Monthly Archives: November 2012

Against Means Testing, Against The Journal, Against Cuts

I left this comment on a thread, in response to the many calls on a ‘poll’ asking whether child benefit should be cut, which is to say, a ‘poll’ issuing the tacit propositions that (a) cutting child benefit is a legitimate thing to do; and (b) the annual budget process is a fundamentally democratic exercise in which the elected government always carries out the will of the sovereign people, not the will of the sovereign markets.

In discussions on child benefit, advocates of ‘fairness’ in Ireland -which is to say, advocates of a bearable level of market violence and capitalist exploitation- regularly make calls for means testing to be introduced, in order to account for the disparities in income among its recipients.

Whether they believe they are doing so in the interests of equality or not, the fact that they are doing so means they consent to the neo-liberal priorities of the Troika, the ratings agencies, the local business elites, and the national government that obeys them, as self-evident necessities.

It is no longer (was it ever?) a matter of broad political choices about the kind of economy that ought to serve society on the whole – whether, for instance, it should be one that serves finance capital, or the great majority of the population- but of grinding the lens -through polls inviting popular participation such as this one- so that the minutiae of the diminished budget for social spending become the main object of popular debate.


Those people who think means testing child benefit is an equitable proposition are either liars or walking into a trap set by liars. What we see with the proposition to means test child benefit is clear evidence that children’s rights are not taken seriously in Ireland, whatever about referendums and the like.

In fact, we can see precisely how children’s rights are not taken seriously by considering the example of Fergus Finlay, former Labour Party spin doctor and current CEO of Barnardo’s, who had called for a more ‘modest’ universal payment as part of the overall reduction in public spending demanded by the Troika and local business elites. ‘Modesty’, with its Victorian overtones conjuring images of the deserving poor, has no place in a discourse concerned with the vindication of children’s rights.

But however repugnant I might find the notion that charities should be treated as authorities on children’s rights, and that notion’s embodiment in the figure of Fergus Finlay, even Barnardo’s recognises that universality is a good thing in the provision of child benefit. Why? Well, I don’t know why Barnardo’s in particular thinks such a thing, but here are my reasons. One, it is an elementary principle of a genuine democratic society that we have mutual responsibilities toward one another. That does not mean we share each other’s underwear, but it does mean that we believe that we are responsible for ensuring that everyone living in our society is treated with dignity and respect.

And that entails things like being prepared to contribute towards the health, welfare and education of others. This –contrary to the authoritarian conception of the family contained at the heart of the Irish constitution- means being concerned with the health, welfare and education of other people’s children (everyone is the child of someone else, right?).

When we abolish child benefit as a universal payment, and opt to means test it in accordance with the parental ability to pay, what we are saying is that it is down to the parents alone to be concerned with children. It follows from this that any parent who requires child benefit is failing in their duties towards their child. To move towards means testing is also to do away with the notion that child benefit is also a form of payment for the work of raising children, which is an essential form of work in any society, even if it goes unpaid on the whole.

The destruction of universality in welfare provision is part and parcel of the overarching project of US and European elites to destroy what remains of social democracy and the welfare state, and put in its stead a society based purely on market relations and the survival of the fittest, in which only the children of the rich get to live decent lives. A society grounded in a life which for the majority of its inhabitants that is nasty, brutish and short. If you think this is a bad idea, and if you believe children’s rights are important, then you shouldn’t be supporting means testing; you should be defending universality, whilst opposing the rest of the Troika-backed government cuts agenda with every sinew.


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The Suspension of European Democracy and the question of 21st Century Socialism: Interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

This is a translation of an interview with Boaventura De Sousa Santos, originally published on Pú on the 28th November. The interview was conducted with David Bollero in London, on the back of an event held at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on The Southern Europe Crisis and Resistances.

Ignacio Ramonet talks about ‘democratic dictatorships’, you talk about ‘democratorships’ [democraduras]. What state is democracy in?

I believe democracy has been suspended because one of the minimum rules of democracy is that the elected political authorities are the political decision-makers. In Europe, especially in the countries that have been bailed out, but also in Spain and Italy, there is a transnational authority that has not been democratically elected by anyone, and it is this authority taking all the important decisions. This authority is not merely the Troika, the European Central Bank or the European Union, but also the ratings agencies.

Is there a feedback loop between the national democratic deficit and the European democratic deficit manipulated by the markets?

Yes, for a while in Europe it was thought that we were in a positive sum game, in the sense that there were compensations for this loss of sovereignty and that the European Union was acting as an agent of development for the weaker countries. Now we are in a zero sum game, that is, if some gain, then others lose. I see it as more dramatic than that, because perhaps we are all going to lose. What is happening in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland is also going to happen in France and sooner or later in Germany too.

Samir Amin said a decade ago that the European project was doomed by the obstinacy of neoliberalism. Is capitalism and its neoliberal expression the cause of this crisis?

Yes. It was very difficult for neoliberalism to enter Europe via its States; what it did was enter via European institutions. In the beginning this wasn’t noticed but if we now look at the ECB’s constitution, we can say that there really was a very clear neo-liberal project, forbidding the lending of money to countries, but allowing loans to banks at very low interest rates which in turn loaned to countries at very high interest rates. That is how finance capital grew in strength and got into Europe.

This manoeuvre couldn’t have been carried out without the complicity of socialist parties. What has happened to the left?

This is the most dramatic thing, they themselves abandoned social democracy. In Greece as in Spain and Portugal there were socialist governments when everything happened. Many of the political leaders of first and second rank passed through think-tanks such as Georgetown, from Rodríguez Zapatero himself, to Durao Barroso, Paulo Portas…they were all trained in an ideology  that subtracts, that declares that States are inefficient and must be reduced to their minimum expression.

At the same time, there are facts that allow me to say that in reality the crisis of the euro, in large part, was actively brought about by hedge funds and the most aggressive finance capital in the service of the United States. The euro was proving strong competition for the dollar. Saddam Hussein was the first who wanted to destroy it with his oil reserves, China too. Saddam was easy to get rid of and that is what happened, it’s more complicated with China and in Europe the weakest link had to be found and that was Greece, which had entered the euro via accountancy tricks with the help of Goldman Sachs. This was the opportunity to bring down the euro system, with another objective still to be achieved, which is the destruction of social democracy, of the welfare state. It is already being destroyed in Greece and it is going to be destroyed in Portugal.

Has the left learned the lesson or is it that after being dismounted from power it is still discussing which version of capitalism is valid?

The first thing to be clear on is that there are many lefts in Europe. The situation is different from one country to the next. In Spain, the forces to the left of the PSOE are completely fragmented and they have no alternative that they can get across with credibility. The problem is knowing whether the PSOE has any possibility for internal renewal, and to my mind, with current conditions and bearing in mind that it is complicit with this entire system, it’s very unlikely. In Portugal, to the left of the Socialist Party, we have the communist left that was always against the euro, and the Left Bloc, which has an alternative politics, but is too small to organise a left front; perhaps they ought to unite.

In Greece, Syriza is very strong, but since it has prospects of getting to power, especially if the situation gets worse, it doesn’t want to sign off on an exit from the euro, there is division and it is talking about renegotiating. And it is fine to renegotiate, because the solution would be to mutualise the debt: there is no Greek debt, nor Portuguese debt nor Spanish debt, it’s European debt.

Which is what is being done at a national level with banking debt.

