With best wishes for a healthy and productive 2016!
1 – WHITE PRIVILEGE UNDER ATTACK
Debates and struggles around race have taken centre-stage in 2015, with an intensity reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s struggles around civil rights and black power in the US, and the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in 1970s and 1980s in South Africa.
Episodes of blatant racial discrimination and police brutality against black people have been uncovered and exposed like never before in the US. But the debate radically shifted when these concerns have been brought at the heart of the ideological centres of white privilege: wealthy universities in global centres of capital. In April, South African students obtained the removal of the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. In October, university students joined mass protests to widen access to higher education and radically transform historically white universities in decolonised places of learning.
Race was also at the centre of various protests erupted across the US towards the end of the year. Finally, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford is gaining momentum, calling for the removal of a Rhodes statue in Oriel College. The struggle is about much more than a sculpture. The movement wants to open a debate about the legacy of colonialism in Britain, a history that the country has never faced up to in the way Germany and Italy had to deal with the horrors of fascist dictatorships.
It is just the beginning. These struggles are likely to intensify in 2016. Predictions about outcomes would be premature, but there is no doubt that once the issue is on the table, it won’t disappear quite as easily as it resurfaced after decades of denial.
2 – THE BRUTALITY OF GLOBAL WARS, CLOSED BORDERS AND UNEQUAL DEVELOPMENT
The refugee crisis clearly exposed the injustices and violence of the global capitalist system, with razor wire fences erected across Europe uncannily evoking the dark past of Nazi concentration camps. We’ve been hit by a constant stream of news reporting thousands of deaths of refugees fleeing their homes in the Middle East and other parts of Asia and Africa. The Mediterranean Sea is now the geographic symbol of the catastrophe.
Europe has been at the forefront of waging war and producing mass deaths and displacement in the Middle East and elsewhere, but reacted in brutal self-defence when it came to help those in need. A pan-European wave of xenophobic nationalism dictated policy, with border closures resulting in the killing of people desperately searching for safety. A few decades from now, this will be remembered as another genocide by Europeans on people outside their borders marked as cultural and racial others.
In 2015 the idea that Europeans should “come first” in Europe has regained legitimacy for the first time since the conscious rejection of racism in the aftermath of WWII. Far right populist movements are advancing nearly everywhere in Europe – a case in point is the Front National becoming first party in France in the regional elections in early December. Meanwhile, many left-wing leaders and cynical technocrats try to counter xenophobic revolts by giving in to their demands.
More war in the Middle East is justified by ill-conceived plans to quash the much feared Islamic State, an enemy that nobody really understands or knows how to fight. War is used as a diversion to prop up technocratic governments about to be swallowed by the rise of the far right.
The crisis is likely to intensify. We should expect more border closures and more wars. Large parts of the globe are entering a state of semi-permanent conflict, fuelled by the declining hegemony of a Western bloc that is unwilling to accept that its time in history has passed. Within Europe and the US, xenophobic nationalism and white supremacy will continue to rise among the middle classes, turning renegade ideologies into acceptable mainstream.
3 – THE END OF AFRICA’S LONG-LIVED COMMODITY BOOM
The African continent has been hard hit by the slow down of the global commodity markets, caused by an ongoing oil war between US and OPEC, declining growth in China, and the lack of a strong recovery in Europe and the US.
After a boom that lasted more than a decade across Africa, the harsh reality is laid bare. High growth levels have not been accompanied by strong infrastructure development and investment in key public goods like health and education. Profits ended in the hands of multinational capital and tiny local elites. States acted as cartels owned by a few multinationals, and negotiated unfavourable deals with various foreign superpowers.
In 2016 the full weight of the economic downturn will unfold, and the convergence of multiple crises – political, economic, social and environmental – is likely to bring major waves of mass unrest across the continent, and more instability in areas already marred by civil conflict and war.
The key issue for African governments, foreign investors and development agencies will be how to deal with masses of discontented and hungry people, calling for radical change and immediate action to address their suffering.
4 – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE NEW LEFT (BUT THERE’S STILL SOME HOPE)
Aside from the refugee crisis, in Europe 2015 was the year the rule of technocracy came under attack by popular anti-austerity movements. Greek people led the charge, with the historic election victory in January of Syriza, running on an anti-austerity left agenda.
