Post-Britain: Does It Matter?

Commentary No. 401, May 15, 2015

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the United Provinces (more or less today’s Netherlands) was the hegemonic power of the capitalist world-system, which was then geographically smaller. Within this world-system, it was the wealthiest country with the most efficient industrial enterprises. It dominated the trade and finances of this world-system. It had the strongest military.

Then it started on its decline as a hegemonic power. And one by one it lost each of these advantages. To salvage as much as it could, it became the junior partner of Great Britain, an aspiring hegemon. The advantage that it held onto longest was its financial dominance. It held onto that until the 1780s. At that point one could have written a commentary entitled “Post-Netherlands: Does It Matter?”

The real question then for the Netherlands, as it is today for Great Britain, is for whom does it matter. If one studies the Netherlands since the 1780s, one will notice that it has remained one of the wealthier countries in the world. Life has been more materially comfortable there than for most countries in the world. But in every other way, the Netherlands became irrelevant. It has not been at the forefront of new technology. Yes, it has remained an important hub of world trade but by no means an indispensable one. It cannot impose its geopolitical preferences on other countries. Indeed, very few people even discuss the role of the Netherlands as a geopolitical actor. It has in effect faded into the background, coasting along as a minor beneficiary of the decisions of successive hegemonic powers – first Great Britain, then the United States. Great Britain has now reached the stage at which the Netherlands found itself in the 1780s, the stage of continuing relative wealth and definitive geopolitical irrelevance. The people most worried about this are Great Britain’s financial institutions, which until recently still were very powerful structures in the world-system.

The Financial Times, which serves more or less as the public voice of Britain’s financial elites, ran an editorial on May 5, 2015. Its headline was “After a famous win, the chance to restore the United Kingdom.” The “famous win” is of course the unexpected narrow but decisive majority earned by David Cameron and the Conservative Party in the recent British elections. The paper’s subheading of the editorial reads: “David Cameron’s task is to save the union and stay in Europe.”

The uncertainty is whether Cameron can accomplish the task. If he can he will extend the power of Britain’s financial institutions for another decade or so. But many people, in Great Britain and elsewhere, have other priorities. Saving the union means somehow keeping the Scottish National Party (SNP) from its announced objective of full sovereignty for Scotland. The SNP also did well, very well, in these elections. It won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British Parliament. It is hard to think of a more resounding endorsement by public opinion, especially since the SNP had won only six seats in the prior elections.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the SNP would win an independence referendum. But it does give the SNP much bargaining power with Cameron, and they intend to use it. They have in effect a three-step program: (a) obtain right away significantly increased devolution of power within Great Britain; (b) hold a preferably authorized referendum on independence, worded in ways that would maximize a positive vote; (c) become a sovereign state but remain within the European Union (EU) and of course the United Nations. Cameron, and even more his parliamentary delegation, want to minimize step (a), firmly resist the idea of step (b), and never arrive at step (c).

If this were his only political problem, Cameron might win easily the struggle with the SNP and “save the union,” but it isn’t. At the very same time, Cameron is under great pressure to quit the European Union, a so-called Brexit (or British exit). There are said to be 60-100 Conservative members of Parliament who simply want out. In addition, the party dedicated to British withdrawal from the EU, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), received 12.6% of the vote, to become Great Britain’s third party in voting percentages.

So Cameron also has an implicit three-step program, just like the SNP. Step (a) is to press the EU to “defederalize” further, allowing Great Britain to exempt itself from even more requirements of membership. Step (b) is to call the referendum he has promised the Conservative Party by 2017, but as late as possible. Step (c) is to defeat the referendum, and thus remain in the EU.

SNP’s step (a) of significant devolution immediately is unlikely, and step (b) of a referendum, any kind of referendum, even more unlikely, and hence step (c) of a peacefully-negotiated full sovereignty is almost a mirage. Cameron’s step (a) of further exemptions from EU requirements is unlikely because of strong resistance from other EU members, and notably Germany. Step (b) of defeating the referendum thereby becomes even more unlikely. And therefore step (c) of a Brexit becomes highly likely.

If these appraisals make sense, then the objective of Great Britain’s financial elite – save the union and remain in the EU – would be a win on the first and a loss on the second. What would happen then? Would the SNP continue its path of peaceful negotiations, or would public opinion consider moving more forcefully?

