Sunday, August 29, 2021

Plutocratic populism, sadopopulism and democracy

Populism is not a homogeneous movement against the elites (as it is sometimes defined), but a toolbox used by one sector of the elite to go against other sectors, using the citizenry as hostages.

In a previous post I mentioned the concept of “plutocratic populism,” which reflects much better the idea that some olygarchies resort to political disruption (emphasizing grievances and identities) to make noise and convince majorities to vote against their interest.

An extreme version of plutocratic populism I sadopopulism, as explained by historian Timothy Snyder in this video. When quite blatantly the populists convince citizens to hurt themselves, we enter the region of sadism combined with populism, that is, sadopopulism. Trumpism, convincing people to make America great again by voting him, but then lowering taxes on the rich and undermining democracy, is a clear example. But there are many other movements around the world that follow a similar logic.

Trump was defeated, but he will try to come back, and take advantage of the now lower popularity of Biden to counter attack in the midterm elections of 2022.

Sadopopulism being sadistic, its horizon is to undermine democracy, because ultimately it is not possible to rule against the majority in the long run. Therefore the answer is to strengthen democracy, through better public policies, better political parties and a strong civil society.

It is interesting that a more farsighted sector of the elites (typically technocrats in international institutions) is proposing a new social contract that addresses climate change and inequalities. Representative of this line of thought is the book by the Director of the London School of Economics (and former executive at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), Minouche Shafik, “What We Owe Each Other.” This idea is welcome, although this global elite of policy makers tends to over-emphasize policy by contract and consent at the national level, tending to forget that undermining the existing privileges requires democratic conflict and empowering not the elites, but the majority of the population, and not only at the national level.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

The tragedy of Afghanistan, vaccines and global passports

 The CNN correspondent in Kabul during the recent Taliban entry into the city, Clarissa Ward, explained in an interview that she found difficult to justify why she could leave the country based on her US passport (that “little blue thing”), but others would be left there because they are non-eligible to take a rescue flight.

The BBC Newsnight program also reported about the arbitrariness of the selection of people who could board a plane in the Kabul airport. The British government’s position (similar to other Western governments) is that they prioritize British nationals and “eligible Afghans.”

The allocation of basic human rights thus depends on which national passport you have. As a criterion to allocate such a precious good, it could not be less fair. The same happens with Covid vaccines. For developed countries, all their nationals have access to a free vaccine (now even a third dose is discussed). The allocation of some goods is decided by markets; the allocation of other goods is decided by governments, or by lotteries. But whether you have a free life or a free vaccine is decided by your passport. This would not be a problem if all passports gave access to the same basic rights. But reality could not be farther away from this.

The fall of Kabul and other Afghan cities also illustrates what happens when the state disappears, at least for a while: scarcity of food and money and abundance of crime, terror and arbitrariness. We need more state, that is, more and better government, but less nation-state. There are alternatives to this obsolete institution, as explained by political scientist Hendrik Spruyt in a book. The European Union is one of them, but the Afghan crisis shows that for global problems, it is not enough. At least for some life or death problems, we need global public goods such as a global Passport that gives everybody access to basic human rights and basic health services.

Philippe Sands explained it in an article in The Guardian some time ago: “Bedazzled by the power of statehood – that most artificial and fake of constructs – are we not also citizens of our home, our street, our borough, our city, our Europe and our world? The reform is clear: to recognise that our essential rights flow not from the happenstance of nationality – and certainly not just from our national passport – but from our essence as individual human beings. That’s what the 1945 moment said, that we are citizens of the world.

We should have, beyond our national passports, a global passport. Over time, the withering of the monopoly power of the nation state, and the oppressive, absurd, monopoly power of the national passport – that would be my reformation.”

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The possibilists’ compass: the overlapping trajectories of Hirschman and Sen

In the last few weeks I have been reading the biography of Albert O. Hirschman (written by Jeremy Adelman –and reviewd by Claus Offe here) and the autobiography of the first part of the life of Amartya Sen. It’s been a nice way to get inspiration for the course I will teach on introductory economics (using the materials of the CORE Project) in a new degree on Contemporary History, Politics and Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona starting in September.

