Riccardo Petrella is an Italian economist who, as a science and technology policy analyst at the European Commission between 1979 and 1995, became a witness and voice of dissent against the EC’s definition of Europe as a union of competition. He was the main force behind the Lisbon Group’s report “Limits to Competition”, which criticised the neo-liberal reforms of the Jacque Delors Commission, which served capital and the markets but undermined the achievements of post-war Europe. Between 1967 and 1975, Petrella was scientific secretary and then director of the European Coordination Centre for Research and Documentation in the Social Sciences in Vienna, an organisation that facilitated scientific exchange between West and East during the period of European division. Between 1982 and 2005, the Italian university professor taught courses such as “Science and Technology Policy” and “Economic Globalisation” at the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), and has also taught in other universities and countries. Between 2005 and 2006 he was President of the Water Company of Puglia (Italy). In 1997 he founded the International Committee on the World Water Contract, chaired by former Portuguese President Mario Soares. In 1998, Petrella published “The Water Manifesto” (first in French and in 2001 in English), in which he reveals his vision of water as a “common good”.
Mr Petrella, there are two wars going on in the EU’s neighbourhood – one in Ukraine and the other in Palestine. If we think in terms of the global political and economic system, what are the reasons or forces behind these wars? And what are your conclusions about the meaning of these wars?
War is now, formally and consciously, the main way of action of the dominant system. It means that war is the way out. The dominant system is trying to keep the power of domination over the world. It continues to define the values of life and tries to maintain the mechanisms of inequality and barriers between individuals or social groups and countries. And this is nothing new.
But what is new is that it is now expressed consciously. There is a conscious will to act. In the past, the dominant people waged war by trying to find excuses for it. Today, in the case of Ukraine and Israel, the dominant people are saying that they want the war, they want to continue. They want to destroy the enemy. They want to destroy a population without any sense of guilt or any other justification, just because they wanted to achieve the objective.
Let me just say that, for example, in the United States of America, the European Union, the NATO countries and the President of Ukraine have always said that they will fight until victory. And that was the idea – until victory means that there is no other way. And the Israelis are saying again, more clearly than in the past, that they want to wipe out aid to the Palestinian people all over the world. And this is new. This means that our societies and the analysts have accepted the concept of war and the concept of the inevitable capacity of inequalities and the energy of the structures of domination. And that is completely new. This is particularly new because it seems to be accepted by the majority of the world’s population, especially in the dominant countries.
Now you and I are talking, and Israel can continue to destroy the Palestinians. And there is no revolution in the world coming from our countries. Of course, in the United States, there are still some students who are making movements on campuses that show opposition to the current US policy, as it was in the 70s against the Vietnam War. But at the moment this opposition is within the system. It is rather weak and does not show the ability to strengthen itself to become stronger and stronger. So the idea that the popular opposition to the support of the United States for the genocides committed by Israel, the support of the president, does not presuppose that it will perhaps change this banality of war and genocide itself. This is one of the main questions that we must try to analyse and resolve. And it’s not easy.
It’s not easy because it means that our societies have metabolized the idea that evil is a stronger force in the organisation of life on earth by human beings. We used to be able to say, yes, there’s evil, but there’s also good. We used to say it is evil now, but we hope that in the coming years the good will prevail over the evil, and so on.
Today it’s very difficult to think that the good will prevail and eliminate the evil, because of the commodification of life, which is linked to the great technological revolutions that have led people to believe that they are now the creators of life. This technologisation of life, which leads to the commodification of life, is structurally violent because the technological capacities we have accumulated are inspired by the idea of appropriation and exclusion. Our technologies allow us to divide the world into what is useful and what is not. And when you combine all these elements, things have to exist only if they are useful for the reward of the investment, the capital investment.
Secondly, this thinking implies a commodification and therefore a marketisation of life, which implies inequalities of power over the structures that control the development of the technology of life. The end result is a violent system that’s emerged.
I am looking at and working on two structural elements of this system in particular. The first is the patentability of human beings and living organisms, in other words the ability to use the tools that the technological creators of life acquire in order to have the ability to own and control life. And the second is the financialisation of life. The financialisation of life means that we have created a system where the criteria for the value of everything is narrowly dictated by financial interests and financial dynamics. It means that all decisions about all aspects of life are measured in terms of the increase in the value of capital. And if something – a piece of land or a river – does not give you or me the increase in the value of the capital invested, then the river and the land are not useful and can be abandoned. They can be destroyed, they can be corrupted. And this definition of life has taken on a rather compact form.
