Veni, Vedi, Vasectomy?

June 5, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, international relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, world politics | 1 Comment
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On June 3, when the President of the European Commission (EC), Jean-Claude Juncker conveyed the collective demands of Greece’s creditors—the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—to the embattled country’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, a member of his governing Syriza party said of the Greek delegation: “They came, they saw, and they had their balls handed to them.”

Five months after the anti-austerity party rode to victory in the Greek elections and had renounced efforts by previous Greek governments to impose austerity measures that had led the country’s debt grow from 124 per cent of GDP to 180 per cent and its unemployment rate soar to 25 per cent (and youth unemployment to 60 per cent) and its pensioners see their meagre pensions decline even faster, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited the IMF’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde and the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi to a previously scheduled meeting between herself, Juncker, and the French President Francois Hollande on June 1 to draft a common negotiating position among Greece’s creditors. Prime Minister Tsipras was notably not invited.

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Papering over their differences, the 5-page demands Juncker delivered to Tsipras made some concessions to Greece—lowering the demand that the primary surplus for 2015 be 1 per cent rather than the 3-4 per cent that had been the earlier demand—but also included “red lines” that the Syriza-led government had vowed never to cross such as generating 2 per cent of the GDP from cutting pensions and raising VAT to a uniform level (except on food, medicines, and hotels), not to reverse the labor market reforms that the ‘troika’ (the ECB, the EC, and the IMF) had forced down the throats of previous governments, and even to establish an ‘independent’ tax and customs agency and thereby making its operations beyond the ambit of elected officials.

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Yet, far beyond debates on primary surpluses and ‘red lines,’ the real struggle between Greece and its “European partners” is over politics. The positions are clear. Because of the single currency, an indebted country like Greece cannot devalue its currency and thereby cheapen its exports and with the increase in exports (and tourism) repay its debts. Hence the ‘troika’ (now renamed ‘the institutions’) were attempting to impose an ‘internal devaluation’ on Athens: forcing it to cut minimum wages and increase labor market ‘flexibility’ (making it easier to hire and fire workers and thereby also curb labor militancy) to force down the prices of Greek products to increase exports, to privatize government assets, improve taxation and efficiency in collecting taxes, and to sharply reduce government expenditures by severely cutting welfare programs and reducing public sector employment and pensions. Syriza and other opponents of the ‘austerity’ measures have argued that these measures actually impede Greece’s ability to repay its loans: if people don’t have money due to welfare cuts, job losses, etc., they cannot buy goods and hence more businesses fail. Indeed, Greece’s GDP has contracted by over 25 per cent in the five years of troika-mandated austerity and its unemployment remains high while its debt as a ratio of GDP has grown from 124 per cent to 180 per cent.

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As Robert Preston, the BBC’s economics editor puts it:

But although for the pride of the creditors, the question of whether Greece is obliged to generate a surplus on its budget, excluding interest payments, of a bit more than zero or 3%, feels like a world of difference – it is a rounding error compared with the money Greece owes them, which is equivalent to 180% of Greek GDP.

In the highly unlikely event that Greece could generate a 2% or 3% surplus year-in and year-out without its economy shrinking further (which few economists would anticipate), it would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable. gett A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?

Most egregiously, sharp cuts in expenditure has meant that in some hospitals budgets have fallen by 94 per cent. How can this be sustainable in a continent as rich as Europe?

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It is clear that one way or another, as Nils Pratley wrote in the Guardian, there will have to be a debt write-down. What Greece’s European “partners” are unwilling to countenance is Syriza’s demands to reverse the “austerity” measures because they want to root out any left-wing challenge to the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy. Once Greece caves in, subjects itself to ‘vasectomy’ in the words of one of its MPs, then debt-relief could be offered but not before. To offer a write-down of the debt is particularly terrifying to Spain where the governing party has already lost many local elections to a Syriza-like party, Podemos, which now controls the three major cities of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. It is also threatening to other EU economies like Portugal, Ireland, and Italy which have been compelled to implement austerity measures.

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Syriza has, however, done its cause no favors despite some eloquent posturing by its Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. It has not demanded a write down of the debt—and we must remember that when the troika made the first loan to Greece in 2010, Germany and France explicitly demanded that the austerity not be extended to the military—and Greece has been the best customer of the German arms industry. How is the cutting of pensions and salaries to workers while maintaining higher than the EU average in military spending morally justifiable?

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With Syriza maintaining the charade of negotiating with its European ‘partners’ over the last months, Greece’s position has rapidly deteriorated as frightened depositors have withdrawn their money from the banks and even transferred them outside the country. By the end of April, Greece’s bank deposits were at their lowest level since 2004 and by the end of last week deposits were being withdrawn at the daily rate of 1 billion euros.

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Interestingly, the Speaker of the Greek Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, has set up a Debt Truth Committee to report to parliament on June 18

is said to be on the point of finding some of Greece’s original bailout debt, from either 2010 or 2011, was unlawfully contracted. In addition, Ms Konstantopoulou is armed with a finding from experts that Germany owes Greece €350bn in war reparations – more than the whole of its debt to Europe.

This could open up a host of legal challenges even if Tsipiras was to finally cave into the troika’s demands. The question is whether the Left Platform within Syriza is strong enough to prevent a cave in when there is nothing the troika would like than to install a government of national unity with a rump Syriza. That would, temporarily at least till Spain’s November election, decapitate the European Left. Will it happen?

