This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems. I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.
I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.
The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference. This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.
Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem? Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom. You understand?”
I nodded my head.
“Okay.” That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.
Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?
My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.
“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”
“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”
Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.
By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.
Do you want to be a welfare queen?
I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.
By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets. Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’ shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.
My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.
“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”
“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?
“Are you a communista?”
Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.
“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”
I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”
“They stole everything!”
“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”
“So you are a communista!”
“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”
“It’s the same.”
“No, they’re really different.”
And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union. In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”
“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.
That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe. Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.
The majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy. We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago. His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.
It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.
The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it is already grown up. It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes. He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class. But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”
So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win. We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?
Let’s Begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,”
… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak
The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive
Us all away
They set my roof on fire, with their cursed
And that’s another reason why I left old
St Patrick’s day might be a good time to reflect on the economics of austerity in the midst of plenty that the Irish had to endure. Neoliberals who advocate ‘austerity’ measures while poor countries teeter on the brink of economic collapse might pay a bit of attention, too. The so-called Irish “famine” has a few useful lessons for everyone nowadays. First, although a potato blight is commonly blamed for the Irish famine from 1845 to 1852, it might be more accurate to blame an economic system that demanded payment–and food exports– from the Irish peasantry even as their own subsistence crop was rotting on the vine.
Thomas Gallagher points out that during the first winter of the Irish potato famine, as many as 400,000 Irish peasants starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet profit hungry landlords forced exports to markets abroad.
Like latter-day American Republicans, the Whig administration in England, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, believed that the market would provide the food needed and refused to intervene against these food exports to England. To top it off, the Whig administration then halted the previous government’s food and relief efforts, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.
According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7,000,000 for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, “representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product”, considerably less than what they provided to slave owners in the West Indies. Irish Nationalists John Mitchell famously wrote, “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”
Mitchel was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years in the then Irish prison colony of Bermuda. The English policy of exporting food from Ireland while the Irish died of starvation by the thousands continued until 1852 with the engineer of this policy, Charles Trevelyan describing the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil.” The social evil Trevelyan is referencing is Ireland’s overpopulation. The Famine, he affirmed, was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected [the ‘cure’ was reducing Ireland’s overpopulation]. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”
But, alas, in the end, just under a million people died while around 2 million Irish were forced to emigrate, as Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University had sadly predicted. At the time, Nassau wrote that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”
I’m disappointed by the failure of the world to end itself. Oh, there was a lot of build up and a large number of people sold everything they owned in an anticipation of the final days which turned out not to be any more final then you’re average glum Friday morning with a wintry weather mix. No grand explosions, no meteorites laying waste to major cities, no epics of disease nor war. Just another weekday with humanity ticking along (okay, a small hang out in the Pyrenees reputed to be the last safe place on Earth became a wee bit overcrowded), but that was it. Our doomsday clock’s minute hand still rests stoically at about five minutes ’til.
But, given our propensity for fouling things up, there’s still time to get it right next year. Here are a few things to watch out for:
Economic collapse. One thing the Mayans did predict accurately (kind of) was a world cast into economic turmoil about a year or so prior to 12/2012. The TARP bailout may have avoided the worst of that doomsday scenario, but by refusing to provide meaningful economic stimulus; that is, by not advancing projects and funding jobs to offset unemployment so that the people who actually need and spend the money that drives the economy—(as opposed to unregulated banks and quasi bank entities –like AIG — that simply sit on the cash or dole it out to upper management in the form of million dollar bonuses) we’ve guaranteed a long and painfully slow recovery. Still, despite all the media hoopla, in a moderately sane game of political calculation, one could navigate the upcoming fiscal cliff crisis without too much angst. If we could imagine basic sanity in the Republican House, we might assume that they would want to be re-elected and that, consequently, they’d be inclined to passing a bill which raises taxes on those making over half a million while maintaining the current low tax rates for the middle class—which is hugely popular and for which, among other things, Obama won reelection. Or, conversely, they would be willing to pass a tax cut for those who make less than say quarter of a million dollars a year—after the fiscal cliff was crossed. This last scenario is the one I had expected up to a few days ago. But there was something deeply unsettling about House Speaker Boehner’s failure to gain enough votes for even his own ‘Plan B’. Keep in mind, this was the option that allowed tax cuts to remain intact at the remarkably high income level of one million dollars. Of course, with a reasonably rational House, this should have passed no problem. It certainly was more generous than Obama’s top compromising position (which was up to about 400,000 or just under half a million). But Boehner couldn’t even get that through. This is disconcerting. In the game of chicken it’s important to keep in mind that crazy people behind the wheels of moving vehicles may, in fact, be crazy. If Boehner can’t get his caucus to pass something this simple and this favorable, is it possible that when we go over the fiscal cliff (a likely prospect) he won’t be able to muster the votes to pass a middle class tax cut –because it will be perceived as caving in to Obama? That would surely be a drag on our economy—this, in turn, could drag Europe’s economy down and that would make the 2008 banking crisis look like a walk in the park. Just a thought.
