Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 124 | Noviembre 1991



The Crisis of Socialism Highlights the North-South Fight*

Franz J. Hinkelammert

I would like to develop several theses about the change in the relationship between first and third world countries, a change heavily affected by the crisis of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations. While it became profound during the 1980s, it had been in preparatory stages for decades.

First thesis

The third world, for the first time, finds itself facing the first world alone.

A transformation of world capitalism has taken place in recent years. It came to light at the most dramatic moment of the crisis of socialism, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. I was in West Germany at the time, and for me there was a strong symbolic connection between the toppling of that wall and the massacre of the Jesuits in El Salvador just one week later. What especially caught my attention was that the media in Europe concentrated almost exclusively on the fall of the wall, while the other event, which showed so starkly the state of the third world, was limited to several marginal news bits on the radios and in some newspapers. The latter was an issue of "liquidation" in classic 1930s totalitarian style, in which one of the western world's centers of liberation theology was "eliminated." The Western media reacted just as the totalitarian media would have in the 30s, while Western governments, led by the United States, collaborated to hide the facts (the US, acting through the FBI, kidnapped the key witness and forced her, through threats, to change her testimony).

The media in Western democracies gave more attention to the Salman Rushdie case after he received a death threat from Iran. A London resident, Rushdie received protection from the Thatcher government, and his security was assured. A press campaign in El Salvador threatening the Jesuits' lives had been underway during much of 1989; given the country the Jesuits lived in, the threat was much more serious. The Western news agencies had as large a presence in San Salvador as they did in Teheran, but they said scarcely a word. Nor did they say much after the massacre; they continued to talk of Rushdie, by then completely safe. Margaret Thatcher did not demonstrate even the slightest concern for the Jesuits. In Latin America, there are many Rushdies, and they have never had protection. Not one Western democracy is bothered when they are killed.

In his comments lauding Vaclav Havel, noted French philosopher Glucksmann, recipient of the German booksellers' peace prize, spoke of three heroes in the struggle against totalitarianism in 1989: Solzhenitsyn, Rushdie and Havel. But all these fighters, whom I admire, are alive. Those who fight for freedom in Latin America and the third world, on the other hand, are assassinated. They are killed in western democracies such as El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Honduras, which have the indiscriminate assistance of the Western European nations and the United States. The massacre of the Jesuits is only one of many cases. Should they not be the true heroes of the struggle against totalitarianism in 1989? Western democracies fire their weapons with one hand and award peace prizes with the other, without even talking about the war they are waging. Glucksmann said, "Note it well: in 1989, the end of this century was announced." Is it not rather the massacre in San Salvador that announces to us what is yet to come?

One month later came the invasion of Panama, an event the entire Western world applauded. There was little real news about this intervention either. The media was controlled by classic 1930s totalitarian methods: a journalist from the Spanish newspaper El País was killed the first afternoon of the invasion, an effective warning to all the media in Panama.

There is not necessarily a causal relation between the fall of the Berlin wall and the massacre of the Jesuits, but their timing does demand attention. Few historical moments in recent years were as propitious as that one for the massacre in San Salvador. But even if there is no causal relation, there is unquestionably a rich and undeniable symbolic one. It shows us that capitalism, which tried to wear a human face from the 1950s to the 1970s, no longer has any need to do so. It can be presented once again as inhumane.

Capitalism today feels it has "won." A US State Department theory speaks of the end of history (and, relating that to Hegel, of the reality of an Absolute Idea), proposing a future in which there is neither history nor essential conflict, a future in which the first world is at peace, and the third world simply does not matter. (See Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?" in The National Interest, October 1989; Helio Gallardo, "Francis Fukuyama and the Triumph of Bourgeois Capitalism: The End of History or the Desire to Do Away with Human Beings?" in Pasos, DEI, San Jose, 1990, No. 27; and Helio Gallardo, "Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Third World," in Pasos, 1990, No. 28.)