In the short run, if no resolution is found, Greece will be unable to make scheduled payments to its creditors and being declared to be in default would make its borrowing costs in private capital markets intolerable; Syriza’s reluctance to impose capital controls would lead to the swift collapse of its banking sector unless the government begins to issue a virtual currency against future revenues which could ease the liquify crunch domestically at least. But Greece cannot be thrown out of the EU without its consent as all decisions must be unanimous. Even if Greece were to exit the common currency—Grexit as it has been dubbed—it would call the whole European project into question. It is also unrealistic to expect a country as bankrupt as Greece to police its borders when hordes of refugees from Africa and the Middle East are streaming to Europe—and from Greece, they could move to any country in the Schengen area. Will this be enough for its European ‘partners’ to blink?

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Gaza War: A preliminary balance sheet

November 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Israel’s eight-day assault on Gaza caused enormous damage to the physical infrastructure of that impoverished coastal strip and a vastly disproportionate human toll on the Palestinians. Yet, in a preliminary balance sheet, Hamas is a clear winner. Long shunned by the European Union, Israel, and the United States, it has now emerged as a legitimate player. its rival–the Palestinian Authority–was completely sidelined with its foreign minister forced to visit Gaza with an Arab League delegation! The Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmud Abbas did not visit Gaza at all in contrast to the Egyptian Prime Minister and the Tunisian Foreign Minister. Four years ago, when the Israeli’s had launched their last assault on Gaza, the Palestinian Authority had prevented demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza on the West Bank: this time it could not hold back support for Gaza. It was able to launch rockets to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that even the more militarily capable Hezbollah had not contemplated when Israel invaded Lebanon. Hezbollah, itself, by continuing to back Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who is engaged in a murderous internal war to retain his position, has also lost considerable legitimacy in the Arab street. Conversely, on this register too, Hamas by distancing itself from the Syrian regime and moving its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar, emerges stronger.

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In the deliberately ambiguously worded ceasefire negotiated by Cairo and Washington, none of the terms insisted by the Quartet–the US, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations—that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel in return for an engagement were mentioned. Instead, the ceasefire agreement accepted, however vaguely, Hamas’ central demands that targeted assassinations of individuals be stopped and that the border crossings be opened to the free movement of goods and people has been accepted. Whether these agreements will be implemented remains to be seen of course.

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Egypt’s newly elected president Mohamed Morsi has emerged as a key regional power weight. less than 48 hours after the Israeil bombardment, he dispatched his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza in a show of support and pointedly condemned Israeli aggression. When the United States continued to unflinchingly support Israel, and refusing to engage Hamas, and with Turkey’s prime minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, having cut his ties to Israel, Morsi was the only credible interlocutor capable of negotiating a ceasefire. In fact, emboldened by his role in the Gaza ceasefire, Morsi has flexed his political muscle domestically: conferring on himself extensive powers and immunity from judicial overview.

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Cementing Hamas’ role as a legitimate regional power has been a defeat for the United States. Once again, as the Israeli assault on Gaza began, President Barack Obama said he “fully supported israel’s right to self-defense” and both houses of Congress passed lopsided resolutions in favor of Israel. Yet, as even the Economist magazine indicated the casualties have been disproportionate.

  • Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza between January 1st 2012 and November 11th 2012: 1
  • Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire during the same period: 78
  • Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza, November 13th-19th 2012: 3
  • Total number of Israelis killed by rocket, mortar or anti-tank fire from Gaza since 2006: 47
  • Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire from April 1st 2006 to July 21st 2012: 2,879
  • Number of people killed in traffic accidents in Israel in 2011: 384

Unable to deal directly with Hamas with which it has no formal engagement, the United States was forced to deal with them through Morsi and thus for the first time in the long history of Israeli occupation of Palestine, the ceasefire was announced in an Arab capital!

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may have thought that another attack on Gaza, less than two months before an election, would have bolstered support for him. But continued international pressure, and the impossibility of stifling Gaza resistance to Israeli oppression compelled him to agree to a ceasefire. A poll found that more than 70 percent of those polled in Israel were opposed to the ceasefire, signaling possibly that Netanyahu had badly miscalculated his pre-election war strategy. No doubt, the US will fund a large part of the costs of the Israeli assault: each interceptor missile fired by its Iron Dome system costs $62,000 and each of the 5 Iron Dome batteries cost $50 million and it plans to deploy a total of 13 batteries. This cost will undoubtedly be borne by the American taxpayers–given the US Administration and Congress’ unconditional support for Israel.

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Aid  from Qatar and other Arab states–in October 2012, the Emir of Qater was the first head of state to visit Gaza since the tiny coastal enclave was turned into an open air prison by Israel in 2007–will help rebuild its arsenals and the infrastructure, along with of course support from Iran. Moreover, even as Israeli missiles and air-strikes may have devastated its weapons factories and arsenals, by bombing buses, Hamas has reminded Israeli leaders of its extraordinary resilience.

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In any preliminary assessment of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Hamas and Morsi have emerged as winners, though at a terrible cost to the people of Gaza–another thing that Netanyahu has to answer for.

Poverty of Political Imagination

August 17, 2012 at 11:48 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Though it should not have caused any surprise, the news that Eurozone economies had contracted by 0.2 percent in the second quarter of 2012 underscored the deepening economic crisis faced by the 17-state bloc. Though the German economy may have grown by 0.3 percent, France recorded a third straight quarter of no growth, and the Finnish, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish economies all fell sharply. Greece, of course, suffered the steepest fall: 6.2 percent in the second quarter–and was 18 percent below its GDP level in the April-June quarter of 2008.