But onto cheerier prospects.
Our increasing security state: Within the space of a year (this one) we have seen some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration not only repeated, but effectively embraced and encoded in a way they hadn’t been before. Our guy did this, Obama. He wasn’t forced to — there was no overriding demand for an aggressive enforcement of whistle-blower laws, or the development of a drone kill list, not to mention the ugly assistance of the FBI in breaking up Occupy Wall Street encampments. This was all done in addition to the very ho-hum suspension of Habeas Corpus that we seem to take currently as standard operating procedure. Now the Democratic party has validated the Bush administration’s take on our ‘security’ state and managed to make it worse. Only a handful of progressive voices are raising a cry about it. Journalist Chris Hedges has sued the Obama administration over provisions passed in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act)—particularly those that suspend a U.S. citizen’s right to due process and a trial by jury of their peers. Little or no press has been given to his efforts and Bradley Manning is still being held (over a year now) for the crime of dumping documents that revealed war crime activities in Iraq and elsewhere. I suppose now would be a good time to mention that Daniel Ellsberg was later lionized in the national press for the equivalent with his release of the Pentagon Papers four decades earlier. Times have changed, and not for better.
What else can we look forward to?
Environmental collapse: The sky isn’t falling, but our world is overheating – which may be worse. At the same time that the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ has garnered countless media cycles, the latest climate conference was being held in Doha, Qatar with ne’er a peep from our major media outlets. It was a dismal affair to be sure, with no commitment made toward carbon limits or carbon sequestration, and, in fact, original signers to the Kyoto protocol have pulled back with only a cursory promise made for future talks. The hard decisions were kicked down the road again, promising increasing carbon levels and—consequently– increasingly catastrophic weather incidents like Super Storm Sandy. The poor countries will likely bear the brunt of this neglect, while the rich countries hunker down in their SUVs.
So, given this, is there anything hopeful in 2013?
Two incidents from 2012 offer promise. The first, I’ve already mentioned—Super Storm Sandy. Paradoxically, Sandy’s wrath announced the arrival and reality of climate change in a way that climate deniers could no longer deny. Despite millions of dollars from the likes of Exxon seeded throughout conservative think tanks and front groups, something about having the Jersey shore wiped off the map makes pseudo-intellectual talking points much less convincing. Never mind that the majority of climate skeptics or deniers never saw the inside of a peer-reviewed journal, now they have to deal with folks whose million dollar homes have been wiped out by an inexplicable –once in a century—Atlantic ball buster. Only, it’s not once in a century—these storms are becoming more and more frequent, once a month, if not weekly phenomena and people are catching on. Climate change is real. And it’s deadly. And Michael Bloomberg said so. And yeah, we really ought to do something about it.
The other promising incident, perversely, was the national reaction to the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut which has reintroduced gun control into the national debate, despite millions being spent by the NRA to prevent such a discussion. Again, people are seeing the fruits of bad policy. Guns do kill people—and quite effectively. Especially assault weapons with huge magazine clips. Notwithstanding the millions of dollars gun manufacturers have paid the National Rifle Association to deny this fact. There was a bit of luck in this too—Wayne La Pierre’s paranoid response to the incident has made the NRA’s position ridiculous to almost anyone with half a brain who doesn’t own an AR15. The important point that ties these two incidents together? Despite all the money spent by Exxon or the gun manufacturers, or the NRA, despite all the effort by very powerful entities to disguise and distort the debate, people still recognize the underlying problem, the fundamental reality, and are willing to act on it. Money can’t obviate everything. The banks colluded with the FBI and homeland security to break up the Occupy Wall Street encampments, but they could not dismantle the disparate organization itself—nor the spirit it represented. The same holds true for our electoral process where, thanks to the Citizens United decision, we saw corporate sponsors and outside ‘Super PAC’ groups flood the campaign coffers of tea party candidates and conservatives. Despite billions of dollars poured into campaigns across the nation by Cross Roads GPS and the Koch brothers, Democrats retained the Senate handily, increased their numbers in the House (and would have likely won a majority had it not been for extensive Republican gerrymandering) and, of course, re-elected Barack Obama.
