Tag Archives: economic populism

Economic justice… for whom?

It’s one of the familiar just so stories about US politics that’s become crystal clear in recent decades. The Democrats want to maintain or even expand programs designed to provide economic resources and benefits to people with less. Republicans want to shrink or dismantle those types of programs. One party for workers, one party for the “1%”, so the story goes.

Even the candidates who look like exceptions – like Donald Trump with his promises to maintain social security and medicare – tend to ultimately reveal policy ideas that firmly locate them in the political party that they’ve already embraced (Trump, for example, thinks “wages [are] too high” – an implicit criticism of current minimum wage standards).

More interesting, I think, than those less easily categorized oddballs are the terms on which the debate between these two camps is being held. Economic redistribution and inequality are actually somewhat lofty, vague even, concepts. How to measure, to quantify them is an open question. The language tends to be like that in what I’ve linked above – a discussion focused on easily indexed numerical statistics: wages, entitlements, inflation, productivity, unionization.

That’s not a wrongheaded way of talking about who wins and who loses in the US economy, but it’s just one way of doing that. Unfortunately, it’s a way shaped by, and sometimes specifically for, articulating a particular group’s economic grievances. One of the easiest ways of seeing that is in terms of communities with large numbers of undocumented people – for whom income taxes are a murky territory and benefits exist in a similarly unclear limbo.

For largely Latin@ agrarian worker communities, how do you quantify being an exception to environmental regulations? For the far broader set of populations at risk of being targeted with detention or even deportation, how can that not be among other things an economic threat – both held over you by your boss and your landlord but also just ominously lurking outside your home, endangering everything you have.

2016-01-04_1015.pngLeft, 2012 chlorpyrifos use in the western US, from here. Right, a heatmap of Latin@s in the western US made using the 2010 census, from here.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has recently sought to highlight a difference between their candidate and Trump. Sanders is a meaningful, redistributive choice. Trump is manipulating some of those hoping for greater economic opportunity, without any intention to deliver on it. In order to prove that, the Sanders campaign has latched on to Trump’s comments on wages.

Why was that necessary? Trump has already spoken to a more wild set of economic policies designed to hoard resources for some. That’s one of the things inherent in his promise to deport millions of people. That is economic injustice, and it’s important to ask why it hasn’t been considered that by the largely non-Latin@ mainstream media or presented as that by the redistribution-centered campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Is the economic populism advanced by Sanders and tolerated within major media really for everyone? Whose concerns does it speak to? Whose concerns does it barely register?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

So long Morsi?

Within hours of Marwan Bishara’s interesting analysis that the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was facing a crisis of legitimacy, a coup’s happened. Bishara intriguingly presented the risks the dubiously but more or less democratically elected Morsi was working against as at least dual – with both the threat of military leaders appearing as a third option to the dictatorial Mubarak regime and now inadequately democratic Morsi government but also Morsi’s own Islamist base of support disintegrating. The al-Nour Party, more extremist that the Muslim Brotherhood, was in fact central to the call for early elections (ostensibly to unseat Morsi). Morsi’s opposition to that was actually the military’s basis for placing Morsi under what’s for all intents and purposes arrest.

This seems to be an indication of the multifaceted problems that Morsi’s governance has had to combat and seems to have finally succumbed to. With a economy that’s dependent on imports of even basic commodities like food, Morsi seems to have wanted to appear moderate if not nearly secular to Western audiences, even while belonging to and being seen as legitimate because of his Islamist politics. He’s sought to use free market solutions to gain the funds to implement programs to promote domestic production, which hedges towards breaking Egypt’s bank to build a new one. Of course, there’s also the continued use of and support for the “deep state” or larger security apparatus that police the politics of average Egyptians, even as he presents himself as a revolutionary.

Nearly everyone seems to have accepted that Morsi’s government has been hypocritical on security issues, and Bishara and many others have been unpacking in detail the disintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a source for viable political leadership in Egypt. But what of the economics?


(This should be an obvious issue, given how many recent protests in Egypt have essentially involved squatting. It’s clear that many current protesters have been unemployed and don’t anticipate finding a job under the current government. Photo taken by Hassan Ammar, from here.)

There’s indications that the simmering economic populism that was central to many of the Arab Spring revolutions haven’t been adequately resolved or even subsumed into other political questions (such as the Islamist-secularist debate). Libya, right next door, was until recently a model for how intelligent economics could contain dissident politics (both Islamist and secular). Will whatever forces produce a new president or similar national leader create one that can avoid the totalitarianism of Qaddafi but absorb his ability to maintain legitimacy through economic stability and growth?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The unraveling of Turkey

TW: violence against protesters

In the past few days, the assorted efforts by the Turkish government to silence and even kill protesters in Istanbul and increasingly in other parts of the country have gained a certain degree of visibility internationally. With minimal coverage coming from within Turkey itself, however, the original protests and even the motivations behind the on-going protests has become somewhat obscured behind the idea of an autocratic and islamist-friendly government repressing its citizens because that’s just what happens in that part of the world. What few reports have spread out of the Turkish media blackout of the protests suggest that something far more complicated has happened. As Turkish writer and activist Defne Suman wrote:

Four days ago a group of people who did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and students.  Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees.  Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.

