The Left Loses the Election in Peru

Commentary No. 423, April 15, 2016

Peru is one of the countries with a two-round presidential election. Unless one candidate obtains 50%+ on the first round, there is a second round with only the two candidates who had the most votes in the first round. And, as has been increasingly the case worldwide, when there are three candidates with significant support, there is a ferocious battle for second place on the first round of elections.

In Peru on April 10, 2016, the leading candidate was Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the notorious former president Alberto Fujimori, presently imprisoned for human rights abuses. Definitive figures are not yet issued, but it seems she has about 40% of the votes. Second place was won by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski with probably 21%. Third place was occupied by Veronika Mendoza with about 19%.

What does this mean? A report by Reuters on the elections had a headline that summarized the views of most commentators: “Two pro-business candidates make Peru runoff.” The descriptive adjectives the media have been using about the three are “conservative” and “populist” for Fujimori, “center-right” for Kuczynski (who is a former World Bank economist), and “leftist” for Mendoza.

There seems virtually no difference between the two candidates in the runoff as far as priority to the so-called free market is concerned, and the stock market rewarded these commitments by an immediate jump after the first round. Their difference resides largely in Kuczynski’s more centrist views on social questions plus the fears that Fujimori arouses because of memories of her father’s authoritarian regime.

Turn the clock five years back to the previous election and the descriptive adjectives are quite different. The two candidates on the second round are again Fujimori (whose labels were the same) and Ollanta Humala who was said to be “left-leaning.” This label for him derives from the fact that, in still earlier times, he was endorsed by Hugo Chavez and seemed to many achavista.

Humala himself was sensitive to this charge and quite ostentatiously avowed being closer to Lula and the PT in Brazil than to Chavez. The truly conservative candidate Mario Vargas Llosa said that choosing between Fujimori and Humala was a choice between “AIDS and terminal cancer.” Nonetheless, he reluctantly endorsed Humala in the second round, deeming Fujimori the worst possible president.

Humala won the election very narrowly and promptly began moving to the right, opening Peru still further to the free market. He betrayed most of his promises, although he did make some improvements in the situation of the indigenous populations of Peru. In the current elections, Humala endorsed no one but certainly did not support Mendoza.

Flash back to 2006 and the descriptions are again different. It was a three-way race between Lourdes Flores Nano, said to be “conservative,” Humala described as a “staunch populist” and Alan Garcia who had been president previously (1985-1990) and who was the candidate of APRA (a party with long left-wing roots) and described in 2006 as “center-left.” Unlike 2016 where the second round is said to be a struggle between the populist right and the center-right, that of 2006 was said to be a struggle between the populist left and the center-left. Garcia won and again, once in office, moved steadily to the right.

Once again, go back to the previous election, that of 2002. It was witnessed by outside observers including Jimmy Carter and was said to be fair. It was won by Alejandro Toledo, a conservative but not a populist. The voters for third place center-right candidate Lourdes Flores seemed to throw their votes to Toledo rather than to Garcia.

That election took place after a long turmoil in Peru. In the 1980s in Peru, there were two guerilla uprisings of considerable severity. One was that of Sendero Luminoso, a self-proclaimed Maoist movement that succeeded in controlling various rural areas. It was led by Abimael Guzmán, previously a university professor in philosophy. Sendero used extreme violence against whomever they defined as being part of the political elites of Peru. The second movement, Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA) was somewhat less violent and identified itself more with Cuba’s regime.

The struggle of the Peruvian government against these movements consumed their energies in the 1980s. In 1985, Alan Garcia of APRA was elected president. He was then a young star, and from APRA. He won the election easily against a “left” candidate, and received widespread endorsement throughout the world. Initially the economy took a positive upturn. But then he ran into difficulty both from the limits of his economic policies and the summit of guerilla strength. He went from a 90% popular approval level to 10-15%.

