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Long Term Strategizing – Anticipating Uncertain Futures

By Kolya Abramsky, January 2006

This text is intended as a contribution to the upcoming PGA chat-meeting aimed at continuing the process of relaunching the global PGA process on a new footing. However, rather than addressing organizational themes internal to PGA as an organizational process, it focuses on long term social, political and economic themes. As such, it is hoped that it will be relevant not just to those involved in PGA, but also to other emancipatory global networks in general.

The aim of this text is twofold:

  • To pose some long-term questions as to the type environment that PGA (and other global networks) may find itself fighting in the coming years. No answers are expected…;
  • To propose that the topics in this text form the basis of a collectively produced bilingual publication (perhaps in the name of PGA?) in time for the next global conference as an analytical tool. This depends on levels of interest.

An important task for global networks is to be able to anticipate, prepare and strategize for future scenarios in order to have the most influence possible in actually shaping these future scenarios. This implies not just short-term awareness, but also medium and long term awareness. Every time capital and state power seek to impose a free-trade regime, or an illegal invasion of a country, they are using force to physically rearrange the world to serve their long term needs and strategies. Capitalist planners are not thinking just 1 year ahead, nor even 5 but more likely 20, 30 or even 50 years. If we are to take our own goals of long term revolutionary change seriously, this presents an important and difficult challenge to global networks to fight on the same terrain – our networks need to (collectively) develop the ability to also think in such a time frame, and have such long term perspectives shape actions in the short term.

However, this is by no means an easy task for a number of reasons. How can the future be anticipated, let alone predicted, when by definition it is uncertain and has not yet happened? Why waste time and energy on speculating about what may or may not happen at some undefined point in the future, when there are real concrete needs in the day-to-day present of people’s lives, local struggles which are all too often life or death struggles? Similarly, doesn’t devoting time and energy to serious study of the (long term) past run the risk of withdrawing from action in the present? Furthermore, doesn’t long term strategizing risk falling into the trap of hunting for new intellectual blueprints dreamed up in offices rather than collectively through the process of struggle from the grassroots? And, tied to this, mightn’t such long term strategizing also create centralizing pressures pushing us to towards new models of vanguardist politics?

These are all very real concerns and dangers. However, the existence of difficulties and dangers is not in itself a reason for avoiding long-term strategizing and dismissing it as either unnecessary or impossible. Rather, it highlights the urgency of approaching the task responsibly, cautiously and in an informed, open, collective, self-critical, participatory and democratic manner. It is important that we are able to learn from our diverse yet collective histories, paying close attention to long term historical patterns, trends and cycles in order to understand the variety of mechanisms at play in processes of long term social transformation in the world-economy as a whole. Only in this way will we be able to even approach anticipating and preparing in the most effective ways possible for an inherently uncertain future whose outcome we hope to collectively shape. Many things about the future are uncertain, but what is virtually certain, is that the next years are not likely to be stable ones. Rather, it is likely that we will live through rapid changes at the global level. Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that today’s global struggles are about what form these long-term changes will take and who will benefit and who will lose from them. This opens up important new possibilities for our movements, but is also new dangers.

In the last 10 years, decentralized processes of global communication and coordination between struggles in different parts of the world have played a crucial role in denouncing and delegitimizing global capitalist institutions such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and, more recently, the War on Terror. Global networks, such as PGA and WSF, have played an important role in this process. We are now in a very good position to go beyond Business As Usual politics, and the limits of protest and denunciation, by collectively redefining processes of revolutionary transformation rooted in the construction of decentralized and autonomous local alternatives. In many parts of the world, including Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico, parts of India, etc, such processes are already underway at the local or national level. Networks such as PGA and WSF can play an important role in ensuring that such local struggles have the maximum transformatory effect possible on the world-economy as a whole and that their effects are felt beyond specific locations. This is important, since, in an increasingly globalized world, now more than ever the idea of Socialism in One Country, or any modern day reincarnation of this, seems a highly unlikely possibility. Hence, it is important that the actions and long-term strategies of global networks are situated in an understanding of the mechanisms of long term social change which are at play in the world-economy as a whole. In particular, this means paying attention to it’s inter-state system and the world-wide division of labor at the root of the world-economy, in order to overcome and breakdown the patterns of hierarchy and division which this division of labor rests upon. It will also be important to anticipate possible dangers which may lie ahead.

