On the Brink of an Authoritarian Turn: The Catalan Uprising

by José A. Brandariz, Manuel Maroto, and Cristina Fernández-Bessa*

Police charge protesters in the Eixample, Barcelona. Source: eldiario.es.

Police charge protesters in the Eixample, Barcelona. Source: eldiario.es.

Spanish conservatives have not ever been interested
in winning over their political contenders,
they are just interested in defeating them.
Guillem Martínez, journalist and writer

The resurgence of the Catalan independentist movement, recently culminated in a successful referendum for independence and its subsequent overturn by the central government of Spain, cannot be disconnected from the austerity period launched by the European Union (EU) in May 2010. A significant number of European countries has witnessed a conservative turn in recent years, featuring the electoral success of right-wing and authoritarian-populist political formations. By contrast, the southern European nations hardest hit by the Great Recession have taken a very different path. In 2015, immediately after the two electoral victories of the left-wing coalition Syriza in Greece, a promising progressive government came into office in Portugal. In Spain, the new left party Podemos gained substantial traction in 2014–15, which led to the electoral success of Podemos-like coalitions in a number of key local administrations—including Madrid and Barcelona—after the municipal elections of May 2015. The Catalan pro-independence movement took center stage especially since 2012, when the newly elected conservative government of Mariano Rajoy started to implement extremely harsh austerity measures. Therefore, the Catalan movement should be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against the conservative and “austericide” measures promoted by Rajoy’s right-wing Popular Party (PP). This is unsurprising, since Catalonia has been—at different historical conjunctures—a stronghold of anarchist, leftist, and anti-dictatorship political movements.


Map of Catalonia.

But this is only one side of the story. For many centuries, Catalonia has cemented a strong national identity. Indeed, Catalonia’s secession from Spain had been set forth at least three times before, the most recent one in October 1934. In all three cases, Catalonia’s independence bid was militarily crushed by Spanish rulers. Yet, despite this long-standing separatist tradition, the current pro-independence uprising would not have taken hold without the salient window of opportunity offered by Rajoy’s autocratic and intolerant political stance. Indeed, while the pro-independence campaign was gradually gaining momentum, the central government rejected any negotiation with Catalan elected officials. In 2006, Rajoy’s PP brought the reform of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia before the Constitutional Court, which overturned this pivotal amendment in 2010. The first attempt to hold a referendum for self-determination, which took place in November 2014, was boycotted by the Spanish government and led to the criminal prosecution and conviction of the then Catalan president and two top-rank officials. Subsequently, the Spanish government adopted the current hard-line position in early September 2017, with the referendum for independence set to be held on October 1. The consequences of the government’s authoritarian stance are well known: the deployment of 12,000 Spanish police officers throughout Catalonia, the heavy-handed policing of voters and activists on the day of the referendum, the suspension of Catalonia’s self-government prerogatives, and the onset of penal repression against pro-independence leaders.

In order to justify its imposition of direct rule in Catalonia, the Spanish administration has resorted to a highly controversial section of the Spanish Constitution (Article 155), which states that any autonomous community must fulfill its obligations to the Spanish state or risk having its powers taken away. Despite the very feeble constitutional legitimation of this political move, on October 28 Rajoy’s cabinet ousted the Catalan government and around 1,400 Catalan officials, dissolved the Catalan parliament, and called for new regional elections to be held on December 21, 2017.

Even more concerning is the penal dimension of this conundrum. Around 20 Catalan political and civic leaders have been indicted for two quintessentially nineteenth-century political crimes: rebellion and sedition. This indictment threatens Catalan officials with close-to-lifelong prison sentences. Two civic leaders of the pro-independence movement, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, have been imprisoned on remand on October 16, following an unambiguously politically motivated decision. In recent days, a significant part of the Catalan government moved to Brussels and does not intend to return to Spain until their right to due process is reinstated and protected. On November 2, the rest of the ousted government, with the only exception of one member who had resigned before a pro-secession parliamentary vote in late October, were sent to prison without bail. Of course, no charges have been pressed against Spanish officials for their disproportionate use of state coercion.

The pro-independence movement has undoubtedly made serious political mistakes—crucial among them, an unrealistic proclamation of independence without the support of a widespread democratic base. From a radical social justice and human rights perspective, though, this is not the most critical point. The eventual scenario in which part of the ousted Catalan cabinet may apply for political asylum in Belgium points to other political aspects of the current conflict, the most significant of which is arguably related to the content and scope of a democratic regime in twenty-first-century Europe. Concretely, these recent events raise the question of why and to what extent a legitimate political claim—which was peacefully and democratically debated in countries such as Scotland and Quebec in the recent past—may be addressed within a European jurisdiction as a law enforcement and criminal justice issue. Two interpretative lenses may provide an answer to this dilemma.

First, the unstated values and long-standing inertias of the Spanish political regime should be taken into account. According to mainstream ratings such as the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, Spain represents what may be defined a “regular” European democracy. Based on indicators measuring the prevalence of the rule of law, political stability, and political accountability, Spain ranks lower than the major EU nations and Portugal, but higher than other Southern European countries such as Greece and Italy. Yet, this perspective is somewhat distorted. In international assessments on the effectiveness of human rights against penal repression (see www.politicalterrorscale.org; www.humanrightsdata.com), Spain features either the worst or second-worst record of all EU jurisdictions in key areas such as political imprisonment. As a manifestation of a persistent Schmittian political mentality, Spanish hegemonic elites have time and again claimed the existence of “internal enemies” (nowadays located in Catalonia) to legitimate the transformation of political conflicts into penal issues. These authoritarian tendencies have also targeted social movements. For example, in the mid-1990s more than 1,500 anti-military activists were jailed for advocating the abrogation of military conscription. Today, Spanish courts are indicting and convicting hundreds of people for speech crimes allegedly perpetrated via social media. In short, Spain is to a great extent an effective embodiment of what Michel Foucault defined sovereign governmentality—that is, a technology of power that essentially rules through the law, the stipulation of prohibitions, and the enforcement of punishments.

Secondly, the dilemma mentioned earlier may be addressed by taking into account the conservative surge throughout Europe. Spain has been widely considered as an exception within the European political landscape, since it has not witnessed the consolidation of electorally successful far-right political parties. Yet, such conclusion would be misleading, since it fails to understand the meaning of authoritarian politics in Spain. The measures taken by the Spanish government are strikingly inadequate to address the Catalan question, but this is not what is at stake. Spanish power elites do not seek to win this particular political battle; rather, their actions aim to produce enduring deterrent effects that may prevent any type of political challenge in the future. In fact, the Spanish government’s measures may be especially suitable to generate a persistent downgrading of the democratic system, thereby restricting the scope of political discussion and intervention. The Spanish administration has set out to join the conservative turn affecting Europe and several other regions of the world (namely, the United States and several South American countries), articulating it with the neo-authoritarian turn that frequently haunts late-democratization polities. The incarceration of a large number of Catalan political leaders lays bare that the authoritarian brink is closer than ever.

•  •  •

* José A. Brandariz teaches Criminal Law and Criminology at the University of A Coruna, Spain, and is a member of the executive board of the European Society of Criminology. Manuel Maroto Calatayud lives in Madrid and teaches Criminal Law at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain. Cristina Fernández-Bessa teaches Criminology at the University of Barcelona and is Research Fellow in Socio-Legal and Gender Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

•  •  •

US Standoff with North Korea: Why Talk Is the Only Realistic Option

by Gwyn Kirk*

Korea Map

Image: Korean Peninsula showing the 38th parallel. Source: www.teara.govt.nz

Military tensions between the United States and North Korea have intensified to alarming levels in recent months. Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” this isolated nation of 25 million people, and to “unleash fire and fury like the world has never seen,” calling Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” and telling Secretary of State Tillerson that he is wasting his time with diplomacy. In response, North Korea plans to continue nuclear tests, including test firing a missile capable of reaching the US mainland.  In contrast to the blistering rhetoric of both President Trump and Kim Jong Un, some US experts are calling for talks and engagement. A “military option” cannot solve the current dangerous standoff with North Korea. Rather, we need to call for diplomacy and support Congressional initiatives like the “No Unconstitutional Strike on North Korea Act” HR.4140 initiated by John Conyers, Thomas Massie, and others, together with Senate bills S.1901 and S.2047.

