Centre for Research on Globalisation


Right/left polarization: The ballot box and the street

by James Petras

Rebelion, 10 May 2002
Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca ,  4  June 2002

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The news media, academics and conventional politicians have focused on the growth of the electoral power of the Right and far Right. The most recent first round elections in France, where the combined vote for the extreme right totaled 20%, is cited as an indication of the turn to the ultra Right. Within a few days, over a half-million demonstrators took to the streets of Paris and other cities against Le Pen.

My argument is that there is no general shift to the right, but, rather a sharpening polarization between the right and the left, with the former expressing itself at the ballot box and the latter in the streets. This polarization reflects diverse and complex situations and takes a variety of forms and expressions. The very conception of a right/left polarization needs to be clarified given the political confusion that surrounds what is "left" and "right".

We will proceed by specifying the terms of our discussion and then proceed to analyze and describe the polarization and conclude by focusing on the theoretical and political implications.

Right and Left: Today

Academics, journalists and political publicists have created a great deal of political confusion in their careless labeling of political regimes.

For example, French political leader Le Pen is correctly tagged as "far right" for his racist, xenophobic rhetoric. Yet the Bush administration engaged in wars (Afghanistan, Colombia), coups (Venezuela) and plans for future wars (Iraq) is mistakenly referred to as a "conservative" instead of correctly identified as a "far-right regime'. Likewise, England's Tony Blair and France's Jospin and the previous Clinton administration are labeled "center-left", even though they slashed welfare programs and promoted financial speculation, overseas conquests in the Balkans and, in the case of Jospin, privatized more public sector enterprises than any conservative predecessors. Clearly the most appropriate label is "conservative" or "center-right".

In practice, many of the center-right politicians are not "conservatives" in the generic sense of supporting existing Constitutional norms: Blair and Clinton greatly exceeded Constitutional restraints by usurping war powers in the Balkans, while Jospin privatized Air France, France Telecom and the defense industries without Parliamentary consent. The transition from the "center-right" to the right and the far right has its roots precisely in the negative effects generated by their socio-economic policies on their popular voting constituencies.

Today the significant and dynamic force of the genuine left is found in the streets; it finds expression in massive mobilizations and not in the electoral process. In Italy, 300,000 demonstrated against capital and two million against Berlusconi; in Spain 400,000, mostly anti-capitalist demonstrators, protested the EU summit and the Spanish Presidency of Aznar.

What was considered the "center-left" has moved to the center-right or right; what was considered the right has become the far right.

Today the center-left is weakening or non-existent; the electoral debates are between the center-right, the right and the far right. Unlike the left, the parties of the right operate through the institutions of power, they have little capacity or interest in street mobilizations except during electoral campaigns.

The policies that define all varieties of the right include privatization of public enterprises, cut backs in public sector services, deregulation of the economy, weakening labor unions and implementing laws that undermine job security and social welfare; support for past and future imperial wars.

The differences between the various right wing parties include degrees of protectionism -- Bush and Le Pen are strongest, Blair and Aznar are more "liberal" -- immigration (most of the European right are restrictive, Le Pen, Haider are for expulsion), the Middle East (the U.S. and Le Pen support Sharon unconditionally, the rest of the Europeans are mildly critical).

In Latin America the right and the far right include almost all the regimes which support U.S. wars and interventions, accept the Latin American Free Trade Area, and follow the prescriptions of Euro-American financial institutions like the IMF. In reality, that includes all regimes except Cuba and Venezuela.

In Latin America the electoral left -- namely the center-left, has moved to the center-right and beyond -- or is a minor force. The major expression of the real existing Left is found in the major socio-political movements and organized popular uprisings, such as have toppled two presidents in Ecuador, four presidents in Argentina and the President of Bolivia. The left has many different expressions, demands and forms of action. But there is a common thread. It relies on mass street mobilizations -- direct action -- and it rejects U.S. imperialism (Plan Colombia, ALCA, etc.), debt payments, structural adjustment policies and other IMF prescriptions. In most cases, it supports agrarian reform, the nationalization of the banks, vastly increasing the economic role of the state via public investments in social services, protection and promotion of the domestic market, new direct forms of popular representation and greater social equality via progressive tax legislation, expropriation of monopolies and confiscation of illegal fortunes.

There still remains an electoral left, particularly in Europe (France and Italy mostly) and in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador), but it has not had a significant impact in its institutional role: only when the activists and leaders of the electoral left become part of the larger direct action movement do they have any impact.

In summary, the old electoral divisions between the center-left and right have become irrelevant: most of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties have adopted center-right and right-wing policies, favoring capital and imperial wars, abandoning welfare state social legislation. The left/right divisions, however, are more relevant than ever if we take as our protagonists the growing left mass movements and the electoral-institutional forces of the right.

The Right Turn: The March Through the Institutions

The electoral successes of the ultra-right wing political parties in France (Le Pen), Austria (Haider), Israel (Sharon) is directly related to the right-wing shift of the former 'center-left' coalitions. The putative "center-left" regimes have demonstrably been in favor of reducing state expenditures, threatening the social security system affecting the elderly, reducing trade barriers undermining small-scale farmers, selective immigration, while introducing "labor flexibility" (lowering the cost and increasing the ease of firing older workers), thus increasing worker insecurity, emphasizing police measures instead of job expansion to fight youth crime, etc. The result of the right turn is that significant sectors of the populace feel cheated and abandoned by the traditional left and right-wing parties. Moreover, the former "center-left" has extended and deepened the privatization of public enterprises, thus becoming firmly entrenched in popular consciousness as a big business coalition, indistinguishable from the conventional right.

