Commentary No. 431, August 15, 2016
After a long struggle, the system of apartheid in South Africa was overcome. Elections based on universal suffrage were held. The chief architect of this transformation was the African National Congress (ANC). And the principal hero of the struggle was the leader of the ANC, Nelson Mandela. Mandela was elected the first president of a post-apartheid government in 1994 by an overwhelming margin. The ANC won a commanding majority in the National Assembly.
Mandela declined to run for reelection in 1999 and he was succeeded for two terms by Thabo Mbeki. Two terms is the maximum allowable. Jacob Zuma was first elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2014. The first two presidents were Xhosa, one of the two major ethnic groups in South Africa. Zuma however was Zulu, and he reflected and enjoyed ethnic pride.
The major opposition party was the Democratic Alliance (DA). It was a party derived from the White liberal groups that existed during the apartheid regime. Initially, it received little support outside the White community, still about 20% of the population. It sought however to attract Black middle class voters and in recent years chose Black politicians as their leaders.
The other significant opposition party to emerge in the last few years is called The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It is led by Julius Malema, formerly the head of the ANC Youth League. Malema centered his appeal on the unresolved land question. He proposed confiscating the land of White farmers, who still control most of the best arable land. His provocative views led to his expulsion from the ANC, after which he created the EFF to pursue these objectives.
This year on August 3, municipal elections were held. Up to now, the ANC was the governing party in three of the four largest cities and the provinces of which they were a part. The one exception was Cape Town where Blacks were in a minority. The largest group were those of mixed heritage, who were known as Coloureds under the apartheid regime. This year, however, they lost two additional large cities to the DA (Tswane and Nelson Mandela Bay) and only narrowly retained the lead in Johannesburg. The EFF performed better than expected, obtaining more than 10% in several cities. The municipal elections have been widely appraised as a major electoral setback for the ANC.
Why did this happen, and what next? The weakness of the ANC has several causes. One is the very widespread charge of corruption of ANC leaders in general and President Zuma in particular. The second is the fact that twenty years after the end of apartheid, no significant program of return of Blacks to land ownership has been enacted, and the ANC did not seem to seek to move forward on this issue. The third is the increased economic difficulties of South Africa, caused by the worldwide increase in economic inequality.
However, the most important factor in the decline of the ANC is generational change. In 2016, the majority of the voters were born after the end of apartheid. They have no personal memory of life under apartheid and therefore no longer reward the ANC for its accomplishments, or perhaps even understand what the struggle under apartheid was like. One can say that the ANC is slipping away in the same way as did other national liberation movements, such as the Congress Party in India. Such slippage can only increase as the years go by.
The problem for South Africa is what next. At the moment, if the DA hopes to govern at the provincial or national level, it does not have enough support to do it on its own. It would have to consider seeking the support of the EFF. But the DA and the EFF support virtually opposing programs. The DA is basically a conservative neoliberal party. The EFF asserts a left program in the economic sphere – renationalization of basic industries in particular. The DA seeks to be a multiethnic party. The EFF is aggressively xenophobic.
And the ANC? In practice, although not in verbiage, its program is not that different from that of the DA – neoliberal economics and multiethnicity. The ANC risks falling apart entirely. The EFF is likely to continue to grow in strength. Its combination of left language and xenophobic pressures has been successful in several former Communist countries in East and Central Europe. Why not in South Africa?
South Africa however is not just any African country. It has been the solid base of stability in Southern Africa and beyond. Its loss of power will have a ripple effect on a large number of states. And what will be the response of the other members of the BRICS who have counted on South Africa to be their evidence that the BRICS are truly concerned with Africa, the poorest continent?
The last consideration is whether there could be the emergence of a true left movement from the bottom up. Could there be the equivalent of Podemos or Syriza? Possibly, but such a movement has not emerged, despite the valiant attempts of small groups of activists.
South Africa has now shifted from a democratic model that it has claimed to be, to being a center of internal turmoil of a sort that might be difficult to label as democratic.
Commentary No. 430, August 1, 2016
Turkey is presently governed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish initials). The AKP was co-founded in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He became Prime Minister in 2003 and served until 2014, when he became Turkey’s 12th president.
The stories of Turkey, Erdoğan, and the AKP were closely linked during the past fifteen years. They all remarkably strengthened their position in every possible way for the first ten of these past fifteen years. Then they all ran into increasing difficulty, culminating in an attempted coup d’état that began on the evening of July 15, 2016. Although the coup was crushed within two days, it is not clear that Turkey, the AKP, and Erdoğan have been able to stem their growing difficulties.
