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Archive for October, 2011

Here’s an insightful excerpt from an essay written by Wu Ming 1 of the Wu Ming Foundation on the techno-fetishism that still prevails in the public discourse about the Internet today. This fetishism is what often keeps us from perceiving the power structures that are built into the infrastructure of the net and can lead to a dangerously naive view of corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple, like we recently saw in the aftermath of the death of Steve Jobs.

“Whenever we talk about the Internet, the “mythological machine” in our discourses — powered by the ideology that we breathe every day, wheater we like it or not — reproduces a myth: the idea of technology as an autonomous force, a subject with its own spirit, a reality that evolves on its own, spontaneously and teleologically. Somebody even had the great idea of nominating the internet (which, just like any other infrastructure and network, can be used for everypurpose, including war) for the Nobel Prize for Peace. This rhetoric conceals class, property, and production relations: we can only see their fetishes. Here’s why the pages Karl Marx devoted to commodity fetishism are still useful (my italics):

«There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things

“Fantastic form of a relation between things”. Like the computers interconnected to form the web. Behind the phantasmagory of the Internet lies a set of definite social relations, and Marx means production relations, exploitation relations.
The net rhetoric hides these relations. It is indeed possible to talk about the Internet for hours, days, months, touching only marginally the issue of who owns it, who is really in control of the nodes, the infrastructure, the hardware. The pyramid of labour — including slave-like labour — incorporated into the devices we use (computers, smartphones, ereaders etc.) and as a consequence into the Internet itself, is even less discussed. Eveyday, corporations expropriate social wealth on the net, and oppress the working class at each corner of the Earth behind the scenes. Nevertheless, they are considered less “corporate” than others. Until we realize that Apple is like Monsanto, that Google is like Novartis, that praising a corporation is the most toxic narrative we can choose, wheather we are dealing with Google, Fiat, Facebook, Disney or Nestlé—-until we realize all this, we will stay in the net like fish.

[…]

Because of net-fetishism, the spotlight is always on the practices of liberationpervading the Internet — ie the kind of practices we Wu Ming have put time and effort into for twenty years —, which are customarily described as the rule. In this way, people dismiss as exceptions all the practices of subjugation , eg using the net to exploit or underpay intellectual work, to control and arrest people (see what happened after the recent UK riots), to impose new idols and fetishes, to spread the dominant ideology, to enforce the same financial capitalism that’s destroying us. On the net, the practices of subjugation are the rule as much as the others. In fact, if we want to nitpick, we should consider them the rule more than the others, if we take into account the genesis of the internet, which evolved from ARPAnet, a military computer network.

The question is not wheather the net produces liberation or subjugation: since its creation, it has always been producing both things. That’s the net’s dialectics, one aspect is always together with the other, because the net is the form capitalism has taken nowadays, and capitalism itself is the contraddiction in process. Capitalism developed itself by setting individuals free from the old feudal bonds, and at the same time by imposing new kinds of subjugation (to the controlled time of the factory, to the production of surplus value etc.) Under capitalism,everything works like this: consumption sets free and enslaves, it brings about liberation that is also new subjugation, and the cycle starts over on a higher level.

Heron’s Aeolipile

Therefore, the struggle should consist in fostering practices of liberation to be played against the practices of subjugation. This can be done only if we stop considering technology as an autonomous force and realize that it is moulded and driven by property relations, power relations, and production relations. If technology could develop outside of these relations, thanks only to its being innovative, the steam engine would have been adopted in the 1st century AD, when Heron of Alexandriainvented the aeolipile—-but the antique mode of production did not need machines, since all the necessary workforce was provided by slaves, and nobody could or wanted to imagine any concrete development of that invention.

