Right, that’s it, I’m calling it a day, at least at this place, and under this name. I will re-materialise somewhere else, very soon. If you need further directions to somewhere else, e-mail me. Thanks to all readers and those who have left comments here down the years.
Archive for July, 2011
On his excellent blog La pupila insomne, Cuban blogger Iroel Sánchez Espinosa collected the perspectives of five prominent Spanish activist intellectuals on the 15-M movement. These perspectives were originally published on 28th May.
Below is a translation of the views of each, which I had intended to publish sooner but alas forgot. However I think they are still very relevant, especially in light of the massive turnout in sweltering Madrid heat on the 24th of July past, which indicates that the 15-M movement is growing stronger, not receding.
My thanks to Iroel for allowing the translation to be published here. I have taken the liberty of abbreviating the biographies somewhat, due to the fact that few readers will find the longer biographies of any use.
A grave crisis of legitimacy
For years, the Spanish political system has built up a grave crisis of legitimacy. The starting point for the crisis can be found in the Transition process, which, instead of link with the democracy ‘murdered’ by the civil war, gave continuity to an important sector of Francoism. During the Transition the social left (neighbourhood movements, union bases, leftist party bases, Christian bases, nationalist movements..) gave way, made concessions, folded, or went home. This was all in order to avoid a new civil confrontation. As years passed, “Spanish democracy” did not evolve into a system of greater participation, of deepening of political and social rights, nor did it manage a real separation of powers, nor did it dissolve the Francoist power structure –it only managed it partially with the military, but not so with the judiciary, nor in the State executive, nor in the Church-. The Francoist apparatus and social bases continued to hold great power and political influence.
The alternating in power between the PSOE and PP has closed the political spectrum and blocked the possibility of a real democracy –or at least one that is not subservient to Francoism. The PSOE has undertaken the task of dismantling the productive system in line with European demands (industrial rationalization in the 1980s, dismantling of the public sectors). When the economic crisis spread, the ghost of Francoism was roused and the PP took up the task of warning us that “everything could be worse”, which is to say, there could be less niceties and more repression.
Sunday past there was a poster in the square that read “I voted for Sol”. The twenty-five thousand people who challenged the law on Saturday in the Puerta del Sol, the thousands of people who peacefully resisted yesterday in the Plaza de Catalunya have brought an independent variable to political life: there is an ever greater section of the population that has lost its fear and that wants a real change.
Ángeles Diez lectures in Political Sciences and Sociology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
We can now speak of a great social triumph
Whilst too early to make political predictions in the strict sense of the term, I think we can now speak of a great social triumph. Marx said that the most important result of a mobilisation is the way in which it transforms the people who participate in it. And after the mobilisation of 15-M, many young people –and many not so young- will not be the same again. The confluence of a series of circumstances has allowed the gains from previous experiences (the okupa movement, protests against the Iraq invasion, social forums), empowered by alternative media and social networks, to reach a turning point (or a boiling point) and bring forth a situation that is qualitatively different and full of possibilities. That famous conversion of quantity into quality. And vice-versa.
Carlos Frabetti is Italian but lives in Spain and writes in Spanish. He is a writer and mathematician, and member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He is president of the Association against Torture and founding member of the Alliance of Anti-Imperialist Intellectuals.
We will see many Puertas del Sol
Carlos Fernández Liria
I am of the opinion that the present crisis is a phase of another crisis that has been a long time coming. Since the 1960s, capitalism has not ceased to seek out a way of countering the blind alley of its productive system: a system obliged to grow and accumulate, on a finite planet, in which raw materials and energy resources are running out. Capitalism cannot maintain its rate of profit without accelerating the process. In order to do this, a revolution was begun in the 1980s against the poorest classes on the planet, at the same time as the process to dismantle the Welfare State and to proletarianise the middle classes got underway. Then came the onward surge from finance capital and what Naomi Klein has called disaster capitalism. It is not that capitalism can no longer allow a Welfare State, it is that it cannot even allow a society to be called by this name. It works better under conditions of generalised social disaster, for example, in Iraq. What Galbraith called the revolution of the rich against the poor is on the road to devastating the planet from a social and ecological point of view. We are on the brink of the abyss, but the only capitalist solution to the problems of capitalism is more capitalism, which is to say, to accelerate the process that will bring us into an unprecedented human disaster. It is hard to credit it: after millions of years of existence, human beings, in four hundred years of capitalism, are on the verge of destroying the planet. Capitalism has been little more than the blink of an eye, but it is proving to be fatally suicidal.
And so, what is happening in Spain is just another chapter in this panorama. We are going to see many more Puertas del Sol, many Qasbahs, many Tahrir Squares in the near future. The peoples will put up a fight, and resist this madness, this heinousness.
And here is my evaluation of the ‘spanish revolution’ and the elections. It all demonstrates that the terms have been reversed: the antisistema of the Puerta del Sol are in reality conservatives, among other things because they wish to conserve the planet. They also want to conserve common sense, dignity, good sense, prudence. Those who have voted PP en masse in the elections, by contrast, are partisans of the neoliberal revolution, the cruellest, the most destructive and the most radical that has ever been produced in history. They must be brought to a halt, along with this insanity, this delirium. There are growing numbers of people who see things this way. And as such, I think that after this summer, we will find that the so-called “Spanish revolution” has only just begun.
Carlos Fernández Liria is a philosopher, writer and scriptwriter and teaches at the Faculty of Philosophy at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
Repoliticization is a revolution
Santiago Alba Rico.
I think there are basically three questions we should try to answer.
Is the 15-M movement a revolution?
Obviously not: it has not transformed the system, nor has it brought down a government; it hasn’t even produced a proper confrontation. And nonetheless, there are historical contexts in which the only change to which one can aspire –and it is enormous- is to the very simple and unexpected one that something must happen. A miracle is simply a fact that occurs, not against the laws of nature, but against people’s expectations, and, in this case, against people’s hopelessness. The fact that it is not the right wing nor the Church that is taking to the streets, as had been happening in recent years, the fact that “savage democrats” have taken over squares and turned them into political literacy centres, is an event so small in itself, so great in its context, that we can say in a very precise way that it is in the almost-nothing where everything starts –or can start. And from the subjective point of view, there is something very symptomatic: it is not a revolution but its protagonists speak publicly of revolution, a term confined to history books and the language of advertising. Repoliticization is a revolution: this is how the demonstrators experience it. And names bring changes, at least at the level of consciousness.
Is the 15-M movement leftist?
Only potentially. As is happening in the Arab world with the leftist and Islamist forces, this movement is catching everyone a little on the back foot. That it is not a leftist movement is shown at the electoral level it has damaged the PP less than the PSOE and has benefitted UPyD, an authoritarian and ultranationalist party, with a very populist democratic language, but completely empty of social and economic content. Also the strong repression –and self-censorship- of the political terminology, the insistence on consensus, the dominant festive-self-referential character in assemblies of a motley composition which seek to avoid confrontation at all costs (with the system they have challenged and are challenging.
Should the 15-M movement be supported from the left?
Undoubtedly. It is a unique occasion, unexpected, marvellous. Because with all that said in the previous point is less relevant than the fact that the streets have been transformed into schools; the spontaneity has been quickly organised into very serious and active working groups where all that capital of militancy and knowledge accumulated by the left under the worst conditions now finds an auditorium of strangers ready to listen and learn. What the 15-M movement has put in gear is a gigantic process of political and organisational learning that now has to be radicalised. The foundations are in place: the demand for real democracy jars objectively, not only with fraud, manipulation and lies, but with an economic structure that disables the democratic character of institutions and simultaneously produces devastating effects both socially and for labour. The intuition is already there: the idea that the enemy of democracy is capitalism. To move away from all that, in the conditions in which the anticapitalist left finds itself at the moment, as a nearly defeated minority, would be a serious mistake. All of this has only just begun and we must start with them; we do not choose the conditions, they are presented by history in a format built from misgivings, mistakes and even hallucinations. This movement is an opportunity; not the one that we would have wished for ourselves but the one that a combination of work, chance and discontent has provided us. If water happens to turn to wine, against all predictions, let’s not ask that it be a Rioja on top of that; let’s be glad about it and get to work to improve the vintage.
Santiago Alba Rico is a television scriptwriter, playwright and prize-winning author.
Getting outraged is not enough
The protests that unfolded in Spain on the 15th of May indicate a turning point in the, as I see it, remarkable capacity of Spanish citizens to put up with attacks on their society. As such, they are something very positive, however, they only show outrage. It is true that this is no small thing, but, as Pietro Ingrao has indicated to Stephane Hessel, getting outraged is not enough. You have to get organised, to go into combat with a preconceived and appropriate plan, and keep the struggle going for as long as is needed. None of these questions has been adequately developed, even if the necessary and indispensable phase of outrage has just appeared.