To understand what has risen and fallen we need to look first at Turkey’s situation in 2001. Turkey had become a republic in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as its first president. He was the leader of a military group that sought to replace the long-declining Ottoman Empire with a modern republic.
The Atatürk regime abolished the governing military role of the Sultan and the religious role of the Caliph. In the following years, they changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin letters and forbade the wearing of the fez, which they considered a symbol of the old regime. They granted political rights to women and proclaimed their equality with men. They closed religious institutions. In short, they secularized the country.
Until 1946, Turkey was governed by a single party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP in its Turkish initials). Atatürk, founder of the CHP, died in 1938. In 1946, his successor as president and leader of the CHP, İsmet İnönü, allowed multi-party elections. After that, Turkey’s government alternated between the CHP (considered center-left or social-democrat) and the rightwing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). There were during this time repeated attempts to establish a Muslim or Islamist party. Whenever such a party seemed to grow strong, the armed forces launched (or threatened to launch) a coup, seeking to defend secularism against Islamist parties.
It was therefore a great shock to the armed forces, the CHP, and the MHP when the newly-formed Islamist AKP of Erdoğan won by a landslide in the 2002 elections. The AKP government did not however feel very strong. They feared a coup. The only practical support at this time came from another Islamic group, led by Fethullah Gülen, a theologian currently residing in the United States. This group has no name but is often called Cemaat (“Community”).
In 2002, The Turkish economy was in very parlous shape, with a low GDP and GDP per capita and a high rate of inflation. Turkey’s relations with the Arab countries was overladen by powerful anti-Turkish sentiments derived from the Arab world’s previous subjection to the Ottoman Empire. Although Turkey was a member of NATO, its attempts to join the European Union (EU) met with great resistance because of EU fears about Muslim migrants to EU countries. And, not least, Turkey was low on the foreign policy priority list of the United States.
When the AKP assumed power, Erdoğan could not be named to any office because of a previous conviction that included an exclusion from political life. Abdullah Gül became Prime Minister and revoked the exclusion, permitting Erdoğan to become the prime minister in 2003.
The AKP under Erdoğan’s leadership was remarkably successful in transforming Turkey’s situation in its first decade in power. By judicious appointments to a politically-weakened armed forces, the threat of a coup seemed to have been removed. The AKP went on to win the elections again in 2007 and 2012. It turned Turkey’s economy into one that boomed, and was able to liquidate its IMF loans. It used the new resources to improve economic and social conditions inside the country, notably in education and health services. It sought new ways to overcome long-standing ethnonational divisions with the Kurds and the Armenians. It reentered Middle East politics as a friend to everyone while still being a friend to Israel. It reopened negotiations with the EU for future entry. And it alleviated constraints on Islamic practice without alarming secularist groups. Turkey thus became the “model” Islamist movement in power.
Suddenly this all seemed to fall apart. The economy began to go downhill. Like all the other so-called emerging economies, Turkey was able to sell less on the world market and for reduced prices. The economic well-being of Turkish citizens declined. The magnificent gesture of Erdoğan to open negotiations with the Kurdish militants, including the possible liberation of their leader Abdullah Öcalan, was terminated. Erdoğan returned to the old policy of repression. The symbolic gestures to the Armenians were revoked. The EU seemed to close off discussions about a possible entry for Turkey.
Turkey ceased being everyone’s friend in the Arab world. Instead, it entered into an unlimited struggle with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. It defied Israel’s ban on direct delivery of aid to the Gaza strip. Israel’s response led to multiple Turkish deaths and Turkey severed diplomatic ties. It was furious at the United States for its endorsement of the military coup against Mohamed Morsi, whose regime was in Turkish eyes its equivalent. Turkey waffled on fighting ISIS, considering action again al-Assad and the Kurdish movement more urgent.
At the same time, the alliance with Gülen’s movement ended. On the surface, there seemed to be little difference between the objectives of AKP and Gülen. Actually they were profound. Gülen advocated a policy of infiltrating all Turkish institutions. He was ready to pretend not to require Islamist social conservatism. His members dressed in Western style. His long-run objective, however, was to be proclaimed the hidden imam, the Mahdi or messiah. Erdoğan’s long-run objective was to be proclaimed the incarnation of Turkish nationalism, essentially a more secularist policy.
