Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Popular Sovereignty, Ultimate Powers, and Translation Errors

Héctor Ferrer's recent speech before the Popular Democratic Party's General Council on June 7th was quickly cheered by the "sovereigntist" wing of that party. The celebration was at least in part a reaction to Ferrer's affirmation that it was necessary to "strengthen the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, through a Compact of Association based in a non-colonial and non-territorial Commonwealth [Estado Libre Asociado], based on popular sovereignty emphasis added). The reference to "popular sovereignty" appeals to free association supporters, for whom the mere reference to the word "sovereignty" (regardless of the context) is sufficient evidence of the party's clear movement toward a sovereign Puerto Rico. However, the national press put a damper to their celebration by noting that Ferrer defended "popular sovereignty" and not "national sovereignty".

Does it make sense to talk about popular sovereignty and national sovereignty in the context of the debate about Puerto Rico's status? Yes and no. Let's begin by briefly examining both conceptions of sovereignty. According to the thesis of popular sovereignty (generally associated with Rousseau), the bearer of sovereignty is the people, whose elected representatives, once elected, are required to put into practice the will of the citizenry. In other words, the government must act in conformity with the citizen's mandate, regardless of how wise or convenient that mandate is thought to be. Moreover, the people retains the right to exercise its sovereignty directly, even after regular elections take place. This theory has different strands and in contemporary times is associated with mechanisms such as recall referendums and popular initiatives to amend the constitution, which are present in the constitutional orders of countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

According to the thesis of national sovereignty (generally associated with Sieyes), the bearer of sovereignty is the nation, not the citizens. This means that public officials are supposed to represent the will of the nation and, once elected, are not required to act according to the will of their constituents. Universal suffrage appears here as the means through which the nation elects its representatives (the nation's representatives), not as the expression of a citizen's mandate for the adoption of determinate public policies. Rousseau criticized this view for separating the popular will from that of the nation. As he expressed in a famous passage on the English political system: "The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moment of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". The idea that a government is not obliged to act according to the will of the citizens might sound undemocratic (and it certainly is undemocratic), but the fact is that the doctrine of national sovereignty is the one followed by "liberal democracies" (as the United States and most European countries) follow in practice the doctrine of national sovereignty. In the context of Puerto Rico, a good example is the referendum on adopting a unicameral legislature: although a great majority voted in favor of such proposal, the existing legislature decided that it was not a good idea and the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico sanctioned the decision.

In a sense, the distinction between popular and national sovereignty is only relevant for the constitutional orders of individual states. That is to say, when one speaks about sovereignty in the context of the international status of a particular country the distinction becomes unnecessary: from the (juridical) perspective of international relations there is only one kind of sovereignty. Under that view, for example, both under Allende and under Pinochet, Chile was equally sovereign (and this shows, as we have previously argued, that becoming a "sovereign state" is not enough for solving the people's problems). In international relations, the idea of "popular sovereignty" is generally seen as an "internal" issue, because the recognition of a territory as a sovereign state does not depend on how its governmental structures are organized. However, it is also true that to talk about "popular sovereignty" or about "national sovereignty" (as they were defined previously), has important implications with respect to the international status of a country: a basic consequence of both conceptions is that the people or the nation can only be subject to the laws and constitution adopted by themselves (that is to say, they cannot be subject to laws adopted by another people or by another nation, as it happens in colonies). In that sense, in Puerto Rico (as in any colony), to talk about popular or national sovereignty is also to talk about the international status of the country.

But when Ferrer talks about popular sovereignty (interestingly, it has been pointed out that in the original document read by Ferrer, "popular" appeared with a capital "P", as in Popular Democratic Party), he was not referring to popular sovereignty as defined in the previous paragraphs. Instead, he seemed to be interested in doing three things. First, he attempted to settle down the "sovereigntist" wing of the party, which can be done easily by simply uttering words that could be interpreted to point towards free association: that group is characterized for happily clinging to anything that allows them to justify their loyalty to the party. Second, Ferrer made an effort to keep happy the more conservative sector of the party, happy, because the idea of "popular sovereignty" can be understood (as in international relations) merely as an issue of our internal government; that is to say, who "rules" inside the country (as Ferrer stated: "para que quede claro que aquí mandamos los puertorriqueños" or "so it is clear the here Puerto Ricans rule").

Third, Ferrer reproduced the conception of sovereignty adopted by the PPD in the 2008 Assembly: sovereignty as the power to "delegate competences to the United States" or what is the same thing, sovereignty as the power to alienate sovereignty. This is exemplified in a part of his speech that has not received any attention, where Ferrer indicates that it is necessary to develop the Estado Libre Asociado so that "Cabotage Laws don't apply to us" (my translation). We agree that U.S. Cabotage Laws should not apply in Puerto Rico, but Ferrer's silence about the general application of U.S. laws in Puerto Rico betray his position: according to the type of relationship proposed by his party, other laws of the United States (that are not the Cabotage Laws) would continue to apply in the country. Evidently, an arrangement like this constitutes the negation of the very idea of sovereignty because it supposes its alienation: giving someone else the power to decide for oneself in the future.

