26 June 2022

Thick as a BRICS?

Interesting news recently out of Moscow: evidently the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are attempting to build a shared infrastructure for ease of payments that may end up including a new reserve currency as a rival to the dollar. This move comes as a response to Western financial sanctions on Russia which froze its foreign reserves in response to the escalation of the Ukrainian war.

It became clear very soon after this war heated up that the global financial system was even less of a level playing field than it originally appeared. As such, the BRICS nations all seem to be interested in finding ways to reduce reliance on Western institutions that enforce financial and economic dominance, such as the IMF. As a leftist, the only thing I can say is this: more power to them. To say that such a strong challenge to the financial hegemony of the Washington-London-Tôkyô Triad is welcome would be a strong understatement. And there are several aspects to this new reserve currency that sound particularly intriguing.

The first is that it would be based on a basket of the five BRICS nations’ currencies: the ruble, the renminbi, the rand, the rupee and the real. This seems like an interesting ‘middle way’ that avoids the pitfalls of the euro. Allowing each of the member nations to retain control over its own monetary (and thus also trade) policies in ways which the Eurozone didn’t seems a good way to avoid internal friction between the member countries.

Also, the money not being tied to a commodity (like gold) helps keep the supply flexible and reduces the possible exploitation of agricultural communities. America’s experiment in gold-backed reserve currency turned out to be a disaster for the working poor in this country, and it seems like the BRICS countries are not eager to repeat that mistake. However, this structure does seem to come with its own risks. It would be interesting to see how the banking-oversight mechanism for this currency would work.

The other big news this week is that Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court in the US. This is also welcome news to me, and I make no bones about it. The Mississippi law upheld in the court’s decision actually seems to be a fairly moderate law which places the same restrictions on abortion access after the first trimester that most modern Western European countries have. However, I have some strong reservations about the long-term results of the overturn.

First and foremost, we simply don’t have the same supports for new and expecting mothers that Western Europe does. Placing restrictions on abortion parallel to those that exist in, say, France and the UK, without enacting the parallel social safety net provisions, is going to have a wantonly and cruelly punitive effect on childbearing women. The Democrats (using the excuse provided them by Manchin and Synema) completely punted on the Build Back Better Act, which would have included provisions for an expanded child tax credit, paid family leave, medical care subsidies, universal pre-K, new affordable housing and school lunches: all of which would have directly benefitted new mothers. And of course not one single Republican supported the BBBA, which shows effectively that they’re not and never have been the pro-life party that they claim to be.

Second, the overturn hands the decision over whether (and how) to restrict abortion access entirely over to the individual states. We’ve seen this movie play out before under different circumstances. It didn’t end well. It’s very likely that we will start seeing nullification arguments and secession movements begin to take shape in the near future as the divides grow sharper. I have seen multiple pro-life women in my social media network refer to the Roe overturn as a ‘Pyrrhic victory’. I think they happen to be right about that.

However, one thing that the Roe overturn is going to clarify, and quickly, is the degree to which Americans who claim to care about human life actually do. I fully expect the vast majority of so-called ‘pro-life’ Republicans will continue to sit on their hams and oppose any sort of humane legislation that would make life for new mothers and children more possible and bearable, and I would unfortunately say the same about so-called ‘pro-life’ Democrats in the mould of Joe Manchin. The Solidarists are probably going to continue to mealy-mouth their way into conversations about how we should create pie-in-the-sky ‘decentralised’ legislative solutions which stand no chance of garnering popular support anywhere and which wouldn’t work even if they were passed. The necessity of socialist fixes to the American economy, I expect, will become a lot clearer to a lot more people in the coming months, and I hope that these fixes can attract the support of at least a handful of pro-life types who are uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance their Republican allegiance has hitherto imposed on them.

