Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The Abraham Accord: Realignment, Containment, and Militarism

 On 19 August 2020, an article in Foreign Affairs argued that a “botched peace plan” in the Middle East accidentally produced the Abraham Accord between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel and the US. On the surface, the Abraham Accord appears to be a ‘botched peace plan’. However, it is consistent with the goals of the Trump administration to forge closer ties between pro-US Arab countries and Israel for several reasons that help promote America’s Middle East and global geopolitical and economic interests, while coinciding with Trump’s reelection efforts to contain Iran, limit China’s regional role, and achieve a diplomatic victory amid high unemployment and an economic recession right before the election. These goals do not amount to anything of historical significance that entails lasting peace, but do signal a hasty attempt to preserve Pax Americana amid China’s rising global economic power that will eventually translate into geopolitical power.

Among other Arab nations, the UAE has been quietly moving toward closer ties with Israel for the past decade, especially amid Saudi-Israeli-US efforts to isolate and weaken Iran and its allies China and Russia that have coalesced in the UN Security Council against the US. Considering that the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - Iran Nuclear Deal - on 8 May 2018, largely to pursue a tougher containment policy that would weaken Iran’s role in influencing the regional balance of power, especially in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Abraham Accord was a logical conclusion to salvage US efforts at a regional peace deal. The goal is in essence continued militarization as leverage to maximize the influence of regional US allies coalescing around Israel and Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, given that Iran has forged much closer ties with China and Russia, US containment strategy imbedded in the Abraham Accord follows the long-standing US policy of relegating the Middle East as its historic zone of influence ever since the Truman Doctrine (1947) that created the “Northern Tier” as a buffer zone against the Soviet Union. As reflected in the Accord, Middle East realignment under the aegis of the US uses Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey, are catalysts to a containment policy along the lines of Cold War “containment militarism”, as Jerry Sanders argued in his book forty years in analyzing NSC #68 of 1950.

The State Department has made it clear that the Abraham Accord aims to counter Iran, although Israel and to some degree want Turkey included in the containment policy. However, this accord, as opposed to the Truman Doctrine of 1947 when Greece, Turkey and Iran were US strategic satellites, China’s economic and geopolitical expansion is what the US fears more than any other power in the world, including Russia. Former Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrei Baklanov has argued that Russian trade would actually benefit from the UAE-US-Israel deal. Moreover, Russia advocated regional rapprochement since 1992 under Boris Yeltsin. At the same time, Russia’s concern that the Abraham Accord could signal an end to UAE as a peace broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia has forced Moscow to consider strengthening ties with Tehran. Therein rests Moscow’s ambiguity about the deal which China views in somewhat the same light. With expanding economic ties throughout the Middle East and Africa, China praised the Abraham Accord, especially since it sees Erdogan’s Turkey, not Iran, destabilizing the region with aggressive adventures of recapturing some of the Ottoman Empire’s glory. More so than Russia, China views the Abraham Accord as a containment policy toward Iran and Turkey, but also commercial containment of China in the region, as the US is committed to greater militarization of the Gulf States.

In delivering the Abraham Accord, Trump, who takes pride in bypassing America’s NATO partners and pursuing unilateral policies, has provided the US defense industry with pre-election gifts. Considering the Abraham Accord was contingent upon US sales of EA-18G Growler, made by Boeing, and a pledge to sell more advanced weapons to placate Israel, is it any wonder the Arab-American scholar Hussein Ibish noted that: “The president (Trump) thinks like a salesman, and this is what he wants in the Middle East.” In August 2020, the US announced the sale to UAE of advanced weapons (F-35 fighter jets and Reaper Drones, and EA-18G Growler jets — designed for stealth attacks by jamming enemy air defenses).

Privately approving the arms deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly denounced US arms sales brokered by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Some Democratic congressmen immediately objected on the grounds that Arab buyers of US weapons have used them in the protracted Saudi-led war in Yemen, mostly targeting civilians suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The UAE have withdrawn their forces from Yemen, but they are involved in the Libyan civil war where the US and its Western European partners have sunk into chaos and destruction since 2011.

Although the Abraham Accord reflects American unilateralism, US Western allies are limited in how much they can criticize Washington’s efforts at realignment in the Middle East, even if such efforts signal very little peace as a goal and greater possibilities of militarism. Domestically, not just Trump’s supporters, but even establishment Democrats backing Biden, have no objection to the US selling more weapons to Middle East allies, while forging new coalitions. This regardless of the objections that some Democrats make about lack of consultation that is typical of the Trump administration across the board.

Some have compared the Abraham Accord with the Camp David Accord during the Carter administration when Egypt normalized relations with Israel in March 1979. Both the Camp David Accord and the Abraham Accord are partly symbolic owing to realignment and the projection of “making progress” toward resolving the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict owing to the Palestinian question. While this is one dimension, the reality is that the Middle East will not change for the better because of the Abraham Accord. The US is using the Accord as a way to maintain its historic role to determine the regional balance of power, contain/isolate Iran while keeping China’s role limited, sell more weapons, and project a foreign policy victory to the American people right before the presidential election.  

When considering whether more Arab states will follow the UAE example, it is important to ask whether the Middle East became more peaceful and the plight of the Palestinians ended following the Camp David Accords in 1979. It is inevitable that the so-called diplomatic breakthrough projected in the Abraham Accord will serve as an incentive to other nations closely allied with the US and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, no matter what Tel Aviv does with the Palestinians.

Surprised by the accord, Palestinians denounced it as treason, as did Iran and Turkey. It is expected that besides UAE joining Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania in recognizing Israel, other Arab states, including Oman, which has ties with Iran but welcomed UAE’s move, Sudan and Morocco will follow as they see benefits to such realignment and nothing to gain by ideologically backing the Palestinians whose global leverage is currently at its lowest level in history. Like the UAE, other Arab states will argue that having normalized ties with Israel and by extension stronger ties with the US, they can be a voice of influence from within such an alliance to mitigate Israel’s apartheid policies toward Palestinians.