They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.

No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.

But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray.  They chased the crowds out of the park.

In the evening the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.

Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.

They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:

The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.

They gathered and marched. Police chased them with pepper spray and tear gas and drove their tanks over people who offered the police food in return. Two young people were run over by the tanks and were killed. Another young woman, a friend of mine, was hit in the head by one of the incoming tear gas canisters. The police were shooting them straight into the crowd.  After a three hour operation she is still in Intensive Care Unit and in  very critical condition. As I write this we don’t know if she is going to make it. This blog is dedicated to her.

There’s more details and information over at her post, but there’s a clear image of the evolution of this protest movement into a larger protest against the broader dynamics of the Turkish political system. In a very explicit since, this is the beginning of the transfer of earlier economic protests and concerns (over either broader economic questions or the best public use of Taksim Square) into a political protest over general democratic and social norms.


(Protesters and police in Turkey confronting each other on the streets of Istanbul, from here.)

I honestly don’t know where Turkey on the whole is heading, but that many of the inadequately addressed problems within the larger political system are coming to a header.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Is class consciousness back in style?

Earlier today, Paul Krugman mused on the unexpected reversal of fortunes in the current presidential election. He noted that enthusiasm and unity have been shown on the Democratic side while decidedly lacking among Republicans, a bit of a contradiction of political stereotypes. But furthermore, he recognized a slow but steady shift in public attitudes:

Among other things, while we weren’t looking, social issues became a source of Democratic strength, not weakness — partly because the country has changed, partly because the Democrats have finally worked up the nerve to stand squarely for things like reproductive rights. […] The right is already set up to blame poor Mitt, claiming that he lost because he wasn’t conservative enough. But that’s not what we’re seeing; it looks as if voters are rejecting the right’s whole package, not just the messenger. As I said, not the election anyone was expecting — but a happy surprise for some, and a nasty shock for others.

There’s clear evidence on this point – as majorities of people in the United States now support same-sex marriage  and other progressive policy changes the Republicans oppose. I subtly suggested yesterday that the distinction between “social” and “economic” issues is a bit more fluid that usually acknowledged – economic protection from gender discrimination interacts with social policies towards women who either live independently or only with other women. I think it’s worth looking at issues of economic populism holistically – not just as political and economic issues but also as potential contexts of pop culture. From The Hunger Games to In Time, economic inequality has become a common topic in entertainment in the United States and elsewhere. Suzanne Collins, the author of the original Hunger Games trilogy, clearly called the trend as she planned out the books over the course of 2008 and published the first on September 14, 2008, a day before panic would break out on Wall Street after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

For much of the following year, political debate in the United States would focus on class. It’s hard to deny the mingled forces of popular culture and economic populism in the following election. But even afterwards, a focal question at the time was whether deficit reduction (as suggested by the Tea Party protests) or unemployment (as suggested by the President’s and Congress’ stimulus plans) was the  greater danger for the poor and middle class. Ultimately, the discussion between restrained Keynesian approaches from the federal government and ostensibly grassroots protests from deficit-hawk conservatives was joined by the on-going Occupy protests of all forms of economic inequality. In spite of all these clearly economic issues being discussed, the national conversation couldn’t help remarking on the perceived hippie-ness of Occupy and the confederate undertones of the Tea Party. The protests were at once about common cultural values and economic policies. But as these movements’ influence continues to be felt through this election year, economic issues have seemed to be among the most salient of the issues making this election so “ideological” (as Krugman called it).

May 2011 protests in Madrid, Spain. (Photo from here.)

Meanwhile in the rest of the world, austerity policies and subsequent anti-austerity protests spread across Southern Europe, as the economic downturn reached around the world. Spanish and Portuguese protesters (called “los indignados”) marched across much of the Iberian peninsula, through a very perturbed France, and into the center of the European Union’s administration – Brussels, Belgium. Just as in the United States these sorts of protests were highly visible cultural events as much as political statements – with Portugal nominating a protest song to the massively popular Eurovision musical contest. Protests are only growing in intensity in Greece, so it seems clear that demands for retaining or augmenting redistributive economic policies will only get louder, and perhaps more embedded in popular culture.

Even in less directly affected countries throughout the Middle East, poor economic conditions stimulated mass protests. The original Arab Spring, in Tunisia and Egypt, was explicitly a reaction of the combination of economic as well as political malaise. Likewise, there was an explicitly cultural and artistic component to it, from the street art in the Arab world to the few gallery artists whose careers in other countries were launched by it. The protests elicited creative responses the world over, including reactions by Arabs living in other parts of the world [TW – police violence]:

It seems clear: culturally-resonant demands for economic populism are increasing their influence in much of the world, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to see it, along with other factors and issues, driving electoral choices in the United States and elsewhere in the near future.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,