Archive Page 2

A Question

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?

An Indispensable One

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.

 

Irish Times:

Irish Independent:

Irish Examiner:

RTE:

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’.

Get Out.

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.

Outraged Europe

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.

Stolen in Translation

New Statesman – Just before you accept Johann Hari’s apology ….

It now appears that Mr Hari has made quite a habit of pinching quotes given to other interviewers, and claiming that they were given to him. Just look at this:

“It is possible I have something of this . . . tragic sense of life,” he [Chavez] acknowledged. He recalled that on the eve of the 1992 rebellion he had said goodbye to his wife and three children, and led his soldiers out of their barracks. He was the last to leave. After locking the big front gate, he threw away the key. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” Chávez said. “So it is possible that one has been a bit . . . imbued with that . . . ever since, no?

Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, The Revolutionary, 10 September 2001

The spectre haunting Latin America – the spectre of Hugo Chavez – furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die. “I will never forget – in the early hours, I said goodbye to my wife and three little children. I kissed them goodbye and blessed them.” He knew in his gut he was not going to survive that long, bloody day in 1992, when he and his allies finally decided to stage a revolution against the old, rotten order loathed by the Venezuelan people. “I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life,” he says, looking away. “So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit… imbued with that sense ever since, no?

Johann Hari, The Indepedent, Hugo Chavez – An ‘Exclusive’ Interview, 14 May 2006

Oliver made an important point about Hari’s swiping of quotes relating to Antonio Negri yesterday, that given the fact the quotes were lifted from a translation, Hari had plagiarised not one, but two people. And the same is true here. God knows I’ve been translating plenty of stuff of late, and a lot of the time it’s a damn pain in the ass, trying to preserve as far as possible the original meaning, making sure you neither lose the flow and coherence of the original, nor do you freight the translated version with a load of other stuff that just obscures what the original thrust was.

You can obsess over some of these points endlessly, since there’s never a perfect option to be chosen, and sometimes it can come out rather clunky, and we can see in Anderson’s translation above -albeit without the original words to which we can refer- some of these tensions coming to the fore. For example, the ‘no?’ at the end is not a locution used all that commonly in English and generally when it is used it is recognisable as the sort of thing a non-native speaker might say. But the point is to convey as fully as possible the sense of what the person is saying in their own language, and not to emphasise the foreignness of that person. So the problem with the ‘no?’ here is that it imbues -to use an excellent word- Chávez with a degree of foreignness in his expression, by bringing to the fore an unusual locution that is not unusual at all in Spanish.

Now I am not saying at all that Anderson is committing word crimes for doing this: for one, it might not have even occurred to him that this is what he was doing, second, it most likely preserves the flow of the original, and the event of Chávez confiding something to him, in a way that ‘know what I mean?’ would definitely not. So perhaps he has made the most sensible decision given the overall task he has undertaken.

The point being that this decision, as part of the whole process of bringing these words into existence, is a considerable act of labour – from arranging to conduct the interview, second, to conducting the interview in such a way that Chávez makes the disclosures that he does (and doing so in the original language), through translating the words not only in such a way that they give an accurate account of what Chávez says, but so that they also convey the overall feel of the encounter. But Hari copies and pastes the quote into his own interview and passes it off as though he himself had been responsible for Chávez saying what he did. That is a scandalous form of lying and probably worse than if he had simply made up his own stuff.

Use Your Disillusion

To be honest, I’m not too sure why I translated this. It’s a worthy enough document, but hardly says anything new. It is a manifesto signed up to by various prominent Spanish public figures on the left, including Baltasar Garzón, Pedro Almodóvar and Almudena Grandes. It is fairly clear that there is a strong whiff of disillusion with the PSOE pervading the document, and also clear is the rousing effect that the 15-M movement has had on proceedings. As usual, it illustrates important differences between Ireland and Spain, in terms of political atmosphere, that a similar document emanating from prominent Irish artists, writers and lawyers is nigh inconceivable, not only with regard to the conscious identification with left-wing politics, but in terms of the core ideas expressed.

But however apt its description of events, it seems imbued with a sense of a missed bus. That is, this talk about rebuilding the left and what the left should do and so on. ‘The left’, as a name for a group of forces characterised by their relation to a notional parliamentary centre, seems to have been hollowed considerably in light of the mass demonstrations in Spain and Greece against parliaments, and the violent suppression of popular demonstrations by tooled-up police.

What does it mean to speak about a ‘left’ from the point of view of someone who now opposes the very form of representative parliamentary democracy practised in these states, once the latter began to reveal itself, in the eyes of growing numbers of the Spanish and Greek public, as just one more instrument of wealth and power?

