Monthly Archives: October 2012

This Is What Kleptocracy Looks Like

This morning one of the Irish Times editorials focuses on the matter of politicians’ expenses. ‘Few things infuriate the public more’, it declares, ‘than a perception that elected representatives are receiving unwarranted or inflated expenses, on top of generous salaries’. This follows on from a feature it published Saturday, in which it claimed that ‘the focus of public resentment in recent days is the expenses and allowances that go with (Oireachtas representative) jobs’.

Naturally enough, there is no mention, in either article, of the possibility that the Irish Times and other media outlets exercise influence in this regard, both in terms of the focus of the public, and in terms of producing fury and resentment.

Indeed, even by stating that ‘few things infuriate the public more’, the Irish Times –but it could be any media outlet, really- is advancing its own image of ‘the public’. This image influences the way readers perceive other groups in society, whether they feel identified with this media-produced ‘public’ or not.

Even if you yourself are not infuriated by politician wages and expenses, even if you think the stripping away of health services and welfare state provision, or bank bailouts, or unemployment, are a lot more important, this is not what ‘the public’ is thinking about, according to the paper. And, even if this ‘public’ might be mistaken in its view (and it often is), this is still a matter of prime importance.

If the primary concern behind all this is wasteful public spending, why is there so much coverage of politician wages and expenses, but by contrast, so little dedicated to the payment of unsecured bank bonds (to say nothing about the payment of other bank debts and the matter of those debts’ legitimacy)?

I think the answer is fairly simple. The primary concern is not wasteful public spending at all, but the drive to call into question the idea that anything at all that belongs to the public can be relied upon. If public political institutions and those who are elected by members of the public can’t be relied upon, then the same logic can automatically extend, not only to public institutions that deal with education, health, housing, and so on, but to those who work in them.

All these things must be submitted to the logic of the market, which is to say, they must be privatised. It is a matter of discrediting the idea that public institutions are of any use at all to the general population, or that any of the services provided by them should be received by people because it is their democratic right as citizens. In the place of citizens, we are given the image of ourselves as the ‘taxpayer’, which is just another name for ‘consumer’, who has to get ‘value for money’.

Now, there are other motivating factors too. The more loathsome and self-seeking politicians can be made to appear –and no doubt this appearance reflects reality in many cases-, the greater the possibilities for spreading resignation and confusion among the public. Resignation that politics –narrowly presented as representative politics, and heaven forbid that anyone should ever take to the streets- can ever bring about any kind of positive change. Confusion about who the thieves really are, and what ought to be done about them. Moreover, all this politician expense-related reporting is quite cheap, since a lot of the information used is made available by the government as a service to the public.

Suffice to say, the long term effects of this will be exceedingly nasty, with the nastiest effects experienced by those at the bottom, as usual. The Irish media –including the high-minded liberal branch- is feeding a mood of anti-political resentment and despair, and all the while casting a smokescreen over who precisely is filling their boots in the process.  

The Irish Times says the matter of politician expenses ought to be addressed ‘as preparations are made for an extremely difficult December budget’, and, in impeccably democratic language, claims that ‘elected members should consider their own sheltered circumstances before demanding sacrifices from others’.

Whatever.

The government plans on cutting €3.6 billion from public spending in the December budget. But throughout 2012, €6.7 billion in unsecured bank bonds were paid out in public money. That is, the government was under no formal obligation whatsoever to pay that money. If the Irish media, including the Irish Times, were really concerned with how public money was getting spent, it would have devoted 216 times as much coverage to these payouts as it did to politicians wages and expense claims. But it isn’t, so it didn’t.

What politicians pay themselves has to be presented as a matter of public fury, but what government party politicians –including the ones who make a show out of not claiming for expenses– pay speculators out of the public purse is just part of the natural course of events.

This is what kleptocracy looks like.

(Figures from Irish Times (averaged monthly politician wages and expenditure) and Bondwatch website (unsecured bonds))

Publicspending

 

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Police Omnipresence

Translation of a piece by Isaac Rosa, published 25th October in eldiario.es, on the ‘police omnipresence’ now a feature of everyday life in a country in which the government seeks to strip most of the inhabitants of a dignified future.

Who are they protecting? And from whom?

The image of the crisis doesn’t come from the queues of unemployed, nor the crowded soup kitchens, nor the schools in Jerez closed due to lack of cleanliness. For me the spreading of the crisis is visible in the police presence in our cities. Or rather, police omnipresence.

Not even in the worst times of terrorist threats have I seen so many police on the streets as in the past weeks. Apart from the ominous lockdown of the Congress, it is difficult to walk around Madrid (I imagine it is something similar in other cities) without coming across blue vans. They are out patrolling the streets, guarding institutions, stopped for no apparent reason in squares or on main thoroughfares; apart from those that accompany every protest, those that turn up as soon as more than ten people get together anywhere, those that monitor pickets at points where some strike is in progress (including private firms), and others that seem to wander around the city waiting to be assigned a mission.

