The Latin American Left Moves Rightward

Commentary No. 404, July 1, 2015

The last fifteen years or so has seen a major shift in Latin America’s political orientation. In a large number of countries, left parties have come to power. Their programs have emphasized redistribution of resources to aid the poorer segments of the population. They have also sought to create and strengthen those regional structures that included all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean but excluded the United States and Canada.

Initially, these parties succeeded in bringing together multiple groups and movements that sought a change from the traditional parties that were oriented to right politics and close ties with the United States. They sought to prove, in the slogan of the World Social Forum, that “another world is possible.”

The initial collective enthusiasms began to fade on multiple fronts. Middle-class elements became increasingly disturbed not only by the rampant corruption in the left governments but by the increasingly harsh ways which these governments used to treat opposition forces. This shift rightward of some initial supporters of a leftward “change” was normal in the sense that it usually happens everywhere.

There was however a much more important problem facing these countries. There are, and have always been, essentially two Latin American lefts, not one. One is composed of those persons and movements that wish to overcome the lower standards of living in the countries of the South by using state power to “modernize” the economy and thereby “catch up” with the countries of the North.

The second, quite different, is composed of those underclasses who fear that such “modernization” will make things not better but worse for them, increasing the internal gaps between the better-off and the poorest strata of the country.

In Latin America, this latter group includes the indigenista populations, that is, those whose presence dates from before the time that various European powers sent their troops and settlers into the Western Hemisphere. It also includes the afrodescendentes, that is, those who were brought in from Africa by the Europeans as slaves.

These groups began to speak of promoting a civilizational change based on buen vivir – a translation from Incan languages meaning “living well.” They argued for a maintenance of traditional modes of living under the control of local populations.

The two visions – that of the modernizing left and that of the proponents of buen vivir – soon began to clash, and clash seriously. Whereas, in the first elections that the left won, the left forces had the support of the movements of the underclasses, that was no longer as true in the subsequent elections. Quite to the contrary! As time went on, the two groups spoke more and more angrily and uncompromisingly about each other.

The net result of this split is that both groups – the left parties and the underclasses – moved rightward. The representatives of the underclasses found themselves allied de facto with rightist forces. Their main demand began to be the overthrow of the left parties, and particularly its leader. This was something that would clearly result in rightist governments coming to power, parties that were no more interested in buen vivir than the left parties.

Meanwhile the left parties promoted developmentalist policies that ignored to a significant degree the negative ecological effects of their programs. In practice, their agricultural programs began to eliminate the small agricultural producers who had been the basis of internal consumption in favor of mega-corporate structures. Their programs began to resemble in many ways the programs of previous right governments.

In short, the progress of the Latin American left, so remarkable in recent years, is being undone by the bitter struggle between the two Latin American lefts. Those persons and groups that have tried to encourage a meaningful dialogue between the two lefts have been seen as very unwelcome by both sides. It is as though the two sides are saying that you are with us or against us, that there is no median path. It is very late, but it may not be too late for both sides to engage in intelligent reassessment of the situation and to rescue the Latin American left from self-destruction.

Turkey: Instability Ahead

Commentary No. 403, June 15, 2015

Turkey held parliamentary elections on June 7, 2015. Against the expectations of virtually everyone, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish initials) lost its absolute majority. This was seen as a major defeat both for the party and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The correspondent of the Financial Times called the results “seismic” and cited a commentator/critic of Erdogan who said: “There’s no risk-free path for him at the moment; anything he chooses will be a gamble.” The headline of this article says Erdogan has a “post-poll choice: step back or forge ahead.”

Virtually all observers, within and outside Turkey, have been analyzing the elections with similar dramatic verbiage. To understand why, we have to go back to the beginning of Turkey’s history as an independent state in 1923. The Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) ended with the Treaty of Lausanne. At that point, the interim parliament called for elections. This second parliament proclaimed the republic, accepted the Treaty of Lausanne, and abolished the caliphate. The new majority party, The Republican People’s Party (CHP in its Turkish initials), soon became the only party. It was led by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, until his death in 1938.

Ataturk’s policies were modeled in many ways on what he considered those of France. He was an anticlerical Jacobin who sought to “modernize” his country. Central to his Jacobinism was the French view of the relations between the state and religions, called laicité. The Turkish translation of this word is an invented cognate, laiklik.