When Erdoğan says that Gülen had long plotted the coup, his arguments seem plausible. It is for this reason that all the opposition parties – CHP, NMH, and HDP (left party with a strong base in Kurdish areas) – went into the streets to oppose the coup. When, however, the CHP and HDP plus commentators in Turkey and elsewhere say that Erdoğan seemed prepared to use the excuse of the coup to purge the country of every conceivable possible opponent, these arguments also seem plausible. In particular, his proposal to change the constitution to create an “executive presidency” is considered as leading to a dictatorship.
Despite the incredibly vast numbers of persons being arrested, are Erdoğan and the AKP really strong today? They hold two powerful weapons in dealing with the United States and the EU. The United States needs Turkey’s cooperation if it is to fight effectively against ISIS. And Europe needs Turkey’s cooperation if it is to stem the flow of Syrian (and other) migrants to Europe. But these strengths may be illusory. It seems unlikely that Turkey can stem a bubbling up of internal opposition, which might lead to a total collapse of the regime. If that happens, it is anyone’s guess what might take its place.
Turkey, the AKP, and Erdoğan all rose spectacularly by pursuing a shrewd policy in a favorable world context of which they took advantage. Turkey has fallen as a result of a changed world context. And Erdoğan may have overplayed his hand in his response to a no longer favorable world context.
Commentary No. 429, July 15, 2016
Every year, France celebrates on July 14 the fall in 1789 of the Bastille, then the main prison in Paris. The celebration is meant to mark the end of the so-called Ancien Régime. It unifies the country around what are referred to today as Republican values.
The first time there was such a celebration was the very next year in 1790, one that was dedicated to peace and national unity. Bastille Day, however, did not become an annual celebration until 1880, when the legislature of the Third Republic proclaimed July 14 the fête nationale (national festivity), which it has remained up to today. But this year, the Republic is anything but unified, its immediate future could not be more uncertain, and there is much debate about exactly what constitute Republican values.
The present constitution is quasi-presidential, making the choice of a president politically crucial. However, at the same time, it establishes a system in which there are two rounds of voting, unless someone gets a clear majority on the first round. In the second round there are only two candidates, the two with the highest votes on the first round.
The object of this system is to allow for every political grouping to show its strength on the first round and then vote on the second round for one of the two principal parties (center-right versus center-left). The problem is that this system works if there are only two main parties. If there are three of approximately equal electoral strength (as there are at present), the system is transformed. In this case, the three main parties must stay united on the first round and urge the smaller parties to make a “useful” vote on the first round so that their preferred second-round party will actually be on the second-round ballot.
The result is confusion and havoc, first of all within the three main parties and then within the smaller political tendencies. Each of the current three main parties – the Socialists (center-left), the Republicans (center-right) and the National Front (far right) – is having an internal struggle over strategy and each risks secessions. At the same time, the smaller parties are splitting up precisely over whether they should cast “useful” votes on the first round or not. The biggest one on the further left has fallen apart over this issue.
One of the substantive issues under debate is the construction of Europe, including the euro as currency, the freedom of movement within the European Union (EU), and the reception and treatment of immigrants from outside the EU. This is of course a major debate everywhere in the EU. France’s position is somewhere in the middle of the range of European views, both that of the governments and that of public opinion.
In addition, France has had for a long time concern with maintaining and augmenting its role both in the world-system as a whole and within Europe. One of its strengths heretofore has been the de facto arrangement it has had with Germany to constitute a duo whose agreed-upon preferences became the basis of Europe’s collective policies. This worked as long as Germany was divided in two and France was the country with nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the U.N.’s Security Council. But in the last twenty years, Germany has become so comparatively strong economically that it needs far less the legitimation that a Franco-German duo offered Germany. The duo no longer makes EU rules and policies.
France’s relations with the United States has also been an issue since at least 1945. On the one hand, the United States, and particularly the U.S. Congress, have been very critical of what they considered France’s too accommodating attitude toward first the Soviet Union and now Russia. On the other hand, France has been highly critical of what it considered the U.S. abandonment of the defense of human rights (as for example in Syria).
The recent vote of Great Britain to leave the EU has provided still further uncertainty in France. Is this a plus or a minus for France? France is seeking to present itself as a good haven for businesses (and especially financial structures) that may be seeking a calmer, less unsure environment. But France is also worried about the quasi-forced repatriation of French citizens now resident and working in Great Britain. In the forthcoming negotiations of Great Britain and the EU, France is unsure if she should push for efforts to keep Great Britain still tied to the EU in some way, or not. The appointment of Boris Johnson as British Foreign Minister weakens any sentiment favorable to Great Britain.
