Archive for October 24th, 2008

Idiots, Bastards etc.

Chris Hedges has a fine, if fearful piece on Truthdig on the current crisis for American capitalism. He addresses something I’ve been thinking about recently, which is that the corporate form that permeates government and business is structurally incapable of delivering for the common good.

Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.

He then goes on to interview John Ralston Saul:

“The difficulty is you have a collapse, you have a loss of face by the people who are there, and it’s not just George Bush, it’s very, very deep,” Saul said. “What we’re talking about is the need to rethink the departments of economics, of political science. Then you have to rethink the whole analytic method of the World Bank. If I’m the secretary of the treasury, and not a guy like [Henry] Paulson, but I mean a sort of normal secretary of the treasury or minister of finance, and I say, OK, we’ve got a real problem, let’s get the senior civil servants in here. Gentlemen, ladies, OK, clearly we have to go in another direction, give me some ideas. Well, those people don’t have any other ideas because at this point they’re about the fourth generation of what you might call neoconservative globalist managers, unfairly summarized. So they then go to the people who work for them, and you work down; there’s no one in there with an alternate approach. I mean they’ll have little alternatives, but no basic differences in opinion. And so it’s very difficult to turn anything around because they’ve eliminated all opposing ideas inside. I mean it’s the problem of the Soviet Union, right?”

If, as their standard of living becomes increasingly precarious, the bulk of the population decides to sit back and expect the thinking about what is to be done to be conducted on their behalf by intellectually sclerotic elites who act out of commercial interests, the general prospects are not good, as the rest of the piece shows. Hedges’s prescription of ‘a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure’ strikes me as modest and reasonable under the circumstances.

You can hear more from John Ralston Saul here, talking about his book The Collapse of Globalism. And also an interview here. Excerpt:

London: What do you propose we do about these entrenched elites and the rise of technocratic language and all these other evils. Where does that leave the lonely individual?

Saul: I’m not in the business of suggesting solutions, by the way. I don’t belong to the Platonic tradition, I belong to the Socratic tradition. But a lot of the sorts of things I’m talking about are things which are very, very simple. One of them is simply that if we are a democracy, how is it that we’ve highly structured our lives so that every free minute of our day is accounted for working, holidays, breaks, etc. and that the only time left over is the time to go home and have dinner with our families, go to bed, make love, get up, go to the bathroom, and go back to work — go back to the structured system. We have to sit back and say, “Wait a minute, we live in a democracy.” We have structured everything in there — sick leave, pregnancy leave — but we haven’t structured one minute in for citizen participation. The only way a citizen can participate is voluntarily, which means giving up going to the bathroom, give up making love, give up sleep, give up eating dinner with your family. In other words, we have structured citizen participation out of our society. For me, this is the simplest and most complete proof that we don’t live in a democracy — that we live in a corporatist society.

Hardly coincidental, then, that the people out protesting this week on the streets of Dublin were students and pensioners: they’re the ones with free time on their hands.


I was thinking in the train about street protests. The TV images of students and old people out protesting called to mind when I got involved in organising student protests against fees in the UK some time back. We managed to assemble decent crowds, listened to a few speeches of outrage and defiance, and went home. In the end, it didn’t have much of an effect: UK students and graduates have far bigger debts on average now by comparison with then. In the beginning, it didn’t have much effect either: brief coverage on TV then zip.

When you fail to meet your objectives, you can always talk up the action after the fact, and propose that if you hadn’t done anything, things could have turned out worse. And you can also argue that there’s a certain intrinsic value in organising protests because you get good at it with practice, and from a wider perspective you are at least forcing the general population to think about your predicament. Furthermore, you might also be signalling to the political class that their plans will be met with resistance. Also, at a personal level, you can feel good about it: a united show of opposition offers a certain stiffening of the spine.

So, despite the scenes shown on TV the other day, fairly remarkable by Ireland’s modern standards at least, I feel a bit sceptical about the eventual impact of the protests held. Part of it is probably a residual effect of the failure of those protests I myself was involved in. But those were different times.

For a start, the future looked rosier for students and graduates because the UK economy was headed toward a period of growth. The average citizen, I guess, tends to be easily satisfied when things are on the way up, even if they’re going up a hell of a lot faster for a lot more people. So erosions of what once seemed like basic entitlements can be weighed up and set aside when there are other, more tantalising prospects on the horizon.

