Monday, February 7, 2011

The Measure of Latino Politics

THERE IS NO LACK OF RESPECTED ECONOMISTS WHO consider the United States to be not only in an economic crisis but in a crisis of governance as well.5 As noted, the policies and ideology of neoliberalism have clearly undermined the quality of life for millions of people. Unemployment has reached record levels, millions have lost their homes, social services have been either eliminated or severely limited, most cities and many states are either on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to deal with crumbling infrastructure, faltering educational systems, and inadequate medical facilities. This is the legacy of the neoliberal policies. And yet there is no prospect of removing these polices from the national political agenda.

Latino communities' particular pattern of growth and development have made them particularly susceptible to these effects.There have of course been very significant advances made by sectors of Latino communities as a result of the changes brought about by the civil rights movements and legislation of the 1960s. A small but significant professional class has emerged that often plays the role of a broker, articulating their version of Latino "issues" and "needs" for mainstream institutions. And the proportion of Latinos who have achieved middle-class status has increased significantly. But a majority still are relatively marginalized. As I mentioned above, the period of significant growth in the Latino population overlapped considerably with the period during which neoliberalism developed in the United States. This is no coincidence: Satisfying the demand for cheap labor was one of the central features of neoliberal restructuring, which promoted large-scale immigration, attracting workers from Mexico in particular.

Given the size and dispersion of Latino populations and the key role they played in several sectors of the economy, they became an integral part of the neoliberal transformation. In the last decade alone, the Latino population grew 42% and is expected to number weU over 50 miUion when the 2010 census is completed; Latinos are projected to compose more than a quarter of the national population by 2050. So it is clear that this population will continue to have an increasing effect on determining what kind of society the United States will become. Because of this, the economic and political conditions of Latino communities and their capacity to become full and equal members of society has to be a national concern and not treated as a "minority" issue. This is particularly clear when one looks at the fact that 20% of schoolchildren and 25% of newborns are Latino. When combined with statistics that show that Latinos between the ages 16 and 25 have a school dropout rate of 17% - almost twice the figure for African Americans and nearly three times that of whites - the demographic trends portend an alarming future of even greater fragmentation, division, and inequalities, with aE the ills and costs that these conditions entail.

Economically, Latinos have been directly affected by neoliberal policies. A 2009 report published by the National Council of La Raza, indicates that in 2007, 42% of Latino workers earned poverty level-wages (or about $10.20 per hour to support a family of four), compared to 34% for African American workers and 22% for white workers.7 And Latinos tend to be concentrated in occupations that are not only on the lower end of the wage scale, with Latino men earning 68% of white male wages and Latinas 77% of the wages of white women. They are also overrepresented in jobs that have been particularly hard hit by the ongoing recession, with a little more than 20% in production and food service jobs, close to a one third in construction and maintenance, and almost 40% in agriculture. The AFL-CIO reports significant job loss in many of these occupations with higher percentages of Latinos during the period between 2001 and 2005. So, for example, there were 289,000 (20%) jobs lost in machinery, 220,000 (47%) in apparel, 58,500 (13%) in furniture products, 260,100 (37%) in semiconductor and electronic components, 235,200 (13%) in fabricated metal products, 144, 800 (24%) in primary metals, 159,300 (20%) in printing, and the list goes on.

In addition, 48% of Latino workers had no health insurance through their employment, compared to 27% of white workers and 32.9% of African American workers. And two thirds (65%) of Latino workers did not have access to retirement plans in their jobs. At a more general level, a recent measure called the Hispanic inequality index has documented the level of inequality of Latinos. Using a number of statistical indices comparing Latinos to whites in five different areas, including economic standing, social justice, civic engagement, education, and health, the analysis concluded that the overall inequality index for Latinos is 72%, and most pronounced in the areas of economics and social justice.

Significant Differences in Class and Race

Immigrant status, gender, and national origin make the development of a single "Latino" agenda extremely unlikely. That is to say, the particular interests and needs of Latinos, as with other groups, differ according to their location along these lines. Yet, despite these differences, there are structural processes, policies, and practices that do affect the opportunities, trajectories of economic and social mobility, and life conditions of large numbers of Latinos. The literature on neoliberalism provides a way to identify and understand some of the key domestic structural phenomena and conditions within which Latino politics now takes place.

Neoliberalism has been used to describe the linkage between, on the one hand, the changes in the structure of economic processes and relations that were promoted beginning in the late 1970s in response to the ineffectiveness of postwar Keynesian policies, and on the other hand, the institutional and ideological practices and political policies of governance that were developed to address the inability of state structures to address these problems.1 These new policies not only guided the extensive and long-term restructuring processes adopted within both the economic and state spheres, but also coincided with the period of dramatic and rapid growth in the U.S. Latino population.