No matter who is president, the historically unwavering US commitment to Israel will drive foreign policy. This means offering weapons sales as incentives to other Arab states to join the Abraham Accord. Militarizing the region will escalate a regional arms race and further destabilize all of them; much to the delight of weapons manufacturers, but to the detriment of the people in those countries where civilian economies will suffer in the process. 

Besides a far right wing Norwegian politician nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, many within the US and in the pro-US camp around the world have applauded the UAE-Israel-US deal as a historic foreign policy achievement. We need to keep in mind that in 2009 President Barak Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and then became militarily involved in both Libya and Syria, while CIA covert operations raged during the Arab Spring uprisings. In his memoirs, in 2015, Geir Lundestad, the non-voting Director of the Nobel Institute and secretary for the Nobel Committee, noted that he had reservations about awarding Obama the prize. After 2009, Geir Lundestad witnessed Obama’s reckless military adventures and failed commitment to peace, forcing him to argue that the US president had not lived up to the Nobel Peace Prize values.

Highly unlikely that Trump will receive the Novel Peace Prize, he has been praised by people already committed to his administration ideologically and politically. Unlike Obama, Trump as a unilateralist has been more reluctant to engage in US overt and covert military operations, partly because he sees the competition with China taking precedence over all other commitments. He has been more interested in strengthening the defense industry by providing more US contracts and lobbying other countries to buy more weapons. This will be his legacy, despite criticizing the military industrial complex for domestic political reasons and uncontrollable ego. 

 

  Coinciding with the pre-election season, the Abraham Accord will not have any impact in American voters, for they do not cast a ballot on the basis of foreign policy deals that have no impact on their lives. At the same time, with the exception of benefiting defense contractors, Israel and the Gulf States allied with Saudi Arabia, the Abraham Accord will do nothing to end Israel’s apartheid policy, any more than it will limit Iran’s regional role in determining the balance of power with China and Russia on its side. Large in its symbolism, the Abraham Accord will prove far less than the failed Camp David Accords of 1979.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

‘Light vs. Darkness’: What to Expect from the US Presidential Election in 2020

 

Ideology: Mobilizing the Popular Base under Neoliberalism

In his acceptance speech for president, Joe Biden framed the election in moral terms, stating: “I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness.” He then went on to ask voters to judge him and Trump not by rhetorical promises, but their deeds. Both Trump and Biden have a public record of policy decisions they have supported, making it easy for the informed voter to judge them accordingly. However, many voters make decisions on the basis of many factors, from ideological and political commitment to cultural conditioning based on social class; from self-interest to desperation and hopelessness with political realities; from the need to satisfy an emotional craving and aspirations to a lack of good choices on the ballot.

Those in the US and around the world hoping for a Biden win in 2020 may very well accept the candidate’s moralist slogan of “light vs. darkness”; a slogan with religious undertones to the faithful, or superhero appeal for younger voters. It is not surprising that candidates for president deliberately make grand universal pronouncements as a means of mobilizing popular support, regardless of the lack of realism in such pronouncements. For establishment Democrats, the US presidential election is a choice is as clear as light vs darkness. For progressive Democrats, it is a case of the lesser evil presenting itself as light for the sake of preventing the neo-Fascist darkness which Trump and the Republicans represents.

Surely to be disappointed, those who expect Biden to reverse Trump’s neoliberal domestic policies, and put an end to US militarism and overt/covert foreign interventions abroad may find themselves seeking an alternative to the establishment Democrats and Republicans by 2024. Judging him by his own record, as he has asked voters to do, Biden will not reverse neoliberalism or US imperialism. He will manage the state with some regulatory safeguards and a social safety net domestically, while pursuing global economic and military hegemony, as did Obama who recently decried the withering of American democracy under Trump.

Reflecting the power of Wall Street, neoliberal goals and global imperial ambitions will remain the same under Biden as they were under Trump. However, there will be an attempt at bipartisan consensus in Biden’s approach, combined with a more rational tone, civility and dialogue instead of governance by intimidation. This is in contrast to the chaotic, disruptive, often illegal and destructive course under Trump whose goal was and remains to privatize every possible public entity from social security to the post office, and wherever possible dish out government contracts to private firms to carry out work that the government bureaucracy could carry out more efficiently and at a lower cost to taxpayers. Biden’s administration will revert to more technocratic cabinet secretaries who will not be appointed to undermine their departments from within and invite chaos in the name of adopting a more orthodox pro-business model.

Partly because Biden has a record of supporting neoliberal policies and rejecting New Deal-type policies that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party favors, he focuses on the moral dimension of politics and personality issues, instead of structural problems. In his acceptance speech at the DNC convention, he noted that “This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America….Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy.”

Making some references to income inequality, the Democratic presidential contender did not mention specific policy positions where the two wings of the party are divided about how to address the issue. “My economic plan is all about jobs, dignity, respect and community,” he stated, rhetoric often heard from Republican politicians. Embarrassed by Trump and a circle of indicted criminals, establishment Democrats, Rockefeller Republicans, and even some Reagan Republicans embrace Biden’s focus on making America moral again. These same status quo supporters categorically reject class-based New Deal policy specifics that the progressive wing of the party emphasizes. While progressive Democrats point to the twelve billionaires worth $1 trillion, in a nation of $20 trillion GDP as the core of what is wrong with the neoliberal political economy, establishment Democrats and the assortment of conservatives backing Biden want modest policy adjustments but mostly changes in personalities instead of the system.

