Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Whatever (Plus: Bolivia and the American Divide)

See title. Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Solstice, or whatever religion you happen to follow.

Not that playing with the (apparently narcoleptic) Paul Wells isn't fun, but the Canadian election isn't the only even going on in the hemisphere.. or even, in many respects, the most important.

(Before the topic shift, though, I do have to ask: does Canada's PM have any defenders on the internet nowadays? Aside from maybe Jason Cherniak, it seems that the vast majority of small "l" or big "L" liberals are demonstrating lukewarm support at best, and he certainly seems to lack much support in the Canadian media, aside from the "Harper as a trojan horse for social conservatism" stories.)

No, the most striking event is the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, and what it means for South America and the Americas in general. It heralds a trend that most people in North America would never have expected.

That trend?

Socialism is back.

Still derided as a "dead" ideology in the North(witness Marcus Gee's comments about Jack Layton), its reach is inescapable in the South. Bolivia, Venezuela, even Brazil and Argenina (to a smaller extent) are moving in a socialist direction, and Cuba hasn't gone anywhere. Some are democratic, some aren't (depending on how you feel about Venezuela), but the trend is unmistakable.

What's even more surprising is that this has happened in the United States' backyard, in the region that has been synonymous with neoliberal reform in the minds and words of every political economist in academe. That would appear to simply show these countries to be "hard cases", but in every one of them, the changes are clearly due to American neo-liberal influences, rather than in spite of them.

Why? Well, we're seeing the side effects of the gaping hole at the centre of neo-classical, neo-liberal economics: distribution. While neo-liberals are very good at maximizing the theoretical efficiency of an entire economy, thus improving the average income, they seem to either be unable or uninterested in affecting the median income. It's showing itself in the enormous inequality that characterizes South and Central America either not improving, or getting worse, thanks to these reforms.

(It makes perfect sense. Every economist knows that that which you prioritize is going to do better than that which you don't. They prioritized systemic growth over income equality, and, well....)

Of course, the decline of the Washington Consensus isn't news, but the decline of Washington's influence is. There is no way that the cold warriors that still hold sway in the halls of power in Washington should have allowed their backyard to be infested with socialists, but in all cases they've been powerless to do a thing about it. Whether the stories are true of the CIA monkeying with elections in the past, it's doubtlessly true that they were unwilling or unable to do a damned thing about Bolivia. The ongoing embarassment that is the presidency of Hugo Chavez also speaks volumes about American power- how on earth does an American-sponsored coup (like the one a few years back) not succeed, with the power and reach that the United States is supposed to have?

Maybe it's just that the United States is ignoring the Americas right now, with its collective vision so focused on the Middle East and East Asia. That would explain a lot- Washington wasn't paying attention, and got blindsided. Continuously. For the better part of a decade.

The problem for Washington, though, is keeping it in South America. Vincente Fox isn't doing that well, and the indigenous Mexicans aren't going to ignore the success that their Bolivian counterparts have enjoyed. Last I heard, Subcommandante Marcos hasn't gone anywhere, and equality in Mexico isn't doing so well either. Mexico could easily follow in Bolivia's footsteps.

Or, even more disturbing for Washington, is the possibility that this trend could start making waves in the United States as well. I had written a while back about Paul Krugman's analysis of the "jobless boom" in the United States- that while corporate profits and capital gains are exploding, wages are relatively stagnant, and the divide between the wealthy and poor is growing faster than it ever has been. Krugman couldn't explain how and why this was happening, but he noted that it was creating a huge division in perception between the classes in the United States over whether the economy was doing well or not. This is reflected in sales statistics: whereas Wal-Mart's profits are dwindling despite its notoriously exploitative wages, high-end sales are skyrocketing.

(SOMEBODY'S buying all those plasma screens you see at Best Buy and the Sony store, and it ain't Wal-Mart employees.)

This raises the question: what happens if those Americans who are perceiving a weak economy start believing that it's only weak for them? In the past, perceptions of a class divide in the United States have always been dampened by the combination of the overwhelming racial divisions in the country and the perception of civil equality. Civil equality doesn't mean much when people believe that the state is unimportant and the parties are indistinguishable (as an increasing number of Americans do), and I believe (perhaps optimistically) that the racial divide is improving.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not predicting that a social democratic party or president is going to sweep into power anytime soon. I do think, however, that once Americans start looking inward again as the threat of terrorist attacks on American soil recede and the war in Iraq winds down, people are going to start asking questions.

With neoliberals unable to provide evidence that their answers solve a damned thing, will the proletariat start wondering, again, about the words of the man who popularized that term?

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