Tag Archives: democracy

Socialism here, socialism there

In the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate held last Sunday, sitting Senator Bernie Sanders stole the show with two intriguing admissions that spoke volumes about his politics and his electoral appeal. In the coverage of the debate that I have looked over, I was surprised to see that no one seems to have highlighted those two rather illuminating moments of the night.

In the (largely unexpected) competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ momentum has been shocking for many. Hillary Clinton, a national figure who entered the race without any apparent challenger, has lost ground to him as he surged from locally celebrated Senator to contender vying for Iowa, New Hampshire, and possibly the nomination. Much of that support has come from voters, particularly younger ones, interested in challenging the existing political process and pushing policy proposals from as many candidates as possible towards more economic redistribution and equality.

Sanders’ answer to a question about climate change was one of the few he delivered on Sunday that didn’t stay within the confines of economics or immediately pivot to them, but it still detailed why he’s been so attractive to that type of voter. Here’s the exchange that caught my ears:

HOLT: “Senator Sanders, Americans love their SUVs, which spiked in sales last year as gas prices plummeted. How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?”

SANDERS: “I think we already are. Younger generation understands it instinctively. I was home in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve, the temperature was 65 degrees. People in Vermont know what’s going on. People who did ice fishing, where their ice is no longer there on the lake understand what’s going on.”

His answer from there moved into his well-worn tracks of denouncing the broken political process and the economic pressures that keep it dysfunctional. Still, before moving into that he articulated a certainty that people already realize these problems exist.

I think this speaks to his broader political philosophy, which he and others sometimes misname as socialism. It falls short of a systemic transformation of the means of production into communal resources (you know… the definition of socialism), but it shares with that a belief in a common denominator of sensibleness. That’s the raw material needed to inspire people to believe that something actually like socialism is possible, so it’s not wildly unrelated to be fair.

Before anyone gets too excited about what Sanders’ politics might make tangible though, there’s the other revealing thing he said when discussing foreign policy in the Middle East:

“And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game [of counter-terrorism] and not just ask the United States to do it.”

The best statistics aren’t with Bernie Sanders on pretty much any part of this economic picture of Qatar and Saudi Arabia or even more generally the Persian Gulf region. In a very literal, numerical sense, these aren’t countries wealthier than the US asking for us to fight their battles for them.

The most reliable cross-country data on per capita wealth date back more than a decade and a half, and they paint a wildly different picture, which is difficult to dismiss as having radically reversed. What they show is that Qatar’s per capita net worth is about ninety percent of the US’s based on exchange rates and a little over seventy percent based when factoring in local purchasing power differences.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain – all with comparable economies to Qatar – fair similarly in comparison to the US. Saudi Arabia comes out markedly worse, coming out to barely over ten percent of the US’s per capita net worth based on exchange rates, which only grows to just over fifteen percent when accounting for greater Saudi purchasing power.

It’s easy for these discussions to become very abstract discussions of sales and productivity and various percents, removed from the lived realities of international economic inequality. In terms of infant mortality within the region, only Qatar and the UAE have both reduced their rates to equal that of the US, but that’s a development that’s happened only in the past five years. Bahrain and Kuwait still have infant mortality rates that lag several decades behind the gradually decreasing US rate, while Saudi Arabia still has a rate more than double that of the US’s current one.

It’s a similar story for the infants who survived too, with only Qatar’s life expectancy at birth rivaling the US’s in the past couple of decades. Still, the average person born in the US has gained about a year of anticipated life every five years, to the average Qatari’s year gained every decade. In other words, while the gap of how many children live is closing, the gap in terms of how long they live for is widening.

To exhaust the ways of interpreting Sanders’ comments, a country could have significantly lower standards of living than another in general, but have resources concentrated in a minority of the population that’s effectively rather wealthy. That wouldn’t fit what he’s describing, in terms of there being more resources for a typical Qatari than someone in the US, but it at least would explain why someone might draw the wrong conclusions he’s reached.

