At the time of its launch in May this year, the Progressive International (PI) had scheduled its inaugural summit for September 2020 at Reykjavik, where Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir had offered to host it. The COVID-19 pandemic obliged the organisers to shelve that plan, however, and they settled for a virtual summit instead, which took place over the September 18-20 weekend. The summit brought together some of the most prominent public intellectuals, academics and activists of our time and deliberated over three broad themes: recognising the serious threats to ‘the human experiment’ posed by an evil triad of free-market fundamentalism, climate catastrophe, and rising authoritarianism; the need for a worldwide coalition of progressive forces to fight this triple menace; and the shape of a just society of free human beings which only can preserve the human experiment.
Three keynote addresses – by Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis and Naomi Klein respectively – foregrounded these themes. Lively panel discussions – in which Cornel West, Aruna Roy, John McDonnell, Nanjala Nyabola, Vijay Prashad, Carola Rackete, Ece Temelkuran and others participated – grew around these talks to bring new perspectives to bear on these themes. Over half a million viewers from across the world logged in to be part of the summit. Speaking for myself, it was a greatly enriching experience. Also deeply inspiring, for one realised that even as some of us have begun to think of the dream of a sane and just world as an idle one, there are a great many capable people around the globe who are committed to making that dream come true.
The PI took shape out of an open call given in December 2018 by the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) and the Sanders Institute to all the world’s progressives – individuals as well as collectives – to unite in a common transnational front to fight for radical democracy and social and economic justice. Set up in 2016, DiEM25 is a pan-European political movement for reforming the institutions of the European Union with a view to creating an egalitarian post-capitalist society. Its founders are Yanis Varoufakis, Greek economist-politician, and Srecko Horbat, Croatian philosopher. The Sanders Institute is a non-profit think-tank established by members of the Bernie Sanders family.
To counter anti-democratic forces
The call was premised on the understanding that the forces arrayed against democracy and justice had already forged an (informal) alliance among themselves. The years following that call – 2019 and 2020 – have shown why such a common international front against exploitative and authoritarian national governments is the crying need of our time. This period saw stirring mass protest movements sweep over many parts of the world: Delhi to Paris to Beirut to Portland (Oregon) to Santiago. And yet these movements seldom achieved their full objectives, thanks to a strong push-back from the regimes in power in the countries concerned.
The anti-Muslim riots of February 2020 in Delhi are a case in point. Instigated, if not actually organised, by the Hindutva ecosystem of which the Indian government is a part, these riots were clearly designed to suppress wide-spread protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). And though there is strong resentment against the government’s hounding of the activists resisting the CAA, it is undeniable that the protests have been stymied for now. Clearly, the Indian government felt greatly emboldened by the anti-democratic political culture that has taken hold of many countries around the world.
The lesson here seems to be that social and political movements challenging the establishment must no longer remain isolated ‘national’ episodes; that they need to reach out to other progressive movements in other geographies, pooling experiences and resources, confronting what Noam Chomsky calls the ‘Reactionary International’ with a truly international comity of progressive collectives. (The crises they contend with – climate catastrophe, threat of war and deteriorating democracy – are also all international issues.)
It is in this spirit of solidarity that the PI has been conceived as a worldwide coalition of disparate social and political movements aiming “to build a shared vision of democracy, solidarity and sustainabilty”. It was felt that the whole diversity of collectives we see in our lives today – trade unions, green initiatives, gender-equality advocacies, rights activists, other social movements, and of course political parties – needs to be represented in the coalition. Building such a coalition is no doubt a high ambition, but no higher, PI’s founders believe, than the present crisis demands.
Given this background, it is not difficult to see why the battle-cry the PI has settled on is ‘Internationalism or extinction’. Noam Chomsky’s keynote speech dwelt on this theme at some length. “We are meeting”, he said, “at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake”. He pointed out how the US and the UK, both great powers, have not only rejected international law and international conventions, but are also actively undermining the international order by abandoning the Paris climate accord and the Iran deal (the US) and the European Union (the UK). Starkly, he reminded us that
(t)he hands of the Doomsday Clock were first set shortly after the atomic bombs were used in a paroxysm of needless slaughter… Every year that [US President Donald] Trump has been in office, the hands have been moved closer to midnight. Two years ago they reached the closest they have ever been. Last January, the analysts abandoned minutes, turning to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They cited the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy.
Trump has been pushing relentlessly for war with Iran, a reckless adventure with likely calamitous consequences. The Middle East remains a tinderbox even otherwise, and warmongers like Benjamin Netanyahu can start a conflagration at any time. Chomsky said Trump has
continued his demolition of the arms control regime …. while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons….In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump has opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somehow mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use,….(their policies being) doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic.
Chomsky believes that though COVID-19 is exacting a terrible cost from humanity, eventually there will be some kind of recovery from the pandemic. “We will not, however, recover from the melting of the polar icecaps, or the exploding rate of arctic fires that are releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere…”.
It doesn’t help that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has actively encouraged the destruction of the Amazon rain forests, or that Narendra Modi has recently notified an environment impact assessment that, when written into existing legislation, will open the door to all manner of environmental abuse. These countries have also handled the pandemic poorly – proving to be ‘utter disasters, notably the US, followed by Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Modi’s India’.