02 June 2022

The Ukraine is not Vietnam: just ask the Vietnamese

One of the more banal and asinine lines of commentary to come out of the online ‘progressive’ and ‘anarchist’ left in recent months regarding the situation in the Ukraine, is the idea that the Ukraine is, or should be, ‘Russia’s Vietnam’, and that the left should support the Zelensky government in its war against Russia for the same reasons the left supported the Vietnamese partizans in their war against America.

You know who doesn’t find this line of argument compelling? The Vietnamese people. Along with the government which actually fought the Americans out of their country.

A few days ago, at Davos, Texas Republican congressman Michael McCaul snapped a picture of what he claimed were the Chinese delegation, sitting down during a standing ovation given to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a speech. He later claimed that they walked out on the speech. The only problem seems to have been that the Chinese delegation was not actually present at Zelenskyy’s speech at Davos. Instead, at that time, they were meeting with the executive director of the International Energy Agency. The people who sat during Zelensky’s speech and left without applauding were actually the Vietnamese delegation.

I think a passing comment may be justified here about Rep. McCaul’s utter and embarrassing stupidity (additionally disgraceful considering he’s somehow the lead GOP member on the House Committee of Foreign Affairs) in leaping instantly to the conclusion that the Asian-looking men in suits sitting next to him had to be Chinese… and his subsequent malevolence in using that photo in an attempt to rile up anti-Chinese sentiment on CNN. This is precisely the same sort of logic which motivates random racially-motivated attacks on, not only Chinese and Vietnamese, but Thai and Hmong people in the US. In a more civilised time and place, Rep. McCaul would probably be forced – at the very least – to resign from his position on the Committee of Foreign Affairs. However, it is sadly unlikely that he will face any professional repercussions at all for his imbecilic race-baiting.

But more to the point: Vietnam—along with other nations in East and Southeast Asia such as China, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia—has taken a position of principled neutrality on the current conflict. Vietnam has steadfastly opposed economic sanctions on Russia, and its statesmen have responded quite negatively (using decidedly undiplomatic language) when the Biden administration tried pressuring them to adopt the sanctions. And, it is also worth noting, the Vietnamese people tend to be far more pro-Russia than the government. It’s common for Vietnamese citizens to refer to the Russian president as ‘Uncle Putin’… an epithet of endearment which deliberately echoes the public veneration for Ho Chi Minh. In general, the citizens of Vietnam tend to see Russia as being a close friend and geopolitical ally during the Sino-Soviet split. More recently, the Vietnamese military has largely been equipped with Russian armaments, and Russia has cancelled 85% of Vietnam’s sovereign debts going back to the Soviet period.

The fact of the matter which the Vietnamese delegation’s non-applause of Zelensky and precipitous exit at Davos symbolise, is that the Vietnamese government—which, by the way, is made up largely of men who were children or service-aged young adults during the War—simply do not see the situation in the Ukraine as analogous to their own. At all. And the Vietnamese delegation happens to be right.

The Vietnamese people were fighting against two overseas colonial powers. They were fighting against two nations—France, then the United States—which sought to keep their population addicted to opium and exploitable as a cheap labour pool, resource mine and tax base. Later, the Vietnamese people were essentially conscripted as proxies in the Cold War, as they saw their interests as more aligned with the Soviet Union than with the United States. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the situation in the Ukraine is nowhere close to analogous.

The history is entirely different. French colonialism in Vietnam began in the 1880s and was replaced, functionally, by American colonialism in the 1950s. The relationship between France and Vietnam was very clearly one of imperial master and colonial subject. By contrast, the Ukraine and Russia are both successor states of the same polity—the Rus’ polity—which was first centred at Holmgarðr (Novgorod) under the Viking prince Rurik and later at Kœnugarðr (Kiev) under his brother-in-law Oleg. The development of a ‘Ukrainian’ identity within the Rus’ actually only emerged by way of the divergence of the areas of Rus’ that were under Polish-Lithuanian rule from the areas of Rus’ that were under the rule of the Golden Horde. Complicating matters is that there was a class division between the Rus’ who lived in the Carpathians versus the Rus’ who lived in the lower areas. However, suffice it to say that the history involved here is much longer and is simply not as clear-cut as the relationship between coloniser and colonised.