This was the context for the 1990 elections between Vargas Llosa running on a platform of neoliberal economics and the then obscure candidate of a populist and moderate coalition Fujimori, who was supposed to be unelectable. To great surprise, he won, and then to greater surprise he dissolved parliament in 1992 and undertook a vigorous and successful attempt to crush the guerilla movements, capturing the head of Sendero.

By 2001 he was so unpopular that he was threatened with impeachment. He escaped to Japan where he resumed his citizenship there. He was tried and convicted in absentia. In 1995, he went to Chile, assuming he would be safe there. But Chile extradited him to Peru, and he was then imprisoned, where he still is today.

All of this occurred in the context of one of the most radical regimes in recent Latin American history. On October 3, 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado, then Commander of the Armed Forces, led a bloodless coup against the then president Fernando Belaunde. Belaunde’s regime was beset by a scandal involving licenses to oil fields in northern Peru. Upon seizing power President of the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces, Velasco promptly nationalized the oil fields in question, to great internal applause.

Velasco pursued a program called Peruanismo and was considered “left-leaning.” In foreign policy, Velasco pulled away from ties to the United States and drew close to Cuba. Relations with Pinochet’s Chile were very strained. He undertook land reform and nationalized a number of industries. In reality however these economic efforts were not a great success. The agrarian and the fishing sectors ran into difficulty and the government ran into great debt. Inflation became hyperinflation and in 1975 there was a further military coup and Velasco was deposed.

And further back in Peru’s history there was the founding of APRA by José Carlos Mariategui in the 1920s as a Marxist movement committed to the rights of the indigenous communities. This radical program was miles apart from the program of his 1980s successor as head of APRA, Alan Garcia.

What we see in the continuing drama of Peruvian politics is that every time a so-called left or left-leaning government came to power, the regime soon thereafter moved to the right. Given Peru’s size, location, and economic importance, this has made Peru a prime battleground of Latin American politics. The story of each country has its particularities. But Peru’s history seems to embody the difficulties for the Latin American left. Why left regimes move rightward has long been a matter of debate in Latin America and throughout the world. But it has not been a matter of reunification and compromise among the left forces. In the coming decade, eyes will continue to be focused on the Peruvian left’s evolution in the worldwide struggle of the global left during the structural crisis of the modern world-system.

Anti-Trumpism

Commentary No. 422, April 1, 2016

I have been as appalled as anyone at the style and content of Donald Trump’s search for the U.S. presidency. I have at no point been tempted in any way to support him. I do not intend to vote for him.

But there is something happening that needs to be explained. It is not Trumpism, but Anti-Trumpism. The explanations of Trumpism are virtually endless. No one could have missed them. I do not wish to discuss what accounts for Trumpism – both the level of his support and the fact that he seems to be a Teflon candidate. Every time he does something outrageous and receives criticism for it, the outcome seems to be that his poll numbers rise further just because of the criticism.

What is not discussed very much is the phenomenon of what I shall call Anti-Trumpism. It is of course normal that there are those who oppose the choice of a particular candidate. What is unusual and needs a closer look is why the opposition seems to take on an almost hysterical tone, in which there is a suggestion that the election of Trump would transform the world (or at least the United States) fundamentally and permanently.

There is a group of lifelong Republicans who say that the candidacy and actions of Donald Trump so offend their moral sensibilities that they could not under any circumstance vote for him. Were he the chosen candidate of the Republican convention, they would be forced to do something else than vote Republican. This means for some supporting a putative new ticket labeled Independent Republicans, for others abstention from voting for anyone, and for still others even voting for Hillary Clinton.

This group is possibly quite small, although it includes some very prominent conservative Republicans such as many associated with National Review, for a long time the principal journal speaking for neo-Conservatives. This group sees a Trump candidacy as a disaster for the Republican Party, one that could prove long-lasting.

There is a much larger group who say that everything conceivable must be done to prevent Trump from receiving the nomination. They too see a Trump candidacy as a disaster. This group emphasizes less the moral shame of a Trump candidacy and more the impact it would have both on the election of a Republican president in 2016 and on the ability of Republican candidates to win Senatorial seats in a number of closely contested elections, and therefore the majority in the Senate.

