John Pilger: The Issue Is Not Donald Trump. It Is Us.


January 18, 2017

John Pilger: The Issue Is Not Donald Trump. It Is Us.

US president elect, Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore, Flickr).

Donald Trump. for all his flaws, is not Barack Obama, an American President who has set new lows in foreign slaughter and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the mega-rich, writes John Pilger.

On the day President Trump is inaugurated, thousands of writers in the United States will express their indignation. “In order for us to heal and move forward…,” say Writers Resist, “we wish to bypass direct political discourse, in favour of an inspired focus on the future, and how we, as writers, can be a unifying force for the protection of democracy.”

And: “We urge local organizers and speakers to avoid using the names of politicians or adopting ‘anti’ language as the focus for their Writers Resist event. It’s important to ensure that nonprofit organizations, which are prohibited from political campaigning, will feel confident participating in and sponsoring these events.”

Thus, real protest is to be avoided, for it is not tax exempt.

Compare such drivel with the declarations of the Congress of American Writers, held at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1935, and again two years later. They were electric events, with writers discussing how they could confront ominous events in Abyssinia, China and Spain. Telegrams from Thomas Mann, C Day Lewis, Upton Sinclair and Albert Einstein were read out, reflecting the fear that great power was now rampant and that it had become impossible to discuss art and literature without politics or, indeed, direct political action.

“A writer,” the journalist Martha Gellhorn told the second congress, “must be a man of action now… A man who has given a year of his life to steel strikes, or to the unemployed, or to the problems of racial prejudice, has not lost or wasted time. He is a man who has known where he belonged. If you should survive such action, what you have to say about it afterwards is the truth, is necessary and real, and it will last.”

Her words echo across the unction and violence of the Obama era and the silence of those who colluded with his deceptions.

That the menace of rapacious power – rampant long before the rise of Trump – has been accepted by writers, many of them privileged and celebrated, and by those who guard the gates of literary criticism, and culture, including popular culture, is uncontroversial. Not for them the impossibility of writing and promoting literature bereft of politics. Not for them the responsibility to speak out, regardless of who occupies the White House.

US Democrat presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. (IMAGE: Pan Photo, Flickr)

The Defeated Democratic Party Candidate Hillary Clinton who ran a Obama Copycat Policy Campaign–Americans want Change in Washington DC.

Today, false symbolism is all. “Identity” is all. In 2016, Hillary Clinton stigmatised millions of voters as “a basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it”. Her abuse was handed out at an LGBT rally as part of her cynical campaign to win over minorities by abusing a white mostly working-class majority. Divide and rule, this is called; or identity politics in which race and gender conceal class, and allow the waging of class war. Trump understood this.

“When the truth is replaced by silence,” said the Soviet dissident poet Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie.”

This is not an American phenomenon. A few years ago, Terry Eagleton, then Professor of English literature at Manchester University, reckoned that “for the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life”.

No Shelley speaks for the poor, no Blake for utopian dreams, no Byron damns the corruption of the ruling class, no Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin reveal the moral disaster of capitalism. William Morris, Oscar Wilde, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw have no equivalents today. Harold Pinter was the last to raise his voice. Among today’s insistent voices of consumer-feminism, none echoes Virginia Woolf, who described “the arts of dominating other people… of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital”.

There is something both venal and profoundly stupid about famous writers as they venture outside their cosseted world and embrace an “issue”. Across the Review section of the Guardian on 10 December was a dreamy picture of Barack Obama looking up to the heavens and the words, “Amazing Grace” and “Farewell the Chief”.

The sycophancy ran like a polluted babbling brook through page after page. “He was a vulnerable figure in many ways…. But the grace. The all-encompassing grace: in manner and form, in argument and intellect, with humour and cool …. [He] is a blazing tribute to what has been, and what can be again… He seems ready to keep fighting, and remains a formidable champion to have on our side… … The grace … the almost surreal levels of grace….”

44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. (IMAGE: Marc Nozell, Flickr)

I have conflated these quotes. There are others even more hagiographic and bereft of mitigation. The Guardian’s chief apologist for Obama, Gary Younge, has always been careful to mitigate, to say that his hero “could have done more”: oh, but there were the “calm, measured and consensual solutions….”

None of them, however, could surpass the American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the recipient of a “genius” grant worth $625,000 from a liberal foundation. In an interminable essay for The Atlantic entitled, “My President Was Black”, Coates brought new meaning to prostration. The final “chapter”, entitled “When You Left, You Took All of Me With You”, a line from a Marvin Gaye song, describes seeing the Obamas “rising out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity”. The Ascension, no less.

One of the persistent strands in American political life is a cultish extremism that approaches fascism. This was given expression and reinforced during the two terms of Barack Obama. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being,” said Obama, who expanded America’s favourite military pastime, bombing, and death squads (“special operations”) as no other president has done since the Cold War.

According to a Council on Foreign Relations survey, in 2016 alone Obama dropped 26,171 bombs. That is 72 bombs every day. He bombed the poorest people on earth, in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan.

