Immanuel Wallerstein Wed, 03 Feb 2016 19:51:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Left Electoral Strategy? France and the United States Mon, 01 Feb 2016 05:00:32 +0000 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 Fri, 15 Jan 2016 05:00:39 +0000 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.

While both sides seem to pull back before a direct military confrontation, there is warfare in Syria and Yemen that is carried out by groups said to be proxies for the Saudis and the Iranians. Those fighting on the scene in Syria and Yemen do not seem to be encouraging anyone to act as quasi-neutral mediators. The groups in both Syria and Yemen are so deeply distrustful of each other that they seem to regard mediation as unviable. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give priority to any strategy that combats effectively the still widespread strength of the Islamic State, which the United States (and others) have proclaimed as priority number one.

Our memories tend to be so short-lived that we have forgotten entirely that Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran were once close geopolitical collaborators. It was not so long ago.

We need not go back to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 when Iran gave the new state crucial diplomatic recognition, leading to Saudi Arabia’s widespread acceptance in the community of sovereign states. The more interesting period is that of the 1960’s. When the world’s oil distributors suddenly and unilaterally reduced the prices they were ready to pay for crude oil, the government of (pre-Chavez) Venezuela suggested to the government of (pre-Ayatollah) Iran that they meet together, inviting also Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, to see if there weren’t some steps to counter this attack on their national income. They were very angry and blamed both the major banks and oil distributors (the so-called Seven Sisters) and the U.S. government, which they saw as supporting the banks, if not actually instigating their decisions.

A meeting did take place in Vienna from September 10-14, 1960. The five states founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They invited other states to join OPEC. Over time, others did: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Gabon (which later withdrew).

At first, OPEC was merely a locus for discussion and exchange of information. When, however, Israel defeated a number of Arab states in the so-called Yom Kippur War in 1973, with the crucial and overt support of the United States, OPEC declared a global oil boycott. It was proposed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The idea of militant action by OPEC had been proposed previously by more “radical” OPEC members. But until 1973, it did not have support either from Saudi Arabia or from Iran. These two states had been considered the states closest at the time to the United States. Their joint shift in position marked a major turning-point in the history of OPEC.

But notice the central geopolitical fact. Saudi Arabia and Iran were collaborating directly. There was no talk of millennial Sunni-Shiite rivalry. Instead, they were collaborating. And it worked. There followed a major rise in the world oil price, which benefited both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In 1974, the meeting of the OPEC oil ministers in Vienna was invaded by supporters of Palestinian movements led by “Carlos the Jackal.” He threatened to shoot many, especially the Iranian Oil Minister. The story of how the hostages were finally released and for what price has never been really clear. There is however one crucial detail. Somebody paid ransom for the Iranian Oil Minister. Analysts have come to believe that the Saudi government did it on behalf of their Iranian colleague. Strange behavior if one believes that the two governments were motivated only by religious discord.

One final curious moment. In March 2007, there was a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The KSA government explicitly invited Iran to send someone to attend. The then President Ahmadinejad of Iran, considered at the time the Iranian leader most vocally and unconditionally opposed to any links with the Western world, accepted the invitation. He was met at the airport by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a great gesture. Abdullah hailed the arrival of “brotherly nations.” The meeting came to naught, but once again indicated that geopolitical relations were not governed exclusively by religious criteria.

Why was OPEC able to achieve the boycott and the world oil price rise in 1973 and then again in 1979? What was different then from today in the Middle East? Two things mainly. The United States was still in 1973 what it is no longer in 2016, the decisive and geopolitically deciding nation. In the end everyone had to accommodate to the wishes of the United States, more or less.

On the other hand, U.S. geopolitical power brought with it pressures. When it gave its imprimatur to the Israelis in the Yom Kippur War, it needed immediately to balance this with some gesture in the other direction to appease at least Saudi Arabia, a crucial ally. There are many who think that the United States actually gave the go-ahead to Saudi Arabia and Iran to launch the boycott. Aside from appeasing them, it had the economic advantage to the United States of strengthening its hand in the trilateral competition among the United States, western Europe, and Japan.

Where are we then today? Saudi Arabia and Iran have collaborated closely in the past. It is not at all inconceivable that they may do so again in a relatively near future. The geopolitical turmoil is very great, and no analyst should eliminate any possible shift. Geopolitics may again trump religious differences. This is especially true because of the serious relative decline of U.S. clout in the region.

The BRICS – A Fable for Our Time Fri, 01 Jan 2016 05:00:00 +0000 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.

The argument caught on, including in the four countries themselves. The four BRICs decided to assume the name and create structures of annual meetings as of 2009 in order to transform their emerging economic strength into geopolitical strength. The tone of their successive collective statements was to assert the place of the South against that of the North, and especially that of the United States in the world-system. They talked of replacing the dollar as the reserve currency with a new South-based currency. They talked of creating a South-based development bank to assume many of the functions that were the purview of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They talked of redirecting world trade flows, so as to enhance South-South exchanges.