There is little doubt that the declines have been aggravated by a failure of political imagination. Confronted by budget deficits brought about by high levels of government borrowing and by the collapses of housing bubbles, the creation of a common currency has meant that indebted Eurozone economies have not been able to resort to a currency devaluation to gain a competitive edge. Consequently, the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund sought to impose an “internal devaluation” on these economies by forcing budget cuts to lower government deficits and wage cuts.

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It follows as the night the day that if budgets and wages are cut, the economy will shrink. Lower government spending due to budget cuts means welfare and pension benefits fall, the cost of health care rises, and educational opportunities vaporize. These impact far more adversely on the elderly and the young. With wage cuts, people have less money to spend and this will depress all sectors of the economy–as sales reduce because of lower spending, companies will slash their work forces leading to greater declines in sales and to further cuts in employment. In the most severely affected of the southern European economies, unemployment rates for the youth are already at 50 percent or more. By May 2012, unemployment in the euro zone had already reached 11.1 percent or 17.5 million people and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that it would rise to almost 22 million in the next four years. And if the euro zone were to break up, the ILO estimates unemployment in the 17-state bloc could reach 17 percent.

The adverse conditions created by the stringent cuts mandated by the troika are aggravated by the greater interest rates imposed on the weaker economies by international financial markets–thus for instance, while Austrian banks and other financial institutions can borrow at 2 percent, Italian banks have to pay 6 percent. As these higher interest costs are passed on by the banks to their borrowers, the cost of doing business in Italy, Spain, Portugal, or Greece increases correspondingly and could even negate the wage cuts imposed by the troika!

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The effects of economic contraction will spread to the better performing economies. After all, Germany has been able to have a strong industrial sector because cheaper credit to other eurozone members had allowed them to buy German products while the German small-scale sector–which employs 60 percent of the country’s labor force–did not have to worry about currency movements in other European countries or fear that a strong German mark will price them out of the market in other countries.

As Susan Watkins has written, German lessons on debt repayment are especially galling to the Greeks.

Under the Nazi occupation, a hefty monthly payment was extracted from the Greek central bank to cover the Wehrmacht’s expenses; in March 1942 an additional forced loan of 476 million Reichsmarks was levied by the Axis powers. Greek partisans put up some of the toughest military resistance to the Nazis in Europe; the damage wreaked by the occupiers’ revenge was commensurate. Reprisals were exacted on the civilian population at a rate of fifty Greeks for every German killed. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed; forced exports and economic collapse helped bring about one of the worst famines in modern European history.

German occupation (strictly a tripartite occupation since the Italians and the Bulgarians also participated) of Greece also led to hyperinflation–Richard Clogg says it was

five thousand times more severe than the Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941. The exchange rate for the gold sovereign in the autumn of 1944, shortly after the liberation, stood at 170 trillion drachmas.

After the war, the question of German reparations were deferred till German reunification and in the so-called 2+4 (Bonn and Berlin with the US, the USSR, the UK and France) agreement of 1990, Greek claims were excluded. Though several Greek politicians including the current prime minister, Antonis Samaras when he was the foreign affairs minister in 1991, had raised the issue of 476 million marks with the Germans, their demands were summarily dismissed. If this money had, in fact, been paid as the Germans are legally obliged to do, with interest for more than half a century, Greece would no longer be a problem economy.

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It is galling too because while ancient historical myths as Greece being the ‘birthplace of democracy’ are routinely trotted out in discussions of the contemporary situation, recent history that people over 70 remember are carefully hidden from view! Be that as it may.

What is crucial is that the crisis demonstrates that capital and finance markets need to be regulated more stringently. It was irresponsible lending that led to high government deficits in Greece and to the housing bubbles in Spain and Ireland, to the subprime crisis in the US, and to the meltdown of the Icelandic economy to mention just the most obvious cases. Financial markets are continuing to demand punitive rates of interest from the weaker economies. The unchecked power of finance must be corralled–or we will enter another great depression just as the obsession with the gold standard led to the depression as Karl Polanyi showed in his Great Transformation.

What is required is a new political imagination not the shrill advocacy of measures that have already aggravated the situation!

The Greek Challenge: Austerity or NATO

May 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Arms Control, Capitalism, democracy, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | 1 Comment
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In the Greek elections on Sunday May 6, 2012, the two main parties that had governed the country since the end of the dictatorship–New Democracy and Pasok–and both of which has subscribed to the stringent austerity measures imposed on Athens for a bailout suffered a stunning set-back. Used to dominating the polls, together they received just one-third of the votes. Two-thirds of the Greek electorate voted for parties–including a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn–that rejected the austerity measures, though most Greeks still want to remain within the Eurozone. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza coalition of green and left parties that placed second in the elections, and was the big winner declared the austerity plan dead. That is certainly what the Greek voters indicated though the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and the European Commission President, José Manuel Durão Barroso claimed that agreements are binding and cannot be negotiated after every election. By what perverted logic does this hold: last year, when the stringent bailout conditions were imposed on Greece by the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–the then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou wanted to hold a referendum. Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, forced him to rescind the referendum. The bailout agreement, then, was foisted on the Greek people not only without their consent, but on the explicit condition that their consent not be solicited. No such international agreement can have a shred of legitimacy and the Greeks voted, in their millions, to reject it!

 

Greece electionIt was, Albert Einstein I think who said that the clearest sign of insanity is to persist in doing something that has failed repeatedly. Clearly, austerity programs have not worked. In Greece, unemployment stands at 21 per cent and the OECD estimates that real wages have fallen by 25 per cent in the last two years.According to the IMF, this will be the fifth straight year of recession for Greece to be followed by a year of stagnation. Even if the Greek government were to implement the austerity measures, the IMF estimates that in 2017, the public debt to GDP ratio would be 137 per cent, higher than at the onset of the current crisis. And thus far, IMF projections have been overly optimistic!