Exactly, if we mutualise it the interest rate falls and everything is different.

But just yesterday the English press was saying that Cameron was going off to war to discuss the EU budgets. Where is the solidarity?

Especially in this country [the interview was conducted in Britain] because England’s only industry is finance capital, the City and that is why they will never regulate. If we look at the future, the crisis could be the great opportunity to launch a socialist Europe. So that finally the Europeans thought about the Socialism of the 21st Century that the Latin Americans launched into international debate. A more advanced social democracy with ecological awareness, with much greater respect for cultural diversity, but, sadly, the deeper the crisis gets, the less alternative thinking there is.

You were talking about the different lefts in Europe but, in turn, these are very different from the Latin American ones.

Yes, they are different and especially because the emergences there are of parties that are quite different among themselves, though what is characteristic of all of them is that they arrived to power as the result of major social mobilisations. That is the difference with regard to Europe, where you have different indignados in Greece, Spain and Portugal who seek a very different democracy to this one, but there is no political mediation. People go out onto the streets because it is the only public space that hasn’t been colonised by the financial markets. If they occupied the banks, which have indeed been colonised, the police would destroy them immediately. But in the street you don’t perform political formulation and that’s why we need to look for mediating political subjects.

Social movements are so disenchanted with politicians, with whom they have no identification. How might that mediation come about?

In the 60s young people’s movements didn’t recognise themselves in left parties either. From a sociological point of view, the indignados do not constitute a movement, they do not have the stability or the organisation of other movements such as the feminist or ecology movements. I call them strong ‘collective presences’, which are in the street and are important, but they have their limitations. Hence the emergence of new democratic political subjects, because the other possibility is the emergence of non-democratic political subjects, as we are seeing in Greece, which is something very sad and very cruel in a country that endured Nazism.

It is very difficult in Europe, in Portugal as in Greece, to shatter people’s illusions; there are still many people who think that austerity measures are going to work. All the data says the opposite, but conservative ideology is proving very strong with its message that we were living beyond our means. That illusion needs to be destroyed now, before the catastrophe comes, and then, it will be easier to build an alternative.

How close or how far are we from this catastrophe?

In the case of Portugal with the Budget for 2013, which is going to entail a shock for the middle classes when they see that they are being expropriated by the State; and also with what has been announced by the Finance minister: it is necessary to re-found the welfare state. He does not say eliminate, but in reality that’s what they want.

The campaign of the right-wing on the destruction of the Welfare State is proving so strong that mobilisations such as the general strikes of 14-N, rather than being offensive as with days past, are merely defensive; they do not seek to advance, but merely not to recede even further…

This is what Gramsci said, we are in a war of position, not of movement; of position so as to defend the situation in which we find ourselves. That is why it is important for us to be able to mobilise the broad masses of the population, not just those of the left, and to be very mixed in terms of political orientation and class, so that they commit to an alternative solution that breaks with this status quo. Perhaps this illusion is only going to end when rock bottom is hit, when there is no longer any public health system, for example.

You have said on many occasions that neoliberalism uses democracy as a mere instrument for the accumulation of capital, but if it were to find a better means, it would get rid of it without hesitation. When this catastrophe hits, what kind of democratic margin will remain?

Neoliberalism does not need a dictatorship, because nowadays we have societies that are politically democratic and socially fascist [fachas]. What is happening in Spain is that when there is deep social inequality and social protection diminishes, the vulnerable social groups are at the mercy of the powerful, at work, in everything. That is why social authoritarianism is becoming ever stronger, and it doesn’t necessarily entail dictatorship, because you can vote, but you vote more and more about things of lesser importance.

You were mentioning a new socialism before. What country is closest today to this model?

None, because to reach 21st Century Socialism there first of all has to be a debate about 20th Century Socialism and this has not been done. I proposed it in Venezuela and other countries and people don’t want to, and, there is also Cuba, which is a product of 20th Century socialism, which has always been part of our socialist aspirations and Castro cannot be considered a case of simple dictatorship. I recently published an article in El Viejo Topo in which I talk about how Cuba turned into such a difficult problem for the left.

You talk there about a lack of auto-critique.

Of course, because when the debate about socialism crops up all of a sudden this spectre crops up about us delegitimising Cuba. What there is in Latin America is a social democracy that cannot even be said to be very advanced, but it is very important for those peoples. By taking advantage of an opening in US imperialism that was very concentrated upon the Middle East, opportunities were created for more progressive political regimes and what they did was to go way beyond the World Bank, with policies that compensated the most vulnerable groups. It was possible due to the boom in natural resources.

But that abuse of natural resources, that extractivist capitalism, does not fit in with 21st Century Socialism.

That’s what worries me, there is a divorce being created between the indigenous peoples and these progressive governments. The boom in natural resources lasts 5-10 years. What happens when there is no longer any money for family assistance, when the waters are contaminated, the indigenous expelled from their lands, and the rainforest destroyed by the agricultural frontier? The politicians do not want to debate this because they are thinking about the next elections. In Europe too, because neoliberalism has destroyed all the ecological consciousness in Europe that was possessed by the strongest ecology movements.

You maintain that it is only possible to combat neoliberalism by opposing it with a culture of hope, happiness and life. Put that culture into words.

The youth can recognise democratic energies with their Real Democracy Now, but they lack a political subject that has on its horizons an end to this deterioration. This reaction will bring with it a short period in which things will go badly, but it will be strong enough and legitimate enough that people will see it will end well, not like today. It will then be possible to start another social model that will begin with a productive model in which the contradiction between capitalism and nature is finally addressed. And, of course, the international solidarity that we have not been able to use to our advantage.  Spain has demonised all the progressive governments of its former Latin American colonies, and now the Ibero-American Summit is coming and the same people who demonised these governments are now seeking investment. What must be going through the mind of Dilma Rousseff or Rafael Correa? That they want to exploit us just the same as they always exploited us.

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Of Rising Tides and Shattering Floors

This is a translation of a piece originally from the blog Al final de la asamblea on November 26th, and republished on on 28th November.

(Image via

It is written from the perspective of a person who is an active participant in 15-M assemblies but also works as a health visitor, and it explores the changes in attitude and activity on the part of healthcare workers in Madrid in reaction to the plans for privatising hospitals in the region, and how the 15-M movement has functioned as a guiding influence upon people whose idea of politics is the constricted one supplied by neoliberal ideology.

The mobilisation of these workers is known as the Marea Blanca [White Tide] and has seen immense demonstrations on the streets of Madrid and other cities, in defence of public health services.

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(via Periódico Diagonal)

The marea blanca and the thawing (or how nothing changes while everything changes)

I ask B, a nursing assistant in one of the public hospitals of Madrid that are going to be sold off to a private health company for ‘exploitation’, if she is going on strike next week. B has explained to me dozens of times her stance regarding such matters of politics and life. She had told me regularly and intensely about the disastrous ‘legacy of ZP’ [Zapatero, ex-Prime Minister] that was the cause of what we were going through, about the destruction wrought by unions upon the country, the problem of liberados [basically, people on secondment to work for a union while maintaining their job], the mother of all evils. B also told me how happy she was that her daughter was going to a private primary school run by nuns where there would never be a strike, which was something done by trade unionists and people who, in general, don’t want to work.