But maybe the most hopeful sign in 2012 –almost entirely unreported –and relatively small on the national scale — was the reemergence of Occupy Wall Street in their Rolling Jubilee. Despite, official harassment from the Department of Homeland Security to the local beat cop, Occupy emerged a few months ago with a plan to buy back bad debt from lenders (like Bank of America, etc…) who would normally sell it to collection agencies that in turn would ruthlessly pursue the unlucky debt holder to his or her grave for pennies on the dollar. The average ‘purchase’ of such debt is about a 20 to 1 ratio. As an example, ten dollars would buy you about two hundred dollars worth of debt. Typically, the debt was incurred through no fault of the debtor, came about through a medical problem or some other crisis that our broken system did not work to alleviate. Occupy set up a telethon structure to ‘buy up’ the bad debt, and simply forgive it. They called it the Rolling Jubilee—a sly reference to the biblical Jubilee of Leviticus, where, every seventh, seven-year cycle all debt was forgiven. Coined ‘a bailout of the people, by the people’, their efforts have netted over 522,000 dollars (as of this writing) ‘liberating’ over 10 million dollars of bad debt. Occupy was active on another front too—though again there has been very little press. They were among the first responders offering on the ground assistance in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. They galvanized volunteers from across the state (and nation) and worked hand in hand with local firemen and police to help those most in need. Responding, I might add, more quickly than the Red Cross or other more ‘official’ aid organizations.
Slowly, perhaps, we are learning to trust and count on ourselves; and maybe that’s the beginning of a true, local democracy movement, where we learn by doing for ourselves. In the process we exercise civic skills and experience what democracy means at the local day-to-day level of human interaction. If we do it right, we could begin in vulnerability and end in empowerment–a great promise for any year.
Spare a penny for the old guy?
That disarming phrase has a marvelous arc of history behind it. Today, November 5th, marks Guy Fawkes night, a British celebration of a failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James the 1st of England and his Parliament. Traditionally, children made an effigy of “Gunpowder Plot” conspirator Guy Fawkes and paraded him down streets, asking passers-by to “spare a penny for the Guy.” They would then use the money to buy fireworks and burn the effigy on a bonfire.
Guy Fawkes –or Guido as he signed his tortured confession—was a recusant Catholic in protestant England. Outside of a rather macabre children’s rhyme (repeated below), there doesn’t seem much about a failed attempt by a dozen or so parochial Catholics to overthrow predominately Protestant England that would capture the modern imagination. Yet, V for Vendetta, a graphic comic strip of the events surrounding Guy Fawkes, breathed new life into the story in the 1990s. Drawing from the legend of Guy Fawkes, who was tortured and ultimately confessed to the gunpowder plot, writer Allan Lloyd re-introduced the rebel as a contemporary figure trapped in a post-apocalyptic London. The hero preserves his anonymity by wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as he carries out acts of ‘terror’ against a totalitarian state. In 2005, the comic strip made it to film which caught the popular imagination.
The hacktivist group, Anonymous, went on to adopt a version of the Guy Fawkes mask used in V for its effort to protest the Church of Scientology in what they referred to as “Project Chanology” (a response to the Church of Scientology’s attempts to remove material from a highly publicized interview with Scientologist Tom Cruise from the Internet in January 2008—an act Anonymous considered internet censorship). They used the mask to preserve their anonymity so that the Church of Scientology would be unable to retaliate against them individually.
But the mask, and the legend of Guy Fawkes traveled well beyond Project Chanology. On 23 May 2009, protesters dressed up as V and set off a fake barrel of gunpowder outside Parliament while protesting over the issue of British MPs’ expenses. Two years later, it inspired some of the Egyptian youth before and during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
During Occupy Wall Street – at least partially organized by Anonymous – and other ongoing Occupy protests, the mask appeared internationally. It became a symbol of popular revolution and the adoption by Anonymous caught fire. According to Time, the mask has become the top-selling mask on Amazon.com, selling hundreds of thousands a year. Artist David Lloyd who provided illustrations for the original comic book said: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.”
One of the more memorable moments in the film V for Vendetta was the recitation of the traditional children’s rhyme:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Indeed, it hasn’t. In fact, it seems a failed gun powder plot over 500 years ago has reverberated through the centuries touching the imagination of the internet generation, mobilizing viewers at a visceral level to reject political apathy and to enact a politics of resistance against any state that would seek to silence dissent. Unlikely as it sounds, the story of Guy Fawkes has touched us all. So spare a penny for the old Guy… He deserves it.