None of this should be surprising! After all if incomes are slashed and taxes raised, people are not going to have the resources to buy as many goods and services as they did earlier. This will lead to a contraction of the market and greater unemployment–which in turn will lead to further contractions in demand and the economy will go into a tailspin. Even Antonis Samaras, leader of the conservative New Democracy party and one who adheres to the austerity pact acknowledges that fully a fourth of all Greek companies have closed their doors since 2009 and a further third of the companies do not pay their workers on time

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What is surprising is that by insisting that Greece implement further austerity measures–and even suspend the rights of collective bargaining–the ‘troika’ has excluded Greece’s military expenditures from the scalpel. As Paul Haydon reported in the Guardian

In 2006, as the financial crisis was looming, Greece was the third biggest arms importer after China and India. And over the past 10 years its military budget has stood at an average of 4% of GDP, more than £900 per person. If Greece is in need of structural reform, then its oversized military would seem the most logical place to start. In fact, if it had only spent the EU average of 1.7% over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP – meaning instead of being completely bankrupt it would be among the more typical countries struggling with the recession.

 In the five years to 2010, Greece was the largest customer for Germany’s arms industry. And in 2010, when the first bailout was being negotiated for Greece, Athens spent 7.1 billion euros on arms even as it slashed 1.8 billion in social spending. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the European member of parliament, even claimed that Papanreou had told him that German and French support for the bailout was specifically linked to continued military spending. In 2010, at 3 percent of its budget on military spending, Athens allocated a higher percentage of its spending to defense than any NATO state other than the United States.

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While it is obvious why Germany and France don’t want Greece to cut its defense spending, why are Greek politicians not raising this as an issue?

What Difference Will Hollande’s Victory in France Make for Europe, for the World?

May 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 6 Comments
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Francois Hollande has defeated Nicolas Sarkozy to become the first Socialist president of France in 17 years. He campaigned on a platform to renegotiate the austerity package that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy had championed, with the support of the British Prime Minister David Cameron and other ‘center-right’ politicians in Europe. The victorious Hollande argued that the way out of the fiscal crisis enveloping the Eurozone is to focus on growth rather than to reduce deficits. The austerity packages, by sharply curbing government expenditures not only leads to unemployment but also reduced payments to the elderly, the young, and the unemployed. They can therefore no longer consume at their previous levels leading to further unemployment as businesses curtail production and the economy continues its tailspin–as has already happened in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Ireland.

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But will Hollande be successful in reviving the Eurozone economies? Will this ‘marshmallow’ man (so-called because he hates fights) be strong enough to stand up to Merkel? His potential choice as prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. has suggested that rather than reopening the draft fiscal treaty driven by Sarkozy and Merkel., Hollande will seek to incorporate a minor amendment on growth. This would not be surprising as Hollande’s previous experience in government was as an aide to the last Socialist president of France, Francous Mitterand, who in his second term initiated a wave of neo-liberal reforms that de-regulated much of the French economy.

Socialist and Labor parties in Europe, as political expressions of trade unions since the late nineteenth-century, have floundered as manufacturing has shifted to lower-waged countries and trade unions have suffered a tremendous erosion of memberships. After Margareth Thatcher defeated the miners strike in 1984, European unions have steadily declined in political and social significance.

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What, too, is a ‘growth’ strategy has never been addressed except to say that it should not be based on austerity measures. As manufacturing is becoming increasingly automated–labor costs amounted to only $7.10 of a total production cost of $178.40 for Apple’s iPhone 4–high-paying jobs in industry are simply disappearing. In large, vertically-integrated industrial operations, workers going on strike in a singe shop can disrupt the entire assembly line and hence undermine corporate profits. If workers in a gear-box plant down their tools, the entire auto assembly line will soon grind to a halt. Workers in the service sector–in the fast food industry or tellers in banks–simply do not have this structural power and hence their ability to bargain for better wages are far more limited. And as industrial production relocates overseas, more and more workers enter the service industries.

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With lower incomes, their ability to consume is more limited. And this makes it less profitable to produce more goods and so industrial production continues to plummet as capital is increasingly allocated to financial speculation. This has the strange effect that whenever an election is held, the first question asked by the talking heads on TV is what would be the reaction of the markets to the results–because after the de-regulation of capital controls, the flows of capital into and out of a country are crucial to its economy and there is not government mechanism to regulate these flows.

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In these conditions, governments are compelled to maintain market-friendly conditions and this is not something Hollande is likely to change. So what does growth-oriented policies mean? This needs to be spelt out beyond saying that it is the opposite of austerity programs, How is the economy going to add well-paying jobs in a situation when manufacturing is being steadily downgraded in the hierarchy of economic activities?

Europe: The Democratic Deficit

April 12, 2012 at 10:45 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, Human Rights, International Relations, Political Economy, World Politics | Leave a comment
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“A typical sight during the pre-election protests,” in Spain last year Katherine Ainger wrote in the Guardian, “was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing ‘Vote here’ on the lids.” A few months later, at the other end of the Eurozone, in return for loans from the European Union, leaders of all three major political parties in Greece were required to sign pledges not to rescind a savage austerity program cutting more than 3.3 billion euros from the budget, rendering these pledges concrete and irreversible regardless of the outcome of the general election in April 2012. If the ‘typical sight’ during last year’s Spanish elections suggested that all political parties are the same, the demand that the EU wrested from the Greek politicians proved that their general election, announced for May 6, was rendered meaningless as the victors could not implement a new program. Elections become meaningless.