To see the consequences of a Brexit, we have to turn away from looking at Great Britain and look instead at the rest of the world. The EU is already in difficulty. Its eurozone is facing a possible Grexit (Greek withdrawal) which, if it occurs, could well lead to an unraveling of the eurozone altogether. In addition, public opinion in more countries than Great Britain has become less and less enthusiastic about the EU and parties calling for a withdrawal are gaining strength. And the EU is divided about how to respond to Russia’s reaffirmation of its political role in Europe, especially in relation to Ukraine. Adding a Brexit to this mix of difficulties might be just too much for the EU. The EU and the eurozone are a house of cards, which might simply collapse.

However, a further crumbling of the EU, a fortiori its dissolution, would have consequences throughout the world. The United States, no longer an unquestioned hegemonic power, already can no longer count on the military support of Great Britain, which for the United States is a quite untimely development. This pushes the United States, or at least President Obama, even more urgently to seek a deal with Iran. This priority of Obama in turn pushes Saudi Arabia even more actively to delink from the United States and pursue a de facto anti-Iranian alliance with anyone and everyone, as King Salman is making very clear. And this in consequence strengthens further the geopolitical reassertion of Russia, with China perhaps deciding to become a geopolitical power broker in West Asia.

And let us not forget the parlous state of the world-economy, despite insistence on all sides that the world-economy is overcoming its difficulties. This public optimism is another mirage that may not last too much longer. To go back to the beginning of this analysis, Cameron should savor his unexpected victory in the British elections because he (and Great Britain’s financial elites) may actually come to regret it – quite soon.

The Greek Melodrama, or Who Really Wants What?

By any definition, what is going on in Greece today, or rather what is going on between Greece and outside countries and institutions, is a melodrama, a melodrama of epic proportions. What we mean by a melodrama is a dramatic encounter that is deliberately overacted by the many participants. They make threats, implicitly or sometimes explicitly. They draw public lines that cannot be crossed in the negotiations. They make dire predictions of the consequences of not following their recommendations. A melodrama heightens events and insists on moral dichotomies.

In a melodrama, the participants do just about everything they can to make others take the blame for past, present, and future negative consequences. The one thing they do not do is to confess their real priorities, and how their priorities are being served by participating in the melodrama instead of entering into sober discussions aimed at some resolution of the differences.

When and how did this particular encounter begin? The beginning date is precisely what is under contention. There are in fact at least three matters involved in the discussion: the present and future of Greece, the present and future of the eurozone, and the present and future of the European Union. Not all participants are interested in all three issues. And those that are interested have different views about them.

Let us start with Greece. In the years following 1945, the Greek economy seemed to prosper, as did that of a large number of countries. It was called the “Greek economic miracle.” But after the 1970s, Greece did less well, as again did most countries. Nonetheless, until the so-called “great recession” of 2008, there were seemingly few problems for the Greek government.

Greece was admitted to the eurozone in 2000, having supposedly met its formal criteria. When after 2008 government debt rose too much and Greece was thought to be under threat of default, Greece was offered “rescue packages” by outside institutions to enable the government to meet its debt obligations. Indeed there were seven such packages between 2010 and 2013.

The price of the loans was what is called austerity. Basically, this meant that at the very same time that the high rate of unemployment was becoming higher, the safety belt was disappearing. The Greek government pledged to reduce expenditures in a number of ways – the number of persons in its employ, the size of pensions, health benefits, and unemployment benefits. In addition, the government was required to privatize many government structures. The government thus obtained a one-time injection of the sales price but it allowed the privatized structure to practice further austerity measures. All these measures were to be closely supervised by a triad of institutions – the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the European Central Bank.

The bottom line was that the vast majority of Greek residents had their standard of living drastically reduced in order that Greek banks not default. Since these banks were in most cases owned in part by other European banks (especially in Germany and Austria), the austerity measures served the interest of these European banks.

An anti-austerity left political movement called Syriza emerged in Greece and finally won electoral power in 2014. The program of this party was to undo or reverse the austerity measures, reject the role of the triad in supervising Greek political life, but still remain a member of the eurozone. This program has proved extremely difficult to realize because it needs a further loan (or reduction of debt payments) in order to minimize the pain felt in the very short run by Greek residents. Although the Syriza Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, asserts confidence that an interim deal can be arranged before a mid-May deadline, most analysts are skeptical.

If a deal is not reached, there will be a so-called Grexit (a term coined to mean Greek exit from the eurozone). The question the world is discussing is what a Grexit would mean. There are three views: a catastrophe for the entire world-economy (and especially for the European Union); a relatively minor event (except of course for Greece); and total uncertainty about what will happen (that is, how the “market” will respond).