These persons are largely to be found in the so-called Establishment mainstream of the Republican Party. Like the morally repelled, this group also thinks that a Trump candidacy would have a long-lasting negative impact on the Republican Party, primarily by changing its internal structures and personnel in key positions. This group is divided into those who are supporting Ted Cruz as an acceptable, if less than perfect, alternative, and those (a smaller group) who support John Kasich. Cruz is of course more consistently far to the right than Trump but he is much more predictable.

Why then the hysteria? I think it is clearly that Donald Trump is truly a candidate who is not under the control of the so-called Establishment, which does not know what he would really do, were he the president. For example, at the moment, there is much debate and concern about the choice of a replacement for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Who knows who Trump would select, and whose advice (if anyone’s) he would solicit? That would not be true of any other person chosen as Republican candidate.

When these critics say that Trump as candidate would transform the Republican Party into something quite different from what it has been up to now, they are probably right. What is however most unlikely is that he would pursue a Tea Party agenda.

Look at all the hints he has thrown out about his actual agenda. He does not intend to send troops on the ground anywhere. He does not intend to support so-called free trade treaties. He does not intend to revoke the diplomatic opening to Cuba or the agreement with Iran. He is for a bi-state solution in Israel/Palestine. He will not change Social Security. He is not terribly concerned about issues like abortion. His latest outrage about punishing those who have abortions, and the swiftness with which he recanted when he saw the negative reaction his remarks evoked is actually further evidence about how little he cares about the subject. And perhaps most important of all, he is open to increasing taxes on the truly wealthy. Close your eyes for a moment and he sounds suspiciously like Hillary Clinton.

There is of course a real distinction to make between Trump and Clinton. The biggest difference is Trump’s unceasing use of anti-Muslim rhetoric, whereas Hillary Clinton is building her strategy around appealing not only to women but to non-White populations. The second difference is that Trump centers his discourse around the issue of immigration, which appeals in particular to the so-called Reagan Democrats, who are largely White and older voters, either unemployed or in great fear of becoming unemployed.

There is a third difference. Whenever a journalist or even a supporter challenges him on one of these hints, he tries immediately to change the subject or silence the challenger. Or if he doesn’t succeed, he backtracks on his hinted agenda. He wants the nomination desperately. Therefore he is very inconsistent and very pragmatic. But this is precisely what worries the Establishment. They don’t know what he will really do as president.

So, anti-Trumpism has indeed a rational foundation. But can it succeed? It seems at the moment most unlikely that Trump will fail to have the necessary majority of votes for the Republican nomination. What then will happen in the elections? Whether Trump as candidate will alienate enough traditional Republican voters to lose his campaign against the Democratic candidate and those of Republican senators in ten states or so, or rather attract more new voters to the Republican tickets as he claims, is yet to be seen.

But is a Trump candidacy an irrevocable catastrophe for the United States and/or for the Republican Party? This seems to me a great exaggeration, however you feel about Trump.

Collapse of the European Union? A Skeptical View

Commentary No. 421, March 15, 2016

One of the many games pundits and politicians are playing these days is to spell out why and how the European Union (EU) is going to collapse, is already collapsing. Anyone who follows the news worldwide knows all the standard explanations: Grexit and Brexit will only lead to other exits; nobody wants more migrants (refugees) in their country; Germany has too much power, or not enough; ultra-rightwing forces/parties are rising almost everywhere; the Schengen Agreement providing visa-less movement is being suspended in most countries that had adopted it; unemployment is unstoppably growing.

There is an underlying theme in this litany of pessimism (or is it optimism?). Europeans – both the sophisticated and the “ignorant” – have become impervious to rational arguments. They are almost all acting irrationally, responding to their emotions and not to reflective analyses. But is this so, Charlie Brown? It makes for a good comic strip, but does that mean the EU will actually cease to exist?