In the neighbourhoods, far from the centre where the protests concentrate, they also appear more and more often, normally as a sign of an imminent eviction. You head out early in the morning and you find numerous vans parked up on the footpath and a dozen agents at each end of a street, on alert in case a group of neighbours intent on preventing the eviction should appear.

The police’s omnipresence is accompanied by their hyperactivity. Violent police baton charges, habitual bad manners toward peaceful citizens, intimidatory identifications, unjustified detentions, complaints that end up in heavy fines, preventive surveillance, harassment of assemblies in parks, blows to journalists and photographers, old people dragged along the ground, an excess of zeal in their duties and in general a contemptuous attitude towards those who, with every right, ask them for their identification or reproach them for their excesses.

The question that emerged time and again is obvious: who are they protecting? And from what are they protecting them? What order is this that they say they are maintaining? What law is it whose obedience they enforce?

I know, I know: the officers are simply obeying orders, and it all comes from on high: the police bosses, and above them the political leaders on duty, the Government delegate, the director general, the minister, the president. But the ones who show their face (and mete out the blows) are those police officers, on the receiving end of citizen contempt. However much one of them signs a petition for mortgage holders to be able to hand back the keys to the bank, or their unions criticise their political superiors, they are the ones who are opening up an increasingly deep crack of separation with the citizens.

It is not that the security forces had an affectionate relationship with the citizens previously. But today the rupture is complete. The question, and pardon my insistence, may appear naive but it isn’t really: who do the police protect? Whose service are they in? Yes, you will say: they are there to enforce the law. But daily we see how not all laws hold equally, nor do all offences merit the same forcefulness, nor do all offenders get the same treatment.

In recent years there have been many examples of economic and social delinquency, not simply metaphorically speaking, but encoded in law, but nonetheless their authors are not monitored, persecuted or punished with the same forcefulness as those who cut off a street or stop the eviction of a family.

The other morning, when I encountered several police vans parked up on the kerb beside my daughters’ primary school, foretelling an imminent eviction, I saw those in uniform in a different way. They didn’t seem like public servants to me, but private sentries, security guards, just as you might find them in a shopping centre, in the doorway of an office block, in the subway or in a bank.

Let me explain: when we’re in a shopping centre or in the subway, and we have a security guard close by, perhaps we feel secure, protected against possible danger. It could not be further from the truth: they aren’t there to protect us, but to protect the people who pay them, to protect the merchandise, the facilities, the activity. And to protect it all from us, we who could be the thieves, the assailants, those who damage the facilities or make off without paying. The same with the security cameras in those same places: they aren’t placed there to protect us but to monitor us, to protect the area from us.

That’s how I feel with the police of late, due to this omnipresence and hyperactivity with regard to protest: they are not there to defend me, but to defend business against those who disturb activity, damage the facilities or try to make off without paying. That is, us.

 

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Labour Markets and Health: Letter Sent To Irish Times

Sir,

The letter signed by 16 specialist registrars and higher specialist trainees in obstetrics and gynaecology (October 24th) spoke of senior trainees as ‘valuable strategic assets’ and ‘a sought-after commodity’ in the ‘international medical labour market’.

We are probably used by now to hearing technocrats and politicians, whose concern is the health of the financial system, speaking about people as if they were commodities in a labour market. Their world view has laid waste to public health systems across the world, the latest example being Greece. A New York Times report dated October 24th reported how unemployed people in Greece had lost their right to health care on account of Troika-imposed conditions.

If we speak uncritically about people as commodities in a ‘labour market’, then we take it for granted that there is nothing wrong with reducing human beings, with all their frailty and vulnerability, to the status of tradable commodities such as petrol or tinned food.

It is especially disturbing, then, that medical professionals here should see fit to refer to themselves in such terms.

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‘Waiting for Europe is like Waiting for Godot”

This is a translation of a piece by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, originally published in Portuguese in Visão on the 19th of October and translated into Spanish for Rebelión by Antoni Jesús Aguiló, whose version I used for the translation into English.

In search of political subjects

In a normally functioning liberal democracy, the question of the political subject does not get posed because society, organised politically into parties, generates the subjects necessary for the guidance of collective life. Portuguese democracy is not functioning normally, as is the case in other countries in the south of Europe. The reason is known: it is a democracy under the tutelage of a foreign force that does not answer to Portuguese people. The government is a delegation of an international business agency. It is from here that all the other signs of abnormality flow. Among the thousands of citizens who demonstrate in the street one can grasp an obvious anti-party feeling that encompasses the entire political spectrum. This clamour at times slides into anti-politics, where all extremisms germinate. But so great is the creativity of the Portuguese crisis that the right wing has generated its own outrage against power. Prominent figures of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Democratic Social Centre (CDS) demonstrate with such fury that the distracted citizen does not even realise that it was they who for decades cooked up the political mediocrity now in power. We have two movements of indignados, those who only have the street to show their outrage, and those who can rely on newspapers and radio and TV stations to do so.