They talked of all these things, but somehow they never quite got around to implementing these proposals. Instead, they concentrated in the 2010’s on enjoying the fruits of a high level of commodity prices, which allowed the governments of the four countries to augment significantly the income levels of their upper and middle strata, and even to increase some benefits to the lower strata.

The times seemed good, and not only for the BRICs. In 2009, South Africa managed to convince the four BRICs to admit it as a fifth member of the group. The name was changed from BRICs to BRICS, the final capital S referring to South Africa. South Africa did not really meet the economic criteria O’Neill had specified, but in terms of geopolitics, it enabled the group to say it had an African member.

Meanwhile, other countries began to show economic characteristics similar to those of the BRICS. Journalists began to speak of the MINT – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Although this group also included ‘emerging’ economies, they never became a formal structure. One other country was an obvious member – South Korea. However, South Korea had already been admitted to the club of the wealthy – the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – and thus saw no need to enhance further its geopolitical status.

Then all of a sudden, the economic strength of the BRICS took a turn for the worse in the 2010s. It isn’t that the G-7 countries were growing faster again, but that the BRICS were showing lowered asset figures. The swift rise of the BRICS seemed to be vanishing.

What had happened? A look at the world-economy of the first decade of the twenty-first century shows that the world economic boom was largely driven by China’s no-holds-barred construction and industrialization drive. It had created an enormous demand for inputs of all sorts, which China got from the BRICS countries as well as elsewhere. China’s boom had been built on some shaky and reckless loan policies of the large number of regional banks that had come into existence, aided and abetted by considerable corruption. When the Chinese government sought to repair the damage, its growth rate plummeted, although it still remained relatively high.

In addition, China’s attempt to assert her geopolitical power over its neighbors in east and southeast Asia has led to accumulated tensions. Said to be part of China’s rivalry with the United States, both China and the United States have been careful not to let the rivalry go so far that it threatens the longer-run possibilities of a partnership.

China’s adjustments were immediately felt elsewhere, and especially in the other BRICS countries, which turned out to be economically shaky and therefore politically vulnerable. The dramatic fall of the world oil prices took their toll. One after the other, the BRICS found themselves in trouble, each in its own form.

Brazil’s economic policies had combined neoliberal macroeconomic policies with important transfers to the poorest third of the population – the so-called Fome Cero or Zero Hunger no longer worked. The fluid and ever-changing political alliances in the Brazilian legislature became a turbulent scene, threatening political stability. At the moment, the two main sides are trying to impeach each other’s leaders. And the image of the person who had constructed Brazil’s previously successful policies – Lula or former President Luis Inácio Cruz de Silva – is badly tarnished.

Russia’s policies of heavy investment in the military combined with state-aided economic redistribution were strongly threatened by the fall in gas and oil price. Its geopolitical assertiveness in Ukraine and the Middle East led to various kinds of boycotts that hurt its economic national income sharply.

India’s attempt to catch up, not only with the West but with China, resulted in massive ecological damage as well as the diminution of investments by its diaspora in North America and western Europe. The current government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is finding it very difficult to fulfill the promises that led to his landslide victory so recently.

In South Africa, the overwhelming majority of the African National Congress (ANC) is finally receding, as an ever-larger proportion of the electorate is too young to remember the anti-apartheid struggle. Instead, politics have become increasingly based on ethnic politics. And the ANC is threatened by an anti-White upsurge among younger voters, so foreign to the ANC’s historic non-racial policies. In addition, South Africa’s neighbors are increasingly uneasy with South Africa’s strong hand in their internal politics.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! What remains of the geopolitical aspirations of the BRICS is anyone’s guess.

Electoral Losers Tue, 15 Dec 2015 05:00:27 +0000 This has been a bad year for parties in power faced with elections. They have been losing them, if not absolutely then relatively. Attention has been focusing on a series of elections where so-called rightwing parties have been performing better, sometimes much better, than parties in power considered to be leftwing. Notable examples are Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, and Denmark. And one might add the United States.

What is less commented on has been the reverse situation – parties in power that are “rightwing” losing to forces on the left, or at least losing in percentages and numbers of seats they have obtained at the national and/or provincial levels. This has been true, in often quite different ways, of Canada, Australia, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Italy, and India.

Maybe the problem is not the programs being put forth by the parties but simply the fact that parties in power are being blamed for bad economic situations. One reaction, which we have seen almost everywhere, is rightwing, xenophobic populism. And another reaction is to demand more, not fewer, welfare state measures, which is called being “against austerity.” It is of course quite possible to be xenophobic and anti-austerity at the same time.

But if a party reaches power and has to govern, it is expected to make a difference in the lives of all those who voted them into power. And if they can’t do that they may face a severe reaction at elections in the future, often quite swiftly. This is what Prime Minister Modi in India learned when less than a year after a sweeping national election, his party did badly in provincial elections in Delhi and Bihar, where his party had done very well just before.

I don’t think this volatility is going to cease anytime soon. The reason, I think, is quite simple. The neoliberal mantras of growth and competitivity are not able to reduce significantly the rate of real unemployment. As a result, they can primarily force the transfer of wealth from the lower strata to the richer strata. This is very visible and is what leads to the denunciation of austerity programs.

