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Archive for December, 2011

The Hungarian paramilitary National Guard (disbanded in 2009)

 

The ongoing crisis of capitalism is bringing forth some extremely worrying trends. One of them is the rise of what can only be described as fascism – a nationalist, authoritarian, anti-intellectual and anti-pluralist ideology.

A good example of this trend is Hungary where the current right-wing government has been implementing some radical changes in the political system, taking advantage of their two-thirds majority in the parliament, as described by Éva S. Balogh here. Essentially, what they’re trying to create is a single-party led system with tight government control over the judiciary and the media. Fidesz, the ruling party, has been stepping up its nationalist rhetoric in recent years in an obvious attempt to curb the rising popularity of the extreme right Jobbik party, which in turn has been linked with violent actions against gypsies and homosexuals, amongst other things.

The situation in Hungary shows what can happen when the political elite totally loses its touch with the people. In Hungary this gaping chasm was revealed in a particularly dramatic way when an audio tape surfaced in 2006 where the incumbent socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted to lying to the public in order to win the last election and to doing “nothing” in his four years in office. But this is not just a Hungarian problem, the same thing is happening all over Europe. The ridiculous attempts by the European leaders to “solve” the debt crisis with austerity and more debt have made this rift between the elite and the people obvious to everyone. Such a situation is ripe for the populists to come in with their easy solutions that the public can at least understand.

On the other side of the pond, Chris Hedges has been talking about the Christian right as the “American fascists.” Hedges argues that the popularity of these cults arises from a general sense of despair, alienation and being left out that is caused by the economic and social deterioration of living communities. It’s the people who have lost their sense of purpose in life that are most vulnerable to cults promising immediate personal salvation and, more importantly, a sense of belonging that the living communities are no longer able to offer. This is also very much true for fascist ideology, as fascism is itself essentially a cult.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the current crisis and the era of the Great Depression at the turn of the 1930s when fascism triumphed in Europe last time. Of course, in an era of global capitalism and a highly integrated Europe, the kind of nationalisation of the economy that the fascist states of the 1930s implemented is not going to be feasible. And that’s why any nationalist rhetoric is today inherently false. As we’ve seen, any government is only going to be allowed to rule as long as it bows down to the will of international capital. Indeed, the Hungarian government has already had to back down on planned economic reforms because of opposition from the EU. Uniting the nation under a “strong leader” is clearly a hopeless task under the circumstances where every political leader is made look weak by the forces of capital.

What this rise of nationalist rhetoric has been able to achieve, however, is a legitimisation of the kind of racist and xenophobic thought that used to be relegated to the fringes. It’s very difficult to fight this tendency by the usual means of suppression or tolerance propaganda since the hatred is so deeply rooted in that very real sense of despair Hedges is talking about. That’s why any real changes in the thinking of the general public can only happen through a transformation of the social relations within the society. If we want to promote humanist and egalitarian values, we need to rebuild our communities upon those values, thus neutering the destructive forces of both nationalism and consumer culture. Only then can we begin to alleviate the sense of despair that is holding our society in its grip. Naturally, this must be done from the ground-up and on a voluntary basis or it’s not going to work. That, I think, is our most important task for the coming decades. If we fail in this task, then I’m afraid our future is going to be shaped by forces hell-bent on destroying civilisation as we know it.

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Processing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill in the US House of Representatives has been pushed back into the new year, so there’s still time to campaign against it. This bill, which builds on the PROTECT IP Act that was earlier introduced to the senate, is a major step on the way to a total control of the Internet by the copyright industry and the US government. The bill could make major sites such as YouTube and Tumblr completely unavailable in the US, which would of course suit the copyright industry perfectly since it would force the users of those sites to move to services owned and controlled by the industry. It’s difficult to even imagine the detrimental effects this could have to the Internet culture, which is based on an ethos of sharing and do-it-yourself, as a whole.

Here are some instructions on how to act against the bill:
http://americancensorship.org/

Conveniently, a large number of US corporations sent this letter to the congress in support of the bill, so we now know which companies to boycott. There’s an ongoing effort to gather their contact information in case you want to inform them of your disapproval:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1xjisu18X6s7lPtAsIQg5Ol3KJjymPT2az1kasQVwGiw/preview?pli=1&sle=true

In case the worst comes to the worst and the bill passes, all is not lost, however, as there are ways to circumvent the blocking mechanisms the bill allows. One easy tool for this is the ThePirateBay Dancing! -plugin for Firefox:
https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/mafiaafire-piratebay-dancing/

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Act against ACTA now!