Incidentally, this contradictory conception of sovereignty is also expressed in a common definition of the concept as "el poder último" (the ultimate power), as in the phrase: "un pueblo es soberano si tiene el poder último para decidir sobre sus asuntos" (a people is sovereign when it has the ultimate power to decide over their issues) (see for example, here). This is the usual definition of sovereignty in English. Our leaders waste no time in rendering English to Spanish. However, último and ultimate are cognates, but they are faux amis, as último in Spanish means "last", whereas ultimate in English has a very strong connotation of goal and fundament. Whereas Spanish recalls a linear logic, English recalls a circular logic. "El poder último " is a bad translation of "the ultimate power" of the people. The idea of unconditional or autonomous power is lost--or rather perverted in translation. In order to present what they want, both to their colonial masters and the people they rule, they use an English term to disguise a logic in Spanish, and a Spanish term to hammer a logic into English. They want the so called poder último (ultimate power) over their people so that they can literally get the poder último (last power) from their masters. After everything is said and done, they want to rule. A more appropriate translation of "ultimate power", such as "poder máximo", is not an appealing term for those who just want the last word on what powers are to be alienated.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Neo-liberalism, the crisis and the catastrophic situation of the worker in the USA

Note: This is part 3, section 2 of our series on the situation of the worker.

The neo-liberal period that has gone into crisis is not simply characterized by the privatization of public assets. As we have mentioned before, privatization is a normal part of the expansion of capital in its need to penetrate every social relation in order to guarantee that the worker depends intensely on the market and thus remains in a condition to be exploited as much as possible. What defines neo-liberalism is the way in which this privatization occurs.

Transnational companies, the hegemonic US dollar, the international financial system and the worker’s indebtedness play fundamental roles in this privatization (for analyses emphasizing these aspects see here). All of these structures were expanded during the post-war period thanks to the pact between capitalists and workers, sponsored by reformers. While the weapons of the capitalists grew, those of the workers did not develop as to offer significant resistance, for they had unions that, for the most part, negotiated with the capitalists the means to obtain better working conditions and consumer goods without effectively developing alternative structures aimed at liberating themselves from capital's needs. When the pact became an obstacle for the capitalists, workers were in no position to oppose the assault of their adversaries.

One of the most characteristic and important elements of this period is the importance of credit for the appropriation of wealth by the capitalist. Besides the usual mechanism of appropriation of wealth (buying from the worker her capacity to work, which will produce a surplus, for just what she needs to reproduce herself) neo-liberal capitalism, especially in the USA, substitutes wage increases for loans. The worker’s debt has always existed, but this systematic indebtedness has new characteristics. People in the USA can buy more goods, which are produced on other parts of the world, because even though their salaries remain stagnant since the 70’s, they use their credit as a mean to satisfy their growing needs. Meanwhile, the interests paid by the workers finance more loans or production, as much in the USA as in the rest of the world. The capitalists also use the workers’ IOU’s to speculate.

The more the US workers get into debt in order to buy, the more the sweatshops owned by transnational companies on the other side of the world produce. The transnational companies generally employ workers on peripheral countries for standardized processes of manufacturing, and highly skilled workers on the USA and other wealthy countries for sophisticated processes, such as design and research. The workers debt, increasingly tied to complex financial derivatives, is sold to foreign investors who find in them a relatively sure investment. The wealth produced by workers on the other side of the world serves to finance research and development, buy advanced machinery and equipment, and finance the US worker’s debt, whose labor capacity is more expensive given the amount of value concentrated in her country, requiring her to have more expenses, such as costly trainings.

The expansion of capital in this system implies the expansion of the US worker’s credit and the super-exploitation of workers in the peripheral countries. Ensuring the credit increase and the US workers’ buying power becomes a must. This requires the assault on old institutions and organizations, in the USA as well as in the rest of the world, in order to re-privatize them to make them profitable, especially from the point of view of speculative capital. For instance, the structures of the welfare state were funded by the workers through their taxes and the minimal contributions made by companies out of the surplus they extracted from the workers, in order to keep them healthy, well educated, etc. We should note that they were already private in the sense that they only provided healthcare and education in as much as it was necessary for capitalism. Neo-liberal privatization in this case consists of canalizing the funds out of the state into banks or insurance companies, who are always happy to raise their interest or their insurance policies, and buying the services from private providers. The capitalist must provide credit and sell the worker the means to be healthy and trained in order to speculate and finance other entrepreneurships that create the conditions for her to be able to pay the expensive insurance policies and debts. The function of keeping workers healthy and trained continues with a more properly capitalist organization, with the peculiarity of supporting and being supported by the debt system.