The Jacobinism was expressed in Ataturk’s ferocious opposition to any kind of intermediary allegiances between the state and the individual, whether such intermediaries were religious, ethnic, or regional. There were four large possible intermediaries, and Ataturk took action against all four. The first was Islam – hence the abolition of the caliphate and the banning of Islamic vestments. The second was the Kurds – hence the denial of the use of their language and indeed of their very existence, calling them “mountain Turks.” The third was the Armenians – hence their slaughter and expulsion. The fourth was the Greek Orthodox population and church – hence the forced transfers to Greece in exchange for Turks resident in Greece.

Furthermore, for Ataturk and the CHP, the creation of a modern state implied a careful limitation of the boundaries of the Turkish state. This meant rejecting the ideology of pan-Turkism, which sought to unite all Turkic-speaking peoples. It rejected a fortiori so-called Turanism, which sought to unite all peoples that were linguistically descended from common roots, like Finns, Hungarians, Mongols, Koreans, and Japanese, among others.

Quite to the contrary. Ataturk sought to “purify” Turkish by rejecting all linguistic imports from Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Latin in Turkish, as used within the boundaries of Anatolia, which provided the basic boundaries of modern Turkey. He also ended the use of the Arabic alphabet, replacing it with the Latin alphabet.

Successive versions of the constitution all included the term “secular” in the description of the republic. In 1930, Ataturk wrote of the “erroneous appellations” by “co-nationals who has been incited to think of themselves as Kurds, Circassians, Laz or Bosnians.” They were rather, he said, “individual members of the nation.”

The second issue of continuing importance for Turkey was its geopolitical orientation. In the early days of the republic, Turkey entertained links with the Soviet Union. They shared a sense of being “revolutionary” and consequently not being accepted by the Western world. But for Ataturk, this alliance receded as he pursued his aspiration to create a modern state following the French model. Then, with the coming to power of Hitler, Turkey was courted by Germany. Hence, when the Second World War began, the Turkish state was torn between possible allegiances, and opted for neutrality, which was seen by the Allied powers as too pro-German.

In part to repair the relations with western Europe (and North America), Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inönü ended one-party rule in 1944 and called for elections. The CHP easily won the first election, but after that, it became a minority party. It proclaimed itself social-democratic and joined the Socialist international. It continued to be strongly nationalist but found its electoral strength in urban areas from middle-class professional and managerial elites. Its supporters pushed both for pro-Western policies (like joining NATO) and for greater civil liberties.

The CHP found itself beset by opponents. There were now the successive versions of a conservative party, which placed less emphasis on pro-Western policies. It had strong roots in rural areas and a somewhat more tolerant view of Islam. There was the army and the judiciary, who wanted to maintain a very strong state and were extremely vigilant in the defense of laicité, leading to several military takeovers. And there were the Kurds who began to organize politically and eventually started a military insurrection under a party/army known as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK in its Turkish initials). This group, led by Abdullah Ocalan, originally proclaimed itself Marxist-Leninist but later evolved into a revised socialist orientation willing to integrate politically as an autonomous region within Turkey. Ocalan was captured with CIA assistance and condemned to death, which was commuted into lifetime imprisonment on a remote island.

The Muslim-based parties that emerged in this period were successively outlawed and their leaders either imprisoned or barred from politics. So, when Erdogan’s “moderate Islamic” party, the AKP, first came to power in 2002, it was seen as a veritable progressive revolution. It was still faced with strong opposition from many left “secularist” intellectuals and also faced the possibility of an army takeover. Erdogan carefully and successfully navigated all the shoals, and grew steadily stronger. At this point, Erdogan sought a parliament that would vote for a new constitution creating a very strong presidential system. The AKP that seemed to represent a progressive force in 2002 now seemed to be the potentially dictatorial party of the future.

Erdogan did however do one remarkable and surprising thing in his late term of office. He started negotiations with Ocalan to see if there could be some formula of devolution of power that would resolve the issue. He got great credit for this among the Kurds. However, he also pursued a new foreign policy that reinserted Turkey into the Middle Eastern arena. His ferocious opposition to Syria’s Bashir al-Assad led him to engage in negative behavior vis-a-vis Syrian Kurds who gave priority to opposing the Islamic State and were allied with the PKK.

Ergo, in these last elections, the latest legal Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP in its Turkish initials), pursued a new policy entirely. It created a progressive rainbow coalition. On its slate of candidates were persons from all major ethnic groups, the first openly gay candidate, and perhaps most important a large number of women. This party received over 13% of the vote nationally, enabling a Kurdish party for the very first time to exceed the high threshold of 10% needed to have seats in parliament.

Erdogan has no chance now of enacting his constitution. His immediate problem is whether to try to govern as a minority party (very difficult) or to ally with one of the three parties with the votes to give him a majority: the left HDP, the secularist CHP, or the far rightwing party. It is a very difficult choice for him, for his party, and for Turkey. The outcome will have a fundamental impact not only on the future of Turkey but on the geopolitics of the Middle East.


