Archive for September, 2010

“Taking it in the arse for the banks”

This is great. Via Cedar Lounge and Irish Election Literature Blog.


A couple of early morning thoughts, on that translation I stuck up yesterday. First, I refer to the newspaper as ‘El Público’, which, although this is how it gets referred to by the newsagent where I normally buy it when in Spain, and although all other newspapers get referred to with a definite article, is not the actual name of the paper. Instead, just Público. It is not a play by Lorca.

Second, I described as ‘inconceivable’ the idea that you could have an interview covering similar ground with similar protagonists in an Irish newspaper. This is both saying too much and too little, and William Wall is right to question this with a ‘yet?’ in the comments below. Too much in that it is obviously conceivable,  since how else would I be talking about it, and too little, since existing media institutions tend to express the class interests of the people who own them and run them, and therefore it’s not a matter of how crap the Irish Times or the Irish Independent or RTE is in this regard, but of the relation between the strength of a labour movement and degree of civic engagement (to use Corkoniense’s term)  on one hand, and on the other, the extent of media production which is not merely a conduit for expressing the priorities of the dominant class.

Third, CMK wonders, as I often have, about whether the English language serves neo-liberal priorities particularly well, given that it is in Anglophone countries where neoliberalism both largely originated and seems to have embedded itself most ineradicably. I sense it probably has nothing to do with any property of what is seen as standard English language, but with the way the language of neoliberalism has reproduced itself in universities, corporations and government institutions (helped along the way by the lavish funding from think-tanks owned by plutocrats), and the relative ease with which this can continue to be reproduced in spaces where the same language is spoken.  But you get people spouting neo-liberal garbage in Spain too. One of the things we don’t get so much sight of here is the way Spain’s fascist legatees have taken to using words like ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ like ducks to water.

Fourth, I noticed that the post got linked to by Socialist Unity, and that a commenter there said the thing read like something out of Waiting for Godot. If it does (and there would be nothing wrong with that), it’s probably down to my clunky and rushed translation. When I read the original, though, I got the impression of two people who clearly agree on certain fundamental matters, but who disagree on the way they see certain other things, and are not afraid to tell each other. This, surely,  is the way it should be. I’ve been to plenty of gatherings over the last year and a half or so, with people who hold fairly similar views to me, and everyone just nods along politely to what everyone else is saying. I get the impression that it stems in part out of a fear that if you say something dissenting, the fragile flower you are all growing together will wilt on the spot. Well, to hell with that.

“The strike is the most worthy and sacred expression of politics”

While we might get enthralled by cement mixers at the expense of the wider significance of today’s events across Europe, I thought it might be a good idea to look a little further afield.

El Público today has an interview with Luis García Montero (whom I once heard lecture to a packed hall in the University of Granada) and Joaquín Sabina, very fine poet and very fine singer songwriter respectively, on the matter of the general strike that’s taking place in Spain today, and associated matters. I am posting it here in rush translation. The very fact that it appears in a Spanish national newspaper (of whom 50% of the staff are on strike today) is enough to highlight the gaping chasm between what people think passes for democracy in Ireland and what has been achieved elsewhere. It seems inconceivable that any Irish newspaper north or south could publish such an interview. Equally inconceivable is the availablity of corresponding Irish participants. I urge you all to read it.

El Público: Another general strike, but this time with Zapatero, who aroused such enthusiasm among the left. Were you expecting something like this?

Luis García Montero: I didn’t think it was going to be necessary. It was very striking, that image of him saying “I won’t let you down”, and alongside that declarations that the most needy weren’t going to pay for the crisis. It seemed possible that a leader was going to oppose such a neoliberal exit to the crisis. But the change has been so radical that there is no other way.

Joaquín Sabina: There has been a brutal enactment of a lack of sovereignty, even on the part of the government, which was able to ignore its electoral programme because of one call from Europe and another from Obama. What they put across is that there is no alternative and that a phone call is enough for them to stick the electoral programme where the sun don’t shine.  The unions had no option but to go on strike.

