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Archive for November, 2011

To follow up on my latest lash-out against capitalism, I present a quote by Silvia Federici, a veteran activist, feminist and Marxist, taken from a recent interview. Here, she situates the Occupy movement within the global anti-capitalistic movement. She also emphasises the importance of reaching out to those minorities that have been victimised the most by the capitalist system.

“I must add that, in the present economic context, is it impossible to take on Wall Street’s ‘crimes’ without confronting the entire economic system at the basis of its abuses. As with any other movements, there are different strands within the Occupations. Some participants may be satisfied with just obtaining a more regulated banking system, or a return to Keynesianism. But the economic crisis is bringing to light, in a dramatic way, the fact that the capitalist class has nothing to offer to the majority of the population except more misery, more destruction of the environment, and more war.

Occupations, in this context, are sites for the construction of a non-capitalist conception of society and a coming together of the practices that, in recent years, have begun to concretize this project. A sign of the broad scope of this movement and its capacity to resonate beyond downtown Manhattan is that in Egypt the people of the squares have recognized the commonality between their movement and that of OWS or Oakland.

As some have put it, the Occupy movement is the first worldwide anti-capitalist movement to appear in a long time in the US.  It is the first movement in this country to give expression to the growing revolt against the present economic and political order, which is the reason why it has spread so rapidly and has excited the collective imagination to such a degree.

[…]

I agree with Mike Davis, however, that the movement should not be too eager to produce programmatic demands and should concentrate, instead, on making its presence more visible, on reaching out to other communities, and on ‘reclaiming the commons.’ This is beginning to happen with the migration of the occupations into the neighborhoods, which is essential to reconstruct a social fabric that has been dismantled through years of neoliberal restructuring and the gentrification and suburbanization of space.”

The most crucial test, however, will be whether the Occupy movement has the capacity to address the divisions that have structured the history of this continent. Clearly, you cannot have an egalitarian society without undoing the legacy of centuries of enslavement, genocide, and imperial warfare that have left a deeply scarred and divided social body. Confronting racism, colonialism and other forms of oppression and exploitation, both within the movement and in broader society and its institutions, will have to be the centerpiece of the drive for the production of a new “constitution,” whatever forms this may take.

A positive sign is that the composition of the movement is already quite diverse, although the degree of diversity varies in different parts of the country. It has been a long time since we’ve seen a movement bringing together students, nurses, veterans, radicals and trade unionists with immigrant- and people of color-led grassroots community organizations. The key questions will be whether this movement can be a bridge to the millions of incarcerated in the US jails, or to the many more who cannot take their money out of the banks because they have no bank accounts, and whether the movement’s agenda can include an end to the criminalization of undocumented immigrants and the policy of deportation.”

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In recent weeks, we’ve been witnessing more and more police crackdowns on the Occupy-movement in the US. Huge amounts of police resources have been used to disperse the occupiers’ camps, often only for them to return in larger numbers the next day or so. We’ve also learned that these crackdowns have been coordinated on a nationwide level.

From an European perspective, this is of course nothing new. We can still well remember the epic battle for Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square in early August (see here, here, here, here and here for a vivid description of the events), and the crackdown on the Alexanderplatz acampada in Berlin in late August (a couple of videos here and here). A particularly tragicomic example of this campaign to crush any attempts to erect a camp in a public space can be seen in this video where a whole legion of police in a military formation attacks a handful of protesters sitting on pieces of cardboard in La Défense in Paris.

All these incidents beg the question, why? Why are these occupations perceived as such a great threat that the authorities are willing to go to extreme lengths, and even to use illegal methods to make them go away? I mean, most of these encampments are very small and hardly represent any kind of threat to general order. Even the largest camps have had only a few hundred people staying overnight, a tiny fraction of all the people who populate public spaces in large cities on a daily basis. I think we can dismiss the official explanations, such as safety or hygiene, right off the bat. Naomi Wolf has suggested that the US crackdowns may have been orchestrated by congressmen who fear changes of legislation that would threaten their privileges. I think, however, that this is also too simplistic a view. The campers are pretty far from a position where they could actually influence federal legislation.

To answer the question, we need to look at how the concept of public space has changed in recent decades. Not so long ago, public squares were places where people could gather freely to discuss pressing issues within the community, places of political engagement in other words. Since then, most of these places have been sold to private companies and limited to just certain kind of behaviour. They have been turned into places of consumption where any other behaviour is considered “loitering” and thus subject to police repression. Camping on the squares is seen as a transgression of these new, stricter rules of behaviour.

