The Right Ideas Aren’t Enough

interview with Vijay Prashad (Director, The Tricontinental)
edited by Katelyn Hemmeke (editor, The [su:p])

First meeting of the Tricontinental bringing together newly liberated countries  from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Source:

First meeting of the Tricontinental bringing together newly liberated countries
from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Source:

On Aug. 20, as part of the International Progressive Politics Forum at the Seoul Justice Party, we had a video conversation with Vijay Prashad, author of several books and articles, notably “Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World” and “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” His book “Darker Nations” revisits and rescues from oblivion the history of the Third World Project. In “Poorer Nations,” the history is brought up to 2012. Prashad is currently the director of the Tricontinental, an Institute for Social Research dedicated to building a world of peace and justice. 

We approached Vijay Prashad both because of his work recovering the histories of Third World liberation struggles and his role as a public intellectual who peers not from an ivory tower above but walks among social movements below. As we approach the tipping points of planetary catastrophe and inequality, we must understand and change this world. We arm ourselves for the battle of ideas by exchanging and learning from intellectuals dedicated to changing the world. We met with Prashad and explored the state of the Third World Project today, the seeds of alternatives, and how to build power in our movements.

The 1950s and 60s heyday of the Third World Project has been pummeled to submission by the neoliberalist globalization of the First World. Out of its ashes emerged BRICS[1]. Despite their “neoliberalism with southern[2] characteristics,” their challenge of a North-dominated neoliberalism (around intellectual property rights and debt) is important in carving space for Third World development. Is there still a Third World Project today? If so, what constitutes it?
It’s a difficult time to be talking about these issues because it feels like there is no left hope over the planet. For people like myself, the fact that there might have been some sort of rapprochement on the Korean peninsula was seen as a great sign of some progress. But because there is no alternative economic agenda on the horizon and it appears that the trade reset — the great reckoning, as the bankers are calling it — is on the horizon, even these small gestures like rapprochement in Korea are not enough to give us hope around the globe. Even those sections of what used to be the Third World — countries like Venezuela and Iran — that are resisting American aggression are doing so from a position of defensiveness. You can’t build a project out of defensiveness. When you ask, “Is there a Third World Project?" No, there isn’t. What we have is defense, not a project.  

A project requires an agenda. Right now, tens of trillions of US dollars are in tax havens — money that is not being used for productive development. There is no alternative economic agenda that any country has put out which says let's grab that productive capital and let’s make something of it. There are 43 trillion US dollars in tax havens. That is more gold than has been brought out of the ground. This money is not being used productively. 

Let’s consider something. Let’s concede that capitalism now, at least the productive side, is really productive. There is less need for labor. On the one side, you have mechanization. On the other side, you have labor that is more productive. Let’s concede that large numbers of people will be unemployed. Now what? What is the project? How do we deal with unemployment when there are 43 trillion dollars sitting in tax havens? 

There is enough wealth in the world. That’s point one. We know there’s going to be unemployment in the world. That’s point two. The gap between wealth and unemployment demands a project. It demands that you have an agenda. 

The bourgeoisie pretends to have an agenda. They will talk about job training, about skilling up. You lost your job; through new job training you’ll get a new job. But from the left, we know that this whole job training is an illusion. And then, I repeat our question: what is our agenda? You can’t have a Third World Project without having an agenda to deal with the issue of wealth on one side and employment on the other side. 

Imagine countries like South Korea, Malaysia, and India. Let’s say they had a government of the people. And, they had firmly in their agenda dismantling these tax havens, bringing this money into these countries and creating public infrastructure. You don’t have to give people jobs. You have to take away the burdens of health, education, transportation and so on. People will create their own lives. At least this is an agenda. Right now there is no agenda. Without an agenda, you can’t have a project. 

While neoliberalism with southern characteristics might carve out development space for the South, it doesn’t offer an alternative to neoliberalism itself that is impoverishing the majority of the world’s people while burning the planet. Where are the seeds of these alternatives?
By asking this question you are suggesting that that alternative is not present today — that we have to look at the seeds of the alternative. You are quite correct. Sensitive, progressive people need to look for the seeds of an alternative. We have to first admit that our governments don’t have a clue. They still believe that the role of government is to allow private capital to create full employment. 

Our goal is not to reach full employment; our goal is to create a happy and prosperous society. We don’t need people to be out there working in meaningless jobs. We need people to be building meaningful communities. This is the key distinction between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism is the project of finding people meaningless jobs. Socialism is the project of creating a meaningful society. That’s the gap. And our agenda has to be different from their agenda. 

As a follow-up, I know you have been traveling and that the Tricontinental has various branches all around the world in Brazil, South Africa, New Delhi, and a few other places. In that regard, can we see in those places some of the seeds of the alternatives? 
We documented some of these cases. For example, in Solapur in Maharashtra, India, trade unions organized not for higher wages but for housing. In this fight, they joined the local government to build their houses. It was an immense success story. They understood that their problem was housing, not jobs. 

