Category Archives: neo-liberalism

roll up the red carpet!

The following article is Chapter Five of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year and beyond. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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“All animals are equal
but some animals are more equal than others

— George Orwell 1

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I discovered recently and by happy accident that the author, Michael Young, who invented the term ‘meritocracy’, detested his own creation. Here’s how Young outlined his position in a Guardian article “Down with meritocracy”, published in 2001:

I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.

The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.2

But I shall save further thoughts of Michael Young until later, and begin here by considering what lies in the shadows of a meritocracy. After all, and at first glance, what on earth can be wrong with the purposeful restructuring of society in ways that prioritise ‘merit’ above all else? Isn’t this the epitome of a fair system?

As with examining most ideas, it is helpful first to step back a little to gain perspective. In this case, it is important to get a fuller grasp of what ‘merit’ means when buried within the heart of ‘meritocracy’. What does ‘merit’, in this narrow political sense, finally equate to?

Throughout the last two hundred and more years, including under progressive administrations such as Clement Attlee’s reforming government in Britain and FDR’s earlier New Deal for America, the political systems in the West have remained very solidly rooted in capitalism, and being so, they have remained inherently utilitarian in design. It follows that ‘merit’ (in our narrow definitional sense) must be gauged on the scales of those extant utilitarian-capitalist conventions: that ‘merit’ therefore becomes an adjunct of ‘utility’ or, in other words, ‘usefulness’.

Advocates of capitalism like to evoke the invisible hand of the market, which they say enhances productivity and safeguards against wanton overproduction, thereby ensuring society’s needs are met. Thanks to the market that which is wasteful falls away, and in consequence profits and earnings will flow to the most efficient producers. So it follows that within a meritocracy governed strictly by market forces, with the invisible hand steering our efforts unerringly toward ‘usefulness’, estimations of ‘merit’ ought to be fairly directly measureable in terms of salaries and wealth. Maximum profits and earnings tending to go to those who serve the most useful function and are, by dint of this, the most ‘merited’. The losers are those who merit little since they provide little to nothing of use, and, conversely, the winners contribute most gainfully in every sense…

There is already a suffocating tightness in this loop; a circularity that brings me to consider the first serious objection against meritocracy, if only the most trivial and conspicuous. For judged solely by its own terms just how meritocratic is our celebrated meritocracy? Hmmm – need I go on? Very well then, I shall offer this brisk reductio ad absurdum:

Let’s start where the debate ordinarily ends, with the topic of professional footballers… To most people, the excessive salaries paid to footballers stands out as an egregious example of unfairness. I share the same view, but wonder why we stop at footballers. They are not alone; not by a long chalk.

Indeed, given that our utilitarian-capitalist meritocracy does in fact function as it is presumed to function, then it follows that most top sportsmen (to a lesser extent, sportswomen too), including footballers, but also tennis players, golfers, F1 drivers, cyclists, athletes, etc – sports of low popularity by comparison – as well as pop idols, TV celebrities and film stars (not forgetting agents and the retinue of hangers-on) are, by virtue of their fabulous incomes, not merely most deserving of such high rewards, but also, by direct extension, some of the most ‘productive’ amongst us. Would any deign to defend this high visibility flaw in our socio-economic system? Truth is that many on this ever-expanding list are rewarded for just one thing: fame – thanks to another self-perpetuating cycle in which fame makes you wealthy, and then wealth makes you more famous again.

Nor does such rightful utilitarian calculus reliably account for the gargantuan salaries and bonuses (and who else gets bonuses in excess of their salaries!) of so many bankers, hedge fund managers and other financiers who callously wrecked our western economies. With annual remuneration that outstrips most ordinary worker’s lifetime earnings, the staggering rewards heaped upon those working in The City and Wall Street have little relationship to levels of productivity and usefulness, but worse, remuneration is evidently disconnected from levels of basic competence. Instead we find that greedy ineptitude is routinely and richly rewarded, if only for the ‘made men’ already at the top and lucky enough to be “too big to fail”. In light of the crash of 2008, any further talk of “the classless society” ought to have us all running for the exits!

Then we come to the other end of our meritocratic muck-heap. And here amongst the human debris we find contradictions of an arguably more absurd kind. I am referring to those disgustingly unworthy winners of our many lotteries – you know the types: petty criminals, knuckle-draggers and wastrels (the tone here is strictly in keeping with tabloid outrage on which it is based) who blow all their winnings on a binge of brash consumerism and a garage full of intoxicants. Conspicuous consumption of the most vulgar kinds! How dare they squander such hard, unearned dosh on having fun! But wait a minute… surely the whole point of running a lottery is that anyone can win. Have we forgotten the advertisement already? So if we are really serious about our meritocracy then perhaps we should to be stricter: no lotteries at all! Yet a cursory consideration of this point presents us with far bigger hurdles by far. For if we are truly committed to the project of constructing a meritocracy (and we must decide precisely what this means), it is vital to acknowledge the fact that life is inherently beset with lotteries. Indeed when roundly considered, this represents an existential dilemma that potentially undermines the entire project.

For life begins with what might best be described as our lottery of inheritance. Where you are born and to whom, the postal code you reside in, the schools you attended, your religious (or not) upbringing, whether you happen to carry one or two x-chromosomes, and the colour of your skin… the whole nine yards. Your entire existence happened by extraordinary chance and each and every aspect of it owes an unfathomable debt to further blind chance.

Therefore, in our most puritanical understanding of meritocracy, lotteries relating to the guessing of random numbers will be abolished altogether, in order to set a precedent, although still these other lotteries, life’s lotteries, remain inescapable. Which is devastating blow to the very concept of fully-fledged meritocracy, since whatever meritocracy we might choose to build will always remain a compromise of one kind or another.

In point of fact, however, we have been moving instead in the completely opposite direction. There has been a tremendous and rapid growth in lotteries of all shapes and sizes: from the casino economy working to the advantage of financial speculators at the top; to the rise of online casinos and the latest betting apps, mathematically honed to suck money from the pockets of the desperate and sometimes destitute pipedreamers at the bottom. Further indications of how far our society truly diverges from even the most rudimentary notions of meritocracy.

So there is plenty of scope for devising a better version of meritocracy; one that isn’t so riddled with blatant inconsistencies and arbitrary rewards. A more refined meritocracy operating according to common sense fairness and consistency, with built-in checks and balances to ensure the winners are more consistently worthy than the losers. A more level playing field bringing us closer to the ideal – for surely a better devised version of meritocracy is the fairest system we can ever hope to live under. In fact, I beg to differ, but before entering further objections to the sham ideal of meritocracy, I wish first to celebrate the different areas in which greater equality has indeed been achieved and ones where it is still dangerously lacking.

During the Q&A session following a lecture entitled “Capitalist Democracy and its Prospect’s” that he delivered in Boston on September 30th, 2014, Noam Chomsky speaks to why the notion of a capitalist democracy is oxymoronic. He also discusses the widespread misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s economic thinking, especially amongst libertarians, and specifically regarding the misuse of his terms ‘invisible hand’ and ‘division of labour’.

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There is no denying that at the start of the twenty-first century our own society has, and in a number of related ways, been made fairer and more equal than it was just thirty years ago when I was a school-leaver. Most apparent is the sweeping change in attitudes towards race and gender. Casual racism wasn’t merely permissible in seventies and early eighties Britain, but an everyday part of the mainstream culture. The sporadic Black or Asian characters on TV were neatly allotted into their long-established stereotypes, and comedians like bilious standup Bernard Manning had free rein to defile the airwaves with their popular brands of inflammatory bigotry. Huge strides have been taken since then, and social attitudes are unalterably changed for the better. Today the issue of diversity is central to political debate, and social exclusion on the grounds of race and gender is outlawed.

In the prophetic words of abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”; words famously borrowed by Martin Luther King in a celebrated sermon he delivered in the year of 1965.3 It was a momentous year: one that marked the official end to racial segregation in the Southern United States with the repeal of the horrendous Jim Crow laws, and the same year when Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed the Race Relations Act prohibiting discrimination in Britain on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic and national origins”.

On August 28th (last Tuesday) ‘Democracy Now’ interviewed co-founder and chair of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, who was arrested and indicted after speaking outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He describes how during his trial Judge Julius Hoffman ordered him to be gagged and bound to his chair [from 9:15 mins]:

Did Bobby Seale’s treatment provide inspiration for Woody Allen’s madcap courtroom scene in ‘Bananas’? [from 5:00 mins]:

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As Parker and King understood well, of course, the arc of the moral universe does not bend of its own accord but requires tremendous pressure from below. And so it was, again in 1965, after shockwaves sent by Wilson’s government through former colony Rhodesia, that in efforts to avoid the end of its apartheid system, the white minority government under then-Prime Minister Ian Smith, declared independence, and an armed struggle for black liberation ensued. It was a bloody struggle that would grind on throughout the 70s, but one that ended in triumph. Meanwhile, apartheid in neighbouring South Africa outlasted Rhodesia for a further decade and a half before it too was dismantled in 1994 and the rainbow flag could be hoisted.

In solidarity with Nelson Mandela and leading the armed struggle had been Joe Slovo, a commander of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) who fought alongside deputy Ronnie Kasrils; both the sons of émigré Jews. Also prominent within the anti-apartheid resistance were other Jewish figures including Denis Goldberg, Albie Sachs, and Ruth First – an activist, scholar and wife of Joe Slovo, she was murdered by a parcel bomb sent to her in Mozambique. Ironically, today Israel stands alone as the last remaining state that legally enforces racial segregation, but even the concrete walls and barbed wire dividing the West Bank and Gaza cannot hold forever.

This video footage was uploaded as recently as Wednesday 29th. It shows a young Palestinian girl living under Israeli control in Hebron having to climb a closed security gate just to get home:

The fence had been extended in 2012 and fitted with a single gate to provide entrance to the Gheith and a-Salaimeh neighborhoods in Hebron. The footage below was recorded by B’Tselem in May 2018 and shows other students unable to return from school and their mothers beseeching the Border Police officers to open it. The officers say in response that the gate is closed as “punishment” for stone throwing; a collective punishment that is prohibited under international law:

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Likewise, homosexuality, which until astonishingly recent times remained a virtually unspoken taboo, was decriminalised as comparatively recently as 1967 – the year of my birth and coincidentally the same year aboriginal Australians received full citizenship and the right to vote.

Before the Sexual Offences Act came into force, gay men faced prosecution and a prison sentence (lesbians slipped through the legal loophole due to technicalities surrounding the delicate issue of penetration), whereas today they enjoy the equal right to marriage, which cynics will doubtless say entitles them to an alternative form of imprisonment, but hurrah for that… since irrespective of one’s views on the institution of marriage, equality under law is indicative of genuine social progress. The same goes for the transformation of attitudes and legal framework in countering discrimination on grounds of gender, disability and age. Discrimination based on all these prejudices is plain wrong, and liberation on all fronts, an unimpeachable good.

In these ways, our own society – like others across the globe – has become more inclusive, and, if we choose to describe it as such, more meritocratic. Yet many are still left out in the cold. Which people? Sadly, but in truth, all of the old prejudices linger on – maybe they always will – but prime amongst them is the malignant spectre of racism.

For overall, as we have become more conscious and less consenting of racism than in the past, the racists, in consequence, have adapted to fit back in. More furtive than old-style racism, which wore its spiteful intolerance so brashly on its sleeve, many in the fresh crop of bigots have learned to feign better manners. The foaming rhetoric of racial supremacy is greatly moderated, and there is more care taken to legitimise the targeting of the chosen pariahs. Where it used to be said how “the Coloureds” and “the Pakis” (and other labels very much more obscene again) were innately ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, ‘doped-up’ and ‘dirty’ (the traditional rationalisations for racial hatred), the stated concern today is in difference per se. As former BNP leader Nick Griffin once put it:

[I]nstead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity, and about the needs and the rights and the duty to preserve and enhance the identity of our own people.4

And note how identity politics here plays to the right wing just as does to the left, better in fact, because it is a form of essentialism. In effect, Griffin is saying ‘white lives matter’, when of course what he really means is ‘white lives are superior’. But talk of race is mostly old hat to the new racists in any case, who prefer to attack ‘culture’ over ‘colour’.

In multicultural Britain, it is the Muslim minority, and especially Muslim women, who receive the brunt of the racial taunts, the physical abuse, and who have become the most preyed upon as victims of hate crimes, while the current hypocrisy lays blame at their door for failing to adopt western values and mix in; a scapegoating that alarmingly recalls the Nazi denigration and demonisation of the Jews. It follows, of course, that it is not the racists who are intolerant but the oppressed minority who are or who look like Muslims. By this sleight of hand, Islamophobia (a very clumsy word for a vile creed) festers as the last manifestation of semi-respectable racism.

When it was released in 1974, “Blazing Saddles” shocked audiences. It is no less shocking today, but the difference today is that no-one could make it. No contemporary film in which every third word is a vile racist expletive would pass the censors. Yet as it plunges us headlong into a frenetic whirlwind of bigotry, and as all commonsense rationality is suspended, nothing remains besides the hilarious absurdity of racial prejudice. Dumb, crude, and daring: it is comedy of rare and under-appreciated genius. As Gene Wilder puts it “They’ve smashed racism in the face and the nose is bleeding, but they’re doing it while you laugh” [6:15 mins]. Embedded below is a BTS documentary tribute entitled “Back in the Saddle” [Viewer discretion advised]:

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“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” quipped Oscar Wilde.5 And though the accusation at the heart of his bon mot may be contested, that most people certainly do judge by appearances really cannot be. Briefly then, I wish to consider a few of the most overlooked but widespread social prejudices, which though seldom so vicious and of less clear historical significance than other such virulent strains as sexism and racism, are long-standing and ingrained prejudices nonetheless. These tend to be prejudices against certain types of individual, rather than against interconnected “communities”. Prejudices so commonplace that some readers will doubtless see my digression as trivial, or even laughable, and yet there is good reason to delve into the matter as it opens up a bigger question, and, once expanded upon, more fundamentally challenges our whole notion of meritocracy. So here goes… (I am braced for the many titters and guffaws and encourage you to laugh along!)

Firstly, there is a permitted prejudice on the one hand against short blokes (trust me, I am one), and on the other against fat ladies. Short men and fat women being considered fair game for ridicule literally on the grounds that we don’t shape up. Which would be fine – believe me, I can take a joke – except that in playing down the deep-seated nature of such prejudice, as society generally does, there are all sorts of insidious consequences. For it means, to offer a hopefully persuasive example, that whenever satirists (and I use the term loosely, since genuine satire is rather thin on the ground) lampoon Nicolas Sarkozy, rather than holding him to account for his reactionary politics and unsavoury character, they go for the cheaper shot of quite literally belittling him (and yes, prejudice in favour of tallness saturates our language too). Worse still, Sarkozy had the gall to marry a taller and rather glamorous woman, which apparently makes him a still better target for wisecracks about being a short-arse (it’s okay, I’m reclaiming the word). As a result, Sarkozy is most consistently disparaged only for what he couldn’t and needn’t have altered, instead of what he could and should have. No doubt he takes it all on the chin… presuming anyone can actually reach down that far! Yes, it’s perfectly fine to laugh, just so long as we don’t all continue pretending that there is no actual prejudice operating.

Moreover, it is healthy for us to at least admit that there is a broader prejudice operating against all people regarded in one way or another as physically less attractive. Being fat, short, bald or just plain ugly are – in the strictest sense – all handicaps, which, and though far from insurmountable, represent a hindrance to achieving success. Even the ginger-haired enjoy a less than even break, as Neil Kinnock (who was unfortunate enough to be a Welshman too) discovered shortly after he was elected leader of the Labour Party.

Indeed, most of us will have been pigeon-holed one way or another, and though we may sincerely believe that we don’t qualify to be categorised too negatively, our enemies will assuredly degrade us for reasons beyond our ken. But then, could we ever conceive of, for instance, the rise of something akin to let’s say an “ugly pride” movement? Obviously it would be comprised solely of those self-aware and unblinkingly honest enough to see themselves as others actually see them. This envisaged pressure group would comprise an exceptionally brave and uncommon lot.

Then what of the arguably more delicate issues surrounding social class? Indeed, we might reasonably ask ourselves why is there such an animal as social class in the first place? And the quick answer is that people are inherently hierarchical. That “I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class”, to quote again the famous skit from The Frost Report. But now pay proper attention to the vocabulary and its direct correspondence with the physical stature of the three comedians.6

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Class and stature side-by-side, just as they are in the dictionary – and as they have been throughout recent history thanks to dietary deficiencies. Here is a visual gag with etymological parallels: the word ‘stature’ itself a double entendre. But, and unlike physical stature, class is already inextricably tied into levels of wealth and success, and virtually impossible to escape in any society – the Soviet system and Mao’s China were arguably more deeply class-riven than our own purportedly “classless” societies.

Incidentally, I in no way advocate the drafting of future legislation to close the gap on these alternative forms of everyday discrimination: demanding social justice for all those with unpopular body shapes, or who speak with the wrong accent, or stutter, or who have chosen to grow patches of hair in the wrong places, or whatever it is (beards became fashionable after I wrote this!). That would instantly make our lives intolerable in another way: it would be (as the Daily Mail loves to point out) “political correctness gone mad!” After all, prejudice and discrimination come in infinite guises, so where could we finally draw the line?

All of which brings me to our last great tolerated prejudice, and one that is seldom if ever acknowledged as a prejudice in the first place. It is our own society’s – and every other society’s for that matter – very freely held discrimination on the grounds of stupidity. And no, this is not meant as a joke. But that it sounds like a joke makes any serious discussion about it inherently tricky.

Because the dim (and I have decided to moderate my language to avoid sounding unduly provocative, which is not easy – I’ll come to other tags I might have chosen in a moment) cannot very easily stand up for themselves, even if they decide to try. Those willing to concede that their lives are held back by a deficit in braininess (sorry, but the lack of more appropriate words is unusually hampering) will very probably fail to grasp much, if anything at all, of the bigger picture, or be able to articulate any of the frustrations they may feel as daily they confront a prejudice so deeply entrenched that it passes mostly unseen. Well, it’s fun to pick on the idiots, blockheads, boneheads, thickos, cretins, dimwits, dunderheads, dunces, knuckleheads, dumbbells, imbeciles, morons, jerks, and simpletons of the world isn’t it? It is the cheaper half of every comedy sketch, and in all likelihood will remain so; with much of the rest that brings us merriment being the schadenfreude of witnessing the self-same idiots cocking up over and over again. And finally, is there really a nicer word that usefully replaces all the pejoratives above? Our casual prejudice against the dim has been indelibly written into our dictionaries.

On May 13th, 1999, comedian George Carlin was invited to deliver a speech to the National Press Club at Washington D.C. He used the occasion to poke fun at the tortuous abuse of language by politicians as well as the growing tyranny of an invented “soft language”, which includes what he describes as ‘the tedious liberal labeling’ of minorities. His speech is followed by an entertaining Q&A session:

Here’s a little more from Carlin dishing the dirt on political correctness:

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Now if I’d been writing say a hundred years ago (or even more recently) the available vocabulary would have been a little different. For it was permissible during the first half of the last century to speak and write about the problem of ‘feeble-mindedness’ – a term that implies an innate (and thus inherited) ‘disability’. Moreover, as part of a quasi-scientific conversation, social reformers including intellectuals and political thinkers got into the habit of discussing how this affliction (as it was then regarded) might best be eradicated.

Those on the political left were no less shameful in this regard than those on the right, with radical thinkers like H.G. Wells 7 and George Bernard Shaw, chipping in alongside the youthful Winston Churchill8; all scratching their high brows to think up ways of preventing the spread of such evidently bad stock from ruining good society – ‘the feeble-minded’, for reasons never dwelt on by the pioneering eugenicists, not the least bit incapable of passing on their enfeebled genes.

Thanks again to genuine social progress it is unacceptable to speak (openly) about the elimination of the underclasses in our societies today, or to openly speculate on means of halting their uncontrolled and unwanted proliferation (though I write very much in terms that Wells, Shaw and Churchill would have understood). But eugenics, we should constantly remind ourselves, was a great deal more fashionable not so very long ago – even after the concentration camps and worryingly under alternative names it finds advocates still today (for instance, the Silicon Valley techies gather nowadays for conferences on transhumanism, the artificial ‘enhancement’ of humanity, which is one way in which eugenics has reemerged9).

Today’s progressives (and keep in mind that Wells and Shaw both regarded themselves as progressives of their own times) prefer to adopt a more humanitarian position. Rather than eliminating ‘feeble-mindedness’, the concern is to assist ‘the disadvantaged’. A shift in social attitude that is commendable, but it brings new hazards in its stead. For implicit in the new phraseology is the hope that since disparities stem from disadvantage, all differences between healthy individuals might one day be overcome. That aside from those suffering from disability, everyone has an approximately equivalent capacity when it comes to absorbing knowledge and learning skills of one form or another, and that society alone, to the advantage of some and detriment of others, makes us smart or dim. But this is also false, and cruelly so – though not yet barbarously.

For differences in social class, family life, access to education, and so forth (those things we might choose to distinguish as environment or nurture) are indeed significant indicators of later intellectual prowess (especially when our benchmark is academic performance). So it makes for comfortable presupposition that regarding intelligence (an insanely complex matter to begin with) the inherent difference between individuals is slight, and upbringing is the key determinant, but where’s the proof? And if this isn’t the whole picture – as it very certainly isn’t – then what if, heaven forfend, some people really are (pro)created less cognitively proficient than others? Given that they did indeed receive equivalent support through life, it follows that failure is “their own fault”, is it not?

In any case, intelligence, like attractiveness, must be to some degree a relative trait. During any historical period, particular forms of mental gymnastics are celebrated when others are overlooked, and so instruments to measure intelligence will automatically be culturally biased (there is a norm and there are fashions) to tally with the socially accepted idea of intelligence which varies from place to place and from one era to the next. There can never be an acid test of intelligence in any pure and absolute sense.10

Furthermore, whatever mental abilities happen to confer the mark of intelligence at any given time or place, obviously cannot be equally shared by everyone. As with other human attributes and abilities, there is likely to be a bell curve. It follows, therefore, that whatever braininess is or isn’t (and doubtless it takes many forms), during every age and across all nations, some people will be treated as dimmer, or brighter, than their fellows. And notwithstanding that whatever constitutes intelligence is socially determined to some extent, and that estimates of intelligence involve us in a monumentally complex matter, it remains the case that an individual’s capacity for acquiring skills and knowledge must be in part innate. This admission is both exceedingly facile and exceedingly important, and it is one that brings us right to the crux of meritocracy’s most essential flaw.