That said, while there are certainly some very wealthy people from those countries, this isn’t the case, as far as the statistics suggest. Information about the distribution of wealth within many Gulf countries is extremely difficult to find, but what little is internationally known shows them to have a Gini Coefficient equivalent to the US’s or very modestly lower. That means that while there are extremely wealthy elites within these countries that may be wealthier than the average US resident, the same is true and probably more statistically common within the US. The Qatar that Sanders described as overshadowing the US in economic power doesn’t even exist as a part of the country, let alone the whole.

qatar migrant workersMigrant workers in Qatar, from here.

There’s also the unsupported assertion that these (not actually) wealthy countries are asking us to get involved in anti-Daesh organizing, specifically with a ground occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. Sanders’ approach towards the region misrepresents not just the existing relationship between these countries and our own, but misinterprets what leaders and average people in those countries want to have as a relationship with us.

In a nutshell, the unequal distribution of resources and as a result power which Sanders has centered his politics around criticizing doesn’t just exist within the United States but in some sense between us and many other parts of the world. His faith in people’s knowledge and intentions extends greatly, but it gets much patchier outside of US borders. There’s more nationalism in his politics than an actual socialist’s would have. It may make room for movement towards something like socialism domestically, but his take on international issues suggests that the revolution Sanders mentions is designed not to rewrite the global economic dominance of the United States.

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The ends justify the means

Paris has remained the center of international attention after the coordinated terrorist attacks on November 13, in part because of the looming climate talks that have now begun. In light of recently stoked fears of panic and chaos, a large-scale and officially recognized protest was prevented from occurring. Many have questioned whether the shutting down of the primary demonstration – planned months in advance to be one of the largest mobilizations in the world on this issue – was an opportunity for the many heads of state meeting today, seized with the justification of anti-terrorism.

For all the fears of a creeping police state, unleashed by counter-terrorism but focused squarely on silencing political dissent, the marchers appear to have gotten most of their goals. Various commitments (yeah, considering how Kyoto went, you can roll your eyes at that) have already been agreed to by major international players. For those who wanted to physically protest and fight the French state, opportunities for that have been available too, although probably not ones they wanted.

2015-11-30_1946
(From here.)

One detail curiously lost in the paranoia about a steadily expanding French surveillance system that can easily curtail civil liberties (which isn’t really unfounded), is the US’s own strangely undemocratic stance. President Obama has embraced a legal framework designed to allow him, or any future president, to move the US towards its emissions commitments without congressional approval. If you remember the reaction to his executive actions on immigration, you can already see how that could potentially play out.

There is an unfortunate way that this does reflect negatively on him. Instead of deciding that it was possible to win a majority in the Senate that supported collective action on this issue, his administration has opted for a strategy that’s essentially undemocratic. Admittedly, this is in some sense to be expected – the losses of the Democrats in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014  made any other tactic untenable, especially given the memory of how the Kyoto Protocols went over in the US Senate last time around.

The US Senate is, as I’ve said before, at the heart of how the US democracy isn’t representative of the political ideas and considerations of a solid majority of US voters, let alone residents. To those familiar with the millenia-old ancient Greek understanding of tyranny, this situation might be eerily familiar. Representative structures hijacked by powerful and enfranchised groups can be opposed by populist pressure, in the form of what ultimately amounts to a dictator’s answer to their illusion of democracy.

This is one of the ways that representative governments have historically fallen – when achieving something that resembles a democratic, populist outcome requires jettisoning or even dismantling the established, at least nominally democratic process. For modern Western states, this is perhaps best understood in the phantom of Napoléon, the quintessential revolutionary turned emperor.

Amid the fears that even a zealous commitment of the current goals would only modestly curb climate change, the haunting warnings of The Hunger Games universe seem apt. In those book series, set in a distant future in North America, President remains the title of the head of state, but is unambiguously a dictatorial position. The cultures and economies in that dystopia reflect among other things the damage wrought by climate change, which is implied to have helped dictatorial figures retain control, enforcing among other things, restrictions aimed at having positive environmental effects.

Before anyone reading this thinks I’m falling into a kind of pop culture rebuke of doing anything about climate change, let me assure you I’m not. The true horror here isn’t that President Obama is the next Napoléon. His elaborate work-around for dealing with the Senate isn’t to amass power within his own political office and deal with climate change or any other problems himself. Instead, his effort is to support the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other non-government organizations, which can circumvent the political requirements of a treaty.