LGM: But careful, there’s a trap. We’re all repeating that this is being imposed by Europe. When Rajoy or Aznar defend a position, we don’t say that it’s being imposed by Spain, but by the right. They’ve made us swallow the idea that these things are being said by Europe when they’re being said by Merkel and the neo-liberal right. It is not a question of Spain being opposed to Europe, but that social democracy contributes to the building of a less neoliberal Europe.

JS:Yes, sure, but you only have to look at what’s happening in all of Europe, even in Sweden. With the fall of the Wall, they’re destroying the welfare state and now they’re going directly for social democracy.

LGM: Because of this the strike also has a civic aspect, of citizens who see that their leaders do not account for their electoral programme before them, but before the IMF. Social democracy tries to compete with the neo-liberal right. And that’s how it seeks out its own ruin because on neoliberal terrain it’s very difficult to compete.

JS: It’s impossible. If we look back just a little, it’s even more incredible. Look at the fall of Lehman Brothers. For 15 days it seemed like they were all re-reading Karl Marx. They nationalised banks! But it was a crock. They saved them with our money. That discourse has been forgotten. There was no correction nor will there be any. On the contrary: they’ve gone directly for the working class, for the unions, and for social democracy and the welfare state.

Público: That discourse was bandied about by Zapatero himself. Don’t you get the feeling that what happened afterwards was that they put a gun to his head?

JS: Certainly, that’s the way it’s been portrayed.

Público: If it’s that way, what can a strike do?

JS: First, I believe in the right to kick up a storm. I don’t know if the strike is of use, but at least it demonstrates that the working class and the unions are not on board. And also to say something that no-one says: that there have to be alternatives.

LGM: One of the most dangerous things is to say that the strike is not going to be of use. The strikes of no use are the ones that don’t take place, and experience has shown that presidents have to change. Even Aznar had to sit down to dialogue! Maybe you don’t manage to roll back completely the labour reforms, but it will influence many other things: for pensions, for everything else coming down the line. We have entered in a dynamic of assumption of neoliberal culture which we must stop. We have to put into gear a different culture and this can be a starting point.

JS: That strikes are won or lost is relative. Under Francoism, the peaceful strike of the Spanish Communist Party always failed, but it was useful. They say that in May 68 nothing happened. Nonsense. It changed habits! Communism was of no use? Well, it so happens that social democracy was born in reaction to it as were all the benefits for workers. The strike is necessary.

LGM: It’s the ideal situation to make ourselves aware of who is the guilty party. Up until now, the reactions have been carried along in a sort of furious docility. Lots of anger, but it’s not directed against the guilty, but against the immigrant or even against union leaders. We’ve got stuck in to fighting one another. We need to ensure that people go back to realising who the guilty parties are.

JS: For me, ‘strike’ is a holy word. I remember especially those proposed by the communists during Francoism. And I remember, as if it were a poem of deep emotion, when in the strike against Felipe González TVE (Spanish state broadcaster) got shut down. It was beautiful. I always wanted to write a song about the guy who pulled the plug. And now it turns out that on this holy word they’re throwing shit from all sides with the frontal attack on the unions. What Esperanza Aguirre is doing is a tremendous danger. They want to get rid of union reps, and they demonise pickets.

LGM: The only violent pickets are the bosses with their threats: if you don’t come to work, you lose your job. There’s a lot of people with fear, also in the world of culture. The other day an actor who’s filming Torrente was saying: the producer told him that if he didn’t go to work on the 29th, he needn’t go on the 30th either.

JS: But what’s this? Torrente, my friend: to the strike, damn it!

Público: Do you see any parallel between the demonisation of the unions and artists?

LGM: They have a clear idea of what can cause damage to neoliberal politics and they launch themselves into destroying it: artists represent a consciousness; the unions, a social will to organise. What they least desire is a consciousness that thinks about itself and which on top of that wishes to organise. That’s why they denigrate unions and artists.

JS: I don’t know of any country where there are attacks in this way on writers, singers, actors. I’ve never taken a subsidy! [Shoulda gone to live in Ireland – HG] That visceral hatred toward puppet-masters (tititriteros), which by the way is a beautiful word, I have never seen that anywhere else. And then you have the horrible manipulation of the act from the other day, which the majority of media presented as something like “de los de la ceja” [I have no idea what this means, I think it has to do with artists who participated in some PSOE campaign or other. ‘Ceja’ literally means eyebrow – HG], when there was nobody there who had been ‘de la ceja’. I was though, even though many friends berated me for it, I’m proud of it. I did what I thought I had to do, and now I’m doing what I think I should do. I have respected and I still respect many of the good intentions of Zapatero, which seem real to me. But his speech supporting Sarkozy was really obscene.