So, the confusion returns us to the forthcoming presidential elections. The National Front has been seeking to draw votes from the two classical centrist parties by downplaying its racist language and actually ousting members who refuse to do this. Notably, its leader Marine LePen has purged her father and long-time leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie LePen, for refusing to do this. But this risks losing some of its previous supporters to breakaway parties or to abstentions.
The center-right Republican Party, led by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, is trying to pick up National Front votes by shifting its rhetoric in their direction. This is strongly contested by two other candidates in the forthcoming party primary, Alain Juppé and François Fillon. If Sarkozy wins, Fillon may withdraw support from the party. Juppé is generally thought to be the one most likely to win the second-round national election because of his more “moderate” views on the main issues. But to be in the second round, he must win the party’s nomination in its primary, and to do this he has shifted his rhetoric to the right.
Finally, the current president François Hollande is in the most difficult position of all. The Socialist party is under pressure to participate in a primary that is a primary of the entire French left. Hollande doesn’t want such an “open” primary, as he seems quite likely to lose it. So, he is pushing for a decision to be made by the party’s convention on a more rightward platform that he believes will enable him to win the second round. He has thus pushed through new legislation that weakens trade-union rights. This is unpopular both with the left of the party who are grumbling and with two of his own presumed allies, Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, both of whom are maneuvering to become the Socialist candidate, if not in 2017 then in 2022. Macron feels that Hollande is not going far enough right.
The multiple uncertainties within the parties in France make the recent back-stabbing within the British Conservative Party pale by comparison. Given that France’s economy is also in parlous condition, 2016 seems hardly a moment to celebrate national festivities based on common Republican values.
Commentary No. 428, July 1, 2016
On June 23, the referendum on a British withdrawal from the European Union (EU) won by a clear margin. Politicians and pundits have treated this as an unprecedented and earth-shaking decision. They have been giving various and quite contradictory explanations about the causes of this event and the consequences of this event for Great Britain and the rest of the world.
The first thing to note is that no legal decision to exit the EU has yet been taken. The referendum was, in legal terms, merely advisory. In order to withdraw from the EU, the British government must formally inform the EU that it is invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which is what provides the right and the mode of withdrawal. No one has ever invoked Article 50, so yes, it would be unprecedented. No one therefore can be sure how it would work in practice. While it seems most unlikely that any British government would ignore the referendum, strangely there has been no major British politician who seemed in a hurry to invoke Article 50, an action that would be irreversible.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned against Brexit, has said it will not be he who invokes Article 50. Rather, he has announced his resignation as Prime Minister – however not immediately but when the Conservative Party chooses a new leader. Cameron believes this person should be the one who invokes Article 50. This seems on the surface to be sensible. Once Article 50 is invoked, there will be many issues about Great Britain’s future relations with the EU and with other countries that will have to be decided and it might be best that these decisions be made by his successor.
The first question therefore is who will be his successor and when will this person be chosen. There is considerable pressure from other countries in the EU that this succession be done as soon as possible. In response to this pressure, the Conservative Party has set the date as September 2. There were until June 29 two main candidates: Boris Johnson, a leading advocate of Brexit but not yet a member of parliament; and Theresa May, who opposed Brexit but who shares some part of the objectives of the supporters of Brexit. It is stunning to learn that Johnson actually expected to lose the vote and therefore did not prepare a political map for what he should do after the referendum.
It seemed that Johnson wanted to “negotiate” Britain’s withdrawal. Article 50 provides a two-year period for working out post-withdrawal arrangements. This seems to allow for such negotiations. It also says that, if no agreement is reached, the cutting of all ties is automatic. What Johnson apparently wanted was a deal in which Great Britain retained the advantages of a common market but would no longer be bound by the EU’s constraints on immigration and human rights. The other countries in the EU have been showing no sympathy for such an arrangement. As Germany’s quite conservative Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said, they feel that “in is in and out is out.” Since “out” will have immediate negative consequences on the economic situation for most persons in Great Britain, and especially many of the supporters of Brexit, Johnson and others have been dragging their feet about invoking Article 50. This is probably what underlay Michael Gove’s last-minute decision to cease being Johnson’s campaign manager and to announce his own candidacy, backed immediately by most strong Brexit supporters. Gove, it seems, will not hesitate. Johnson has withdrawn his candidacy and is possibly quite relieved not to be the one who gets the blame for invoking Article 50.