When Franco attempted a coup d’état in 1936, Spanish people did not just get outraged, they mobilised and they confronted it. The indignados must now put forward the ways in which their demands can be met; the letters to Santa Claus that adorn the walls are not enough. They must identify and fight back against the forces that oppose the implementation of their just demands. They need to establish effective organisational forms. They need to maintain unity and they need to get ready for a long struggle. No-one told them it was going to be easy; it is simply indispensible in order to survive with dignity.
Pascual Serrano is a journalist and essayist. His articles have appeared in Público, Diagonal and Le Monde diplomatique.
When I do these translations about 15-M, I try to pick out stuff that is as relevant as possible to an English language readership with an interest in politics in Ireland. In doing so I’m not implying “hey – we all should be doing this!” but setting out stuff that for whatever reason –political culture, small country, different history- doesn’t seem to have any counterpart here. The intention is to introduce people to voices and ideas they mightn’t otherwise encounter. If you find it useful let me know. If you would like to know more about some area in particular, let me know.
This one here talks about the role of intellectuals in the 15-M movement, but also about how the political encounters of the assembly do not fit, nor should they be corralled, into the sort of conventional framework and categories habitually used for radical political organization. I am not quite sure how relevant this is to Ireland, what with there not being a great deal of intellectuals in public circulation. Nonetheless I think there are some interesting thoughts and some important details about the movement in this piece, originally published on Rebelión by Luis Martín Cabrera.
Intellectuals and 15-M: a modest proposal for our self-abolition.
This is not another article about the future of the 15-M movement, nor is it a more accurate theoretical diagnosis than others currently online. It is neither a prediction of the future nor a final analysis, but an attempt at an opening, to fuel the fires of rebellion and change, a modest contribution of someone who only wants to be an anonymous worker whose work is to write.
In recent months rivers of ink have flowed over what the 15-M movement is and what it is not. In a well-intentioned –but not always generous- way, some people have sought to see in the assemblies in the squares the confirmation of all their theories: they are communists, they are children of the enlightenment, it is the multitude in uprising on its immanent ground to put an end to capitalism, even the beehive without workers or queen. Others, in a less well intentioned way, have shouted “they are Rubalcaba’s[i] puppets”, “perroflautas”[ii] (what fascist mind could have invented this neologism!) “ETA infiltrators”. And, finally, more than a few sectors of the left, victims of millenarian conspiracy theories that supply power with a rationality that it fortunately does not have, have seen the 15-M as being consecrated by Punset and his disciples in the new faith of the mass communicators, the apotheosis of the new style book of reinvented capitalism.
It is logical that we all want to be right, we all want to see in the 15-M the confirmation of our view of the world and our longings. Everyone –and by everyone I refer here above all to the intellectuals –we want to give advice, to direct, to show, “not this way”, “this way”, “our historical experience says that..”, “don’t be naïve”. We even publish books to say “we had already told you about this”, “at last people are paying attention to me” and we don’t realise that to fill libraries with new books is not to change reality. We don’t realise that talking this way, looking in this way at the square, we are nothing more than entomologists that dissect the insurrection just as one might pull an insect apart. Angeles Díez –my personal sociologist- tells me that the most opportunistic or the most unconsciously reactionary are already dreaming about the moment when the 15-M no longer exists on the squares in order to exist solely in the libraries, a dissected butterfly, but above all, wishful thinking[iii].
However, the moment has come to invert one’s gaze, the time has come to suspend the infinite enjoyment that intellectual voyeurism provides, for a minute let us stop looking obsessively at the square, let us invert our field of vision, let us look now at ourselves looking, or even better, let us allow once and for all that the 15-M movement look at us, let us be objects and not merely subjects of analysis. To do this we could start by reading a now classic book by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward – Poor People’s Movements – about the successes and failures of social movements in the United States. In this book one can read how historically grassroots social movements – the union movement in the 30s or the civil rights movement in the 60s- made their biggest gains in the moment of the insurrection and they blow out and lose their force when the leaders try to orientate and structure the protest. Many times with the best of intentions the leaders of these movements brought people off the street to shut them up in offices, they called off protests to edit statutes and form organisations that ended up being co-opted by elites that are always more calm when they know who they have to deal with and how much a leader is worth.
The theses of Fox Piven and Cloward are of course highly debatable; and whilst it is indeed true that at times a powerful, structured vanguard organisation such as the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) during the dictatorship can be a tool of effective resistance, many other times the “organisation”, “the structure”, the “leaders”, “the party vanguard” and the “list of demands” can be a way of domesticating the insurrection (the history of the PCE itself during the transition is not far from this catastrophe). In this sense, the media and politicians are dying to put a face and a price on the leaders of the 15-M, but the movement has done something much more important, it has stolen Politics[iv] (with a capital letter and feminine) from politicians[v] (in lower case and masculine) just as fire is stolen from the gods, and while doing so has created new ways of speaking – “Democracy under construction, sorry for the inconvenience” –and a new time for decision making removed from the accelerated time of the markets, “we’re going slow because we’re going far”.
This new form of politics should not disown the strong tradition of struggle that exists in Spain and in other places, but nor should it pledge allegiance to it, because at the very least it has created, in its own right, a space –the assembly- where the following can be heard:
- An activist from a residents’ association explain how they defended a public school in Carabanchel from closure, because residents’ associations can be a powerful form of organisation based on the knowledge that living with others brings.
- A feminist explaining why domestic labour and care for the vulnerable is in the majority of cases unpaid and carried out by women because our constructs of gender have convinced us that domestic labour is not labour and care is a natural inclination of women.
- Two militants from the anti-racist brigades explaining how they intervene in order to stop the detention and mistreatment of undocumented immigrants; explaining what a CIE, an Internment Centre for Foreigners is, a mini Guantanamo that should also outrage us.
- A group of students from Juventud sin future [Youth without future] explaining that as long as we live in a capitalist world young people can have neither a present nor a future, they can only live in a time of precarity and uncertainty.
- Someone else talking about banks and politicians like them, and of people who are sitting in the square like us. Us against Them, the square, us, against them and their capitalist patriarchy.
- Someone who was interned in a psychiatric hospital talks about the need to question normality and straitjackets.
- Someone who asks for a minute’s silence for the disappeared under Francoism and who recounts that the building in front of us was the Security Headquarters, a torture centre.
All this and much more I was able to listen to in a day during the alternative debate on the State of the Nation in the Puerta del Sol, and without attending on the first day, when the proposals for the economy, education and health were being debated. Is this not an event in itself? Do we really need to insist on “organizing” this explosion of Politics out of fear of the future?
Eduardo Hernández recounts that in the few months of the movement’s life, many of the bourgeois conventions that defined the public sphere have been broken: people no longer applaud he or she who speaks well, or he or she who exhibits cultural capital, or rather they are not applauded simply for that. People applaud those who get more nervous or who lack cultural capital or words and facts, so that they can express what they have to express with their own words, which are worth as much or more than those of a university professor.
Those who speak in the squares are not nobodies, they are Esther, Juan, or perhaps Silvia from the residents’ association in Vallecas. In the squares the intellectuals have to wait their turn the same as everyone else and they have no surname or CV. It is logical that many intellectuals get nervous, accustomed as we are that we are immediately given the floor, the authority and the pulpit. And this is why it is doubly pathetic to hear Agustín García Calvo –with all due respect for his achievements- pontificating in the square and giving instructions to the assembly not to propose anything, because to propose is to fall into the language of the father, of the State, of the order that one is trying to combat. If he himself cannot see that “what we have left of the people”, to use a concept of his, are these assemblies, he must be either blind or he must prefer the libertarian cliques he presides over so patriarchally.
And sadly García Calvo is not alone in his enlightened[vi] delirium, the intellectuals of the manifesto “A shared dream” take up a position that is equally enlightened and despotic by signing a manifesto that oozes a left-liberal opportunist stink that bowls one over. But how can these people sign a manifesto as though they were a historical vanguard when up until a few days back many of the signatories were supporting a government that had put in place the most regressive and reactionary measures of the last 20 years? How can they speak as if they were promoters and inventors of a rebuilding of the left when the 15-M caught them having drinks in Cannes or enjoying the royalties of their last book courtesy of the Sinde Law they defended to the hilt in their weekly column? This “shared dream” must be one of remaining “professional leftists” in case the cry of “they don’t represent us” starts to apply to them too.