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Paradoxically, just as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron after a brief hesitation, abandoned their client dictators in North Africa–even violently  overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and chafing at the bit to do the same to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria–Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned all pretense of supporting democracy when they forced then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou to cancel a referendum he had proposed on the harsh terms imposed by the European Union for a bailout to Athens in November 2011. Threatening to expel Greece from the Eurozone, they effectively forced Papandreou to resign two days later and for him to be replaced by a national unity government headed by a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos.

Reporting in the Guardian, Helena Smith wrote:

For a country not only burdened by debt but closer to default than ever before, his appointment at the helm of a transitional government in Athens would be widely welcomed. An avuncular figure, Papademos is well respected in the European Union. In the corridors of power in Paris and Berlin, the capitals that count in deciding Greece’s fate, he is seen as a safe pair of hands, more capable than most at navigating the crisis-hit nation away from the shores of economic Armageddon.

Yet, this ‘safe pair of hands’ was the very one who, as president of the Greek Central Bank cooked the books so that Greece could enter the monetary union–and he was helped in this creative accounting by the European division of the Goldman Sachs—which is to be headed soon by the current president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi—for a fee of $300 million. Northern European governments only feign ignorance of their Mediterranean neighbors’ debts and subsidies, as Wolfgang Streeck notes, because their surveillance agencies could not “have failed to notice how countries like Greece saturated themselves with cheap credit after their accession to the Eurozone.” In fact, as government subsidies slowed down in conditions of budget consolidation, it was private flows that made up the difference–and it profited the export industries of the north because of the improved purchasing power among the Mediterranean countries—the prosperity of the north was predicated on the indebtedness of the south! Despite the fact that Eurostat had disclosed in 2004 that billions of euros had been shifted off public records in Greece, Athens continued to enjoy triple-A ratings.

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Even the money being borrowed by Greece may have been the money of wealthy Greeks sent abroad as the Greek upper classes were practically tax-exempt as Stathis Kouvelakis has pointed out. When PASOK took office in 1981, it began to institute a social welfare system but did not seek to enlarge the tax base and even the middle class and the moderately wealthy remained exempt. In a sense then it is the untaxed money of richer Greeks, recycled through European banks, that is the source of the Greek debt! Yet, precisely because these funds were recycled through European banks, a Greek default would undermine the whole European financial system.

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It is no wonder then that Sarkozy and Merkel refused to countenance a referendum in Greece and not only installed their own man at the helm of the government in Athens but placed officials from the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–to oversee the operations of the government. Unless the Greek government complied with the stringent terms of the agreement imposed on it, funds in the escrow account will be withheld from Athens: a 32 percent cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22 percent cut for those above 25, a cut in pensions by 25 percent on top of the laying off of some 200,000 workers over the past 12 months.

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Given that politicians are hand-in-glove with the banks–from Goldman Sachs helping the Papademos shift billions of euros off the books to the Greek police beat up its Greek citizens to impose order for banks and hedge funds–it is no wonder that citizens are turning their backs on the politicians!

Notes on the Spanish General Strike

March 31, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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To be in Barcelona on Thursday March 29, 2012 was to be a witness to a massive tidal wave of humanity on the streets, stretching beyond the horizon in every direction from Placa Catalunya, the city’s symbolic center. This was a response to the general strike called by Spain’s two largest trade unions–Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) affiliated to the Socialist Party, and the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO)–in response to the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government’s decision to announce the most austere budget since the transition to democracy 37 years ago. As evident on the streets of Barcelona, it was much more than a workers’ protest: though some 30 percent of employed workers had said that they would participate in polls before the strike, Spain has a high rate of unemployment–23 percent or double the European rate and almost half the people under 30 are out of work.

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The unemployed are the backbone of the indignados (“the outraged”) movement that in May last year that with their tents in city centers and their emphasis on transparency, diversity, egalitarianism, and direct democracy, inspired the Occupy movements across the world. The employment situation is only likely to worsen as Mariano Rajoy, the new PP prime minister who took office in December last year, enacted an Emergency decree two months ago that sharply curbed labor rights. Permanent workers in Spain were eligible for 45 days’ pay for each year of employment if they were fired; this was substantially reduced to a maximum of 33 days and in Andalucia alone eight times as many workers were let go in the two months after the decree was promulgated than in the corresponding period last year. Companies were also permitted to reduce working hours.

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The greater flexibility to hire and fire workers provided by the new labor laws may provide greater incomes in the short run to employers but will further depress prospects of economic growth in Spain. Spanish wages are already the lowest among the EU 15 (members of the European Union on 1 May 2004 before the inclusion of states from the former Eastern Europe) and the new law would further depress wages in the context of the high rates of unemployment and provide for more short-term employment–which will lead to a reduction in effective demand.

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Moreover, Spain’s economic problems do not stem from high government deficits but from the burst of a property bubble and absurd laws governing liability of borrowers. The Spanish government had run a balanced budget from the time it joined the Euro in 1999 to 2007–that is to say it did not borrow at all during this period unlike many other economies, including Germany, even though interest rates on Eurozone countries fell sharply. However, though Madrid resisted borrowing at lower rates, Spanish citizens could not resist the lure of cheap interest rates and it fueled a housing boom–housing prices rose by 44 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Houses in Spain couldn’t be built fast enough. Great swathes of the coast and the countryside became clustered with urbanisations, instant housing estates thrown up to cater to what seemed to be an endless stream of Britons, Germans, and other norther Europeans now able to live the kind of life abroad of which their parents could only have dreamed.