Every Tuesday – reported the New York Times – he personally selected those who would be murdered by mostly hellfire missiles fired from drones. Weddings, funerals, shepherds were attacked, along with those attempting to collect the body parts festooning the “terrorist target”. A leading Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, estimated, approvingly, that Obama’s drones killed 4,700 people. “Sometimes you hit innocent people and I hate that,” he said, but we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al Qaeda.”

Like the fascism of the 1930s, big lies are delivered with the precision of a metronome: thanks to an omnipresent media whose description now fits that of the Nuremberg prosecutor. “Before each major aggression, with some few exceptions based on expediency, they initiated a press campaign calculated to weaken their victims and to prepare the German people psychologically…. In the propaganda system… it was the daily press and the radio that were the most important weapons.”

Take the catastrophe in Libya. In 2011, Obama said Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi was planning “genocide” against his own people. “We knew… that if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

This was the known lie of Islamist militias facing defeat by Libyan government forces. It became the media story; and Nato – led by Obama and Hillary Clinton – launched 9,700 “strike sorties” against Libya, of which more than a third were aimed at civilian targets. Uranium warheads were used; the cities of Misurata and Sirte were carpet-bombed. The Red Cross identified mass graves, and Unicef reported that “most [of the children killed]were under the age of 10”.

Under Obama, the US has extended secret “special forces” operations to 138 countries, or 70 per cent of the world’s population. The first African-American president launched what amounted to a full-scale invasion of Africa. Reminiscent of the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, the US African Command (Africom) has built a network of supplicants among collaborative African regimes eager for American bribes and armaments. Africom’s “soldier to soldier” doctrine embeds US officers at every level of command from general to warrant officer. Only pith helmets are missing.

It is as if Africa’s proud history of liberation, from Patrice Lumumba to Nelson Mandela, is consigned to oblivion by a new master’s black colonial elite whose “historic mission”, warned Frantz Fanon half a century ago, is the promotion of “a capitalism rampant though camouflaged”.

It was Obama who, in 2011, announced what became known as the “pivot to Asia”, in which almost two-thirds of US naval forces would be transferred to the Asia-Pacific to “confront China”, in the words of his Defence Secretary. There was no threat from China; the entire enterprise was unnecessary. It was an extreme provocation to keep the Pentagon and its demented brass happy.

In 2014, Obama’s administration oversaw and paid for a fascist-led coup in Ukraine against the democratically elected government, threatening Russia in the western borderland through which Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, with a loss of 27 million lives. It was Obama who placed missiles in Eastern Europe aimed at Russia, and it was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who increased spending on nuclear warheads to a level higher than that of any administration since the cold war – having promised, in an emotional speech in Prague, to “help rid the world of nuclear weapons”.

Obama, the constitutional lawyer, prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other president in history, even though the US constitution protects them. He declared Chelsea Manning guilty before the end of a trial that was a travesty. He has refused to pardon Manning who has suffered years of inhumane treatment which the UN says amounts to torture. He has pursued an entirely bogus case against Julian Assange. He promised to close the Guantanamo concentration camp and didn’t.

Following the public relations disaster of George W. Bush, Obama, the smooth operator from Chicago via Harvard, was enlisted to restore what he calls “leadership” throughout the world. The Nobel Prize committee’s decision was part of this: the kind of cloying reverse racism that beatified the man for no reason other than he was attractive to liberal sensibilities and, of course, American power, if not to the children he kills in impoverished, mostly Muslim countries.

US president Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama has pardoned Chelsea Manning

This is the Call of Obama. It is not unlike a dog whistle: inaudible to most, irresistible to the besotted and boneheaded, especially “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics,” as Luciana Bohne put it. “When Obama walks into a room,” gushed George Clooney, “you want to follow him somewhere, anywhere.”

William I. Robinson, Professor at the University of California, and one of an uncontaminated group of American strategic thinkers who have retained their independence during the years of intellectual dog-whistling since 9/11, wrote this last week:

“President Barack Obama… may have done more than anyone to assure [Donald] Trump’s victory. While Trump’s election has triggered a rapid expansion of fascist currents in US civil society, a fascist outcome for the political system is far from inevitable…. But that fight back requires clarity as to how we got to such a dangerous precipice. The seeds of 21st century fascism were planted, fertilized and watered by the Obama administration and the politically bankrupt liberal elite.”

Robinson points out that “whether in its 20th or its emerging 21st century variants, fascism is, above all, a response to deep structural crises of capitalism, such as that of the 1930s and the one that began with the financial meltdown in 2008…. There is a near-straight line here from Obama to Trump…. The liberal elite’s refusal to challenge the rapaciousness of transnational capital and its brand of identity politics served to eclipse the language of the working and popular classes… pushing white workers into an ‘identity’ of white nationalism and helping the neo-fascists to organise them”.

The seedbed is Obama’s Weimar Republic, a landscape of endemic poverty, militarised police and barbaric prisons: the consequence of a “market” extremism which, under his presidency, prompted the transfer of $14 trillion in public money to criminal enterprises in Wall Street.

Perhaps his greatest “legacy” is the co-option and disorientation of any real opposition. Bernie Sanders’ specious “revolution” does not apply. Propaganda is his triumph.