Others with sufficient cultural capital to burn, such as Fernando Savater can allow themselves to engage directly in the epistemic violence that their platform provides, and pass off asseverations such as “the 15-M has been a useful idiot-meter to measure the level of stupidity and cynicism of certain people” as philosophy. Faced with so much gall and absurdity all that remains for us is to declassify ourselves as intellectuals, cut ourselves off completely from this herd of enlightened despots and apostles of banality and opportunism. At any rate, as intellectuals we are mutilated beings. Antonio Gramsci warned already that every man is an intellectual, since men and women who do not have ideas about the world they live in do not exist, since only the artificial and violent separation between manual and intellectual work has made it possible for intellectuals to exist with the time and sufficient privileges to dedicate themselves professionally to thinking, reading and writing.
And so, the more 15-M advances, the more necessary it will be to abolish ourselves, not out of “anti-intellectualism” but because the most intellectual thing we can do right now is, even though the ego might resent it, go along to the assemblies, bring whatever it is we can to the commissions with humility, to listen face-to-face[vii], to speak without surname or qualification and, at most, feel proud of what we can do the same way as a carpenter feels proud of the table he has built. Workers with words, not respectable gentry, to each according to her need, from each according to her skills.
[i] Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, former Interior Minister and present PSOE prime ministerial candidate for next elections.
[ii] Literally, ‘dogflutes’. Contemptuous neologism coined for particular type of people with dress and comportment deemed to be unconventional, apparently identifiable by their flutes (normally recorders and tin whistles) and their dogs.
[iii] In English in the original
[iv] ‘La Política’, in the original.
[v] ‘Los politicos’, in the original.
[vi] ‘Iluminista’ – the reference is to the enlightenment, but implying a de haut en bas the-masses-must-be-improved disposition
[vii] In the original, ‘de tú a tú’, implying dispensing with formal address
There was a Q&A session today on Público with economist Juan Torres López, whose work I have posted here before. A few questions are translated below. The last one is particularly relevant to these parts, I think. I was talking to a few people last night about how there is a debilitating dynamic in play when it comes to how discussions about economics, policy and power are conducted.
What is striking here in Ireland, to my mind, is how most discussions about economics are grounded in the idea that financial institutions, or other names for power -’the markets’, ‘foreign investors’- are the bearers of insatiable and insuperable power, without any interrogation of what that power relation actually means. On the contrary, the function of news media discussions -which set the scene for other discussions too- is to generate an acceptance that ‘the markets’ are so über alles that their power does not even need to be discussed.
So to give one rather tame example – the alleged golden egg of corporation tax. Suppose you say to me, “So what is your position on corporation tax?” and I say, “Well, I think corporations ought to pay more tax. It is hardly right and proper that News International, which has immense power to influence the way people think, should also be subject to a tax rate of minus 46.1 percent, for instance (update, it isn’t)”, and then you put one finger on your nose and point the other one at me and say “Loser! But if we raised corporation tax, all the foreign investors in the country would turn their backs on us and the country would go down the pan even more quickly than it’s doing now!” and then I go “But no, Tesco is hardly going to leave Ireland just because it has to make more tax – their owners don’t call this place Treasure Island for nothing”.
By the time I start arguing on the specifics I am giving way to the general point: that corporations have a lot of power in Irish society, and by admitting this, even for the sake of demonstrating that the whole question of corporation tax is by no means as clear cut as business propaganda is going to have you believe, I am accepting the power of corporations as the legitimate backdrop against which the question is being posed. So it strikes me that a democratic platform has to entail a strengthening of people’s refusal to accept these premises, and of bringing the questions back to a basic level: one that questions the legitimacy of power: in whose interests do the corporations operate? What are we really saying when we say we need to serve their interests, and so on.
Q. Who governs in Greece, Portugal or Spain? The banks, the lobbies, the European Union, or the sovereign people of the country?
A. It’s a very pertinent question because what has become clear from this crisis is that the citizens do not govern. Were the adjustment programmes under implementation in any electoral programme? Did anyone vote for them? Not at all. When the governments in all of Europe recognise that they can’t do what they desire (and that it is technically possible) since they have to obey the markets, something is truly malfunctioning in this system. Those who govern at the end of the day are the financial institutions, that is, the banks and the investment funds they manage (which belong to very wealthy people in many cases) which always seek to create the most favourable conditions to make money out of money itself and in the shortest time frame possible. To be aware of this allows us to stand for a real democracy that does not forget that it must first be an economic democracy.
Q. It feels like all the remedies that have been put on the table are useless. Shouldn’t we conclude that the financial system rules politicians?
A. Precisely. All the measures that have been applied have been useless because they have not gone to the root of the problem, which is the excessive power of financial institutions. On the contrary, they have been given more and more assistance so as to enjoy more power and room for manoeuvre over States. The measures applied, the adjustment plans, will end up impoverishing the citizenry, who moreover will see how their labour and economic rights gradually disappear, but simultaneously these measures will serve to increase the financial power of banks and investment funds. There is no doubt that this configuration must be changed.
Q. If one country, unilaterally, decides to implement a left wing economic policy, what chances does it have of enduring the financial attacks of the present system and surviving? Is this viable or do they rip the country to bits in a few hours?
A. We have historical experiences of how they respond: thousands of dead in Argentina, in Chile, in Brazil, the recent coup in Honduras…But maybe we should ask a different question: are we condemned to suffer always the dictatorial power of those who have money and military power to defend themselves? They always say the same thing: there is no alternative. But the reality is that there are alternatives, but they silence them. If a country has dignity, strength, cohesion and strenthens itself in the defence of its interests and its real democracy it can become invincible. This, of course is why they avoid debate about authentic democracy, transparency..and concentrate all the power in their hands. It is possible that people who were slaves asked themselves the same question that you have asked. If a slave, unilaterally, decides to stop being one, what possibilities does he or she have to survive the attacks of his/her owners, of the existing system and survive? Is this viable or do they rip you to bits in a few hours? I think you know perfectly well what happened in this domain.
Translation of an article by José Antonio Gutiérrez D.
It seems incredible. They have killed Facundo Cabral. The troubadour of free and libertarian lyrics, the singer songwriter who survived a childhood of deprivation, prison, the interminable days of dictatorship. A survivor. They killed him just like that, in cold blood, 16 shots. Killers not even worth Cabral’s snot. With clairvoyance, in an interview given in Mexico in September last, he said of the killings: “There were always assholes. And kidnapping and drug trafficking exist because there are assholes who don’t have the balls to live life and prefer to murder”. They murdered him cowardly, in a street in Guatemala City called, paradoxically, Liberation. Various presidents (among them the ultra-right Juan Manuel Santos) came out to express their condolences. That was curious, since Cabral never got on very well with presidents. With none of them. In the same interview he said “I’m an anarchist, which is something worse than a communist. That’s why I have never voted, I have never got involved in politics, because it divides and I keep away from things that divide. No-one, no politician is going to come along and change our reality”.
And nonetheless, with his guitar, that “machine that killed fascists” as the North American troubadour Woody Guthrie would say, gave politics the best part of his life. The good politics, which shakes indifference, which awakens consciences, which makes us realise we are not alone in the world, which rhymes with solidarity, which calls on us to stand up and confront the powerful. That was Cabral, the illiterate street child, who got his schooling in prison, who never knew his father…that prodigious heart that instead of hardening like marble with the difficulties of life, became tender and acquired that understanding of the unfathomable depths of the human being that characterised his work?
Who killed Cabral? That is the question that everyone is asking. It was the killers, some say. The drug dealers, say others. A stray bullet, one hears from the more cynical. One more victim of Guatemala, a ‘failed state’, clamoured the Argentine newspapers. But those who really killed Cabral were the same ones to whom he sang his lines of social criticism.
Who killed Cabral? The same ones who mutilated and murdered the Chilean troubadour Victor Jara and have turned the Colombian singer-guerilla Julián Conrado into a disappeared prisoner.
Who killed Cabral? The same ones who murder trade unionists in Guatemala, the country that occupies, after Colombia, second place in the world in the record for murdered trade unionists. 16 trade unionists were murdered in 2009. 10 in 2010. And this year there have been at least 5.
Who killed Cabral? The same ones who murder hundreds of Mayan peasants every year to cleanse them from their lands. The same ones who displace thousands more to make way for mining and agro-businesses.
Who killed Cabral? The same ones who, after graduating from the School of the Americas, murdered more than 250,000 Guatemalans, disappeared more than 500,000, tortured or harassed millions during the civil war, from the end of the 1950s until 1996. And they keep on killing…
Who killed Cabral? The same ones who, possessing the means to put an end to the misery, condemn tens of thousands of Guatemalans to the most brutal and heinous of deaths: death by hunger, death by all sorts of deprivations.
