Dilemmas of the Radical Left

Commentary No. 455, August 15, 2017

In what I call the pan-European world (North America; western, northern, and southern Europe; and Australasia), the basic electoral choice for the last century or so has been between two centrist parties, center-right versus center-left. There have been other parties further left and further right but they were essentially marginal.

In the last decade however, these so-called extreme parties have been gaining in strength. Both the radical left and the radical right have emerged as a strong force in a large number of countries. They have needed either to replace the centrist party or to take it over.

The first spectacular achievement of the radical left was the ability of the Greek radical left, Syriza, to replace the center-left party, Pasok, which actually disappeared entirely. Syriza came to power in Greece. Commentators talk these days of “pasoksation” to describe this.

Syriza came to power but was incapable of carrying out its promised program. For many, Syriza was therefore a great disappointment. The most unhappy faction argued that the error had been to seek electoral power. They said that power had to be achieved in the streets and then it would be meaningful.

We have since had other cases of an emergent radical left. In Great Britain, the leader of the radical left, Jeremy Corbyn, became the leader of the British Labour Party by obtaining the support of new members who entered the party to vote in the primary. In the United States, Bernie Sanders challenged the Establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, and had a surprisingly strong degree of support. In France, the party of the radical left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also did surprisingly well and obtained more votes than the mainstream left party, the Socialists.

Today, in all of these countries there is an internal debate among radical left militants about future tactics. Should they seek electoral power or should they seek to control the streets? The dilemma is that neither works well. If they come to state power, they find that they have to make innumerable “compromises” of their program in order to remain in power. If they seek power only in the streets, they find they cannot make the changes they want without power in the state, and are able to be held in check by state agencies using state force.

Is it therefore hopeless to pursue a radical left program today? Not at all! We are living amidst the transition from a dying capitalist system and a new system yet to be chosen. The efforts of the radical left today affect the choice of the replacement system in the middle run. The tactical debate is essentially a debate about the short run. What we do in the short run affects the middle run even if it realizes little in the short run.

What probably makes most sense as tactics in the short run is to use both tactics, the electoral route and the street route, even if neither pays off in the short run. Think of the short run as a training ground for the middle run. This would work if we understood the time distinction and therefore were encouraged rather than discouraged by what we achievedin the short run. Can we do this? Yes we can. But will we? We shall see.

North Korea: Outmaneuvering Everyone Else

Commentary No. 454, August 1, 2017

It is evident that North Korea is the most unpopular regime in the world today. Virtually all other regimes would do anything they could to force North Korea to change its policies, both internally and externally in the modern world-system. Yet they cannot seem to be able to do very much about North Korea’s policies – indeed, almost nothing at all.

How has this regime been able to ignore all the punitive measures the United Nations, the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea have voted, and even implemented? The basic consideration of all those hostile to the North Korean regime has been fear of what North Korea might do if pushed too far. We need however to distinguish between fear of its possible actions internally and fear of its actions externally.

North Korea is far from being the only regime that mistreats in multiple ways those who oppose the regime. Quite the contrary! Mistreatment of opposition forces is everyday activity all across the globe. What distinguishes North Korea from all the other mistreators of opposition is the viciousness of the regime’s behavior. In the Kim dynasty that has now lasted three generations, the one today in power seems the quickest to react, and in the ultimate death-dealing fashion. This might be interpreted as a sign of the regime’s insecurity. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the motive, it seems a reality, which leads its neighbors to hesitate to provoke it further.

This fear by other regimes of North Korean behavior internally is however far less than their fear that, in the external arena, North Korea might one day utilize nuclear weapons, either deliberately or inadvertently. Most other countries have said this publicly. For this reason, most other countries have enacted various sanctions against the North Korean regime for its failure to respond to the pressures to change policies. North Korea just ignores them.

One way of understanding why the North Korean regimes is able to be so impervious to all the pressures is to think about what would happen the day after, either internally or externally. Suppose the North Korean regime were to collapse and be no more. What would come next? This is particularly worrisome for China and South Korea.

What both China and South Korea fear most is a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime. China and South Korea envisage a massive movement of North Koreans into China and South Korea. They consider such a movement as almost impossible to stop, or even limit in size. The consequences for the internal politics of China and South Korea would be major, leading perhaps to destabilizing China’s unity and South Korea’s internal order.

Both China and South Korea have lost confidence that the United States would or could intervene in any significant way. The United States becomes thus an irrelevant factor in their political decisions. This in turn creates a change of situation for the neighboring countries. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all refrained from becoming nuclear powers on the assumption that the United States would be their nuclear shield. Once they no longer believe this, they will feel the need to create their own nuclear shield.

This in turn will affect the decisions of the regimes in southeast Asia and Australasia. They will have either to create their own nuclear shields or rely on a Chinese shield. To the extent that these countries become reliant on China, the major geopolitical loser will be India. The acute competition between China and India will lead India to place even more emphasis on increased collaboration with the United States, even though the United States will be as unreliable a partner for India as it is for the countries of northeast Asia.

The greatest benefit of these realignments will be to Iran, whose links with China, already considerable, will be intensified. This will unsettle Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who in turn may think of proceeding to nuclear armaments, even though they are far from having the technical ability to proceed with any speed. Despite this, they will need to do something, or face internal disorder.