I am not here giving my views about whether the EU is good or bad, should or should not be supported or undermined. Rather, I wish to analyze what I think will actually happen. Will the institutions that now make up the European Union continue to exist ten or twenty years from now? I suspect they will. To see why I think so, let us review together what may make Europeans – both the sophisticated and the “ignorant” – hesitate about taking the fatal step of dismantling what they have been working so hard to create for the last seventy years or so. There are some reasons that one might call economic, others that are geopolitical, and finally still others that might be called cultural.

Let us begin with the economy. The situation in terms of current income, both for the states and for most individuals, is bad everywhere in the EU. The question is whether dismantling Europe would be likely to improve it, or in fact make it worse.

One subject of constant debate is the Eurozone – will it survive? Take for example what happened in Greece in the two 2015 elections there. Alexei Tsipras, the leader of the now-governing party Syriza, was elected in the first election on an anti-austerity platform. He then, in negotiating with the EU for a further loan, retreated on just about everything he had promised the Greek voters. He agreed to measures demanded by the EU that severely hurt the real income of the majority of the population. For this, he was denounced for betraying his promises by left forces within Syriza who withdrew from the party and established their own list. Yet in the next election called very swiftly by Tsipras, he received the mandate again. The Greek voters chose him rather than the left forces within Syriza.

It seems clear, at least to me, that the Greek voters paid no attention to the left denunciations because above all they did not want to leave the Eurozone. Tsipras had made maintaining the euro a priority and the left forces sought instead to resume an autonomous currency. Apparently, the Greek voters believed that the very real negatives of being in the Eurozone were, in their view, less than the probable greater negatives of recreating the drachma.

The situation is roughly the same concerning the so-called safety net features that European governments had installed, such as pensions and unemployment benefits. Virtually all the countries in the EU have been cutting the safety net back for lack of funds. These cuts have been resisted, sometimes successfully, by left or left-of-center parties. But is there any reason to suppose that, were the European Union to disappear tomorrow, these governments would have more funds to distribute? The left parties often say so, condemning what they see as the neoliberal pressures of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. But look around the world. Can you point to governments not under the purview of Brussels that have been able to increase welfare-state expenditures?

If there is no real advantage in terms of real income levels in dismantling the EU, are there other reasons to do it? The EU has played an important geopolitical role since its inception, and has been growing steadily in membership. The United States has been publicly supporting the rise and expansion of the EU but actually trying to undermine it. The United States has seen the EU as a major geopolitical danger. It is obvious to most observers that the EU’s geopolitical strength is the result of numbers. A dismantlement would end this strength and reduce the separate European states to no practical importance geopolitically.

In the end, most European leaders and movements understand this. However much some of them rail against the EU as a structure, are they ready in fact to yield the advantages that a large singular entity gives them? Rightwing groups, especially in eastern Europe, see the EU as one pressure on the United States to offer them military protection against a putatively aggressive Russia. Leftwing groups in other countries, such as France, use the strength of the EU to contain what they think are putatively aggressive actions by the United States. What would either of these groups gain by the dismantlement of the EU?

Finally, there are the so-called cultural links between the United States and Europe. They are publicly proclaimed and more quietly disdained as a remnant of U.S. hegemonic dominance in the first twenty-five years after 1945. Once again there are varying motivations. The left parties and movements want to use their unified structure as a mode of regaining the cultural autonomy (even superiority) they felt they had before 1945. The rightwing forces want to use their strength to insist upon their cultural autonomy on so-called human rights questions. Once again, in union there is strength.

What I see happening is more and more rhetoric and less and less real action. For good or bad, my sense is that the institutions of the EU will survive. This does not mean they won’t change. There is, and will continue to be, a real political struggle within the EU about the kind of collective institution it ought to be. This intra-European political struggle is one part of a worldwide struggle about the kind of world we wish to build as an outcome to the structural crisis of the modern world-system.

Declining Demand: Is Reality Creeping In?

