What is to be done in Venezuela? | Greg Grandin

[published @ Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal]


May 12, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from The Nation — The news from Venezuela is grim: A “fall in oil prices, soaring interest rates…have intensified an already deep-rooted recession. The country is being pauperized. It has the highest inflation in Latin America, increasing unemployment and more than 40 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.” With economic immiseration comes political violence: Over the course of one year, “security forces killed 126 people, 46 in extra-judicial executions, and 28 when they were in police or military custody. Authoritarianism and repression are growing. Of 13,941 arbitrary detentions, 94 percent occurred during anti-crime operations mainly in poor neighborhoods.… Violent death has become a feature of Venezuelan life. On Monday mornings, the newspapers carry a grim roll call of those killed in stabbings and shootings in the city’s slums. The figure often reaches 40 or 50, mostly young, male and poor.”


There are “frequent riots,” the suspension of basic rights, and daily police raids in “poor shanty towns to root out alleged subversives. Rising street crime and violence in Caracas” is skyrocketing. Prisons are a Dantesque nightmare: “More than 30 prisoners were killed in a riot and fire at a jail in central Caracas yesterday.” Earlier, another prison riot protesting conditions led to “more than 100 inmates [being] burned or hacked to death.”


“All this,” writes one reporter—the shortages of basic goods, including medicine; dysfunctional hospitals; a spiraling murder rate; protests and riots; prison massacres, loss of basic rights; political prisoners and state repression; falling oil prices—“makes Venezuela one of the most important economic stories in the Americas at the moment.”


Why, the reporter wanted to know, aren’t the US media paying attention?


There’s no shortage of pastoral pundits worrying over the crisis in Caracas while ignoring the ongoing coup in Brazil.


Wait. What? Not paying attention? What is she talking about? There is no shortage of reporting on Venezuela’s crisis, with pastoral pundits who preach remedies to exit same, worrying over Caracas while ignoring the ongoing coup in Brazil (which just witnessed an anti-austerity general strike that saw the estimated participation of 40 million workers). Few news consumers in the United States would know that the murder rate in Colombia is ticking up, as right-wing paramilitaries, nervous about the peace deal worked out between the FARC guerrillas and the government, target activists. According to Reuters, last year in Colombia “117 rights activists were killed compared with 105 in 2015, with many murders attributed to shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups furious that Marxist FARC guerrillas have been allowed to join society and form a political party under a historic peace deal.” Venezuela runs nonstop on cable news, topped perhaps only by Trump, Putin, Michael Flynn, and somebody named Carter Page. Writing in The New York Times, Mexico’s former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda wants to save Venezuela through diplomatic isolation but feels, alas, that a United States led by Donald Trump is in no moral position to do so.


Well, the reason the grim news from Venezuela recounted above wasn’t obsessively covered in the United States is because it was from 1996, two years before Hugo Chávez was elected president, when the country was governed by a Washington ally.


Bolivarianism was supposed to be a model of development, a beacon for progressives. Now it’s in ruins.


OK, that’s the easy part of this post: noting the bias in US media and indexing crisis reporting to the general worldview of the State Department. But Venezuelans are today living through an extended period of social and political misery, and, despite the need to always contextualize the catastrophe, Bolivarianism was supposed to be a model of development, a beacon for progressives.


For a while it was, achieving impressive gains in health care, life expectancy, education, and social security; radically expanding political participation, bringing the excluded and marginal into the debate and giving diverse social movements access to political power; and charting a foreign policy independent from Washington. Now that model is in ruins. It’s easy to criticize Chavismo for riding high oil prices. That critique, however accurate, captures only half the story: Chávez, and his cohort of oil diplomats, largely helped create those high oil prices, revitalizing OPEC, affirming Venezuela’s commitment to OPEC production quotas and pricing, and working with non-OPEC energy-producing countries, like Brazil and Mexico, to reverse the neoliberal dream (which when Chávez was first elected, in 1998, was on the point of coming true) of turning petroleum into a pure commodity whose value is set by market demand, to repoliticize oil and use it as an instrument to achieve political objectives.