By fetishising technology as an autonomous force, we remain trapped within the old conceptual frame “Apocalyptic vs. Integrated”. If you make the slightest critical remark about the net, the “Integrated” will mistake you for an “Apocalyptic”, and will accuse you of incoherence and/or obscurantism. The former accusation resounds in such phrases as: ‘Aren’t you using a computer right now?’, ‘Don’t you buy books on Amazon too?’, ‘You own a smartphone too!’, and so on. The latter is expressed in the form of such useless preaches as: ‘Try to picture a world without the Internet…’ On the other hand, any argument about the positive aspects of the net will be welcomed by the “Apocalyptic” as a piece of servile, “Integrated” propaganda. Let us always remember Heron of Alexandria. His story teaches us that, whenever we talk about technology (and about the Internet in particular), we are actually talking about something else, ie social relations.

Let us ask again then: who are the bosses of the net? And who are the exploited of the Net, and by the Net?

It is not that difficult to find out: it suffices to read the “Terms of service” of the social media you’re using, read the licenses of the software you keep on your computer, digit “Net Neutrality” on a search engine—-and, dulcis in fundo, keep in mind stories like those of Amazon’s warehouses and Foxconn’s factories. Only in this way, I believe, we will avoid such bullshit as the “Internet for peace” campaign or the horrible, “softly” totalitarian scenario prefigured in Casaleggio & Associati‘s infamous video Gaia: The Future of Politics.

Let us not deceive ourselves: only violent conflicts will decide whether the evolution of the net will impose the supremacy of the practices of liberation over those of subjugation, or the other way around.”

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eat the rich

 

I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the brave and thoughtful Republican souls that recently brought the term “class warfare” back into the vocabulary of political debate¹. It certainly has been sorely missed since the End of History.

Of course, class war itself never went anywhere. On the contrary, what we’ve seen in the recent decades has been an unprecedented concentration of wealth and political power into the hands of a tiny global elite at one pole and a huge influx of new wage slaves at the other pole. We in the west often tend to overlook the latter development since it has mostly happened in the third world, particularly India and East Asia. The apathy of the Western working class has fooled many people to think like Fukuyama that class antagonisms are a thing of the past. At the same time, major new conflicts have been brewing in the newly “freed” markets of the East. The frontlines of the war may have moved, but that doesn’t mean the battles are any less fierce today than they were some decades ago. The fact that we see scarce any mention of these battles in mainstream media tells something about the current condition of our society here in the West.

Totalitarian systems always try to hide any conflicts in the society, or alternatively frame them as the work of a small group of “extremists” who are only trying to bring “instability” to an otherwise harmonious society. The disappearance of the class rhetoric from political debate often brings forth increasing focus on ethnic and cultural conflicts. Class identity gets replaced by national identity, as it was in, dare I say it, Nazi Germany. The clash between the elite and the people has today been replaced with the Clash of Civilizations. This gives the elite a convenient opportunity to claim that their personal interests are in fact also the interests of the people since they now have a “common enemy.” That is, of course, what all tyrants have been saying throughout history. L’État, c’est moi. And if you don’t think we’re living in a totalitarian system, just ask Margaret Thatcher.

Another reason why we’re having difficulties perceiving the class conflict within contemporary Western society is that the class divisions have been blurred. The simple Marxist division into the owning class (the bourgeoisie) and the working class (the proletariat) no longer corresponds to the reality particularly well (if it ever did). Most of the traditional industrial working class has been absorbed into the middle class and the rest has been either sent into the labour reserve or integrated into the establishment by co-opting the unions. However, the ancient antagonism between the ruling elite and the people is still underlying even our post-modern society, I claim. The elite may have been able to silence a majority of the people by buying them off with cheap Chinese goods, but the fact that political power is in the hands of a small minority still stands, and therein lies the fundamental conflict that simply isn’t going away regardless of rising living standards. The class struggle is, after all, a political and not an economic struggle.