On the right, the blurring of differences with the center-left on socio-economic interests has had a dual effect of pushing the right closer to the far-right on issues of police repression (law and order), immigration (greater restrictions) and increased public identity with big business. In this context, he ultra-right's xenophobic and chauvinist appeals are legitimated by the right, while its protectionist and liberal policies appeal to small businesspeople, farmers and shopkeepers threatened by the liberal policies of the former center-left.

Equally important in the international sphere, the extremely militarist and imperialist policies emanating from Washington has strengthened the far right. The Bush Administration's support of the extreme rightist Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, and the massacre of Afghans, Palestinians and proximately Iraqis reinforces and legitimates the far-right wing "anti-Arab", "anti-Muslim", "anti-immigrant" posture. Moreover, Washington's embrace of unilateralism, U.S. Empire First position, and its domestic chauvinistic campaign fueled by the anti-terrorism rhetoric makes a perfect fit with the position adopted by Le Pen, Haider and the rest of the European ultra-right.

A powerful argument can be made that the major advance and impetus for the far-right is found in the election and rule of the Bush-Rumsfeld-Chaney, et al regime. The European ultra-right's program seeks to imitate the U.S. Administration. However, they have a public relations problem, since they also carry the ideological baggage of overt anti-Semitism and publicly expressed racism.

While the mass media speak and write of the "conservative" Bush Administration, in reality it is everything but conservative in the style and substance of its policies. The Bush Administration has reneged and unilaterally rejected a whole series of basic international agreements: the Kyoto Agreement on global warming, the anti-ballistic missile agreement with Russia, the treaty on biological and chemical warfare. The Bush Administration has rejected the formation of an international tribunal which would have jurisdiction over crimes against humanity. The Bush Administration has imposed tariff barriers and quotas to protect uncompetitive timber, textile, sugar, automobile, steel and numerous other industries, violating GATT and World Trade Organization rules. The Bush regime does not conserve the economic status quo -- its policies represent a radical rupture and a move toward ultra-right-wing politics.

In foreign relations, the Bush Administration has deepened and extended Clinton's policies of military conquest by instituting a permanent war strategy. The Bush Administration's war against Afghanistan, its preparation for new wars against Iraq and elsewhere, the proliferation of military bases in Central Asia, Philippines, Latin America, the Balkans, the organization of the failed Venezuelan military coup, mark a new virulent stage of imperial expansion.

In style as well as substance, (in the form of unilateral military expansion) top U.S. policymakers publicly defend the destruction of Afghanistan, reject any European influence, and openly embrace intervention in other countries. Bush calls Sharon a "man of peace" while his armed forces slaughter, jail, torture and displace hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. U.S. federal police raid hundreds of Muslim homes, offices and businesses and hold incommunicado and indefinitely close to 2000 Muslims.

The record of the Bush Administration war and muslims is far more right-wing than the rhetoric of Le Pen and Haider, and certainly far exceeds the policies of conventional European rightists such as Berlusconi and Aznar. Le Pen talks of protecting French industries from "globalization", Bush has instituted a vast array of barriers. Le Pen threatens mostly Arab immigrants, Bush has jailed and harassed hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants and supplied strategic arms, diplomatic support and economic aid to Israel which is displacing Palestinians. Le Pen proposed to project French imperial power in the world, Bush's empire building has exceeded Le Pen's dreams of empire several fold. Le Pen proposes to increase police powers to reduce crime and terrorist activities. Bush, via the Patriot Act and a $27 billion budget, has already in place, legislation facilitating military tribunals and other police measures which violate the Constitution. Le Pen supports Sharon's anti-Palestinian war with words, Bush with arms and money.

The main area of difference is in Le Pen's use of anti-Semitic rhetoric, which Bush eschews. If, as most commentators, politicians, media pundits correctly believe, Le Pen represents the ultra-right -- then certainly the Bush Administration represents the ultra-ultra-right. In practice, on the issue of war, economy, politics, empire, Arab immigrants, international treaties, which are used to define Le Pen as an ultra-rightist, Bush is a much more forceful, direct and consequential practitioner. Moreover, the electoral support of Bush and his ascent to power is very much in line with or exceeds Le Pen's approach. Bush received only 24% of the electorates votes (49% of the 50% who voted) a minority of the popular vote, and resorted to illegal procedures in Florida to gain power. Le Pen and the ultra-right secured approximately 18% and has not resorted to illegal methods to grab power.

The significance of the "ascent of the ultra-right" is not based on majoritarian electoral support but in the policies that are instituted once they are in power. Once in power, the ultra-right-wing minority Bush Administration seized on war and the mass manipulation of the terror scare to define the political agenda world wide and to secure a domestic majority. Equally significant, conventional right-wing regimes like Chirac, Aznar and Berlusconi and former center-leftists turned conservative like Blair, Jospin, Schroeder, et al collaborated with the ultra-right war policies of Washington or offered feeble and inconsequential opposition.

Only when U.S. protectionist measures on steel infringed on European and Japanese business interests did they respond with threats of sanctions.

Among the European conservative regimes, only England's Tony Blair has followed Washington's far right-wing imperial agenda -- supporting Bush's future war plans in the Gulf.

If the ultra-right in Europe is gaining greater prominence it is not only or principally because of domestic issues -- but because it has a role model and a competitor in the Bush Administration. I mention the "growth of the ultra-right" as a supposition and not a fact because comparative electoral figures in Le Pen's vote hardly sustain the thesis of a powerful upsurge of the ultra-right. Le Pen's vote in the second round of the presidential elections in 2002 replicated his vote seven years earlier. The combined vote of the left (Trotskyists, Communists, Left Socialists and Greens) in the first round was nearly the same as Le Pen's.

