Rebuilding the Left

Rebuilding the Left

by Marta Harnecker


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What future is there for the left, faced with the challenges of the twenty-first century? Based on a lifetime's experience in politics, Marta Harnecker addresses the crisis facing the left today. 

At its heart, this book is a critique of social democratic realpolitik. Harnecker reminds us that, contrary to today's orthodoxy, politics is not the art of the possible but the art of making the impossible possible by building a social and political force capable of changing reality. 

She believes that the social experiments being carried out in Latin America today hold out hope that an alternative to capitalism is possible; they are essentially socialist, democratic projects in which the people are the driving force. To create a real alternative to capitalism, though, the left must change.

Rebuilding the Left offers real hope to those who still believe that we can create a different world. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842772577
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 01/15/2007
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Marta Harnecker is the director of MEPLA, a research organization on the history of popular movements in Latin America.

Read an Excerpt

Rebuilding the Left

By Marta Harnecker, Janet Duckworth

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Marta Harnecker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-078-4


Profound Changes in the World

1 We live in a world very different from the one that existed half a century ago at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, not only because of the defeat of Soviet socialism in the East — which was an extremely hard blow for the Left — but also because of the effect of other events. We will mention only the discoveries made by a new scientific-technological revolution and their effects on the productive process and nature; the mass media's increasingly important role; neo-liberalism's installation as the hegemonic system; and the role played by foreign debt in subjugating Third World economies to the interests of the great powers.

2 The machine tools that accelerated the development of industrial civilisation are being replaced rapidly by digitally controlled machine tools, and robots and computers — which allow data and knowledge to be automatically compiled, processed and produced — are becoming essential in the workplace.

3 But it's not just computers: the electronic information revolution has caused fundamental changes in telecommunications, microbiology and other areas. Daily life in developed countries is swamped with information technology gadgets: credit cards, the electronic cards used as hotel keys, smart traffic lights, doors which open and close automatically and thousands of other things.

4 The new technologies make it easier to disseminate ever greater quantities of data and enormously increase the power of calculation while reducing its cost. This in turn means that scientific knowledge evolves at an extremely rapid rate.

5 An example of the growth of knowledge is the spectacular development in biotechnology and genetic engineering.

6 The power to use 'genetic information to create "new" organisms and to put the forces that guide life's metabolism at the service of the production of wealth is a technological leap that has unimaginable consequences'.

7 According to Jeremy Rifkin these technological-scientific developments hold up a mirror to a world where crops grown in laboratories could be harvested on a large scale. Nevertheless, some thought should to be given to the consequences this could have for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on agricultural work for their survival. Moreover, trade, finance, recreation, and research have been profoundly shaken by these new technologies.

A unit in real time on a planetary scale

8 Capital today not only moves into the most remote parts of the world — as it has been doing since the sixteenth century — but is capable of functioning, in real time and on a planetary scale, as a single unit. Vast quantities of money — billions of dollars — are transferred in seconds by electronic circuits which link the financial world. This is a phenomenon which only became possible in the last few decades of the twentieth century thanks to 'the new infrastructure brought into being by information and communication technologies' and by the new institutional order which made these huge capital movements possible, once the barriers imposed after the Second World War were removed. This phenomenon developed even more rapidly with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the economic changes carried out by its former members. The world now increasingly functions as a single operational unit, as a global capital market.

The internationalisation of the production process

9 But over and above what is happening in the financial sphere there is something qualitatively new happening in the field of production: the internationalisation of the production process itself, with different parts of the final product being manufactured in different geographical locations. And the same thing has occurred with many services. This displacement or relocation of the productive process and of services has meant that much production and many services have moved to the countries that offer more advantages, the most labour-intensive industries relocating to those countries in the South where labour is cheaper for many reasons, including state repression. And this, in its turn, has caused capitalist relations of production to propagate and to displace pre-capitalist relations in those places where transnational capital sets up shop.

The transnational companies or global networks

10 The most powerful companies in the information age organise their operations on a world scale, and create what Robert Reich called the global web or net. Finished products include components produced in many different parts of the world, which are then assembled using a new, more flexible and personalised form of production and marketing to meet the needs of specific markets.

11 Nations now trade not so much in finished products as in specialised forms of problem solving (problems of research, design, manufacture), specialised forms of problem identifying (marketing, advertising, client advisory services) and specialised forms of consulting services such as financial, research, legal and routine production services; all of these are combined to create value. That makes it very difficult these days to say which part of the product was made where.

12 As Robert Reich has argued, it is impossible to have vertical management structures and centralised ownership in today's highly profitable companies organised in networks. This, however, used to be the structure of US multinational companies: they had their head offices in the United States; their subsidiaries, located in other countries, really were subsidiaries, answerable to the interests of their head offices; and control and ownership were indisputably American. Power and wealth, rather than being concentrated in one country, have been dispersed into the hands of those groups that have obtained the now valuable skills of problem solving and problem identifying, and those groups can be found all over the world.

