Bastille Day: France’s Ultra-Confused Present

Commentary No. 429, July 15, 2016

Every year, France celebrates on July 14 the fall in 1789 of the Bastille, then the main prison in Paris. The celebration is meant to mark the end of the so-called Ancien Régime. It unifies the country around what are referred to today as Republican values.

The first time there was such a celebration was the very next year in 1790, one that was dedicated to peace and national unity. Bastille Day, however, did not become an annual celebration until 1880, when the legislature of the Third Republic proclaimed July 14 the fête nationale (national festivity), which it has remained up to today. But this year, the Republic is anything but unified, its immediate future could not be more uncertain, and there is much debate about exactly what constitute Republican values.

The present constitution is quasi-presidential, making the choice of a president politically crucial. However, at the same time, it establishes a system in which there are two rounds of voting, unless someone gets a clear majority on the first round. In the second round there are only two candidates, the two with the highest votes on the first round.

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Brexit: Symptom, Not Cause, of Turmoil

Commentary No. 428, July 1, 2016

On June 23, the referendum on a British withdrawal from the European Union (EU) won by a clear margin. Politicians and pundits have treated this as an unprecedented and earth-shaking decision. They have been giving various and quite contradictory explanations about the causes of this event and the consequences of this event for Great Britain and the rest of the world.

The first thing to note is that no legal decision to exit the EU has yet been taken. The referendum was, in legal terms, merely advisory. In order to withdraw from the EU, the British government must formally inform the EU that it is invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which is what provides the right and the mode of withdrawal. No one has ever invoked Article 50, so yes, it would be unprecedented. No one therefore can be sure how it would work in practice. While it seems most unlikely that any British government would ignore the referendum, strangely there has been no major British politician who seemed in a hurry to invoke Article 50, an action that would be irreversible.

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Ethnicity: Impassioned, Impermanent, Important

Commentary No. 427, June 15, 2016

Ethnicity refers to one of the basic realities of the modern world-system. We are all embedded in one or several groups that have a presumed (if remote) kinship base. These days we tend to refer to such groups as “identities.” Quite often, our feelings of loyalty to such groups become quite impassioned. We seldom recognize how impermanent are the names and boundaries of such groups. What is sure is that our sentiments about our identities, which vary in intensity, are always a very important part of our current political realities.

Let us start with the impermanence of the groupings. The names of the groups are constantly changing. The names we assign to groups of which we claim to be a part are very often different from the names non-members assign to these groups. More important, names disappear, as groups blend into and assume the identity of other groups, often more powerful ones. This is sometimes called “assimilation.” But at the same time, new names are constantly being created, in part by the secession of members of a given group or by their expulsion from the group. This may be because of differing class interests of members of the group.

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The Increasingly Unstable United States

Commentary No. 426, June 1, 2016

We are used to thinking of instability in states as being located primarily in the global South. It is about those regions that pundits and politicians in the global North speak of “failed states” in which there are “civil wars.” Life is very uncertain for the inhabitants of these regions. There is massive displacement of populations and efforts to flee these regions to “safer” parts of the world. These safer parts are supposed to have more jobs and higher standards of living.

In particular, the United States has been seen as the migratory goal of a very large percentage of the world’s population. This was once largely true. In the period that ran roughly from 1945 to 1970, the United States was the hegemonic power in the world-system in which life was indeed better economically and socially for its inhabitants.

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Brazil:  Coup or Fiasco?

Commentary No. 425, May 15, 2016

The President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has been suspended from her office while she goes on trial by the Senate. If convicted, she would be removed from office, which is what is meant in Brazil by “impeachment.” Anyone, even Brazilians, who have been trying to follow the last several months of political maneuvering may be excused if they are somewhat confused by the many turns this process has taken.

What is really at issue here? Is this a constitutional coup as Pres. Rousseff has called it repeatedly? Or is this a legitimate act of holding the president responsible for grave misdeeds by her and members of her cabinet and advisors, as the “opposition” claims? If the latter, why is this occurring only now and not, say, in Rousseff’s first term as president before she was easily re-elected in 2015 by a significant margin?

Rousseff is a member of the Partido dos Trabalhores (PT) that has been long led by her predecessor in office, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula). One way to view these events is to see it as part of the story of the PT – its coming to power and now, quite probably, its ouster from power.

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The Spanish Drama

Commentary No. 424, May 1, 2016

King Philip VI of Spain has announced that in the four months since the last elections, the elected members of parliament, and especially those representing the four main parties, were unable to make an agreement that would produce a viable government. He therefore announced new elections for June 26, 2016.

Spain, like governments in west European parliamentary systems, has long had two main parties: the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social-democratic PSOE. They have been alternating in parliamentary majorities since the end of the Franco regime and sometimes they formed a coalition government. As in most such systems, other parties were essentially insignificant by-standers that could get at most a few concessions for their political objectives.

The last elections in Spain changed everything. A new party, Podemos (We Can), which had grown out of the oppositional street movement, the Indignados, emerged with a substantial number of elected deputies on an anti-austerity platform. This program was primarily aimed at the PP, the party in power, and its leader, Mariano Rajoy, which had been an unrelenting supporter of the neoliberal program imposed by outside lenders on the government.

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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%.

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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.

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