Many people in the United States know little about North Korea. In April 2017, only 36% of people asked even knew where to find it on a world map. Those who did correctly locate North Korea tended to favor diplomatic and non-military strategies compared with those who did not. More education is needed about North Korea as well as about ways in which people can support diplomacy over military solutions. To meet these goals, organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Korea Peace Network, Korea Policy Institute, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, Veterans for Peace, Win Without War, and Women Cross DMZ are organizing a National Week of Action to coincide with President Trump’s visit to Japan and Korea.

National Week of Action, November 6-11
(For more information see: https://www.veteransforpeace.org/take-action/armistice-day/)

Please join us in:

  • Educating US communities on the need for diplomacy. Women Cross DMZ has organized informative webinars to counter the misinformation and distortions widely circulated by mainstream media.
  • Urging Congressional representatives to support “No Unconstitutional Strike on North Korea Act” initiated by John Conyers, Thomas Massie, and others.
  • Organizing a teach-in, visit to your elected representative, a candlelight vigil, or street demonstration to make your support for diplomacy visible in your community.
  • Signing onto the People’s Peace Treaty with North Korea.

To better understand the current situation, US-Korean relations need to be placed within a historical context. What follows are some key moments.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, from 1910 to 1945, Korea was annexed and colonized by Japan. Japan’s defeat in August 1945 resulted in liberation, and Koreans had many hopes and visions for their nation’s future. However, the United States and the Soviet Union had their own agendas. They agreed to divide Korea at the 38th parallel: Japanese troops in the south would surrender to US forces, those in the north to the Soviet Union. Later negotiations between Washington and Moscow failed to establish a single Korean government, hence the creation of two separate states in 1948: the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north.

This division led to the Korean War between 1950 and 1953. The United States commanded a UN coalition force against North Korea. Approximately 4 million people died, including Korean, Chinese, and allied troops, as well as some 2 million Korean civilians. An armistice agreement, signed in July 1953 by the United States and North Korea, created the DMZ as the new border. A peace treaty was supposed to be negotiated within three months. Over 60 years later, this has still not happened. Instead, there has been increased militarization on both sides of the DMZ and economic sanctions against North Korea that the United States initiated in 1950. While each side continues to demonize the other, some significant efforts were made to reduce the tensions, especially the Agreed Framework of 1994 and South Korea’s “sunshine policy” towards the North (1998–2007). The Agreed Framework included North Korea promising to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the United States providing nuclear power reactors, ending economic sanctions, and normalizing relations. In the end, both sides hindered the process.

US overtures to North Korea came to a grinding halt in 2002, when President George W. Bush declared it a part of an “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union address. In 2003 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and resumed development of nuclear technology. In 2006 North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, but later agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for oil and normalization of the relations with the US and Japan. This effort failed as well. Provocation, hostility, mixed messages, and lack of trust continue to justify the military build-up on all sides.

Today, the United States maintains major military bases in South Korea and conducts regular war drills along the DMZ that date back to 1976. The most recent exercises, in August 2017, involved massing thousands of US and South Korean troops in land, sea, and air operations. In addition, South Korea constructed a new naval base that can accommodate US Aegis destroyers on Jeju Island, and the US has deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea this year.

For decades, North Korea has considered the United States an enemy nation due to its highly provocative war drills and past failures to honor agreements. This hostility long predates North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. North Korea correctly sees itself as outgunned by US and South Korean forces and vulnerable to attack. This fear is exacerbated by the fact that no peace treaty was signed at the end of the Korean War. Today, North Korea is surrounded by major military and nuclear powers: Russia and China to the north, US/South Korea across the DMZ, and its neighbor, Japan, that is re-militarizing. The Arms Control Association estimates that as of October 2017 the US active nuclear warhead inventory is 4,018, whereas North Korea only has 10. On numerous occasions President Trump has raised his intention to expand the US nuclear arsenal even more. Observing the US invasions of Iraq and Libya and the US military intervention in Afghanistan, North Korea determined to step up its nuclear program as a deterrent to US aggression.

US efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapon’s program have failed. North Korea has offered to talk with US officials many times. But it will not stop its nuclear program as a condition for talks and will only negotiate when the United States changes its “hostile policy” and ends nuclear threats and economic sanctions. The United States does not recognize North Korea as a nuclear power (unlike the case with Israel, India, or Pakistan), and it will only talk if North Korea stops its nuclear tests. As Trump fails to deliver on his domestic agenda, he is becoming more reckless in international affairs. The military option cannot solve the current dangerous standoff with North Korea. What is needed is a relaxing of economic sanctions and an offer to talk about a peace agreement to finally end the Korean War. Please add your voice!

• • •

*Gwyn Kirk is a writer, teacher, and organizer. She is a founder and member of the International Women’s Network Against Militarism. Gwyn is a Steering Committee member of Women Cross DMZ. Her co-authored work includes Greenham Women Everywhere, Women’s Lives, Multicultural Perspectives, a special issue of Social Justice on “Neoliberalism, Militarism, and Armed Conflict,” and the documentary Living along the Fenceline.


Outsourcing the Refugee “Crisis”

by Julia Morris*

Map of Nauru

Map of Nauru

Nauru, the world’s smallest island state, located in the Equatorial Pacific, has again catapulted onto the international trading scene. US officials have almost completed their vetting of up to 1,250 refugees, a deal brokered between President Obama’s administration and the Australian Turnbull Liberal Coalition. Under the deal—a “dumb deal” President Trump later Tweeted, while at the time begrudgingly agreeing to honor it—the United States will take a cohort of migrants, certified as refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), in exchange for a reciprocal arrangement whereby Australia will resettle Central American refugees processed in Costa Rica.

These sorts of outlandish human swaps have become popular the world over, all the more so as the idea of refugees and asylum seekers has become fixated with a discourse of populist hostility. Whereas in the United States it is the buzzword “undocumented” that elicits the public outcry, in Australia it is “boat people” that attracts xenophobic scares; both are stirred by political fearmongering.

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” boomed Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s legendary refrain in 2001 when cutting the ribbon on Nauru as one of Australia’s refugee processing outposts. Howard portended the right-wing populism that later burst outside the Antipodes. Trump’s pronouncement that “we must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs” crystallizes such xenophobic, and often racist, scapegoating ideologies. In this climate, some governments have outsourced refugee processing and resettlement into new sites far beyond their borders.

The Republic of Nauru

The Republic of Nauru

On Nauru lies one of two major Australian-built centers designed to process migrants as refugees. Anyone who makes their way by boat to Australia and puts forward an asylum claim is sent to Nauru, and until recently also PNG’s Manus Island, for refugee status determination. The majority of people take a boat from Indonesia or Sri Lanka hailing from provenances that span Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. If positively certified in Nauru by Australian and Nauruan trained officials, migrants are given a Nauru Refugee Visa for local or Cambodian resettlement.

Something very similar happens in the United States, where the outsourcing of refugee processing to Central American states such as Guatemala and Costa Rica is designed to stop migrants before arrival to the United States. The UK government similarly spent £10.4 million in 2016/17 to fund processing centers and boat pushbacks in Libya to stem the flow of migrants from North Africa to Europe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees terms the trading schemata “regional cooperation.”

The New Nauru Courthouse

The New Nauru Courthouse

In Nauru, it is amazing the extent to which the Australian government has gone to advance a policy that appeals to its predominately rural electorate. In 2015 alone, the Nauruan government received over AU$50 million from the Australian government in addition to vast infrastructural development projects, from a new hospital and courthouse to the reinvigoration of bygone government departments and local training in refugee legislation and determination. Thirty-one percent of the local population is now employed in refugee labor forces, easily overtaking the country’s beleaguered phosphate industry. Nauru has become something of a refugee company town in miniature, designed to appease Antipodean moral panics.

In fact, Nauru is more popularly known for the Guardian’s Nauru Leaks campaign, which exploded onto the global media stage last summer. With a catalogue of over 2,000 filed incident reports, Nauru’s offshore refugee operations were characterized as an exceptionality, “a dark, wretched Truman Show without the cameras,” a “gulag archipelago” rife with “horrible mistreatment,” “squalor,” “trauma and self-harm.” Media outlets and spokespeople around the world took up this narrative, stressing the brutal conditions for refugees through discourses of suffering, persecution, and vulnerability.

