A World on Fire: The Establishment’s Counter-Revolution against Democracy

On November 21st, conservative pundit, David Brooks published a confusing op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Revolt against Populism.” At least for this reader, it generated an overwhelming sense of information entanglement and of confusion about making sense of the world Brooks described.

I’m referring on the one hand to the welter of detail supplied in his enumeration of countries rebelling against populism. (How is one to know enough to make sense of all of that?) On the other hand, my reference is to Brooks’ all-encompassing use of the term “populism.” For him everyone from Xi Jinping to Donald Trump seems to fit into that category. How is that possible?

The purpose of this reflection is first of all to answer that question: how to make sense of the term “populism.” Its second purpose is to use that clarified term to offer a brief framework explaining the current worldwide rebellion unfolding before our eyes.

Begin with that last point – the rebellion that Brooks describes as a revolt against populism. It’s everywhere. As the author notes, demonstrations and street riots have erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses are currently protesting in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surface in Latin America’s “Pink Tide,” particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Brooks also includes the “Yellow Vests” in France, Brexit in Great Britain, and Trumpism in the United States.

He might well have added venues like Algiers, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Iraq. And then, of course, there are the permanent populist revolts entrenched in China (comprising 20% of the world’s population) and Cuba – not to mention ISIS and al-Qaeda. Finally, Brooks might also have included populist rebellion against climate change in our own country – e.g. Standing Rock, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and School Strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg.

Yes, Brooks is right: the world is in flames; it’s “unsteady and ready to blow.”  

And what’s the cause of it all? Brooks gives two answers. For one, it’s a revolt against the revived and globalized form of laissez-faire capitalism that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. In the aftermath, with the Soviet Union in ruins, capitalist ideologues like Francis Fukuyama hastily declared the end of history and their own particular system definitively triumphant. As Margaret Thatcher put it there was no alternative.

However, far from being generally beneficial and inevitable, the emergent system of world-wide privatization, deregulated markets, and tax cuts for the rich alienated the masses. They experienced globalism as favoring a relatively small number of elites, while adversely impacting wage workers, rural populations and emerging middle classes. Neoliberalism proved to be culturally destructive as well.

In response to its austerity programs for the non-elite, people everywhere gravitated to populism. That’s the second explanation of the world’s turmoil identified by Brooks – a populism so ineffective that people are rebelling everywhere.

But it’s here that his deeper confusion appears. It comes from the author’s mixture of the term’s democratic meaning with neoliberalism’s undemocratic reaction precisely to that popular thrust. It comes from his refusal to face facts. In personal terms, Evo Morales Movement towards Socialism (MAS) represents a hugely effective populism; Donald Trump and the U.S. government is anti-populist.    

To get what I mean, first of all consider the definition of populism itself. Wikipedia defines the term as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

Of course (using Maslow’s hierarchy), the primary concerns of the people everywhere are always the same: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, dignified work, and just wages. Once those needs have been met, secondary concerns emerge such as freedom of religion, of press, and the rights to assemble and protest. According to that understanding, you might just as well define populism as democracy, and the title of Brooks’ article as “The Revolt against Democracy.”

Contrary to the impression conveyed by Brooks, that revolt is primarily embodied precisely in his beloved Establishment’s invariable reaction to the democratic aspirations just listed. It’s always the same: sanctions, regime change, coup d’états, assassinations, and outright war waged by proxy or by direct attack. Popular support for such anti-democratic tactics (insofar as they are even sought) is achieved by appealing to the economic self-interest of the elite and to the primal prejudices of “the base.”

Favorite reactionary anti-democratic themes invoke patriotism, religion, racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia. Meanwhile, the genuine causes of popular misery – including unaffordable rents, inadequate wages, inescapable debt, widening gaps between rich and poor, privatized healthcare and education, a tattered social safety net, decaying or non-existent public transportation, ubiquitous political corruption, and endless war – are left unaddressed. To call such austerity measures “popular” simply muddies the waters making it more difficult to make sense of the world. And yet this is what Brooks and standard treatments of “populism” constantly imply and say.