Out of all this, it emerges that parties in power are an absent political subject, whilst there does not seem to be an alternative subject, since the Socialist Party (PS) after signing the memorandum and supporting public-private partnerships, could only be an opposition if it started to oppose itself. The expression of the absence of political subjects on the right and in the centre can be found in the proposal for a national unity government that pivots about the crisis until Europe resolves it. Waiting for Europe is the same as waiting for Godot. If we do nothing for the new Europe (which involves organised disobedience against the memorandum and all the politics and economics that it entails), the old Europe will do nothing for us. Hence my conviction that we are in search of new political subjects.  

I do not believe the conditions are there for the emergence of a political subject of the far right. The most credible scenario has two dimensions. The first is the formation of a new political subject that captures the energy of thousands of citizens prepared to leave to one side their party loyalties to find a solution for the country via concrete alternatives. It is not a matter of creating a new party, but of creating an electoral and political front through an act of re-founding two parties, the PS and the Left Bloc (BE). The PS calls an extraordinary congress, it disassociates itself from the referendum and the contracts with draconian agencies and chooses a leader to weather the storm (the current leader is one trained in and for times of calm). The BE, also meeting in congress, frees itself from all vanguard ideology. It chooses a rearguard leader, capable of making BE walk alongside society’s excluded and especially those who move slowest. Re-founded in this way, both parties can generate a new political subject of high democratic intensity.

The second dimension consists of a convening, which I suggest as of now, for a Social Forum of the South of Europe, to take place in the coming year. It will complement and expand on the immense potential revealed by the Democratic Congress of Alternatives. For one, it will be European and not just Portuguese, in addition, it will be called by social movements and organisations, and not just by citizens. This Forum will discuss the ways ahead for Europe starting from the premise of its deep democratisation. It could generate the energy that causes the European Union to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize, currently a joke of dubious taste. It will be called by old and new social movements, by indignados, unions, the unemployed, immigrants, feminist movements, anti-racists, ecologists, LGBT etc. Unions will then feel strengthened and accompanied, more capable of coexisting with diversity without suffocating it under an avalanche of red flags and long and dense speeches by their leaders.  

 

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A Special Case


It has been playing on my mind for a while that the current political stagnation in Ireland is likely to move into a profoundly reactionary phase. For the last while, the public eye seems to have been fixed on the matter of whether the Irish government will be able to strike a ‘deal’ on bank debt, amidst widespread resignation as another draconian Troika-backed budget looms.

Foremost is the matter of the government’s moral fibre and loyalty. At the liberal end of media opinion, Fintan O’Toole referred to the ‘bizarre shame’ apparently experienced by the Irish government in its inability to say that Ireland cannot bear the weight of its debt burden. Colette Browne in today’s Examiner declares ‘it’s about time the Government, instead of meekly acceding to every humiliation emanating from Berlin, started to act as if Ireland’s national interest, and not the Bundestag’s, was its primary concern’.

On the right, prominent commentator on economic and financial matters Eddie Hobbs wrote in the Wall Street Journal that ‘Enda Kenny leads a Vichy government—captive externally to creditors that still insist on loading bank debt onto the sovereign, and internally to a tribe of insiders led by union godfathers’, thus racialising and criminalising organised labour, and associating it with Nazism in a single turn of phrase. Hobbs is by no means the furthest to the right of Ireland’s priestly caste of economic-financial ‘experts’ who make regular appearances as impartial commentators in print and on air in Ireland, and we should be wary of the ease with which union leaders can function as a metonym for the real ‘enemy within’ according to this world view: the unionised worker.

Common to all three perspectives is the notion that there is a government that ought to act in what Browne refers to as the ‘national interest’, but opts not to do so on account of moral shortcomings. Also, it was indicative of a wider malaise in Irish society that former Labour Party spin doctor and current charity CEO Fergus Finlay,  in response to Hobbs, should spend most of his article lauding charitable impulses and volunteering before turning his attention to Hobbs’s ‘undermining of his own government’, but have nothing to say about Hobbs’s attack on organised labour.

In truth, ‘acting as if’ Ireland’s ‘national interest’ was its primary concern is what all Irish governments have done, including the present one. It just so happens that the ‘national interest’ in this case has always been the interest of Ireland’s ruling class.

