Photo: Roberto Savio. Credit: ENPERSPECTIVA - Photo: 2018

Ten Reflections on the Crisis

Viewpoint by Roberto Savio

The writer is publisher of Other News, an eminent proponent of “information that markets eliminate” and founder of IPS-Inter Press Service News Agency. This article is being reproduced courtesy of Other News with the writer’s permission. He can be contacted at and his articles and comments can be read on Facebook @robertosavioutopia

ROME (IDN) – It is now clear that we are in a period of transition, even if we do not know where we are headed. It is clear that the political, economic and social system which has accompanied us since the end of the Second World War is no longer sustainable.

Exponentially growing inequalities have practically taken us back to the levels of Queen Victoria’s days, according to Amnesty International, and now on a global level. Ten years ago, 652 people possessed the same wealth as 2.3 billion people. Now they number just eight.

According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) projections, the eighteen-year-olds of today will retire with an average pension of around 630 euros.

Despite official statements, and surrounded by general indifference, we are reaching the limit of a 2 degrees centigrade increase in the temperature of the atmosphere since 1854, which is considered the limit beyond which our planet will suffer irreversible changes.

Finance has become detached from the economy, creating a world of its own and the only one with no international control bodies, where financial transactions in a day are forty times higher than the production of goods and services around the entire planet. Since 2009, the major banks have paid over 800 billion fines as a result of illegal operations.

Political participation has fallen from an average of 86 percent in 1960, to 63.7 percent today.

While an in-depth analysis of the situation would be extremely complex and involve all aspects of our life, it is possible to identify important, and at the same time simple points of reflection on which to dwell together.

Reflection 1

The crisis has deep roots.

In 1973, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a global governance plan – designed to reduce inequalities among its members – known by the name of New International Economic Order (NIEO). The plan was born with the support of the United States (even if launched by Mexico and Algeria).

The post-war international system, like the United Nations, had come about on the initiative of the United States, the main winners of the Second World War, which was interested in preserving peace and development after a war in which it lost about half a million soldiers out of a population of 140 million people (Germany lost more than 15 million out of 78 inhabitants, and over two million civilians, against none in the United States and twenty million in the USSR).

The United Nations was created with Washington’s commitment to contribute 25 percent to the budget, which illustrates the difference with today when U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw.

But until the 1981 North-South Summit in Cancún, Mexico, which brought together the twenty-two most important Heads of State in the world (excluding the communist camp), we lived with the illusion of the end of inequality, based on a world democracy, where the majority of countries decided the course to follow for the common good.

Newly-elected U.S. President Ronald Reagan took part in Cancún, announcing that the United States no longer accepted being subjected to the rules of an abstract world democracy. The United States, he said, is not a country like the others, and would go back to deciding its own international and trade policy. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was at the same meeting, becoming the European counterpart of Reagan.

A different vision of the world was born. Society does not exist: individuals exist (Thatcher). It is not factories that pollute, but trees (Reagan). Poverty produces poverty: wealth produces wealth. So the rich should be taxed as little as possible, because they distribute wealth.

Reflection 2

A few years after Cancún, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and it was the end of ideologies, the straitjackets that had led us to Nazism and Communism.

The core idea was that we must be pragmatic. Politics had to solve concrete problems, not pursue utopias. But the solution of a given problem without being part of a final vision of society (right or left, it does not matter) is actually called utilitarianism, and politics aimed at administration and not at ideas distances political participation, and increases corruption.

Without ideal programmes, the importance of the politician’s personality, possibly telegenic, increased and was measured on TV and not in public squares. Marketing, not ideas or programmes, became the main instrument for electoral campaigns.

Reflection 3

At the same time, neoliberal globalisation came into play as a single thought without alternatives – Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” (TINA). (It is interesting that before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the term globalisation did not appear in the media).