The xenophobic reaction responds to a psychic need, but does not in fact lead to greater employment, and therefore not to greater real income. Such voters may withdraw then from electoral politics, as may those pursuing left objectives, such as increased taxation on the wealthy. In turn, the governments – left, center, or right – have less money for any social protective measures.

The combination of these elements is not only very negative for those at the bottom of the income ladder. It also means the so-called decline of the middle class – that is, the transfer of many families into the ranks of the lower strata. However, the two-mainstream-party model of parliamentary elections has been based on the existence of a numerically large middle class stratum who were ready to shift their votes slightly and calmly between two rather similar centrist parties. Without that model in function, the political system is chaotic, which is what we are seeing now.

I have been describing the intrastate scene. But there is also the interstate scene – the relative overall power of different states. Just as rates of real employment are what to watch within each state, so the rates of currency exchange are a key to interstate power. The U.S. dollar has maintained its top dog status primarily because there is no good short-run alternative. Nonetheless, the U.S. dollar is not stable but also subject to sudden, volatile shifts as well as long-term relative decline.

The chaotic exchange rates means that there remains one last, and highly dangerous, solution to reinforcing relative interstate power – warfare. Warfare is both intimidating and remunerating in the short run, even if it is humanly devastating and exhausting in the longer run. So, when the United States debates how to pursue its interests in Syria or Afghanistan, the pull to increased, rather than lessened, military involvement is very strong.

All in all, it is not a pretty picture. The point for the political parties is this is not a good time to hold elections. Some parties in power are beginning to decide that they shouldn’t hold them, or at least not hold even marginally competitive ones.

Argentina’s Election: Who Won What? Tue, 01 Dec 2015 05:00:17 +0000 On Nov. 22, 2015, Mauricio Macri defeated Daniel Scioli in Argentina’s presidential election somewhat narrowly by just under three percentage points. Most analysts called this the triumph of the right over the left. This is not false but it is far too simple. Actually, the election reflected the very complex developments occurring throughout Latin America at the present time. Misreading what is going on can lead to major political errors in the decade to come.

The story starts during the Second World War. Argentina’s government was neutral but actually sympathetic to the Axis powers. Beginning in 1943, an opposition movement that linked the trade-union movements and younger army officers came into existence. A key figure was Col. Juan Perón, who became Secretary of Labor in the government. His brief arrest in 1945 led to street demonstrations and his release after eight days. The elections in 1946 were essentially between an anti-imperialist (that is, anti-United States) and pro-labor welfare state candidate (Perón) and a rightwing candidate openly supported by the U.S. Ambassador. Perón won and implemented his program with the assistance of his charismatic second wife, Evita, heroine of the descamisados (“shirtless ones”).

Peronism is not a policy but a style, often called populism. It followed that in terms of policies, there are many Peronisms – right, center, and left. What unites them are mythic figures. Perón’s more or less left Peronism was brought to an end by a military coup in 1955. Perón went into exile and married his third wife, Isabel, who was Spanish.

The military allowed elections in 1976. Perón returned and stood for election with Isabel as his Vice-Presidential candidate. He died after a year in office and was succeeded by Isabel, who was very unpopular. This was a period of rightwing military coups throughout Latin America – Chile, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina. In Argentina, this is called the period of the “dirty war,” in which there were perhaps 30,000 desaparecidos (“disappeared ones”), who were eliminated brutally.

By 1983, the military had exhausted their support and it seemed both wise and safe to allow a return to civilian rule. In 1989, Carlos Menem, a Peronista, became president. He pursued a very rightwing policy, both in terms of obedience to the neoliberal requirements of the IMF and the alignment with U.S. geopolitical priorities.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez’s election as president of Venezuela marked the beginning of the so-called pink tide. It was a consequence not only of popular dismay with the serious income declines caused by observing the Washington Consensus but of the onset of the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East, to which it was giving priority of attention.

In 2001, a more or less anarchist movement, the piqueteros (blockers of streets by refusing to move) emerged as a strong political force. Their political method was known as the caceroles (or banging metal pots and pans). Their slogan was “Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with them all!”). They forced the neoliberal but Peronista regime to resign.

Following continued turmoil, the elections of 2003 pitted neoliberal Peronista Carlos Menem against alterglobalization and Peronista Néstor Kirchner. Kirchner’s lead in the polls was so great that Menem withdrew. Kirchner governed for four years succeeded by his wife Cristina who was elected twice with large margins. Argentina now was governed by a subvariety of Peronism called Kirchernismo.

Cristina could not run again in 2015 because the law forbids more than two successive terms in office. The Kirchnerista forces, known now as the Frente para la Victoria (FPV) put forward Daniel Scioli as their candidate. Scioli is considered more centrist than Cristina, and her support was lukewarm. Nonetheless, it was expected that in the primaries of August 9, Scioli would easily win on the first round. He came in first but was forced into a second round, which Macri won, if narrowly.