Commentary No. 420, March 1, 2016

Neoliberal ideology has dominated world discourse for the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century. The mantra has been that the only viable policy for governments and social movements was to give priority to something called the market. Resistance to this belief became minimal, as even parties and movements that called themselves left or at least left-of-center abandoned their traditional emphasis on welfare-state measures and accepted the validity of this market-oriented position. They argued that at most one could soften its impact by retaining some small part of the historic safety nets that states had built over more than 150 years.

The resulting policy was one that reduced the level of taxation radically on the wealthiest sectors of the population and thereby increased the income gap between this wealthiest sector and the rest of the population. Firms, especially large firms, were able to increase their profit levels by reducing and/or outsourcing jobs.

The justification offered by its proponents was that this policy would in time recreate the jobs that had been lost and that there would be some trickle-down effect of the increased value that would be created by allowing the “market” to prevail. Of course, allowing the market to prevail in fact necessitated political action at the level of the states. The so-called market was never a force independent of politics. But this elementary truth was sedulously unnoticed or, if ever discussed, ferociously denied.

Is that day over? Is there what a recent article in Le Monde called a “timid” return by Establishment institutions to concern about sustaining demand? There are at least two signs of this, both of considerable weight. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had long been the strongest pillar of neoliberal ideology, imposing its requirements on all governments that sought loans from it. However, in a memo released on Feb. 24, 2016, the IMF worried openly about how anemic world demand had become. It urged that finance ministers of the G-20 move beyond monetary policies to encourage investments rather than savings in order to sustain demand by creating jobs. This was quite a turn-around for the IMF.

At about the very same time (February 18), the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a second major pillar of neoliberal ideology, released a memo that announced a similar turn-around. It said that it was urgent to engage “collectively” in actions that would sustain world demand.

So, my question, is reality creeping in? Well, yes, if only timidly. The fact is that, worldwide, the promised “growth” in value-added production has failed to occur. Of course, the decline is uneven. China is still “growing,” if at a much reduced pace, one that threatens to decline even further. The United States still seems to be “growing,” largely because the dollar still seems the relatively safest place for governments and the wealthy to park their money. But deflation seems to have become the dominant reality of most of Europe and most of the so-called emerging economies of the global South.

We are all now in a waiting game. Will the timid moves recommended by the IMF and the OECD stanch the reality of declining world demand? Will the dollar be able to resist a further loss of confidence in its ability to be a stable repository of value? Or are we moving toward a further, much more severe, wild swing in the so-called market, with all the political consequences this will undoubtedly entail?

Declining world demand is the direct consequence of declining world employment. In the past 200, even 500 years, every time there has been some technological change that did away with jobs in some productive sector, this was resisted by the workers who were losing out. The resistants engaged in so-called Luddite demands to maintain the previous technology.

Politically, Luddite resistance has always proved to be unsuccessful. Establishment forces always said that new jobs would be created to replace those lost, and growth would be renewed. They were right. New jobs were indeed created – but not among so-called blue-collar workers. Rather the new jobs were in so-called white-collar jobs. As a result, over the longer run, the world-economy saw a reduction of worldwide blue-collar jobs and a significant rise in the percentage of white-collar workers.

It was always assumed that white-collar jobs were exempt from elimination. These jobs presumably required a human interacting with other humans. It was thought that there were no machines that could replace the human worker. Well, this is no longer so.

There has been a great technological advance that permits machines to engage in calculations of enormous amounts of data hitherto the domain of lower-level financial advisors. Indeed, these machines can calculate data that it would take many lifetimes of an individual to calculate. The result is that these machines are in the process of eliminating the job positions of such lower-level “white-collar” jobs. To be sure, this has not yet affected what might be called the higher-level or supervisory positions. But one can see where the wind is blowing.

When “white-collar” positions were eliminated or reduced in number, they were indeed replaced by new “white-collar” positions. When, however, today, “white-collar” positions disappear, where is the container of new jobs to be created? And if they cannot be located, the overall effect is to diminish severely effective demand.

Effective demand however is the sine qua non of capitalism as an historical system. Without effective demand, there can be no capital accumulation. This is the reality that seems to be creeping in. There is no surprise then that concern is being expressed. It is not likely however that the “timid” attempts to deal with this new reality can in fact make a difference. The structural crisis of our system is in full bloom. The big question is not how to repair the system but with what to replace it.

