Learning from the rise of the right in the global South

With only two days left until Donald Trump’s inauguration, today’s two guests look at the turn to the right that’s already well under way across parts of the global South.

First, I speak with the historian, journalist and author Vijay Prashad about the nationalist Narendra Modi’s economic agenda in India. Vijay’s books include The Darker Nations A People’s History of the Third World and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. He teaches history in the northeastern US.

My second guest is Sabrina Fernandez, who discusses the permanent austerity being implemented in Brazil by the draconian Temer government. Sabrian is an activist on the radical left in Brazil and she recently completed a PhD in sociology focusing on the left in Brazilian politics from Carleton University. She spoke with me from Brasilia.

I finished each interview by asking what lessons the lefts of their countries hold for those of us battling an empowered right in the North.

As always, remember to subscribe using the links below the player to get new episodes as they appear (you can also donate to help keep the show going).

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The road tolls for thee

Last week, Toronto mayor Join Tory announced a plan to toll two major Toronto highways, the Gardiner and the DVP. The city is starved for cash with huge shortfalls for both infrastructure (new housing, new transit lines) and even everyday operating expenses. Tolls are supposed to help close this gap. But despite the absolutely huge revenue needs of this city, there a case to be made against tolls from the left.

There is a simple practical argument against the proposed tolls: they won’t raise very much money and any revenue is years away. City planners calculate about $200 million per year of new money once tolls are in place. That may sound like much but Toronto needs are in the vicinity of $30 billion just to catch up with a growing population and ageing infrastructure. And the city needs the money now.

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John Tory has challenged those who oppose the tolls to spell out the alternative. Taxing parking spaces would raise $500 million and could be done right away. Getting residential and commercial property taxes to at least match long-term inflation and beat it, even with the necessary rebates for those house-rich, income-poor, would raise another huge chunk of cash. This isn’t even getting to more creative options—many of them included in an appendix to a KPMG report commissioned by Metrolinx.

Given the revenue crisis, lefties could easily come up with a viable, progressive money-raising plan even from a list prepared by the market-friendly consultants at KPMG. A municipal income tax? Why not since the province and the feds are raising less then they used to through this measure. Even a municipal sales tax with hefty rebates for low-income and working-class folks. It’s not a question of options but political strategy.

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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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The return of the modernist left

In the past few years, what has been loosely called the modernist left has seen some revival. Whether coming out of the ultimate failures of the Occupy movement, dissatisfaction with moralistic lifestyle politics or an attempt to analyze the current conundrum of moribound but hegemonic capitalism, some have returned to the idea of the left as a modernizing force—progressive in the most literal sense. Agree with its postulates or not, this broad current on today’s left deserves to be engaged, as it seriously grapples with everything from ecology to technology to economics and the left’s strategic response to our unhappy contemporary situation. This week, I present two interviews with authors of recent books that fit squarely into this current.

First, I speak with Nick Srnicek, who, along with Alex Williams, has written Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Next, I speak with Leigh Phillips, author of the more colorfully titled Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defense of Growth Progress Industry and Stuff.

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Creative resistance: Interview with Andreas Karitzis

After Syriza accepted a third austerity memorandum for Greece and called early elections, much of its leadership left the party. Some formed Popular Unity, while others are still searching for a new home to continue the fight against austerity.

Andreas Karitzis is among the latter. Until this summer, he was a member of Syriza’s central committee and had been a key figure in the party’s electoral planning process before its triumph in January’s elections. Karitzis was also previously at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, the research center affiliated with Syriza.

Now outside Syriza, Karitzis recently spoke on my podcast about charting an anti-austerity path when a left government is responsible for implementing austerity. “The Greek experience,” Karitzis says, “teaches us that we need to go beyond electoral politics, not against it.” This transcript was originally published in Jacobin.

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What’s next for anti-austerity in Portugal and Greece?

Two updates from Southern Europe this week: Catarina Principe brings us up-to-date on the situation in Portugal and Andreas Karitzis recounts the search for a new politics in Greece after (and under the rule of) Syriza.

My first guest, Catarina Principe, is an prominent activist in Portugal’s Bloco, or Left Bloc, the country’s new broad left party. She been a member since her teenage years and has sat in the governing structures of the party. She is also a prolific writer. Most recently, she has been editing a collection of essays on the European left, to be published in May 2016. The Left Bloc gained its largest vote share ever in Portugal’s recent elections. The possibility that there might be a social democratic government that it supports has created a political crisis that today remains unresolved.

Andreas Karitzis was, until this summer, a member of Syriza’s central committee and had long been a key figure in the party. He was instrumental in the planning process after 2012 and also previously worked at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, the research centre affliated with Syriza and named after the influential Greek socialist political theorist. Like many, he is now searching for a new home to continue the fight against austerity.

To recap: Syriza maintained power in Greece after September’s general election. The party and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, also remained committed to implementing the new austerity memorandum “negotiated” with Europe’s bureaucrat and banker overlords. Since the summer, many people, including Andreas, have exited Syriza and the left has once again fractured. Andreas speaks with me about how to do politics in this new conjuncture.