B. replies to me without hesitation that yes, she is going on strike this week ‘because of the sustainability plan’ despite the fact that this will push this month’s family finances to the limits of what is acceptable, despite the fact that she asks me bitterly whilst looking me in the eye “and do you think it will make something happen? I doubt it.”, she answers herself. When we spoke about the last general strike she keeps talking to me about the unions and about Toxo and Méndez [general secretaries of the two main Spanish unions, Comisiones Obreras and the General Workers’ Union], as if it had been only those two gentlemen who had taken part. B. is always a hyper-summarised broadcast from the media imaginary of the neoliberal right-wing. If I ask her where a particular piece of news or information comes from, she normally responds, surprised, “from the TV” or “from the radio”. She doesn’t say Telemadrid [rabid right-wing Madrid TV channel] or the COPE [rabid right-wing Catholic national radio station], because they are simply the TV and the radio.

B, right now, has no words to explain what is happening. She isn’t just going to go on strike because of her endangered job; she actively collects signatures to prevent the dismantling of the Princesa hospital and she participates in the processes of mobilisation that have covered the hospital with sheets and banners, inside and out, saying that the hospital is not for sale and Public Healthcare. B thinks it’s madness for the hospital to be sold, it’s not certain that they are going to get rid of her because the new hospitals that are being put up for sale already had the format of a private hospital from the start, with part of their management privatised and with unspectacularly paid jobs, narrowly defined and strictly ‘regulated’ for the functioning of each unit. So it is unlikely they will cut her wages or that her job will be surplus to requirements. But it is madness to privatise health, something that B sees as the path to the dismantling of public health care, and that is madness and a terrible injustice, she says.

In B’s Hospital they are going to attend the strike as if they were a single person.

A. is a doctor in the Princesa Hospital who, like the majority of her colleagues in service, never talks about politics, a fact she even boasts about. They concern themselves in the main with working. A says she has never gone on strike (just like her colleagues), she says so quickly and a little alarmed, making clear that she is not that kind of person, it is not the type of thing she does, there isn’t even a political explanation, she doesn’t even consider herself right-wing, or left-wing, she would be unable to, she simply has no interest in politics, to say nothing of strikes, which go against her principles.

On the days that I was setting up the camp in Sol, the doctors from this hospital with whom I would hold conversations would look at it all as if it were something from Mars, a Mars expedition that, without finding it disgusting or being openly against it, was light years away from the,, as if it were something for idealists, dreamers, young hippies and such. Let’s just say that at that time, a person could become deeply depressed while contemplating the possibility that some day, people like the doctors in the Princesa could be actively involved with us against the madness of the powers of capital, in the attempt to build a more democratic and just society. Deeply depressed.

At the Princesa Hospital they’ve been cutting off the traffic in the nearby streets, placing themselves in front of the cars on the thoroughfare, and then going around the hospital doing their thing, twice a day. The shouts and the chants speak of public-healthcare, of they-don’t-represent-us and this-is-a-robbery and even these-are-our-weapons as they lift their hands. There are no flags or union emblems, these are not welcome, least of all from political parties. There are many individual banners and signs that solely represent the person who carries them. The drifts into the street are spontaneous and of course not communicated, they are led by no-one, but they always happen. Everything is decided in assembly, in a large assembly in the Hospital assembly hall. In the demonstrations that cut the street off, sometimes in the rain and in the assemblies you will find A, who had never gone on strike and who never talks about politics. This week her service, which is always inundated with patients, will be shut due to everyone being on strike.

R. is a doctor who attends patients in his private clinic, in a street and neighbourhood in Madrid with high purchasing power. Things are going better than ever and he tells me so in his office decorated with a flag of Spain on a little pole and a large crucifix. R. belongs to a traditionally well-off family of liberal professionals and the splendour of old nobility. They have been practising solely private medicine for generations. When asked about the ‘sustainability’ plan, R says that it is simply madness, simply madness to privatise public healthcare because now it will obey criteria of profitability and you can’t do that, it’s very dangerous if you are to have public health. It is intolerable that a party should rule with an absolute majority, he says. It is totally incomprehensible, he doesn’t know what has happened, if it’s a mistake, a tactic, if someone has gone mad or what.
In the Princesa Hospital one very often hears the words “don’t politicise”. It’s a demand. The majority of doctors and nurses involved in the mobilisation (nearly the whole hospital) speak of ‘not politicising’. It’s about defending the Princesa Hospital, preventing the injustice and the irrationality of its closure, but not about politicising. They’ll cut off streets, hold assemblies, debates, demonstrate daily, they’ll call press conferences, mobilise people over social networks, argue against the privatisation of health and the dismantling of the hospital, they’ll have an indefinite healthcare strike, but they shall not “politicise”.

Another doctor from the same hospital who takes part daily in the demonstrations, cutting off streets, collection of signatures and lastly this weeks strike, has the typical profile of a person who is very conservative. Very. Belonging to a family and a tradition that is clearly and openly conservative, Christian, and right-wing. Nonetheless she sees what is happening with the Princesa as “crazy”, “absurd”, “irrational” and that it has to do with eliminating public health care and making a profit from it, both things she sees as outrageous. And of course, this is not about politics, but what is reasonable.

I would go as far as saying that the doctors, nurses and health workers in general at the Princesa Hospital are not motivated by the risk to their jobs and their pay checks, however much this might have been the catalyst, the detonator that managed to move many of them out of their place in the world, shaking them and confronting them with a dubious, problematic and grave situation against which one must take a stand and act. I think that the mobilisations that are taking place, including the incredibly large white tide on Sunday 18th November in Madrid, are deeply sincere in their demands and they are seeking what they say they are: a public health system, for everyone.

There are many more testimonies and examples of doctors and health workers with whom I have shared this process. The most common thing is to be left speechless, it’s that look of a doctor or an assistant, for example PP voters and typical defenders of their discourse one day after another until, now, they are left speechless, sincerely and simply. They ask: “what is going on?”

I think we are witnessing a deep political thawing out of ever wider sectors, a large part of society that finds itself affected and obliged to re-think, take a stance and act. Gradually we see a breaking of windows that allowed for a stabilised interpretation of the world, of reality, that ensured that everything stayed essentially the same as itself, through which the ruling powers had imposed a symbolic order on the field of what can be comprehended, the world organised in its categories of what is normal, necessary, right-wing, left-wing, unions, fascists, Catalans, etc.

There is a shattering, with increasing speed, of glass floors had kept worlds immobilised in a vice of contradiction (I would do something, but who do I vote for? I’d defend my job but not with the unions; I’d go out on the streets but not alongside a perroflauta [derogatory term for person of unconventional appearance; perro = dog, flauta = flute]; these people are bad but ZP is worse; they are all thieves but as long as they aren’t cutting people’s heads off I’m not moving; etc etc etc); glass ceilings that kept people’s lives at a remove from the possibility of the political [lo político], from the possibility of becoming concerned in thought and in action with whatever it is that’s going on outside, with what is now happening to us in first person plural, with the possibility/necessity of doing something.