LGM: It’s unacceptable. And with this about the good intentions…

JS: What I mean is he’s honest.

LGM: Sure, he doesn’t take money like those in the Gürtel case [big corruption scandal involving Partido Popular slimeballs straight out of central casting – HG]. But it he gives off a strong sensation of lying. He says one thing one day and the following day something else. You can give the sensation that they’re forcing you, but he’s acting as if he believes it. When he says that this labour reform is going to create jobs, he knows it’s a lie.

JS: Well I think he believes it, which is nearly worse. What is true is that the Zapatero who pulled out of Iraq has nothing to do with he of the proSarkozy speech [Zapatero supported Sarkozy on the latter’s line taken against Roma]. Realpolitik has imposed itself.

LGM: I think he doesn’t even believe it. And the information is there: the economy has been paralysed because measures have been taken that do nothing for the real economy, only for speculation. Where is politics?

JS: What I like most about your reasoning is the defence of the word ‘politics’. And it is time to dignify this word, which is nothing more than the participation of the citizen in political affairs. And the strike is the most worthy and sacred expression of politics.

LGM: We come from the experience of politics with a capital P, which is geared towards transforming society. Were you in Granada in the 1973 construction strike?

JS: Of course.

LGM: The police shot at the workers in the door of the cathedral and killed three. Were those people fighting for democracy or for their rights?

JS: For both things.

LGM: That’s where I’m going. You cannot separate the defence of democracy and people’s dignity in work.

Público: Do you have any hope that after the strike the first Zapatero will come back?

JS: No. No-one in the centres of power sees an alternative.

LGM: I have little hope that he will change. What I do believe is that he should take account of the need for a political force on the left.

JS: But in the medium term.

LGM: Yes, medium term. And try to undertake the real reform of the Spanish left, which unites many and sets in march the response from society. My view of the future has to do with my memory, and my memory has to do with the future. And here there are two of us talking who grew in a university that decided to fight against dictatorship and demonstrated that things could be changed.

JS: Sure, but the horizon was democracy and then the most socialist version possible. What is there now in the horizon? Nothing.

LGM: When the police chased you after a student action, you were able to go to London because someone gave you his passport.

JS: He was a santo laico [Literally, a secular saint. Used to describe someone of great moral courage].

LGM: A santo laico capable of risking himself, he gave you his passport, and you were able to escape. That’s the memory I want to recall. People are losing fraternity. Of enlightenment values, the first that the right has tried to destroy is fraternity. After that the rest can be achieved. I would like that people were able to recover solidarity and create a collective enthusiasm (ilusión). That is the future.

Público: Do you see any possibility that the strike triumphs and that the PP doesn’t win?

JS: If I talk about rebuilding in medium term it’s because in the very short term I don’t expect anything. The clouds that appear on all types of horizon predict that we’re going to be the same or worse. Although politics moves more quickly than the oracles think, and not even the CIA expected the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now we don’t see possibilities that our children will live better than us. This is for our children too, as Almudena Grandes said. This is why I believe in the medium term and not in the very short term.

LGM: I think that if the socialist government loses it will not be because of the strike.

JS: Among other things because the strike does not want to bring down the government. But the PSOE needs to be told that it shouldn’t take things for granted.

LGM: We have to protest against the government, but the strike is also against many regional governments, like that of Aguirre [in Madrid – HG], and against the bosses, who impose these policies. The strike can serve to reactivate civic consciousness and facilitate as a result that the left does not lose, or that it comes back soon with different ways.

Take Me From Your Leaders

For me, science fiction is an alien world. I watched Doctor Who, Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and a whole load of other TV programmes as a kid, and I was into comics too, but once I turned about 12 or 13 I closed the book on the whole thing. Not sure why. So I feel at a bit of a loss when people start making references to characters or situations from sci-fi novels. I’m not even in a position to say that I respect science fiction, simply because anything I learned from it I learned before the age of 12. Perhaps I’m missing out on all sorts of groovy perspectives on the world.