The significance of the vote for the ultra-right is not in its domestic matrix, but in its imitation of the Bush Administration's international and national politics. While the respectable far rightist in the Bush and Blair Administrations forcefully criticize Le Pen and the far-right in Europe for their rhetorical excesses, they deliberately overlook the much larger similarities in global outlook. The success of the Bush Administration in gaining popular backing for his attack on Muslim groups and his anti-terrorism campaign has seized the imagination of the European ultra-right politicians. Equally significant, Washington's economic threats, unilateralist posture and trade protectionism threatens European sovereignty and expansion. The feeble response of the European Right (both the former Center-Left and traditional conservatives) to Washington's global bullying provide a fertile ground for the ultra-right's "France First" policies, a mirror image of Washington's practice.

If the "right turn" has advanced furthest and taken its most extreme expression in he U.S., it is nonetheless the case that a similar rightward shift has gained momentum in European electoral politics. If we discount the traditional "center-left" and "center-right" labels of the past, the actual policies of the European regimes in the past decades describe an almost unrelenting anti-labor pro-big business strategy and practice. The shift to the right, however, varies in speed and scope and on each country's particularities, especially the strength of the mass movements and trade unions. No European country, whether governed by ex-Social Democrats, Christian Democrats or Conservatives or other traditional party has increased social welfare for the working class. On the contrary, all regimes have weakened legislation protecting jobs, workers' security and trade union rights; social, health, and education benefits have been slashed in varying degrees. With the possible exception of France -- for which the regime bears little responsibility -- the working day has not been reduced, indeed the multiplication of precarious and poorly paid employment has resulted in multiple jobs and longer hours. The European regimes have participated in and supported U.S. led wars, bombings and invasions in Iraq and Yugoslavia -- with permanent bases in Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan and air control over the entirety of Iraq.

The European regimes have adopted the "military-neo-liberal" agenda promoted by their banks and multi-nationals -- and have financed overseas expansion into Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Latin America, many times in competition and/or collaboration with the U.S. The convergence of all the major European political parties on the neo-liberal-military agenda means that there is an almost total political vacuum on the electoral Left -- no party represents those adversely affected by neo-liberal policies, military expansionism and subsidies to big business and banks. The European multi-party system has been converted into the U.S. one party-two factions system.

In this context of electoral party unanimity and popular adversity and discontent, two polar opposite forces have emerged: the electoral ultra-right and the extra parliamentary left have emerged and gained mass support.

The ultra-right has drawn electoral support from 'passive opposition' to the politics of the neo-liberal parties. Their base of support is form older people fearful of rising crime derived from social decay and resulting from neoliberal policies by unemployed youth (particularly young immigrants). They also draw support from small business and farmers threatened by competition from imports and competition by big business. In this regard, the ultra-right combines a "protectionist" policy in relation to foreign producers and a "liberal policy" for domestic monopolies. The ultras also appeal to war veterans of colonial wars, Christian traditionalists and long-standing ideological supporters of fascist or quasi-fascist sects or movements. The most potent appeal, however, is to "nationalist sentiment" -- affirmation of national sovereignty against the undemocratic big business controlled EU, against U.S. cultural influence and greater independence from U.S. political domination. The ultra-right is hostile to the trade unions on both ideological grounds (they are run by "Communists") and economic grounds, they hinder productivity. They appeal to the workers to join in "protecting their jobs from foreigners" -- rather than the multi-nationals who fire them. Finally, the ultra-right echoes the anti-terrorist line to reinforce its strong police-state appeal, combining it with its anti-immigrant and anti-leftist policies to attract conventional rightists.

This mixture of anti-establishment rhetoric, but a pro-establishment liberal program, overlaps with the conventional "old right" appeals to God, country and big business. The vitriolic rhetoric of the far-right heightens the sense of political, religious, racial polarization between right/left while trying to obscure the increasing class divisions emerging from neo-liberal policies.

The far right has advanced electorally and chosen the terrain of institutional politics -- it has not demonstrated any significant power in the streets. Its millions of supporters are largely voters, for demographic reasons, and because its policies are directed toward strengthening the capitalist state apparatus and reinforcing domestic liberal policies -- and perhaps even pursuing 'global liberalism' once elected. The attacks are on the parties, not the police or army; on personalities and not on private property and relations; on particular aspects of liberal policies -- not liberalism itself. The "exclusionist" approach to non-Europeans and overt embrace of "greater police repression" (the "law and order" or zero tolerance policies) has drawn on the restrictive immigration legislation approved by the new and old right in power, the anti-terrorist campaign orchestrated by Washington and the harsh police powers promoted by the "zero tolerance" ex-mayor of New York City, Rudolph Guiliani. The institutional-electoral approach of the far-right has given them a certain "constitutional legitimacy" -- they play by the same rules as the conventional neo-liberal right -- and given their programmatic convergence on basic issues, a reason to work within the system.

The "institutional polarization" and intense inter-party competition over who best represents European capitalist interests (small vs. large capital, international vs. domestic producers) overshadows the far right and conventional rights common hostility to the growing extra-parliamentary left opposition.