In this new situation, it will be Russia that can take most advantage of everyone else’s discomforts. They are already doing so, by refusing to implement the sanctions with North Korea. They are also doing this by replacing the United States in the Arab/Moslem zone as the power most able to broker political compromises.

One could go on, discussing consequences for Indonesia, for Turkey, for Iran and Syria, and for western Europe. But all of this explains why North Korea is able to pursue its own path as it is doing. One might note the irony that the world’s least popular regime is in a sense its strongest because most autonomous. It has the strength that derives from everyone else’s fear of the day after.

North Korea has no interest in a nuclear conflict. The regime knows it would not survive one. What North Korea wants is a guarantee from the United States – its perceived unremitting enemy – (1) of recognition as a legitimate nuclear power and (2) that it will abstain from further interference in North Korean internal politics.

The only thing that might reduce the risk of nuclear chaos is an acceptance by the United States of the limits of its own geopolitical power and direct negotiations with North Korea. As of now, neither President Trump nor the U.S. Congress is ready to make such a radical move. The question nonetheless is how much longer the United States will take to swallow this geopolitical reality.

The U.S. Election in 2018: Enthusiasm Gaps

Commentary No. 453, July 15, 2017

If one looks back at the 2016 elections in the United States, there is really a quite simple explanation as to why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The so-called hard core of Trump’s supporters was extremely fired up by the possibility that he might win. They were enthusiasts. They campaigned vigorously. They made sure that their voters voted. They put pressure on other Republicans and Independents (and even on some Democrats) to work for Trump, even if they had reservations.

The story with Hillary Clinton was quite different. Her hard core was less hard and worked less hard for her. Many of her voters and possible voters supported her only because they were anti-Trump. There was little enthusiasm, and it showed. Even if they voted for her, they spent far less energy on mobilizing others. They put less pressure on potential voters. They were sure they would win, and could afford therefore to do less.

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Poor Donald Trump: His Unresolvable Dilemma

Commentary No. 452, July 1, 2017

You have to give Donald Trump credit for superb public relations. No matter what he does or says or what is going on anywhere in the world, he manages to remain a constant center of attention in the United States and throughout the rest of the world. People may love him or hate him, attack him or defend him, but they talk about him incessantly.

There is a joke circulating about him. An anti-Trump voter reminds us that Trump said during the electoral contest that if voters elected Hillary Clinton, they would find the United States governed by a president fighting constant criminal charges from Day One. The voter continues: Trump was right. I voted for Hillary and I find the United States governed by a president fighting constant criminal charges from Day One.

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Top Priority in the Trump Era: The Search for Office

Commentary No. 451, June 15, 2017

In the circles of family and friends in which I move, I don’t believe there is anyone who voted for Donald Trump. This is probably equally true of most middle-class professionals in the United States. Furthermore, a very large percentage of such people are obsessed with Trump and cannot wait until he ceases to be their president.

I am regularly asked to project for them how long he can survive in office. My standard answer is two days to eight years. This never satisfies those who pose the question. They cannot believe that this is a serious assessment. Those who pose the question see Trump as an “evil” person and find it difficult to believe that this view is not widely and increasingly shared by a majority of the population, even including those who voted for Trump.

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India: The In-Between Great Power

Commentary No. 450, June 1, 2017

I have the impression that, of all the “great powers” in the contemporary world-system, however one defines “great power,” India is the one that receives the least attention. I admit that this has been true of me, but it is true as well of the majority of geopolitical analysts.

Why should this be? India after all is rapidly approaching the point where it will have the world’s largest population. It is respectably high on most measures of economic strength and improving all the time. It is a nuclear power and has one of the world’s largest armed forces. It is a member of the G20 which is the imprimatur of being a great power. However, it is not a member of the G7, which is a far more restricted group and a far more important one.

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Global Left vs. Global Right: From 1945 to Today

Commentary No. 449, May 15, 201

The period 1945 to the 1970s was one both of extremely high capital accumulation worldwide and the geopolitical hegemony of the United States. The geoculture was one in which centrist liberalism was at its acme as the governing ideology. Never did capitalism seem to be functioning as well. This was not to last.

The high level of capital accumulation, which particularly favored the institutions and people of the United States, reached the limits of its ability to guarantee the necessary quasi-monopoly of productive enterprises. The absence of a quasi-monopoly meant that capital accumulation everywhere began to stagnate and capitalists had to seek alternative modes of sustaining their income. The principal modes were to relocate productive enterprises to lower-cost zones and to engage in speculative transfer of existing capital, which we call financialization.

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France: Anyone but LePen?

Commentary No. 448, May 1, 2017

France is about to have the second round of its presidential election. The two candidates are Emmanuel Macron, the En Marche! candidate and, with slightly less votes on the first round, Marine LePen, the candidate of the Front National (FN). Now a week in advance of the election, it looks like Macron will win but, as we have learned, nothing is less sure than the predictions of pollsters and politicians.

This has been a wild fluctuating campaign, in which the first round’s outcome seemed almost impossible to predict. The principal reason was the enormous number of persons who were unsure how they would vote. There were persons, many persons, who were not sure as they entered the poll booth whom they would choose.

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