The key characteristics of neoliberalism are well-known and have been documented in numerous studies. This does not imply, however, that there is a consensus on the meaning of the term, the interpretation of its characteristics, or the particular significance of its various components. The extensive literature on neoliberalism reflects a broad range of frameworks and an emphasis on different dimensions involved in these processes. Some studies focus on a set of economic policies, others use neoliberalism to define a particular historical period, and still others study it as an ideological phenomenon. In the context of Latino politics, it is useful to focus on how neoliberal economic policies and their consequences have severely limited the possibility that political action channeled through the electoral process alone can seriously address the marginalized conditions that most Latinos face.

Neoliberalism is based on the assumption that an unregulated, free market is the most effective mechanism not only for economic and societal development but also for promoting democracy and freedom. All of the other defining characteristics of neoliberalism flow from these basic assumptions. Deregulating industry and commerce in general, limiting the role of government in economic affairs, privatization, reducing governmental responsibility for social services and community welfare - all of these are policies intended to achieve the ideal of a free market as the foundation for economic prosperity and democratization.

Yet, despite the fact that this view has been the guiding framework for the structure of governance since the Reagan era, neoliberalism has functioned more as Utopian ideology than grounded public policy, as David Harvey suggests.3 The spectacular failure of this ideology that led to the economic crisis beginning in 2008 clearly demonstrated that neoliberalism does not reject government intervention in economic affairs, but rather government intervention on behalf of the working class and minorities. The role of government under this neoliberal regime has been to promote, enhance, and facilitate the growth of corporate and financial sectors, while limiting support for social services, education, health and welfare. The societal effects of this have led some to call neoliberalism "predatory capitalism." The redistribution of wealth upward and the growing level of inequality in the United States has been so dramatic that even conservative thinkers like Kevin Phillips, in his Wealth and Democracy, have warned of the dire consequences.

One of the major effects of neoliberalism has been the redefinition of the purpose of governance that emerged from the period of the Depression and lasted through the early 1970s. During the former period, policies were aimed at putting people back to work, addressing the issue of poverty, increasing the standard of living, establishing strict regulatory regimes (reflected in legislation like the Glass-Steagall Act) to prevent another economic collapse, strengthening the rights of labor, establishing a system of social security to ensure a minimum of economic well-being, dismantling of legal structures of racial discrimination and support for the expansion of civil rights, and establishing a health care system intended to make sure that the elderly and poor would receive care.

This contrasts markedly with the policies advanced not only by Republicans but also by Democrats like President Clinton, who pushed through NAFTA primarily to open capital markets across borders, relied heavily on tax credits for the wealthy as a basis for influencing economic development, advanced legislation to dismantle the welfare system, and embraced deregulation - supporting the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which many commentators blame for the unleashing of die very kind of market behavior that led to the near collapse of the entire financial system. Today, this has not changed much - the policies of the Obama administration are designed and promoted by advisers who come from the very same companies and sectors who orchestrated that near collapse. Thus, the conception of governance as the guarantor of the corporate class remains largely unchanged.

There is little to indicate that either of the two major parties is likely embrace anything other than the neoliberal repertoire of policies. Although Latino voters helped stave off Republican victories in the midterm elections, the ideological parameters within which the dominant public discourse and public policy options are advanced was hardly challenged. This is not to suggest that voting and electoral behavior are unimportant - quite the contrary. Electoral victories have been an important vehicle for promoting progressive legislation in the past, legislation that has promoted greater levels of Latino incorporation. But in the last 30 years, there have been few instances when either party seriously challenged the fundamental premises of neoliberalism. For this reason, Latino poitical efforts need to focus on supporting the kinds of changes that would make an alternative possible. This cannot be achieved by Latinos acting alone. But the mobilization of millions of people who came together to support the vision and hope that they believed Obama represented makes it clear that a politics based on providing an alternative to neoliberalism is indeed possible.