Such sleight of hand enables mainstream pundits like David Brooks to falsely equate “populisms of the left” and “populisms of the right.” In the process, it empowers them to admit the failures of neoliberal capitalism, but to hastily add that leftwing populism is no better. As Brooks puts it: “But it’s also clear that when in power the populists can’t deliver goods. So now across the globe we’re seeing “a revolt against the populists themselves.” After all, Brooks claims, “Venezuela is an economic disaster” and in Bolivia “Evo Morales stands accused of trying to rig an election.”

However, Brooks’ declaration of populist failure doesn’t mention:

  • The crippling sanctions the United States has imposed on Venezuela
  • Nor those placed on China, Cuba (for more than 50 years!) and Nicaragua.
  • The fact that Morales’ populist policies in Bolivia had drastically raised the living standards of the country’s majority indigenous population
  • Or that those of populist Lula da Silva had done the same for the impoverished of Brazil
  • Or that China’s policies (with enormous popular support) have transformed it into the world’s most dynamic economic force lifting out of poverty fully 20% of the world’s population
  • Or that the latter’s “Belt and Road” foreign-aid initiative has made its political economy and populist policies the aspirational standard of the entire Global South – despite the contrary efforts of the U.S. and of the EU’s former colonial powers

Above all, Brooks’ overwhelming list and standardized false equivalency doesn’t recognize the historical pattern behind the explosive situation he describes. That pattern has the former colonial powers, and especially the United States, resisting democratic populism on every front. It does so according to the pattern which follows. Here is how I describe it in my recently published The Magic Glasses of Critical Thinking: seeing through alternative fact & fake news:

  • Any country attempting to establish a populist economy favoring the poor majority
  • Will be accused of being illegitimate, communist, socialist, authoritarian, and/or a sponsor of terrorism.
  • It will be overthrown either directly by U.S. invasion
  • Or indirectly by right-wing (often terrorist) elements within the local population
  • To keep that country within the neoliberal orbit
  • So that the U.S. and its rich international allies might continue to use the country’s resources for its own enrichment
  • And for that of the local elite.

What I’m suggesting here is that historical pattern analysis just outlined goes much further towards pinpointing the original spark that has ignited the world’s conflagration and resulting disequilibrium than Brooks’ misleading description as a “Revolt against Populism.”

Underneath many, if not all of the revolts Brooks so overwhelmingly enumerates is the heavy hand of the United States and Europe’s displaced colonial powers. They are the consistently inveterate enemies of genuine populism concerned as it is with meeting basic human need. They are the advocates and sponsors of the world’s anti-democratic forces that have (with the help of establishment pundits like David Brooks) coopted the term to confuse us all.

In other words, there’s no need to be overwhelmed rather than inspired by the unfolding worldwide revolt against neoliberal austerity and laissez-faire capitalism. At least initially, it’s not necessary for us to know the details of every country’s history and political economy.

Instead, critical thinkers should simply remain cognizant of the nature of authentic populism and of the pattern just summarized. Then, when necessary, further reading and research can confirm or disconfirm the validity of the pattern’s particular application. In most cases, I predict, its heuristic value will be vindicated.   

Socialism’s Specter Revives in China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Chinese are coming! The Chinese are coming! This time they’re here to spread socialism not by war and invasion, but by good example, economic development and cultural exchange. And in the process, they are eating our lunch. They are demonstrating that it is possible for poor and troubled economies to develop as quickly as China’s by following the latter’s example of mixing the best elements of capitalism and socialism to benefit working class people rather than primarily the rich and elite.  Their efforts are showing every sign of success.

Progressives should take heart. Socialism’s specter is once again on the prowl.  

Specifically, I’m referring to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that actually looks like a Chinese version of a new Marshall Plan for countries representing 65% of the world’s population. Many of the countries involved would otherwise be unable to afford such development.

Particulars of the BRI include Chinese export of construction materials, especially iron and steel and their use to erect a huge power grid with wind and solar focus. The materials are being used to construct highways, rail facilities and sea ports to the benefit of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. The BRI will also include cultural exchanges and educational assistance. It will eventually account for 40% of the world’s domestic product.

That’s the impressive swath China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure-based development strategy that has been in place for the past six years – since it was announced by the country’s president, Xi Jinping in 2013. In his words, the Belt and Road Initiative is “a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.”