The world being proclaimed today is one in which there is only one master and one system; one single empire extends to all points on the globe. It has suddenly become clear that not one asylum remains. There can be no refuge from one overarching empire. It is everywhere; it has come to have total power, is well aware of that fact and is making it clear to everyone else. The self-proclaimed "open society" constitutes the first closed society from which there is no escape.

This means that, for the first time, the third world finds itself completely alone. In its conflict with the "first" world of central capitalist countries, it cannot count on assistance from any other country. It no longer has recourse to the second world, which was once able to demonstrate some solidarity. To the extent that this second world of the socialist countries still exists, it has withdrawn its solidarity with the third world to become part of the North confronting the South. As has been said throughout much of Latin America, the second world cannot prosper if the first world does not admit it to the banquet at which the third world is devoured.

Along with this, there is a deeper and undeniably important issue: awareness is being lost that there is any alternative. It seems as though there no longer are alternatives, and the first world is increasingly presenting itself as keeper of the Absolute Idea. When Kolakowski confronted Stalinism in the 1950s, he reproached it for being "blackmail with only one alternative." He could not have imagined, however, what would happen when this blackmail is imposed by a world system with absolute power. We have essentially reached the point at which it can be carried out without constraint; it is, in fact, being imposed on the entire world. (Kolakowski, The Man Without Alternatives, 1956. Unfortunately, after relocating to England, he did not take up this subject again. He has not commented on the fact that he lives once again in a society that rejects any alternative.)

The crisis of socialism did not take away the third world's possibility of seeking solidarity in its conflict with the first world, but it no longer has recourse to socialism in this abstract arena of alternative concepts. It can no longer use socialism to demonstrate that an alternative, however imperfect, exists, can be improved upon and has a future distinct from the present.

Capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s concerned itself with economic and social reforms and even with development in the third world, so as to leave no door open to possible alternative movements. But capitalism today believes that alternatives no longer exist, no matter what it does. So it has again become unfettered, stripped of its human mask.

Almost all of us know that we are sliding precipitously into an abyss, but capitalism is not making the slightest attempt to brake this slide. It says to us: Do you know of any alternative? At the same time, it continues doing all it can so that no alternative appears to steer us off this death course. This is our first thesis: the crisis of socialism has severely weakened the third world and, at the same time, the possibilities for the survival of humanity itself.

Second thesis

The third world is being transformed into a surplus population.

This weakening of the third world is complemented by another phenomenon, which we can discuss by asking the question: Does the first world still need the third world?

We know that third world structures of production have developed based on the use of cheap labor to extract or produce exportable raw materials. That has been the third world's importance. Where the labor force was insufficient, the first world relied on forced slave labor. These raw materials formed the basis of development in what are now the developed countries.

Today we can see an indisputable tendency in which third world raw materials are losing importance; many "natural" materials are being substituted by synthetics. This also makes the labor force involved in producing natural materials surplus. Raw materials are still being produced, but it is becoming increasingly impossible to employ all the available labor force in their production.

This points to a restructuring of the third world. Today, unlike a century ago, most of the third world's population is superfluous from the perspective of the first world's economic needs. The third world's seas, air and natural environment are still in demand, even if only as a toxic waste dump; and its raw materials continue to be needed. Even though certain raw materials have become less important, the third world continues to be key for the ongoing development of the first world. What is no longer necessary is the majority of its population.

For this reason, the first world has not pulled back from the third world; rather it has chosen to portray it as an overpopulated region. This surplus population, referred to in terms of a population explosion, is increasingly seen as a threat rather than something that can be exploited. Technological development and the structure of capitalism no longer allow for the exploitation of this population, and a population that cannot be exploited is considered superfluous, one that should not even exist. But there it is. The new capitalism will have nothing to do with its fate.