Macri’s victory is also part of a Latin American pattern. The good days of the economic expansion of the “emergent economies” had reached its limits throughout the world-economy and was causing belt-tightening everywhere. Macri promised an economic solution, one that would bring inflation under control and renew economic growth. He however asserted that his program would be moderate in certain ways. He would not reprivatize industries that Cristina had renationalized. And he would retain some of the welfare state measures of the Kirchner regimes.

There is no question that Macri is a man of the right and intends to rule as far to the right as he can. The question now is how far can he? He is faced by two major constraints. One is worldwide; one is internal. The worldwide constraint is the degree to which there will be a revival of the “good times” for the Global South in the decade to come. If not, Macri will have to explain in the elections of 2019 why it is that his solutions solved nothing or very little for the vast majority of the Argentine population. In short, he would bear the blame rather than Scioli (and the Kirchneristas) for continued economic difficulties.

The internal constraint is more subtle. Some analysts believe that Cristina is quite happy with Scioli’s defeat. Not only does she not like him, but had he won, he would most likely have stood again in 2019. Cristina now can be the candidate in 2019, the last date at which her age would reasonably permit it.

As I write, Macri has not yet put forward his precise program. He stands for maximizing open borders permitting the free flow of commodities and capital. In particular he wishes to end the cepo al dolar – the link of the official rate of the peso to the U.S. dollar. But not totally, at least not immediately. He must balance the short-term negative effect, flight of capital, with the middle-term positive effect he asserts will occur – greater foreign investments that will lower by itself the rate of exchange and hence the inflation.

He wishes to participate in the free trade treaties in process, both in the Pacific and in the Atlantic. And he wishes to redefine the role of the South American trade alliance of Mercosur, including expelling Chavez’s Venezuela, to which he is totally hostile. But this requires unanimity and both Brazil and Uruguay have indicated their opposition.

In world affairs, he wishes to restore close relations with the United States and detach Argentina from its relations with Iran. He seeks also to reaffirm support for the Organization of American States, the structure including North America that most other countries in Latin America have wanted to replace with ones with only Latin American and Caribbean members. But he also says that his foreign policy priority is relations with Brazil, the largest trade partner for his country. And President Rousseff has indicated she will attend Macri’s inaugural. Brazil will constitute a constraint on Macri.

Finally, one issue of the last years has been the amnesty law that absolved the military for all their crimes during the dirty war. The Kirchner regime had repealed the amnesty and was prosecuting the few still living major figures. Macri has said he will not interfere with the judicial process, to the dismay of some of the ultras in his camp. But will not those prosecuted be released for insufficient proof?

In short, Macri does indeed represent a rightward push. But it does not represent an end to Kircherismo, nor a situation in which the left (however we define it in this particular situation) is without weapons and without hope.

The Many Brazils Sun, 15 Nov 2015 05:00:37 +0000 Brazil is a major world power – in terms of size, population, and influence. Yet in many ways it is a combination of so many different and contradictory faces that it is hard for anyone, including Brazilians themselves, to know how to define Brazil’s characteristics as a nation and as a force in the world-system.

The currently most important face of Brazil is the Brazil of Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) and his party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). After three previous unsuccessful runs for president, Lula finally won in 2002. The election as president of a trade-union leader of very humble background represented if nothing else a social breakthrough of a person and a party defying the social hierarchies entrenched in the political system.

Lula and the PT basically promised two things. One was to raise significantly the real income of the poorest sectors of the country. And he did this by his program ofFome Zero (Zero Hunger). These were a complex of federal assistance programs aimed at eliminating hunger in Brazil. It included notably the Bolsa Familial (Family Allowance) as well as access to credit and raises of the minimum wage.

The second promise was to reject the neoliberal policies of his predecessors and the government’s fulfilment of pledges to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Almost immediately, Lula changed his position. He named as the Finance Minister and the president of the Central Bank two persons committed precisely to neoliberal policies and particularly to the pledge to the IMF to maintain a so-called primary income surplus, which is the portion of the government’s income that is not spent. This kind of macroeconomic policy reduces available funds for social investments. Its presumed virtue is to stabilize governments and avoid inflation. The IMF demanded of Brazil a surplus of 4.25%. Under Lula’s presidency the surplus rose even higher, to 4.5 percent.

Lula’s mixed policies existed within the particular political culture of Brazil. Brazil is a country with a very large number of political parties, none of which exceeds a quarter of the seats in parliament. Brazil’s political culture makes it almost normal for individuals and even whole parties to shift allegiances with great frequency. They seek merely power and income. One of the ways Lula and his party remained on top was the mensalao or monthly payment to members of the legislature. Brazil’s level of corruption is probably not really higher than that of most countries, but the rapid shifts in legislative alliances has made it far more visible.

There is also Brazil as a geopolitical force, the Brazil of BRICS – the group of five so-called emerging economies, whose strength rested on a basis of rising worldwide prices for basic commodities. Suddenly, there seemed to be new wealth in Brazil (as in other BRICS countries), until the collapse of these primary commodity prices. It seems today that, economically, it was easy come, easy go.