The reality, I found in my fieldwork in Nauru, is really quite different. Behind these mythologies, excessive expenditures keep the operations going to produce a spectacle of border enforcement. In reality, many of the same bureaucracies, organizations, and individuals contracted into refugee work in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney (refugee determination case officers, tribunal judges, social workers, legal prosecution and defence firms, clinicians, and more) found lucrative contracts on Nauru in what was referred to me as a “mundane” tendering process. Fly-in fly-out workforces of United Nations, Red Cross, and international oversight bodies all help regulate Nauru to almost farcical extent.

Recently, Australia reached an AU$90 million settlement with 1,900 asylum seekers who sued over their treatment on PNG’s Manus Island. In the face of popular Nauru leaked reports, the Nauruan government has looked to ensure that similar court cases do not end their state revenue–propping project. They consented to every accountability measure at their disposal to make the system, in the words of President Baron Waqa, “world class and far exceed[ing] the standard of many refugee camps across the world.”

Incredibly, beneath the vast flows of capital, the numbers of migrants processed are minute: Between September 2013 and March 2016, a slim 1,355 people were sent to Nauru for “mainland-style” processing. Nor are Australia’s maritime arrivals substantial compared to cross-border movements elsewhere. In 2011, during a peak season in which there were 4,565 boat arrivals, over 100,000 migrants arrived in Yemen from Somalia outside of formal visa channels. In reality, only a small percentage of the world’s international migrants are outside of regulatory systems, and most of them are visa over-stayers—backpackers and so forth. As with practices of border control in other states, Nauru is a farcical spectacle of enforcement for a riled public fed with supremacist myths of invasion.

Refugee Welcome Campaign, Melbourne

Refugee Welcome Campaign, Melbourne

But Australia also has a strong middle-class #RefugeeWelcome movement, for whom the refugees in Nauru have become a matter of activist action. Refugee activist campaigns use tropes of vulnerability and Taliban persecution to galvanize public sympathy and bring refugees in Nauru to the mainland. But it is a woefully misguided endeavor that faces a brick wall of right-wing contempt. #RefugeeWelcome campaigns use salvational words like “refugee suffering” and “refugee empowerment” that are tainted by populist fear and compassion fatigue. Photogenic images of migrant hordes battling across stormy seas or tearing through razor wired borders contribute to the crisis imaginaries that induce public scares, inevitably leading to support for outsourced forms of regional cooperation. Certainly, under Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian government has winded down Nauru’s regional processing project. Boat turnbacks attempt to create something of a maritime fortress, as do yet more rigorous checks in airports prior to arrival.

For Nauru’s new populations, the future is uncertain. The US trade deal is only for a total of 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus, where reside over double that number. For those who do not hold promotional appeal—think single, adult, and male—futures are all the hazier. The deal has also very recently been in jeopardy, largely owing to similar fearmongering refugee scares. Turnbull, on the other hand, has announced that in the future Nauru will take on a permanent place as a remote processing outpost in the regional deterrence frontier. In May 2017, with the imminent closure of the Manus processing centers following a PNG Supreme Court ruling, Nauru’s Minister David Adeang said that there was extra capacity at Nauru’s processing sites, extending the invitation to PNG’s refugees.

The use of Nauru as a place to outsource, process, classify, and sort refugees is the wave of the future. Posing as a migration management solution, it does little to stop human mobility desires or “protect lives at sea.” Instead, the framework of regional cooperation places people in degrading positions, circulated to far-flung locales at vast expense. As academics and activists, we need to speak out against the policies that demonize migrants, and against what is becoming the new normal:  the outsourcing of refugee industrial sites.

• • •

*Julia Morris is a doctoral graduate in social anthropology at the University of Oxford and a research assistant at the Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. She will take up a post-doctoral fellowship at the New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility this forthcoming academic year. She has published in Global Networks, Population, Space and Place, Space and Polity, and has contributed a chapter to Intimate Economies: Critical Perspectives on Immigration Detention (N. Hiemstra and D. Conlon, eds.; Routledge 2016). She is completing a book manuscript on Nauru’s refugee and phosphate industries.

After the French Elections, Where Do We Stand?

by Bernard Dreano*


Image: “Ni Le Pen ni Macron” [Neither Le Pen nor Macron], Paris 2017, by Denis Bocquet, used under CC BY 2.0. Edited.

In France, the unexpected and seemingly decisive victory of Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche! (The Republic on the Move!) and its allies, first in the presidential race, and then in the June parliamentary elections (winning 350 seats out of 577), means that the government is settled. But the political situation remains fluid and unsettled.

In our electoral system, the president exercises decisive power when his party has the majority in the Parliament. On three occasions since 1958, when this was not the case, real power has been in the hands of the Prime Minister. To be elected one needs to obtain more than 50% of the votes in the first round of voting; otherwise there is a second round in which the candidate with the most votes is elected.

Such a system favors a two-party system. For 50 years, political power has alternated between relatively stable coalitions, each being led by a major party: On the left, the Socialist Party (PS) in alliance with the declining Parti Communiste Français (PCF; 20% of the votes in the late 1960s, 2% today) and the small Green Party; on the right, Les Républicains in alliance with the small center-right party UDI.

Despite its growth since the 1990s, the extreme-right xenophobic party Front National (FN) has not been able to shake this system. Given how the electoral system works, the FN’s ability to do well in elections (with between 10% and 20% of the vote) did not translate into parliamentary representation. From 2012 to 2015, it had only two members in the Assembly. Similarly, in 2012, a leftist coalition (Front de Gauche) led by Jean Luc Melanchon received 11% of the votes, but only had ten members in the Assembly.

For two decades, France, like other countries, has been experiencing a crisis of representative democracy. Electoral participation in all elections has decreased (except in the presidential elections), especially for the working classes in the impoverished rural and deindustrialized areas where the cultural influence of the left is declining and that of the extreme right is growing.

Following the mandate of Les Républicains’ rightist/nationalist Sarkozy (2007–2012) and “socialist” Hollande (2012–2017), the political crisis has deepened. Hollande was so unpopular that he did not even try to run for reelection in 2017. The established parties feared that FN’s Marine Le Pen would be a formidable candidate in the presidential race. It didn’t turn out this way.

Faced with an increasingly alienated electorate, the major parties decided to involve citizens in the designation of their presidential champion by organizing “primaries.” The result was a success for left and right “radicals”: Les Républicains chose as their leader François Fillon, who was supported by the local Tea Party–like movement Sens Commun (Common Sense); and for the socialists, the leftist Benoit Hamon prevailed over Hollande’s Prime Minister Manuel Vals. Meanwhile, Jean Luc Mélanchon decided to go alone and created his own movement, La France Insoumise (FI, Rebellious France), while François Hollande’s Minister of Economy, Emmanuel Macron, decided to leave the Government and create En Marche!

Macron is a product of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the elite of the French civil-service, a former consultant at Rothschild Bank, then a member of President Hollande’s team and later a member of his cabinet. His politics resemble a mixture of young Bill Clinton and Justin Trudeau, with a touch of Tony Blair.

Macron was shrewd and lucky. He attracted part of the rightist electorate that feared the reactionary program of Fillon and part of the leftist electorate that feared a choice between “right extremism and extreme right” (Fillon vs Le Pen). In the first round of voting, Macron came in first place with 24 % of the votes (8.6 million voters). It wasn’t a tremendous victory, but in the second round he increased his support to 12 million, the choice of an electorate that voted either for a lesser evil or for a defense of the European Union.

Macron’s government includes politicians from Les Républicains (Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and economic ministries) and the socialists (Ministry of Interior and Foreign Affairs), the small centrist MODEM party, and technocrats (often young and often women).

Macron’s political program is quite clear:

  • It will be pro-business and free trade–oriented, and it will continue to attack labor unions and the welfare state.
  • It proposes to make permanent restrictions on freedoms previously introduced under the umbrella of an anti-terrorist “state of emergency,” including limitation on the right to demonstrate, less controls on the judiciary, and an extension of police powers.
  • Although Macron reacted immediately to Trump’s withdrawal from the COP21 Paris treaty (“Let’s make the Planet great again”) and nominated to his cabinet the very popular Nicolas Hulot, icon of the ecologists, there is no evidence that there will be a strong environmental policy, and the nuclear and agro-industrial lobbies are well represented in the government.
  • It reaffirms a commitment to increasing military and defense budgets.
  • It will promote a Franco-German alliance to lead and defend the European Union.

