Coronavirus and Autocratic Resurgence

April 1, 2020 at 11:40 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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One of the less discussed outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the astonishing rollback of democratic rights all over the world.‘Stay at home’ decrees and commandments to maintain physical distances have allowed governments everywhere, even in long-established democracies, to suspend constitutionally guaranteed personal freedoms including the rights of assembly and free movement, the right to demonstrate against governments and other entities, and to allow intrusive surveillance. Justified in the name of public safety, even if some of these powers are rescinded once the pandemic ebbs, the data collected could be used by governments (and private companies like Zoom and Facebook) to monitor citizens with little or no public scrutiny.

 A random sample of governments amassing power by exploiting the fear of widespread contagion and extensive fatalities includes the following:  Last Monday, Hungary’s  parliament controlled by his Fidesz party greenlighted a rule by decree by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as long as a state of emergency lasts. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić also assumed autocratic powers in an open-ended emergency by the suspension of its parliament, the imposition of a 12-hour curfew to be enforced by the police, the closure of borders, and barring those over 65 years of age from leaving their homes. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party under Jarosław Kaczyński which had already made the judiciary subordinate to the executive, used the pandemic to compel people in home quarantine to install a government smart phone application to track their movements.

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The Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes’ cabinet similarly obtained rights to govern by decree without parliamentary scrutiny for six months. In Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to win a majority after three elections and his rival Benny Gantz had been invited to form a government, he exploited his rival’s political inexperience to make him accept a junior position in a Likud-led government. Netanyahu also secured legislative authorization to use a trove of cellphone data to surveil Israeli citizens and to delay court actions, postponing his own trial on corruption charges. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once referred to the country’s constitution as “a scrap of toilet paper,” has also engrossed emergency powers as has the Thai prime minister, Prayuth chan-ocha while the military police now occupy public squares in Chile. The Jordanian prime minister, Omar Razzaz, also acquired powers to censor news media and additional authority to detain people.

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French lawmakers increased the powers of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to rule by decree and to requisition goods and services for the medical emergency. And in Britain, the parliament conferred what has been described as “eye-watering” powers on the government to detain people and close borders. India’s Narendra Modi who had already placed Kashmir under lockdown for more than half a year now put the whole country under lockdown with only 4 hours’ notice!

Even before the pandemic had emerged, Republicans in United States Senate had humiliatingly prostrated themselves before President Donald Trump and conducted a farcical impeachment trial; Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had used a shoddy coup attempt to crush all dissent; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had dismissed the participatory councils that have had a long history in the country and Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales had been removed from office in a coup.

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These breaches in the democratic fabric across the world had been so pronounced, even before the current transgressions, that one of the most discussed books in recent years has been David Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die. Elected autocrats, they argued subvert institutions like the judiciary and the press; coopt important cultural and sports icons or malign and seek to sideline those who resist; disregard mutual tolerance; and violate the law. These are the playbooks of Trump, Modi, Duterte, Kacyński, Erdogan, Orbán, Bolsanaro, and Jeanine Añez who usurped power in Bolivia.

Yet, as Jill Lepore, wrote in the New Yorker magazine, in the years after the First World War, a war fought “to make the world safe for democracy” as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously put it, there was a similar collapse of democracies. Then too, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires, there had been a brief florescence of democracies: but these soon withered away in Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, and Yugoslavia, to be followed by Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia and more significantly by Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

In the 1980s democracy had replaced dictatorships in much of Latin America, the Philippines, and South Korea. And in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama had written a prominent treatise The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the final triumph of “Western liberal democracy.” Yet, within a quarter century, democracy is once again in question.

 

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A study by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, based on 25 international surveys covering 4 million people based 154 countries, concludes that 2019 “represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record” since 1995. Some 58 percent registered their disapproval with democracy in 2019 compared to 48 percent in 1995—with the drop in support especially marked in Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 

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Yet, despite similarities between these two cycles of democratic crises, there are three important differences. Immediately after the First World War, the new democracies that arose were all in Europe or in its settler colonies in the Americas. Democracies established in the Global South after the Second World War were always more fragile as processes like territorial integration, adult suffrage, economic well-being and provision of welfare that took decades if not centuries to be instituted in Western Europe and North America and were accomplished sequentially, were telescoped into a few years in newly independent countries and were expected to be instituted simultaneously in conditions of extreme material deprivation, mass illiteracy, and constant interference by their former colonial powers, and by the United States and the Soviet Union.

 Second, even though the Great Depression had weakened trade unions at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the form of industrialization adopted by the New Deal in the United States, the welfare state in Western European high-income states, and eventually, post-war reconstruction strengthened the industrial working class which formed a bulwark against the return of authoritarianism. Today, the fragmentation of production processes and their outsourcing to low-wage locations have decapitated trade unions in most countries. Though the conservative parties initiated de-regulation in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the social democrats—Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair’s NewLabour in the UK, Francois Mitterand in France—who were the greatest champions of neo-liberalism and finance capital.