Biden has reluctantly embraced some progressive policies, especially considering the growing income gap and rising poverty amid the pandemic. However, he remains ideologically and politically committed to the pluralistic bourgeois society that Trump undermined institutionally using ‘executive power’. Like Obama, Biden will pursue corporate welfare policies aimed at sectors that reflect the party platform – renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. He will also maintain a firm commitment to environmental protection at home and globally by backing the Paris Agreement of 2015. Pursuing such policies is a reflection of continuing the Clinton-Obama legacy and embracing the party’s pluralist middle class popular base, but these measures do not address downward socioeconomic mobility.

Trump appeals to an assortment of traditional conservatives and cultural right wingers that include some of the richest Americans, former Tea Party faithful, evangelicals, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists making up the populist base of the Republican Party. Skeptical of bourgeois democracy, its pluralist bourgeois institutions rooted in identity politics, and viewing the state as the enemy except in the domain of national security and police, Trump’s heterogeneous right wing popular base is held together by the party power base that wealthy donors keep well-funded. Inflaming the “cultural wars” has resulted in a more deadly use of fire toward blacks by the police who are a reflection of an institutionalized quasi-police state. In response, an emboldened minority community backed by white liberals reflects a divided America incapable of unifying at the grassroots level against the elites responsible for fomenting division.

To address such division in society, Biden appeals to establishment Democrats eager to restore the status quo ante – “return to normalcy” as he put it. This refers to pluralist neoliberalism before Trump’s introduction of overt authoritarian neoliberalism, which is a nativist form of neo-Fascism with characteristics rooted in American apartheid culture and the doctrine of Exceptionalism, an outgrowth of Manifest Destiny to justify imperialism. Accepting Biden as the lesser of two evils, some Rockefeller and Reagan Republicans, and independents are backing the Democratic Party because they are embarrassed by a president who has no qualms legitimizing a historically conservative party into a movement not far from a Fascist Party of the interwar era. Because the conservative defectors would never back Senator Sanders as candidate for president, it is clear they preservation of the status quo in a Biden presidency that would presumably make America moral again instead of leading it toward Fascism.

Even before Trump, the Republican Party had embraced elements typically found in Fascist movements of interwar Europe. Institutional and cultural racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, all of which conceal disdain for democracy as expressed in systematic voter suppression are part of the eclectic Republican Party ideology and practice. Trump has unmasked institutional and cultural traits of American society associated with an apartheid authoritarian society, traits always present but barely concealed behind politically correct rhetoric and institutions hiding behind under the cloak of official legitimacy. Moralist rhetoric and personality traits aside, the Biden camp is not so far from the conservativism of the 1950s, as a recent Bloomberg News article noted; an indication of how reactionaries have prevailed in both parties during the era of neoliberalism since Reagan was elected.

Citizens choose between two established neoliberal parties well-funded by wealthy individuals, corporations and super-PACs. Although bourgeois legitimacy rests in the voting process, candidates for president are selected by the party bosses beholden to large donors when it comes to conducting policy that will not deviate from neoliberal perimeters. Grand pronouncements such as “Make America Great Again”, or “light vs. darkness” are devoid of any purpose other than mobilizing the respective party’s voter base. Although the socially criminal ruthlessness of Republican authoritarianism will not take society farther down the road of Fascism, if Democrats win in November, America will not be delivered into the light nor made any more moral under Biden than it was made great under Trump.

Wall Street, the State and Labor

A recent Bloomberg News article noted that Biden’s most likely governing model will be similar to that of Eisenhower during the decade of conformity amid the Cold War. A return to normalcy is indeed going back decades to a Republican era when there was bipartisan consensus with foreign policy as the catalyst. Such is the “light” that Biden offers. This is an improvement to the utterly corrupt, criminal, authoritarian bigoted government of the last four years with characteristics of Third World dictatorships. Because Trump has such a rich soiled character reflected in corrupt and illegal activities of his family and circle of associates, it is difficult to separate policy intertwined with the president’s quest to augment the family and friends’ fortunes. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the commoditization of public policy under Trump has been socially criminal, exposing not only corruption but incompetence.

Neoliberal lines of demarcation become blurred between the pluralist establishment Democrats that Biden calls ‘light’ and the authoritarian neoliberal Republicans who hypocritically embrace religion and the flag but have an allegiance only to wealth and power at any cost, even if it violates the law. As historical record makes clear, Wall Street donates to both political parties. Lobbyists work as closely with Republicans as they do with Democrats, often for the same corporations. In the current election, 57.7% corporate CEO’s donate to Republicans, while 18.6% donate to Democrats. Wall Street has no problem with either candidate. No matter who is elected, policies favoring Wall Street will continue as they have under previous presidents.

Progressive Democrats in the House and Senate will continue to press Biden for greater regulatory regime that Trump undermined. They will demand a fiscal policy not so heavily tilted in favor of the wealthiest one percent of the population; they will demand horizontal not vertical growth policies favoring capital concentration; restoration of social welfare programs, ranging from school lunch and food stamps to child care support that were trimmed under Obama and gutted under Trump; and a labor policy protecting trade unions weakened under Obama and assaulted under Trump. The polarizing socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic provide political cover for Biden to accept some progressive positions, simply because most Americans demand them amid a rising level of downward socioeconomic mobility.

For their part, establishment Democrats and Biden Republicans will press for a “bipartisan consensus”. They will resist the party’s progressive wing on any policy, just as they did during the primary in undercutting Sanders from within the DNC. Specifically, Biden has pledged to raise taxes of the richest 1% of Americans by $4 trillion in the next ten years. However, Trump gave the wealthy and corporations tax cuts of $1.5 trillion in the “2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act”; a massive income transfer that only ballooned the public debt and proved to be anything but a “Jobs Act”.