This fundamental conflict is something that the 99% movement has managed to articulate, I believe, although it is still unclear whether many people have actually realised what it means (the journalists certainly haven’t). In my view, the “one demand” of the movement cannot be anything like “more jobs” or “more welfare.” There’s also little point in demanding “getting money out of politics” since in a capitalist society money IS politics. Furthermore, there’s no use blaming “greed” since the problem is not the behaviour of individuals but the system itself. If the movement is to have a lasting effect on society, it needs to change the very logic of the society so that guns and money no longer rule the people. We should know by know from history that this can’t be done by taking over the existing institutions, such as states. Genuine change can only be brought about by building new institutions from the ground up, thus making the old institutions redundant. In this way, and only in this way, revolution can occur.

¹ Of course, what they fail to understand is that the Republican and Democrat political elites are fighting on the same side…

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Some randomly selected photos from the events of October 15 in various parts of the world.

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We’re now only one day from October 15, the day of the first truly global event of the revolutionary movement that has been taking the streets in various countries throughout the year. It all began in Tunisia last December and since then people have poured into the squares in countries like Egypt, Spain, Greece and most recently the United States. Tomorrow, Saturday, dozens of new countries and hundreds of new cities are going to join in on the fun. Nobody knows yet where this thing is going to eventually lead to, but nevertheless tomorrow is no doubt going to be a day to remember. And you’re invited!

The 15october.net-website is listing events in 911 cities in 82 countries at the time of writing. You can find the event nearest you from the map. Unfortunately there seems to be quite a lot of inaccuracies in the event details so be sure to check the official website or Facebook-page of the event in question for up-to-date info.

http://15october.net/

Another site listing occupations around the world is the Occupy Together hub on Meetup. They’re listing occupations in 1649 cities currently, but not all of these necessarily have events planned for tomorrow.

http://www.meetup.com/occupytogether/

If you can’t make it to the streets, be sure to check the live video stream. If all goes as planned, they should be broadcasting from a variety of locations throughout the day and way into the night, of course, as America kicks in.

http://www.livestream.com/globalrevolution

Other ways to participate include IRC:

Server: freenode.net
Channel: #15october

…and voice conferencing via Mumble:

Server: tomalaplaza.net
Port: 64738
Channel: #15oct

See you there!

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To continue on the theme of debt, I’m reposting here a blog post by David Malone, author of the book The Debt Generation (2010). This is possibly the best description of the current debt crisis I’ve come across. Malone also has a simple solution to offer: a “people’s jubilee” where the people of Europe would simply refuse to pay any debts to the private banks. Of course, the ruling class will never allow something like this to go through so what we need is a pan-European insurrection to end the rule of the bankers. This is an evermore pressing issue now that the Eurozone leaders are once again planning huge bailouts for the banks. Time to put an end to the madness!

This wonderful image by Escher of two hands drawing each other is one of my favourite pieces of modern art.

For me, it is a brilliant visualization of the idea of bootstrapping. Or to put it more loosely, how you get something from nothing. Evolution is an example. From something simple you can get something complex. From chemistry you bootstrap life. From life you evolve consciousness and self awareness and finally Beethoven and Proust. In evolution there is no need for an outside artist. Species, just like the hands, draw each other in to existence.

I have no idea if Escher meant this when he drew the hands but his engraving captures it nevertheless.

The reason I mention this piece of art is because, if you are a particularly stupid species you can reverse this process. All you need do is replace the pencils with rubbers and you have the perfect image of what we are currently doing in our crisis of collective indebtedness.

So for example the Greeks, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish are all erasing themselves in an effort to pay off debt via austerity. Austerity which has so far, failed to reduced the debts but has erased the means by which they had hoped to pay the debts. In each of those countries the economy has shrunk faster than the burden of debts, leaving them worse off than before. Which is why each of them has suffered credit downgrades.

So far so stupid.  What is worse, according to all our leaders and especially all our banks, there is no alternative, no other way out.

I do not think this is true. I suggest an alternative is what we might call a people’s debt jubilee. The idea of a debt jubilee is an old one. I think a collective pan-European, even global, jubilee is worth looking at.

