The world’s attention is focused at the moment on Taksim Square in Istanbul and the popular uprising against the government of Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Everyone is saying that the anti-authoritarian rebellions that have been sweeping the world, and lately particularly the Middle East, have now reached Turkey, long acclaimed as a “model” government that would be impervious to such uprisings.
As with similar uprisings, the focus is on the authoritarian behavior of the government, and for some, its commitment to neo-liberal economic policies. Thus far, what started as a tiny protest of environmentalists against the government’s intention to eliminate the last major green area inside Istanbul in favor of a development project caught on and attracted daily more and more people to Taksim Square in Istanbul and similar sites all over Turkey. The response of the government has been unyielding in its previous decisions, instead engaging in repression of the demonstrators by the police. This response has seemed to be counter-productive, attracting ever more people to the protests.
As is usual in such protests, the protestors now cover a very wide gamut of persons. There is what might be called the secular left, and especially the women, who are upset with the creeping imposition of Islamic rules and constraints by the “moderate” AKP party in power. There are those who are upset with the ever-larger involvement of the government in the attempt to oust Bashar al-Assad in Syria. There are those on the political right who consider themselves the protagonists of a “Kemalist” position, which is nationalist and hostile to Islamist parties. There is even a faction within the AKP, led by President Abdullah Gül, which considers the government too little Islamist, too tied to the United States in terms of its foreign policy, and too repressive of the groups that are protesting.
In short, it is a typical situation in which it is unsure whether the government can continue to hold. And it is equally unsure what kind of government would succeed it, if it fell, whether via resignation or new elections. It is this uncertainty of the outcome that is most disturbing to the Kurds, who are themselves divided about how they should behave in this situation.
The Kurds in Turkey have been struggling, ever since there was a Turkish republic, to obtain the right to autonomous structures and the use of the Kurdish language. For some, this necessarily implied an independent state, while others were ready to accept a constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy within Turkey. This objective conflicted deeply with the integrative Turkish nationalism propounded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk and his followers insisted that there were nothing but Turks in Turkey. His “gesture” to the Kurds was to proclaim them “mountain Turks,” with no concessions whatsoever on language.
The Kurds of course are located within a number of neighboring states, principally Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Their biggest concentration, however, lies within Turkey. And in the last forty years, they have been organized politically within a movement called the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), whose leader has been Abdullah Öcalan. This movement engaged in military action to pursue its objectives. The successive Turkish governments, and particularly the Turkish army, fought back ruthlessly, proclaiming the PKK a “terrorist” organization.
In 1999, with the assistance of the United States, the government was able to abduct Öcalan in Kenya. They convicted him of treason, sentencing him to death. This sentence was de facto commuted to life imprisonment on the remote island of Imrani, with no possibility of contact with anyone. In recent years, the position of the AKP in power and of the PKK (still considering Öcalan their leader) has evolved. In particular, the PKK is no longer a Marxist-Leninist party, and wishes the guns to be silent and allow diplomacy to work. As a result there have been some ongoing discussions between the two parties as to a possible compromise that would end the conflict. The PKK has said that it is ready to abandon military action and participate in “normal” political life in Turkey, provided that Öcalan is released, and there is some recognition of autonomy and linguistic rights. The AKP government seems to have been receptive to the arrangement, apparently realizing that a purely military victory is impossible.
The major obstacle has been deep mutual suspicion. Neither side wants to lay down its arms before the other. How to work out a transition to the new arrangements is precisely the matter under discussion. The big problem for each of the two parties is to ensure that their followers accept it. Erdogan was having trouble with one wing of the AKP, and Öcalan was having trouble (perhaps less than Erdogan) with some elements in the PKK.
In the middle of these delicate discussions came the uprising in Taksim Square. And here is the Kurdish dilemma. There seem to be only two groups that are sympathetic to this proposed “solution” to the Kurdish demands. One is Erdogan and his supporters, and the other is some segments of the secular left who are a mainstay of the anti-Erdogan uprising. The other groups in Taksim Square are precisely opposed to the possible new arrangements with the Kurds.
What then should the Kurdish movement do politically? There are some Kurdish militants, particularly in Istanbul and other large cities, who have joined the rebellion, as individuals. But the PKK has carefully avoided any statement on the uprising. And in Diyabarkir, the largest Kurdish city, the number of protesters has been very few. It could well be that a major victim of the anti-authoritarian uprising in Turkey will be the Kurds.
Once upon a time, the sun never set on the British Empire. No more! In 1945, Winston Churchill famously said: “I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But in fact that is exactly what he did. Churchill knew the difference between bombast and power.
Ever since 1945, Great Britain has been trying, with considerable difficulty, to adjust to the role of erstwhile hegemonic power. One has to appreciate how difficult this is, both psychologically and politically. It seems today as if the dilemmas of its political strategy have finally imploded, and it is faced with choices that are all bad.
Great Britain emerged from the Second World War as one of the Big Three – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. It was however the weakest of the Big Three. The strategy it chose was to become the junior partner of the United States, the new hegemonic power. This was called, in Great Britain at least, the “special relationship” it claimed it had with the United States.
The most important benefit Great Britain obtained from this special relationship was the immediate transfer of nuclear technology, permitting Great Britain to be, from that point on, a nuclear power. The United States did not by any means make a similar gesture to the Soviet Union, much less to France. The United States was seeking a global nuclear monopoly shared only by its junior partner. Of course, as we know, this global monopoly was undone first by the Soviet Union, then by France and China, and then later by a number of other states.