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Blaming globalization for the loss of jobs and incomes, the working class—abandoned by social democratic parties—fell prey to the politicians on the right who preached xenophobia and nationalism. Donald Trump’s “make America great again” promised a return to a mythical past to a historically advantaged white working class. Similarly, the Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign demolished Labour’s “Red Wall” in the north of England by blaming migrants and the European Union for economic decline. To cover up the economic failings of his government, Narendra Modi targets Muslims and domestic opponents in India. As the Canadian socialist politician, the late Tommy Douglas, said: “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”

 

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Though the blaming of foreigners and domestic minorities have garnered large constituencies of support for authoritarian rulers, their policies have consistently favored the rich by tax cuts, privatizations, de-regulations, dismantling environmental controls and the protection of indigenous peoples. They have been able to subordinate the judiciary by nominating judges and to muzzle the press with varying degrees of success.

In March 2020, Prime Minister Modi nominated Ranjan Gogoi, the just retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India who had rendered crucial verdicts in support of the ruling BJP, to a seat in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Modi has also coopted sport and cultural icons: in the cricket-mad country, Virat Kohli, the captain of its national team, called the prime minister’s demonetization of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in 2016 as “the greatest move in the history of Indian politics,” despite its drastic economic consequences.  In the case of Poland and India, it was only after the ruling parties won a second election that it surged ahead with their repressive agendas.

The emergency initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic has licensed further restrictions on the freedom of the press. Governments in many countries have banned the spread of ‘fake news’ deliberately leaving definitions vague and ambiguous.

Third, strangely, it is in fact the very global networks that are castigated for a decline in living standards that make life bearable for the poor: without the cheap smartphones and computers assembled by low-waged workers in China, Uber and Lyft, Zomato and Ola in India, could not exist to create a “gig” economy. Without the cheap imports from China and other low-wage economies, the poor in the West can hardly fulfill their credit-card driven consumer spending, itself a result of low- and middle-income countries purchasing US Treasury bonds to keep the value of their currencies low.

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Once the strength of the trade unions was eroded, opposition to authoritarianism has come from the middle classes—ironically derided as the “elite” by Donald Trump and his allies in the United States, as the ‘Khan market gang’ and the “tukde tukde gang” by Modi and his supporters in India, as “Gullenists” or the “PKK” (Kurdish Workers Party) by Erdogan. In many cases, they have failed to reach out adequately to the poor, especially ethnic minorities. In India at least, the passage of the Constitutional Amendment Act which offers citizenship to all illegal immigrants from neighboring countries except Muslims—and one which cricket captain Kohli stubbornly refused to condemn—and the attacks on universities have mobilized the youth and a wider social strata against the government.

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It is this upsurge that the new round of autocratic resurgence is trying to corral. Nine years ago, the Arab Spring may have been celebrated as a social media and Internet-sparked revolution but not only did it collapse but it also showed that the middle classes are easily surveilled by the ubiquity of mobile phones and wifi-connected cameras. Governments now have used the pandemic as an excuse to legally tap this trove of electronic data to keep an eye on its citizens.Even if these powers are rescinded after the pandemic is over, data collected could be mined to obtain granular details about the citizenry, their opinions, connections, and predilections!

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And of course, policing is always deployed as a disciplinary weapon against racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. In the United States, President Trump’s reference to the virus as “Chinese virus” and U.S. State Department’s attempt to call it the “Wuhan virus” in a G7 communique have led to heightened attacks against Asian Americans. In India, people from the northeastern states have similarly been subject to racist attacks.

‘Stay at home’ orders may subject the middle classes to electronic surveillance but the poor have to put their lives on the line and go to work.Reports of police brutality against workers delivering essential goods in India is a reflection both of their lack of information and their general disdain for manual laborers. Even worse, the sudden lockdown of the country forced millions of migrant workers to walk back to their villages in complete disregard for their lives as all public transport was grounded and private taxis were out of reach. The sheer mindlessness of the order when maintaining physical distancing is impossible for the poor in densely populated countries is not only self-evident but also not essential when people over 65 are most vulnerable and 94 percent of the population is below that age!

 

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Over the long-term, opposition to authoritarianism will pivot around how the Left can formulate a strategy that enables an increasingly atomized poor to reverse their exploitation in conditions where automation and artificial intelligence deprive them not only of well-remunerated jobs but also of opportunities to combine together. Given the world-spanning production and procurement networks, such a strategy will have to be based on a progressive internationalism, all the more compelling because of the continuing destruction of the environment wrought by capitalist neo-liberalism. We need, in short, new strategies to fight authoritarianism in the twenty-first century.

No-fly zones, Libya and the Arab Revolt

March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | 2 Comments
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The United Nations Security Council–with the abstention of Russia, China, Germany, India, and Brazil–has done what military analysts have said would be folly: it has voted to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ on Libya and ‘take all necessary action’ short of ‘a foreign occupation force of any form’ to force Colonel Muammar Gaddafi out of power. ‘All necessary action’ could involve a ‘no-drive zone’ to cripple the Libyan regime’s armored vehicles from attacking Benghazi, Misrata, Tobruk, and other remaining rebel strongholds as well as sending in military advisers.