This is less dictatorship and more privatization. We’re not a modern democracy, at risk of the revolution becoming an empire. We’re a post-modern democracy, in danger of cutting the state into private structures beyond democratic check.

Perhaps, France’s police, pushing protesters to the ground and throwing tear gas canisters, are less of a sign of things to come and more of a historical holdover. Instead of populist politics finding their expression in hands of just one person – and hence corroding democratic processes – or a lumbering or even misguided “democratic” government, we’ve entered a new era in which the state actually cedes power. For all their deep flaws, either of those options at least have some basis in popular consensus. The libertarian future being hinted at here has little to no democratic oversight.

The iconic images of undemocratic rule – of an all powerful state – might only just be that, icons, infused with political meaning only within a specific cultural context. We’re in a brave new world, in which the power of the few doesn’t necessarily control or even want to control the state.

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Scary stories, just add campfire

If your day has been anything like mine today you are quickly grabbing together the most important things to bring with you to a Halloween party either tonight, tomorrow, or some other time in the next couple of days. Costumes, candy, and drinks are, of course, the expect items you have to gather together in preparation, but let’s not overlook one holiday-specific must-have: scary stories. Let me link you to a couple of spooky tales to wow people with this weekend.

Zombies… at the polls

The SF Weekly has a bleak portrayal of the emerging voter landscape in one of the country’s largest cities. Although apathy and disengagement have flourished in the midst of an anemic economic recovery and the widespread perception that there are few to no possible solutions to social and economic inequality within the democratic system, the problem appears to have been uniquely stoked within San Francisco.

The longer form piece goes into detail about potential contributing factors – including Democratic Party bungling, flawed election scheduling, and most deeply the ways that gentrification has recreated San Francisco’s communities. Beyond the myriad causes, the message is that democratic governance in many parts of the country is rapidly becoming something run on autopilot. Yikes!

Watching you

From France to the US, a number of countries are now considering even more extensive surveillance regimes that promise to make the system revealed by Edward Snowden look like child’s play.

Access Now released an assessment of the bill now facing consideration in the US Senate which called it “a surveillance bill dressed up as a cybersecurity bill.” Their look into the French bill, just passed by their senate, is even more grim, noting that it mandates “telecommunications companies to install ‘black boxes’ on their networks, which use an algorithm to indiscriminately sweep data for suspicious activity”. It’s worryingly unclear what will be counted as “suspicious” of course.

Not in either France or the US? No problem, these are policies that apply to any data picked up by anyone, citizen or not, in any part of the world.

The end of the world as we know it, and some feel fine

It’s come up on this blog before that climate change is likely to disproportionately damage some of the poorest communities and countries (who are also often least responsible for the crisis). The process of that is complex and combines together the fact that those groups typically have fewer resources to spend on either preparing for the new climate or directly address its impacts as they arise, as well as the happenstance that many of the poorest communities in the world are in climatic areas simply more likely to see dramatic changes.

One recent study from UC Berkeley, however, attempted to quantify exactly how the world’s national economies will be affected and found two startling results. According to it, the lost wealth for many of the world’s poorest regions – South Asia, Africa, and Latin America namely – will be much larger than many have anticipated. For a huge swathe of the world’s population, this means a reduced income and an inherently limited economy. What’s more, there are a few countries that might even see modest economic gains thanks to climate change. They’re concentrated in northern Europe, with a few other inclusions mostly from some other countries with comparatively healthy economies in current day. In short, not only are the pains felt by the world’s poor probably going to be much worse, there’s a number of people disproportionately responsible for global warming who actually stand to benefit from the changed climate.

With these stories you’ll be the toast of the party. That doomed, doomed party.

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Onwards and upwards, but not for all

Trigger warning: gun violence, racism

Yesterday, ten people died and seven were injured in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Motivated by the public outcry, President Obama gave a speech on the event and the issues it raises yesterday which still dominates my newsfeed and in all likelihood yours as well. He laid out a basic argument for gun control and against a hypervigilance for over-regulation of firearms and related weapons:

We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston.  It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.  Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out:  We need more guns, they’ll argue.  Fewer gun safety laws.