This change of concept has been no accident. It’s an integral part of the ongoing project to subjugate the entire society to capitalist control. This happens by way of privatising what used to be the public sphere, or the commons. We can see this in the digital domain with the ever-expanding intellectual property rights. We see it in the Third World where foreign investors are buying off large areas of agricultural land, forcing local independent peasants to become wage labourers. In Europe, we see this more and more with the privatisation of public services. And the world over we see it with the privatisation of parks, town squares and other spaces used by the general public.

What happens is that when the commons goes, so goes the community. And when the community goes, politics becomes impossible, since what is politics if not dealing with the community, that which is common to many? This is the ultimate goal of the capitalist project: the eradication of politics and thus, of course, the end of democracy (Again, I need only to point to Margaret Thatcher’s famous line: “There is no alternative.” You will be assimilated.).

The most important thing the occupiers have done is that they have created new communities, literally from the ground up. They have taken these once public spaces and entered them back into the sphere of the commons. They have thus opened up a space for genuine, creative political discussion, as opposed to the charade of representative politics that the media keeps shoving down our throats whilst claiming that it has something to do with “democracy”. It’s not just a question of “free speech”, it’s a question of opening up a space where that speech can have real meaning and real repercussions. They’re not there to challenge the privileges of some individual group of people, they’re there to challenge the whole system and the presumptions that are used to justify it. That’s what the ruling elite is the most terrified about: that their carefully weaved web of lies gets exposed. And that’s precisely what has happened with the crackdowns: the capitalist society has been exposed as the system geared towards total control that it is.

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I thought I’d share this poster as I found it extraordinarily spot on, and I’m speaking from personal experience here. I’ve certainly done a fair deal of wrestling with these kinds of feelings. What I’d like to add to the poster’s message is that it’s not necessary to actually achieve a revolution to alleviate these symptoms. Simply recognising your predicament, making the necessary moral conclusions and then acting upon them can go a long way to restore a sense of meaning. Alienation is not a fact of life, it can be overcome. So don’t dispair.

(Source: End of The World Media)

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While the mainstream media and the political puppets in Europe keep spewing their crypto-racist propaganda about the “lazy Greeks” who spent more than they could afford and now need to be “saved” by taking away their right to choose their own rulers, it’s sobering to read this article by the investigating journalist Greg Palast, adapted from his new book Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores (2011).

The article elaborates how a small group of American bankers have knowingly and deliberately driven national economies of different countries to the ground since the late 1990s. The story begins when the bankers lobbied the Clinton administration to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, which allowed the large US banks to start dealing in “derivatives”, that is bets on the future value of assets. Using international organizations such as the World Bank and WTO as their tools, they basically blackmailed smaller nations to lift any restrictions to foreign banks they had in place for their local markets, thus allowing the US banks to dump their “products” that they knew perfectly well included worthless assets to pension funds the world over, causing local banks to collapse and resulting in the destruction of civil societies we can now see in various European countries. And now, of course, the banksters are back for the “fire sale” of national assets, as Palast puts it. There’s really no need to make up any conspiracies about secret societies, this is all happening in broad day light. The most shocking part of the whole story is that the whole scam was carried out in a perfectly legal way. Now if that doesn’t convince you that Western democracy is seriously broken, I don’t know what will.

Of course, these days the bankers no longer even need to actually engage in lobbying to squeeze profits out of the national treasuries now that the European elite has been kind enough to hand the formal ability to set laws straight to the bankers themselves. Really, you couldn’t make this shit up. The complete submissiveness of the political elite to even the most outrageous demands of the bankster gang simply boggles the mind. I have a terrible hunch that if we don’t do something about this madness now, there will come a day when our children will curse us bitterly for our passivity.

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As I wrote earlier, the recent events in European politics have blatantly shown that the elite is no longer even trying to uphold the semblance of democracy in Europe. Further evidence of this has emerged since as in both Greece and Italy new governments were instated without elections. Both new prime ministers have a background in the banking world, and you can bet your cojones that’s no coincidence. The slippery slope towards totalitarianism we’re on just got a helluva lot steeper. Here’s a quote from a good overview of the affair from Jérôme E. Roos:

“Last week, as bond markets rebelled over Papandreou’s unexpected flirtation with democracy, investors panicked and immediately turned their sights on Italy. Within a matter of days, Italy’s borrowing costs soared to the level where Greece, Ireland and Portugal had previously required EU bailouts. But unlike these smaller countries, Italy — the third largest sovereign debtor in the world — is considered both too big to fail and too big to bail.

And so Merkel and Sarkozy, backed by the financial firepower of the IMF and ECB, decided to take radical action. As one official confirmed last week, “we’re on our way to moving out Berlusconi.” Indeed, according to Fraser Nelson, “by last weekend, it was undeniable that an operation to remove Berlusconi had begun.” To begin with, Olli Rehn wrote a letter to the Italian finance minister demanding exact details about the 39 reform measures imposed by the ECB.

