How to build a just society in 10 decrees

In this speech, recently given in Ramallah, Palestine, Vijay Prashad explores the Egyptian economist Samir Amin’s concept of ‘delinking’.

You are part of the leadership of a popular movement that has just seized power in your country. Your commitment is not to bourgeois nationalism, but to socialism. You are from a country that had been under colonial rule and then neocolonial subordination, or from a country that was not formally colonised but nonetheless experienced the full weight of imperialism. Your economy is in tatters, its raw materials drawn out of the country, its people reduced to labour on the global commodity chain gang. Your country has not been able to forge an independent foreign policy, nor an autonomous social policy. A popular upsurge that began with a riot against the International Monetary Fund brings you to power. The window of possibility for your government has begun to close just as its opens.

What will you do?

The United States ambassador – accompanied by a delegation of local representatives of monopoly capital firms and the local oligarchy – visits you and your comrades. This gaggle of important people waddles about, hoping to ensure your government will set aside its grand promises to the people and – after some mild transfer payment schemes to tackle the terrible poverty – resume the status quo. After all, says the US ambassador, the status quo has been good for the country. Foreign direct investment flowed in, the IMF report of its staff visit has been productive, GDP is high, the currency is relatively stable and the oligarchy has been the pride of the nation. The ambassador wags a finger in your face – arms deals have to be signed, military agreements ratified. The boat is on an even keel, says the ambassador. No sense in rocking it.

You knew this delegation would come to see you. Nothing they say or do surprises you. Countries such as yours – backward countries – do not control their destiny. Colonial rule altered the structure of politics, economics and society. Old notables were sidelined or absorbed into the new world, where they became merely representatives of forces that lived elsewhere. The new elites that emerged represented their interests, certainly, but also the interests of external forces, not their own populations who had been reduced to rubble by the plunder of colonial rule. Poverty came alongside illiteracy and disease. Backwardness was not the fault of your culture, but of this imperialist history. Your movement came out of the shantytowns, where the bulk of your people live. They have spoken to you. They have given you their programme of action. They want you to act.

Delinking

When your people won independence or overthrew the monarchy 50 years ago, new elites seized power. They offered up your raw materials and workers for rock-bottom prices, as long as they got a cut of the profits. That is what they had won independence for – to increase their share of the theft. This large-scale bribery was then replicated down the class ladder as your country became driven by graft rather than social initiative. Social advancement was blocked by structural obstacles such as the terms of trade for your primary products and your reliance on finance from old colonial powers.

Today, the prices of your rich minerals and agricultural products fluctuate and remain low, while the prices of manufactured goods you import from imperialist powers increase. The gap between these two leaves your treasury in permanent debt. You borrow money from the banks of imperialist countries and use their currency for your international trade – both drawing you into what you know is the imperialism of high finance. Underdevelopment is the only development your country experiences.

Your group of revolutionaries spent the decades under the clouds of IMF warfare studying the “unilateral adjustment” thrust upon your country. You discover Samir Amin, who gives you that concept. It means that the policy framework for any government of your country will be channelled by rules devised elsewhere, rules that benefit old colonial powers and impoverish your country. Even socialists are trapped by this unilateral adjustment. Structures such as unequal exchange and old-fashioned plunder vampirically diminish the wealth of your country, which was forced to adapt to the needs and interests of the old colonial powers. You can never be free.

This is the moment for you to test the theory of delinking – a concept you absorb from Amin. To delink is not to break from the world and isolate oneself. Isolation is not possible. If you break with the unilateral adjustment, you will either be overthrown in a coup or a military intervention in the name of saving civilians, or you will be under sanctions and embargoes for decades. You do not want to isolate yourself. You are an internationalist. To delink means to fight to set an alternative framework for your relations with the world, to force others to adjust to the needs and interests of the working class and peasantry in your country and others. Delinking, you read in Amin, means to “modify the conditions of globalisation”.

You dismiss the delegation politely. Nothing can be signed now. They will have to wait. There is a major gathering of the people in front of the presidential palace. You go before them. Their future hangs in the balance. They look up at you. They want you to represent them against the US ambassador, the arms dealers, the oligarchs, the military generals, the monopoly capitalists, the IMF, the World Bank, the NGOs…

Your speech will be long. There is so much to say. You will be interrupted. The people have to have their say. You announce a series of decrees.

Decree 1: Impose capital controls. You announce that capital markets are no longer free, that there will be barriers placed on the ability of capital to swill in and out of your country at will. There will be restrictions on the buying and selling of your national currency, minimum-stay requirements on foreign investment, and transaction taxes for the removal of currency from your country. These controls – essential as a first step – will allow the government some autonomy to develop an independent monetary policy and pursue a socialist agenda.

Decree 2: Renegotiate all extractive deals. You say all previous mining agreements are null and void, and will be renegotiated immediately. Your mining and economic ministries will be forensic in looking through the agreements, making sure to erase the possibility of mispricing and other fraudulent means used by monopoly firms to extract super-profits from mining. You will also insist mining firms process raw materials within your country, and transfer technology to the state mining firm so that it can begin to process raw materials on its own.