This was recently illustrated by an event during the Fiscal Treaty, which I described before:

‘the question of ‘what is best for Ireland’ as it is presented effaces any question of class antagonisms within Ireland, and places in its stead the notion of the ‘national interest’. So, for instance, when David Begg – hardly a fire-breathing radical – announced to the Labour Party conference that European solidarity was a defunct concept since places like Greece and Ireland had now become living laboratories for neoliberal experimentation, the response of Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore, when questioned about this on an RTÉ current affairs programme, was to say that the referendum was not about the interests of any particular group, but the national interest.’

Similarly, when Labour came under pressure over junior minister Róisin Shortall’s resignation, its minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said that “Eamon as the leader of the Labour Party has to have regard, if you like, to the national interest as well as to the interests of the Labour Party, but in the time of crisis that we’re in, let’s be very clear, the national interest comes first.”

Of course this kind of thing is nothing new or specific to Ireland: Rosa Luxemburg wrote back in 1915 of how ‘’the leaders of the German social democracy held firmly to the conviction that the life interest of a nation and the class interest of the proletariat are one’.

But it is here that the danger of the present situation in Ireland lies. The prevailing concern with the ‘national interest’, in a situation where you have a right-wing mainstream media that already frames politics in such terms, and nominally social democratic formations that identify the national interest with following a programme of draconian cutbacks and the stripping away of the welfare state, lay the basis for a deeply reactionary right wing populism. A reactionary right wing that makes appeals to notions of ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the national interest’ –identified, naturally, with the longest standing desires of Ireland’s capitalist class- and foments widespread anti-political animus and resignation, on account of the failure -through perceived weakness or cowardice- of political leaders to stand up to the vile Hun.

Thus ‘the politicians’ –and with them, any kind of contestatory democratic political activity- become the main object of hatred, and in tow, individual delinquent bankers like Sean Fitzpatrick and ‘godfather union bosses’, to use Eddie Hobbs’s phrase, with the capitalist class and the system that sustains it tucked safely out of sight.  

Anti-political attitudes are not the sole preserve of Ireland, however: they are flourishing in other Troikaland countries on the European periphery, in Greece, in Spain, and in Portugal. One thing that sets Ireland apart from the latter three, however, is in the widely held belief that it has been a democracy for ninety odd years. So ruling politicians will talk in State-Time, about how stripping away welfare provision and public services are justified because this is one of the biggest crises “since the foundation of the State”, in a mixture of parochial arrogance and isolationist authoritarianism, given the fact that the State’s history includes the dominance of an ultraconservative church, and the existence of slave labour and a deeply oppressive carceral regime, making it nothing to write home about in democratic terms.

Here we can find a partial -though not at all complete- explanation for the relative lack of popular mobilisation in Ireland by comparison with Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which will see general strikes on the 14th of November. In the latter three countries, substantial sectors of the population retain –and are consciously keeping alive- the historical memory of popular struggles against dictatorship, in defence of democracy. In Ireland, well, it’s a ‘special case’….

<img class="scaledImageFitWidth img" src="http://sphotos-d.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-prn1/c0.0.403.403/p403x403/29406_538297526196896_2068441888_n.jpg&quot; height="403" alt="Photo: Grupo de Trabajo Huelga General El 14 de Noviembre huelga general europea. Súmate: http://madrid.tomalaplaza.net/2012/10/08/afectada-por-desahucio-inicia-huelga… Twitter: #hg14n @TomalaHuelga #RazonesParaUnaHuelgaGeneral #14N” width=”403″ />

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Galicia and The Syriza Effect

‘Hai que paralos’ – they must be stopped

Today’s Irish Times leader article reports on recent electoral events in Spain. Titled A respite for Rajoy, the important perspective is, as ever, that of the head of government, and not that of the people whom this figure is supposed to serve. The article speaks of the ‘badly needed comfort’ Rajoy received with the PP election win in Galicia, crediting him with a ‘a remarkable achievement’; one that enables him to ‘hold his head high in Brussels’ as a ‘premier who has taken a series of very hard decisions and still has the solid support of voters’.

It’s worth bearing in mind the local context in which the article is being published: Rajoy’s party forms part of the same European Parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael, and the overall agenda of both the Irish and the Spanish government is very similar – enforcing massive cuts in public spending, driving down wages, stripping away social protections, opening up public services to privatisation, whilst simultaneously protecting the interests of the financial sector and the profitability of asset price speculation.

As the latest round of public mobilisations in Spain have shown, the Rajoy government has very little democratic legitimacy. It won an absolute parliamentary majority in the last general elections, but with the votes of around only a third of the electorate. After it was elected, it proceded to renege on its electoral commitments. Therefore the message from the Irish Times article is fairly clear: rewards await those politicians brave enough to do the will of the markets and renege on promises made to the public (those who make good on promises made to the public and defy the will of the markets are, like Hugo Chávez, denounced as authoritarian strongmen and regional pariahs).