Macron has presented himself brilliantly on the international stage, using all opportunities immediately after the election to display his presidential stature at the NATO and G7 summits.

After the elections, the rightist Les Républicains is in deep crisis, with its seats in the Assembly reduced by more than one-third. It is divided between hard-line conservatives and soft liberal-democrats. The Front National is similarly divided between social-nationalists and conservatives-nationalists. But the situation is far worse for the Socialist Party, which has gone from 290 representatives in the Assembly in 2012 to only 44 in 2017. The survival of the PS is in question.

The decline of the PS might have been an opportunity for the “left of the left,” but Jean Luc Mélanchon and FI candidates engaged in a bitter fight with other leftist candidates, communists, greens, and left-socialists. The result was catastrophic for the left. The situation was aggravated by a significant increase in abstentionism from the parliamentary elections, primarily voiced by young people and the working classes. More than 50% of the electorate refused to vote, something never previously seen in France. There were seven million votes for Melanchon in the presidential race, but only three million for FI and the Communist Party in the parliamentary elections. On the right, the FN suffered a similar fate, receiving only three million votes.

In the coming years, we can expect a profound political restructuring in France. Social and cultural conditions cry out for new kinds of leftist parties. Hamon’s and Melanchon’s presidential platforms, supported by 27% of voters, took strong positions on social policy, civil liberties, and ecological issues. But La France Insoumise, as it is constituted today, cannot unleash this political potential because it shares with Macron’s En Marche a hierarchical structure through which candidates for elections are selected.

For the time being, Macron and his government will have full power, despite lacking support from a majority of the electorate. It will take a new kind of politics and organizational forms to challenge the new status quo.

• • • 

* Bernard Dreano is Chair of the International Solidarity Studies and Initiatives Center CEDETIM, Paris.

Britain’s Bernie Turns the Populist Tide?

by David Edgar*


Image: “Jeremy Corbyn graffiti, Camden,” by Duncan C (via Flickr).

Whisper it softly, but Britain may have turned the global political tide. To understand the extraordinary political events of the last few days, it’s necessary to grasp a little history.

Seven years ago, in the immediate wake of the financial crisis, the electorate rejected the mildly left Labour government  (led by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown) which had been in power since 1997, in favour of a coalition between the Conservatives (who won most seats but not a majority) and the small, socially-progressive Liberal Democratic party, which together implemented a policy of austerity (cutting back public expenditure, particularly welfare) in order to reduce the country’s fiscal deficit.

Two years ago, it was expected that another general election would lead to another hung parliament (no party with an overall majority). Running on a moderately left program, Labour performed disappointingly and the Conservatives surprised pundits and pollsters by squeaking in with an absolute majority of 12 seats over all other parties. Able to govern alone, they had no excuse not to deliver on their election promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union.

That referendum was held last summer, and was a seismic shock. Despite being supported by the four traditional major parties (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationals), though opposed by the right-populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), the remain side narrowly lost. People voted to leave the EU for a number of reasons, but the dominant motivation was hostility to unrestricted immigration from other European countries. The older, whiter and poorer you were, the more likely you were to vote to exit. One of the most reliable indicators of a leave voter was support for the restoration of the death penalty.

An unexpected victory by old, white, left-behind social conservatives in Britain was, of course, followed by something very similar in the United States. From Poland via central and western Europe to Britain and the United States, it seemed that the populist right was riding a wave of disillusion with liberal globalist values and enthusiasm for socially conservative if not overtly racist policies. Less noticed was the fact that right populists from the Polish Law and Justice Party via the French National Front to Britain’s UKIP and – of course – Donald Trump’s Republicans had shifted their parties to the left on some aspects of economic policy. Despite his tax and welfare policies, Trump was elected on a promise to revive manufacturing industry, and undertake a program of public works unmatched since the New Deal.

This year has been different. The far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency lost (albeit by a whisker) to a Green. The Dutch right populist Geert Wilders and then the French Marine Le Pen failed more substantially. In French parliamentary elections last weekend, Le Pen’s party failed again. The British general election has to be seen in the context of this cheerful development.

After the referendum, its architect, Prime Minister David Cameron, handed over leadership of his party to Home Secretary Theresa May, who quickly established a position that was essentially right-populist-lite: her firm commitment to Britain’s leaving the European Union and cutting immigration was tempered by vague but populist mood music on helping the working poor. By now, Labour was led by the veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, politically close to Bernie Saunders but generally thought to be less charismatic. The general consensus that the combination of Corbyn’s far-left politics, his personality and his alleged history of support for organisations like the IRA and Hamas rendered him unelectable. Last summer, the vast majority of Corbyn’s parliamentary party passed a vote of no confidence in his leadership.

Twenty points ahead of Corbyn in the polls, May decided to cash in her advantage and called a snap general election, announced in April. What she wanted – and the polls promised – was a Labour wipe-out and a dramatic increase in May’s majority, which would legitimize her leadership and enable her to be as aggressive as she liked in the negotiations to leave the EU. In addition to Labour’s polling woes, her strategists noted that the UK Independence Party’s vote had collapsed, with the expectation that almost all of it would break to the Conservatives. The hot money – and all but a handful of polls – predicted that Labour would lose between 20 to 30 of its disappointing 2015 tally of 232 seats. Even the bookies had the Conservatives odds on for a substantial overall majority.

It is a triumph of British understatement to say it didn’t quite work out that way. What was confidently expected to be a Conservative gain of upwards of 50 seats (some polls suggested over 100) ended up as a net loss of 13 seats, and the conversion of a small but workable majority into a minority position (albeit with a lead of 56 seats over Labour). Labour increased its seat tally by 32, and its vote went up from 9.3m (30.4% of the total, 6.5% behind the Conservatives) to 12.8m (40%, only 2.4% behind).

There were three reasons why Labour vastly exceeded expectations.

One was that the Conservatives ran a strikingly incompetent campaign. An edgy performer at best, May refused to participate in television leadership debates, and had to rewrite her manifesto commitments within days of its issue. By contrast, Corbyn proved a sure-footed television campaigner (in interviews and debates), and attracted huge numbers of young enthusiasts at nationwide rallies.

The second was that – again, against expectations – those young enthusiasts came out to vote. The earliest post-election poll estimated that 67% of 18-24 year olds voted Labour; a later poll assessed the youth turnout at 58% (both figures way above 2015). By contrast, 23% of 65+ voters backed Labour.

The third was that the right-wing populist vote – the people who’d previously voted for UKIP, many in northern and midlands working-class constituencies (the British post-industrial rustbelt) did not overwhelmingly defect to the Conservatives, but split roughly half-and-half between the Conservatives and Labour. As with the Democrats, Labour did best in metropolitan areas with large student and higher-educated populations (places which had voted to remain in the EU last year). But a predicted rustbelt meltdown failed to materialise in the Midlands and Northern cities: all the seats in Birmingham (formerly centre of the auto industry) saw swings from Conservative to Labour. It was in smaller towns and industrial villages that the Conservatives improved their vote – though rarely well enough to overcome built-in Labour majorities.

This third factor has the profoundest implications. Like other populist-right parties, UKIP has moved its economic platform to the left. Labour’s manifesto platform promised an end to student fees, but also free childcare, improvements in welfare and a program of state-led industrial investment. The fact that an unexpected proportion of UKIP’s voters moved to Labour implies not just that left economic programs are popular, but that UKIP’s left policies were a significant part of its appeal. In conjunction with the general retreat of the populist right in Europe, Labour’s success appears to be down to the economy, stupid.

The collapse of UKIP is a good of itself: at its height, the party was gaining over a quarter of the vote in local and European elections (last Thursday, it was 1.8%). But it has also changed the political balance. In 2015, the combined conservative vote (the Conservatives and UKIP) was a (fairly narrow) 658,756 votes ahead of that of the progressive parties (Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, and the Greens). Last week the progressive vote exceeded the conservative vote by over two million.

Now a confident Labour Party faces a Conservative minority government, forced to stitch up an alliance with the small Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, a fundamentalist Protestant party, hostile to abortion and homosexuality, and suspicious of evolution and climate change. If that deal falls apart, another election will have to follow. Watch this space.