In continental western Europe, the first steps toward Franco-German reconciliation began as the European Coal and Steel Community. It included six nations – France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux trio of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg. It did not include Great Britain. These first steps towards the European Union of today were at the time encouraged by the United States, as a mode of making possible the incorporation of the western parts of Germany into what would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
It is not sure that British leaders appreciated this new continental European structure. One of the ways Great Britain seemed to react was to attempt a geopolitical stance independent of the United States. It joined forces with France and Israel to attack Nasser’s Egypt. The United States was pursuing at the time another strategy in the Middle East, and therefore lost no time to rap the knuckles of Great Britain and insist that it withdraw its troops. This was humiliating for Great Britain, but it also reminded them of the limits of their ability to be independent of the United States.
After this, however, the United States began to encourage Great Britain to join the continental structures. In part, this was because the United States was beginning to worry about a French-inspired relative independent position of these structures. From the U.S. point of view, Great Britain could help prevent this. Such an entry had a particular advantage from a British point of view. Great Britain’s last remaining vestige of its erstwhile hegemony was the continuing major role of the City of London in world finance. Great Britain needed access to the European markets to guarantee this role.
So, Great Britain did enter the structures, to the great displeasure of Charles De Gaulle, who understood quite clearly U.S. motivations on this issue. By the 1970s, it was U.S. hegemony that began to be contested. Both France and Germany tendered diplomatic openings to the Soviet Union, which would culminate much later in 2003 with the Franco-German-Russian successful resistance to the U.S. desire to have the Security Council endorse U.S. military invasion of Iraq.
In this onset of geopolitical chaos, the British government sided totally with the United States. Tony Blair’s complete subordination to U.S. politics began to embarrass even British public opinion, which began to value much less a special relationship that was so one-sided. More and more people in Great Britain sought to withdraw both from the U.S. link and the European links. The rising strength of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is a major expression of the change in sentiment.
Great Britain had refused to enter the Eurozone. In the economic turmoil that became so evident after 2008, the desire to withdraw from the European Union itself grew steadily, especially within the Conservative Party. This of course alarmed the financial groups of the City of London, who saw correctly that one consequence might be the effective overshadowing of London by Frankfurt as a European financial center.
Great Britain has other problems – the ever-increasing force of regionalism (and even prospective independence) of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is resisting, as best it can, its reduction to England. And it is doing this at a time when the United States no longer seems to be significantly committed to even a semblance of special relationship.
The problem for Great Britain today is that all the choices before it are bad. Great Britain wishes to insist that it is still a major military power. But the very same government that is asserting this is also reducing expenditure upon and the size of its armed forces, as part of its austerity program.
The biggest problem for Great Britain today is that the rest of the world will simply not consider it to be a very important geopolitical and financial actor anymore. Being ignored is not the happiest fate for an erstwhile hegemonic power.
Nothing illustrates more the limitations of Western power than the internal controversy its elites are having in public about what the United States in particular and western European states should be doing about the civil war in Syria. I shall call the two positions those of the interveners and those of the prudent. Each accuses the other, and with some vehemence, of urging policies that will result in dire negative consequences for U.S. and west European geopolitical power. The thing is that both are right. Whatever the United States and western European states do will in fact have dire negative consequences for them. This is a perfect lose-lose situation for the dominant forces in the world.
Let us look at the arguments being proferred by each group. Time magazine actually asked two major figures – Zbigniew Brzezinski and John McCain – to lay out their opposing arguments in two op-eds in the May 9 issue. Brzezinski’s title is “Syria: Intervention Will Only Make it Worse.” McCain’s title is “Syria: Intervention Is in Our Interest.”
Brzezinski argues this way. “The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war in a volatile region whose potential to spread and directly threaten American interests would only be increased by U.S. intervention.” Ergo what? “The only solution is to seek Russia’s and China’s support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be ‘persuaded’ not to participate.”
That argument doesn’t convince McCain at all. Rather, he says: “All of the terrible consequences those against intervening predicted would happen if we intervened happened because we did not.” Ergo what? “For America, our interests are our values, and our values are our interests.”
Another major Establishment figure who called for prudence was Fareed Zakaria in his op-ed in the Washington Post also on May 9. As we know. President Obama talked of a “red line” concerning the use of chemical weapons which, if passed, would require U.S. active intervention. There has been much debate about whether or not chemical weapons have been used and, if so, who used them? Obama has taken the position that the story is not yet clear and was attacked by McCain and others for undermining “U.S. credibility.”
Zakaria doesn’t buy the argument. He says that Obama’s remarks may have been too loose, but “one does not correct for careless language through careless military action.” He too calls for a political accord among the parties. Otherwise, Assad’s ouster (he calls it the “first phase”) will be followed by a “second phase” which “could be ever bloodier – with the United States in the middle.” Ergo what? “Military intervention will not end Syria’s humanitarian nightmare. It will only change its composition.”
This is not at all plausible for the editorial writers of Le Monde. They look at the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow as a betrayal. They call it “Western renunciation” of the demand made last August by the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany that the resignation of Assad be the prerequisite for intra-Syrian political discussions.