Meanwhile, further IMF inspections were announced to step up the pressure, and the ECB deliberately suspended its support by buying up a bare minimum of Italian bonds, all “to send an unmistakable Old Europe message: we have ways of making you quit.” Indeed, within days, the governments of both Greece and Italy had fallen, bringing an ignominious end to Berlusconi’s 17-year domination of Italian politics and the four-decade Papandreou dynasty.

The EU-sponsored coup d’étât is so transparent that even the pro-market Economist now confirms that “the immediate cause of [Papandreou and Berlusconi’s] downfall is plain: the ultimatum they received from euro-zone leaders at the G20 summit in Cannes to reform their economies — or else.” And so, just like NATO forced out Gaddafi, the EU has successfully forced out Berlusconi and Papandreou. If anything, this is the putsch of the century.

[…]

But a coup wouldn’t be a coup if its instigators failed to replace the overthrown tyrant with a puppet of their own. And so France and Germany further stepped up the pressure on the Greek and Italian heads of state. The New York Times cites a former top-ranking Italian government official as saying that Sarkozy and Merkel “privately urged Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano, to pick the technocrat, Mr. Monti” to form a new government.

The choice for Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos — both US-trained economists — as the new leaders of Italy and Greece has been justified with the argument that their expertise on financial issues will help them push through the necessary austerity measures and structural reforms to contain the crisis. The idea is to transcend “party  politics” and subject national decision-making to the “rule of experts” with superior knowledge of the issues at hand.

In a ridiculously naive article, the BBC argues that “technocrats, by reputation, competence and experience, can persuade the markets and eurozone leaders that they represent change.” According to Marco Incerti of the Centre for European Policy Studies, “the markets and the international partners of these two countries are looking for concerted answers and determined answers and these can’t be provided by political figures.”

But, as future weeks and months will attest, there is nothing apolitical about having a neoclassical economist as head of government. In the end, as Heather Stewart points out, economic reforms and budget cuts are profoundly political issues, and technocracy is really just a thinly veiled nom de guerre for a much more sinister plot. In fact, the supposedly “neutral” Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos come with strong ideological and financial strings attached.

[…]

The son of a banker, Mr. Monti studied economics at Italy’s elite Bocconi University and at Yale. He sat on the board of multiple large multinationals, was an EU Commissioner, is a high-profile member of the shadowy Bilderberg Group, and serves as Italian Chairman for the Trilateral Commission — a think tank described by Piergiorgio Odifreddi as an “ultra-liberal American, European and Japanese Masonry inspired by David Rockefeller.”

To top the bill, Monti — who has been appointed to solve a crisis that started not in Italy but on Wall Street – still sits on the advisory board of Goldman Sachs. You can’t make this stuff up! To make matters worse, Monti is not the only supposedly neutral technocrat with ties to the “giant vampire squid“. Mario Draghi, the new ECB President, was European President for Goldman at the time it helped Greece obscure its true debt levels to allow it to enter the euro.

Lucas Papademos, meanwhile, is a former Vice-President of the ECB and also sits on the Trilateral Commission. Here, the connection with the ECB is particularly worrisome as the central bank is exposed to Greek debt to the tune of at least 45 billions euros. By planting a former Vice-President at the head of the Greek government, the ECB hopes to ensure that it will actually get all that money back. There is a blatant conflict of loyalties here.

Ultimately, as Richard Morris wrote for the New Statesman, Berlusconi and Papandreou were forced to step down “because the markets thought it would probably be for the best if one of their own was given the chance to run things for a while.” And this is the outcome: an unaccountable clique of bankers taking charge of the crisis. Robert Saviano astutely observed the irony of it all: “It is clear that the markets have succeeded where the electorate, the opposition, the media and intellectuals have not.” “

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I just watched today on YouTube a video of the mock trial of Goldman Sachs that was held at Occupy Wall Street last week. While it’s admittedly tragicomic that we’re now more than three years into the current debt crisis and still nobody responsible (save Bernie Madoff) has gone to jail, as Matt Taibbi pointed out a while ago, I don’t agree with Chris Hedges that the main thing now is to return to the rule of law in finance. I think another quote from David Malone‘s excellent book The Debt Generation (2010) is in order here (I promise to write a review of the book later):

“If Goldman Sachs were to be found guilty¹, the case would no doubt be cited as an ugly ‘bad apple’ story, perpetrated by ‘rogue traders’. It would be a cautionary banker’s tale used to highlight their own horror at such ‘isolated’ bad practice. But, if you look around, it isn’t just a one-off. It’s not a case of one bad apple but more like an infected orchard.