The problem, however, is that the capitalist need for taking over old institutions leaves the worker in a precarious situation. This is a serious problem because the worker has to pay her debt so that the system works. The crisis explodes when one of the parties of this delicate financial framework becomes unable to pay.

This is what happened with the real estate system in the USA, the center of global capitalism. Many workers who were already indebted up to their noses, mortgaged their houses with variable interests (interests that raise with time). The lenders who now have been demonized for lending to workers with bad credit (the infamous subprime lending) followed the global logic by which the value of the houses would increase as the interests would be used to finance projects that would increase global wealth, therefore increasing the value of real estate. Their fantasy did not consider, among other things, that the worker’s wages were stagnant. When the higher interests set, with stagnant wages and indebted to their noses, these workers were unable to pay all their debts, even the house mortgage, which is the last thing one stops paying. The complexity of the financial framework, where subprime mortgages were packed with prime mortgages, insured against losses, bought and sold, etc., created a domino effect, which initially affected workers with good credit and then everybody else. The worker does not pay her debts because the financial system collapses and breaks her leverage, and the financial system collapse because the worker cannot pay her debts. Eventually this comes to the industrial sector, which starts taking the usual measures for a crisis (layoffs, reduction of wages, etc.) Not only the value of the houses disappears, but also the salary of the workers, and their possibilities of payment of debt along with it. The main global implication of this process is that commodities produced abroad are not selling in the USA, so that at the global level we see the corresponding processes of crisis at the national level.

To get an idea of the crisis, the estimate for evictions for this year is 3,000,000 (the media, looking at them from the point of view of capital calls them “foreclosures”) (Reuters, April 16, 2009). There are millions of people who have been forced out of their homes while the effort put to build the houses goes to waste. For March, the unemployment rate in the USA was 8.5%, while Latin Americans in this country had an unemployment rate of 11.4% (the participation rate in the USA for January was 65.5%, Bureau of Labor Statistics).

In other parts of the world, the situation worsens to the point where there has been food shortages. In Puerto Rico, where the Comonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado) has been incapable of creating jobs for the population, the unemployment rate stands currently at 13% with a participation rate of 44% (January, Junta de Planificación). In sum, there are millions of capable workers who remain unemployed, tools, machinery and finished products not being used, while there are immense needs for them.

People from the USA have always thought of themselves as the center of the universe; in the case of the post-war and neo-liberal periods with its crisis they were not far from the truth. Used to solve their problems through the neo-liberal institutions, which promote an extremely individualistic, partial life, in what appears as a wondrous, shifting and expanding world beyond their control, they find themselves ill equipped to phase the global crisis. It would be easy to fall for the reformist rehash of neo-liberalism, but the real challenge is to get rid of the very organization which causes the problem.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Nomination of Sonia Sotomayor

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States has already triggered the usual discussions among lawyers about the quality of the past decisions of a nominee for that position (see for example, here). In addition, several of Sotomayor's expressions outside court that tend to indicate her political positions about certain topics have been put into question. For example, the fact that in a conference Sotomayor expressed that appellate judges make "public policy" (see here), something that should be obvious (see here), has caused upheaval among commentators that cling to the idea that judges only interpret (and never make) the law. Similarly, her position in a law review article about the role that the race and gender of a judge plays in judicial decisions (see here, and for a much more interesting analysis of a part of that article that has been seldom commented, see here), or the fact that in her Yale bachelor's thesis she made an expression in favor of Puerto Rico's independence (see here) have become objects of discussion in a mediatic system that depends on its capacity to sell controversies. The fact that a Puerto Rican woman has been nominated to the highest court in the U.S. has also been emphasized and, naturally, that has been the center of the discussion in the island (for an interesting analysis, in Spanish, see here).

It is not our intention to negate Sotomayor's merits or to deny the satisfaction that one might feel when the daughter of two Puerto Ricans that emigrated to the U.S. during the mid 20th century, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, has the possibility of been confirmed to one of the main positions in the government of that country. However, we think it is important to mention the following. The appointments of persons from minorities to high ranking governmental positions are usually presented as substantial victories, as if, from that moment on, these groups had a true representative in a position of power. But one must not forget that being nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, or to any other position of power (as the Presidency), is to be at the service of a structure that hides and reproduces, through the appeareance of equality of the "liberal rule of law", important relations of power. Relations in which the great parts of the population, in particular those with similar backgrounds to that of Sotomayor, occupy the less privileged position. In that sense, it is not the case that subordinated groups will now have someone in the Supreme Court whose function will be to protect their interests, but that a person that belongs to a historically subordinated group has been called to form part of a juridical apparatus that, at least in part, protects those very relations of subordination.