At the moment we are in a funny situation where we may personally regard the situation in Greece, Ireland and Portugal as sad, but we are encouraged nevertheless to see it on a national level, as both just and inevitable because, so we are told, it is a simple story of debtor nations such as Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, owing vast amounts to the creditor nations like France and Germany.

So, we have the Greeks being crucified by ‘austerity’ in order to pay debts their government owes. Their government owes vast amounts of money partly because of debts it incurred through its own borrowing for its own expenditures, but partly also because it took on the private debts incurred by Greek banks.  The combination has proven to be unsupportable. Ditto for the Spanish, Irish and Portuguese. That’s the story of the ‘debtor’ nations.

But in the ‘creditor’ nations we find something at odds with the official debtor/creditor story. For here too, people, ordinary people, in France, Germany and the UK, are also suffering austerity measures. Here the austerity is blamed upon having to bail out the Greeks, or the Irish , Portuguese or Spanish.

The thing to remember here, is, to focus on the German/Greek example, that the German’s aren’t bailing out the Greeks because they love them so much. They are bailing out the Greeks in order that the Greeks can bail out the German banks. The German banks lent so much money to the Greek State (its various state enterprises) and Greek Banks, that if the Greeks don’t pay it all back – the private debts between private banks as well as State debts, then the German banks implode.

So the reality is the German’s aren’t bailing out ‘the Greeks’, they are bailing out private German banks and their private German debt agreements, The same is true of the Irish and British. The British recently ‘helped’ Ireland with a loan most of which will end up in British Banks. The Portuguese bail out will end up in France and Germany by one route or another.

So when we hear or use the phrase ‘German banks are exposed to Greek debt’ or ‘Greek losses’ what this means is that German banks lent money to Greek enterprises and banks and may now not get it back, if the Greeks default.  Which at first hearing sounds like it’s the Greeks fault. They don’t pay. They are at fault.  Fair enough.

The familiar charge is that the Greeks knowingly took on loans they could not pay back because they wanted a life style they could not afford. But if that is true, if the Greeks ‘knowingly’ took on loans they could not afford, then the bankers also must have known.  Unless you are willing to believe that Greek or Portuguese or Irish, bureaucrats and businessmen – thousands of them across Europe – all managed to put, not one over, but hundreds of billions over, on those ‘smartest men in the room’, year after year, – unless you can believe that, then the much simpler alternative is that the bankers knew as well. If they knew then they too are guilty.

The bankers knowingly lent money to people who could not afford to pay it back. And we KNOW THIS IS TRUE.  The various swaps contracts the Greek government entered into with Goldman Sachs and a whole host of the other Big Banks were specifically designed to hide the true extent of the indebtedness of the Greek government. The Banks KNEW, but lent anyway. And they lent to Spain and Portugal and Italy as well as Greece. This will become painfully clear shortly

Thus the real story is that the banks were delighted to lend to the Greek State, its state owned enterprises, its municipalities, its various private banks and its people, way beyond their ability to pay back. This was the bubble of lending, leverage and deferred payments. The bubble was NOT created by ordinary people, or even their national governments, hoodwinking the world’s banks. It was the world’s banks, those in Greece AND Germany and elsewhere, conniving together to lend and spend and lend some more, much more than was wise. The government’s got to strut on the world stage and talk about their economic brilliance and miracle working, the bankers got massive bonuses and the people made hay while the sun of their masters shone down on them.

So if the Greek state ‘should have known better’ and ‘been more prudent’ then so too should the German French, American and British banks who facilitated their profligacy. And yet all the banks in all the  countries have shed their losses on to the public in all their countries. Not only are the Greek people having to suffer austerity to bail out German banks, so are the German people. The Greeks suffer to pay the Germans, while the Germans suffer to bail out the Greeks so they can pay the Germans. Two hands determindly erasing each other, and for what and whose benefit? The Greeks? The Germans? Or the Bankers?