Glass floors shattering open and entire sectors, healthcare workers, civil servants, teachers and even police draining onto the common terrain of having to do, to demand, to talk and to decide. To demand participation in what is public, to oppose what is supposed to be beyond the scope of decision, that is, the crisis, with its overarching justification as a natural disaster, which is to say, non-negotiable and apolitical par excellence, or, alternatively, the responsibility of ordinary people, who have lived-beyond-our-means. These arguments can no longer hold back a tide that overwhelms them, and which, from my point of view, is opening up a common space, characterised by what is non-sectarian, non-identitarian, non-represented, non-delegated, and is represented by words such as common [común], public, democracy, persons…

Meanwhile, we fix our gaze on the Parliament like a cat on a mouse hole and we claim that nothing is happening there, meanwhile, we declare that the day of revolution in which everything changes has yet to arrive, meanwhile, many keep on looking up to heaven anxiously to see if someone can take charge of the situation and the suffering, a redeemer, a democratic and justice-dispensing liberator, a party or something. Meanwhile, many get depressed amid anxiety caused by urgency and the absence of forthcoming solutions.

Meanwhile, turning our gaze to one side, in the least spectacular way, perhaps, the ground is shattering. Whilst we are awaiting revolution and the solutions that change everything, perhaps, right beside us, everything is changing.

27-N, White tide

Postscript after the demo of 27-N.

27-N, a regular Tuesday, the coldest afternoon of this receding autumn, the #mareablanca has taken the streets of Madrid once again. Beyond anyone’s predictions, after so many days of mobilisation already, with all the attendant doubts (“will it make any difference?” is the most frequently heard phrase in one-to-one conversations) on the back of a recent, sudden, stumbling and nonetheless absolutely determined thawing out, the demonstration was absolutely unprecedented, massive and energetic.

It is difficult to remember,  despite the times we are in, such a density of slogans, chants, banners, placards and white cloths explaining what each person feels and demands.

A tremendous energy has just been liberated. In white. [pun in the original referring not only to the colour of the demonstration, but a sense of starting anew, as if with a new page being turned]

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Note on the Children Referendum

This is a comment I left a while back on an Irish Times editorial about the low turnout in the Children Referendum., which seems a long time ago now.

Perhaps people did not go out and vote because this time they knew there would be no wrathful God Of The Markets standing ready to exact brutal punishment should they fail to vote Yes.

To say that there was a wide public consensus in favour of the Yes vote is not saying very much, because the scope and wording of the amendment was carefully crafted so as to ensure that even more conservative sectors of Irish society could not oppose it and more progressive sectors could not argue against it. So the overall position of the Family as the ‘necessary basis of social order’ remains unassailable; the ‘as far as practicable’ clause means ‘within reason, as decided by ‘the markets’’; and the provision appears only to apply to those children in Ireland whom the constitution recognises as Irish citizens. Where you have a widespread sense that very little is at stake, it’s hardly surprising if the turnout proves low.

But the low turnout this referendum ought to be seen against the backdrop of a broader trend in Western societies. Social provisions and entitlements, supposedly guaranteed in constitutions, are being stripped away, under an offensive conducted by elected governments, acting not on behalf of their electorates, but in the interests of major financial powers.

When this offensive, which is entirely anti-democratic, requires the need for a constitutional change, electorates are either ignored, as was the case recently in Spain, or they are threatened with the apocalyptic violence of the markets, by government, business groups and sympathetic media organisations, to make sure they vote the right way. This was the case in Ireland with the Lisbon Treaty and the so-called Stability Treaty referenda . The political effect of this offensive is a widespread disenchantment with the existing political system, alongside the emptying of constitutions of any meaningful content in practice, in terms of social and democratic rights.

The social effects, among other things, are unemployment, hyper-exploitation in the workplace, deprivation and hopelessness. In Ireland, political and media establishments have no interest in addressing the political effect, and routinely present the social effects –as with the upcoming budget cuts- as an inevitable economic necessity. In this context, it should hardly come as any surprise if most people switch off from what they have to say about the importance of rights and constitutions.

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14N: Questions for reading the moment

Translation of an article on the Madrilonia site, thinking through the implications of the ground-breaking strike held in southern European countries on the 14th November last.

14N: Questions for reading the moment

1. A new form of Strike?

The strike of 14N past was very different to the strike of 29M last. And its elements of difference are not in what we understand by ‘traditional strike’. It’s likely that the stoppage in the strictest sense was quite similar to that of the last time. What was not similar was the quality and multiplicity of the mobilisation by citizens. The call to a consumer strike and the idea of the strike as a social mobilisation, and not as a mass stoppage was quickly circulated in society and it took on unprecedented forms. Bank offices were occupied, supermarkets were expropriated of foodstuffs, new social spaces were taken over, evictions were blocked, schools were surrounded and hospitals occupied and, above all, people were out on the streets the whole day.

The pickets at workplaces were of lesser importance to those that moved throughout cities blocking the traffic at nerve centres and checkmating a completely overwhelmed police force which responded with a blind and absolutely disproportionate violence. Stopping circulation is an intelligent approach, given the present system of accumulation –which is no longer industrial but service-based, and is a feasible approach, given the precarity that exists, when not going to work means you are sure not to get re-hired, or when we don’t have a job where we can go on strike.

We know that this change is not appreciable quantitavely, but it marks a clear trend, toward innovation in the forms of conflict, its incorporation in the imagination and collective practices of students, people in precarity, the unemployed, etc. As an important force for social destabilisation it is something completely new which, in probability, will grow and deepen in forthcoming mobilisations.

In this vein of mobilisation one can understand the immensity of the mobilisations at the end of the event. The collective understanding that the meaning of the strike had more to do with sovereignty and the destabilisation of a form of government than with the strict stopping of production. This also explains the police and media response. Beatings were to try and show a situation of order that was absolutely impossible.

2. A new scale for the Strike?

We have seen for the first time images of a joint mobilisation in Greece, Portugal, and Italy. We have seen, with somewhat different forms and practices, a totally shared moment of being out on the streets together: huge demonstrations and the singling out of parliaments as the intermediate centres of a global power.

The scale we are dealing with is therefore new too. A scalability that cannot be understood as simply moving onto a new territory, nor as abandoning specific developments at local or state scales, but as a new layer to the multi-level and interconnected logic that we have been developing of late. Let us say clearly that it is easier to think, propose and communicate proposals for common actions, at least in the south of Europe. 

This, obviously, is not coincidence, but derives from the specific condition of the crisis, rule by Troika and the dynamics of control over territory and wealth extraction on the part of finance capital. Many of us are already conscious of the inter-relatedness of each one of the local attacks by European powers; for example, the labour reform demanded by the Troika, the limits imposed on the reform to the mortgage law (to stop evictions) by the European Union; the end of public healthcare due to the payment of debt interest. We could, however, single out better the key points of European power: each one of the members of the Commission and the President of the Central Bank, and seek their resignation, like we do with Rajoy, and demand a real democracy in Europe too.

Simultaneous mass citizen mobilisations, across various countries of the continent, render visible the potency that we can become. It also entails a major transformation with regard to previous phases, which have now been completely transcended, of activist counter-summits. Blocking a centre of power in another country with a high level of confrontation is an action that only a few can carry out, due to time and travel costs and the agility and physical fitness needed in order not to get arrested. Being the majority is our strength, as has been shown by this first European strike.

3. Some open questions.

With these two points we believe we have to speak of an open conjuncture. Let us say that the centre of attention has moved from Sol to Neptuno [the square nearest to the Spanish parliament] and from there it has built up and dispersed throughout the entire city. Let us say that the movement’s subjectivity cut right through the day of strike, shaped it and made the unions assume a new kind of dynamic in order to guarantee their own legitimacy and survival. However, the situation is still shot through with a certain organisational uncertainty: how to go on? How to impose the will of the majority on the government?
Let us recognise that the intense social mobilisation has not substantially modified the government’s position, though the government shows symptoms of exhaustion that have a direct correlation to the police violence unleashed in the streets as the sole mechanism for maintaining a feeling of order.