Microcredit – Changing Village India
Perhaps one of the more ‘economically’ revealing movies in recent years was Slum Dog Millionaire, not only for its intriguing plot line but also for the scenes of contemporary India, scenes of disastrous poverty juxtaposed against obscene wealth. To a Western sensibility the primitive desperation of the Indian orphans is reminiscent of something out of a Charles Dickens novel, yet, for many around the world, it is merely a tragic common place. Lately, even for those of us in the ‘wealthy’ West.
“I would walk by people dying from famine to teach my economics class at the university…and I said ‘What is this?’ I felt completely empty…the theories I was teaching were useless for these dying people. I realized I could help people as a human being, not as an economists…So I decided to become a basic human being…I no longer carried any preconceived notions.”
As a ‘basic human’ Yunus led his economics students on a field trip to a poor village in Bangladesh. They interviewed a woman who made bamboo stools, and learned that she had to borrow the equivalent of 15 pounds to buy raw bamboo for each stool made. After repaying the middleman, sometimes at rates as high as 10% a week, she was left with a single penny profit margin. Had she been able to borrow at more advantageous rates, she would have been able to amass an economic cushion and raise herself above subsistence level.
What Yunus discovered as a ‘basic human’ was that all humans have basic needs. And one of the most basic was simply credit at a reasonable rate.
Against the advice of banks and government, Yunus started giving out ‘micro-loans’ at low rates, and in 1983, he formed the Grameen Bank, meaning ‘village bank’ founded on principles of trust and solidarity.
One more unusual feature of the Grameen Bank is that it is owned by the poor borrowers of the bank, themselves, most of whom are women. Of the total equity of the bank, the borrowers own 94%, and the remaining 6% is owned by the Government of Bangladesh.
The Grameen bank was just the beginning, of course. Move Your Money and Occupy Wall Street have followed up on these efforts. According to the web site of the Move Your Money campaign, an estimated 10 million accounts have left the largest banks since 2010. There’s good reason for this. In the West, the largest banks have become usurious in their late fees and over draft charges and penury in the interest they pay on savings. More importantly, as Occupy Wall Street and Move Your Money have pointed out, the larger the institution, the less likely they are to assist the community. They are more like vultures, picking over the corpses of the economically dead, than the heroic George Bailey who loaned out money not for the profit of a few, but for the good of the many.
In the following article, Ellen Brown for AlterNet details how cooperative banking is reinventing today’s financial industry in a way that would make George Bailey smile….Really.
The great writers of the nineteenth century had neither religion nor politics nor aesthetic principles in common. But what they did have in common was a climate of ethical judgment, a moral climate. They shared certain values, they were humanist. If you read a nineteenth century novel today, Dostoevsky or Dreiser, Dickens or Twain, it is recognizable as a novel from the 19th century because of this moral climate. The core question that is asked is not are the characters successful or witty, but are they right? Writers of that period saw the individual struggling to find the correct balance between their independence and individual beliefs and the needs of the collective. There are only a handful of 20th century writers that have carried on this discourse and too many of them are given over to despair. The post-modernists of the 70s and 80s saw almost any political action as futile, compromised, or something of a joke. Some –too many –took ironic delight in pointing out the obvious difficulties. And rather than enlighten, they left one feeling bleak and hopeless. Meanwhile, in the real world, small wars and large wars continued. Corporations were stripped of their essential community based purpose, and instead were turned into the raw machines of profit. Yet, despite this sea change, our writers seemed stuck in a kind of identity crisis, a second gear, neither willing or able to tackle political issues of the day. Our popular culture essentially gave up on political man. News shows only pretended to objectively cover politics, and then only covered scandal. People forgot what it was to be politically or ethically engaged. During this same period, roughly from the late 1970s to 2012, our industrial base was eviscerated, our addiction to oil became deadly, and the American middle class saw their healthcare costs sky-rocket, their pensions raided, and their educational institutions privatized for the profit of a few. None of this is a coincidence.
As Christopher Hedges points out, “We have been, like nations on the periphery of empire, colonized. We are controlled by tiny corporate entities that have no loyalty to the nation and indeed in the language of traditional patriotism are traitors. They strip us of our resources, keep us politically passive and enrich themselves at our expense. The mechanisms of control are familiar to those whom the Martinique-born French psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” including African-Americans. The colonized are denied job security. Incomes are reduced to subsistence level. The poor are plunged into desperation. Mass movements, such as labor unions, are dismantled. The school system is degraded so only the elites have access to a superior education. Laws are written to legalize corporate plunder and abuse, as well as criminalize dissent. And the ensuing fear and instability—keenly felt this past weekend by the more than 200,000 Americans who lost their unemployment benefits—ensure political passivity by diverting all personal energy toward survival. It is an old, old game.”