Freedom of information is once again under attack around the world. As everyone is probably aware, the draconian Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is currently going through the measures in the House of Representatives in the US. Here in Europe, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), already signed by the US, Australia and several other countries, is coming up for vote in the European Parliament in the near future. If the parliament rejects the agreement, it won’t be adopted in Europe, at least not for the time being. It may be a long shot trying to stop it now, but at least we won’t be letting this thing go through without a racket.

Here’s an analysis of the agreement from La Quadrature de Net:
http://www.laquadrature.net/en/acta-updated-analysis-of-the-final-version

And here’s how you can act against it:
https://www.laquadrature.net/wiki/How_to_act_against_ACTA

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I have blogged before about the theological underpinnings of the contemporary discourse on the economy. Here’s an excerpt from a 1999 article by theologian Harvey Cox where he discusses the religious aspects of free market ideology:

“A few years ago a friend advised me that if I wanted to know what was going on in the real world, I should read the business pages. Although my lifelong interest has been in the study of religion, I am always willing to expand my horizons; so I took the advice, vaguely fearful that I would have to cope with a new and baffling vocabulary. Instead I was surprised to discover that most of the concepts I ran across were quite familiar.

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine’s City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies.

The East Asians’ troubles, votaries argue, derive from their heretical deviation from free-market orthodoxy—they were practitioners of “crony capitalism,” of “ethnocapitalism,” of “statist capitalism,” not of the one true faith. The East Asian financial panics, the Russian debt repudiations, the Brazilian economic turmoil, and the U.S. stock market’s $1.5 trillion “correction” momentarily shook belief in the new dispensation. But faith is strengthened by adversity, and the Market God is emerging renewed from its trial by financial “contagion.” Since the argument from design no longer proves its existence, it is fast becoming a postmodern deity—believed in despite the evidence. Alan Greenspan vindicated this tempered faith in testimony before Congress last October. A leading hedge fund had just lost billions of dollars, shaking market confidence and precipitating calls for new federal regulation. Greenspan, usually Delphic in his comments, was decisive. He believed that regulation would only impede these markets, and that they should continue to be self-regulated. True faith, Saint Paul tells us, is the evidence of things unseen.

Soon I began to marvel at just how comprehensive the business theology is. There were even sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and what theologians call an “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.” My curiosity was piqued. I began cataloguing these strangely familiar doctrines, and I saw that in fact there lies embedded in the business pages an entire theology, which is comparable in scope if not in profundity to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. It needed only to be systematized for a whole new Summa to take shape.

At the apex of any theological system, of course, is its doctrine of God. In the new theology this celestial pinnacle is occupied by The Market, which I capitalize to signify both the mystery that enshrouds it and the reverence it inspires in business folk. Different faiths have, of course, different views of the divine attributes. In Christianity, God has sometimes been defined as omnipotent (possessing all power), omniscient (having all knowledge), and omnipresent (existing everywhere). Most Christian theologies, it is true, hedge a bit. They teach that these qualities of the divinity are indeed there, but are hidden from human eyes both by human sin and by the transcendence of the divine itself. In “light inaccessible” they are, as the old hymn puts it, “hid from our eyes.” Likewise, although The Market, we are assured, possesses these divine attributes, they are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith. “Further along,” as another old gospel song says, “we’ll understand why.”

As I tried to follow the arguments and explanations of the economist-theologians who justify The Market’s ways to men, I spotted the same dialectics I have grown fond of in the many years I have pondered the Thomists, the Calvinists, and the various schools of modern religious thought. In particular, the econologians’ rhetoric resembles what is sometimes called “process theology,” a relatively contemporary trend influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In this school although God wills to possess the classic attributes, He does not yet possess them in full, but is definitely moving in that direction. This conjecture is of immense help to theologians for obvious reasons. It answers the bothersome puzzle of theodicy: why a lot of bad things happen that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God—especially a benevolent one—would not countenance. Process theology also seems to offer considerable comfort to the theologians of The Market. It helps to explain the dislocation, pain, and disorientation that are the result of transitions from economic heterodoxy to free markets.”