13 With large-scale production you knew where a given product originated because it was made in a given place. The informational economy, however, can produce efficiently in many different places: a computer may be designed in California, financed in the United States and Germany, and use memory cards made in South Korea; a jet plane designed in Washington and Japan may be assembled in Seattle from tail parts made in Canada, other parts from China and Italy, and an engine from the United Kingdom. These are the reasons that lead Reich to talk of transnational companies.

International trade: trade within large transnational firms

14 One result is that much of what we call international trade is actually trade within large transnational firms. For example, Stephen Poloz points out that a large percentage of US international trade takes place within multinational companies that are dealing abroad with themselves.

15 'Almost one-half of all American imports come from all-in-the-family foreign affiliates, and almost one-third of all American exports go to them. The share of US imports coming from intra-firm transactions: Mexico and Germany, 67 per cent; Japan, 77 per cent; Singapore, 74 per cent; South Korea, 56 per cent, a doubling in the past 10 years; China, 21 per cent, another doubling; Eastern Europe, 32 per cent — this is three times the previous figure.'

16 It is important to understand, however, that we cannot identify multinational firms with the US. Peter Drucker notes that 'American-based multinationals are only a fraction — and a diminishing one — of all multinationals. Only 185 of the world's 500 largest multinationals — fewer than 40 percent — are headquartered in the United States (the European Union has 126, Japan 108). And multinationals are growing much faster outside the United States, especially in Japan, Mexico and, lately, Brazil. The world economy of multinationals has become a truly global one, rather than one dominated by America and by US companies.'

Change in the international balance of power

17 Drucker also points to the change in the international balance of forces. 'The new world economy is fundamentally different from that of the fifty years following World War II. The United States may well remain the political and military leader for decades to come. It is likely also to remain the world's richest and most productive national economy for a long time (though the European Union as a whole is both larger and more productive). But the US economy is no longer the single dominant economy.'

18 'The emerging world economy is a pluralist one, with a substantial number of economic "blocs". Eventually there may be six or seven blocs, of which the US-dominated NAFTA is likely to be only one, coexisting and competing with the European Union (EU), MERCOSUR in Latin America, ASEAN in the Far East, and nation-states that are blocs by themselves, China and India. These blocs are neither "free trade" nor "protectionist", but both at the same time.' In particular, we see the rapid growth of China and India at this time, both as recipients of investment by multinational firms and, increasingly, through the development of their own multinationals.

19 Finally, it should not be forgotten that what is being globalised today is nothing other than the capitalist form of exploitation. This takes on different forms according to a country's level of development. Whereas in the most developed countries the forward march of the technological revolution is obvious and has led some authors to think that we have already arrived at a post-industrial and even post-capitalist age, in those countries where there is scant development huge numbers of workers have only recently joined the capitalist system of production.

20 One of the tasks we still have to undertake is to study the unequal way in which this process of exploitation takes place.

21 These technological changes revolutionise not only the production process but also all aspects of people's lives. For that reason some authors talk of a civilisational transformation. They say this is not just another technological revolution but something much deeper. Alvin Toffler, for example, claims that this is 'something as far-reaching as that first wave of changes unleashed ten thousand years ago by the appearance of agriculture or the second industrial revolution.' In his opinion, 'humanity is facing the biggest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all times'.

22 Other authors, nevertheless, argue that no matter how important the current technological changes are, they cannot in any way be compared to the industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century because the machines introduced into the production process at that time are still the 'technological foundation of contemporary production'.

The nature of the state changes but its role is not reduced

23 These transnational companies try to free themselves from the clutches of the state in order to be able to operate without restrictions; they do, however, look to the governments of these countries to smooth the way for their business operations, converting ministries of foreign affairs and other government departments into veritable business offices serving their interests.

24 It is fairly well known that 'active intervention by many governments has been decisive in stimulating their companies' competitiveness'.

25 Besides, Chomsky says that 'one of the best studies [it's from the 1990s] on the 100 biggest transnational companies on Fortune's list found that all of them had benefited from express intervention by their home governments.... We would not have many big corporations if it were not for public financing; and public financing comes from the taxpayer.'

26 The blockade on Cuba is a good example of just how little independence transnational companies have from US government policy.

27 But nation states, even as they intervene to help transnational capital, are increasingly losing control over a series of matters, either because the countries in a given region integrate to form a larger regional unit, such as the European Union, or because of the subordinate character of the less developed countries vis-à-vis the developed world. In the latter case, economic policies tend to be decided outside their borders. As the international monetary market, the world media and the big multinational companies grow stronger, so national unions, parties and communications systems become weakened.

28 'Too often in contemporary discussions about globalisation authors assume that this is an exclusive alternative: either nation-states are still important or there has been a globalisation of the figures of authority. We must understand instead', Hardt and Negri say, 'that both are true: nation-states remain important (some, of course, more than others), but they have nonetheless been changed radically in the global context.'

