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A Marxist perspective on the globalization of indifference and solidarity. The planet is the new neighborhood

Global indifference and the need for solidarity

Human suffering has become less and less important. While there is no absolute monopoly on suffering or indifference, and these two conditions can be present in any country and in any social context at any given time, currently, suffering and indifference are distributed unevenly around the world. The new commissioners of indifference inhabit and prosper in highly industrialized societies, essentially exempt from experiencing major social afflictions. On the other hand, those whose suffering is exacerbated under the leadership of the commissioners of indifference are everywhere, including disenfranchised areas of advanced capitalist societies and what has been called lately the “Global South.”

According to more than 3 billion people—almost half of the world population—live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty — less than $ 1.50 a day. According to UNICEF, one billion children live in poverty and 22,000 children die each day from it. On the other side of the spectrum—in the realm of the cruel social mockery made possible by capitalism, a 2017 Fortune 500 list of the top 10 corporations by annual revenue ranged from a high of $485 billion for Walmart, to a “low” of $205 billion for Exxon Mobil.

The discrepancy in annual income alone—$547 for 1.3 billion people, and $485 billion for Walmart—creates a stark image of what globalized indifference looks likes. A daily income of less than $1.50 and an annual corporate income of hundreds of billions of dollars both result from practices cemented into our social structures.

In Europe, a recent example of indifference was typified by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and far right Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s “Master Plan” to drastically cut immigration and increase the number of deportations, while limiting the right to appeal and providing no clear guidelines as to where immigrants are to be deported. Similarly, Italy’s far right government coalition is asking the EU to block refugee ships from its ports. Ever since the Second World War, German officials seem to have a hard time processing the real role played by their country in contemporary world history. Italy’s neo-fascist Mediterranean amnesia forgets Italian efforts to immigrate, including the racist Northern European motto used until the late sixties to justify keeping Italians out: “Africa begins in Naples.” The linguistic signifiers may have changed, but racism as signified remains the same.

Not to be left behind—America First— the Trump administration has put in place an American version of ethnic cleansing through its new anti-immigration policies. The administration’s characteristic disorder mixes right-wing social-engineering with profits for its class cronies. The mix appears as a material but delusional wall along the Mexican border. At the same time, it supports wire-caging immigrant children from Central America in so-called “tender age shelters,” separated from their parents, in many cases forever. These measures, along with others, encompass a continuum of racist policies representing a particular perception of the world and its people.

Let’s not forget that back in January, the President referred to immigrants from Haiti and African nations as coming from “shithole countries” while adding that the U.S should bring “more immigrants from countries like Norway.” The Trump administration opts for indifference and/or persecution, particularly when the afflicted are people of color or inhabitants of the “Global South” This type of ethnic cleansing is aggravated by the administration’s lack of the historical analysis necessary to understand the social, economic, and climate change conditions behind the Latin American and African diaspora. Ironically, the political unconscious of Trump’s America was put in words via the maladroit fashion statement of Melania Trump’s jacket: “I really don’t care. Do u?”

The planet is the new neighborhood

In my opinion, the two most important consequences of the development of late capitalism are globalization and the Anthropocene. In this context, globalization means the incorporation under the capitalist mode of production of the entire global economy. That is, the absorption of the spatial totality of the planet by a specific productive network, which in the words of Antonio Negri (Empire & Multitude 2001) “casts its inclusive net to try to envelop all power relations [ideological, political, and economic] within its world order.”

The Anthropocene can be understood as a new human-induced geological era, in which as a consequence of the irrational expansion of capitalism, humans have become a geological force able to alter natural processes in the biosphere. Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert says this about the biosphere: it “is the sum total of all existing ecosystems, land, sea, and atmosphere, that make life on earth possible.” At this historical moment, capitalism has not only occupied and subjugated most of the planet, but also threatens the very survival of humans and other species on earth.