Hedges goes on to note that what fosters revolution is not misery, alone, but the gap between what people expect from their lives and what is offered. As if in response to this syllogism, on September 17th of last year, activists and students descended on Wall Street and said, essentially, the gig is up. The scam must stop. The financialization of the world is killing our Earth. The Occupy Wall Street crowd did not operate in a vacuum. They were following The Arab Spring and the European Indignados. In fact, Spaniards from Puerta del Sol marched with us on Wall Street in those beginning days. And, on cue, it would seem, the Indignados in Spain have returned. They have reoccupied the Puerta del Sol as part of a global day of action to commemorate the first anniversary of the 15-M (May 15) movement. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards amassed in the square, some dancing joyfully, others debating the replacements for capitalism. According to an article on roarmag.org, a message circulating on Twitter yesterday perfectly caught the mood in Madrid:
“This is not an anniversary — it’s a tradition!”
In a few more months, the United States will have its own anniversary. In advance of that, Noam Chomsky, MIT linguist and political activist, outlines the reasons Occupy should make a come back, and, seeing the challenges ahead, he offers a warning as well:” Unless the spirit of the last year continues to grow and becomes a major force in the social and political world, the chances for a decent future are not very high. ”
Read more below…
Last year on this day, Occupy called for a General Strike and created a series of posters surrounding the event. Although no general strike has been called this year, there are events being held across the nation–and across the world– in honor of the Haymarket Riots and in protest against the austerity measures that continue to cripple the world economy.
From Spain to Greece activists are taking to the streets. Thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, snaking up the Gran Via central shopping street, waving flags and carrying placards reading “austerity ruins and kills” and “reforms are robbery”.
Trains and ferries were canceled in Greece, and bank and hospital staff walked off the job after the main public and private sector unions there called a 24-hour strike, the latest in a string of protests in a country in its sixth year of recession.
Tens of thousands marched in Italy’s major cities to demand government action to tackle unemployment – at 11.5 percent overall and 40 percent among the young – and an end to austerity and tax evasion. Most marches were peaceful, but demonstrators in Turin threw hollowed eggs filled with black paint at police.
In New York City and LA, Occupy has called for a much needed ‘celebration’ from the work day. Below is a little history on the origins of May Day and some clever posters put together to celebrate last year’s General Strike.
Occupy’s May Day Strike! – by Jack Johnson
We’ve been here before. About 126 years ago, thousands of workers and their families were marching through the streets of Chicago on May 1st, 1886. It was a Saturday. Everyone left work, because in those days people had to work on Saturday. They were working a ten- and twelve-hour day. Most of these people were immigrants, and they were fighting for an 8 hour work day rallying in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. It was near the end of a fairly successful rally, when about 176 police showed up, uninvited.
Yes, we’ve been here before.
The police captain had actually disobeyed the orders of the mayor, who said, “The rally is peaceful. There’s no need to disperse it.” The police captain acted on his own, marched right up to the crowd and said, “You must disperse,” and the speaker said, “But we are peaceful.” And he said, “You must disperse anyway.” And as the speaker was coming down from the wagon, someone — and to this day, we don’t know who it was — threw a bomb that landed into the ranks of the police. One officer was killed immediately. Six others later died.
The police were panicked, of course, almost hysterical. They’d never expected anything like this, began firing, probably shot each other, shot people in the crowd, and in the end, seven police died and at least three of the demonstrators. Many, many people were wounded, and later seven anarchists were fingered for trial, although no conclusive evidence was brought to bear. May Day became a global labor holiday in honor of the “Haymarket Martyrs” who were tried by a judge so prejudiced against them that their execution has often been referred to as “judicial murder.” More importantly, May 1 became a traditional day across the world to honor workers rights.
Occupy’s call for a General Strike this May 1st is the latest in a long series of actions against a system designed to marginalize workers and the poor. As they put it on their website:
“The General Strike is a demand for good jobs and good pay for everyone on the planet–citizens of the country they work in or not. Outsourcing will no longer be tolerated by the so called “job creators” for cheap labor. All human beings deserve a living wage. Education, Housing and Healthcare are human rights NOT ‘entitlements’.”
That might sound a little far fetched to our contemporary ears, but so did the idea of an 8 hour work day and time off for weekends to those who started protesting some 126 years ago.
Below are some of the more creative posters Occupy has produced in their effort to agitate for a General Strike on May 1st, 2012 with some observations and historical notes.