The Left and the Nation: Unresolved Ambiguities

Commentary No. 419, Feb. 15, 2016

The term “nation” has had many different meanings across the centuries. But these days, and ever since the French Revolution more or less, the term has been linked to the state, as in “nation-state.” In this usage, “nation” refers to those who are members by right of the community that is located within a state.

Whether those who form a nation give rise to the creation of a state or a state creates the category of a nation and thereby rights within the state is a long-standing debate. Myself, I believe that states create nations and not the reverse.

The issue however is why states create nations, and what should be the attitude of the “left” to the concept of the nation. For some on the left, the concept of the nation is the great equalizer. It is an assertion that everyone (or almost everyone) has the right to full and equal participation in the decision-making of the state, as opposed to the rights of only a minority (for example, the aristocracy) to full participation. Today, we often call this a Jacobin view of the nation.

Jacobinism gives rise to the category of a citizen. Persons are citizens by birthright and not because they have a particular “ethnic” origin or a particular religion or any other characteristic that is attributed to them, either by themselves or by others. Citizens have votes (as of a certain age). Each citizen has one vote. All citizens are therefore equal before the law.

According to this perception of citizenship, it is crucial to consider all citizens as individuals. It is crucial to suppress the idea that there are groups who might be intermediaries between the individual and the state. Indeed, as an even more rigid view of the nation might suggest, it is illegitimate for such other groups to exist: all citizens must use the language of the nation and no other; no religious group can have its own institutions; no customs other than those of the nation may be celebrated.

In practice, of course, people are part of many, many groups that constantly assert their demands of participation and loyalty on the part of their members. In practice, too, and often under the guise of equal treatment to all individuals, there are innumerable ways in which the equal rights of all citizens can be abridged.

The idea of citizenship can get to be defined primarily as the suffrage. And there are multiple limitations on access to the suffrage. The most obvious and numerically important one is sex. Suffrage was limited by law to men. It was often limited by income, a minimum income being required to vote. It was often limited by race, by religion, or by how many ancestor generations had been resident in the state. The net result was that what was originally conceived as a great equalizer did not in fact embrace everyone or even a majority of persons. It often embraced a rather small group.

For Jacobins who thought of themselves as the left, the solution was to fight for expansion of the suffrage. And over time, this effort bore some fruit. The suffrage did indeed get extended to more and more persons. Somehow, however, this did not achieve the objective of making all citizens, all members of the nation, equal in access to the supposed benefits of citizenship – education, health services, employment.

Given this reality of continued inequalities, there arose a counter-Jacobin view of the left. The counter-Jacobin view saw the nation not as the great equalizer, but as the great mesmerizer. The solution was not to struggle to suppress other groups but to encourage all groups to assert their value as modes of living and modes of self-consciousness. Feminists insisted that not only should women obtain the suffrage but that women had the right to their own organizations and their own consciousness. As did communities of racial and ethnic groups, so-called minorities.

The result has come to be that the left has no single view of the nation. Quite the contrary! The left is torn between ever more deeply opposing visions of the nation. Today we see this occurring in many different forms. One has been the exploding character of demands linked to gender, the social construction of what had once been thought of as genetic phenomena. But once we’re engaged in social construction, there is no obvious limit to the rights of subcategories, already defined or yet to come into social existence.

If gender is exploding, so is indigeneity. Indigeneity is also a social construction. It refers to the rights of those who lived in a certain physical area earlier than others (“migrants”). Pushed far enough, every single person is a migrant. Discussed reasonably, there are today significant social groups who do see themselves as living in groups that are significantly different from those who exercise power in the state and who wish to continue to maintain their communities in their principal existing modes of living rather than lose these rights in these boundaries because the nation asserts the rights of a nation.