Despite his rhetorical appeal to blue-collar workers fearful that their children will never see the American Dream, Biden’s labor policy will be as it was under Clinton and Obama who were not hostile to labor. Nevertheless, it was under Obama that the trade union died a slow death. Government permitted the growth of ‘independent contractors’ who have no health care or retirement benefits, their wages are often below minimum wage, and there are no safety regulations protecting them. Although Trump more closely approximates the corporate Fascist state of big business-government relationship (Palazzo Vidoni Pact between Mussolini and Italian industrialists, 1926), with the former determining policy on trade, labor and regulatory regime, Biden will not abandon corporatism any more than Obama. Wall Street wants the state’s active role to contain labor amid ever rising capital concentration to distract the public’s focus from the real enemy of the working class, while corporate welfare continues uninterrupted.

Corporate lobbyists are practically writing policy on neoliberal model perimeters for Congress and the president’s cabinet secretaries to carry out. For example, the corporate welfare scheme of the drug companies is typical of welfare capitalism crippling society. While companies like Johnson and Johnson, Gilead Sciences, Moderna Therapeutics, etc. have guaranteed sales contracts, they also receive research and development grants from the government. They engage in price gouging of the same consumers despite the government providing a corporate welfare subsidy. Fearing the erosion of corporate subsidies and drug regulation, these companies run advertisements against universal health care and drug price regulations, not just against Democrats, but Trump as well.

Interestingly, while Trump has been saying publicly that he will not stand for drug companies charging so much, privately, he has been giving them all sorts of subsidies and guaranteed government contracts. With the exception of a few progressive Democrats, the rest have been supporting corporate welfare policy as much as Republicans. When Senator Sanders spoke out about this issue during the primary, the vitriolic attacks were worse from establishment Democrats, including Biden, than from Republicans who used New Deal-advocate Sanders in order to label the Democratic Party as “Socialist”, if not ‘Communist’ out to destroy the American way of life.

Beyond the pitfalls of the decadent corporate welfare state, the neoliberal political economy’s parasitic ‘financialization of the economy’ (measuring the wealth of the nation on the basis of speculative markets instead of the real economy) takes precedence over the productive sectors. It has created a structural crisis manifested in the economic contraction of 2008-2011, as well as the current crisis that the pandemic exposed. Neither the moralist “light vs darkness” camp of Biden, nor Trump’s “Make America Great Again” camp will alter the neoliberal institutional course, let alone social contract after 2020. In the first six months of the pandemic, monetary policy, even when coordinated by central banks around the world, was unable to lift the "real economy" out of the crisis. This is because the root causes rest with the parasitic neoliberal model that gives precedence to ‘financialization’ over productivity. The worst aspect of all this is that neoliberal politicians, business leaders, the corporate media, academics whose institutions are beholden to corporate donors for endowments, and billionaire-financed think tanks believe that the solution to the problem is not to abandon the neoliberal model, but to change personalities, modify its management strategy, and have more of it or a another version, no matter the devastating consequences to society.

Foreign Policy

In the domain of foreign affairs, Biden is in his element because of his experience in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. However, a closer examination of the “light vs. dark” choice makes it clear that the foreign policy is as cloudy as fiscal policy, trade policy, corporate welfare, and labor policy. Molded by the Cold War and the politics of America’s quest to remain the world’s superpower against enemies and friends alike obstructing its path, Biden reverts to a four decades-long record as militarist/interventionist Cold War Democrat. Rejecting Republican unilateralism, he prefers the model of a “liberal international order” of multilateral relations, with the US at the helm of NATO, SEATO and OAS and with the goal of containing China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela.  

Confrontational public rhetoric against traditional allies like Germany as a way to force them to buy natural gas from the US instead of Russia will not be part of a Biden administration. Like Obama, Biden will return to the historic US-Russian confrontation, although it will be with closer consultation of NATO allies, probably without trying to force them to sign more contract with US defense companies. The cartoonish cult of personality will not be present in a Biden foreign policy as it has been in Trump. Whether it comes to dealing with Russia, China, North Korea, Turkey or any other nation, Biden will be in close consultation with the foreign policy establishment. Nor will foreign policy be tied to personal fortunes of the president and his inner circle. Trying to cash in with every foreign policy move, from Trump hotels, to consulting firms, raising money for a wall along the US-Mexico border to keep out migrants south of the Rio Grande as merely another fraudulent and money laundering scheme will not be a part of a Biden administration. Foreign policy to advance American corporate interests will be the main goal, and it may or may not include high-pressure tactics of sanctions against strong competitors like the Huawei Corporation among other multinational Chinese-based companies.

The eroding global economic status of the US in the world forced Trump economic nationalists into the position of a confrontational policy toward friend and foe alike, combined with a blanket rejection of multilateral foreign policy and international organizations that the US had established to further its global hegemony. Ironically, when no ally was enthusiastic about US sanctions intended to provide an economic or geopolitical advantage to the US, the Trump White House resorted to punitive sanctions against the principals and third party players that swept along allies and enemies alike. Biden would probably not consider such a crude use of American power, but he is fully expected to use America’s leverage to strengthen US-based multinational corporations against foreign competition.

Biden will revert to the postwar bipartisan goal of a “liberal international order”, emphasizing negotiations to establish economic and political rules about common ground and disagreements between nations. Like Trump, Biden’s goal to restore the US as the preeminent power – “put it back at the head of the table”, as he said - is a challenging proposition when considering the obvious shift in the core of the world economy from the US to East and South Asia.

Despite the reality of a multipolar world with China as the preeminent economic power (an economy of $27 trillion in PPP terms vs. the US at $21 trillion), and despite China’s public debt at 48% of GDP vs the US at 110% of GDP before the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that Biden will radically deviate from Trump’s strong defense policy by cutting the Pentagon’s budget under the current level of $700 billion. Although Biden will make changes where defense priorities rest, the military-industrial complex has nothing to worry about. More problematic areas will be where the Democrats permit US defense contractors to sell weapons. Biden may not be as friendly toward Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and the Philippines, among other smaller nations in Central Asia and Africa.