29 Far from witnessing a global capitalism where the state is unrecognised, what we are seeing is a great level of differentiation between very active states, like the Group of Seven, and 'a group of highly politicised capitalist classes which make a great effort to establish what Stephen Gill correctly called, "a new constitutionalism for a disciplinary neo-liberalism", while the least developed countries go on getting weaker and weaker.

More limited democratic regimes

30 If we look at Latin America in particular, we can see that the democratic regimes existing today differ greatly from those existing before the era of the dictatorships. In those years, according to Carlos Ruiz, the level of social and economic development created an allegiance among the masses that was sufficiently broad-based to provide stability for bourgeois democratic representative regimes by incorporating certain popular sectors into political struggles. 'It was the era of the alliance between sectors of the working class, those fringes of the middle layers that had arisen under the aegis of the state and industrialists ... under a pattern of capitalist development in which industry became the driving force not only behind economic growth and capital accumulation but also behind the social and cultural organisation of society and the organisation of political struggle within the system's framework.'

31 It was probably both the end of the long period of post-war expansion, the beginning of the new profound crisis which was gestating at this time and also the rise of the class struggles which jeopardised the existing system of domination and led to dictatorships being installed in several countries in Latin America (Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina). It was only possible to create the political conditions for the capitalist restructuring that was needed through force-based regimes which dismembered the popular classes and their social and political representatives.

32 And then, when the soldiers went back to their barracks and negotiated a democratic way out, it could only be a limited democratic way out that prevented any repetition of the situations of ungovernability which had given rise to the dictatorial governments.

33 As Franz Hinkelammert says, the result was an 'aggressive kind of democracy, lacking consensus, where the media is almost completely controlled by concentrated economic interests; where sovereignty lies not with civil governments but with the armies, and over and above them, with international financial organisations which represent the governments of [more developed] countries. These are controlled democracies where the controllers are not themselves subject to any democratic mechanism.'

34 These tutelage, limited, restricted, controlled or low-intensity democratic regimes — as they are called by various authors — concentrate power in bodies of a permanent, non-elected nature. The latter are not affected by changes resulting from elections and include the Council for National Security, the Central Bank, economic advisory institutions, the Supreme Court, the Auditor General, the Constitutional Court, and other similar institutions which drastically limit democratically elected authorities' ability to act.

35 Today groups of professionals, not politicians, take the decisions or exert a decisive influence over them. In fact, in some essential areas such as the economy and the military, institutions arise that are more like national subsidiaries of a supranational body: the IMF, NATO, the World Bank, the European Parliament, 'which, domestically, inside countries, are able to condition or impose important actions, paying no heed to the electorate's opinion'.

36 The apparent neutrality and non-political nature of these bodies conceal the new way the ruling class 'does politics'. Their decisions are adopted outside the political parties. This, according to Martín Hernández, makes it possible, 'to a certain extent, to cover up the class nature of the state apparatus by portraying decisions as the affair of foreign experts who apply "scientific" criteria and have no interest in demagogy; above all, as the real importance of elected institutions decreases, it becomes possible to create mechanisms for inter-bourgeois conflict resolution in which the masses are not called on to participate'.


Excerpted from Rebuilding the Left by Marta Harnecker, Janet Duckworth. Copyright © 2007 Marta Harnecker. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part I - The Left and the New World
Chapter 1: Profound Changes in the World
Chapter 2: Profound Discontent among Much of Humankind
Chapter 3: Towards the Creation of an Alternative Social Bloc

Part II - The Crises of 'Party' and Why we Need a New Left Political Culture
Chapter 4: Crisis of Theory
Chapter 5: Programmatic Crisis and the Crisis of Credibility
Chapter 6: The Organic Crisis
Chapter 7: The Theory Underlying this Concept of Party
Chapter 8: Politics as the Art of Making the Impossible Possible
Chapter 9: Why we Need a Political Organization

Part III - The New Political Instrument
Chapter 10: The Characteristics of the New Political Instrument
Chapter 11: A New Paradigm for Internal Organization

Part IV - From Reforms to Revolution: The Bolivarian Revolutionary Process
Chapter 12: Local Governments: Signposts to an Alternative Path
Chapter 13: The Left and Reform
Chapter 14: The Bolivarian Revolution - Is It a Revolution?


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What future is there for the left, faced with the challenges of the twenty-first century? Based on a lifetime's experience in politics, Marta Harnecker addresses the crisis facing the left today. At its heart, this book is a critique of social democratic realpolitik. Harnecker reminds us that, contrary to today's orthodoxy, politics is not the art of the possible but the art of making the impossible possible by building a social and political force capable of changing reality. She believes that the social experiments being carried out in Latin America today hold out hope that an alternative to capitalism is possible; they are essentially socialist, democratic projects in which the people are the driving force. To create a real alternative to capitalism, though, the left must change.Rebuilding the Left offers real hope to those who still believe that we can create a different world.