A new bloc on the block

Sergey Karaganov

Sergey Karaganov

The day (in 2000) when Putin suggested that Russia would be willing to join NATO if it was treated as an equal partner seems like a very long time ago. Of course, the offer was never made, and NATO proceeded to expand eastward to within 100 miles of St Petersburg.

In retrospect, shutting Russia out of the Western alliance was a colossal mistake, possibly one of the great strategic blunders in all of history. Because now Russia is hellbent on forging an alliance with China:

Russia’s view of China has shifted significantly over the past five years. Moscow has abandoned any hope that the Chinese economy is an example it might emulate. Instead, foreign policy experts now talk of how Russia can use China to further its geopolitical goals.

There was no doubt at Valdai that China knows how to do economic growth, and that Russia does not. Russia’s elite — always so ready to resist any sign of Western hegemony — have no problem admitting China’s economic superiority. Their acceptance reminded me of the way Britain gave way to the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.

Seen from Moscow, there is no resistance left to a new alliance led by China. And now that Washington has imposed tariffs on Chinese exports, Russia hopes China will finally understand that its problem is Washington, not Moscow.

In the past, the possibility of an alliance between the two countries had been hampered by China’s reluctance to jeopardize its relations with the U.S. But now that it has already become a target, perhaps it will grow bolder. Every speaker at Valdai tried to push China in that direction.

Both Russia and China have obvious shortcomings, but the fact is that the US, Russia and China are the world’s foremost military powers; and an alliance of two of those powers against the third could prove to be a geopolitical game-changer.

This alliance, if it becomes concrete, would overturn how we do global politics. Imagine an international crisis in which Russia and China suddenly emerge as a single bloc. The impact would be considerable, and to some extent unpredictable: Psychologically, in the mind of the West, it would combine the fear associated with Russia with the apparent invulnerability of China. Washington would feel under attack; Europe, intimidated and unsettled.

The old Continent would also face the threat of a split between Western Europe and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which could turn their focus east under the influence of a cash-happy China ready to invest in the region.

The author, a former Europe minister for Portugal, describes a scary meeting between former Putin adviser Sergey Karaganov and some Chinese officials and think tank people:

There, a number of Chinese participants said they doubted Russia’s assertions that the world is in the midst of a new Cold War.

Karaganov dedicated himself to convincing them otherwise, arguing with increasing passion that China is deluding itself if it thinks issues between Beijing and Washington can be conveniently resolved to the benefit of both sides.

If Beijing places its bets on peace and cooperation, the great Chinese adventure will come to an end, and China will have to live in the shadow of the U.S. for another generation — perhaps forever, Karaganov said. Chinese authorities, he argued, have no more than five years to make a decision.

The clock is ticking.

Very old stories

This is intriguing:

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture. […]

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

If true, this would mean that elements of present-day Western culture date back to before the Epic of Gilgamesh and before the first (legendary) dynasty of China. From the study:

Wilhelm Grimm argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia…

In case you were wondering:

The Smith and the Devil is a European fairy tale. The story is of a smith who makes a pact with a malevolent being—commonly the Devil (in later times), Death or a genie—selling his soul for some power, then tricks the devil out of his prize. In one version, the smith gains the power to weld any material, he then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain.

(Sound familiar?)

Let them eat debate

Somehow I don’t think this initiative by the French government will succeed in mollifying the angry wearers of high-visibility garments:

In 1789, Louis XVI summoned France’s aristocracy, clergy and citizens to discuss ways to plug the crown’s dismal finances and quell popular discontent over a sclerotic feudal society.

It marked the start of the French Revolution. Within months he was powerless and four years later beheaded by guillotine.

Two centuries on, President Emmanuel Macron, often criticized for a monarchical manner, is also calling a national debate to mollify “yellow vest” protesters whose nine week uprising has set Paris ablaze and shaken his administration.

He will launch the three-month “grand debat” initiative on Jan. 15. As during the rule of the ill-fated king, the French are already writing complaints in “grievance books” opened up by mayors of 5,000 communes.

The debate will focus on four themes — taxes, green energy, institutional reform and citizenship. Discussions will be held on the internet and in town halls.