There are currently investigations into the dealings of most of the world’s biggest global accountant firms, who along with the banks they ‘audit’, make up the muscle and sinew of the financial world.

All the investigations point to accountants seemingly blind to the very things they are supposed to be looking for. We see mortgage brokers not properly checking on the real ability of their buyers to pay the mortgage. We see the banks and brokers securitising those loans not properly checking the real quality of those loans. We see the banks’ auditors not properly checking the banks, and we see the ratings agencies not properly checking on the real quality of the securities but stamping almost anything as AAA guaranteed.

What we see are whole chains of people (and it’s people we are talking about here not some faceless automated ‘system’) choosing to ignore the law, and their moral obligation, and instead seize their share of the rotten profit. In many cases the bankers, their accountants and even their regulators are the same people who revolve from one position to another. So it’s not just Goldman Sachs bankers. Not just one bad apple. Not even just one bad tree. What we see is corruption from the roots up to the very top. Any horticulturist will tell you when an orchard is infected you cannot prune or simply remove the odd tree. You have to tear every last tree out by the roots and burn the lot. I’d say this is good and sound advice.

The financial system has become systemically corrupt. It is no longer fit for, or even designed, for the purpose of spreading wealth. It has become a means of looting wealth from those foolish enough to still observe the laws, and transferring it to those who regard themselves as far too clever and superior to have to bother with such trifling niceties.”

The keyword here, I think, is “systematically.” The problem we have is not individual greed or criminality, but a system that engenders and rewards unscrupulous profit-making, and nothing else. In this system laws are not seen as absolute limits but rather as obstacles to be negotiated.

I think the root of the problem is the fact that the financial system has become totally alienated from the real world. In the fantasy land of finance wealth can be created out of thin air and brokers bet on securities like they were race horses. Living in this fantasy land, these people fail to see that their decisions actually have effects on the lives of real people in the real world. Morality means little in a fantasy land. Morality can only arise from being an integral part of a genuine human society.

Nothing in this current financial system is worth salvaging. What we need is a totally new banking system that is wholly owned by the people, outlaws speculation and discourages hoarding of resources. But that’s not enough. We also need to take the production of those goods that are necessary for the sustenance of human societies back from the publicly traded corporations. That’s how we starve the vampire squid.

¹ Malone is referring to the fraud suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission in April 2010.

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Jérôme E. Roos wrote on this subject better than I possibly could, but I feel I also need to say something about the latest eurofarce that occurred around the proposed referendum on the latest Greek bailout package.

Judging from the reactions of the European elite on the referendum announcement (see Roos’ article for some quotes), it seems that all pretensions have now been dropped: there’s no longer even an effort to keep up the facade of democracy within the EU. Of course, we saw the same thing when the elite pushed through the European constitution back in 2009, despite the fact that the people of France, the Netherlands and Ireland had rejected it in a referendum. Every time the privileges of the financial market are seriously at stake, democracy gets suspended. Macroeconomic decisions are far too important to be left to the people. Too many people in the elite have too much to lose if those who don’t understand why it’s reasonable policy to pour trillions of euros of taxpayers’ money into insolvent banks are allowed to have their say.

A crisis situation always tends to bring forth the authoritarians (I’m sure I don’t need to provide examples of this). Authoritarianism, in turn, is a sign of fear. Leaders usually resort to force when they no longer trust that their policies have the popular support. This is the root of the current panic among the European elite: they are simply terrified of the European people. And it’s a perfectly reasonable fear. As we know from history, tyrants are nearly always deposed by their own subordinates. I think the elite has woken up to the fact that the majority of Europeans are no longer prepared to acknowledge their authority, and they’re now making the last desperate effort to institutionalise their mechanism to empty the public coffers into the bottomless pit of the banks, before they get knocked down from their thrones.

What we’re living through now is a classic “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment. The EU, once perhaps an idealistic project, has turned out to be little more than a vehicle for Emperor Finance to consolidate its autocracy in Europe. The naysayers were right all along. What we all can learn from the long-term EU critics, regardless of their political background, is a healthy scepticism towards any centralised power structures.

It’s important to realise that our current crisis not an economic crisis, but a political crisis and, thus, it can only be solved by changing politics. It’s clear we can’t trust our elites to do this for us. Only a genuine popular movement can give rise to lasting changes in the society. That’s why a genuine popular movement is so frightening to the elite, and that’s why they’re going to do everything they can to thwart any such movement. So we must be confident but prepared. Keep calm and occupy everything.

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