Values of a new civilisation

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

On the following pages, we propose a few possible themes for the debate, at the World Social Forum, on the question:
“Principles and values of a new society”. These are not axioms, but working hypotheses and suggestions
for reflection.

We, of the World Social Forum, believe in certain values, which guide and illuminate our project
of social transformation and inspire our vision of a possible new world. The people gathered at Davos -
bankers, executives and heads of State, who direct neoliberal globalization (or globocolonization) - also
uphold values. We must not underestimate them, as they hold dear three great values and are willing to
fight with any and all means to safeguard them - even by war, if need be. These three important values
are at the heart of western capitalist civilization in its current form. The three great values of the Davos
creed are the dollar, the euro and the yen. Although these three do themselves come into contradiction,
together they constitute the globalized, neoliberal scale of values.

The main common characteristic of these three values is their strictly quantitative nature: they
know no good nor evil, fair or unfair. They know only quantities, numbers, amounts: one, a hundred, a
thousand, a million, a billion. Whoever has a billion - dollars, euros or yens - is worth more than
whoever has only a million, and much more than those who have only a thousand. It goes without saying
that whoever has nothing, or almost nothing, is worth nothing on the Davos scale of values. It is as if the
person never existed. She or he is out of the market and, therefore, out of the civilized world.

Together, these three values constitute one of the divinities of liberal economic religion: it is
known as Currency or, in Aramaic, Mammon. The other two divinities are The Market and Capital. These
are fetishes or idols, objects of a fanatical and exclusive, intolerant and dogmatic cult. This fetishism of
the commodity, according to Marx, or idolatry of the market (to use the expression of the liberation
theologians Hugo Assmann and Franz Hinkelammert) and of money and capital, is a cult that has its
churches (the Stock Markets), its Holy Offices (IMF, WTO, etc.), and persecutes heretics (all of us who
believe in other values). These idols, like the Canaanite gods Moloch or Baal, demand terrible human
sacrifices: the victims of the structural adjustment plans in the Third World, men, women and children
sacrificed upon the altar of the World Market fetish and the Foreign Debt fetish.

An impressive body of canonical rules and orthodox principles serve to legitimize and sanctify
these sacrificial rituals. A vast clergy of specialists and managers expound on the dogmas of the cult to
the heathen multitudes, maintaining heretical opinions far from the public sphere. The ethical rules of this
religion were already established, two centuries ago, by the economic theologian, Sir Adam Smith: that
each individual seek, in the most implacable manner possible, her or his selfish interest, with disregard
for their fellow men and women, and the invisible hand of the Market-God shall care for the rest, bringing
harmony and prosperity to the entire nation.

This civilization of money and capital transforms everything - land, water, air, life, feelings,
convictions - into merchandise, to be sold for the highest price. Even people become secondary in
importance to merchandise, as it subverts the humanitarian person-commodity-person relationship. I put
on a cotton shirt, which is merchandise, to humanize my social relations, as it would indeed be strange if I
were to appear at work or a meeting of friends without a shirt. Now, the predominant relation is
commodity-person-commodity. The brand of the shirt I wear is what denotes my value. In other words, if
I come to your house by bus or by bike, I have a value of Z. If I arrive in a BMW, I have a value of A. I
am the same person, yet, the merchandise that I use is what assigns me more or less value, thus reifying

As far back as the 19th Century, a critic of political economy had foreseen today’s world with
prophetic clarity: “At last, the time has come in which all that human beings had considered as inalienable
has become the object of exchange, of traffic, and may be alienated. It is a time when the very things
virtue, love, opinion, science, conscience etc. - when, in short, everything has finally become tradable. It
is a time of generalized corruption, universal venality or, to speak in terms of political economy, the time
when anything, moral or physical, once into a venal value, may be taken to market to be appraised for its
appropriate value”. [1]

 Qualitative values

Against the backdrop of this civilization of universal marketization, which drowns all human
relations in the “cold waters of selfish calculation”, [2] the World Social Forum represents, firstly, a
refusal: “the world is not a commodity”! That is, nature, life, human rights, freedom, love, culture, are not
merchandise. Furthermore, the WSF embodies the aspiration to another type of civilization, based on
other values that are neither money nor capital. These two projects of civilization and two scales of values
confront each other, as completely irreconcilable antagonists, at the entrance to the 21st Century.