Once the bubble burst with the financial crisis, however, the economy unraveled rapidly–the number of empty and unsold properties in the country is estimated to be between 700,000 and 1,500,000–and some 40 evictions are taking place across the country per day. Employment in construction collapsed and laid-off construction workers account for fully a third of the unemployed. What is more, Spanish law does not allow homeowners to simply hand over the keys and walk away from a property if they can no longer pay the mortgage. They remain liable for the remainder of the mortgage if the sale of the property does not cover the full extent of the mortgage–and they seldom do in a period when property prices have fallen by more than 19 percent. Hence, unlike most other countries, the unemployed in Spain not only lose their houses but remain responsible for part of their mortgages. This has meant that young people who had moved out of their parental home have often had to move back–and even that grandparents have had to use their pensions to help support their children and grandchildren. In turn, the iaiaflautas or retirees and grandparents have mobilized themselves to occupy buses to protest against price hikes, bank lobbies to oppose bailouts, and health departments to turn back cutbacks.

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Hence, even if reports say that the general strike led to a fall in electricity consumption by 16.3 percent compared to a fall of 16.9 percent in the general strike of September 2010, it doesn’t account for the vast mobilization of the indignados, the unemployed, the students, and the iaiaflautas. What it underlines is that a new politics is emerging, a politics that as Ferran Pedret has put it “is characterized by the absence of leaders, by assemblies as a form of organization, and a diversity and transversality.”

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it was this that was responsible for the massive turnout–what the strike symbolizes is a new politics, a politics beyond those of political parties because the parties are fully integrated into the system itself that must be changed. So no mere percentages of electricity consumption, businesses that stayed open, or workers participating in the strike can adequately assess its impact.

 

Iceland–An Independent People

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Posted in democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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In the midst of the NATO campaign against Libya and the budget deal between Republicans and the Democrats in the US, a far more historically significant event appears to have fallen off the radar. On April 9, 2011, the people of Iceland voted for the second time to reject a government proposal for Iceland taxpayers to repay some €4 billion to the governments of Britain and the Netherlands which had compensated their domestic depositors in the collapsed online bank, Icesave. Initially, the British and Dutch governments had pressured the Iceland government to agree to repay them over fifteen years at a 5.5 percent annual interest–which was estimated to cost each household in the tiny island nation about €45,000 over the period. This was rejected by 91 percent of the voters in a referendum in March 2010. After subsequent negotiations, London and Amesterdam agreed to lower the interest to 3.2 percent and stretch the repayment period to 30 years between 2016 and 2046. The deal was accepted by a large majority of 44 in favor and 16 opposed in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which also rejected a clause to submit the bill to another referendum. Nevertheless, as the President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to sign the bill, it was automatically subject to a referendum wherein it was rejected by almost 60 percent of the voters.

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The Dutch and British governments–which had used anti-terrorist legislation to seize assets of the failed Icelandic banks–have threatened to scupper Iceland’s application to join the European Union and to take the island nation to court. Reykjavik has insisted that the two governments would get most of their money back and the assets of the Landsbanki bank which set up the Icesave operation would be sold and was expected to realize 90 percent of the Icesave debt. What was at issue in the referendum was not whether London and Amsterdam would be compensated or not–but whether private citizens should be expected to shoulder the burden of repayment of a bank’s debt in which they had no hand in incurring and from which they did not benefit. The threat to take Iceland to court is important because it is to frighten off other states which also face indebtedness due to the financial crisis like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is simply the question of whether the bankers have to bear the burden of the bad loans they have extended.

Iceland is, in fact, a case study of neo-liberalism gone awry. Before the late 1990s, Iceland’s financial sector had been small and the banks were largely government-owned. In 1998, the two leading parties–the Independence Party and the Centre Party–embarked on a privatization of the banking sector, assigning Landsbanki to grandees of the Independence Party and Kaupthing to the Centre Party. A new private bank, Glitnir, was also set up merging several smaller banks. None of these banks had much experience in international finance, but like South Korean banks a decade earlier, these banks tapped into abundant cheap credit and easy capital mobility. Unlike the South Korean banks, their strong ties to political parties, the merger of commercial and investment banking, and low soveriegn debt meant that they got extremely high grades from the credit ratings agencies and as Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdottir note: “government policy was now subordinated to their ends.”

With the government relaxing mortgage rules to permit loans up to 90 percent of value, the banks rode the wave–by buying shares in each other they inflated share prices and enticed depositors to shift their savings to shares. In less than 10 years after the privatization of banks, Iceland had the fifth highest GDP in the world, 60 percent higher than that of the United States, and the assets of their banks was valued at 800 percent of Iceland’s GDP. As land prices soared, Icelanders loaded up on lower-interest yen- or Swiss-franc debt.

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By 2006, Iceland’s current account deficit had soared to 20 percent of its GDP. Late in that year, Landsbanki established an online bank, Icesave, to attract deposits from overseas clients and by offering highly attractive interest rates, it raked in millions of pounds from England, and later millions of euros especially from the Netherlands. This was soon copied by the two other banks. These were established as ‘branches’ rather than as ‘subsidiaries‘ which meant that they were to be supervised by the icelandic Central Bank rather than regulators in Britain or the Netherlands. Because of Iceland’s obligations as a member of the European Economic Area to insure bank deposits, no one thought to worry about whether the Icelandic Central Bank had the capacity to oversee the vastly extended operations of the island’s three major banks.