What are the matters underlying this debate? There are essentially four: popular anger at the so-called Establishment and its parties; the geopolitical decline of the United States; the politics of austerity; and identity politics. All of them have contributed to the turmoil. But all of them have a long history that predates by far the Brexit referendum. The priorities among these four are different for the multiple actors, including the British who voted to leave Europe.
There is little doubt that popular anti-Establishment anger is a strong force. It has often erupted when economic conditions are uncertain, as they surely are today. If this seems a stronger motivation now than previously, it is probably because economic uncertainty is far greater than in the past.
Still it should be noted that anti-Establishment movements have not won out everywhere or consistently. The movements sometimes win out, and just as often do not. For successes, one can point to Brexit, Trump’s rise to being the de facto Republican presidential candidate in the United States, Syriza‘s becoming the governing party in Greece, and Rodrigo Duterte’s election as President of the Philippines. On the other hand, see the recent electoral defeat of Podemos in Spain or the signs of some voter remorse already in Great Britain. The life span of such movements seems to be relatively short. So, even if stronger today than in the past, it is not at all sure that such movements are the wave of the future.
The geopolitical consequences of Brexit are probably more important. Great Britain’s withdrawal from Europe deals a further blow to the ability of the United States to maintain its dominance in the world-system. Great Britain has been in many ways the indispensable geopolitical ally (or is it agent?) of the United States in Europe, in NATO, in the Middle East, and vis-à-vis Russia. There is no substitute. That is why President Obama strongly and publicly supported the Remain vote in Great Britain and, after the referendum, has sought to persuade Great Britain to remain a close ally. That is why Henry Kissinger, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journalof June 28, called for the United States to seek “to transform setback (the Brexit turmoil) into opportunity.” How? By reinforcing the “special relationship” with Great Britain and for the United States to redefine its role in “a new kind of leadership, moving from dominance to persuasion.” Kissinger is clearly worried. It sounds like whistling in the dark to me.
Austerity is obviously nobody’s desired policy, except for the ultra-rich who alone profit from it. The fear of increased austerity, as promised by the British government, surely contributed significantly to the move for Brexit, which was promoted as a way to reduce austerity and secure a better future for the vast majority of the population. Austerity is another theme that today is worldwide – both as practice and as cause for fear and anger. There is nothing special about the British situation in this regard. Modal income has been going down there for a quarter-century at least, as it has been everywhere.
The economic turmoil and the fears it provokes have resulted in the prominence of identity politics – Britain for the British (actually for the English), Russia for the Russians, South Africa for the South Africans, and of course Donald Trump’s America for the Americans. This underlies the call for controlling, even eliminating, immigration. As a bugaboo, there is nothing easier to use than immigration. But identity politics is a loose cannon. It doesn’t have to center on immigration. It can concentrate on secession – in Scotland, in Catalonia, in Chiapas. The list is long.
What shall we conclude from all these currents and countercurrents? Brexit is important as a symptom but not as a cause of turmoil. Since the turmoil is part of a chaotic structural crisis in the modern world-system, it is impossible to anticipate the many ways in which this scenario may play out in the next few years. The short run is too volatile. We are not paying enough attention to the middle run, where the long-run successor world-system (or systems) will be decided, and where the decision remains dependent on what we do in the middle-run struggle.
Commentary No. 427, June 15, 2016
Ethnicity refers to one of the basic realities of the modern world-system. We are all embedded in one or several groups that have a presumed (if remote) kinship base. These days we tend to refer to such groups as “identities.” Quite often, our feelings of loyalty to such groups become quite impassioned. We seldom recognize how impermanent are the names and boundaries of such groups. What is sure is that our sentiments about our identities, which vary in intensity, are always a very important part of our current political realities.
Let us start with the impermanence of the groupings. The names of the groups are constantly changing. The names we assign to groups of which we claim to be a part are very often different from the names non-members assign to these groups. More important, names disappear, as groups blend into and assume the identity of other groups, often more powerful ones. This is sometimes called “assimilation.” But at the same time, new names are constantly being created, in part by the secession of members of a given group or by their expulsion from the group. This may be because of differing class interests of members of the group.
The very existence of a group can be a matter of great (and impassioned) debate. Are the Crimean Tatars Ukrainians or citizens of Russia? Political leaders in Myanmar insist that there are no Rohingya in the largely Buddhist country. They assert that the Muslim Rohingya are really Bengalis, who therefore are not indigenous to Myanmar/Burma. Golda Meir, then Israel’s Prime Minister, famously denied in the 1970s that there was such a group as the Palestinians. Japanese nationalists oppose recognizing the rights of ethnic Korean persons whose ancestors came or were taken to Japan four generations before.
