Tag Archives: democracy

Madiba RIP

young+nelsonThe celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life have been both fortifying and frustrating. They are a testimony to the long road traveled, as well as the whitewashing and historical elisions that take place as we look to the past.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to hear such universal acclaim for a man that politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher once condemned as a terrorist.

On the other hand, the veneration of Madiba ignores the fact that he was only one person – a peculiarly determined and charismatic one, granted – in a much broader movement against madiba1apartheid. When one speaks to South Africans who lived through the apartheid era, one immediately finds that struggle and sacrifice (as well as silent complicity or outright racism) were universal. It is a country scarred by brutal history, but ennobled by tremendous bravery and sacrifice that was nearly universal.

In addition, there are many questions about Mandela’s years in power and the legacy he left. Patrick Bond’s commemorative article offers a judicious account of the deals struck by the ANC once Mandela achieved power in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. This involved, in Bond’s words, an “intra-elite economic deal that, for most madiba2people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

The democracy Mandela brought to South Africa was a flawed and compromised one, although it was still seemingly miraculous given many people’s fears that the country would descend into civil war and racist bloodletting. His heroism through the many years of captivity and his generosity towards his former captors was exemplary. Yet Mandela’s legacy is one that we must both celebrate and lament.

La lucha continua!

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Beirut Dispatch: The Arab Spring and the Muddled Left

Lebanon is a country with a long history of sectarian strife. The remnants of the civil war, which pitted Christians against various Muslim groups (Shiite and Sunni are both represented in the country), with groups like the Druze additionally complicating the fray, are still evident here in Beirut, despite the relative civil harmony in the country today. But then it was precisely such splits that the Arab spring challenged, so it’s a very exciting time to be here in Beirut.

Given the tectonic shifts the entire region is undergoing, it should not be so surprising that the politics underlying the conference organized by the American University of Beirut’s Center for American Studies and Research, a conference which I recently attended, should be a little muddled. In fact, the conference theme – Shifting Borders – reflects the huge changes the region is currently undergoing, and the resulting complexity and confusion among political and cultural analysts about the future.

That said, some of the presentations at the conference reflect pitfalls that the Left really needs to avoid if it is going to contribute significantly to the democratizing currents that have been sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East over the last year.

For example, the conference began with the keynote address by Rani Khouri of the American University of Beirut. Professor Khouri argued that we are currently living through one of the most significant changes in modern Middle Eastern history. The significance of the mass uprisings were sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, on 4 January one year ago is to introduce the first process of citizen-based self-determination, leading nations in the region towards a genuine politics of sovereignty.

For Khouri, the mass uprisings and the movements for democracy they unleashed redress grievances felt since the anti-colonial nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s liberated the region from colonial control, but then introduced different varieties of authoritarian military rule. Often, these dictatorial regimes were tied to foreign powers, including, of course, the US. As a result, they lacked popular legitimacy on a variety of levels.

These uprisings were generated, Khouri argued, by a combination of material grievances – based on declining incomes across the region – and popular demands for the meaningful recognition of their citizenship, constitutional changes to enshrine democratic processes, and social justice.

Khouri’s major intervention was to challenge the Islamophobic discourses so often heard in the Western media. He explained that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are reaping electoral gains from the revolutions of the last year precisely because they have been so effective in articulating popular discontent with the status quo across the region in recent decades. They have, he argued, consistently expressed popular anti-imperialist sentiments, argued for popular empowerment, provided a sense of transnational unity, and have delivered basic service to people in the increasing absence of the state (or of any aspect of the state other than its police-military face).

In order to question Euro-American Islamophobia, Khouri compared Islamist groups to the Civil Rights movement in the US. Both, he argued, were driven by assertions of social justice and human dignity. As a result, such groups gave people a sense of human and a belief in their ability to change history. This link between the US Civil Rights movement – which often had a religious underpinning – and Islamist movements in the Middle East is an interesting and original comparison.

Khouri argued that the electoral victory of these movements would have the same impact as the triumph of the Civil Rights movement in the US: the religious grounding of these groups will become less evident as they take over the state and become engaged in basic issues of effective service provision that are necessary in order to retain their popular mandate.

This argument seems questionable to me. To what extent are currents of fundamentalism in Islamism more comparable to Christian evangelical groups in the US than to the Civil Rights movement? Moreover, to what extent will such groups move towards secularism as they are confronted with the increasingly intractable political-economic woes of neoliberal capitalism? Moreover, given the likely intensification of climate change in coming years, can we assume that these movements will settle easily into the liberal democratic capitalist trajectory that Khouri seemed to assume – drawing on the US model – is the universal norm and goal?

The central problem in Khouri’s argument, in other words, is its liberalism. As far as I could tell, there was no analysis of the anti-capitalist element in the revolutions of the last year. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the problems such movements will face as a result of increasingly grim global crises of capitalism. Because of the liberal framework of Khouri’s analysis, he ironically ended up retaining a neo-colonial sense that the US is the telos or goal towards which the societies of North Africa and the Middle East must aspire. Given the current political-economic crises in the US and EU, such an argument seems harder to sustain and more self-defeating than ever.

Juxtaposed with this liberalism at the keynote, organizers of the conference had also invited a number of Iranians to present their work, including the head of American Studies at Tehran University. A professor in such a position could only be complicit on one level or another with the increasingly authoritarian regime in the country. Sure enough, during his presentation, this professor proceeded to argue that Iran is one of the major victors in the region as a result of the revolutions of 2011. Although this Iranian was quick to denounce US imperialism, he ducked questions about the ungoing repression in Syria and of course had little to say about the violent suppression of the Green Movement – which can, in many ways, be seen as one of the antecedents of the Arab Spring – in his own country.