Here there is no mystery to be solved. Those who killed Cabral were the rich, the powerful, the oligarchy, the capitalists, the imperialists, of all stripes, who have built a ‘failed state’ to their liking in Guatemala, and they have done so with the generous contribution of Washington, without any counterweight since the surrender of the insurgency in 1996 (take note Colombia what awaits you if the conflict is resolved with a surrender according to the terms of the ‘president’). They are the ones who feed the bands of killers just as yesterday they fed the death squads. These bands act with complete impunity, permitted by the army and the police, trained and indoctrinated as required by the US in the era of barbaric counterinsurgency.
The press reports cast a smoke screen over Guatemala, as if the violence could be reduced to a mere question of drug dealers and mafias. “The main narco-state of Latin America”, according to La Nación of Argentina..forgetting, of course, that this dubious honour has been held by Colombia since the 1990s. “A country governed by Los Zetas”, say other papers, forgetting that the oligarchy controls Guatemala with a grip of iron, and that in reality the entire territory is governed by transnational firms that do what they please with communities. With whom are the drug dealers allies? Who keeps the killers going? Whom do mafia bullets kill? What interests benefit and amass wealth with this violence?
When one starts to ask these questions seriously, perhaps we will find the answer to the question that today we are all asking: Who killed Cabral?
I watched Debtocracy this afternoon, after meaning to do it since it came out. It’s very good and I recommend it to anyone who has any sort of interest in these things. Click play above.
I was thinking a bit today following on from the translation I posted yesterday and about the whole question of citizenship and how you need access to the right information, and time to deliberate over it, in order to operate as an active citizen, as opposed to an inert constituted object with a one-off subjective lever-pulling activity every couple of years.
What you get, instead, unless you have the time and the inclination to go off in search for something else, is the habitual reduction of broad political questions to narrow calculations, presented through the intercessions of economists and other supposed experts, who always disavow any sort of political dog in the fight, and who strive instead to convey a resolute and unassailable certitude in an iron logic that is intended to produce silence and abort questioning.
Below is a translated piece by Vicenç Navarro titled Alternative Policies for Greece. As he himself notes, it is not that the alternative he outlines is unlikely to be implemented because it violates laws of science, but because of the political forces arrayed against it. One of the problems I see these days is a sort of consensus forming on the left in Ireland that there has to be some sort of clear alternative economic programme outlined so as to convince people that the direction headed on account of the dominant discourse is neither immutable nor inevitable. And I’m fine with that, but a lot of what I’ve seen is a bit like someone setting out a vast detailed itinerary of all the places he’s going to visit whenever he gets a car, but with a glaring absence of detail around how in blazes he’s going to get a car. To be a bit more pointed: it’s all very well to say that you’re going to take industries into democratic public ownership –and I’m down with that, don’t get me wrong-, but unless you have some compelling examples you can show people and people can experience, close to home preferably, of democratic mechanisms that can be applied to public ownership (hint: the Dáil and trade union structures are not compelling examples) then you might as well be talking about fantasy cars.
Alternative Policies for Greece
One of the successes of neoliberal thought has been to convince the citizenry (with the help of mass media) that there is no alternative to the neoliberal policies that governments are implementing which include the deregulation of labour markets, facilitating the sacking of workers by business owners, cuts in wages, the reduction in public spending and public sector jobs and the reduction of social and labour rights. The cuts and measures implemented by the Greek government in response to the pressure of the “Troika” (comprising the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) are presented as inevitable and necessary in order to come out of the crisis.
In theory, the objective of such cutbacks is to reduce the budget deficit and with this the public debt, thereby calming the financial markets. The latter, it seems, are very worried since they consider that in light of the poor economic situation (the Greek economy shrunk 4.5% last year) it is very unlikely that Greece will be able to pay its debt. Therefore the banks demand enormous interest rates as a condition for purchasing bonds from the Greek state, interest rates that can reach 12%. In reality, the Greek state spends 9% of its Gross Domestic Product paying off the interest on its public debt, an unbearable situation. The “troika” still holds that through enormous austerity measures (such as cutting the number of public employees by 20%, on top of the 10% that had already been cut) and privatisation measures, the State will be able to pay its debt (which has reached 166% of Gross Domestic Product). It is totally impossible for Greece to pay its debt with such high interest rates. And it is more than likely that the “troika” knows this.
Does this mean that Greece is resigned to collapse and bankruptcy? Not necessarily, since however much the “troika” and conventional wisdom of mass media might deny it, there are alternatives. For these alternatives to be considered and developed depends solely and exclusively on the political context that exists in the country. Today the Greek situation (just as the Spanish situation) [and the Irish situation – HG] is characterised by an alliance between the powerful Greek classes (who pay very little tax) and the banking sector, whether abroad (and especially that of Germany and France) or in Greece, with the help and complicity of the Greek state.
The alternatives would include:
- A profound and progressive fiscal reform, through which the State would no longer end up having to get into debt, by collecting funds from the powerful classes that today barely pay taxes.
- Invest and spend this money in creating employment. The greatest problem, not only from a social and human standpoint, but also from an economic standpoint, is unemployment.
- Transform the public debt into Eurobonds guaranteed by the European Central Bank at an interest rate no greater than 3%. This requires a considerable change in the functions and obligations of the European Central Bank, moving closer towards what the US Central Bank (the Federal Reserve Board) does. It is likely that inflation at the Eurozone comes in at 2%, which means that the interest on Eurobonds would be 1%, with which Greece could pay its debt easily over a 20 year period (bringing it down to the limit of 60% of GDP), a reasonable time frame. The US paid the debt it acquired during the Second World War in 50 years.
If GDP were to grow by 3%, which could be achieved by investing in job creation, by raising public spending, Greece would no longer have a problem. Now, all this entails breaking down the class alliance, carrying out the necessary fiscal reform, and for the ECB to buy Greek public debt and transform it into Eurobonds. Can you see this happening? It isn’t likely. But not for economic reasons, but for political ones.
Seeing as it’s summer school season in Ireland, when the country’s faculties for critical thought are in full and glorious bloom, and the nation huddles rapt beside the wireless to seize on morsels of the life of the political mind, carefully curated by the redoubtable broadcasting services, I thought I would put together a couple of pieces relating to the critical awakening in Spain that has flowed from the 15-M movement.
The first one is from the opening statement of the People’s Debate on the State of The Nation. It was held just over a week ago in the Puerta Del Sol, designed to coincide with the Debate on the State of The Nation taking place in the Spanish national parliament, which is a short dander up the street. According to its organizers, the intention was to host an alternative, critical and constructive debate that dealt with the real problems of the population. It would be the citizens themselves who spoke, at the margin of the political speeches taking place in the parliament at the same time. More than a thousand people turned up to take part in the debate, and 60,000 watched online. There were a few different themes – Economics, from citizens to commodities; Social rights versus privatization; Politics and the media – dangerous liaisons; Citizenship – between life and the euro.
It is worth noting that there was a State of the Nation address in Ireland too, this week. It was held at think tank par excellence the Irish Institute of European Affairs. The IIEA is funded by, among others, AIB, Bank of Ireland Treasury, Goldman Sachs International, IBEC and Shell E&P Ireland. As many of you will be aware, I am hardly We The Citizens’s greatest fan. However there was lots of questioning this week about the legitimacy of the assemblies that were being held, with a frequent claim being made that there was already a citizens’ assembly: the Dáil. But yet the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs can stand up and give something called a State of the Nation address at a private think-tank gathering, and no questions were raised with regard to its legitimacy. What better place for Eamon Gilmore, then, to emit the following:
“We have been the beneficiaries of European solidarity, without which we would have been unable to fund the State.’’
If ‘solidarity’ entails, among other things, a programme designed to drive down wages and living conditions for the vast majority of people living in the State and a crippling debt burden forced on the population by the European Central Bank in order to save financial institutions, you would have to wonder what sort of thing Gilmore would classify as indifference: a neutron bomb?
Here is the opening statement, from the People’s Debate on the State of The Nation, sourced here.
Why the People’s Debate on the State of The Nation?
Because we want to denounce the chasm that separates citizens from political representatives. Because the problems of citizens do not echo in the debate in the Congress of Deputies, which is laden with electoral calculations and political marketing. The social and economic fracture that this crisis is provoking is incompatible with an institutional debate that is plagued with insults and point-scoring, perfectly predictable and that has no room in the script for answering the pressing demands of the citizens.
As such, we want to set out critical debate and thinking. We do not resign ourselves to submissively accepting the self-interested discourse that maintains only one type of politics is possible. We fight determinedly against monolithic thinking that seeks to gloss over any hint of disagreement, and we uphold intellectual creativity that questions the existing social and economic models and persists in the search of just and sustainable alternatives.