The IT article reminds me of the time a while ago that I heard Lucinda Creighton, the Fine Gael Minister for Europe argue against the notion that Troika-backed austerity policies had no democratic legitimacy. She cited the Partido Popular’s electoral victory as an example of popular support for such policies, when it was nothing of the sort. And it is by no means true, as the Irish Times, suggests, that Rajoy ‘still has the solid support of voters’. He does not even have the solid support of voters in Galicia. Only 28% of Galicians registered to vote actually voted for the Partido Popular, whereas 36% of those registered to vote abstained.

But also omitted from the IT leader, unsurprisingly, is what happened in Galicia apart from the Partido Popular victory and how this serves the head of government. Below is a translation of a piece by Pablo Iglesias Turrión, published yesterday in Público.

Galicia and the Syriza effect

The Syriza effect is a politico-electoral anomaly that has threatened European political regimes since last June. Back then, the young Alexis Tsipras was on the verge of turning Syriza (a coalition of radical left formations) into the grouping with the highest votes in Greece, winning almost 27% of votes. Since then the onetime all-powerful PASOK has turned into a junior companion to the Greek right. Something, apparently possible in a formal democracy, such as a a large part of the Greek electorate going for an alternative political option to that of the right, different from social democracy, set alarm bells ringing among all the European powers, who unleashed a political and media offensive against Syriza, presenting their possible victory as chaos.

The Syriza effect comes about when, in a system of parliamentary representation traditionally dominated by two large parties, one liberal-conservative (centre-right), and another social-liberal (centre-left), there emerges a left wing force with a popular appeal that overtakes the centre-left as an electoral option. Any nuances that might be drawn out from here depend on the complexities of each political context. At any rate, it appears that one of the consequences of the transformation of economic crisis into political crisis in various European countries has been the opening up of a structure of opportunity for political forces historically condemned to the periphery of political systems.

We should not forget that the stability of political regimes in Western Europe rested, in large part, on the taking turns between political options that maintained consensus over basic issues. This taking turns was based on the fact that, to a certain extent, the centre-left and the centre-right could govern in different ways without moving beyond the lines of an economic order designed by its owners; what once, without fear, was called the capitalist class. And of course, there can be no doubt that in Western Europe, a considerable part of the working class organised in unions had good reasons to feel comfortable in these regimes of taking turns, as civil society of the centre left and as the privileged negotiator of social conflict with the centre-right. 

With very broad strokes, this is the history of postwar European so-called social democracy and its associated union organisations.

Well, this illustrative broad brush story, whose ending had been foretold with the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and whose epilogue began after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has now ended once and for all. Social democracy (which stopped being such a thing a long time ago) no longer has political space to govern in the south of Europe in a different way to the right wing, and the unions would do well to bare their teeth properly if they want collective bargaining to be more than just history. And it’s not just me who says so. one only has to look at the radical pragmatism of Tomás Gómez [Madrid PSOE leader] to realise that even some socialist leaders have realised that they are not going to touch power with forms of “responsible and loyal opposition”.

It’s obvious that 25, 30 or 50% of the votes in an election is not enough to change power relations. Those of us who work in political science know that the object of study of our discipline is precisely power, not merely electoral systems and parties. And power has to do with economic, social and military mechanisms that cannot be reduced to the unity of the state apparatus that is accessed by means of elections. The image of Salvador Allende, poorly armed, living out his final moments in La Moneda on the 11th of September 1973, is the metaphor for truth in politics; as true as the image of patriotic parachutists who restored democracy to Venezuela in 2002.

But with that said, the Syriza effect is the lever most within reach of the European left as it plays its cards in these times of systemic crisis.

What does this have to do with the Galician elections?

In Galicia we have seen that social outrage can be turned into votes if the left is able to present itself as a real opposition. In little more than a month, Alternativa Galega de Esquerda (Galician Left Alternative), an electoral coalition between federalists and independentists, has turned the Galician electoral map upside down and wound up with 14% of votes out of nothing. If we bear in mind that the historical BNG (Galician Nationalist Bloc), free moreover of its right wing which moved off into the void, got more than 10% of votes, we have more than 24% of Galician voters who chose political forces to the left of the PSOE, which has wound up with a little more than 20%. We should not forget that only a month ago, the CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) only forecast one deputy for the coalition led by Xosé Manuel Beiras and Yolanda Díaz, and there were few of us who thought that AGE could go beyond two or three seats.

The only assets that the Galician Syriza were presumed to have were the federal drive of Esquerda Unida [in Galician, United Left] (which in the general elections had obtained a decent result in Galicia and whom surveys had given a token representation in the Galicial legislative chamber) and the charisma of a Xosé Manuel Beiras who, though a veteran, would be able to steal some support from the BNG. Many will now seek to say that what has occurred is a realignment of nationalist votes, but one only has to read the results carefully to realise that Beiras is much more than an image that takes away votes that belong to the BNG and that AGE is much more than a traditional nationalist force allied with Esquerda Unida out of mere convenience. It may well be that there are there are some in the coalition, unable to see because of the myopia and mediocrity of many plumbers [translators note: this isn’t a reference to plumbers as such, but to people who operate as ‘plumbers’ on account of their role within a party apparatus], might see it that way, but luckily politics sometimes flies higher than bureaucrats.