At the last UN conference, COP15, the biodiversity cops got the members of the conference to accept the idea that nature has to be considered as a form of capital, the so-called natural capital. This is a category of capital like labour capital, industrial capital, human capital, etc. Nature is no longer seen as the existing framework of existence. We used to take nature for granted. We saw it as a gift of life to human beings. Now we no longer believe that. We think that we create nature and therefore nature becomes a tool of production. It becomes a factor of production like any other existing good, which is considered useful only if it contributes to the productivity of a capital investment. All these mechanisms have been accepted by the final resolution of the COP15 conference on biodiversity in Montreal on 22 December 2022.
The dominant view is that nature is just natural capital and there are no other criteria that can have any impact on the way this asset should be assessed as a value. And these two things together, the patentability of living organisms and the financialisation of nature, have created this integral system of a virus. And that is why the dominant people can now tell us that we want to destroy these assets. And that is why it is difficult for public opinion to resist, because it has intellectual limits to protest. Although, I repeat, there is a massive protest in some countries where there is a lot of resistance. The problem now is to see to what extent this kind of resistance and this kind of opposition will be transformed into a capacity to transform the system that dominates it today.
I have several questions to ask you about all this. First of all, you mentioned that there is resistance to this overwhelming and all-encompassing hegemony. Where might this change come from? What could be the sources, the realm of power for this change and resistance?
I will answer step by step.
Usually it is said that the victims have to act. Throughout history, in order to change the system, the resistance, the opposition, the proposal for change has come from those who have been punished by the system. Today, we can say that the indigenous peoples of Africa, Latin America and Asia, the impoverished people of Europe, North America, etc., who are the most dramatic victims of the system, should theoretically be considered as the social groups from which resistance and opposition should come. In fact, there are important phenomena of registered opposition from this kind of victims. But I think that today it is difficult to give a high rate of probability that resistance and opposition will come from these victims.
Look at what is happening in Latin America. Latin America is always a balance between extremism, especially from the extreme right, which also provokes the reaction of the other part of the population, which creates an unbalanced area in Latin America, for example. I hope that the social movement in Brazil will be strengthened in the coming months, because otherwise it will be too late to hope that the Latin American people will be at the origin of the great transformation.
The second category of victims, although of a different nature from the first, is the internal opposition. I have the impression that the sources of change, of the system, could come from a certain category of the population in the advanced countries and means in the countries of the North – in the United States, in North America, in Europe, uh, Japan and Korea, South Korea, etc. from the field of scientists. The scientific revolution can be an important source of change in the world system. Scientists and technicians have a deep inner knowledge of the world, even though they are a tiny minority. But they are strategically important in some areas and are in a position to express this resistance and opposition.
The world of science and technology could be the source of this opposition and resistance. At the moment, there are a few elements that confirm this hypothesis, but they are not many. In my opinion, only if the resistance comes from the so-called world of artificial intelligence and the world of finance could the system be weakened and the hopes for change be substantial. But I am a little pessimistic about the strength of this movement.
I think this movement can deliver on its promises. But I don’t see, for example, that the workers will become the advanced elements of the revolution and the resistance. Workers have made a very great contribution to the history of humanity, by making it possible to put structural limits on capitalism at the national level, to put limits on, structural capitalism at the global level. The workers are still too fragmented to be a really effective force in the struggle against global capitalism and patents. The fact that the patenting of seeds has not been stopped shows that the peasants need to be much more mature and much stronger in their alliance against the global lines of capital for the capitalist forces. The youth are always an uncertain card to play. They can again cause surprises, good surprises.
Summing up all this, one could say today that, theoretically, the combination of these elements would certainly provoke struggles that could lead to the dismantling of a current global system. But I would give a higher probability to a plan of insider critical forces, coming from science and technology, and especially to stop or break the present evolution. And this could also be possible with the support of evolutions in the field of artificial intelligence.
