Monday, November 29, 2004

The dangers of prediction

I am also in the process of putting together what I hope will be more than just a provisional title for my dissertation. I’m aiming to write on the role of participatory democracy and mechanisms as a way of developing social democracy in Brazil. I’ll be using the PT, with its efforts in developing participatory budgets in Porto Alegre and other cities, as the main agent of this process.

I also spent the weekend skimming through what limited material I have on social democracy on my shelves: Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way and Will Hutton’s The State We’re In. I think Hutton’s is probably most relevant, not least because his book highlights the importance of underpinning a dynamic economy with constitutional reform. Rather like what the PT is doing.

Unfortunately though, he’s a little shaky in his endorsement of East Asian economies as possessing a dynamism and vibrancy lacking in the UK – not least because less than three years after the book first came out the financial crisis hit the region, producing much angst-ridden material suggesting they weren’t as active as they first appeared.

Ah, the joy of hindsight!
Not a clue

Having had a relatively heated debate in our weekly seminar on trans-national corporations (topic: globalisation), I’m still no clearer to knowing one way or the other: are TNCs a cause or effect of capitalism? And if they are one or the other, does that influence the way they can be regulated?

Answers on a postcard, please.
Uncheery telly

Watched Bus 174 yesterday, the documentary about the bus hijacking in Rio four years ago. The film spliced the footage of the drama on the bus with interviews of the policemen and hostages, as well as those who knew the hijacker and a gang leader. There were also studies of the conditions in which criminals are treated in Brazil’s prisons which made the point that the hijacker, Sandro, had very few options open to him once the police surrounded him and the media descended on the area.

Not happy viewing by any stretch, but it was well-made and highlights the social problems which exist in Brazil. The director argues that the way the Brazilian state treats its underclass (violently) means that it responds violently as well. In the short interview he gives on the DVD after the feature itself, when asked if he thinks his film has helped changed society, he gives a no – but then qualifies it by saying it would require a change in society as well.

Then again, how likely is that, when the policemen who were accused on killing Sandro in the back of the police car after the crisis ended, were found not guilty by a jury?

Even though I sympathise with the plight of street children, condemn the brutality of vigilante groups who murder them and the lack of training and respect for human rights in the police, two things kept sticking out in my mind throughout the film.

First, how many viewers tried to imagine what the hostages were going through at the time? When that’s presented on TV and without explaining the background, how do you think most people will react? Most likely, just as the jury members did.

Second, what was going through Sandro’s mind throughout? He must have known he was in a no-win situation. He could never have escaped police attention, especially after embarrassing them so publicly on Brazil’s TV sets. So why take on the state? I’m sure he didn’t want to die, but given police brutality, wasn’t it fairly likely?

Friday, November 26, 2004

Reviewing ambition

So just sent off my first book review in awhile. It was on a pretty dry subject, especially if you’re not into political science. Hopefully it should appear at the Latin American Review of Books soon enough. I found Latamrob as it seems to be called through the bulletin boards at the Institute. The chap who runs it is an academic over at Queen Mary. Knowing I’m studing politics he sent me David Samuels’ book, Ambition, Federalism and Legislative Politics in Brazil to cover. I hope he likes it.

I need to get back into the habit of writing. Since the project on Sao Paulo ended at the beginning of the month I’ve been getting out of practice at regular scribbling. With the Christmas break just around the corner I must get started again.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Another blog

Finally, now that I'm back on the blog, I should mention Andrew's latest reincarnation, this time in the form of a political, Westminster-inspired blog. Not that he needs the plug, but since he helped out with the Sao Paulo project we had at least one reader in his girlfriend, Zan (you mean you haven't seen it? It's available here).
Due for refurbishment

I was hoping to have a longer chat with Richard Gott last night, not least because I wanted to pick up on his book about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, In the Shadow of the Liberator.

It was written about four years ago, which means it’s missing out a lot of the most notable events which have happened since: his re-election, the oil strike, the aborted coup and his referendum win. My reading was that Gott seemed a little starry-eyed by the so-called Bolivarian revolution unleashed by Chavez – I remain sceptical, not least because it’s not entirely clear that the structures he’s building will last beyond him (a la Fujimori).