The lies about Russia – in whose elections the US has openly intervened – have made the world’s most self-important journalists laughing stocks. In the country with constitutionally the freest press in the world, free journalism now exists only in its honourable exceptions.

The obsession with Trump is a cover for many of those calling themselves “left/liberal”, as if to claim political decency. They are not “left”, neither are they especially “liberal”. Much of America’s aggression towards the rest of humanity has come from so-called liberal Democratic administrations – such as Obama’s.

US president elect, Donald Trump.

45th US President (wef January 20, 2017) Donald Trump.

America’s political spectrum extends from the mythical centre to the lunar right. The “left” are homeless renegades Martha Gellhorn described as “a rare and wholly admirable fraternity”. She excluded those who confuse politics with a fixation on their navels.

While they “heal” and “move forward”, will the Writers Resist campaigners and other anti-Trumpists reflect upon this? More to the point: when will a genuine movement of opposition arise? Angry, eloquent, all-for-one-and-one-for all. Until real politics return to people’s lives, the enemy is not Trump, it is ourselves.

Trump’s Unrealpolitik


January 7, 2017

Trump’s Unrealpolitik

by Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.–http://www.project-syndicate.org

Some in the United States have praised President-elect Donald Trump for his supposed realism. He will do what is right for America, they argue, without getting caught up in thorny moral dilemmas, or letting himself be carried away by some grand sense of responsibility for the rest of the world. By acting with the shrewd pragmatism of a businessman, he will make America stronger and more prosperous.

This view is, to be frank, delusional.

Image result for Greek historian Thucydides

It is certainly true that Trump will not be caught up in questions of morality. He is precisely what the Greek historian Thucydides defined as an immoral leader: one of “violent character” who “wins over the people by deceiving them” and by exploiting “their angry feelings and emotions.”

But immorality is neither desirable nor a necessary feature of realism. (Thucydides himself was an ethical realist.) And there is little to suggest that Trump has any of the other realist qualities that his supporters see. How could anyone expect the proudly unpredictable and deeply uninformed Trump to execute grand strategic designs, such as the Realpolitik recommended by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, Henry Kissinger’s biographer, following the election?

Image result for Harvard’s Niall Ferguson on Realpolitik Quote

Ferguson, like Kissinger, believes that true Realpolitik under Trump should begin with an alliance among the US, China, and Russia, based on a mutual fear of Islamic extremism and a shared desire to exploit lesser powers to boost their own economies. These countries would agree to prevent Europe from attaining great-power status (by destroying the European Union), and to ensure that populist or authoritarian governments control the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members.

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To this end, Trump could work with Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s anti-EU nationalist right, win April’s presidential election. Moreover, in order to consolidate a post-EU Anglo-Atlantic sphere, Trump could transform the North American Free-Trade Agreement into a North Atlantic arrangement, replacing Mexico with the United Kingdom. Finally, he could put pressure on NATO members to pay more for defense – a move that would surely undermine the security of the Baltic states and Ukraine.

Achieving these goals would require more than an ability to avoid moral impediments. Like all statecraft, it would require an aptitude for careful diplomatic engineering, respect for facts and truth, historical knowledge, and a capacity for cautious examination of complex situations when formulating (or revising) policies.

Yet Trump is the most anarchic, capricious, and inconsistent individual ever to occupy the White House, and all he has to help guide him is a cabinet full of billionaire deal-makers like him, preoccupied with calculable immediate interests. For them, casting off allies might seem like an easy way to streamline decision-making (and boost share prices).

But repudiating America’s role as a global beacon – and thus the idea of American exceptionalism – is a bad bet for the future. Scrapping free-trade deals with Asia and Latin America, for example, could provide a short-term gain for the US economy; but doing so would ultimately undercut the projection of American power there, paving the way for penetration by China.

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The US should be aiming to curtail China’s influence without incurring its wrath. Another lesson from Thucydides – reinforced by historical experience – is that rising, not established, powers tend to upset the international order.

Protecting that order requires the main global power to uphold the institutions that underpin it, in order to prevent revolutionary behavior by lesser powers. Yet Trump has criticized and disregarded international institutions to such an extent that it is now China that is defending global governance – including the Paris agreement on climate change and the nuclear deal with Iran – from a revolutionary US.

Worse, Trump has seemingly abandoned all caution with regard to China. On the diplomatic front, by speaking directly with the president of Taiwan after the election, he violated a protocol maintained for four decades, by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. On the economic front, he has leveled reckless (and plainly wrong) accusations that China is manipulating its currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.

Provoking China, doubting NATO, and threatening trade wars is nihilism, not strategy. At this point, Trump seems set to do on a global scale what former President George W. Bush did to the Middle East – intentionally destabilize the old order, and then fail to create a new one. The first step would be a deal with Putin on Syria – a move that, like Bush’s defeat of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, would amount to handing a victory to Iran.

This is not to say that none of the Realpolitik envisioned by Ferguson will come to fruition. But what elements of it do emerge will likely be driven more by Putin than by Trump – with dangerous outcomes. Already, Putin has begun work on dismantling the EU. After Le Pen was refused credit from French banks, Russian banks saved her campaign. And Russian state-sponsored propaganda is helping to drive former Soviet republics away from the EU.