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The economics of the possible and beyond

Last week, I wrote a short piece for Ricochet on the kind of simple but serious economic thinking missing from the Canadian election debate so far.  Here, I want to expand on the reasons why we might have trouble talking honestly about the barriers to significant economic reform without a real popular upsurge. If you want the short, populist argument, just read the Ricochet piece. If you want more, read on.

Here’s the main problem as articulated in the short piece:

As the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past few decades, the economic elite has grown in stature. Deficits and government spending sounds fine to them if it gets the economy going — even childcare will allow more women to go back to work and some may fill all those low-wage service jobs sitting empty because employers aren’t willing to pay more — but anything that genuinely threatens the slow upward trickle of wealth and strengthen workers too much in the workplace won’t be so happily tolerated.

This is the old tension between how much a left or centre-left economic program does to reboot economic growth and how much it also increases the expectations, capacity to organize and, ultimately, bargaining power of working people. A robust and sustained program of deficit spending, even if it is economically possible, is practically difficult in a small, open economy like Canada’s, not because our economy couldn’t benefit from it, but because businesses and money can, among other things, threaten to leave.

In other words, it is not enough to simply ask whether a program would be good “for society”. Expanding on the example above, a national childcare program can be a big help to regular, working people who have trouble otherwise affording care. At the same time, however, accessible childcare releases more women into the labour force, giving them more choice, but also providing employers with a new pool of workers. With all the crying about “labour shortages” across large chunks of the service sector (otherwise known as unwillingness to pay sufficiently high wages), this could be a boon for many industries, in particular low-wage services. In addition, if the childcare program is largely carried out through private providers, it creates a new source of government-sponsored demand for companies in the care services sector.

Depoliticizing economic questions ignores the implicit tension between the interests of growth and higher profits versus the interests of keeping a lid on the power of regular people to see their incomes and income share grow. (more…)

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This election, let’s really talk about the economy

The word ‘austerity’ is finally in the mix, but all parties stuck in the right-wing’s frame

Austerity is on the agenda of the Canadian election, as the word was finally uttered — by Justin Trudeau. Bizarrely, this came the same day as the Liberal leader rolled out his economic agenda flanked by Paul Martin, the former finance minister and prime minister who engineered deep austerity measures in the 1990s.

The way austerity has finally made it into the discussion highlights the absurdly limited nature of the economic debate so far. It’s time for a grown-up conversation about the economy in this campaign.

Right-wing frame

Politicians have been falling over each other to make economic promises they cannot keep, all the while firmly stuck in the muck of a right-wing frame. The debate has mostly been limited to whether there will be a deficit and how big, rather than the real questions of who the economy works for and why. (more…)

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Where is Canada’s mild Keynesian alternative?

You know something is up when the social democrats are trailing the centrist pundits on the economy. The space for a just a mild Keynesian alternative in Canada is wide open. Such an alternative, however, needs a political rather than merely a technocratic push.

Here is a fragment of a piece that just appeared in Canadian Business magazine and is typical of recent centrist commentary:

No one would counsel a return to unchecked spending. But the magical thinking around balanced budgets should stop. Canada’s debt is a sunk cost, not an anchor. The IMF now advises that countries with enough fiscal room to manoeuvre should think twice about reducing debt for the sake of it. If debt is manageable, economic growth should be the priority. An expanding economy will reduce the debt burden organically.

After establishing centrist credentials via the bogeyman of “unchecked spending”, the author quickly offers an argument to the left of all three major political parties, including the NDP. Debt reduction for its own sake is contrasted with restarting economic growth and there’s even an appearance of the now-common progressive appeal to the IMF as the voice of technocratic reason.

The left counterpart to this centrist line is the “Varoufakiste” argument of trying “to save capitalism from itself…to minimise the unnecessary human toll from crisis.” This argument concedes that today even the meager gains from growth that would go to the many are better than redistributive austerity that encourages stagnation amidst the “creative destruction” of social protections. It is a modest Keynesianism fit for neoliberal times. (more…)

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“Can ‘people over profits’ become a reality in Greece?”

This is the full transcript of my podcast interview with John Milios; it appeared earlier this week in Jacobin. John is a prominent figure within Syriza; he was the party’s chief economic advisor until earlier this year and is also a member of the party’s central committee, one of the 109 who signed a letter last week opposing the new memorandum.

Here, he discusses Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s decision to hold the July 5 referendum, the anti-austerity course not taken by Syriza, and how the slogan “people over profits” can become a concrete reality in Greece.

Michal Rozworski: What is the situation one week after the memorandum was agreed to and two weeks after the referendum?

John Milios: When the referendum was proclaimed, we saw an election campaign that had class and social characteristics. There were two “Greeces” fighting each other. On one side, you had roughly the poor, wage-earners, the unemployed, and the small entrepreneurs, while on the other you had the capitalists, the managerial class, the higher ranks of the state, and so on agitating for Yes.

Ultimately, a broad coalition of the social majority saw the referendum as a chance to express their commitment not to continue with austerity and neoliberalism. All this happened in a situation of fear and terror arising due to the European Central Bank’s choice to not extend Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to the Greek banks. A lot of people saw this as a scare tactic and started withdrawing money. Ultimately, it led to a bank holiday. (more…)

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