The consequence of neoliberalism is to starve society of money. It’s been the destruction of social institutions. More people are migrating, less time is spent at home because of the pressures of work. Much more depression, more neurological challenges, children much more stressed about jobs and so on. Neoliberalism’s attack has been to the core institutions of society. 

So, what do I mean by this? If you are commuting more for work, if you are struggling to look for work, these things create immense social anxiety and social pressure. And the release for that social pressure is no longer on the left side of history — in other words, in trade unions, or in left institutions. The left institutions are not there to help you as you struggle socially from this destruction of society. 

They are not there for political or for historical reasons?
They are not there for two kinds of reasons. First, trade unions are much weaker. Secondly, they have not taken this social collapse seriously. Because the institutions of the left are either weak or not prepared, the space is taken up by religion, by conservative family-oriented organizations and so on. In other words, this rise of social tension has been met by the rise of social suffocation. We see piety movements rise: pentecostalism[3], Tabligh-I-Jamaat[4]. Piousness is offered as the antidote to social collapse. 

This is not unfamiliar to South Korea, where pentecostalism as an antidote to social collapse has been growing. This is not the old-style big churches, but small groups of people gathering together. 

You are all familiar with the Yeoido Full Gospel Church, which has a million members. Just pause for a minute: Seoul has a population of 10 million. 1 million people belong to this church. So one in ten of the population of Seoul belong to the church. In this sense, South Korea is more advanced than the rest of the world in this business. 

We are seeing in Brazil, for instance, that the largest growing social institution is the pentecostal church. Why am I emphasising this? I have nothing against religion, per se. I am emphasizing this because we have reached a point in human evolution where serious social crises are being answered by the side of history that favors devotion, belief, faith, and so on, and not the side that favors reason and secular understanding. 

In a society where the answer to social collapse is given in personal terms, society is collapsing for want of building institutions. But, your answer to that is not robust left organizations to create a different project, but to create a personal solution: propriety, good feeling, and so on. This is the social ground to build Trump and Bolsonaro. 

The left has generally not looked into the question of culture with as much attention as we need to. To build a left, you don’t just need to have the best political analysis. You need to understand culture. 

So, when we think about culture today, and to repeat this point again, the attack on society has transformed our cultural order. What do I mean by attack on society? For thirty years, the cuts for health care, the cuts for public transport, the increased sense of social anxiety: this attack on society has created a new culture. 

In this situation, a lot of weight falls on women. If society is under attack, the whole sector of care has increased: taking care of children, taking care of elderly people, taking care of family. Earlier social democratic policies lifted some of this work from the household. Neoliberalism has put this work back on to the household, and it has put immense pressure particularly on women. 

So, if you look at the example of Beirut where the Lebanese Communist party was very strong, now their entire base is with Hezbollah. It’s not just piety movements. But, piety movements have been able to raise funds and provide social services. What I’m trying to say is that piety movements have substituted for society. 

You started by asking, “Is there a Third World Project?” I said, “You can’t have a project without an agenda.” But, in a way, I am now saying to you that our agenda is lost unless we have an answer to the question: What is the left’s attitude toward these piety movements? These [piety] movements have understood that the key problems are twofold: a lack of social services for health and education and a psychosocial problem that you can call  depression. You can call it whatever you want: anxiety about no career. They’ve understood that these two planks — the provision of social services and the provision of psychosocial services — must be attended to. That is why they are growing with such ferocity. 

Why has the left been unable or unwilling to provide these social and psychosocial services?
The left has had parts of this on the agenda, but I think in the last 35 to 40 years, the left has been fighting a rearguard action to defend social democratic institutions. Because these piety movements never felt the need to defend these movements, they built their own apparatus. In other words, they outflanked the left. 30 years ago, the left could have said forget all these institutions, we are now going to build our own healthcare infrastructure, our own left-wing schools; we are going to have evening events to lift the spirits of people and so on. But the left didn’t; they were busy fighting a rearguard action to defend old institutions. These piety movements just went around them: they have religious healthcare and religious schools. They haven’t outfought us, but they have outflanked us. 

We, at the Tricontinental, are studying these organizations. We need to study them to learn what they have done in society and what we can learn from them. Point two: we are in the middle of a battle of ideas, and because so many working-class youth went to religious schools, the very ground of the battle of ideas is very difficult. We are talking about a secular and religious consciousness. These consciousness are sometimes difficult to reconcile. 

The growth of this religious consciousness, this piety form of consciousness — it’s on the social basis of this that we believe new fascism is rising. We believe that leaders like Trump don’t come out of nowhere. They come out of a society that has gradually been enveloped by  this religious consciousness, and that is why one must not ignore the cultural and social change in society. It’s not only important to look at neofascism politically: What is its agenda? Who is it beating up today? It’s not enough to do that. You have to get to the root and see what are the social and cultural transformations that have both prevented the growth from the left and enabled the growth of the right. 