Trump, a vocal Putin fan, is unlikely to redress the tilting balance of power as part of, let alone as a condition for, a diplomatic “reset” with Russia. What kind of a realist would not use a united Western alliance to limit a Russia that is trying to engineer a return to Cold War spheres of influence?

And, for that matter, what kind of a realist sends to Israel an Ambassador whose pro-settlement rhetoric threatens to inflame the entire Muslim world against the US? What is so realistic about a war of annihilation against the Islamic State that is not backed by a plan for engagement with the broader Middle East?

Trump might have some realistic instincts. But they will not be enough to ensure measured responses to even the slightest provocation, much less to underpin a sweeping and consistent strategy.

Putting the Pacific on China’s Radar


January 6, 2017

Image result for Asia-Pacific Bulletin

Number 366 | January 5, 2017

ANALYSIS

Putting the Pacific on China’s Radar

by Tristan Kenderdine

As China’s foreign direct investment strategy is increasingly formalized into international capacity cooperation funds, Pacific Island economies are struggling to engage China’s broader Belt and Road policies. While Beijing’s investment and trade strategy continues to transform the ocean corridor west from Southern China to Southeast India, the South Pacific looks to be orphaned through yet another period of history. However, the Pacific Islands Forum economies have a huge opportunity to align with China’s global geo-strategy through the new capacity cooperation financing mechanisms.

In 2016, China embarked on a massive capacity cooperation funding campaign to develop a parallel trading system which bypasses international capital infrastructure and allows China to invest abroad while maintaining a closed capital account. This campaign forms the vanguard of a state trade strategy with a transformative power over the macro Asian region. Targeted economies include Central Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and most recently Central and Eastern Europe.

Both the People’s Republic and the Republic of China have long engaged in aid-for-diplomacy strategies in Pacific Island states. However Beijing now sees a crossroads emerging between South America and China through the Pacific, and has a new strategic interest which goes beyond the Taiwan issue.

China’s slowing industrial economy has also seen a growing desperation from Beijing to offshore industrial growth. Foreign direct investment from Chinese state-driven infrastructure projects has increasingly found its way to states recognizing the People’s Republic: Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, and the Federated States of Micronesia. Despite this, no specific capacity cooperation funds – the finance mechanism for Belt and Road offshoring industrial capacity – have yet been earmarked for Pacific Island states.

China’s wider ocean strategy includes industrial and agribusiness offshore investment. Its Pacific Island trade and investment strategy is run through Guangdong Province and provincial level cities there which coordinate investment in Pacific Island fisheries, agriculture, and infrastructure.

The more specific Belt and Road strategy links China’s eastern and southern port cities with Europe via the Indian Ocean port system. Designated trading routes pass through the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits, then through Myanmar and Sri Lanka on the way past India, and the Middle East toward European sea terminals in Greece, Turkey and Italy.

Pacific Island countries sit at a different crossroads, between South America and China’s East Coast. The development of China’s rail and canal projects is opening logistics infrastructure hubs in South and Central America. This means that a new South Pacific shipping corridor is likely to open up.

A deep-water container port at a half-way point could replicate Dubai’s air strategy on the sea. Fiji becoming a maritime Dubai would bring investment to the region and facilitate trans-Pacific trade logistics. As Papua New Guinea has benefited from liquefied natural gas exports to Taiwan, China and Japan, so too can other Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian island economies find new trade avenues into the Asian mainland.

Containerized intermodal shipping logistics and refrigerated shipping will see huge demand as China’s domestic cold-chain logistics system develops. Chinese demand for a variety of commodities from South and Central America will see increased demand for both soft and hard commodities shipping. A global downturn in shipping paired with an oversupply of ships creates opportunity for Pacific Island countries to develop trade routes while infrastructure is affordable.

South Pacific fisheries and food industrialization present an opportunity to feed China’s huge and growing demand for fish protein that neither global wild catch nor industrial aquaculture can currently service. Mariculture, landing stations and harbor infrastructure, fish processing facilities, and aquaculture development all hold potential for Pacific Island economies. Fish processing facilities could leverage Chinese investment in infrastructure, build aquaculture employment bases and export clean fish products to the Chinese mainland. China’s distant water fleets already exploit wild-catch in both the Pacific and Southern Oceans and China has a huge demand for high-quality, safe, standardized food.

Gene industrialization and gene research is a key strategic industry for China. Legal and organizational developments in seed and animal genetics are laying the groundwork for China to become a world leader in genetics. Interest in biodiversity in the Pacific and the seabed are clear. Negotiations on Biological Diversity Beyond Areas of National Jurisdiction demonstrate China’s interest in marine biodiversity.

“Commerce with China [could] build the Pacific Islands into a genuine trade bloc.”

China is also at the forefront of international seabed mining, taking a leading role in the International Seabed Authority. Chinese state owned enterprise, China Ocean Mineral Resource Research and Development Association currently has 15-year exploratory rights over areas in the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone, searching for ferromanganese, cobalt and polymetallic nodules. As more industrialized nations engage in the 21st century submarine land-grab, the Pacific Island economies are sitting on more land than most continental countries that, if leveraged well, could bring huge benefit to their populations.

