Podcast: When the left takes the city

 

This week, the focus is on experience of left parties and organizations at the municipal level. Although the left has still exercised only limited political power in many places since the financial crisis, some cities have seen left projects come to power or build new institutions in interesting ways. My two guests shed light on two examples of municipal socialism in Europe and North America.

First, Yusef Quadura describes the experience of Barcelona en Comu. In 2015, this new left coalition took control of the municipal government in Barcelona. Led by the housing activist Ada Colau, the party did what Podemos couldn’t do nationally and garnered enough support to govern with the intention of implementing a left program, at least at the municipal level. To get a sense of the plans, accomplishments and challenges faced by Barcelona en Comu just over a year into its mandate, I spoke with Yusef, a member Barcelona en Comu’s international group. Yusuf is also part of the party’s co-ordinating committee in the Gracia district, where we met and talked over coffee (excuse the ambient noise), and a substitute counsellor for the Gracia district council.

My second guest is Kali Akuno, a leader within Cooperation Jackson, a municipal organization far beyond just a political party in Jackson, Mississippi. Although the group elected the radical Chokwe Lumumba as mayor of Jackson in 2014 (before he died tragically only a year into his term), electoral politics is only a small, supporting part of Cooperation Jackson’s mission. Kali describes what this network of worker-run cooperatives, party and movement congealed into one is up to and some of challenges it faces.

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Building a Corbyn majority: interview with Richard Seymour

My podcast interview with Richard Seymour on the roots and prospects of Corbynism appeared in Jacobin last week.

While the United Kingdom has been reeling from political crisis to political crisis in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Jeremy Corbyn has never looked stronger. He showed his principles in apologizing for a war he opposed from the very beginning, he has consistently made an argument for an anti-austerity, antiracist politics that can fight for all sections of the working class, and he so far appears to have survived a coup attempton his leadership.

In fact, Jeremy Corbyn, a survivor of “lifeboat socialism,” now finds himself at the helm of what is likely Europe’s largest social-democratic party. Several hundred thousand new members have joined Labour in the past two weeks, largely to support Corbyn against the on-again, off-again coup effort led by a powerful faction centered within Labour’s parliamentary caucus. Yet despite these efforts, Corbyn is one of the few party leaders left standing after the referendum.

I recently sat down with Richard Seymour to talk about his new book, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. Situating the acute short-term crisis, he provides both a background to the Corbyn phenomenon and looks at its long-term chances of success.

Michal Rozworski: I’ve been meaning to interview you about your new book on Jeremy Corbyn for a while and in the meantime, a lot has happened. Before we get to the latest news, quickly lay out the main argument of your book. How do you see the Corbyn phenomenon, and its chances for success?

Richard Seymour: Okay, well the question that the book starts out with is: how can it be that the Labour Party has, for the first time in its history, a radical socialist leader, when it has never had that before, even when the Left has been in a much stronger position.

Right now, the Left is historically weak. The labor movement is historically weak. Strike rates are at an all-time low and union density falls year by year. The membership of left-wing organizations has been falling for decades. The evidence for dramatically increased left-wing militancy is nil.

Yet Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership by attracting hundreds of thousands of new members to the Labour Party, both full members and supporters, by attracting the support of all the major union leaders, or at least most of them, by getting just enough nominations from the parliamentary party, and by attracting a raft of celebrity support.

When I talk about celebrity support, I’m not talking about the types of people who turn up at left-wing events. I’m talking about Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter, people like that. It’s quite a strange range of people.

Basically, there was a unique kind of moment: a feeling that Labour had not done the job against the Conservatives, and it needed to do something radical and different. (more…)

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How not to fund infrastructure

Recycling is supposed to be a good thing, so when the federal Liberals quietly announced that “asset recycling” would be part of their strategy for meeting their much-ballyhooed infrastructure promises, not many eyebrows were raised. They should have been. Asset recycling is an obscure code word for selling our public goods for private profit. It’s privatization by another name.

Don’t have the taxes to pay for new buses? It’s okay, you can sell your electricity utility to pay for them instead. In fact, this is precisely what the Ontario Liberal government is doing. Already 30% of the profitable Hydro One have been sold and another 30% will be sold before 2018. A public Hydro One could more directly fight climate change, lower energy costs for the poor or work with First Nations on whose lands generation often happens. A private Hydro becomes an instrument for profit first with other goals secondary.

What the Liberals have started in Ontario will soon be rolled out across Canada. Here are the problems with these schemes. (more…)

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Podcast: The improbable rise of Jeremy Corbyn

 

So far this week, Jeremy Corbyn has caused over 100,000 new members to join the UK Labour Party he leads, has apologized for a war he opposed from the beginning and appears to have survived a coup attempt on his leadership. And despite his backstabbing MPs, he’s one of the few party leaders left standing after the Brexit referendum.