Of the Western powers, it has been France that has taken the most overtly “interventionist” line. But when France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gave an interview to Le Monde on May 9, he was asked whether France was not now taking a “wait-and-see position”? He seemed to be uncomfortable in his response, pointing to the fact that France could not resolve the situation by itself. He then outlined four orientations, the first of which was to “continue to push for a political solution,” endorsing to some extent Kerry’s trip to Moscow.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain has been another of the loudest critics of Assad. But he is noticeably shy about any military commitment. He made a now famous statement that he was not proposing any British “boots on the ground” in Syria. It seems no western government is ready to put “boots on the ground.” Even McCain does not advocate this. He merely says that it won’t be necessary because the United States can succeed in its objectives simply by means of a combination of a “no fly” zone, the use of drones, and military assistance to the rebels. However, the U.S. military has said repeatedly that a “no fly” zone is quite a major operation, one that in the end might necessitate the use of “boots on the ground.”
Meanwhile, both the Assad government and the rebel forces have reacted coolly, if not with hostility, to the proposals that there be talks under the joint patronage of the United States and Russia. To make the situation even worse from the U.S./Western point of view, the leader of the rebel group they favor, the National Opposition Coalition (NOC), Moaz al-Khatib, resigned in general frustration with both his fellow rebels and with the western governments.
One consequence seems to have been that some of the rebels heretofore affiliated with the NOC Free Syrian Army have defected to the al-Qaeda group, Jabhat al-Nusra. This group is the nemesis of the western governments and is officially labeled by them a terrorist group. This fact reinforces of course the camp of the prudent.
So, everyone inside Syria is going their own way, fulminating at each other and with the western powers for not supporting them. The United States (and western Europe) have no good options, and their elites will therefore continue to shout at each other, each suggesting policies that will in fact be ineffective.
The civil war goes on. The toll in lives inside Syria is very great and will be greater. The refugees are inundating neighboring countries, especially Jordan. The war is already spreading and could get totally out of control. It is not at all impossible that the interveners win out, and the whole of the Middle East finds itself in one gigantic, uncontrollable, endless war.
The key phrase is “out of control.” What the United States (and western Europe) want to do is “control” the situation. They will not be able to do it. Hence the screams of the “interventionists” and the foot-dragging of the “prudent.” It is a lose-lose for the west, while not being at the same time a “win” for people in the Middle East.
In 2001, Jim O’Neill, then chair of Goldman Sachs Assets Management, wrote an article for their subscribers entitled “The World Needs Better Economic BRICs.” O’Neill invented the acronym to describe the so-called emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and to recommend them to investors as the economic “future” of the world-economy.
The term caught on, and the BRICs became an actual group that met together regularly and later added South Africa to membership, changing the small “s” to a capital “S.” Since 2001, the BRICS have flourished economically, at least relative to other states in the world-system. They have also become a very controversial subject. There are those who think of the BRICS as the avant-garde of anti-imperialist struggle. There are those who, quite to the contrary, think of the BRICS as subimperialist agents of the true North (North America, western Europe, and Japan). And there are those who argue that they are both.
In the wake of the post-hegemonic decline of U.S. power, prestige, and authority, the world seems to have settled into a multipolar geopolitical structure. In this current situation of some 8-10-12 loci of significant geopolitical power, the BRICS are definitely part of the new picture. By their efforts to forge new structures on the world scene, such as the interbank structure they are seeking to create, to sit alongside and substitute for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), they are certainly weakening still further the power of the United States and other segments of the old North in favor of the South, or at least of the BRICS themselves. If one’s definition of anti-imperialism is reducing the power of the United States, then the BRICS certainly represent an anti-imperialist force.
However, geopolitics is not the only thing that matters. We will also want to know something about the internal class struggles within BRICS countries, the relations of BRICS countries to each other, and the relation of BRICS countries to the non-BRICS countries in the South. On all three issues, the record of the BRICS is murky, to say the least.
How can we assess the internal class struggles within the BRICS countries? One standard way is to look at the degree of polarization, as indicated by GINI measures of inequality. Another way is to see how much state money is being utilized to reduce the degree of poverty among the poorest strata. Of the five BRICS countries, only Brazil has significantly improved its scores on such measures. In some cases, despite an increase in the GDP, the measures are worse than say twenty years ago.
If we look at the economic relations of the BRICS countries to each other, China outshines the others in rise in GDP and in accumulated assets. India and Russia seem to feel the need to protect themselves against Chinese strength. Brazil and South Africa seem to be suffering from present and potential Chinese investing in key arenas.
If we look at the relations of BRICS countries to other countries in the South, we hear increasing complaints that the way each of these countries relates to its immediate (and not so immediate) neighbors resembles too much the ways in which the United States and the old North related to them. They are sometimes accused of not being “subimperial” but of being simply “imperial.”
What makes the BRICS seem so important today has been their high rates of growth since say 2000, rates of growth that have been significantly higher than those of the old North. But will this continue? Their rates of growth have already begun to slip. Some other countries in the South – Mexico, Indonesia, (south) Korea, Turkey – seem to be matching them.
However, given the world depression in which we continue to exist, and the low likelihood of significant recovery in the next decade or so, the possibility that, in a decade, a future Goldman Sachs analyst will continue to project the BRICS as the (economic) future is rather dubious. Indeed, the likelihood that the BRICS will continue to be a regularly meeting group with presumably common policies seems remote.
The world-system’s structural crisis is moving too fast, and in too many uncertain ways, to assume sufficient relative stability to allow the BRICS as such to continue to play a special role, either geopolitically or economically. Like globalization itself as a concept, the BRICS may turn out to be a passing phenomenon.