The Structuring of Latino Politics

AS THE 2010 MIDTERM CONGRESSIONAL elections approached, attention to the role of Latinos in the electoral process increased accordingly. This is a familiar pattern, not only in the popular media, both the English and Spanish versions, but also among mainstream academics and political organizations. The format and framing of these works represent a continuation of the approach adopted by the numerous studies that have documented the growth and behavior in the Latino electorate, particularly since the early 1990s. These concerns focus on turnout, partisan loyalties and attitudes, pending or ongoing policy issues, elections or electability of Latino candidates, identifying local, statewide, and national elections in which Latino voters have the potential be the "swing" vote, etc. Although researchers differ in their assessments of the success or failure of these efforts, the underlying assumption of the vast majority of these studies is that the electoral process in the U.S. has the potential to promote the "interests" of Latino communities.
Yet there are few efforts to situate these electoral processes within their broader structural context. The result is a truncated and limited view of Latino politics. Although Latino electoral behaviors and trends are important phenomena, they do not occur in an institutional vacuum, and they represent only one dimension of Latino politics, which encompasses a much broader terrain defined by the multiple levels and forms by which Latinos act politically. A wide range of actions are undertaken by Latino community and neighborhood groups, community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, home associations, immigrant rights groups, student organizations, labor groups (often linked to domestic and other non-unionized service sectors), and professional organizations to advance their concerns and to affect policies and practices of both state structures and institutions of civil society within which their daily lives are carried out.
The kinds of actions undertaken and policies promoted by these kinds of organizations imply a normative concept of Latino politics that has as its ultimate goal the full incorporation in all spheres of U.S. society and that views electoral behavior as an indispensable but also limited mechanism for pursuing this goal. It is this dimension of full incorporation, then, rather than any particular pattern of electoral behavior, that should be the measure of success in Latino politics. What is most often missing from works that emphasize the primacy of electoral activity is any sustained and detailed discussion of how electoral behavior is linked to this more fundamental question of incorporation. And the discourse that focuses most directly on the level and nature of incorporation is that of political membership and citizenship. So it is really the issue of full and effective citizenship that provides the underlying normativity of Latino politics that is typically not addressed in studies or discussions of Latino electoral activity or patterns.
The challenge, then, is to develop modes of analysis that incorporate this broader conception of Latino politics and to understand how state, economic, and cultural power both affect the degree of Latino incorporation and often limit the possibilities and strategies for social and political change. We must, in other words, locate today's Latino politics within the context of the neoliberal agenda, which has sought to define economic and political policies since the late 1970s.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Ideology and Power in the Middle East

Ideology and Power in the Middle East: Studies in Honor of George Lenczowski, Peter J. Chelkowski and Robert J. Pranger, editors. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988. 530 pages. $19.95 paperback.
The editors of this compilation of essays in honor of George Lenczowski, former professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley (best known as the conservative author of Russia and the West in Iran, The Middle East in World Affairs and Oil and State in the Middle East, originally published in 1949, 1952 and 1960 respectively), declare in their preface that this is not a conventional Festschrift. Indeed, the connection between Lenczowski and most of the contributors appears rather tenuous. Similarly, the attempt made in the title and an introductory essay to draw a common theme of "ideology and power" around the disparate contributions seems somewhat artificial.
It is true that the typically esoteric melange of the usual Festschrift is not to be found in these presentations. At the same time, however, the quintessential and enduring merit of the Festschrift form, viz., an eclectic if random originality, has been sacrificed for comprehensiveness. The result is, essentially, a textbook -- and a decidedly hefty one at that, weighing in with 450 pages of text but with all the notes inconveniently pushed to the rear. As a consequence, the contributions tend to be uniform but largely undistinguished surveys of recent developments in selected countries and movements. Many of the authors have covered the same ground elsewhere in more detail and with more authority.
Country studies are in the majority, arranged into sections on "royalist authoritarianism" (Pavlavi Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain); "radical and reformist military regimes" (Egypt, Syria, Iraq and North Yemen); "Marxist movements and governments" (South Yemen, Afghanistan and the People's Mujahidin of Iran); and "challenge to democratic practices and principles" (Israel, Turkey and Lebanon). Final chapters deal with "Islamic fundamentalism," the PLO, the Kurds, and overviews of international relations in the Gulf and American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Among the few contributions that stand out are Hermann Eilts' crisply written personal perspective on political and social change in Saudi Arabia, and Robert Springborg's meditation on politics in modern Egypt through his review and critical analysis of the scholarly literature. Also on the positive side, it should be noted that there are few, if any, "clunkers" among the nineteen essays and that all the authors are thoroughly familiar with their subjects. Thus, this volume may serve admirably as a supplementary undergraduate text or as a reasonably current shelf reference.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

"... And answer came there none ..."

Isn’t Crooked Timber amazing? Aren’t we all fortunate to live in an era when such mighty intellectual machinery can be set in motion to tackle what is, quite obviously, by far the single most important and interesting question about the death of the Hamas Godfather Ahmed Yassin? And what might that question be? It's this: is “removal” quite the mot juste for the manner of Yassin's going, or is “assassination” the “correct” word because - er, well, because one of the writers at Crooked Timber asserts that it is? Come now: how can anyone fail to be deeply impressed by such sophistication (whether that's to be understood in its 18th-century sense or in its 21st-century sense being, of course, another matter)? How can any of the rest of us bear to go on blogging at all when the greatest minds of the blogosphere have already said all that there is to say?