Chávez’s oil policy was heir to the great vision of the New International Economic Order of the 1970s, which saw high petroleum prices as a way to tax the First World, and then redistribute that revenue through equitable social programs, solidarity, and support for poor energy-importing nations, and an oppositional foreign policy. Thus many of Barack Obama’s energy initiatives, especially when Hillary Clinton was at the State Department, were counterstrikes against this repoliticization of oil: promoting fracking, not just in the United States but worldwide; wooing of Mexico away from Venezuela while promoting the privatization of PEMEX, Mexico’s state-run oil industry; turning Central America into one big biofuel plantation(that’s one of the things the 2009 coup in Honduras was about). It worked. When Chávez died, in early 2013, oil prices collapsed and Venezuela skidded into catastrophe. For good or bad, we will never again witness a political movement that credibly holds up oil as a solution to humanity’s problems.


Nicolás Maduro possesses neither Hugo Chávez’s petrodollar surplus nor his political skills.


Shortly after Chávez’s death, an unexpectedly close vote put his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in power. The opposition, made giddy by its unexpectedly strong electoral performance and believing the restoration of their class and race privilege was within reach, returned to its maximalist program of antagonism, launching deadly street protests meant to heighten the contradictions and bring international rebuke. Maduro, for his part, possesses neither Chávez’s petrodollar surplus nor his political skills. As I wrote here in 2003: “Chávez’s charisma, his light touch despite his often rhetorical bombast, his ability to bring some key opponents back into the fold, to make unexpected alliances, helped defuse social tension at key moments. It’s one of the reasons why Venezuela, despite an often excess of extreme rhetoric, didn’t spiral into the kind of violence often associated with other revolutions.” That state of grace has ended.


Maduro has responded to extremists in the opposition by assuming everyone in the opposition is an extremist, presiding over an ineffective and incoherent mix of distributivist carrots and repressive sticks, aimed not so much at consolidating his personal power as at digging in a besieged and out-of-touch revolutionary bureaucracy. The country is locked into an impasse, which might only be broken, many fear, by civil war. As Venezuelan sociologist Atenea Jiménez Lemon notes below, the country threatens to turn into the next Syria.


What is to be done? What follows are the thoughts of an ad-hoc Committee to Save Venezuela, offering both general observations and specific recommendations that differ from those found in our missionary mainstream media.


First up is Atenea Jiménez Lemon, a sociologist and member of the Red Nacional de Comuneras y Comuneros. Her 10-point program is a good representation of the demands of rank-and-file activists, who are equally critical of the opposition restorationists and government elites:

Venezuela finds itself at a crossroads. For the first time, one can clearly see the possibility of a civil war, promoted by imperialism and its local allies: the Venezuelan and Colombian bourgeoisie. The hidden war against popular and peasant leaders could spread. But there is another way: peace with justice. For this to happen, a number of steps should be taken:

  1. Convene regional elections immediately [note: this is a reference to the election of governors, which was scheduled for last December but delayed; many frontline activists hope to use these these elections to isolate both extremists in the opposition and the madurista elite].
  2. With these elections, the violent factions of the opposition could be isolated. Then there could be dialogue with the less extremist opposition.
  3. Strengthen the articulation of public power, which is currently being undermined [note: “popular power” here is a reference to the Bolivarian ideal of incorporating social movements into governing institutions, a process that frontline activists say is hindered by the Maduro government].
  4. Resolve the political crisis by resolving the economic crisis.
  5. The PSUV [the governing socialist party] should negotiate with those willing to build bridges, not with those who stand opposed to peaceful resolution.
  6. The government should stop persecuting left-wing activists who criticize it.
  7. Initiate a campaign that promotes peace and conflict resolution within the constitutional framework. Those who murder, injure, burn hospitals and terrorize the population must be condemned legally and morally.
  8. The government must understand that there are broad sectors of the population that opposes it, which it needs to include in its policy making. It is not correct to describe every opponent as a terrorist.
  9. We are in a moment of great social fragility, and all national and international effort should be made to avoid a second Syria. There is a lot of false information on the internet, many false everyday rumors. Therefore we need to act with great intelligence and caution when passing on information, in order to avoid violence and to foster dialogue.
  10. The majority of people want peace and social welfare…. They are a source of hope.