Now Cox’s analogy isn’t just a case of simple sophistry. There’s good reason to trace the very idea of the free market as a naturally occurring phenomenon back to the Christian notion of natural law.¹ Some have also argued that Adam Smith originally conceived his famous invisible hand as literally the hand of God.² It’s no coincidence, then, that free market ideology is littered with such mythic elements.

I’m not pointing this out to ridicule those who believe in the free market myth. On the contrary, I think myths often have an element of truth in them. Indeed, myths may be even necessary for us to fully understand the world. But it’s when we fail to distinguish between myth and reality, and designate some particular myth as the Universal Truth, that we end up with fundamentalism. This is, I think, something we’ve been witnessing in the recent decades with the uncritical application of neoliberal policies, regardless of the destruction they’ve caused to civil societies and nature. What ought to be done now is to step back and evaluate the rationalisations we use for our economic activities in terms of their consequences in the real world, rather than in terms of ideology, and then start rebuilding the economy from the ground up with ecological and social sustainability in mind. The economy is not going to fix itself, no matter how much we believe in it.

¹ For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves, which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness… (Romans 2:14-15)

² See eg. Denis: The Invisible Hand of God in Adam Smith (2005)

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I promised to write a quick review of this book, so here goes.

The Debt Generation (2010) is based on commentary written on the financial pages of The Guardian during the period from July 2008 to May 2010. The postings have been somewhat edited for a better flow of the text, but the basic diary type structure has been preserved, so what the book provides is a real-time account of the debt crisis as it unfolded during that period with fresh reactions to whatever news happened to be current at any particular time.

The writer of the commentary, David Malone, is not an economist, but a film maker, so what you get is a layman’s perspective, although informed by contacts in the world of finance. I consider this a positive thing, since economists in general tend to have an amazing capability of disregarding any facts that don’t fit into their preconceived idea of how the world works. This probably has something to do with the fact that mainstream economics as a field of inquiry is much more about pure ideology than empirical science.

Partly because of that, the discourse on economy that we get in the media is chock-full smoke and mirrors and is designed to mislead rather than inform the general public. The media and the politicians deliberately paint a picture of the economy as an esoteric sphere of near magic that only “experts” can master. This is, of course, precisely what these self-proclaimed experts want: it gives them free rein to steal and plunder as much as they want behind the facades of the Potemkin village.

I’m sure most of us common people are able to intuitively sense the vast gulf that exists between what the pundits in the financial press are saying and how the everyday reality in which we live appears to us. But what we’re lacking are the tools to actually call the pundits on their bullshit. And that’s what this book offers. Malone has a talent of explaining even the most arcane workings of the financial system with all its fancy derivative products and risk dispersion schemes in terms that everyone can understand, whilst exposing the lies and half-truths our political leaders fed us at the time, and still keep feeding us. Piece by piece, you can get a fairly complete picture of how the system is rigged against us. And that is the first step on the way of changing it.

Despite its slightly awkward form, the book is also an entertaining read with an abundance of English wit included (just consider this entry from the index: politicians; arse-licking, 201, burbling, 131, craven, 144, idiotic, 130, 106, impotent, 133, lick-spittle, 106, lost, 96, mewling, 133, slavering, 222, supine, 231, tame, 2, wheezing, 52, whimpering, 217). We definitely need more books like this; books that cut through the rhetoric and offer a common sense view of the society we live in.

I’ve posted excerpts of this book on this blog before (here and here), and will probably post some more in the near future, but I really recommend you get the book itself. I also recommend Malone’s blog for an ongoing commentary of the ever-deepening crisis.

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This is a speech given in 2008 by Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s most prominent environmental activists who has specialised on issues of food and water security. Here, she argues that the commodification of food and industrial food production have contributed to increasing poverty, malnutrition and outright famine in the third world. By dumping cheap, subsidised agricultural produce into the third world countries and by stealing their traditional crop varieties using intellectual property rights, Western corporations have practically destroyed whole subsistence economies in many parts of the world.

