The Anti-Empire Project Episode 45: How will the working class respond after COVID-19? With Sam Gindin

Sam Gindin talks about how many of our assumptions have been upended by the crisis

I talk to Sam Gindin about capitalism and the COVID-19 crisis. We started with economics, but it is really about consciousness, politics, expectations, and the struggles ahead.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 44: Bernie quits; and don’t be progressive

Justin and Dan talk about the racism and imperialism of the Progressive Era

Justin and Dan start by grieving because Bernie ended his presidential bid today. Then on to a history the imperialism and racism of the Progressive Era and why “progressive” and “leftist” are words for two different politics. 

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 43: Two Chomskyites Trapped in 2020

Justin and Dan talk about Chomsky.

Justin and Dan (that’s Dan Freeman-Maloy, for new listeners) talk about Chomsky – and not just manufacturing consent, but Chomsky’s influence on their political thinking, where they might have tiny disagreements, and how they try to use Chomsky’s work to think through political problems in 2020.

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 39: Might, the novel, by Brian Dominick

Episode 39: Might, the novel, by Brian Dominick

Brian Dominick is the author of Present as Prologue: A GenZero Novella, which describes the first phase of a youth-led, high-tech revolution in America. We talk about youth liberation, education, capitalism, and the liberatory possibilities and limitations of technological change. Interesting discussion about the idea of youth as a class. 

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire

The Anti-Empire Project Episode 37: Postcoloniality and the Racist Legacy of the British Empire, with Navyug Gill and Dan Freeman-Maloy

A wide-ranging and admittedly bookish discussion with William Patterson historian Navyug Gill and frequent guest and sometimes host of the show, Dan Freeman-Maloy. We talk about postcolonial studies, history, and the British Empire, and the ways that its racism lives on. 

Three Lessons this Leftist Takes from Trump’s Victory

I have been surprised by two electoral events in a few months: Trump’s election victory and the Colombian referendum on the peace accords. Both votes were very close, had low participation rates, and were expected to go the other way. If I were a closer watcher of British politics, I would no doubt have been equally surprised by the Brexit vote. In trying to learn from my own errors of analysis, I have come to these conclusions.

1. This is a world of bubbles.

One important and constant argument made on the left is for the need for independent media. The reason we believe in devoting resources and energy to creating and supporting independent media is to try to reduce our dependence for information on analysis on corporate media sources. Whether those sources support Democrats or Republicans, whether they are liberal or conservative, their corporate values and their business models trump the political considerations of their journalists or editors.

We used to focus our analysis of media bias against the corporate, agenda-setting media and especially their flagship newspaper, namely the New York Times. The NYT would receive the most criticism, not because it was the most biased, because there have always been many outlets to the right of it, but because it had the most influence. With the decline of newspapers and more and more people getting their information from different media – TV, social media, other web sources – audiences fragmented.

That fragmentation process is now complete. The agenda-setting media set agendas for only one bloc of Americans. Another bloc, the one that just elected Trump, uses a different set of media – one with its own set of assumptions and biases.

So my daily media routine goes like this: I use a carefully curated Twitter feed, following journalists and writers that I like and trust. When I have analyzed what I end up reading via Twitter, it seemed to me that I was clicking a lot of links to The Guardian, The Intercept, and Al Jazeera.

I make a daily round of outlets that I like and contribute to – Znet, TeleSUR, Ricochet, rabble, and some foreign outlets like El Tiempo in Colombia. I avoid material that depresses me except when I’m doing direct research on a topic. Because I don’t like to be made miserable constantly, I also look for news that is already presented with some analysis or even comedically – like John Oliver’s show. Because I actually want to write and do things, I don’t have time for much more than this or I would be consuming news all day.

In other words, I live in a bubble of my own selection. Being in that bubble is helpful to me because I know I have a community of people who I respect, who are like-minded and I get to spend time reading their insights. But left media outlets don’t have systematic surveying of every part of the US. For that kind of resourced, comprehensive coverage, I looked to the corporate media for insight – the NYT, CNN, etc. I relied on their news and their polling and tried to build my own analysis from there. And consequently, I was completely wrong.

I don’t think that there’s some alternative like scanning every bubble or spending lots of time interacting with media that supported Trump. You can get insights from inside your bubble. Arlie Russell Hochschild did serious research on what was driving support for Trump, and delivered it straight into my bubble on Democracy Now. Michael Moore predicted a Trump victory. The starting point though has to be that there is very little that forms a common basis for a national conversation – there are several different conversations going on with different assumptions and starting points. Fox News and Clear Channel on the one hand and the NYT and MSNBC on the other are all corporate media, but their audiences don’t understand each other and underestimate each other.

2. The poll that matters is the election.

Campaign strategists and voters relied on polls, and the polls were wrong. Politicians use polls to try to campaign scientifically, focusing attention where they can make gains according to how they are polling in the elections. But the polls are pseudo-science. In the last three elections I have followed closely (Canada 2015, Colombia referendum, and this last US election) I had a completely incorrect idea of what was going to happen because I relied on the polls.