For how can those who are thought dim be left in charge of important things? They can’t. Which means that it would be madness to give the dimmest people anything other than the least intellectually demanding jobs. The meritocratic logic then follows, of course, that being less capable (and thus relegated to performing only the most menial tasks) makes you less worthy of an equal share, and yet this cuts tangentially across the very principle of ‘fairness’ which meritocracy is supposed to enshrine. For wherein lies the fairness in the economic exclusion of the dim? To reiterate what I wrote above, our prejudice is so deeply ingrained that to many such exclusion will still appear justified. As if being dim is your own lookout.

For whether or not an individual’s perceived failure to match up to society’s current gauge of intelligence is primarily down to educational ‘disadvantage’ (in the completest sense) or for reasons of an altogether more congenital kind, we may justifiably pass over the comfortable view that equal opportunity (laudable as this is) can entirely save the day. Degrees of intellectual competence – whether this turns out to be more socially or biologically determined – will always be with us, unless that is, like Wells, Shaw and Churchill (together with a many other twentieth century social reformers including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, and the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger) we opt instead for the eugenic solution – and I trust we do not. But bear in mind that programmes of forced sterilisation kept running in regions of the western world long after WWII right up to the 1970s.11 Earlier calls to weed out the “feeble-minded” that never fully went away, but instead went underground.

On March 17th 2016, ‘Democracy Now!’ interviewed Adam Cohen, co-editor of TheNationalBookReview.com and author of “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck”, who explained how:

After World War II, we put the leading Nazis on trial for some of the worst things that the Nazis did. One of those very bad things was they set up a eugenics program where they sterilized as many as 375,000 people. So we put them on trial for that. And lo and behold, as the movie [“Judgment at Nuremberg”] shows, their defense was: “How can you put us on trial for that? Your own U.S. Supreme Court said that sterilization was constitutional, was good. And it was your own Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of your most revered figures, who said that. So, why are we the bad guys in this story?” They had a point.

Click here to watch on the Democracy Now! website.

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Now for those further thoughts from the man we might describe as “the father of meritocracy” – even though he would certainly hate it! This is Michael Young speaking out against about his accidental bastard child and the decisive role it is has played in reshaping our societies:

I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment.

They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.

It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.12

This meritocracy we live in today, as Michael Young points out, is not just a distant remove from the fairest society imaginable, but in other ways – psychological ones especially – arguably crueller than any older, and less enlightened, -ocracies.

Embedded below is one of a series of lectures “Biology as Ideology” given by distinguished geneticist and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in 1990. Lewontin here explaining how erroneous theories of biological determinism have been used to validate and support the dominant sociopolitical theories and vice versa. He also offers his subversive thoughts on meritocracy:

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Inevitably, ‘merit’ is equated with, and thus mistaken for, ‘success’, and this is true not only for our self-declared meritocracy, but universally. Think about it: if millions of people love to read your books, or to listen to your songs, or just to watch your delightful face on their TV screens, then who would not leap to the conclusion that what they do is of the highest ‘merit’? How else did they rise to stand above the billions of ordinary anonymous human drones?

The converse is also true. That those who remain anonymous are often in the habit of regarding themselves as less significant – in fact psychologically less real – than others in the limelight they see and admire: the celebrities and the VIPs. Which brings me to a lesson my father taught me; an observation which reveals in aphoristic form the inbuilt fault with all conceptions of meritocracy: VIP being a term that makes him curse. Why? For the clinching fact that every one of us is a “very important person”. If this sounds corny or trite then ask yourself sincerely, as my father once asked me: “Are you a very important person…?”

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Famously, Van Gogh sold just a single painting in his lifetime13, but then we all know that millions of terrible painters have also sold one (or less than one!) Not so widely known is that a great deal of Schubert’s music was lost when, in the immediate aftermath of his death, it was recycled as waste paper; but then again, thousands of dreadful composers have also had their music posthumously binned. So the odds are that if you can’t sell your music or publish your book, then you’re just another of the billions, rather than an as yet unappreciated master and another Van Gogh or Schubert. For aside from posterity, and no matter how much we might like to conjure one up, there is no established formula for separating ‘merit’ from ‘success’, and no good reason for supposing we will ever discover such a razor.

In reality therefore, any form of meritocracy will only ever be a form of success-ocracy, and in our own system, money is the reification of success. A system in which success and thus money invariably breeds more success and more money because unavoidably it contains positive and negative feedback loops. For this reason the well-established ruling oligarchies will never be unseated by means of any notional meritocracy – evidence of their enduring preeminence being, somewhat ironically, more apparent in the American republic, where dynasties, and especially political ones, are less frowned upon, and in consequence have remained more visible than in the class-ridden island kingdom it abandoned and then defeated. But even if our extant aristocracies were one day uprooted wholesale, then meritocracy simply opens the way for that alternative uber-class founded by the “self-made man”.

Indeed, ‘aristocracy’, deriving from the Greek ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia) and literally meaning “rule of the best”, sounds a lot like ‘meritocracy’ to me. Whereas governance by those selected as most competent (the other way ‘meritocracy’ is sometimes defined) is better known by an alternative name too – ‘technocracy’ in this case – with the select order of technocrats working to whose betterment we might reasonably ask. Meritocracy of both kinds – and every meritocratic system must combine these twin strands – has fascistic overtones.

The promise of meritocracy has been seductive largely because of its close compatibility with neoliberalism, today’s predominant, in fact unrivalled, politico-economic ideology. Predicated on the realism that humans do indeed have an ingrained predisposition to social hierarchy (something that traditional concepts of egalitarianism sought to abolish), it offers a reconfigured market solution to foster a sort of laissez-faire egalitarianism: the equalisation of wealth and status along lines that are strictly “as nature intended”. Furthermore, it appeals to some on the left by making a persuasive case for “equality of opportunity”, if always to the detriment of the more ambitious goal of “equality of outcome”. A sidelining of “equality of outcome” that has led to a dramatic lowering of the bar with regards to what even qualifies as social justice.

Moreover, the rightward drift to meritocracy involves the downplaying of class politics in favour of today’s more factional and brittle politics of identity. This follows because under meritocracy the rigid class barriers of yesteryear are ostensibly made permeable and in the long run must slowly crumble away altogether. In reality, of course, social mobility is heavily restricted for reasons already discussed at length. But this abandonment of class politics in favour of the divisiveness of identity politics is greatly to the benefit of the ruling establishment of course. Divide and conquer has been their oldest maxim.

Interestingly, of the many advocates of meritocracy – from Thatcher to Reagan; Brown to Blair; Cameron to Obama; Merkel to May – none have bothered to very precisely define their terms. What do they mean to imply by ‘merit’ and its innately slippery counterpart ‘fairness’? And whilst they talk of ‘fairness’ over and over again – ‘fairness’ purportedly underlying every policy decision they have ever taken – the actual direction all this ‘fairness’ was leading caused a few to wonder whether ‘fairness’ might be wrong in principle! Like other grossly misappropriated abstract nouns – ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ spring instantly to mind – the difficulty here is that ‘fairness’ is a handy fig-leaf.

Instead, and if we genuinely wish to live in a society striving for greater equality, then the political emphasis ought not to be placed too heavily on wooly notions like ‘merit’ or ‘fairness’ but upon enabling democracy in the fullest sense. The voice of the people may not be the voice of God, but it is, to paraphrase Churchill (who mostly hated it), the least worst system.14 One person, one vote, if not quite the bare essence of egalitarianism, serves both as a fail-safe and a necessary foundation.

Of course, we must always guard against the “tyranny of the majority” by means of a constitutional framework that ensures basic rights and freedoms for all. For democracy offers an imperfect solution, but cleverly conceived and justly organised neither is it, as so many right-wing libertarians are quick to tell you: “two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner”. This sideswipe is not just glib, but a better description by far of the extreme right-wing anarchy they advocate. In reality, it is their beloved ‘invisible hand’ that better ensures rampant inequality and social division, and for so long as its influence remains unseen and unfettered, will continue to do so, by rigging elections and tipping the scales of justice.

Democracy – from its own etymology: rule by the people – is equality in its most settled form. Yet if such real democracy is ever to arise and flourish then we must have a free-thinking people. So the prerequisite for real democracy is real education – sadly we are a long way short of this goal too and once again heading off in the wrong direction. But that’s for a later chapter.

Next chapter…

*

Addendum: our stakeholder society and the tyranny of choice

Prior to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders (for further thoughts on Sanders read my earlier posts), mainstream politics in Britain and America, as more widely, were converged to such a high degree that opposition parties were broadly in conjunction. Left and right had collapsed to form a single “centrist” amalgam in agreement across a wide range of diverse issues spanning race relations, gender equality, immigration, environmentalism, to foreign policy, and most remarkably, economics. In Britain, as in America, the two major parties ceased even to disagree over the defining issue of nationalisation versus privatisation because both sides now approved of the incorporation of private sector involvement into every area of our lives. “Big government”, our politicians echoed in unison, is neither desirable nor any longer possible. Instead, we shall step aside for big business, and limit ourselves to resolving “the real issues”.

The real issues? Why yes, with the business sector running all the fiddly stuff, governments pivoted to address the expansion of individual opportunity and choice. Especially choice. Choice now became the paramount concern.

Even the delivery of essential public services, once the duty of every government (Tory and Labour alike), began to be outsourced. No holy cows. It became the common doctrine that waste and inefficiency in our public services would be abolished by competition including the introduction of internal markets and public-private partnerships, which aside from helping to foster efficiency, would, importantly, diversify customer choice once again.

Under the new social arrangement, we, the people, became “stakeholders” in an altogether more meritocratic venture. Here is Tony Blair outlining his case for our progressive common cause:

“We need a country in which we acknowledge an obligation collectively to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it. One Nation politics is not some expression of sentiment, or even of justifiable concern for the less well off. It is an active politics, the bringing of a country together, a sharing of the possibility of power, wealth and opportunity…. If people feel they have no stake in society, they feel little responsibility towards it, and little inclination to work for its success. ….”15

Fine aspirations, you may think. But wait, and let’s remember that Blair was trained as a lawyer, so every word here counts. “Sharing in the possibility of power…” Does this actually mean anything at all? Or his first sentence which ends: “…to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it” – “it” in this context presumably meaning “the country” (his subject at the beginning). But every citizen already has a stake in the country, doesn’t s/he? Isn’t that what being a citizen means: to be a member of a nation state with an interest, or ‘stake’ (if we insist) in what goes on. However, according to Blair’s “One Nation” vision, members of the public (as we were formerly known) are seemingly required to become fully paid-up “stakeholders”. But how…?

Do we have to do something extra, or are our “stakeholder” voices to be heard simply by virtue of the choices we make? Is this the big idea? The hows and wheres of earning a salary, and then of spending or else investing it; is this to be the main measure of our “stakeholder” participation? In fact, is “stakeholder” anything different than “stockholder” in UK plc? Or is it less than this? Is “stakeholder” substantially different from “consumer”? According to the Financial Times lexicon’s definition, a stakeholder society is:

“A society in which companies and their employees share economic successes.”16

Well, I certainly don’t recall voting for that.

*

We are increasingly boggled by choice. Once there was a single electricity supply and a single gas supply – one price fitting all. Now we have literally dozens of companies offering different deals – yet all these deals finally deliver an entirely identical supply of electricity and gas. The single difference is the price, but still you have to choose. So precious moments of our once around the sun existence are devoted to worrying about which power company is charging the least amount. And the companies know all this, of course, so they make their deals as complicated as possible. Perhaps you’ll give up and choose the worst of options – for the companies concerned, this is a winning strategy – thinking about it, this is their only winning strategy! Or, if you are of a mind to waste a few more of your precious never to be returned moments of existence, you may decide to check one of the many comparison websites – but again, which one? Just one inane and frustrating choice after another. And more of those tiresome tickboxes to navigate.

But choice is everything. So we also need to worry more about the latest school and hospital league tables. It is vital to exercise our right to choose in case an actual ambulance arrives with its siren already blaring. In these circumstances we need to be sure that the ambulance outside is bound for a hospital near to the top of the league, because it is in the nature of leagues that there is always bottom – league tables giving a relative assessment, and ensuring both winners and losers.

And provided, an entirely free choice – and not one based on catchment areas – what parent in their right mind elects to send their offspring to a worse school over a better one? So are we just to hope our nearest school and/or hospital is not ranked bottom? Thankfully, house prices save much of the time in helping to make these determinations.

Meantime I struggle to understand what our politicians and civil servants get up to in Whitehall these days. Precisely what do those who walk the corridors of power find to do each day? Reduced to the role of managers, what is finally left for them manage?

And where is all of this choice finally leading? In the future, perhaps, in place of elections, we will be able to voice our approval/dissatisfaction by way of customer surveys. With this in mind, please take a moment to select the response that best reflects your own feelings:

Given the choice, would you say you prefer to live in a society that is:

 More fair

Less fair

Not sure

*

Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

*

1 Quote taken from Chapter 10 of George Orwell’s satirical fairytale Animal Farm published in 1945. After the animals have ceased power at the farm they formulate “a complete system of thought” which is designed to unite the animals as well as preventing them from returning to the evil ways of the humans. The seventh and last of these original commandments of ‘Animalism’ is straightforwardly that “All animals are equal”, however, after the pigs have risen to dominance again, the sign is revised and so this last commandment reads “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

2 From an article entitled “Down with meritocracy: The man who coined the term four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using it” written by Michael Young, published in the Guardian on June 29, 2001. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

3 Quote taken from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood delivered on February 25, 1965. In fuller context, he said:

“And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

An audio recording of King’s speech and a full transcript is available here: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm

4 Quote taken from a meeting on April 22nd, 2000 with American white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, that was recorded as “American Friends of the British National Party” video.

In fuller context Griffin says:

“Perhaps one day, once by being rather more subtle we got ourselves in a position where we control the British Broadcasting media and then we tell ’em really how serious the immigration problem was, and we tell them the truth about a lot of the crime that’s been going on, if we tell ’em really what multiracialism has meant and means for the future, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say yes every last one must go.  Perhaps they will one day.  But if you hold that out as your sole aim to start with, you’re going to get absolutely nowhere. So instead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity, and about the needs and the rights and the duty to preserve and enhance the identity of our own people.  My primary identity quite simply is there (points to veins in wrist). That’s the thing that counts.”

The clip was shown in BBC1’s Panorama: Under the Skin first broadcast on November 25, 2001.

The transcript is available here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/audio_video/programmes/panorama/transcripts/transcript_25_11_01.txt

5 Although these words are frequently attributed to Wilde himself, they actually belong to one of his characters. To Lord Henry Wotton who says “To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Taken from Chapter 2 of Wilde’s once scandalous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

6 The “Class Sketch” was first broadcast on April 7, 1966 in an episode of David Frost’s satirical BBC show The Frost Report. It was written by Marty Feldman and John Law, and performed by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in descending order of height!

7 Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901), is one of H.G.Wells’ earliest blueprints for the future. Set in 2000, a youthful Wells (aged 34) suggested an altogether more matter of fact solution to the problem of what he then called “the People of the Abyss” than a promise of education, education, education (the commentary is my own of course):

“It has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future, to other masses, that they cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power as superior peoples are trusted, that their characteristic weaknesses are contagious and detrimental in the civilizing fabric, and that their range of incapacity tempts and demoralises the strong. To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity…”

Which is putting it most politely! Oh dear, oh dear! What has happened to the clarion call for freedom and equality (and here I mean equality of opportunity, since to be fair Wells was ever the egalitarian, consistently keener on meritocracy than any of the more radical ideals of wealth redistribution). Might it be that the young Mr Wells was showing off his truer colours? Let us go on a little:

“The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die.”

Just who are the hideous hoards who Wells so pities and despises (in roughly equal measures)? Let us read on:

“…the small minority, for example, afflicted with indisputably transmissible diseases, with transmissible mental disorders, with such hideous incurable habits of the mind as the craving for intoxication…”

But he’s jesting… isn’t he?

“And I imagine also the plea and proof that a grave criminal is also insane will be regarded by them [the men of the New Republic] not as a reason for mercy, but as an added reason for death…”

Death? Why not prison and rehabilitation…?

“The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish either, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess…”

Ah, I see, yes since put like that… yes, yes, death and more death, splendid!

“All such killing will be done with an opiate, for death is too grave a thing to be made painful or dreadful, and used as a deterrent for crime. If deterrent punishments are to be used at all in the code of the future, the deterrent will neither be death, nor mutilation of the body, nor mutilation of the life by imprisonment, nor any horrible things like that, but good scientifically caused pain, that will leave nothing but memory…”

An avoidance of nasty old pain… that’s good I suppose.

“…The conscious infliction of pain for the sake of pain is against the better nature of man, and it is unsafe and demoralising for anyone to undertake this duty. To kill under the seemly conditions of science will afford is a far less offensive thing.”

Death, yes, a more final solution, of course, of course…

This is horrifying, of couse, especially in light of what followed historically.

Deep down Wells was an unabashed snob, though hardly exceptional for his time. Less forgivably, Wells was a foaming misanthropist (especially so when sneering down on the hoi polloi). But mostly he longed to perfect the human species, and as a young man had unflinchingly advocated interventions no less surgical than those needed to cure any other cancerous organ. But then of course, it was once fashionable for intellectual types to seek scientific answers to social problems: programmes of mass-sterilisation and selective reproduction.

His Fabian rival George Bernard Shaw had likewise talked of selective breeding in his own quest to develop a race of supermen, whilst Julian Huxley, Aldous’s big brother, was perhaps the foremost and pioneering advocate of eugenics, later coining the less soiled term ‘transhumanism’ to lessen the post-Nazi stigma. Judged in the broader historical context therefore, Wells was simply another such dreaming ideologue.

That Wells was also one of the first to use the term “new world order” maybe of little lasting significance, however totalitarian his visions for World Socialism, but importantly Wells was never in the position to realise his grander visions, in spite of being sufficiently well-connected to arrange private meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entertained him over dinner, and with Joseph Stalin at the Kremlin. Finally, he was unable to inspire enough significant others to engage in his “open conspiracy”.

All extracts below are taken from Anticipation of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, Chapman & Hall, 1901

8

Like most of his contemporaries, family and friends, he regarded races as different, racial characteristics as signs of the maturity of a society, and racial purity as endangered not only by other races but by mental weaknesses within a race. As a young politician in Britain entering Parliament in 1901, Churchill saw what were then known as the “feeble-minded” and the “insane” as a threat to the prosperity, vigour and virility of British society.

The phrase “feeble-minded” was to be defined as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, of which Churchill had been one of the early drafters. The Act defined four grades of “Mental Defective” who could be confined for life, whose symptoms had to be present “from birth or from an early age.” “Idiots” were defined as people “so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers.” “Imbeciles” were not idiots, but were “incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.” The “feeble-minded” were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but, if adults, their condition was “so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others.”

Extract taken from a short essay called “Churchill and Eugenics” written by Sir Martin Gilbert, published on May 31, 2009 on the Churchill Centre website. http://www.winstonchurchill.org/support/the-churchill-centre/publications/finest-hour-online/594-churchill-and-eugenics

9 “Population reduction” is another leftover residue of the old eugenics programme but freshly justified on purportedly scientific and seemingly less terrible neo-Malthusian grounds – when previous “population reduction” was unashamedly justified and executed on the basis of the pseudoscience of eugenics, the pruning was always done from the bottom up, of course.

10 Aside from being the invention of pioneering eugenicist Francis Galton, the IQ test was an pseudo-scientific approach that first appeared to be validated thanks to the research of Cyril Burt who had devised ‘twin studies’ to prove the heritability of IQ. However, those studies turned out to be fraudulent:

“After Burt’s death, striking anomalies in some of his test data led some scientists to reexamine his statistical methods. They concluded that Burt manipulated and probably falsified those IQ test results that most convincingly supported his theories on transmitted intelligence and social class. The debate over his conduct continued, but all sides agreed that his later research was at least highly flawed, and many accepted that he fabricated some data.”

From the current entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/85886/Sir-Cyril-Burt

11

Eugenics is now rightly abjured, and if only for its abominable record for cruelty. But the cruelty of the many twentieth century programmes of eugenics was hardly incidental. Any attempt to alter human populations to make them fit an imposed social structure by means of the calculated elimination and deliberate manipulation of genetic stock automatically reduces people to the same level as farm animals.

It should be remembered too that what the Nazis had tried to achieve by mass murder across Europe was only novel in terms of its extremely barbarous method. Eugenics programmes to get rid of “inferior” populations by forced sterilisation having been introduced earlier in America and surreptitiously continuing into the 1970s. For instance, there was a secret programme for the involuntary sterilisation of Native American women long after the World War II.

http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/american_indian_quarterly/v024/24.3lawrence.html

12 From the same Guardian article entitled “Down with meritocracy” written by Michael Young, published in June, 2001.

13 Van Gogh famously sold one painting during his lifetime, Red Vineyard at Arles. A painting that now resides at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The rest of Van Gogh’s more than 900 paintings were not sold nor came to public attention until after his death.

14

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

— Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons, November 11, 1947.

15 Tony Blair speaking in Singapore on January 7, 1996.

16 The source for this definition is given as the Longman Business English Dictionary (although the link is lost). http://lexicon.ft.com/Term?term=stakeholder-society

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Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race », financial derivatives, neo-liberalism, Noam Chomsky

all work and no play

The following article is Chapter Six of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year (and beyond). Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

*

BOSWELL, “But, sir, the mind must be employed, and we grow weary when idle.”
JOHNSON, “That is, sir, because others being busy, we want company; but if we were all idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another… But no man loves labour for itself.”
1

*

Leaving aside the various species of bats and whales, very nearly all mammals are land-dwelling creatures. In fact, nearly all animals – meaning quadrupeds – spend their lives earthbound. For millennia humans too occupied the same earthbound sphere alongside fellow ground-dwelling organisms. So consider then the following: at this precise moment upwards of six thousand scheduled airliners are aloft in our skies, and at peak times as many as ten thousand are flying high above the clouds. Each of these airborne vessels is packed with many hundred perfectly ordinary human beings sat in rows, hurtling above our heads at altitudes exceeding thirty thousand feet and speeds above 500 miles per hour. This sum equates to literally millions of people airborne at each and every moment of each and every day – a significant proportion of the entire human population!

Now consider this: prior to December 17th 1903, only a handful of our species had ever lifted off the surface of the planet by any means at all and not a single human being had ever experienced powered flight. But then, on that fateful day, Orville and Wilbur Wright made three successful flights between them. On his first take-off, Orville covered 120 feet, remaining airborne for just 12 seconds. On the final flight, he valiantly managed 200 feet, all at an altitude of only ten feet. A century on, we have Airbus – take note the humdrum name of the company! – and the launch of its A380, the world’s largest passenger jet, which accommodates between 525 and 850 individuals, and is capable of flying approximately 10,000 miles nonstop. Thus, thanks to technology we have grown wings and been transformed into a semi-airborne species; entirely forgetting to be astonished by this remarkable fact is perhaps the final measure of our magnificent achievement.

