U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has emerged from intensive discussions with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority having arranged the resumption of so-called peace talks. This is asserted to be a breakthrough. But is it?
On the Israeli side, the Israeli government promised to release some “heavy-weight” Palestinian prisoners (that is, prisoners involved in “deadly attacks”) as a gesture to make possible resumption of talks. But the promise turned out to be very unclear in detail. The release is projected to take place in four stages. The number to be released is unclear. The figure of 104 prisoners is in the press. But is this the total or the first stage? When the first stage will occur has not yet been decided. And the whole proposal was endorsed by the entire cabinet, only after considerable arm-twisting by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We do not know what he promised the very reluctant cabinet about the negotiations in order to get their vote.
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The very title of this commentary poses a question. What or who is the left? There is little agreement on this subject. I shall use the term to include any group that claims it is part of the left or at least left-of-center. This is of course a wide group. And, consequently, there is very little agreement among it as to whom to support, morally or politically, in the enormous turmoil that has been shaking Egypt and led to the deposition by the Egyptian armed forces of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt.
As I read the statements and explanations of various groups on the left outside of Egypt, I believe it is a question of priorities: Who or what constitutes the greatest danger in the medium run? I think I discern three basic positions.
There are those for whom “Islamists” of any variety represent the fundamental threat. Of course, there are many different kinds of Islamists. The three principal varieties among Sunni Muslims are the Moslem Brotherhood, the Wahabites/Salafists, and those grouped under the label of Al-Qaeda. All three repudiate the other two, and this explains many of the alliances that emerge in any country with a substantial Muslim population.
Commentary No. 356, July 1, 2013
The now persistent uprising in Turkey has been followed by an even larger uprising in Brazil, which in turn has been followed by a less noticed, but no less real, uprising in Bulgaria. Of course, these uprisings were not the first but merely the latest in a truly worldwide series of such uprisings in recent years. There are many ways to analyze this phenomenon. I see them as the continuing process of what started as the world-revolution of 1968.
To be sure, every uprising is particular in its details and the internalrapport de forces in each country. But there are certain similarities that should be noticed, if one is to make sense of what is going on and decide on what we all, as individuals and as groups, ought to do.
The first common feature is that all the uprisings tend to start very small – a handful of courageous people demonstrating about something. And then, if they catch on, which is largely unpredictable, they become massive. Suddenly, not only is the government under assault but, to some extent, the State as State. These uprisings are a combination of those calling for the government to be replaced by a better one and those questioning the very legitimacy of the State. Both groups invoke the themes of democracy and human rights, although the definitions they give to these two terms are very varied. On the whole, the tonality of these uprisings starts on the left side of the political arena.
Commentary No. 355, June 15, 2013
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.
Commentary No. 354. June 1, 2013
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.
Commentary No. 353, May 15, 2013
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.
Commentary No. 352, May 1, 2013
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.
Commentary No. 351, April 15, 2013
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.
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