Next we hear from Steve Ellner, who has taught economics and political science at the Universidad de Oriento in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, since 1977. Ellner is the author of many books, and is a participating editor of Latin American Perspectives:

Extreme political polarization in Venezuela has taken a heavy toll, including violence that has claimed more than a score of lives in recent days. Both the opposition and the government share a degree of responsibility. The opposition’s actions in their entirety are designed to achieve regime change in spite of the fact that the Chavistas reached power by legitimate means and continue to enjoy a significant degree of popular support. Furthermore, the opposition consistently employs tactics of mass civil disobedience even though these mobilizations are accompanied by the destructive actions of small bands of combatants. The government, for its part, has failed to present definitive dates for the regional elections that have already been delayed by six months. Furthermore, the decision to prohibit the electoral participation of former presidential candidate and governor Henrique Capriles on grounds of accusations of corruption can only be seen as a provocation.

Just like hot spots in the Middle East and elsewhere, extreme polarization in Venezuela originated internally, but was then exacerbated by foreign actors. Specifically, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the US government openly side with the opposition and support all its demands. Their pronouncements only pour gasoline on the fire and make understanding between the two sides all the more unlikely. The international media with its one-sided reporting plays an equally negative role. It has failed to adequately report on actions perpetrated against government supporters and public property that elsewhere would be categorized as acts of terrorism. Furthermore, it supports the claim of opposition leaders that the government, in refusing to allow opposition marches to reach downtown Caracas, is denying the right of protest. In fact, if a massive number of protesters were to reach the vicinity of the presidential palace, violence would very likely break out, as occurred on the day of the coup against Chávez on April 11, 2002. In short, outside actors such as the OAS and the international media, rather than playing a constructive role as is their obligation, are having the opposite effect, namely intensifying polarization.


Naomi Schiller, an ethnographic filmmaker and assistant professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College who has studied community media in Caracas, writes:

It is vital to understand that few poor communities have joined recent opposition protests not because they are too hungry or because they fear government repression, as mainstream media outlets insist. Hunger and fear are undoubtedly real. Yet, the decisive factor undermining popular support for recent protest is the opposition’s anti-poor discourse. Leading opposition forces invoke meritocracy and human rights to defend their traditional class privilege. Many who live in traditional chavista strongholds vehemently reject Maduro and his government’s efforts to control debate about what is to be done. Nevertheless, the opposition continues to represent to them only a return to an unjust social and economic order. Any conversation about the path forward for Venezuela should emphasize not only the importance of procedural democracy, but also economic rights and meaningful popular participation in politics. The Trump administration has no positive role to play in fostering peace and justice in Venezuela.


Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington, DC–based Center for Economic and Policy Research:

The AP reports that Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, “unsuccessfully urged OAS members to suspend Venezuela unless general elections were held soon.” Nobody in the major media noticed the irony of his demanding that Venezuela violate its own constitution by cutting short the elected president’s term. Meanwhile in neighboring Brazil, the unelected president’s approval rating has fallen to 4 percent, and a general strike took place on April 28. The OAS/Washington do not get involved. Almagro originally opposed as illegitimate the parliamentary coup that brought in the current Brazilian government, but fell silent after it became clear that Washington supported it. With a major international effort under way to topple the Venezuelan government, it is easy to miss the fact that it is 100 or 1,000 times more dangerous to be a human rights defender or journalist in US allied-countries like Mexico, Colombia, or Honduras than it is in Venezuela. TheNew York Times reports that in Mexico, “more often than drug cartels,” government officials are responsible for the murder and torture of journalists and the impunity that puts Mexico between Afghanistan and Somalia in terms of the danger of practicing journalism. If the Venezuelan government were to be responsible for the killing of even one journalist, it would be a major issue for the US government and its allies, including the media. This is not to say that human rights violations are any more excusable in Venezuela than elsewhere. It’s just that everyone should know why Venezuela is being singled out for regime change, as it has for the past 15 years. And the worst part is that this effort to delegitimize the Venezuelan government makes the dialogue that, e.g., the Vatican has called for much more difficult. But as the large demonstrations on both sides, as well as polling data show, Venezuela is still a polarized country. While there are millions who want the government out now, there are also millions (including the military) who fear a right-wing coup. There must be a negotiated solution.