Protesting Mainstream Parties

Commentary No. 402, June 1, 2015

In countries with contested elections, there are usually two mainstream parties considered as being somewhere in or near the center of the views of the voters in that country. In the last few years, there have been a relatively large number of elections in which a protest movement has either won the election or at least won enough seats such that their support must be obtained in order that a mainstream party govern.

The latest example of this is Alberta in Canada, where the National Democratic Party (NDP), running on a platform reasonably far to the left, surprisingly and unexpectedly ousted from power the Progressive Conservatives, a rightwing party that had governed the province without difficulty for a very long time. What made this all the more surprising was that Alberta has the reputation of being the most conservative province in Canada, and is the base of Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, in office since 2006. The NPD even won 14 of 25 seats in Calgary, Harper’s own residence and stronghold.

Alberta is not the only case. The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept elections in Scotland, after a history of being a marginal party. The ultra-rightwing Polish party, the Law and Justice Party, defeated the candidate of what had been considered a conservative pro-business party, the Civic Platform. Syriza in Greece, campaigning on an anti-austerity platform, is now in power and Prime Minister Alexei Tsipras is struggling to achieve its objectives. In Spain, Podemos, another anti-austerity party, is steadily rising in the polls and seems poised to make it difficult or impossible for the governing conservative party, the People’s Party, to remain in power. India is just celebrating the year in power of Narendra Modi, who ran on a platform of ousting Establishment parties and dynasties from power.

These protest elections all have something in common. They all utilized rhetoric in their campaigning that we call populist. This means that they asserted that they were fighting against the country’s elites, who have too much power and ignore the needs of the vast majority of the population. They emphasized the gaps in wealth and well-being between these elites and everyone else. They deplored the decline in the real income of the “middle” strata. They emphasized the need to provide jobs, usually in instances in which there had been a significant increase in unemployment.

In addition, these protest movements always pointed to corruption in the parties in power and they promised to check it, or at least seriously reduce it. And all of this together they packaged as a call for change, real change.

However, we should look more closely at these protests. They are in no way all alike. Indeed, there is a fundamental split among them, which we can notice as soon as we look at the rest of their rhetoric. Some of these protest movements are on the left – the NDP in Alberta, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the SNP in Scotland. And some are clearly on the right – Modi in India, the Law and Justice Party in Poland.

Those on the left focus their criticisms centrally around economic issues. They are class-based in their recruitment and their rhetoric. Those on the right primarily make nationalist assertions, usually with a xenophobic emphasis. Those on the left want to combat unemployment by government policies that would create the jobs, including of course greater taxation of the more wealthy. Those on the right want to combat unemployment by preventing immigration, even expelling immigrants.

Once in power, these protest movements, whether of the left or of the right, find it very difficult to fulfill the populist promises they have made to become elected. Large corporations have major tools with which to limit measures taken against them. They act through this mythical entity called the “market,” aided and abetted by other governments and international institutions. The protest movements find that, if they push too hard, government income is reduced, at least in the short run. But for those who have voted for them, the short run is their measure of continuing approval. The protest movements’ day of glory and power risks being very limited. So they “compromise,” which angers the most militant of their supporters.

One must always remember that the supporters of a change in government are a motley lot. Some are militants seeking extensive change in the world-system and their country’s role in it. Some are merely weary of the traditional mainstream parties, seen as having become tired and non-responsive. Some say that a new group in power couldn’t do anything worse than those previously in power. In short, these protest movements are not an organized army but an unstable floating alliance of many different groups.

There are three conclusions we can draw from this situation. The first is that national governments do not have unlimited power to do what they want. They are extremely constrained by the operation of the world-system as a whole.

The second conclusion is that, nonetheless, they can do something to alleviate the distress of ordinary persons. They can do this precisely by pursuing reallocations of income via taxation and other mechanisms. Such measures will “minimize the pain” of those who are the beneficiaries. The results may only be temporary. But once again I remind you that we all live in the short run and any help we can get in the short run is a plus, not a minus.

The third conclusion is that, if a protest movement is going to be a serious participant in changing the world-system, it must not limit itself to short-run populism but engage in middle-run organization to affect the worldwide struggle in this period of systemic crisis and transition to an alternative world-system, one that has already begun and is ongoing.

It is only when left protest movements learn how to combine short-run measures to “minimize the pain” with middle-run efforts to tilt the bifurcated struggle for a new system that we can have some hope of arriving at the outcome we desire – a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world-system.

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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