With everybody, politicians and public alike, watching the polls, the election becomes more like a pseudoscientific exercise about watching percentage points go up and down and less like a public conversation about politics, policies, and laws.

3. The conservative base is not growing.

In Canada 2015, Stephen Harper lost the election with nearly the same number of votes (5.6 million) with which he won a majority in 2010 (5.8 million). Trump won the presidency in 2016 with 60.3 million votes, while Romney lost in 2012 with 60.9 million. In both countries the conservative base is not growing, but slowly shrinking. When they lose it is not because their base grows, but because the other side gets more votes (in the cases of Trudeau and Obama, a lot more votes).

Obama (2008, 2012) and Trudeau (2015) were able to generate enthusiasm that Clinton was not. Perhaps Sanders would have generated that kind of enthusiasm, but he did not win the nomination. Many leftists who want substantive moves towards greater equality and peace were excited about Sanders, but neither Obama nor Trudeau really promised such moves. They won anyway. The Democratic Party might not see a move to the left as the best strategy after this loss.

Trump may have won by promising to make America great again, but he is incapable of solving or even understanding any of the problems we face. Solutions for environmental, social, and international crises will have to come from the left. Surviving the Trump presidency will be a challenge.

Independence of thought will be an important survival skill.

No to Peace in Colombia?

In the four years that it took to negotiate this peace deal, Colombia has been moving inexorably towards October 2, the day that the people could have their say about the deal that would end the five-decade long war. The polls predicted an easy win for the “yes” side. The government’s negotiators and the guerrillas (FARC) campaigned for a strong “yes” vote. This was the best deal that could be had, they said.

There are around 34 million Colombians eligible to vote out of a population of around 48 million. My own prediction was that about half of that would vote in the referendum and around 70% of them would vote “yes”.

But the ‘No’ won with 6,422,136 votes, defeating the ‘Yes’ who came in with 6,361,762. A difference of 60,374 voters. A difference of less than half a percentage point of the 12.8 million who voted. An even smaller fraction of the 21.2 million who didn’t vote.

With peace at stake, why was abstention so high? High abstention is a feature of recent elections – it was high in the 2014 election as well – with 32.9 million eligible voters in 2014, just 14.7 million voted, and only 7.8 million of those voted for the winner, President Santos.

But Santos and the peace bloc weren’t able to get that number to vote “yes”. What happened?

The polls predicting an easy “yes” victory may have played a role. Why would “yes” voters feel the need to vote if the outcome was a foregone conclusion? The “no” side, by contrast, was mobilized by the ever-polarizing ex-President and war candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez.

The areas most affected by the war voted “yes”, while most of the cities voted “no” (Bogota and Cali, however, voted “yes”). Hurricane Matthew may have played a role, since the Caribbean Coast has been severely affected by the war and was expected to be a “yes” stronghold.

Disenchantment with the process played a role. After four years of negotiations, the people were being asked to show up to rubber-stamp a process the parameters of which they did not have a say in setting. Most of them chose not to show up at all, and half of them voted not to give the rubber stamp. Though Colombia’s social movements voted “yes”, they had critiques of the process – that the war against the people would continue under this peace, that the economic model had been left untouched, that their voices were heard only in tokenistic ways at the table. These feelings, and not just the right-wing opposition organized by Uribe, may have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the “yes” side.

Before despairing of eternal conflict, however, let us clarify what this result was and was not.

It is certainly not a mandate for war. At a virtual tie (50.23% no, 49.76% yes) and with almost twice as many abstainers as voters, this can only be read as a sign of division and a lack of consensus, not the unequivocal statement of a vengeful electorate.

It is not driving FARC straight back into the jungle – certainly not right away. FARC immediately communicated that they view this result as a sign that they must work even harder for peace, and reiterated that they will continue to use only words as their weapons in the days ahead. The cease-fire stands. The negotiators will be back in Cuba this week.

President Santos walked out of the palace to a spontaneous demonstration of people chanting “We Want Peace! Not One Step Back!” and told them, and the media that he would continue to work for peace and that the peace process would continue to move forward. His next step was to call a meeting of all political parties to find a consensus process to move forward. It is unfortunate but inevitable that Uribe’s spoiler party will have to be a part of this process.

The most likely way forward will be to try to make adjustments to the accords that will make it acceptable to at least a substantial number of the “no” campaigners and try to pass them. The “no” side’s main issues were with the “transitional justice” proposals for guerrillas who had committed crimes, with some of the land reform and redistribution proposals, and with the conversion of FARC into a political party. Unfortunately these were also the key points making the deal acceptable to FARC – so the work of making the adjustments will not be straightforward or easy.

One of the campaigners for the peace deal, liberal former senator Piedad Cordoba, tried to find a silver lining, telling TeleSUR that voters had given Colombians an opportunity to dialogue again. Perhaps the “yes” side took the support of the people for granted. As the process moves forward after this turn, proponents of peace are unlikely to forget this hard lesson.

Elections Theater: Are fair elections too hard for the international community to manage?