You speak with hope to the technological people, and I have to say that you used to be a technological advisor, if not a strategist, to the European Commission. And you worked with Jacques Delors, who recently passed away. His life and contribution was celebrated by almost everybody in the media when he died. There was a huge wave of recognition for him. But I remember another conversation we had where you talked about the differences you had with him on the issue of competition, and namely that Jacques Delors promoted the changes in the EU that created the so-called EU of competition. In fact, Delors’ reforms in the 90s laid the foundations for what the EU is today. Could you please describe the contribution of Jacques Delors – the good and the bad he did for the EU – based on your experience and values?
Yes. In fact, Jacques Delors is probably the best president of the European Commission in, let’s say, 70 years of existence, starting with the first European Community in 1951. He was a very smart, important, honest person. He was highly motivated on the basis of the traditional commitment to the workers. He was a social Christian, a thinker and a politician. He kept in his mind the idea of Christianity combined with the idea of action for social justice, recognition of the other, resistance to impoverishment, the fight against inequality, etc.
But Jacques found himself at the head of the European Commission at a time of three major tensions in Europe. And he made some strategic choices to deal with these three European tensions that turned out to be wrong.
The first dilemma was: what are we building in Europe? Is it inspired more by social justice or by market efficiency? In the 1980s and 1990s, when Delors became President of the Commission (between 1986 and 1995), the dominant answer was that if we – Europe – want to exist, Europe must become a community for increasing market efficiency of resources and competitiveness at world level.
The second tension was whether we were building European economic and technological capacity on the basis of a federal and increasingly integrated Europe or as a set of independent, autonomous national countries and economies. Are we moving towards some kind of federal institutional framework or are we just reinforcing the idea that Europe can only be a union of nation states? At the time, I remember that the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991, and this fact reinforced in the West the idea that what was possible or new was the great Europe of national states. So we were in the context of a weakening vision of a federal Europe and there was a much more favourable concept of the union of national states. And indeed, in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty created the concept of European integration as the integration of economies with the aim of increasing the market efficiency of the use of capital. And that was the great achievement of 1992, the change in the name of Europe.
Before that, when I joined the Commission, we were the European Communities. Since the unification of the three original communities, we became the European Community. And the sense of community was that we shared great fundamental objectives that we were trying to build – common European policies, common agricultural policies, common regional powers, common science policy, and so on. On the contrary, in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty changed the name of Europe from Community to Union. And union meant that there was a system that united through cooperation, through exchange, through national policies, and that promoted the idea that Europe was a kind of weak confederation of states sharing common objectives, working methods, etc. Since 1992, the concept of common European policies has gradually disappeared. And since 1992, we have always talked about the coordination of European policies. We talk about coordination, not commonality.
The third tension was related to the objective of creating a democratic European society and structures against the oligarchic way, to unite, to integrate, to make progress in the United Europe, in the name of democracy or in the name of oligarchy. Let’s remember that in the 60s and 70s everyone was talking about the third industrial revolution, based on new information and communication technologies, new biotechnologies, new materials and nuclear energy. Because of the technological development that took place in the 60s and 70s, the evaluation in the field of science and technology came in. We were a research department within the European Commission to analyse the consequences of this third industrial technological revolution and to suggest to the European authorities that the best way in terms of science, technology, industrial policy is to continue to make positive policies to let this industrial revolution benefit all European states and European people and to maintain a good, peaceful, cooperative relationship with the other parts of the continent. The third tension was resolved with the conclusion that the dominant European political, economic and cultural forces chose the concept of oligarchy, the concept of competition, the concept of efficiency, etcetera, etcetera. And they have made the process of political integration much more difficult. And Delors, as President of the European Commission, had the major role to play in directing the path of political integration.
