14 settembre 2018

Democracy and the crisis of contemporary multilateralism

Intervento di Massimo D’Alema – International Seminar ‘Threats to Democracy and Multipolar Order”, São Paulo, Brazil

Prima dell'inizio del Seminario Internazionale, organizzato dalla Perseu Abramo Foundation, "Threats to Democracy and Multipolar Order", il presidente della Fondazione Italianieuropei si è recato - insieme al'ex governatore della Federal District di Città del Messico, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas - al carcere di Curitiba per incontrare l'ex presidente Lula (video)

Al seminario, aperto e coordinato dal Presidente del Worker's Party, Gleisi Hoffman, sono intervenuti, tra gli altri, l'ex primo Ministro spagnolo Zapatero, l'ex primo Ministro Francese Villepin e il linguista Noam Chomsky.


We are truly facing a dramatic crisis of the system of multilateral institutions and governance through which we once hoped to make the world a more orderly, peaceful place. In the vast majority of cases, the United Nations is paralyzed by disagreements between the great powers, leading to extreme difficulty in peacemaking in crucial areas of the world. I am thinking of the long-lasting conflict in Syria and the chaos and civil war in Libya, to only mention crises which directly affect the security and interests of Europe and my own country. Very often, large global or regional powers act in these crisis in response to their own national interests, and therefore tend to fuel conflicts instead of facilitating solutions. But the global financial institutions are also encountering more and more difficulty. The WTO will almost certainly have to deal with the effects of an American decision to withdraw from the organization and the generally accepted rules of global trade. Nationalism and protectionism are playing a larger and larger role on the international scene. First and foremost because today that is the position of the United States, the world's largest power. American policy, alongside the assertive nationalism and power politics of Putin, is making the world more insecure and conflicts more difficult to control. The European Union itself, for decades a positive example of super-national integration and a "regional" pillar of a multilateral system of global governance, is currently undergoing a profound crisis. This crisis is expressed first and foremost in European citizens' growing lack of confidence in the Union, which seems to be unable to generate economic growth and social cohesion, as it successfully did for fifty years after the Second World War. At the same time, the EU is no longer able to bring its member states together in a united front in response to international crises; the most dramatic evidence of this has been the asylum seeker emergency, and the problem of migratory flows in general, with many countries refusing to take joint responsibility, helping to trigger a nationalist reaction and a xenophobic campaign against refugees. 

I could go on, but I think I have said enough to illustrate the gravity of the crisis affecting multilateralism and the serious threats this crisis represents to the progress and peace of the whole world. We must ask ourselves where this crisis originated. In my opinion, we should quite frankly acknowledge that this system of international institutions was extremely fragile, and that this fragility became apparent when, after the end of the Cold War and the bipolar world order, the multilateral system was called upon to govern the challenge of headlong growth of the world economy and a dramatic technological revolution.

From his prison in the early 1930s, Antonio Gramsci pinpointed the contradiction between the global nature of the economy and the strictly national character of politics, and predicted that this contrast would become more and more stark and unsustainable. And so it has proved to be. Let us admit the truth: in the 1990s and up until 2007-2008, even the Left (at least in the western world) was influenced by an ingenuously optimistic vision of globalization. The prevailing idea was that the global economy would bring benefits to all and the world would unite under the banner of the market economy and democracy. Certainly, the dominant ideology of the United States of Bill Clinton and social-democratic Europe was liberalism tempered by the values of solidarity of the socialist and Christian tradition. We must recognize that this vision led people to undervalue the gradual build-up of contradictions, inequalities and potential conflicts. We must recognize that, in actual fact, globalization led to the accumulation of huge financial wealth, and thus huge power, concentrated in just a few hands, beyond all political control, while on the other hand, especially in Europe and the United States, labor was devalued, as pay and job security fell, and the pressure of global competition eroded the safeguards, safety nets and social gains achieved over a century of struggle. 

This was the start of the emptying-out of democracy, triggered by this powerlessness of politics against the dominion of what has been called global financial capitalism. 

For our parents' generation, the fight for democracy was mainly fought against Fascist dictatorship, while in the East, in the post-war years, people struggled for democracy against Stalinist dictatorship and one-party rule. In Europe, after the war, the fight for democracy was above all against the Fascist military regimes in France, Portugal and Greece. In Latin America and in your country, you have had to fight for many years against military dictatorships and the many coups which have constantly hampered your countries' political evolution. 