Does anybody really believe that?  There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that’s not true.  We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

That is understandably deeply moving. It taps into one of the great beliefs in the United States about this country – that we are an evolving country, tethered by traditions but not ensnared by them. We can – and do – blaze forward, the story goes, changing ourselves in order to make life better. This story is sometimes about this type of regulation on a product, but can also come in the form of appeals to how the franchise has expanded, widening the voting population towards something today considered to be an approximation of universal suffrage. Obama is, I suspect, quite consciously marrying those two tales together, crediting the ostensibly safer and healthier life of the average US citizen to the theoretically democratic achievements of this country. We can literally vote ourselves to safety.

Unfortunately, it’s increasingly unclear that any part of this narrative is true. Past regulations on firearms and present day regulations on cars and other products Obama later mentions were opposed at almost every step by a major industry if not several. Those two are some of the most successful campaigns for that matter. Even as cars have reduced the dangers in an accident, they’ve gotten better at concealing their emissions, disguising the threat they pose to a stable and useful climate for us and ultimately everyone else in the world. Almost all of these improvements are rooted in economic bottom lines. It’s better to make a product that doesn’t easily and regularly kill your customers – that’s just basic business sense. But longer term damage to its consumers, to their descendants, and to the broader world can just be “externalities“, at least for much longer than that other kind of threat.

When it comes to more general issues of social and economic security that same statistics crop up repeatedly showing that many problems have lingered or even worsened. Food insecurity remains prevalent in the US. Union membership – long a bulwark for lower and middle classes to protect their interests – has drastically declined, as has (for that and other reasons) the political effectiveness of unions. Fear of poverty, of want, and of homelessness are barely considerations in the economic and political system in which we live, and so have at best been allowed, and at worst encouraged as “motivation“. The idea that we have become safer than those before us downplays these concerns and denies the observable reality that sometimes things actually have gotten worse.

Suffrage, still full of historical holes like felon disenfranchisement, has recently taken a hit from the dismantling of the pre-clearance system. Already, Alabama appears to be coordinating mass suppression of voters of color in advance of the 2016 election with no effective federal oversight. Other states are likely to follow suit. Even before that structural link in US democracy crumbled, we were already facing an effective plutocratic check on at the very least national elections, and by one study’s standards, were no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. A majority of people in this country – citizens or not – might want basic regulations on weapons, but does that mean anything? For years, in spite of popular outcry, it hasn’t.

katrinaNew Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, from here.

Further along in his speech, Obama presented what he viewed as a few analogues to what he hopes we could accomplish on gun control, saying among other things, “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.” One needs only point to Katrina as an example of how limited those improvements often can be. Over a thousand died, and over a million were displaced. More valued populations threatened by later hurricanes have been better protected, so perhaps the government learned something from that disaster. But those lessons learned in catastrophe haven’t been applied to repair the still hurting (and specifically Black) communities in New Orleans, but to preserve the business centers of Houston and the greater New York area. In fact, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina created the opportunity for a wealthier and Whiter demographic to move in and replace dead or displaced residents, parts of New Orleans seem poised to attain a similar status, only without the people who originally lived there.

Progress appears to be a privilege, increasingly reserved only for some in this society. It seems vital that we ask who gets left behind, and not only when the answer is “almost everyone.”

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When Maddow finally goes too far…

TW: Syrian conflict, US imperialism

There’s an interesting post that’s made rounds on Tumblr as of late that talks about Rachel Maddow as being fundamentally an apologist for US imperialism and other forms of military aggression, who wraps herself in the cloak of queer liberation and democratic norms. It seems that never has this been more clear than in her most recently electronically available show, which she bookended with two very intriguing if unsettling pieces on the current push within the US for intervention in Syria.

First, she mentions how Obama has broken with previous policy (namely that of Reagan’s) by requesting congressional approval for the conflict before acting (at least, so far). This builds on her book, Drift, which in turn is a more publicly palatable version of her earlier academic work. In short, it’s at least a democratically investigated and analyzed intervention. To be fair, her original works made clear that democratic standards provided some checks on imperialist and interventionist drives within the White House, but there’s no rigid guarantee in that, so she conveniently fails to raise that issue.