It was not an easy situation. My views led to debates with Delors and, in particular, with his team or cabinet. If he wanted to contribute to the move towards greater political integration, he had to weaken the resistance and opposition of the national governments, to weaken nationalism, to weaken the national bureaucracies. He was looking for some allies to enable the European forces in favour of integration to defeat the resistance, the opposition of the political, national leading groups. But he thought that since the European economic and financial world was objectively very interested in the expansion of the market and in the European market, in the expansion of the development of technologies, etc., he thought that the good allies for him were the economic and financial world, and so he fought for the creation of the European market. And Delors was one of the strongest supporters of the Maastricht Treaty. He thought that if he offered the business and financial world the business of the European market, they would help him to move towards political integration and defeat the resistance and the opposition of national governments and national political groups. And that was a mistake. And that is why he made the strong move in favour of market integration and in favour of competition in order to create a new Europe. That is why, at the end of his own presidency, he published a so-called White Paper on Growth, Competitiveness and Employment, in which he explained very clearly that Europeans could move towards integration thanks to economic growth. At a time when there was strong popular opposition to the concept of unlimited economic growth, etc., etc., he believed that growth would create jobs. In other words, trade unionists would have supported European integration because it would have created jobs, which was a hypothesis that didn’t come true. It was a false correlation to think that economic growth creates employment, that we can favour economic growth and favour the creation of employment through competitive business at a global level. And I remember that we made several reports to the European Commission and to the presidency in which we showed that the more the integration process is based on interests, on competitive interests at the national level, the more European integration is destroyed and the places are left to an oligarchic pan-European or other domination. And he didn’t pay any attention to that. His people were also against this interpretation.
A few years after 1992, in the 2000s, with the introduction of the single currency, the euro, the independence of the European Central Bank, the introduction of the objectives of stability, monetary stability, we saw how the process of European integration was declining, and it is declining even more today. And this, in my opinion, is the historic mistake of Jacques Delors, although I understand that the situation was not easy and not favourable to other alternatives. But he himself accepted that there was a push for the European competitive market and the European financial system, which really turned out to be a failure. In this sense, we can say that Delor was an integral part of the political left movement known as the Third Way. It meant creating a mixed solution between the market and the state. This third way, as we know it, was the Clinton product. Delors contributed to the fact that we have less and less state and more and more market. We can see the results after these years.
Can you give us a kind of review of the results of these policies that you see today and the concrete effects of these policies in the European Union today?
Certainly. I think that European integration today is the daughter of what happened in the 90s. And today you cannot escape the fact that everything in Europe has been commercialised and privatised. Water. Health, education. Food. The euro is no longer a public service or a public good. It is a commodity. There is a currency market which is a speculative financial market where all currencies are commodities.
There is perhaps only one that can come back against the general tendency towards the commodification and privatisation in the European context of goods and services that are essential for life. There is one example that provides an opportunity for a revival of the concept of common public goods. This is public transport. Public transport is in the process of being made free and accessible to citizens. I suggest that you look again at what is happening in France in the area of public transport, which is now free in 42 major cities in France. They’ve agreed that you don’t have to pay for it anymore.
I am fascinated by this process. I wonder if it’s the beginning of something important, a change. But otherwise everything is subject to privatisation, commodification and financial parameters. We have talked about the financialisation of nature. I think that in the coming years the financialisation of nature will become stronger and more established, and it will create enormous problems in agriculture and especially in health.
Public urban transport is going in a different direction. People in France are happy that the urban transport system is this free means that is financed by the public finances with the free transport. Public transport means that the financing, the cost of these services is covered by taxation, is covered by fiscal policy, is covered by public finance. It does not mean that there are no costs. The costs are covered. But the local, urban communities have decided that they are going to use public finance to cover the costs and definitely show that this system is going to be less expensive for people than the privatisation of public transport, which is paid for by a ticket and by the user. So this is a very interesting part which means that, as I said, it means that maybe the insider people to our societies, can become not the owners but the promoters of these structural changes because, the republicization of urban transport, its transformation into public transport is not coming from protests. It doesn’t come from the users. It comes from the people who are in charge of organising public transport. It means that part of the scientists, technocrats, managers, who are open to the idea that they are supporting a great socialist policy, only to serve the utilitarian and financially efficient management of public goods and services.
You know, there’s a lot of polarisation in many societies, especially in the periphery of the European Union, let’s say the eastern part of the European Union. We see that in Poland, there is a lot of polarisation. We also see it in Bulgaria. The apple of discord in Poland is the attitude towards Germany. Maybe in Bulgaria it’s more to do with the tension between the supporters of the European Commission or sovereignism. So I would like to ask you about being on the side of progressive change when there is such a strong polarisation in society. What can people build a non-hegemonic position on when there is strong polarisation in societies, especially in the periphery of Europe?