One last ambiguity. Is it left to be internationalist, one-worldist, or is it left to be nationalist against the intrusion of powerful world forces? Is it left to be for the abolition of all frontiers or for the reinforcement of frontiers? Is it class-conscious to oppose nationalism or to support national resistance to imperialism?

One could take the easy way out of this debate by suggesting that the answer varies from place to place, moment to moment, situation to situation. But this is precisely the problem. The global left finds it very difficult to confront the issues directly and come up with a reasoned, politically meaningful attitude toward the concept of the nation. Since nationalism is arguably the strongest emotional commitment of the world’s peoples today, the failure of the global left to enter into a collective internal debate in a solidary manner undermines the ability of the global left to be a principal actor today on the world scene.

The French Revolution bequeathed us with a concept intended to be the great equalizer. Did it bequeath us all with a poison pill that may destroy the global left and therefore the great equalizer? An intellectual, moral, and political reunification of the global left is very urgent. It will require a good deal more of a sense of give and take than the principal actors have been showing. Still, there is no serious alternative.

A Left Electoral Strategy? France and the United States

Commentary No. 418, February 1, 2016

When Bernie Sanders announced that he would seek the presidential nomination of the U.S. Democratic Party, few people took him very seriously. Hillary Clinton seemed to have so much support that her nomination seemed assured without difficulty.

Sanders however persisted in his seemingly utopian quest. To the surprise of most observers, the size of his audiences at meetings throughout the country began to grow steadily. His essential tactic was to attack the large corporations. He said that they used their money to control political decisions and to quash debate about the growing gap between the very top earners and the vast majority of the American people who were losing real income and jobs. To emphasize his position, Sanders refused to take money from large donors at the top and raised his money only from individuals donating small amounts.

In doing this, Sanders touched a deep vein of popular discontent, not only among those at the very bottom of the income ladder but from the so-called middle class who feared they were being thrust down into the bottom stratum. Today, polls show that Sanders has gained sufficient support that he seems to represent a serious opponent to Clinton.

Sanders has his limitations, especially the fact that his appeal to racial and ethnic minorities seems to be limited. But he has succeeded in forcing public discussion of the income gap. He has pushed Clinton’s rhetoric to the left in her attempt to recuperate potential Sanders voters. Whatever the final outcome of the Democratic Party’s convention, Sanders has achieved far more than almost everyone predicted at the outset of his campaign. He has, at the very least, forced a serious debate about program within the Democratic Party.

In January of 2016, there seems to have begun a parallel campaign in France. It is similar in many ways to that of Sanders but yet it is also quite different because of the structures of the electoral institutions of the two countries.

Three left intellectuals decided to launch a public appeal for a left primary (primaire à gauche). They are Yannick Jadot, a long-time political activist in environmentalist groups; Daniel Cohn-Bendit, of 1968 fame but for a long time a political activist seeking to unite environmentalists, left socialists, and pro-European forces; and Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist who had been an advisor to left figures in the Socialist Party.

They wrote a public appeal denouncing passivity before the rightward trend of politics in France, including of course the growing electoral strength of the Front National. They called for a serious public debate about how to unite the left and left-of-center forces to affect the presidential elections expected in 2017. Before making public the appeal, the originators sought endorsements from well-known public intellectuals of multiple political stripes, including Thomas Piketty and Pierre Rosanvallon. And they persuaded Libération, France’s largest left-of-center newspaper, to devote an entire issue on January 11, 2016 to both the appeal and the multiple endorsements.

Two weeks later, on January 26, Libération devoted another issue to this appeal. By this time, 70,000 persons had signed the appeal. This issue contained articles by multiple public figures on what they saw as the primary issues to pursue and how best to pursue them. A lot of the debate centers on what is the function of a primary. The whole concept of a primary is an import from U.S. elections and is itself a response to the very unexpected results of the French presidential elections of 2002.

In the rules currently governing French presidential elections, unless one candidate receives a majority of the votes, there is a second round in which only the top two first-round candidates are on the ballot. The assumption had been that the first round was a sort of primary in which every political tendency would show its strength. It was assumed that in the second round the two main parties (center-right and center-left) would be the choice for the voters.