There are many actors (and notably Germany’s Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaüble) who insist that a Grexit would be quite tolerable for the eurozone. These people are concerned primarily with one thing – that the principle of repayment of debts be an imperative priority for Greece and for everyone else in the world. Then there are actors who give priority to the survival of the eurozone and worry about a Grexit. In fact, the most notable person in this group is Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. She fears that a Grexit will not only lead to a disintegration of the eurozone but that in turn a collapse of the eurozone will lead to a collapse of the European Union. She is therefore willing to consider some kinds of accommodation to Syriza’s offer of a compromise.

The third view – the view of total uncertainty – is however the correct one. It is the only view that takes account of the fact that the world is in a chaotic bifurcation, in which there is no way of predicting how the “market” or any other institution will react. Since most investors are consumed with uncertainty, their reactions lead to wild oscillations and frequent freezes. One has therefore to choose one’s priorities. Syriza’s is to minimize the pain of the great majority. This seems to me a much more admirable priority than preserving the sanctity of debt repayment.

Of course, Syriza is juggling a very difficult series of short-run choices in order to realize its priority. It may make misjudgments or, even worse, serious concessions that negate its electoral promises. The next two months will tell.

Negotiations and Their Enemies

Perhaps the correct title should be “negotiators and their enemies.” These days, negotiations are very much in the news. The United States is negotiating with Cuba, with Iran and, most recently it seems, with Venezuela. The government of Colombia is negotiating with a long-time anti-government movement, the FARC.

Then, there are the pre-negotiations that may not get to the stage of negotiation: Russia and the European Union (and within that, the Kiev government of Ukraine and the “autonomist” governments in Donetsk and Lutsk; China and the United States; the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

And finally, in the spirit of Sherlock Holmes’s mystery about “the dog that didn’t bark,” there are the negotiations that are NOT taking place: Israel and the Palestinians; Iran and Saudi Arabia; China and Japan.

What does a focus on such negotiations, including those that are not taking place, tell us about the state of the world? The first is that, the closer one is to real negotiations, the fiercer the opposition to an accord turns out to be. Those in favor are somewhat hesitant and always unsure that they can carry their own supporters along on any arrangement upon which there is a public accord with the other side. But those opposed are not at all hesitant. They are ferocious and very angry and use whatever leverage they have to block or sabotage the negotiations.

Are negotiations a good thing? That’s exactly what the argument is about. The greatest plus about negotiations that end in some kind of compromise accord is that they reduce – reduce, not eliminate – the suffering that continuing conflict imposes upon almost everybody. A second plus is that those who favor continuing the conflict constantly argue that the way to win is to increase the pressure – more military action, more blockades, more torture. As a result, there is a creeping increase in the violence over time, something that an accord stops, more or less.

But there is also a big negative. The other side survives, and sometimes even thrives. The accord legitimates them. And if they are attacked politically, they can argue – they do argue – that their accusers are trying to revive the conflict and undermine the accord. Peace, if that is what we call it, tends to be at the price of not challenging the underlying injustices that provoked the conflict in the first place. We see this in the post-accord role of the erstwhile revolutionaries in such countries as El Salvador and Guatemala.

When do such negotiations, such accords, occur? One crucial element is internal political exhaustion combined with military deadlock. But this is usually not enough. The second crucial element is outside geopolitical pressure. Countries not involved directly in the conflict, but somehow tied to one or the other of the two sides in a negotiation, find it in their third-country interest that the conflict should be terminated. They have acquired an interest in the conflict, their interest requiring that the conflict cease. If the United States and Cuba are negotiating today, the explanation lies in the combination of internal pressures in the case of Cuba and external pressures in the case of the United States.

If we look at the two most glaring absences of negotiations – Saudi Arabia and Iran, Japan and China – why the ever more angry rhetoric, why so much hostility? An anthropologist coming from Mars might find it hard to believe. Saudi Arabia and Iran share a deep commitment to an Islamic culture and a strong endorsement of shari’a. Japan and China share a long mutual commitment to an interlaced set of cultural values and even linguistic structures and symbols.

 

And yet they are denouncing each other, and are pursuing the geopolitical objective of weakening the other in terms of geopolitical power and influence. These days, they are deliberately invoking those parts of their cultural heritages that differentiate them from the other rather than those parts that in fact bring them together.

 

Why, why, why? One answer is that the leadership in each of these countries finds it in their internal interests to retain the image of the other as an enemy. Faced with deep internal schisms that could tear these countries apart, they appeal to national cohesion in the face of a presumed external threat. A second reason is that external forces urge on the conflict because it is in the interest of these third countries that the hostilities exist and are defined in certain ways.