However, the BRICS were more than an attempt to increase capital accumulation. They were an attempt to assert geopolitical strength. Here too, there were inconsistencies. On the one hand, Brazil became the major force attempting in the first decade of the twenty-first century to construct a unity of Latin America and the Caribbean independent of the United States and the structures it had built to control Latin America. This was the Brazil that took the lead in creating the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and keeping within it such politically disparate countries as the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez and the Colombia of Juan Manuel Santos.

The Brazil that championed Latin American autonomy was also the Brazil that sought to impose itself in many ways on its neighbors, notably Argentina. It was also the Brazil that wished to create a worldwide Lusophone group that served its economic interests. It was also the Brazil that learned that its closer links with China (through BRICS) were not located in a structure of geopolitical equals.

Today all these different Brazils are moving towards internal implosions. Lula’s successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, has had a catastrophic decline in popularity in the past year. Lula himself has lost some of his once untouchable standing. The regime is being threatened today by an impeachment of Rousseff. There are rumors as well that the army is considering a coup. The denial of such a possibility by the head of the armed forces seems itself a semi-confirmation of such a rumor.

Yet, there is no clear alternative, which may make both an impeachment and a military coup unlikely. To say there are many Brazils is to say something that may be said of many countries, probably of most countries. But somehow it seems more so in Brazil. Brave is the analyst who would predict the Brazil of 2016 or 2017. But, although the exact details are quite unpredictable, Brazil has strengths that may continue to make it a key locus of world power.

The Important Canadian Elections Sun, 01 Nov 2015 04:00:26 +0000 To almost everyone’s surprise, Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, won the Canadian elections with a stunning absolute majority of seats in the federal parliament. The surprise was both the winner and his margin. As late as several weeks before the election on October 19, polls showed a three-way virtual tie between the three main candidates: Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the rightwing Conservative Party, Thomas Mulcair of the leftwing New Democratic Party (NDP), and Trudeau whose party was considered centrist. In the predicted votes, Mulcair was leading narrowly and Trudeau was said to be in third place.

Then in the month or so before the elections, suddenly Trudeau’s figures rose, and Mulcair’s figures plunged, ending with the following division of seats: 184 for the Liberals, 99 for the Conservatives, 44 for the NDP, 10 for the Bloc Québécois, and 1 for the Greens. To understand the significance of these results, one must first understand the relatively unusual voting system in Canada. The federal parliament is divided into 338 so-called ridings, each of which sends one person to parliament. In each riding the winner is the one “first past the post.” This means that all a party needs is a simple plurality of votes in the riding to win the seat. As a result, it is extremely rare for one party to win an absolute majority of seats nationally, which is what happened this time.

The question is why the Liberals had such an upsurge in the last minute, essentially upending the NDP. After all, the NDP had previously surprised everyone in the provincial elections in ultra-conservative Alberta on May 6 by doing well across the board and becoming, seemingly, a major national party. No one can be sure, but most analysts think the upsurge came from a sentiment by voters of “anyone but Harper.” Apparently, the voters thought that the Liberals were more likely to achieve this end than the NDP at the level of the individual ridings. Whatever the explanation, Canada now has a stable government for the next five years. We therefore have to assess how Trudeau is going to use his absolute majority.

Trudeau has made some clear promises. He says he is going to support deficit spending for at least three years, increase taxation on the wealthy, and maintain and expand welfare state provisions. In short, he promises an anti-austerity program of a Keynesian variety. This promise placed the Liberals to the left of the NDP, which had moved to the center in order to attract Liberal and independent voters. In addition, he has promised increased activity in combating climate change, something that the Harper government had strongly opposed. And, on social issues, he would move further by legalizing marijuana.

On domestic issues, the centrist Trudeau has thus promised to act as a classical social-democrat of the kind now gone out of fashion among most social-democratic parties. Does he mean it? That depends on whether Canada will weather the worldwide economic storm relatively well in the next year or two. If not, Trudeau may well swing back to a somewhat more “austere” program.

The real difference will be in the geopolitical arena. Harper’s views were very similar to those of the Tea Party in the United States. He did not believe in the reality of climate change. He was against the Iran nuclear deal. He was against immigration of Syrian refugees and anything else that might make Canada more “multicultural.” He strongly favored building the Keystone pipeline of oil and gas from Canada to the United States. He was a war hawk and therefore had agreed to send Canadian jets to join the U.S.-led “coalition” in Syria, but wished to make the ouster of Bashar al-Assad a priority.

Trudeau’s program was virtually the opposite on every question. This aligned his position with that of President Obama on most questions, with one major exception. Trudeau was against further involvement in the civil wars in the Middle East. In particular, he promised to withdraw all Canadian airplanes from the coalition. True to his word, right after the election results were in, Trudeau telephoned Obama to inform him that the Canadian planes were withdrawn. It was only a matter of six planes, but the symbolism was important. Canada was not going to follow the U.S. lead in the global arena.