In 2002, however, the candidate of the far-right Front National edged out the Socialist Party. The choice for voters was now between the Front National and that of the mainstream right-of-center party. Faced with this choice, the Socialist Party then endorsed the center-right candidate for the second round, allowing him to win overwhelmingly. What had happened was simple. The left and center-left candidates were too many in the first round and this kept the Socialist Party from gaining enough votes to make it into the second round.

The impact of the 2002 elections was traumatic for the French left. The old system was designed for a situation in which there are two main parties. It doesn’t work for a tripartite situation. To keep from repeating this defeat, the Socialist Party decided in 2011 to hold a party primary that was “open” to anyone. This primary was successful in that it kept most, albeit not all, candidates on the left from presenting themselves directly in the first round since they now could present themselves in the Socialist Party’s primary. The openness of the primary led to many centrist voters entering this primary. This made it possible for François Hollande to be victorious over a more left candidate in the Socialist primary. Hollande went on in the second round to defeat the right candidate, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now however that Hollande is president, the last thing he wants is a primary that he might lose. On the other hand, he has been losing support within the Socialist Party from segment after segment of more left figures who have been resigning or have been ousted from their positions in the cabinet. He risks the entry of more names on the first round, which might lead to a repetition of what happened in 2002. At the same time, Sarkozy is also faced with a strong demand for a primary within his party, a primary that he is by no means assured of winning.

The problem in both main parties is that they are each divided internally on multiple real issues. For the Socialists and left forces, there is the division between neoliberal versus “welfare state” programs. There is the cleavage on how one defines laïcité – in absolute terms or allowing for cultural identity. And there is the cleavage on whether to strengthen or weaken European institutions. Finally, there is the now hot issue of so-called déchéance de nationalité in which it is proposed that persons who are French citizens by birth may be stripped of their French nationality if convicted of anything defined as aiding terrorism. This was a proposition previously of the right and had been strongly opposed by the Socialist Party. There is much unrest in the party about this reversal of position, which was a response to the vicious attack by the Islamic State on November 13 that transformed public sentiment considerably.

Hollande is now running as the candidate with the conservative position on all these issues. He hopes to win by being the candidate who is fighting terrorism, and therefore deserves the support of centrist individuals. It is this Hollande that the appeal to left forces is trying to force into a public debate.

The parallel with Sanders is that the French group may be tapping into the same popular discontent that Sanders has used to make his bid. The difference is that they are fighting an incumbent president who is ready to use every conceivable pressure to force discipline on party members. We shall know perhaps six months from now whether the French group can be as successful as Sanders.

Saudi-Iranian Collaboration: A Forgotten Story

Commentary No. 417, January 15, 2016

On January 2, 2016, the Sunni government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) executed the leading imam of the Shia community in KSA. The Shiite government of Iran denounced this execution, as did governments throughout the world, and avowed there would be consequences. Since that time, the rhetoric has continued to escalate, and the world politicians and media have talked of a possible direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Almost everyone tends to pose this tension as one that is based on the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia that is said to have very long roots into the past, and defines the present situation based on the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia.

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The BRICS – A Fable for Our Time

Commentary No. 416, January 1, 2016

The story of the BRICS is a strange one. It starts in 2001 when Jim O’Neill, at that time the chairman of the Assets Management division of Goldman Sachs, the giant investment house, wrote a widely-commented article about what we have come to call “emerging economies.” O’Neill singled out four countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – all of whom were large enough in size and territory to have noticeable weight in the world market. He labeled them the BRICs.

O’Neill argued that their assets were growing at such a pace that they were going to overtake collectively the asset values held by the G-7 countries, which had long been the list of the wealthiest countries in the world-system. O’Neill did not say exactly when this would occur – by 2050 at the latest. But he saw the rise of the BRICs as more or less inevitable. Given his position at Goldman Sachs, he was essentially telling the clients of Goldman Sachs to shift significant parts of their investments to these four countries while their assets were still selling cheaply.

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