Beiras has shown himself to be much more than the recent history of Galician nationalism, revealing himself as a leader of stature, capable of identifying the political contradictions and possibilities of the present time. Those with contempt for intellectual training in politics have tasted the bitterness of a lesson they will not forget; that leaders, in order to be such, are obliged to study and raise their head above the internal life of the party. Beiras never stopped studying and his journey through social fora and his closeness to the movements have made him understand very well what the 15M meant and what a regime crisis means. Plumbers might win conferences but to win in politics what is needed is a certain amount of that intelligence that the Sardinian genius called organic and which serves to connect with the people.

Yolanda Díaz, for her part, was able to recover the best tradition of communism; her ability and generosity in weaving broad fronts that aspire to represent a social and popular majority at a historic moment in which democratic resistance against a fascism with a technocratic face is the best prescription for the left to aspire to something more than a third space. The re-founding of the left that many saw contemptuously as a tactical ploy on the part of its promoters has reached a crucial strategic phase in Galicia.

The proof of what I am saying is that a political coalition with scant resources was able to fill out meetings and to mobilise, in little more than a month, a social enthusiasm that has transformed, especially in urban centres, into the living opposition to the Partido Popular. The AGE spokespersons have mobilised Galician national consciousness better than anyone but, above all, they have taken aim against the politics of the elites, with an irreverent style, disruptive, and making their own a large part of the messages and the style that the social mobilisation of recent times has embedded in a large part of society.

We also have to take note, besides, of something that they have known about in Latin America for some time and that AGE has handled as well as its Greek reference point: having good spokespeople. Presenting good candidates is much more than playing with image and charisma as elements of political marketing. Good candidates are the essential ingredient so that speeches become engines that organise social outrage.

There is undoubtedly a bitter lesson in the result of the Galician elections, that is, that the conversion of the social defeat of political regimes into electoral defeat takes more time than many of us might wish for. This was driven home in Greece when Syriza’s 26% was not enough to overcome the right wing. But fear has already gripped the PP. Today one of its spokespersons declared in front of the TVE cameras with regard to the elections: “Our party is ending up without an interlocutor on the centre-left for the affairs of State”. The Syriza effect is in motion.

 

 

 

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Waves and Foam

There is an interesting article on Irish Left Review by Cathal Larkin re-assessing the dynamics of Occupy Cork from a Freirean perspective. Mine is the first comment below the line.

The article is a genuine attempt at thinking beyond the self-understanding of the Left as the active subject, and in that sense I liked it a lot, but it just didn’t go far enough for my liking; I suppose I’m just a bit more inclined toward radical uncertainty as far as Occupy is/was concerned.

The more I think about it in retrospect, the more the issue of the reproduction of the camps as physical spaces seems to lie the heart of things. There were people who basically dedicated their time to operating a security detail, or sourcing food, or other essential activities. Not all of them might have been in a position to articulate political ideas in line with Left expectations. Does that mean, then, that they ought to be identified as people who need to undergo a process of conscientization, as an activist sees fit? They were also ‘consciously and collectively shaping their environment and social relations’. I think it’s dangerous to make assumptions to know more about what they are doing than they themselves do.

There was also the matter of people who were homeless or had problems with mental illness – I think it’s also quite a big deal to create a space where such people can sit down and talk to other people and have a cup of tea or whatever. The temptation is to look at the histories of Occupy sites and dismiss anything that didn’t lead to the development of a political strategy or identifiable pedagogical outcomes as secondary or superfluous or even frivolous. The further it recedes in time, though, the more that kind of stuff, the stuff that gets ignored in much of the political analysis, grows in importance in my mind as instances of what Holloway calls ‘concrete doing’. The problem of conceptualising Occupy in terms of a reality that ought to have been set straight, grounded in proper political practice, is that it just casts all that stuff to one side.

What follows is a translation of a piece by Amador Fernández Savater, originally published in eldiario.es on the 10th September, addressing the question of strategy for movements such as Occupy/15-M through the work of sinologist François Jullien and Antonio Gramsci. I think it’s quite germane to the discussion that the ILR piece has opened up, particularly bearing in mind the history of the Occupy sites in Ireland and the tensions that emerged between experienced activists and people for whom political activity was something newer and more unusual. I would also recommend following the link through to Fernández Savater’s piece on ‘The Republic of the 99%’, in which you will find a novel discussion of the film Michael Collins (!) as a way of understanding what a radical strategic shift might amount to.   

