Posts Tagged ‘social democracy’

Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

The PT’s Own Goal

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) government, led by former Marxist guerilla, Dilma Rouseff, is in the midst of a political crisis that it may not weather. Embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the state petroleum company, Petrobras, and a number of construction firms, the government has been rocked by massive street protests and the machinations of a ruling elite hell bent on ending 12 years of leftist rule in South America’s largest and most economically powerful country.

Acting through the judiciary, and backed by a corporate media which ignores the corruption of right-wing politicos, the opposition appears to be plotting a coup, pushing for the impeachment of President Rouseff and the imprisonment of her beloved predecessor, the former lath operator and trade union leader, Lula da Silva.

The PT has endured political crises before. Brazil has seen waves of anti-government protest over the last three years. But now the government faces a confluence of factors that has shaken the foundation of Brazilian society, including the spread of the Zika virus, an economic downturn, and a rush to prepare for the 2016 Olympics.

In a country in which sports—and especially soccer—and politics are deeply intertwined, it was the PT’s insistence on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back (in 2014 and 2016) that seems to have weakened support amongst the party’s poor and working-class base. Although the government’s partial break with neoliberalism and strong economic growth has lifted close to 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, in a country in which so many still lack access to the basic necessities of life, the millions spent on sporting spectacles has led many supporters to question the PT’s priorities.

Such is the religious devotion to soccer that the PT’s sins might have been forgiven had Brazil won the World Cup. Instead, it crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion in the semi-finals against Germany. The unraveling of the national team seemed to mirror the unraveling of the political compact that has kept the PT in power.

Problems on the pitch

On that infamous day in July 2014, the game started badly. With only 10 minutes passed, Thomas Muller—Germany’s most prolific strike—stood unmarked at the back post and easily converted a corner kick. Ten minutes later, Germany scored again and added another within two minutes. And then, with the home crowd in a state of shock, a fourth German goal a mere twenty seconds after the restart. By halftime, it was 5-0.

After the break, the Canarinho—as the national team is nicknamed—returned to the field looking like they would much rather have been somewhere else. The thousands of Brazilians who had packed the Estadio Minerao sat in stunned silence; the atmosphere eerie for a match of such grand importance.

The game ended 7-1, the biggest defeat suffered by the national team in its 100-year existence. The team of footballing legends such as Zico, Socrates, Girancha, and Pele, had been dismantled, humbled, and humiliated in front of a television audience of close to one billion people.

Brazil’s manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari called it the “worst day of my life.” In a post-match interview, tears streaming down his face, the Canarinho’s captain, David Luiz, said, “I just wanted to bring happiness to these people, my people have suffered so much with other things.”

As the Guardian’s South America correspondent, Alex Bellos, wrote on the eve of the World Cup, the PT was banking on national team success to “help soothe unrest.” “Nothing less than glory,” Bellos noted, “is good enough for the host nation.”

Two years on and with Brazil’s right-wing forces and upper middle class on the march, the PT needs its poor and working class base more than ever. But as Dave Zirin has observed, the “party is not drawing millions of defenders into the streets, partly because there is a mass dissatisfaction with the status quote, and partly because the World Cup and the Olympics have exacerbated the hard times and symbolized a government woefully out of touch.”

On entering office, President Lula had a soccer pitch installed on the presidential lawn. Rumour has it that during kickarounds, the former President liked to play right midfield, emulating his hero Zizinho by dribbling around the finance minister or a trade union leader. It should have been his and the PT’s first and last attempt at capturing sporting glory.

 

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 2, Spring 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here

Samba, Soccer and the Limits of Social Democracy

Monday, December 30th, 2013

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I reflect on the summer protests in Brazil and the upcoming World Cup of soccer.

During its coverage of the summer demonstrations in Brazil, the New York Times ran a clever little online feature: they posted photographs of two marches, one in Sao Paulo and another in the city of Recife. Each image captured hundreds of protest signs—move your computer cursor over a given sign and an English translation of its contents appeared on the screen.

Slogans ranged from the general: “Come take to the streets to change Brazil!” to the particular, “I’d exchange a congressman for 334 teachers.”

Some seemed like they’d been thought up by a policy wonk caught up in the crowds on their lunch break:  “10% of the GDP for education!”, “Put 10 cents in the public health system!”

The politically ambiguous, “No right or left, we’re all Brazilians!”, “Too many reasons to fit here!” were uneasily juxtaposed with the rallying cries of revolution: “Workers, come take to the streets!” and the perennial “Smash the capitalist state!”

Such was the cacophony of cir de coeurs rising up from the Brazilian streets.

Yet if there was a single collective grievance prioritized by the masses, it was the World Cup of Soccer, due to be hosted by Brazil next summer: “Wake up Brazil! Teachers are worth more than [soccer star] Neymar!”, “Lower the bus fare and put it in FIFA’s check!”, “I want health and education on FIFA’s standards!” (FIFA being the bloated, corrupt world governing body of the beautiful game).

Brazilians frustrated with public transit fare hikes or dismayed at dilapidated hospitals and schools, see the billions being spent on new stadiums, security, and Cup-related luxuries (e.g. inflatable mascots guarding the entrance of public venues) and ask “can we afford this?” Among those stuck in Sao Paulo or Rio’s infamous traffic jams or public transit queues, a unified chorus emerged: “imagina na copa” or “imagine during the cup”.  

