is also certainly a problem – but also of their poverty.

“Helping them at home” is not a mistaken idea, but it rings as completely hypocritical and powerless when it does not translate into ways other than the imperialistic exploitation of people and natural resources.

Economic crisis and large progressive social movements

4) The foregoing is evidently not on the agenda, but to me it seems much more realistic than alternative positions closed in the national state that conceive internationalism as a mere sum of national movements. The latter is a perspective long since surpassed by the development of capitalism and even its very imperfect international institutions: to place oneself below the historical level reached by the adversary means devoting oneself to impotence – or worse, contributing to the diffusion of a reactionary mentality.

If and when something happens in the future that comes close to the synchronism of the crusading movements of the 60s and 70s, the possibility of the United States of Europe will also be put to the test. This is an eventuality that nobody can foresee and never determine, but which I consider probable precisely because interdependence is stronger today than half a century ago.

It should come as no surprise that this did not occur in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, despite its seriousness. Or perhaps also for this reason: it is known – except in the minds of those who want to delude themselves – that there is no automatic correlation between economic crisis and large progressive social movements. The rise in unemployment is not favourable to mobilisation, let alone when the series of defeats is lengthy.

However, here we are not interested in a sociological discourse on the conditions and dynamics of workers’ mobilisation, which can become a fatalistic alibi. The crux of the historical problem of the passivity of European citizens noted by Roberto Savio is part of a larger problem.

We already know how strong the system is and what are its destructuring and restructuring capabilities – which historically pass through crises and disasters – with regard to both socio-economic and political relationships. I will not dwell on the reasons and the dynamics of post-democracy and the society of entertainment, and on the atomising effect that social networks can have.

‘The dead seize the living’

5) In conclusion, I’m interested in pointing the finger at another problem: that of the subjectivity of what is called “left” in Europe. Between the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, the left underwent a colossal regression. The fundamental problem of the left is its degeneration and internal corruption, corruption to be understood primarily as an ideal and political fact.

On this line of thought, a passage from Marx occurs to me, although in a different context. I find it suggestive and adequate, both as regards the subjectivity of the European left and the condition of the former “socialist” countries, especially China and Russia:

“Alongside the modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! (The dead seize the living!)” (Preface to the 1st edition of Capital, 25 July 1867).

It can be said that ideology, which for the European left was a cause for pride before the comrades of the rest of the world, has become or has turned out to be a dead weight, or rather a kind of non-dead that continues to devour the living. I would say that today the existential centre of something that can be said to be left has moved to the New World: in a more political sense to Latin America, in a more intellectual sense to the United States. I would not be surprised if, as in the past, a welcome surprise were to come from precisely the United States.

Be that as it may, fighting the non-dead is one of our priorities.

* Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012). He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published this article in Italian under the titleRiflessione sul Mondo e l’Epoca’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 April 2018]

Image credit: Modern world caricature illustration by Steve Cutts. Source:

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