The Left Turn: The Streets Are Ours

The convergence of ex-social democrats and ex-communists with liberal and conservative parties in support of international capital, imperial wars and anti-labor legislation has provoked hundreds of thousands of workers, public employees and particularly young people to turn to "street politics". From Seattle to Ottawa, Melbourne to Genoa and Barcelona, tens of thousands have organized first against "globalization" and more recently against capitalism. The demonstrations have reached tens of millions of people and led to the proliferation of a vast network of supporters, organizers and international coordinating groups. Regional movements against the Latin American Free Trade Agreement (ALCA) have grown in scope and intensity. The electoral arena has been by-passed because of the heavy institutional blockage - the bourgeois parties monopoly of the mass media, the constraints embedded in voting procedures -- and because elected legislative bodies are impotent in the face of the centralization of power in executive institutions, Central Banks and other non-elected institutions. Corruption, cooptation and impotence of elected representative institutions have forced workers, peasants, the unemployed, dissidents and left opposition to turn to extra parliamentary forms of struggle -- which has proven to be more effective in raising issues and securing change.

The mass demonstrations in Seattle, London, Genoa, Melbourne, Barcelona have been more effective in politicizing and activating a new generation of youth than all the "left", "center left" electoral campaigns combined. The demonstrations by the anti-globalization, anti-capital platforms have been more effective in calling attention to the injustices of the New Imperial Order and the international financial organizations (IFM, World Bank, IDF, etc.) than any and all Congressional critics. The public debates on the foreign debt, privatization, neo-liberalism in the mass international forums are far more effective in creating international solidarity with the poor and exploited in the Third World than the deafening silence in the halls of the U.S. Congress and the lonely critics in the European Parliaments. The extra-parliamentary mobilizations against the IMF, the multi-nationals, the WTO have put them on the defensive: every place they hold their meetings they are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of activists, protected by barbed wire and thousands of police accompanied by helicopters and armored vehicles.

The class polarization pits youth, workers, farmers, employees, professionals against the financial and industrial ruling classes. As the former Social Democratic and Communist Parties move to the Center-Right and embrace the right-wing neo-liberal agenda, the extra parliamentary movements occupy the space on the Left, and proceed to engage the far-right, and the neo-liberal policies of the new and old right.

In France the mass workers' movements of 1995-96 precipitated the defeat of the right-wing government; the same mass pressure was successful in forcing the neo-liberal Jospin regime to introduce the 35 hour week, before proceeding to privatize, Air France, the defense industries, telecommunications and "flexibilize" working conditions -- favoring the employers.

It was not the toothless resolutions of the European Parliament criticizing the international banks which forced the WTO to meet in a God-forsaken island in the Persian Gulf. It was the threat of a bigger and more militant "Genoa."

The polarization between the right-wing electoral regimes -- including the former "center-left" as well as the conventional right - and the extra-parliamentary left finds expression in the Third World, in Asia as well as Latin America. In the Third world the Euro-U.S. "right-turn" -- the rise to power of the ultra right in Washington and its accommodation by Europe -- has deepened and radicalized the left-right polarization.

Deepening Polarization in Latin America

There are many signs of the move to the extreme right in Latin America. In Mexico, the Fox regime has broken with all previous foreign policy practices and openly embraced U.S. interventionist positions, proposed Plan Pueblo-Panama turning the Mexican economy into a huge maquiladora (assembly plant economy), provoked a near-break in relations with Cuba, and through its foreign minister Jorge Castaneda abandoned any pretext of an independent foreign policy. In domestic policy it promotes the gradual privatization of the lucrative petroleum industry and a tax on staple items of popular consumption. The Fox regime is a clear example of the form and content of the move to the far right: total subordination to the U.S. project of unilateral empire building, unrestricted acceptance of U.S. control over all strategic resources of the economy and the uncritical embrace of U.S. sponsored "free trade" agreements.

As the Fox regime moves further to the right, the level of popular opposition has increased. Massive May Day marches throughout Mexico, involving the major and minor trade unions, peasant and Indian organizations repudiated Fox's hostility toward Cuba and craven servility to the Bush Administration. The Congressional opposition of the center-left (PRD) and right (PRI) criticize Fox and try to modify his policies. However, the defeat of Fox's agenda, will have to come from the mass of Mexicans outside of the halls of Congress -- the May Day demonstrators in the streets.

Venezuela has experienced the highest degree of socio-political polarization in its recent history. The pro-imperial right, directed, financed and supported by the Bush Administration and backed by the entire bourgeoisie, backed a failed military coup defeated by the mass of the urban and rural poor and sectors of the Army. Even the institutional powers were divided: a minority sided with U.S.-bourgeois coup, a majority supported the popular masses successful restoration of liberal democracy.

The far-right in Washington found expression in the far-right in Venezuela. This was clearly evident in the April 2002 failed coup. The head of the coup, business leader Carmona's first measures were totally in line with Washington's agenda: the cut-off of petroleum to Cuba, the rejection of OPEC oil quotas, the embrace of Bush's foreign policy, the dissolution of all elected institutions -- almost all with Chavez majorities. The coming to power of the ultra-right in Venezuela took the form of a puppet authoritarian regime, exclusively and totally at the beck and call of Washington, prepared to massively purge all public institutions of any representatives of the Bolivarian movement (supporters of President Chavez's Presidency).

The opposition to the coup did not initially come from elected representatives, Congress or the Armed Forces. It came from the hundreds of thousands of poor, organized and unorganized, who took to the streets of Caracas and in other major cities to restore Chavez to power. This show of popular power, encouraged "loyalist" military groups to reject the coup, and subsequently caused vacillating Generals to side with the "loyalist" military. Even some original military coup supporters engaged in some political acrobatics...seeing that the coup was doomed, they joined the democratic restoration, all the better to impose their terms with a reinstated Chavez presidency.