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Advocates of the resolution have evoked humanitarian reasons–chiefly the regime’s brutal counter-assault using its air force and paramilitary forces to roll back the rebels–for intervention. This is buttressed by the belief that Libya is not even a third-rate power and its defenses can easily be destroyed. And the rebels are clothed in the accoutrements of democracy though the only thing that unifies the rebels is their opposition to the Gaddafi regime and it is not clear what a post-Gaddafi Libya will look like or even whether it will remain unified.

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If humanitarian reasons are the chief justification, then it is clear that there is a double standard that is applied. Much has been made of the Arab League’s call for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, but there has been no report of the fact that it was opposed by both Syria and Algeria. The states in support of the resolution–Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman, and Yemen–are hardly paragons of democracy. The governments of Yemen and Bahrain have brutally crushed demonstrations in their own countries; and Saudi Arabia and four other Gulf Cooperation Council states have sent more than 2000 troops to Bahrain to help the regime stay in power! Saudi Arabia has moreover prohibited protests in its eastern province, declaring such protests “illegal and un-Islamic”–and Saudi Arabia has more than 8,000 political prisoners!

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More importantly, there has been virtually no report in mainstream media in the West, that the African Union has condemned attempts to impose a no-fly zone on Libya. The AU’s 15-member peace and security council resolved, to “reaffirm[s] its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign intervention in Libya.” It formed an ad hoc committee composed of South Africa, Mauritania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to engage in dialogue with all parties in Libya for a speedy resolution of the crisis.

There is no certainty that the military operation will be a smooth and easy one. Less than a month ago, US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had told cadets at West Point that any secretary of defense who advises a president to intervene militarily in Asia or Africa ought to have his head examined. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that even the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ let alone all the other ‘necessary actions’ voted on by the Security Council will be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up”–and of course, the major burden will be on the United States which is already engaged in two wars. British Prime Minister David Cameron may have led the charge for a ‘no-fly zone’ but Britain does not even have an aircraft carrier! General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces in Kosovo, has argued that intervention in Libya does not meet critical tests: it is not in US national interest, the purpose of intervention is not clear, political prospects were Gaddafi to be ousted is unclear.

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A ‘no-fly zone’ moreover, might have had a chance of success ten days ago when the Gaddafi regime launched its counter-assault. Now with the rebels in full retreat, and the regime ascendant–with the regime poised to assault the rebel capital of Benghazi–it is not clear whether a no-fly zone alone will suffice. A ‘no-drive zone’ is an even more ‘complex operation’ and increases the odds of British, American, and French casualties–Germany has refused to contribute troops to a NATO operation against Libya and Turkey is unlikely to participate as well. Colonel Gaddafi has promised to take the battle into the Mediterranean and that increases the prospects of Western civilian casualties and an escalation of the war. It will be a war Gaddafi may well lose, but it is not likely that NATO can extricate itself easily–and remember there is no international sanction for a foreign occupation force ‘of any form’ in the Security Council resolution!

If intervention is to promote democracy, George Monbiot notes that the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Libya 158th of 167 countries on its Democracy Index while Saudi Arabia is ranked 160th–and in Libya “women are not officially treated as lepers were in medieval Europe.”

Here, the double standard is all too obvious. Saudi Arabia in the only remaining “swing producer”–the only oil-producing nation with enough excess capacity to raise production if supplies fall short of demand. But US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks suspect that Saudi claims of reserves are exaggerated by almost 40 percent.

The Arab Revolt is not really about democracy–elections have not delivered results in the past, and when election results have angered the United States as in the Hamas triumph in Palestine, the US has condemned the results and applauded Israel’s punitive punishment of Gaza. The protests are about a wholesale change–not merely a change of rulers–because where there is a legal opposition, the opposition is often equally discredited.

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Key to the revolt has been an explosion of information–not only through al-Jazeera, but also through the Internet, travel, and TV–and the enormous growth of people aged below 25 to levels unmatched almost anywhere else. The youth exposed to a wider range of information and experiences have greater aspirations–and now that two of the tyrants have been ousted, the sense of empowerment is raised as Brian Whittaker notes.

It is this sense of empowerment that will take a beating if Western forces occupy Libya for a long while. It will signal pro-Western governments in the Persian Gulf–Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich sheikdoms that they can count on mealy-mouthed appeals for restraint from Washington, London, and Paris as they crush their domestic oppositions. Ironically, this may play well in Iran’s favor. The Islamic Republic is very careful not to portray the conflicts in a sectarian light: if it can portray it as an attack on Muslims, and when Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of Holy Places, sends its troops to slaughter other Muslims, Iran raised the issue not with the Arab League but with the Organization of Islamic Conference. The Iranian Foreign Minister asked the Conference: “How can one accept that a government has proceeded to invite foreign military forces for the crackdown of its own citizens?” Tehran will gain even more credibility with the Arab forces when American, British, and French forces intervene in Libya.

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