Given all this mayhem on the British political scene, I figured it would be a good time to speak with the writer Richard Seymour, author of the recently-released Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. Richard regularly publishes in major UK and international media; his  previous books include Against Austerity, Unhitched, and The Liberal Defense of Murder. He’s long been one of the best voices on British politics on the left.

Our conversation focused on the roots of Corbyn’s sudden rise to power, both within the Labour Party and politics in the UK more broadly, the failure of today’s Blairite coup plotters and the prospects of a long-term shift in ideology effected by Corbynism.

As always, subscribe via RSS or iTunes to get episodes as they come out.

Corbyn other 2

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What is done: quick thoughts on Brexit

What is done is done regardless of where you were on the referendum—or like most of us, outside the UK. The two questions that grab me now are what lessons can be learned and how to salvage the moment for an anti-racist, anti-austerity coalition. Instead I’ve seen too many tears shed for the EU, which after all is no huge friend to migrants (see the mass graves under the Mediterranean or the camps in Greece) and a cudgel for neoliberal reforms, combined with too much smug condescension at the “stupid” Brits.

The choice between options represented by the upper class ninny Cameron and his upper class ninny foils Johnson and Farage was always a false one. It’s eerily similar to the choice between Clinton and Trump. Smug elitism gets us nowhere beyond the right’s version of internationalized neoliberalism or nationalist xenophobia. Only a strong alternative that looks the middle finger UK voters sent elites in the face can take ground away from the political reactionaries and xenophobes who have punched above their weight.

The referendum took place after four long decades of stagnant incomes, falling expectations and austerity from successive governments. It wasn’t just evil Tories, but New Labour as well, that gleefully transformed the UK economy away from the post-war class compromise (one breaking by the 1970s) towards today’s highly unequal version drunk on globalized finance. In many ways, this wasn’t a referendum on Europe—especially since the UK is out of the Euro, the biggest stick European elites can wield—but on UK elites and the damage they have done to working people.

The problem is that the most retrograde section of those same elites, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the rest of their sniveling crew, took advantage of the vacuum and made their xenophobic program the political expression of this anger. Labour’s long foray into enforcing austerity and capping living standards for the many left a long window to build and spread reactionary forces. I hope Corbyn and those around him can push a genuine alternative and pull those who can be pulled away from this misdirected anger without talking down to them. This moment cannot belong to a racist gang of Etonians like Johnson and Farage who have no interest in reversing any of the attacks on regular people and will only pit people against one another, spreading racial hatred. But that will take real work.

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“Investment” versus investment

Surprise! A new investigation by the Toronto Star and the CBC found that recent treaties with tax havens like the Bahamas and Panama aimed at more “transparency” have just made it easier for corporations to evade ever more taxes. And Canadian corporations have obliged this golden opportunity. “Investment” abroad has ballooned all the while the taps on actual investment at home have run dry.

Signed under Stephen Harper and left untouched under Trudeau, Tax Information Exchange Agreements (or TIEAs) allow corporations to funnel profits through notoriously low-tax jurisdictions. For example, if a corporation only has an office in, say, Panama (of Panama Papers fame), it can pay zero taxes on profits and have the option to repatriate the money back to Canada tax-free. Here’s how the Star report describes it:

“TIEAs are a well-meaning but failed idea,” said Arthur Cockfield, a professor of tax law at Queen’s University who warned the government of the TIEAs potential for abuse.

“I don’t blame the companies. It’s kind of like a Christmas present sitting under the tree. What are you going to do, not open it?”

…Many of the leading corporations on the Toronto Stock Exchange now have a presence in tax havens and use Canada’s treaties to dramatically reduce their tax bill at home. One company, Gildan, reduced its taxes by more than 90 per cent in 2015 (see sidebar).

TIEAs have had a dramatic effect on offshore investment, and Canadian money stashed in tax havens is piling up rapidly.

Compare data on foreign direct investment in six major tax havens with charts showing a few measures of investment at home. Here’s “investment” abroad growing rapidly…

tax haven fdi

…and total investment, including that done by government, at home:

capex cda

The chart above is in nominal dollars and includes all investment to make it easier to compare to the first chart. Here’s just business non-residential investment as a percentage of GDP. The uptick due to the resource boom in the early 2000s is clear; it’s instructive to imagine what things would have looked like if the resource sector had continued to expand at it’s long-term pre-boom average.

biz gross capform

And finally, take a look at corporate tax receipts:

corp tax

The contrast is striking. Corporations are piling cash into off-shore accounts while paying less in tax and barely keeping up with investment, especially outside the resource boom. Apologists would love to have a debate about the finer points of tax incidence, that is who ultimately pays a tax. They have a point; however, if it were so easy to always fully pass taxes on to consumers, why would corporations go to all the trouble of lobbying for tax breaks and making tax evasion so much easier? The answer is that it is ultimately a question of power. There is a question of how social wealth is divided up in the final accounting, but it comes down to who has the power to influence the division. Treaties with tax havens are just one instrument in the quiver.