And this is where the idea of a ‘People’s Debt Jubilee’ comes in. At the moment we are told debtor nations are paying creditor nations. Whereas in reality, the people in all nations are paying and suffering, in order to pay the debts of private banks in all the nations. The division isn’t between nation and nation but between the banks and the people of every nation. In every nation austerity is erasing the wealth, vitality and well-being of the people in large part to pay off the private debts incurred by private banks.

The vitality and hopes of people in Greece are being erased to pay German banks and so too are those of people in Germany. The hands are erasing each other.

But imagine if the German people and the Greek people both said we will not repay private debts of German or Greek or any other banks. The obvious objection is that the German banks would die. And so they would.  But the German people would no longer have to pay the massive bail-outs THEY too have been paying. Let’s not forget that the German tax payer has so far payed hundreds of billions to bail out GERMAN banks dwarfing what they have so far paid to Greek banks. On top of which the money they  will give to Greece is FOR THE GERMAN BANKS anyway.

If the German Banks were left to suffer their private losses then neither the Greeks NOR the German people would have to keep bailing them out. And all that public money from the German tax payer and the Greek taxpayer, currenlty being bled from the people of those nations into private banks would be freed to invest in real production and employment, in both countries. Rather than bail out our present, insolvent banks who remain insolvent even after being bailed out, we would all be better off letting them die, and then putting our bailout money in to new, clean and solvent banks.

At the moment two nations are being yoked to pay off the debts and stupid lending decisions of insolvent private German banks. The same is being done in every other nation to pay off someones banks. It is not nation against nation it is banks against people.

If there were a People’s Debt Jubilee, where BOTH the Greek and the German people refussed to pay the private debts of insolvent German banks, then those German banks would die, true enough. But would the German people be worse off than they will be if they continue, along side the Greeks, to bail out those banks? I don’t think we know the answer for sure.  BUT we do have two and a half years of evidence that diverting public money from real investment in productive employment has not created a sustainable recovery. Our present ‘austerity to pay the banker’s debts’ policy is impoverishing us all. It has set the hands erasing each other. Whereas public money spent on investing in real growth and employment, instead of stuffing the bonus pot for a few thousand bankers, would set the hands drawing each other again and stop them from erasing each other.

At the very least I think we should explore the idea of a People’s Debt Jubilee.  Not just defaulting on what we owe to others but declaring that those who owe us, are free of debt as well. I think we would find we would all be better off if we stopped making each other pay off some greedy bankers’ debts.

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I’ve been writing in this blog on several occasions about how national debt is being used as a tool of political power by the financial elite in Europe in particular. Now I would like to examine some initiatives to fight back against this form of oppression.

On Saturday, October 8 began the Week of Global Action Against Debt and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) which will continue until Sunday, October 16. Here’s what the call-out for the week says:

“Instead of new mechanisms of indebtedness and the perpetuation of illegitimate debt, people everywhere call for the repudiation of illegitimate and odious debts and the consolidation of economic and financial alternatives that are sovereign and democratic and based on respect for human rights and Nature.

Let us join forces and say NO to illegitimate debt: acquired on people’s behalf but destined to benefit a few corrupt bankers and politicians, huge multinationals, speculative interests, and the criminalization and repression of popular resistance. Peoples the world over demand accountability and transparency in public finances. We demand the suspension of debt payments and the realization of comprehensive and participatory debt audits NOW!  The protection of human rights must be the top priority of all States.

Let us break the chains of debt! so as to be able to resolve matters that are central to life like poverty eradication, the defense of human and peoples’ rights and of Nature, political and financial sovereignty, the building of socio-economic systems that are inclusive and equitable for all, women and men alike.