Macdonalds

This happy bubble burst in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, within a fortnight of which the three big Icelandic banks collapsed and by November of that year the krona had fallen from its pre-crisis level of 70 to the euro to 190 to the euro, so sharply cutting the islanders’ purchasing power that the three McDonald’s franchises were forced to close as the cost of importing ingredients made the price of burgers prohibitive! The country’s stock market lost 98 percent of its value! If ever there was a definition of crisis, this was it. It was the first time in over 30 years that a ‘developed’ state had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

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In the light of all this, Iceland’s voters have had the courage to face up to the crisis. It was the first country to kick out the government which had failed so spectacularly. Unlike its neighbor in the North Atlantic–Ireland which underwrote its own banking collapse and loader every household with €80,000 in debt–Iceland let the three banks go under and they imposed capital controls to prevent the flight of capital. Though unemployment in Iceland today is 7.5 percent in Iceland–up from 2 percent in 2002–but just over half of Ireland’s 13.6 percent. Though the krona lost almost half its value, inflation is down sharply and without having to pay back foreign creditors, its government finances are in much better shape than those of Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.

Japan: Geoeconomic Consequences of Nature’s Fury and Human Folly

March 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Posted in Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Outsourcing, Political Economy, Production | Leave a comment
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Scarcely believable images of the destruction wrought by a 9.0 earthquake that struck 250 miles northeast of Tokyo and unleashed a tsunami that generated 10 meter high waves–of entire communities being obliterated–and made worse by triggering a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has been at the center of world news. While concern has understandably been on the human cost of the tragedy, the economic costs are also staggering. While it is too early to make an assessment, early estimates already suggest that world economic growth may fall by at least a full percentage point.

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In the most immediate instance, it would cause enormous supply chain disruptions to production as Japanese manufacturers produce a whole array of sophisticated components and finished products. For an economy vitally dependent on exports this could be a vital blow–but it would also affect manufacturers world-wide as they source components from Japan, Additionally, the demand for reconstruction funds for Japan could reasonably be expected to lead to a redirection of financial flows with adverse consequences not only for debt-ridden economies like those of the United States but also for the ’emerging economies’ of the Global South.

The estimated $200 billion required to rebuild Japan after the earthquake on March 11, 2011 and the tsunami already triggered a 6 percent rise in the yen with 5 days–from a peak of ¥76.25 to the dollar to ¥81.20–as investors started repatriating funds for Japanese reconstruction before the G-7 economies intervened in currency markets in a concerted effort to drive the yen lower and help stabilize the Japanese economy as a higher yen would have made Japanese exports dearer overseas and hence driven down demand for them.

Fears that radiation from the crippled nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi may be transported through Japanese exports has led to many restaurants to ban Japanese food items like sushi, Kobe beef, and sake. But there has also been apprehension that consumers may be exposed to radiation when driving a Prius car or using a Japanese DVD–a severe blow to an export dependent economy. Even though such fears may be misplaced because the main manufacturing centers are located away from areas near the crippled nuclear reactors and most manufacturing occurs indoors in factories and hence is not directly exposed to airborne radioactive particles, apprehensions are by nature irrational and could lead to a steep decline in consumer demand.

Fukushima daiichi overhead view of exploded reactors

On March 17, General Motors became the first automobile manufacturer to announce that it will temporarily halt production in its truck plant in Shreveport, Louisiana because of a shortage of Japanese-made parts as a result of the natural disasters in that island nation. The fact that was GM rather than Toyota, Honda, or Nissan to be the first auto manufacturer to stop production because of supply-related problems stemming from the natural disasters underlines the gravity and extent of the disruption of supply-chains from Japan for producers the world over. 10 percent of Volvo’s parts for instance comes from 33 Japanese suppliers, 9 of which were in areas affected by the disasters and Volkswagen has warned of medium-term supply problems. Some Japanese manufacturers–Mitsubishi and Nissan–have opened some of their facilities while Toyota is due to open some of its plants early next week. It is uncertain how long these can operate because they and their suppliers may face problems obtaining raw materials and parts and in shipping finished products due to logistical problems caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and the exclusion zone imposed by fears of a nuclear meltdown at the reactors in Fukushima Daiichi. A Detroit based consultant, John Hoffecker, estimates that an average car had 20,000 components and the abrupt loss of any one component could halt production in its tracks, especially because most manufacturers have implemented just-in-time production systems that reduce inventories.

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Given Japan’s advanced manufacturing technologies, disruptions are not limited of course to the automobile sector. Sony Ericsson and Nokia have warned that they face supply problems for their smart phones, for instance. Apple Computer’s latest gadget the iPad 2 depends on the advanced manufacturing technologies of Japan for crucial components like flash memory to store audio and video files that are manufactured by Toyota which shut down its manufacturing facilities due to the earthquake and tsunami. Other iPad 2 components sourced from Japan include “AKM Semiconductor and DRAM memory produced by Elpida Memory. A touchscreen overlay glass is likely from Asahi Glass.” Even if these suppliers are not directly hit by the earthquake, tsunami, or t, the logistical disruptions caused by the natural disasters including obtaining raw materials and parts and shipping finished goods are likely to hamper production.

it is impossible to assess the costs of reconstruction. Initial estimates of $200 billion were based on the experience of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Not only was the present earthquake much more destructive in scale but it was also accompanied by a massive tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. With a debt-to-GDP ratio double that of the United States, and credit-rating agencies being more prudent after the financial crisis of 2008-09, raising funds at a tolerable rate of interest could be difficult. Unlike the United States which could pump $600 billion as stimulus during the financial crisis, the yen does not enjoy international reserve currency status and hence this is not an option for the Japanese.