Gott did tell me that he’s in the process of updating the book. I hope he takes a more critical view in it. The main concern I had with the 2000 edition was that there was an awful lot of Chavez’s history and his plans for his presidency and not enough analysis of what he was putting in place. While the definitive work can’t be written after Chavez leaves office, a study of his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ to date will be extremely useful.
New look through a new book

It’s been awhile since I last wrote anything on this blog. I’ve been getting a bit slack. Anyway, a quick update: last night we had the launch of Richard Gott’s new book, Cuba: A New History, over at Senate House. Over drinks afterwards he claimed that it was to be a short history, but at 600 pages plus, the title had to be ditched. This he followed with a toast to the Cuban revolution, producing all sorts of awkwardness amongst the assembled ranks.

The point of his talk was to highlight aspects of Cuban historiography which hasn’t received much of an airing to date. Most striking was his focus on race relations on the island, much of which is currently being investigated. However, in his overview on the state of historic scholarship he pointed out that almost all of it stops at 1959 – no-one it seems is prepared to write the first draft of the Cuban revolution until Fidel shuffles off the stage.

Which does pose some questions about race since 1959. Given the lack of writing on the period, domestically the Cubans themselves haven’t focused on the subject either. What does exist has generally been the result of black American scholars, but it still remains a peripheral issue.

Given that we have to come up with dissertation titles the week after next, perhaps a student currently undergoing a crisis on what topic to write might consider this as an option?

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A modest proposal

Not that anyone will pay any attention – after all, there are plenty of other blogs more widely read than mine. But since it’s Election Day across the pond, I thought I’d add my penny’s worth as well.

It’s frustrating that what happens in this poll will affect us all, even though none of us here have a say in the final choice. It got me thinking of an ironic piece I read in The Guardian around the time of Clinton’s second election win. Then, as now, the same point was made: we would be affected no matter what. So the journalist suggested that the solution for Britain was to join the US as the 51st state.

That way we would have direct influence over the presidential election, especially because the distribution of votes in the Electoral College would mean that we would be crucial. Look at this way: California is the biggest state in the Union, with 35m people. This is around 12% of the national population of approximately 291m. It has 54 votes in the College, which is 10% of the total 538.

Now assume Britain was a state. Our 59m would increase the size of the United States population to 350m. We would be more than one-and-a-half times the size of California and correspond to nearly 17% of the total population. And although I don’t know exactly how the Electoral College divides up its votes, assuming the same proportion as California’s would mean Britain emerged with up to 90 votes.

Which would mean that we wouldn’t be worrying about how Americans in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida will vote. Instead the only state which would matter would be us.

When you look at it that way, we should make an application to join as quickly as possible…

…Wait. Oh. It would also mean Bush spending more time in the country, seeking my vote. Hmm, maybe not. Forget I ever said anything…
Back again

So it's done. The final words have been written and a chapter closed. The blog that Andrew Stevens (of Guacamoleville and Race4CityHall) began on the Sao Paulo election has come to an end.

Although the result never looked in doubt (we could have used an American-style, knife-edge scenario as is currently happening between Bush and Kerry), the results were interesting and would be worth following over the next few weeks. There's nothing like elections to shake up the dynamics between and within parties. And it certainly looks like things may well happen in Brazil over the next few weeks and months.

The PT not only lost Sao Paulo, but also it's symoblic centre, Porto Alegre. To lose one would be bad luck; to lose two sounds irresponsible. Before the election campaign prominent petista Emir Sader had written a paper (which I linked to back on 13 August) which indicated that if the PT held Sao Paulo the moderate tendency associated with Lula would prevail within the party; if Sao Paulo was lost it would strengthen the left, which is most closely linked with Porto Alegre. But I don't think Sader envisaged the PT losing both.

On top of the PT's defeat is the effect it will have on its main rivals: the PSDB. They have strengthened their position for 2006, with presumably Geraldo Alckmin, the state governor, as the most likely challenger to Lula for the presidency. There's also the question of what will happen to the PSDB's allies, the PFL; the older generation was already being eclipsed by the younger, more technocratic stars in the party. Antonio Carlos Magalhaes was having informal meetings with Lula in the summer (winter months in Brazil), but his position will be weakened by the failure of his protege, Cesar Borges, to win in Salvador.

While I don't plan to do a regular briefing on the state of Brazilian politics, I do hope that now my duties over at Prefeito Paulistano are over, I will be able to revist them here (and maybe over at Brazzil, if Rodney will let me).