Ever since there has been a capitalist world-economy, one essential mechanism of its successful functioning has been the runaway factory. After a period of significant accumulation of capital by so-called leading industries (usually about twenty-five years), the level of profit has gone down, both because of the undermining of the quasi-monopoly of the leading industry and because of the rise in labor costs due to syndical action of some sort.
When this happened, the solution was for the factory to “runaway.” What this means is that the site of production was transferred to some other part of the world-system that had “historically lower wage levels.” In effect, the capitalists who controlled the leading industries were trading increased transaction costs for reduced labor costs. This maintained significant income for them, if nonetheless lower than in the previous period when they still had a quasi-monopoly.
The reason why labor costs were lower in the new location is that the runaway factory recruited labor from rural areas that were previously less involved in the market economy. For these rural workers, the opportunity to work in these runaway factories represented a rise in real income, while at the same time for the owners of the runaway factory these workers were being paid less than those who had been working in the previous location. This is what is called a win-win solution.
The problem with this seemingly wonderful solution has always been that it was not lasting. After about another twenty-five years, the workers in the new location began to launch syndical action, and the cost of their labor began to rise. When it rose enough, the owners of the runaway factory had only one real option – to runaway once again. Meanwhile, new leading industries were being constructed in zones that had accumulated wealth. Thus, there has been a constant movement of the location of industries of all sorts. Quasi-monopolies after quasi-monopolies! Runaway factories after runaway factories!
It has been a marvel of capitalist adjustment to a long process of constant change of circumstance. This marvelous system has however depended on one structural element – the possibility of finding new “virgin” areas for relocation of runaway factories. By virgin areas, I mean rural zones that were relatively uninvolved in the world market economy.
However, over the past 500 years, we have been “using up” such areas. This can be measured quite simply by the de-ruralization of the world’s populations. Today, such rural areas are reduced to a minority of the world’s surface, and it seems likely that by 2050, they will be a very, very small minority.
To see the consequences of such massive de-ruralization, we need only turn to an article in The New York Times of April 9. It is entitled “Hello, Cambodia.” The article describes the “flocking” to Cambodia of factories that are fleeing China because of the rise of wage-levels in China, a previous recipient of such runaway factories. However, the article continues, “multinational companies are finding that they can run from China’s rising wages but cannot truly hide.”
The problem for the multinationals is that the incredible expansion of communications has caused the end of the win-win situation. Workers in Cambodia today have begun syndical action after only a few years, not after twenty-five. There are strikes and pressure for higher wages and benefits, which they are receiving. This of course reduces the value for the multinationals of moving to Cambodia, or Myanmar, or Vietnam, or the Philippines. It now turns out that the savings of moving from China are not all that great.
The Times article notes that “some factories have moved anyway, at the request of Western buyers who fear depending on a single country.” Conclusion of a manufacturing consultant: There are risks of moving to Cambodia, but “there’s a risk in staying in China, too.” In any case, is there somewhere to move the runaway factory? Or is Cambodia the end of the line?
The bottom line is that the combination of already enormous and still increasing de-ruralization and the rapidity with which workers can learn of their relatively low wages and therefore begin to take syndical action has resulted in a continuing rise in the pay levels of the least skilled workers, and therefore a worldwide negative pressure of the possibilities of accumulating capital. This is not good news for the large multinationals.
This is all one element in what has become the structural crisis of the modern world-system. We are experiencing a combination of ever-increasing austerity pressures on the 99% with a capitalist system that is no longer so profitable for capitalists. This combination means that capitalism as a world-system is on its way out.
Both sides are seeking alternatives – but obviously different ones. We are collectively facing a “choice” over the next decades. One possibility is a new non-capitalist system that replicates (and perhaps worsens) the three essential features of capitalism – hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization. The other possibility is a new system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. The latter system, one should underline, has never existed in the history of the world. But it is possible.
In any case, Cambodia is not the future of the modern world-system. It represents rather the last vestiges of a mechanism that no longer performs its task in salvaging capitalism.
The World Social Forum (WSF) has just ended its now biennial meeting, held this time in Tunis. It was very largely ignored by the world’s mainstream press. It was attended by many skeptics who pronounced its irrelevance, something that has occurred at every meeting since the second WSF in 2002. It was torn by debates about the very structure of the WSF. It was filled with debates about the correct political strategy for the world left. And despite this, it was an enormous success.
One way to measure its success is by remembering what happened on the last day of the previous WSF in Dakar in 2011. On that day, Hosni Mubarek was forced to abandon the presidency of Egypt. Everyone at the WSF applauded. But many said that this very act proves the irrelevance of the WSF. Did any of the revolutionaries in Tunisia or Egypt draw their inspiration from the WSF? Had they even heard of the WSF?
Yet two years later, the WSF met in Tunis, invited by the very groups that launched the revolution in Tunisia, and who seemed to think that holding the WSF in Tunis would be a great assistance to their internal struggle to preserve the gains of the revolution against forces that they believed were working to tame the revolution and to bring to power a new form of oppressive, antisecular, governance.
The long-time slogan of the WSF has been “another world is possible.” The Tunisians insisted on adding a new one, displayed with equal prominence at the meeting. The slogan was “Dignity” – on everyone’s badge in seven languages. In many ways, this additional slogan emphasizes the essential element that brings together the organizations and individuals present at the Forum – the search for true equality, which respects and enhances the dignity of everyone everywhere.
