The Suspension of European Democracy and the question of 21st Century Socialism: Interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

This is a translation of an interview with Boaventura De Sousa Santos, originally published on Público.es on the 28th November. The interview was conducted with David Bollero in London, on the back of an event held at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on The Southern Europe Crisis and Resistances.

Ignacio Ramonet talks about ‘democratic dictatorships’, you talk about ‘democratorships’ [democraduras]. What state is democracy in?

I believe democracy has been suspended because one of the minimum rules of democracy is that the elected political authorities are the political decision-makers. In Europe, especially in the countries that have been bailed out, but also in Spain and Italy, there is a transnational authority that has not been democratically elected by anyone, and it is this authority taking all the important decisions. This authority is not merely the Troika, the European Central Bank or the European Union, but also the ratings agencies.

Is there a feedback loop between the national democratic deficit and the European democratic deficit manipulated by the markets?

Yes, for a while in Europe it was thought that we were in a positive sum game, in the sense that there were compensations for this loss of sovereignty and that the European Union was acting as an agent of development for the weaker countries. Now we are in a zero sum game, that is, if some gain, then others lose. I see it as more dramatic than that, because perhaps we are all going to lose. What is happening in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland is also going to happen in France and sooner or later in Germany too.

Samir Amin said a decade ago that the European project was doomed by the obstinacy of neoliberalism. Is capitalism and its neoliberal expression the cause of this crisis?

Yes. It was very difficult for neoliberalism to enter Europe via its States; what it did was enter via European institutions. In the beginning this wasn’t noticed but if we now look at the ECB’s constitution, we can say that there really was a very clear neo-liberal project, forbidding the lending of money to countries, but allowing loans to banks at very low interest rates which in turn loaned to countries at very high interest rates. That is how finance capital grew in strength and got into Europe.

This manoeuvre couldn’t have been carried out without the complicity of socialist parties. What has happened to the left?

This is the most dramatic thing, they themselves abandoned social democracy. In Greece as in Spain and Portugal there were socialist governments when everything happened. Many of the political leaders of first and second rank passed through think-tanks such as Georgetown, from Rodríguez Zapatero himself, to Durao Barroso, Paulo Portas…they were all trained in an ideology  that subtracts, that declares that States are inefficient and must be reduced to their minimum expression.

At the same time, there are facts that allow me to say that in reality the crisis of the euro, in large part, was actively brought about by hedge funds and the most aggressive finance capital in the service of the United States. The euro was proving strong competition for the dollar. Saddam Hussein was the first who wanted to destroy it with his oil reserves, China too. Saddam was easy to get rid of and that is what happened, it’s more complicated with China and in Europe the weakest link had to be found and that was Greece, which had entered the euro via accountancy tricks with the help of Goldman Sachs. This was the opportunity to bring down the euro system, with another objective still to be achieved, which is the destruction of social democracy, of the welfare state. It is already being destroyed in Greece and it is going to be destroyed in Portugal.

Has the left learned the lesson or is it that after being dismounted from power it is still discussing which version of capitalism is valid?

The first thing to be clear on is that there are many lefts in Europe. The situation is different from one country to the next. In Spain, the forces to the left of the PSOE are completely fragmented and they have no alternative that they can get across with credibility. The problem is knowing whether the PSOE has any possibility for internal renewal, and to my mind, with current conditions and bearing in mind that it is complicit with this entire system, it’s very unlikely. In Portugal, to the left of the Socialist Party, we have the communist left that was always against the euro, and the Left Bloc, which has an alternative politics, but is too small to organise a left front; perhaps they ought to unite.

In Greece, Syriza is very strong, but since it has prospects of getting to power, especially if the situation gets worse, it doesn’t want to sign off on an exit from the euro, there is division and it is talking about renegotiating. And it is fine to renegotiate, because the solution would be to mutualise the debt: there is no Greek debt, nor Portuguese debt nor Spanish debt, it’s European debt.

Which is what is being done at a national level with banking debt.

Exactly, if we mutualise it the interest rate falls and everything is different.

But just yesterday the English press was saying that Cameron was going off to war to discuss the EU budgets. Where is the solidarity?

Especially in this country [the interview was conducted in Britain] because England’s only industry is finance capital, the City and that is why they will never regulate. If we look at the future, the crisis could be the great opportunity to launch a socialist Europe. So that finally the Europeans thought about the Socialism of the 21st Century that the Latin Americans launched into international debate. A more advanced social democracy with ecological awareness, with much greater respect for cultural diversity, but, sadly, the deeper the crisis gets, the less alternative thinking there is.

You were talking about the different lefts in Europe but, in turn, these are very different from the Latin American ones.

Yes, they are different and especially because the emergences there are of parties that are quite different among themselves, though what is characteristic of all of them is that they arrived to power as the result of major social mobilisations. That is the difference with regard to Europe, where you have different indignados in Greece, Spain and Portugal who seek a very different democracy to this one, but there is no political mediation. People go out onto the streets because it is the only public space that hasn’t been colonised by the financial markets. If they occupied the banks, which have indeed been colonised, the police would destroy them immediately. But in the street you don’t perform political formulation and that’s why we need to look for mediating political subjects.