 • • •

*David Edgar is a playwright and commentator.


Politics on Empty Stomachs: Palestinian Prisoners Demand Dignity and Self-Determination

by Smadar Ben-Natan*

Hunger Strike

Image by Addameer Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association (from Facebook).

Amidst President Trump’s visit to Israel this Monday, a Palestinian general strike of three hours and clashes with Israeli military forces were meant to express Palestinian Solidarity with hunger striking prisoners and help achieve their demands. Few prisoners’ mothers also declared a hunger strike. As President Trump left the Middle East after a visit of only one hour to the West Bank, the strike continues, entering its sixth week, with 150 prisoners taken for medical examinations. Israel prevents Members of Parliament from visiting striking prisoners and limits lawyer’s visits.

The hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons is both a just demand to reinstate dignifying imprisonment conditions and a powerful political protest against the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. These are two very good reasons to support the reasonable, realistic, and just demands of the prisoners. The strike of over 1,500 prisoners commenced on April 17th—Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, when Palestinian society honors thousands of its members behind Israeli bars. Palestinian society has been under mass incarceration for five decades. Since the occupation of 1967, an estimated 800,000 Palestinians—roughly 20% of the population—has been imprisoned by Israeli authorities. Today, Israel holds approximately 6,300 Palestinian prisoners, of which an estimated 500 are held in administrative detention, without charge. Nearly every family in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has experienced a member’s detention or incarceration.

There is a political context to this mass incarceration. Imprisonment is one of the main ways in which Israel confronts the ongoing resistance to its military control of the Palestinian territories. This resistance, the Palestinian demand for self-determination, and the Israeli conquest and de-facto annexation of these territories are all political. In this sense, Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners. The traditional understanding of this term is related to people imprisoned for voicing their political beliefs in nonviolent ways; but violence is also political, and it is not produced and perpetrated by only one side of this bloody conflict. See for example the UN General Assembly Resolution no. 3103 (1973) stating “Basic Principles on the Legal Status of the Combatants Struggling Against Colonial and Alien Domination and Racism Regimes,” which recognizes that the struggle for self-determination and independence is “legitimate and in full accordance with the principles of International law.” Whereas not all instances of Palestinian violent resistance may be seen as legitimate, the Israeli position that labels all Palestinian acts—violent and nonviolent—as “terrorism” is untenable and is meant to depoliticize the discussion. Palestinian prisoners are political prisoners since their incarceration is generated within and as a result of a political struggle.

And indeed, Israel treats Palestinian prisoners as a collective and not as individuals. Almost all Palestinian prisoners are categorized as “security prisoners” (as opposed to “criminal prisoners”), a category bundling together perpetrators of murderous attacks on civilians with political leaders, stone-throwing youth, protestors, and community organizers. Israel maintains the impossible position that Fatah is still a terrorist organization, even following the Oslo Accords that the government signed with the same organization’s representatives. This enables the criminalization of Fatah activists and leaders. All of these prisoners are collectively deemed security threats and afforded harsh imprisonment conditions, which are often contoured for political gain or to meet vindictive popular demand (real or imagined). In 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to halt the academic studies of all Palestinian prisoners (with the Israeli Open University) in retaliation for the conditions under which Hamas held the Israeli captive soldier Gilad Shalit. He was quoted saying: “[T]here will be no more ‘doctors for terror’, this celebration is over.” Gilad Shalit was soon after released and has most probably graduated college by now, but all Palestinian prisoners still cannot obtain academic education while serving their sentence. Many of the demands presented by the prisoners now aim to reintroduce conditions that were in place for years and were gradually withdrawn after 2000 with the failure of the peace process, the reelection of a right-wing government, and the advent of the second Intifada.

The hunger strike must be understood, then, on two interconnected levels. First, it is an organized political protest over Israeli policies generally. This aspect was stressed in the New York Times article by Marwan Barghouti, a prominent political figure and the leader of the current hunger strike. Second, it is a concrete struggle by prisoners over their collective imprisonment conditions. The full list of demands, as published by the NGO Palestinian Prisoners’ Club (Nadi al-Aseer) can be summed up under several categories: contact with families, medical treatment, conditions during prisoners’ transportation, imprisonment conditions, ending solitary confinement, ending administrative detentions, and prisoners’ education.

Until 2002 all family members were allowed to visit, but then visits were restricted to first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, and children), which prevents prisoners from seeing the spouses of their children and siblings as well as their grandchildren, even as babies. Israel imprisons Palestinians inside Israel, which enables the security services to deny entry permits from family members living in the West Bank and Gaza. The transfer of prisoners from the occupied territories to Israel is unlawful under the Fourth Geneva Convention, article 76: “Protected persons accused of offences shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they should serve their sentences therein.” The denial of entry permits from prisoners’ family members makes clear why this rule is so necessary. Concerning education, prisoners are demanding to reinstate academic studies and to allow prisoners (mostly minors who wish to continue their schooling) to take the Palestinian matriculation exams, which they were allowed to do in the past.

No prisoner would go on a hunger strike unless they felt there was hardly anything to lose and much more to be gained, including their dignity. The willingness of prisoners to risk their health and lives changes the balance of power between the prisoners and the prison authorities. Suddenly, prison authorities have a lot to lose, and they are forced to negotiate with the prisoners (even when negotiations are denied). Negotiations are often conducted directly by the Israeli General Security Service (GSS or Shabbak). This is why Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strikes have been very effective, especially in areas where the law has constantly failed them: solitary confinement and indefinite detention. In 2012, a collective hunger strike achieved something amazing: dozens of Palestinian prisoners (all but two) were taken out of solitary confinement. Prior to that, I represented a number of Palestinian prisoners who were held in solitary confinement for over five years. All our efforts to end their confinement in the courts failed. Following the strike, all of these prisoners were taken out of confinement. Individual strikes of administrative detainees, like Khader Adnan and Samer Isawi, succeeded in ending their indefinite detentions.

This strike is different from past ones for at least two reasons. First, it is led by Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which heads the Palestinian Authority. This makes it particularly powerful, for it speaks for the Palestinian “mainstream” and is supported by an unprecedented number of prisoners, led by a popular political figure like Marwan Barghouti. Second, this is the first collective strike waged after the Israeli government enacted a law in 2015 that allows hunger-striking prisoners to be force-fed. Having noticed the success of hunger strikes, the government decided to try and end this “celebration” as well. The Bill was titled “Prevention of Medical Damage to a Prisoner on Hunger Strike,” but its actual purpose is to prevent the damage that the hunger strikes cause to the government. Whereas adequate and ethical medical treatment is already provided for in the Israeli Patient Rights Law, this law transfers the decision on treatment of hunger-striking prisoners from medical professionals to a district judge, who is instructed to consider not only the will and best interest of the patient, but also “fear for human lives and well-grounded fear for serious damage to national security.” The Israeli Medical Association and individual Israeli doctors have demonstrated impressive resistance to this law, arguing that it is against medical ethics and allows for torture; and although judges can order force feeding, they are not the ones to perform it. It remains to be seen, then, if judges and doctors will be courageous enough as this hunger strike continues.

As Israeli government and security service are negotiating to end the strike, international and US public opinion should clearly support the concrete demands of the prisoners. But such accomplishments tend to erode over time. Even after this strike ends, we should continue and support the ultimate end not only of the Israeli occupation but also of the imprisonment of Palestinians within the Occupied Territories, as well as the decriminalization of the Fatah organization and of all nonviolent political and social activities.

• • •

Further Reading
Matar, A., and A. Baker. 2011. Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel. London: Pluto Press.

• • •

*Smadar Ben-Natan is currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, Center for the Study of Law and Society, and a PhD candidate at Tel-Aviv University. Her research centers on enemy prosecutions in military and civilian courts. She has been a practicing lawyer for eighteen years, representing many Palestinian prisoners.

Insurgent Politics against Authoritarian Neoliberalism

by Alessandro De Giorgi*

In a much-quoted segment from the Prison Notebooks, Italian communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci outlined his famous definition of a crisis of hegemony:

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. (Gramsci 1971, 276).

