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‘We need a revolution’: Carla Ravaioli interviews Guido Rossi

As Russell Brand Fortnight draws to a close, I thought it might be useful to add another call for revolution, spoken in a different but in many respects just as unlikely voice: that of an aging law scholar, interviewed by an aging Marxist journalist and author.

Carla Ravaioli spoke to Guido Rossi exactly three years ago, in the early stages of the eurozone’s great unravelling. Rossi spent his career as a financial regulator and business law expert, overseeing major banking acquisitions and working for a time for ABN Amro. Most recently, he had stepped down as chairman of Telecom Italia, and would soon become ‘ethical watchdog’ of Consob, our securities and exchange commission.

At the time of the interview, Rossi was 79, while Ravaioli was 87. I note their ages to place them within a generation that thought through several, often dramatic iterations of the word ‘revolution’.

The interview was originally published on Il Manifesto, 31 October 2010. The translation is mine.

 

Recovery, economic revival, boosting the GDP, promoting growth … These are the tools that economists, company directors, industrialists, politicians insist upon to come out of the crisis. What are your thoughts?

My opinion is very definite. I believe there really is a fundamental error in the final goal of all politics, which is economic progress. As you said, it’s all that economists think about: boosting production and productivity, at all costs. So that which used to be the engine of capitalism, economic progress, has become the engine of every system, and market capitalism has been joined by state capitalism. See, for instance, China: where all the usual things are happening, to the detriment of the weakest. In the meantime, those that Norberto Bobbio used to call ‘second- and third-generation rights’, with this acceleration of economic progress at all costs, are brutally trampled upon. As Robert Reich said in Supercapitalism, the defence of citizens’ rights has been replaced by the defence of consumers’ rights. Now the goal is to create more and more benefits for consumers to the detriment of the traditional rights to employment, work safety, superannuation. Consider how economic development as the foundation of human activity is cited even in Ratzinger’s latest encyclical, in which he claims that globalisation is the key to an economic progress that spreads amongst all nations. Which isn’t true. Nor is it true – as people say – that ideologies have disappeared. It’s just that a new one has arisen, and it has killed all the others.

This wild pursuit of growth continues whilst the ecological crisis (which is due in turn to a productivism that is unsustainable both in terms of quantity and of quality) is reaching levels that may not be reversed, as the entire scientific community is saying. How is it possible for prominent personalities – powerful managers, great industrialists, world-renowned economists – to overlook all this?

The problem is precisely that the priority hasn’t ceased to be growth and economic development, to which everything else is sacrificed. But, you see, what is sacrificed are not only the issues to which you alluded, but also problems like world hunger. Which since 2007 has got steadily worse: now there’s talk of one billion undernourished people worldwide; and no-one deals with it. Truthfully, the ideology of economic development erases each and every problem that concerns quality of life and human rights, as well as creating senseless wars … The result is a society whose only goal is the duty to grow economically: what’s more, on the basis of parameters that are completely absurd, such as GDP, which has nothing to do with quality of life.

But, even if we conceded that these people are completely disinterested in the social, what do they think that cars, computers, mobile phones, skyscrapers and weapons are made of … Can’t they see that they are ‘made’ of nature, and that if nature dies, the same thing will happen to their production?

No, they can’t see it. And I’ll tell you why. Because it’s a problem that concerns the future, whereas the present is all about growth and immediate profit …

Yet this too is imperilled by the most recent events. The consequences of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico are just as much economic as ecological.

Without a doubt. I agree on this point too. When a catastrophe comes, they notice. But then what do they do? They insist on the same patterns that caused the catastrophe: they have nothing else on their minds. Apocalyptic literature describes all this. Some books of this genre have perturbed me. For instance, Achever Clausewitz (‘Finishing Clausewitz’) by René Girard, who says this: ‘the warming of the planet and the rise in violence are absolutely linked.’ The confusion between the natural and the artificial is perhaps the strongest message of these apocalyptic texts. Martin Rees, the great Cambridge astronomer, author of Our Final Century, doubts that the human race will survive the current century, precisely because it is destroying the planet. And Posner says similar things in his book Catastrophe: with a world population that, according to estimates, will amount to over 9 billion people in 2050, the risk of famines will be appalling. Earth cannot give more than what it has.

These things are well known. There are also economists that criticise capitalism to some degree, for instance with respect to the great social inequalities, the gap between the salary of executives and the salary of workers … But nobody thinks to question the system, with a view of changing it …

Because ideology forbids it. It’s a matter of faith. These are Talebans, you cannot change their minds …

But the problem with this way of conceiving capitalism as an immutable fact of nature is that it seems to be shared also by the Left.

Of course, because it opted for reformisms, and that’s the ideology that prevailed. It is an ideology that spreading even within the religions: this is why I mentioned the latest encyclical by the Pope.

Because they also think that growth will bring well-being to everyone. But this has proven not to be the case. If 1 per cent of the population owns 50 per cent of what is produced …

Yes. But you forgot something. Namely, that 51 per cent, or by now even more, of the global wealth is held by the corporations, and the economy is no longer governed by states: states no longer count for anything. So, who’s in charge? Big business. It controls the majority of the planet’s wealth: it must survive and be in command. So, then … Look at what happens to the outsourcing of industries that, in order to survive, do all sorts of things, trample entire economies and all rights, without a care in the world … The retreat of politics is due precisely to this: that economics has achieved total dominance.