Notwithstanding the media accounts citing the dominant role of the military, the real turning point in the restoration of Chavez and democracy was the hundreds of thousands who reoccupied Caracas and threatened to storm the Presidential palace. The bulk of the military was faced with a choice of siding with coup-makers and provoking a bloody civil war, with an uncertain outcome, or intervening to prevent the populace from seizing the reins of government and radicalizing the political process. The military intervened, as much to block further popular radicalization as to restore Chavez and liberal democracy. The complexity of Venezuelan polarization, where Chavez, representing a hybrid of nationalist foreign policy and neo-liberal domestic policy confronts a domestic bourgeois and corrupt union bosses totally subordinated to Washington, is superimposed on a real class polarization. Long-standing privileges, racism, corruption and pillage by the upper class confronts a mass of angry poor and downwardly mobile lower middle class, suffering from 60% unemployment and underemployment and where over 80% live in poverty.

Residents of Miami condos and Wall Street speculators versus the poor living in "ranchos" in the hills overlooking Caracas. Chavez has not organized and met the basic demands of the mass of poor who support him. He has, however, politicized and given form to their hostility against the rich and powerful, inculcated racial pride in being of African ancestry, and affirmed Venezuela's national identity via his independent foreign policy. Popular participation and independence infuriates Washington and the local ruling classes and encourages them to prepare the terrain for Coup Two.

The coming to power of the far-right in the U.S. means the green light for coup-makers and open public support for greater repression to sustain continued foreign pillage of the economies. Colombia is the third example of the upsurge of the ultra-right in electoral politics. Presidential candidate Uribe, the likely winner, is the voice of Washington: total war against the popular insurgency. Meantime, the Bush Administration is preparing a new, additional, multi-year, multi-million dollar military aid program specifically directed against the peasant based guerrillas. In Colombia the Washington backed Pastrana regime broke peace negotiations and launched a failed military assault against the guerrillas, resulting in an escalation of the conflict, and heightened military-paramilitary killings of civilian non-combatants.

Plan Colombia, Clinton's initial military aid package to stem the advance of the popular insurgency in Colombia, has been extended by the Bush Administration by Plan Andina, the militarization of Ecuador and Peru; new military bases in San Salvador, Manta (Ecuador) and in North Central Peru, and direct involvement of U.S. military officials, Special Forces and contracted mercenaries.

U.S. militarization of Colombian politics has fomented a polarization of civil war proportions, between the oligarchy and military and the guerrillas and peasantry. Politics is completely outside the realm of Congressional politics: it is the military high command versus the extra parliamentary popular insurgency.

Argentinean politics highlights extreme social and political polarizaton: between non-elected (President Duholde was not elected by the voters) "electoral regime" and the vast majority of the electorate whose main slogan is "Que se vayan todos" ("All politicians should go"). The popular uprising of December 19-20, 2001 was a spontaneous outpouring of anger, hostility and rejection of the political class the major parties, provincial, municipal and congressional leaders and particularly the President, who fled the Casa Rosada (the Presidential Palace) via a helicopter to avoid the hundreds of thousands of former middle class and unemployed demonstrators.

The social polarization could not be starker: the banks -- mostly foreign owned -- backed by the government confiscated all the savings of the middle class, over $45 billion, while between $30 and $40 billion belonging to the elite fled the country, just prior to the seizure of bank accounts. The financial class (with its yearly returns of over 30% per year) via the self-selected Duhalde regime and backed by the IMF and World Bank proposed that the government issue ten year bonds at two percent interest, as payback to the depositors whose savings the banks claimed they could not cover -- since the funds were shifted to the home offices.

This socio-political polarization is expressed by the emergence of parallel political institutions: neighborhood 'popular assemblies' which include the impoverished middle class, pensioners, public employees as well as workers, unemployed and others. The popular assemblies reflect the growing politicization and participation of the Argentine majority, and are counterposed to the formal institutions which have totally lost their legitimacy and representativeness.

The distance separating the great majority of Argentineans from the political elites and the ruling classes has widened and deepened as never before in the history of the Republic. On one side, a ruling class made up of foreign bankers, local financiers and powerful 'economic groups' which has over $150 billion deposited overseas, and has confiscated the total savings of every Argentine, and on the other a great mass of Argentines without savings, 30% without jobs, 50% below the poverty line, pensioners unable to survive on delayed and devalued pensions of $50 a month (and falling), and hundreds of thousands of public employees in the provinces (health workers, teachers, civil servants, municipal workers, etc.) who have not been paid for months (and when they are paid, they receive a 'provincial currency" which only is redeemable in the province).

In this context of mass impoverishment and a five year depression (industry declined by 20% in 2001-2002) the IMF, World Bank and the Bush Administration, backed by European Union demand more budget cuts, elimination of provincial deficits and currencies, and more firings as a conditions for new loans. Given the degree of social polarization and the isolation of the regime, compliance with Washington's demands is impossible without a regime of force -- either an outright military dictatorship or a Presidential regime willing to seize dictatorial power. The Bush Administration and the IMF are openly demanding a President with the "will" to implement economic policies which will reduce the great majority of Argentines to destitution in order to meet foreign debt obligations and relieve foreign banks of their financial obligations to Argentine depositors.

In this context where the choice is collective/national survival or imperialist induced destitution/disintegration the popular majority is fragmented by leftist internecine conflicts and dispersion of protests: the socio-political polarizations have net yet led to a unified organized leadership capable of challenging for state power. Nor does the coup oriented right have the minimum social basis to sustain a coup.

The move to the right and the far-right in the U.S. and Europe among the governing parties had had a powerful impact in Latin America. In the first instance, the right-wing turn in the U.S. and Europe led to the pillaging of the economies, provoking a deepening economic crisis. Secondly, it deepened the socio-political polarization by concentrating wealth and encouraging massive multi-billion dollar banking fraud at the cost of depositors and taxpayers. Thirdly, the Euro-U.S. right seeks to further pillage the near destitute population and the depressed economy throughout new demands undermining recovery and facilitating greater transfers of wealth upward and outward. And fourthly, given the total isolation of client regimes and unanimous rejection of the new measures, Washington is turning toward an open embrace of military intervention and authoritarian, dictatorial regimes -- with or without civilian electoral facades.