By voting Harper out of office, Canada was rejecting the entire conservative movement in the United States. This is why they voted for “anyone but Harper.” And the post-Obama president of the United States will have to live with that. Another locus of change will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). Harper lost votes because, in the end, he signed it. There is now going to be considerable resistance in Canada, as well as in the United States, to ratifying the treaty, whose prospects are growing dimmer all the time.

Analysts have noted the stylistic similarities of Obama and Trudeau. Both are essentially centrists – both intellectually and emotionally. Both believe in discussion with opponents to arrive at some sort of consensus. Both invest time and energy in talking with opponents rather than enacting legislation. Obama has paid a high price politically for the consequent delays. And Trudeau is likely to suffer the same setbacks, unless he learns from Obama’s errors, which for the moment he doesn’t seem to be doing.

The bottom line is a reasonably meaningful geopolitical disjunction of Canada from the United States. It is a further blow to the declining ability of the United States to impose its views on the global situation.

Obama’s Impossible Options in the Middle East Thu, 15 Oct 2015 04:00:01 +0000 President Barack Obama is being criticized on all sides for whatever he does these days in the Middle East. And well he might, since there is probably nothing he can do to become the deciding and decisive actor in the whirling geopolitics of the Middle East he would like to be. It isn’t that all his decisions are bad ones. Many are, but there are some that seem sensible. The fact is that virtually no state in the region or having interests in the region is really on his side. They all have their grievances and priorities and are willing to pursue them even if the United States presses them not to do so.

There are four arenas that might be called the hot spots of the region, or perhaps one should say the hottest spots: Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine. Obama’s critics say that he does not have a “coherent” policy in any of these regions. And this criticism is not without merit.

The relatively clearest policy is that concerning Iran. The United States has been pursuing a major effort to obtain an agreement with Iran that essentially offers a deal: no nuclear arms in Iran in return for lifting of the economic sanctions. Such an accord has in fact been signed. And the legislatures in both countries have taken the first step towards ratification. Future historians may list this as Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievement (along with the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba). This is Obama as peacemaker.

However, the agreement must be further ratified in various ways on both sides. While this looks likely, it is surely not inevitable. As is so often said about such agreements, the truth is in the details. The details are complicated, and open to different interpretations on both sides. Different interpretations lead to continuing tensions. Forty years after a similar notable agreement in Northern Ireland was signed, we are still having an argument about interpretations of the agreement, and at this very moment facing a threat of a breakdown.

The situation in Afghanistan is less clear. The Taliban seem to be steadily gathering further strength and controlling further regions, at least at night. The United States sent troops into Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and keep them out. Presumably, the Afghan government wants to defeat the Taliban as well.

Most importantly, Iran also wants to defeat the Taliban. But the United States and Iran do not wish to collaborate openly in this objective. And the Afghan government is torn between asserting its independence of the United States and its need to have its continuing (indeed increasing) military assistance. The Pakistani government seems to be helping the Taliban. And the Indian government seems to want to help the Afghan government more directly than the U.S. government finds desirable.

The policy of the United States is not coherent because it is trying to pursue a set of objectives that interfere with each other. The United States wishes to reinforce a stable government, and therefore is committed to supporting the present Afghan government. To do this, the U.S. military is insisting that more U.S. troops are needed. But Obama has promised to reduce U.S. forces to a small group of non-combatant trainers by the end of the Obama presidency. It is not possible to do this and still ensure the survival of a so-called stable Afghan government, especially since the stability of the government hinges on an unresolved and festering struggle with its non-Taliban opponents.

If we turn to Syria, “coherent” is the last adjective one can apply to U.S. policy. On the one hand, it has sought to form an international “coalition” of countries committed to defeating the still expanding Islamic State (IS, also Daesh or ISIL). The United States also is committed in theory to the destitution of Bashar al-Assad. What the United States does not wish to do is to commit troops to still another Middle Eastern civil war zone. Instead, the United States offers to fight IS with drones that will bomb IS units, without even having any troops on the ground that could guide the drones. The consequence, inevitably, is “collateral damage” that intensifies anti-American feelings in Syria.

Meanwhile, Russia has made it clear that it is committed to keeping Assad in power, at least until there is a “political” resolution of Assad with the so-called moderate opposition. The opposition is itself a complicated group. The United States has poured a lot of money and energy into training a select group of the opposition. The U.S. military has just admitted that this effort has been a total failure. The groups to which they have given support have largely disintegrated. They have not only fled the battlegrounds but actually turned over material to al-Nusra, a group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda and presumably not one that the United States wishes to support.

Nobody is really following a U.S. lead. Turkey, most reluctantly, has agreed to U.S. overflights of their airplanes and drones but has refused to encourage support for the Kurdish troops that are really combating the IS. Saudi Arabia also doesn’t have a coherent policy. They are at odds with al-Qaeda forces but are also giving them some financial and diplomatic support as part of their attempt to counter Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Great Britain and France say they support the United States but Great Britain will send only drones and France criticizes the United States for not pushing harder against Assad. Israel seems to be totally unclear as to what to do. Israel claims Iran as its biggest enemy, but in fact concentrates on keeping the Palestinians in check, which means one policy in the Gaza strip and another in Syria and Lebanon.

