Contribution to a Roundtable: Party Time?
William I. Robinson
Heikki Patomäki’s call for a world political party is timely and urgent. He is, in my view, entirely correct in observing that we need to radically reform existing institutions and create new transnational ones that provide “transformative political agency.” And he has important things to say about the nature of such a party, conceived, for instance, as a “movement-party,” and about the precedent of the DiEM25 in Europe. But his essay fails to ask the crucial questions that would give political meaning to the call for such a party: who is “we,” and what needs to be transformed?
Patomäki fails to put forth any analysis of the social and class forces in conflict in global society or a critique of the global capitalist order and the power structure that sustains the existing state of affairs. Yet this is precisely the critical analysis that must form the context for discussion of a world party. Liberal and pluralist approaches tend to assume that the crisis of humanity can be resolved without a confrontation with the powers that be in global society, and that groups and classes whose interests are fundamentally antagonistic can be brought together in some unified project on the basis of moral or ethical persuasion, or an appeal to reason. Indeed, this is the thrust of Patomäki’s argument. The underlying assumption seems to be that those who rule over us need only be enlightened by an appeal to ethics and reason rather than a struggle to build counter-power from below and dethrone these rulers.
Certainly, such persuasion and recourse to reason is fundamental to any Great Transition. But to suggest—implicitly if not explicitly—that these are the bases for a project of transformation that could resolve the crisis of humanity is to turn a blind eye to the underlying causes of humanity’s desperate plight and to the inevitable confrontation with global capitalism and its agents. Quite simply, it is capital’s implacable drive to accumulate that leads it to plunder the environment, to expropriate land and resources, to waste and pillage communities everywhere, and to impose a global police state to contain the explosive contradictions of an out-of-control system.
It is not that Patomäki claims outright that global capitalism is not the problem. Rather, the elephant in the room is simply made invisible. A word search of the essay reveals that there are exactly zero references to capitalism. Socialism is mentioned three times not with regard to the need for a socialist project in the twenty-first century but in reference to the early twentieth-century internationals. How can we possibly talk about crisis and transformation without critiquing the system in which humanity lives? How can we imagine a liberatory world party that does not target this system and its agents? Instead, we get a teleological notion of a collective learning process driving history forward from ancient Greece (a “cosmological unfolding”) and a call for a world party to now “cosmopolitanize” this process.
Conflict and confrontation is inevitable, whether we wish it or not; whether we will it or not. The question is, how do we intervene in the conflicts raging around the world, and in whose interests? We need a world political party precisely in order to articulate across nations and regions such intervention and coordinate a fight against the ravages of a predatory global capitalism. I agree with Patomäki that a detailed blueprint for a world party is “neither advisable nor possible,” yet we can and should reject outright his classical notion of a liberal party.
There are opposing conceptions of global civil society. One is of a harmonious mass of humanity, and the other is of a battleground over hegemony and power—a site wracked by conflict and struggle. Part of the battle for a bottom-up Great Transition is the conquest of hegemony in global civil society by the global working and popular classes. In this endeavor, we need a world political party for and by these global working and popular classes that is not open to the transnational capitalist class (TCC) and its agents, that is explicitly opposed to global capitalism, that is predicated on system change, and that puts forth a minimum program (along the lines of DiEM25) and a renewed socialist vision.
If particular corporate groups (e.g., the solar energy industry) and reformist elements among the transnational elite can be brought on board, this is both welcome and necessary, but not at the expense of substituting an anti-capitalist and ecosocialist agenda with a liberal agenda of mild reform. This is not an argument against reform. Let us recall what history has taught us: meaningful reform of capitalism has come about as working and popular classes fight for fundamental transformation against elites and capitalism. The twentieth-century Fordist-Keynesian reform projects such as the New Deal in the United States, or social democracy in Europe, came about in the face of mass worker and socialist struggles and not as a result of ethical persuasion, a learning process, or consensus-seeking among the exploited and the exploiters.
We must fight for any and every reform that helps people survive the depredations of global capitalism and that pushes forward democratic liberties. But given the depth and nature of the crisis, I am not convinced that this time around anything short of the overthrow of capitalism can prevent our destruction. For this, we certainly do need a world political party or a new international of parties and movements.