And this makes me wonder about the United Left Alliance here in Ireland. On the one hand I can see the point in using the Dáil as a platform for public advocacy of opposition and resistance. On the other, is there not a certain legitimation of parliamentary democracy going on? In that Fine Gael and Labour can point to the assembled opposition and say, “see? Isn’t it wonderful how we have a democracy in which all manner of dissenting viewpoints can be expressed? And isn’t it wonderful, furthermore, how we were elected to administer the IMF/ECB programme by the very same token?”

Now, I’ll admit the word ‘left’ is a fairly minor consideration in this situation, and I can also see the sense in naming a party as ‘left’ and organising along these lines, in so far as there is a division to be insisted upon, at every turn, between politics of neo-liberal governance and politics of resistance. Nonetheless I can’t help but wonder if coming months will see public confidence in Irish parliamentary democracy crumble beyond repair, not to give way to some sort of revolutionary turn, but rather taking with it any sort of interest in the broad type of political ideas the ULA claims to stand for. So I am very sceptical about these discussions about what ‘the left’ ought to be doing, however much I might agree with certain things, so long as they do not take into account the crisis of legitimacy of representative parliamentary democracy, and what this means in terms of how people are to participate in democratic processes.

A SHARED DREAM

The discrediting of politics and the regular complaints about the corruption of democratic life cannot be met with indifference by the consciences of progressives. There are many people who, from different ideological perspectives, have felt defenceless in the midst of this economic, social and institutional crisis. The left has a more serious problem than the forward march of reactionary forces in the latest municipal elections. It is a question of its lack of horizon. Whilst the financial markets impose the dismantling of the welfare state in search of untrammelled profits, a socialist government has been incapable of imagining any other prescription than to accept anti-social pressuring and to degrade public rights and working conditions.

It is evident that the electoral results have taken a heavy toll on the PSOE. But the alternatives to its left have not picked up on voters affronted by neoliberal policies and the shortcomings of an imperfect democracy. And yet, this is not the time to give up on one’s dreams, because the street and social networks have suddenly started showing signs of rebellion by speaking out about politics. This civic energy, renewed and full of nuance, has four decisive concerns: democratic regeneration, decent working conditions, defence of public services and the development of a sustainable economy, committed to respect the environment and to operate in the service of all. These are the great worries of the 21st century in the shadow of a system that is ever more avaricious, that treats international solidarity and the dignity of the nature of human beings with arrogant and unimpeded contempt.

Democratic corruption has proven the best ally of speculation, separating political trajectories from civic sovereignty and decomposing institutional powers from the inside. Public life must be restored with pride in its honesty, legitimacy and transparency. And as such it is essential to seek new forms of participative democracy and bring to this with a common dream the ideals of solidarity of a social and democratic left.

The financial powers rely on our isolation and our fear. Their threats try to paralyse us, to privatise our consciences and submit us to the law of selfishness and every man for himself. But the energy of the social fabric can consolidate a coming together in which different sensibilities on the left flow together and find the necessary consensus for the creation of a common dream. We must transform the aged bi-partite electoral map. The level of civic protagonism reached in certain processes such as the referendum on Spain’s membership of NATO, the opposition to the war in Iraq, or the 15-M movement, show us the way.

The support and effort of all is needed, because nothing is written down and everything is possible. The world is changed by those who, from their principles and civic commitment, stand up to injustice, break with the temptation to accommodate and get up and fight giving direction to the dream. The memory of human emancipation demands an honest look at values and the future. We are convinced about the need to reconstruct the present of the left. And you?

Sins of The Father

Great interview. Looking forward to the book!

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide

I was in Chicago on presidential election night in 2008. I find it hard to imagine that I will ever witness an explosion of pride and elation on such a scale ever again, with throngs of jubilant supporters stretching along every avenue as far as the eye could see, celebrating the end of the Bush era and the election of a black president. I’d like to be able to say they were unforgettable scenes, but I had forgotten many of the scenes the following morning, for reasons those familiar with the effects of concentrated alcohol consumption will be familiar with.

The evening had started out normal enough. I had got stuck into a load of delectable heavy finger buffet, which among other things involved plunging fist-sized strawberries into a chocolate fountain that almost spilled over into the obscene. And then a few glasses of red wine, and discussion with a few of my (mostly Republican) fellow buffeteers about matters political. None of them was in the slightest bit pissed off about Obama becoming present. This was in the early hours of the ‘post-racial’ dawn, and a couple of them ventured that the election of a black man to the presidency emphasised the greatness and intrinsic genius of US democracy. Were the red wine not so potent, I might have subjected this claim to more critical attention.

I was thinking about this time during the Obama visit – about the people I saw out on the streets of Chicago that night, and then the ones who turned out on College Green to greet him.