 

Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran would impair the interest of the United States, Turkey, Pakistan, Israel, and many others. Negotiations between China and Japan would upset not only the United States but India and perhaps Russia as well. Thus in these two putative negotiations we find conditions that are the exact opposite of the cases where negotiations are now going on. In the ongoing negotiations, there is positive internal pressure and positive external pressure. In the places where there are no signs of serious negotiations, we have negative internal pressures and negative external pressures.

 

Where then are we heading? We must always remember that geopolitics is a fluid game, and most particularly in this time of structural crisis of the modern world-system with its chaotic and rapid swings in all arenas, not least in geopolitical alignments. The ambiance can change, and quite unexpectedly. Remember that pre-negotiations tend to be secret – the more secret the more successful. For all we know, they are going on right now. It may be that only when the secret leaks and we know negotiations have started that the enemies will mobilize and try to sabotage them. And of course quite often the enemies of negotiations win out. They are working very hard right now to make the potential U.S.-Iranian accord fail. In the case of this potential accord, I hope an agreement is reached, since its positives far outweigh its negatives.

Netanyahu: The Message is Clear

Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu won an impressive electoral victory in Israel on March 17. He did it by making two last-minute public statements. One was that there would be no Palestinian state while he is President. He thus formally reneged on his commitment to a two-state outcome to the negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Authority. The second statement was to “alert” voters to a significant Arab turnout in the elections. This of course was pure demagoguery, but it worked.

He has not only remained the most successful Israeli politician in the last few decades. But he did it all by careful calculation. The story started several weeks ago when Israeli polls showed a significant rise in the prospective vote for the so-called Zionist Union, led by the leader of Israel’s center-left Labor Party, Isaac Herzog. This group carefully avoided saying much about the Palestinians except that they would renew negotiations. Rather, they built their campaign on purely internal economic issues, promising more welfare state benefits.

First, Netanyahu responded to (possibly instigated) an invitation from U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a Joint Session of Congress. This was a largely unprecedented intrusion of a foreign head of state in U.S. policy-making. President Obama was very upset and refused to meet Netanyahu during his brief visit to the United States.

Netanyahu spoke to an enthusiastic audience of Republicans along with a partial boycott of attendance by Democrats. The object for Netanyahu was to mobilize Jewish Israelis not to vote for other rightwing candidates in the first round of voting but to cast a “useful vote” for Netanyahu. In this he succeeded remarkably strongly.

In the process of course he deeply antagonized Obama, who said the United States would now have to re-evaluate its relations with Israel. Netanyahu then back-tracked slightly on his statement about further negotiations with the Palestinians, and apologized for his fear-mongering about Arab turnout for the elections. Obama was not appeased, saying the he took Netanyahu at his word about a two-state outcome.

So, what, everyone is asking, will happen now? Just before the elections, a group of distinguished Israeli security figures issued a statement, saying in effect that Netanyahu’s approach was alienating the United States and that this was desperately bad for Israel’s future as a Jewish state. Were they right? The answer is yes and no.

Let’s start with the basic dilemma of the majority of Jewish Israelis. They want neither a two-state nor a one-state outcome. They know that a two-state solution requires a major retreat on post-1973 Jewish settlements as well as a possibility for at least some Palestinians to return from exile. They find this unacceptable. And, given the demographic evolution, they fear that a two-state solution is simply a one-state solution that is delayed. As for the one-state solution, it means renouncing the basic Zionist idea of a Jewish state.

Faced with this dilemma, they like Netanyahu’s strategy: delay, delay, delay! And, if anyone tries to force the pace, be ready to fight militarily against whatever opponent poses itself as an immediate threat.

There is however one basic difficulty with this strategy: It is straining the world’s patience, and most critically the patience of those who have been more or less faithful supporters of the Israeli government’s positions – the major European states, the Palestinian Authority, so-called moderate Arab opinion, and yes, even the United States.

There has been a worldwide transformation of the perception of Israel as a “victim” to that of Israel as a “persecutor.” This is a nightmare for the Zionist cause in Israel. It can only get worse for Israel. There may even come a point, perhaps still a few years from now, that the United States will no longer be willing to veto resolutions in the U.N. Security Council that are critical of Israel.

Two things can happen then. The world can see a dramatic reconsideration of received verities on all sides, as seemed to have happened in South Africa. This reversal permitted a major political change combined with very little economic change. It however involved no bloodshed. Or, alternatively, this won’t happen. And there will be a major war, in which the Jewish Israelis will use all their military strength to defeat anything resembling another intifada.

