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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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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Poland’s Iron Consensus

The new Polish parliament represents a full spectrum of opinion — from the liberal right to the populist right to the ultra-conservative right.

The relatively monolithic composition is hardly a surprise. With a solid right-wing electoral consensus before the October 25 elections, the Right’s strong showing just signaled that its hegemony is firmly intact. The ultra-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) won an outright majority of seats, replacing the center-right Citizen’s Platform (PO), which came in second.

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Meanwhile, the compromised social-democratic post-Communists and the young, new left were completely shut out. If the Polish left is to revive itself and break today’s iron consensus, it must learn from this election and the past decade of right-wing rule.

Winners and Losers

Despite being considered a winner of post-Communist transition, Poland has experienced very uneven development; vast amounts of wasted human capacity, social dislocation, and poverty coexist with pockets of wealth and success. The transition has produced a small upper-middle class and a much larger class far behind, leading many young Poles to emigrate in search of something better — the largest single emigration in recent European history.

In the quarter-century since 1989, Poland’s capitalist transformation has been marked by a relatively unbroken sequence of reforms — carried out by everyone from ex-Communist apparatchiks to Catholic arch-conservatives — that have ushered in not only capitalism but its harsh neoliberal variant. The country’s initial transformation began with a heavy dose of “shock therapy” in the early 1990s, while the past two decades have brought a more measured pace of reform that is slowly completing the neoliberal revolution. (more…)

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Climate and the state – refugees in Europe

Two interviews this week on two human-made crises: first, my conversation author and academic Christian Parenti on the climate crisis and the role of the state followed by journalist Jesse Rosenfeld with an update on the refugee crisis in Europe.

Christian Parenti is author of numerous books, most recently Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, and he teaches in the Labour Studies program at NYU. He spoke with me about the complex relationship between the state and climate change mitigation under capitalism, also the subject of a recent article of his in Jacobin. Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Beirut who spent significant time in Europe covering this summer’s wave of migration, producing, among other things, an excellent series of articles for The Nation magazine. An accurate picture of the refugee migration into Europe is all the more important today, when it is certain that refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and other countries will be on the receiving end of a backlash in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

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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 New Europeans: Like the Old on Greece

Poland’s man in Brussels, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, has truly settled into his shoes as a new member of the European elite. On Tuesday, he issued the stern warning: “Our inability to find agreement may lead to the bankruptcy of Greece and the insolvency of its banking system. And for sure, it will be most painful for the Greek people.”

Such threats are common currency among Euro-elites. Tusk shows just how well the Polish political class, alongside those of the other Eastern European countries, has been integrated into the power structures and ideology of neoliberal Europe.

At home, the Polish Prime Minister as well as her Minister of European Affairs have also derided Syriza as populist and dismissed its appeals to democracy. They echo an increasingly integrated elite across all of Europe that prizes technocracy over democracy, has learned to play divide and conquer at home and is ready to use the language of the Mafioso when it comes to anyone not playing by the rules. (more…)

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Europe ready to kill Greece to keep TINA alive

My latest piece on Greece was published yesterday at Ricochet. In short, Europe and the IMF’s message that ‘there still is no alternative’ proves that objective of punitive austerity is political, not economic. Here it is in full:

The project’s aim is to make an example of Greece and solidify austerity as the only option within a Europe united by elite interests. Emergency summits, duelling proposals, trickles of banking system support and stern warnings create an economic veneer to paper over ultimately political aims.

Take the latest “compromise” proposal made yesterday by Greece’s ruling party Syriza. It offers a whopping additional €8 billion in austerity measures over the next year and a half. These measures amount to 1.5 per cent of GDP in 2015 and nearly 3 per cent of GDP in 2016. Rather than a compact for growth, or even stability, Europe has squeezed out yet more painful austerity that will make it much harder for Greece to escape its 21st-century Great Depression.

It is “not the right moment” to discuss debt relief, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the EU Commission, was quoted saying, despite the increasing concessions. This is the political, not economic, function of the Greek debt. It’s not the right moment economically to discuss the debt because Greece has long been insolvent, its debt repayments kept on track by drip-fed funding via subsequent agreements of austerity. Politically, it’s never the right moment, because each new agreement maintains austerity as the only possible option. (more…)

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The roots of the Greece crisis in European integration and what this means for the future

euro-373008_640As the simmering crisis between Greece and the institutions formerly known as the Troika heats up again, it’s a good time to look once more at the roots of the European crisis and what they mean for the possibilities open before Syriza at the present juncture. Greece is being squeezed by Europe: it’s cash is about to run out, they’ve been limited from raising new funds on bond markets and are being asked for ever greater concessions in terms of the reforms. Indeed, the red lines for compromise are right under Syriza’s feet and it’s possible that Greece will be pushed out of the euro. More likely, however, Greece may attempt to issue some kind of quasi-money while staying in the Euro if the institutions do not back down. Regardless of what happens, it is important to understand the last few decades of European integration to fully grasp the costs and dangers of exit from the Euro and imagine a solidarity that could join workers across Europe.