Even the unions themselves asume that we are in a situation of institutional blockage for the medium term. For the first time in many months we do not have a date in front of us, an event that allows us to gather together. In this vacuum we can find time to imagine and put the next steps in gear.

It is a matter of thinking up mechanisms that open up the conjuncture once again in terms of conflict and participation. Let them be liveable for anyone and based in a logic of process, with the capacity for growth and sustainability. In the squares one can hear proposals about the constituent process. We know that the present party-based system does not serve us and that new party-based approaches based on the present non-democratic order would simply produce a change of elites. We need a real democracy, one that guarantees that those who are elected lead by obeying and that our political and social rights are untouchable. How do we begin to discuss approaches? How do we conclusively strengthen alliances with specific sectors such as the health sector, on a war footing in Madrid?

(Banners read: Public healthcare is not for sale – it will be defended! (Obviously it rhymes in Spanish)]

The 14N, and also the marea blanca of 18N [health workers’ mobilisation – literally, ‘white tide’] have filled us with new questions and challenges and that is a symptom of their potency. Every new question renders visible the road we have come so far and also the ceiling we have reached. We cannot stop now. Nothing less than our lives depend on it.

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Where’s The Money, Boss?

Big march on today in Dublin. 1pm, Parnell Square.

(Irish wealth. Graph via DCTU.)

Translation of a piece by Isaac Rosa, published 22nd November in It has a decent phrase for a march placard.

Where’s the money, boss?

When the boss calls you to his office and tells you the one about how “things are getting worse and worse. I have to let you go”, ask him: where’s the money, boss?

When you discover in your payslip that you’re earning 20% less, run off and get the director and get him to answer: where’s the money, boss?

When the bank seeks public assistance, recapitalisation, the buying up of toxic assets, cheap money from the ECB or nationalisation, let’s turn up at their board meeting and let the president have it: where’s the money boss?

When the minister in power tells us that he is forced to cut social spending, end legal aid or close public services; when regional officials assure us that health care will not be affected by the cutback; let’s get out on the street with a banner that reads loud and clear: where’s the money, boss?

Yes, we already know the answer we’ll get from plenty of them: “the crisis is terrible…”, “sales have plummetted…”, “advertisers are pulling out…”, “demand has fallen…”, “we’re in the red…”, “we’re in a loss-making situation…”, “if we don’t take more in we can’t spend any more…”, “we can’t make ends meet..”. Whenever they’ve finished with their usual litany, let’s repeat the question: where’s the money, boss?

Ruling politicians and businessmen usually explain the cutbacks with a clichéd example: “this is like a family; when there’s no money coming into the house, you can’t spend anything.” OK, fine, but if we accept the metaphor, there’s something missing: families, before they take drastic decisions or even stop paying the mortgage, first of all raid the famous “family mattress” until it’s all gone: we spend an entire life savings, we sell the car and the house, we seek help from relatives.

The question is: how is it that businesses, especially the big businesses that sack people by the hundred, don’t have a mattress? Did they have one and use it all up? Did they never have one? Have they hidden it safely away? And the same goes for the State and authorities: why didn’t they take advantage of the good years to fill up that mattress that would break the fall when the bad years arrived? Or, to put it as previously: where’s the money, boss?

It’s true there are certain businesspeople, especially small businesspeople, who have tried everything and have burned all their capital and even their personal wealth in order to keep the firm going; I know a few of them. But what happens when a company that has had enormous profits for decades only needs a single year in the red to fire en masse and cut wages? And what about the firms that haven’t had losses, but have simply seen their profits fall (but keep on making a profit, even a very considerable one), that also fire people and make cuts? And let’s not talk about those that haven’t even seen profits fall, that are earning more but still fire and make cuts as a preventive measure. In all these cases, where’s the money?

If we’re talking about big firms, what are losses? If we look at the short term, the last financial year, or even the past three or four years, we might see numbers in the red. But how about we take as our reference the last fifteen or twenty years? What’s the balance in terms of losses and profits for that period? And that’s only looking at the reported accounts, without taking into account the habitual accountancy engineering and the widespread fondness for tax havens. Some examples, among many: the El Pais newspaper. After thirty five years of uninterrupted profits, €850m in the last decade, and still with positive numbers in the first months of this year, is it acceptable that it should sack 129 (and with minimal compensation) and cut the wages of the rest?

Another one, which touches me more closely: the defunct Público daily. The owner justifies the closure on account of losses (which were real, but diminishing), sends the workers to the social security offices and leaves us collaborators unpaid for several months. Is such a kick up the rear acceptable on the part of someone who has got rich for years from his businesses? I’m not talking about keeping the paper open (that too), but could he not have at least scraped around to give a decent pay-off to workers?

Third example: Telefónica. Last year it announced a workforce reduction of 20%. And it did so the same day it promised cash dividends of €8,000 million for its shareholders, and only a year after breaking profit records for a Spanish firm.

In these and other cases, after decades of getting rich, with double digit profits, haven’t they got a mattress for a rainy day? Or to put it another way: is their only mattress the pay checks of their workers? Do they have to pay for management mistakes, casino games and the greed of the bosses? If the profit was only for the owners, shareholders and executives, why not the losses too? Where’s the money, boss?

And the same thing with public officials: during the boom years they made generous tax gifts, they mis-sold public enterprises, privatised services and resources that were not simply expense, but the source of future revenue, and that’s without counting what was frittered away by waste and corruption, and that they are still turning a blind eye to major tax fraud and ignoring other sources of revenue. Where’s the money, boss?

That is the question of this crisis/scam. And they can give us the answer themselves, if they can contain their laughter: “the money is you, suckers”. So it is: the money for the party to continue is us. That’s what it’s about: a massive transfer of wealth from workers to the financial sector, big business and top earners. Our wages, our cheapened labour, our privatised public wealth, our dismantled welfare system and our money for socialising their losses. A huge looting.

We are their mattress, and we always have been. And as long as they are resting comfortably on this mattress, they won’t even bother answering the question, but just in case let’s repeat it to them every day: where’s the money, boss?

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To repeat: it was not a tragedy.

To repeat: it was not a tragedy. In saying it was not a tragedy, I’m not trying to preserve a pristine meaning of the word ‘tragedy’, or keep some connection to classical Greek drama.

Lots of people are describing Savita’s death as a tragedy. Clearly, many people are talking about it that way because that’s the word they find that conveys a sense of something both deeply sad and deeply harrowing.

But that is not all there is to it. Last night I watched the Primetime interview with Praveen Halapannavar. Miriam O’Callaghan described the death as tragic, as have many other presenters, panellists, columnists and legislators. Also, the man on the unsolicited anti-abortion robo-call received by thousands of people yesterday describes her death as tragic.

Using the word ‘tragedy’ is not just an expression of empathy. It shapes our perception of what really happened, and how we act as a consequence. Let me give you an example.

Suppose a man is talking about how he killed a woman. He says: I went out to the shed, picked up a hammer, went back into the house, and, tragically, I hit her over the head with a hammer and killed her.