The message from Netanyahu is clear. He prefers the major war, and so do the voters who elected him.

Turkey and the Kurds: A Possible Agreement

There seems now to be a real possibility of an agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that would end the fierce struggle that dates at the least from the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

The issue has been quite straightforward from the beginning. In the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a group of Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) seized power and established a secular republic, whose boundaries included essentially the areas known as Anatolia and Thrace. Like most nationalists newly-arrived in power, this group was Jacobin in its ideology. It had established a republic of the Turks and basically only for the Turks.

The ethnic struggles with the Armenians are well known and of course subject to endless debate about what in fact happened. Today, most analysts worldwide accept the Armenian version of this history as more correct and consider that there was in effect an ethnic cleansing.

Kurdish-speaking populations are to be found today in four different states – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Kurdish nationalists have long sought to achieve some kind of Kurdish state combining the groups in all four countries. Thus far, this attempt has not been successful and Kurdish nationalists in all four countries have reoriented their objectives to meaningful autonomy within each of the four states.

In the case of Turkey, the Kurdish speakers are concentrated in the southeastern corner of the Turkish state. In 1976, the banner of Kurdish nationalism was assumed by the PKK, which presented itself as a Marxist-Leninist movement ready to engage in insurrection against a Turkish government that was unwilling to accord any political, cultural, or linguistic rights to Kurdish speakers. Indeed, the Turkish government refused to recognize the very existence of Kurds, calling them Mountain Turks. An ongoing military struggle between the Turkish government and the PKK ensued.

In 1999, the leader of the PKK, Abdallah Ocalan, was captured by the Turkish government with the assistance of the CIA. He was tried for treason and terrorism and condemned to death. The sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment in total isolation in an island prison. Meanwhile, Ocalan’s worldview was evolving, and he ceased to believe that Marxism-Leninism should be the organizing ideology of the PKK. At the same time, various PKK groups continued the armed struggle.

In 2002, an Islamist political party, now called the AKP, came to power in Turkey, ousting the secular nationalists that had long dominated the parliament, and upsetting military leaders who were committed to strict secularism. The leader of the AKP, Recep Erdogan, has managed to win three successive elections and the AKP now seems securely in political control of the state.

To widespread surprise, in 2012 Erdogan began negotiations, which were initially secret, with the PKK and therefore with Ocalan. Both sides have been debating what might be an acceptable resolution of the conflict and the long-standing differences over Kurdish rights and autonomy. What seems to have impelled this attempt at a political settlement is the sense that both sides had begun to have that neither is capable of winning the military struggle outright. Like other civil wars, an element of exhaustion began to play a role leading rival forces to consider some kind of compromise.

Compromises are always painful and there are always militants on each side who find them unacceptable. The standard questions are what each side is actually getting in the prospective accord and the degree to which they can get the support of their political base.

In order to move forward, Turkey must adopt a new constitution. The AKP is anxious to expand considerably the power of the president, to which other parties are opposed. The PKK is anxious to include in such a new constitution various clauses that would recognize the Kurds as a people with rights equal to those of the Turks. The PKK wants some language in the constitution that would recognize the Kurds as a co-founding people of modern Turkey.

One difficult issue to resolve in detail is the cessation of hostilities. The Turkish government and the PKK have agreed to the withdrawal of PKK armed forces to the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. This withdrawal has already begun. But there has been no disarmament, and the PKK units do not intend to disarm until more concrete progress is made. Whether Ocalan will be permitted to have his custody remitted to his own home in Turkey is one matter that is in discussion and seems likely.

The urgency for the PKK and the major achievement would be the recognition of Kurdish rights, although the term, autonomy, may not be included. The urgency for the AKP is that, in order to get the 75% in the Turkish parliament needed to adopt a new constitution, they may need the votes of Kurdish members of parliament.

So, amidst much caution and continuing mutual suspicion, the two sides are moving significantly closer to a deal. With some difficulty, Ocalan will probably be able to bring his base in line with the prospective arrangements. He remains a Kurdish hero. If the deal goes through, the Kurds will have achieved linguistic and cultural rights. It remains to be seen how much the economic situation of the ordinary Kurds will improve.

Combating the Islamic State: The Real Options

Commentary No. 396, March 1, 2015

The Islamic State (IS) is pursuing its clearly stated objective of a greatly expanded caliphate by using extreme brutality deliberately. It expects that the extreme brutality will force others either to accede to their demands or to withdraw from the scene. Just about everyone in the Middle East and beyond are both horrified and deeply frightened by the successes thus far of the IS.