At this point shouldn’t the Left – which in spite of everything continues to laboriously exist – face this reality, reflect upon it? Perhaps remembering past mistakes; such as the fact that, for fear that technology would lead to unemployment, they gifted progress to capitalism: while the threat of a growth without work could have been used to fundamentally reconsider the relationship between production and life … But they left everything in the hands of capital.

After all it was capital that invented progress, and it won’t let go of it.

Well, actually it was invented by science …

Which is governed by the same ideology …

Also because they need the grants. But behind great technological transformation lies the idea of a scientist …

We shouldn’t forget in any case that there are intellectuals who are discussing these issues. Amartya Sen for instance says that democracy cannot be reduced to voting … that we need a democracy made of broad discussion. He says in fact that discussion would help us avoid natural catastrophes.

Natural catastrophes – as you said with great clarity – cannot be avoided as long as the gross product continues to grow. This is why I’m surprised that not even the few people who are aware of the gravity of the ecological situation find the courage to say: we must stop growing. That is to say, we must abandon capitalism.

We must abandon capitalism. But to replace it with what? Nobody has any idea. That’s the issue.

Yet today it may not be impossible to find one. Globalisation is a fact that nobody denies anymore. And of course there is an economic globalisation, as well as a cultural globalisation created by the mass media. But there is no political globalisation.

And there is no juridical globalisation, either. This is the great difference with the globalisation of the Middle Ages, that was regulated by the famous Lex mercatoria, which was a system of rules developed by merchants, and not by a single state: and through those rules, commerce worked. Now the great corporations deal amongst themselves. There is no juridical system that regulates their behaviour: with regard to world hunger, exploitation of the lower classes, child labour, safety at work – which according to [then Italian Finance Minister] Giulio Tremonti is a luxury. And, naturally, not even with regard to the planet.

Is this not also due to the fact that the Left used to be opposed to all this, and no longer is? Or rather, they are opposed only in some instances, which at any rate cannot be solved without changing the overall context. As we said earlier, globalisation is a reality governed by big business. But nobody tries to regulate it, nor to understand it. Including the Left.

There’s a reason for that. The Left kept reflecting for as long as there was Communism, which was an ideology opposed to capitalism which in some ways offered alternative solutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. Politics has disappeared, economics has taken over and is asserting itself as politics. The Left has abandoned Marxism.

So, an organised Left with some clout doesn’t exist. But there is a multitude of movements, of small and large grassroots groups, that, in spite of operating independently of one another, nonetheless denounce the worst iniquities and injustices that surround us, which can be all traced back to the logic of capital. Pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, which focus on single aspects of each problem (water, nuclear power, the war in Afghanistan, rape, youth precarity, etc.): don’t you think that taken together they might constitute the base for a large-scale revival of an effective opposition? But the Left is not even trying …

It’s not trying because it lacks a unifying ideology. Marxism was born when capitalism ceased to be mercantile and became industrial, and Karl Marx developed a wholly new ideology. In the last few years, similarly, there has been a new revolution, the financial revolution. To oppose it, we need a new ideology. The Brazilian law scholar Roberto Mangabeira Unger, in an excellent book entitled High-Energy Democracy, says that instead of guaranteeing the false contractual freedom that underpins the financial revolution, we need a world authority capable of imposing new rules and creating the base for a different sort of structure, with a global reach.

Don’t you think, then, that the Left should think of something like this, perhaps promoting a meeting between the few intellectuals who considered this issue? I’ve thought for a long time of a Bretton Woods for the twenty-first century …

But it’s no longer enough. Do you want my opinion? At the cost of being accused of Leninism? We need a revolution. The Russian Revolution is what changed the ideology of industrial capitalism. If we don’t do a proper revolution, what are going to do?

If you talk about revolution, everyone will think about cannons … according to the historical model …

Which is no longer possible, obviously …

Exactly. This is why I mentioned Bretton Woods, in the sense that we need a worldwide initiative, with the authority of dealing with these problems, which are well-known but nobody faces up to.

Yes, it needs to come from the United Nations, I’ve written about this many times …

Because the UN after all has made some serious attempts. Concerning the environment, towards the end of the last century it promoted a couple of big conferences, much more effective than the ones that came after … And many times, in its reports on human development, it took positions against consumerism, against the GDP as measure of well-being, against war as a solution to our problems … Ban Ki-moon has even expressed a wish for a reduction of GDP …

Well, yes. After the Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948, something happened, as it did after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Only something like that could change the situation: a global revolution, organised by the United Nations, capable of defining the real rights, the principles for a different life to that which is mandated by the economic powers, therefore a life oriented by politics rather than economics. They’ll accuse me of being a utopian. But I believe that utopia is preferable to the apocalypse, which is the alternative that awaits us.

Comments

  1. I guess you enjoyed translating this, I enjoyed reading the interview, it revved me up, and once past seven, I realised there were just too many quotable quotes to remember. Overall though, I couldn’t work out if the dialogue revealed the signs of wisdom or signs of age or both. Hanging hope on the UN might be the future of an illusion, methinks, but I’m backing utopia too. Apocalypse is too unthinkable, Gread read. Thanks.

  2. Fantastic! Thanks so much for this Giovanni. Best thing I’ve read – here or anywhere – for ages. Absolutely to the point. Especially on the historically contingent nature of Marx’s analysis of capital, which was about industrial capital, and fact we are in a new era of capital (which the Left mostly fails to appreciate).

  3. There are many things to like about your always elegant posts Giovanni, not least of which for me is wondering ‘What obscure and amazing thing has Tiso dug up THIS week?’ It’s like reading Calvino’s weirder younger brother.
    Thanks again.

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