You are in Brazil right now. Lula is the most popular president in Brazil. I think this is connected to what you are talking about with the rise of the church. How do you account for the fact that Lula is the most popular president, but someone who is diametrically opposed to Lula in  character was elected president? 
Lula was in power for a decade from 2003. He moved an agenda on hunger, education, and health. He used high commodity prices to almost end hunger, increase public higher education, and to bring medicine from places like India; he didn’t do everything, but he did these three things. If you take care of health, nutrition, and education, you will be a very popular president regardless of what is happening in the country. That’s Lula. He is identified with that agenda. But because he is identified with that agenda, the right wing essentially prevented him from running for re-election by putting him in prison. 

Lula’s agenda, or his achievements, didn’t carry on to his party. Mr. Bolsonaro won the election. He carried society because they very cunningly used social media along the grains of this piety movement. One of the great limitations of the piety movement is that they are deeply homophobic — many of them, not all of them. This homophobia was used in Brazil. The right wing said that the party of the left will make your children homosexual. They didn’t make the argument that Lula bankrupted the country by educating your children because that would not have been something people accept. This is why we need to think about the negative impacts of piety movements because we saw it in action to elect Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

We, in our institute, are very interested in seeing what happened to the left in general. Rather than just come up with the best policy solution, we want to explore why our movements are weak. We don’t believe that having the right ideas is enough. We believe that ideas only become correct when they have popular strength behind them. So, just to come up with the best policy is a waste of time if you don’t understand why left movements are weak. Unlike other left institutes, we are not a policy-producing institute. We want to find the reason why the left is weak and suggest ways to strengthen the left. 

The right is doing international solidarity amongst themselves. That is not the case with the left. We talked about the work of the Triconentinental to learn from these conservative movements and acquiring these lessons. How would you apply these lessons? Would it be to achieve success in one country and then generalized and replicated around the world? What is the next step after coming up with the ideas and lessons? 
These things happen side by side. The Tricontinental is part of an institutional platform for the International Assembly of the People. After the collapse of the World Social Forum, there was a meeting in Brazil called Dilemmas of Humanity.  Out of Dilemmas of Humanity has emerged the International Assembly of the People. The first meeting was held in February in Venezuela. Political organizations (such as the Nepali Communist Party, Morocco’s Democratic Wave Party, and Movement of the Landless in Brazil) came from Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America, all over the world. But this time, unlike the WSF, individuals can’t come; you have to be a member of an organization. In the Assembly of the People, we just had a secretariat meeting; we discussed the issue of piety movements, and so on. We build an international movement as we build our strength. These are not sequential things. 

As a result of the financial crisis, there wasn’t simply just crisis, there were also left movements such as Syriza and Podemos. There was a rising up of people. In some ways, these were consequences of economic hardship. To create a new agenda, does that not require an alternative system to these systems creating hardship and suffering in people's lives? What do you see as the failure of the left movements in Europe and how can we control capital? 
First, we don’t want to control capitalism; we want to transcend it. That’s our ultimate objective. The southern European left suffers a historical and social problem. The historical problem comes out of European communism[5]. It is already decided that you can find solutions to the problems of capitalism within capitalism. We have to understand that Spain, Italy, and even Greece had immense Communist currents that said you can make some incremental changes in society and that would be okay. That's one problem. Sociologically, it’s a serious issue in this part of the world. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy — they are yoked to the European Union. There is immense unevenness in Europe. In a sense, southern Europe was a colony of northern Europe, particularly Germany. None of these countries have been willing to break with the European project. There is really no way to advance the situation in southern Europe if you continue to be imprisoned by the European Central Bank, the IMF, and European Commission. 

There is a historical problem in that they are unable to break from the view that capitalism itself isn't the problem. Secondly, they are unwilling to break from the European project. For that reason, one should not look at Syriza, Podemos, and Power to the People in Italy and think of them as the future. They are also trapped by their own history. 

We would like to continue this type of exchange and translate your articles into Korean. We are very fascinated by the work of the Tricontinental and by your efforts in trying to understand an international analysis and narrative. Thank you.

  1. BRICS stands for the rapidly developing grouping of countries that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
  2. Southern refers to the global south. In other words, a neoliberalism based on the conditions not of the global north but the global south.
  3. Pentecostalism is a Christian movement whose majority opposes abortion, alcohol, homosexuality, extramarital sex, and euthanasia while strongly supporting increased social programs.
  4. Tabligh-I-Jamaat is an Islamic sect which preaches that Muslims should replicate the life of Muhammad and while traveling the world converting non-believes to the one true faith.
  5. European communism believes that change can be achieved through electoral politics without the need to overturn capitalism