There’s a catch, though, that seems to defeat the purpose:

But officials have already said changing the course of Macron’s reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy will be off limits.

“The debates are not an opportunity for people to offload all their frustrations, nor are we questioning what we’ve done in the past 18 months,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told BFM TV. “We’re not replaying the election.”

Meanwhile, the protesters have come up with another disruptive tactic:

Members of the “yellow vests” protest movement have vandalised almost 60% of France’s entire speed camera network, the interior minister has said.

Christophe Castaner said the wilful damage was a threat to road safety and put lives in danger.

The protest movement began over fuel tax increases, and saw motorists block roads and motorway toll booths.

Some protesters feel speed cameras are solely a revenue-generating measure which takes money from the poor.

A novel tactic

Remember the yellow vest protests in France? They haven’t stopped. Indeed, as one journalist reports, “Saturday insurrections are now institutionalised in Paris, and also across the country, as far as Marseille and Toulon.”

Some 80,000 law and order agents, including 5,000 in the capital, will be mobilised this weekend, along with armoured cars, water cannons and apparently unlimited supplies of chemical weapons. Luc Ferry, a former conservative education minister, has already suggested that live ammunition should be used to quell growing attacks on police.

And now it looks like some of the protesters are preparing to level up the disruption:

Activists from a French protest movement encouraged supporters Wednesday to set off a bank run by emptying their accounts, while the government urged citizens to express their discontent in a national debate instead of weekly demonstrations disrupting the streets of Paris.

Activists from the yellow vest movement, which started with protests over fuel tax increases, recommended the massive cash withdrawals on social media. One protester, Maxime Nicolle called it the “tax collector’s referendum.”

“We are going to get our bread back … You’re making money with our dough, and we’re fed up,” Nicolle said in a video message.

The movement’s adherents said they hoped the banking action will force the French government to heed their demands, especially giving citizens the right to propose and vote on new laws.

In the meantime, copycat yellow vest protests have been spotted in Belgium and the NetherlandsBritainCanada, and even Bulgaria, Israel, Iraq and Taiwan. The Egyptian government banned the sale of yellow vests in December.

Silk Road to the Atlantic

Port of Sines Portugal

Portugal’s Port of Sines

The Belt and Road Initiative now stretches to the Iberian Peninsula, as Portugal has signed up to promote China’s multi-grillion-dollar mega-boondoggle:

Portugal signed two deals last week during a state visit from Xi Jinping that seemed to undermine efforts elsewhere in Europe to counter Beijing’s influence.

The bottom line: Portugal is not alone in playing nice with Beijing, but these instances show that China, with the promise of big investments, can poke holes in European or Transatlantic efforts to confront it.

Detail: With a wary eye on China, a deal was struck in Brussels last week for closer inspections of foreign investments in “strategic technologies and infrastructure such as ports or energy networks,” per Reuters, which noted there was opposition from countries including Greece, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal.

The deal makes the Port of Sines part of the B&R. Sines, located on the Atlantic coast, handles about half of Portugal’s cargo.

Chinese trade with Portugal is rising and the European country now wants to “attract large-scale industrial investment, notably in the automobile and agro-food sectors”:

Chinese investment accounted for 3.6 per cent of Portugal’s GDP between 2010 and 2016, according to figures from Spain’s ESADE business school.

China now owns a 28 per cent stake in Portuguese energy utility EDP, the country’s largest firm, via China Three Gorges and China’s state-owned international investment company CNIC.

It also has a stake in Portugal’s biggest private bank, BCP, and its leading insurance company, Fidelidade.

France braces for more protests

The revolt of the Yellow Vests continues this weekend:

France was in lockdown early on Saturday with thousands of French security forces braced to meet renewed rioting by “yellow vest” protesters in the capital and other cities in a fourth weekend of confrontation over living costs.

The Eiffel Tower and other tourist landmarks were shut, shops were boarded up to avoid looting and street furniture removed to avoid metal bars from being used as projectiles.

About 89,000 police were deployed across the country.