In Brazil, soccer is a national religion. The country has won the World Cup more times than any other nation. Brazil is home to the great Pele and a breeding ground for the game’s most skilled, creative…and mononomous players: Ronaldo, Fred, Hulk, Ronaldinho, Kaka. The national team prides itself on fast-paced, rhythmic, technically complex style of play inspired by Samba, the music and dance that permeates Brazilian life.  

And soccer is woven into the country’s political fabric. Take the figure of Socrates, a stylish attacking midfielder who captained the club Corinthians during the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the team of Sao Paulo’s working class, counting former president Lula da Silva amongst their fans, yet ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites.  From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the ruling junta.  The movement eventually wrestled control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy.

In perhaps one of the bravest acts in politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players decided to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians–and particularly Corinthians’ working class fans–to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and the Corinthians Democracy movement is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

As the mass protests of this summer suggest, some thirteen years after the historic election of Lula, Brazil’s social democratic experiment is pushing up against its internal limits.  Under Lula and now Dilma Rouseff, the governing Workers’ Party has sought to massage big capital, reduce poverty, please its working class base, and keep the middle class on side. But now no one seems happy: the middle class don’t like mixing with the newly mobile poor; the poor want better housing and more social programs; the rich, lower taxes; teachers, a raise; doctors, a vacation; rural peasants, land reform; urban workers, higher wages; and students, free transit. And absolutely no one seems in the mood for a game of soccer. For the country’s political class, that may be the most disturbing trend of all.

 Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2013 Issue

The Case for Equality

Friday, April 1st, 2011

In my lastest contribution to Canadian Dimension, I review Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level.

A review of The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Penguin, 2010

The Spirit Level’s argument is simple: In rich countries, a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population. Along a range of social indicators, including teenage pregnancy, mortality, reported happiness, obesity, drug use, and the incidence of violence, more equal countries perform better. Overall quality of life – for all citizens – is thus deeply related to levels of economic inequality.

Wilkinson and Pickett produce data from 23 rich countries and 50 states to make their case. Using plenty of scatter graphs, regression analysis, and short, punchy chapters organized around the various social indicators, The Spirit Level shows that increases in social inequality are the source of many contemporary social problems. More equal Scandinavia and Japan consistently score better than the highly unequal US and the UK. Canada typically sits somewhere in the middle, flanked by the likes of France and Switzerland.

With socialists searching for new answers to old questions in the wake of the global economic crisis, The Spirit Level marks one contribution to something of a social democratic redux. With Third Way social democracy utterly disgraced by its affiliation with neoliberalism, social democratic soul searching has produced some lively polemics of late, from Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land to Will Hutton’s Them and Us. Ed Miliband – who keeps a copy of The Spirit Level close at hand – may be the first leader of a major European social democratic party to openly question the nostrums of the Third Way project and commit to closing the gap between the rich and poor.

This rethinking of social democracy is important. Third Way social democrats weren’t overly troubled by economic inequality; they committed to reducing absolute poverty but left widening disparities untouched. Their focus on targeted social investments in human capital development (through policies like early childhood education and job training) was grounded in predilections about the inevitability of globalized capitalism and the need for workers to adapt to the new competitive environment.

And Third Way disciples such as Tony Blair praised financial deregulation and innovation for the role it could play in ‘growing the economy’. A bigger economic pie, they argued, meant a bigger slice for workers, just a disproportionately smaller one than was dished out to them under the post-war compromise, with CEO salaries and investment banker bonuses reaching grotesque levels under neo-liberalism.

The beauty of The Spirit Level is that it puts economic equality back at the center of social democratic politics. The book’s drawbacks are in failing to adequately address the political limits to economic equality under capitalism. Policies that will affect the distribution and redistribution of wealth, from increasing trade union bargaining power to more progressive income taxes, are recommended by Wilkinson and Pickett. But their argument that policies that create equality should receive broad support across class lines, as it stands to benefit all, is naively optimistic; class struggle still matters. The rich may fear the type of violence that characterizes highly unequal societies, but they are more likely to build bigger walls around their gated communities than raise the red flag of egalitarianism in response. It is the hard work of everyday politics – from community organizing to political education – that will bring about more equal societies. While The Spirit Level doesn’t pretend to be a ‘how to’ guide for political action, it does confirm with hard science what we on the left have known intuitively for years: equality is not only morally right, but good for the mind, body and soul as well.

Published in Canadian Dimension March/April 2011

Viva la revolucion!

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Some of the best commentary on the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions:

Rober Fisk on the historical context of the uprisings and the future of Arab-Israeli relations:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/robert-fisk-a-tyrants-exit-a-nations-joy-2212487.html#

Tariq Ali on the meaning of the Eyptian revolution and fall of Mubarak:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/11/egypt-cairo-hosni-mubarak

Noam Chomsky on the imperial motives of the US:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/feb/04/radical-islam-united-states-independence

During such a eventful week I’m somewhat saddened by the thought that the late Edward Said is not around to bare witness.  Gary Younge pays tribute to Said here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/13/west-no-longer-honest-broker-peace