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Waves and foam. Other ways of thinking strategically.

Effectiveness and 15-M

The debate over effectiveness is not something new in the 15-M. It has been there from the start. What do we want, how do we get it. These are questions that arose time and again in the assemblies on the squares. Positions quickly became polarised: should we strive to arrive at a minimum consensus to guide action, or is the greatest achievement of the movement the movement itself, the process of learning about other ways of being together? Are we going slow because we’re going far, or are we going under because we don’t know where we’re going? We couldn’t or didn’t want to invent a way that joined together both positions: an unprecedented answer to the classic debate over processes and objectives.

The debate has intensified after the first anniversary of 15-M and with regard to the 25-S. It is shot through with a deep anguish: the accelerated process of economic catastrophe threatens to carry all before it in record time. How can that runaway suicide train be stopped? You hear people say: the first 15-M –a chaotic and emotional whirlwind, which moved forward to the beat of improvisation, immediacy and unlimited human effort- now must give way to a “more effective” form. Maybe so. The 15-M is a movement that evolves and transforms itself: what worked in a given moment may not be the most suitable in another, fidelity does not mean repetition but constant re-creation. The odd thing about 15-M is that it is a living and editable idea: it can be handled, altered, transformed.

Problems of traditional strategic thought

But what does ‘more effective’ mean? The problem of effectiveness is linked to that of strategy: it is said that what the movement needs to be more effective is to ‘think strategically’. Strategy is thinking about the relation between means and ends, what is intended and how it is achieved. It entails setting a direction (purpose) and having an overall vision (totalising). And it entails setting clear objectives from analysis of the conjuncture, accurately singling out the enemy, establishing an operational continuity, gathering forces, properly measuring risks, etc.

I have two doubts. The first: can one think strategically about a reality so out of whack as the one in which we are living, with its intertwining of leaps, sudden accelerations, conflicts and negotiations amid a swamp of heterogeneous actors? How does one think strategically in contexts of high uncertainty, complexity and dispersion, when strategic thought is always thought for the long term, building over time, and continuity?

The second: how can one think strategically from an anomalous movement such as 15-M. Those who empathise with it and its detractors coincide: the 15-M is truly a strange thing. An unidentified flying object. It is not like those social movements we have long known about, defined by an organisational structure and a clear identity, with clear boundaries and filters for entry. Hence we try and grasp it with different images and say it is “another mental state” or “a new social climate”. But can one think strategically about a change in climate, which is atmospheric, diffuse, dislocated, intermittent, and complex?

There are those who reply: “there is no possible strategy, we can only improvise”. Perhaps. But what interests me now is rather to look into other possible images of strategy. Starting to think about politics in a different way was undoubtedly a victory of the 15-M. But it is a precarious victory: in progress, by no means irreversible, and one which repeatedly tries to update itself. Because ‘the old politics’ is not this or that specific group of people, but a sluggishness that cuts across us all: that of placing a knowledge [un saber] where there ought to be a work of thought or creation. Perhaps it is a little defective, but traditional strategic thought is all we have. Its mental schemes operate in our heads and order our perception of what is possible and desirable. Can we invent other images of effectiveness and strategy that are more suitable for the “new 15-M brain”? I find the thought of François Jullien highly inspiring in this regard.

The Chinese idea of effectiveness

[translation note: eficacia, the word used here, can mean either efficacy or effectiveness in Spanish. If you are not clear on the difference between the two, that makes two of us. I have not read the book about to be quoted but I understand that Jullien makes a distinction between the two terms. I have used the terms here interchangeably, which may turn out to be a barbarous thing to do, but I think the meaning of this text holds either way]

François Jullien is a French sinologist and philosopher who has written various books on the differences between the Chinese and western ways of thinking. His intention is to move out of western thought so as to better interrogate it radically, that is, to go to the root: its premises, its pillars, which at times go unthought. His way of moving out is to go around China. China is the outside that provides an unexpected way of looking at the inside of Western thought. Jullien establishes this contrast by starting from very specific points: art, the body, time, and thought itself. The book I am going to comment on (I would nearly say paraphrase, which is why I do not even quote) is called A Treatise on Efficacy, and is a reflection on the different approaches to the military art of war: Sun Tzi or Sun Bin for example in China, Von Clausewitz for example in the West.

What is the difference? The West divides the world in two: what is and what ought to be. It is the founding platonic act of an entire metaphysics or vision of the world. The Western idea of effectiveness is derived from here: it concerns projecting onto reality what must be (in the form of Plan or Model) and attempting to materialise it (to bring it into practice, to ground it). Between is and ought, human will tries to bridge the gap and “straighten out reality” (to set it straight, that is, according to Right, Law, what ought to be). Understanding performs abstractions and models, will applies and executes. In the case of the military art of war, the General Staff proposes the Plan and the armies break resistances that reality opposes. The field of battle where one fights to annihilate the enemy completely is the decisive moment in which all is at stake: the “essence” of war.

