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Third World Forum
Naima Bouteldja interviews Samir Amin
NAIMA BOUTELDJA: You have been an academic and an activist for decades now, notably in the Third World. Could you tell us a bit about your journey?
SAMIR AMIN: I have always been an activist, since a very young age. I don’t think I am an “academic” in the conventional sense of the term, that is, someone who is hidden away in an ivory tower observing the world from afar.
I was born in Egypt and went to school there. I went to university in France and then returned to Egypt where I worked for the government on the national economic plan. I had to go into exile a few years later for political reasons. Taking refuge in Europe did not appeal to me at all. I wanted to continue working in the Third World and in particular in Africa, our homeland. I held numerous positions and then became the co-coordinator of a rather large international organization: the Third World Forum. I have kept close ties with Egypt and return there often. I’m the president of the Center for Arab Studies in Cairo, which I think is one of the most active places for thought and reflection in Egypt.
What does your role in the Third World Forum involve and what contacts do you have with the World Social Forum?
The Third World Forum is an organization which a number of friends and I helped create 30 years ago. The aim was to create an independent international association of intellectuals of the Third World (Asia, Africa, and Latin America). We wanted to organize an exchange of ideas, and have a discussion centered on the ongoing debate about the challenges that global capitalism poses to the peoples of the Third World. Those challenges are not only economic; they are cultural, political, and geo-strategic. Our organization has about 1,000 members, about 300 per continent, and I am the co-coordinator. Our head office is in Dakar in Senegal and we have offices throughout the three continents. A few years ago, we began to think that the current world condition meant we had to move to a global level—that is, our alliance needed to include progressive forces from the North. With others, we therefore created the World Forum for Alternatives (WFA) in Cairo in 1997. The Third World Forum is a member, together with various organizations from the North, including CEDETIM (Center for the Study of and Initiatives in International Solidarity) from France. The WFA took the initiative in 1999 to organize a counter-Davos event. “At the Davos for the billionaires you will also find a Davos for the underprivileged,” was our statement. This first gathering was a significant media success given that we were not many. This prompted our Brazilian friends to organize on a greater scale: a World Social Forum. This is how the idea of Porto Alegre was born and many other continental forums, notably an Asian forum in Hyderabad and a European forum in Florence. All these forums helped to develop a network of organizations that work against both neo-liberal globalization and U.S. hegemony.
Does the emergence of a global movement that explicitly links the North and the South, and which has probably found new dynamism from initiatives such as the World Forum for Alternatives, undermine arguments for “delinking?”—that is, the need for Third World countries to break with the capitalist model of development in order to find another way to develop.
De-linking remains the key. Capitalism in its globalizing form is leading to the widening of the gap between the center and the periphery (in common language: North and South). Attempting to “catch up” by remaining tied to capitalist thinking is not an option. We need to break with this thinking. This is how I understand de-linking. However, “de-linking” is not about running away from the rest of the world nor is it about autarky. De-linking is the opposite strategy to that proposed by the dominant capitalist forces, which invite us to “adjust” to the powerful current flowing from the logic of capitalist expansion. De-linking implies requiring the North to adjust to the development of the South. It’s all about working for another globalization.
The idea that the anti-corporate globalization movement was born in the West, in Seattle, and then spread across the rest of the world, is widely believed in Europe.
That idea is false. The Third World Forum, which has existed for more than 20 years, and is an Asiatic-African-Latin American organization, was the instigator of the World Forum for Alternatives. This initiative was an important step in the development of the Social Forums. Two reasons could explain the confusion. First, the events that have occurred in the Northern countries are more widely reported. Second, in spite of everything, people in the North benefit from a more democratic environment and can therefore organize enormous demonstrations more easily than people in the South where it would be practically impossible to do so in most African and Asian countries.
How would you explain the rapid growth in the anti-corporate globalization movement?
It was a predictable development, though I was surprised by the strength and expansion of the movement. It was so apparent that global neo-liberalism would cause social catastrophes throughout the world, including in countries of the North and by definition in those of the South, who are the most vulnerable and fragile, that the emergence of a resistance movement was only a question of time. It is these reactions that are at the heart of the U.S.’s “permanent war,” even if other factors clearly also play a role in the policy. This concept of a permanent war highlights an important reality—neo-liberalism can only continue through violence.
The Middle East is a characteristic example: In 1993-1994 the U.S., under the Clinton administration, tried to impose a Middle East Common Market on the Arab countries and Israel and/or with Israel. The Gulf countries would contribute capital and countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria would contribute labor, while Israel would be an obligatory intermediary, even though nobody quite understood why we needed such an intermediary. At the time, Arab governments accepted this plan, but were unable to put it into action partly because of resistance from their people. Only the Gulf countries could contribute, because they are not concerned about the details.
