Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research is a movement-driven research institute. Our agenda is set in consultation with political and social movements and our research is conducted to promote social and economic transformation.
Our offices are based in four countries – Buenos Aires (Argentina), Johannesburg (South Africa), New Delhi (India) and São Paulo (Brazil). Our four offices and our inter-regional team work to build an agenda that is dynamic: rooted in the local specificity of the regions and in the global structures and processes that shape and constrain popular life. We are aware of the short-term demands of movements, which we will try – as best as possible – to honour. However, our work is to develop answers to medium- and long-term problems identified by the movements and to address changes in the present that will have a marked impact on the future. We are, therefore, interested in processes of transformation in the political economy and in the domain of the consciousness of the working-class and peasantry.
We understand our work to operate on two axes:
- Battle of Ideas. We are engaged in the immediate fight over control of the narrative of world events. For instance, we bring to bear our full intellectual arsenal to counter the worldview of the bourgeoisie in its interpretation of world events. This work takes place in the weekly Newsletter and the monthly Dossier. Both these outputs put forward our understanding of contemporary events, but with a deep assessment of the roots of these events in history and in relationship to the structure of power.
- Epistemology of Power. We are invested in building up information and analysis related to the changes in the world economy and politics as well as to the character of the consciousness of the working-class and the peasantry. Rooted as we are in the traditions of Marxism and other emancipatory theories, we are nonetheless aware of the velocity of change in both the structure of the world economy (and imperialism) as well as in the consciousness of the working-class, the peasantry and the growing section of marginally employed people. We seek to build our understanding of structure and consciousness by producing new knowledge – derived through ethnography and data analysis – and by interpreting this knowledge from the standpoint of political organisation and struggle.
Mode of Research
Our research projects have developed around a series of interlocking themes. These themes developed after discussion with our movement partners and with intellectuals in the regions where we have our offices. These are not a complete list of our projects, many of which remain in various stages of development. It is essential that our research include ethnographic field work as well as detailed assessment of government and corporate data. It is also important that we exhaust the academic record – most of which remains behind a paywall and is therefore inaccessible to the general public (as well as to our movement partners). We have three different major projects for our research: capitalism, fascism and the future.
Project #1. Capitalism.
Capital seeks profit above all else. Capitalists invest their money to make more money. The greater the rate of return, the more interest from the capitalist. To invest and to make a profit is to be alive. Everything else is economics.
In the past several decades, capitalism has been able to become the hegemonic system in every corner of the globe, whether capitalist social relations are dominant or not. Few small enclaves exist that attempt to drive a post-capitalist or non-capitalist agenda, but these are hemmed in and assault at each turn by the arrangements made by the capitalist system. There are areas of the world where workers remain in states of near bondage and of bondage, but their labour is drawn into the circuits of capitalism soon enough. The triumph of capitalism over the planet is what is known typically as ‘globalisation’.
In the process of globalisation, capitalism transformed the relations of production, breaking up factories along the global commodity chain and using cutting-edge technology to drive up productivity rates from agriculture to the digital sector. Rent-seeking monopoly firms have driven a hard bargain as they suck up vast amounts of the social wealth despite low levels of investment in social production. This has produced a class of uber-wealthy people who have – at the same time – taken advantage of a host of tax shelters and political arguments to go on a tax strike. Social inequality has increased in this period to near feudal levels, with no clear path out of economic purgatory.
No easy fix is apparent for declined profit rates – even an increase in the rate of exploitation as a counterbalance is not permanent. Capital, for whom profitability is a religious goal, has partly sought a haven in the fictitious wealth of financialisaton and in what is oddly called the ‘digital economy’. SoftBank – worth $2 trillion – is one of the key entities that has ploughed large amounts into the digital landscape. Investors in SoftBank’s Vision Fund would like a rate of return of near 35%, which would amount to the annual emergence of firms with a valuation of Amazon sixteen years after its initial public offering. This is a fantasy. The current size of the ‘make more money from money’ market is in the trillions – vastly more than the total global GDP. But there are limits to this enterprise, since profits are not made in the elevated realm of banking but in the world of production where surplus value is extracted.