(click posters to open)
1) In the 1700s, sailors would sometimes strike or lower their ship’s sails as a symbol of their refusal to go to sea. From this refusal to acquiesce with the requirements of the work day we get the term ‘strike’ and this poster playfully toys with both meanings. In 1888, young girls in London were forced to dip matches in dangerous white phosphorous for 14 hours at a stretch. After one of their numbers was unjustly fired, they went on strike. Thus the match blossoming with the starry night flame indicates both the match girl’s strike of 1888 and the underlying flame that occurs when a match is struck. Floating in the upper darkness of the poster are two cats. A general strike—which is what is being called for—is also sometimes termed a wild cat strike because it is not authorized by a union and hence is ‘wild’. Anarchists and IWW affiliates will often use cats or sabot-cats in their graphics as well. The woman is likely either Hispanic or Afro American; both races (and gender) have been roundly abused by a system that would rather produce matches than well rounded humans.
2) Time is money wasn’t always the case. There was a time, well before the advent of industrialization and what we have come to call ‘time discipline’ when biology and nature ruled our internal clocks. If you were a hunter or early farmer, the shifting of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun was your only ‘clock’. In fact, time in hours and even minutes has become the single most used measurement for tying labor to value (justly or unjustly). With background colors reminiscent of a naval signal flag (an inverted man overboard, perhaps?), this poster features a brilliant sun eclipsing a clock, telling the world that for at least one day, the tyranny of time discipline will be thrown off. Says Jess Goldstein of Occuprint: “To me, this really sums up the spirit of a general strike; it’s a call to realize that we, collectively, can and should be in control of our time.” The poster’s words echo the famous street call and response….: whose time? our time! Whose street? our street! Of course, only time will tell.
3) The Guy Fawkes mask, celebrated in the movie V for Vendetta, and becoming a near universal symbol of rebellion, has also been closely associated with the hacking collective known as Anonymous. Both Ad Busters (the Canadian anti-advertisement collective) and Anonymous have been the moving spirit if not direct organizers of the original Occupy Wall Street. The poster artfully uses an old arcade video game metaphor to shout out the relevance of computers to the Occupy movement. The words, Hack The Day, are a reminder of Hacks twofold meaning in both the virtual and wider world. Commonly, a hacker is someone who breaks into or disrupts normal operations—fitting perfectly with a call for a General strike. But perhaps, more importantly, a hack is also a provisional solution to a systemic problem. One thing we’ve seen over and over again at the Occupy sites is the brilliant and provisional nature of their solutions to restrictions imposed by a mostly antagonistic environment. Fittingly, the Wall Street Bull looks as though it is being levitated or is under attack by a Guy Fawkes mask.
4) Flowers jamming the cogs of a machine represent one approach to a general strike, taking time away from ‘productive work’ that profits others to simply grow on our own. This self oriented activity has another consequence—it fouls the smooth working of a system that depends on our devotion to its functioning. It’s also reminiscent of Mario Savio’s famous 1964 speech at The University of California’s Sproul Hall: “And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
To extend the metaphor in the image, our bodies are those flowers.
5) One of the more fun (and subversive) posters, this one was developed by the Institute for Experimental Freedom (the small publishing collective who put out the brash but fun-filled insurrectionary text “Politics Is not a Banana.”) asks us to replace the main image with some sort of “riot graphic” while using the appropriate, hip font (Haas Grotesk). At first blush, a kind of meta joke, it’s also got a point: everything about this strike and Occupy is essentially do it yourself. That’s not just an accident, it’s by design. Part of the rationale comes from a deep historical awareness of how other movements have been co-opted in the past; the symbols and fashion of a movement become commoditized, while the underlying reality and message is diminished or crushed. Ad Busters, among others, is especially sensitive to the phenomena. This poster seems to be going on the offensive. Note the Coca Cola style font and bottle cap design that surrounds the General Strike notice. It would be interesting if a set of images could retool major corporate ‘brands’ with subversive messaging. A Pepsi shaped bottle with a General Strike Message in it, the Wal-Mart smiley face, announcing the next round of boycotts against that behemoth. None of this would be exactly ‘legal’ of course, but maybe that’s the point.
6) Intentionally or not, the refrain, Let’s go fly a kite, belongs to a song that forms the climax to Disney’s Mary Poppins. For those who haven’t seen the movie in a while (has anyone not seen it?) Flying a kite becomes the ultimate resolution of the family tensions that bind the banker (Mary Poppins’ employer) to his family while rejecting his work life. That particular plot is an old cliché, but, as with most clichés, there’s more than a germ of truth to it. The song and characters in the movie, like the kites, offer wonderful overtones of an existence not tethered by work day concerns—liberated, floating and free. Flying a kite is just one possibility of things that can be done once the carefully enumerated list of modern distractions are abandoned: No work, no school, no housework, no service, no banking, no shopping, no data. For those who haven’t seen the movie or this clip, enjoy: Let’s Go Fly a Kite!