This globalisation was based on the socioeconomic and political model of the so-called Washington Consensus, the development paradigm imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury: it envisaged the adoption of the following reforms: macroeconomic stabilisation, liberalisation (of trade, investment and finance), privatisation and deregulation.

It eliminated national protection barriers everywhere, reduced non-productive expenditure (education, health, social assistance), and promoted free competition among states. Famously called “the new paradigm of American supremacy” by Henry Kissinger, developing countries experienced it as submission to economic rules imposed by the North. Kissinger did not see that once the way to free competition had been opened, China and other countries would emerge.

Reflection 4

The reaction of the left to the single thought that had arrived could be called the Third Way, successfully proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair: it was time to abandon the old ideas of the left, and ride the waves of globalisation, accepting the lack of alternatives.

Social democracy, from Blair to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, sought to transform itself into a transversal party which also embraced the centre, with an active policy on concrete facts and no outdated ideological cages.

In fact, the left lost its popular base, and the 2008 crisis, caused by the absence of controls on American banks, then reached Europe (with the left in government almost everywhere) and eliminated its capacity to redistribute surplus.

Workers, middle classes in crisis, victims of globalisation, sought new defenders and voted for the Marie Le Pens (France), Nigel Farages (Britain), Geert Wilders (Netherlands) and so on, up to voting the likes of Matteo Salvini and the 5 Star Movement (Italy).

Reflection 5

Numerous historians believe that greed and fear have been among the main engines of change in history.

In his latest book “In the Name of Humanity”, Riccardo Petrella argues that these engines were implemented using three traps: In the name of God, in the name of the nation and in the name of profit. There is no doubt that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the values of globalisation (competition, profit, individualism, exaltation of wealth, etc.), together with the disappearance of social justice, (solidarity, transparency, equity, etc.) from political debate, have created an ethics based on greed.

And twenty years later, in 2009, the economic and financial crisis – first in the United States on real estate speculation and then in Europe on sovereign bonds – opened up a second cycle, that of fear.

Reflection 6

The cycle of fear, which is in full swing (without having abandoned greed, while the traps of ‘in the name of God, the nation and profit’ are once again in use) has created a new right, which is not about ideas but is based on emotions.

Brexit and Trump are easy-to-see phenomena. But the real phenomenon is much deeper. We are in a liquid society that is not structured on ideologies or classes. And in this society it is easy for leaders who ride the waves of fear and greed to leap into the limelight.

The 2009 crisis joined up with mass immigration from countries invaded by the West to depose dictators and automatically introduce democracy. (But, after the death of Josep Broz Tito, the disintegration of Yugoslavia – a modern and European country – should have been a warning.)

It was not democracy that was ushered in but chaos, civil wars, blood and destruction.

In 2003, George W. Bush began the invasion of Iraq. In 2011, civil war broke out in Syria, becoming a clash among Arab, European, American powers and Russia (with six million displaced and half a million dead). In 2013, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed an invasion into Libya.

From the ruins of Iraq, ISIS was born – terrorism in the name of God, for a return to original Islam (Wahabism, financed worldwide by Saudi Arabia with 80 billion dollars in the last twenty years). This was already fifteen years before the veterans of the U.S.-funded war against Russian occupation in Afghanistan had gathered in Al Qaeda, under Bin Laden, making the first attack in history on American soil.

As the famous cartoonist El Roto said in El Pais, “we send bombs and they send us refugees”.

Two traps were triggered on the arriving refugees: in the name of God and in the name of the homeland.

Today, in Europe, identitarian and sovereignty parties are the second political force, ahead of socialist parties. If European elections were held today, the radical right would gather forty million votes. It is in power in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria, but it also conditions the governments of the Nordic countries, Netherlands and even Germany since the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) won 92 seats.

Victor Orbán in Hungary has launched the so-called “illiberal democracy”, Poland has denounced the secularism of the European Union, and has called for a huge march with populists and sovereignists from all over Europe to the cry of “In the name of God”. The Visegrad Group (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and now Austria) has denounced the yielding of Europe to Islam, and created an East-West rift of Europe, which joins the North-South rift on the vision of the economy: austerity or solidarity.