A key and related next step would be to draw the links to the shareholder value revolution that has sought to remake corporations into ATMs for the wealthy. Rather than reinvest their profits into growth and productivity enhancements, corporations have, since roughly the early 1980s, been under increasing pressure to return a vast chunk of profits to shareholders via share buybacks and dividends. The corporate sector in the US is the poster child for the extract-what-you-can model but it turns out, for example, that a similar logic also played no small role in breaking the Eurozone financial system after the last crisis. What kind of tangible links are there between tax evasion and shareholder value for Canadian corporations?

In fact, when Mark Carney initially coined the “dead money” meme that has become an omnipresent shorthand on the left, he was not only exhorting corporations to invest. If they couldn’t, Carney said they should dish out more money to shareholders instead. Profits can pile up in bonds, shareholder pockets, cash or offshore accounts—the reality is that corporations are strategically choosing between competing allocations of assets, not stashing cash under a rug. Corporate money is never dead, and much of it is alive and well relaxing in Panama and the Bahamas. One thing is certain, it isn’t working for the rest of us.

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Podcast: Canada’s spring of occupations

 

Welcome back to the first podcast episode after a two-month hiatus! This week, three guests talk about two significant occupations of public space that have happened in Canada in the interim: the Black Lives Matter occupation of police headquarters plaza in Toronto and the occupations of Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices across the country.

In this first half, I speak with journalist Desmond Cole about the Black Lives Matter occupation of the police headquarters plaza in Toronto. Activists took over the plaza for two weeks in March and April over continuing police brutality and lack of unaccountability. Desmond reported regularly from the camp and spent several nights there. Aside from his column in the Toronto Star and his other print and radio work, he is also currently writing a book about black history and black politics in Canada.

The second half features my conversation with two activists and organizers behind Occupy INAC in Regina, Robyn Pitawanakwat and Susana Deranger. Susana is a veteran of the long struggle for justice for Canada’s First Nations, an activist for over 40 years in Saskatchewan. Robyn is from a younger generation, though as the daughter of a long-time Indigenous activist, she too has deep roots in the same fight. The Colonialism No More camp has been up for 50 days in front of Indigenous and Northern Affairs office in Regina. It started as part of a wave of occupations of INAC offices across the country in response to the state of emergency in Attawapiskat over youth suicide.

As always, subscribe via RSS or iTunes to get episodes as they come out.

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r > g in Vancouver

I’m finally coming back to full functioning from a concussion so there will be less silence here (I’m still writing a book though, a strong counter-tendency). Today, I just wanted to post a revealing duo of headlines about Vancouver, the city my partner and I left (fled?) just over half a year ago.

Exhibit 1:

 

Exhibit 2:

 

In the first piece, Vancouver’s mayor offers a tone-deaf apologia for the devastating lack of affordable housing in his city. Poverty, precarity, dislocation and homelessness are unfortunate outcomes of the sins of others, little to do but wash them away with the healing waters of street festivals and food trucks. Can’t get by? Consider a delicious food truck taco!

The second piece, from long-time Vancouver columnist Ian Young, offers a devastating answer to Robertson’s question. Young reports a back-of-(data-packed)-envelope calculation showing that the rise in the value of land under Vancouver’s single-family houses was likely greater than total employment income in the city last year.

Interestingly, the sole sensible section amidst Robertson’s green elite smugness in the first piece points to why this would be so: increased commodification of housing and generalized global asset price inflation in the wake of the financial crisis. Add in a local political system run by developers — oddly missing from Robertson’s account — and you’re set.

As central bank scrambles to re-ignite global growth have managed to support r for some and left g stumbling along, Vancouver is ground central for today’s r > g.

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Beware of basic income

Wouldn’t it be great to get a cheque every month just for being you? This is the sweet, fuzzy vision the Ontario and federal Liberals, are counting on to sell their latest idea, a basic income. Just this year, the Ontario government laid the groundwork for a pilot project to test the idea. Any actual large-scale program is far off into the future, however, and that’s a good thing. We need to take a hard look at the idea, especially in Liberal clothing.

Pie-in-the-sky or slap-in-the-face?

A basic income is exactly what it sounds like: a monthly cheque provided to every person by the government with no strings attached. A recent Ontario poll suggests the idea has broad support: 41% of Ontarians support it compared with 33% who oppose. Yet when people are asked whether they think a basic income is a good idea, they are never asked what they would be prepared to lose to get it. The point isn’t that basic income is pie-in-the-sky. It’s just that it could be implemented as a slap-in-the-face.

Basic-Income-posters

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