In several ways, the lives and ideas of Hirschman and Sen overlap. Sen married Hirschman’s niece, Eva Colorni (who died relatively young) the daughter of Ursula Hirschman and the Italian Eugenio Colorni, a socialist politician and scientist, and a person that Hirschman admired and who was killed by fascists at the end of the Second World War, after being one of the authors of the Ventotene Manifesto for a Federal Europe. Hirschman dedicated his most famous book, “Exit, Voice and Loyalty…” to the memory of Colorni. 

Sen “inherited” the office of Hirschman at Harvard (as if passing the baton), and later they became friends and relatives. Sen wrote a foreword to another of the great books of Hirschman “The Passions and the Interests”, and, when Hirschman had already passed away, Sen received in 2016 the “Albert Hirschman Prize” awarded by the Social Science Research Council.

Hirschman had an amazing young life. As a member of the youth of Germany’s Social Democracy, and as a jew, he was in danger when Hitler took power, and left for Paris in 1933. There he got in touch with Italian anti-fascists such as Colorni, and with some of them he spent some weeks fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War in the front of Aragon. He studied economics in Paris and Trieste (although he never studied a conventional PhD), and in the Second World War he ran clandestine operations in Marseilles to help refugees flee to the US. He migrated to America, married a woman from Russian origin, Sarah, just to immediately enlist in the US army (probably to obtain the US citizenship) to go to Africa and Europe when the Americans joined the Allied effort. When the war finished, he went back to the US, and was in the administration involved in the Marshall plan for Europe. He perhaps could have had more important positions in the US government, but the FBI opened a file for him due to his past left-wing activities. The rest of his very productive life is a measure of the opportunity cost of all those intelligent people that spend time in positions of power (something Hirschman could probably have done in the absence of the FBI file). He started a new life as an advisor of developing countries' governments and firms, first in Colombia and later in other Latin American countries, an activity that he combined with appointments at some of the best US universities (Berkeley, Columbia, Yale, Harvard –where he felt closer to young radical scholars such as Bowles, rather than to more established academics, Stanford and Princeton). He developed there an impressive intellectual trajectory as author of books and articles, although he hated teaching –which provoked vomits and diarrhea to him. Michele Alacevich has just published an intellectual biography (this is for homework) describing the broad scope of his contributions to international trade, development, political economy and economic thought.

Sen learned from a young age about the dangers of exciting identity feelings and of not addressing inequalities, poverty and famines. He was traumatized by the partition between India and Pakistan and by the artificially encouraged divisions between Muslims and Hindus. He has a deep knowledge of secular and religious traditions in India and Asia that promote peace, multiple identities and dialogue. He was born in a well educated middle class family and he attended a progressive school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. He completed his economic studies in Cambridge (England) where he established a fruitful dialogue with marxist (such as the Italian Piero Sraffa), keynesian and neoclassical economists. His autobiography tells how seriously he took marxist ideas, regretting the lack of detail of Marx' political proposals, which left the door open for the atrocities of Stalinism. His discussion of such ideas includes a very good explanation of the tension between the ideal of “to each according with their needs, from each according to their ability,” and the requirement of incentives for productive activity. A difference with Hirschman is that Amartya Sen loved teaching from the times he gave lessons to illiterate children in India as an activist.

Both scholars are more foxes than hedgehogs and not only have covered many topics in economics, but they also have done it in a truly multidisciplinary way, contributing also to other “fields” like political science or philosophy. They are believers in a unified social science, in dialogue with other branches of knowledge. Both are in favor of reform and not revolution, egalitarians and democrats aware of the importance and value of individual freedom, and at the same time of the limits of national sovereignty.

Their work has in common that at least a great part of it can be interpreted as trying to optimistically react to “impossibility” results in economic theory, that were perhaps too influential in political ideologies. Hirschman work on Exit and Voice can be read as an answer to the idea of Mancur Olson that the free rider problem is pervasive and makes it impossible to sustain collective action of almost any type. Most of the work of Sen can be interpreted as a positive reaction to the work of his friend Kenneth Arrow, who in his famous theorem established that there was no system of preference aggregation (collective choice, for example through voting rules) that satisfied a minimum list of desirable attributes. Sen believed for example that public discussion and reasoning, and persuasion, should also be considered beyond just taking note of individual exogenous preferences, in a similar way as “Voice” in Hirschman. They thought that collective action and social choice were possible; perhaps not perfect, but not as impossible as to make tiranny or chaos inevitable.