Sujatha Fernandes is professor of political economy and sociology at the University of Sydney and the author of a number of books, including Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela:

Much of the global media has presented the situation in Venezuela as a country in the throes of a political and economic crisis where mass movements are in the streets demanding new elections, as the country inches closer and closer to full-fledged dictatorial rule. This rhetoric hides the reality that not much has changed in the polarized world of Venezuelan politics. Those in the streets, as during the 2002 coup attempt, are mostly the middle- and upper-class opposition, whose political demands for new elections do not address the concerns of the majority of the rural and urban poor, who are increasingly suffering from economic hardships. The opposition has still failed to draw these popular sectors into their protests because of their limited demands. Amidst the hype of a Venezuela on the brink of revolt, the images from poor barrios in the east of Caracas show people going about their everyday business, though they are alert to the potential of domestic terrorism like the tear-gas attack by armed opposition gangs on a maternal child hospital in the barrio of El Valle last week.

So how do these poor and barrio social movement leaders see the way forward? Alongside preserving and defending the spaces that have been won such as hospitals, literacy programs, and cooperatives, poor and marginal sectors are seeking an improvement in their economic situation, but are not pushing for a change of government. In the moment, many grassroots social movements are calling for peace. On April 24, a group of community and cultural organizations from the Caracas barrio San Agustín del Sur submitted a petition to the Attorney General’s office asking it to protect the safe passage of all citizens throughout the national territory, in the face of an opposition call for a “Plantón Nacional,” or closure of major public roads. Community radio stations around the country have collaborated in a campaign called “Patriotic Oath,” with producers from different stations across the country recording and broadcasting statements about the need for unity and solidarity. Whether Venezuela can reach a point of stability will depend partly on these community organizations, which have been the backbone of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the country, and which are continuing to fight for spaces to further their redistributive projects and local organizing.


George Ciccariello-Maher is an associate professor of political science at Drexel University and author of We Created ChávezHis recent book Building the Commune is on Venezuela’s commune movement (in which Jiménez Lemon, above, is involved):

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is far from dead. This bears repeating in a moment when economic crisis and political turmoil have led many to issue preemptive post-mortems. The revolution lives and breathes not despite these twin crises but because it stands opposed to those economic and political structures that fail so spectacularly today. And it lives and breathes because, in the network of communes dispersed across the countryside and the barrios, it offers the sole alternative.

On the economic level, dependence on oil exports and cheap imported goods has plagued Venezuelan development for a century, long before Hugo Chávez, and while the government grasped the problem, it made only partial and contradictory steps toward a solution. The communes—by managing production directly and democratically—aspire toward a sustainable economy where communities produce what they need locally.

Politically, the living, breathing revolution stands in stark contrast to the clash of elites—new and old—that monopolizes headlines, in part because it has always stood in tense relation and often in outright opposition to the bureaucratic and centralized state. By struggling to build a new economy, Venezuela’s comuneras and comuneros are struggling to build a new (non-)state as well.

If the besieged Chavista government survives, this will no doubt be due to the efforts of those grassroots sectors that have saved it so often in the past, and if the past is any guide, those struggles might just unleash a newly combative revolutionary spirit. And if it falls, those same sectors will continue to fight the long war against capitalism and colonialism.