Although Gramsci’s theorization was a critique of the specific historical conjuncture that supported the rise of European fascisms in the 1930s, the materialist lens he forged provides an invaluable tool to understand the cyclical crises of hegemony that have affected Western capitalist societies through the twentieth century. In the notes that follow, I would like to argue that the “great variety of morbid symptoms” characterizing the present historical moment—specifically, the rise of right-wing populisms across the Western world—signals a crisis of hegemony of the neoliberal regime of capital accumulation sustained by liberal/centrist political parties and a rearticulation of class power along authoritarian lines.

The recent emergence of right-wing populist formations in Europe—the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, Jobbik in Hungary, Alernativ für Deutschland in Germany, the UK Independence Party in England, and of course Trump Republicans in the US—is the latest development in this process of reconfiguration of race and class politics. Yet, despite the appeal that such a label may hold in the face of increasingly autocratic and chauvinistic tendencies in the Western world, we should be wary of calling these developments simply as a form of neo-fascism, or fascism 2.0. Indeed, there are several risks implicit in adopting such a rhetoric: (a) it is a rather ahistorical simplification that prevents a structural analysis of current tendencies; (b) it equalizes all opposition (reformist vs. radical, institutional vs. grassroots) under the generic umbrella of liberal-democratic resistance; and (c) it constricts opposition within a purely reactive mode (i.e., it obstructs the effort to envision not just a less fascist neoliberal society, but a radically different one). A more useful frame of analysis might be what radical political economist Ian Bruff has recently called “authoritarian neoliberalism.” In opposition to the “liberal neoliberalism” endorsed by the centrist parties that have been hegemonic in Europe and the US in the last few years, “authoritarian neoliberalism” is characterized by the fact that

dominant social groups are less interested in neutralizing resistance and dissent via concessions and forms of compromise … favoring instead the explicit exclusion and marginalization of subordinate social groups through the constitutionally and legally engineered self-disempowerment of nominally democratic institutions, governments, and parliaments. (Bruff 2014, 116)

In this sense, whereas liberal neoliberalism à la Obama preempted substantive democracy under a thin veil of democratic rhetoric—let us not forget that cases of police brutality spiked under the friendly Obama administration, and of course immigrant deportations reached the unprecedented number of 2.5 millions—authoritarian neoliberalism à la Trump obliterates formal democracy, too, behind a thick cloud of populist rhetoric. The political vocabulary through which authoritarian neoliberalism articulates its hegemony is that of authoritarian populism famously described by Stuart Hall (1985): a political discourse based on an abstract notion of “the people” that establishes a rhetorical convergence between the objectives of those in power and the demands of the citizenry by channeling both against various undeserving “others” (e.g., criminals, immigrants, terrorists, welfare queens, etc.). This narrative combines different strategies to neutralize the formation of interracial/class-based solidarities:

(a) First, it artificially elevates certain social groups rhetorically constructed as deserving (on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality) above other social groups with whom they share a common subordinated class position in society. The concept of comparative racialization proposed by Lisa Marie Cacho is particularly useful here:

Ascribing readily recognizable social value always requires the devaluation of an/other … In the United States, human value is made legible in relation to the deviant, the non-American, the non-normative, the pathologized, and the recalcitrant. (Cacho 2012, 18–19)

(b) Second, authoritarian populism denounces the undue advantages (e.g., wasteful welfare, reverse discrimination, permissive rights, lax borders, tolerant law enforcement) supposedly enjoyed by the more underprivileged groups at the hands of a self-serving liberal power elite.

(c) Third, it equates—in a sort of zero-sum game—the improvement of social conditions for the deserving social groups with the cultural/political/institutional marginalization of the undeserving social groups (e.g., through criminalization, discipline, surveillance, deportation).

In this context, cyclical moral panics—triggered by political elites and amplified by corporate media—pave the ground for authoritarian law-and-order by equating street crime with a threat to the personal safety of law-abiding citizens by the racialized poor; illegal immigration with a threat to the social mobility of working Americans by criminal aliens; terrorism with a threat to American values by enemy civilizations; welfare with a threat to taxpaying Americans by an irresponsible underclass; and LGBTQ rights with a threat to the stability of the American family by pathological subcultures.

What kind of opposition can we envision in the current conjuncture? Inspired in particular by some of the insights put forward by Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor (2016), I briefly outline below what I see as the minimum necessary building blocks of insurgent politics in the present moment:

(a) First, social movements should work towards overcoming the single-issue orientation of most current politics and, most importantly, the “non-profit industrial complex” that sustains this paradigm of political action (including forms of “professional activism”).

(b) Second, we should overcome any simplified and depoliticized notion of privilege as an individual feature that subjects can somehow un-learn—for example, by adopting proper “technologies of the self” (Foucault 1988). This also means overcoming the self-congratulatory rhetoric about individual trajectories of healing, awakening, self-care, etc. These models are not only compatible with the dominant neoliberal ethos of personal responsibility and individual achievement, but they are building blocks of its renewed hegemonic hold.

(c) Third, we should be wary of the creation of institutionally coopted (if not state-sponsored) “safe spaces” that end up reinforcing dominant notions of safety as personal security from individual aggressions; particularly when promoted or coopted by institutions eager to prevent insurgent mobilizations (e.g., university campuses), such spaces may become tolerated reservations for injured identities that work effectively to soften any opposition to structural inequalities. Liberated spaces are not assigned by powerful institutions; they are taken from them.

(d) Finally, against the proliferation of court-actionable claims to “injured statuses” as the main form of resistance to white supremacy, we need to build intersectional communities of struggle: we need to engage in political action that acknowledges and organizes the plural nature of our movements, while at the same time consolidating stable political formations tasked with carrying forward the unique cause of the construction of the common. In this project, oppressed identities (the ones imposed by racial capitalism) must become visible against the color-blind nature of contemporary racism, the gender-blind nature of contemporary sexism, and the class-blind nature of contemporary capitalism. However, the ultimate aim of our insurgent politics should be the abolition of any “identity as property” (to paraphrase Cheryl Harris)—that is, liberation from identity as an organizing principle of any social hierarchy. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2009, 331) frame this idea in terms of a distinction between mere emancipation, which is still anchored to the dominant framing of identity, and liberation, which requires instead a complex articulation of singularities. It is in this sense that Frantz Fanon (1967, 8) notoriously advanced the controversial statement “I propose nothing short of the liberation of the man of color from himself”.

In conclusion, against the abstract and amorphous notion of “the people” invoked by authoritarian populism, at the same time uncritically undifferentiated and profoundly divided, we should mobilize the concrete reality of insurgent singularities fighting at the same time against a multiplicity of intersecting oppressions and toward the common goal of a post-capitalist society.

Bruff, I. 2014. “The Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism.” Rethinking Marxism, 26(1): 113–29.
Cacho, L. M. 2012. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press.
Fanon, F. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Foucault, M. 1988. “Technologies of the Self.” In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, edited by L.H. Martin, H. Gutman, and P. Hutton, pp. 16–49.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Hall, S. 1985. “Authoritarian Populism: A Response to Jessop et al.”. New Left Review, 151: 115–24.
Hardt, M. and A. Negri 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Yamahtta-Taylor, K. 2016. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

• • •

*Alessandro De Giorgi is Associate Professor at the Department of Justice Studies, San Jose State University (e-mail: alessandro.degiorgi@sjsu.edu). His teaching and research interests include critical theories of punishment and social control, urban ethnography, and radical political economy. He is the author of Rethinking the Political Economy of Punishment: Perspectives on Post-Fordism and Penal Politics (Ashgate, 2006). Currently, he is conducting ethnographic research on the socioeconomic dimensions of concentrated incarceration and prisoner reentry in West Oakland, California.

• • •

Image: “Liberate the commons,” © Social Justice.

Obamacare Survives but Its Future Remains Uncertain

by Tom Bodenheimer*


Photo by LaDawna Howard, used under CC BY 2.0.

March 24, 2017 marked seven years and one day since the signing of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) into law on March 23, 2010. On that seventh anniversary, House Speaker Paul Ryan abandoned the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare because of a shortage of Yes votes. Whereas this was a great victory for those of us who believe that health care is a right, the fate of Obamacare is not yet settled. Because of rising costs to patients, Obamacare could collapse under its own weight. In the short run, we need to take action to reduce patients’ health care costs; in the long run, only a single payer system can fix Obamacare.