*

“The world is undergoing immense changes. Never before have the conditions of life changed so swiftly and enormously as they have changed for mankind in the last fifty years. We have been carried along – with no means of measuring the increasing swiftness in the succession of events. We are only now beginning to realize the force and strength of the storm of change that has come upon us.

These changes have not come upon our world from without. No meteorite from outer space has struck our planet; there have been no overwhelming outbreaks of volcanic violence or strange epidemic diseases; the sun has not flared up to excessive heat or suddenly shrunken to plunge us into Arctic winter. The changes have come through men themselves. Quite a small number of people, heedless of the ultimate consequence of what they did, one man here and a group there, have made discoveries and produced and adopted inventions that have changed all the condition, of social life.”

These are the opening paragraphs from a lesser-known work by H.G. Wells. The Open Conspiracy, an extended essay written in 1928, was the first of Wells’ most earnest attempts to set the world to rights. Stumbling across it one day, it struck me that this voice from ninety years ago still chimes. I couldn’t help wondering indeed if we aren’t still in the midst of those same “immense changes”, being swept along by an, as yet, undiminished “storm of change”.

Wells, who uses the word ‘change’, in various formulations, no less than seven times (in a mere eight sentences), goes on to compare our modern wonders to the seven wonders of the ancient world, intending to emphasise their novel potency:

“Few realized how much more they were than any “Wonders.” The “Seven Wonders of the World” left men free to go on living, toiling, marrying, and dying as they had been accustomed to for immemorial ages. If the “Seven Wonders” had vanished or been multiplied three score it would not have changed the lives of any large proportion of human beings. But these new powers and substances were modifying and transforming – unobtrusively, surely, and relentlessly – very particular of the normal life of mankind.”

Wells had been trained as a scientist, and more than this, a scientist at a time when science was reaching its apogee. At the Royal College of Science2, he had studied biology under the tutelage of T. H. Huxley, the man who most publicly defended Darwin’s theory. In the debates against the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, it was Huxley who challenged and defeated the permitted orthodoxy of divine creation by showing how Science makes a better account of our origins than religious authority; so in an important sense, Huxley must be seen as one of the pioneers of this scientific revolution. With religion rather abruptly and rudely dismissed, it was open to the scientists and technologists to lead us all to salvation.

Wells was keen to get involved, if only as one of science and technology’s most passionate and outspoken advocates.  Growing up in late Victorian Britain, he was well acquainted with how systems of mass production had mostly superseded manual methods to become the predominant form of industrial process. Likewise, he had witnessed the spread of agricultural machines for planting seeds and harvesting crops, and of automotive machines transporting loads and providing ever more reliable and comfortable means for human transit. These innovations had led to a dramatic increase both in production and, more importantly, in productivity, and machine processes were set to become ever more versatile and reliable.

Wells was amongst the first to seriously consider how these new modes of manufacture with their greater efficiencies and capacities for heavier constructions, not to mention for longer range transportation and communication, would bring rapid and sweeping changes to ordinary life. Most importantly, he understood that since technology potentially allowed the generation of almost limitless power, its rise would unstoppably alter human affairs forever, and by extension, impact upon the natural world too.

Quite correctly, Wells went on to forecast an age to come (our age), in which ordinary lives are transformed to an extent so far beyond the technological transformations of past ages that life is unutterably and irreversibly altered. Yet the widespread access to these “wonders”, as he insistently calls them, causes us to regard them as so ordinary that we seldom, if ever, stop to wonder about them.

For machines are nowadays embedded quite literally everywhere – one is in fact translating the movement of my fingertips into printed words, whilst another happens to be reproducing the soulful precision of Alfred Brendel’s rendition of one of Franz Schubert’s late sonatas on a machine of still older conception (the piano) via yet another machine that preserves sound in the form of electrical impulses. Thanks to machines of these kinds, not only the sheet-music – those handwritten frequency-time graphs so painstakingly drafted, perhaps by candlelight, and very certainly using only a feather quill and inkpot – but thousands upon thousands of musical (and other) performances can be conjured up with literally “a click”. The snapping fingers of an emperor could never have summoned such variety. But then the internet is a wonder far exceeding even H.G. Wells’ far-seeing imagination.

*

More than a century ago, the poet, satirist and social commentator Oscar Wilde was another who looked forward to a time of such “wonders”. For Wilde, as for Wells, they presented reasons to be cheerful:

“All unintelligent labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals in dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious and distressing… There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery; and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure – which, and not labour, is the aim of man – or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is that civilization needs slaves… [But] Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”3

Wilde and Wells were optimists, but cautious ones, and each foretold new dangers that potentially lay in wait for us. Wells wrote:

“They [the new “wonders”] increased the amount of production and the methods of production. They made possible “Big-Business,” to drive the small producer and the small distributor out of the market. They swept away factories and evoked new ones. They changed the face of the fields. They brought into the normal life, thing by thing and day by day, electric light and heating, bright cities at night, better aeration, new types of clothing, a fresh cleanliness. They changed a world where there had never been enough into a world of potential plenty, into a world of excessive plenty.”4

Wells believed that the very successes which brought about large-scale manufacturing and distribution, as well as commensurate developments in fields such as agriculture, sanitation and medicine, ones that were already extending the average life-expectancy, might still feasibly bring heavier burdens to bear on the planet. Left unchecked, he argued, our species would finish using up everything, whilst, exponentially crowding ourselves out of existence. So these new “wonders” were a double-edged sword. And then what of “excessive plenty” – of too much of a good thing – how do we avoid replacing one set of miseries with another? Such were Wells’ concerns, but then Wells owed a great deal to the eternal pessimist Thomas Malthus.

By contrast, at the dusk of the Victorian era, Wilde is not much bothered as Wells is, by the prospect of society overrun by a burgeoning and profligate mass of humanity, but by how we can ensure the new prosperity, so long awaited and desperately overdue, could be fairly distributed. After all, progress had until then been primarily technological in form and not social, and it appeared to Wilde that the costs of industrialisation were still hugely outweighing its benefits.

The centuries of Industrial Revolution had claimed so many victims. Not only those trapped inside the mills and the mines, the wage-slaves working all the hours God sends for subsistence pay, but those still more benighted souls incarcerated in the workhouses, alongside their malnourished children, who from ages six upwards might be forced underground to sweat in the mines or else to clamber about in the more choking darkness of chimneystacks.5 Industrial development meant that for the majority of adults and children (boys and girls) life was sunk into a routine of unremitting hardship and ceaseless backbreaking labour, as the poor were ruthlessly sacrificed to profit their masters – one big difference today, of course, is that our own sweatshops are more distant.

To abolish this class-ridden barbarism, Wilde therefore proposed an unapologetically radical solution:

“Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of more importance, a great deal more than he really wants. Were that machine the property of all, everyone would benefit by it.”6

*

In case Wilde’s enthusiasm for collective ownership encourages you think it, then please be assured that he was not exactly a Leninist (as you will see), nor, in any traditional sense, was he a fully-fledged Marxist. In fact, if anything Wilde was an anarchist, heaping special praise on Peter Kropotkin, whom he once described as: “a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia.”7

Now it is interesting and worthwhile, I think, to compare Wilde’s views, writing just a few decades earlier, with those of H.G. Wells, for both held notionally left-leaning sympathies and both were broadly hopeful; each underscoring the special importance of science and technology when it came to achieving such desirable goals as ending poverty and rebuilding a fairer society. For in some regards, Wilde’s perspective is orthogonally different to Wells – and it is Wells who made the better communist (though he remained deeply antagonistic towards Marx for other reasons).

For Wells was an unflinching collectivist, and thus forever seeking solutions in terms of strict autocratic control. For instance, in one of the concluding chapters of The Open Conspiracy, Wells outlines “seven broad principles” that will ensure human progress of which the sixth reads as follows:

“The supreme duty of subordinating the personal career to the creation of a world directorate capable of these tasks [ones that will ensure the betterment of mankind] and to the general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power”8.

Wilde, on the contrary, unswervingly insisted that above all else the sovereign rights of the individual must be protected. That personal freedom must never be horse-traded, since “the true personality of man”, as he puts it, is infinitely more precious than any amount of prospective gains in comfort and security. This is precisely where Wilde is at his most prescient, foreseeing the dangers of socialist authoritarianism a full two decades before the Russian revolution, and instinctively advising a simple cure:

“What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.”9

So compare Wilde’s earlier views to those of Wells fifty years on, by which time the Soviet model was up and running, and yet he is still advocating the need for a more widespread and overarching central authority: ultimately, a world government to coerce and co-ordinate the masses into the new age of socialism; even to the point of eradicating misfits for the sake of the greater good.

For Wells, every answer for resolving humanity’s problems involved the implementation of top-down governance, with the patterns of individual behaviour controlled by means of an applied political force-field, whereas Wilde was equally insistent that individuals are not uniformly alike like atoms, and must be permitted, so far as is humanly possible, to organise ourselves. It is a fundamental difference in outlook that is reflected in their attitudes towards work.

*

The inherent value of work is rarely questioned by Wells. In his earlier fictional work A Utopian World he answers his own inquiry “will a Utopian be free to be idle?” as follows:

“Work has to be done, every day humanity is sustained by its collective effort, and without a constant recurrence of effort in the single man as in the race as a whole, there is neither health nor happiness. The permanent idleness of a human being is not only burthensome to the world, but his own secure misery.”10

Wells is expressing a concern that once the labouring masses are relieved of their back-breaking obligation to work, they may “develop a recalcitrance where once there was little but fatalistic acquiescence”:

“It is just because labour is becoming more intelligent, responsible, and individually efficient that it is becoming more audible and impatient in social affairs. It is just because it is no longer mere gang labour, and is becoming more and more intelligent co-operation in detail, that it now resents being treated as a serf, housed like a serf, fed like a serf, and herded like a serf, and its pride and thoughts and feelings disregarded. Labour is in revolt because as a matter of fact it is, in the ancient and exact sense of the word, ceasing to be labour at all.”11

For these reasons, Wells senses trouble ahead, whereas for Wilde, these same changes in modes of employment serve as further reasons to be cheerful:

“[And] as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by machine.”12

In his essay, Wilde, unlike Wells, is unabashed in confessing to his own Utopianism, writing:

“Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”13

But then, both Wilde and Wells were dreaming up Utopias during an age when dreaming about Utopia remained a permissible intellectual pursuit. So it is just that Wilde’s dream is so much grander than any visions of Wells. Wells was certainly an astute forecaster and could see with exceptional acuity what immediately awaited humanity around the next few corners, but Wilde, on the other hand, sought to navigate across a wider ocean. He did not wish to be constrained by the tedious encumbrances of his own time, and regarded the complete abolition of hard labour as an absolutely essential component of a better future. Even then, he was far from alone.

*

Writing in the thirties, Bertrand Russell was another outspoken advocate of cultured laziness. Russell, who is now venerated by some almost as a secular saint was nothing of the sort. Many of his views on politics and society were highly disagreeable and he was arguably one of the dreariest philosophers ever published, but this aside he was a supreme mathematician. It is noteworthy therefore that in order to support his own expressed desire for reducing the average workload, he did a few very simple sums. These led him to what he regarded as the most important, yet completely overlooked, lesson to be learned from the Great War.

At a time when the majority of the able-bodied population were busily fighting or else engaged in other means of facilitating the destructive apparatus of war, new modes of production had maintained sufficiency, and yet, as Russell pointed out, the true significance of this outstanding triumph of the new technologies was altogether masked by the vagaries of economics. He writes:

“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed.”

And so to the sums – easy stuff for a man who had previously tried to fathom a complete axiomatic system for all mathematics:

“This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

His conclusion is that everyone could and would work a lot less hours, if only the system permitted us to:

“If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment – assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure.”14

It was still only 1932 remember – technology’s “wonders” have moved on a lot since Russell’s day…

*

Apis mellifera, the honey-bearing bee, is the paragon of industriousness. It’s a pleasure just to watch them humming their way from flower to flower. Working all the hours the apian god sends, without a care in the world. We ascribe tremendous social virtue to our arthropodous familiars, the busy, busy bees. However, if we are to judge bees fairly then we ought properly to consider more critically what it is that our conscientious little friends actually get up to day in, day out…

For though we say that the bees are “at work” – the infertile females who carry out the majority of tasks technically denominated as “workers” – their most celebrated activity, the foraging for nectar from flowers, can hardly be considered a “real job” at all. Unless by “real job” we allow that gorging oneself on the sweetest food available automatically qualifies as work. For, after supping up an abdomenful of nectar (I exaggerate a little for effect), these “workers” then return home to empty the contents of their bellies, as any professional drinker might. Back at the hive, their sister bees also collaborate in the transformation of the incoming nectar, collectively “manufacturing” honey by means of repeated consumption, partial digestion and regurgitation – and apologies to anyone who has suddenly lost their appetite for honey, but bear in mind that milk and eggs are no less strange when you stop to think about them.

By chance, it happens that humans (and other creatures) are partial to the sticky end product of a bee’s binge drinking session. I personally love it. And so we steal away their almost intoxicating amber syrup and attach an attractive price tag to it. The bees receive compensation in the form of sugar, and being apparently unaware of our cheap deception, are extolled as paragons of virtue.

In fact, whenever we take to judging or appraising human conduct of any kind, there is a stubborn tendency to take direction either from Religion, or, if Religion is dismissed, to look for comparisons from Nature. If doing something “isn’t natural”, a lazy kind of reasoning goes, then evidently – evidentially, in fact – there must be something wrong with it. For it cannot be right and proper to sin against Religion or to transgress against Nature. Thus, behaviour that is unorthodox and deviant in relationship to a received normal is denounced, in accordance with strict definition indeed, as perversion.

This fallacious “appeal to nature” argument also operates in reverse: that whenever a particular behaviour is thought virtuous or worthwhile, then – and generally without the slightest recourse to further identifiable evidence – ipso facto, it becomes “natural”. Although of the tremendous variety of human activities, work seems outstanding in this regard. For throughout historic times, societies have consistently upheld that work is self-evidently “natural”; the Protestant “work ethic” is perhaps the most familiar and unmistakeably religious variant of a broader sanctification of labour. Although it is surely worth noting that God’s punishment for Adam’s original sin was that he should be expelled from Paradise “to till the ground from whence he was taken.”15 (Most probably booming “the world doesn’t owe you a living, my son!” before slamming the gates to paradise shut.) Protestant mill-owners, of course, found it convenient to overlook how hard labour was God’s original punishment.

But then, atheistic societies have been inclined to extol work more highly still, and not simply because it is “natural” (the commonest surrogate for Religion), but because atheism is inherently materialist, and since materials depend upon production, productivity is likewise deemed more virtuous and worthwhile. Thus, under systems both Capitalist and Communist, work reigns supreme.

Stalin awarded medals to his miners and his manufacturers – and why not? Medals for production make more sense than medals for destruction. Yet this adoration of work involves a doublethink, with Stalin, for example, on the one hand glorifying the hard labour of labour heroes like, most famously, Alexey Stakhanov, and meanwhile dispatching his worst enemies to the punishment of hard labour in distant work camps, as did Mao and as did Hitler. “Arbeit macht frei” is an horrific lie, yet in some important sense the Nazi leaders evidently believed their own lie, for aside from war and genocide, the Nazi ideology once again extolled work above all else. In the case of Communism, the exaltation of the means of production was to serve the collective ends; in Fascism, itself the twisted apotheosis of Nature, work being natural ensures it is inherently a still greater good.

Yet oddly, whenever you stop to think about it, very little modern humans do is remotely natural, whether or not it is decent, proper and righteous. Cooking food isn’t natural. Eating our meals out of crockery by means of metal cutlery isn’t remotely natural either. Sleeping in a bed isn’t natural. Wearing socks, or hats, or anything else for that matter, isn’t natural… just ask the naturists! And structuring our lives so that our activities coincide with a predetermined time schedule isn’t the least bit natural. Alarm clocks aren’t natural folks! Wake up!

But work is indeed widely regarded as an especially (one might say uniquely) exemplary activity, as well as a wholesomely natural one. Consider the bees, the ants, or whatever other creature fits the bill, and see how tremendously and ungrudgingly productive they all are. See how marvellously proactive and business-like – such marvellous efficiency and purpose! In reality, however, the bees, ants and all the other creatures are never working at all – not even “the workers”. Not in any meaningful sense that corresponds to our narrow concept of “working”. The bees, the ants and the rest of the critters are all simply being… being bees, being ants. Being and “playing”, if you prefer: “playing” certainly no less valid as a description than “working”, and arguably closer to reality once understood from any bee or ant’s perspective (presuming they have one).

No species besides our own (an especially odd species) willingly engages in drudgery and toil; the rest altogether more straightforwardly simply eat, sleep, hunt, drink, breathe, run, swim and fly. The birds don’t do it! The bees don’t do it either! (Let’s leave the educated fleas!) Nature natures and this is all. It is we who anthropomorphise such natural activities and by attaching inappropriate labels transform ordinary pleasures into such burdensome pursuits that they sap nature of vitality. So when Samuel Johnson says, “No man loves labour for itself!” he is actually reminding us all of our true nature.

*

Whether or not we welcome it, “manpower” (humanpower that is), like horsepower before, is soon to be superseded by machine-power. Indeed, a big reason this profound change hasn’t made a greater impact already is that manpower (thanks to contemporary forms of wage slavery and the more distant indentured servitude of sweatshop labour) has remained comparatively cheap. For now the human worker is also more subtle and adaptable than any automated alternative. All of this, however, is about to be challenged, and the changeover will come with unfaltering haste.

To a considerable extent our switch to automation has already happened. On the domestic front, the transfer of labour is rather obvious, with the steady introduction and accumulation of so many labour-saving devices. For instance, the introduction of electric washing machines, which eliminate the need to use a washboard, to hand rinse or squeeze clothes through a mangle, spares us a full day of labour per week. When these became automatic washer dryers, the only required task was to load and unload the machine. In my own lifetime the spread of these, at first, luxury appliances, is now complete throughout the Western world. Meantime, the rise and rise of factory food and clothing production means ready meals and socks are so inexpensive that fewer of us actually bother to cook and scarcely anyone younger than me even remembers what darning is. The bored housewife was very much a late twentieth century affliction – freed from cooking and cleaning there was suddenly ample time for stuffing mushrooms.

Outside our homes, however, the rise of the machine has had a more equivocal impact. Indeed, it has been counterproductive in many ways, with new technologies sometimes adding to the workload instead of subtracting from it. The rise of information technologies is an illustrative example: the fax machine, emails, the internet and even mobile phones have enabled businesses to extend working hours beyond our traditional and regular shifts, and in other ways, work has been multiplied as the same technologies unnecessarily interfere to the detriment of real productive capacity.

Today’s worker is faced with more assessments to complete, more paperwork (albeit usually of a digital form), more evaluation, and an ever-expanding stack of office emails to handle – enough demands for swift replies to circulars and a multitude of other paper-chasing obligations that we spend half our days stuck in front of a monitor or bent over the office photocopier. Every member of “the team” now recruited to this singular task of administrative procedures.

But these mountains of paper (and/or terabytes of zeroes and ones) needing to be reprocessed into different forms of paper and/or digital records are only rising in response to the rise of the office. In fact, it is this increase in bureaucracy which provides the significant make-weight to mask the more general underlying decline in gainful (meaning productive) employment. Yet still, this growth in administration is a growth that only carries us so far, and a growth that can and ultimately will be eliminated, if not for perfectly sound reasons of practicability, then by automation. Ultimately, office workers are no more immune to this process of technological redundancy than the rest of us.

First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1993, the final episode of Tim Hunkin’s wonderful “Secret Life of the Office” served up a humorous take on the social engineering that led to the Twentieth Century’s rise of the office:

*

That the robots are coming is no longer science fiction, any more than the killer robots circling high over Pakistan and Yemen armed with their terrifyingly accurate automated AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, are science fiction. In fact, all our future wars will be fought by means of killer robots, and, unless such super-weapons are banned outright or, at the very least, controlled by international treaties, subsequent generations of these ‘drones’ will become increasingly autonomous – the already stated objective is to produce fully autonomous drones; an horrific prospect. It is also a prospect that perhaps most graphically illustrates how sophisticated today’s robotic systems have become, even if, as with all cutting-edge technology, the military enjoys the most advanced systems. In short, the grim robots fleets are with us, and set to become swarms unless nations act to outlaw their deployment, whereas more beneficial robotic descendants still wait more placidly in the wings. The arrival of both fleets heralds a new age – one for the better and one decidedly for the worse.

Of course, the forthcoming workforce of robots might also be for the worse. Yet the choice is ultimately ours, even if we cannot hold off that choice indefinitely, or even for very much longer. For all our robotic rivals (once perfected) hold so many advantages over a human workforce. Never grumbling or complaining, never demanding a pay rise or a holiday, and, in contrast to human drones, never needing any sleep at all, let alone scheming against their bosses or dreaming up ways to escape.

And the new robots will not stick to manufacturing, or cleaning, or farming the land, or moving goods around in auto-piloted trucks (just as they already fly planes), but soon, by means of the internet, they will be supplying a host of entirely door-to-door services – indeed, a shift in modes of distribution is already beginning to happen. In the slightly longer term, robots will be able to provide all life’s rudimentary essentials – the bare necessities, as the song goes. Quietly, efficiently and ungrudgingly constructing and servicing the essential infrastructure of a fully functioning civilisation. Then, in the slightly longer term, robots will be able to take care of the design, installation and upgrading of everything, including their own replacement robots. In no time, our drudgery (as well as the mundane jobs performed by those trapped inside those Third World sweatshops) will have been completely superseded.

This however leads us to a serious snag and a grave danger. For under present conditions, widespread automation ensures mass redundancy and long-term ruin for nearly everyone. And though there are few historical precedents, surely we can read between the historical lines, to see how societies, yielding to the dictates of their ruling elites (in our times, the bureaucrats and technocrats working at the behest of unseen plutocrats), will likely deal with those superfluous populations. It is unwise to expect much leniency, especially in view of the current dismantlement of existing social safety nets and welfare systems. The real clampdown on the “useless eaters” is only just beginning.

It is advisable, therefore, to approach this arising situation with eyes wide open, recognising such inexorable labour-saving developments for what they are: not merely a looming threat but potentially, at least, an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity. However, this demands a fresh ethos: one that truly values all human life for its own sake and not merely for its productive capacity. More specifically, it requires a steady shift towards reduced working hours and greatly extended holidays: a sharing out of the ever-diminishing workload and a redistribution of resources (our true wealth), which will of course remain ample in any case (the robots will make sure of that).

