John Ralston Saul, for several decades the most influential thinker, politician and philosopher in Canada, believes that COVID-19 may be the last sprig to globalism, the end of which he anticipated in 2003. Ralston Saul proposes to take advantage of the moment to restart the economy, giving greater weight to the cooperative movement and to citizens.
At 72 years old, he has spent his entire life writing about the concept of the nation, economic models, individualism, power structures and the role of the citizen in society. Topics on which it comes back to in an interview with Efe, in which the only Canadian who has received the Pablo Neruda medal of honor, awarded by Chile, reflects on the crisis caused by COVID-19.
Question: In 2004 you wrote the essay “The Collapse of Globalism” in which you anticipated that the economic system of globalization, with its “technocratic and technological determinism and market idolatry” was over. Will COVID-19 definitely kill him?
Answer: It is more than evident that the system that has been in place for the past 50 years has failed. The idea of allowing the market to dominate, placing bankers before citizens, has created the gap between rich and poor. All of that has failed. It should be its end. Big changes should have happened in 2008, but it didn’t happen. The elite managed to redesign it so that it was not their fault.
Q: You have pointed out that if we don’t act at the right time, the price will be much higher. What do you mean
A: I always set the example of what happened before, during and after the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Great energy was accumulated in Europe to bring about enormous changes in 1815. But instead, Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich and the old elites maneuvered, remained in power, and changed the outcome of the war. The result was from 1848 a series of revolutions, the birth of communism, a new kind of violence, the class war, two world wars. So you pay when you don’t act, especially when you know what the problem is.
Q: Can the appearance of COVID-19 be related to climate change, the other great current crisis of humanity?
A: I cannot think of a clearer message of an uncontrollable nature than this virus and that we were not prepared. But as serious as this is going to be, it is nothing compared to, for example, the climate crisis. This can wipe out half the population, something like the Black Death. But the climate crisis will eliminate everything. Look at the parallels. We must think inclusive. Globalization, efficiency, management are exclusive ways of thinking, since they do not include the whole, but they divide everything into small parts.
Q: But some governments, like those of Italy or Spain, have decided to freeze their economies to save lives during the COVID-19 crisis. Countries are spending hundreds of billions of dollars to save lives at the expense of their economies. Is it a victory for the citizens?
A: It may be that the people who are part of the bureaucracy, as well as the elected officials, know that they failed in 2008. They know it, no matter what they say in public. And in a strange way, this is your second chance. I think 2008 was a wake up call. And I think instinctively they knew they didn’t do what they should.
In fact, the response in most countries has been quite extraordinary. Yes, they are trying to make up for lost time, but in fact they have responded very well. It is a triumph! They know what they are supposed to do and they have taken huge risks. Everyone says it is a war. Yes it is, but in most wars you have a month, six months, a year to prepare. They are doing things in three days. They are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in three or four days. We are at a time when human beings are thinking on the go, which is extraordinary.
The elites seem to have woken up, which is moving. I think what is really interesting is that it is the moment when we have to reinvent what the economy means. This should really be the end of the neoconservative movement.
Q: What do you mean?
A: What it means is that you have to try to freeze the economy. If the economy can be frozen, it can be relaunched later. We have to think about debt, not the way we have tortured ourselves in the last 30 years, tortured Africa, Europe and the United States, until the catastrophe. This is perhaps the time when we really wake up and say that all the debt that we have accumulated by printing money we are going to make disappear. Can be done. It has been done before. But it takes imagination. They have shown that they have imagination, now they are going to have to use it for reconstruction.
Q: What do citizens have to do?
A: This is not a Manichean drama in which old-fashioned socialism confronts the old right. It has to be an opportunity to build something totally different. It was not entirely true, as stated, that the nation-state was going to disappear because its base is the citizen. This is a time when citizens really have to get up and make themselves heard, make the effort.
I think the panic of the citizens has been very well shown in this drama. Even in countries like Italy or Spain, where the drama is horrendous. It is going to require an enormous effort from the citizens, not to demonstrate on the streets but real involvement in political life, in public life. We need a huge boost from individuals in political life with a different vision of what responsibility is, what I have called responsible individualism.
Q: What changes are necessary?
A: What has happened over the past half century is that all the benefits of technological advancements have gone to a very small group of people. The result is that producers, workers, farmers, are getting poorer. It has been a huge missed opportunity and I think now we are faced with the possibility that we are asking ourselves how to distribute things, how to do things differently. I think we have to avoid going back to the old battle of left and right. I am constantly talking about how important cooperativism is. The cooperative movement is very interesting because it decentralizes economic power. It is a way of bringing economic power closer to the population and avoiding the idea that the benefit goes to a very small group that will accumulate wealth.
Q: What will geopolitics be like in the world after COVID-19?
A: I have been saying for a long time that globalism has ended and that we are dealing with what are essentially regional conflicts, such as what existed in the past, before the existence of European empires. We are heading towards a situation in which there will be regions that will fight each other for whatever: China, South Asia, Europe, the United States and the unknowns of Africa, Russia and Latin America.
I think we will see a fierce United States for Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean. Because they are going to try to retain what they consider theirs. And we are going to see a China that never wanted to be a global raw materials power, trying to solidify its power in Asia.
If the United States is in decline, there is nothing more vindictive and cruel than a rapidly declining empire. And we must not forget, if this continues in the way that is happening with COVID-19, the United States will be like a lion that has been beaten and will be angry in search of revenge, without even understanding its own actions. This is one of my greatest fears.
The other great fear that this causes me can already be seen, racism, negative nationalism, populism, angry voices trying to take advantage of this.