To build this other possible world, mobilizing people is our main tool.  We thus call on organizations and people everywhere to mobilize together in a Week of Global Action Against Debt and IFIs, October 8 – 16. We invite everyone to join, to maximize their creativity and carry out whatever actions are appropriate to make visible our common demands and support concrete struggles.”

It’s a bit difficult to find out what actions have actually been planned, but at least in Latin America and the UK there are some events going on. The actions seem to be mostly talks and discussions, so this week of action seems to be mainly about raising awareness.

Also on this Saturday began the Brussels Agora of the Indignant movement where debt-related issues will be discussed amongst other things. Debt could be the one pressing issue that the movement could rally around on the global revolution day on October 15, but due to the decentralised nature of the movement it’s unlikely that there will arise any one unified message for that day. Hopefully the issue will be picked up by the various local assemblies in the months to come, since any popular response to the debt crisis needs to be international and not limited to just those countries with the most acute problems to have an effect on actual policy.

There’s also an ongoing campaign for the establishment of an international debt court for assessing both the sustainability and legitimacy of national debt. Here’s what they write on the homepage:

“Despite past debt relief initiatives over the last decade, huge amounts of unpayable and illegitimate debt remain. Not only developing countries, but also middle-income countries and developed countries like Greece and Ireland face soaring debt levels. Yet there exist no resolution mechanisms for sovereign debt. We want to change this. We need a structural solution that is independent of the parties involved and takes into account both borrowers’ and lenders’ responsibilities. We therefore advocate for a fair and independent Debt Court. This Court would be:

  • Neutral: It cannot be controlled by creditors like the IMF or Northern governments, nor should assessments of debt sustainability be made by interested parties;
  • Comprehensive: it must deal with all debts from all lenders and look at the justice of the lending behind the debt, as well as the sustainability of the debt itself;
  • Accessible to ordinary people to give evidence;
  • Accessible to the debtor to launch proceedings and able to order an immediate stay on payments for the country concerned;
  • Legally enforceable

Such a process would have a far-reaching impact on the financial system and development and sovereignty of indebted countries.

We are calling on world leaders to establish an independent Debt Court. The Defuse the Debt Crisis campaign will focus on the G20 and the French Presidency of the G20 until the G20 summit in Cannes in November 2011.”

Now this is an example of a concrete plan that would go some ways to relieve debt-ridden countries from their plight. Under the current financial system the creditors have practically unlimited power to enforce their will upon their debtors by using organisations such as IMF and EU as their cronies. They’ve been able to create the illusion that any debt is solely the responsibility of the debtor and that any “haircut”, however minimal, on their part could only be due to their unmatched magnanimity. Since a country cannot declare bankruptcy, the creditors are able to keep bleeding their victims indefinitely.

Then there’s of course the possibility of direct action by the people. The Greek “I won’t pay” movement is a case in point. By a concerted effort to refuse to pay any taxes or other payments to the government, they’re trying to make it practically impossible for the Greek government to honour their commitments to the creditors. Obviously, such an approach holds many risks to the individuals, but as austerity is already wrecking the whole national economy, many people naturally feel that they have nothing to lose. In order to have any effect, however, they need actions of solidarity from the rest of Europe. People in those countries where the major creditor institutions have their headquarters need to pressure their governments to intervene with the unscrupulous behaviour of those institutions. The battle against debtocracy ought to be everybody’s business, since if we don’t do something about it now, the debt virus will eventually spread to all our countries.

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This is a talk by media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff, given at the Hello Etsy event in Berlin on September 18, 2011. Rushkoff talks about how the Internet has moved since its early days from a “read/write system” where people wrote the programs they used by themselves to a “read-only system” where the programs are handed to us in a (literal or figurative) box by a company. This has made us insensitive to the biases that are built into the software which, in turn, makes us vulnerable to exploitation. This also applies to the culture at large where we are being defined by what we consume rather than defining ourselves by what we create. Hence the case for a peer-to-peer economy where the line between the producer and the consumer gets blurred.

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