But there is something new. The United States intervenes in Europe, openly supporting nationalist and xenophobic right-wing parties, which at the same time look not only to Trump but also to Putin (who is also intervening in the European elections), as a point of reference.

As a result, in a rapidly aging Europe (for example, in Italy young people between the ages of 18 and 25 account for only three percent of those entitled to vote), immigration has become a great populist and xenophobic right-wing banner.

Meanwhile, the IMF has launched a warning: Europe needs to absorb 20.5 million immigrants in the short term to support its pension system and productivity. Statistics show that immigrants contribute to the system more than they cost; they constitute the great majority of new small businesses and their dream is to be quickly integrated into the system.

But there is no debate on migration, and what kind of immigrants to welcome. They are now all seen as dangerous invaders, intent on destroying the European identity and on crime, and as taking work away from European citizens, victims of intense unemployment. Even Trump, in a country made up of immigrants, has made immigration control one of his warhorses.

A tragic phenomenon is that young people, many less than retirees, are no longer politically active. In history, young people burst onto the political scene to change the world they found. If they had voted, Brexit would not have happened. But the political system – of the elderly – ignores them. The Matteo Renzi government in Italy allocated 30 billion euros to save four banks. In the same year the total in the Italian budget for young people was two billion.

Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, we have risen from 2.5 billion inhabitants to 7.5 billion today. The growth will stop only in 2050, when we will number 9.5 billion. Either we find the agreement on governability and immigration that we need, or we will have to shoot immigrants, as some have already proposed.

Reflection 7

Intellectuals and political scientists are increasingly surprised by the passivity of citizens who seem to be completely anaesthetised and no longer react to anything, even if politics goes against their interests.

The story of Brexit has been the subject of many analyses. How is it possible that the most depressed areas, which received so much from Europe, voted to leave? How is it that Poland, the largest recipient of European funds (three times the Marshall Plan after the end of the Second World War), votes against Europe? How is it possible that Trump, who had to drain the swamp from the great interests in favour of the people ignored by the great powers, governs by allying with big capital and the army (besides his family members), and voters have remained faithful? Today 92 percent of his voters say they are ready to re-elect him.

There are many interpretations of this paradoxical situation. But as Talleyrand said, every country has the government it deserves. And we should recognise that since the 2009 crisis, it is the political class that has lost the most credit.

The impact of the “Big Brother” TV evasion since 1989 – and the accompanying sensation of extraneousness from political power – is worth mentioning here, as is the refuge of a virtual space, like the Internet, which has contributed to an individualism that is the result of frustration and the lack of debate of ideas.

The macroscopic example of this anaesthesia is certainly climate change. Citizens see it every day in their daily lives: striking photos of the disappearance of the glaciers, snowfall in the Sahara, hurricanes, fires, storms, and so on. They also have all the data from the scientific community, which forced governments all over the world to meet in Paris where, however, they signed an insufficient agreement without controls.

Citizens have no need to study the situation to know. They can also see how governments speak, but do not act. Governments continue to spend three times what they invest in the renewable energy industry to finance the fossil fuel industry. Italy has even called a referendum to continue exploiting oil fields in the south of the country.

Reflection 8

The impact of technology.

Let’s take the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on its way. The First was at the beginning of the 1800s, when mechanisation replaced individual labour (for example, the mechanical looms that replaced manual looms). It was easy to recycle workers, who moved from the loom of the house to that of the factory.

The Second was at the end of 1800, thanks to the use of machines powered by mechanical energy and the use of new energy sources such as steam. Railway networks, the construction of steam ships and fast means of communication were born, with important discoveries in the chemical and medical field, assembly lines, electricity, telephones, etc.

Even here, thanks to the transfer from fields to factories, humans remained vital for production. And political battles began for fair recognition of their work, as well as modern politics. 

