Archive for June, 2011

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.


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.


Sagrada Familiar

Vicenç Navarro analyses events in Barcelona over the past week, examining the anti-democratic measures introduced by Artur Mas’s government. A government rolling back on election promises, giving priority to the demands of Brussels, the fetish for sating the demands of financial markets, the compliant media, the cut-thirsty establishment, the contempt for democracy, the paltry welfare state, the conflating of minor scuffles with terrorism: now where have I heard that one before?

Who is anti-democratic?

The morning of the 15th of June, the members of the Parlament of Catalonia had been called to approve the budgets put forward by the new Government of Catalonia -which included the most radical cuts in social spending to be carried out during the democratic period. These cuts would weaken even further the already underdeveloped welfare state of Catalonia, which, along with the rest of Spain, has the lowest social spend per capita in the EU-15 (the group of EU countries with most similar economic development to ours). The president of the government, Artur Mas, had declared that these cuts “were due to the demands of Brussels”. However, they were not in the electoral programme of this party in the recent elections to the Parlament of Catalonia. What is more, during the electoral campaign, Mas promised on numerous occasions that his government, should it be elected, would not carry out such cuts, singling out health and education, in particular, as the public services of the welfare state that would be protected the most from any cutback. These promises were clearly ignored, and immediately after the government was formed, significant reductions in social spending were begun, above all, in health and education.

The economic and financial establishments (close to CiU and the PP) approved of these cuts, presented in top media outlets in Catalonia, including those of the Generalitat, such as TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio, as inevitable and necessary in order to “regain the confidence of the financial markets”, the phrase most widely used to justify the extraordinary reduction in the already poorly funded welfare state in Catalonia.

The deafening silence of the Catalan establishment faced with these cutbacks contrasts with the uproar on account of almost identical circumstances in the United Kingdom, where the government led by David Cameron was carrying out substantial cuts in social spending, despite the fact that these were not included in its electoral programme. Cameron, like Mas, had also promised, during the electoral campaign, that he would not make cuts. Well, in the United Kingdom, no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the highest authority in the Anglican Church, roundly denounced this behaviour and accused Cameron’s government of immorality and lacking democratic legitimacy when carrying out these measures, making clear that legitimacy and legality were two concepts with different ethical and political implications. He emphasised that the cuts, while legal, entered into conflict with the democratic order, since such public policies had no popular mandate for their implementation. Demonstrating the scarcely democratic culture of the Catalan establishment, no voice surfaced to point out and -even less so- denounce such anti-democratic behaviour from Mas and his government.

Needless to say that whilst the financial, economic, political and media establishments maintained their silence, only broken to support the cutbacks, large sectors of the population, beginning with the unions, mobilised against them. As a consequence, Catalonia today is living through a great social and labour agitation. The latest addition to these protests are those of the 15-M movement, one of the most positive developments that has taken place in the political life of Catalonia (and of Spain) which, as a consecuence of its radicalism, goes to the root of the causes of the cutbacks, which is to say, the existence of a very incomplete democracy, which is responsible for insufficient wellbeing. The strength of this movement is based in the fact that the causes of its outrage are shared by the great majority of the population which, moreover, finds a large amount of its specific proposals for change reasonable and necessary. Its criticisms of the enormous democratic shortcomings in existence in Catalonia (and in Spain) are widely shared by Catalan society.

Artur Mas tried to discredit these mobilisations contrasting them with the support his party CiU had obtained from what he called the “silent majority” in the last municipal elections carried out only a few weeks previous. In this declaration various facts were ignored. One is that CiU only received the support of 14.9% of the electorate (that is, of those who voted and those who able to vote did not do so). His great victory was based in an electoral law that is scarcely democratic, which translates such a small percentage of votes of the electorate into such a large change to representative institutions. What is more, among the voters, the voters for left parties (1,220,926, tri-partite) were greater in number than the right wing (1,141,597, CiU and PP). And even a minority (but a substantial one) of the right wing voters disagrees with the cutbacks that the Mas government is carrying out. Whatever way you look at it, the Mas executive did not have a mandate to carry out these policies.

It is therefore healthy that the 15-M should want to denounce these cuts that were going to be implemented by trying, symbolically, to surround the Parlament to denounce these measures. The slogans called for non violence. But it got out of control [not least on account of agents provocateurs – HG], and this is being used to discredit the movement (and this despite the fact that the 15-M movement condemned the violence and denounced the uncivil behaviour of a tiny minority). After that, Mas even tried to link the 15-M movement to terrorism. These clumsy attempts at criminalising them failed, and last Sunday, Barcelona saw one of the biggest ever demonstrations in its history.

Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday, Sunday Bloody Sunday

Bit of a novelty today with my translation: the author is myself. I don’t write much in Spanish because I find it both difficult and never have the need anyway, but I decided to respond to a post about Northern Ireland on Público which used Sunday Bloody Sunday as the eternal lament for cities of conflict such as Belfast, Jerusalem and Mostar. 

I’m from there and I would like to clarify a couple of things. In Northern Ireland the most common euphemism for the conflict is not “The Problems” but “The Troubles”. Another thing: in 1886 it is true that in the whole island it was a case of a “Catholic majority, poor and working class, and a rich Protestant minority”, but today this is not the situation in Northern Ireland: within the Northern Ireland borders there is a Protestant majority, and I am mostly in agreement with what David Barriado says here above: Northern Ireland is a vestige of the British Empire. Moreover, the fact that there is a Protestant majority -which is to say, loyal to the British State- is the result of its initial design, and as such its “religious-social ghettos’ are a near inevitable product of this design.

In Northern Ireland there is a practice that can also be perceived in Israel/Palestine, according to which each group within that society (whether Jews or Arabs in Israel/Palestine or Catholics/Protestants in Northern Ireland) is portrayed as decent and peace-loving, but tragically mired in the violence unleashed by a few people on both sides.

The most important effect of this practice is to hide the character and the role of the State in each situation and present “the violence” as if it were a sort of virus and not a product of the State. But it also produces songs such as Sunday Bloody Sunday.

An example: the UK government declared, before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, that it had no ‘selfish strategic’ interest in Northern Ireland. However, in recent years the British government has built, in Belfast, a new military intelligence headquarters – for the whole of the United Kingdom. Its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and the demonisation of Muslims that has accompanied these wars has also raised social tensions in Northern Ireland, through the process of legitimating the extreme violence of the British State against its official enemies. It should be no surprise, then, that the most ‘loyal’ citizens in Northern Ireland should interpret this behaviour of the State as an excuse and a justification for taking out their frustrations (which are real and serious) on the sector of the population that identifies itself as Irish.

Real Adjectives Now

Hugo Martínez Abarca has an excellent post dealing with the matter of real democracy and its treatment by the present party of government, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Translation below.

The Adjectives of Democracy

(Tweet reads ‘Iglesias [Marcelino, erstwhile president of the Aragón regional government (but no longer – thanks ejh) and deputy leader]: democracy is democracy. Without adjectives. And we want to defend that. The most enduring democracy in our history.’)

The idiocy above belongs to the Twitter account of a party that defines itself (I suppose they haven’t bothered to correct the definition) as social democratic. It’s clear they’ve forgotten about the adjective social, now that it no longer applies. Other people define themselves as Christian democrats and no-one gives them lessons on the theory of the noun and the limits to its adjectives.

It is true that in both cases these are adjectives that seek a distinct position within the same model of democracy – liberal and representative. What those who deny the possible application of adjectives to democracy want is to deny that there are different models of democracy: this is democracy and whoever seeks a different model seeks something else that is not democratic. Moreover they have convinced us that all that is not democracy is dictatorship (this is the case for enemies: this is why they are all dictators) and therefore if we are not in a dictatorship it’s because this is a democracy (this is the case for friends: this is why they are all democracies, or on the way to becoming them).

Thus those who want a democracy with an adjective threaten democracy: this is set forth by the Twitter account of the PSOE with a little less clarity than when Esperanza Aguirre [President of Madrid regional government and PP grandee – HG] was claiming that 15M was a totalitarian movement (Aguirre too had said that democracy can have no adjective).

Of course there are adjectives for democracy. A direct democracy such as the Athenian one is not the same as a liberal representative democracy which is not the same as a participative democracy. These are distinct models, although one could speak of hybrids which are probably desirable.

But today this is not what is in question. She who asks for real democracy is not asking (at least in that request) for a particular model of democracy. She is not giving democracy an adjective. She is asking for democracy. Just as whoever asks for a real apple is not saying she wants a reinette or a golden delicious, but that she does not wish to be fooled with a plastic apple: she is asking for nothing more than an apple. Real democracy does not stand in opposition to another type of democracy, but to fake democracy, that is: the absence of democracy.

They ask us to refrain from adding adjectives. It would make no difference: we could call for democracy now in counterpoint to that plastic democracy in which our occasional vote is distorted and then handed over in wrapping paper to Botín (Emilio Botín, executive chairman of Grupo Santander) and his forty thieves.

Yesterday the Eurogroup (another body without democratic origin that imposes decisions on these supposedly sovereign governments) responded to those peoples who are rising up that “there is no alternative to the adjustments”. These are policies that they have decided and they explain to the people that there is no way that they can correct them. Thus: we agree with Marcelino Iglesias and Esperanza Aguirre, with the PP and the PSOE. Even though there can be problems when it comes to placing adjectives on democracy, on this occasion there is no need: it is a matter of demanding democracy, of demanding something that today we do not have. Nothing more.

Weed The Citizens

Let me recap on what I think is the effectiveness of the idea of Real Democracy Now / Democracia Real Ya element of the 15-M movement.

When it works, it engages people as citizens – but not merely as formally constituted political subjects but also as the primary constitutents of society- and enables them to develop collectively a deeper realisation that they are not inert economic units or commodities, but potentially powerful agents who become more powerful when they combine with others.

In Ireland, space for this sort of political thought is crowded out by various things: the endless exhortations that ‘we are all in this together’, but only in the way that the dominant class demands it.

The way, the truth and the light

This way involves a certain legitimacy for unions, but only in so far as these are participants in the process that goes under the name of ‘social partnership’, which is to say, collaboration in preventing others from organising unions.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this institutionalises  the image of a society where everyone – financial speculator and low paid childcare worker alike – works together for the common good.

Therefore any defilement of this image -which is the image to be presented to ‘the markets’, ‘international investors’, ‘the rest of the world’- in the form of dissent is treated as an anti-social and destructive activity.

This way also involves restricting ideas about politics to refer narrowly to the operation of existing institutions.

That is, it is assumed at the outset that the institutions that regulate society are a little bit short of perfection, and that what is needed, in effect, is some tweaking here and some tinkering there, perhaps involving a citizens’ assembly here, legislation on political donations there.

And excluded ex ante is the idea there is anything particularly wrong with how social and economic power is concentrated in society. Nor for that matter is there any questioning of the legitimacy of austerity programmes or the expropriation of the population through the accumulation of speculator debt,  because of the legality ascribed to these things.

Such assumptions, exclusions and omissions are achieved, in part, through trumpeting superficially emancipatory sloganeering about ‘radical reform’, ‘democratic revolutions’, ‘riots at the ballot box’, and so on and so forth.

‘Weed The Citizens’, or I Still Know What You Did Last Lisbon Treaty Vote

As an example of what I am talking about, consider the ‘We The Citizens‘ initiative, which invites people to ‘speak up for Ireland’. However, the potential idea that ‘Ireland’, however conceived, should have nothing to do with serving the interests of multinational corporations, is unlikely to find favour with ‘the Head of Corporate Affairs, Intel Ireland Campus’, who sits on the board of directors.

It is not that this person will be watching over proposals emanating from the ‘citizens’ (whose role and potential range of actions are established and regulated in advance) and striking them down with thunderbolts, but that the parameters of such an enterprise, on account of the participating individuals and the interests served, are well delineated in advance. We are, once again, where we etc.

Also likely to be excluded from the range of possibilites set forth by We The Citizens is the Euro Pact, which was the theme of Sunday’s DRY/RDN protests. Let us recall that Intel launched a propaganda campaign in favour of a Yes vote for the second Lisbon referendum. Also sitting on the Board is Brigid Laffan,  who was ‘Chairperson of the Ireland for Europe citizens’ campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the second Lisbon Treaty referendum’. It is hard to imagine one of the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign -Joe Higgins, say- sitting on the board of directors of We The Citizens alongside the Head of Corporate Affairs of Intel Ireland.

We can therefore see quite easily how we are talking about a deliberately constricted form of citizenship, and one that fits perfectly with the hegemonic ideas about politics.

Asleep at the wheel

There is also room, in this way, for, as Richard Wolff puts it in a piece on the US, ‘the role of the state as the socially acceptable object of anger, protest and rage deflected from the economic power and privileges of its hegemonic partners’

This can take the form of Tea Party-style anti-government agitation, but can also be found in a more genteel Irish commonplace: that of how the financial regulator was asleep at the wheel and this damaged our standing with international investors (e.g. Intel). And so we must have sweeping reform.

I wouldn’t like to underestimate how difficult it can be, for people jarred into thinking about politics by the crisis, to transcend  this dominant idea of the political. Its dominance is determined and enforced by mass media institutions, and its vocabulary and grammar inevitably structure people’s own responses.

‘Workers’ ain’t working

I might wish it otherwise, but in terms of words they can identify with, many people are dispossessed of the very capacity to represent themselves, and this includes the capacity to identify themselves as workers, which is to say, in the specific sense of a human being whose life and labour power is channelled into obligatory activities to meet the needs of capital.

The hegemonic idea of a worker nowadays is merely someone who engages in some form of productive activity. At the same time, lots of people hear talk of ‘workers’  in a political context and think of images of brawny men with cuboid jaws who wear boiler suits and carry sledgehammers.

But since the very name given to the auto-legitimating process of dispossession is ‘democracy’ (remember Angela Davis’s insight that when George Bush talked about bringing ‘democracy’ to countries, what he really meant was capitalism), and since ‘democracy’ is treated as good in itself, the name serves as a vital site of struggle over words presently captured by power.

Recall what the mostly-forgotten ‘ghost manifesto‘ from Sol said: ‘we must recover words, restore their meaning so that language cannot be manipulated with the end of leaving the citizenry indefenceless and incapable of cohesive action’

There is a serious misapprehension doing the rounds that by excluding union or party political symbols from its demonstrations, the Democracia Real Ya element of the broader movement is somehow anti-union or apolitical. This misapprehension is usually accompanied by a complete failure -or thoroughgoing refusal- to engage with ideas such as those outlined above.

If people identify as citizens, as part of the demos -which, of course, is what even multinational corporations tell us we are- this is a point of departure that contains real power. It allows for a realisation that the idea of elections every four years which change little -and nothing else- is a travesty of the idea of democracy, what ought to constitute democratic activity. And this in no way precludes or limits or diminishes the power of emancipatory struggles that adopt a different tack. If anything, it strengthens them. Because, as shown by the account by Pedro Casas translated below -which is critical of some of the DRY elements- of the Madrid marches on Sunday, the restoration of the meaning of democracy is a crucial moment in reversing a process of dispossession.

Why should this be treated as anything other than an urgent priority?

From their neighbourhoods and towns, working women and men take Madrid

It has been many years since something similar has been seen in Madrid. Workers of all ages and trades went out into the streets of their neighbourhoods and towns to go, all together, towards the Congress of Deputies, the place where the decisions are taken that end up affecting everyone, and where the social and employment cuts that affect the popular classes obtain the force of law.

From the early hours of the morning 7 main columns began to move, from Plaza de Castilla (north),Moratalaz, Villa de Vallecas (east), Getafe and Villaverde (south-east), Leganés y Carabanchel (south-west) and Templo de Debod (west). To these columns many others joined which had also begun in peripheral neighbourhoods where crowds had formed. Many neighbours of these areas, in whose streets one does not usually hear demonstrators pass, looked on with something of awe at the human tide that called on them to join in. And the emotion was more than obvious at the moments of confluence of the different marches of thousands and thousands of people.

The working-class character of the marches was expressed both in the main composition of the demonstrators, who had left their peripheral towns and neighbourhoods, and in the slogans chanted by the majority, among which stood out “they call it democracy and it is not”; “they do not represent us”; “Long live the struggle of the working class”; “the people united will never be defeated”; “We will not pay for this crisis”; “No hay pan para tanto chorizo*”; “We need a general strike now”.

The call for the marches and their organisation was the product of worker assemblies that were formed by neighbourhoods and towns in the heat of this crisis, as a reaction to the attacks on working and social rights, and against the practices of unions, now in the majority, that have abandoned struggle as the method of winning rights in favour of pacts that cut them. These assemblies, with a horizontal function, began co-ordination after the general strike of the 29th of September, and around February they began to look into the possibility of carrying out these marches.

In the first months of the year, the ideas on how many would participate were not those of today, and despite this in the month of March it was decided that these would be held on the 19th of June, as people were convinced that the only thing that could be lost was one’s dignity by not trying. On the 27th of May the communications were presented to the government authorities and on the 10th of June this was formally recognised. The general slogan was “Against the crisis and capital”, and as complementary slogans the following:







It is worth highlighting that the preparation of the announcement read out at the end of the marches was done in a very simple and united way through the assemblies, whose ideological composition is very varied, showing that unity against the attacks is possible as well as necessary.

The popular assemblies in neighbourhoods and suburbs that cropped up in the heat of the 15-M mobilisations became aware of the call for the marches and their content, and, almost unanimously, decided to support them in each area, and undoubtedly this support has contributed to the success of the marches.

Meanwhile, the different organisational expressions of the so-called 15 M movement decided to call demonstrations the same 19th of June in other cities of the state, to protest against the Euro Pact and give continuity to the mobilisations once the acampadas had been lifted. Both before and after the celebration of the marches, big media outlets have sought to hide the origin and content of a mobilisation that does not seem to please the economic powers that sustain these media. And some organisations and spokespersons of 15M seem to have felt comfortable with this image, since there is no word of declarations that have sought to clarify this situation, but on the contrary there have been others that arrogated authority without further ado over mobilisations whose responsibility rested with other assemblies.

But reality is stubborn, and the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who have been filling the streets of a Madrid “taken” by workers, have gone home convinced that struggle is the only way, and that we workers cannot sit in passive contemplation of the cuts that are being carried out with the sole goal of ensuring that those who have most, make off with even more still. The massive columns that came from every cardinal point in Madrid have shown that it is possible to resist and to make advances, because the power of workers is immense.

The economic powers can try to falsify reality, or even hide their head in the sand, but that is their problem. And the majority unions have a problem too, since their practice of downward agreements is more and more questioned, to the point that now they limit themselves to the mobilisation of their stewards, who are more and more alienated from their working class social base. And this is what is we are seeing, and what will be seen in coming days (on Wednesday 22nd for starters) because the old axiom that held back mobilisations in Madrid: that it wasn’t possible with them (because they did not want to call for struggles), but wasn’t possible without them either (because of the low mobilising capacity of alternative syndicalism).

The situation we are living through is a change of historical cycle, which is modifying not only the chessboard of social struggle, but also its  pieces and their ability to move. Let us not waste the opportunity that we are building from different trenches.

*Literally, there is no bread for so much chorizo. Chorizo, as well as being a cured pork sausage made with paprika, is also slang for a thief.

Real Democracy…Later?

As readers of this blog probably know, today sees gatherings across Europe against the Euro Pact. There are protests in Ireland too. I have no idea how many people will turn up for these. I’m guessing a few hundred. Below, Rosa explains why people should go out onto the streets.

This whole notion of real democracy (as opposed to fake or inadequate democracy) hasn’t quite caught on in Ireland.

Now I’m not saying it could be expected for tens or hundreds of thousands of Irish people to start thinking that maybe, just maybe, the fact that the elections they just voted in had no effect other than a momentary cathartic one, combined with the fact that economic policy-making is conducted by small groups of unelected technocrats, combined with the fact that everything to be endured is said to be on account of ‘getting our sovereignty back’, pointed towards a significant problem with democracy in Ireland.

Or maybe I am. I mean, what the fuck? Just what is it that prevents Irish people from talking about it in these terms? Are they just pumped to the gills with econo-reformerator verbiage?

I have been listening to and reading people from other places talking about Ireland in recent days. And what is striking is that there is far more confidence in Irish people’s power to see things for what they are among people elsewhere than there is in Ireland.

I came across someone on the other side of the internet who ventured the following, a propos the demonstrations tomorrow:

‘No offence but but why are so many comments below written by non nationals?? This protest is right down my ally but the title of the protest kind of contradicts the fact that it seems to have been organised by non nationals too! Fair play to you all and thanks for trying but this is not going to work!’

and that furthermore:

Unfortunitely though, the Irish are a lazy nation and our government are mere puppets of the bigger picture at the moment…therefore protests have no impact. It’s also easy to descibe the corruption as a game, its a lot deeper than that. We need nationals in each country to worm their way into their national media and draw the attention of the taxpayer

So I responded thus:

I don’t know what you mean by ‘not going to work’. The absolute worst case scenario is that it pricks the conscience of some Irish people who have not taken part in anything up until now, and makes them think about how they should become more active, and at the same time extends the scope and magnitude of the event taking place tomorrow. The wider the protest across Europe, the better this is for people in Ireland, and in this sense, even a small protest in Ireland makes a tangible and worthwhile contribution.

Whilst I don’t agree with your characterisation of a ‘lazy nation’ we should not be afraid to admit that many if not most Irish people have no habit of any sort of political mobilization beyond voting once every couple of years. So, in fact, if people here of whatever nationality persist in going out onto the streets, that creates awareness and acts as a spur to break the habit. I think it is naive to think Irish citizens can ‘worm their way into national media’ any better than people who are not Irish citizens. RTE, outlets owned by Tony O’Reilly, Denis O’Brien, Rupert Murdoch are all centred on making people see the world through the eyes of the markets, not ordinary people. If anything, they will seek to portray Irish citizens participating as a) hiding a secret party political/trade union agenda; b) hopeless and doomed freaks; c) potentially violent and irrational thugs.

…at the end of the day ‘non-nationals’ have as much reason and as much right to be protesting here as Irish people. One of the most effective strategies of control by ruling elites in Ireland is to hold up an image to the Irish population of a country that is isolated, docile and obedient. We need to be careful not to be complicit with this, and must see these protests in terms of a crisis that is of an international character.

To which:

Its all well and good talking conspiracy hugh. Personally i’m more focused on whats happening here and now and how individuals are being effected by current economic changes and local government decisions.

As if being focused on the matter of democracy meant turning a blind eye to the latter.

Anyway, who is to blame for this state of affairs? I am not at all fond of this vast generalisation known as ‘the left’, for all sorts of reasons. However I think the translated article that follows, by Carlos Berzosa, from ATTAC Spain, does have the benefit of highlighting that there is a deficiency, among those parties that lay claim to left-wing history and ideals, with regard to basic defence of the ideals of democracy. Sometimes I think it is worse than that, that these parties actually militate against the ideals of democracy, especially those that describe themselves as parties of government and jump into bed with right-wing parties and proclaim that they have no problem with firms not translating increased profits into increased wages. Like, oh, you know.

The basic fact is, however, that any left-wing party that merited the description with an interest in a social Europe such as the one Rosa and other citizens across Europe wish to be preserve would be resolute in its opposition in the combined acts of economic aggression contained in the Euro Pact. But for the most part, the social democratic parties of Europe have said precious little about it, when they have not backed it enthusiastically.


The left meltdown and the economic crisis.

The general elections in Portugal and the local and regional elections that have taken place in Spain have meant a turn to the right which is in line with general trends in the European Union. Those governments still headed by centre-left parties are hemmed in by the power of the markets.

It is still striking that it is precisely those economic ideas imposed in recent years -moreover, the causes of the great recession we are in now-the ones imposed on the political landscape. The logical thing would be to search for different alternatives to market fundamentalism, growing privatisation and economic liberalisation, financial globalisation, and the adjustment policies under implementation. But it is not so, and what is getting imposed is more of the same.

The European left is in a considerable identity crisis, and everything that is happening should lead to a reflection that goes beyond the narrowly national frame, since we are faced with a left without direction and alternative prescriptions. In some way, even though the harshest adjustment policies have been led by conservative parties, and it has been so since Thatcher’s government, social democratic governments have been carried along by those siren songs, leaving behind their basic principles and accepting a large amount of conservative budget-making.

This is undoubtedly part of the explanation for the failure of the European left on the whole. In turn we should not forget that a large part of the electoral base of this left is being hit by the crisis, which logically manifests itself when it comes to voting, or not voting, or leaving the ballot paper blank, or spoiling the vote. There is a clear disaffection on the part of the electorate toward what have been their traditional parties of reference, but disaffection towards a democracy that is deteriorating.

The defence of democratic values should be hoisted high by the left, as the right wing is not worried by this degeneration of democracy, since it tends to be favoured by it. The degeneration of democracy has various levels but I would like to point out some of them. Firstly, the great power acquired by capitalist interests that unfolds on a global scale has limited the actions of governments whose actions take place within a national frame. We have the most palpable manifestation of this day in day out with the power of the markets, which is nothing other than the power of the great economic, financial and speculative powers, which impose their politics on governments. Secondly, the corruption that in pervades important spheres of political parties and of their prominent members. Thirdly, the activities of leading media outlets which fundamentally serve right-wing ideology and which are building up great influence, along with their programmes aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Faced with this whole series of things, and others which make the economic situation worse, with the imposition of values in which greed, avarice, and the obtaining of quick and easy profits, by legal or illegal means, in which a lack of ethics predominates, workers suffer a great number of deprivations and restrictions. Economic inequality is on the rise, unemployment reaches scandalous heights, there is a growth in precarious and unstable work, pensions are cut, along with other welfare state provisions. Young people suffer very high unemployment rates and have very few possibilities of developing their own personal and group autonomy. The lack of opportunities for this group is alarming and scandalous.

There is no lack of problems and we could add many more, such as environmental deterioration, the lack of energy alternatives for the immediate future, political refugees’ need for integration, and for social and economic reasons, gender violence, and the inequality that still exists between men and women in rights and opportunities. These are problems that affect the developed world, in emerging countries to say nothing of underdeveloped ones, all this has an even more serious dimension.

At any rate, what must be understood, especially by the left, is that we are faced with a global world and one cannot make any analysis that is only local, even though these are meaningful, but rather we have to contemplate a focus that takes into account that among the different parts that comprise the global economy relations of interdependence are produced. Relations that are in turn asymmetrical.

The left in developed countries has to adapt to the profound changes there have been in the structure of production and of services, as well as in the composition of the social structure, and the improvement in average living standards of the working classes. The contradictions that exist in a developed country are not those that there were three or four decades ago, and of course they are not those suffered by so many countries in which hunger, absolute poverty, and the amount of actual deprivations, the lack of adequate food, notable deficiencies in education and health, drinking water, among other things, make up the sad everyday reality. This, at any rate, should not lead the left to lose its identity.

The left needs to struggle for democratic regeneration – the electoral result s suffered in Spain and particularly the 15-M movement ought to serve for this. The defence of democratic values means changing the way of conducting politics. Avoiding the right-wing game and creating one’s own theoretical and practical framework is an indispensable requirement in order to receive the support to govern from a section of society.

What are needed are social and economic policies in which basic principles are present, such as the struggle for jobs, the improvement of the distribution of income and wealth, advances in equality in rights and opportunities, and firm support for public goods and services, among other things. We should bear in mind that distinction must be drawn between growth and development, and to conceive of the latter as human development. The agenda should not remain merely within the boundaries of each state, but there must be a joint proposal for the whole European Union, and for profound reform of international economic organisations. The battle for a more just and equitable world economy is fundamental.

Might see you later on.

Who Benefits

There was a piece in the Guardian the other day by Mary Rafferty on the Irish government’s failure to either investigate or provide redress to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries. She says:

There has, however, been a strange resistance to any official acceptance of the injustice suffered by the Magdalene women. The state has wriggled and squirmed, claiming that the laundries were private institutions and all the women entered voluntarily. Uncat has now firmly rejected this, confirming what we in Ireland have long known in our hearts. We knew that women who escaped were caught by the police and returned to the punitive and often brutal regime within the laundries. Generations of Irish people colluded in this, using the laundries when it suited them to clean their clothes and control their daughters.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but that is not far enough in terms of explaining why there has been such strange resistance. So let me venture a guess: the Magdalene Laundries were one element in a state apparatus of repression and subjugation, which existed to instil fear and discipline in the broad mass of the population. This function was not fulfilled as a result of some strange paroxysm of history where people and institutions simply went a bit mad: no, just as the nuns who ran the laundries benefited directly from the surplus generated by the labour of their slaves, so too did the dominant class benefit from the deference and fear instilled in the population as a result of the existence of these institutions. Simply put, it is easier to exploit people when they are afraid.

Now it is not at all the case that the Irish state as presently constituted, regardless of the claims it actually makes in its constitution, serves all of its citizens equally.

There are elites who exercise decisive control over state institutions, through class alliances, shared ideology, and so on. If the state institutions are not responding to the demands of Justice for Magdalenes and others, it is not on account of some unnatural, inhuman bureaucratic perversion, but because the elites who control state institutions have little interest in their claims. And one compelling reason as to why they have little interest in their claims is that it is 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. The past is not always a foreign country.

Here is a piece by Vicenç Navarro from Público yesterday about the Partido Popular’s refusal to confront the past in Spain. Let us recall that Fine Gael and the Partido Popular are affiliated to the same party in the European Parliament. Not only that, but they have a common past – as Brian Hanley notes here:

There was no doubt that public opinion in the Free State was largely pro-Franco: the Catholic Church, the Irish Independent and Fine Gael hysterically so. Thousands attended rallies hastily organised by a new Irish Christian Front, left-wingers were physically attacked, while volunteers and money was pledged to Franco.

The title of the piece is The Terrorist Totalitarian Dictatorship

On returning from a long exile, one of the things that surprised me most about Spanish political life was the perception -widely accepted by the political establishment, and promoted by mass media- that the Transition from dictatorship to democracy had been exemplary, creating a democracy that was a counterpart to the ones that existed in Western Europe. The harsh reality, however, was a very incomplete democracy and a very insufficient welfare state, a reality that continues today, 33 years later.

Spain continues to have the lowest social expenditure (for financing the welfare state) per capita in the EU-15. And politically we have just seen how conservative forces have tried to prohibit the participation in the democratic process of a political party, Bildu, due to its origin, with roots in a terrorist force, ETA, and this despite the fact that this party has distanced itself from violence and has accepted the rules of the democratic process. But this does not seem enough for the Partido Popular, which wants the party to condemn this terrorist past, attempting to put all those who defend ETA today in jail.

This severe behaviour toward terrorism contrasts, however, with the behaviour of the Partido Popular itself, which has never explicitly condemned by name the greatest terrorist force that existed in Spain during the 20th century, responsible for the greatest number of murders that has occurred in the history of the country. No other regime has murdered so many Spanish people as the dictatorship initiated by military coup, led by General Franco, against a democratic system, the Second Republic. It was a regime based on terror, with political assassinations (for every political assassination carried out by Musssolini, Franco carried out 10,000), torture (systematically carried out in its prisons), concentration camps and exile. That coup was carried out by those who falsely defined themselves as the nationals (the majority of the attack troops were mercenaries and foreigners, and their victory was owed solely and exclusively to foreign support from Hitler and Mussolini) who were on a “crusade” (whose shock troops, paradoxically, were Muslims) and who were supposedly defending the nation (imposing an enormous economic, political, cultural and social setback on the country). In reality, it was a minority against the majority of the popular classes of the different peoples and nations of Spain, one which required terror for its very survival. Terror was substantial in the existence of that regime up until its last day.

Without intending to establish categories, the number of victims of that terror (political murders) was almost 200,000, a far higher figure than that carried out by ETA (839). The victims of that terrorist regime continue to be ignored during the period of democracy, without the State paying them homage as they deserve. The contrast between the behaviour of the State toward the victims of ETA and the victims of the dictatorship is shameful and it illustrates not only the different yardstick by which terrorism is measured, but the low quality of democratic state, whose Supreme Court, let us recall, is prosecuting the only magistrate in Spain who has tried to make the State responsible for finding the disappeared from that dictatorship and to prosecute those responsible for so much pain and terror.

The entry dedicated to Franco in the Spanish Biographical Dictionary -published by the Royal Academy of History, and instigated and financed by the PP government headed by José Maria Aznar- is a eulogy and an apology for the individual responsible for the greatest terror that has existed in Spain. Despite this, a PP leader praised the biography of this terrorist, presenting it as an exemplary work. Using the same criterion that this party applies to ETA, the author of this biography should be in prison and the Royal Academy of History should have been closed. And the spokesperson for the PP who performed this praise would have to have been brought before the courts.

The fact that none of this happens shows the enormous power of the conservative powers who hegemonized the process of Transition and the democratic period. If not, how, then, can it be explained that even today, in the textbooks for the compulsory subject of civics there are postures maintained that would be suited to the Tea Party ultra-right in the US, such as defining the foetus as a human being, considering abortion as murder, or defining Darwinism as a suspicious doctrine? And how, if not, can one explain the skewed and negative view of the Second Republic and the silence on the terror of the regime that brought it down, which are present in the textbooks of public schools?

But the repression of that regime was also psychological and ideological, precisely on account of its totalitarian character. The ideology it imposed was National Catholicism, a mix of an extreme imperialist Spanish nationalism, with racist characteristics (the national holiday was called the Day of the Race, and the film produced by the dictator was called Race) and an extreme reactionary Catholicism which, along with its caudillismo, its highly pronounced sexism and a hostility to the world of workers and unions, constituted a totalizing ideology, since it sought to change “man”, working its way into people’s most intimate areas, from sex to language, all of which was subjected to a norm. This regime had full control over media and institutions. To consider that regime as merely authoritarian is to ignore the intellectual, political, economic and cultural suffocation that the majority of the popular classes suffered in order to maintain the placidity of those who benefited from such terror.

I on Twitter

June 2011