In that world of production, the harshest means have returned to suck dry the life of workers and nature. What keeps capitalism afloat are older techniques: plunder of resources (nature and labour), indulgences given to capitalist firms against regulations, power of high finance that leeches wealth from social labour by its hegemonic role in economic activities. What also keeps it going is debt-fuelled consumption. Providing credit to those with no hope of paying down their debt has inflated global debt to astronomical levels. Today, the debt of global households, governments and firms is $217 trillion, $70 trillion more than a decade ago. In 2000, the debt to GDP ratio was 246%, while it now stands at 327%.
No easy ‘fix’ for capitalism seems now possible. Fantasies of a digital future – including full robotization – are not able to overcome the ugliness of present-day social inequalities.
Literature on contemporary capitalism is vast and is in every possible language, with analysis from a range of political backgrounds and theoretical approaches. This project, from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, proposes a series of inter-related research assignments that would provide the scaffolding and materials for an understanding of capitalism today. Once we have developed this material, we propose to produce several reports as well as several theoretical texts on capitalism in our times.
Project #2. Monsters.
The Mass Psychology of Neo-Fascism.
A quarter of the world’s population that live in formal democracies have voted the neo-fascists and fascistic blocs to power. Brazil, Hungary, India, Philippines, Turkey and the United States are the major countries that have taken this step. What did it take for the societies in these countries to vote neo-fascists and the fascistic blocs to power over the state institutions? Each of these countries has a different history and a different social structure? Each of them has their own path towards the elevation of neo-fascists and the fascistic blocs to power. As Aijaz Ahmad says, ‘every country gets the fascism it deserves’ – meaning that the neo-fascist forces and the fascistic blocs in each country have their own history and their own path to power.
It is important to note that the coming to power of a neo-fascist or the fascistic bloc is not itself a declaration that the state has moved from a democratic dispensation to fascism. The struggle over the nature of the state and of society continues in each of these societies. The neo-fascist forces and the fascistic blocs have found it hard to fully squash dissent. The contradictions of modern democracy provide opportunities – for greater or lesser – for forces that are against the neo-fascist dispensation and the fascistic bloc and against capitalism. These forces – the forces of socialism and of social democracy – remain engaged to defend aspects of liberal democracy and fight to deepen the ideological, organisational and institutional bases for socialism.
While each country has its own contours for the rise of neo-fascism and the fascistic blocs, there are some general principles afoot that require analysis. Some of this analysis will be based on country-wide and regional-wide levels, while others will have a more global lens. One of the main themes of our research work is to uncover the reason why sections of the working-class, the peasantry and the urban poor actively or passively support the forces of neo-fascism and the fascistic blocs. This has been a key part of the debate since the 1920s, when fascism was able to draw in mass support for its anti-human agenda. It was the theme that inspired the research agenda of the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School). The Frankfurt School went in a deeply pessimistic direction. We will study why that was so.
There is a scattered literature on neo-fascism and the fascistic blocs. Some of it attempts to understand the continuity of fascism, from its appearance in the 1920s to the present. Some of it attempts to explore this or that aspect of neo-fascism’s linkage to neo-liberalism. The literature oscillates from theory to empiricism; it often fails to provide a general theory of neo-fascism and of the fascistic bloc. This project, from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, proposes a series of inter-related research assignments that would provide the scaffolding and materials for a general theory of neo-fascism and the fascistic bloc. Once we have developed this material, we propose to produce several reports as well as one theoretical text on contemporary far right and fascistic movements.
Project #3. Future.
One of the key features of our research institute is to develop a theory of the future. What elements of the future are available today? It is not enough to investigate the problems with the present. It is essential that we participate in the conversation about what a transformed society would look like. To that end, we need to look at the history of emancipatory thought at the same time as we investigate projects in the present that encourage new ways of living and new ways of producing.
One of the great downsides of our current inflation of atrocities is the sense that nothing other than this nightmare is possible. Alternatives cannot be imagined. Mockery pushes aside thinking about a different future. When these are attempted, as they always are by resilient humans, those in power strive to snuff them out. It is better for the powerful and the propertied to see that no model of an alternative is allowed to flourish. It would call into question the claim that what governs the world now is eternal, that History has ended.
We are interested in new processes that indicate an exit from the atrocity of the present. The project we have here goes along two axes: the history of our complex emancipatory tradition and the sprouts of a future.