In terms of economics, as well, the situation is entirely different. The occupation of Vietnam by France, and their subsequent economic exploitation, left the Vietnamese population in a condition of complete economic subjugation and penury. Vietnamese people were targeted, in other words, for exploitation based on their ethnic and linguistic characteristics. In the later decades of colonial domination by France, Vietnamese GDP per capita barely grew at all (and actually fell off toward the end), and average Vietnamese household income ranged between 5 and 10% of the income of the average French household in France. The gap is pretty stark when you look at the data.

There was also exploitation in the Russian Empire, very much so. However, the data suggest that the exploitation did not differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians… and in fact, the Ukrainians had it quite a bit better than most Russians did. Lindert and Nafziger, authoring a paper in the Journal of Economic History, show a picture of the late Russian Empire which demonstrates that the income gradient in that country was not split between north and south—not split between speakers of Ukrainian / Belarusian / Great-Russian—but instead split between west and east, with the west being relatively wealthier and the east (apart from Moscow, of course) being relatively poorer. Ukrainians were, in general, no worse off than the majority of Russians. In fact, in economic terms (apart from Poltava), Ukrainians were in the top income quartile in Imperial Russian metrics. And—unlike in the French overseas empire toward Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Algerians, Guianese and Cameroonians—there is no evidence of any active attempt by the Imperial Russian government to exploit Ukrainians economically on the basis of a separate identity or racial hierarchy.

And finally, the political character of the governments involved nowadays is entirely different. The Independence League (Viet Minh) in the north and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) in the south were indeed a movement for national liberation. However, they were also driven by principles of economic fairness and egalitarianism that led them to sympathise with, and ultimately adopt, the ideology of Marxism-Leninism: an ideology which the government of Vietnam still espouses to this day.

By contrast, the current Ukrainian government operates on neoliberal and ethno-nationalist principles. Poroshenko was a Ukrainian ethno-nationalist, and Zelensky is a neoliberal, similar to Russia’s Boris Yeltsin. His landmark legislation, commodifying land for sale on an open market, was wildly unpopular in the Ukraine—but it was encouraged by the IMF as a precondition for loans and was presented as such to the Rada. This is in fact a similar playbook taken to nearly all of the right-wing governments in Latin America in the 1980s. The result of Zelensky’s policies, even if this war had never escalated (though the war is certainly making things worse), is going to be the further impoverishment and demoralisation of the Ukrainian people.

Now, I am not a Marxist-Leninist. I am an Orthodox Christian… an Orthodox Christian with certain social-economic preferences and positions informed by the Basis of the Social Concept. But I can definitely see where the Vietnamese are coming from on this question, and I happen to think their stance on the war is the correct one. I can certainly understand why they wouldn’t out-and-out support Putin in this attack. However, the way the Vietnamese see it, the Ukrainians also aren’t fighting for their own material or political (or, I would add, spiritual) liberation—they’re fighting on behalf a corrupt bourgeois-nationalist government which essentially does the bidding of the US State Department, the IMF and the European Troika. And the thing is: they’re not wrong about that.

Russia and the Ukraine belong, at root, to the same linguistic culture, to the same civilisation, the same Christian religious tradition. Their interests are firmly wrapped up in each other’s welfare—Ukrainians and Russians very often share close family ties which connect them to each other on a personal level. This is one thing which makes the current war, and in fact the past eight years of civil warfare, so appalling. However, if there is to be any kind of lasting peace, then there needs to be first an accord on the basic nature of this reality. That accord is simply not possible if the Ukrainian government keeps attempting to mainline a set of ethno-nationalist fables and pseudo-historical lies in order to forward a neoliberal economic agenda that further enriches the already-wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Just as it is simply not possible if the Russian government keeps attempting to appeal to nostalgia for a lost political order.