The reflections of speakers and collectives, which are authored solely by the people who share them, will help sustain this necessary debate. Their insights will be subjected to the enriching criticism of all, in the knowledge that through this, rather than weakening them, we will help to strengthen them.
With this debate we reaffirm our democratic convictions in the face of those who applaud and support the illegitimate power of the markets. Those who with their uncontrolled greed have plunged us into this grave crisis cannot, on top of that, usurp our right to decide. They have ransacked our economies and they now seek an even more ambitious booty: to deprive us of our status as citizens and relegate us to that of mere consumers.
As such, against the twilight government of the speculators and rentiers, we lift our hands to speak and raise our voices in this public square, transformed, now, once again, into the symbol of the legitimate expression of the will of the citizens.
If political power does not listen to the clamour rising from initiatives such as this one today, the barely three hundred metres of distance between this debate and that of the Congress of Deputies run the risk of becoming an unbridgeable abyss.
This is an event of the people for the people.
We are aware of the little time we have to deal with so many subjects that are a source of concern for the citizenry, and we apologise in advance to all the platforms, collectives etc that would have liked to participate but will not be able to.
This is the talk from that same event by Pascual Serrano, a journalist who writes extensively on media power. Sourced here.
“Real Democracy Now” has to reach the media too.
In dictatorial regimes, despots with their armies, police forces and judges silence troublesome social collectives, they relegate to silence those honest intellectuals who criticize them, and they do not provide the thousands of citizens who confront power with the opportunity to speak. For its part, dictatorial power never ceases to claim that those who criticize it are a minority, that they use violence and that they want to subvert order. It is curious, but it is precisely this, in our supposedly democratic regimes, which is the function of mainstream media outlets.
At one time it was believed that the media was going to be the fourth power, that is, the citizen power that would exercise vigilance over the other three: executive, legislative and judicial. We have discovered that in this system that they call democracy, these three powers neither represent us nor are they legitimate, because their decisions have no relation to either the promises with which they were elevated to their position, or to the desires of the citizens. But it is worse still with the fourth estate that was supposed to oversee them. If the first three have been placed in the service of the markets, the fourth is simply the market. The watchers have become the shock troops of the market, the fundamentalists of the regime that is strangling democracy. And they have become this because they are not even media businesses – their owners are business conglomerates with shares and interests across all sectors, from telecoms multinationals that control the channels for transmitting information to key banking groups for the finance sector. And their viability depends on big advertisers from businesses such as oil, cars, and big supermarkets. These media are no fourth power – they are the power of money.
They have no interest in truth, nor in democracy. On the contrary, they will defend those banks that evict those who do not pay their mortgages, they will defend big businesses that use sackings to improve profits, and corporations that destroy the planet in order that they keep on buying advertising, private hospitals and universities which will surely put in more advertising than public service and moreover will have the same owners as the banks that finance theem.
And of course, these media will support all politicians that propose more power for the market and less for the citizens. The newspapers, television and radio stations, with their columnists, editorials, commissioned reports and manipulated news will throw themselves like hyenas against anyone who dares attack the privileges of the market, because they are created to defend them.
And all this happens via media that no-one has chosen. Because we don’t choose them when we go to the kiosk or we turn on the television: they live through and for their banks and advertisers. Media that no-one can control, that can lie with impunity and without counterweight.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the right to receive “information and ideas”. But in order for citizens to enjoy the right to receive information and ideas the right must be guaranteed to others to broadcast information and ideas. And that right, as we all know, is provided by an oligopoly of a few media firms. Because the media do not practice the right to freedom of expression, they exercise the right to censorship, since they decide what gets published and broadcast, and what is not. After that we have the Spanish Constitution, the first constitution of a European country that includes the citizen right to receive “truthful” information. But there is no legislation that develops this: in the previous legislature Izquierda Unida set out the Journalist’s Statute for approval in that parliament. This laid out systems of public control and participation that would guarantee the independence of the journalist from his/her firm and the truthfulness of reporting. The Statute was approved at committee level and the two big parties took it on themselves to never bring it to a plenary session and it was consigned to oblivion. The result is the media’s loss of credibility.
June 8th last, the most-watched programme on our screens was Weather 1, on TVE1, which swept all before it with a 20.8% share. Thirty television channels and citizens reach the conclusion that the most interesting thing on was the weather forecast. Years back the weather forecast was a joke because we used to say it never got it right, but now we have realized that it’s the only reliable thing on TV.
We also hear talk about ethical and deontological codes for journalists. But in media enterprises there is only one code that operates, and it’s the same as with any enterprise. If what you do displeases your boss, you’re out. That’s the only code that works when job security is not guaranteed.
We should not be naïve – media under the empire of the market will never satisfy the need for truthful information among citizens. They need to be profitable, and for this they need to win audiences at all costs through trivia, spectacle and morbid interest. They cannot confront major shareholders who are the protagonists and beneficiaries of a neoliberal model that is incompatible with democracy. They cannot ill-treat those who furnish them with advertising revenue –big media does not live because of us, a newspaper costs the double of what we pay for it (the other half is paid by advertising) and in the case of television and radio stations these are free because their money comes from other sources, and we already know that whoever pays gives the orders.
And here comes the big question: what is to be done? My answer is: democratize them. We need a real democracy now here too. Just as we must prise away from the market its power over the decisions of governments, we must prise away its control over communications media. Only a public bank can serve citizen interests and not that of its shareholders, only a public school [not in the UK sense – HG] can assist a deprived immigrant child, only a public hospital can attend to a disadvantaged old person when they get sick. And only a collective public media will be able to represent plurality and will allow us to demand truthfulness. Public and controlled by the citizens, with editorial councils where social collectives are represented, with a financing that does not depend on banks, where the citizen’s right to inform and be informed is attended to.
Because either the media are ours, or they are against us, against the citizens.
Why was Martin McAleese appointed to chair the inter-departmental committee into the Magdalene Laundries?
The Justice for Magdalenes group has welcomed the appointment, but that should not prevent others from seeking an answer to the question.
In appointing him, Alan Shatter the Minister for Justice cited how ‘the value of his work and involvement in the peace process in Northern Ireland and the positive contribution he has made to life on this island have been widely recognised’.
But what exactly did he do in the peace process, and what results did it achieve? The most prominent details in a rather sketchy picture, from the public point of view, show a man who met frequently with loyalist paramilitary leaders in some form of outreach work, arranging funding for loyalist areas, and concerned with reconciliation and building bridges. He took UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald to the K Club for golf, and eventually to Islandbridge to meet the British monarch.
This report by Suzanne Breen from 2006, cites government sources who described Martin McAleese’s activities with loyalists as ‘in very dodgy territory . . . an unelected individual acting with the clout of his wife’s office raises constitutional issues’.
Nor for that matter were the SDLP too impressed, with a senior figure claiming in the same report that it was ‘not a case of double standards, it’s a case of no standards’, and that the flow of cash facilitated by McAleese to loyalist areas dominated by the UDA was ‘a form of extortion’.
The remit of the committee McAleese will chair is to ‘clarify any State interaction with the Magdalene Laundries‘. But Irish State interaction with loyalist paramilitaries, in so far as this concerned Martin McAleese, has previously proven unclear. This is not to accuse Martin McAleese of doing anything wrong in this regard, or even to criticise him for what he actually did, since what he did is not quite clear and it is certainly possible that he did some good, but merely to point out that if you wanted a figure who could be relied on to clarify precisely what constitutes State activity with regard to interaction with criminal enterprises, you would not look in this direction.
Beyond his outreach activities, Martin McAleese is a trained accountant and dentist, and has held public office for a month, after his appointment, by Enda Kenny, to the Seanad, an institution that Kenny had previously promised to abolish on taking power. His training in accountancy may well prove useful, though it is hard to see how this, or his dental work, would be seen as essential attributes for the type of work to be undertaken. So why, then, if his work in the peace process was in a private capacity, and he has not stood for election to public office, and he has been appointed to the Seanad by someone who wanted to abolish it, and he has no previous experience of roles of a relevant nature, did he get appointed to this role? Was there really no-one else more suitable?
One might argue that his reputation is good because he conducted himself well as the President’s spouse. But Laura Bush had a good reputation because she was the President’s spouse, yet heads would turn were she appointed by the US Department of Justice to put together a narrative concerning the extent of the role of the State in incarceration, torture and enslavement of young women.
These considerations lead me to believe that the government is not taking the inter-departmental committee as seriously as justice would demand, and that McAleese’s appointment is one more instance of what Mary Raftery described in a recent article as ‘a strange resistance to any official acceptance of the injustice suffered by the Magdalene women‘.