What values inspire this alternative project? They are qualitative , ethical and political, social and
cultural values that are not reducible to monetary quantification; values that are common to the better part
of the groups and networks that constitute the great world movement against neoliberal globalization.
We may start with the three values that inspired the French Revolution of 1789 - Liberty, Equality
and Fraternity - that have been present ever since in all the social emancipation movements of modern
history. As Ernst Bloch points out in his book, Natural Right and Human Dignity (1961), these
principles engraved by the dominant class on the fronts of public buildings in France were never
achieved. In practice, as Marx wrote, they were often replaced by Cavalry, Infantry and Artillery... They
are part of the subversive tradition of the unfinished, the as-yet non-existent, the promises left unfulfilled.

They possess a concrete utopian force, that “goes far beyond the bourgeois horizon”, a force of human
dignity that points to the future, to the “march with heads held high” of humanity towards socialism. [3] If
we examine these values more closely, from the standpoint of the victims of the system, we discover their
explosive potential and pertinence to the current struggle against the marketization of the world.

What does “liberty” mean? First and foremost, freedom of expression, organization, thought,
criticism, protest - hard won through centuries of struggles against absolutism, fascism and dictators.

More importantly - and now more so than ever - it means freedom from another form of absolutism: the
dictatorship of financial markets and the elite bankers and multinational businessmen who impose their
interests on the whole of the planet. This is an imperial dictatorship - under the economic, political and
military hegemony of the only remaining global superpower, the United States - which hides behind the
anonymous, blind “laws of the market ”, and whose world power is far superior to that of the Roman
Empire or the colonial empires of the past. This dictatorship is wielded by the logic of capital itself, but
which imposes itself with the aid of profoundly antidemocratic institutions, such as the IMF or WTO, and
under threat of its armed wing (NATO). The concept of “national liberation” is insufficient to express the
current meaning of freedom, which is, at the same time, local, national and worldwide, as the profoundly
original and innovative Zapatista movement so well demonstrates.

One of the great limitations of the French Revolution of 1789 was that it excluded women from
citizenship. The republican feminist, Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the “Declaration of women’s and
female citizen’s rights”, was guillotined in 1793. The modern concept of freedom cannot ignore gender
oppression that afflicts half of humanity, and the prime importance of women’s struggle for liberation.

Particularly significant in this struggle is women’s right to control over their own bodies.
Equality and Fraternity
What does “equality” mean? The first revolutionary constitutions guaranteed equality before the
law. This is absolutely necessary - and far from existing in the reality of the world today - but it is woefully insufficient. The deeper problem is the monstrous inequality between the North and South of
our planet and, within each country, between the small elite that monopolizes economic power and the
means of production, and the great majority of the population, living from the force of their labor - when
not unemployed, and excluded from social life. The figures are well-known: concentrated in the hands of
four citizens of the USA - Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellyson - is a fortune
equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of 42 poor countries, with a population of 600 million
inhabitants. The foreign debt system, the logic of the world market and the unlimited power of financial
capital have led to an aggravation of this inequality, which has worsened significantly over the last 20
years. The demand for equality and social justice - two inseparable values - inspire the different
alternative socioeconomic projects that are the order of the day. From a broader point of view, this also
entails a new mode of production and distribution.

Economic inequality is not the only form of injustice in liberal capitalist society: the persecution
of the “undocumented” in Europe; the exclusion of the descendents of black slaves and indigenous
peoples in the Americas; the oppression of millions of individuals that belong to the castes of
“untouchables” in India ; and so many other forms of racism or discrimination due to color, religion or
language, are omnipresent from North to South on our planet. An egalitarian society means the radical
suppression of these discriminations. It further assumes a different relation between men and women,
breaking away from the ancient system of inequality that has reigned throughout human history- the
patriarchate - and which is responsible for violence against women, and their exclusion from the public
sphere and from the workplace. The absolute majority of poor and unemployed people in the world are

What does “fraternity” mean? It is the modern translation of the old Judeo-Christian tradition: love
of one’s neighbor. It means replacing the relationship of competition, fierce dispute, war of all against all
- which, in current society, makes the individual a homo homini lupus (a wolf to other human beings) -
with a relationship of cooperation, sharing, mutual helping, solidarity. This solidarity that includes not
only the brothers (“frater”, in Latin), but sisters too, one that extends beyond the limits of the family, clan,
tribe, ethnic group, religious community or nation to become authentically universal, worldwide,
international. In other words, this solidarity is internationalist, in the sense given by whole generations of
militants of the socialist, workers’ movement.

Neoliberal globalization produces and reproduces tribal and ethnic conflicts, wars of
“ethnic purification”, bellicose expansionism, intolerant religious conservatism and xenophobia. These
types of panic
induced by the feeling of a loss of identity are the reverse side of the same coin, the inevitable
complement to imperial globalization. The civilization that we dream of will be “a world that can hold
many worlds” (according to the beautiful formula of the Zapatistas), a worldwide civilization of solidarity
and diversity. Faced with the mercantile and quantitative homogenization of the world and with capitalist
false universalism, we must now, more than ever, re-assert the wealth represented by cultural diversity,
by the unique and irreplaceable contribution of each people, culture and individual.