This doesn’t mean that there was total accord at the Forum. Far from it! One way to analyze the differences is to see them as reflecting the contrast between emphases on hope and emphases on fear. As constituted, the Forum has always been a large and inclusive arena of participants ranging from the far left to the center-left. For some this has been its strength, allowing a mutual education of the various tendencies and various zones of primary concern – a mutual education that would lead in the middle run to joint action to transform our existing capitalist system. For others this seems the path to co-option by those who wish merely to palliate existing inequalities without making any fundamental change. Hope versus fear.
Another source of constant discussion has been the role of left political parties in the process of transformation. For some, no significant changes can be made in either the short-run or the middle-run without left parties in power. And once in power, these people feel it is essential to keep them in power. Others resist this idea. They feel that, even if one helps such parties come to power, the social movements should remain outside as critical controls on these parties, whose actual practice will almost certainly fall short of their promises. Once again, hope versus fear.
The attitude to have toward the newly-emerging countries – the so-called BRICS and others – is another source of division. For some the BRICS represent an important counter-force to the classical North – the United States, western Europe, and Japan. For others, they raise suspicions about a new group of imperialist powers. The role of China today in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is particularly controversial. Hope versus fear.
The actual program of the world left is another source of internal debate. For some, the WSF has been good on the negative – opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism. But it has been sadly lacking in proposing specific alternatives. These persons call for the development of concrete programmatic objectives for the world left. But for others, the attempt to do this would serve primarily to divide and weaken the forces brought together in the WSF. Hope versus fear.
Another constant locus of debate is what has been called the “decolonization” of the WSF. For some, the WSF has been from the beginning too much in the hands of persons from the pan-European world, of men, of older persons, and others defined as coming from the privileged populations of the world. The WSF has, as an organization, sought to extend itself beyond its initial base – extending itself geographically, seeking to make its structures reflect more and more demands from the base. This has been a continual effort, and looking at each successive Forum, the WSF has become in this sense more and more inclusive. The presence at Tunis of all sorts of “new” organizations – Occupy, Indignados, etc. – is proof of this. For others, this goal has been very far from achieved, to the point where some doubt there has been any real intention to realize this objective. Hope versus fear.
The WSF was founded as a space of resistance. Twelve years later, it remains the only place where all sides to these debates come together to continue the discussion. Are there people who are tired of the same continuing debates? Yes, of course. But there also seem always to be new persons and groups arriving who seek to participate and contribute to the construction of an efficacious world left. The World Social Forum is alive and well.
Pres. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has died. The world press and the Internet have been swamped with assessments of his achievements, ranging from endless praise to endless denunciation, with a certain number of persons expressing somewhat more guarded or limited degree of praise or denunciation. The one thing on which everyone seems to agree is that Hugo Chavez was a charismatic leader.
What is a charismatic leader? It is someone who has a very forceful personality, a relatively clear political vision, and capable of great energy and persistence in pursuing this vision. Charismatic leaders attract great support, first of all in their own country. At the same time, the very features of their persona that attract support are the same that mobilize deep opposition to their politics. All this has surely been true in the case of Chavez.
The list of charismatic leaders over the history of the modern world is not that long. Think Napoleon and De Gaulle in France, Lincoln and F.D. Roosevelt in the United States, Peter the Great and Lenin in Russia, Gandhi in India, Mao Zedong in China, Mandela in South Africa. And of course Simon Bolívar. As soon as one looks at a list like this, one realizes several things. These persons were all controversial leaders during their lives. The evaluation of their merits and faults has constantly shifted over historical time. They never seem to disappear from historical view. And lastly, they were not at all identical in their politics.
The death of a charismatic leader always creates a void of uncertainty, in which his supporters try to ensure the continuance of his policies by institutionalizing them. Max Weber called this the “routinization of charisma.” But once routinized, the policies evolve in directions that are always hard to predict. To estimate what may happen in the immediate future, one has to start of course with an appreciation of Chavez’s achievements. But one also needs to make an assessment both of the internal rapport de forces and of the larger geopolitical and cultural contexts in which Venezuela and Latin America find themselves today.
His achievements seem clear. He used the enormous oil wealth of Venezuela to improve significantly the living conditions of the poorest strata of Venezuela, expanding their access to health facilities and education, and thereby reducing the gap between rich and poor quite remarkably. In addition, he used the enormous oil wealth to subsidize oil exports to a large number of countries, especially in the Caribbean, which has enabled them to survive minimally.
Furthermore, he contributed substantially to building autonomous Latin American institutions – not only ALBA (the alliance of Bolivarian countries) but UNASUR (the confederation of all states in South America), CELAC (all states in the Americas except the United States and Canada), and Mercosur (the confederal economic structure that included both Brazil and Argentina), which he joined. He was not alone in these efforts, but he played a particularly dynamic role. It was a role for which former President Lula of Brazil constantly praised him. The very large number of presidents of other countries at his funeral (some 34), especially from Latin America, attest to their appreciation. In seeking to create strong Latin American structures, he was of course playing an anti-imperialist role, essentially an anti-United States role, and he was therefore not at all appreciated in Washington.