In a previous post I ventured that Ireland’s power elite have little interest in the claims of the Magdalene survivors because it was ‘precisely on account of institutions such as the laundries that these elites were able to consolidate their own position of dominance in the first instance’.
I was subsequently surprised to find such a ready-made example of what I was speculating about, a few days later. Mary McAleese’s biographer Patsy McGarry’s report in the Irish Times revealed that regular customers of a Magdalene Laundry in Drumcondra included Áras an Uachtaráin, the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Fisheries and CIÉ, Guinnesses, Bank of Ireland, Dublin airport, Clerys, the Gaiety theatre, Dr Steevens hospital, Dublin hotels such as Buswells, the North Star, the Ormond, Skylon, the Sutton Castle, as well as religious congregations and golf clubs.
What is clear from that list is that the residents of Magdalene laundries were directly and immediately exploited by powerful government and business entities, including the office of the President (though not while Mary McAleese was in office). Any investigation regarding State interaction with the Magdalene laundries would also need to entail scrutiny of the relation between the various institutions of the State and the other institutions that used these laundries.
As such, why would anyone with an association with these entities wish to submit them to scrutiny of their role, especially if that entailed some form of redress or an admission of wrongdoing or an admission of being the beneficiary of torture and brutality? There is a can of worms that deserves to be opened here, but we shouldn’t expect Martin McAleese’s committee to open it.
Aside from his obvious connection to centres of political power, and beyond the fact he may have a certain outsider status (David Norris, welcoming him to the Seanad, described him as a ‘voice for the North’, whatever that means), McAleese also has strong ties to Dublin business elites. It was these ties that enabled him to facilitate the directing of cash to loyalist areas. One outworking of these ties was the ill-starred Your Country Your Call initiative. This initiative had been described as McAleese’s ‘brain-child‘ According to the Your Country Your Call website, the initiative ‘was born out of discussions with Dr. Martin McAleese over many months during 2009‘. The company that ran Your Country Your Call, An Smaoineamh Mór, was chaired by Laurence Crowley, a Governor of the Bank of Ireland until 2005 and former partner in Stokes Kennedy Crowley, the accountancy firm McAleese joined in the 1970s.
Also on the board was Eugene McCague, chairman of law firm Arthur Cox, third from left above. Whilst discussions with Martin McAleese were ongoing during 2009, McCague’s firm was conducting discussions with the government on the contract for the role of legal advisor to NAMA. McCague is also a past president of Dublin Chamber of Commerce.
Serious questions over the purpose of Your Country Your Call and the funding for it, and what this said about the relation between government and power elites, were raised by diligent work by Simon McGarr and Rossa McMahon, the former noting, in a recent post, that the Your Country Your Call promotional activities had resulted in ‘the serving President’s husband [i.e. Martin McAleese] contacting the Taoiseach of the day about paying public money to a private company whose activities he was promoting’.
Again, was there really no-one else more suitable?
One of the most difficult matters for the investigation will be establishing a narrative that gives a convincing account of the relations between the State and the Church with regard to the Laundries. There are many conceivable instances of controversy with regard to the question of where the State ends and where the Church begins.
The narrative produced is likely to have a decisive impact on how the State formally recognizes its responsibility -as it most likely will- and the measures it takes with regard to reparation, pensions, medical and housing assistance, the preservation of testimonies from survivors, and the commemoration of the women’s suffering. Production of the narrative will require interaction with the Catholic Church at various levels. There is nothing to suggest that this will be straightforward.
As the Justice For Magdalenes group noted before the last election:
We also sought to engage the Catholic Church: Cardinal Brady encouraged JFM to continue working towards justice and reconciliation; CORI and the religious congregations rejected every offer to discuss our campaign.
Is there anything to suggest that Martin McAleese might make particular headway here? Leaving aside the reservations that might arise from what has been detailed in this post thus far, that depends. Is he best suited to formal confrontation, or behind-the-scenes work? History would suggest the latter, as would many of his admirers. The question then arises as to whether this is particularly apt for a formal investigation.
Nonetheless, his networking abilities do furnish him with important contacts.
Harry Casey, who was the original motive force behind Mary McAleese’s presidential campaign, a person with strong Fianna Fáil links and ‘one of McAleese’s best friends’ is the Executive Secretary at the Commission for Social Issues and International Affairs at the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Casey embodies the twilight zone between Church and State as well as anyone in the place. This twilight zone is illustrated by Accord, the Catholic Marriage Care Service, and CURA, the Crisis Pregnancy Service, both of which are agencies of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. When these organisations carry out their functions, are they State agencies, or are they Church agencies? Accord received €1,304,980, or nearly two thirds of its funding, from government bodies in 2009. CURA, which provides the Health Service Executive Crisis Pregnancy Programme, received €783,004 in 2009, according to the 2009 HSE report for the Programme.
Through these organisations, the State is funding activities in the service of a set of objectives shared by both State and Church, in so far as the two can be recognised as distinct entities, regarding how society ought to be organised. This intertwining was even more pronounced during the time the Magdalene Laundries were in operation. Is Martin McAleese really the best person to unpick all this, so that ‘restorative justice, including an apology, reparation, and services‘ will be optimally provided to the Magdalene survivors, or was his selection a product, as Mary McAleese described her own selection as Fianna Fáil candidate for President, of a ‘compromise between the realpolitik and the common good‘? And if the latter, whose realpolitik, and whose common good?
We all know the smug joke for finance traders and their fans that goes “What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland?” But what is the difference between Ireland and Iceland?
Here’s one: Iceland’s former prime minister, the one who was in charge of the government at the time of the banking sector collapse, was formally charged with criminal negligence for his failure to manage the crisis adequately. Here’s another: Iceland has had two referenda on public repayment of private bank debt, with the majority of voters saying ‘No’ each time. Here’s another: Iceland ‘has largely recovered from its deep slump‘. Clearly there is more to this than a letter and 6 months.
I was reading a profile in Público today by Juan Carlos Monedero (whose book La transición contada a nuestros padres, let me say once again, is a must for hispanophone readers) of Hördur Torfason, one of the principal protagonists of Iceland’s financial crisis protests, and the first thing I thought was, I have never heard of this person, even though he sounds important.
Well you can’t read about everything, after all. But I did imagine, reading through the profile, that he must be rather well known. And he must have caught the attention of the Irish media, what with the fact that there have been all these ideas circulating about the similarities or lack thereof between Ireland and Iceland. So I went off to look, to see what they had said about him here. I didn’t expect to find much, I just wanted to get a sense of the sort of impact he had had on reporting. Here’s what I found.
Rather incurious of them, no? Perhaps they are adroitly judicious in their choice of topic for news consumption.
Anyway, here’s the translation of the piece.
The 15-M of Hördur Torfason: from Iceland to the Puerta del Sol
Hördur Torfason has arrived in Spain, and after conversing with the many people who have been part of the 15 M movement he exclaims: “how organized you are!” The figurehead of the “Icelandic revolution” lives in a country of 330,000 inhabitants. In the same way as some people speak in verse without knowing, Icelanders are organised so as not to be scattered throughout the island if ever they need meet up. Here, the Puerta del Sol had to be reinvented as a popular parliament. When you’re surrounded by water everywhere, things are simpler.
In October of 2008, when Torfason figured that his government was taking him for a fool (he listened to, but didn’t understand, the Prime Minister speaking of tightening one’s belt, from a hairdresser’s) [there is a pun here in the original that I can’t be bothered to try translating – basically ‘tomar el pelo’ means to mock or to take for a fool, but literally translates as ‘take one’s hair' - HG], the first thing that occurred to him was to get into contact with his neighbours. At least 300,000 of them. In the streets, in the towns, doing theatre or playing guitar. People had to be spoken to and listened to. The “great conversation”, as Jesús Ibáñez says of revolutions, began to travel from mouth to mouth. Those who do violence hold monologues. Those who do violence do monologues. Those who do respect do dialogue. And it is by talking that you revolutionise people. In 2008, Iceland, which just a year previous had led the world in the Human Development Index, saw its three main banks – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir- go bankrupt. Meanwhile, their managers and owners lived outside the country living it up on owed money. And those who had to give it back –with interest- were the ordinary Icelanders. All that remained was to give shape to the outrage. Hördur Torfason confronted political power and the country understood.