The fact that CASAR organizers gave public platforms to both liberals such as Khouri and the Iranian contingent suggests the extent of the muddle about what a progressive politics in the Middle East might look like. How hard it is to forge a coherent anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and anti-homophobic front. This is what democracy must look like, after all, in the Middle East and elsewhere. If the Left does not stand up for all these values, it will be on the wrong side of history.

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Pan-Arabism, Take Two

Mubarak is gone!

Lost in the incredibly gripping stories emerging from Egypt in recent weeks has been any discussion of links between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.  This lack of analysis also marginalizes discussion of which countries – in North Africa and elsewhere – might be next.

Issandr El Amrani’s article goes some way to addressing the linked questions of “why Tunisia – why Egypt?”

We’ll see where the revolutionary baton will be taken up next.  The great danger here is that these uprisings for democracy will go the way of those that came at the end of the Cold War in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere: popular revolts will lead to the establishment of formal democracy, but in tandem with augmented neo-liberal economic policies.  If this is the result of the present uprisings, there will truly be reasons for bitterness.

But it’s better not to indulge such gloomy thoughts.  For now, the people of Tunisia and Egypt and their supporters all around the world have just cause for feeling triumphant.

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The New York Times reports today that the Obama administration and leading European nations are backing the plan laid out by the newly appointed Egyptian VP, former head of security services and torture maven, for a “gradual transition.”  As even the Times admits, this means a betrayal of the demands of the protesters for democracy.  When the chips are down, it seems that the U.S. picks “stability” over democracy every time.

Shame, shame on this country!

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Egyptian Anarchy

The unfolding Egyptian revolution is anarchic. Represented in the Western media as recently as last Saturday as a chaotic uprising with menacing bands of roving looters and criminals (anarchy in the pejorative sense), the Egyptian revolution is largely self-organized by the popular masses.

Not only have the large crowds gathering in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the heart of Cairo been peaceful despite being assembled spontaneously and without any coordinated direction by a particular political party or leader.  In addition, neighborhood watch groups formed throughout Cairo and other Egyptian cities to maintain law and order over the weekend after the dreaded security police – minions of the Mubarak regime – withdrew from the streets following Friday’s dramatic confrontation between police and masses of people in Cairo.

For a very thoughtful discussion of the national-popular and the current wave of uprisings in the Arab world, see this interview with historian Vijay Prashad.

The bankruptcy of U.S. policies of supporting autocratic Arab regimes in the name of fighting Islamism is now apparent for everyone to behold.  Mubarak is not the first dictator to be driven out of office in the Maghreb, and will probably not be the last.  This is an Arab revolution many decades in the making.

The main question now is what will come after the revolution.  Will the self-organizing forces that made the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions be contained or co-opted?  Or will genuinely new forms of egalitarian social and economic structures be assembled?

The history of the IMF-uprisings chronicled in John Walton and David Seddon’s Free Markets and Food Riots is instructive here.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in response to austerity policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund, popular uprisings exploded around the world, often sparked by precisely the same issues that lie behind current demonstrations: revulsion against authoritarian rule and anger over spiraling food prices.  In those cases, political reform did not lead to significant economic reform.  Precisely the opposite: newly installed democratic regimes implemented the most draconian austerity packages advanced by the IMF and World Bank.

Let’s hope we don’t witness a replay of that history. Surely the great difference between that period – the triumphant inauguration of the post-Cold War Washington Consensus – and the present, when the intellectual and practical bankruptcy of neoliberalism is plainly evident to everyone, surely this difference should spell a very different and more positive denouement.

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A Corporation is Not a Person

Two days ago the Supreme Court issued what is perhaps its most calamitous ruling in a century.  In a 5-to-4 ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court’s reactionary majority ruled that the government has no right to ban political spending by corporations in elections.  The decision thrusts the U.S. back, as an editorial in the New York Times the day after had it, to the robber-baron era of the late 19th century.

The logic adopted by the conservative majority in order to legitimate undoing over a century of legislation and legal precedent intended to stem corporate power over electoral affairs is particularly noteworthy.  For the reactionary majority, government attempts to limit corporations’ power to buy politicians is an unfair interference in their right to free speech, a right protected by the First Amendment.

But why should corporations have a right to free speech?  Isn’t this something guaranteed to citizens rather than corporate entities in the Constitution?  The recent decision in fact hinges on the idea that corporations have the same rights as individuals.  This slide towards corporate personhood can be traced back to Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company (1886), in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Fourteenth Amendment, one of the Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the Civil War, forbids states from denying to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.  Twenty years after this amendment’s passage, it had become colonized by increasingly powerful corporate entities such as railroad companies, while its use to protect the rights of former slaves lagged as Jim Crow laws were put into effect.

This week’s outrageous court decision takes this slide towards corporate personhood to a radical extreme, in clear violation of a century of Congressional attempts to limit bribery and corruption in U.S. politics.  In addition, it flies in the face of a century of legal precedent in which corporations have been classified as artificial creations of the state, created in order to achieve particular economic ends and with exceptional rights related to these ends.  In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the ruling threatens democracy and does profound damage to the Supreme Court as an institution.

Obviously citizens must lobby Congress to legislate against this unjust ruling.  Concrete steps could include fixing the public finance system for presidential elections and establishing a public system for Congressional elections.  Such steps are unlikely, however, to challenge the underlying slide towards corporate personhood that has gotten us into this fix.

What we really need, as Jamin Raskin recently suggested, is a citizens’ movement for a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not persons entitled to the rights of political expression.  For details of the building mass movement, go here.

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