Trump critics argue that the salient element in the US lapsing to a “second-rate” power is the result of Trump’s unilateralism and aggressive tactics toward allies while placating authoritarian leaders. To reverse that course, Biden will strive to achieve a multilateral consensus with traditional allies, dropping Trump’s “America First” doctrine so offensive to all countries. But is it accurate to argue that Trump’s foreign policy sank the US into “second-power status”, or are there structural dynamics responsible for America’s decline during China’s simultaneous rise in the last two decades of American neoliberalism and costly military interventions? Is it realistic to assume that reverting to pre-Trump multilateralism would magically sink China from its current status while lifting the US back to its 1980s and 1990s status? Even the EU has come to the conclusion that the world power structure has changed permanently because of China, and governments make foreign adjustments accordingly, even within the old Cold War institutions.

Recognizing China is the world’s preeminent economic power, Biden will coordinate with European and Asian allies to create a coalition of containing China on all fronts, especially technology. There is a false assumption that because Biden will pursue multilateralism he will refrain from overt or covert military intervention. Obama was committed to multilateralism and the liberal international order, but had no problem continuing the US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, while launching new ones, covert and overt, in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Ukraine, and Arab Spring revolts.

A closer look at the foreign policy/intelligence/defense advisory groups in the Biden camp provides a clear picture that this Cold Warrior has not accepted the reality of the present world power structure that is vastly different now than it was when he started his political career four decades ago. Renouncing Trump’s “America First” policy and trying to capture the glory of America’s past is a highly costly nostalgic dream, hardly a realistic foreign policy goal based on what the US can actually afford without continued downward socioeconomic mobility which leads to political polarization. The irony is that the parasitic defense/intelligence budget, higher than the budgets of the next top ten countries combined, undermines the economy which cries out for a new structural direction, if the US is to keep a viable middle class vital to bourgeois democracy.

The root causes of US power erosion are not in unfair competition from China, or military challenges from Russia, or what it deems as rogue states like Iran, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. The problems rests in its foreign and domestic policies. Instead of addressing social and economic problems at home, Trump used the leverage of the military to impose sanctions and secure better trade deals, while castigating multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

Adopting a unilateral foreign policy, the Trump administration is acknowledging that multilateral institutions are no longer furthering US interests, but Chinese. No matter how much the US has tried to blame China, Russia and even allies for its own decline, the problems are homegrown in the political economy of neoliberalism and militarism. Biden has the choice to return to Cold War policies of the past that have contributed to US decline, or he can fix a broken system by abandoning the anachronistic Cold War worldview and the neoliberal/militarist model. This would mean accepting the flawed neoliberal model and limitations of Pax Americana, something he will never do. Instead of focusing on building the civilian economy on a model that does not marginalize the majority of its population and does not squander taxpayer money on militarism as leverage for global market share, Biden will look to failed strategies the past for America’s future. 

Conclusions

In his speech at the Democratic convention in August 2020, president Obama stressed that democracy was on the line with the upcoming election. If we judge by Obama’s version of “democracy”, not on rhetoric but domestic and foreign policies he pursued during his eight years in office, we can conclude that he was referring to neoliberal/militarist policies under a pluralist regime with a modicum of social welfare policies to prevent the masses from abandoning the party. Trump followed Obama because of unfulfilled Democratic Party promises, resulting in further sociopolitical polarization of America, with the populist neoliberal Republican Party openly embracing policies that even some Reagan Republican view as authoritarian, if not Fascist. The failures of the pluralist neoliberal regime to deliver on the promise of upward socioeconomic mobility while pursuing policies that created a wider poor-rich gap exacerbated right wing populism. Yet, Biden with the backing of Obama and establishment Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans want to return to the failed model that drove people to elect Trump whose lies millions of voters believe.

As much as people do not wish to accept it, Trump is a reflection of the American political and socioecomic elites whose interests his policies serve. Not only institutional support from Wall Street, but from various religious groups, think tanks, universities, and a segment of the media have been behind Trump’s Republicans, as has a segment of the disgruntled public sickened with the hypocrisy of bourgeois liberal politics that serves the same elites, some well hidden behind the mask of pluralism. Biden is also a reflection of the American political and socioeconomic elites, although his popular base is in the urban educated middle class, suburban women, segments of the labor movement, many government employees and the private service sector, and above all the minority community.

The struggle of the political class, both Republican and Democrat, is to mobilize the popular base, promising the American Dream when in fact there is only a small slice of the dream, which either can deliver to the middle class and workers. Living standards have been declining steadily in the last four decades while America’s billionaires own more than 80% of the wealth. During the pandemic 38 million people lost their jobs, while billionaires increased their wealth by $434 billion. Although Democrats do not want America to become a Fascist nation and they do not inflame “culture wars” like Republicans, under both Republicans and Democrats there has been no improvement in the socioeconomic or political status of minorities any more than the working class as a whole.

Downward social mobility, which started around the end of the Vietnam War, could possibly slow down, but not reversed under Biden’s ‘forces of lightness’. Under Trump, downward social mobility will accelerate, as the combination of corporate welfare, monetary inflation and a fiscal policy burdening the bottom two-thirds of tax payers will bring society to a deep economic, political and social crisis. The US is unlikely to recapture the glory of the first three decades after WWII when it was the preeminent global economic power at the core of the world economy. That role is now permanently stationed in East and South Asia. Rather than resorting, as Trump has, to ineffective sanctions that backfire, tariff wars, containment strategies and using the military as leverage, Biden will try negotiated strategies on issue-specific differences, combined with multilateral bloc-trading pressure that would actually be more effective for capitalists whose interests transcend national boundaries, thus engendering some stability in the capitalist world order rooted in greater integration.