Brought up in traditional ways (he was born in 1945), he decided to protest in front of the Parliament. Peacefully, with an old frying pan and a wooden spoon to make noise. A few friends joined him the odd time. But if he had to be there on his own (as one of the ‘indispensables’), that wasn’t a problem, as Brecht had said there were no shortage of people who struggle for a day and spend the rest of their lives recalling it. One day when it was no doubt raining, one of the ministers told a police officer who was outside the chamber that the gentleman making a racket should not be there. When they transmitted to him the invitation to leave, they only managed to anger more people. It’s always your enemies the ones who build you. When they poke a finger in your eye for the sake of it, your reasons multiply. He insisted he wanted to speak to the politicians responsible. What do you mean I can’t speak to my minister? Is he not mine too? Aren’t we the ones who pay them? Since the ministers would not receive him, he placed candles on the ground. One for each minister. And he spoke to the candles. We live in a world that is audiovisually saturated, and good moves slip through from the eyes to the heart.
Social movements have three elements that lend them success: leadership, proposals and structure. Hördur the figurehead, besides being extroverted –he is an actor and singer-, was stubborn, which is to say, perservering. He was one of the first famous people to publicly declare their homosexuality in Iceland. He underwent the ordeal of going from having fame and money to being stigmatized, losing his followers and, finally, becoming an exile. Convictions tend to come at a high price. But they never broke his will. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He returned after some time to his country. Full of consciousness. And just as he did not keep quiet about his sexual orientation, he did not do so when the government deported a political refugee from Ghana. This is where he learned to stand in front of the gates of the government and protest. He had already decided not to be muzzled.
With these personal virtues, the question of leadership for the Icelandic revolution was solved. The structure wasn’t complicated either. If they squeeze up, every Icelander will fit in one square and its surroundings. Moreover, young people told Hördur about the internet. And that was like an immediate public square. A public square, furthermore, that got round the fact that the broad mass of communications media are in the service of some powerful interest. Oh look, they’re telling lies. And two thirds of Icelanders are on Facebook! Problem solved. Now it was important to find proposals.
Three came to the fore as urgent: resignation of the government, resignation of the heads of the Financial Supervision Authority and the resignation of the board of directors of the National Bank. The most difficult was the third one. The heads of central banks cling like barnacles to their post. Previously, they are always directors of other banks, and the pattern makes them see their job like a vital organ. And who is going to consent to their own sacking, hand on heart? But since the conversation that the Icelanders had set in gear was very fluid, they achieved all their objectives, and even the President of the Central Bank finally had to tender his resignation. New ones came along, but it seems the movement had read El Roto (Spanish cartoonist and satirist) when he said: if you pull down the statues, don’t forget to pull down the plinths too so others don’t take their place. New appointments came along but popular oversight did not cease.
In any case, things did not stop there. Who was responsible for the crisis? Here things got complicated. Who the hell understands juridical rigmarole? They hired a journalist who was an expert on corruption to drag up the people responsible for the crisis. Until they arrived, for instance, to certain conclusions that allowed for the imprisonment of those who bought banks with money loaned by other banks. And to denounce the auditing firms, who had been equally responsible for lying.
The level of citizen commitment was transmitted into the new Parliament that came out of the new elections called on account of the new situation. When politicians feel supervised by the voters, they work better. The eye of the owner fattens the herd. Finally, they ended up imprisoning certain bankers.
2008 was the Icelandic annus horribilis. The three main banks had collapsed, and were nationalised; the stock market had lost more than 76% of its value; private debts were suffocating the payers –who had coaxed along by sticking cheques in their pocket (“Don’t worry about paying now. It pays itself”)-; an onerous loan from the IMF was going to introduce Icelanders to the adjustment plans well known previously in Latin America and Africa. In the end, to save the financial system, each Icelander had to be in a position to pay immediately an average of €60,000. The debt was four times bigger than the GDP of Iceland. Although in April of 2009 a new government was formed (with social democrats and environmentalists), international pressures made dents. The government of Iceland decided to make pacts with the creditor countries, the UK and Holland. But President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson decided not to accept this agreement. As ought to be the sensible thing in democracy, he called a referendum – the 7th of March 2010- on the payment of debt to foreign banks responsible for the bubble. After ten years where the banks had enjoyed a free bar, it was time to lay down a little order. The neoliberal party always finishes with an infernal hangover. And the referendum voters decided that legitimate debt had to be paid, but not illegitimate debt. Banks are businesses, and if it goes bad for them, the citizenry has no reason to rescue them (do they rescue clothes shops that fail?). The financial system counter-attacked and said that Iceland was a ‘terrorist state’. To get in the way of bankers is tantamount to flying a plane into the twin towers. A second referendum insisted: we are only going to pay what is fair. It is the banks who have had to adapt to the demands of the people. “If you squeeze us too much, we won’t pay you”. And what seemed impossible became possible. Even the former Prime Minister, the conservative Haarde, was charged, accused in April 2011 with “extreme negligence” and with hiding information about the gravity of the crisis. Jailing the bankers, prosecuting the liars, putting politicians in the dock for their negligence. It sounds like revolution.
Aware that without information there can be no democracy, in Iceland they have set in gear the “Modern Iceland Initiative for Communications Media”, which seeks to protect the freedom of expression for citizens (not for media companies). It is already known that journalism of investigation is often journalism of investigation. In order for journalists to be able to investigate, it is necessary to protect sources and secure internet servers. If we have to find things out via Wikileaks, Wikileaks should not be hounded. To close the cycle, they decided to set in gear a new constitution. 522 citizens, with the personal guarantee of 30 signatures, presented themselves as volunteers to edit a new constitutional project. 25 people were chosen, who via an assembly process, submit articles to discussion, receive proposals and build a truly democratic constitutional project. A constitutional process from top to bottom. How different from the Spanish Constitution of 1978, written in secret, agreed in secret and voted having kept hidden from the citizenry the truly important discussions. Of course it was essential to exit Francoism. But the utopian energies of the era could have brought greater commitment. Precisely what the Icelanders are doing. This is what Hordur has come to Spain to share. Their revolution underway and the Spanish one yet to be known.
The stubborn figurehead of the Icelandic revolution has contrasted the 15-M movement with the experience in his country. He knows that they are different, but there are similarities. To look in a mirror elsewhere always gives a clearer reflection. Conclusions – first, in Iceland as in Spain, the ignorance of the movement is its wisdom. Thanks to the fact that they didn’t know about politics, they said no to those who said there was alternative.’ They didn’t know it was impossible,’ read the poster in the Puerta del Sol, ‘they went off and did it’. The sophisticated political and juridical arguments were a language unable to bewitch those who were profane. They knew that the politicians, the media, the banks, were all lying to them. They didn’t want any more justifications. Hordur, with his stubbornness in front of the Parliament, was an abuela de mayo, a padre coraje who didn’t want excuses, but commitments.
Secondly, the movement needs clear and concrete proposals that help people to articulate things. Once the “great conversation” has been achieved (where it is essential that everyone feels part of the discussion in conditions of equality), the moment arrives to define what is wanted and how it is going to be achieved. At some point, the broad mass of the movement has to do study. And for this, the assemblies are important. Because either the citizenry knows what it is talking about, or old and new “representatives” are going to do it for them.
Thirdly, the setting in gear of a constitutional process gives the movement a plural leadership (that of each assembly that discusses the constitution) and a different representation (subject to revocation, permanently connected to the grassroots) that is based on mutual responsibility and the learning of the rights and obligations of citizens. Courage for each and every one to be leaders (nodes in an enormous network that tenses up each time in a particular place to then recover its horizontal character); perseverance to neither have fear nor to give in to tiredness. Lucidity to establish radical proposals with one’s feet on the ground. Determination to demand a Transition 3.0 that will bring us a Constitution made by the people for the people.
“They insulted me, they harassed me, they ignored me, they attacked me, they abandoned me. But I never stopped being convinced that I was right, I never doubted that my peaceful method was going to have profound results”. Horder Tarfason has not come to Spain to leave us a brainy manual for theoretical revolutionaries. He has come to say to us: we believed it and we are doing it. Peoples never wait for intellectuals to carry out their revolutions. The 15-M summed it up frankly: ‘we aren’t knocking at the door: we’re knocking it down’.
Another day, another goddammed newspaper editorial that attempts to drive home the inevitable: that there is no alternative to austerity and bank bailouts, and that Ireland must bow its head and collaborate with the neo-colonialism of the European Union, just as Greek parliamentarians have done this week. But it is nothing new for the Irish Independent to align with reactionary anti-democratic forces.
As the Greek demonstrations have shown, austerity programmes mean no expense spared when it comes to repressing the population with batons and tear gas should the need arise. And to add humiliation to injury, it’s fairly clear from this afternoon’s events that ‘bailouts’ demand that even the bare bones of state sovereignty get gnawed away.