Aerospace technologies, satellite communications and space policy are also rapidly being developed by China, which has signaled a desire to create a network of floating satellite ground stations. Given an increasing constellation of satellites and more sophisticated use, China needs reliable communications surface stations in the South Pacific.

China also faces a dependency on US controlled submarine internet communications lines. The global internet infrastructure is dependent on cables lying across the ocean floor such as Blue Sky – the proposed line from New Zealand to the US. China has already laid its own cables between South America and Africa, and faces bottlenecks to both service and security in the Hawaiian dominated north Pacific. A South Pacific communications route to South America would be invaluable to China, and access to this cable infrastructure would be equally valuable to Pacific Island economies.

In 2016, China embarked on a massive capacity cooperation funding campaign to develop a parallel trading system which bypasses international capital infrastructure and allows China to invest abroad while maintaining a closed capital account. This campaign forms the vanguard of a state trade strategy with a transformative power over the macro Asian region. Targeted economies include Central Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and most recently Central and Eastern Europe.

Both the People’s Republic and the Republic of China have long engaged in aid-for-diplomacy strategies in Pacific Island states. However Beijing now sees a crossroads emerging between South America and China through the Pacific, and has a new strategic interest which goes beyond the Taiwan issue.

Thinking of China as a net exporter of capital goods, and importer of consumer goods, means small economies plugged into China need pay attention to consumer sentiment and behavior in the country. China’s wider geopolitical and marine strategies will bring investment and infrastructure to Pacific Island economies. This capital of course comes with state mercantilist strategies attached. However, access to these consumer markets will allow Pacific Island exports to feed China’s demand for fish protein, hydrocarbons, minerals, biopharmaceuticals and marine energy.

Outside analysis of economic development in the Pacific has too long focused on tourism, remittance and aid, ignoring the export potential of the island economies. As the Pacific Island economies increasingly engage with global trade, capital investment from China can help to develop industrial infrastructure for further regional economic integration. While both Chinese capital and construction projects present sustainability and quality problems, an impending wave of investment should be harnessed by the Pacific Islands Forum as an opportunity for capital, infrastructure and economic development for the region as a contiguous whole. Let commerce with China build the Pacific Islands into a genuine trade bloc and let us banish dependency economics once and for all.

About the Author

Tristan Kenderdine is Research Director at Future Risk and Assistant Professor at Dalian Maritime University. He can be contacted at Tristan.Kenderdine@anu.edu.au.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington D.C

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington D.C.
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington D.C.

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The Abandonment of Progress


January 4, 2016

 

Image result for obama hope posterGoodbye to Audacity of Hope

In 2008, US President Barack Obama campaigned on “hope” and “change we can believe in.” The substantive response to the reactionary revival must be to give content to this largely unfulfilled promise.

The Abandonment of Progress

by Jean Pisani-Ferry

Jean Pisani- Ferry is a Professor at the Hertie School of Governance (Berlin) and Sciences Po (Paris). He currently serves as Commissioner-General of France Stratégie, a public policy advisory institution.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/populism-and-abandonment-of-progress-by-jean-pisani-ferry-2017-01

Image result for reagan and thatcher

Welcome to Strange Brew and Nostalgia

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are remembered for the laissez-faire revolution they launched in the early 1980s. They campaigned and won on the promise that free-market capitalism would unleash growth and boost prosperity. In 2016, Nigel Farage, the then-leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) who masterminded Brexit, and US President-elect Donald Trump campaigned and won on a very different basis: nostalgia. Tellingly, their promises were to “take back control” and “make America great again” – in other words, to turn back the clock.

As Columbia University’s Mark Lilla has observed, the United Kingdom and the US are not alone in experiencing a reactionary revival. In many advanced and emerging countries, the past suddenly seems to have much more appeal than the future. In France, Marine Le Pen, the nationalist right’s candidate in the upcoming presidential election, explicitly appeals to the era when the French government controlled the borders, protected industry, and managed the currency. Such solutions worked in the 1960s, the National Front leader claims, so implementing them now would bring back prosperity.

Obviously, such appeals have struck a chord with electorates throughout the West. The main factor underlying this shift in public attitudes is that many citizens have lost faith in progress. They no longer believe that the future will bring them material improvement and that their children will have a better life than their own. They look backward because they are afraid to look ahead.

Progress has lost its shine for several reasons. The first is a decade of dismal economic performance: for anyone below the age of 30, especially in Europe, the new normal is recession and stagnation. The toll taken by the financial crisis has been heavy. Furthermore, the pace of productivity gains in the advanced countries (and to a large extent in emerging countries) remains disappointingly low. As a result, there is very little in the way of income gains to distribute – and even less in aging societies where fewer people are at work and those out of work live longer. This grim reality may not last (not all economists agree that it will); but citizens can be forgiven for taking reality at face value.

The second reason progress has lost credibility is that the digital revolution risks undermining the middle class that formed the backbone of the post-war societies of the world’s advanced economies. As long as technological progress was destroying unskilled jobs, the straightforward policy response was education. Robotization and artificial intelligence are destroying medium-skilled jobs, leading to a polarized labor market, with jobs created at the two ends of the wage distribution. For those whose skills have lost value and whose jobs are threatened by automation, this hardly counts as “progress.”