One should note in particular the positive appreciation of Chavez by the conservative president of neighboring Colombia. This was because of the important and very positive role Chavez had been playing as a mediator between the Colombian government and its long-time guerilla movement enemy, the FARC. Chavez was the one possible mediator acceptable to both sides, and he was seeking a political solution to end the warfare.
His detractors charged him with fostering a corrupt regime, an authoritarian regime, and an economically incompetent regime. There has no doubt been corruption. There always is in any regime where there is abundant money. But when I think of the corruption scandals in the past half-century in the United States or France or Germany, where there is even more money, I cannot take this argument too seriously.
Has the regime been authoritarian? Certainly. This is what one gets with a charismatic leader. But again, as authoritarian leaders go, Chavez has been remarkably restrained. There have not been bloody purges or concentration camps. Instead, there have been elections, which most outside observers have considered as good as they come (think again of the United States or Italy or…), and Chavez has won 14 of 15 of them. Nor should we forget that he confronted a serious coup attempt supported by the United States, which he survived with difficulty. He survived on the basis of popular support and support within the army.
As for economic incompetence, yes he has made mistakes. And yes, the current income of the Venezuelan government is less than it had been earlier. But remember we are in a worldwide depression. And almost every government in the world is facing financial dilemmas and calls to austerity. It is not at all obvious that a government in the hands of his opposition would have done better in terms of optimizing economic revenue. What is certain is that a government in the hands of his opposition would have done less to redistribute wealth internally to the poorest strata.
The one area in which he has not shone is his continuing support for an extractivist economic policy, overriding the protests of indigenous peoples about both ecological damage and their rights to autonomous control of their locations. But he shared this fault with every single government in the Americas, whether of the left or the right.
What is likely to happen now? For the moment, both the Chavistas and the opposition have closed ranks, at least for the forthcoming presidential elections. Most analysts seem to agree that Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, will win them. The interesting question is what will happen thereafter, first of all in terms of internal alignments. Neither camp is without its internal divisions. I suspect there will be some reshuffling of the cards, with defections in each camp to the other side. In a few years’ time, we may have a different array of forces.
What will then happen to “21st-century socialism” – the vision that Chavez had of what needs to be pursued in Venezuela, in Latin America, and throughout the world? There are two words in this vision. One is “socialism.” Chavez sought to rescue this term from the opprobrium into which it had fallen because of the multiple failures both of real-existing Communism and post-Marxian social-democracy. The other term is “21st-century.” This was Chavez’s clear repudiation of the socialism of both the Third and the Second Internationals, and his call for rethinking the strategy.
In both these tasks, Chavez was scarcely alone. But he sounded a clarion call. For me, this effort is part of the larger task we all face during this structural crisis of historical capitalism and the bifurcation of two possible resolutions of the chaos into which our world-system has fallen. We need to debate what is the nature of the better world we, or some of us, are seeking. If we can’t be clearer on what we want, we are not likely to win the battle with those who seek to create a non-capitalist system that nonetheless reproduces the worst features of capitalism: hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization.
Of course. The Vatican is a major geopolitical actor. Just as everyone around the world may feel concerned who becomes the leader of the United States, Germany, Russia, China, or Brazil, so we all feel concerned who becomes Pope. Stalin is supposed to have asked, “how many troops does the Pope have?” But geopolitical strength is more than military strength.
It is true that the Pope is constrained by the long-term interests of the Catholic Church and by its historical trajectory. But so are the designated leaders of every major state. It is also true that it makes a difference who is the particular leader. Within these constraints, the leader can tilt the policies in one direction or another.
In the case of the Vatican, since 1945, five popes have been chosen. The choices more or less followed expectations – except one. John XXIII was supposedly chosen to be an aged, interim pope who would do little, while differences in views among the cardinals were ironed out. However, in his relatively short career, he launched a major shift in Vatican policies (both theological and worldly) in what he called an aggiornamento of the Church at the Second Vatican Council. His impact was so great that one could say that the primary objective of his successors has been to undo what he did, or at least to limit what they considered to be the damage he caused.
To be sure, the theological debates within the Church, and they are manifold and important, are of deep concern almost exclusively to the Church’s faithful. But Church leaders at all levels – in the Vatican, at the level of national structures of bishops, and locally in every diocese and parish – draw worldly conclusions from the theology, and thereupon seek to affect what occurs in the political arena.
There is quite a difference politically whether bishops and priests espouse liberation theology or, at the other extreme, espouse the views of Opus Dei or, even further to the right, those of the Society of Saint Pius X. While the Church has varying numbers of adherents in different zones of the world, there are many zones in which they form a significant part of the national populations: the Americas, much of western and southern Europe, some parts of eastern Europe, various parts of Africa, some parts of east and southeast Asia, and Australia. This is a long list. Catholics are today about 16% of the world’s population, the only larger group being Muslims who are about 22%.
In these countries, Church leaders often implicitly endorse candidates for election. They regularly take strong stands on various kinds of legislation affecting social mores and their permissibility. They often take positions on questions of social welfare. And they sometimes take positions on questions of war and peace. In the world-system as a whole, and certainly within many countries, the rest of us sometimes find allies in Church figures and sometimes find opponents.
To be sure, non-Catholics have no say about who is chosen Pope. But then very few Catholics have a say either. The Vatican is one of the last absolute monarchies. And it has a very special electoral system, wherein those members of the College of Cardinals (all chosen by some previous Pope) who are under 80 years of age vote by secret ballot as they wish, and repeatedly, until one person has a majority.