Many people are so tired of authoritarian politics in a presumably bourgeois democracy; so exasperated of race, ethnic, and gender hatred and divisions; so sickened of official and corporate corruption and criminal conduct, as indicated by those already indicted; so tired of ridicule by the rest of the world to the degree most Americans are embarrassed, rather than proud that they simply want Trump and the Republican machine out of office. Most people realize this is hardly a choice of “lightness and dark”, because this is not a super-hero movie, but the reality of downward trends in living standards, unaffordable health care, higher education, rent, utilities, and life’s basic necessities.

It is criminal by any criteria for a leader of a nation to undermine the health and welfare of its own citizens during a pandemic so that corporate profits are not impacted in the short term. Even under these conditions, opinion polls indicate that roughly 40-47% of voters still back Trump for president, an openly authoritarian and inept leader who cannot keep track of his own lies and who has surrounded his administration with individuals openly hostile to democracy and prone to corruption. While Trump’s prospects do not look promising for him in November, favorability polls numbers in the 40s indicate how far to the right the electorate has drifted in embracing an authoritarian militarist/police state where police officers shooting unarmed black men is symbolic a diehard apartheid society.

Meanwhile, Wall Street keeps rising and it has nothing to worry about Biden who has repeatedly assured billionaires and millionaires that he will not harm their interests. Voters' choice is between Trump’s neoliberal rightwing unilateralist populist catering to big capital with no commitment to the social safety net, and Biden the neoliberal multilateralist pluralist catering to big capital with modicum commitment to the social safety net. On specific policy issues, including abortion, slightly higher taxes for the top one percent, leniency and tolerance toward minorities, immigrants, alternative lifestyle groups, liberal judicial appointments, and commitment to the environment, Biden will strike a course Obama was following.

As far as substantive changes, like raising living standards for the working class and middle class, Biden will not do much more than Obama. Nor will the US do away with the corporate welfare state and restore the social welfare state. Given the two party system choices, both parties are rooted in the neoliberal/militarist political economy. Democrats manage it differently, realizing the benefit of maintaining a social safety net. Republicans assume doing away with it as much as possible and transferring mora capital to the top one percent of income earners. Beyond the common goals under different strategies on how to achieve them domestically and in foreign affairs, the election of 2020 is whether the US wants to erase any pretense of a bourgeois democracy and openly embrace authoritarianism already an integral part of the institutions and culture.

Monday, 29 June 2020

PANDEMICS, NEOLIBERALISM AND INEQUALITY



Introduction: Socopolitical Polarization and Capital Concentration amid Pandemics
Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, there were optimistic scenarios that there would be global solidarity, and society could become more human-centered instead of capital-centered. Whereas some feared greater tendency toward authoritarianism and a public reaction against it, the mainstream politicians, media and the financial elites focused on maintaining market strength. The mass media, corporate-funded think tanks, mainstream politicians and most analysts rarely questions the historical and contemporary context in which the pandemic erupted, accepting as God-given facts that beings and nature were to remain in the service of capital, no matter the consequences, such as pandemics.

Looking at pandemics from ancient times to the 20th century, we can rest assured that the results of COVID-19 will be similar to those of the past, in so far as greater authoritarianism and a less socially just society will manifest themselves amid growing socioeconomic and political polarization. Already deteriorating under neoliberalism in the past four decades, conditions will be worse after the pandemic for the working class, minorities and women; something on which even neoliberal analysts and institutions like the IMF agree, though they do not blame neoliberalism.

The neoliberal phase of capitalism that prevails in much of the world, either under the political umbrella of a rightwing populist government, as in the US, or pluralist system, as in France, even greater capital concentration is inevitable using the pretext of the pandemic to inject more government subsidies and tax breaks to big capital, as smaller businesses fail and competition dwindles. In the USA, India, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Austria, to name a few, led by neoliberal rightwing populists, the prospects of downward social mobility, repression of minorities and workers, and decline of human rights is a guarantee, as it has already taken place amid the outbreak of the pandemic.

While pluralist neoliberal regimes most prominent in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan, will be a bit more generous to the middle and working class, capital concentration is a common goal, despite the absence of consensus between neoliberal political factions vying for power.
Unique in our time, the shift of the global economic power from the Western World to East Asia, presents challenges to Western capitalists and Western governments trying to maintain their status in the core of the capitalist system. This is the main reason that the US has launched an era of economic nationalism mainly targeting China and questioning the role of international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) overseeing terms of trade. Precisely because of this added dimension, especially considering that the COVID-19 pandemic started in China that has demonstrated remarkable ability to deal with it and with its economy, the Western World will lapse toward more desperate measures trying to strengthen national capitalists, while averting social upheaval arising from the dire consequences of the pandemic.

Operating on the assumption that pandemics are dynamics for systemic social change, some journalists, academics, and variety of analysts rushed to conclude that COVID-19 would alter the value system from rugged individualism to communitarianism, if not collectivism. The pandemic would place greater focus on health care, the environment, and the forgotten masses who must be free of the virus for they pose a threat to the whole of society. These unrealistic predictions quickly turned pessimism, once the reality of authoritarian policies set in in a number of countries around the world, and the mass anti-establishment, anti-racist demonstrations in the US took hold, permitting the neoliberal pluralists to claim them and try to coopt them by proposing reforms within the neoliberal matrix. Though focused on white supremacy and institutional racism, the US “Black Lives Matter” movement was at its core against the neoliberal system that promises equality of opportunity for all, while marginalizing minorities and the working class owing to structural impediments, not just cultural. The pandemic had finally manifested the schism in society not only along racial lines, but class lines as well, given that the elites were divided about how to co-opt the masses in order to lend legitimacy to the neoliberal social contract.

From the plague in ancient Athens coinciding with the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) to the Black Death of Europe that coincided with the Renaissance and the nascent stage of capitalism (mid-14th to mid-16th century), society has invariably witnessed worsening conditions for the majority of the population. The most recent pandemic after the First World War, the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), contributed to worsening conditions for the masses, exploding into the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and authoritarianism across Eastern Europe and in the Iberian Peninsula. Despite an estimated one-third of the world’s population infected by the Spanish flu, there was no trend toward democratization, and social justice that would provide a health/social safety net for the vast majority.