As for Israel/Palestine, there has been a crescendo of violence and of rhetoric on both sides. Many commentators say that this is the third Intifada, some asserting that it started a year ago. Whatever the label, it is obvious that Israel is slowly but surely losing the diplomatic battle in western Europe and even in the United States. While Netanyahu would like to repair frayed relations with Obama, he has to be wary of being outflanked on his right. There is little that he will do to change Israeli policy. And there is little that Obama can make him do. However, the Israel/Palestine conflict remains the potential trigger of an explosion throughout the Middle East, one so severe that it would affect the operations of the entire world-economy, which is already in very fragile condition.

If anyone can see in this potpourri evidence that the United States is able to control the situation and dictate terms to anyone, they are seeing things I cannot see. Not only is the United States not a hegemonic power but it isn’t even the most powerful actor in this fragmented region. Its unwillingness to admit this reality to itself is a danger to the entire world.

Resurgence of the World Left? Thu, 01 Oct 2015 04:00:17 +0000 The sweeping triumph on September 24 of Jeremy Corbyn to be the leader of Great Britain’s Labour Party was stunning and totally unexpected. He entered the race with barely enough support to be put on the ballot. He ran on an uncompromisingly left platform. And then, standing against three more conventional candidates, he won 59.5% of the vote in an election that had an unusually high turnout of 76 percent.

Immediately, the pundits and the press opined that his leadership and platform guaranteed that the Conservative Party would win the next election. Is this so sure? Or does Corbyn’s performance indicate a resurgence of the left? And if it does, is this true only of Great Britain?

Whether the world political scene is moving rightward or leftward is a favorite subject of political discussion. One of the problems with this discussion has always been that the direction of political trends is usually measured by the strength of the extreme position on the left or the right in any given election. This is however to miss the essential point about electoral politics in countries with parliamentary systems built around swings between center-left and center-right parties.

The first thing to remember is that there is a large gamut of possible positions at any given moment in any given place. Symbolically, let us say they vary from 1 to 10 on a left-right axis. If parties or political leaders move from 2-3, 5-6, or 8-9, this measures a swing to the right. And reverse numbers (9-8, 6-5, 3-2) measure a swing to the left.

Using this kind of measurement, the last year has seen a striking shift to the left worldwide. There are a number of clear signs of this shift. One is the steadily rising strength of Bernie Sanders in the race for the U.S. presidential nomination in the Democratic Party. It doesn’t mean that he will defeat Hillary Clinton. It does mean that, to counter the poll ratings of Sanders, Clinton has had to assert more leftward positions.

Look at a similar event in Australia. The right-wing party now in power, the Liberal Party, on September 15 ousted Tony Abbott as its leader. Abbott was known for his acute skepticism on climate change and his very tough line on immigration to Australia. Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, who is considered somewhat more open on these questions. Similarly, the British Conservative Party has softened its austerity proposals to win over potential Corbyn voters. These are shifts from 9-8.

In Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative New Democracy Party is facing rising poll figures from Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, running on an anti-austerity platform similar to what was long promoted by Greece’s Syriza Party. New Democracy did quite badly in the May 24 local and regional elections. Rajoy is resisting any “leftward” shift by his party and as a result has been doing even worse in the polls for the future national elections. After his current defeat in the “independencist” elections in Catalonia, Rajoy has dug in his heels even further. Question: Can Rajoy survive as leader of his party, or will he be replaced as was Tony Abbott in Australia by a slightly less rigid leader?

Greece turns out to be the most interesting example of this shift. There have been three elections this year. The first was on January 25, when Syriza came into power, again to the surprise of many analysts, on an anti-austerity platform, using traditional left rhetoric.

When Syriza found European countries unwilling to budge on Greece’s demands to be relieved of many commitments concerning its debt, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for a referendum on whether or not to “reject” Europe’s terms. The so-called Oxi (No) vote on September 18 won hugely. We know what happened subsequently. The European creditors not only made no concessions but offered even worse terms to Greece, which Tsipras felt he had to accept in large part.

Once again, analysts concentrated on the “betrayal” by Tsipras of his pledge. The left caucus within Syriza seceded and formed a new party. In the melee, few commented on what happened in the New Democracy Party. There, its leader Antonis Samaras was replaced by Vangilis Meimaraki, a shift from 9-8 or maybe from 8-7, in an attempt to reap centrist votes away from Syriza.

The conservative shift leftward did not succeed. Syriza won again. The breakaway left group was wiped out in the elections. But why did Syriza win? It seems that the voters still felt they would do better, if only slightly better, with Syriza in minimizing the cuts to pensions and other “welfare state” protections. In short, in the worst possible situation for Greece’s left, Syriza at least did not lose ground.

What, you may wonder, does all this mean? It is clear that, in a world that is living amidst great economic uncertainty and worsening conditions for large segments of the world’s populations, parties in power tend to be blamed and lose electoral strength. So, after the rightward swing of the last decade or so, the pendulum is going the other way.