And in the United States, we are currently debating who is an American. Is only a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) a true American? Is a Muslim born in the United States of Afghan legal immigrants a true American? Are Native Americans the true Americans, whose claims to property that was appropriated from them centuries ago pre-empt the rights of those current legally recognized owners?
Why such quarrels about names are important is that they bring with them immediate political consequences. The fundamental reality of the world is that no group anywhere has been in the same locality forever. They all migrated there from somewhere else at some time. In this sense there are no groups with unchallengeable claims to rights. These claims are all based on current narratives about past history. Furthermore, the boundaries of any particular group under discussion have almost certainly changed over time.
So, on what basis can one judge the reasonableness of claims of ethnicity? One way to do this is to support the demands of the least favored groups, the groups that are most currently oppressed. But this of course is hard to do. Those accused of being oppressors deny it vigorously on the basis of quite different historical narratives.
Here is where the passion enters the picture. Passion is not a constant. Groups that have peacefully co-existed and intermarried for a long time can suddenly be ignited to the point that they slaughter each other, and in particular those who are the offspring of an ethnic intermarriage. The so-called purity of one’s genealogy becomes the prime political consideration. Passion begets passion on both sides and we have what we call genocides. And the memory of such genocides becomes itself the subject of an impassioned debate and a justification for further violence.
The whole domain of identities and rights is a very tricky one to navigate. One cannot and should not ignore it. But one needs to analyze realities soberly, discounting the fables that intrude themselves into the narratives, and always trying to support the least powerful, the most immediately oppressed.
Ethnic passions have pervaded the modern world-system since its inception. They seem however to have become more ferocious and to consume more of our political energies in the last thirty years or so. This is probably because we have entered a period of great uncertainty, that of the structural crisis of our capitalist system and therefore the time of the political struggle about the successor system. The uncertainties and unpredictability seem to push many to seek to reinforce their commitments to their identities as a way of coping with the uncertainties. But this also diverts us from seeing what are the basic political decisions that we are facing and what moral choices they imply. Ergo, I say, ethnicity: caveat emptor!
Commentary No. 426, June 1, 2016
We are used to thinking of instability in states as being located primarily in the global South. It is about those regions that pundits and politicians in the global North speak of “failed states” in which there are “civil wars.” Life is very uncertain for the inhabitants of these regions. There is massive displacement of populations and efforts to flee these regions to “safer” parts of the world. These safer parts are supposed to have more jobs and higher standards of living.
In particular, the United States has been seen as the migratory goal of a very large percentage of the world’s population. This was once largely true. In the period that ran roughly from 1945 to 1970, the United States was the hegemonic power in the world-system in which life was indeed better economically and socially for its inhabitants.
And while the frontiers for immigrants were not exactly open, those migrants who managed to arrive in one way or another were by and large content with what they regarded as their good fortune. And others from the countries of origin of the successful immigrants kept trying to follow in their footsteps. In this period, there was very little emigration from the United States other than on a temporary basis to take very well-paying employment as economic, political, or military mercenaries.
This golden era of U.S. dominance of the world-system began to come undone circa 1970 and has been unraveling ever since, and increasingly. What are the signs of this? There are many, some of them within the United States itself and some of them in changing attitudes of the rest of the world towards the United States.
In the United States, we are now living through a presidential campaign that almost everyone speaks of as unusual and transformational. There are a very large number of voters who have been mobilizing against the “Establishment,” many of them entering the voting process for the first time. In the Republican primary process, Donald J. Trump has built his search for the nomination precisely on riding the wave of such discontent, indeed by fanning the discontent. He seems to have succeeded, despite all the efforts of what might be thought of as “traditional” Republicans.
In the Democratic Party, the story is similar but not identical. A previously obscure Senator, Bernie Sanders, has been able to ride a discontent verbalized on a more left-wing rhetoric and, as of June 2016, has been conducting a very impressive campaign against the one-time supposedly unchallengeable candidature of Hillary Clinton. While it doesn’t seem he will get the nomination, he has forced Clinton (and the Democratic Party) much further left than seemed possible a few short months ago. And Sanders did this without ever having stood for election before as a Democrat.
But, you may think, all this will calm down, once the presidential election is decided, and “normal” centrist political judgments will prevail again. There are many who predict this. But what then will be the reaction of those who very vocally supported their candidates precisely because they were not advocating “normal” centrist policies? What if they are disillusioned with their current champions?