During all pandemics throughout history, regimes become more authoritarian as a means of disciplining the population which tends to suffer living standards erosion owing to pandemic-induced economic contraction. Rising poverty and lower living standards divides people politically, as they struggle to find which political faction has the best solution, not realizing this that all of them operate within the same social contract. As a result of pandemics, wealth becomes more concentrated and socioeconomic gaps widen. Socioeconomic polarization exacerbated, people are divided between conformity and dissent in the struggle to survive while expressing anger at existing conditions. A segment of the population becomes more fanatical toward minorities, dissenters, foreigners, and any social group they deem non-conformist, or out of the mainstream in ideology and/or cultural lifestyle.

Conformists welcome authoritarian rule, as they see no other way to stability and survival, thus setting the stage for ruthless leaders to pursue their ambitions, invariably for the benefit of the elites they serve. Amid such a climate, conspiracy theories flourish about the causes, nature and public policy surrounding the origin of the virus, its nature, possible cures and public health policy. Meanwhile, dissenters demand social justice that includes public health policy to safeguard the masses, a tolerant regime, and sweeping reforms to end authoritarian policies impacting minorities, women and workers. Human beings finding themselves at odds with each other amid pandemics provides fertile soil not only for opportunistic politicians, but also the financial elites who finance politicians’ campaign, own the corporate media, finance everything from think tanks to universities, thus enjoying preeminent influence in molding public opinion.

The irony of the neoliberal system is that it pursues global integration when it pertains to the economy, but not to public health and the environment which are the context of the pandemic. The neoliberal assumption of rugged individualism and each nation left to its own devices to deal with the pandemic only fuels the spread of the virus and backfires, as we have seen especially in the case of the US. With 4% of the world’s population, the US suffers 25% of all the coronavirus cases and deaths. Yet, it has been reluctant to support the World Health Organization and adopt preparedness and preventive measures in coordination with other countries, choosing instead to apportion blame to China where the pandemic originated. This is a reflection not only of nationalist unilateralism as core ideology of rightwing neoliberal populism, but also a policy choice not to divert state funds from the corporate welfare state to invest in social, environmental and public health.

The COVID-19 pandemic is merely another illustration that the neoliberal system contains the seeds of its own demise within it. Amid the struggle for the road to regain market losses in the years ahead, capitalism in its neoliberal phase will create much worse problems, including the manner it deals with pandemics. Whether neoliberal populists like Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Orban among others, or neoliberal pluralists like Macron, Trudeau, Merkel will be at the helm of managing the state, all roads lead to more disasters in the absence of dealing with the realities of environmental and human needs as an integral part of the social contract. Even neoliberal advocates recognize that COVID-19 simply brought into light for all to see that the structural flaws of the institutional system intended to maintain the hierarchical social order.

Neoliberal Values and Pandemics

Ushering in the neoliberal world order in the 1980s, the political and financial elites in the US under Reagan and UK under Thatcher influenced not only other governments, regardless of the “conservative”, liberal or even socialist part label, but all institutions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to media and educational systems. Continuing to weaken the social welfare state, neoliberal governments transferred public funds through the elaborate system of corporate welfare subsidies, loan guarantees, deregulating businesses, weakening environmental regulation, and crippling trade unions, while hailing the corporate model for the public sector, which the private sector dominated and determined public policy.

The neoliberal status quo entailed a value system of extreme individualism, demonizing social welfare and communitarian values, human rights and civil rights, all of which manifested themselves in every sector of society, including public health. In the US, more than any other developed nation, the result was to make health care expensive, as pharmaceutical companies and corporate health facilities became rich and powerful catering to those who could afford health care, thus marginalizing those who could least afford it. This is the context of the pandemic where the US leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The pandemic of 2020 exposed the contradictions of commercializing everything in society, especially workers who are catalysts to the functioning of capitalism. The assumptions that public health as a commodity and financial value as the only things that matters in the neoliberal society came crashing down when the pandemic erupted, especially in Western countries where collectivist values are alien and identified with Communism and Socialism. By contrast, East Asia, especially China with an economy based on free enterprise and statism, has a history of collectivism as a core value. This is partly because of Confucianism, but mostly because the Mao regime promoted collectivism in all aspects of life. In part because of its value system at the root of public policy and public reaction, China did not have nearly as difficult a challenge dealing with the pandemic as the US and the West. Clearly, Chinese values are hardly as cohesive today as under Mao. However, collectivism is deeply ingrained into the culture and people accept social responsibility as individuals. By contrast, the US and the Western World immersed in the value system of individualism, especially as conducive to the neoliberal regime, struggled to deal effectively with the pandemic.

Led by US President Trump, a quintessential rightwing populist neoliberal, many in the West criticized China for its lack of transparency. The same people were also critical of the WHO for urging a collectivist response to the pandemic, rather than a narrow nationalist, based on who can afford health care. The tragic reality of the pandemic forced a number of neoliberal pluralist politicians and advocates of neoliberalism to admit that a public health crisis of this global magnitude required a different strategy than what the neoliberal model permitted.  

That the one-party state Chinese regime handled the pandemic more effectively, placing priority on public health for all, illustrates the realism and efficacy of the quasi-statist model when compared with bourgeois democracies either under neoliberal rightwing populists like Trump, or pluralists like Macron. Interestingly, the Chinese people for the most part have the greatest trust in their government, partly because the public sees the value system implement in public health policy during the pandemic. The same is not at all true for Western neoliberal societies where about only one-third of Americans and Italians, for example, trust their respective governments for medical advice and to handle public health crises. This lack of trust raises the issue of whether people believe their government is genuinely interest in public health as a core value of the social contract.