I say this because my rather limited adventures in sci-fi came to mind this morning when thinking about the idea of leaders and leadership. The comics and shows I consumed were full of characters who seemed to want to lead just -as far as I could see- for the hell of it. Now it may be that I was just too young to discern some sort of elaborate back story to their enterprises, but figures like Dr Doom or The Leader or Galactus, well, despite the fact that they had incredible powers, they just wanted to boss people around. And yet bossing people around when you’re already more or less supremely powerful doesn’t make any sense, from the standpoint of an ordinary human. So their extreme power also demanded that they be unhinged. Perhaps all this acting up and demanding domination and loyalty was just a device for allowing superheroes to demonstrate their heroism.

When I first saw Superman II, which must be about 25 years ago, and I can’t recall seeing it in its entirety since, I was puzzled at why the three evil Kryptonians wanted to wield absolute power over puny humans. I imagine this film is full of ironic stuff that I didn’t pick up on first time (I think there was some sort of subtext about the tyranny of catwalk fashion, what with the extraordinarily dapper Terence Stamp playing the lead baddie), but it essentially follows a well-worn narrative about aliens descending to Earth and demanding to speak to the leader, ‘take me to your leader’ being a stock phrase in the vocabulary of visiting aliens.

And it often occurred to me that this ‘take me to your leader’ schtick isn’t very convincing. I imagine that this has also occurred to many sci-fi writers, to say nothing of other members of the general public. But to wit: if a given species has evolved to the extent that it has mastered interplanetary travel and possesses incredible powers, why is it going to get bogged down with the rigmarole of asking to speak to the human in charge, as if it were a caller following up on a catalogue order that hadn’t arrived?

Clearly it’s only humanoid aliens who would get distracted by that sort of thing.

But once you accept the premise that aliens would be humanoid, then it isn’t really that unrealistic to envisage aliens demanding to speak to the leader. Because most people figure that the industry of advanced discovery and research requires the same sort of hierarchies that appear to have produced discoveries in human society hitherto, particularly with the advent of modern division of labour.

We, or at least I, find it hard to imagine the industry of interplanetary space travel operating according to anarchist principles. This is not to say that interplanetary space travel would not operate according to anarchist principles, but merely that if we think about the types of organisations that create and run the technology required historically to produce the massive advances in travel (whether on land, sea, or in space), there are strict hierarchies in operation. That said, how the enabling research and development gets conducted is another matter entirely.

For all I know, there are Star Trek fans reading this and yawning, thinking, “but all this is covered in episode X where the crew meet the X”. But bear with me. So you have these hierarchies, and that means leaders. And the leaders of the humanoid aliens need to meet the corresponding leaders among the puny humans, because that is the way that the alien humanoid leaders do their business. And then the drama that unfolds is: “are our leaders up to the task of striking a deal that might save our asses from slavery and domination and vivisection? Or are they going to strike a deal that will allow the aliens to save their asses and to hell with the rest of us? Or is a Messiah going to arrive and kick alien butt?”

When I came into contact with this sort of drama, where the elected political leader was presented as the obvious go-to person for the inquiring alien, I took this at face value. Talking with the aliens- well, that was a job for the President!

This is in spite of the fact that politicians seldom include in their manifestoes their approach to relations with occupants of interplanetary craft. None -and I am prepared to stand corrected on this- has ever been elected based on an advertisement based on the 3am call in which slavering bug-eyed 12ft creatures with their genitals on their head have taken over the Internet.

So I am wondering. If aliens descended on Earth tomorrow, assuming that they were benign enough, would human political institutions magically retain whatever legitimacy they presently enjoy? Or would countless millions just go, to hell with this, if there are space aliens about, we should forget about the idea of France?

Consider the possibility, which lots of people known as alien conspiracy theorists have contemplated, that if aliens arrived on earth, state bureaucracies and technocratic elites would keep the whole thing a secret. Whilst I think it highly unlikely that the practical dimensions of an alien invasion would lend themselves to state secrecy, I think these conspiracy theories contain a kernel of truth: there is absolutely no reason why state or state-enabled bureaucracies would just release all the files on the thing there and then, in the interests of humanity, assuming there was some way of keeping all the info to themselves. Within the relevant decision-making groups, there would still be lots of wrangling and weighing up of competing positions. Some might want to strike a deal with the aliens, or among themselves with regard to how information from the aliens ought to be used. I can imagine no way in which the ‘interests of humanity’ would somehow worm their way into the decision-making processes.

My own theory about the origin of alien invasion myths is that they arise in response, among other things, to the opacity, from the point of view of the conspiracy theorist, of state and corporate power. It is the brute imperceptibility of the whole thing, the appearance of state power as an alien power, allied to the idea of bureaucratic machinery controlled by a group of people working entirely in concert, that produces the aliens in more or less human form. But it is also a matter of feeling that one’s benign view of what ‘the government’ ought to be has been defiled by some alien interloper. So -to take the Tea Party example- the US government has been taken over by a black Islamic Nazi who is Marxist son of Malcolm X with a forged birth certificate, whereas back in the day, we had people like us, the type of people you could have a beer with, who loved family and regular stuff like clearing brush from the ranch.

Fortunately, in Ireland, no such paranoia has seized hold of any significant proportion of the population. And yet.

Look at what has happened in the last week or so. First, Brian Cowen appears on radio hungover, but no less articulate than what he usually is. Cue media-stoked national outrage about how this is inappropriate for a political leader. Leaders, after all, need to communicate. (But communicate what?) Then, Cowen gets called a drunken moron by a US talk show host, and it makes front-page news. The idea of a leader -and by extension, the population- being subjected to ignominy is unbearable for some. But what is this leader for?

And then you turn on the radio on any given day and you hear stuff about how we need ‘real leadership’. This ‘real leadership’, whether supplied by the current leader of Fine Gael, or an ensemble of company bosses, are what will get the country back on track. But lead where? To growth. To take the tough decisions. Fireside chats. Award ceremonies. To give people a sense of hope, and so on and so forth.

Obviously, there are different forms of leadership. Starting a campaign among your friends and neighbours to keep a hospital open or to get a school renovated is an example of leadership, but so is sending in the F-16s against a democratically elected government.

The dominant idea of leadership in media flows in the main from corporate iconography and hagiography, which in turn appropriates political hagiography. If this dominant idea of leadership can be characterised by one quality, it is the ability to take tough and unpopular decisions. As such, it has nothing to do with democratic representation. It has to do with you delegating other people the power to take action against you, much as you might take out a contract on your own life with a hitman. The demand for this sort of leader doubles up as an implicit demand for a passive population.

It strikes me that many people develop the habit of seeing leaders just as a seven year old would see the President of the United States in an alien invasion flick: in the natural order of things, they are the people you rely on whenever the chips are down to fend off alien predators. Sure, you can get others if it looks like they’re not up to the job, but you appoint them to do the same things: to take the tough and unpopular decisions, and so on. Basically, your relation to the leader is that of a passive subject needing to be led. You’re allowed to have jokes at their expense as a means of alleviating despair.

Speaking of alien predators:

Why Ireland is bailing out foreign banks | Analysis & Opinion |

But we don’t live in an ideal world and the collective-action problems here are all but insurmountable: at the first whiff of a haircut, everybody’s going to want to be the first to bail out entirely. Ireland’s technocratic elite seems to understand that and so it’s unhappily bailing out its foreign lenders at 100 cents on the euro, even the government continues to slash spending domestically. It’s not fair, everybody knows that. But it might be unavoidable.

In short, Ireland’s technocratic elite is launching a savage assault on the population in order to satisfy the voracious appetites of proverbial capitalist pigs. From the point of view of the average victim, it hardly matters what the precise motivations in play are: the three main political parties make no secret of their intention to cut another €3bn from government spending on people this year, but will raise taxes on the labour of the same people in order to feed the pigs. There’ll be no ‘leader’ from political or business elites who’s going to tell the truth about this, because any such leader is primed to adopt the mantle of commander. As the shrinking economy vomits people onto ferries and planes in the tens of thousands fleeing unemployment and debt peonage, appointed media talking heads -pulled from the same elites unleashing this savagery- will intensify their shrieks for better leadership. Meanwhile, sightings of UFO and apparitions of the Virgin Mary will multiply, and people will be wondering why the Taoiseach hasn’t said anything about the meteorite landing in a field in Westmeath. Is there something he’s hiding from us? Has he been making deals behind our back?