Even the concept of exploitation is changing. As is known, the classic concept refers to an available labor force, effectively used in production, from which the product of its labor is expropriated. It is a concept developed in the Marxist tradition. Today, however, the situation is such that this population can no longer be used for capitalist production, and there is no intention or possibility of using it in the future. A world is emerging in which being "exploited" becomes a privilege. The classic concept of exploitation appeared at the beginning of the 19th century in Europe, a world in which there was full employment of the labor force and unemployment was only a periodic problem. But under late capitalism, this situation has changed. Ever larger sectors of the third world are no longer "exploited" in this sense. The more the population seems superfluous, the less appropriate and important this concept of exploitation, even in the workers' own consciousness. They tend to feel less exploited when they realize that they are privileged relative to those now considered superfluous. The entire relationship to exploitation is changing, even in the industrialized world, although not on such an extreme scale.

This also means that the third world's surplus population is completely powerless. Those who are superfluous cannot go on strike, they have no negotiating power, their threats are meaningless. The proud saying of the 19th century worker that "all wheels stop turning if your firm hand wants them to" can no longer be used by the third world population. It briefly seemed possible with the oil crisis, but even then relatively few countries were involved, and the moment itself was unusual. The phrase, "Workers of the world, unite," has also lost its meaning. That was an expression of groups who felt they had negotiating power born of union. The peoples of the third world have such minimal negotiating power that they cannot even impose their own participation. Indeed, their very existence is threatened.

This is the second thesis: the first world still needs the third world countries, but not their populations.

Third thesis

The third world is unable to affect development policies.

Given this situation, third world countries lose their ability to influence development policies. The only possibility for third world development is linked to the production of raw materials for an international market, which obviously means the market of the key industrialized nations. But since these materials are diminishing in importance, competition is increasing among third world countries for ever-shrinking markets. The result is falling prices, which means that larger quantities of exports bring in the same or less foreign exchange. Based on the traditional production structure, then, development in Latin American nations, or in the third world in general, is less and less feasible.

Development that integrates the existing population would have to be based on rapid industrial growth incorporated into the worldwide division of labor, but there are clear indicators that the industrialized countries no longer accept this kind of development. What we see instead is a systematic destruction of the steps that have already been taken in this direction. Even though some small country might still escape the destiny imposed by the industrialized nations, the visible trend is towards the destruction or stagnation of the industries that emerged between the 1950s and the 1970s. The countries of the industrialized center do not expect any advantage from third world development, and they see many disadvantages.

When today's environmental problems are added to the equation, the situation becomes even worse. It is well known that intelligent development of the third world cannot imitate the pattern of the already-developed nations, simply because the world's environment cannot withstand it. It is also understood that sensible development would oblige the first world itself to overhaul its whole production structure and technological decisions, adjusting them to conditions that permit the survival of the human race and coexistence with nature. Since there is no willingness to visualize development in this context, the first world is prepared to utterly destroy the environment in the third world in pursuit of its own ends, which include maintaining itself in power as long as possible. We are on the brink of a "heroic" collective suicide.

Here lies the importance of the third world's foreign debt. It permits the first world to control the development potential of the third world, and to impede its success. The debt has become an effective instrument for dictating economic and development policies to the third world. Observing the "structural adjustment" programs imposed so far, one can note that key conditions of the agreements prevent the underdeveloped countries from entering into the worldwide division of labor through industrial production.

The third world's foreign debt is an ideal instrument for achieving this objective. It suppresses the development of the third world in the name of goals that have nothing directly to do with development. The aims are thus invisible. What is visible is the debt itself and the countries' obligation to pay it. The result, however, is that third world countries are reduced to desperately producing raw materials, which thwarts their potential for industrial development.

This policy is summed up in a few words that condense what has become a virtual phobia in the first world: No more Japans! Japan happened once, but it will never happen again! Does anyone still seriously think that the first world would be willing to accept another Japan the size of Brazil or India?

This is our third thesis: the central capitalist countries have lost interest in a development policy for the third world, and are doing all they can to block its development.

Some Reflections on Solidarity

Solidarity of the poor extends to all the excluded. Today a new kind of solidarity, different from the workers' solidarity of the 19th century, is appearing. Workers' solidarity was the foundation of their own power, which in turn resulted from their coming together. It was essentially aimed at confronting the destructive force of capital. The solidarity of a population that has been rendered surplus can no longer maintain this character. It has no negotiating power. But as workers' solidarity once was, it is mutual assistance solidarity. It is solidarity of the poor, rather than of proletarians.

