The response of the global elite to the structural crisis of the world-system has given rise to a popular revolution in the Third World, in which the people, organized and led by charismatic leaders, are seeking to take power away from the elite. The peoples of the Third World in movement are repeatedly putting forth the slogan of a just, democratic and sustainable world-system. They are constructing such an alternative world-system in theory and practice.
A just world-system. The ethical concept of a just society has ancient religious roots. In the earliest sacred texts of Ancient Israel, we find a concept of a God who acts in history to liberate the people from oppression and to defend justice for the oppressed. Later, as Israel evolved to a nation, the prophets of Israel denounced economic injustices as well as the luxury in which kings lived while people were living in poverty. The prophets condemned the lust for economic power; and they declared economic inequality and social injustice to be sins. They defended poor farmers who suffered at the hands of powerful landlords. They called for a change in lifestyle and for social justice. And they proclaimed that history is not governed by powerful empires but by God. Subsequently, the religious traditions of Israel influenced the development of Christianity and Islam, and the concept of the ethical responsibility of the faithful to construct a just society became central to liberation theology in both religious traditions. Today, the peoples of the world, influenced directly and indirectly by these religious traditions, have appropriated the ethical principle of social justice, and they are demanding a just world-system. For specific biblical texts of Ancient Israel, see Anderson (1986:108, 198, 278, 287-88, 293, 297-98, 337, 345, 372, 383, 480, 495, 503, 523); for liberation theology in Christianity, see Gutierrez (1973, 1983) and Brown (1984, 1993); for liberation theory in Islam, see Ansary (2009) and Schulze (2000).
A democratic world-system. The bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth century established the principle of a society in which all citizens are equal and all have inalienable rights. But at first, the rights were confined to political and civil rights for white men with property or education. For the next two hundred years, social movements emerged that would attain respect of citizenship rights for all persons, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, or gender. And the popular movements would deepen the concept of democracy to include social and economic rights, such as the right to a decent standard of living, education, and health care. When the anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial movements of the national liberation emerged in the Third World, they proclaimed that nations have rights, such as the rights to sovereignty, equal participation in the community of nations, self-determination and development. When the peoples of the Third World today demand a democratic world-system, they have in mind a concept of democracy in this expanded and deeper sense that includes social and economic rights as well as the rights of all nations to self-determination. They seek true independence, so that they can put into practice the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to development, in order to protect the right of the people to a decent standard of living (see “Universal human values” 4/16/2014).
A sustainable world-system. Historical world-systems have risen and fallen. The great majority of them were not sustainable, many because the center of the empire was gluttonous, and others because of ecological factors. In the world-system today, ecological contradictions and political conflicts constitute the greatest threats to the stability and sustainability of the world-system. The peoples of the world today proclaim that the world-system must have a harmonious relation with the natural environment, and it must develop in accordance with the ethical norms of cooperation among nations and solidarity among peoples. The peoples of the world today demand a just, democratic & sustainable world-system (see “Sustainable development” 11/12/13).
Justice, democracy and sustainability cannot be developed in the context of the structures and logic of the capitalist world-economy. The attainment by humanity of a just, democratic and sustainable world-system will require a transition to socialism. This will be the subject of our next post.
Anderson, Bernhard W. 1986. Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Ansary, Tamim. 2009. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.
Brown, Robert McAfee. 1984. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
__________. 1993. Liberation Theology. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1973. A Theology of Liberation, English translation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.
__________. 1983. The Power of the Poor in History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Schulze, Reinhard. 2000. A Modern History of the Islamic World. New York: New York University Press.
Key words: social justice, democracy, sustainability, world-system, popular movements, Third World