Besides having a strong knowledge of contemporary economic ideas and being a gifted writer, Hirschman had a strong experience as a practitioner, and a very solid knowledge of classical thinkers in political economy and philosophy. He was aware of his limitations using mathematical techniques, although the concentration index that bears his name (and, apparently unfairly, Herfindahl’s) is one of the more used mathematical formulas in applied work and policy. Sen had a more conventional training as an academic economist (he obtained a PhD from Cambridge University) and as a mathematician, having also a solid background in history and philosophy. Sen was awarded the Nobel prize (in 1998) in Economics, for which Hirschman was probably considered at some point. It’s difficult to separate their very productive intellectual work from the progressive values and ideals that they acquired in their youth. Learning about their trajectories, one only feels sorry for those that believe that economics should not be polluted by politics and activism. As with any scholar, their work is open to scrutiny and criticism (for example, see Flyvbjerg on Hirschman’s principle of the Hiding Hand), but this is just how knowledge makes progress, and the fact that the debate continues on their ideas illustrates their importance. Their combined lives encompassed more than one century (Hirschman was born in 1915 and Sen is still alive) and four continents. It’s impossible to do everything in only one life. It probably takes two extraordinary lives to make the almost perfect scholar.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

National-Populism against pluralism

In my previous post, I mentioned political scientist Müller quoting the French economist Thomas Piketty: “Everything depends on equipping groups of different origins and identities with the institutional, social, and political tools they need to recognize that what unites them outweighs what divides them.”

I just found a similar message in the impressive memoir written by the economist Amartya Sen that I am currently reading, “Home in the World:” “I was not very old before I realized the pressing need to bring economic class into an understanding of the horrors of communal violence and carnage in India. Most of the people killed in the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1940s shared a class identity (they came from families of workers and the dispossessed), even though they differed in their religious or comunal identity (in being a Muslim or a Hindu).” In Asia then and everywhere today pluralism and egalitarianism go hand in hand.

Dividing a society by community identities and then calling “the people” only one of the identitites is a typical trait of old and modern national-populism. Müller describes modern populism: Trump, Brexit and the others (Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, Salvini, Le Pen…). Some have been (at least temporarily) defeated, others prove more resilient.

But the phenomenon is not new. Sen’s comment reflects what he started to think about community identities in the 1940s (and kept thinking when he wrote a book on the topic many decades later), when he saw a Muslim worker asking for help and later dying after being stabbed in a racist attack.

The people is as we define it, say old and modern populists. In richer societies, where the opportunity cost of physical violence is high, things are subtler than in the Indian Subcontinent last century, but we see groups trying to benefit from “us versus them” rhetoric all the time. In Catalonia, with the secessionist drive that started in 2012, it is very common to see racist insults directed at those with origins in other Spanish regions (unfortunately, the picture with “Visca Salvini” in Catalan that accompanies this article, I just took it next to my home in Barcelona). The rise of the mirror extreme-right in Spain just encourages more identity polarization.

Signs of the more or less subtle attack on pluralism from separatist leaders are that they appeal to a “dialogue with Spain” (although not even all secessionists agree with this), but tend to reject “dialogue within Catalonia;” or that they ask for a referendum where citizens can choose between the “Catalan proposal” against “the Spanish government’s proposal,” as if there was a clear homogeneous local proposal; or that when they try to show a moderate face, they speak of “expanding the base,” which means trying to recruit more secessionists, instead of working together with people who do not agree with the indendence proposal. In the last regional election, all pro-independence parties, divided on many fronts, signed an agreement to form a sanitary cordon against social-democrats (because these were not nationalist enough), which happened to obtain the largest vote plurality.

The Catalan public sector media, controlled by the regional pro-independence parties, runs programs showing insults including “Puta España” (“Whore Spain”). Partisan pro-independence symbols in public buildings are frequent. And these are only some examples, which anyone trying to express their opinion about what happens here should know about. Although the separatist leaders that were in prison have now been pardoned (legally by the Spanish government) and are now at home (and I wish that they have forever all the protections of the European rule of law), the signs of lack of internal pluralism continue in our community.