The New Cold War

Image: George Shervashidze


The current prevalence of raw power bodes ill and poses a huge challenge to liberal democracy.

The discrepancy between principles and practices is perhaps the greatest specificity of Western modernity. Whatever the type of power relations (capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy) and the fields of their exercise (political, legal, economic, social, religious, cultural, interpersonal), the proclamation of universal principles and values ​​tends to be in contradiction with the concrete practices of the exercise of power by those who hold it. What in this domain is even more specific to Western modernity is the fact that this contradiction goes unnoticed in public opinion and is even considered non-existent.

Domenico Losurdo reminds us that the first US presidents, and in particular the great ideologues and protagonists of the North American revolution (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), were slave owners. In the logic of liberalism there was no contradiction. The universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity were applicable to all human beings and only to them. Now slaves were commodities, sub-human beings. A contradiction would exist if principles only applicable to fully human beings were applied to them. This mechanism for suppressing contradictions resides in what I call the abyssal line, a radical line that since the XNUMXth century divides humanity into two groups: the fully human and the sub-human, the latter being the set of colonized, racialized and sexualized bodies. .

If it is true that the contradiction between principles and practices has always existed, it is more evident today than ever. I highlight four areas in particular: the West in the new cold war; the global rise of the far right; the fight against corruption; the capture of public, common or global goods by private actors. In this chronicle I refer to the first two.

The rival powers in the new cold war are the US and China, each of which has a strong ally, the European Union, in the case of the US, and Russia, in the case of China. I have argued that the real rivalry is between two world-economies that are deeply intertwined, but with opposing short- and medium-term interests: the world-economy of multinational corporation capitalism promoted by the US and the world-economy of state capitalism promoted by China. As is well known, this is not how the rivalry appears in international public opinion controlled or influenced by the US.

The rivalry is presented as occurring between democratic regimes and authoritarian regimes, between the moral superiority of Western Christian values ​​of individualism, tolerance, freedom and diversity and the religious and ideological extremisms of the East. This formulation is not without being intriguing. Over many centuries, Western empires have justified themselves with universal values ​​that ideally could and should be adopted by all countries in the world. The North American empire was the one that took this ideological expansionism further through the concept of globalization and the doctrine of neoliberalism. This expansionism was largely responsible for China's rapid integration into the world economy and international organizations. It is enough to recall the displacement of a good part of the industrial production of the USA to China in the last thirty years. The logic was therefore that of building a globalized world, integrated into multinational capitalism and served by global financial capitalism jealously controlled by US companies.

There were undoubtedly dissenting voices, such as that of Samuel Huntington in his 1996 book on the Clash of Civilizations, in which attention was drawn to the future threat of religious conflict between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand, and the Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism on the other, and for non-state actors to take action. This thesis only gained greater acceptance after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, but it did not alter economic cooperation with China in any way, which continued to deepen and diversify. It is only in recent times that China has begun to emerge as the great enemy to be defeated or neutralized.

The contradiction lies between the globalizing expansionism of ideas in the rising period of the North American empire and the defense of Western exceptionalism, of the ethical specificity of the West against a threatening East. The paradox can be formulated like this: Western hegemony consisted in bringing globalization and capitalism to the whole world as proof of the superiority of the West. And now, that non-Western countries have adopted globalization and promoted it according to their own interests, the West retreats from its globalizing impulse and entrenches itself in the defense of an ethical-religious specificity that barely disguises the finding of having been overtaken by the countries that successfully followed your recipe. The globalized West now defends itself as a localized West, which is proof of decline in light of the criteria that the West itself imposed on the world from the XNUMXth century onwards. Let us remember that the indigenous peoples of Latin America, when defending their territories and their wealth against colonizers, were considered by the great Spanish internationalist of the XNUMXth century, Francisco de Vitoria, as violators of the universal human right to free trade.

This contradiction between principles and practices – the ever-present expedient of adapting principles to what is considered more convenient or useful by the practical needs of the moment – ​​has a particular formulation on the extreme right. Bear in mind that the growth of the extreme right, despite being a global movement, takes on very pronounced specificities in different contexts and countries. I think, however, that the following traits are quite common. On the one hand, it seems to take the contradiction to the extreme by defending the most extreme neoliberal individualism on the economic level, while on the political, social and behavioral levels it imposes a moralism and authoritarianism that are barely consistent with individualist autonomy. On the other hand, it detonates the very contradiction between principles and practices and justifies the raw power of practices by demonizing the universal principles themselves. It is in this last dimension that the extreme right asserts itself as a reactionary current and not simply conservative.

It is that while conservatives defend the principles of the Enlightenment in the formulation given to them by the French Revolution (liberty, equality and fraternity), even though they favor the principle of liberty, the reactionaries of the extreme right reject these principles and coherently defend colonialism, the inferiority of blacks, indigenous people, women and gypsies; they justify work analogous to slave labor; they refuse to see anything other than communities of subhumans in indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples to be assimilated or eliminated; they boycott inclusive democracy and intend to establish dictatorships or, at most, democracies that restrict themselves to “us” and impose servitude to “others”; reject the idea of ​​a monopoly on legitimate violence by the State and promote the distribution and sale of weapons to the civilian population. In the light of what I mentioned above, it is not surprising, although it is no less disturbing for that reason, that one of the main centers for the dissemination of extreme right ideology is headquartered in the USA and that it is in this country that more extreme right groups exist with more influence over similar groups in other parts of the world.

The prevalence and greater visibility of raw power over hard power – the growing call to eliminate the enemy within and the hyper-discrepancy between principles and practices – represent a decisive challenge for democracy. Liberal democracy has always been one of the fundamental expressions of power baked into capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal societies. That is why liberal democracy was reduced to the public space, leaving all other spaces of social relations, such as the family, the community, the company, the market and international relations, to the more or less despotic power of the strongest. what I called social fascism. Hence my conclusion that, as long as capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy exist, we will be condemned to live in politically democratic and socially fascist societies.

It should be noted, however, that, although limited, liberal democracy is not an illusion. Especially in the last hundred years, the existence of democracy in the political space has enabled the adoption of public policies for social protection (health, education, public pension) and labor, social, and cultural rights that have translated into important achievements and concrete improvements in life. for popular classes and social groups subject to capitalist, racist and sexist domination. In other words, at its best, liberal democracy has made it possible to lessen the brutality of the raw power of social fascism.

The current prevalence of raw power bodes ill and poses a huge challenge to liberal democracy. At the root of contemporary raw power are neoliberalism and the extreme right, a toxic mixture that is hitting the core of liberal democracy, civil and political rights, after having reduced social protection and social rights to a minimum. It is a process of destruction of democracy, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, which injects dictatorial components and logic into the concrete practice of democratic regimes. A new type of political regime is emerging, a hybrid regime that combines dictatorial discourses and practices (apology of violence, chaotic and opportunistic creation of enemies, unpunished insult of elected sovereign bodies, active disobedience of judicial decisions, call for coup intervention by armed forces) with democratic practices. A monster? One thing is certain: liberal democracy is not real democracy, but it is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for achieving real democracy.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (Authentic).


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