A third, related, reason is the massively skewed distribution of national income gains that prevails in many countries. Social progress rested on the promise that the benefits of technological and economic advancement would be shared. But recent path-breaking research by Raj Chetty and his colleagues shows that whereas 90% of US adults born in the early 1940s earned more than their parents, this proportion has steadily declined ever since, to 50% for those born in the mid-1980s. Only one-quarter of this decline is due to slower economic growth; the remainder is attributable to an increasingly unequal distribution of income. When inequality reaches such proportions, it erodes the very basis of the social contract. It is impossible to speak of overall progress when children have an even chance of being worse off than their parents.

Fourth, the new inequality has a politically salient spatial dimension. Educated, professionally successful people increasingly marry and live close to one another, mostly in large, prosperous metropolitan areas. Those left out also marry and live close to one another, mostly in depressed areas or small towns. The result, reckon the Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro and Sifan Liu, is that US counties won by Trump account for just 36% of GDP, whereas won by Hillary Clinton account for 64%. Massive spatial inequality creates large communities of people with no future, where the prevailing aspiration can only be to turn back the clock.

Faith in progress was a key provision of the political and social contract of the post-war decades. It was always a part of the left’s DNA; but the right embraced it as well. After what happened in 2016, support for a concept forged in the Enlightenment can no longer be taken for granted.

For anyone who believes that progress should remain the compass guiding societies in the twenty-first century, the priority is to redefine it in today’s context and to spell out the corresponding policy agenda.

Even leaving aside other important dimensions of the issue – such as fear of globalization, growing ethical doubts about contemporary technologies, and concerns about the environmental consequences of growth – redefining progress is a challenge of daunting magnitude. This is partly because a sensible agenda must simultaneously address its macroeconomic, educational, distributional, and spatial dimensions. It is also because yesterday’s solutions belong to the past: a social compact designed for an environment of high-growth, equalizing technological progress won’t help address the problems of a low-growth world of divisive technological innovation.

In short, social justice is not a matter only for fair-weather environments. For several decades, growth has served as a substitute for sensible social cohesion policies. What advanced societies need now are social compacts that are resilient to demographic shifts, technological disruptions, and economic shocks.

In 2008, US President Barack Obama campaigned on “hope” and “change we can believe in.” The substantive response to the reactionary revival must be to give content to this largely unfulfilled promise.

 

PS Most-Read on Economics & World Affairs 2016


January 4, 2017

PS Most-Read on Economics & World Affairs 2016

https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/ps-ten-most-read-commentaries-on-politics-2016-12

Image result for Project Syndicate.orgPresident-Elect Donald J. Trump

Political rage went global in 2016, fueling a populist backlash across the democratic world and appalling terrorist violence in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. Here is a selection of commentaries – of the year’s 1,140 published by Project Syndicate – on the global political upheaval of the last 12 months, and its economic causes and consequences, that resonated most with our online readers. http://www.project-syndicate.org

The Year of the Demagogue: how 2016 changed Democracy


December 30, 2016

The Year of the Demagogue: how 2016 changed Democracy

by Lionel Barber–The Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/7e82da50-c184-11e6-9bca-2b93a6856354

From Brexit to Donald Trump, this year has seen a thundering repudiation of the status quo

Image result for donald trump person of the year 2016

On the morning of June 21, two days before the Brexit referendum, I met David Cameron in Downing Street. During a 25-minute conversation, the Prime Minister assured me that everything would be all right on the night. I wasn’t entirely convinced.

In hindsight, Brexit defined 2016. This was the year when the unthinkable became possible, the marginal invaded the mainstream, and Donald Trump, a property tycoon and television host, was elevated to US Commander-in-Chief.

Image result for Present at the Creation (1969), Dean Acheson

In his memoir Present at the Creation (1969), Dean Acheson, a former US Secretary of State, describes how he and fellow “Wise Men” helped President Harry Truman to build a new liberal, rule-based order after the Second World War. It was founded on institutions: the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the NATO alliance.

In 2016, as Trump dismissed NATO as “obsolete” and his consigliere Newt Gingrich described Estonia as a suburb of St Petersburg, it felt at times as if we were present at the destruction.

Acheson epitomised the East Coast establishment. He was a diplomat, lawyer and scholar — an expert, if you like. This year, the establishment was hammered, the experts humbled. Most missed Brexit. Many declared a Trump victory impossible. Michael Gove, a leading Brexiter, caught the public mood: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”’Trump won by attacking the Republican party as much as his Democratic opponent’ © Getty Images

Brexit and the Trump triumph mark a revolutionary moment. Not quite 1789 or 1989, but certainly a thundering repudiation of the status quo. Some detect echoes of the 1930s, with Trump cast as an incipient fascist.

It was a good year for strongmen: Vladimir Putin in Russia; Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Xi Jinping, now promoted to “core” leader in China. It was an even better year for demagogues, the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers who feed on emotions and prejudice. In the year of the demagogue, several vied for the lead role: Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader, godfather of Brexit and Trump acolyte; Rodrigo Duterte, a brutal newcomer to power, who pledged to slaughter millions of drug addicts to clean up the Philippines; and Trump himself, who constantly marvelled at the size of his crowds.