This commodification is of course not just a problem of the third world. Also here in the West, our food system has become inherently diseased with obesity and various food-related illnesses running rampant while millions of animals are tortured horribly in the food factories on a daily basis. When it comes to food, the “free market” is literally an engine of death.

Shiva has gone as far as to say that the only way we can actually survive as a species is by switching to a system of local, organic agriculture globally. Clearly, if we want to create sustainable communities, food production is one of the first things we need to take back from the corporate machine. So, support your local small-time farmers, or if you have a big enough yard, grow your food yourself! For a healthier culture and a healthier body!

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Perhaps the number one reason why camping on the streets has genuine radical potential is that it draws people from very different walks of life together. In everyday life, we tend to deal mostly with people of similar status to our own which makes it difficult to empathise with those who are in a totally different position within the society. What’s more, our culture teaches us to look down on those who have “failed in life”, the homeless, the beggars, the mental patients and so forth. Until we start getting rid of this tendency as a society, I don’t think any radical change is possible. As long as we keep excluding groups of people from our communities, we’re simply reinforcing the structures that create the inequality and oppression we’re supposed to be fighting against in the first place. It would be a fallacy to think that we’re not a part of those structures ourselves. Putting our bodies on the streets forces us to recognise and deal with this reality. Stanley Rogouski makes this important point about the Occupy Wall Street encampment in his article over at Counterpunch:

“To anybody who spent time in the now demolished Zucotti Park tent city, there are no longer two clear cut categories, homeless and not homeless, human and untouchable, dirty hippy or respectable protester. What made Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park so potentially radical is the way it taught us that homelessness is not an either/or proposition. There are not homeless people and not homeless people. There’s a continuum, running all the way from members of the “1%” like Michael Bloomberg all the way down to the demented, mentally ill man sleeping on the grating of a side street waiting for January, and the cold, to die. What separates a young idealist like Ketchup just starting her life, for example, from a lonely middle aged man like Ray Kachel headed for social oblivion? The answer would be “not very much.” What separates a member of the middle-class from the homeless man he walks over in Penn Station or the “dirty hippies” he used to smirk at as he walked by Zucotti Park? How many paychecks, how many medical emergencies, how many fights with his wife or his employer will it take before he’s out in the streets looking for a place to piss and finding that the Starbucks has converted them all into “employee only” restrooms. For most of us the answer would be “not very many.”

Occupy Wall Street at Zucotti Park took all of Wall Street’s victims and put them on public display, only a few blocks from the New York City Stock Exchange. It took the group of people most devastated by the “Great Recession,” people who were scammed into high interest, high risk mortgages by the casino on Wall Street, to the group of people who were most devastated by Bush’s crusade in the Middle East, homeless veterans of the Iraq war. But it did more. It gave them the opportunity to empower one another, to begin the process of building a community. It allowed the chronically homeless contact with people who had more social skills, who, perhaps, could teach them to pull themselves up off the streets. It brought the gay teenager who was kicked out of his home in the Bible Belt together with the middle aged liberal activist from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It brought the 22 year old, recent college graduate, too poor to move out from his parents house in the bad economy face to face with the laid off worker in his 40s and 50s. It dissolved the rigid social categories that separate us and allowed us to speak to one another as humans. It was, in short, the fulfillment of the words of Walt Whitman, that great New York poet who trod the ground around what is now Zucotti Park many times.

“STRANGER! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?”

Had the encampment at in Zucotti Park been allowed to persist through the winter, had the activists in Occupy Wall Street would have continued to feed the homeless and protect them from the police, they might also, in time, have secured help from the surrounding community. People might have brought their donations, not to the United Way or the local mega church, but right to the people who needed them.  Zucotti Park might have become a successful laboratory experiment in how to reclaim people who had fallen through the cracks into social oblivion. It might have exposed both the “1%” and the governments they own as the frauds they are. Clearly that could not go on. Maintaining occupied spaces also develops collective leadership. It requires people to understand the importance of camp discipline well known to any NCO in the military. It requires people to learn how to organize, to conduct outreach, to drive working groups and coordinate through general assemblies. Getting hauled off the Brooklyn bridge in handcuffs and spending 12 hours in jail with 125 other men begins to create the kind of bonds people develop in the military, only, in this case, those bonds are developed engaging in class war against your real enemies, not in an imperialist adventure overseas.”

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