Daniel Fortin and Mathieu Magnaudeix interview Pascal Lamy
Thursday 06 December 2007
World Trade Organization Director Pascal Lamy, one of globalization's shrewdest observers, rehabilitates the Marxist criticism of capitalism.
A man of the Left and director general of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy is at the heart of globalization. His sense of things? Marxism remains pertinent as a tool for analysis of modern capitalism. His conviction? We must look for alternatives to this same capitalism.
That's for damn sure
Challenges: Does Marx, as a certain number of recent authors have written, remain the best thinker about contemporary capitalism?
Pascal Lamy: Not the best, because history has shown us that he was not the prophet some vaunted. But from the perspective of non-predictive explanatory power nothing comparable exists. If one wants to analyze the globalized market capitalism of today, the essential tools reside in the intellectual toolkit Marx and some of those who inspired him created. Of course, everything is not perfect. There are stacks of criticisms to level against Marx, and he was probably a better philosopher and economic theoretician than he was a political thinker....
What do you retain from Marx?
Before everything else, the idea that market capitalism is a system based on a certain theory of value and the dynamic and the dysfunctions it may generate. A system where there are owners of capital who buy labor and holders of their own labor power who sell that. That relationship implies a theory of profit which ensues from alienation: the system has the tendency for the rich to become richer as they accumulate capital and for the poor to become poorer when they own nothing but their labor. All that remains largely true. No one since Marx has invented an analysis of the same significance. Even globalization is only a historical stage of market capitalism as Marx imagined it.
But what good does it do to criticize capitalism? Isn't it accepted by everyone?
Market capitalism is a system that possesses virtues and quirks: efficiencies, inequality, innovation, short-termism.... Its recent financialization has brutally changed the equilibrium laboriously hammered out between capital and labor. The institutions developed to protect workers have proven ever more inadequate and ineffective. Hence the priority I gave to the goal of mastering globalization during my term as European Trade Commissioner. At the time, in 1999, that surprised people. We must listen to those who talk about alternative modes of growth, those who sign up against this enormous consumerist weight that materializes, commodifies everything, who are against this system that puts people into relation with symbols they are sold thanks to the media and the Internet, so that in essence they buy nothing but their own image all day long. There's a kind of psychic cannibalism in all that that provokes dissolute behavior. Many people are unhappy because they are constantly being compared to their neighbors, with a fabricated image of themselves they cannot achieve. I belong to those who think we must continue to seek alternatives and that politics must be involved in these questions.
Alternatives to capitalism or alternatives to the way capitalism operates?
Alternatives to capitalism. Capitalism cannot satisfy us. It is a means that must remain in the service of human development. Not an end in itself. A single example: if we do not vigorously question the dynamic of capitalism, do you believe we will succeed in mastering climate change?
Isn't that Utopian?
So? From a theoretical point of view, I don't believe we can satisfy ourselves with limiting the historic horizon by saying that market capitalism is a stable model, give or take a few amendments. It feeds on too many injustices. But we can also be realistic and observe that up until now, whatever has been either theorized, or written, or applied as an alternative to capitalism has not worked. The reality test must remain essential.
But all the same, we don't want to throw everything in capitalism out....
Of course not. I'd like to see us get beyond reciprocal anathematization. The Berlin wall fell close to twenty years ago. It's time to be able to discuss reality without falling into caricature. Capitalism is even a very effective system. All the more so as it is now globalized, which produces more economies of scale. With the same capital, one may use more work in bigger batches. That certainly creates inequalities, but also it also creates purchasing power and growth. Capitalism has brought between 300 and 500 million people out of poverty in the course of the last twenty years. That's the case in India and China, somewhat less so in Africa; it's a reality and we mustn't deny it. We have to be clear-headed enough to acknowledge the drawbacks, but also the advances of this system.
With respect to China's rise in power, isn't that an instance of the sublimation of capitalism before its self-destruction at the heart of Marxist theory?
If Marx analyzed today's China in its reality and its plan and he talked about it with Tocqueville, he would tell him that America is ultimately very social-democratic compared to the model China incarnates. In the United States, you have a form of social assistance for the poorest people; you have food stamps; largely private contingency systems, certainly, but also some public ones for those who are most destitute. None of that exists in China.
Chinese leaders talk about a transition phase...
When I talk to Chinese leaders, they tell me that, for them, this economic transformation phase entails risks of social, regional and environmental imbalances. And they are worried. They say: "We have to deal with the issue, but we've succeeded in bringing millions of people out of poverty, and done so consistently over thirty years. No one else has done that (which is true); credit us with the fact that it's a point on our trajectory."
You believe them?
I understand them.
But go on; do you associate with them regularly?
I believe they are very concerned about the resolution of these questions, but I also believe that the resolution of these questions is intrinsically necessary to the development of the Chinese system. If these social questions of social, environmental and regional imbalances are not dealt with, then it's the system itself that is at stake. The Chinese save too much and don't consume enough. That's one source of the imbalance in global trade.
Why, according to you?
Because they save up for their retirement, for their children's education and for the day they might be sick. That's where we come back to market capitalism. It's not altogether an accident that Mr. Bismarck invented social security, that Mr. Ford was in favor of it and that Mr. Beveridge perfected it. These are necessities for the operation of the system itself in the absence of the search for an alternative.
Where is the French Left with respect to Marx?
Let's talk about the Left at a global level. In a phase when market capitalism is more efficient and less egalitarian than previously, the present political reality is, from a certain perspective, much more favorable for the Left. You have, moreover, events that come to corroborate the least bearable aspects of the model: either its intrinsic dysfunctions, such as the subprime crisis, or the phenomena that capitalism and its value system don't allow us to deal with - the most obvious of those being global warming.
But is the French Left still too Marxist?
Yes, but not in its analysis of capitalism, but rather in the sense of what Marx wrote about the Commune. What the French Left likes in Marx, is the aspect "the Revolution is for tomorrow; workers of the world, unite, strike, break the backs of capitalism and of the capitalists and take power." That's the myth of the French Left. That's Marx's fertilization of Gracchus Babeuf in French political thought because Babeuf was one of those who inspired Marx.
Why has the social-democratic model never prospered in France, do you think?
Because the French Left remains obsessed with equality and because it has a frequently theoretical vision that distances it from, for example, the labor movement, which is more practical and more dynamic in its approach. John Rawls is a man whose thinking is accepted by three-quarters of the world's social-democrats and who continues to be rejected by the [French] Socialist Party. They tell you, "Rawls is a right-wing philosopher." And why? Because he talks about equity and not equality. That's something that deserves debate. Because if the concrete incarnation of equality is equity, then rejecting equity in the name of the fact that it's a right-wing notion amounts quite simply to rejecting reality when it doesn't adhere to one's analysis of it.
If I am a social-democrat, it's both because I believe deeply in the necessity and the possibility of changing the world, and also because I believe that all politics is grounded in the facts.
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
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