Speaker Paul Ryan’s Plan

The now-defunct Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare targeted both portions of the Obamacare law: 1) the individual mandate, which requires people without insurance to purchase insurance—assisted by a federal subsidy—or pay a penalty; and 2) the expansion of Medicaid. First, the Ryan plan eliminated the requirement that people without insurance sign up for individual health insurance offered through federal or state-based insurance exchanges. This requirement was needed to encourage young, healthy people to purchase health insurance because they subsidize insurance for older people and people in poor health. In place of the requirement to purchase health insurance, the proposed legislation provided tax credits to help people afford health insurance. However, the tax credits were small compared with the subsidies provided under Obamacare, meaning that many people would be unable to afford health insurance. Lower-income middle-aged people would have their insurance premiums increase from $1,700 under Obamacare to $14,600 under Ryan’s plan. Insurers would be able to increase patient out-of-pocket costs (deductibles and copayments) beyond the levels allowed under Obamacare. Savings from reductions in health care costs under the Ryan plan would largely go to tax cuts for the very wealthy.

Second, Ryan’s plan would have eliminated Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid that insured 10 million new people. With the attack on both the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that 24 million people would lose their insurance under Ryan’s legislation.

The Problems of Obamacare

Now that Obamacare will continue to be the law of the land, what are its future prospects?

The individual mandate is under the control of insurance companies; they can choose to participate or not, and they can raise their premiums if they are not making profits. Three of the largest insurers are pulling out of Obamacare in a number of states, leaving people fewer choices. The 2017 premiums are up an average of 22%, more in some states and less in others. From 2015 to 2017, the percent of insured Americans having trouble affording their health insurance premiums (even with the Obamacare subsidies) rose from 27% to 37%. The percent finding it difficult to afford copays for doctor visits and prescriptions has risen from 24% to 31%, and 43% of insured persons, up from 34%, have trouble paying the deductible.

If costs to patients continue to rise, more and more people may opt to pay the penalty rather than purchase health insurance. If many young healthy people decide not to continue their Obamacare coverage, it could have disastrous consequences. Here’s why: Older adults pay premiums that do not fully cover their medical expenses, while younger adults pay premiums that more than cover their expenses. For the system to work, young people need to enroll in sufficient numbers to produce a surplus in premium revenues that can be used to cross-subsidize the deficit created by older people. If many younger people do not renew their insurance coverage in late 2017, premiums will again rise rapidly and more people will be unable to afford health care. While the Congressional Budget Office does not think this will happen—it could.

The Medicaid expansion portion of Obamacare is highly successful. In the 32 states that expanded Medicaid, everyone below 133% of the federal poverty line receives insurance—in most states with minimal out-of-pocket costs. However, a number of states, for example Indiana when Mike Pence was governor, started to charge premiums and copayments to people who have very little money. If they do not pay, they are kicked off Medicaid. The Republican Congress is likely to introduce new legislation, specific to the Medicaid portion of Obamacare, that severely limits the amount of Medicaid funds available to states for their Medicaid programs (so-called block grants or fixed sums per Medicaid enrollee). Such legislation would cause states to cut benefits to Medicaid enrollees and/or burden them with out-of-pocket costs that they cannot afford. Whether or not the attack on Medicaid will pass the Senate depends on whether Republican governors, who would lose federal money from the Medicaid block grants, put pressure on their Republican senators to vote No. If all Democrats oppose this legislation, it takes only three Republican senators to join them in voting No to defeat these cutbacks.

Options for Improving Obamacare

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people made their voices heard: Do not repeal Obamacare. But those voices could turn against Obamacare if costs continue to climb. Democrats need to introduce legislation to reduce the premiums, copayments, and deductibles under Obamacare. It won’t be easy given the realities of the insurance market. What are the options?

1) Increase the subsidies to reduce premium costs, making it more affordable for young healthy people to enter the insurance market.
2) Add a public option insurer that offers lower premiums, copayments, and deductibles than private, for-profit insurers.
3) Join Bernie Sanders and push for a single-payer system that eliminates the insurance industry from health care and provides excellent coverage for all Americans, financed by a progressive tax.

None of these options are likely in a Republican-controlled federal government. But states could enact legislation—ideally instituting a single-payer system—to address Obamacare’s shortcomings. Without confronting the growing costs of health insurance and health care, the future of Obamacare is uncertain.

• • •

*Tom Bodenheimer is a primary care physician who practiced in San Francisco’s Mission District for 32 years. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Family and Community Medicine at University of California, San Francisco.

Trump, DeVos, and the Future of Education

by Sylvia Mac*


Image: “Protest of Betty DeVos,” by Victoria Pickering, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Edited.

Since announcing his campaign, Trump has used a rhetoric that has proven to be divisive and harmful in very real ways to black and brown, immigrant, and LGBTQ students across the country. The days after his election were particularly dangerous for these students. In just the ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported nearly 900 hate incidents in almost every state. The report notes that this number is undoubtedly lower than the actual count, since it does not include online harassment and many incidents go unreported. The report also found an unsettling, if not surprising, trend in the reports of violence and harassment: K-12 schools and college campuses were among the most frequent sites of these hate incidents. From creating toxic school environments to pushing for the privatization of public schools, Trump is ensuring that marginalized students will only become more marginalized.

The study revealed that anti-immigrant harassment was the most frequently reported, followed by anti-black and anti-LGBTQ. In Washington state, students chanted, “Build a wall!” in the cafeteria. In California, some students brought “deportation letters” to their classmates. In Colorado, middle school students told Latinx classmates, “Not only should Trump build a wall, but it should be electrocuted (sic) and Mexicans should have to wear shock collars.” Teachers have been on both sides: some the subject of harassment, others the ones harassing. A Muslim teacher who wears a headscarf found a note left in her Georgia classroom stating that her headscarf “isn’t allowed anymore.  Why don’t you tie it around your neck and hang yourself with it?” Conversely, in LA a teacher was recorded telling student she could have them deported because “I have your phone numbers, your address, your mama’s address, your daddy’s address; it’s all in the system, sweetie.” Black students were the target of a teacher in Florida who told them, “Don’t make me call Donald Trump to get you sent back to Africa.”

Although bullying in schools is nothing new, school psychologists, teachers, and parents report overwhelming anxiety in students, as well as an increasingly negative atmosphere in schools since the election. Over 10,000 teachers, administrators, and others who work in schools responded to an online survey as part of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Project in the days after the election. Ninety percent of respondents reported that their “school climate [had] been negatively affected,” citing students’ anxiety about the future of their families, the increased use of hateful and derogatory language, the appearance of images of swastikas and confederate flags, and even assaults on students and teachers.

Unfortunately, some students are following Trump’s lead in using racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic language under the guise of not being “politically correct.” Educators report emboldened displays of bigotry, such as students holding up a Confederate flag during the pledge of allegiance at a school assembly in Arizona and students in Minnesota writing things such as “send the Muslims back because they are responsible for 9/11” on their assignments.

The recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary further undermines any confidence that marginalized students might fare better in the days to come—even if educators were able to turn around the toxic environment in schools. DeVos considers herself qualified to lead the Department of Education despite the stunning lack of understanding of public education she demonstrated in the confirmation hearing and in her written responses to a questionnaire. She appeared not to understand the difference between student growth and proficiency, became “confused” about federal law supporting students with disabilities, and inflated the graduation rate of students in virtual charter schools.

Betsy DeVos has a history of championing school choice and privatization through her political action committee, All Children Matter, and her work with the American Federation for Children. She is among many who frame the neoliberal push for privatization of public school under public-friendly themes such as “racial justice” and “empowerment” through “choice.” This is a rhetoric that invokes “race” but fails to examine underlying systemic racial inequalities. Privatization of public schools has proven to benefit not poor students of color, but only hedge funds and others, such as JP Morgan and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who invest in them.

Writing for the Huffington Post in 2014, Alan Singer of Hofstra University argues that hedge funds and corporations that invest in privatization efforts can sometimes expect to double their investment in just seven years thanks to various tax credits.  These credits can be added to other tax breaks, such as the New Market Tax Credit as reported by Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez notes that “wealthy investors and major banks have been making windfall profits using a little-known federal tax break to finance new charter school construction.” The New Market Tax Credit allows “a bank or private equity firm that lends money to a nonprofit to build a charter school can receive a 39% federal tax credit over seven years.” We’ve also seen charter schools horribly mismanage this money. In April 2015, the Center for Popular Democracy released a report citing “millions of dollars of new alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in charter schools…bringing the new total to over $200 million.”