However, many in the west are not buying that rosy description. To them the BRI seems like a new form of colonialism. Since much of it is based on loans, critics have even described it as a “debt trap” intended to create dependency in order to reduce participating countries to the status of vassals of an imperial Chinese state.

Ironically, such criticisms actually reflect the patterns of western colonialism and neocolonialism whose “foreign aid” has in fact intentionally continued the traditional underdevelopment of the former colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. The critique also overlooks the fact that the Chinese plan is based on Marxist principles which are inherently anti-colonial and international rather than imperial and national.

In practice, all of this has yielded a system often described as state capitalism. That is, the Chinese state (like every other economy in the world!) has a mixed economy that (as I mentioned earlier) incorporates the best elements of capitalism and socialism. This gives the Chinese a huge publicly- owned sector along with a smaller, but still large private sector strictly regulated by the state. Crucially, however, and unlike our own mixed economy, the Chinese version aims at mixing its economy not in favor of the elite, but in favor of the working classes.

This is in strict accord with Marxist theory, which recognizes that capitalism is a necessary stage in the history of economic development. It cannot be skipped, because capitalism is required for the development of productive forces that are sine qua non preconditions for the transition to full-blown socialism.

Moreover, the whole world has been watching. We’ve seen China’s implementation of a worker-friendly state-capitalist form of economy as responsible for 80% of the poverty-reduction the world has experienced over the past two or three generations. That is, China has been more successful in reducing poverty than capitalism or any country subscribing to neoliberalism’s trickle-down model. The latter, of course, favors the 1% and expects 95% of the world’s population to endure austerity measures in order to pay the social costs for capitalism’s dysfunctions. None of that is lost on denizens of poor countries.

And now through the Belt and Road Initiative, those same less developed former colonies as well as the poorer countries of the EU are given opportunity to follow China’s example economically and even politically.

Regarding politics, the Chinese example and initiative are demonstrating that a one-party state like China’s might work better at least in some contexts than what we in the west understand by “democracy.” Surprisingly, for the west (where there appears to be a tacit agreement never to allow us to hear anything positive about competing systems) the Chinese version of political organization has proven to yield governance far more meritocratic, flexible and legitimate than our own.

Its meritocracy insures that no one will rise to national leadership in China who has not come through the ranks and demonstrated outstanding leadership capabilities at each step along the way. The whole process takes about 30 years. This means that by Chinese standards, someone like George W. Bush or Barrack Obama (much less Donald Trump) would not qualify to govern even a small province in China. They simply lack the experience and resulting knowledge that in China are prerequisite for assuming greater responsibilities.

Such leadership has made the Chinese system far more flexible in terms of reform than our own. Thus, in China the revolution began with the country following the Soviet model of development. That changed with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which extended the revolution’s benefits to rural populations. This in turn was followed by Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the west around 1977, by entrance into the World Trade Organization years later, and now by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Every one of those changes was profound and quickly made. Western capitalism has proven incapable of similar flexibility even in the face of climate chaos that threatens planetary life as we know it.

Moreover, in terms of public approval the Chinese system is proving much more legitimate than western models based on periodic elections. Increasingly, those latter models are corrupted by money. As in the United States, often inexperienced politicians (even comedians and reality show personalities) are elected by pluralities below 50%. A month or so after elections, their approval ratings can sink below 40%. This is because those elected prioritize the needs of their corporate donors rather than those of the people they’ve theoretically been elected to serve. As a result, we’ve increasingly lost faith in democracy-as-we’ve-experienced-it. In many elections, only a minority of Americans even bother to vote.

Meanwhile in China, Pew polling has nearly 80% of the population satisfied with the country’s direction. An even greater majority expects their lives to get better in the near future. Those numbers are testimony to government legitimacy far beyond what we experience in the United States.

So, while western governments and their economies lionize the past and strive to implement 18th century free-market policies, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is offering a different option.

And it’s doing so under the principles of internationalism and anti-colonialism based on sound Marxist theory. That theory has not only taken huge strides towards lessening world poverty; it has provided the world with an example of unprecedented economic dynamism. It’s no wonder that socialism these days is getting a new lease on life. It’s no wonder that its’ specter is once again haunting the world.