Nothing captures the ascendancy of the far-right in Washington so much as the extreme economic measures and social political polarization in Latin America.

Throughout Latin America the political class has failed to prevent the collapse of living standards, the impoverishment of the middle class, and the growing number of unemployed and underemployed - now representing between 50-80% of the labor force. On the contrary the right (formerly "center-left" parties) have been accomplices in the process - approving regressive legislation which slashes public services, meets debt obligations, and privatizing profitable public enterprises. The left electoral parties have been vocal but impotent critics, sidelined by the growth of executive powers and the dominant role of the Euro-U.S. bankers and functionaries in the IMF, World Bank and IDF. In many cases the left parties have moved across the spectrum to the center and even the right - in order to accommodate imperial power. The result is that the social/political polarization in Latin America is between the extra-parliamentary movements and U.S.-Euro imperialism linked to the domestic political elites and ruling classes.

Brazil is a good example. In the 1990s the Brazilian Social Democratic Party of Cardoso moved to the Right, embraced neo-liberal policies and allied itself with the far Right, the landlord party (PFL) and the right-wing (PMDB), embraced Wall Street and received support from Washington. In the 2002 election, the so-called Workers Party moved from the center-left to the right, embraced the neo-liberal agenda, attacked the Landless Workers Movement, expressed support for Washington and allied itself with the far right Liberal party.

Only the social movements like the Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST) remain to express and defend popular interests and demands.

The "street" and not the ballot box is the road toward creating authentic forms of democratic representation against the corrupt, impotent and complicit official political institutions. Only the mass social movements have been successful in overthrowing Presidents complicit with imperial institutions in impoverishing the population and pillaging the economy.

The list of Presidents ousted by the mass movements is long and growing: four presidents in one month in Argentina, two presidents in Ecuador, one in Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia. The social power of the mass movements has settled over 300,000 landless families on farms in Brazil, defended the livelihood of thousands of coca farmers in Bolivia and Colombia, defeated a U.S. orchestrated coup and restored democracy in Venezuela.

There is a striking contrast between the power, integrity and effectiveness of the mass leftist socio-political movements and the impotence, opportunism and marginality of the left electoral parties.

Right-wing extremism in the U.S. and Europe has weakened the center-left electoral options, undermined its bases among the trade unions and the former middle class and set the stage for a classical confrontation between dictatorial reaction and revolution.

The Middle East Polarization

The move to the Far Right in the U.S. has encouraged and promoted the extreme right throughout the world. There are innumerable examples, from the U.S. backing of Israel's invasion and destruction of the Palestinian territories, to Washington's ally General Mussharef's consolidation of his military dictatorship in Pakistan, to the closer ties with the anti-Muslim Hindu extremist free market BJP regime in India. In Central Asia, the rulers of the former Soviet Republics open the doors to U.S. military bases - in effect becoming subordinate clients of the U.S. empire. In India, the BJP regime lined by with Washington's anti-terrorist campaign is allied with Hindu fascists in Gujarat who organized anti-Muslim pograms killing and maiming thousands and displacing over 150,000. In Pakistan, General Mussharef has allowed U.S. Special Forces to intervene and attack tribal communities in Pakistan, while organizing a fraudulent referendum to extend his rule (he won 98% of the vote-all reported without irony or criticism by the Western imperial press). In the Philippines, the Macapagal-Arroyo regime has violated all Constitutional restraints and allowed the U.S. to reestablish military bases and to directly involve senior U.S. military officials in military operations against Muslim separatists. The move to the far right in Central Asia/Pakistan, India and the Philippines, (as measured by the increased recolonization of territory, imperial military penetration and harsh repression of minorities and dissidents) is directly linked to the rise of the ultra-right to power in the U.S. and their mutual interests in consolidating local power in the service of the imperial domination.

The Bush-Sharon alliance is the best example of the convergence of the far-right in power. The Israeli military invasion of Palestinian towns and the scorched earth policy which left hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of thousands dead, wounded or imprisoned in concentration camps - was militarily supported by Washington and received the overwhelming backing of the U.S. Congress and Senate. In the Senate the vote was 94-2, in the House 352-21. In the midst of the slaughter of Jenin, President Bush, praised Sharon as a "man of peace" and denounced the Palestinian resistence is "terrorists". Powerful Jewish congressional leaders, led by Senator Lieberman made the connection, linking Israel's war on the Palestinian people to Washington's worldwide military offensive. Israel's ultra right-wing policy of demolishing Palestinian economic, social and political institutions is designed, as Israeli writer Uri Avnery states, to expel them from the territories, a position publically supported by House Majority Leader Richard Armey who called for the forceful removal of all Palestinians from the occupied territories. This fascist-like Final Solution comes from the third most powerful politician in the U.S. government, the politician third in the line of Presidential succession, after Bush and Vice President Cheney. U.S. and Israeli extremism has totally polarized Palestinian and Arab opinion in favor of armed resistence and put enormous pressure on U.S. political clients in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and on Yaser Arafat. Except for three Arab sheikdoms in the Gulf, the Israel-U.S. axis is totally isolated and their projected war against Iraq almost unanimously rejected.