Corporate Welfare, Public Health Policy and the Pandemic

From the outbreak of the pandemic until mid-April 2020, countries had spent more than $8 trillion to “stimulate” the economy. More was to come, but where did the money go? Contrary to the way the corporate-owned media portrayed public spending and near-zero central bank interest rates, taxpayer money did not go to support the hard-hit working class, the over-burdened public health sector and derivative services hard hit by the pandemic. Because there is a neoliberal institutional structure in place, a large share of the $8 trillion went to varieties of corporate welfare subsidies. By the end of April, global public debt had risen 3 points, to 96% of GDP.  The question remains whether the pandemic was merely a pretext for corporate welfare or did governments spend the money to combat the pandemic’s impact the general population and to strengthen the health care system to deal effectively with the crisis.

Everyone from mainstream neoliberal institutions to progressive academics agree that the pandemic will worsen the rich-poor gap, impact the working class much worse than the rich, and devastate the poor in developing nations. Among other organizations, the IMF has warned that global growth will slow, impacting mostly the working class and the poor across the world, but especially the Southern Hemisphere. The UN Development Program reached similar conclusions as the IMF. Although the poor are impacted worse than the affluent by the pandemic, minorities more so than the majority white population in the US and Europe, the neoliberal structure does nothing to address this problem, as though these marginalized people live on another planet that cannot infect earth. While some portion of public funds have gone to subsidize workers’ lost wages, most of the money in nations from Brazil to the US, from Germany to Japan has gone to subsidize corporations, especially those in the travel-related sector in the form of business loans, fiscal relief such as tax credit and subsidies, and loosened rules on interest deductions.

From the UN to the World Bank, IMF, and governments operating under the neoliberal model, the focus is to strengthen businesses. This does not exclude addressing underlying structural problems that lead to pandemics, but the goal is to sustain the status quo, rather than to examine whether the existing regime was at the core for the failure to deal with pandemic effectively. There has been no mainstream media discussion, no mainstream politicians, no think tank analyst focused on the neoliberal system that gave rise to the pandemic. They all operate under the assumption of addressing pandemics within the neoliberal social contract, as though CIOVID-19 will be the last pandemic to hit the world and a vaccine will take care of everything.

In an essay entitled: “The COVID-19 pandemic: securitization, neoliberal crisis, and global vulnerabilization:” Joao Nunes argues that: “The COVID-19 pandemic means not only a crisis of neoliberalism as an economic model; the pandemic itself is a neoliberal crisis.” It is common sense, as Dr. Anthony Fauci among countless others has argued, that a pandemic by definition means a collective responsibility, as each person’s health depends on the other. If we accept that obvious reality, public funds amid a pandemic would not distributed to strengthen corporations, but the public health care system globally and those people impacted economically by the ensuing crisis.   

Conclusions

COVID-19 will be remembered for the manner that governments responded to this crisis and the degree to which the elites will be anxious to push to measures that better prepare society to face the next such outbreak. There have been many articles written about the lessons to be learned and much more thorough analysis will be coming in the next few years. Advocates of neoliberal rightwing populism as practiced in the US, Brazil, India, Poland and Hungary argue that the lessons must include  more authoritarian measures, harsher policy toward immigrants and refugees, harsher punishment for dissidents, fewer pluralist measures that cater to minorities, and more discipline by the recalcitrant working class. Rightwing populists also advocate a weaker WHO and less dependence on multilateral institutions, while each nation must try to make it on its own amid the pandemic. Therefore, authoritarianism and unilateralism is the proper response, especially considering that dissidents took to the streets to demand human rights for minorities and the working class, thus challenging the social order.

Advocates of neoliberal multilateralism argue that the world will change and become more integrated, with the US and EU using the opportunity to reassert their roles in the world economy by demanding readjustment of international organizations such as WHO, WTO, World Bank, etc. Unified response, at least on the part of the G-20, will be part of the mix next time there is an outbreak for the sake of global solidarity, as long as the Western World is at the helm of such efforts. The main concern of neoliberal pluralists is to address the pandemic within the existing system, while coopting the masses that might otherwise become radicalized as they are marginalized amid a rise in authoritarianism and socioeconomic polarization.

Critics of neoliberalism have been arguing that the response to the pandemic has ranged from chaotic and socially irresponsible to criminal. Among others, Noam Chomsky is in this camp who singles out Trump for lacking moral fiber and stability in carving out a coherent public policy. Others place in the same camp as Trump Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, Turkey’s Erdogan, and Hungary’s Orban, who are far less influential in the world arena than Trump. Because neoliberalism wants people to believe that people and nature must serve capital, a pandemic entails that people are sacrificed in a cynical ‘social Darwinist’ sense. This is what mostly bothers critics of neoliberalism who are asking for much more than perfunctory reforms. 

Scientists have long argued that it is not possible to separate human history from natural history, just as it is not possible to eradicate pandemics by insulating the rich from the poor who are most vulnerable. Have the neoliberal political and financial elites learned such a lesson, or are they so narrowly focused on making sure that government preserves the status quo and provides greater perks for capital?

Under the neoliberal regime, all remedies from medical to social during the pandemic impacts disproprortionally the poor and working class, and within that social class even more the minority populations. Precisely because of this reality, many workers from the US to India and Brazil protested the lockdown that impacted their lives, allowing populist rightwing leaders like Trump, Modi and Bolsonaro to use such protests as proof that their policies enjoyed public support, thus claiming legitimacy for disastrous policies. Neoliberal politicians and the elites they represent of various political wings have learned the lesson of relying even more on corporate welfare to sustain the private sector, continuing to weaken the public sector as funds are transferred from social, health and educational programs, and seek solutions to the pandemic within the existing system in which the pandemic took place. The next pandemic may turn out to be as catalytic in social discontinuity as the Black Death that hastened the end of the feudal-manorial social order.