Pressed into a corner by international creditors who punished Greece for its refusal to comply, Syriza’s leader and Greek PM Tsipras did his best to deflate one of the most promising anti-austerity movements in recent times. He betrayed the mandate of the January election, and of a national referendum in July that saw a landslide “no” vote against the draconian bailout terms offered by Brussels. With Tsipras’ approval, the much hated bailout was imposed over Greece.
After fresh elections in September, Syriza completed its transformation into a centrist formation talking left and walking right. The new government enforced the worst bailout conditions in the history of Greece, passing laws stripping the country of its assets, imposing further cuts to an already crumbling welfare state, and diminishing protection for home owners unable to pay their mortgages. Harsh pension and labour market reforms are yet to come.
Tsipras’ U-turn had a devastating effect on the morale and prospects of new left movements across Europe, especially in southern countries. New anti-austerity left movement Podemos in Spain did well in the December general election, but lowered expectations by reiterating their support for Tsipras’ transition from radical leftist to austerity technocrat. In Portugal, a shaky alliance between pro-austerity centre-left and the anti-austerity left came to power a few weeks ago, and is already showing major signs of crisis.
A hopeful counterpoint to Syriza’s disappointing trajectory was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader in September. He is in favour of wealth redistribution from corporations and the upper-middle classes to the vast majority of people, and opposes a senseless and costly British war in Syria. His popular policy positions have made him into the main target of attacks by mainstream politicians and big capital. His worst enemies sit in his own party: the ever-green Blairites have no consensus among the wider public, but continue to occupy some of the most influential positions within Labour.
Despite the challenges, there’s still some hope for the European left. 2016 will be the year when new left movements will show their true worth. Corbyn is heading towards a stand-off with the Blairites; the popular anti-technocracy former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis will launch his own pan-European movement to “democratise the EU”; and Podemos might be able to gain ground with the strategic openings offered by the Spanish political crisis opened by an indecisive election.
We will see whether a new brand of left populism will be able to rally mass discontent against technocracy, and counter the advance of the far right. If Corbyn and Podemos end up like Tsipras, it could be a deadly blow for a viable left alternative to the devastating mix of austerity and war imposed by European technocrats.
5 – BASIC INCOME HITS THE MAINSTREAM
If 2014 was the year of inequality – remember Piketty? – 2015 was marked by the increasing realisation that unemployment and precarious work have become a permanent feature of the current capitalist system. With stuttering growth across the global North, the few countries that are experiencing significant GDP expansion like Britain and Spain have seen no improvement for the vast majority of people. In the global South, there is a growing awareness that there is no magical “trickle down” effect that will lift people out of poverty.
Basic income was until recently a niche concept developed in the 1980s by a small group of enlightened philosophers and political scientists with the rare gift of foresight. In 2015 it hit the mainstream, raising hopes across many quarters that it could become an effective policy tool to counter the structural decline of formal employment across the globe. In its “pure” form, a basic income is a grant given to everybody for life, should cover the basics for decent living, and comes with no conditions attached – it’s not means-tested, and you receive it even if you are not unemployed, or you don’t fit in other conventional categories of welfare recipients like children or the elderly.
In practice, the increasing attention by mainstream political parties and technocrats means that the concept has already been changed and adapted to suit disparate agendas, and sometimes conflicting views of the economy. The right likes the idea as a potential quick fix to escalating welfare costs, i.e. give everybody a low basic income, and cut all other benefits. Sections of the left which are more attuned to the changing configurations of capitalism, see it as a necessary measure to guarantee livelihoods and individual freedom in a world marked by exploitative work and rising unemployment.
Europe is leading the conversation: a national basic income pilot was announced by the new centre-right government in Finland; the possibility of city-level experiments is under discussion in several Dutch municipalities; and a national referendum in Switzerland will be held in June 2016, when Swiss people will decide whether an unconditional basic income should be enshrined in the federal constitution.
The debate has also advanced further elsewhere, with Namibia leading the flock in the global South: after a successful pilot carried out between 2008 and 2009, the government has unleashed new plans for some form of basic income grant rolled out at national level as part of an ambitious poverty eradication strategy.
2016 will no doubt puts to the test the potential of this far-reaching measure and its nascent grassroots movement of supporters. With enthusiastic endorsements across the political spectrum, from the free market libertarians of the Adam Smith Institute, to left-leaning thinker and activist David Graeber, the idea has the potential to explode in a global social movement with mass support. It catches the public imagination with its visionary simplicity and pragmatism, and could become one of the essential tools to counter poverty, and free up human resources and social creativity at a time of deep material and existential crisis.