Yet the 1930s analogy is in many ways misplaced. We are nowhere near a Great Depression. The US economy is approaching full employment. The pre-Brexit UK economy has seen employment rise by just over two million since 2010. Credit is flowing. Corporate profits are up. The trouble is that swaths of the population, often those living outside the great cities, have little sense of the economic recovery.

Real incomes in the UK have not grown for the past decade. In the US, 95 per cent of households still had incomes last year that were below those in 2007, according to the Economic Policy Institute think-tank. In Europe, unemployment in the eurozone, especially in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy, remains high. Yet the wealth of the top one per cent (“the privileged few”, to borrow Theresa May’s mantra) has continued to rise.

Something more profound is happening in advanced democracies. The forces at work are cultural, economic, social and political, driven in part by rapid technological change. Artificial intelligence, gene editing, self-driving cars — progress on all these groundbreaking technologies accelerated in 2016. Each is massively empowering (the smartphone has given everyone a voice) but also massively disruptive (the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs has barely begun to be felt).

In political terms, Brexit and the Trump triumph highlight the decline of the party system and the end of the old left-right divide. The centre-left appears in terminal decline. This month, François Hollande, whose approval rating hit a low of 4 per cent, ruled out a second run for the Elysée. Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left leader of the opposition Labour party, had more to say about the death of Fidel Castro than Britain departing the EU. Matteo Renzi, the centre-left reformer in Italy, lost heavily in his own referendum on constitutional reform and promptly resigned.

In 2016, we saw, finally, that this period — call it Globalisation 2.0 — is over

The Conservative or Christian Democrat centre-right fared better but remains under pressure from an anti-immigrant, nationalist fringe, from Austria to England, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and, increasingly, Poland. In 2016, we witnessed the birth of the “Fourth Way” — a new brand of politics that is nativist, protectionist and bathed in a cultural nostalgia captured by Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again”.

The second development is a widespread disillusion among western democracies with globalisation, the postwar phenomenon marked by three trends: the Roaring Eighties deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher era; the 1994 Uruguay Round agreement on global trade liberalisation; and the opening of a market economy in China. The progressive abandonment of controls on capital, goods, services and labour, epitomised by the launch of the single European market and the single currency, reached its apogee in the summer of 2007. In 2016, we saw, finally, that this period — call it Globalisation 2.0 — is over.

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In the year of the demagogue, several vied for the lead role, including the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte’ © AFP/Getty Image

Free trade has become ever harder to sell to a public worried about job security and the competitive threat from developing countries. Trump denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact between the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries, and the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Hillary Clinton, once a free trader, caved. No one countered that the US consumer, including many Trump voters, bought cheap goods at Target and Walmart thanks to efficient global supply chains and cheap labour in the developing world. Hostility to free trade was a vote winner. Only last-minute arm-twisting of the Walloon regional government in Belgium salvaged a Canada-EU trade pact seven years in the making.

Free movement is also in question. Europe has experienced mass migration on a scale not seen since the late 1940s. In 2016, the refugee flow from the Middle East and north Africa was stemmed at one end thanks to a German-brokered deal with Turkey but record numbers travelled (and drowned) on the treacherous route from the central Mediterranean to Italy. Terror attacks, notably in France, heightened public insecurity about immigrants. There was a sense governments had somehow lost control, of national borders and national identity.

This explains the power of Trump’s pledge to build a “beautiful” wall on the Mexican border, and Theresa May’s conference jibe about politically correct multiculturalism: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” The party faithful in Birmingham cheered but cosmopolitan London, home to hundreds of thousands of “foreigners”, including Mark Carney, the Canadian Governor of the Bank of England, was not amused.

The Brexit referendum exposed an economic gap between winners and losers of globalisation; but also a cultural divide between those comfortable with the pace of change, from technology to same-sex marriage, and those wanting to slow down the clock and rediscover their roots in ethnicity, religion or nationality.

 Leave’s slogan in the Brexit campaign, “Take Back Control”, was simple and brilliantly effective across classes and generations. Constitutionalists liked the idea of regaining sovereignty from EU institutions. Everyone liked the idea of reclaiming money from Brussels and diverting the savings to the NHS. Clamping down on immigration was a vote-winner. No matter that these claims were deeply misleading (as were Remain’s claims of imminent economic disaster in the event of a Brexit vote). Throughout the year, facts were elastic concepts.

In 2016, the world woke up to “fake news”, sponsored by political activists but also increasingly by state actors and their surrogates. The CIA accused Russia of being behind the leaking of emails from the Democratic National Committee, a shocking, brazen attempt to interfere in a US presidential election.

Trump dismissed the claims as ridiculous, as did his supporters. Throughout this political cycle, many appeared to live in a parallel universe where facts were entirely subjugated to opinion.

Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump supporter and CNN commentator, explained: “So one thing that’s been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

Trump’s victory gives succour to the demagogues-in-waiting in 2017

Welcome to the world of post-truth politics, turbocharged by technology such as the smartphone. A single device allows individuals to project in real time an unfiltered version of the news and (often highly partisan) views across Facebook, Google and Twitter. In the US election, journalists, once enjoying a degree of trust as the filter of last resort, were howled down or singled out on Twitter as “disgusting” or “lame”.

In the UK, both Leave and Remain regularly lambasted the BBC, which tried to remain neutral. Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford historian, warned presciently about the risks of “fairness bias”. The danger was that the BBC, in seeking to remain impartial, would fail to be informative, especially on complex economic issues. “You give equal airtime to unequal arguments, without daring to say that, on this or that point, one side has more evidence, or a significantly larger body of expert opinion, than the other,” he wrote.

The Trump campaign presented “mainstream media” with a challenge on a different scale. His demagoguery broke every taboo in the book, casting Mexicans as “rapists”, eliding the difference between traditional Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists, and threatening to jail his Democratic opponent.

The TV networks, especially Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, gave Trump far more airtime than other candidates. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” quipped Les Moonves, head of the media group.

Trump won by attacking the Republican party as much as his Democratic opponent. He spent hardly any of his own money, less than a fraction of the Clinton campaign’s war chest. His was the triumph of the brand.

Yet Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate at a moment when Americans wanted change — not a continuation of the Obama presidency by other means or a return to the Bush or Clinton dynasties. She had sky-high negative ratings, just like Trump. She was not liked, she was not trusted, and she was evasive. “Crooked Hillary”, Trump’s signature tweet, stuck for a good reason.

In this respect, it is misleading to suggest that the typical Trump supporter was an angry white man on opioids from West Virginia. Educated people voted for Trump. Women voted for Trump. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. By contrast, liberals, including the media, took Trump literally but not seriously. What this ignores is the damage the tycoon may have inflicted on public trust in American democracy. He coarsened civic discourse. He declared the political system corrupt. He even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election not once but twice, declining to confirm he would accept the result if he lost.

Yet Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate at a moment when Americans wanted change — not a continuation of the Obama presidency by other means or a return to the Bush or Clinton dynasties. She had sky-high negative ratings, just like Trump. She was not liked, she was not trusted, and she was evasive. “Crooked Hillary”, Trump’s signature tweet, stuck for a good reason.

In this respect, it is misleading to suggest that the typical Trump supporter was an angry white man on opioids from West Virginia. Educated people voted for Trump. Women voted for Trump. As Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic, Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. By contrast, liberals, including the media, took Trump literally but not seriously. What this ignores is the damage the tycoon may have inflicted on public trust in American democracy. He coarsened civic discourse. He declared the political system corrupt. He even cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election not once but twice, declining to confirm he would accept the result if he lost.

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In the late spring of 2016, I travelled to Houston, Texas, to have lunch with James Baker, a former Treasury Secretary, US Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. I asked him whether America could survive a Trump presidency. “We are a country of laws, limited by bureaucracy. Presidents are not unilateral rulers,” Baker replied.

This confidence in the power of democratic institutions will be tested in the coming months. Trump wants to undo Obama’s legacy and unleash the animal spirits of American capitalism. The initial reaction in the stock market bordered on euphoric. Foreign policy is the bigger risk. Trump wants to pursue an America First foreign policy, renegotiating trade pacts and obliging allies to pay more for their collective defence. His world is about money not values: America the selfish superpower, as Robert Kagan has described it.

Image result for Marie Le Pen

Trump’s victory gives succour to the demagogues-in-waiting in 2017, notably Marine Le Pen, who will almost certainly make it through to the run-off for the French presidency. A win for Le Pen on top of Brexit would surely spell the end of the European Union. Elections in the Netherlands may also signal a shift to the right. Even in Germany, Angela Merkel, running for a fourth term, faces a challenge from the populist right in the form of Alternative für Deutschland, which will make the task of forming a ruling coalition much harder.

Trump’s foreign policy, assuming action follows words, also leaves the door wide open for the rising power of China. His abandonment of the TPP — a geopolitical building block as well as a trade pact — has unsettled Japan and Pacific neighbours. His anti-Mexican rhetoric has undermined the peso and left Latin Americans wondering whether Beijing is a safer bet. Among the Baltic states and Scandinavia, many are fretting about NATO’s defence guarantee in the face of Russian aggrandisement under Putin.

For more than two centuries, the US has served as a beacon for democratic values such as pluralism, tolerance and the rule of law. For the most part, it has been on the right side of history. In 2016, Americans for the first time voted into the White House a man with no previous government or military experience. Like Brexit, it was a high-risk gamble with utterly unpredictable consequences.

Trump’s winner-takes-all approach and his lack of respect for minority rights violates a cornerstone of democracy and free society, as set out in the 10th of the Federalist Papers written by James Madison, one of the founding fathers. His position mirrors the more extreme Brexiter demands that the “will of the people” be respected at all costs. Anyone who raises objections — the media, the opposition or, indeed, the judiciary — risks being branded “enemies of the people”.

This is not merely populism run rampant. It is a denial of politics itself, which, as the late scholar Bernard Crick reminds us, is the only alternative to government by coercion and the tyranny of the majority.

We have been warned.

Lionel Barber is the FT’s editor