José Mujica: “Digital civilisation is creating a real disease in representative democracy, and I don’t know what the cure is”

José Mujica: “Digital civilisation is creating a real disease in representative democracy, and I don't know what the cure is”

José Mujica speaks with Equal Times from his country house in Montevideo, on 13 February 2021.

(Rody Olivera/APU )

José Mujica, Uruguay’s president from 2010 to 2015, has been living in complete lockdown at his country home in Rincón del Cerro (11 kilometres from the city centre of Montevideo) since the beginning of the pandemic. Due to a long-term immunological disease, he cannot receive vaccinations and his only way of dealing with the coronavirus is exercising extreme care and precaution.

He recently agreed to sit down for a long chat with Equal Times which covered many areas of international interest. He shared with us his views on the phenomenon of social networks, the benefits and pitfalls of digital civilisation, and the emergence of political figures like Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the masses that follow them.

According to Mujica, this pandemic has brought out the worst side of humanity by accentuating the selfishness of rich countries and laying bare the lack of solidarity between people. He says that the middle classes, frustrated by the concentration of wealth and power and their inability to access it, have increasingly turned to reactionary politics. He argues that the coronavirus vaccine has become incredibly politicised and blames Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for playing a central role in this by calling the vaccine produced in his country Sputnik.

How do you view the growing phenomenon of social networks and self-representation in society? Do you think it has an impact on democracy?

Digital civilisation has a lot of wonderful things going for it, because any old imbecile is now walking around with a library in his pocket. But it has also given a voice and a platform to all the incredible stupidity that we are now seeing. This in and of itself wouldn’t be the worst thing, but add to it the many bad faith actors and the increasingly finely tuned technology that allows messages to be individualised according to people’s profiles. Artificial intelligence makes it possible to send segmented and targeted messages tailored to each individual in society.

The worst dictatorship in the world could never even dream of having a mechanism that would allow it to get into people’s subconscious, and what’s worse is that it’s in the hands of private companies that sell their services. All of this is creating a real disease in representative democracy and I don’t know what the cure is. There are so many sources and mechanisms at work producing hyper-information that ends up confusing and obscuring the most essential things.

Do you believe that this hyper-information and self-representation in society are responsible for the emergence of political phenomena such as Donald Trump in the United States or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil?

Obviously all of this has contributed to the appearance of the Trumps and Bolsonaros of the world, but it also tends to generally discredit the role of politics and instead generates a kind of nihilism in public opinion that says everything is the same, that all politics are worthless. What’s more, we are jeopardising or losing altogether one of our essential and natural conditions. Anthropologically speaking, humans are social animals, we cannot live without society. We’re not like felines who get together to mate and then separate. We have lived in groups for 150,000 years. Individuals depend on groups for their livelihood. Of course this generates conflicts and the role of politics is to find the best possible solution to these conflicts.

And this is precisely what is now in crisis. The most prevalent ideology today preaches that everyone has to face the world alone. We are taught that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one will do it for you, and that exponentially multiplies the level of selfishness that we carry inside us. I agree with the old Aristotelian assertion that man is a political animal. He needs community, society, but when he withdraws, when he distrusts, when he believes in nothing, he also assumes a political position which is poisonous to the whole of society. I may have many friends and companions but if I have a heart attack I need a cardiologist, if my car breaks down I need a mechanic, if my roof collapses I need a bricklayer. And who gives me these things? Society gives them to me. We depend on each other! That has so much value and we don’t realise it.

Did you ever think that you would see a president of the United States essentially barricaded in the White House in the midst of violent protests and essentially a coup d’état?

You have to look at the psychology of the character, no? At any rate, Trump himself isn’t the real problem, it’s the people who follow him. It’s incredible how people get behind a message that is frankly so negative from every point of view. That’s what is terrible. It’s astounding to see how little we learn from historical lessons. Hitler and Mussolini were, after all, elected by the masses.

The idea that the people are never wrong is, of course, relative. The people can be wrong, and these are the consequences. That’s why social organisations are so important. They are resources that safeguard coexistence. When they lose influence, societies naturally look for other collectives in which to express themselves, they replace them with Barcelona or Real Madrid [football clubs] because they need something that brings them together, even if they don’t realise it. That’s why it’s so essential to have powerful social organisations, trade unions, etc., in which people can express themselves freely. This helps to mitigate our individual suffering.

In this context, what do you think of the emergence, especially in Latin America, of powerful businessmen who get involved in politics and end up becoming presidents of their countries?

Politics has its own language. Powerful businessman getting involved in politics is not in and of itself the problem. The problem is that they tend to judge reality according to their vision, and society is much more complex than that. Politics is not a profession. Politics is either a passion and a commitment or it is not. Those who lust for power, whose happiness is based on accumulation and wealth, are a danger in politics. It’s not that they’re bad people, there are some with enormous ability, but that ability is placed at the service of accumulating resources and wealth. The concentration of political and economic power into the same hands is a threat to democracy.