 Democracy as an indispensable value

Another value - democracy - has been inseparable from the other three since 1789. But democracy
cannot be limited to the sense this political concept has in liberal-democratic discourse: the free election
of representatives every so many years, which, to be honest, has been deformed and distorted by the
control that economic power exercises over the media. This “representative democracy” - also the fruit of
many popular struggles, and constantly threatened by the interests of the powerful, as demonstrated in the
history of Latin America from 1964 to 1985 - is necessary yet insufficient. What we need are superior,
more participatory forms that allow the population to exercise directly their power to decide and to
oversee - as in the participatory budgets of the city of Porto Alegre and the State of Rio Grande do Sul.

The greater challenge, from the point of view of a project for an alternative society, is to extend
democracy to the economic and social spheres. Why should we allow an elite to wield exclusive power in
choices, investment priorities, the fundamental orientation of production and distribution are
democratically discussed and decided upon by the population itself, and not by a handful of exploiters or
their supposed “market laws” or - in a variant that has proven bankrupt - by an all-powerful Political

To these overarching values, one more must be added: respect for the environment. This product
of modern revolutionary history is at the same time the oldest and the most recent. We see this value in
the lifestyle of the indigenous tribes of the Americas and pre-capitalist rural communities of several
continents, as well as at the heart of the modern ecological movement. Capitalist globalization - with
geometric growth - is responsible for the accelerated destruction and poisoning of the environment:
pollution of the land, oceans, rivers and air; the “greenhouse effect”, with its catastrophic consequences;
the threat of destruction of the ozone layer, which protects us from lethal ultraviolet rays; the devastation
of forests and biodiversity. A civilization based on solidarity cannot exist without being a civilization in
solidarity with nature, since the human species cannot survive if the ecological balance of the planet is

 Socialism as an alternative

This list is by no means exhaustive. Each person may, based on her or his own experience and
reflection, add more items. How can we sum up in a single word the set of values present, in one form or
another, in the movement against capitalist globalization, in the street protests from Seattle to Genoa, and
the debates of the World Social Forum? I believe that the expression, civilization of solidarity is an
appropriate synthesis of this alternative project. It assumes not only a radically different economic and
political structure, but primarily an alternative society that values the ideas of common good, public
interest, universal rights, the non-profit motive.

I propose that we define this society with the term socialism, which for almost two centuries has
summarized humankind’s aspirations for a new way of life, one with greater freedom, equality,
democracy and solidarity. It is a term that - just like all the others (“liberty”, “democracy”, etc.) - has
been manipulated by profoundly anti-grassroots, authoritarian interests, but which nonetheless retains its
original and authentic value.

In a recent public opinion poll in Brazil, sponsored by the National Confederation of Industries (!),
55% of respondents stated that Brazil needed a socialist revolution. When asked what they understood by
socialism, they answered citing certain values: “friendship”, “communion”, “sharing”, “respect”,
“justice” and “solidarity”. A civilization based on solidarity is a socialist civilization.

In conclusion: another world is possible, if based on other values radically antagonistic to those
that dominate the world today. We cannot forget, however, that the future begins now: these values are
already prefigured in the initiatives that guide our movement today. They inspire the campaign against
Third World debt and the resistance to WTO projects, the fight against genetically modified products and
the proposals to tax financial speculation. They are present in social struggles, grassroots initiatives,
experiences of solidarity, cooperation and participatory democracy - from the ecological struggle of
peasants in India, to the participatory budget of Rio Grande do Sul; from the struggles for the right to
form trade unions in South Korea, to the strikes in defense of public services in France; from the
Zapatista villages of Chiapas, to the camps of the MST.

The future begins here and now, in these seeds of a new civilization, which we are planting
through our struggle, and with our efforts to build new men and women from the subjective and ethical
values that we have embraced in our lives as militants.


[1] Karl Marx, Misère de la philosophie, Paris, Ed. Sociales, 1947, p.33.

[2] Expression de Marx dans le Manifeste Communiste.

[3] Ernst Bloch, Droit Naturel et Dignité Humaine, Paris, Payot, 1976, pp.177-179


* Published in W.Fisher, W.Ponniah, “Another World is Possible”, New York, 2003. English text by volunteer translator, Robert Finnegan with revisions by Thomas Ponniah.

No specific license (default rights)