The coast guard in Athens is preventing the US boat The Audacity of Hope from sailing on its humanitarian mission to Gaza to highlight the evil blockade of the Palestinian people there. One cannot be but horrified in observing how venal and spineless the Greek government now is, how much of a slave it is to the whims of the main centres of power, that having applauded itself for plunging its people into decades of misery mid-week, it would now turn itself into an obedient agent of the racist apartheid Israeli state and its imperial master, so as to stop letters from Americans reaching Gaza.
Not that the Irish government has done much better. The fact it has adopted a more pro-Israeli stance by comparison with its predecessor last year is to some extent on account of its capitulation to EU-IMF diktats on the one hand, but also through the association maintained by the main ruling party with some of the most rancid reactionary right-wing parties in Europe (not including its junior partner), whose support for Israel draws on both a history of antisemitism and anything varying from a flirtation to a deep commitment to fascist politics.
Let’s not be too hasty to dissociate the question of crumbling democracy in Europe from the Gaza blockade. EU governments have been sucking up to Israel for years, doing a spot of hand-wringing here and there over Israel’s brutality towards the Palestinians, whilst simultaneously treating Israeli governments as partners in Western civilisation. Avi Shlaim wrote in 2009 that:
Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet Israel has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and a great deal to undermine it. Israel has a long history of secret collaboration with reactionary Arab regimes to suppress Palestinian nationalism.
Despite all the handicaps, the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world (with the possible exception of Lebanon). In January 2006 free and fair elections for the legislative council of the Palestinian Authority brought to power a Hamas-led government. Israel, however, refused to recognise the democratically-elected government, claiming that Hamas is purely and simply a terrorist organisation.
America and the European Union shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed – where a significant part of the international community imposed economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.
Why should we be surprised then, that having colluded with the US and Israel in the destruction of Palestinian democracy -the Gaza blockade is a principal tool in this destruction- European Union power elites should then turn their attention to the destruction of democracy in Europe itself?
The abyss is coming into view. European nation-states, under the umbrella of the European Union, are stripping away any pretension to even basic principles of representative democracy, gradually turning into Herrenvolk dictatorships as their functionaries administer policies of repression and expropriation on behalf of power and wealth, congratulating themselves for their tough decisions, and murdering while they smile.
If a reversal is to come, it won’t come through a nip here and a tuck there to the same political systems and processes that engendered this crisis in the first instance and are now serving to deepen it. It will come through the reinvention of democracy, through ordinary people coming together in towns and cities across Europe to work out and recognise their common interests, and then to adopt radical actions to protect these interests, in places of work and on the streets and squares.
The following piece is by Juan Torres López. Titled Outraged Europe, It explains how austerity policies are nothing but a chimera and a lie, a flight in the face of empirical knowledge, designed to turn the broad mass of European citizens into impoverished peons of financial institutions. The solutions he proposes are moderate, conservative even, but such is the grim determination of Europe’s anti-democratic power elites to oppose any sort of resistance to austerity from the European citizenry, the implementation of these proposals are scarcely imaginable outside the context of a revolutionary turn.
By putting the European project ever more clearly in the service of the interests of large economic and financial corporations, the leaders of the European Union are going to ensure that the majority of the European population turns its back on Europe and, outraged, severs links with the horizons and the sacrifices that they wish to impose on it.
To try and save the passengers in first class when the plane risks crashing is a chimera. But instead of understanding that it is all of Europe that needs to be saved, its leaders give way to pressure and opt to save solely Franco-German banks and after that, the nationals of each country. In order to achieve this, they are about to plunge Europe into a depression and an unprecedented crisis and may end up transforming it, in order to save the furniture of the big financiers, into the biggest corporate dictatorship of the planet because all this is being carried out, moreover, without any social deliberation and through the cutting of rights and the imposition very high social costs without the slightest consultation of the population.
And if that were not enough, it can be said that the economic measures being imposed are tantamount to swindle because they insist on basing economic policy on the moderation of wages and public spending, arguing that this is the way competitiveness and employment will be increased when today it is known for certain that it does not work this way and that cutting wages does not create jobs but the opposite.
Researchers Jesus Felipe and Utsav Kuma have recently shown (Unit Labor Costs in the Eurozone: The Competitiveness Debate Again, Working Paper of Levy Institute, 2011) that the thesis employed by European authorities to justify their policies –that to raise production and employment there should be lower wage growth- is totally unproven. And if unit labour costs have risen in years or in countries with poorest employment levels, which the argument used by the neoliberals in order to impose their measures, it is not because wages have gone up, but because prices have gone up, as a consequence of the enormous power enjoyed by the big firms, which they never confront.
Sylvain Broyer and Costa Brunner showed a little while ago (L’évolution récente des parts de marché intra-UE n’a rien à voir avec la compétitivité coûts, Flash Economie, Natixis, N° 193, 2010) that the evolution of intra-European market shares of different countries has nothing to do with competitiveness costs. In order for market shares of different countries to correspond to their different cost levels, that is, in order for the desired effect sought from the wage setting measures imposed by the Euro Plus Pact, all Eurozone countries would have to export the same products, which would have to be perfectly substitutable, and this is precisely the opposite of the case in Europe, where the actual observed trend is one of progressive specialisation.
Also a little while ago, James Galbraith y Deepshikha Chowdhury (The European Wage Structure, 1980- 2005: How much flexibility. LBJ School of Public Affairs. Austin, Texas 78713, UTIP Working Paper Number 41, 2007) showed that it cannot be deduced from the data on wages and employment in Europe between 1980 and 2005 that wages should be lowered in order for employment to rise, because what is actually the case is that the variations in wages and employment have gone hand in hand: when wages have gone up employment has gone up and when they have reduced it has gone down.
And since the end of the 90s there have been numerous studies by authors such as Dean Baker, Laurence Ball or Thomas I. Palley that show that the evolution of unemployment in Europe does not depend of variables that have to do with “rigid” institutions in the labour market but with the dominant macroeconomic policies of austerity and wage moderation.
Even the OECD itself, one of the strongholds from which neoliberal policies are designed, had to recognise in its 2006 Employment Outlook (p.190) that different countries had been able to achieve good results with regard to employment by applying “extremely different” policies, and the French economist Jean Paul Fitoussi claimed in 2003 (Comments on Frydman, R., Stiglitz, J., Woodford, Expectations in Modern Macroeconomics, University Press, Princeton, p.434) that “until now there has been no evidence that labour market institutions are responsible for the high level of unemployment in the European Union”.
It is not true, then, that the wage cutting measures contemplated in the Euro Pact are going to allow jobs to be created. There is a far greater empirical basis to be sure that the austerity that is being imposed is going to weaken the capacity to create jobs and is going to bring Europe into a stagnation that will have very serious social consequences for years.
And what is dangerous is that it is preferred to produce these dramatic effects solely to ensure that the earnings of financial institutions go up, so that the banks that have produced a colossal financial disaster recover their profits and power as soon as possible, and so that big firms consolidate their position of privilege in the markets.
Europe needs a different political and economic direction. The Euro has already stopped just short of generating an unsolvable systemic problem in Europe that will sooner or later spread to the rest of the world. Who really believes that the solution is to go around condemning one nation after another to the same road imposed on Greece, leaving them without the resources to lift their heads for the next one or two decades?
Europe needs a new monetary and economic regime that does not constantly widen the deep asymmetries that today exist, but rather helps to narrow them through policies of welfare and equality.
The problem of debt must be decisively addressed, so that the people who bear its burden are the ones who have caused, and so that it can no longer be used as a source of business for financial speculators. This requires a different central bank and a different monetary policy, committed to full employment, sustainability and equality. It is essential to have a proper European budget and treasury to produce fiscal harmony, rebalancing policies, and the dismantling of mechanisms that presently favour the extraction of revenue for financial institutions at the expense of wealth creation. There should be continent-wide labour norms, with pan-European standards of protection, and, above all, with a Europe-wide working time policy that leads to wider employment and not its impoverishing distribution via unemployment or precarity at work. A European strategy for equality must be established, among other ways, by imposing codes of responsibility for the environment, working practices, and against discrimination. Europe must modify its position within the structure of international commerce by giving up the cynical principle of free trade demanded of poor countries, but with which neither rich countries nor Europe itself comply, and adopting co-operation and restitution as the ordering principles of international exchanges. The financial markets must be taken on and every effort must be made to repress speculation.
The European leaders can persist and keep proclaiming, as Barroso has just done, that “there is no alternative” but by doing this they are only going to bring about an irreparable outrage among the citizens. The citizens, sooner or later, will take to the streets to kick them out and avoid disaster, by peacefully imposing a different economic policy in the service of people and based on a genuine democracy.