It can only become a power to the extent that groups integrated into society join in solidarity with those who are excluded from it, not just with those who are struggling. It must be a human solidarity beyond the confines of any specific group. It must be a solidarity of the preferential option for the poor.

Capitalism sees solidarity as diabolical. The current tendencies of capitalism both negate solidarity, as we have seen, and undermine its stability. Solidarity today presupposes confronting capitalism with demands for a just, participatory and ecologically sustainable society. But this confrontation will be nothing more than a chimera if an alternative to capitalism and its destructive tendencies is not articulated. Capitalism, however, by denying the possibility of any alternative, denies the very possibility of human solidarity. In its struggle to the death against all possible alternatives, capitalism struggles just as hard against the mere possibility of human solidarity. Such solidarity is declared illusory and atavistic by definition, because if all alternatives are illusory, then so is solidarity. Capitalism then labels any attempt to express solidarity as something ignorant or criminal, a destructive "utopia."

Current bourgeois thinking transforms solidarity into something diabolical. To the degree that solidarity expresses what Christian tradition calls loving thy neighbor, those who preach this belief are now considered to be preaching evil, a diabolical temptation. In Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper expresses it this way: "We all have the full assurance that nobody will be unfortunate in the beautiful and perfect community of our dreams, and there is also no doubt that it would not be difficult to bring heaven to earth if we were all to love one another. But the temptation to bring heaven to earth inevitably results in hell. It engenders intolerance, religious wars and the saving of souls through the Inquisition." [Retranslated from a Spanish-language edition.]

What is diabolical in bourgeois thinking is love of one's neighbor, solidarity and the religion of love. By declaring love of one's neighbor and solidarity to be demonic, the biblical God is eliminated, transformed into the master of hell. Bourgeois freedom reveals itself for what it is: a struggle against God. This carries with it an extreme denial of any human dignity. With solidarity and love for one's neighbor denounced as diabolical, working towards human dignity also becomes so. For bourgeois society, even Jesus himself is transformed into the devil, and must be combated.

Negating solidarity negates human dignity. It is not merely a declaration of abstract principles to say that by denying human solidarity, human dignity is also negated; it is a reality. Since human dignity is based on the possibility of living in a dignified manner, recognition of human dignity is, necessarily, recognition of the right to live with dignity. This means eating, having a home, education, health and so forth. If this is not recognized as a human right, there is no possibility of recognizing human dignity.

Nonetheless, the goal of living with dignity is possible only if alternatives exist. If I deny the possibility that any alternative exists, I also deny human beings the right to live with dignity. In this way, I deny their dignity in all its concrete forms—and I transform human dignity into an abstract principle with no content. It is clear: human beings have been made superfluous and thus have no dignity; no number of declarations can change that fact. The human dignity of exploited people is violated, but superfluous people are not even left with any dignity to be violated. This explains the name used by the bourgeois world to describe liberation movements: "cancer"! I cannot remember one single liberation movement that has not been characterized both in Washington and in Europe as a cancer that must be cut away. The most recent reference to cancer in Latin America was applied to Nicaragua and the FSLN, but the term was also used in Libya, Chile and—for the first time, I think—in Indonesia. "Cancer" replaces "parasites," the word the Nazis used to refer to the same phenomena. The new substitute is today omnipresent in the repression of third world liberation movements, and, beyond them, in the repression of any kind of dissent.

If this relationship between the existence of alternatives and human dignity is taken seriously, one can see that the struggle of bourgeois society to destroy any alternative is at the same time a struggle to destroy human dignity itself. People are not conceded the right to live with dignity. They can live, and live well, if the market makes the space for that to be possible. If not, the market declares them without dignity or the right to claim it.

This process of destroying alternatives and producing surplus people destroys human dignity to such a degree that these human beings even begin to see themselves as superfluous to the system. I think the whole ideological struggle today revolves around this; it is the basic content of the psychological war. I also think that the crisis of socialism has opened the way for this negation of human dignity to be carried to its logical conclusion.