In this example, it’s obvious the man is establishing a narrative, and the use of the word ‘tragically’ is crucial to his narrative. ‘Tragically’ tells the listener that the killer thinks what happened was deeply sad too.

But it also suggests there were forces bigger than the man in operation: he hit her over the head with a hammer because tragic forces impelled him to do so, not because he really wanted to. By using the word ‘tragically’, then, the killer is trying to get himself off the hook. He is trying to extricate himself from the event.

Things are not so simple in the case of Savita Halapannavar’s death. There are no easily identifiable cold-blooded killers: just medical professionals concerned with observing the law, and, according to Praveen Halapannavar himself, often acting with compassion and empathy. So, on the surface, the word ‘tragedy’ seems more appropriate: the professionals were impelled to act the way they did by something bigger than themselves, in this case, the law of the land, and the consequences, apparently unintended, were horrifying and deeply sad.

But this is why we should be all the more wary of the word ‘tragedy’.

Savita was in agonising pain, and distraught at the news she was having a miscarriage. She pleaded repeatedly for an abortion. But she was refused it because of the law in Ireland, which gives equal protection to the life of the woman and the life of the foetus she carries inside her. So doctors refused her request. Even when she said she was not Irish –as her husband recounted last night- those people treating her deemed that she –and they- would still be subject to Irish law. And since the views of the woman count for nothing under current legislation, that meant that her views and wishes counted for nothing here either.

Beyond the responsibility of individuals who treated her and refused her treatment, which still has to be taken into account, we can say Savita was a victim of the structural violence of the Irish State. 

At the very minimum, there was a law and a band of armed men staying the hand of any doctor who might have otherwise treated her, in keeping with her wishes as a human being, and not as a subject of Irish law. So when we accept it was a ‘tragedy’, then, we are saying the law and the band of armed men that backs it up are something bigger than us, something legitimate by virtue of its existence. We are accepting the legitimacy of structural violence.

But we aren’t just accepting it: we are maintaining it.

In a recent article for, Juan Gutierrez describes how

‘structures and cultures maintain themselves upon vast swarms of human beings who build them, make them work, and/or simply assent to them, thus legitimising them. The swarm does this by ignoring, whole or in part, what happens on the inside and what they produce on the outside. Take for instance the law that came into force twelve years or so ago that requires Latin Americans to have a visa to come to Spain: in what interests did it not exist before and in what interests does it exist today? How does it affect the dignity of the children of the madre patria [term frequently used in Latin America to refer to Spain. Literally, motherland]? This question is neither asked, nor are answers sought, by the swarm of people who apply and uphold the law’.

By saying it was ‘a tragedy’ in the particular case of Savita, that it happened because of something bigger than us, we are acquiescing in a particular narrative. It is this narrative that has dominated media coverage to date, including last night’s Prime Time programme.  This narrative entails a couple of important things.

One, it entails, since it was a tragedy, that regardless of our position on abortion, regardless of how we have contributed to applying and upholding the law, and regardless of the questions we have asked or prevented people from asking, we are all very sad, and, if nothing else, united in sadness at just how much of a tragedy it really is. There is a consensus: this is a tragedy (if nothing else).

Two, it entails that doctors and other medical staff acted properly in ignoring her wishes, because it was established by law that a woman’s wishes do not count in this regard. Or, this narrative allows equally for the possibility that the medical staff acted improperly –that is, negligently- in failing to recognise her life was at risk.

But there is no room here for the idea that a woman’s wishes actually count. If we are moved safely along by this narrative, there is no longer any need to ask some pretty basic questions. Such as: is it right, as the law says it is, to ignore women when they request an abortion?  Is it right for the State –and behind it, ‘the people’- to treat women’s bodies as its property? Why should we apply and uphold such a law? Whose interests are served by the fact that we continue to do so?

All broadcast media coverage I have seen so far has ignored these basic questions. It has all been a tacit question of: who cares what she wanted, could she have been kept alive within current legislation? Narrowing things down, on the one hand, to the facts and chronology of the case –to be determined by experts, of course-, and on the other, figuring out what this means for the government.

‘Tragedy’ crowds out other words: like outrage, or injustice. Imagine all the times you have heard or read the word ‘tragedy’ over the last week. Then imagine what it would have been like if instead, at that very point, they had said ‘injustice’, and, instead of ‘tragic’ they had said ‘outrageous’ (imagine what it would have taken for the man on the robo-call to say ‘injustice’).

The point, then, is that talking about tragedy in this case not only initiates a process of letting people off the hook, but it helps to bed down the status quo once again. And that status quo is anti-choice.

We rule through words, but words also rule through us. That’s why it’s so important to pick the right ones.


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Against Movember

When awareness for particular health issues is raised in such a nebulous way as is the case with Movember, it serves to chip away at awareness of the need for a decent and adeq
uately funded public system of health care.

Charity is nearly always uncontroversial because it doesn’t require you to demonstrate commitment to a particular political programme. Whilst many employers will approve of Movember as something that gives the workplace a zany and yet caring atmosphere, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a widespread initiative, for instance, to grow lambchop sideburns specifically against cuts to public healthcare would be frowned on, and perhaps even prohibited on pain of disciplinary action.

Last year, my dad got treatment for prostate cancer on the NHS  – it was detected and dealt with in good time, and he didn’t pay a cent for treatment. But a health service subjected to gradual privatisation and outsourcing, and a fragmented workforce subjected to the same norms that prevail in profit-making enterprises would have disastrous consequences for many prostate cancer sufferers, especially poor ones. But none of this appears in the purview of those growing zany handlebar moustaches, or those who celebrate them for it.

Charity seldom requires conflict with the established order. In many cases, charitable organisations serve to reinforce the established order. They dignify the rich, and the way the rich make their money, whilst condemning those people who end up having to depend on charity to a subaltern status.

In Ireland, oligarchs and their flunkies use charities as a way of flouting the benevolence of the rich and browbeating people into ceasing their demands that their social and political rights be vindicated. This was most luridly in evidence in the Haven ads posted around the country in recent months, which told Irish people that they should stop objecting to household taxes -imposed as part of a right-wing political programme that targets the poor on the whole whilst assures a bountiful tax regime for the rich- because people in Haiti are far worse off. Never mind the fact they are far worse off not least because of the ultra-neoliberal programmes -the flipside of ultra-charitable billionaires- imposed on them.

Then there are the cases where flamboyant charitable activities are a front for the most vicious abuse whilst the people involved are celebrated as heroes and held up as a model for the kind of society that ought to exist: no rights, just charity, as happened with Jimmy Savile under the Thatcher regime.

Of course, people growing moustaches for Movember are not like Jimmy Savile. They are just having fun and being sociable, for the most part: nice people doing something they believe to be helpful and humorous.

But charity, as Oscar Wilde noted, paraphrasing St Peter, creates a multitude of sins:

‘The people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.’

And a moustache can cover a multitude of sins too.

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Legal Clarity, Please.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the malignant fairytale is true, and that there is something living and active called ‘the people of Ireland’, and that ‘the people of Ireland’ can enshrine a conceptual dissection of women’s bodies in law, such that the woman and the foetus she carries inside her are two separate individuals, whose dignity and freedom are to be assured, with equal right to life.

Let’s also assume that this people of Ireland have a legitimate authority to do this. Let’s assume that its legitimacy derives from the fact that the people of Ireland have freely adopted, enacted, and given their constitution to themselves, and that as such, in the final instance, they can legitimately call on a band of armed men to enforce the observance of the aforementioned conceptual dissection, and that all the citizens of Ireland consent to this.

Look at the comments of Bishop John Fleming published in the Irish Times, immediately before Savita’s story reached the world. He justified the prohibition on abortion by saying that ‘for Christians, our bodies are not our own to do with them what we will.’ In a way, this is true: our bodies are not items of property that we can exchange for other items of property, even if most of us are compelled to sell our labour power in order to live. Nonetheless, the unspoken corollary to John Fleming’s position, with regard to law in Ireland, is that our bodies belong to the State to do with them what it will. This, as Ireland’s prohibitions on abortion, and the ensuing public debate in the aftermath of Savita Halappanavar’s death show, is the consensus position.

For example, look at Fergus Finlay’s comments published in the Irish Examiner today. He says: ‘We live in a country where the people have decided, very clearly and very explicitly, that we fundamentally value the lives of unborn babies. The people have also decided, equally clearly and explicitly, that we do not want under any circumstances to prevent any woman who wishes to terminate her pregnancy abroad from doing so. And the people have decided, again clearly and explicitly, that no woman whose life is in danger — for whatever reason — should be denied a termination here at home. That’s a clear and unequivocal position. And it’s the position of the Irish people, as expressed time and again in the ballot box.’

That is, the ‘people of Ireland’ can call on the institutions of the State to enforce a prohibition on abortion as it sees fit, and this is regardless of the views of the woman who is pregnant. It is only if the woman is at risk of death that an abortion might be allowed, but this has nothing to do with what the woman thinks: it is a matter for an expert or group of experts with sufficient legal and medical qualifications, appointed by the State, to adjudicate.

Well, let’s say you believe the malignant fairytale, as Fergus Finlay and so many other people do, about the legitimate sovereign authority of the people of Ireland to make and enforce such laws. And let’s say you believe that a woman who is an Irish citizen freely denies herself the right to an abortion because that is what she has decided alongside the rest of the Irish people.

But even if you do believe all this, Savita Halappanavar, as far as I can gather, was not an Irish citizen.

Therefore, what legitimate authority would the people of Ireland have to impose their laws on a person who was not even a citizen of their State, a person who therefore has had no role in the drafting, free adoption, enacting or giving of the constitution to herself?

Savita was a person who, by virtue of her status, would not have been able to vote in any future referendum on abortion laws. Had she been able to give birth to a child in Ireland, would her child have been an Irish citizen? Perhaps, perhaps not, and certainly not automatically. But there are many other women of a similar status whose children would definitely not have been granted the status of Irish citizen, and after compelling them to give birth, the State –acting on behalf of the people of Ireland- can expel them and their children beyond the borders of the State, or, it can confine them to degrading living conditions as it wills.

What legitimate authority, then, –assuming the malignant fairytale is true- did the Irish State have to execute its designs on Savita’s body, or, for that matter, on the body of any woman who is not a citizen of Ireland, and to say that their will counts for nothing?

“This is a Catholic country” is the phrase that has reverberated around the world in the aftermath of Savita Halappanavar’s death at the hands of the Irish State: it was the rationalisation provided to her and her family for the refusal to accede to her request for an abortion.

However, if we see this primarily in terms of religious belief, we lose sight of the question of legitimate State authority, and we disregard the consequences of our belief in malignant fairytales. Not only with regard to abortion, but with regard to the way in which our society is organised, and the designs that are imposed on us, with frequently catastrophic consequences for those people who do not attain the status of citizen, as well for as many other people, especially women, who do.

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Eduardo Galeano: Workers’ Rights – A Subject for Archaeologists?

Below is a translation of the text of a talk, given by Eduardo Galeano at the Latin American and Caribbean Social Sciences Conference in Mexico City on Friday 9th November, in front of ‘hundreds of students who had waited up to nine hours to get in’. It was published Sunday 18th November in Argentina’s Página/12.

This mosaic has been put together with a few texts of mine published in books and magazines in recent years. Wanting without wanting to, coming and going between the past and present and amid different themes, all the texts refer, in some way, directly or indirectly, to the rights of workers, rights shredded by the hurricane of the crisis: this ferocious crisis, which punishes labour and rewards speculation and is dumping more than two centuries of labour conquests into the rubbish bin.

The universal tarantula.

It happened in Chicago, in 1886.

On the 1st of May, when the labour strike paralysed Chicago and other cities, the Philadelphia Tribune made a diagnosis: the labour element has been bitten by a kind of universal tarantula – it has gone dancing mad.

Dancing mad were the workers who were fighting for the eight hour working day and the right to organise unions.

The following year, four labour leaders, accused of murder, were sentenced without proof in a sham trial. Georg Engel, Adolf Fischer, Albert Parsons and Auguste Spies went off to the gallows. The fifth person condemned, Louis Lingg, had blown his head off in his cell.

Each 1st of May, the whole world remembers them.

With the passage of time, international conventions, constitutions and laws have proven them right.

However, the most successful firms have yet to find out. They forbid labour unions and measure the working day with those melted watches painted by Salvador Dalí.

A disease called work

In 1714 Bernardino Ramazzini died.

He was a strange doctor, who would start by asking:

-What is your job?

It hadn’t occurred to anyone that this could be of any importance.

His experience allowed him to write the first treatise on occupational medicine, where he described, one by one, the common illnesses in more than fifty occupations. And he showed that there were few hopes of a cure for those workers who ate hunger, without sun and without rest, in enclosed suffocating and grimy workshops.

While Ramazzini was dying in Padua, in London, Percivall Pott was born.

Following in the tracks of the Italian master, this English doctor investigated the life and death of poor workers. Among other discoveries, Pott found out why the life of chimney sweep children was so short. Children would slide, naked, down chimneys, house to house, and in their difficult cleaning duties they would breathe in a lot of soot. Soot was their executioner.


More than 90 million customers turn up, every week, at Wal-Mart stores. Their more than nine hundred thousand employees are forbidden from affiliation to any union. When the idea occurs to any of them, they become one more unemployed person. The successful business openly denies one of the human rights proclaimed by the United Nations: freedom of association. The founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, received, in 1992, the Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honours in the United States.

One in every four North American adults, and nine in every ten children, devour at McDonalds the plastic food that makes them fat. McDonald’s workers are as disposable as the food they serve: they are minced by the same machine. Nor do they have the right to join a union.

In Malaysia, where labour unions still exist and function, Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Hewlett Packard managed to avoid that annoyance. The Malaysian government declared the electronics sector union free.

Nor was there any possibility of forming a union for the 190 female workers who were burnt to death in Thailand, in 1993, in the shed locked from the outside where they made dolls of Sesame Street, Bart Simpson and The Muppets.

In their election campaigns in 2000, candidates Bush and Gore were agreed on the need to continue imposing the North American model of labour relations on the world. “Our working style”, as they both called it, is the one setting the pace of globalisation, advancing in seven-league boots and entering even the most remote corners of the planet.

Technology, which has abolished distances, now allows a worker for Nike in Indonesia to have to work a hundred thousand years to earn what a Nike executive in the United States earns in a year.

It is the continuation of the colonial era, on an unprecedented scale. The poor of the world continue to serve their traditional function: they provide cheap hands and cheap products, though they now produce dolls, sports shoes, computers and high technology instruments apart from producing, as before, rubber, rice, coffee, sugar and other things cursed by the world market.

