Sunday, June 24, 2012

Egypt, Argentina, Brazil and the present and future of revolutions

The news about the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi winning the Egyptian Presidency made me think about Joschka Fischer's notion of the post-communist Eastern European revolutions as "revolution by implosion". There's good reason to think that this is what happened in the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. I'm not sure it so much fits the Libyan or Syrian experience, where the civil war aspect seem more prominent.

This is brief video sketch of Morsi from Aljazeera English, Who is Mohamed Morsi? 06/24/2012:

Here is one on the results of the election, Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports from Cairo Aljazeera English 06/24/2012:

On Morsi's victory, see:

Kristen Chick, Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi becomes Egypt's first civilian president Christian Science Monitor 06/24/2012

Celebration in Egypt as Morsi declared winner Aljazeera English 06/24/2012

BBC News, Muslim Brotherhood's Mursi declared Egypt president 06/24/2012

Brotherhood Mursi wins Egyptian presidency Al Akhbar English 06/24/2012

Hatem Maher, 'Don't obey me if I don't fulfill promises': President-elect Mursi tells Egyptians Ahram Online 06/24/2012

Dan Murphy, Egypt has a new president: Let the fear mongering begin! Christian Science Monitor 06/24/2012;

Mark LeVine, Morsi's win is a victory for the revolution Aljazeera English 06/24/2012

Sherif Tarek, Mursi declared Egypt's first civilian president, but military remains in control Ahram Online 06/24/2012

Juan Cole has a useful commentary at his Informed Comment blog, Mursi and the Brotherhood in a Pluralist Egypt 06/24/2012: "despite the Orientalist impulse in Western writing to see everything in the Middle East as black and white, as fundamentalist or libertine, Egypt’s political geography has been revealed by this year’s elections to be diverse. It isn’t just puritans versus belly dancers."

Fischer's concept of "revolution by implosion" recognizes that actual revolutions that deserve the name can occur in even the most advanced countries with complex interlocking institutions, little or no geographically based tribalism, and sophisticated methods of social control that make any kind of mass armed uprising completely unfeasible.

Here it's worth noting events and processes in Latin America that aren't revolutionary in rhetoric or self-understanding but do challenge the dominant neoliberal model of deregulation and "free trade" on terms that overwhelmingly benefit multinational corporations and the One Percent. I have in mind here Argentina and Brazil, in particular. Venezuela is in a different mode of operation in that the Hugo Chávez' dominant political movement understands itself as the Bolivarian Revolution, i.e., explicitly revolutionary. Here I won't try to deal with the question of how much developments in Venezuela actually conform to the hostile image that is the conventional wisdom in the American press.

Argentina experience under its current "kirchnerist" economic model has acquired a new urgency of international attention because it has actually provided a constructive and democratic model of a successful exit from conditions that are currently faced by the "periphery" countries of the eurozone such as Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

(Kirchnerism refers to the policies pursued by Presidents Nestor Kirchner and his wife and successor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the latter having been even more consequent in pursuing that direction that her late husband. Both are part of the Peronist Partido Justicialista (PJ), and kirchnerism could be described as a social-democratic variant of Peronism as distinguished from the neoliberal variant of Peronism. But Peronism itself is the most complex political movement to explain in ideological terms that I've even encountered, so I'm not sure how clarifying such a clarification is.)

Jamie Galbraith discusses Argentina and Brazil in his new book Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis (2012):

Argentina and Brazil made similar transition, under similar conditions, from import substitution models to open market economies [as prescribed by neoliberal ideology], and both experienced the instability and stress associated with the neoliberal economic climate. In both cases, following large increases inequality has been made to decline in recent years, as the countries retreated - to a degree - from neoliberal globalization.

In particular, inequality fell in both countries as the share of income poassing through the financial sector and the riches urban centers declined; in both cases these phenomena between them explain most of the decline in economic inequality. ...