Daniel Hellinger is a professor of international relations at Webster University. His books include Global Security Watch: Venezuela and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics and Culture under Chávez (co-edited with David Smilde):

The best hope of stanching Venezuela’s slide is the recommitment of all Venezuelans to the country’s tattered Bolivarian Constitution, which has suffered at the hands of both government and opposition. Its provisions for social participation and Rousseauian ideals of participation, the “civic” or “public powers” as well as “electoral power,” must be made to work. The first step could be taken by the government. Elections are not a matter to be negotiated; the National Electoral Council (CNE) should immediately schedule state and local elections, postponed from last year, for some time late this summer, and it should set a calendar for next year’s presidential elections. The next step is for the government and opposition MUD to agree to convene a commissions of citizen consultation to implement the civic consultation—what the Constitution calls protagonistic democracy—to renovate the judiciary, CNE, and other governance institutions. These commissions must include not just political elites but also, as envisioned under the constitution, leaders of social movements, smaller but influential Bolivarian dissidents (such as Marea Socialista), and more established organizations (unions, religious groups, professional associations, etc.), and they must go beyond simply defining the institutional game of electoral democracy. They will also need to activate popular participation as Venezuela faces the difficult task of reconciling revitalization of its economy and preservation of the inclusive social programs (missions, communal councils, etc.) created in the Chávez era. These tasks need to happen now because there are clear signs that political violence could become communal if the present current slide is not arrested. This difficult process has a better chance of success if the United States refrains from any covert or overt (e.g. sanctions) actions.


Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino studies at the University at Albany, SUNY. He’s been writing about the current crisis in Venezuela for years now, most recently at NACLA, “Why Is Venezuela Spiraling Out of Control?”:

There are no quick or easy solutions to Venezuela’s multidimensional crisis. In some ways it is easier to think about what not to do then to answer the question what is to be done. At the top of the “not to do” list is unilateral US action or multilateral action led by the United States, through, e.g. the OAS. Such actions, whether military or in the form of sanctions, should be roundly and loudly rejected for at least two reasons: (1) the US track record of “saving” other countries is horrendous, to say the least; and (2) such actions reek of hypocrisy, given the strong US support for repressive, essentially nondemocratic regimes in Brazil, Honduras, and Haiti.

The following actions could help resolve Venezuela’s crisis, with the first two aiming more at the political crisis, the third at the socioeconomic crisis, and the fourth at both.

  1. At the moment the primary obstacle to peace is Venezuela is not the government, which certainly deserves criticism, but the escalating violence of the opposition. Since the opposition receives a free pass from the US government and Western mainstream media, progressives and leftists should repeatedly and loudly sound the alarm about the opposition’s campaign of terror, which aims to create conditions in which extralegal regime change will appear inevitable.
  2. Given the high levels of mistrust between the government and the opposition, it is hard to see how Venezuela can overcome its current crisis without a negotiated solution, as Mark Weisbrot argues. The United States and organizations the United States dominates (e.g. the OAS) can play no constructive role. Organizations that could play a constructive role are UNASUR, CELAC, and the Vatican. While past efforts have not succeeded, it may still be worthwhile to try mediation by Leonel Fernández, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and Martín Torrijos, former presidents/prime ministers, respectively, of the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Panama. A key, very challenging task, will be figuring out how to pressure both the opposition and the government to stay at the negotiating table.
  3. Eliminating Venezuela’s byzantine currency system (a key factor generating corruption and shortages), by implementing a free float of the bolívar, remains the most “bang for buck” measure that should be taken to ease, and eventually resolve, Venezuela’s socioeconomic crisis.
  4. Elite-driven technocratic “fixes” will fail to address either the political or socioeconomic crisis. Thus, a key element for resolving either or both is to reinvigorate the popular movement, which is the only force that can hold state officials, opposition leaders, and capital accountable.
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What is Needed is a Progressive Vision of National Sovereignty | Thomas Fazi

(Green European Journal, May 9, 2017)


The last year has seen the Right and extreme Right capitalise on the dissatisfaction and despair fostered by neoliberalism – and usher in a ‘post-neoliberal order’. Their success is based on championing and monopolising the idea of national sovereignty, but only of a certain kind. The Left has accepted their discourse that national sovereignty goes hand in hand with exclusivist and right-wing ideas, rather than attempting to reclaim it as vehicle for change.