How much difference does this make? Once again, I insist it depends on whether you observe this in the short run or in the middle run. In the short run, it makes a lot of difference, since people live (and suffer) in the short run. Anything that “minimizes the pain” is a plus. Therefore, this kind of “leftward” swing is a plus. But in the middle run, it makes no difference at all. Indeed, it tends to obscure the real battle, the one concerning the direction of the transformation of the capitalist world-system into a new world-system (or systems). That battle is between those who want a new system that may be even worse than the present one and one that will be substantially better.

Passions About Migrants Tue, 15 Sep 2015 04:00:21 +0000 In a world in which almost any subject seems to arouse deep cleavages within and among countries, arguably the one that has today the deepest and geographically widest resonance is migrants. At the moment, the most acute locus of attention is Europe, where there is a vociferous debate concerning how European countries should respond to the flight to Europe of refugees, especially those from Syria but also those from Iraq and Eritrea.

The basic argument in European public debate has been one between the advocates of compassion and morality who wish to welcome additional migrants and the advocates of self-protection and cultural preservation who wish to close the door against the entry of any more. Europe is in the spotlight for the moment, but parallel debates have long been going on across the world – from the United States and Canada to South Africa, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan.

The immediate precipitant of the European debate is the massive outflow from Syria, where the deterioration of the conflict has created an acute state of personal danger for a very large percentage of the population. Syria has become a country to which it is considered against international law to return emigrants. The debate has been about what therefore to do.

There are three different ways in which one can analyze the underlying issues: in terms of the consequences of migrants for the world and national economies, for local and regional cultural identities, and for the national and world political arenas. A good part of the confusion stems from a failure to distinguish these three perspectives.

If one starts with the economic consequences, the principal question is whether taking in migrants is a plus or minus for the receiving country. The answer is that it depends on which country.

We are now familiar with the demographic transition in which the wealthier the country, the more likely it is that families with middle-level incomes will have fewer children. This is basically because reproducing for one’s child the same or higher income prospects requires a considerable investment in formal and informal education. This is financially burdensome if one does it for more than one child. In addition, improved health facilities result in longer-lived populations.

The consequence over time of a lowered birthrate and longer lives is that the demographic profile of a country becomes tilted to a higher percentage of older persons and a lengthening of the period in which a child is kept out of the active labor market. It follows that fewer persons in the active work range are supporting an increased number of persons at the older and younger age ranges.

One solution for this is to accept migrants, who can expand the proportion of the active work force and thereby ease the problem of financial support for the older and younger populations of the country. Against this argument is the assertion that the immigrants tap welfare resources and are therefore costly. But the welfare outputs seem to cost far less than the income from the active work inputs plus the additional taxes from working immigrants.

The situation is of course quite different in less wealthy countries, where the major impact of accepting migrants would be precisely to threaten the jobs of a population still willing to agree to do onerous work because of the country’s overall demographic profile.

As for the world-economy as a whole, migration merely shifts the location of individuals and probably changes very little. Migrants do however pose a global cost because of the necessity to limit the negative humanitarian consequences of enormous numbers of migrants. Just think of paying for rescuing drowning migrants who have fallen off shaky boats in the Mediterranean.

If one looks at the question from the perspective of cultural identity, the arguments are quite different. All states promote a national identity as a necessary mechanism of ensuring the primacy of allegiance. But of what national identity are we talking? Is it French-ness or Chinese-ness? Or is it Christian-ness or Buddhist-ness? This is precisely the question that differentiates the position of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungary’s President Viktor Orban. Merkel asserts that new migrants of whatever ethnic or religious origin can be integrated as German citizens. Orban sees Muslim migrants as invaders that threaten the permanence of Hungary’s Christian identity.

The debate extends beyond national boundaries. For Merkel, the migrant’s integration is not only to Germany but to Europe. For Orban, the migrant’s threat is not only to Hungary, the state, but to all of “Christian Europe.” But see the comparable debate in France about Muslim garb for women. For some, the question is not relevant if the migrants give their loyalty to France as a citizen. But for defenders of an absolute version of laicité, Muslim garb for women is totally unacceptable, violating the cultural identity of France.

There is no middle path in this kind of cultural debate. It creates an absolute impasse. And precisely because it creates an impasse, this pushes the discussion to the political arena. The ability to prevail in implementing a cultural priority depends on being able to control the political structures. Merkel and Orban, as every other politician, must obtain political support (including of course votes) or they are removed from the decision-making process. In order to maintain themselves in office, they often have to make concessions to strong currents of opinion that they do not like. This may also involve adjustments in economic policy. So, if on one day they lay out a clear line of policy, the next day they may seem to be less firm. The actors have to maneuver in a national, regional, and world political arena.

Where will Europe be ten years from now in terms of feelings about migrants? Where will the world be? It is an open question. Given the chaotic realities of a world in transition to a new historical system, we can only say that it depends on the moment-by-moment changing strengths of the contesting programs for the future. Migrants are one locus of the debate, but the debate is much wider.