However, the two countries experienced these changes differently. In Argentina, the neoliberal model kept the country in a strong grip through the end of the 1990s, and inequality rose sharply alongside the relative position of the banks (and of Buenos Aires City) compared to the rest of the country. Only after the crisis in 2001 did Argentina begin to reverse these trends, amid a radical reshaping of the government and changed in the ideological climate. In Brazil, the largest increases in inequality had already occurred, beginning in 1982 with the debt crisis. Brazil was able substantially to stabilize its macroeconomic environment beginning in 1993, with the result that the hypertrophy of the financial sector peaked and inequality fell in the following years; a major element of this was a growing role for the public sector.

This pattern was established under the Cardoso government and continued under Lula, despite the change in party control and ideology. However, it was under Lula - operating under the vastly more favorable commodity and credit conditions of the 2000s - that poverty in Brazil moved dramatically downward.
This may seem far afield from the Arab Awakening and the Egyptian Presidential contest. And Galbraith's concern in his book is focused on the economics of inequality, his career specialty, than on political change as such. But he proceeds directly from the above quote to observe, "To the extent that a bilateral comparison can lead to valid generalization, we suggest that major political changes are triggered not so much by the direction of economic change but by its speed and abruptness." He suggests that Brazil's more gradual adoption of policies deviated from the neoliberal/Washington Consensus approach produced less dramatic political changes than those in Argentina, where the more constructive policies "were resisted ... until crisis and rebellion imposed them" in 2001-2.

Galbraith concludes his chapter on Argentina and Brazil with a somewhat enigmatic comment, "The result was an ideological overshoot in Argentina, compared to Brazil." I would be curious to know what he sees as the "ideological overshoot" of kircherismo. If I had to guess, it probably has something to do with the checkered history of Peronism. But he doesn't elaborate on the point in his book.

The Egyptian Revolution is still in an early stage, as the news reports and analyses linked above emphasize. The armed forces don't currently recognize the authority of the civilian President over them, for instance, so Egypt certainly cannot be said to have a secure democratic government. And though the Muslim Brotherhood is still treading carefully and Mohamed Morsi was generally seen by supporters of the democratic revolution and being more in their cause's interest than the military's candidate who lost, many supporters of secular democracy both inside and outside Egypt remain wary of the Brothers' intentions. And to our Christianist theocratic Republicans, any kind of Islamist party is the incarnation of the Devil.

What strikes me about the current Egyptian revolution in the context of Fischer's idea of "revolution by implosion" is that the fall of the old regime seems to fit that model. The Egyptian public didn't stage an armed uprising or conduct a civil war. Hosni Mubarak's regime certainly seemed to have had the physical force at its disposal to crush the popular protests by force, just as the East German Communist regime did in 1989, the year in which the People's Power movement there achieved its most dramatic breakthroughs. But the moment was such that the old regimes in both cases didn't see their way open with the political support that they perceived themselves having to hold back the popular upsurge. And the regimes that looked so formidable a few months earlier seemed to fold like a house of cards. Revolution By Implosion is a fitting concept to describe those events.

But as subsequent events in both cases showed, organization counts. A lot. In the East German case, those who had spearheaded the democratic revolution for years, often at great personal cost to themselves, for the most part found themselves sidelined politically in the elections of 1990. Those like Angela Merkel who linked up immediately with the established Western parties, which still had the formal trappings of an existence in East Germany even under the Communist regime, prospered far more than the dedicated reform-Communist activists who most actively promoted the anti-regime protests.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has led a long existence, spawning the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden's Al Qa'ida along the way. But in recent years it has moderated its goals and tactics, and has lead a strange, public and visible though unofficial existence. It was formally banned by Egyptian law, but was still able to run and elect candidates to the largely powerless Egyptian parliament. (In this, their situation was partially reminiscent of the German Social Democratic Party under Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Law of 1878-90.) And even though the Brothers didn't take a leading role in starting off the Arab Awakening movement in Egypt, their organization allowed them to take the leading position in the new institutional arrangements produced by the reform movement, as the Presidential election just dramatically illustrated.

In the cases of Argentina and Brazil, a dramatic divergence from the neoliberal consensus took place within the framework of established political parties reacting to the economic and political problems caused by the failures evident in the reality of neoliberal economics. Dramatic transformations took place within parties that were flexible and open enough for serious democratic reform: if "reform" is the right word for a rejection of the One Percenter international economic framework of neoliberalism.

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