A majority of the under-80 members of the present College of Cardinals were chosen by Pope Benedict XVI, and it seems his principal criterion was that they largely shared most of those theological positions that he considered of primary importance. But that said, there seem to be many differences of views and emphases among them, some of which may have important political consequences. So it is far from certain who will emerge as the next Pope and what will be the worldwide political consequences of this choice.
It is extremely doubtful that we would get another John XXIII. But then it was extremely doubtful that we would have gotten the first John XXIII. In an electoral system that bears some structural similarities with that of the Vatican, i.e., China’s, we were all uncertain, and to some extent still are, what will be the consequences of recent choices of the next round of leaders.
One thing to notice is that even those prominent Catholics who have been most harshly treated by the Church or who are most disillusioned with the state of the Church – I am thinking of Frei Betto in Brazil, Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua, Hans Küng in Germany, or Garry Wills in the United States – do not reject their membership in the Church. They persist in trying to transform it, or in their view to return it to its original and true mission.
The rest of us can no more “give up” on the Vatican than we can give up on China or the United States or anywhere else that is a site of human endeavor and potential social transformation.
In Tunisia in December 2010, a single individual ignited a popular revolution against a venal autocrat, an uprising that was followed promptly by a similar eruption in Egypt against a similar venal autocrat. The Arab world was astonished and world public opinion immediately was very sympathetic to these “model” expressions of the struggles around the world for autonomy, dignity, and a better world.
Now, three years later, both countries are mired in fierce political struggles, internal violence that is escalating, and great uncertainty about where this is leading, and to whose benefit. There are some aspects particular to each country, some that are reflected in uprisings throughout the Arab or Arab-Islamic world, and some aspects that bear comparison to what is happening in Europe and to some extent everywhere in the world.
What happened? We must start with the initial popular uprising. As is often the case, it was started by courageous young people who were protesting against the arbitrary power of the powerful – locally, nationally, internationally. In this sense, it was anti-imperialist, anti-exploitation, and profoundly egalitarian. It bears much comparison to the kinds of uprisings that occurred around the world between 1966 and 1970, which we sometimes call today the world-revolution of 1968. As then, the protests touched a deep chord within the country and attracted wide public support far beyond the small group that launched it.
What happened subsequently? A generalized anti-authoritarian revolution is a very dangerous thing for those with authority. When initially repressive measures didn’t seem to work, many groups sought to tame the revolutions by joining it, or seeming to join it. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the army entered the picture, refusing to shoot at the protestors but also seeking to control the situation after the deposing of the two autocrats.
In both countries, there had long been a strong Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. It had been outlawed in Tunisia and carefully controlled and circumscribed in Egypt. The revolutions permitted them to emerge in two ways. They offered social assistance to the poor who had been suffering from the neglect of the state. And they decided to form political parties in order both to gain a majority in the parliaments and to control the writing of the new constitutions. In the first elections of each country, they emerged the strongest political party.
Following this, there were basically four groups competing in the political arena. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood party – Ennahda in Tunisia, the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt – there have been three other political actors: the secularist forces more or less on the left, the Salafist forces on the far right who sought to legislate a far more stringent version of sharia than the Muslim Brotherhood parties, and the still strong but quasi-underground supporters of the old regimes.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood parties and the secularist forces are in fact quite divided internally, especially about the strategies they wish to pursue. The Muslim Brotherhood parties are faced with the same political dilemmas that have been for the last few years those of right-of-center parties in Europe. The countries have severe and continuing economic problems, which gives rise to and/or strengthens parties on the far right, which threatens the ability of the “mainstream” right-of-center party to win future elections. In these situations, there have been those everywhere who want to win back voters on the far right by moving in their direction and being “hardline” with the left or secularist forces. And there have been the so-called moderates who think the party should move to the center and regain votes there.
The left or secularist forces contain in turn a wide gamut of groups: truly left groups (but multiple ones) and middle-class democrats seeking to encourage closer economic links with strong market forces in Europe and North America. On economic questions, these middle class groups are quite close in fact to what the moderate Islamist forces propose.
Meanwhile, the forces still loyal to the old venal regimes maintain control over one key institution, the police. It is the police who shoot at the demonstrations of the secularist forces. When these forces protest about the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a key secularist leader, Tunisia’s prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, a so-called moderate Islamist, protests that he is as appalled as they at the assassination. To this, the secularist groups reply that the Islamist parties, and especially their so-called hardliners, are responsible in any case indirectly because they have created the climate within which such an assassination could take place.
Furthermore, Tunisia and Egypt are not isolated countries. Their neighbors in the Arab world and beyond are also in turmoil. The geopolitical intrusion of outside forces is very great. Both countries are relatively poor and need outside financial help to deal with the continuing and growing unemployment made more severe by the loss of tourist income that for both countries was a central source of revenue.
So where is all this heading? There are only two possible directions. One is the end of the revolution, at least for the time being. The two countries could see strongly-entrenched rightwing governments, supported (perhaps even controlled) by the military, with socially conservative constitutions and cautious foreign policies. The other is the beginning of the revolution, in which the initial spirit of 1968 regains force, and both Tunisia and Egypt become again beacons of social transformation for themselves, for the rest of the Arab world, for the entire world.
For the moment, it seems as though the forces that are pushing for the end of the revolution have the upper hand. But in this chaotic world, it is far too early to lower the curtain on a renewed revolutionary force in both countries.