What has made it so difficult for opponents of the IS to make headway is their unwillingness to understand that it has been the follies and misplaced priorities of the opponents of the IS that have made it possible for IS to emerge and to pose such a threat.

The IS claims that it is acting out of religious motives ordained by the Koran. And most probably their adherents believe this, which of course makes it almost impossible to negotiate with them in any manner. This is what makes them different from previous so-called Salafist movements that have been around for some time. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban were all movements that combined militancy with pragmatism.

Today, the mainstream Arab Muslim movements, the governments of the Arab states, as well as the outside powers involved in the region (United States, western Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran) all denounce the IS. However, it is widely believed that the IS has the support, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the ordinary Sunni Muslims in the Islamic world, at least that of younger persons. These ordinary persons are streaming into zones controlled by the IS in great numbers. Persons involved in other Salafist movements are shifting allegiances to the IS.

What is it that is impelling this new attitude? It is not shar’ia law. That was after all there before. Shar’ia law is merely the covering to justify the brutal actions. Of course, once it gets a religious covering like this, it hardens the commitment. But the prime factor that underlies this impulse is a sense of hopelessness. Other movements and states – both secularist and Salafist – have failed to relieve significantly the oppression that these young Muslims feel. The IS offers hope. Perhaps one day the converts will be disillusioned, but that moment is not yet arrived.

Why then cannot there be a coalition of those who are opposed to the IS and its expansionary threats? The answer is very simple. They all have other priorities. The Egyptian government is fighting first of all the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi government is fighting first of all Iran and anyone who threatens their claim to leadership of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. The Qataris are fighting first of all the Saudi government. The government of Bahrain gives priority to suppressing the Shias who are numerically the vast majority. The Iranian government is fighting first of all Sunni forces in Iraq. The Turkish government is fighting first of all Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish movements are fighting not only for their autonomy (or independence) but also each other. The Russian and the U.S. governments are both giving priority to their mutual quarrels. And the Israelis are fighting primarily Iran and the Palestinians. Name one that puts fighting the IS at the top of its list.

This is absolutely crazy. Can anything break through this irrational schema of false priorities? Obviously, there is a dire need to create conditions in which the Sunni-Shia schism is superseded by one in which whichever is the social minority in a given state has rights to reasonable participation in governance and reasonable social autonomy. Were an accord to be achieved between the United States and Iran, they could in fact do a lot militarily and politically together to retake northwest Iraq from the IS. But will their respective hardliners really permit this?

What, you may ask, about existing dictatorships? Should we not be struggling against them? The efforts to do so as the great priority has actually reinforced them. The fears created by the IS have actually reduced in major ways the civil rights of citizens and residents in the United States and western Europe. There is massive hypocrisy concerning which tyrants are being opposed. In effect, everyone protects the tyrants that are their geopolitical ally and denounces the tyrants that are not.

It is long past time to revise radically our priorities. The likelihood of doing this, I admit, seems small at the moment. But the fact is, there is no other choice.

Multiculturalism and Its Dilemmas

Commentary No. 395, February 15, 2015

Debate about something called multiculturalism is very widespread and passionate these days throughout the world. Both its advocates and those who denounce it seem to be under the illusion that multiculturalism is something very new. But it isn’t new at all. Multiculturalism is as old as human cultures have existed. And it has always been the subject of passionate debate.

Wherever humans resided, there have always been groups that consider themselves somehow more indigenous to the region than others. The “indigenous” have tended to use a rhetoric of cultural purity, which they see as being defiled, or threatened, by others who are marginal or newly-arrived in the region, and who have therefore fewer rights than the indigenous groups (or no rights whatsoever). The response of this latter group has always been to claim some version or other of multiculturalism. That is, they have argued in favor of according equal rights to all (or most) residents, whether or not they share some of the cultural practices of the self-styled “indigenous” population.

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Panic About Panic: Russia and the World-System Today

Commentary No. 394, February 1, 2015

Visiting Russia, which I recently did, is a strange experience for someone coming from the Global North. As we know, most Russians have an entirely different reading of recent world history from most persons in the Global North. In addition, however, they are concerned about things other than what visitors expect them to be concerned about.

The one common assumption that transcends these differences is the fact that the occurrence of a sharp drop in world oil and gas prices combined with the embargo imposed by some countries on Russia has created an economic squeeze on Russian state expenditures and individual consumption.

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