Over the past 12 months, an anti-establishment backlash has taken the West by storm.

The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the rejection of Matteo Renzi’s neoliberal constitutional reform in Italy, rising support for the National Front in France and for other (mostly right-wing) ‘anti-systemic’ parties across Europe, the EU’s unprecedented crisis of legitimation. Although these interrelated phenomena differ in ideology and goals, they are all rejections of the (neo)liberal order that has dominated the world – and in particular the West – for the past thirty years.

Though the immediate causes of these phenomena are obvious – declining living standard, growing social inequality, fear of migrants, etc. – the current crisis has much deeper organic roots, which can be traced as far back as the 1970s. That is when the post-war Fordist-Keynesian model – which had provided the basis for a thirty-year-long economic expansion – entered a deep structural crisis, paving the way for a radically different social and economic model, based upon trade liberalisation, deregulation of financial and labour markets, wage rollbacks, attacks on trade unions, privatisation of state enterprises, and fiscal retrenchment. In one word: neoliberalism.

One of the chief effects of this ‘counter-revolution’ – a conscious effort by the ruling elites to achieve a restoration of their class power, which had been severely weakened by the growing demands placed upon capital and the state by organised labour and radical social movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as argued by David Harvey and others[1] – was a dramatic decline in the share of national income going to salaries, and thus of the purchasing power of labour.[2] Paradoxically, this threatened to nullify the ultimate aim of these policies: profit maximisation. Profits, after all, can only be made if there is a sufficient demand for goods and services, in which wages are a crucial component.


Capitalism’s response to the inherent contradictions of neoliberalism was financialisation and debt-based consumption. Households, faced with stagnant incomes and declining purchasing power, were encouraged to borrow more and more to make up the difference between spending and income, leading to a colossal rise in private debt, particularly in the United States but also in many European countries. This form of  “privatised Keynesianism” helped fuel the unsustainable asset and credit bubbles that exploded in 2008. It also allowed a tiny proportion of the world’s population to amass increasing amounts of capital and wealth without facing any significant backlash from the subordinate classes, lulled by powerful neoliberal discourses that pitted the liberatory dynamism of the ‘free market’ (exemplified by the garage inventor à la Steve Jobs) against the ossification and inefficiency of state bureaucracy (exemplified by the government paper-pusher).

Financialisation was able to temporarily offset the stagnationary effects of the post-1970s neoliberal policies of profit-maximisation. The inherent contradictions of this new finance-led regime of accumulation, however, exploded in 2007 to 2009, as the mountain of debt accumulated in the previous decades came crashing to the ground, threatening a meltdown of the global economy. Even though Western governments were able to avoid the worst-case scenario and to contain (for a while) the economic and political fallout from the financial crisis by re-instating – with even greater emphasis – financialisation as the main motor of the economy, this did not halt the overall stagnationary trend of advanced economies. With debt-based private consumption no longer available as a source of autonomous demand, due to the post-crisis ‘liquidity trap’ and the private sector deleveraging process, the inability of wage-based private consumption to sustain adequate levels of aggregate demand – due to labour’s loss of purchasing power in recent decades – became apparent. In this sense, the current stagnation should be viewed as the tail-end of the long crisis that began in the 1970s. The situation was (is) further exacerbated by the post-crisis policies of fiscal austerity and wage deflation pursued by a number of Western governments, particularly in Europe, which saw the financial crisis as an opportunity to impose an even more radical neoliberal regime and to push through policies designed to suit the financial sector and the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else.

Capitalising on dissatisfaction

Amidst growing popular dissatisfaction, social unrest, and mass unemployment (in various European countries), political elites on both sides of the Atlantic responded with business-as-usual policies and discourses. As a result, the social contract binding citizens to traditional ruling is more strained today than at any other time since World War II – and in some countries has arguably already snapped, as testified by a series of electoral uprisings that, despite their differences, all share a common target: globalisation, neoliberalism, and the political establishments that have promoted them.