How do you see what is happening in the world with the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and the phenomenon of politicisation that it has engendered?

[Vladimir] Putin couldn’t think of anything better to do than to call his vaccine Sputnik. He has needlessly politicised everything. And what is happening now is that the poorest people will be the last to get vaccinated. Latin America’s role is sad in this respect. Even the Africans are teaching us a lesson here. The African Union bought 230 million vaccines. Fifty-four countries that speak different languages all agreed and we Latin Americans, who all speak the same language, couldn’t get together to have some bargaining power in the purchase of vaccines. It’s regrettable!

This pandemic has held up a mirror to human societies, showing us what we truly are. Solidarity, human rights and the rest are beautiful, but when push comes to shove, it’s everyone for themselves.

Is there a solution to the enormous social inequality in the world?

Between 1985 and 1990 the level of wealth concentration skyrocketed. In Latin America, even during the pandemic, a new ‘billionaire’ is created every two or three days. And the banks never do badly. We live in a world in which resources have increased significantly but the concentration of wealth has increased even more proportionally. And this is a serious problem for politics, because excessive concentration of wealth means excessive concentration of power. The world is now experiencing a process of radical wealth concentration like the one that took place between 1890 and 1914.

Progressive tax policies are a good way to have a positive impact on the redistribution of wealth. Those who have more should pay more. In Europe, tax collection in the 1960s and 1970s was proportionally much higher than it is now. But then there was a shift towards regressive taxation policies that people are generally not well informed about. There was a real conservative revolution in fiscal policy and proportionally those who have more now tend to pay less. The VAT (Value Added Tax) is the most important source of revenue for governments, and we all know who pays it: the least well-off households that spend most of their income on food, where it is impossible to deduct this tax. This issue of taxation will eventually set the tone for distribution in society.

The welfare state was based on the creation of public goods such as education, health care, etc. This has to be paid for by genuine resources, it’s not a gift from the Holy Spirit. It is said that the most equitable country in modern history was Sweden in 1980, but it had a very strict fiscal policy that allowed the Swedish state to build up a very significant amount of public goods. And who benefits from the existence of public goods? The most deprived sectors of society. But the most common claim we hear nowadays is that the cost of the state must be lowered.

What role does the middle class play in this context?

The middle classes are frustrated by the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority plutocracy and their inability to access it. As a result, they have increasingly turned to reactionary politics. And this is why we ended up with Trump. The frustrated middle class, stuck in place and unable to grow, is what put Trump in the White House. A union leader in Detroit said some time ago: I’m earning the same as my grandfather did 30 years ago, in terms of value, not money.

All of this creates immense social pressure. People tend to vote against the powers that be, show contempt for the establishment. They don’t really know what they’re voting for but they know what they’re voting against. We saw this in the US and we saw it in France with [Emmanuel] Macron, who came out of nowhere and laid waste to the older political parties, but soon after had the yellow vests setting fire to the streets. Do you think Mexico became a leftist country just because it elected [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador? No! People voted against the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years], the same thing that happened in Brazil with Bolsonaro. These were anti-establishment reactions by the middle classes who are frustrated by the concentration of wealth happening in the world, and that is very dangerous.

Finally, Mr Mujica, there is a debate in Uruguay and throughout the world about how states are going to finance growing social security expenditures due to ever-increasing life expectancy. During your presidency you indicated the need to start discussing this issue and the question is: is there a solution to this problem?

In the context of Latin America, Uruguay has treated its elderly quite well, at the expense of many young people. But the question that arises is: can this be maintained? The problem is that we have to understand is that the social security system currently does not have the resources to keep up with the ageing population. The numbers don’t add up. And what we contribute doesn’t pay for what we receive. This means that we have to draw from somewhere else to support the elderly, and no government wants to assume this responsibility. We cannot have a country with social justice that takes care of its old people and doesn’t become more expensive. Uruguay is an expensive country because it has a number of public goods and we already know that if we sacrifice them the vast majority of people will be screwed. But people aren’t talking about this because they are afraid to tell the truth.

A huge challenge lies ahead and the options are always political, not technical. There is also a very significant cultural problem because we currently live in an era in which we are pressured to think that happiness means buying new things all the time, and we end up going into debt to buy them. This leads us to lose our sense of what is truly important and what is accessory. Marketing is the art and science of keeping people addicted and under control, chasing happiness, buying new things that they pay for with their precious time. Marketing culture exerts a brutal form of domination that acts directly on our minds.

This article has been translated from Spanish.