The age of dystopia

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By SAMUEL KILSZTAJN*

We are all immersed in the system orchestrated by commodity despotism

The world population, practically stable at 300 million people throughout the first millennium of the Christian Era, gradually grew to reach one billion in 1750, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution, what came to be called per capita income was relatively constant since Antiquity and also differed very little between different societies around the world, both those considered poor and wealthy.

Adam Smith, who lived in England during the Industrial Revolution, published in real time, in 1776, at the crest of the wave, the work that marked the birth of political economy, An investigation on the nature and causes of the wealth of nations (abbreviated to The wealth of nations).

The Industrial Revolution boosted the production of food, consumer goods and work tools to levels never before imagined. One could then foresee a new era of abundance, the earthly paradise, the realized utopia, in which famine would be completely eliminated from the face of the earth.

The year of publication of The wealth of nations, 1776, also marks the independence of the United States of America from English rule, the American Revolution. In 1789 the Bastille fell and, at the beginning of the 1688th century, the French Revolution conquered Continental Europe (England, already in XNUMX, had freed itself from the absolute monarchy, which was submitted to parliament; the Russian Empire, on the other hand, having defeated Napoleon, remained refractory to liberal conquests and full civil rights).

At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, Europe was experiencing Belle Epoque, oh la la! which did not last long, because the Great War broke out, which would put an end to the Age of Empires. In the midst of the war, the absolutist Russian Empire, a century late, finally collapsed; and the central German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires were dissolved. England did not comply with Marxist ideas and it was up to retrograde Russia to establish socialism, as a way of developing its archaic economy. The Industrial Revolution coined A wealth of nations and the ideology of progress and development of productive forces.

During the war, the German army was destroyed by the Spanish flu, which led Germany to accept the humiliating armistice, even with its army stationed in enemy territory, without the allied army having entered German territory (which gave rise to to the “stab in the back” myth).

In the post-war period, while the United States was experiencing the golden years of the Jazz Age, Germany, subjected to paying heavy war reparations, plunged into a severe crisis, with high levels of unemployment, poverty, hyperinflation and social disarticulation. In 1924, Germany managed to re-establish itself and five years of relative prosperity followed, which ended due to the great global depression of 1929.

In 1928 Hitler's Nazi party had 2,6% of the vote in Germany; five years later, in the midst of the great depression, after reaching 43,9% of the votes, the Nazis took power, inaugurating the Third Reich and preparing for the new clash that would raise Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der welt, Germany, Germany above all, above everything in the world.

The Germans, who strive for efficiency, instituted in practice the racist theories that dominated science and Western civilization in the first half of the XNUMXth century. The Third Reich, which terrorized Germany, Europe and humanity, programmed to live for a millennium, survived for an interminable twelve long years, enough to plunge the planet into barbarism.

In the post-Second World War period, the Russian Empire, under the banner of the Soviet Union, rehabilitated on a planned economy and an extremely authoritarian political system, alongside its satellite states in Eastern Europe, shared international hegemony with the liberal American empire and its North Atlantic allies (NATO), a period called the Cold War.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese empire, under the banner of the People's Republic of China, equally rehabilitated on a planned economy and an extremely authoritarian political system, entered the scene to avenge the humiliation suffered in the Opium Wars in the middle of the XNUMXth century, when England subjected the ancient and ancient empire, which was led to disintegration. NATO and the Chinese empire today share international hegemony.

In addition to NATO, the Chinese Empire and the Russian Empire, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents the two billion Muslims living in countries in North Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, participates on the international stage. countries that do not necessarily act as a bloc.

Despite the Industrial Revolution, the fantastic wealth of nations did not eradicate the misery of the majority of the world's population, nor did the pockets of poverty within the most developed nations on the planet. The faculties of “economic sciences” teach that the increase in productivity is accompanied by the growth and diversification of human needs. New products and new needs are being created, far beyond the basic food products, clothing and housing necessary for life.

In 2023, in the City of São Paulo, when I go out onto the streets, I am saddened to see passers-by impassively passing countless people sleeping along the sidewalks, some diagonally, wrapped in the gray blankets made from synthetic fiber waste that the city hall is distributing. Plagiarizing Hobsbawm, I think, this is the age of dystopia.

The Industrial Revolution, which would take us to the era of utopia, the end of famine for humanity, engendered, on the contrary, the current era of dystopia, in which a paraphernalia of new superfluous products is produced, consumed and discarded, by a society of spectacle, consumption, waste and the production of garbage that coexists with a population that scavenges the garbage of large cities in search of food and recyclable materials for resale.

How could pharmaceutical companies survive without providing fiber tablets to people who enrich their household waste with discarded pomace from their healthy morning orange juice? How can anyone survive without access to highly processed, ready-to-eat diet foods, designer sneakers, and a state-of-the-art cell phone? How can inequality within societies and between nations, which was exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution, dispense with the production of security devices and weapons to protect the snobbish rich people from the marginalized friends of others?

We are all immersed in the system orchestrated by commodity despotism. Who today would dare oppose merchandise, progress and economic development? The only people who live outside the system, such as the indigenous populations of Brazil, are not affected by the merchandise. Even so, many indigenous people leave their communities, caught up in the “wonders” of the consumer society.

Superfluous consumption bewitches people with the promise of happiness on this side of paradise. It is not even consumption that matters, but the loss of sociability and the resulting impersonal spirit of competition. What's really worth it is to make your neighbor's jaw drop when he sees you leaving the garage with the car of the year.

I don't think the issue only affects the poor. The rich are also prey to the system that makes them appendages to the commodity and its consumption; and get lost in worldly values ​​in which human solidarity no longer finds a place. Despite philanthropy and appearances, the artificiality of the lives of the rich does not allow them to live fully anywhere, not even in the stratosphere.

Furthermore, it is not the consumption of the privileged layers of society that justifies the capitalist system, but rather investments, progress and economic development. Why is it that the world's fantastic production is never enough to supply humanity? The destiny of the poor is to pass on basic needs in order to justify investments (which, however, ratify social stratification), progress and economic development orchestrated by the world of merchandise.

China, it seems, is the heir to the civilizing project orchestrated by the world of goods. The Chinese empire, which provides and feeds its depersonalized automaton workers in the service of merchandise, has everything to be the last phase of capitalism, which will drag the American empire with it. The Chinese Communist Party, through crooked lines, will manage to fulfill its ideal, destroy the capitalist system and ultimately implode the kingdom of merchandise.

Imposing empires followed one another on the shores of the Mediterranean during Antiquity. After the fall of Rome, the so-called Dark Ages followed, which lasted for an entire millennium. Industrial capitalism, which created “wonders greater than the pyramids of Egypt”, which has been devastating the planet and finally took over the distant Chinese empire, has not yet completed three centuries of life.

*Samuel Kilsztajn is a full professor of political economy at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of From Scientific Socialism to Utopian Socialism.


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