This introduction of a new social paradigm is now of paramount concern, because if we hesitate too long in making our transition to a low work economy, then hard-line social and political changes will instead be imposed from above. Moves to counter what will be perceived as a crisis of under-employment will mean the implementation of social change but only to benefit the ruling establishment, who for abundantly obvious reasons will welcome the rise in wealth and income disparity along with the further subjugation of the lower classes – the middle class very much included.

As physicist Stephen Hawking said in response to the question “[D]o you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated?” and “Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done?”

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”16

It is an answer that closely echoes Wilde’s foresight of more than a century ago; the difference being one of placing stress. Hawking emphasises the threat of what he calls the “second option”, whereas Wilde encourages us to press ahead in order to realise Hawking’s “a life of luxurious leisure” for everyone.

Of course, there will always be a little useful work that needs doing. Robots will ultimately be able perform all menial, most manual and the vast majority of mental tasks far more efficiently than a human brain and hand, but there will still be the need and the place for the human touch. In education, in medicine and nursing, care for the elderly and sick, and a host of other, sometimes mundane tasks and chores: emotionally intricate, kindly and compassionate roles that are indispensible to keeping all our lives ticking pleasantly along. The big question for our times, however, is really this: given the cheapness and abundance of modern labour-saving equipment, how is it that, even in the western world, instead of contracting, working hours are continuing to rise? The question for tomorrow – one that the first question contains and conceals – is this: given complete freedom and unrestricted choice, what would we actually prefer to be doing in our daily lives? As Bertrand Russell wrote:

“The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists…”

“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”17

*

I was about twelve when I took my first flight. It was onboard a Douglas DC9 and I was travelling to Vienna on an exchange trip. I was so excited and not afraid at all – or at least not afraid of the flight. Indeed, I recall how this was the main question older relatives kept asking and I found their obsession puzzling more than anything. But as I have grown older I have sadly developed a fear of flying. This is annoying in the extreme. Why now… when I’m middle-aged and have so much less to lose? But fear is only seldom a purely rational impulse.

Not that it is half so irrational as we are told to have a severe anxiety about being catapulted inside a thin metal capsule six miles up and at close to the speed of sound. Statistics are one thing but being in the presence of sheer physical danger is another. That said, fear of flying is surely as much about loss of control as anything. For why else did my own fear of flying worsen as I got older? Children are more accustomed than adults to feeling powerless, and so better able to relish the excitement of situations totally outside of their control.

Whole societies – or at least majority sections of societies – also suffer with phobias. Like our private fears, these collective fears held by social groups are frequently rooted in some sense of an impending loss of control. Fear of foreigners, fear of financial collapse, and fear of “terror”. But seldom considered is another societal phobia: our collective ‘fear of flying’. Flying in the poetic sense, that is: of fully letting go of the mundane. Instead, it seems our common longing is to be grounded: an understandable desire.

Why else, scarcely a century since the Wright Brothers’ miraculous first flights, do today’s air passengers find flying (that ancient dream) so tiresome that our commercial airlines serve up non-stop distractions to divert attention away from the direct experience? Indeed, listening to those familiar onboard announcements bidding us a pleasant flight, we are inclined (and very likely reclined) to hear the incidental underlying message: “we are sorry to put you through the dreary inconvenience of this journey”.

We fly and yet we don’t fly – or not as those who first dreamt of flight imagined. Flight has instead been transformed from visionary accomplishment into a nuisance and taken entirely for granted by the clock watchers impatiently kicking our heels beneath the slow-turning departure boards.

And just why are today’s airports such sterile and soul-destroying anti-human spaces? Presumably because this is again what modern humans have come to expect! The same can be said for so many facets of modern live. If we can transform the miracle of flight into a chore, then it follows that we can turn just about any activity into one.

Next chapter…

*

In 1958 Mike Wallace interviewed psychoanalyst and social critic, Erich Fromm. What Fromm says about society, materialism, relationships, religion, and happiness is remarkably prescient, as is his analysis of a growing alienation as we become diminished to the role of products in an age of consumerism:

*

Addendum: the future of work and Universal Basic Income

Due to its historical roots in workers’ movements18, the political left has tended to hold a somewhat inimical position when it comes to appraising the value of work. The understandable and perfectly legitimate elevation of the worker has had a countervailing effect in terms of accentuating the virtuousness of work per se, thereby adding to the weight of received wisdom that to endure toil and hardship is somehow intrinsically valuable. This is why the left has fallen into the habit of making a virtue out of the central object of the oppression it faces.

So what is the goal of the political left (of socialism, if you prefer)? What is its aim, if not, so far as it is possible, to fully emancipate the individual? For whatever dignifies and ennobles labour, and however understandable it may be as a strategy, to celebrate work for its own sake, disguises the base truth that only seldom is it edifying, and more often just a millstone, frequently a terrible one, which, if we are ever to become truly “free at last”, ought to be joyfully laid aside.

In 2013 Anthropologist David Graeber, professor of anthropology at LSE, wrote an excoriating essay on modern work for Strike! magazine. “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” was read over a million times and the essay translated in seventeen different languages within weeks. Embedded below is a lecture Graeber gave to the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) to expand on this phenomenon, and explore how the proliferation of meaningless jobs – more associated with the 20th-century Soviet Union than latter-day capitalism – has impacted modern society:

Since writing most of the above chapter the Zeitgeist has shifted remarkably. Suddenly technological unemployment is treated as a serious prospect and debated as a part of a wider political discourse on future trends. Introduced into this new debate, especially on the left, is the proposal for a ‘universal basic income’ i.e., money provided to everyone by the state to cover basic living expenses. Importantly this payment would be provided irrespective of how many hours a person works and has no other (discernable) strings attached.

UBI is certainly a very bold initiative as well as a plausible solution to the diminishing need for human workers in the coming hi-tech era. Unsurprisingly, I very much welcome it, at least in principle, but wish also to offer a small note of caution. Before large numbers of us are to able to live solely by means of a state provided UBI it will be essential to adjust societal norms relating to work. There can be no stigma in idleness. For if UBI is seen as merely a state handout and its recipients as welfare dependents, then we put them all into severe danger.

After all, work historically equates to status and money and until this ingrained relationship is eroded away, anyone subsisting on UBI alone would rather quickly sink to the level of a second-class citizen. Which is why I propose the better approach to UBI must aim to advance by taking baby steps: reducing days and hours, increasing holidays, lowering pensionable age, as well as expanding education – we must in fact think of eventually offering the luxury of lifelong education for all. Given where we start from today, to attempt to leap to it with one giant stride is surely too much of a risk. If UBI is truly our goal then we might reach it best by trimming work back until it barely exists at all.

*

Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

*

1 Quotes taken from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D by James Boswell (1791). In the original version, the section substituted by ellipsis reads as follows: “There is, indeed, this in trade:– it gives men an opportunity of improving their situation. If there were no trade, many who are poor would always remain poor.”

2 Now part of Imperial College (my own alma mater).

3 Extract taken from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

4 The Open Conspiracy was published in 1928, subtitled “Blue Prints for a World Revolution”. These extracts are taken from Chapter 1 entitled “The present crisis in human affairs”. Interestingly, in a letter to Wells, albeit a begging letter, Bertrand Russell said of the work: “… I do not know of anything with which I agree more entirely”. The Open Conspiracy was later revised and republished as “What Are We to Do with Our Lives?” in 1931. http://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/Wells_The_Open_Conspiracy.pdf

5 Many boys and girls suffocated and others fell to their deaths. This was not helped by the practice of master sweeps to light a fire beneath them in order to force them to climb faster.

6 Quote taken from The Open Conspiracy.

7

“Two of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience are the lives of [the French Symbolist poet, Paul] Verlaine and of Prince Kropotkin: both of them men who have passed years in prison: the first, the one Christian poet since Dante; the other, a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia.”

Taken from “De Profundis”, meaning literally “from the depths”; Wilde’s celebrated cri de coeur was intended, in part at least, as an extended letter and impassioned rebuke to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. It was written during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol between January and March 1897, and has since been publicly released in various expurgated versions, the first of which was published in 1905. A complete version was finally released in 1962.

8

From The Open Conspiracy by H.G. Wells. The full set of seven “broad principles” reads as follows:

(1) The complete assertion, practical as well as theoretical, of the provisional nature of existing governments and of our acquiescence in them;

(2) The resolve to minimize by all available means the conflicts of these governments, their militant use of individuals and property, and their interferences with the establishment of a world economic system;

(3) The determination to replace private, local or national ownership of at least credit, transport, and staple production by a responsible world directorate serving the common ends of the race;

(4) The practical recognition of the necessity for world biological controls, for example, of population and disease;

(5) The support of a minimum standard of individual freedom and welfare in the world; and

(6) The supreme duty of subordinating the personal career to the creation of a world directorate capable of these tasks and to the general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power;

(7) The admission therewith that our immortality is conditional and lies in the race and not in our individual selves.

In light of what was about to come, this last item of the seven is perhaps the most perturbing. Wells introduces it as follows:

“And it is possible even of these, one, the seventh, may be, if not too restrictive, at least unnecessary. To the writer it seems unavoidable because it is so intimately associated with that continual dying out of tradition upon which our hopes for an unencumbered and expanding human future rest.”

9 Extract from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

10 From A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells (published 1905). The same passage continues:

“But unprofitable occupation is also intended by idleness, and it may be considered whether that freedom also will be open to the Utopian. Conceivably it will, like privacy, locomotion, and almost all the freedoms of life, and on the same terms – if he possess the money to pay for it.”

11 Extract from The Open Conspiracy by H.G. Wells (first published 1928).

12 Extract from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

13 Ibid.

14 Extract taken from In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (1932). Note that Russell’s reference to pin manufacture is a deliberate allusion to Adam Smith’s famous hypothetical pin factory in which he illustrated the benefits of ‘division of labour’ in The Wealth of Nations.

15 From Genesis 3:23 (KJV)

16 In answer to a question posed during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session on October 8, 2015. https://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/3nyn5i/science_ama_series_stephen_hawking_ama_answers/cvsdmkv

17 Extract taken from In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (1932).

18 Without an upwelling of righteous indignation amongst the oppressed rank and file of working people, no leftist movement would ever have arisen and gained traction. Yet, the political left also owes its origins to the early co-operative movements, a spontaneous awakening of enlightenment humanists, to the Romantics, and most importantly, to fringe religious groups. Tony Benn famously said that the formation of the Labour Party in Britain owed “more to Methodism than Marx”.

In 1832 six agricultural labourers formed a friendly society to protest against their meagre wages. George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher, was the leader of this small union – the other members included his brother James (also a Methodist preacher), James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield (Methodist and co-founder of the union) and Thomas’s son John. These men were subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to transportation. Three years later, and following a huge public outcry which involved a march on London and petitions to parliament, they were issued pardons and allowed to return to England as heroes. This small band of men is now collectively remembered as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

But the origins of socialism in Britain can be really traced as far back as the English Civil War and indeed earlier again to Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when the workers of the Middle Ages, inspired by the teachings of the radical priest John Ball, took their demands directly to the King Richard II who reneged on his concessions and had them hunted down.

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‘Brazil’: now more than ever, a satire for our age

Prologue: a slow ‘soft coup’ in Brazil

When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, the gaping contradiction between the sporting festival and anger on the streets was widely commented upon. This reported ‘popular uprising’ was said to have been against government corruption and President Dilma Rousseff’s handling of the economy. In fact the forecast riots never happened, and the drama instead took place on the pitch, when the host nation was routed 7-1 by Germany in a semifinal disaster. A portent perhaps that Rousseff’s days were also numbered.

Two years on, in the immediate aftermath of a de facto coup, Brazil descended into more serious political turmoil just as the Olympics arrived in Rio. However, this time around the tear-gas and the plastic bullets failed to make the headlines, with TV coverage maintaining a steady focus on the events inside the stadia.

Brazil’s soft coup is now complete: Rousseff was impeached on August 31st 2016, and the presidency thereafter seized by then-Vice President Michel Temer. With a meager 5% approval rating, he has since become the most unpopular president in Brazil’s history:

Since his appointment, Temer has also been accused of corruption scandals, the alleged reason for which former president Rousseff was impeached, and the very reason that he assumed office. Every measure of social wellbeing has plummeted as Temer’s administration has passed sweeping austerity measures and cut funding the social programs implemented by the Workers’ Party that are credited with making Brazil a main power on the global stage, increasing social inclusion in higher education, growing the middle class, and decreasing hunger and homelessness… Despite his abysmal approval rating, mass protests, public criticism, and a tanking economy, Temer is still in office. And now, the main leftist candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (also known as Lula), who has consistently led in the polls by wide margins, is in prison serving a 12-year sentence for a legal proceeding that has yet to be concluded.

From an article entitled “The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People” by Celina Stien-Della Croce.

The legal battle over former president Lula’s imprisonment is ongoing. Last Sunday Judge Rogério Favreto ordered his release but was subsequently overruled not once but three times “as bewildered Brazilians on social media compared the legal drama to a World Cup penalty shootout”.

Celina Stien-Della Croce continues:

When we think of coups, most of us imagine an image of the past or, at the very least, a clear and undeniable use of force. Large guns. Military intervention. Blood. The brutal overthrow of an elected government. (Think: Chile in 1973, Honduras in 2009, Argentina in 1976). What has been deemed a ‘soft coup’ in Brazil in 2016 stems from the same motive—the protection of corporate, foreign, and imperialist interests over the interests of the poor and working people and their right to self-determination—but comes wrapped in more palatable packaging that makes it easier to deny the violation of democracy. As Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research discusses in their recent dossier “Lula: The Battle for Democracy in Brazil,” the foreign and national elite used a series of legally sanctioned measures to remove the Workers’ Party from office under the guise of corruption. Though the legal case against former president and current Presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Dilma Rousseff is full of holes (a lack of evidence, unreliable and changing quid-pro-quo testimonies given in exchange for lighter sentences, illegal wiretapping, etc), it allowed the bourgeoise—operating through the Brazilian courts—a means to sentence Lula to prison and remove Dilma from power. Quoting law professor Carlos Lodi, Tricontinental defines lawfare as the ‘process of using the law to produce political results. Opponents are removed by use of the legal system rather than the constitutionally valid electoral process’. This is a major strategy behind Brazil’s ‘soft coup’ and the assault on Brazilian democracy. 1

*

Nineteen eighty-four and a half

The following piece was first drafted at the height of the Brazilian World Cup four years ago but for various reasons remained unpublished. Given the situation in Brazil and elsewhere, it seems more applicable than ever…

Braaaaa-zzzilll, dah, dah, dah, da-da-dah etc… if you’ve been watching what I’ve been watching throughout the last month then you will have been hearing it rather a lot: the laid-back guitar riff on which we drift into every World Cup commercial break. Does it turn my thoughts to warm, golden sands and ice-cold sips of Piña Colada? Well, no actually, barely at all. Instead the dreamy jingle is in the habit of recalling Terry Gilliam’s elegant satire on a garish and tawdry bureaucratic dystopia in his film (called appropriately enough) Brazil. The odd juxtaposition – 1985 film and 2014 tournament – snaps unconsciously into place as if the two were always meant to be conjoined.

Interestingly, Brazil (the movie) is quite deliberately set in no specified place or time. Gilliam’s dread warning is of a tyranny that might assert itself anywhere and anytime. Indeed, his is the more hideous portrait of a society frozen precisely at “the end of history” where every form of alternative outlook and unorthodox opinion has been dismissed outright from the collective psyche. Devoid of nonconformity, all nascent dissent, though it very seldom arises, is stamped out in an instant. Not a very pretty picture.

Yet instead of a cunning and ruthlessly efficient despotism, we marvel only at how such a grey and faceless system grinds on unstoppably, even when it is as comically disorganised as the stiflingly ubiquitous ducts – yes, ducts (as in duct tape… there’s no such thing as duck tape!) – ducts for heating, air-conditioning, for water and waste disposal, and even those old-fashioned ones for sending documents through. Ducts that coalesce into one vast, tortuous entanglement that worms itself throughout Brazil‘s high-rise sprawl; twisting and looping in and out of every gloomy apartment block, shop and restaurant, and every administrative office. A labyrinthine network no less invincible than the Byzantine regime it embodies; one that occasionally, and especially when in need of repair, behaves all-too viscerally: throbbing like the guts of some tremendous monster. Eerily, the ducts often seem more alive than any of the denizens who have to squeeze their lives so awkwardly to fit in around them.

To add to the general misery of Brazil, citizens also have routine terrorist attacks to dodge. Again, it is prescient how terrorism exists as an overarching pretext for these authoritarian rulers (whoever they may be, since – like the terrorists – the powers-that-be are never fully seen) to bring all “enemies of the state” to a swift new equivalence of justice. Long gone is the old-fashioned inconvenience of habeas corpus, with law-enforcement streamlined thanks to SAS-style SWAT team raids and jurisprudence reduced to “interrogation” somewhere inside the wittily titled “Office of Information Retrieval”. A procedure of kidnap and torture that in today’s real world is (no less euphemistically) called “rendition”. In keeping with the tone of the satire, each suspect is thereafter scrupulously billed for “the service” they received! In Brazil the corporatocracy is total.

The title track and accompanying score (composed around the same famous tune as ITV’s jingle 2) is the solitary theme that beguiles us. A leitmotif, it fades up on occasions when central character Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce) daydreams his escape from the humdrum trauma of his dutiful but otherwise meaningless existence. And in some ways, the World Cup also feels like a daydream of distraction to lull us briefly from the inanities and brutalities that we rub against in our own lives or else pass over as news. For it turns out that Gilliam’s futuristic vision (thirty years old already) is prophetic in too many ways. His world of secrecy, surveillance, and superficiality (cosmetic surgery features strongly), an altogether grim exaggeration of where we had been heading all along. Briefly, if you’ve never seen Brazil, then just think Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four retold as a black comedy of errors – it was originally pitched as “1984 and a half” apparently.

Back in Brazil (and now I refer to the country rather than the film), as here and elsewhere, “austerity” remains very much in vogue. Here as elsewhere, of course, “austerity” isn’t for everyone. Our political leaders may try to persuade that “we’re all be in this together” but tightening the belt has never been very respectable in the more prosperous strata of our societies – and for perfectly understandable reasons, never will be.

So yes, there may indeed be inadequate revenues to maintain fully-functioning public services, to rebuild infrastructure or new housing, but money was readily available when the bankers needed their bailouts. It is also noticeable how the public purse can always be stretched (here and elsewhere) whenever it comes to putting on spectaculars like the Olympics and World Cup – not forgetting a stage the Tour de France that passed through my home city Sheffield at the estimated cost to the city council alone of £1 million. With less bread to go around, how blessed we all are with more circuses than ever!

Please don’t get me wrong however, I enjoyed the Tour de France and love the four-year reappearance of every World Cup… FIFA, try as they might, are fighting a losing battle to destroy the romance altogether. But I am torn. For even when the World Cup has been as entertaining this one, a small part of me aches to join in the chorus in the streets (you know, those protesters we don’t normally hear about – reported on just once in a blue moon and especially if it happens to suit Western interests).

It would be far better, of course, if politics and sport never mixed; but unavoidably they do. Take the obvious recent example involving a few overpaid Cameroon players squabbling about bonuses. Individual greed of this sort is just the visible (one might say risible) tip of a truly gigantic iceberg of corruption: but obviously corruption in sport exists simply because sport is a microcosm of wider society.

To take an overhead view, corruption is an oily slime that gurgles through serpentine systems, like those ducts in Brazil, connecting up governments and corporations via the murky conduits of foundations and “political charities”. Looking for social welfare? Well, there’s no money! Corporate welfare? Sure, no problem! Tax breaks, cozy public-private partnerships, no-bid contracts, and bailouts: the media, itself corrupted, naturally plays along.

We see welfare benefits transformed into income support in the most literal sense imaginable, with vital public revenues redirected to make up for shortfalls in real wages – full-time work is no longer sufficient to make ends meet. This is evidently just another form of corporate welfare, but widely misrepresented as an element of social welfare.

And why? Why isn’t every adult in Britain, a developed nation in the twenty-first century, in receipt of, at a bare minimum, adequate income to have a home and keep a family (as opposed to struggling on the laughably titled “Living Wage”)? Well, because government policies are not set in accordance with the popular will (which as vulgar as it sounds is the inherent principle of ‘democracy’ from the Greek dēmokratia, meaning dēmos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’) but at the behest of a few giant corporations, accredited by the foundation funded ‘think tanks’ and ‘policy institutes’: a plethora of staunchly anti-democratic organs of the same monolithic financial-corporate establishment. Thus welfare makes way to ‘workfare’. Workfare – how they must laugh… at the choice of homonym.

Then we come to lobbying. Money creamed off from the top of this extensive profiteering and stuffed into the back pockets of the cronies in government – legalised (though I’m not sure when) bribery. Bringing us inevitably to the biggest racket on this planet…

Warfare is more profitable by miles than any amount of workfare when viewed in purely business terms. It pours out of our tax revenues and directly into arms industry coffers. What other activity could transfer comparable wealth from the poor to the rich with greater efficiency? Not that this constant burden on the public purse is much discussed. Nor do our politicians or media urge much restraint in spite of recent historical precedents: so-called ‘humanitarian interventions’ wreaking far greater horrors than those we ostensibly intended to prevent. That none of the many wars is finally ‘winnable’ is tacitly accepted. It serves as an excuse to double down. Because when it comes to waging war, the government behaves like an addicted gambler. The country’s reserves might just as well be bottomless.

As in Brazil, the nebulous threat of terrorism is the main pretext that justifies all of this. It permits the rollback of civil liberties and the steady abolition of human rights – take for instance the resurgent debate about whether or not torture is effective, which is not only horrifying but a grotesque anachronism.

Counterterrorism also justifies our killing abroad and the total surveillance of our populations at home. A cynical person might say that if terrorism did not exist then the corporatocracy would have to invent it.

Meanwhile, Braaaaa-zzzilll, dah, dah, dah… and there we find our celebrity politicians clamouring to be seen and heard in support of “the team”, feigning ordinariness in the hope that we regard them merely as compatriots, forgiving their true allegiance to transnational corporations and special interests… Whoa! Here comes those commercials… and it’s time once more to be teased: fresh inducements to throw the last remnants of your meagre salary on tantalisingly (im)probable bets… “Have a bang on that!” growls Ray Winstone, as he plays head tennis with an overgrown digitised Big Brother likeness…

In short, there are plenty of lotteries and cheap beer to keep the proles happy, which is exactly as Orwell tried to forewarn us. It is one strand of Nineteen Eighty-Four that is mostly overlooked and forgotten.