Decree 3: Reinvigorate your currency. You will set in motion measures to remove your currency from being pegged to the US dollar and create a more distributed means of weighing your currency – with the Chinese renminbi, the Euro, the dinars of Kuwait and Bahrain, and the Omani rial. You will not allow your currency to import inflation through its manipulation, and you will institute a crawling peg on your exchange rate.

Decree 4: Increase the commons. You gather public goods and services – such as healthcare, education, water and electricity – and turn their provision over to the state. “That is not enough!” the people cry out. They want more. They know that a centralised system to distribute electricity will only create a hierarchical bureaucracy. You tell them this is provisional. You will move to decentralise the water supply and electricity grids, enhance environmental measures, and build cooperatives that manage these decentralised sectors. These goods and services will be considered social wages; that there will no longer be any fee for service. “No civilization,” the people chant, “should make money on education or health!” You will encourage the creation of cooperatives and neighbourhood committees to ensure services are properly distributed, and that voluntary labour is a key part of the creation of a prosperous society.

Decree 5: Increase state banking. “Down with the banks!” the people say. They want you to nationalise the banking sector and convert it into a public utility that operates without concern for profit. Farmers and small businesspeople should be able to take out loans with the understanding that their businesses cannot provide a rate nor speed of return equal to that of the financial sector. The competition for such loans is not what can be made by an investment in derivatives or on the currency market. The task of these banks is to enhance the economy, the people tell you, not to make money for the banks, for the oligarchy or for international capital.

Decree 6: Manufacture ecosocialism. The people tell you about how they live, in hovels with dirty effluents from dirty industries. They want you to nationalise strategic sectors and hastily convert polluting manufacturing into ecological production, using local materials as much as possible and working against the externalisation of pollution to make profitable goods.

Decree 7: Strengthen unions. You know your base is among the workers, the peasants, the shack dwellers. You want to strengthen their power, to make them into a wall that can defend you against attacks by the local oligarchy, the military and imperialism. If your base is not strong, you will be vulnerable. “We want robust unions!” the people say, unions of workers and unions of peasants. “We want our unions to control our savings and our pensions,” they say, “to create cooperative banks to invest in our communities, to give us insurance.” These unions, alongside cooperatives and neighbourhood committees, will become the basis of local political power.

Decree 8: Ensure dignity. The people must never feel that society or the state has let them down. “We don’t want the state to be a distant bureaucracy,” the people say. They fight for every enhancement of their dignity, because, as they say, “there can be no freedom if even one community is not free”. Laws that impinge upon dignity will be torn up and new laws will be produced, laws that give men and women equality from the workplace to inheritance, laws that give all social minorities and ethnic groups full freedom in society and in the state. Relations between people are destroyed by the intervention of hierarchy and property. “Mutual dignity and regard,” the people say, “should be the value that holds people together.”

Decree 9: Establish a state commission on enlightenment. Part of strengthening your base is to ensure the ideology of the ruling class is not the ideology of the people. “Let us read!” the people say. “Let us read books that tell us about ourselves, an internet that reflects us and does not diminish us.” Your state commission will study all textbooks and literature to offer a critical apparatus for literacy and science that enhances the power of the people and does not diminish their sense of self. You will insist the people fight to make the internet a place of mutual regard and not a battle of egotistical interests and money.

Decree 10: Abolish praise of the oligarchy and praise the people. You will dismantle monuments erected in honour of the oligarchy and colonial masters, and change street names. All statues will be moved to a museum of hierarchy, where schoolchildren will learn about the old days of colonialism and oligarchic rule. You will set up cultural institutions that will enhance the cultural practice of the people, and introduce horizontal forms of entertainment and joy, including the promotion of festivals and performances in community centres run by neighbourhood committees.

You anticipate an attack from imperialism. It will come. Foreign direct investment will dry up. Warships will dock along your coastline. You know you cannot survive without one additional force you need to set in motion as part of your delinking project – regionalism.

You call a conference of your neighbours, asking them to agree to the strengthening of the old regional pact that has remained dormant. This revived pact will have to settle old border disputes – most of them an inheritance of colonialism – and will have to be the venue through which you build trust with one another. You hope one or two powers adjacent to you have a socialist government or at least a government with socialist pretensions. You want to give them strength and leadership. You want them to agree to favourable terms for regional trade and development. You would like to share defence agreements so each of you no longer has to spend so much on the import of military equipment. You would like regional investment in a regional airline and rail service. No longer should your citizens have to go to the old colonial centre to change planes only to get to your neighbours’ capitals. You would like to create a regional currency system so you don’t have to trade with one another using the currencies of imperialist powers. You hope to set up a regional banking system, a regional media outlet, a regional adjustment of needs and interests away from the metropole and towards your neighbours – a delinked regionalism.

You can hear the imperialists, like jackals, baying in the distance. You hope you have enough time. You hope your people will be patient and strong. You hope your regional partners will not buckle under the pressure. You have Amin’s books by your side. You have hope, the people and Amin. That is a start. Nothing here is original. Everything has been tried before. Everything must be tried again.

This is a lightly edited version of a talk given at Birzeit in Ramallah, Palestine on 27 October. 

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