The dynamics of U.S.'s embrace of extremism in the Middle East is closely tied to the powerful Jewish lobbies in the U.S. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which employs 140 people, is described by the Financial Times as "one of the top five lobbying groups in Washington" (FT, May 2, 2002, p.4). In propagating Israeli State policies and securing political and military support, AIPAC works closely with the 37 Jewish members of Congress, American Jewish Committee, the Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations and the influential ultra-right fundamentalist Christian political leaders, particularly Congressional leaders, Thomas Delay and Senate majority leader Richard ("I'm content to have Israel grab the entire West Bank") Armey. Within the Bush Administration, the ultra right unconditional supporters of Sharon includes both Jews (Perle and Wolfwitz in the Pentagon) and non-Jews (Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld).

This powerful constellation of ideological and ethnic/religious forces has marginalized the U.S. petroleum companies allied with the Arab petroleum producers in shaping U.S. policies in the Middle East. The result is an extremely unbalanced pro-Israel policy based strictly on narrow military considerations and Israel's role in providing surrogate counter-insurgency operatives, reportedly operating in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere.

The U.S.-Israeli war against the Palestinians has made the issue of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism the central point of confrontation in the Middle East, marginalizing the parliamentary critics in Europe and the Middle East. Sharon and his U.S. backers have raised the stakes; unconditional surrender to military force or armed resistence. The ultra right has undermined the position of the center. Sharon's support has increased dramatically in Israel to over 75% among Jews and among U.S. Jews close to 100,000 marched in support, while the AIPAC and allied Jewish organizations raised hundreds of millions in emergency Israel bond sales and secured near unanimous support in the U.S. Congress and mass media. On the other hand, millions of Europeans and tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims have taken sides in favor of the Palestinian resistence. As Sharon and his Labor allies affirm their right to massacre Palestinians they adopt Bush's slogan "You are for us or against us" rejecting all criticism from the United Nations, Red Cross and other organizations. The U.S.-backed Sharon's rejection of a United Nations investigatory commission seeking to investigates the slaughter in Jenin.

Israel's colonial arrogance in the face of world public opinion's condemnation is a tribute to its confidence in Washington's backing and in the capacity of the Jewish lobbies and politicians to influence both houses of the U.S. Congress.

Europe and the U.S.: Polarization?

The polarization between imperialism and the socio-political movements, is a growing factor in European politics. The anti-globalization movement has radicalized in recent years, adopting an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-Israeli position in the face of the U.S. worldwide military offensive, and the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian nation. From London to Prague to Genoa and Barcelona, the demonstrations have grown in size and radicalized programmatically. The socio-political movements have grown in direct relationship to the right turn of the former Social Democratic parties. The British Labor Party is the party of the City of London, it is the party that opposes lowering British working hours and raising wages to the level of the rest of Europe. The Socialist Jospin and his Green and Communist satellite partners, privatized more public firms than the conventional right-wing parties. Aznar, the Spanish ruler, has backed Bush's far right worldwide military agenda, followed Washington in supporting the failed military coup in Venezuela, and is in the forefront in supporting the IMF's efforts to impose new draconian measures upon the Argentine working class to rescue Spanish bankers, petroleum and telecommunication monopolies. In line with Bush and Blair, Aznar has severely curtailed democratic freedoms through a series of anti-terrorist measures which has led to the outlawing of dissident parties and restricted peaceful civil protests. During the march against the EU summit meeting in Barcelona (March 2002) Aznar mobilized over 20,000 police and members of the Armed Forces helicopters and warships to intimidate protestors. The move failed as more than 400,000 demonstrators filled the streets.

In Italy, Germany and France, electoral politics moves to the Right, and the social movements occupy a privileged place as the major opposition. In France in the first round, Jospin's coalition was resoundly defeated, abstention surged to nearly 30% and the ultra rightist Le Pen secured nearly 20% of the vote. In the runoff however, nearly a million street demonstrators mobilized against the fascist right and diminished his support. Unfortunately the extra parliamentary left was unable to persuade voters to reject the right-wing winner Chirac.

In Italy over 2 million workers demonstrated against Berlusconi's anti-labor legislation in the biggest protest since the end of the Second World War, thus successfully blocking the legislation something the electoral center-left and left was totally incapable of doing.

As the pressure from U.S. imperialism intensifies, and popular discontent from below increases, the European ruling class, alternates between criticizing the U.S. and capitulating and backing U.S. policy.

European socio-political movements have forced European governments to accept the Kyoto Agreements, to criticize Sharon's massacre of the Palestinians, to support the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Humanity, the International anti-biological and chemical warfare agreement, the ABM treaty on missiles, in opposition to Washington's unilateral rejection. On the other hand the European ruling class has backed the U.S. military offensive, beginning with the War in Afghanistan. The EU supports the IMF-US position on Argentina and Europe and has followed the U.S. trade policy of protectionism at home and liberalization abroad policy.

The latter has led to a series of major trade disputes, as the rival imperialism compete for global markets. U.S. tariffs on steel from the EU, and subsides for U.S. exporters have provoked retaliation from Europe. The U.S. proposed Free Trade Area in Latin America is an attempt to monopolize markets at the expense of Europe. The U.S. unilateral decisions on the environment are designed to lower U.S. industrial costs to improve its competitive position. U.S. military interventions, and the accompanying atrocities require Washington to reject any international judicial authority. The dynamic of the current drive for U.S. world supremacy does not include wealth and market sharing with its European imperial partners. To paraphrase Bush "You are either under us or with the enemy".