Of these, about 8,000 were deployed in Paris to avoid a repeat of last Saturday’s mayhem when rioters torched cars and looted shops off the famed Champs Elysees boulevard, and defaced the Arc de Triomphe with graffiti directed at President Emmanuel Macron.

Protesters, using social media, have billed the weekend as “Act IV” in a dramatic challenge to Macron and his policies.

Clearly this is about much more than fuel taxes. What do they actually want? Here’s a clue:

From Stanley Pignal of The Economist:

@spignal

A new “unofficial” list of Gilet Jaunes demands here:
– cut taxes to 25% of GDP (so half current levels)
– better public services/massive hiring of civil servants
– Leave EU & NATO
– Default on public debt
– New constitution
– less immigration
– Scrap CFA Franc in W Africa (??)

3:33 AM – 7 Dec 2018

The right rises in Spain

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal

A right-wing political party called Vox (no relation, presumably, to the progressive news website) wins office in Spain:

After many years in the shadows, the far-right has now arrived as a force in Spanish politics. Local elections in Andalusia on Sunday gave the fiercely nationalistic and socially conservative Vox party 12 of the provincial assembly’s 105 seats.

Why it matters: That makes Vox the first Spanish far-right party to win office since the country’s dictatorship ended in the 1970s. Vox wants to slash taxes, quash Catalan autonomy, criminalize illegal immigration, build a wall on the Moroccan border, restrict the religious activities of Muslims, and radically centralize political control in Spain. Ironically: the party also wants to eliminate precisely the assembly in which it just won seats. […]

Still, what has helped Vox most of all is the surging number of Middle Eastern and African migrants arriving on Spanish shores.

  • Overall, migrant arrivals in the EU have fallen dramatically since peaking in 2014-2015, but the numbers in Spain have risen more than 500% since then.

Andalusia “has become the main landing point for growing waves of immigrants sailing across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar from Africa.”

French insurrection

Bane Dark Night Rises speech

Open-source warfare is winning in France, as the Yellow Vests force the beleaguered President Macron to back down on his planned fuel tax hike. Here’s an interesting Marxist analysis of the current ructions, complete with some good-old-fashioned hatred of the rich and unironic usages of the term “lumpen”:

The Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France are at a turning point. In the face of building radicalism, which now threatens the very survival of his government, Macron has changed his defiant tone and promised to “suspend” the fuel tax hike that provoked the movement. This retreat came after street battles over the weekend between thousands of protesters and the police that have left over 200 injured in Paris alone and resulted in at least one fatality.

The organised working class has begun to enter the struggle (although the labour union leaders have dragged their feet), as have students, who are occupying their institutions in solidarity and raising their own demands. But despite Macron’s attempt to defuse the situation, the explosion of anger and frustration at years of austerity and inequality has acquired a logic of its own, and it will not be easy to put the genie back in the bottle.

The events of Saturday and Sunday marked the third straight weekend of unrest in the French capital. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris – while the exact figures are unclear, it is certain that over 100,000 took part in demonstrations across the country. This is fewer than came out last weekend (200,000 according to the official figures, which is a major underestimation), but the mood was far more radical, and it was clear that the demands of the movement have moved well beyond the question of the fuel tax. Amongst certain layers of the movement there is an insurrectionary and revolutionary mood. The 5,000 who marched down the Champs Élysées at midday on Saturday were shouting and carrying the slogans “Power to the People!” and “Macron resign!” Many bore the latter slogan on their vests.

Boy, that escalated quickly.

As Idir Ghanes, a 42-year-old, unemployed computer technician from Paris, stated: “We have low salaries and pay too much tax and the combination is creating more and more poverty… On the other side, there are government ministers and the president with their fabulous salaries.” Other protestors, like Marie Lemoine, 62 (a school teacher from Provins) pointed out the pro-capitalist and hypocritical nature of Macron’s policy: “We are being targeted instead of the airlines, the shipping lines, those companies who pollute more but pay no tax… Macron is our Louis XVI, and we know what happened to him.”

Note: Louis XVI was beheaded.

Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of the 8th city district of Paris, near the Arc de Triomphe, told BFM TV, “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Several regional representatives of the central government spoke anonymously to Le Monde of an “explosive and almost insurrectional” or “pre-revolutionary” situation. They also noted that it was a section of the population rising against taxes that sparked the revolution of 1789. One representative concluded: “What is expressed the most is the hatred of the President of the Republic.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marxist.com views this is a class conflict.

While it is true that there were lumpen and far-right elements in the demonstrations over the weekend, these were marginal. From the beginning, the yellow vests movement has penetrated into very deep layers of society, with Front National voters and middle-class elements taking part alongside the working class and trade unionists. But as the movement has begun to radicalise and the working class imprint on it increase, a lot of the rubbish on the right is being thrown out and the class contradictions within it have become clearer. For example, another viral video shows Yvan Benedetti, former president of the ultranationalist group L’Œuvre française (himself dressed in a high-visibility jacket), being attacked and driven off by anti-fascists within the yellow vests.

Video:

Subsequently, over the past week, over 300 high schools have been occupied and blockaded around the country, including in the southern city of Toulouse and in Créteil in the Paris area.

Wow.

And it looks like the party may be just getting started. Marxist.com is calling for “a 24-hour general strike, as a starting point for a series of renewable strikes, with the objective of bringing down the government.”

No matter happens to this particular movement, it is clear that a new chapter has opened in the class struggle in France, where as Frederick Engels put it, the class struggle is always fought to the end.

And:

For the yellow vests, these announcements are very far from having answered their demands. They wanted the tax to be scrapped altogether, and a mere suspension does not seem to have appeased their anger. […]

And the yellow vests are maintaining their call for renewed demonstrations, this coming weekend in the French capital.

Cauchy said: “We must not fear demonstrations on Saturday in Paris, because they will take place.”

Paris

Man, these Paris protests are getting out of hand:

What’s that? Oh, sorry. Those are actually photos from 1968.

Mass socialist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this were the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government.

Got my dates mixed up there. Almost exactly 50 years later, Paris is again convulsed by riots:

‘Yellow Jacket’ protests in France leave gas stations running dry; Paris riots worst since 1968

Saturday’s unrest was the worst in central Paris since a student uprising five decades ago.

“Yellow Jacket” protesters blocking access to 11 fuel depots belonging to one of the world’s biggest oil companies have left gas stations running dry in France.

At least 75 of the company’s 2,200 gas stations were out of fuel, a spokesman for energy giant Total said Monday.

For more than two weeks, protesters angry over gas taxes and the high cost of living have been blocking roads across France, impeding access to fuel depots, shopping malls and some airports.

Riot police were overrun on Saturday as protesters brought chaos to Paris’ fanciest neighborhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the worst disturbances the capital has seen since 1968.

More than 100 people were injured in the French capital and 412 arrested over the weekend.

The “Yellow Jacket” revolt erupted on Nov. 17 and poses a formidable challenge to President Emmanuel Macron as he tries to counter a plunge in popularity over his economic reforms, which are seen as favoring the wealthy.

What do the protesters want?

The movement began online as an impromptu rebellion against higher fuel prices but has morphed into a broader outpouring of anger over the squeeze that living costs are putting on middle-class household budgets.

Their core demand is a freeze on further planned tax increases on gas and diesel — the next is due in January — and measures to help bolster spending power.

A lot of the anger is focused on the technocratic, internationalist Macron, who is perceived as an elitist.

But many have also called for Macron to quit.

Public support for the “Yellow Jackets” remains high, with seven-in-10 people backing their protest, according to a Harris Interactive opinion poll conducted after Saturday’s unrest.

The revolt is an example of “open source warfare,” as John Robb puts it. There are no leaders, no barriers to participation, and everyone is united by a plausible common goal. The lack of leadership is a key advantage:

The French government has faced difficulties dealing with the protesters as the movement has no real leadership and has not aligned itself with any political organisation. […]

On Friday, the government tried – mostly in vain – to talk to representatives of the movement.

Eight were invited to meet Prime Minister Edouard Philippe but only two turned up, and one walked out after being told he could not invite TV cameras in to broadcast the encounter live to the nation.

Paris is so romantic this time of year…

Paris protest Burger King