7) In the popular idiom, a general strike is as old as the hills, or at least as old as the hills of Rome. According to H.G. Wells, the first general strike properly took place in Rome by the lowly plebeians. The plebeians “saw with indignation their friends, who had often served the state bravely in the legions, thrown into chains and reduced to slavery at the demand of patrician creditors.” For veterans of the Iraqi or Afghanistan wars this might sound eerily familiar. In the U.S., one of the first general strikes was the infamous Railroad Strike of 1877. This was, in infancy, the beginning of a nascent labor movement showing its muscle across the nation, culminating ultimately in the May 1, Haymarket strikes and riots that led to the weekend, child labor laws, and the 8 hour day. The typeface is just a reminder how far things have come, and sadly, how far we still have to go. What this poster delivers in simple type face is almost as important as the message itself: We’ve been here before.
The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away. ~William Golding, Lord of the Flies
PRwatch has chosen A Police Officer Speaks on ALEC and “Stand Your Ground”, by Brian Austin, as one of their highlighted opinions this week. Interestingly, Austin has been a state prosecutor and is now a police detective in Wisconsin. He was “a police officer for 15 years, and a SWAT officer for 12 of those”. Aligning his experience with his insight was a curious task for me, but I was delighted with his ability to step way back and apply a patchwork of current events to one of our nation’s most profound and troubling choices – which is where he leaves us at the end.
Insinuating Golding’s Lord of the Flies was also a little curious. Afterward, I thought about it … so will you.
Here’s a taste:
The Castle Doctrine is just one part of the “shiny object” campaign that the corporate right has waged for decades to prevent this awakening from occurring. (…)
I believe that in order for the corporate elite to continue to further an agenda that favors a select few, they have to turn the masses against each other. That need becomes even more urgent as more and more people wake up to the realities of America in 2012, and uprisings like the Wisconsin protests and the Occupy movement spread. If the corporate elite failed to keep us at each other’s throats, and we actually developed a sense of community and compassion and empathy, we would see with total clarity the insanity that grips our nation. At that moment, their gig would be up. We would no longer tolerate what is occurring in America, and the corporate elite and their legislative water boys would be driven from power post-haste.
The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one. ~ Heraclitus’s 10th fragment
In 1782, the Great Seal of the United States said E Pluribus Unum – “Out of Many, One”.
I’ve always liked that a lot. Solidarity is what perpetuates the rule of the American people.
“Divided we fall” is pretty basic and understandable.
Then in 1956, Congress passed and President Eisenhower approved of a Joint Resolution of the 84th Congress declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto of the United States. However you feel about the intention to erect a wall of separation between church and state, on that day it went legislatively and divisively over the dam.
But here’s the thing: In 2011, our lawmakers (Forbes, R-VA) wasted all the time it takes and taxpayer dollars to reaffirm “In God We Trust‟ as the official motto of the United States. Why did they do that when it was already a law on the books? They were pandering to a voting bloc – the religious right. It served no other purpose.
Laws without cause are a rip off and they’re dangerous. If there’s no realistic purpose for a bill, it should go to File 13 and the bill’s sponsors should go with it. There’s too much else that needs to be done for us to put up with dubious bills and legislators with hidden agendas. Examples of that are so prevalent today it’s sickening. And meanwhile, needed legislation is ignored.
Iris Scanning – As Occupy Arrestees Arraigned, Iris Scans Affect Bail
Protesters “and their legal advisers were surprised yesterday to learn that the size of their bail was being affected by whether defendants were willing to have the distinctive patterns of their irises photographed and logged into a database.”
There is no law on the books for the ongoing use of Iris Scanning. Peaceful, non-violent, Occupy protesters in New York have once again been arrested and are being subjected to a hand-held scanning device that photographs and collects distinctive biometric information to be logged into a national database.
According to Paul J. Browne, chief spokesman, “a legal review by the department had concluded that legislative authorization was not necessary.”
In America, if there’s no law on the books, there can be no penalty for non-compliance. When someone hasn’t been charged with a crime, much less convicted, it seems to me that a “policy” leveraging the amount of the people’s bail and time spent in jail would be considered an issue worthy of the time and resources necessary for lawmakers to do their jobs and determine its legality.
The voting bloc for that is all the American people.