Today the context has is very different, because democracy can be hollowed out, restricted and manipulated even without removing the outer shell of formal rules which apparently guarantee citizens' rights. The democratic Left has rejected a dogmatic tradition in which a critique of formal democracy led to the theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat and one-party rule. We know how that doctrine degenerated and we have seen the historic failure that led to the end of the Soviet experiment in real socialism, but this does not mean that Marx's criticism of the limitations of formal democracy have not proved valid, and that they are not still a useful tool for understanding the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. It is, in fact, evident that without political action to guarantee real equality between citizens, and thus to remove the obstacles to the social inclusion of workers and the poorest members of the population, democracy runs the risk of being reduced to a set of rules that hide the real dominance of the property-owning classes. In "The Price of Inequality", Joseph Stieglitz denounces the parlous state of American democracy, which was founded on the principle of “One person one vote” but now seems to be based - he writes - on "one dollar one vote”. After all, in a world in which a dozen or so individuals own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity, it is hard to believe that everyone has the same political influence and the same power, regardless of their economic situation. The growth of inequalities, the social exclusion of a part of the population, and the uncontrolled power of finance are the main reasons for the crisis of democratic systems. Both because the nation states - where democracy operates - have lost real power in relation to the financial markets, and because, due to technologies, the potential for holders of wealth to manipulate and direct public opinion has grown enormously. Political alienation, and the crisis of political parties, trades unions and the bodies which once acted as social intermediaries, together with the growing power of the traditional and new media, make it possible to influence people's choices and interfere with the functioning of the most delicate democratic mechanisms, starting from electoral choices.

A few weeks ago, the great Spanish writer and commentator Javier Cercas, writing in El Pais, compared today's world to the "forest of deceit", pointing out that untruths exert more power than ever before, partly due to the effects of the new media. In his fine book "Truth will Prevail", Lula points out that the worldwide web can be used and is used as an extraordinarily effective means of spreading hatred. This is an astute assessment that accurately describes the situation in many countries. At the same time, it is clear that those who control the Web have access to the personal data of millions of people, and this can be used improperly, not only to shape consumption choices for economic gain but also to direct political and electoral choices. Similarly, social media can spread fake news and encourage people to believe it not only in politics but also in other areas (such as the campaign against vaccination). I am not talking about theoretical threats: this has really happened, as personal data was used for electoral purposes in the latest American presidential elections. Operations of this type occur in Europe, too. I'd like to give you an example from my own country, Italy. A few months ago, when there was a disagreement over the formation of the Government between the Chairman of the Republic and the parties which had won the election, the President was the target of a very violent social media campaign, involving not just criticism but also insults and threats. The Italian judiciary are investigating, starting from the fact that a large proportion of these attacks came from domains registered abroad. Obviously, as well as the problem of fake news, there is also the problem of fake personal profiles. Clearly, anyone with the resources or power to register hundreds of thousands of fake domains has immense "fire power" which can strongly influence the opinions formed on the social media. And by this mechanism, they can also affect what is said on television or in the newspapers. I am not describing these scenarios to criminalize the social media, but to underline that the Web, which can be an important way of enabling citizens to participate and directly express their points of view, and thus of expanding democracy, in reality runs the risk of becoming a tool for manipulating, falsifying and poisoning public life, in the hands of anonymous power held by a very few, or even a tool which lets foreign powers interfere in the public life and choices of other countries. Therefore, economic and financial power can bend the old and new media in its own interests, making them an instrument of domination. If this machine of power succeeds in influencing the organs of the state (the bureaucracy, judiciary and armed forces), then politics and the institutions may actually become ineffective even if democracy remains formally in place. It no longer takes the violence of a military coup d'état to change a country's political direction. As we have unfortunately seen, a well-orchestrated campaign of slander supported by a powerful, pervasive and almost totalitarian media machine, a pliant judiciary prepared to play along and the worst, most undemocratic part of the political class can join forces to change the history of a great country like Brazil. 

This is why we are deeply concerned by what is happening in Brazil. The very serious attack against the presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has been seriously wounded, is an alarming sign of the climate of tension in which this campaign takes place. The voice of all Brazilian democrats and of all friends of your people must be raised against any form of violence. Everything possible must be done to recreate the conditions for a truly democratic confrontation. Also because yours is a great country whose importance on the world scene has strongly increased. Honestly everyone should recognize that if we have reached this point is also because the president of the Republic was hounded by his office by a procedure which is clearly illegitimate and the former President Luis Ignacio Lula was arrested after a sham trial without evidence. The exclusion from the upcoming presidential elections, in spite of the ruling and the appeal by the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, of the candidate who currently enjoys the greatest popular support in the opinion polls, constitute a coup d'état in a new, modern form. And they are a dramatic warning sign, not only for Brazil. Also because the rule of the Workers' Party and Lula was an important, innovative example of the fight against inequality, hunger and poverty and therefore of the fight to build a more authentic democracy in Latin America's largest country. One cannot but be amazed by the blindness of an establishment that does not hesitate in trampling on the principles of the state of law to protect its own privileges, to the point of seriously damaging the country's international image. Is Europe exposed to risks of this kind, too? Definitely, although it is less likely, because in European countries - to varying degrees - civil society is more robust and better organized, and the independence of the judiciary and the independence and pluralism of the media, are more firmly rooted values with better guarantees. However, we are exposed to these dangers, and current trends are certainly not reassuring. 
Many years ago, Italian Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer, addressing a cold, hostile audience at the Soviet Communist Party Congress, courageously told them that "democracy is a universal value". In the name of this value, we then believed it was right to demand democracy for the men and women living under the oppressive eastern European regimes, and we rejected the idea that criticizing the political situation in those countries was an unacceptable form of interference. Similarly, today we claim the right of all believers in democracy, all over the world, to raise their voices to denounce what is happening in Brazil and demand the restoration of conditions for authentically democratic political competition in this great sister country. It is not Brazil's affair; it is the world's problem.