Several important dangers stand out, at the global level. These dangers have been highlighted by a range of different people and organizations. This includes voices from anti-capitalist activists, the academy, government policy makers, and also even from the military and the financial establishments. They are not immediate dangers, but dangers whose effects may be felt within the next 2 or 3 decades, if indeed they are felt at all. Perhaps (and hopefully) they will never happen, or perhaps they will happen far sooner. Furthermore, movements are not passive bystanders in all this, and to some extent, the degree to which they are likely to happen or not is likely to be related to how movements themselves act in the coming years. However, given that it seems widely accepted that at least some degree of risk does exist, it may make sense for people involved in global networks to take them into consideration regardless of the uncertainties involved and despite their lack of immediacy. This text is not aimed at presenting apocalyptic predictions of global doom, but rather to pose questions as to what kind of role global networks such as PGA and WSF may have in actually shaping the outcome of long-term processes of social transformation and what major obstacles may lie along the way. The importance of anticipation is crucial, but so too is the issue of timing. In many ways, despite the urgency of struggles today, we may well be in a preparatory stage for future scenarios which are even worse. Whatever the uncertainties involved, it seems pretty clear that the coming years do not promise honey and roses. Our collective ability to influence future events rather than being steamrollered over by them is likely to be highly dependent on the degree to which we are taken by surprise or are able to anticipate and prepare. There is little time to lose.

There are many dangers which are already receiving a lot of attention by global movements. To name a few of them, these include the dangers of continued free trade in terms of poverty, inequality and exclusion; the dangers of colonial pillage in terms of military invasions of rich countries against poor countries; new forms of racism promoted by the War and Terror and so-called “Clash of Civilizations”; the dangers of biotechnology agriculture to long term food security; or the dangers of climate change to the world’s ecology. However, there are other dangers which are still only being talked about far less. Below is a very superficial description of four such risks. Some of these dangers are potentially catastrophic. This text does not claim to give any explanation of why there is a danger of such scenarios emerging, or of evaluating the risk that they will in fact happen, since this would require a far longer text than can be read easily on email. Nor does it aim to discuss possible responses to these dangers that movements might be able to make. However, at the end of this text is list of some books and articles where such topics are explored in far greater depth.

COLLAPSE OF THE US DOLLAR: As the most important currency in the world, the US dollar is a double edged-sword. On the one hand, it is a powerful instrument of capitalist domination. On the other hand, national economies around the world are heavily dependent on it, and consequently, the lives and livelihoods of billions of people throughout the world are also intimately intertwined with the fate of the currency. However, the dollar’s strength is rapidly waning, and many people think that it is a matter of time before the dollar collapses. These voices of warning are coming from both anti-capitalist activists and the global financial community itself. Several national governments are becoming increasingly nervous about holding all their reserves in US dollars, and have shifted large amounts of their holding into Euros. It is widely thought that such a collapse, should it occur, would have enormous, and highly unpredictable, effects both within the USA, and throughout the world, especially in countries which are highly dependent on exporting goods to the USA, such as China. There is a high chance that it could bring about a global deflation/depression as serious, or perhaps even far worse, than the Great Depression of the 1930s.

RE-NEWED MILITARY CONFLICT BETWEEN MAJOR WORLD POWERS: It is often taken for granted that the age of wars between major powers (such as the two World Wars) is a thing of the past. Given that nuclear weapons could mean the destruction of human and other life on the planet, this is a reassuring thought, but how safe is this assumption? It is worth bearing in mind that the First World-War? was predicted over 20 years in advance by revolutionary movements and thinkers. Yet, despite years of anticipation and preparation, they were nonetheless unable to prevent the war. Is there a danger that the War on Terror is the opening shots of a far greater global conflict? Europe’s rupture with the USA over the war on Iraq gave visibility to inter-state tensions which had been brewing for a long time. Trade wars are rife, especially between the EU and USA, China and USA, and EU and China. The USA and EU, and to a lesser extent China, are all involved in fierce currency battles. All three regions, as well as Russia, India and Japan, are in the midst of significant remilitarization processes, and are in the process of realigning with other major states. Today, as the worldwide division of labor undergoes a massive reorganization, and rivalry between major state powers once again intensifies, is there the danger that this could break out into global war as such rivalry has in the past? Or, has the world-economy undergone transformations which make such a repetition impossible? This is a question that is not being widely addressed by activists, but has had some level of discussion amongst social scientists, especially those investigating long-term social change at the global level. There is very little consensus as to the conclusions, but it is perhaps an interesting irony that in February 2005, a NATO conference took place in which one such social scientist who has made important contributions to the debate gave a keynote speech on the theme. An important question is how do struggles for social protection which are based on national protection help contribute to processes of inter-state tension? A relevant current example of this is what will be the effects if across the world movements demand that “their” governments pull “their” country out of the WTO, rather than collectively abolishing the WTO together with people throughout the world? Or, the popularity of Bush’s protectionist agenda in the USA. Another important factor is likely to be the degree to which social struggles in China are able to access global networks of struggle and vice versa, and how relevant these networks are seen as being by struggles there. However, until the WTO protests in Hong Kong, no Chinese organization has been on the PGA Convenor’s Committee, nor the WSF International Secretariat/Council. Neither has there been a Chinese Indymedia or a Chinese member organization of Via Campesina. This is despite the fact that there has been a large increase in both rural and industrial social protest in recent years, a process likely to intensify as China’s membership of the WTO implies a massive assault on its enormous peasant population. Including social struggle in China into our global networks presents a very big challenge, certainly not made any easier by the fact that China is the largest one party state in the world.