We don’t need these leaders.

The Power and The Glory

Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity | Richard Dawkins | Comment is free |

Should Ratzinger, then, be welcomed as the head of a church? By all means, if individual Catholics wish to overlook his many transgressions and lay out the red carpet for his designer red shoes, let them do so. But don’t ask the rest of us to pay. Don’t ask the British taxpayer to subsidise the propaganda mission of an institution whose wealth is measured in the tens of billions: wealth for which the phrase “ill-gotten” might have been specifically coined. And spare us the nauseating spectacle of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and assorted lord lieutenants and other dignitaries cringing and fawning sycophantically all over him as though he were somebody we should respect.

There are many things that get on my wick about Richard Dawkins. And this paragraph highlights one of them. Yeah, he’s big into the extreme voluntarism of having the power to turn against our creators. But in his own case, this power doesn’t even go as far as realising that the spectacle of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh is already nauseating, without the need to add the Pope to it. What does Dawkins think the Queen is for? To show respect to people ‘we’ should respect? What does he think about the propaganda mission of that other institution ‘whose wealth is measured in the tens of billions: wealth for which the phrase “ill-gotten” might have been specifically coined’: the British Crown? Oh. He thinks it should have nothing to with the Pope. Well whoop-de-do.

Anglo Grinder

Still plenty of ifs and buts in determining final cost to taxpayer – The Irish Times – Wed, Sep 01, 2010

The meter on the bailout has reached €22.88 billion. Some €18.88 billion has come through promissory notes, or State IOUs, which, the Government says, allows it to spread the cost over a “manageable” 10 to 15 years.

I’ve been sticking my head in the sand over this. I find it hard to hold in my head the idea of what a billion is, let alone €20bn. It takes necessary thinking labour time, of which I don’t have a great deal. So I decided to dig into the National Income Estimates yesterday to try to get to grips with what sort of money we’re talking about re: Anglo. As I say, I’ve been ignoring this stuff, so those of you who are already well acquainted with the figures, the arguments, the proceedings and so on may choose to avert your eyes. I apologise if the charts aren’t that clear, I haven’t figured out how to display Excel charts in WordPress properly yet.

Well, the National Income Estimates only go as far as 2009, which makes sense, seeing as 2010 hasn’t ended yet. And the first thing I did, to find out how Anglo Irish Bank figured in all this, was to do a Ctrl+F and search for Anglo. There’s one entry, on tab 23, for capital grants to enterprises, referring to Recapitalisation of Anglo Irish Bank PLC. Here’s how the grants stack up:

So Anglo received more than three times the rest of capital grants combined. And 4bn is a nice and snug round figure, three zeroes in a row, instead of the piddling 78 million for CIE. But what does 4bn mean in the context of government capital expenditure?

Have a butchers at this:

Grants to Enterprise was ticking over nicely all the way through the boom, making up 5-7% of capital expenditure. Then bam! 2009 we’re up to nearly 25% of capital expenditure. Only problem is that in 2009, it’s mostly down to Anglo Irish Bank.

But even at that, we’re only talking about capital expenditure. What the hell do I know about how much that ought to make up of total government spending? So I had a hoke about to see where capital expenditure fit into the overall spending, and I opened out a separate category for Anglo Irish Bank. Here’s where Anglo stacks up against other areas:

Anglo Irish Bank is straight in at number 6 in 2009 in terms of state spending priorities. Bear in mind, none of this has anything to do with the 2010 money for the bank, taking it into the tens of billions. This is just the entry on the National Income Estimates. How the later money is going to be reflected in 2010 estimates I have no idea.

But seeing as we’re heading into the propaganda season leading up to the budget, talking about the ‘savings’ that will have to be made, what with the ‘fiscal austerity’ being demanded by the ‘markets’, in the form of cuts to welfare, education and health, consider austerity in relation to spending on Anglo Irish Bank:

(in millions)

And then consider the additional tens of billions not accounted for here, and ask yourself: whose austerity?

And whose bonanza?

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September 2010