The rule is straightforward, of course: financial depression brings political oppression in its wake. Out of political oppression comes conflict and division: riots at home, wars abroad. It is a dire and incontrovertible fact that this cycle of misery has already cost multiple millions of lives, not once, but twice, during the last century. A lesson from history we ought to have learned the hard way.

Instead, it’s getting late again… yet another storm is threatening to break out across the Middle East as clouds are also darkening the skies over Ukraine. Time is running short because the existential threat to Western democracy has nothing to do with terrorism, but is the entirely terrifying prospect of a full-blown international shoot-out. The war that everyone says can never happen.

So this is not the most opportune moment to be putting our feet up and settling back to enjoy ice-cold sips of Piña Colada, or (more probably) pints of lager, as pleasant as putting our feet up and supping ale is. When the circuses have pulled up sticks and temporarily left town, and the final whistle is blown for another four years – or if you happened to live on a stage of the Tour de France, the last of the yellow bunting is taken down – the War Party remains in power.

*

Epilogue: it’s not coming home… but that’s ok

“Someone said to me ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen, It’s more important than that’”

— Bill Shankly 3

I was a disappointed as anyone after England’s semifinal defeat to Croatia, but have we lost all sense of proportion? I watched the game at a friend’s house and when ITV switched over to the news studio afterwards we were all quite staggered that its World Cup coverage continued unabated and throughout the rest of the broadcast. Repeats of game that had ended just a few minutes earlier were now interspersed with wide-angle shots of beer-hurling crowds and vox pop interviews of supporters, and on and on and on it went. Eventually we crossed over to Thailand to see pictures of the boys miraculously rescued from the cave who are thankfully now recuperating inside an isolation unit. Apparently they were watching the World Cup too. But the genuine emotion of their cave rescue was over and with far stronger emotion directly on tap back home, the news abruptly switched over once more – to the overblown spectacle of yet more pogoing crowds and bleary-eyed fans.

In truth, the media role today is not to dispassionately present information as it claims but to whip up raw emotion. The targets may shift – fear and loathing of terrorism has mostly given way to fear and loathing of Russiagate ‘meddling’, Putin, ‘Novichok’ and Trump – but the hysteria remains. As playwright and novelist CJ Hopkins writes:

The speed at which they switched from the War on Terror narrative to the Putin-Nazi narrative attests to the power of the corporate media and the neoliberal propaganda machine, generally. It really is an amazing achievement. In less than two years, they managed to condition a significant portion of the Western masses to forget about “the Islamic terrorists” that they had been conditioned to live in fear of, and to transfer their fear and hatred to Trump, and Putin, and anyone who appears to support them, or doesn’t sufficiently hate and fear them.

The ruling classes have achieved this feat by generating an ongoing series of episodes of mass hysteria. Most of them last a week or two, but their cumulative effect is powerful and enduring. Fake news, bots, travel bans, Confederate statues, neo-Nazi rallies, “novichok” attacks, kids in cages … anything the corporate media can use to channel more hatred toward Trump and Putin. None of these episodes are generated out of whole cloth. Obviously, the Russians are pursuing their interests, there is a white supremacist subculture in the United States, as there always has been, those kids were put in those cages, and so on … none of which began with Trump, or has anything exclusively to do with Putin, or triggered mass protests and widespread outrage until the neoliberal ruling classes and corporate media decided it should. 4

Click here to read CJ Hopkins’ latest satirical piece entitled “Hardcore Hitler on Hitler in Helsinki”.

Sport provides another way to push our buttons.

An audience of 26 million Britons apparently watched the game live on Wednesday night although there isn’t anything close to 26 million football fans living on this small island. How many packed-in beneath the giant screens would be watching any ordinary England match? Fewer still are regular match-goers.

Those beside me on the sofa were all long-standing fans of the game. One supported local club Sheffield Utd, another cheers on Crystal Palace and I’ve supported Wolves for most of my life. We all know very well the giddy ups and downs of football fandom. Intense feelings of elation and defeat are recurring experiences. But this was different. This was a festival backed by a media frenzy – the strange intensity heightened again thanks to a highly intoxicated social media. Sorry if I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but quite frankly I don’t wish to be sprayed with beer every time my team takes the lead – that’s not football; it’s Glastonbury or Ibiza or something.

Bill Shankly was only joking when he made his famous remark usually misquoted as “football is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more serious than that”, even if a woeful number with the literal-minded priggishness of Christian end-timers are silly enough to have taken him seriously. Shankly knew hardship. After he left school aged fourteen, he had worked in a coal mine. He knew first-hand what it felt like to be hungry and confined in darkness. He surely would have understood the quiet anguish felt by the Thai boys better than any of us, but what would he have made of the media-hyped and largely manufactured heartbreak felt by England’s johnny-come-lately carnival fans? I imagine he might well have choked on his beer… chortling in derision.

*

1 From an article entitled “The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People” written by Celina Stien-Della Croce, published in Counterpunch on June 22, 2018. https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/06/22/the-soft-coup-and-the-attack-on-the-brazilian-people/  

2 A symphonic reworking of “Aquarela do Brasil” (Watercolor of Brazil), known in the English-speaking world simply as “Brazil”, written by Ary Barroso in 1939.

3 In an interview on a Granada Television chat-show, hosted by Shelley Rohde on Wednesday 20th of May 1981

4 From an article entitled “Hardcore Hitler on Hitler in Helsinki” written by CJ Hopkins published in Counterpunch on July 10, 2018. https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/07/10/hardcore-hitler-on-hitler-in-helsinki/

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Jonathan Cook on “Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind”

I do not ordinarily reprint articles in full, but have decided to break with normal policy to promote Jonathan Cook’s exceptionally important article. Cook understands and brilliantly dissects the febrile atmosphere after Brexit and urges a way forward.

*

The enraged liberal reaction to the Brexit vote is in full flood. The anger is pathological – and helps to shed light on why a majority of Britons voted for leaving the European Union, just as earlier a majority of Labour party members voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

A few years ago the American writer Chris Hedges wrote a book he titled the Death of the Liberal Class. His argument was not so much that liberals had disappeared, but that they had become so coopted by the right wing and its goals – from the subversion of progressive economic and social ideals by neoliberalism, to the enthusiastic embrace of neoconservative doctrine in prosecuting aggressive and expansionist wars overseas in the guise of “humanitarian intervention” – that liberalism had been hollowed out of all substance.

Liberal pundits sensitively agonise over, but invariably end up backing, policies designed to benefit the bankers and arms manufacturers, and ones that wreak havoc domestically and abroad. They are the “useful idiots” of modern western societies.

The liberal British media is current awash with articles by pundits on the Brexit vote I could select to illustrate my point, but this one by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, I think, isolates this liberal pathology in all its sordid glory.

Here is a revealing section, written by a mind so befuddled by decades of neoliberal orthodoxy that it has lost all sense of the values it claims to espouse:

“There is a reason why, when Marine le Pen and Donald Trump congratulated us on our decision, it was like being punched in the face – because they are racists, authoritarian, small-minded and backward-looking. They embody the energy of hatred. The principles that underpin internationalism – cooperation, solidarity, unity, empathy, openness – these are all just elements of love.”

A love-filled EU?

One wonders where in the corridors of the EU bureaucracy Williams identifies that “love” she so admires. Did she see it when the Greeks were being crushed into submission after they rebelled against austerity policies that were themselves a legacy of European economic policies that had required Greece to sell off the last of its family silver?

Is she enamoured of this internationalism when the World Bank and IMF go into Africa and force developing nations into debt-slavery, typically after a dictator has trashed the country decades after being installed and propped up with arms and military advisers from the US and European nations?

What about the love-filled internationalism of NATO, which has relied on the EU to help spread its military tentacles across Europe close to the throat of the Russian bear? Is that the kind of cooperation, solidarity and unity she was thinking of?

Williams then does what a lot of British liberals are doing at the moment. She subtly calls for subversion of the democratic will:

“The anger of the progressive remain side, however, has somewhere to go: always suckers for optimism, we now have the impetus to put aside ambiguity in the service of clarity, put aside differences in the service of creativity. Out of embarrassment or ironic detachment, we’ve backed away from this fight for too long.”

That includes seeking the ousting of Jeremy Corbyn, of course. “Progressive” Remainers, it seems, have had enough of him. His crime is that he hails from “leftwing aristocracy” – his parents were lefties too, apparently, and even had such strong internationalist principles that they first met in a committee on the Spanish civil war.

But Corbyn’s greater crime, according to Williams, is that “he is not in favour of the EU”. It would be too much trouble for her to try and untangle the knotty problem of how a supreme internationalist like Corbyn, or Tony Benn before him, could be so against the love-filled EU. So she doesn’t bother.

Reversing the democratic will

We will never know from Williams how a leader who supports oppressed and under-privileged people around the world is cut from the same cloth as racists like Le Pen and Trump. That would require the kind of “agile thinking” she accuses Corbyn of being incapable of. It might hint that there is a leftwing case quite separate from the racist one – even if Corbyn was not allowed by his party to advocate it – for abandoning the EU. (You can read my arguments for Brexit here and here.)

But no, Williams assures us, Labour needs someone with much more recent leftwing heritage, someone who can tailor his or her sails to the prevailing winds of orthodoxy. And what’s even better, there is a Labour party stuffed full of Blairites to choose from. After all, their international credentials have been proven repeatedly, including in the killing fields of Iraq and Libya.

And here, wrapped into a single paragraph, is a golden nugget of liberal pathology from Williams. Her furious liberal plea is to rip up the foundations of democracy: get rid of the democratically elected Corbyn and find a way, any way, to block the wrong referendum outcome. No love, solidarity, unity or empathy for those who betrayed her and her class.

“There hasn’t been a more fertile time for a Labour leader since the 1990s. The case for a snap general election, already strong, will only intensify over the coming weeks. As the sheer mendacity of the leave argument becomes clear – it never intended to curb immigration, there will be no extra money for the NHS, there was no plan for making up EU spending in deprived areas – there will be a powerful argument for framing the general election as a rematch. Not another referendum, but a brake on article 50 and the next move determined by the new government. If you still want to leave the EU, vote Conservative. If you’ve realised or knew already what an act of vandalism that was, vote Labour.”

A coup in the making

Williams and the rest of the media, of course, are not making these arguments in a vacuum. Much of the Labour shadow cabinet has just resigned and the rest of the parliamentary party are trying to defy the overwhelming democratic will of their membership and oust Corbyn. His crime is not that he supported Brexit (he didn’t dare, given the inevitable reaction of his MPs) but that he is not a true believer in the current neoliberal order, which very much includes the EU.

Here is what one of the organisers (probably a shadow cabinet minister) of this coup-in-the-making says:

“The plan is to make Corbyn’s job as leader extremely difficult in the hope of pushing him to resign, with most MPs refusing to serve as shadow ministers, show up on the frontbench in the House of Commons, support him at PMQs or formulate policy under his leadership.”

This was presumably said with a straight face, as though Corbyn has not been undermined by these same Blairite MPs since day one of his leadership. This is not a new campaign – it has simply been forced to go more public by the Brexit vote.

Labour MPs do not just want to oust a leader with massive support among party members. They have hamstrung him from the outset so that he could not lead the political revolution members elected him to begin. And now he is being made to pay the price because he privately backs a position that, as the referendum has just shown, has majority support.

The neoliberal prison

The Brexit vote is a huge challenge to the left to face facts. We want to believe we are free but the truth is that we have long been in a prison called neoliberalism. The Conservative and Labour parties are tied umbilically to this neoliberal order. The EU is one key institution in a transnational neoliberal club. Our economy is structured to enforce neoliberalism whoever ostensibly runs the country.

That is why the debate about Brexit was never about values or principles – it was about money. It still is. The Remainers are talking only about the threat to their pensions. The Brexiters are talking only about the role of immigrants in driving down wages. And there is good reason: because the EU is part of the walls of the economic prison that has been constructed all around us. Our lives are now only about money, as the gargantuan bail-outs of the too-big-to-fail banks should have shown us.

There is a key difference between the two sides. Most Remainers want to pretend that the prison does not exist because they still get privileges to visit the living areas. The Brexiters cannot forget it exists because they are never allowed to leave their small cells.

The left cannot call itself a left and keep whingeing about its lost privileges while denouncing those trapped inside their cells as “racists”. Change requires that we first recognise our situation – and then have the will to struggle for something better.

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Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

Click here to read the same article published by Counterpunch.

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this is the EU — so take it or leave it… #5. Greece and the tyranny of Brussels

“In the euro area, the countries in the periphery have nothing at all to offset austerity. They are simply being asked to cut total spending without any form of demand to compensate. I think that is a serious problem.

“I never imagined that we would ever again in an industrialised country have a depression deeper than the United States experienced in the 1930s and that’s what’s happened in Greece.

“It is appalling and it has happened almost as a deliberate act of policy which makes it even worse”. [Bold highlight added]

— Lord Mervyn King, former Governor of the Bank of England. 1

“The Greek people have been living through hell during the last six years, and unfortunately they trusted that Tsipras [PM] would put an end to the extreme austerity measures, which are combined with a total undemocratic regime. Unfortunately, instead of putting an end, he put his signature to a third memorandum, which is even worse than the previous two…

“People are back on the streets protesting for their rights and dignity because right now they’re being asked to pay taxes which amount to almost the totality of their revenue. They’re asked to give up their homes… They’re asked to surrender public property, which is privatized at very, very low prices. And, they’re also asked to give up democracy”

— Zoe Konstantopoulou, lawyer and former Speaker of Hellenic Parliament. 2

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On 13th July [2015], the democratic elected Greek government of Alexis Tsipras was brought to its knees by the European Union. The “agreement” of 13th of July is in fact a coup d’état. It was obtained by having the European Central Bank close down the Greek banks and threaten never to allow them to open up again, until the Greek government accepted a new version of a failed program. Why? Because official Europe could not stand the idea that a people suffering from its self-defeating austerity program dared elect a government determined to say “No!”.

So begins the call for “A plan B in Europe” put together by a group of prominent European left-leaning politicians from Parti de Gauche (France), Die Linke (Germany), Red Green Alliance (Denmark), Socialist Party (SP) (Ireland), Bloco de Esquerda (Portugal), and Syriza (Greece). Top of the bill is Yanis Varoufakis (a principle author, I imagine, given some of the polemical flourishes within this signed but otherwise uncredited page-long call to action).

The piece continues:

We must learn from this financial coup. The euro has become the tool of economic and governmental dominance in Europe by a European oligarchy hiding behind the German government, delighted to see Mrs Merkel doing all the « dirty work » other governments are incapable of undertaking. This Europe only generates violence within nations and between them: mass unemployment, fierce social dumping and insults against the European Periphery that are attributed to Germany’s leadership while parroted by all the “elites”, the Periphery’s not excluded. The European Union has thus become an agent of an extreme right wing ethos and a vehicle for annulling democratic control over production and distribution throughout Europe. 3

Click here to read the full statement.

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Now let us go back nine months – back to the eve of the Greek referendum during the dog days of last summer, and just before the extraordinary ‘oxi’ vote which momentarily reverberated across our western hemisphere.

Yanis Varoufakis [3:45 mins in]: Let me tell you something which is probably unknown. Ever since we declared the referendum and we incensed our European partners we had the most interesting proposals coming from Brussels. Perhaps this referendum and the impasse it represents concentrated several minds in Brussels and we’ve had some really good proposals – proposals we would sign on the dotted line for.

Paul Mason: You have a proposal you would sign on the dotted line for?

Varoufakis: Yes, we do.

Mason: Where is it?

Varoufakis: Well, I’m not going to tell you. It’s somewhere in this building. But the crucial part of the story is that before this proposal becomes a genuine negotiating document which we can sign off on Monday, the people have to empower us with a “no”.

From the Channel 4 news interview embedded above broadcast on July 3rd 2015 that is also available here.

You can find the same clip here on Varoufakis’ blog.

Shortly thereafter [July 5th] the people of Greece, perhaps in light of Varoufakis’ advice, went to the polls and voted overwhelming in favour of rejecting the Eurogroup deal with its demands for increasing doses of “austerity” and ‘Washington Consensus’-style ‘conditionalities’ — the enforced privatisation of public services and other forms of so-called ‘deregulation’. To which the response from Brussels was to immediately double down by issuing still harsher neoliberal demands. With this, the mask of European social democracy fell away completely.

Nobel laureate economist, Paul Krugman, was one who helped to promote the hashtag #ThisIsACoup when he wrote in the New York Times:

This Eurogroup list of demands is madness. The trending hashtag #ThisIsACoup is exactly right. This goes beyond harsh into pure vindictiveness, complete destruction of national sovereignty, and no hope of relief. It is, presumably, meant to be an offer Greece can’t accept; but even so, it’s a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for.

Left Unity (which has a loose alliance with political parties Syriza and Podemos) also sent a message of support to the Greeks:

The people of Greece have resisted every threat, every piece of establishment propaganda telling them a No vote would mean ruin, and asserted their democratic rights. This will be a No heard around the world.

Now is the time to celebrate – and to step up our solidarity ahead of the Troika’s next move. Come along to what will now be a victory rally at the TUC’s Congress House, organised by Greece Solidarity Campaign.

And the Greeks had indeed empowered their government with a resounding ‘no’, but instead of fighting on, Syriza under Tsipras’ leadership swiftly capitulated in what must be one of the fastest political U-turns of all time. In response, Varoufakis resigned, refusing to criticise his friend Tsipras, and also declining an invitation to join a small breakaway faction who hoped to restore the party’s anti-austerity ticket on which Tsipras and Syriza had stood little more than six months previously.

So there is a mystery here that remains. Varoufakis, who prides himself on openness, has simply never explained what actually happened during those most momentous days in early July. Specifically, what became of that proposal from Brussels he was so keen “to sign on the dotted line”. Surely he owes the Greek people a fuller explanation.

Moreover, while Varoufakis was quick to attribute blame for the Eurogroup failures on the inflexibility of Wolfgang Schäuble and fellow German Karl Lamers, he has to a large extent absolved other key players including, most notably, President of the ECB, Mario Draghi for their part in “the coup” (his words).

I have consistently defended Varoufakis and Tsipras and been scathing of others on the left for being too hurried in passing judgement and unduly hypercritical (as many earlier posts testify). Caught up in the drama, like others hoping Syriza’s election signified the beginning of truly revolutionary reforms, I confess that I became a cheerleader for both.

With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that Syriza and Varoufakis were both tremendously guilty of an over-reliance on the efficacy of “reasonableness” (more here), because ‘reasonableness’ only ever makes headway when it engages with opposition that is principled and reasoned. Against the irrational, it is blunt, and against the unscrupulous it becomes a danger to itself. Yet Syriza and Varoufakis seem incapable of learning this simple lesson. This is what Varoufakis wrote in the abstract to his “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist” [December 2013]:

Should we use this once-in-a-century capitalist crisis as an opportunity to campaign for the dismantling of the European Union, given the latter’s enthusiastic acquiescence to the neoliberal policies and creed? Or should we accept that the Left is not ready for radical change and campaign instead for stabilising European capitalism? This paper argues that, however unappetising the latter proposition may sound in the ears of the radical thinker, it is the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis. 4

Throughout the crisis, he and the party he once represented at the Eurogroup meetings have been chewed up and spat out time and again and yet his response has been to remain unruffled and reasonable in his continued fight (hardly the right word) “to save European capitalism from itself”.

Today Varoufakis leads a parallel campaign Democracy In Europe 2025 made up of lecture tours and larger academic-style conferences making speculative calls for a Plan B in Europe. Beyond the well-meaning rhetoric, the movement is entirely bereft of strategy. And my immediate question to Varoufakis is actually this: why must we wait until 2025 to bring democracy (a gift of the ancient Greeks) back to Europe? After all he knows better than most that a week in politics is an exceedingly long time – so a decade might as well be an aeon.

Here then, to redress the balance of earlier posts (at the risk of angering readers and friends alike), I present the condemnatory appraisal courtesy of political commentator James Petras, who in March 2015 (a mere two months after Syriza were elected) wrote the following:

The vast majority of Greeks, who voted for Syriza, expected some immediate relief and reforms.  They are increasingly disenchanted.  They did not expect Tsipras to appoint Yanis Varoufakis, a former economic adviser to the corrupt neo-liberal PASOK leader George Papandreou, as Finance Minister. Nor did many voters abandon PASOK, en masse, over the past five years, only to find the same kleptocrats and unscrupulous opportunists occupying top positions in Syriza, thanks to Alexis Tsipras index finger.

Nor could the electorate expect any fight, resistance and willingness to break with the Troika from Tsipras’ appointments of ex-pat Anglo-Greek professors.  These armchair leftists (‘Marxist seminarians’) neither engaged in mass struggles nor suffered the consequences of the prolonged depression.

Syriza is a party led by affluent upwardly mobile professionals, academics and intellectuals.  They rule over (but in the name of) the impoverished working and salaried lower middle class, but in the interests of the Greek, and especially, German bankers.

They prioritize membership in the EU over an independent national economic policy.  They abide by NATO, by backing the Kiev junta in the Ukraine, EU sanctions on Russia, NATO intervention in Syria/Iraq and maintain a loud silence on US military threats to Venezuela! 5

[bold highlight added]

Click here to read the full article by James Petras.

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By latest estimates total Greek debt is 384 billion euros, or US$440 billion. That’s approaching nearly twice the size of Greece’s annual GDP.  A decade ago, in 2007-08 before the global crash, Greek debt was roughly half of what it is today, in terms of both total debt and as a percent of GDP.  Greek debt was actually less than a number of Eurozone economies.  So Greece’s debt has been primarily caused by the 2008-09 crash, Greece’s six year long economic depression [that] followed, the extreme austerity measures imposed on it by the Troika during this period which has been the primary cause of its long depression, and the Troika’s piling of debt on Greece to repay previously owed debt.

Contrary to European media spin, it’s not been rising Greek wages or excessive government spending that has caused the US$440 billion in Greek debt. Since 2009 Greek annual wages have fallen from 23,580 to less than 18,000 euros. Government spending has fallen from 118 billion euros to 82 billion.

writes Jack Rasmus in an extremely detailed overview of the state of the Greek crisis in light of the recent parliamentary vote (passed by a narrow margin of 153 to 145) to implement the latest demands of “the Troika” in order to ensure another tranche of unpayable loans. “Bailouts” that, as Rasmus explains at length, are then returned directly to the creditors:

As a recent in depth study by the European School of Management and Technology, ‘Where Did the Greek Bailout Money Go?, revealed in impeccably researched detail, Greek debt payments  ultimately go to Euro bankers. For example, of the 216 billion euros, or US$248 billion, in loans provided to Greece by the Troika in just the first two debt deals of May 2010 and March 2012, 64 percent (139 billion euros) was interest paid to banks on existing debt; 17 percent (37 billion euros) to Greek banks (to replace money being taken out by wealthy Greeks and businesses and sent to northern Europe banks), and 14 percent (29 billion euros) to pay off hedge funds and private bankers in the 2012 deal. Per the study, less than 5 percent of the 216 billion euros went to Greece to spend on its own economy. As the study’s authors concluded, “ the vast majority (more than 95 percent) went to existing creditors in the form of debt repayments and interest payments”.  And that’s just the 2010 and 2012 Troika deals. Last August’s third deal is no doubt adding more to the totals. 6

[bold highlight added]

Click here to read Jack Rasmus’ full article published in Counterpunch.