For the past eleven years, since the coup and overthrow of the elected government in 2004, Haiti has been deemed so dysfunctional, so failed, a state, that the international community has decided to run it directly. UN troops patrol its streets. Nongovernmental organizations oversee most aspects of social provision. Donors provide the finances. The resources and reach of the government is limited. There were elections in 2010/11 and there will be a runoff presidential election at the end of December – both of these took place under this limited-government, maximum-international-community, regime (which could be called ‘donor rule’ and which I have called ‘Haiti’s New Dictatorship’). The 2010/11 elections were politicized and unfair. They banned the most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas, from running. The first round of the current elections have been characterized by massive fraud, and Haitians know it. They have no confidence in the elections. They are protesting, and their protests are met with tear gas from police – one of the few things that the government is allowed to do (though this important duty is often shared with the UN).

Some observers may throw up their hands and say, how could you expect credible elections, Haiti is a poor, dysfunctional country. But Haiti has had fair elections – they occurred in 1995 and in 2000, before the UN took over. The international community, which has been governing Haiti directly since 2004, is the body that is incapable of running a fair election. As in Haiti, so in Afghanistan, where the 2014 presidential elections were won by Ashraf Ghani, after which the international community imposed a power-sharing arrangement with the loser, Abdallah Abdallah. An extraordinary agreement was brokered as part of this, that the exact vote totals would not be made public.

The first-world version of what is happening in Haiti and Afghanistan is what Tariq Ali calls the Extreme Centre, in which political parties are indistinguishable from one another on most important issues, and alternate in power. Under such conditions, with major issues out of contention, fair elections are acceptable to elites.

The rich Western countries have their own problems with elections, of course. The most famous case was the US presidential election of 2000, with voting machines and ballots that were made incomprehensible for voters, supreme courts intervening to prevent recounts of votes, and other stranger-than-fiction happenings. Electoral cheating in Canada in 2006 and 2011 was relatively minor by comparison. When Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour leader in the UK, a general there told the media casually that there might be a military coup if he ever won a general election.

If electorates could be relied upon to do the right thing, then there would be no need for cheating by those in power. Many tyrants have mastered the art of elections theater: Egypt’s President Sisi managed to win the 2014 presidential election with an astounding 96.91% of the vote. Syria’s President Assad held elections in 2014 in a country where most people were running for their lives, and in which his army and its opponents were slaughtering large numbers of voters. He won a remarkable 88.7% of the vote. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who recently got term limits lifted so that he (and he alone) can keep running for president, won the 2010 election with 93%. Kagame’s neighbours, Joseph Kabila in the DRC and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, use some of the same techniques, including arresting opponents and terrorizing the press, but they have had much more modest success (Museveni only won the 2011 election with 68%, Kabila won the 2012 election with a mere 48.95%).

Some countries don’t bother with the pretense. Two examples: Israel doesn’t pretend to give the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, whose lives it controls to the last detail, any say in how they are occupied. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, one that also schedules beheadings and crucifixions of youths like Mohammed Nimr, who is still very much in danger. The Western governments that watch keenly and comment severely on the fairness of elections in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia do happy, multibillion-dollar business with apartheid Israel and the Saudi Kingdom.

But the pretense clearly does matter. Very few countries get the kind of immunity that Israel or Saudi Arabia do. Despite the openness of the fraud and the incredibility of the results, most dictatorships do hold electoral exercises. In most cases, the appearance of electoral legitimacy is important enough to keep up elections theater, even if electorates are not powerful enough in many places to actually impose their will through elections.

On the other hand, there are still fair elections, ones where the electorate actually has a say. One example: Narendra Modi’s BJP were surprised to lose the recent elections in Bihar, in which the electorate gave their verdict on the BJP’s unsubstantiated claims of development and their anti-secular, divisive program. Another example: while the wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history continues to struggle with incomprehensible combinations of paper ballots and voting machines, Venezuela has managed to create a voting system that is very difficult to defraud (and I believe that at least at one time its voting machines were made in the USA – at least the machines contributed to fair elections somewhere).

Even these real elections pose dangers, because the belief in electoral legitimacy is not shared by all contestants. The BJP’s desire to make India a Hindu nation conflicts with India’s democratic constitution. If the Venezuelan opposition comes to power in December, it is unlikely that it will respect the constitution or maintain the integrity of the electoral system.

Elections matter. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be so much effort put into manipulating them, limiting options available to the electorate, and preventing them from being free. Nor would so many tyrants still feel they need to go through the motions of demonstrating that they have elections, however unfree. But a world of free, fair, meaningful elections with choices for voters is still a distant utopia.

And even where there are relatively fair elections, good electoral systems are always at risk. Electoral systems are not technical matters run by disinterested parties. They are political, which is why even the most disinterested-seeming parties, like the international community ruling Haiti, can’t seem to get them right. To get them right, the international community would have to value Haitian democracy more highly than its own continued rule, and believe that Haitians had the right, and the ability, to make their own decisions about their government. That kind of democratic feeling is surprisingly rare, especially among those who have grown accustomed to ruling, unelected.

First published on TeleSUR English: