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Davos and Porto Alegre - together against the forces of darkness

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Dave Belden is managing editor of Tikkun
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In a recent discussion on openDemocracy, Ezequiel Adamovsky has said: ‘I’m an anti-capitalist. I would like to create a completely new society, quite different from the actual one.’

Davos (the world’s rich meeting in Switzerland) and Porto Alegre (the world’s radical poor meeting in Brazil) need each other if they are to accomplish their goals.

All right, this doesn’t apply to any rich selfish _____s (supply your own offensive word) at Davos who only want their own goals and don’t want to see a widely prosperous world, where everyone is a serious consumer.

And it doesn’t apply to any poor selfish _____s at Porto Alegre who only want to get their revolutionary rocks off and don’t care to see a practical route to a democratic world, where everyone chooses their own life as much as anyone can.

But these may be mythical offensive people, creations of their opponents.

Davos and Porto Alegre may hate each other’s ideas. But the best outcome will be from a long period of struggle, dialogue, conflict, mutual accommodation and learning between them. As of now, Porto Alegre is weaker and needs much more building up.

As long as neither side wins, both will do better. A co-created world will be more prosperous than a victorious Davos could achieve, and more democratic than a victorious Porto Alegre could achieve. (And I meant it that way round: their own goals will be achieved better with the help of the other.)

What is the evidence for this? Only that of our eyes. Prosperity and democracy have historically gone together.

For wealth to be distributed it must be created, and the left’s downfall has always been its lack of understanding of how wealth is created. When it wins outright, it fails to deliver the goods.

But for wealth to be created best, a democratic spirit is needed, of free speech and free enquiry, strong associations, energetic people who are strong enough to criticise and bring down bad governments and corrupt officials, and who are powerful against monopolies and all the market fixing tricks that most corporations cannot help themselves from pursuing.

Many kinds of freedoms and associations are needed for modern economies to generate their stupendous wealth. But civil rights and civil society cannot be created mainly from the top down; they have to come mainly from the bottom up – from a strong middle class, and strong working people’s organisations.

The left in the west has done fairly well – the old have state pensions, the unemployed are supported and the poor have medical care (mostly), the workers have the right to bargain collectively and to strike (rights that always have to be fought for anew). But the left in the west takes wealth creation for granted: the wealth is there, give us our share.

When those attitudes of the western left are transported to poor countries, something is missing: the successful capitalist context in which the western left grew. So when that kind of left gets control of a poor country, the country does not get rich. A strong middle class is not formed, and there is no great wealth to distribute to the poor.

Exhibit A: India. After independence, Nehru’s victorious Congress Party pursued classic western socialist ideas. Growth at 4% was good, better than under the British. But, even so, the economy barely grew faster than the population. In the 1980s, some of the socialist principles were given up, the markets freed up somewhat, and growth improved.

Today a strong middle class is being rapidly formed, and the socialist approach is entirely out of favour. As the country gets rich and the middle class burgeons, civil society will grow stronger. And the left will grow stronger, this time from the bottom up, for a strong industrial sector breeds a strong left.

This is the only kind of left worth having – an elite left running the country is not a left. The left’s growth will be helped I trust by the World Social Forum meeting in India instead of Brazil next year.

Unfortunately, the other essentially western import, secularism, which was always a companion of Nehru’s socialism, was dragged down by socialism’s fall. Secularism is being replaced by religious sectarianism, even in the growing middle class. See an illuminating article in this month’s Wilson Quarterly by Mukul Kesavan.

Now India looks from afar as if it is in a race between the economy and religious sectarianism. Which will win? The governing party, the BJP, is sectarian. Thomas Friedman wrote a column last August reporting that the government stepped back from the brink of war with Pakistan because India’s software giants insisted: if so, that round went to the economy. But two recent articles in openDemocracy (see Binu Mathew and Rajeev Bhargava) point out vividly the growth of sectarianism.

If sectarianism wins, both Davos and Porto Alegre will lose. Both capitalism and real power to the people will lose. If only socialism had grown up enough in Nehru’s day to include a good understanding of markets, and money making, this would not have happened. Nehru would have presided over growth more like South Korea’s. Secularism would have retained its glow. A strong industrial sector, a strong left, a strong middle class – the ingredients for a strong democracy – would have grown much faster.

But have the anti-capitalists of Porto Alegre absorbed this lesson? Lula seems to have. Adamovsky seems not to have.

A grown-up left needs to absorb the lesson of Nehru’s India. A grown-up corporate world needs to understand what it takes to create democracy: it takes people’s power. Davos and Porto Alegre need each other. The alternatives to their alliance include religious war, religious, military or Marxist dictatorship, kleptocracy, monopoly, rigged markets, corruption, poverty and oppression. None of these is good for prosperity or democracy.

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