The cycles of debt-repayment might literally be never-ending, because Greece will never be able to fully repay all of its (odious) debts. It is a situation compounded because Greece’s already floundering economy is completely suffocated by the Troika’s imposed “austerity” regime.

But this disastrous situation is no accident. The trap in which Greece finds itself satisfies two neo-liberal objectives. Firstly, Greece becomes so impoverished that it is forced to sell state assets at rock-bottom prices. Secondly, the sustained wealth transfer from the pockets of the ordinary Greeks into the hands of the bankers helps to prop up a failed financial system.

Setting the bizarre academic justifications aside, and overlooking the deeper reasons Greece became so indebted in the first place, what we see is how the Troika – two thirds of which is the EU – has put the sanctity of debt repayment far above the sanctity of human well-being. So whenever Greece comes up gasping for air, the IMF and the EU repeatedly pushes it back under again:

The media persists in calling the looting of Greece a “bailout.”

To call the looting of a country and its people a “bailout” is Orwellian. The brainwashing is so successful that even the media and politicians of looted Greece call the financial imperialism that Greece is suffering a “bailout.”

writes former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, Paul Craig Roberts in a recent article entitled “We Have Entered The Looting Stage of Capitalism”. In the piece, Roberts explains the EU’s role and the IMF’s apparent policy shift as follows:

Having successfully used the EU to conquer the Greek people by turning the Greek “leftwing” government into a pawn of Germany’s banks, Germany now finds the IMF in the way of its plan to loot Greece into oblivion.

The IMF’s rules prevent the organization from lending to countries that cannot repay the loan. The IMF has concluded on the basis of facts and analysis that Greece cannot repay. Therefore, the IMF is unwilling to lend Greece the money with which to repay the private banks.

The IMF says that Greece’s creditors, many of whom are not creditors but simply bought up Greek debt at a cheap price in hopes of profiting, must write off some of the Greek debt in order to lower the debt to an amount that the Greek economy can service.

The banks don’t want Greece to be able to service its debt, because the banks intend to use Greece’s inability to service the debt in order to loot Greece of its assets and resources and in order to roll back the social safety net put in place during the 20th century. […]

The way Germany sees it, the IMF is supposed to lend Greece the money with which to repay the private German banks. Then the IMF is to be repaid by forcing Greece to reduce or abolish old age pensions, reduce public services and employment, and use the revenues saved to repay the IMF.

As these amounts will be insufficient, additional austerity measures are imposed that require Greece to sell its national assets, such as public water companies and ports and protected Greek islands to foreign investors, principally the banks themselves or their major clients. […]

In other words, Greece is being destroyed by the EU that it so foolishly joined and trusted. The same thing is happening to Portugal and is also underway in Spain and Italy. The looting has already devoured Ireland and Latvia (and a number of Latin American countries) and is underway in Ukraine.

The current newspaper headlines reporting an agreement being reached between the IMF and Germany about writing down the Greek debt to a level that could be serviced are false. No “creditor” has yet agreed to write off one cent of the debt. All that the IMF has been given by so-called “creditors” is unspecific “pledges” of an unspecified amount of debt writedown two years from now.

The newspaper headlines are nothing but fluff that provide cover for the IMF to succumb to pressure and violate its own rules. The cover lets the IMF say that a (future unspecified) debt writedown will enable Greece to service the remainder of its debt and, therefore, the IMF can lend Greece the money to pay the private banks. […]

We have entered the looting stage of capitalism. Desolation will be the result. 7

Click here to read Paul Craig Roberts’ full article.

The overarching agenda of the EU – a plan rarely mentioned above a murmur – is to fuse its member nations under unelected technocratic governance for the benefit of a few corporations and the oligarchs who own them. So the notion that sticking by the EU is some sense an act of European solidarity is extremely misguided. Having already sold many of its people down the river, however, we are rapidly approaching a critical and perilous moment.

The far-right is now on the rise in many parts of Europe – Greece being an example, although thankfully Golden Dawn remains very much a minority party. And this swing towards ring-wing extremism is a direct consequence of the EU’s savage economic policies combined with its abject failure to save refugees and resolve the so-called “migrant crisis” (more in a later piece). As this alarming political shift occurs, the EU does next to nothing to address it. No debt relief for Greece or the other struggling member states. No let up on enforced “austerity” or privatisation. Neo-liberalism to the bitter end. But then, after Greece was collectively punished for the insolence of its ‘oxi’ vote last summer, only the most dewy-eyed believers can remain in serious doubt of the EU’s callous indifference towards the plight of its poorest citizens.

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1 Quote taken from “Euro depression is ‘deliberate’ EU choice, says former Bank of England chief” written by Mehreen Khan, published in The Telegraph on March 1, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/03/01/europes-depression-is-deliberate-eu-choice-says-former-bank-of-e/ 

2 Quote taken from an article entitled “The Ugly Truth Behind the Greek Bailout” written by Robert Hunziker, published by Counterpunch on May 10, 2016. http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/10/the-ugly-truth-behind-the-greek-bailout/ 

3 From a statement entitled “A plan B in Europe” from Plan B for Europe. https://www.euro-planb.eu/?page_id=96&lang=en. The statement continues:

It is a dangerous lie to assert that the euro and the EU serve Europeans and shield them from crisis. It is an illusion to believe that Europe’s interests can be protected within the iron cage of the Eurozone’s governance “rules” and within the current Treaties. President Hollande’s and Prime Minister Renzi’s method of behaving like a “model student”, or in fact a “model prisoner”, is a form of surrender that will not even result in clemency. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said it clearly: « there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties ». This is the neoliberal adaptation of the « limited sovereignty » doctrine invented by the Soviet leader Brezhnev in 1968. Then, the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring with their tanks. This summer, the EU crushed the Athens Spring with its banks.

We are determined to break with this “Europe”. It is the basic condition needed to rebuild cooperation between our peoples and our countries on a new basis. How can we enact policies of redistribution of wealth and of creation of decent jobs, especially for the young, ecological transition and the rebuilding of democracy within the constraints of this EU? We have to escape the inanity and inhumanity of the current European Treaties and remould them in order to shed the straightjacket of neoliberalism, to repeal the Fiscal Compact, and to oppose the TTIP.

We live in extraordinary times. We are facing an emergency. Member-states need to have policy space that allows their democracies to breathe and to put forward sensible policies at the member-state’s level, free of fear of a clamp down from an authoritarian Eurogroup dominated by the interests of the strongest among them and of big business, or from an ECB that is used as a steamroller that threatens to flatten an “uncooperative country”, as it happened with Cyprus or Greece.

4 From “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist in the Midst of a Repugnant European Crisis” written by Yanis Varoufakis, published on December 10, 2013. http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2013/12/10/confessions-of-an-erratic-marxist-in-the-midst-of-a-repugnant-european-crisis/ 

5 From an article entitled “Lies and Deceptions on the Left: The Politics of Self Destruction” written by James Petras, published by Global Research on March 22, 2015. http://www.globalresearch.ca/lies-and-deceptions-on-the-left-the-politics-of-self-destruction/5438105

6 From an article entitled “Greek Debt Negotiations: Will the IMF Exit the Troika?” written by Jack Rasmus, published in Counterpunch on May 26, 2016. http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/05/26/greek-debt-negotiations-will-the-imf-exit-the-troika/ 

7 From an article entitled “We Have Entered The Looting Stage Of Capitalism” written by Paul Craig Roberts, published on May 25, 2016. http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2016/05/25/we-have-entered-the-looting-stage-of-capitalism-paul-craig-roberts/ 

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this is the EU — so take it or leave it… #3. ‘The Brussels Business’

“Who runs the European Union?” This is the question front and centre of the excellent 2012 documentary The Brussels Business which takes the viewer on “a journey into the corridors of power of the biggest economy on earth – the European Union.” What filmmakers Matthieu Lietaert (Belgium) and Friedrich Moser (Italy) find is a Byzantine complex of corporate entanglements and high-powered lobby groups.

Assiduously researched and documented, the real importance of this film is that almost uniquely it presents an exposé of the European Union from a leftist perspective:

Produced by:
Steven Dhoedt (VisualAntics – Be)
Friedrich Moser (green + blue communication – Austria)

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Additional: latest example of EU corporatocracy at work

On Tuesday [May 31st] the European Commission together with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft announced a code of conduct “to combat the spread of illegal hate speech online in Europe”:

The definition of illegal online content is based on the Framework Decision on Combatting Racism and Xenophobia which criminalises the public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin. 1

In accordance with the directive, views and opinions that the aforementioned corporations deem “hate speech” will be removed within 24 hours, whereas “alternative” content deemed “a counter narrative” to “hate speech” will be actively promoted. In other words, the tech giants who already own most of the internet will be put in charge of policing it too:

In short, the “code of conduct” downgrades the law to a second-class status, behind the “leading role” of private companies that are being asked to arbitrarily implement their terms of service. This process, established outside an accountable democratic framework, exploits unclear liability rules for companies. It also creates serious risks for freedom of expression as legal but controversial content may well be deleted as a result of this voluntary and unaccountable take down mechanism. 2

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1 http://ec.europa.eu/news/2016/05/20160531_en.htm

2

Today, on 31 May, European Digital Rights (EDRi) and Access Now delivered a joint statement on the EU Commission’s “EU Internet Forum”, announcing our decision not to take part in future discussions and confirming that we do not have confidence in the ill considered “code of conduct” that was agreed.

Launched at the end of 2015, the “EU Internet Forum” was meant to counter vaguely defined “terrorist activity and hate speech online”. The discussions were convened by the European Commission and brought together almost exclusively US-based internet companies and representatives of EU Member States. While no civil society organisations were invited to attend the discussions on terrorism, several civil society representatives were allowed to take part in some of the discussions on online hate speech. However, civil society was systematically excluded from the negotiations that led to the voluntary “code of conduct” for IT companies – an official document that was presented today, despite the lack of transparency and public input into its content.

From the joint statement released by European Digital Rights (EDRi) and Access Now on May 31, 2016. https://edri.org/edri-access-now-withdraw-eu-commission-forum-discussions/ 

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this is the EU — so take it or leave it… #2. TTIP and other “free trade” deals

Irish MEP Luke “Ming” Flanagan visits the TTIP reading room where he can read texts that have already been agreed on – in the language of the EU this constitutes “democratic oversight”. He is not allowed a camera or tape recorder:

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The agreement we have secured means that the EU Member States will fully support the European Commission’s recent trade strategy. Central to this strategy are ambitious and comprehensive trade deals that will substantially boost the UK’s growth and economic security. […]

Concluding all the trade deals already underway could ultimately be worth in total more than £20 billion a year to UK GDP. These include the UK’s top trade priority: an agreement between the EU and the US (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which alone could add £10 billion to UK GDP. 1

Taken from “The Best Of Both Worlds”; the government policy document that explains Cameron’s negotiated deal with the EU. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) features centrally in the new arrangements.

The first point to note in the extract reprinted above is that a claim that TTIP “will substantially boost the UK’s growth and economic security” is certainly bogus. Long-term economic projections of any kind are notoriously unreliable under the best of circumstances, but here we have a far from impartial assessment. Indeed, as its title “The Best of Both Worlds” makes blatant, this is a sales pitch.

Embedded below is an excellent short film produced by wikileaks about the American-led “free trade agreements” collectively known as the 3Ts: namely Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the lesser known Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). Quite literally everyone should watch this film:

In reality, these treaties have little to nothing to do with facilitating trade in any ordinary sense, but enable a greater transfer of power away from democratic government and into the hands of the unelected corporatocracy. Operating at their heart is a parallel judicial system known as the Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which is conducted on the basis of secret tribunals open solely to the transnational corporations (our governments do not have access).

This legal arrangement permits companies to sue states for anything that adversely affects their profits. Thus, under the rules of TTIP (the precise details of which remain as a closely guarded secret), national governments will lose jurisdiction to a kangaroo court that sits in judgement of all impediments to profit-making. Paring back regulations under the guise of “free trade” will thereby rig the market still more in the favour of a few special interests.

Such a thoroughgoing dismantlement of regulations has tremendous ramifications both for individuals and for our communities. It threatens the environment, our education system, healthcare (the NHS is especially endangered) and even privacy. In short, if ratified the 3Ts will impact the lives of all of those who live in signatory nations (and that includes nearly all developed countries). The EU is committed to signing two of these treaties – TTIP and also TISA.

Here are a few extracts from a detailed analysis of TTIP published by Der Spiegel International and entitled “Corporation Carte Blanche: Will US-EU Trade Become Too Free?”:

Lori Wallach had but 10 minutes to speak when she stepped up to podium inside Room 405 at George Washington University, located not too far away from the White House. Her audience was made up of delegates currently negotiating the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.

They had already spent hours listening to presentations by every possible lobbying group — duty bound to hear myriad opinions. But when Wallach, a trade expert for the consumer protection group Public Citizen, took the stage, people suddenly started paying attention. The 49-year-old Harvard lawyer, after all, is a key figure in international trade debates.

“The planned deal will transfer power from elected governments and civil society to private corporations,” she said, warning that the project presents a threat of entirely new dimensions. [bold emphasis added]

The same article, which was published more than two years ago, then outlines how TTIP will impact our societies:

After the third round of negotiations, an unusually broad alliance of anti-globalization groups, NGOs, environmental and consumer protection groups, civil rights groups and organized labor is joining forces to campaign against TTIP.

These critics have numerous concerns about the treaty – including their collective fear that the convergence of standards will destroy important gains made over the years in health and nutrition policy, environmental protection and employee rights. They argue the treaty will make it easier for corporations to turn profits at the public’s expense in areas like water supply, health or education. It would also clear the path for controversial technologies like fracking or for undesired food products like growth hormone-treated meat to make their way to Europe. Broadly worded copyrights would also restrict access to culture, education and science. They also believe it could open the door to comprehensive surveillance. 2

Click here to read the full article in Der Spiegel.

More recently [Feb 22nd], the Guardian published an article exposing how “TTIP deal poses ‘real and serious risk’ to NHS, says leading QC”:

The controversial transatlantic trade deal set to be agreed this year would mean that privatisation of elements of the NHS could be made irreversible for future governments wanting to restore services to public hands, according to a new legal analysis.

The legal advice was prepared by one of the UK’s leading QCs on European law for the Unite trade union, which will reveal on Monday that it has been holding talks with the government about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal between Europe and the US.

Unite believes the government has been keeping Britain in the dark over the impact of the deal and argues the NHS should be excluded from the trade deal. The government dismissed the idea that TTIP poses a threat as “irresponsible and false”.

TTIP would give investors new legal rights, which extend beyond both UK and EU law as well as NHS contracts, according to Michael Bowsher QC, a former chair of the Bar Council’s EU law committee who was tasked by Unite to prepare the advice.

Bowsher said he had concluded that the deal poses “a real and serious risk” to future UK government decision making regarding the NHS.

“We consider that the solution to the problems TTIP poses to the NHS – and which is likely to provide the greatest protection – is for the NHS to be excluded from the agreement by way of a blanket exception contained within the main text of TTIP,” Bowsher said. 3

Click here to read the full article published in the Guardian.

I disagree, however. Ad hoc exclusions are entirely insufficient. TTIP is so dreadful that we should fight to stop it clean in its tracks.

Voting to remain, gives assent to Cameron’s negotiated EU agreement as summarised in the “The Best Of Both Worlds” policy document and everything contained within it. Since TTIP is central to the agreement, a vote to remain will then be reinterpreted as a signal of our tacit approval to go ahead with TTIP.

If, on the other hand, we vote to leave the EU, then this automatically keeps Britain out of TTIP and potentially nips TTIP in the bud altogether. There are, of course, other “trade deals” in the pipeline, and we need to be committed to blocking them all. First and foremost though, the target must be TTIP.

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Additional:

On May 3rd, Press TV invited Paul Craig Roberts, the former Assistant Secretary of US Treasury, to debate with Sean O’Grady, the Finance Editor of The Independent over TTIP and the other “free trade agreements”:

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1 From paragraph 2.62–3 on p. 23–24 of “The Best Of Both Worlds: the United Kingdom’s special status in a reformed European Union”, published by UK government in February 2016 to “satisf[y] the duty to provide information set out in section 6 of the European Union Referendum Act 2015”.

2 From an article entitled “Corporation Carte Blanche: Will US-EU Trade Become Too Free?” written by Michaela Schiessi, published in Der Spiegel on January 23, 2014. http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/criticism-grows-over-investor-protections-in-transatlantic-trade-deal-a-945107.html

3 From an article entitled “TTIP deal poses ‘real and serious risk’ to NHS, says leading QC” written by Ben Quinn, published in the Guardian on February 22, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/feb/22/ttip-deal-real-serious-risk-nhs-leading-qc

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Whoops austeritypocalypse! or why unbounded economic reasonableness runs into such trouble…

Q: At the onset of the crisis, the former Finance Minister Papaconstantinou likened the Greek economy to the “Titanic” heading straight for the iceberg. Do you also feel as if you are standing on the bridge of the “Titanic”?

A: No. The “Titanic” sank a while ago. We’re steering the lifeboat and throwing lifebelts to those drowning around us.

This was the response Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, gave in an exclusive interview to German magazine Stern1

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“austerity”, what is it good for…?

As the economies of the western world continue to flounder, with Germany too (Europe’s last remaining industrial powerhouse) reeling just a little from the greater crisis, debt reduction is still regarded as the key component to any recovery programme. To meet these ends, all our governments have been overseeing huge cuts in public services, welfare payments especially gouged, in concerted efforts to reduce their deficits. This death of our societies by a thousand cuts of “austerity” being the recommended cure which mainstream economists have called for, and though alternative voices have no less insistently pointed out that “austerity measures” are inherently counterproductive (since they reduce tax revenues), these dissenting voices continue to be marginalised.

A few years ago Thomas Herndon stepped forward. Herndon, a university student and thus less rigid in his outlook, caused quite a rumpus – as a consequence, he has since been rewarded with his own wikipedia entry. This sudden burst of fame coming after he inadvertently stumbled upon grievous errors in an influential paper entitled Growth in a Time of Debt (published 2010), authored by eminent Harvard professors, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff – Rogoff, a former chief economist at the IMF.

In their paper, Reinhart and Rogoff had purported to show that whenever national debt is in excess of 90% of GDP, growth is “roughly cut in half”. This correlation had subsequently been quoted by policy-makers across the world, as well as routinely served up as empirical proof that there was simply no viable alternative to our continuing “austerity” programmes. Most notably, perhaps, former EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, leant rather heavily on Reinhart and Rogoff’s work.

But then doubting Thomas Herndon decided to check their figures for himself. And, to his own astonishment, discovered that one of the most frequently cited justifications for the imposed “austerity” strategy actually rested upon a few careless mistakes on a spreadsheet!

[Herndon had] spotted a basic error in the spreadsheet. The Harvard professors had accidentally only included 15 of the 20 countries under analysis in their key calculation (of average GDP growth in countries with high public debt).

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark were missing.

Oops.

Herndon and his professors found other issues with Growth in a Time of Debt, which had an even bigger impact on the famous result. The first was the fact that for some countries, some data was missing altogether. 2

Click here to read more in this BBC news article.

Taken aback by this unexpected challenge from a novice, Reinhart and Rogoff felt obliged to issue a response:

We are grateful to Herndon et al. for the careful attention to our original Growth in a Time of Debt AER paper and for pointing out an important correction to Figure 2 of that paper. It is sobering that such an error slipped into one of our papers despite our best efforts to be consistently careful. We will redouble our efforts to avoid such errors in the future.

Confessing to their blunder, but keen also to defend their professional reputation, they casually added:

We do not, however, believe this regrettable slip affects in any significant way the central message of the paper or that in our subsequent work.

There has since been no halt to the economic gouging and scourging of Europe. Despite the more immediate evidence coming out of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and every other place where such “measures” have been most strongly administered, that prove “austerity” isn’t working. And even when all other factors, social and human factors, are set aside, and success or failure is judged within the exceedingly narrow terms of its proponents, we see that the sovereign debt burdens in all these countries have continued to rise. 3

Given such a lack of success, the response is obviously to double-down. Apply more stringent “austerity”; if the original cuts have failed, then they needed to be deeper. In former times the doctors would just have ordered more leeches, or the priests would have demanded a tightening of the cilice. Tougher love. Just too bad if the supposed antidote is the worst of the poison, because orthodoxy asserts that, poison or not, it is the best and only remedy. The really important thing is to never let mere facts (especially incalculable costs like human misery) get in the way of a damned fine economic theory!

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 whose debt is it anyway…?

But how did these sovereign debt burdens arise in the first place? Or put another way, the related question might be asked, to whom are the debts actually owed? This second question is rarely broached, but in 2013 award-winning business journalist, Harald Schumann, sought a direct answer to precisely this question. He journeyed across the stricken eurozone countries and poised the question to those working inside the so-called “Troika” (IMF, European Central Bank and EU Commission) as well as significant politicians, economists, lawyers, journalists and even the occasional central banker. The result, a brilliantly constructed documentary entitled The Secret Bank Bailout, is embedded below:

I highly recommend watching the documentary in full, but would also like to offer a brief overview.

Schumann asks which parties were actually rescued by the bailouts, and finds that contrary to what ordinary Germans were led to believe (this is a German documentary originally titled Staatsgeheimnis Bankenrettung) the people living in the poorer eurozone states received barely a penny of this apparent ‘foreign aid’ – our own media perpetuates the self-same falsehood.  Because rather than letting the creditors and the banks absorb their speculative losses, these financial institutions were deemed “too big too fail” and protected. So the bailouts were never used to support the governments, but always passed on to the creditors of major banks, especially ones in Germany and France, who had taken the unwise risks that caused the crisis – the original losses often due to property bubbles in places like Spain and Ireland. (The whole notion of “too big too fail” is, of course, a contravention of even the most basic tenets of free market capitalism.)

And who have been the ultimate recipients of all this bailout money? Well, that has remained a closely guarded secret. We ought to be asking why, of course, which Schumann’s documentary does. He also seeks to penetrate the secret itself.