Indeed, Chomsky talks about two radically opposite perspectives on the crises confronting humankind today. The first is “taking shape under the leadership of Trump’s White House, a ‘Reactionary International’ comprising the world’s reactionary states”. (Besides the US, he mentions Brazil, Egypt, ‘the Gulf dictatorships’, Israel, Hungary, and India, ‘where Prime Minister Modi is destroying India’s secular democracy and turning the country into a racist Hindu nationalist state, while crushing Kashmir’.)
And it is against this ‘Reactionary International’ that the Progressive International must pit itself. The two Internationals have sharply contending images of a post-COVID-9 world. Chomsky etches the contours of these two mutually exclusive worldviews with a remarkable sureness of touch, as we shall see presently.
The roots of the Reactionary International stretch back to the neoliberal assault launched on the world’s population in the early 1980s, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher leading the charge. First, the idea of ‘government’ was discredited, pushing every important economic decision out of the ambit of public control into the sphere of private power which, being unaccountable to the public, is focussed solely on self-enrichment. The public sector began to shrink dramatically and powerful oligarchies stepped into the breach, squeezing public resources dry.
Next, labour movements were systematically undermined, disarmed and, where possible, delegitimized. This opened the door to a sharp concentration of wealth in only a few hands, alongside stagnation for much of the population: in the US in 2020, 0.1% of citizens hold 20% of the national wealth, ‘twice what they had when Reagan was elected’. Massive tax cuts for the rich, touted as the sure recipe for ‘growth’, also did their bit here. (In 2018 in the US, ‘billionaires … paid less in taxes than steel workers, school teachers and retirees’. Trump, a billionaire himself, paid all of 750 dollars in income tax in the two years following his election.)
Reagan, who claimed taxation was ‘robbery’, smoothed the path to tax havens and shell companies and loosened tax enforcement very significantly, ‘expediting massive robbery of the general population by the very rich and the corporate sector’. ‘Free markets’ led to increasing monopolisation and cartelisation, with reduced competition and innovation, ‘as the strong swallowed the rich’. This neoliberal economic model soon hardened into an orthodoxy, to be mindlessly picked up by an ever-increasing number of national governments. Widening inequality, hunger, misery and hopelessness were inevitable results.
In turn, these gave rise to widespread anger, resentment and contempt for political institutions, but the primary economic reasons remained hidden from view by effective propaganda facilitated by a corporatised media establishment. The circumstances provided fertile ground for demagogues (Trump, Modi, Victor Orban et al) who presented themselves as the Messiah even as they carried on with essentially the same economic policies as their precursors, the ‘liberal’ establishment. These mavericks successfully deflected all blame for the widespread misery to convenient scapegoats: China, immigrants, Muslims/blacks, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘urban Naxals’ and whoever else happened to fit long-standing prejudices.
Burgeoning crisis of global capitalism
Yanis Varoufakis’ keynote expanded this perspective, locating it in the burgeoning crisis of global capitalism in the mid-2000s when real investment began to significantly lag available cash and savings. As capital stagnated and ordinary citizens’ living standards declined steeply, governments everywhere had to resort to increasingly more anti-democratic politics. And while progressive causes were snuffed out one by one – in Greece, in Latin America, in the US, in India – the discontent of the masses had to find political expression, leading to ‘strongman saviours‘ who, like Mussolini in the inter-war years, promised to look after the common man left behind by the liberal establishment.
But the supposed antagonism between the liberal and the nationalist-authoritarian establishments is illusory when it comes to the brass tacks of economic policy.“The fake opposition between the two variants of the (establishment) …. threatens humanity by trapping us in a business-as-usual agenda that destroys life prospects and wastes opportunities to end climate change”. And progress is possible only by refusing to fall into this trap, by not agreeing that the only alternative to Trump is Joseph Biden, or that only the Indian National Congress can provide a viable substitute for Modi. The PI needs to take on the challenge of the twin establishments by evolving ‘a Common Programme and an Uncommon Collective Action Plan allowing for local interventions that are part and parcel of a global campaign’.
Varoufakis suggests some action plans against multinational corporations that routinely get away with violating workers’ rights. These can be globally-coordinated ‘local’ actions which look insignificant at the micro-level (like boycotting the Amazon website for a day) but can translate into large costs for a corporation. But, more importantly, the Common Programme – which should be in the nature of an ‘International Green New Deal’ – needs to be worked out by drawing upon many already-available Green New Deal ideas that different organisations are already working with.
To be able to really address the aspirations of the vast majority of the world’s population, however, the programme must build in the vision of a ‘post-capitalist economic democracy’ which will feature markets for goods and services but will keep labour out of the reach of ‘pure’ market forces. Varoufakis proposes a solution to this apparent quandary: resort to the principle of ‘one-employee-one-share-one-vote’ by granting workers ‘a non-tradeable one-person-one-share-one-vote’ in the business enterprise, which will make them employee-partners rather than mere employees. As unimaginably radical as it sounds today, this idea was quite familiar to the early anarcho-syndicalists, who wanted to remove the distinction between wages and profit and make the workplace democratic. This may be a somewhat distant dream today, but Varoufakis believes it is worth striving for.
Clearly, the PI will remain a work-in-progress for a while, but its initiators – widely respected political and social activists, public intellectuals and academics – are convinced that it has not come one day too soon. It looks forward to a world of justice and peace, with all available energies and resources harnessed to serving human needs rather than the demands of a tiny minority. As Noam Chomsky reminds us, the fate of the human experiment may well depend on whether initiatives such as the Progressive International can get on their feet quickly.
Anjan Basu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org