On the contrary, your average captain of industry, the one who enjoys a far greater degree of power and influence in a capitalist democracy, is not easily satisfied when things are going up a hell of a lot faster for a lot more people. He or she will fight tooth and nail to triumph over others, and this eternal state of dissatisfaction is a necessary condition for flourishing within this system. This is a fact that both British liberalism and the strongest brand of Irish patriotism have done well to obscure.

The lesson to be learned, one which demands consistent repetition, is that the citizen needs to be more tenacious and more motivated in the preservation and strengthening of basic rights and entitlements than those who are out to demolish them in the service of their own interests. And that’s not all. They need to be as cunning as serpents.

Part of this entails, I think, not falling under any illusions or complacency when protests result in a disruption to business as usual. It also entails being brutally realistic about what your activities are likely to achieve, without lapsing into cynicism or despondency. Where it looks as though you achieved absolutely nothing, there’s no point consoling yourself with the nobility of your deeds or the bond you have formed with your fellow protesters. This point becomes even more important when it looks like you have in fact achieved something of substance.

None of this will come as anything new to people who have experience in organising protests, but it’s worth repeating for onlooking sympathisers who, watching and reading the coverage of an irruption of fantastically disrespectful protests from old people and students in front of the Dáil, might be inclined to think that at some level all is well because, when push comes to shove, a bit of jostling every now and again from angry sections of the population is enough to keep things on an even keel.

That is the vein in which media outlets have been celebrating the protests. The drama of personal embarrassment and weakened party political power is the primary focus, with the main protagonists -the aged protestors- depicted in terms that seem, oddly, deferential and patronising at the same time.

So whilst one might agree tentatively with this element of the Irish Times’s leader judgment:

There is something good about what has emerged in recent days. There is a new engagement with the political system, a sense that politics and what happens in Dáil Éireann does matter and have an effect on people’s real lives.

One must reject outright this part:

There is an onus on grey organisations to effectively channel the current anger to positive effect… The rudeness of protesters towards Government representatives over the last two days did their cause no good.

That’s some cheek, coming from an institution that, as Cedar Lounge rightly noted, ‘hunts with the hounds and runs with the fox‘, though the same is true of other papers. What reasonable comparison is to be drawn between discomfort from a few posters and slogans on one hand, and the terrifying effect of the prospect of a forced choice between a rotten standard of health care or impoverishment in old age on the other?

The attitude of the IT leader is worth considering, I think, because it shows the terms on which it is desirable for the establishment to address this situation, and how it ought to be perceived in general. That is, a bit of fun and ructions every now and again is fine, but please be civil in the future, because if you don’t, you’ll only be hurting yourself.

But that sort of mild support with a minatory undercurrent is for liberal wimps. For a more full-blooded response, see what other papers are saying. One of the most powerful features of capitalist ideology is how it represents the preservation of the prevailing order as radical, even revolutionary. This can go as far as issuing approval for revolution, though usually confined to consumer appetites, such as the purchase of cocktails or mobile telephony.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised in light of more protests in the months ahead, to see newspapers actively cheering on the ‘Silver Revolution’, and pointedly denouncing the government for things like its handling of the medical card issue, whilst simultaneously lamenting that there’s no alternative to a whole range of policies that will see more and more people wind up with dreadful health care, longer working hours, lower wages and a more fragmented existence in general. They may also talk up the activities of opposition politicians who are similarly critical of the management techniques shown by government, but not of the basic policies and core ideology.

So my scepticism arises, I think, from a fear not that the protests are impotent, but simply that they won’t go anywhere near far enough, assuming they continue, because people won’t think they need to do anything more once they see some sort of minor reversal. And any minor achievement (on the scale of things, even a total reversal of the government’s position is very minor considering the disastrous state of the Irish health services), gets represented as a huge victory. What is in fact a very modest, conservative even, demand for a decent society ends up getting presented as hugely radical one. And for those in power, it probably is. Terrifying, even.

The point, then, when you get told about how unreasonable you’re being and for-god’s-sake-would-you-look-at-what-you-have-already-been-given-sure-isn’t-that-enough-this-is-getting-ridiculous, is to persevere, and not to flinch, ever, until you get your pound of flesh. Less ‘We Shall Overcome‘, more ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Prize’.

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October 2008
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