In the next sections, I will present a further overview comprising highlights of Schumann’s discoveries, and following the same route (then a little beyond it) as he investigated country by country, across the blighted eurozone.

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 Ireland

The Irish people have been forced to take on 70 billion euros of additional debt to pay off foreign creditors.

Stephen Donnelly, independent Irish MP, says that the ECB held the Irish government virtually at gunpoint:

“The suspicion is that European Central Bank said ‘You will continue to pay these bondholders [the mainly foreign creditors] to whom you owe nothing or we will pull the emergency funding out of your banking system, thereby collapsing your banking system, thereby collapsing your economy.’ To me that is gunboat diplomacy… [with a little prompting] or blackmail. It is a very, very serious threat for a central bank to have made in actually forcing a sovereign nation to surrender its sovereignty to bailout an independent group of investors. Was the ECB acting illegally?”

Brian Hayes, Irish Deputy Minister of Finance:

“Of course that was a position that was foisted on the Irish people as a result of the decisions taken… It was the majority view of the ECB that this money had to be paid back.”

And where did the Irish bailout money go? A full breakdown of the bondholders of Anglo Irish bank is available here. (The list was publicly released by blogger Guido Fawkes.)

Germany has the most with 15 of the bond holders. Who between them hold 5.3 trillion euros.

France is next with 10 bond holders.  Who have an estimated 4 trillion.

Britain is third with 9 who have around 3 trillion.

The Swiss have 6 but who have about 8.5 trillion.

America has only three and hold only a trillion.

Other nations include, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Holland Finland, Norway, Sweden, Poland, South Africa and Italy.

The bondholders include some of the world’s largest banks: Deutsche, Soc Gen, Barclay’s, PNB Paribas, UniCredit (who don’t appear on the list but own Pioneer Investments) and Wells Fargo (also not on the list but who own European Credit Management). There is also Goldman Sachs and Rothschild Group4

As Harald Schumann says “It’s like a Who’s Who of the financial world.”

Back to Stephen Donnelly:

“No country on earth in history has ever paid that amount of money back without having its own monetary policies… you gradually bleed, year on year on year. And now you really do depend on Europe. There was a quote by Nelson Mandela where he said something like: ‘It is the greatest tragedy of the human condition that we must endure so much pain before arriving at a compromise that we always knew was going to be needed.’”

The first lesson, therefore, is that the solution – any practicable solution – has to include debt cancellation.

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 Spain

The Spanish people have been forced to take on 40 billion euros of additional debt to pay off foreign creditors.

Harald Schumann confronted Luis De Guindos, Spanish Minister of Finance, with advice he was given Stephen Donnelly that they would be better to let (some of) the banks fail because “banks have to be allowed to fail”. But Luis De Guindos disagrees:

“I think that the Irish situation is totally different from the Spanish situation. As I have said before, the size of the balance-sheet of the Irish banks in comparative terms with the GDP of Ireland was three times larger than the case of Spain. So I think that while in the case of Ireland the cost of recapitalising the banks has been above 20% of the Irish GDP, in the case of Spain we are talking 4% of GDP. So it’s a totally different situation and it’s not comparable at all.”

But economist Juan Rallo disagrees with De Guindos, and beginning with the figures themselves: “The real figure is not 40 billion, but 80 or 90 billion…”

And who are the creditors of the Spanish banks (particularly Bankia)? When Schumann manages to get hold of a list (thanks to “friendly people that help me”) he discovers that Deutsche Bank again features prominently.

Juan Moreno is a lawyer working with the 15M protest movement, who filed the lawsuit for the closure of Bankia to save the Spanish taxpayers from a bailout. When asked if the system would have collapsed, Moreno says:

“If you were to drop Bankia it would probably lead to the collapse of other banks, but not the big banks like BBVA, Santander, La Caixa, [Banco] Sabadell, or [Banco] Popular.”

Back to Luis De Guindos:

“A money market economy with fiat money is unstable. And we have an example that we let the banks go down… it was the Great Depression. It was the worst depression we had over the last century.”

Juan Moreno’s response:

“It’s all scaremongering. I don’t want that, I want numbers. I want to know what would really happen if they were to go bankrupt… With what we know now we would say this bank is beyond saving. We can’t continue to pour billions of euros into it. The creditors must take losses…

“The trial uncovered that the bank figures were falsified by upper management, but now we discover that the same had happened at the lower management levels. So a banking culture developed where employees were rewarded with bonuses so that the upper level did not realise how bad things were at the local branch level… The judge said that there was indeed public control of the bank, but the government supervisors played along. Letting the fox guard the hens is good for nothing.

“They’re all criminals: those in charge of Bankia and the public supervisors. If they’d let the savings banks go bankrupt, we would have found out what the politicians did with the money. Much of the debt that cannot be repaid is money that went to political parties, to city administrations, for work in the autonomous southern regions to companies connected to the government. These revelations would have made the political class disappear.”

So what is Moreno’s advice to the Germany citizens who are paying to prop up this corrupt system…?

“Numbers. The balance-sheet. It’s simple. You have to know the facts and apply the laws.”

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 Cyprus

Meanwhile, depositors in Cypriot banks (savers as opposed to taxpayers) had more than 6 billion euros seized overnight in a so-called bail-in to pay off foreign creditors. This has crippled many businesses and stifled economic growth in a different way.

Panicos Demetraides, Governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus:

“It’s a change from past bailouts that we have had to bail-in on this occasion [from] uninsured depositors in the two big Cypriot banks. The burden of this bail-in has been borne partly by non-residents, but also partly by residents, Cypriot companies and households. About two-thirds of the burden has been borne actually by non-residents and one-third by residents.”

But as German MP Gerhard Schick (Green Party) explains:

“The European Central Bank allowed the Cypriot Central Bank to give money to banks in Cyprus even though they were insolvent. That’s a real mistake because then non-functioning structures are upheld and taxpayers’ money – and that’s what we’re talking about with a central bank – is endangered. In this way the ECB slowed down the rescue programme and made it possible for many creditors to withdraw their money and invest it elsewhere… The ECB was a creditor acting in self-interest to protect its own money. This conflict of interest should never have been allowed to happen, but it did because central bank money was put into bad banks.”

Back to Panicos Demetraides:

“Certainly the delays offered more informed investors [the chance] to protect their own investments. And they put the less informed investors at a disadvantage.”

Does this mean the ECB allowed other European banks time to withdraw their money? That must be some sort of rumour, says Demetraides. It is a rumour that must persist until there is an independent investigation, but as Gerhard Schick points out:

“The problem is that the ECB is a closed shop, and neither the European Parliament nor national parliaments are really able to call it to account when it breaks the rules.”

Harris Georgiades, Cypriot Minister of Finance:

“For us it was a take it or leave it situation. A decision that we accepted under pressure, and with no time to negotiate extensively. Essentially both of our kneecaps have been broken, and now we are asked to run.”

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 Greece

Greece entered the crisis with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 110% and with around 10% unemployment. It was then put through an “austerity programme” supposedly designed to tackle the debt. Five years and several thousand suicides later, unemployment currently stands at 30% and debt-to-GDP is at around 180%.

This tremendous spike in debt remains in spite of ‘haircuts’ known as the Greek “Private sector involvement” or PSI, the first announced in July 2011, and quickly followed by PSI Mk2 (after PSI Mk1 failed), which involved a impressive sounding 50% reduction in the face value of Greek government bonds (GGB). 5 But then, as Yanis Varoufakis, current Greek Finance Minister, but as then a lowly Professor of Economics, wrote soon after:

In short, and so as not to overlabour the point, PSI Mk2 is dead in the water. The shenanigans of the shadow banking sector (which, lest we forget, includes not only the hedge funds but also, remarkably, the ‘proper’ banks shady Special Vehicles) plus the predictable deterioration of the Greek economy have put paid to it. The negotiations may go on for a little while longer, the announcement of a brilliant agreement may be made but, in truth, the idea that the Greek haircut will put Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio back on a course towards 120% has sunk without trace. And if you need hard evidence for this, the European Summit of 9th December provided it even before 2011 was seen off: Officially, Europe’s great and good announced the end of PSI as a policy of the new ESM; Europe’s future central, permanent bailout fund. It had all been a mistake, they seemed to confess. 6

Greece has never been bailed out, only the European banks (well over 90% of the bailout money returning to them), and likewise the ‘haircut’ actually caused more problems than it solved. In particular, it permitted the looting of social security and public pension funds that are mandated by law to invest in government bonds – the following is taken from a special report published by Reuters:

Greece’s pension funds – patchily run in the first place, say unionists and some politicians – have been savaged by austerity and the terms of the international bailout keeping the country afloat.

Workers and pensioners suffered losses of about 10 billion euros ($13 billion) just in the debt restructuring of March 2012, when the value of some Greek bonds was cut in half. That sum is equal to 4.6 percent of the country’s GDP in 2011.

Many savers blame the debacle on the Bank of Greece, the country’s central bank, which administers three-quarters of pension funds’ surplus cash. Pensioners and politicians accuse it of failing to foresee trouble looming, or even of investing pension fund money in government bonds that it knew to be at high risk of a ‘haircut’ – having their value reduced. 7

Click here to read the full Reuters report.

In June 2014, Yanis Varoufakis was interviewed by Harald Schumann. Excerpts would feature in another collaboration between Arpad Bondy and Schumann; their follow-up documentary The Trail Of The Troika (in German, Macht ohne Kontrolle – Die Troika), which plotted another route across the continent in order to show how “austerity measures” have utterly failed to rescue the eurozone economies, and how in the process “the Troika” has also flagrantly breached its own European treaty regulations. Unfortunately, an English version of this more recent documentary is at present unavailable on youtube or elsewhere (so far as I can ascertain – but I will certainly embed a version as and when I find one). Meanwhile, uploads of the various interviews filmed during its making are now freely available, and embedded below is Schumann’s unabridged interview with Varoufakis, of which I have again selectively transcribed some of the answers he gave last summer:

What was the bailout for? The bailout was not in order to bail Greece out. Greece was never bailed out. The bailout loan that was extended in May of 2010 had a very singular, simple purpose. It was to transfer banking losses from the asset books of banks, not only Greek ones, but also French ones and German ones, onto the shoulders of the taxpayers. Initially the Greek taxpayers – because they knew that these shoulders were too weak to bear those losses, eventually it was always part of the plan to transfer them onto the shoulders of the German, and the French, and the Dutch and the Finnish taxpayers. And “the Troika” is here supervising this sinister transfer. [5:45 mins]

Smart people in Brussels, especially in Frankfurt, and of course Berlin, knew in May 2010 that Greece would never be able to repay its debts. They knew that again in the Spring of 2012 when they extended the second loan. They know it again now. In their minds they have already written off a very large bulk of the billions and billions that was given to the Greek state to give to the Greek banks and to give to the rest of the banks. All other things being equal, of course, “the Troika” would much rather more money was repaid than less money. But all other things are not equal. At this very moment in time, as we speak, while the Greek banks have huge black holes that we all know, even though they are not being admitted to, something similar is happening in the rest of the eurozone. Deutsche Bank, Finanzbank, BNP Paribas are skating on thin ice. They will never admit to it. And part of the angst and of the anxiety of the powers in Brussels, in Frankfurt, in Berlin, is how not to admit to the German, to the French, to the Dutch, to the Finnish people, that their banking sector was never really put back on an even keel. 8 [7:15 mins]

In 2010, what they had done was this: they lied to the Greek people and to the German people. They said to the Greek people: We have avoided bankruptcy. And they said to the German people that the Greeks, they were waivered, now we are going to punish them with austerity. But we will lend them the money because European solidarity demands that. In reality, what they were doing was transferring banking losses from the bankers – the European bankers, all of them – onto the shoulders first of the Greek taxpayers and eventually onto the German taxpayers, because the Greek taxpayers could not shoulder all of this money.

So they had lied to the German taxpayers. They said: We are not going to haircut the Greek debt. They were always going to haircut the Greek debt. They knew it. What they did with first bailout loan was to shift that big bulk, a 110 billion, from the bankers’ loss book onto the shoulders of Europe’s taxpayers. And then, after that had been effected, of course then they had to haircut – to do what they said they were never going to do – and who did they haircut? They haircut the small bondholders and the pension funds… So the PSI, the second bailout, the haircut of the private sector, was part of the original process of shifting the burden of adjustment and the cost of the crisis from the shoulders of those who caused it, onto the shoulders of those who didn’t cause it in Greece and in Germany. And all that in the name of European solidarity. And then they wonder why right-wing parties of the extreme part of the spectrum are winning power – or, at least, winning seats in the European Parliament. [21:30 mins]

Asked whether he thought the 2008 crisis had been caused as a result of incompetence or due to a more deliberate act of conspiracy, Varoufakis replied:

It wasn’t a conspiracy. It was a very simple operation: How do we stay in power? Mr [Jean-Claude] Juncker said it. Once he admitted: we know what needs to be done, we just don’t know how to do it and remain in power. Now don’t forget that before 2008, 2010, all parties of government, whether they were Christian-Democratic, Social-Democratic, it doesn’t matter. They had developed this extremely close relationship with the financial sector. They had looked at the financial sector as the cow that would bear the milk from which they would feed all, not only their political parties and careers, but also the welfare state – from the point of view of the Social-Democrats.

There was a kind of Faustian bargain between our politicians and bankers. We will let you do what you want, and you pay us a small amount proportional in order to fund our states. So when the crisis hit – which was completely unexpected for them – they had neither the analytical power nor the moral authority to go to these bankers and say: You know what, you’re out. You’re bankrupt, we’re taking over the banks… 9 [24 mins]

Finally, here was what Yanis Varoufakis, the economist (and not yet Finance Minister) said when asked for “any realistic proposal [to] how the dire economic situation in Greece can be improved”:

Well, we have to stop doing what we are doing and do something quite diferent. And there are two levels at which you should see this, because let’s not forget that once we have a monetary union you can’t talk about the overcoming of the crisis in one part of it in isolation to the others. It would be like talking about how South Dakota would escape the Great Depression in 1933 without the rest of the United States going through the New Deal. So we need a New Deal for Europe… 10 [32:30 min]

But, I have to insist: The solution must be European, because the crisis is European. And there are things we can do within two weeks to end this euro-crisis without violating any of the European Union treaties as long as we have the political will to do it. 11 [34:30 min]

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there is a better alternative… (and always was)

Q: Your Finance Minister Varoufakis said that he is not afraid of an Armageddon.

A: He said in parliament: if you enter into negotiations, you are not seeking a breakup. But you have to keep a breakup in mind as a contingency. I share this view.

 

Q: So you have a Plan B in case Greece does decide to exit from the single currency?

A: We don’t need a contingency plan because we will stay in the eurozone. But we won’t achieve this objective at the expense of the weak – like our previous government.

 

– Alexis Tsipras in same interview published in Stern magazine.

On April 16th, Varoufakis was invited to speak at a press conference hosted by the Brookings Institute which is based in Washington. In answer to a question about being trapped in a position where the Greeks are left with little alternative but to default, Varoufakis replied:

I would willingly, eagerly and enthusiastically accept any terms offered to us if they made sense. I would have no problem with the Memorandum of Understanding if it was founded upon a reform programme that attacked the worse cases of rent-seeking in Greece, and made the reforms that were necessary in order to enhance efficiency and social justice. If it came for the planet Mars, if it came from Berlin, if it came from Brussels, if it came from Portugal, from Slovakia, I don’t care which, I would have embraced it. The problem we have with these conditions – you know, the take it or leave it conditions – is not so much the authoritarianism, it is that fact that we’ve tried that medicine and it hasn’t worked…

It is almost precisely three years ago since I wrote a post entitled ‘austerity’ or ‘Grexit’: is there really no better alternative for Greece? There have since been more than two and a half years of unrestrained “austerity” (prior to Syriza’s victory), a “take it or leave it” Hobson’s choice, which has deepened the crisis not only in Greece but across the entire eurozone. ‘Grexit’ has never been a realistic alternative, and as Syriza have maintained from the outset, they have no intention whatsoever of ditching the euro. So ‘Grexit’ becomes ‘Grexident’, in other words, an impossibility. Because any accidental Greek exit can only occur if it is accidentally on purpose, and that would mean ‘Grexpulsion’ – a term the mainstream has yet to adopt for obvious reasons.

In Washington, Varoufakis was once again unequivocal about Syriza’s position:

“Toying with ‘Grexit’, which is something we don’t do – we are refusing to discuss it, because as I have said before even worrying about it is like worrying about being hit by a comet in a universe in which comets are attracted to you if you are worried about them – toying with ‘Grexit’ and ideas of amputating Greece is profoundly anti-European because anybody who claims that they know what the effect of a ‘Grexit’ is, are deluded.” [52 mins]

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Which brings us to an impasse. Accept “austerity” or get out! Jump off a cliff or suffer slow death by a thousand cuts. Is there really no genuine alternative for the Greeks?

Well, the answer to that question actually depends upon what you value. If you think that all debts are sacrosanct, then it necessarily follows that the Greeks must go on paying the banks to their bitter end. That the debt is unpayable doesn’t matter. That the debt is the consequence of so much ineptitude and malfeasance within the banking system doesn’t matter either. The Greeks must cough up because otherwise the chaos will worsen (or so we are again constantly given to believe). But if you value human life above money, and recognise that debts that cannot be repaid will never be repaid, then you can begin to think more constructively. In fact, the alternative becomes immediately and blindingly apparent. Since a debt cancellation will inevitably come sooner or later, the only real question is how much longer must the Greeks be punished in the meantime.

A way-out of all this mess is entirely possible. It doesn’t involve “austerity” and does not necessarily require a Greek exit from the eurozone. What is needed is simply an end to the bottomless banker bailouts and then new money being made available for reconstruction projects and other productive enterprise within Greece, Spain and elsewhere. Such a ‘New Deal’ injection is unlikely to be offered by the IMF, and neither will it be supported by the likes of Angela Merkel. But it can be fought for by the Greek people themselves, and in this battle to stop the wanton destruction of their nation, as fellow Europeans we should stand with them, recognising that the same aggressive financial interests that have already eviscerated Greece, will be pillaging our own lands soon enough.

The paragraphs above are taken from the post I wrote three years ago – yet so little has significantly altered that it remains pertinent enough to repeat it.

Back to Varoufakis who puts flesh on those barest of bones regarding the ‘New Deal’ option for Europe (and presenting the way ahead without any recourse to deficit spending by governments – so heretical to the neo-liberals):

Europe as a whole, the eurozone as a whole, is typified not only by a mountain of great private and public debts, which we do have. But there is another mountain hiding behind it: a huge mountain of idle savings with nowhere to go. And it should be our joint project to energise, to motivate, those idle savings, to help them overcome their great fear that keeps them idle, and channel them into productive investments – not investments into assets, but investments into real productive capacity. Now, how do we do this? Well, we have the European Investment Bank [EIB] that could do this. And we have the European Central Bank which is embarking on quantitative easing. Well, why can’t the EIB fund a major ‘New Deal’ for Europe, that channels investment to the private sectors of the countries and regions within countries that have a major output gap? [44 mins]

The whole of Varoufakis speech at the Brookings Institute and the subsequent Q+A session is embedded below:

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last frenzy of reasonableness…?

Just days after Syriza were swept to election victory on January 26th, economist and former US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Reagan, Paul Craig Roberts, published an article entitled “Is Democracy Dead In The West?” which began:

We will find out the answer to the question posed in the title in the outcome of the contest between the new Greek government, formed by the political party Syriza, and the ECB and the private banks, with whose interests the EU and Washington align against Greece.

Roberts, once known as the “Father of Reaganomics” but more recently a repentant neo-liberalist and outspoken opponent of the financial elites, continues:

The new [Syriza] government wants to moderate the agreements made by previous Greek governments that sold out the Greek people. The new government wants to stop giving away at bargain prices Greek public assets to clients of its creditors, and the new Greek government wants to raise the Greek minimum wage so that the Greek people have enough bread and water on which to live.

However, for the private bank creditors, for Merkel’s Germany that stands behind the banks, for Washington which could care less about the Greeks, for the Greek elites who see themselves as “part of Europe,” Syriza is something to be rid of.

Adding that:

A purpose of the “Greek financial crisis” is to establish that EU members are not sovereign countries and that banks that lend to these non-sovereign entities are not responsible for any losses with regard to the loans. The population of the indebted countries are the responsible parties. And these populations must accept the reduction of their living standards in order to ensure that the banks do not lose any money.

This is the “New Democracy.” It is a resurrection of the old feudal order. A few super-rich aristocrats and everyone else serfs obliged to support the ruling order. 12

Click here to read Paul Craig Robert’s full article.

The question is, who is actually right here? Certainly we ought to acknowledge that elements in Paul Craig Roberts’ more conspiratorial outlook are irrefutable, recognising that Goldman Sachs did indeed deliberately help to hide previous government debt in order to extend credit to Greece. The Greeks were set up; this has been established – details of Goldman Sachs involvement can be found in this previous post.

Varoufakis is diplomatic, arguably too diplomatic. But then, is Paul Craig Roberts unduly pessimistic when he says that Syriza can now do “very little”, and, in either case, is the very moderate and rather modest approach of Varoufakis a good one, pragmatically speaking? Extending a hand of friendship being unlikely to impress “the powerful rich interest groups that rule the West [who] could not care less about the people over whom they rule” (to quote Roberts again, who knows them well, of course). Yet it may be effective in another way, such relentless persuasion and his “frenzy of reasonableness” at least winning the more public battle for hearts and minds. My own view is that Varoufakis (and Syriza) have adopted a sensible stance, which is in fact evidenced by the harsh criticism they have received from both extreme flanks. Appearing too flexible has made him a target for derision from the more radical (and Communist) left-wing, whereas standing his ground irritates his more powerful opponents working within the establishment (who lash out publicly whenever Varoufakis is out of earshot).

Meanwhile, ‘Grexident’, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s own portmanteau neologism (I gather), is now trending on twitter – not literally, of course, because it doesn’t have a celebrity angle. But the hashtag certainly exists and the tweets that include it are mostly German and Greek, alternating like a stack of incomprehensible post-it-notes. And sadly, the word ‘Grexident’ isn’t the only eurozone nonsense currently trending:

Academic-turned-finance minister Varoufakis was called “a time-waster, a gambler and an amateur”, a source privy to the closed-door talks told the news service Bloomberg.

This is according to a Guardian article published on Friday [April 24th] and entitled “Time is running out for Greece, says Eurogroup chief”. The article continues:

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the eurogroup of finance ministers, told reporters in Latvia it was a “highly critical” meeting as Greece had still not agreed a comprehensive and detailed list of reforms.