Social movements are so disenchanted with politicians, with whom they have no identification. How might that mediation come about?

In the 60s young people’s movements didn’t recognise themselves in left parties either. From a sociological point of view, the indignados do not constitute a movement, they do not have the stability or the organisation of other movements such as the feminist or ecology movements. I call them strong ‘collective presences’, which are in the street and are important, but they have their limitations. Hence the emergence of new democratic political subjects, because the other possibility is the emergence of non-democratic political subjects, as we are seeing in Greece, which is something very sad and very cruel in a country that endured Nazism.

It is very difficult in Europe, in Portugal as in Greece, to shatter people’s illusions; there are still many people who think that austerity measures are going to work. All the data says the opposite, but conservative ideology is proving very strong with its message that we were living beyond our means. That illusion needs to be destroyed now, before the catastrophe comes, and then, it will be easier to build an alternative.

How close or how far are we from this catastrophe?

In the case of Portugal with the Budget for 2013, which is going to entail a shock for the middle classes when they see that they are being expropriated by the State; and also with what has been announced by the Finance minister: it is necessary to re-found the welfare state. He does not say eliminate, but in reality that’s what they want.

The campaign of the right-wing on the destruction of the Welfare State is proving so strong that mobilisations such as the general strikes of 14-N, rather than being offensive as with days past, are merely defensive; they do not seek to advance, but merely not to recede even further…

This is what Gramsci said, we are in a war of position, not of movement; of position so as to defend the situation in which we find ourselves. That is why it is important for us to be able to mobilise the broad masses of the population, not just those of the left, and to be very mixed in terms of political orientation and class, so that they commit to an alternative solution that breaks with this status quo. Perhaps this illusion is only going to end when rock bottom is hit, when there is no longer any public health system, for example.

You have said on many occasions that neoliberalism uses democracy as a mere instrument for the accumulation of capital, but if it were to find a better means, it would get rid of it without hesitation. When this catastrophe hits, what kind of democratic margin will remain?

Neoliberalism does not need a dictatorship, because nowadays we have societies that are politically democratic and socially fascist [fachas]. What is happening in Spain is that when there is deep social inequality and social protection diminishes, the vulnerable social groups are at the mercy of the powerful, at work, in everything. That is why social authoritarianism is becoming ever stronger, and it doesn’t necessarily entail dictatorship, because you can vote, but you vote more and more about things of lesser importance.

You were mentioning a new socialism before. What country is closest today to this model?

None, because to reach 21st Century Socialism there first of all has to be a debate about 20th Century Socialism and this has not been done. I proposed it in Venezuela and other countries and people don’t want to, and, there is also Cuba, which is a product of 20th Century socialism, which has always been part of our socialist aspirations and Castro cannot be considered a case of simple dictatorship. I recently published an article in El Viejo Topo in which I talk about how Cuba turned into such a difficult problem for the left.

You talk there about a lack of auto-critique.

Of course, because when the debate about socialism crops up all of a sudden this spectre crops up about us delegitimising Cuba. What there is in Latin America is a social democracy that cannot even be said to be very advanced, but it is very important for those peoples. By taking advantage of an opening in US imperialism that was very concentrated upon the Middle East, opportunities were created for more progressive political regimes and what they did was to go way beyond the World Bank, with policies that compensated the most vulnerable groups. It was possible due to the boom in natural resources.

But that abuse of natural resources, that extractivist capitalism, does not fit in with 21st Century Socialism.

That’s what worries me, there is a divorce being created between the indigenous peoples and these progressive governments. The boom in natural resources lasts 5-10 years. What happens when there is no longer any money for family assistance, when the waters are contaminated, the indigenous expelled from their lands, and the rainforest destroyed by the agricultural frontier? The politicians do not want to debate this because they are thinking about the next elections. In Europe too, because neoliberalism has destroyed all the ecological consciousness in Europe that was possessed by the strongest ecology movements.

You maintain that it is only possible to combat neoliberalism by opposing it with a culture of hope, happiness and life. Put that culture into words.

The youth can recognise democratic energies with their Real Democracy Now, but they lack a political subject that has on its horizons an end to this deterioration. This reaction will bring with it a short period in which things will go badly, but it will be strong enough and legitimate enough that people will see it will end well, not like today. It will then be possible to start another social model that will begin with a productive model in which the contradiction between capitalism and nature is finally addressed. And, of course, the international solidarity that we have not been able to use to our advantage.  Spain has demonised all the progressive governments of its former Latin American colonies, and now the Ibero-American Summit is coming and the same people who demonised these governments are now seeking investment. What must be going through the mind of Dilma Rousseff or Rafael Correa? That they want to exploit us just the same as they always exploited us.

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