The "ultra-imperialism" of the ultra-right in power has created a certain limited polarization between the EU and the U.S., with Washington stronger militarily and the EU stronger economically. Up to now on all major issues, Europe has capitulated to Washington after expressing doubts, reservations and even criticism. With the rise of the right in England, Italy, Spain and France, the EU will follow Washington's militarist-interventionist policies except where it prejudices its strategic interests, namely a war with Iraq that could choke off the oil stream and undermine their economies. The trade disputes are not likely to break into a trade war mainly because Europe does not have the will to confront the U.S. Nevertheless, given the growing power of the anti-capitalist movements in Europe and the militancy of the French, Italian and to a lesser degree the German trade unions, the European right cannot embrace the U.S. agenda without prejudicing their own multi-nationals and provoking mass opposition. The key to deepening the polarization between Europe and the U.S. depends on the extra parliamentary movements, not the capitalist calculus of the right-wing regimes.


The worldwide polarization is between the far right and right holding state power and the left located in the streets and in the mass socio-political movements. This is the defining political reality of the early 21st century. The rise to power of the ultra-right in Washington with its doctrine of permanent wars and total domination has deepened the polarization in Latin America, Asia and Europe. The right turn of the center-Left and its accommodation on the Right has resulted in the Left socio-political movements becoming the only alternative to U.S. empire building.

The power of the right/ultra-right is found in their control of state power including the means of repression and the basic economic institutions. These power bases provide continuity of action and control over the mass media.

The power of the Left is found in their capacity for mass mobilization and their occasional capacity to oust political leaders, paralyze economic activity and confront summit meetings of the imperial powers.

The weakness of the ultra-right/right is found in their structural position, as the root cause of world pillage, exploitation and ecological destruction - which adversely affects several billion people while benefitting a small minority.

The weakness of the Left is the lack of continuity of their action and their lack of a clear strategy for taking state power. Powerful an opposition, the Left socio-political movements lack the Right's vocation for state power and rulership.

As time progresses the intensity of the conflicts inherent in the polarization deepens. The ultra right in Washington intervenes militarily throughout the world, pressing its clients to impose draconian cuts in social programs, and increases in military action. Military coups, the consolidation of military dictatorship in Pakistan, Sharon's genocide in the Palestinian territories became the norm. On the Left, the mass movements take to the street the entire Palestinian people resist, the Colombian guerrillas strike back, the anti-capital demonstrations in Europe grow in size and scope. The electoral left is marginalized, the former center-left joins the right.

The theoretical point is that the polarization today does not take the form of a simple confrontation between left parties and the state. Today the major battles are between extra-parliamentary left movements and the imperial states, working with the collaboration of local clients. Secondly, the electoral political arena is being totally bypassed. The Right rules via imperial executive decree and the Left responds in the streets.

The Right takes power via its monopoly of the electoral process and then rules in the interests of big business. The Left mobilizes via its international and national networks, Internet and its articulation of popular grievances - ignored by the nominally "elected bodies." We are in a period of wars, rising authoritarian right-wing rule, deepening social polarization and increasingly effective extra-parliamentary action. This is a period of permanent wars, coups and empire building without end. These "forced circumstances" are the driving forces for the resurgence of mass mobilizations throughout Latin America.

The political outcome of this polarization is not predetermined: it depends on the political intervention of one or the other antagonists. There are at least four possible scenarios.

Scenario one: The polarization and confrontations are resolved by a return to social democracy. The extra parliamentary left grows and threatens the rule of capital but lacks a vocation for power. The ruling class out of fear of losing power, wealth and property, negotiates with the "lesser evil," a revived center-left, a social pact, sharing the wealth. Scenario two: The polarization results in a victory for the right and far-right opening the door to a U.S. world empire based on repressive third world regimes and U.S. style one party rule in Europe.

Scenario three: Left mobilizations and movements combined with inter-imperial conflicts, trade wars and economic crises culminate in the left taking state power and initiating the socialization of the means of production.

Scenario four: Continued, unresolved polarization without any definitive resolution.. U.S. empire is not sustainable because of economic cost and weakness of client regimes, the socio-political movements oppose dictators and client regimes but are unable to take power, the European Union is driven by unresolved class and immigrant conflicts.

Faced with these possible scenarios. What is to be done? What can be done to make scenario three a reality? The first and foremost concern is for the extra parliamentary left to break decisively with all ties to the electoral left and to concentrate on expanding its mass base beyond its original sectoral constituencies and to develop a strategy for state power. This requires a total rupture with sectarian left and "spontanity" ideologues who fragment movements and/or turn the powerful movements into pressure groups.

Secondly, the extra parliamentary left must develop continuity of action, involving direct intervention in the day to day struggles of neighborhood, trade union and rural workers struggles. The mass mobilization at international events must become subordinated to the building of continuous organizations which lead to national class movements.

Thirdly, the extra parliamentary movements must confront the fact that the main adversary is U.S. and European imperialism and not some vague notion of globalization or empire. Ideological clarity is essential in the formulation of an alternative program. The possibility of a revival of a center-left electoral force is highly unlikely given the turn to the right.

Furthermore, even under mass pressure it is not likely that the capitalist class will accept a return to a welfare state. Almost surely it will embrace ultra-right solutions. Even in the eventuality that a viable center-left reappears, it will hardly be a stable formation given the polarized political scene today.

A definitive victory for the Right/Ultra-right would in most regions take place without a significant mass base. Even a military dictatorship resulting from a U.S. orchestrated coup would face the problem of ruling without economic resources (its reason for being would be to restore foreign debt payments etc.) and without even the tacit acquiescence of the workforce.

The Left must mobilize to prevent the ultra-right from coming to power, while not compromising with the Right in any of its forms. Only political independence, the buildup of social power from below and a vocation for state power will resolve the current polarization in a historically progressive direction.

Professor James Petras has written extensively on Latin America. He has worked with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement and the unemployed workers movement in Argentina. Copyright   James Petras 2002. For fair use only

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