PEAK OIL AND AUSTERITY: Peak oil is being discussed by many people, with a wide variety of perspectives. Importantly, even major investment bankers in the petroleum sector, and US security officials are saying that it is a real threat. Because energy is something so basic to social needs, it is an issue that touches on many other areas. As such, the issue is not just relevant to people who are working directly on energy-related issues. The fact that oil production is peaking does not mean that oil will run out immediately. There are still many years of oil left in the ground. What it does mean is that oil prices are likely to rise enormously, and competition for it will increase. Then the question becomes “who will pay the costs”? Because oil is a commodity basic to the capitalist economy, rising oil prices also mean rising prices for other goods. Especially important here is that it is likely to massively push up the costs of attaining life’s basic needs such as food and shelter. And, rather than peak oil signifying the end of capitalism as some have prophesied, it is more likely that capital will try to push these extra costs onto people throughout the world, both in oil producing and oil consuming countries alike. We are very likely to see a combination of harsh austerity programs and rising living costs in oil consuming countries (mainly in the north) and tougher working and extraction conditions in oil producing countries (mainly in the South and former Soviet Union). Furthermore, at some point it is likely that there will be a transition away from oil towards other sources of energy, and again the question is “whose terms will it be on?” and “how long will it take”? Will it be capital intensive, risk intensive technologies such as nuclear as the current political establishment seems to favor, or will it be renewable energies. Will it be a long drawn out process that tries to maximize the profits of the oil corporations who will milk the last oil reserves till their last drop, or will it be an accelerated process driven by the urgency of climate change? It is not just a question of technology, but more importantly a question of ownership, rents, and prices. The transition cannot be left to the market. The struggle for decommodification of energy to ensure that energy is accessible to people, together with the struggle for energy producers to get higher prices on world markets cannot be separated from the struggle for a transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Perhaps crucial here will be the issue of ownership of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves in the next years. It is important that global networks are seen as relevant, helpful and inclusive by communities effected by oil extraction, and also oil and gas workers (especially in the Middle East), and equally important will be the efforts that global networks make in this direction to include these struggles. Until now, several indigenous peoples’ struggles against oil have been involved in PGA, but there has been very little inclusion of oil workers except some excellent international networking with Iraqi oil workers in relation to the war.

AVIAN FLU: (NOTE: THIS SECTION WAS WRITTEN BEFORE THE RECENT EVENTS IN TURKEY) Many scientists, including health experts at the World Health Organization and health officials around the world, as well as in pharmaceuticals companies, fear that Avian Flu might soon mutate into a form that could cause a global pandemic killing many millions of people worldwide. Many peasant communities in Asia have already directly experienced the effects at the human level and also witnessed the slaughter of their livestock and destruction of their livelihoods. Should a global pandemic of Avian Flu actually occur, its effects would be likely to be felt especially in rural and poor communities, and those already weakened by respiratory infections or weakened immune systems such as those with AIDS/HIV. Responses to the threat are likely to include the killing of livestock on a massive scale, especially chickens and other poultry. This has already occurred in several countries, including China, Thailand and Vietnam. This forced destruction of animals may result in a rapid restructuring or agriculture, with little compensation to the people whose livelihoods are directly affected. There is the danger that it could result in a very rapid, coordinated destruction of peasant agriculture, and an extreme concentration of the sector in the hands of agribusiness companies. With the majority of the world’s population lacking accessible public health services, basic food security and other forms of social security, it is hard to take seriously the official governmental and intergovernmental preparatory measures. The devastation caused by AIDS/HIV serves as a warning as to how patterns of global inequality shape the deadly effects of a pandemic, and the dangers of leaving prevention and treatment in the hands of the market at the mercy of pharmaceuticals companies backed up by global trade regimes.