Many view this neo-nationalist, anti-globalisation, and anti-establishment revolt as heralding the end of the (neo)liberal era and the ushering in of a new global order. Trump has especially alarmed politicians and commentators worldwide by announcing – and implementing – a series of protectionist measures. Without minimising the symbolic and ideological value of these decisions, the truth of the matter is that globalisation was already in trouble well before Trump’s election. Since 2011, world trade has grown significantly less rapidly than global GDP, and has now begun to shrink even as the global economy grows, albeit sluggishly. World financial flows are down sixty per cent since the pre-crash peak.

In this sense, Trump’s victory, Brexit, and the rise of populist parties “are but epiphenomena of momentous shifts in global political economy and international geo-political alignments that have been taking place since the 1970s”, as Vassilis K. Fouskas and Bulent Gokay write. Namely: (i) the crisis of the neoliberal economic model and ideology, which is no longer able to overcome its intrinsic stagnationary and polarising tendencies and to generate societal consensus or hegemony (in material or ideological terms), and is increasingly unable to deliver benefits even to its core supporters; (ii) the crisis of globalisation, which is no longer able to offer an escape from the inexorable pressures of overaccumulation and overproduction, largely due to increased competition from countries like China (which in turn are facing crises of overaccumulation of their own); (iii) the ecological crisis, i.e., constraints on the supply of energy and other biophysical resources that feed into the economic process and impact its functioning; and (iv) the crisis of US hegemony, which is no longer able to unilaterally enforce the global neoliberal order, neither through soft power (that is, through pro-Western multilateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank), as it did during the 1990s, nor through hard power (that is, through brute military force), as it did throughout the early 2000s, as demonstrated by the West’s failed (so far) attempt at deposing Assad in Syria. Trump’s tough stance on China and other surplus countries (such as Germany), accused of currency manipulation, and his plans for ‘renationalising’ US economic policy should thus be understood in the context of the unfolding collapse of the neoliberal order.

What we are witnessing is not, of course, the end of globalisation – which will continue, although it will likely be characterised by increased tensions between the various fractions of international capital and by a combination of protectionism and internationalisation – but rather the birth of a post-neoliberal order. It is early to say what this new order will look like, since there is no new coherent ideology or accumulation regime waiting in the wings to replace neoliberalism. Antonio Gramsci famously described organic crises such as the one that we are currently going through as situations in which “the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born”. “In this interregnum”, he wrote, “a great variety of morbid symptoms” – such as the ones that we have described above – tend to appear.

What has allowed these “morbid symptoms” to emerge as the dominant reaction to neoliberalism and globalisation, however, is simply the fact that right-wing forces have been much more effective than left-wing or progressive forces at tapping into the legitimate grievances of the masses disenfranchised, marginalised, impoverished, and dispossessed by the forty-year-long neoliberal class war waged from above. In particular, they are the only forces that have been able to provide a (more or less) coherent response to the widespread – and growing – yearning for greater territorial or national sovereignty, increasingly seen as the only way to regain some degree of collective control over politics and society, in the absence of effective supranational mechanisms of representation. Given neoliberalism’s war against sovereignty, it should come as no surprise that “sovereignty has become the master-frame of contemporary politics”, as Paolo Gerbaudo notes. After all, the hollowing out of national sovereignty and curtailment of popular-democratic mechanisms – what has been termed depoliticisation – has been an essential element of the neoliberal project, aimed at insulating macroeconomic policies from popular contestation and removing any obstacles put in the way of economic exchanges and financial flows. In this sense, neoliberalism and globalisation have not entailed a retreat of the state vis-à-vis the market, as most left analyses contend, but rather a reconfiguration of the state, aimed at placing the commanding heights of economic policy “in the hands of capital, and primarily financial interests”, as Stephen Gill writes. Given the nefarious effects of depoliticisation, it is only natural that the revolt against neoliberalism should first and foremost take the form of demands for a repoliticisation of national decision-making processes.