Polarisation is a very common phenomenon in the history of human societies. In many cases, polarisation has always been a system that benefits the stronger social groups and not the weakest. And polarisation is de facto the origin of inequalities. The acceptance of inequalities is the source of strength in polarisation processes. So it’s a kind of circular process that is self-confirming. The system confirms polarisation and thus reinforces itself.
And in the peripheral countries, as you call them, polarisation is evident. The main source of polarisation in the world today is in the developing countries. In the developed countries, 30-40 years ago, we talked about the haves and the have-nots. But today, an important game that the dominant people are playing is the question of when the first person in the world will reach $1 trillion of personal wealth or personal fortune, because the maximum they have now is $300 billion of wealth.
1 trillion is an amount that few countries today have in terms of GDP. In this context, polarisation is most present in the most developed countries. And polarisation is about value.
What do we mean by the value of society? The value of life. And this is the most difficult polarisation to resolve because the cultural basis of this polarisation is structural and intergenerational. It exists not only today, but also in time. The modern idea that the value of life is its price, and the value of a life, which is its price, is determined, as we said at the beginning, by its contribution. To the creation and accumulation of greater capital value, when this polarisation has immense deep roots. And then the question will be what to say to the peripheral societies that are going to fight against polarisation and about their way of reducing the importance of depolarisation in the developed countries. This is the most integrated question we have to solve.
Polarisation in the peripheral countries is not of a secondary nature. I think it can be instrumental in contributing to polarisation in the developed countries. And it could be instrumental in understanding where the resistance and opposition come from that is linked to this polarisation.
Polarisation has to be fought at grassroots level. It has to do with the value of life. And the most important source of polarisation is structural polarisation. I don’t mean some occasional, temporary polarisation, but the fact that the dominant people have an interest in making other people think that the value of life is money and power. If this understanding continues to be promoted, the process of polarisation will remain. How can we make a change, how can we make sure that Bulgarians don’t think that the value of life is the price, the money, the ability to buy? It is extremely important that the value of life is a surplus. People are put in a situation where they are differentiated in a certain equalising way, based on the fact that life is seen as a commodity, it has a price, and therefore your ability to pay this price gives you your power and status.
Bulgarians must fight against this, otherwise they will contribute to the weakening of the value of life. In developing countries we have to counter the idea that the principle of the value of life is just a price. In my opinion, scientists understand exactly what this means. Because they know that price is price-driven. What is the price? When is the price? Today, the knowledge that goes into technological processes gives the price of things. And again, these are problems that need to be discussed and debated. And, unfortunately, I do not think that they are at the top of the agenda in the current political debate.
I would also like to ask you about the future of the EU, because you used to be something of a futurologist, if I may say so. And also, we see the UK leaving the EU with Brexit and Russia, which is in the other country, which in some ways was maybe a partner, cutting off gas supplies and declaring war on Ukraine. In some ways it looks like the EU is sort of being encircled or there are some barriers that are being created on the borders of the EU. So what is the future of the EU and who are the international allies or partners of the EU?
This is a $1,000 question. In fact, we can only guess what the answer might be.
I think European integration could suffer. The balance is still in favour of it going from bad to worse. That is the situation today. There are good things that can give the impression that the situation is improving, but the tendency is that things in Europe will not get better in the next few years. I hope I am wrong. But it is a very traumatic situation.
And if we’re in a period where people don’t see a way out, that’s the situation we’re worried about in the United States. I think they don’t know how to get out of the enormous problems they have created for the world. In my opinion, they will not survive the current crisis without structural changes. I think that the position of the United States today is at the moment, I would say at the final stage, but they are in a very, very bad mood. And Russia is difficult to see as a source of change. Asia remains. I think there are many, many positive elements in China. Africa too. Latin America… it depends.
It would be difficult to propose a coherent solution to the global processes that are moving in one direction. The unbundling of the world will continue. This does not mean that there are no alternatives that could happen, but it does mean that some turning points would have to occur for the change to go in the alternative direction. We cannot rule it out. But would there be an improvement in the current situation of segregation in the European context? For the moment, there will be no such improvement.
Photo: Riccardo Petrella (source: Riccardo Petrella)