To these ends, I’ve interviewed Riccardo Bellofiore and Ingo Schmidt this week. Riccardo teaches economics at the University of Bergamo in Italy. Ingo, on the other hand, teaches at Athabasca University here in Canada but maintains close ties with Germany, writing frequently for the press there. Both Riccardo and Ingo have written extensively about the nature of contemporary capitalism, the process of European integration and the crisis of social democracy. I’m happy to have had a chance to speak with both of them.

Ingo discusses the German economy, Germany’s role in the European crisis and the possibilities for Europe-wide solidarity. My conversation with Riccardo focuses on European integration, the roots of the Greek crisis and the costs of Euro exit — a strategy Riccardo cautions against pursuing deliberately based on an economic analysis of the degree of European integration and the tremendous social costs and risk facing a country choosing to leave.

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Syriza buys four months of breathing room

Belatedly, here is an article I wrote on Greece’s agreement with the Eurozone for Ricochet. It focuses on the next four months with their opportunities and pitfalls. Given that the list of reforms authored by Yanis Varoufakis looks to get the approval of the Eurogroup member states, the article remains relevant, the breathing room actually in place.

Assuming its plan of reforms is accepted by the Eurogroup on Monday, Greece’s Syriza government has gained four months of breathing room — albeit in the same stuffy space, already full of the nauseating fumes of austerity, the window barely cracked.

No one was humiliated in Friday’s compromise between Greece and the Eurogroup. Nevertheless, Syriza had to concede much, most painfully the continued involvement of external observers from the Troika. In return, Germany’s no-compromise hard line was finally broken. Friday concluded but the first skirmish in a long battle.

If anything, the resulting agreement demonstrates the weakness of Syriza’s position. Syriza has inherited an economy and financial system in tatters — years of economic depression compounded by sadistic austerity. Yet its leaders, for now, calculate that change outside the bounds of European institutions, including the euro, would open the gates to something far worse. Whatever the precise distribution of gains and losses, which will only come to light as the agreement is implemented, the fact remains that Syriza has four months to act.

Four months to stop the bleeding

First, of course, there is the pressing need to start enacting change in state policy. Existing austerity measures will be hard to dislodge for the time being. But breathing room means that Syriza will be able to spend more, even run a smaller primary surplus this year than stipulated in the old program, perhaps by up to 3 per cent of GDP. It can also start breaking the old oligarchy’s grip on the Greek economy and go after the unpaid taxes of the rich.

Beyond this, there is space for creativity. One Greek journalist tweeted that he’d already overheard Greece’s delegation at the Eurogroup talking about creative ways to raise the minimum wage. Though a far cry from simply raising the minimum wage, such creativity would be a testament to Europe’s intransigence.

Altogether this amounts to a program that can stop the bleeding and subtly fortify the patient before the next round of negotiations. (more…)

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Creditors enabling rapprochement within Syriza?

I’m starting to cautiously think that the Varoufakis and Lapavitsas “approaches” to the crisis might end up not too far away from each other even though the strategic direction they have advocated is very different. The situation, especially after today’s hardening of the creditors’ stance at the Eurogroup, may simply force it. The other option is that this is the intense posturing phase just before a bridging agreement, in which case the following would be less applicable for the time being. Like Paul Krugman, however, I’m inclined to think that the EU is serious in possibly forcing a crisis — with creditors and “Northerners” having the upper hand in the camp facing Greece.

In fact, reading Lapavitsas and Flassbeck’s very recent e-book on the European crisis (recommended), I’m struck with how much of the structural analysis of the causes of the crisis the authors share with Varoufakis. Both use Keynes to similar effect; both have Marx in the background. Both ascribe the debt crisis to current account imbalances across the EU driven largely by wage repression in Germany. Of course, this is not to collapse the two approaches. Crucially, they draw very different conclusions in terms of what the analysis of the causes of the crisis mean for political possibilities.

wpid-wp-1424137430154.jpegBut look at how things are playing out. I think Varoufakis is honest when he says he doesn’t have a complex, game-theory-based bargaining strategy. It was a smart strategic choice on the part of Syriza to place him at the helm of the negotiations simply in order to have the EU force the issue in the face of this “naive” goodwill — one that, let us hope, will nevertheless not accept further austerity. The one thing Varoufakis isn’t saying is that behind “I don’t have a Plan B” lies the fact that the creditors may simply force a Plan B.

(more…)

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