We need to look at another of the changes in the United States. The New York Times ran a long front-page article on May 23 about gun violence, which it called “unending but unheard.” The article was not about the well-reported massive gun shootings that we call massacres and that are considered shocking. Instead, the article pursues shootings that the police tend to call “incidents” and never get into newspapers. It describes one such incident in detail, and calls it “a snapshot of a different source of mass violence – one that erupts with such anesthetic regularity that it is rendered almost invisible, except to the mostly black victims, survivors and attackers.” And the numbers are going up.
As these “unending but unheard” deaths by violence go up, the possibility that they may go beyond the confines of Black ghettos to non-Black zones in which many of the disillusioned are located is not so far-fetched. After all, the disillusioned are right about one thing. Life in the United States is not as good as it once was. Trump has used as his slogan “make America great again.” The “again” refers to the golden era. And Sanders also seems to refer to a previously golden era in which jobs were not exported to the global South. Even Clinton now seems to look back at something lost.
And that is not to forget an even fiercer sort of violence – that propagated by a still very small band of deeply anti-state militias, who call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (CCF). They are the ones that have been defying the government’s closure of some land for their cattle or indeed for their usage. The CCF people say the government has no rights and is acting unconstitutionally.
The problem is that both the federal and local governments are unsure what to do. They “negotiate” for fear that asserting their authority will not be popular. But when the negotiations fail, the government finally uses its force. This more extreme version of action may soon spread. It is not a question of moving to the right but of moving towards more violent protest, towards a civil war.
All this time, the United States has been truly losing its authority in the rest of the world. It is indeed no longer hegemonic. The protestors and their candidates have been noting this but consider it reversible, which it is not. The United States is now considered a weak and unsure global partner.
This is not merely the view of states that have strongly opposed U.S. policies in the past, such as Russia, China, and Iran. It has now become true of presumably close allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, and Canada. On a worldwide scale, the feeling about the “reliability” of the U.S. in the geopolitical arena has moved from nearly 100% during the golden era to somewhere far, far lower. And it increases daily.
As it becomes less “safe” to live in the United States, look for a steady increase in emigration. It is not that other parts of the world are safe – just safer. It is not that the standard of living elsewhere is so high, but it has now become higher in many parts of the global North.
Not everyone can emigrate of course. There is a question of cost and a question of accessibility to other countries. Undoubtedly, the first group that may increase their emigration will be the most privileged sectors. But, as this comes to be noticed, the angers of the more middle-class “disillusioned” will grow. And growing, their reactions may take a more violent turn. And this more violent turn will feed back onto itself, increasing the angers.
Can nothing alleviate the attitudes about the transformation of the United States? If we were to stop trying to make America great again and start trying to make the world a better place for everyone, we could be part of the movement for “another world.” Changing the whole world would in fact transform the United States, but only if we stop longing to go back to a golden era, which was not so golden for most of the world.
Commentary No. 425, May 15, 2016
The President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has been suspended from her office while she goes on trial by the Senate. If convicted, she would be removed from office, which is what is meant in Brazil by “impeachment.” Anyone, even Brazilians, who have been trying to follow the last several months of political maneuvering may be excused if they are somewhat confused by the many turns this process has taken.
What is really at issue here? Is this a constitutional coup as Pres. Rousseff has called it repeatedly? Or is this a legitimate act of holding the president responsible for grave misdeeds by her and members of her cabinet and advisors, as the “opposition” claims? If the latter, why is this occurring only now and not, say, in Rousseff’s first term as president before she was easily re-elected in 2015 by a significant margin?
Rousseff is a member of the Partido dos Trabalhores (PT) that has been long led by her predecessor in office, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). One way to view these events is to see it as part of the story of the PT – its coming to power and now, quite probably, its ouster from power.
What is the PT, and what has it represented in Brazilian politics? The PT was founded in 1980 as a party opposed to the military dictatorship that had ruled Brazil since the coup of 1964. It was a socialist, anti-imperialist party, bringing together Marxist groups, large civil associations like the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement or MST), and Catholic movements of the liberation theology persuasion.
From the point of view both of the military and of the traditional Establishment parties in Brazil, the PT was a dangerous revolutionary party, which threatened the conservative economic and social structures of the country. The United States viewed its “anti-imperialism” as directed primarily at the U.S. dominant role in Latin American politics, which indeed it was.