On January 11, France’s President François Hollande sent in troops to Mali, a few immediately but then 3500, a sizeable number. The stated objective was to fight against the various Islamic fundamentalists who had taken control of northern Mali. It was what the French would call a gageure – a word that derives from gage in the sense of a bet. It basically means undertaking something very difficult to achieve. I think one might best translate it as a “risky bet” and in this case, I would say it was a very risky bet.
What did Hollande bet, and why did he do it? It is easy to see his reasoning as to why it was a good idea. He received a formal request from the President of Mali to send in troops immediately. The basic justification offered by both presidents was that the Malian army was in more or less full retreat and it seemed quite possible that, within a very short time, the Islamic fundamentalists might be able to take control of Mali’s capital, Bamako, and govern the whole country. It seemed now or never.
Furthermore, Hollande felt he had considerable backing throughout the world to undertake this. The United Nations had passed a resolution unanimously, offering political support to the Malian government and authorizing the entry of African troops from neighboring countries to assist them. However, these troops were not considered “ready” yet and urgently needed some training. It had been anticipated that they would be ready in midyear 2013. Hollande felt France couldn’t wait that long.
Furthermore, France got virtual support from Algeria, which had previously opposed military action even by African troops, but now authorized overflights. This support was seconded by Tunisia, which said it “understood” what France was doing. All of France’s NATO allies – in particular, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and slightly less enthusiastically, the United States – said France was doing the right thing, and that they would give support: not sending troops, but offering some transport planes, and trainers for the various African armies.
Finally, there seemed to be other pluses for Hollande. The move strengthened the hand of the civilian president of Mali vis-à-vis the putschist leader of the Malian army, something France and all its allies wanted to do. And the move seemed to transform Hollande’s image internally in France, changing it overnight from that of an indecisive, weak president to a bold wartime leader.
So then what was the risk in the bet? Hollande bet that he could send in a limited number of troops and planes, arrange that the north of Mali be reconquered by the Malian government with the aid perhaps of other African troops, and more or less permanently dislodge the Islamic fundamentalists. And he hoped to accomplish all this in a very short time – a month or so.
It is already clear after less than a month that he has probably lost the risky bet and that France is in another of those long-term quagmires in which the entire Western world seems to be specializing these days. Before France sent in the troops, there was lots of discussion about why France and the western world in general should not create “another Afghanistan,” which many persons thought would happen if troops were sent in. And while every situation is a bit different, it is another Afghanistan that seems to be in the process of happening. Already French politicians opposed to Hollande, who had initially endorsed his decision unequivocally, are beginning to “take their distance.” And none of the NATO allies seems too anxious to give truly substantial assistance, about which the French government is grumbling privately while publicly applauding the wonderful assistance they are getting.
As of this writing, French and Malian troops have already reconquered the three main urban centers of northern Mali (Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal). And there are even already some African troops (primarily from Chad) involved in the military effort. So, on the surface, it looks good. But just below the surface it doesn’t look the least bit good for Hollande or the western world.
First of all, what does it mean to “retake” an urban center? It means that the various fundamentalist military groups (there are several different ones) have withdrawn their men and trucks from the towns, or at least from most of the town. The Islamic fundamentalists clearly intend to fight a guerilla war, not one of direct confrontation, for which they are too weak.
And withdraw to where? In part, it seems, they have withdrawn to being an underground force within the towns. And in part, probably in greater part, they have withdrawn to the desert sands (in which they are more proficient fighters) and ultimately to the cavernous mountainsides of northern Mali from where it will be very difficult to dislodge them.
But then at least, you say, life in the towns can “return to normal.” Well, not quite. First of all, the towns, like most towns, are a complex medley of groups. There are Tuareg in the towns to be sure. And the struggle for Tuareg rights, for autonomy or independence, is what started the whole Malian imbroglio.
There are also local Saharan Arabs, and Peul – almost all Muslims. And a large number of the Muslims are Sufi, which means they don’t appreciate at all the super-sharia version of Islam propagated by the fundamentalist groups. In addition, there are both light-skinned Malians (largely the Tuareg and the Saharan Arabs) and darker-skinned ones. And, in terms of the politics of the struggle, there were some locals who welcomed the Islamic fundamentalists, many more who opposed them (or fled), and still more who tried to keep out of the struggle.
One problem is that the Malian army, composed largely of dark-skinned (often non-Muslim) southerners, does not understand or care much about this complexity. They don’t even like or trust the Chadians fighting with them, because they are largely Muslim. So, the Malian army takes its revenge a bit indiscriminately. And the human rights observers are already condemning them for engaging in the same kind of arbitrary slaughter that had been the complaint about the Islamic fundamentalists. And this of course is highly embarrassing for Hollande and the French in general. At this point, one reason the French give privately for staying in the battle is to serve as a restraint on the Malian army.
Where do we go from here? Anyone’s guess. One can already see the same debate in France about withdrawal from Mali that one finds in the United States about withdrawal from Afghanistan. If we turn everything over to the local government whom we are supporting, will everything fall apart again? And are the ones we’re supporting really “good guys”?
As has been shown time and time again, it is easy to send troops in. It is very difficult to get them out. And when one does, are things better or worse than they would have been, had troops never gone in initially? This counsel is what the Algerian government was proffering a month ago, until they too seemed to have changed their mind. Hollande’s “courageous decision” may well turn out to be “Hollande’s disastrous decision.”