Thankfully, albeit not surprisingly, the vast majority of public opinion in the North, especially in continental Europe and even in Britain, was against the war. The very interesting thing about the demonstrations was that they not only brought together peace activists, but also citizens who have a clear grasp of the political link between neo-liberalism and U.S. military hegemony. This was very visible at the European Social Forum in Florence, which took place last November. There were similar forums, albeit on a more modest scale because of the political environment, in Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere. There also we found the same political consciousness.
Where does the anti-corporate globalization movement in the Third World, find itself today?
The movement in sub-Saharan Africa is more developed where there is a greater degree of democratic freedom, which enables people to organize popular protests and events. This is the case in South Africa where the movement is strong and has mobilized hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the roads, in the context of specific meetings. The movement is a lot weaker in other countries of the South, notably in Arab and Asian countries where there are significant democratic restrictions. There were just as many participants at Hyderabad for the Asian Social Forum as there were at Porto Alegre and, for geographic reasons, they were mainly Indian and Asian. Incidentally, as in the North, the Southern movements remain fragmented. That is, one or a number of alliances of dominant political forces has not united them by proposing a short and long-term strategy and goals. If we go back to the example of the war, the vast majority of public opinion in Spain and in Italy (even in Poland) was against Bush’s policy, yet their governments were able to support it without having to worry too much about political consequences. In spite of the strength of the movement, due to its fragmentation, those in power retained room to maneuver, but that room is going to dwindle in the near future.
Is it possible to create unity between the differing multiple political forces that exist within the movement?
It’s not about unifying. At this time the creation of a new International is not on the agenda. It’s about finding “convergence in diversity”—to organize a continuous debate between all the organizations who wish to participate and who are struggling sometimes in a specific sector. Today in France, there is a very dynamic struggle going on over pension reform. Certainly, all those who oppose the liberalization of the pension system are not necessarily against capitalism in general, the market, competition, and indeed, maybe some of the protestors are not even against neo-liberalism about which they don’t know much. They are nevertheless struggling and, as always, it is about finding a way to find a consensus with the various demands of the organizations involved.
Our hope at the World Forum for Alternatives is that we remain a forum, that is, we do not end up creating a general political line for others, but we provide a space where people are invited to give their point of view and to understand the importance of this convergence. A common action needs to be taken by all democratic forces, progressive and anti-imperialist, from North to South. All those in the South who develop ideological themes along the lines of “we have nothing to do with this, that is a problem for these people from the North,” are playing into the hands of the U.S.
What ideological themes are you referring to?
I am thinking, for example, about political Islam, a movement that was created in a systematic way by the Americans and which often uses the theme “we have nothing to do with this, we are Muslims, etc.” as if we could ignore the challenges we face from the global system currently in place. In the Egyptian Parliament, the few elected representatives who claim to have their roots in political Islam have all voted for the most reactionary and anti-social policies possible. For example, they voted for the liberalization of the land tax regime that was inherited from the Nasser regime, which was controlled by the state and operated in favor of the peasants. But I could say the same thing about Hindutva, the Hindu chauvinist ideology of the BJP government in India.
What do you think about the claims that the anti-war movement has taken some of the dynamism away from the anti-capitalist movement?
That seems to be nonsense. The anti-war movement is an anti-imperialist movement, which does not mean to say that each and every one of the millions of people who marched against the war have a crystal clear understanding of the link between the war and capitalism. It is clear that a certain number of the demonstrators are pacifists who do not like war, but I do not believe that this was the defining characteristic of the movement. On the contrary, I would say that the anti-war movement has engendered progress in people’s conscious political understanding and is not a regression.
What is your analysis of the links between the war and capitalist logic?