The PT however did not seek power through guerrilla insurrection but rather through parliamentary elections, sustained and supported by extra-parliamentary demonstrations. It took four presidential elections to bring finally a PT candidate, Lula, to office in 2003. The Brazilian Establishment never expected this would actually happen and never accepted that it could possibly continue. They have devoted their energies ever since to bringing the PT down. They may have gotten their way in 2016. Historians in the future may look upon the period 2003-2016 as the fifteen-year PT interlude.
What in fact has happened in this interlude? The PT in office was something far less radical than the opponents of the PT feared, but still radical enough to have made them relentless in their desire to destroy the PT, not merely as the holders of the presidential office but as a movement with a legitimate place in Brazilian politics.
If the PT was able to come to electoral power in 2003, it was because of the combination of the growing attractiveness of its program and its rhetoric and the declining geopolitical strength of the United States. And what did the PT do with its time in office? On the one hand it sought to succor the poorest strata of Brazil through a redistributive program known as the Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program that included the Bolsa familia (Family Allowance), which did indeed improve their income level and reduce the enormous inequalities from which Brazil suffered.
In addition, Brazil’s foreign policy under the PT marked a significant shift away from Brazil’s historic subservience to U.S. geopolitical imperatives. Brazil took the lead in creating autonomous Latin American structures that included Cuba and excluded the United States and Canada.
On the other hand, Brazil’s macroeconomic policies remained quite orthodox from the point of view of neoliberal emphases on market orientations of governmental policies. And the PT’s multiple promises to prevent environmental destruction were never seriously implemented. Nor did the PT ever carry out its promises of agrarian reform.
In short, its performance as a left movement was a mixed bag. As a result, groups within the party and in its larger political alliances were constantly defecting. This resulted in the weakened position that made it possible in 2015 for the enemies of the PT to implement a plan to destroy it.
The scenario was simple. It centered on charges of corruption. Corruption has been massive and endemic in Brazilian politics, and important figures of the PT itself were by no means exempt from the practice. The one person not subject to such charges was Dilma Rousseff. What then to do? The person who took the lead in the impeachment process, President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha (and an Evangelical Christian) was himself removed from office because he is being indicted for corruption. No matter! The process proceeded on the basis that Dilma Rousseff failed in her responsibility to contain the corruption. This led Boaventura dos Santos Sousa to summarize the situation as one in which the one honest politician was being ousted by the most corrupt.
Rousseff has been suspended from office and her Vice-President Michel Temer has assumed office as Interim President, immediately appointing a far-right cabinet. It seems almost certain that Rousseff will be impeached and removed permanently from office. She is not the real target. The real target is Lula. Under Brazilian law, no president can have more than two successive terms. It has been everyone’s expectation that Lula would be the PT candidate again in 2019.
Lula has been Brazil’s most popular politician for a long time now. And while his popularity has been somewhat tarnished by the corruption scandal, he seems to remain sufficiently popular that he would win the election. So the right forces will try now to have him actually charged with corruption and therefore ineligible to run.
What will happen then? No one is sure. The rightwing politicians will fight among themselves for the presidency. The army may decide once again to take power. What seems sure is that the PT is finished. The PT sought to exercise its power as a centrist government, balancing its program. But the serious budget deficit and the decline of world prices for oil and other Brazilian exports has disillusioned a large swatch of its voters. As in many other countries today, massive discontent leads to a rejection of normal centrist politics.
What a successor movement of the PT might do would be to return to its roots as a consistently left anti-imperialist movement. This will be no more easy than it was for the PT in 1980. The difference between 1980 and now is the degree to which the modern world-system is in structural crisis. The struggle is worldwide and the Brazilian left can either play a major role in it or slip into global irrelevance and national misery.
Commentary No. 424, May 1, 2016
King Philip VI of Spain has announced that in the four months since the last elections, the elected members of parliament, and especially those representing the four main parties, were unable to make an agreement that would produce a viable government. He therefore announced new elections for June 26, 2016.
Spain, like governments in west European parliamentary systems, has long had two main parties: the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social-democratic PSOE. They have been alternating in parliamentary majorities since the end of the Franco regime and sometimes they formed a coalition government. As in most such systems, other parties were essentially insignificant by-standers that could get at most a few concessions for their political objectives.
The last elections in Spain changed everything. A new party, Podemos (We Can), which had grown out of the oppositional street movement, the Indignados, emerged with a substantial number of elected deputies on an anti-austerity platform. This program was primarily aimed at the PP, the party in power, and its leader, Mariano Rajoy, which had been an unrelenting supporter of the neoliberal program imposed by outside lenders on the government.
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