The critical situation posed by the interconnections between the Anthropocene and globalization creates a new meaning for the term neighborhood, and a sense of historical immediacy in terms of the survival of the human species. Nonetheless, this new interdependency between nature and culture is complicated by the fact that it takes place within a never-before-experienced misalignment between the time scale of nature and the time scale of humans; between geological time and political time. To complicate things even more, capitalist globalization permeates pretty much all aspects of social existence and tries to regiment and regulate human behavior (how we think, how we act, and what to consume). In this context, Fredric Jameson’s quip that for many of us it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” seems uneasily plausible.

However, if there is a fundamental principle for hope and successful life for humanity, if there is anything to be learned from our current condition, it is that all of us, even if we do not know each other, must accept a minimum of public and ecological responsibility for each other. At this point in the dangerous game of globalized capitalistic exploitation and ecological risk, there is not much logical space for limiting our understanding of solidarity and responsibility to our immediate surroundings such as the neighborhood, the city, or the national state. The existing material conditions posed by globalization and the Anthropocene push us to think differently: they require a clear identification of all forces able to create equitable social functioning for humanity, and for the protection and well-functioning of the planet .

At the present juncture, progressive and revolutionary people around the world must be willing to oppose the global indifference of capital with a global solidarity constructed in struggle fighting for a broad socialist platform. This platform should include working class and poor people’s revindications, such minimum wages, jobs, housing, and health care benefits, etc. while simultaneously opposing structural racism, gender inequality, militarization, and the current theft and destruction of nature.

What solidarity is not

Solidarity is not community, philanthropy, or the simple moral criticism of injustice. As suggested before, it transcends community because it is directed to strangers who suffer the afflictions of capitalism or struggle against capitalism all over the world. Consequently, solidarity is not exclusively extended to those we know. In the current socio-geological condition of the planet, solidarity must encompass the whole world, including the non-human. Ironically, this all-inclusive solidarity was delineated by Engels back in 1875. While opposing the idea of survival of the fittest as something to be emulated in human society, he believed that solidarity should embrace all mankind and include the rest of the world “the world of minerals, plants, and animal.”

Solidarity, in the Marxist tradition, is different from philanthropy because within the logic of philanthropism, the implicit generosity or benevolence of the philanthropic action is controlled by the giver and incorporated into the giver’s own’s project—as is the case of American foreign aid—and consequently disregards the stranger’s own project and terms. To be fair, the other side of this “one-way solidarity” or “selective solidarity” can also be found among some left organizations or trade unions, unable to solve the apparent contradiction between claiming to fight for the sake of workers, but not emigrant workers.

This problem was addressed in 1926 by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci,who in his “La Questione Meridionale” [The Southern Question] pointed out how the conditions of exploitation experienced in the south of Italy, along with migratory movements toward the more industrialized areas in the north, could not have been resolved as a discrete, singular problem, but only as an integral part of a national and international situation. Accordingly, Gramsci argued for the creation of a “transnational, popular hegemonic bloc to defeat the Italian bourgeoisie.”

Finally, Marxism considers moral indignation, or moral criticism, an insufficient rhetorical act, unable to apprehend within reality the conditions conducive to political transformation. In the words of British Marxist Alex Callinicos:

Such criticism (the moral kind) merely contrasts an existing state of affairs with an ideal one which is in some way preferable, a contradiction between how society “is” and how it “ought” to be. But this contradiction is one between mind and reality. It is not a contradiction in reality itself, so it is a contradiction that can never be overcome.

For Marx. solidarity was never “a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment,” but marked by the need to put the conflict in the foreground and take political action to solve it.

Solidarity as radical subjectivity

Since its beginnings in the 18th century, and in close relation to the needs of an emergent working class, the concept of solidarity implied the existence of a new type of subjectivity. Solidarity, in the terms delineated in this article, challenges the individualism and egoism of capitalist ideology, and it seeks to emancipate itself from its various limited and oppressive forms. It understands the creation of the human subject not in isolation but within the totality of the material world: the world of humans, minerals, plants and animals, the human and non-human. Solidarity, in Marxism, implies that the human subject is not created in isolation but immersed in the totality of life of the social and natural world.

The struggle we face today is perhaps more urgent, but we are building on traditions, efforts, and struggles to achieve solidarity within a conception of a future society beyond capitalism.

Enrique Quintero is a member of Works In Progress Publishing Committee.


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