According to Jullien, the Chinese think strategy in a completely different way. They do not divide the world between what is and what ought to be. That is: they do not start off from a Model or a Plan, but from the very course of the real. The real is not formless or chaotic material that awaits our organisation: it is already organised. It has propensities, inclines and slopes that can be detected and put to use. This is what Jullien calls “facilitating factors” or “potentials of the situation”. The work of the good strategist is not to model and plan first of all in order to apply afterward, but rather to listen, accompany and develop the potentials of a situation. Not to act, but to be acted upon. Not to force: to endorse. Not to pursue a goal directly, but to exploit a propensity. Because the effects are contained within it. It is like surfing a wave: it is not a matter of taming it, but of going together towards the same place. To allow oneself be carried along. The world is only resistance and obstacle when viewed through the optic of control.

Two key figures of Western strategic thought are called into grave questioning here.

  • the subject-vanguard. The initiative does not come from any subject, but from the situation: the groundswell. In fact vanguards (the General Staff of politics) ruin facilitating factors when they try to force them: they saturate them, they do not allow the effects to pass, they are too easily noticed, making themselves easily identifiable to the enemy. What Chinese strategy requires are rather “rearguards” able to listen, accompany and look out for the processes. Always discreetly, allowing the effects to emerge. Its potency is that of the void: door, bellows, mouth or valley. Rearguards do not decree what ought to be, but evaluate and accompany the forces that are already present. They do not plan what ought to happen, but elaborate diagrams of what is already happening: what’s happening, how it’s happening, where it’s happening. Not plans, but diagrams.
  • the battle-intervention. The battle for the Chinese is not the decisive moment where everything is at stake for everything, the essence of war. That is only the visible material atop the deep wave: it shoots up, crests, and foams. What is decisive is always played out before, in attentive listening to facilitating factors, in the development of the process, in the attentive care of situations, in the discreet accompaniment of potentials. What is visible is not always what is most interesting. What is exciting is not always what is most important.

Hegemony in Gramsci

China and the West are not sealed compartments. Jullien polarises in order to exaggerate the differences and thus see them better, but there are contaminations and cross-cutting lines. For example, thinking on hegemony in Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher. Gramsci was thinking in a Chinese manner when he said: “when the French Revolution took place, it had already been won”. He was referring to the fact that the Enlightenment movement had for years undermined the pillars of the Ancien Regime by proposing another definition of reality: all human beings, independently of their origins, sex or condition, are equal in capacity and dignity. The power of the Ancien Regime was reproduced in the everyday in the habitual ways of understanding relations, labour or politics, under which lay hierarchized visions of the world. The French Revolution, before it was an exceptional move that placed the King in check, was a slow seismic displacement, the elaboration and spreading of another vision of the world. The building of hegemony, according to Gramsci. The event of the Revolution simply picked the ripe fruit (it is also very important to know how to pick the fruit or effect, warns Jullien, before it rots). But what was decisive was not so much the day of the Revolution as the prior process: silent, diffuse, in the atmosphere. A change in climate. Perhaps there was some revolutionary who complained a day before the rising that “nothing is happening, and things in such a bad state”. But in Chinese logic the most important things happen when nothing is happening.

The constitutive process is underway

Jullien or Gramsci set out other images for us to think about strategy and efficacy. Not to pursue a goal directly, but rather to generate it by detecting the facilitating factors and by accompanying the situation potentials. Indirect efficacy, oblique strategies. Something very difficult to accept for our Western pride in author-subjects, for our ‘structural’ need for drama and heroism (the moment of truth), an epic saga (the tale of the exceptional event).

But at any rate, my idea is not to counterpose the ‘good’ images of strategy and efficacy against the ‘bad’ ones and provide a choice, but above all to question the presumptions and implications of traditional strategic thought based in notions of direction (finality) and an overall vision (totality). The problem is the instrumental vision of reality held from here. Processes are not valid in themselves or for the new values that they can engender, or for what we can learn from them. They are only valid in terms of the place they occupy in the Plan. Do they aid the gathering of forces? Are they going in the right direction? They are parts of a whole and points in a pre-established line of time. Traditional strategic thought always involves an act of centralisation that sits badly with the autonomy of situations and their own times and paths.

The ‘constitutive process’, that is, the process, plural and delocalised but simultaneously climatic or atmospheric (general), of deconfiguration of existing reality and the configuration of another reality, is underway. What is crucial is to listen and to tune in to this groundswell. The Republic of the 99% is already here (or else it never will be). It is a matter of deploying it: detecting, developing, articulating and communicating its situation potentials. Great strategy has no dramatic effects, great victory goes unseen.

 

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