This raises the possibility that Japan, which is the third largest holder of US Treasuries, will sell off large chunks of the $877 billion it holds to finance its reconstruction–a sell-off that will have a major impact on interest rates all across the world and depress the value of US Treasuries and could trigger an avalanche of sales of the Treasuries as other holders seek to minimize their holdings. It could cause another enormous liquidity crisis as the financial crisis just did and comes at a time when the economies of the US and the European Union are still weak.

Gaddafi’s Counter-revolution

March 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | Leave a comment
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If the revolt in Libya initially followed the script in Tunisia and Egypt, with protestors calling for democracy and the ouster of an autocrat who had ruled over them for long, it was quickly evident that the Libyan story would have its own murderous twists. Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi had after all supported to the end his fellow autocrats–Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak–and urged them to retain their presidencies ‘life.’ And as he had centralized all power and deliberately kept the army weak, there were no generals who could send him packing. It was clear that he was not going to go timidly.

After an initial period of paralysis, when the rebels quickly consolidated their control over the oil-rich eastern parts of the country and began advancing to towards the regime strongholds of Sirte and Tripoli, Gaddafi launched a murderous counter-assault with tanks, heavy artillery, and air planes. The paramilitary forces commanded by his sons were far better equipped that the rebels and the military deserters who had joined them and have been steadily rolling back the rebels. Stopping the rebel advance in Bin Jawad, a small town between the oil refinery port of Ras Lanuf and Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. The regime’s forces have now captured the ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega and are advancing towards the rebel headquarters of Benghazi, though Misurata in central Libya still appears to be holding out despite assaults by the pro-Gaddafi forces.

After having swiftly called for Gaddafi to go, the United States and West European leaders are now in a quandary. In the first instance, it is not clear whether President Barack Obama gets it at all: on March 4, he told Florida Democrats in Miami:

“All the forces that we’re seeing at work in Egypt are forces that naturally should be aligned with us, should be aligned with Israel — if we make good decisions now and we understand sort of the sweep of history.”

The fact that demonstrators across North Africa and the Persian Gulf are not chanting anti-Israel or anti-US slogans merely shows that the protests are rooted in domestic conditions, not that they are pro-Israel. Indeed, the demand for accountable governments is a demand for governments not to be subserviently enforcing Israeli policies as Mubarak had done!

When the British Prime Minister David Cameron initially called for a no-fly zone, and other Western leaders called on Gaddafi to go, it was expected to increase pressure on him to follow Ben Ali and Mubarak and leave quietly. And as the Libyan rebels were rolling from the east towards Tripoli everyone was keen to ensure that this was a Libyan revolution, one without foreign assistance. But the regime’s counter-assualt has changed all this. Now the rebels, the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council, recognized by France as the legitimate government of the country is calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone, a call endorsed by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States. On March 11, the European Union also said it would keep military action as an option “provided there is demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region.”

If the purpose of intervention–even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’–is to protect civilians, it reeks of double-standards. Not only have the United States, European leaders, or the Arab League not reacted in a similar manner to the killing of protesters elsewhere–in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, not to speak of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories–but members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League are themselves guilty of killing protesters. At the time of writing, Yemeni forces are killing protesters in Sana’a and wounding hundreds elsewhere in the country.

While the imposition of a no-fly zone–an act of war and would imply at the very least the bombing of Libyan anti-aircraft defenses–may prevent Gaddafi from launching air raids, Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes it will not severely dampen the regime’s counter-assault. It will do nothing to its heavy artillery and its trained paramilitary forces.


Arming the rebels poses problems of another order. The Libyan National Council is headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Justice Minister in the Gaddafi regime but the names and identities of many of its members have not been revealed. They appear to be united only in their opposition to Gaddafi and include the entire spectrum from Islamic fundamentalists to pro-democracy activists and workers and the relative balance between these factions is anything but clear. What is clear is that the rebels have little or no military training and hence it is anything but certain that they can withstand the regime’s counter-assault even if they were provided with arms.

It is also clear that Gaddafi has a powerful constituency, bought off with his oil revenues and tribal loyalties. This inevitably implies that effective intervention on the terms being discussed by the European Union, NATO, and the United States would involve putting US and European forces on the ground. it is not clear how the US can sustain a third war in difficult financial circumstances and the intervention may strengthen Gaddafi’s hands if the Libyans see “French and English speaking troops conducting Iraq War style raids into their homes” as Vijay Prashad has rightly suggested. And any intervention coming on the heels of the US House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims will be doubly egregious.

Indeed, the autocrats represented in the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council may well have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to divert attention from the domestic problems fueling the protests back to anti-imperialism!

What is additionally noteworthy is that the military government in Egypt has not taken a strong stand against the assault launched by the Libyan regime. Its military, provisioned by the US, its infinitely better equipped than the Libyan forces and yet does nothing to intervene. Rather than supporting the Libyan protestors it does not even help Egyptian workers in Libya get back home!

If Gaddafi is able to capture Benghazi, then the tide of Arab rebellions would have been turned especially as the Saudis have allocated $37 billion to buy the loyalty of its people and the Gulf Cooperation Council is channeling $20 billion to Bahrain and Oman to similarly buy off their oppositions.

Alternatively, we could see an effective partitioning of Libya into a rebel dominated eastern wing and a Gaddafi controlled west. If this happens the control of oil, mainly located in the east and the very sparsely populated South would be crucial and the stalemate could be prolonged.

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