Since 1919, 183 international agreements have been signed regulating labour relations in the world. According to the International Labour Organisation, of these 183 agreements, France ratified 115, Norway 106, Germany 76 and the United States…fourteen. The country that spearheads the process of globalisation only obeys its own orders. That is how it guarantees sufficient impunity to its major corporations, sent out on the hunt for cheap labour and the conquest of territories that dirty industries can contaminate as they see fit. Paradoxically, this country that recognises no law other than the law of work outside the law is the one that now says there will be no option but to include ‘social clauses’ and ‘environmental protection clauses’ in free trade agreements. What would reality be without the advertising that masks it?

These clauses are mere tributes that vice pays to virtue under the heading of public relations, but the mere mention of labour rights makes the hair stand on end of the most fervent advocates of starvation wages, flexible working hours and free dismissal. On leaving the presidency of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo went on to sit on the board of the Union Pacific Corporation and the Procter and Gamble consortium, which operates in 140 countries. What is more, he heads a UN commission and broadcasts his thoughts in Forbes Magazine: in technocratese, he rages against the “imposition of homogeneous labour standards in the new trade agreements”. Translated, that means: let’s forget once and for all any international legislation that still protects workers. The retired president earns money by preaching slavery. But the main executive of General Electric says it more clearly: “To be competitive, you have to squeeze the lemons”. And it needs no explanation that he does not work as a lemon in the reality show of the world of our times.

Confronted with denunciations and protests, firms wash their hands: it wasn’t me. In post-modern industry, labour is no longer concentrated. That’s how it is everywhere, and not only in private activity. Subcontractors make three quarters of the car parts of Toyota. Out of every five Volkswagen workers in Brazil, only one is employed by the firm. Of the 81 Petrobras workers killed in labour accidents at the end of the 20th century, 66 were working for subcontractors that do not meet safety norms. Through three hundred subcontracting firms, China produces the half of all Barbie dolls for the girls of the world. In China there are unions, but they obey a state that in the name of socialism engages in disciplining the labour force. “We combat worker agitation and social instability in order to ensure a favourable climate for investors”, explained Bo Xilai, a leading official in the Chinese Communist Party.

Economic power is more monopolised than ever, but countries and people compete in what they can: let’s see who can offer more in exchange for less, let’s see who works double in exchange for half. Left by the roadside are the remains of the conquests wrenched through so many years of pain and struggle.

The maquiladora plants of Mexico, Central America and the Carribean, which are not called “sweat shops” for nothing, grow at a far more accelerated rate than industry as a whole. Eight out of ten new jobs in Argentina are “in the black”, without any legal protection. Nine out of every ten new jobs in the whole of Latin America belong to the “informal sector”, a euphemism for saying that workers are abandoned to God’s mercy. Will job stability and other worker rights soon become a subject for archaeologists? No more than souvenirs of an extinguished species?

In the looking glass world, freedom oppresses: the freedom of money demands workers who are inmates of the prison of fear, which is the greatest prison of all prisons. The god of the free market threatens and punishes; and any worker knows this well, wherever they are. The fear of unemployment, which allows employers to reduce their labour costs and multiply productivity, is, in today’s world, the most widespread source of anguish. Who is safe from the panic of being cast into the long queues of those who are looking for work? Who doesn’t fear becoming an ‘internal obstacle’, to use the words of the president of Coca-Cola, who explained the sacking of thousands of workers by saying “we have eliminated the internal obstacles”?

And while we are asking questions, the last one: faced with the globalisation of money, which divides the world into the conquerors and the conquered, can the struggle for the dignity of labour be internationalised? What a challenge.

A rare act of sanity

In 1998, France introduced the law that reduced the working week to thirty-five hours

Work less, live more: Thomas More had dreamed about this, in his Utopia, but five centuries had to pass so that a nation would finally dare to commit such an act of common sense.

At the end of the day, what are machines for, if it is not to reduce time for work and to widen our spaces for freedom? Why does technological progress have to regale us with unemployment and anguish?

Just the once, at least, there was a country that dared to defy so much senselessness.

But the sanity didn’t last long. The law of thirty-five hours died aged ten.

This unsafe world

Today, 28th of April, World Day for Safety in Work, it is worth warning that there is nothing less safe than work. Each day there are more and more workers who wake up, each day, wondering:

-How many of us will not be needed? Who will buy me?

Many lose work and many lose, while working, their lives: every fifteen seconds a worker dies, murdered by what they call workplace accidents.

Public insecurity is the favourite subject of politicians who unleash collective hysteria to win elections. Danger, danger, they proclaim: at every corner awaits a thief, a rapist, a murderer. But those politicians never denounce work as dangerous, and it’s dangerous to cross the street, because every twenty five seconds a pedestrian dies, murdered by what they call a traffic accident; and it’s dangerous to eat, because whoever is safe from hunger can fall prey to poisoning by chemical food; and it’s dangerous to breathe because in the cities, pure air is, like silence, a luxury item; and it’s also dangerous to be born, because every three seconds sees the death of a child who has not reached the age of five alive.


Maruja’s Story

Today, 30th of March, International Domestic Workers’ Day, it will do no harm to tell the brief story of a worker in one of the most downtrodden trades in the world.

Maruja was of no age.

Of her years beforehand, she said nothing. Of her years afterwards, she hoped for nothing.

She was not pretty, nor ugly, nor average.

When she walked she dragged her feet, clenching the duster, or the brush, or the ladle.

When awake, she sank her head between her shoulders.

When asleep, she sank her head between her knees.

When they spoke to her, she looked at the ground, like someone counting ants.

She had worked in other people’s houses as long as she could remember.

She had never left the city of Lima.

She bustled about, from house to house, but didn’t settle in any. Finally, she found a place where she was treated as if she was a person.

A few days later, she left.

She was becoming attached.



August 30th, Day of the Disappeared:

the dead without a grave,

the graves without a name,

the women and men whom terror swallowed up,

the babies who are or have been the spoils of war.

And also:

the native forests,

the stars at night in the cities,

the aroma of flowers,

the taste of fruit,

the letters written by hand,

the old cafés where there was time to waste time,

football on the street,

the right to walk,

the right to breathe,

secure jobs,

secure retirements,

homes without bars,

doors without a lock,

the sense of community

and common sense.

The origin of the world

The Spanish war had finished a few years earlier and the cross and the sword reigned over the ruins of the Republic.

One of the vanquished, an anarchist labourer, just out of prison, was looking for work. He moved heaven and earth in vain. There was no work for a red. Everyone frowned at him, shrugged their shoulders, and turned their back on him. There was no-one who would understand him, and no-one listened to him. Wine was the only friend he had left. At night-time, in front of empty plates, he would put up in silence with the reproaches of his pious wife, a woman who went to mass every day, whilst his son, a little boy, would recite the catechism.

A long time after, Josep Verdura, the son of that accursed labourer, told me about it.

He told me about it in Barcelona, when I arrived in exile.

He told me about it: he was a desperate child, who wanted to save his father from eternal damnation, but the deep atheist, who was very stubborn, didn’t listen to reason.

But dad –asked Josep, crying-. If God doesn’t exist, who made the world?

And the labourer, his head bowed, near in secret, said:


He said:

-Fool. The world was made by us, the builders.

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