Research shows that charter schools and vouchers have done little to even the playing field or to desegregate highly segregated urban schools. In fact, in 2010, the UCLA Civil Rights Project commissioned a large-scale study that included 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several metropolitan areas. The results showed that charters are just as deeply segregated as their traditional public counterpart.  Additionally, on the whole, there is no evidence that charters perform better than traditional public schools. Despite DeVos’s insistence that virtual charters are beneficial alternatives, research shows that students at cyber charters consistently underperform. Similarly, vouchers, which provide public money for students to attend private schools, have produced mixed results in furthering student success and achievement. Indeed, vouchers began as a way to circumvent federal mandates to desegregate schools and are now predominantly used by white, middle-class families to send their children to private (sometimes religious) schools, while students of color are left out.

The days following Trump’s election have proven to be contentious, even dangerous, for marginalized students across the United States. Schools have become sites of hate, bigotry, harassment, and violence where students of color, immigrant students, and LGBTQ students do not feel safe. Trump has chosen an Education Secretary so unqualified and so controversial that Vice President Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm her. The neoliberal agenda to create an educational marketplace where students are commodities will further the marginalization of students while hedge funds and corporations will continue to reap all the benefits. Trump has ensured that schools will benefit primarily white, middle to upper class, heterosexual students, leaving the rest to join the many other vulnerable groups that will suffer the consequences of his election.

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References and Further Readings
Gooden, M., Jabbar, H., & Torres, M. 2016.  Race and school vouchers: Legal, historical, and political contexts. Peabody Journal of Education (91): 522–36.
Lipman, P. 2011. The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City. New York: Routledge.
Ravitch, D. 2013. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Random House.

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*Sylvia Mac is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of La Verne. Her research interests include neoliberalism, market-based school reform, and the intersection of disability, race, and class.


Trumpism, 21st-Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by William I. Robinson*

Donald Trump is a member of the transnational capitalist class (TCC). His vast business empire spans several dozen countries around the world. Much of his “populism” and anti-globalization discourse has to do with demagogy and with political manipulation in function of the electoral campaign. Trumpism and the specter of 21st-century fascism must be seen as a response to the crisis of global capitalism. Trump’s global business empire could not flourish without capitalist globalization and without the super-exploitation of immigrant workers in the United States.

The TCC and Trump himself depend on immigrant labor for their capital accumulation and they do not intend to do away with a labor force that is bonded due to its being undocumented rather than “legal.” His electoral promise to deport 10 millions undocumented immigrants, now reduced to some three million, and his proposals to intensify the criminalization of immigrants are, on the one hand, an attempt to convert the immigrant population into a scapegoat for the crisis and to channel the fear and insecurity among the (majority white) working class against the immigrant community rather than against the system. On the other hand, the dominant groups have been exploring ways to replace the current system of super-exploitation of undocumented immigrant labor with a mass “guest worker program” that would be more efficient in combining super-exploitation with super-control.

Trump (and more generally the TCC) seek to place downward pressure on wages in the United States in order to make US workers “competitive” with foreign workers. The downward leveling of wages across countries and the “race to the bottom” has been a general tendency under capitalist globalization that Trumpism certainly intends to continue, now with the justification of making the US economy “competitive” and “bringing jobs back home.”

We cannot under-emphasize Trumpism’s extreme racism, but we need to deepen our analysis of it. The US political system and the dominant groups face a crisis of hegemony and legitimacy. Racism and the search for scapegoats is one key element in their efforts to face this crisis. At the same time, major sectors of the white working class have been experiencing social and economic destabilization, downward mobility, heightened insecurity, an uncertain future, and accelerated “precariatization”—that is, ever more precarious work and life conditions. This sector of the working class has historically enjoyed the ethnic-racial privileges that come from white supremacy vis-à-vis other sectors of the working class, but it has been losing these privileges in the face of capitalist globalization. The escalation of veiled (coded) and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed at ushering the members of this white working class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition.

Trumpism’s veiled and at times openly racist and neo-fascist discourse has legitimized and unleashed ultra-racist and fascist movements in US civil society. I have been writing about the danger of “21st century fascism” as a response to the escalating crisis of global capitalism. The response to this crisis was the rise a neo-fascist Right in both Western and Eastern Europe, the vengeful resurgence of a neo-fascist Right in Latin America, and the turn towards neo-fascism in Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, India, and elsewhere. One key difference between 20th-century fascism and 21st-century fascism is that the former involved the fusion of national capital with reactionary and repressive political power, whereas the latter involves the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power. It is crucial to stress that Trumpism does not represent a break with capitalist globalization, but rather a recomposition of political forces as the crisis deepens.  If we want to understand political phenomena we must not confuse surface appearance (or discourse) with underlying essence (or structure).

Trumpism represents an intensification of neoliberalism in the United States that assigns a major role to the state in subsidizing transnational capital accumulation in the face of stagnation and overaccumulation. For example, Trump’s heralded proposal to invest one trillion dollars in infrastructure, when we examine it closely, is in reality a proposal to privatize public infrastructure and to transfer wealth from labor to capital by way of corporate tax breaks and subsidies for the construction of privatized infrastructural works. We can expect under the Trump regime an effort to further privatize what remains of the public sector, including schools, veterans affairs, and possibly social security, along with deregulation and a further transfer of wealth from labor to capital through corporate tax cuts and austerity.

It is a mistake to view 21st-century fascism as a political development outside of the “normal” progression of global capitalism. Global capitalism faces an unprecedented crisis of social polarization, political legitimacy (hegemony), sustainability, and overaccumulation. The TCC has accumulated trillions of dollars that it is finding ever harder to “unload.” In recent years it has turned to mind-boggling levels of financial speculation, to the raiding and sacking of public budgets, and to what I call militarized accumulation—that is, to endless cycles of war, destruction, and reconstruction; to “accumulation by repression” (building of private prisons and immigrant detention centers, border walls, homeland security technologies, etc.); and to the construction of a global police state to defend the global war economy from rebellions from below.

Trump’s electoral base among the white working class will discover very early on in his regime that his promises were a hoax. How will their rage be contained? Will they be recruited into projects of 21st-century fascism? Political and economic elites in the United States (and worldwide) are currently divided and confused. But if and when the mass of humanity, the global working class, will pose a challenge to TCC control, the dominant groups will unite to defend their rule. The liberal elements among the transnational elite will be unlikely to object to 21st-century fascism in political power if that is what it takes to beat down challenges from below and to maintain control. I fear we are before the gates of hell. There will surely be massive social upheavals from below, but also an escalation of state and private repression.

The spiraling crisis of global capitalism has reached a crossroads. Either there is a radical reform of the system (if not its overthrow) or there will be a sharp turn to a 21st-century fascism. The failure of elite reformism and the unwillingness of the transnational elite to challenge the predation and rapaciousness of global capital have paved the way for the far-Right response to crisis. In the United States, the betrayal of the liberal elite is as much to blame for Trumpism as are the far-Right forces that have mobilized the white population around a program of racist scapegoating, misogyny, and the manipulation of fear and economic destabilization.

Critically, the political class that has been in place for the past three decades is more than bankrupt—it is feeding the turn to the far Right. Its brand of identity politics has served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes and of anti-capitalism. It has served to derail ongoing revolts from below, to push white workers into an “identity” of white nationalism, and to help the neo-fascist right organize them politically.

A global rebellion against the TCC has been spreading since the financial collapse of 2008. Wherever one looks there are popular, grassroots, and leftist struggles and the rise of new cultures of resistance. Can we beat back the threat of 21st-century fascism? Our efforts must involve analytical clarity as to what we are up against. Trumpism is not a departure from, but an incarnation of an emerging dictatorship of the transnational capitalist class.

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* William I. Robinson is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also affiliated with the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program and with the Global and International Studies Program at UCSB. His scholarly research focuses on macro and comparative sociology, globalization and transnationalism, political economy, political sociology, development and social change, immigration, Latin America and the Third World, and Latina/o studies.
An earlier version of this article (in Spanish) was published by La Jornada on December 4, 2016 (here).

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Header image (left) by Joe Brusky, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.