This is not true only for the process of "producing a surplus population" in the third world. A similar process is taking place in the first world, though in a more limited way. Psychological warfare, omnipresent at least in the third world, attempts to convince people who have been made superfluous that they, in fact, are. The consequence is mutual destruction rather than solidarity among this group. It is surprising to see the degree to which people who have been made superfluous will consider themselves so—even destroying each other. I think the first author to fully describe this mechanism was Friedrich Nietzsche in The Will to Power. He called it "active nihilism."

Situations of this kind can be seen today in many Latin American societies: the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Peru, Argentina, etc. These processes allow us to see that solidarity now has different roots than it previously did. At the same time, there is no doubt that, once again, it is of central importance. It is not just a question of calling for unity and mutual assistance; it means nothing less than fully recovering human dignity, and we must insist upon this.

It is not that we have a developed alternative up our sleeve. Are we to accept that genocide in the third world is conscionable just because the victimized population has no alternative to offer? If today we have no alternative to the destruction of the Amazon or the Himalayas, does that make this destruction legitimate? We know that the destruction of humankind and nature must end, that all of us must search for an alternative. Capitalism is taking all of humanity on a clear course towards collective suicide. Will that be legitimate simply because no one has drawn up an alternative? An alternative must be found.

Without an alternative, dignity is impossible. Many alternative proposals have failed, but I still see no reason for the victory the bourgeoisie is currently celebrating. Each failed alternative is a loss of some hope of being able to escape the collective suicide being prepared for all of us.

Alternatives cannot be quickly drawn up in a congress or at a solitary desk. They are becoming increasingly difficult to design, because any alternative must include technical considerations that cannot be tacked on superficially. What we must demonstrate is that humanity will not survive if an alternative to this system—which so boisterously seems to be winning—is not found. Alternatives cannot emerge unless people the world over demand them, knowing for certain that they are necessary. Alternatives cannot be produced like sausages, then offered up to people. We will never find a magic recipe. Key to the process is the awareness that without them we are lost; only with this first crucial step will alternatives be found.

For all that, we know the basic elements to any alternative. It is a question of a new world economic and financial order, a restructuring of the raw materials market and a rethinking of economic policy along the lines of employment and income redistribution; an order in which universal education and health are prime; the establishment of a new environmental order that channels markets in such a way that economic growth respects the limits of nature's long-term ability to renew itself. But this will only turn into an alternative if these points are effectively taken on by society and implemented in the daily exercise of power.

An alternative for all humanity

It is no longer a question of a class-based alternative; it is an alternative for all humanity. But the search for it, and the insistence on it, continues to be a class problem. It is a struggle of the classes on top who renounce any alternatives. The bourgeoisie no longer has an adversary from below formed as a class, but it continues to behave, from above, as if it were in a class struggle. The bourgeoisie must give up this position so we can debate lucidly. If it does not secede from its class struggle, there will be no alternative. The bourgeoisie has the power to destroy us all and there is no longer any way to defeat it with a response at the level of that same class struggle. If the bourgeoisie does not cede, we are all headed towards the same abyss.

All that is left is the resistance necessary to bring our society to the point of redefining itself. I would like to end with the words of Marck Edelman, one of the leaders of the 1944 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, "It's better to do something than to do nothing." That something is what we have to do.

* This essay by Franz J. Hinkelanmert is translated from the Costa Rican magazine Pasos, #30, July-August 1990. It is part of envío's effort to provide our readers with a more global view of changes affecting not only Nicaragua and Central America, but the third world as a whole.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


US Aid: Not Even a Cheap Lunch

Just the Facts A Poor Country, Part II*

América Latina
An Ecological SOS in Latin America*

Cubans Still Keep Bluefields Alive


Privatization: Left, Right and Center

The Crisis of Socialism Highlights the North-South Fight*

El Salvador
Salvadoran Peace Accords
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development