The failure of official institutions to deal with the above dangers adequately, or even to further increase their likelihood, may lead to a massive and rapid collapse of legitimacy of official power structures, at all levels, locally, nationally, regionally and globally. Such a crisis of legitimacy could simultaneously present both massive opportunities and massive dangers to emancipatory movements. On the one hand, it offers the chance for movements to involve increasing numbers of people, on the other hand it also opens up enormous space for far right ideas and practices. Emancipatory movements will need to be prepared for sudden and unexpected mass events that have not been organized by “activists”. An important recent example of this are the riots that recently took place in France. The response that emancipatory movements are able to make in such circumstances is likely to become increasingly important, and the failure of adequate responses will have very far-reaching effects.

Each of the above dangers raises a series of questions for movements in general, and perhaps especially for global networks such as PGA and WSF. However, this text does not attempt to explore possible responses, since they are questions that require a more collective approach.


USEFUL READING: The following is a list of books and articles that explore the above issues in much greater depth. They are from a range of different, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives.

GENERAL ANALYSIS OF LONG TERM SOCIAL CHANGE AND LONG TERM PERSPECTIVES ON THE CURRENT SITUATION:

Arrighi, Giovanni: 2005: Hegemony Unraveling Part 1 and 2 New Left Review 32, March-April? 2005 Bell, Peter and Cleaver, Harry 2002: Marx’s Theory of Crisis as a Theory of Class Struggle in The Commoner Autumn 2002 www.thecommoner.org (external link) (originally published in Research in Political Economy, Vol.5 1982 Bunker, Stephen and Ciccantell, Paul 2005: Globalization and the Race For Resources The Johns Hopkins University Press Cleaver, Harry 1979: Reading Capital Politically The Harvester Press, Brighton Complete document (external link) National Intelligence Council 2005 Mapping the Global Future - Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project Complete Document (external link) Wallerstein, Immanuel 1995: After Liberalism The New Press, New York Wallerstein, Immanuel 1998: Utopistics – Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century The New Press, New York

US DOLLAR AND RELATED TOPICS: Arrighi, Giovanni 1994: The Long Twentieth Century – Money and Power and the Origins of Our Times Verso UK/USA Duncan, Richard 2005: The Dollar Crisis – Causes, Consequences, Cures John Wiley and Sons, Singapore Durán, Ramon Fernández (English version forthcoming, Spanish version Virus 2005) Global Finance Capitalism and Permanent War - The Dollar, Wall Street, and the War Against Iraq Gowan, Peter 1999: The Global Gamble – Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance, Verso London/New York Harvey, David 2003: The New Imperialism Oxford University Press, Oxford Marazzi, Christian 1977: Money in the World Crisis: The New Basis of Capitalist Power, Zerowork 2. Complete Document (external link)

HEGEMONIC RIVALRY, PROTECTIONISM AND WORLD WAR Arrighi, Giovanni and Silver, Beverly (Eds.) 1999: Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, USA Caffentzis, George 2005: The War on Terrorism and the US Working Class, and Is Truth Enough? in No Blood for Oil! – Energy, Class Struggle, and War, 1998- 2004 published as an ebook by radicalpolYtics.org. Complete Document (external link) Goldstein, Joshua 1988: Long Cycles – Prosperity and War in the Modern Age Yale University Press, New Haven/London Complete Document (external link) Goldstein, Joshua 2005: The Predictive Power of Long Wave Theory, 1989 – 2004 Speech prepared for NATO Conference on Kondratieff Waves and Warfare, Covilha, Portugal, Feb 2005. Complete Document (external link) Polanyi, Karl 1944/57: The Great Transformation – the Political and Economic Origins of our Time Beacon Press, Boston Silver, Beverly 2003: Forces of Labor – Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK Silver, Beverly 2004: Labor, War and Politics – Contemporary Dynamics in World Historical Perspective in Unfried, van der Linden and Schindler (Eds.) Labor and New Social Movements in a Globalising World System 2004. Complete Document (external link)

PEAK OIL AND GLOBAL ENERGY SHIFTS Caffentzis, George 2005: No Blood for Oil! – Energy, Class Struggle, and War, 1998- 2004 published as an ebook by radicalpolYtics.org. Complete Document (external link) Keefer, Thomas 2005: Of Hand Mills and Heat Engines: Peak Oil, Class Struggle, and the Thermodynamics of Production MA Thesis, York University, Toronto Podobnik, Bruce 2005: Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age Temple University Press

AVIAN FLU: Davis, Mike 2005: The Monster at Our Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu The New Press, New York



Contributors to this page: Subramanya (Subbu) Sastry and madhuresh .
Page last modified on Monday 27 of February, 2006 16:02:24 IST by Subramanya (Subbu) Sastry.

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