Not too many of them in Chicago or Dublin would share the view of Cornel West (who campaigned for Obama) that he is ‘a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it’, which seems fair enough to me.

West, who has taken a lot of heat for his stance on Obama, has been particularly seething about how the figures Obama appointed to key positions were already well ensconced in power elites:

“I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with [Sen. Joe] Lieberman as his mentor,” he says. “But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’ And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, ‘I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.”

 

In the lead-up to Obama’s visit there were murmurings of discontent here and there about the detail in Morgan Kelly’s piece in the Irish Times that indicated his appointee to Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, had vetoed a ‘plan to haircut €30 billion of unguaranteed bonds by two-thirds on average‘. But it made no difference to the throngs who assembled in College Green to hear Obama speak, perhaps hopeful of a sign that the long nightmare could be cut short by the sort of progressive populist figure West thought he had seen.

 

But as this translated piece by Alejandro Nadal shows, they were standing to face the same ‘progressive populist’ whose direct appointment had plunged them -and their fellow citizens across Europe- even further into the nightmare.

 Irish lesson for a Greek Tragedy

It seems the financial markets already take for granted that Greece will default in the coming months. The first package of bailout and austerity that was imposed on Athens failed. Its main objectives, the reduction of the debt to GDP ratio and the stabilising of relations with financial markets, seem unreachable today. There is no clear horizon in sight.

Obviously restructuring would be the best course of action for Greece. It would have a lower cost for the people of that country, and would have the virtue of placing part of the burden for the crisis on the lenders who are responsible for this debacle. Athens could devote its efforts to restoring the health of its finances without sacrificing a generation (as happened in Latin America starting with the 80s crisis).

But, of course, it is being said that if Greece is forced into a default, the cascading effect will make the debacle after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 look like a picnic. According to this narrative, in the tsunami of contagion panic will not only hit bond sales of countries like Portugal, Spain and Italy. It will also hit the assets of supposedly healthier countries and even big US corporations.

All this is speculative. What we do know for the moment is that the first bailout package led to an austerity that made the recession worse and reduced tax receipts. That is why today the risk of Greek default is stronger than ever and there are two possible scenarios. The first is that of soft restructuring, with simple extensions to the repayment periods and some reductions in interest rates. This is the scenario Angela Merkel supports, because she wants to make it clear to her electorate that she is not going to spend fiscal resources in bailing out private banks. The other one is a hard restructuring, with cuts to the principal, as well as changes in repayment period and rates. As one might have expected, the financial sector, with the European Central Bank at its head, has closed ranks to avoid any sort of restructuring.


What is the deep reason for this opposition for everything that smells of restructuring of a debt that in any case seems unpayable? The experience of Ireland is instructive. Morgan Kelly, professor of economics at UCD, published an article on the failed attempt to restructure Irish debt. In November 2010 the ECB was insisting on its radical position of supporting creditors. The jettisoned Strauss-Kahn at the IMF surfaced as a supporter of restructuring and the Dublin government was grateful for the support of this unexpected ally. This restructuring meant cutting the total to be paid and changes to the repayment period and interest rates. But the arrangement was torpedoed by Tim Geithner. For what reason did the US Secretary of the Treasury oppose the restructuring of Irish debt?

For Geithner, an Irish restructuring could have provoked a contagion effect in Europe, affecting US banks that would have to pay 120 billion dollars in debt swaps (the dreaded credit default swaps). These financial derivatives were originally designed as a form of insurance in cases of debt default. But they took on their own life and became mechanisms for high-risk betting, sowing explosive mines in the financial world.

The degree of American exposure through these CDS is an estimate, since that segment of the financial market is too opaque. For its part, the ratings agency Fitch says that more than 44% of US banks’ resources in the money market is held up in European banks. No wonder Geithner is worried.

A couple of days ago Dublin tried to resurrect its demand to restructuring, at least a part of the debt incurred in the bank bailout. Once again Washington’s sabotage makes this exit unthinkable. Geithner’s position is simple: public resources are there to rescue banks, regardless of the cost for the citizens of a country. It does not matter that in the origin of the crisis the owners and managers of the banks had acted with excessive greed and negligence.

It is obvious that what is needed today is some sort of restructuring of Greek debt. The only way of lifting that country is through a new plan, with a long term perspective, which allows the restoration of growth and tax receipts. At any rate, the solution that is finally adopted in the case of Greece will be determined politicially. There is no reason to adopt a plan whose only logic is to punish the debtor. In these days of the anniversary of Bloomsday, if Joyce could see us he would surely write that the tyranny that the financial sector is imposing on us is a nightmare from which we are all trying to awake.

 


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