Reclaiming national sovereignty

The fact that the vision of national sovereignty that was at the centre of the Trump and Brexit campaigns and that currently dominates the public discourse is a reactionary, quasi-fascist one – mostly defined along ethnic, exclusivist, and isolationist lines, aimed at ensuring the security and protection of the ‘national community’ against the threat posed by a variety of internal and external enemies and based on an even more exploitative and authoritarian form of capitalism – should not be seen as an indictment of national sovereignty as such. History attests to the fact that national sovereignty and national self-determination are not intrinsically reactionary or jingoistic concepts – in fact, they were the rallying cries of countless nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialist and left-wing liberation movements. Even if we limit our analysis to core capitalist countries, it is patently obvious that virtually all the major social, economic, and political advancements of the past centuries were achieved through the institutions of the democratic nation state, not through international, multilateral, or supranational institutions, which in a number of ways have, in fact, been used to roll back those very achievements, as we have seen in the context of the euro crisis, where supranational (and largely unaccountable) institutions such as the European Commission, Eurogroup, and ECB used their power and authority to impose crippling austerity on struggling countries. The problem, in short, is not national sovereignty as such, but the fact that the concept in recent years has been largely monopolised by the right and extreme right, which understandably sees it as a way to push through its xenophobic and identitarian agenda.

So why has the mainstream left not been able to develop an alternative, progressive view of national sovereignty in response to neoliberal globalisation? The answer largely lies in the fact that over the course of the past thirty years, most strands of left-wing or progressive thought have accepted the false narrative that national states have essentially been rendered obsolete by neoliberalism and/or globalisation and thus that meaningful change can only be achieved at the international/supranational level, as argued by Yanis Varoufakis and others, when in fact these trends have mostly been the result of state-driven processes. Furthermore, most leftists have bought into the macroeconomic myths that the establishment uses to discourage any alternative use of state fiscal capacities. For example, they have accepted without question the so-called household budget analogy, which suggests that currency-issuing governments, like households, are financially constrained, and that fiscal deficits impose crippling debt burdens on future generations. This is particularly evident in the European debate, where, despite the disastrous effects of the EU and monetary union, the mainstream left continues to cling on to these institutions and to the belief that they can be reformed in a progressive direction, despite all evidence to the contrary, and to dismiss any talk of restoring a progressive agenda on the foundation of retrieved national sovereignty as a “retreat into nationalist positions” inevitably bound to plunge the continent into 1930s-style fascism.

This, however, is tantamount to relinquishing the discursive and political battleground for a post-neoliberal hegemony – which, as we have seen, is inextricably linked to the question of national sovereignty – to the right and extreme right. It is not hard to see that if progressive change can only be implemented at the global or even European level – in other words, if the alternative to the status quo offered to electorates is one between reactionary nationalism and progressive globalism – then the left has already lost the battle.

It needn’t be this way, however. A progressive, emancipatory vision of national sovereignty radically alternative to that of both the right and the neoliberals – one based on popular sovereignty, democratic control over the economy, full employment, social justice, redistribution from the rich to the poor, inclusivity, and  effectively the socioecological transformation of production and society – is not only necessary; it is possible. This needn’t necessarily come at the expense of European cooperation. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that the vice-like grip of the single currency, by exacerbating intra-European divergences, causing widespread social devastation and fuelling national resentments on a scale unseen in the post-war era, is now endangering the beneficial aspects that have accompanied the formation of the European Union, as demonstrated by Europe’s reaction to the migratory crisis. The true value of the European project is in its capacity to deliver a rule of law throughout Europe and engender multilateral cooperation on matters such as immigration, climate change, human trafficking, and global concerns that single nations cannot solve alone. Returning to national governments the monetary and fiscal tools needed to provide for the well-being of their citizens would not undermine that sort of cooperation. On the contrary, it would provide the basis for a renewed European project – and more in general for a new international(ist) world order – based on multilateral cooperation between sovereign states.


[1] See, for example, David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University, 2005.

[2] OECD, Employment Outlook 2012, 2012, p. 110.

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