The Third Revolution came at the end of the Second World War, where technological progress, with the Internet at the centre, changed the way people work.

And now, as a consequence, the Fourth is starting, which is based on Artificial Intelligence and robotisation, which now concern 17 percent of the production of goods and services but, according to calculations, will affect 30 percent in 2030.

The autonomy of transport alone will result in the firing of six million taxi, truck and public transport drivers in Europe, and totally change the transport system, automotive industry, insurance companies, etc. But this time, will the taxi drivers be able to recycle themselves in a society that will privilege technological knowledge over traditional work?

We are heading towards a structural problem, which politics is still ignoring. But does this not risk increasing unemployment, fear, and social and political tensions? It is just one example of how far – with technology, finance and globalisation – politics is dramatically distancing itself.

Reflection 9

The crisis of multilateralism.

Consciousness was born from the ruins of the Second World War – after the tragedies provoked by nationalisms and the idea of domination over others – that lasting peace could only be sought through multilateral cooperation.

International organisations were established, such as the United Nations with all its agencies and funds, from UNICEF to FAO, from the World Health Organisation to the International Atomic Energy Agency; and in Europe the great project of the European Community, together with all the regional projects from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the Organisation of African Unity, the Organisation of American States, Mercosur, etc.

This entire multilateral system is today in crisis. Trump’s trade wars are destroying the trade system. From Roosevelt’s world democracy to Reagan’s free trade and competition, we have moved to American interests only, ‘America First’. Monetary wars are on the horizon.

Here comes the idea of competition and not cooperation, greed as a value to replace the value of cooperation that helps the weak and controls the strong, which is ending.

But just as Kissinger did not see that free competition would one day turn against the United States, Trump does not see that opening a politics of confrontation will backfire one day. Russia, China and the United States are returning to the era of gunboat policy, which seemed to have disappeared.

The present and the immediate future seem a dangerous re-edition of the Thirties, which resulted in the Second World War. Are those who vote for nationalism aware of this? As Pope Francis says, we are already in a “piecemeal” Third World War.

To wars in the name of the homeland in Africa, we are adding those in the name of God, from the war against the Rohingya in Myanmar to Islamic terrorists.

We spent decades breaking down walls, and now we are erecting more than before. The future seems to go against the interests of humanity, which now knows planetary threats that did not exist in the 1930s, from climate to nuclear, in a process of social and economic Darwinism that we already know where it will lead us.

Reflection 10

It is evident that the final reflection is the need to find a governability of globalisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It is not true that we are without ideologies. Neoliberal globalisation is an ideology of an unprecedented force, which has produced new phenomena, such as global finance and a multinational system stronger than governments, where the example of the use of Facebook to treat citizens as merchandise, to exert influence on political and commercial choices, show us how we are in a profound crisis of democracy.

We are entering a dystopian world described by the pioneers of science fiction: the world of George Orwell and Arthur C. Clarke, based on machines and the power of the few.

Only ten years ago, an ascent to total power like that of Xi Jinping in China, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey or Vladimir Putin in Russia was unthinkable. Brexit and Trump were unthinkable. It was unthinkable that tax havens could reach the colossal figure of 80 trillion dollars. It was unthinkable that eight people would possess the same wealth as 2.3 billion. It was unthinkable that Norway would have a winter with temperatures close to those of spring.

Ten years ago the financial crisis opened a period of deep and dramatic transformations. With this acceleration of the rhythm of history, as Arnold Toynbee called it, where will we be in ten years time?

We must immediately find a dialogue among all – which can only be based on the rediscovery of common values, on the construction of peace and cooperation, on international law as a basis for relations between states – and rediscover the sense of sharing, peace and social justice as a basis for cohabitation, which puts the person back at the centre of society, not capital, finance and greed, and frees us from fear.

Will we be able to find the way to do so? [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 April 2018]

Photo: Roberto Savio. Credit: ENPERSPECTIVA

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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