I refer to this as the collective imperialism of the Triad—that is the fact that the internationalized dominant capital of the U.S., Europe, and Japan shares a common interest up to a certain point in global economic management. The U.S. does not benefit from a crushing economic advantage, as some people seem to think. On the contrary, their economic position is extremely fragile, and vulnerable. The trade deficit, which has increased from $100 billion to over $500 billion, is a clear example of that vulnerability. This indicates that the U.S. would not be certain of its competitiveness in a world where competition was truly free. Nor would they be certain of their ability to out-perform their competitors, most notably Europe and Japan, but also various Asian countries in specific sectors. Under these conditions, it is because they are subject to such vulnerability, that the ruling U.S. classes have chosen to play the military card. They have chosen to mount an offensive in the area where they, unfortunately, have a crushing advantage over the rest of the world for the moment, what I refer to as the “capacity to bomb without punishment.” Their military prowess enables them to impose a form of neo-liberal globalization that benefits the U.S. through the use of military force or the threat of its use. I would compare this project to that of Hitler’s, but not because U.S. society is necessarily the same as that of the Nazis. Rather, the choice of the ruling class is of a similar nature: to overturn normal economic and social relations for their own benefit through the use of military force. Hitler thought that by controlling Europe, he could control the world. Today, the U.S. wants military control over the entire world. As with all immoderate projects, it is probably destined to failure, but not without tragedy.
How does the movement combat the grand strategy of the American government?
The battle can be fought on all fronts. First of all, it can be fought in the context of international law and diplomacy. France did so brilliantly within the Security Council and I hope it will continue to do so. The defense of international law is primordial and this defense is not a backward-looking and nostalgic discussion. On the contrary it is the discourse of the future.
The battle on the streets is as important, to the extent that governments will be forced to take account of growing public opinion. However, it is not just a question of protesting against war, rather, it is about protesting each time people are attacked, such as what we see in France at this moment with the pensions’ debate. Every defeat inflicted on neo-liberalism is a positive one because it forces the system to think of an alternative to itself, to make concessions.
There is also an ideological battle to be won, which will happen through the creation of a grand alliance between interests and people, all people, North and South. The creation of an alliance as large as possible is imperative. It could be that people find themselves immediately confronted by violent choices, as the Iraqi population is currently facing with the U.S. occupation of their country. Resistance to that occupation, the form of which I can’t predict, will certainly develop and we will have to lend our support and solidarity to that struggle.
Are you an optimist?
I am an optimist in the way that Rosa Luxembourg wrote in 1918 that the choice presenting itself to humanity at that time in our history at the end of World War I was “socialism or barbarism,” i.e., the capitalist regime was constrained by its internal logic to become more and more barbaric. At that time, World War I was already a pretty barbarous thing. I think that “socialism or barbarism” is truer than it was when Rosa Luxembourg was writing, truer than it has ever been.
I am not a believer in the idea that justice will always prevail and that the masses will be necessarily victorious in the end. I believe that history should permit people to prevail, and that human reason could allow people to ultimately win. But I am not necessarily persuaded that this will come to pass. So the choice is clear. Otherwise the reactions of the people will be confused, inadequate, and they will be made powerless by divisions leaving the “U.S. Hitler-Bushist project” to develop. Within this logic, the possibility of genocide cannot be excluded as it is in the tradition of projects such as theirs. How long will it survive—100 or 50 years? I don’t know, but I think it will not last that long. This project will be de-railed before then, but not without suffering along the way.
What is the future for socialism in the world?
The future is socialist. One is not very popular when one says this these days because people always retort, “Yes, but look at what it leads to with communism, etc.” Socialism offers humanity a route to freedom from the economic alienation imposed by the logic of capitalism. The logic underlying capitalism is not only about private ownership of the means of production by a small minority, it’s not only about the market and competition in the marketplace, it is also about the alienation within and of the market. I am a Marxist, I have always been a Marxist. Many are not Marxists in the way that I am, in the sense that I often remember that one of the first chapters of Das Capital is called “The Fetishism of Commodities.” That is, it begins not with an analysis of the positive and negative aspects of competition, but addresses the fundamental problem—the alienation of human beings and their submission to a logic that they believe to be exterior to their being, while it is in fact a product of their social organization.
Socialism or even I would say communism, because it is the term used by Marx, offers freedom from that alienation. So that idea of freedom has been taken on by various political and social movements in the context of their own particular struggles, together with its strengths and weaknesses and its limitations. It was first put into action by the European workers movement through the Second International before 1914, then through the Russian Revolution, then the Chinese, and the Third International. I consider these to be steps in its history.
Why not believe that history is continuing as it has always done so, where things do not necessarily succeed the first time. I am convinced that the failure of neo-liberalism will enable a new dawn towards a long-term socialist society. Socialism, notably as it evolved from the Russian Revolution, offered a short-term perspective on its development, no longer than a decade. One does not de-alienate human beings in so short a period of time, and we should conceptualize the transition to global communism from global capitalism as a long-term transition. I do not have a crystal ball, but if it takes a century or longer I would not be surprised.
Naima Bouteldja is a French Algerian Muslim activist. She is a freelance journalist living in London.
Z Magazine Archive
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