Although there were positive signs, there remained “wide differences to bridge on substance”, he said.

“We are all aware that time is running out … too much time has been lost.” […]

Dijsselbloem warned on Friday that after the lack of recent progress it would be very hard to consider a new programme for Greece to cover its funding needs beyond June. He ruled out giving Greece an early slice [of] bailout cash. […]

ECB president Mario Draghi also betrayed his exasperation and warned that central bank could impose tougher conditions in return for keeping Greek banks afloat.

Weeks ago, the Riga meeting had been pencilled in as the moment when the eurozone could sign off an aid payment for Greece, but in the event ministers vented their frustration with Varoufakis for Greece’s failure to bridge the gap with creditors.

Just to remind you, Mario Draghi is not only the former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs – directly implicated in bringing the crisis to Greece – but serves as a trustee of the Brookings Institute13

So watching Varoufakis descend into the belly of the beast that is the Brookings Institute and to receive such a warm welcome and nonjudgmental reception, I must confess that I was instantly reminded of the film, Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic, and of one scene in particular:

“If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you. It doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. So your murderers come with smiles. They come as your friends, the people who have cared for you all of your life, and they always seem to come at a time when you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”

But Varoufakis is not easily daunted, and so, as the Guardian piece describes:

Varoufakis said the talks [in Latvia] were “intense”, but remained confident that the two sides will resolve their differences in time.

“We agreed that an agreement will be difficult but it will happen and it will happen quickly because that is the only option we have,” he told a press conference.

Varoufakis later declared: “We want an agreement and we are willing to make compromises to achieve this … The cost of not having a solution would be huge for all of us, Greece and the eurozone”. 14

In saying so, he is quite correct. Not only the Greeks, but the Germans too, whose major banks are set to carry the heaviest losses in the event of default, ought to be aware of the extreme dangers of such brinksmanship. A basic instinct for self-preservation is what Varoufakis is relying on, but for so long as the banks and other financial institutions remain confident of receiving further bailouts, it is the German taxpayers who ought to worry – as should the rest of us – because so long as they remain “too big too fail” (i.e., untouchable) then bankers like Mario Draghi and co really have nothing at stake. For once the Greeks are unable to shoulder the debt burden, as Varoufakis reminded us last summer, it will be passed on to the shoulders of the Germans and the French.

Indeed, the people of Europe stand to lose enormously if this so-called ‘Grexident’ (in reality ‘Grexpulsion’) leads to ‘Grexit’ and then to ‘Grextagion’ as it will be doubtless be called; as idiotically named as it will have been idiotically contracted and spread. Because, if no compromise can be reached in spite of Varoufakis’ tireless efforts, then sooner then we imagine we may all be standing in the Greek people’s shoes.

*

Update:

A weekend can be a very long time in politics…

Unbeknownst to me, on Sunday 26th [the day before I posted this article] Yanis Varoufakis had put out a tweet in which he quoted the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, who famously said “They are unanimous in their hate for me; and I welcome their hatred”, adding simply “A quotation close to my heart (& reality) these days”:

This would be one of his final acts as chief negotiator at the Eurogroup meetings:

Greece moved to inject fresh momentum into problem-plagued talks with creditors on Monday, reshuffling its negotiating team to try and defuse tensions over its outspoken finance minister. […]

In a bid to ease tensions with lenders, the Syriza party-led coalition said the minister of international financial relations, Euclid Tsakalotos, would take over the coordination of the new team. The appointment will see the economics professor, who was raised in the UK, assuming a more active role in face-to-face negotiations with creditors.

So writes Helena Smith in the Guardian [April 27th], her report released a mere two hours after I posted.

Varoufakis told us that before he took the job he had written a pre-prepared resignation letter to carry around with him at all times, just in case he ever found himself sounding too much like a politician. Hopefully this will not be needed, and news that he has been “removed” is perhaps a little exaggerated:

[However,] one well-placed Athens official insisted that Varoufakis’s role had been upgraded “in many ways”. The official added: “To make him resign would be to retreat and the government would never do that.”

Three months after his elevation to power, prime minister Alexis Tsipras has come under extraordinary pressure to remove Varoufakis. Yet last night Tsipras said that his finance minister “is an important asset for the government, and [with creditors] he speaks their language better then they do”. In a wide-ranging interview aired on Greek TV, Tsipras rejected suggestions that his government had any intention of sacrificing the politician. Now that negotiations with creditors were in the final straight, Greece had to reorganise its negotiating team, the PM said. […]

But insiders insisted that the politician still enjoyed Tsipras’ confidence, even if the young premier was now reaching out to the German chancellor Angela Merkel in an effort to reach a political solution.

With his high popularity ratings at home, Varoufakis is credited with internationalising the country’s debt problem and raising questions over austerity economics.

“They [creditors] couldn’t counter his economic arguments rationally so they went for him claiming he didn’t understand eurozone rules and regulations, that his reforms weren’t good enough,” said one official. “Tsipras knows this is not about Varoufakis, but his government, because it has dared to take on the system that is Europe’s neoliberal doctrine. He knows that if one goes the other goes too, which is why Varoufakis is here to stay.”

I very much encourage Tsipras to stick by Varoufakis, certainly in the capacity of his chief economic advisor, if not within government itself. We so very seldom see anyone of such intelligence, integrity and courage in public office. The world needs more politicians like Varoufakis, not less.

Please note that I corrected this update after mistakenly believing that Varoufakis had stepped down from his role as Greek Finance Minister. Apologies for posting the incorrect original version.

*

1 From an interview published as “Give us six more months, and we will be another country”, written by A. Albes, F. Batzoglou, A. Petzold, published by Stern on February 18, 2015. http://www.stern.de/politik/ausland/interview-with-greek-primeminister-alexis-tsipras-give-us-six-more-months-and-we-will-be-another-country-2174273.html

2 From an article entitled “Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs” written by Ruth Alexander, published by BBC news on April 20, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22223190

3 Here are some interesting graphs taken from an wikipedia article entitled “European sovereign-debt crisis”, which show the rise in the levels of Greek, Spanish and Portuguese debt since 1999 as compared to the average of the eurozone:

 

 

 

All three graphs (and others including those for Ireland and Cyprus) show a marked turning point around 2007–8, providing further evidence not only that “austerity” hasn’t worked (even within its own terms of debt reduction), but that the western world is actually faced with a systemic banking crisis that flared up at that time. The debt-to-GDP ratios have flattened towards the end, but even so the downturn is mostly in the projected regions.

And this is from an article written by Tyler Durden and posted on zerohedge from February 18, 2013:

“Beleaguered Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just broke another record. As if a plague of corruption scandals was not enough, Spain’s debt-to-GDP has now reached levels not seen in over 100 years. As El Pais reports, Spanish debt levels rose at an alarming EUR 400 million per day in 2012 making for the largest annual increase in debt in the nation’s history – all the while proclaiming austerity.”

And here’s another helpful graph that goes along with the article, showing once more that rather than reducing the nation’s debt, “austerity measures” are more closely correlated to the growth of that debt:

 

 

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-02-18/chart-day-spanish-debt

4 These details of a summary of more detailed notes complied here: http://www.golemxiv.co.uk/2010/10/who-are-the-bond-holders-we-are-bailing-out/ 

5 Based on figures taken from an article entitled “Greece’s PSI is Dead on Arrival: An error in search of a rationale but also a failure that may prove a harbinger for the Modest Proposal” written by Yanis Varoufakis, published on January 11. 2012:

Back to the drawing board, our European leaders came up with a deeper haircut in October 2011. They called it PSI Mk2 and even had the foolish Greek PM fall on his sword, to be replaced by a hitherto loyal ECB functionary, so as to ensure that PSI Mk 2 would become Greece’s new light on the hill; a beacon of the last glimmer of hope for a desperate nation. PSI Mk 2 envisaged an impressive sounding 50% reduction in the GGBs’ face value which, in present value terms, would result in a haircut no less than 60% (since the interest rates charged on the new bonds, that would be swapped with the old ones, could not exceed the interest rates charged by the ECB and the EU for the original bailout funds). In other words, holders of GGBs would be hair-cut in two ways: a 50% reduction in face value and an interest rate less than 5% which would cut further into the present value of the old GGBs.

http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2012/01/11/greeces-psi-is-dead-on-arrival-an-error-in-search-of-a-rationale-but-also-a-failure-that-may-prove-a-harbinger-for-the-modest-proposal/ 

6 Ibid.

7 From a special report entitled “Greeks rage against pension calamity” written by George Georgiopoulos & Lefteris Papadimas, published in Reuters on November 30, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/30/us-greece-crisis-pensions-idUSBRE8AT0CV20121130

8 Varoufakis adds:

“The one thing if I were, I am not, but if I were the CEO of Deutsche Bank, I would be very wary of the dangers from “the Troika” in Athens that is casting a critical gaze into what is happening to Greek banks. Because if “the Troika” takes a keen interest, it will have to declare that the Greek banks are beyond salvation. And the only possible outcome of that would be nationalisation of these banks.”

9 Varoufakis  adds:

“There is no doubt that there was a great deal of incompetence. Our leaders, and I have to say most of my profession – speaking as an economist – had become steadily lobotomised since the late 1970s. We didn’t have leaders who understood macroeconomics… You just let the markets perform their triumphant trick and everything will be fine. Politicians were convinced of that, their careers went swimmingly, their cosy relation with the financial sector was working out for them beautifully. When the whole thing, this bubble, collapsed, they were found wanting analytically – they didn’t understand what happened – they believed their own rhetoric and when they started realising the truth, at that point they had already misled parliaments and electorates to such an extent that they would much rather die than confess to the sins of omission and commission.” [25:45 min]

10 Varoufakis offers the following example:

Regarding the Greek situation, the Greek debt, for instance. What we need to do is, we need, since the German government is going to find it politically very difficult to go to the parliament in Berlin and say: Well, it was all a mistake, we have to write off their debt. What you can do is you can create euphemisms – you can create what Keynes referred to as bisque bonds, GDP-related bonds. The Greek government could issue particular bonds that it exchanges for the debt that the ESF [European Social Fund] holds. And those bonds could specify that they can last 30 years let’s say. In 30 years they become extinct whether they have been repaid or not. And that the coupons, the repayments, on a year to year basis depend on the level of growth in Greece. So if growth is more than 3% then it specifies particular payment. That way Mr Schäuble will be able to look at his parliamentarians and say: We haven’t haircut it, but the extent to which the Greek debts will be repaid will be linked to our success in helping Greek growth. So you make them partners in Greek growth as opposed to bailiffs who come in and take your furniture away and throw you out on the street. [33:15 min]

11 The details go as follows:

Three things: The first thing we need to do is deal with the banking sector troubles throughout the eurozone. And the way I would do it – because we know we have declared this banking union which is really a term confirms there is no banking union – so what we should do about banks is this: Banks that are found out by the ECB in September (when the ECB assumes the role of the single supervisor of the banking system) to be wanting in terms of recapitalisation to have bad assets that have not been declared so far, they should accept money from the ESM – from the European stability mechanism – directly, not through the governments, directly. And the ESM should get shares, the shareholders should be wiped out and the ECB should appoint a new board of directors – hopefully not from within the country in which the bank is domiciled. This way you Europeanise these banks. In 6 months, 12 months, you resell them – you will resell them with a profit because those shares will be purchased by the ESM at very low prices. And then the ESM gets money back, the European taxpayers get their money back, TARP-like. And you do it step by step. You don’t Europeanise all 6,000 banks. The banks that are in trouble…

The second thing you do is to deal directly with the public debt, which is getting worse everywhere – except in Germany because of the low, low interest rates due to the fact that the crisis is proceeding. The European Central Bank should make a simple announcement tomorrow morning that will cost it nothing, zero. And the announcement is this: From now on, every time a government bond matures, the ECB will service, will pay, for the proportion of that bond that corresponds to the country’s Maastricht compliant legal debt. So in the case of Italy it will be half of it. So the European Central Bank will pay for this, not the Italian government. Now I said it won’t cost the European Central Bank anything, so how can that be if it pays half of it? The answer is the ECB issues its own bonds and sells them to the Chinese, to the Russians, to whoever wants to buy them at very, very low interest rates – because the ECB is such a sterling institution – and immediately opens a direct debit account for Italy. And says to Italy: Look, within ten years, this amount of money has to go in there in order to repay the Chinese. So in other words, what I’m suggesting is that the ECB should play a management role for public debt in Europe that costs nothing, that doesn’t require printing a single euro, and does not violate any treaty. Because ths is not a bailout…

And then we have the big problem of growth. Of investment. We have an amazing dearth of investment in Europe, both in the north and in the south. Even in Germany. So what we need is really a Roosevelt-like New Deal – a very large investment programme. I am not talking about a 100 million here and a 100 million there. We need something between 8 and 9% of eurozone GDP to be invested in productive activities… That would be what we need in order to avert deflation and in order to restart growth in Europe. Now we have the European investment Bank in Europe. The European Investment Bank is three times the size of the World Bank. It could very easily effect such a large scale investment-led recovery programme in Europe. The reason why it doesn’t do it, is because the convention is that 50% of every project is funded from a nation state. The nation state is bankrupt. Waive it. And what should we do instead? We should have either the ECB issuing more bonds in order to support the EIB bonds or something simpler than that. Everyone now, including Mr [Mario] Draghi and Mr [Jens] Weidmann [President of German Bundesbank], are speaking about the need for quantitative easing in Europe. Or at least they are considering it. Now we do not want American-style or British-style quantitative easing because this simply inflates bubbles… Mr Draghi’s worried about quantitative easing because he doesn’t know which assets to buy. German assets? Italian, you know, we are going to start arguing like children amongst ourselves, as to whose assets should be purchased. Bu the European Investment Bank issues European bonds, EIB-bonds. Why not have the EIB effect quantitative easing by purchasing EIB-bonds to such an extent that the EIB ca start a New Deal for Europe programme of 8–9% of eurozone GDP with the ECB buying only its bonds, which are European bonds?  And also they are triple-A bonds. Now that a combination of those three measures would deal with the banking sector crisis, it would create a rational way of managing the Maastricht compliant and legal part of the debt… and you have a massive investment-led recovery programme.

12 From an article entitled “Is Democracy Dead In The West?” written by Paul Craig Roberts, published on January 29, 2015. http://www.paulcraigroberts.org/2015/01/29/democracy-dead-west-paul-craig-roberts/ 

13 From Bloomberg Business (bold highlight added):

Mr. Mario Draghi has been the President of Executive Board and President of European Central Bank since November 2011. Mr. Draghi served as Governor of Banca d’Italia SpA since December 29, 2005 until November 01, 2011. He served as Managing Director of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. until January 2006. He served as Director-general of Italy’s treasury. He served as an Adviser to the Bank of Italy, an Executive Director of the World Bank and as a member of the Group of Seven deputies. He served as the Chairman of Financial Stability Board. He has been a Director at Bank For International Settlements since June 2012. He serves as a Trustee of The Brookings Institution. He has been Member Of Governing Council of European Central bank since January 16, 2006. He served as a Member of Governing Board at Banca d’Italia SpA and served as its Member of General Councils. He served as Member of Board of Governors – Italy of Asian Development Bank until November 2011. He served as Director of Bank For International Settlements from September 2011 to November 01, 2011. Mr. Draghi has a Doctorate in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

http://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/person.asp?personId=13154633&privcapId=5774394

14 From an article entitled “Time is running out for Greece, says Eurogroup chief” written by Graeme Wearden, published in the Guardian on April 24, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/apr/24/time-is-running-out-for-greece-says-eurogroup-chief-jeroen-dijsselbloem

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Syriza must win and be seen to win: we need solidarity across Europe

In current discussions of what Greece might or might not get in the way of concessions from the Eurozone, there has so far been relatively little appreciation of one basic political reality: as far as the governments of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, probably Italy and perhaps even France are concerned, Syriza must fail and must be seen to fail.

So begins an article by neo-liberal economic guru Andrew Lilico in Wednesday’s Telegraph. Why? Well, because of the domino effect. Although no debt deal has been reached so far, if the other Eurozone finance ministers were to agree some kind of a compromise and bailout package with Syriza, then it is a near certainty that other European nations, starting with those suffering the worst of the “austerity”, would follow suit.

Here is Lilico to elucidate further:

The reasons differ slightly between countries. The easiest case to see is perhaps Spain. In Spain, the governing party is the centre-right Partido Popular led by Mariano Rajoy. It is currently facing pressure from a far-left party, Podemos, allied to Syriza. Indeed the Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias even campaigned in partnership with Syriza and, following Syriza’s victory, at his own party’s rally he proclaimed: “Syriza, Podemos – we will win [venceremos]!” Podemos is currently leading in the polls, ahead of an election later this year. The very last thing Rajoy can afford is for Syriza’s approach to be seen to succeed, emboldening and vindicating Podemos.

As for Portugal and Ireland, where the governments stuck to bailout conditions despite the domestic pain, how would they sell concessions to Syriza to their own voters? Suppose they go back and say: “We were suckers. We shouldn’t have made all those cuts. Instead, what we really should have done was to raise the minimum wage, hire back the public sector staff that had been fired, say we weren’t going to pay our debts to our eurozone partners, cosy up to the Russians and tell the Germans they didn’t feel nearly guilty enough about World War Two. Then everyone would have said we were ‘rock stars’ and and [sic] forgiven our debts.” Do you reckon that would go down well?

Lilico is horrified by all this, saying that he worries about “amateurish hard-left lunacy” which might somehow make, what he necessarily concedes is an already terrible situation, worse again. Not that Lilico is an impartial observer. He may write for the Guardian as well as The Telegraph, but that’s just how it works these days. The mainstream left and right merged long ago. So when he suddenly pops up to ward us away from Syriza, remember that he has his own interests to worry about. Potentially serious repercussions for his consultancy firm Europe Economics, which lists as its clients government departments, regulators, the European Commission and the European Parliament. With that in mind, here’s a little more of what he writes:

The best way for [Syriza] to fail would be for it to capitulate utterly and crawl back to Greece with its tail between its legs and a few cosmetic patronising “concessions” such as renaming the “Troika” the “Consultative Committee” (or, if it makes them feel better, the “Symvouleftiki Epitropi”). If it won’t do that — and there’s a good chance that if it did try to do that then the Greek government would collapse, anyway — then things get a bit more complicated. Because if it’s bad and dangerous for Syriza to succeed inside the euro, it would be disastrous for it to succeed outside the euro.

In short, Syriza must not be allowed to succeed under any circumstances, and although he may claim to speak “from the perspective of [the] eurozone governments”, it is more accurate to say that Lilico speaks here from the perspective of the bankers and the super-rich. For instance, in the hypothetic instance of Syriza’s success, Lilico predicts a calamity. This is what he foresees:

[Syriza] would nationalise the banks and many other industries, print money to cover public spending, overthrow property rights and impose wealth taxes in a desperate attempt to obtain revenue, and many other crazy things. 1

All these, at least to the mindset of Lilico and his powerful ilk, are “crazy things”. Thus, imposing every kind of tax on wealth becomes, ipso facto, a crazy thing. And as for “print[ing] money to cover public spending”, well printing money to bail out the banks is just fine, of course. That’s called Quantitative Easing which, combined with historically low interest rates (recently turned negative in some places), is all that’s keeping the ever more precarious Ponzi scheme afloat. So don’t be mistaken: what worries Lilico is not the unfettered overproduction of money ‘out of thin air’, but an awful dread that some significant part of this new money might be misdirected “to cover public spending”. Money for public expenditure instead of funnelled into the pockets the bankers (like almost all of the money from the previous ‘Greek bailouts’); to Lilico, this is unthinkable. As for “overthrow[ing] property rights”, well I’m really not sure what Lilico means, but I think the problem might lie in his inherent inability to see beyond a certain characterisation of Syriza. His own hard-right lunacy obscuring the fact that Syriza’s actual demands are both democratic and reasonable.

In the end it is the people who matter, and in Greece, the people are suddenly taking to the streets in droves. Not to shout down government injustices, but to add their own chorus of support. Yes, pro-government rallies without a can of tear gas in sight. Can you imagine? Lilico can’t.

However, the main trouble still facing the majority of us (the 99 percent) is that evangelists of loopy free-market, neo-liberal economics such as Andrew Lilico have been ruling the roost for decades. Intent only to smooth the way for business as normal, they are already the technocrats and they have a great deal to lose if the system were ever to be radically reformed. Unfortunately, these people are now embedded, and not only within ‘think tanks’ and ‘policy forums’, but also throughout academia, which in itself ensures any dissenting voice – anyone who does not fully subscribe to the current economic orthodoxy – is conveniently sidelined as a heretic.

Yanis Varoufakis is a perfect example of just such a heretic. A Professor of Economic Theory at the University of Athens, yet Lilico entirely brushes aside his alternative vision on the grounds that it is “amateurish”. For having cornered the market in supplying economic “expertise”, the likes of Lilico are very handsomely rewarded in their role as ‘consultants’: in reality, one of an increasing number of unelected and unaccountable architects of policy, who pocket a small fortune irrespective of results. Small wonder Lilico fears Syriza’s success.

Those wishing to see real political change should get behind Syriza. I suggest that we give those like Lilico good cause to keep on squealing.

*

The following statement and call for action is taken from the Greece Solidarity Campaign website:

The European Central Bank is trying to force the new anti-austerity Greek government to its knees. Its actions provoked mass demonstrations in Athens last week in support of the government anti-austerity stance.  On Wednesday 11 February the Eurozone Finance Ministers have called an Emergency Meeting with Greece where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis will present their plans.

The Greece Solidarity Campaign, Syriza London and other organisations are calling for a Mass Rally in support of the people of Greece on Sunday 15th February at 13.00 in Trafalgar Square. This is part of an international wave of rallies and protests in support of Greece taking place across Europe. Come along with friends and colleagues to show your support for the first anti-austerity government in Europe.

1 From an article entitled “Eurozone leaders believe Syriza must fail and be seen to fail”, written by Andrew Lilico, published in The Telegraph on February 11, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/11406154/Eurozone-leaders-believe-Syriza-must-fail-and-be-seen-to-fail.html

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“Sell-Off”: new documentary charts the abolition of the NHS

A crowd-funded documentary called simply “Sell-Off” about the privatisation of NHS has just been released. The film is approximately one hour in length and constructed around interviews with those who now work, or have formerly worked, inside the NHS. With a general election around the corner, producer and director Peter Bach has decided to release his film early, and make it freely available on the internet. Embedded below is the version currently uploaded on youtube:

To read an earlier and extended post about the role of New Labour in the on-going privatisation of the NHS you might like to click here.

You can also click here to watch or else download a version on vimeo.

Click here for further information about the documentary and if you wish to make a contribution on the StartJOIN website.

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