Ultimately, she concludes the show on a similar note, asking her audience to imagine a US under the leadership of Obama’s 2008 rival McCain. She runs through the list of countries McCain has suggested we should be bombing, have invaded, or continued the Bush-era occupations of. The implication is clear – the democratic elements to political governance in the US have resulted in a less militaristic governance than they could have (twice even!).


(From here.)

In short, she’s framed the entire discussion around how this intervention (presumed to be inevitable in essence) constitutes a “better” interventionism. The actual ostensible goals – of detaining Assad, penalizing chemical weapons use on the international stage, or cutting short the on-going Syrian conflict – all become minor or nonexistent parts of the policy equation. “It’s not as bad as it could be” cloaks the entire show. Never mind whether we’re an empire, at least we’re democratic in our pursuit of global hegemony!

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This is not just in theory

TW: ethnic cleansing, islamophobia, genocide

On Monday, I discussed just how much violent rhetoric the Muslims of the world, particularly anglophone ones, are subject to, on an increasingly frequent scale. It’s become commonplace to discuss mass murder, for instance. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a matter of thoughts and statements, as in some places, Muslims are being killed or otherwise systemically endangered because of their religious faith. Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent reporting for the past couple of months on the situation in Burma or Myanmar, specifically approaching the “democratization” of the country from that angle.

In the past couple of days, especially, they’ve covered the dangerous potency of islamophobia in the country, starting with a renewed look at the nativist and islamophobic violence against the Rohingya people, who tend to live in the westernmost province of Myanmar. Much of their recent history is quite depressing – from first colonialist exploitation by the British (who “imported” their labor into British Burma) to modern xenophobic otherness by their compatriots of some half century (if not longer). It’s one of the cases where the separate socio-economic classes laid out by Harm de Blij in The Power of Place seems particularly salient. Unfortunately, following the departure of an imperialist “global” class, the “mobile” Rohingya laborers and “local” Burmese peoples have targeted each other, instead of cooperating to repair the colonial era damage to the country.


(From Human Rights Watch’s online report on the killings, an image of civilian forces that drove out or killed Rohingya in western Myanmar in the summer of 2012.)

Today, however, Al Jazeera provided some excellent analysis of the broader regional implications of this conflict, both for Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka and Muslim-majority ones like Indonesia. In a nutshell, while there are ethnic dimensions to this and nearly every ethnic conflict in neighboring countries, many of those tensions between groups are increasingly talked about as religious. The Rohingya might not be exclusively targeted for being Muslims, but like many people in the area and ultimately around the world, their religious identity makes them only even more acceptable as targets. While the Rohingya have born the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, it is not unique to regions where they live and has led to recent killings of Muslims with other ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, there’s a question of acceptable to whom – and the potential answers to that are distressingly broad. With prior reports showing deliberate government inaction and subsequent efforts to restrict Muslims facing communal violence in Myanmar, it seems wrong to excuse the actions of various official and unofficial political leaders. But beyond them, Al Jazeera seems to be asking whether the international community is culpable as well. Today, their official twitter account explained, “We ask if the EU is [sic] liftting sanctions on Myanmar prematurely“. Sanctions are difficult to justify in any situation, but the fact that a wave of violence against Muslims hasn’t phased narratives in the “Western” media that Myanmar has democratized seems to indicate something about the perception of Muslims in not only that country but ours as well.

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What are the US and Israel partners in?

TW: excessive use of force by the police, voter suppression, voter disenfranchisement

Why are the United States and Israel allies? As that connection seems increasingly dependent on both nations tolerating blowback for the other’s policies (with the US endangering Israel with the long-term impacts of “regime change” and Israel possibly dragging the US into war with Iran), it seems worth investigating why the United States is still bothering with this. Israel is much more politically isolated, so the answers are much more straightforward.