“This is an unnecessary process,” Mr. Banks said. “It’s unauthorized by the statutes and of questionable legality at best. The statutes specifically authorize collecting fingerprints. There has been great legislative debate about the extent to which DNA evidence can be collected, and it is limited to certain types of cases. So the idea that the Police Department can forge ahead and use a totally new technology without any statutory authorization is certainly suspect.”
Suspect? The NYPD is the world’s seventh biggest army! With that kind of power, I would have to say this policy is more than suspect, and that it needs to be yanked until legislated and the American public can catch up with the massive shift in private data handling that is progressing at an uncanny pace without public debate.
“Out of Many, One” is a fearful concept for those who would deem the power of the people a threat. We, all together, are the voting bloc that counts – and the one lawmakers and police departments are expected to protect and serve.
The many ways in which we’re being divided into subgroups as election pawns is counterproductive to our freedoms, our rights and true national interests.
“Divided we fall” is pretty basic and understandable.
Sculpture “Non-Violence” in memory of John Lennon, Manhattan, by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd
Gad! No wonder the people in this country are struggling. This issue is disturbing on so many levels that just being aware of it is intimidating! If it continues unabated like it is now, just imagine what life in the good ole USA will be like for Americans down the road a ways. You think they’ll be safe enough?
The cost of America’s police state, by Stephan Salisbury, is a good recent piece on the what, where, when, why, and how of the militarization of our local police forces, the vast network of video surveillance interlinked with information databases, “fusion centers”, and more.
One thing not mentioned in the article is 1033. But more than a year ago, Benjamin Carlson covered it in BATTLEFIELD MAIN STREET, and I think it’s key in understanding how all this got its big heave-ho. Here’s an excerpt, and the article has some great photos of the equipment being distributed at the time.
“Passed by Congress in 1997, the 1033 program was created to provide law-enforcement agencies with tools to fight drugs and terrorism. Since then, more than 17,000 agencies have taken in $2.6 billion worth of equipment for nearly free, paying only the cost of delivery.”
In today’s Mayberry, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife could be using grenade launchers and a tank to keep the peace. A rapidly expanding Pentagon program that distributes used military equipment to local police departments — many of them small-town forces — puts battlefield-grade weaponry in the hands of cops at an unprecedented rate.
Through its little-known “1033 program,” the Department of Defense gave away nearly $500 million worth of leftover military gear to law enforcement in fiscal year 2011 — a new record for the program and a dramatic rise over past years’ totals, including the $212 million in equipment distributed in 2010.
The surplus equipment includes grenade launchers, helicopters, military robots, M-16 assault rifles and armored vehicles.
And the program’s recent expansion shows no sign of slackening: Orders in fiscal year 2012 are up 400 percent over the same period in 2011, according to data provided to The Daily by the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency. (…)
Experts say the recent surge is simply the continuation of a decades-long trend: the increasing use of military techniques and equipment by local police departments, tactics seen most recently in the crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street protesters across the country. But critics of the program say that the recent expansion of 1033 distributions should be setting off alarm bells. (…)
Arthur Rizer, a Virginia lawyer who has served as both a military and civilian police officer, stressed that their outlooks and missions are fundamentally different.
“If we’re training cops as soldiers, giving them equipment like soldiers, dressing them up as soldiers, when are they going to pick up the mentality of soldiers?” he asked.
“If you look at the police department, their creed is to protect and to serve. A soldier’s mission is to engage his enemy in close combat and kill him. Do we want police officers to have that mentality? Of course not.”
The intimidation factor associated with having a military presence instead of a “protect and serve” mentality in law enforcement from coast to coast is obvious. If you haven’t noticed it, try a little redress of grievances with a group of like-minded, concerned citizens some day soon. At this rate and before too long, most people will be afraid to object to any legislation that comes down the pike, and I’m not sure that isn’t the precise intention of all this beef-up. If you read the articles above, you may disagree, but I think it’s already out of control in every way. Regardless of the “freebies” provided to local law enforcement, we can’t afford it. It’s an oppression tactic, and we don’t want to be an oppressed people. At least, that’s not what I had in mind.
How do you go about turning something like this around before it gets worse? Salisbury offers a clue or two pointing out: “This is not simply a police issue. Law enforcement agencies may acquire the equipment and deploy it, but city legislators and executives must approve the expenditures and the uses. State legislators and bureaucrats refine the local grant requests. Federal officials, with endless input from national security and defense vendors and lobbyists, appropriate the funds.” [emphasis mine]
But for some historical context, validation and encouragement, this recent interview with Jonathan Schell did it for me. It’s worth your time, “hearts and minds”.