If you listen to advocates of a close relationship between the two nations, some of whom are even quite liberal, it’s almost impossible to get through the explanation without a certain word coming up: democracy. Now one of the US Senators from Minnesota, former comedian Al Franken wrote during the Bush Administration, “Neo-cons support the Jewish state for the same reasons I do: because it is the only democracy in the region”. You see, the US apparently has to support some threshold number of governments in the region, so we might as well go with supporting the democracies.

This investment in Israel’s democratic bona fides as legitimizing the unique relationship between the United States and Israel is a noticeable media phenomenon in both countries. It’s seemingly reached the point where any uncertainty that the  political system of Israel is as democratic as it should be has come to be labeled as criticizing the positive relations between the two nations. Deriving the good relationship from the shared democracy has grown more difficult as of late.

Anti-Israeli-Arab Police BrutalityPolice Brutality against US student protesters
(Left, Israeli police attacking an Israeli-Arab family during an eviction last year. Right, pepper spray of illegal strength being used on protesting UC Davis students by US police. Photos from here and here.)

If nothing else, the recent realization that several hundred thousand Jerusalem residents and millions of Americans will be effectively disenfranchised should shake this vision of Israel and the United States as partners in democracy.

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Constitution and Culture

TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence

Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.

While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.

The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-

“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”

The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:

“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated,  not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.

Guards outside of the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan 2004.Turkish youth federation protesters who would be accused of terrorism

(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)

The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.

But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.

The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.

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What do you do with a country like Russia? And who can and should do it?

TW: political killings, electoral rigging, silencing protesters

If you have a good memory, you’ll recall the on-going indications from the Romney campaign that as possible future President, Romney would reignite the Cold War with Russia. I’m curious to see if the recent crackdown on foreign-funded (including US-funded) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, will elicit US pundits to proclaim him to be a visionary who foresaw the coming conflict with Putin’s Russia. The obvious problem is how this is necessarily an issue of American foreign policy and furthermore one that requires decisive action on the part of the President. Russia’s problems so far have been internal in nature, even with the constant talk of “foreign agents.” Charging the opposition with being foreign collaborators or lackeys has been Putin’s response to the protests since they began almost a year ago against blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections. This is not a strategy unique to Russia, nor even the eastern hemisphere.

This newly proposed policy has everything to do with domestic politics in Russia, especially those pertaining to civil liberties and transparent political processes. The electoral system is fundamentally fixed – for years violence against journalists has shut down effective reporting in the country, advocates of democracy and transparency have long alleged that domestic donors are threatened with arrests or violence, and last minute “fixes” from ballot stuffing to voter intimidation have become common. As demonstrations late last year and early this year continued – alleging all sorts anti-democratic efforts – the protest band Pussy Riot stormed the altar of Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to protect them from Putin. The performance was filmed and distributed online after their arrest for hooliganism and insulting the Russian Orthodox faith (as one band member put it “I’m Orthodox but hold different political views” from church officials who urged the country to reinstate Putin as President).


(The original protest with the now famous song “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away”)

The problem for Putin is clear – anarchist and feminist critiques of the de facto one party rule of Russia are getting a lot of attention and going mainstream. With the clear evidence of electoral rigging provided by better-funded NGOs like Голос (translatable as “Vote” or “Voice”), which had navigated the attacks on domestic financial supporters by looking for international support, popular movements hostile to the Putin presidency are developing.

Protests in Perm
(Protesters for the release of Pussy Riot in Perm, Russia, holding up a sign saying “the arts are the territory of freedom.” Originally from here.)

In a country where the bureaucracy is explicitly manipulated to invalidate most challengers’ candidacies and protesters are threatened with lengthy jail sentences, it’s unclear exactly what a Romney-led United States could do to help. Most of the population of Russia isn’t threatened with political killings – so a military intervention seems to be not only tactical nonsense but an ethically impractical solution. Sanctions are well-established non-starters. The EU has far more in the way of economic and political ties to Russia, and so far they’ve been leading the charge with all the diplomatic pushes they can.

If Romney honestly wants to help the people of Russia, and this isn’t empty posturing to make the US vote like it’s the 1980s again, he should be specific about what powers he sees the American presidency having which could be used to assist efforts to reinstate democratic and transparent governance in Russia. As with many other issues, he needs to be specific, if he’s going to speak up on this topic again.

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