Monthly Archives: January 2013

Against the Machine

Translation of article by Pablo Bustinduy, published on Madrilonia 23rd January.

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Image: Ramón Rodríguez

Against the Machine

“People still try to talk about the transition without considering the strength of fascism” – Antonio Negri

Faced with the obstinate drama of the crisis, a whole chorus of voices deplores that states should have lost a large part of their sovereignty. And no doubt there is a degree of truth to their lament: no-one is in doubt any longer (starting with the head of government, who beyond the odd bout of bar-room bravado, recognises his vassal status) that the Spanish state is a protectorate with no say in fundamental matters. Strange the sovereign, Schmitt would say, that specifically may not make decisions about that which places its existence at stake. And perhaps this amputation might serve to explain the pre-political allergy brought about on the right, but also on a large part of the left of the regime, by the Catalan independence drive: the clamour from the multidude of la Diada, the demand for its right to decide [dret a decidir, in Catalan], was like a cruel reminder of lost power. In his Ethics, Spinoza definds envy as a form of hate that produces pain at the idea of the other’s happiness, and in reverse, joy at the idea of their pain. Spinoza opposes envy with emulation, “the desire for something, brought about in us by imagining that others have the same desire”. But the establishment does not wish to emulate the Catalan process: it wishes to hate it, it wishes only its failure, and this is further proof of its impotence.

The problem, however, is that on both sides of the Ebro this whole emotional swarm hides something more decisive and fundamental. When it is said, as often happens, that the State has lost its sovereignty, we should not automatically think about the black hole of the Bundestag, nor in the Goyaesque spectacle of those European summits that more and more people recognise as the face of the enemy. The problem of the crisis is not that Brussels has become the great Leviathan, nor does its solution entail a return to the cult of the sovereign, that all-powerful monster that normalises its subjects according to its taste and whim: that is the old dream of Le Pen, the dream of golden dawns and the Castillian ‘recentralisation’ camouflaged as union, progress and democracy. That dream is a nightmare, and moreover impossible. To think that sovereignty can be ‘recovered’ just as it was ‘ceded’ in the past is to fail to understand that sovereignty, as with power, is not an object that can be possessed, alienated or transferred, but above all a relation, an order of potency [potencia], a certain capacity in relation to others [capacidad de].

It is quite similar to the myth of Giges, as told by Glaucon in the Republic: Giges found a ring that allowed him to turn invisible, and he used it to conceal the violence necessary to kill the king, seduce the queen and seize power with impunity. In a similar fashion, the European Union is not a juridical subject in opposition to states, but a process that is diminishing in its capacity to hide another capacity, the basic capacity of any democracy: that of establishing times, horizons and priorities, of deciding about what is common, or, to use Schmitt’s terminology, to name and take charge of its own situation. In this clash of two capacities, two processes, two potencies, the confrontation is not between the European Union and states (and Tsipras showed his worth some months back in not giving in, despite the criticisms, on the battle of the euro: the fortress to be laid siege, to be conquered, to be socialised, is the European Central Bank, it is the sum of contradictions that is rendered invisible behind its veil of necessity and ignorance). The confrontation is between its overall operation to salvage capitalism and the incipient democracy that resists it: what one side alienates and conceals until rendering it intransitive, the other profanes and brings closer, socialises, seeks to place in common. Hence the statist norm encounters more and more problems to settle, and hence states have to make use of ever more brutal semi-exceptional mechanisms to combat a social reality that eludes them: reality repels the norm that lays siege to it, that overwhelms it, that threatens it, and the norm is merely capable of draining this loss with ever greater doses of violence.

The result of this conflict is that we live in a split reality, bloody and affected by an unbearable paradox: the populations of the south of Europe suffer a progressively greater violence exercised legally in their own name. By making it seem as if they had no choice, states show no mercy to their citizens, alleging that they “are only obeying orders”, whilst shielding themselves in the fiction of representation to uphold the legitimacy accorded through votes. It matters little that this legitimacy reaches minimum levels that were near impossible to imagine only a few months ago. According to the latest opinion polls, the total votes between the PP and the PSOE in the general elections would account for little more than half the valid cast vote, which, in a scenario of average participation would give them the vote of more or less one in every three Spanish citizens with a right to vote, compared with 64% in 2008. They know that they will keep on falling, they know that they are blowing apart the precarious social pact of the transition, and that their power rests on an ever more fragile base. It does not matter, because that’s what the fiction of representation is for: the sum of PP and PSOE concentrates the highest dose of institutional power in recent history. They will keep doing the same thing as long as they are not faced with a greater opposing force, prepared to neutralise them and occupy, in a different manner, the same space that they now govern with the impunity of a despot.

The problem is simple: there is no longer an inside and an outside, but fronts on which the two forces must clash, fronts that advance or recede according to the spaces and processes that get controlled, which each side appropriates and puts to work in its favour. From this perspective, the situation is desperate. Europe right now is a battlefield in which democracy only controls its own rearguard. Hence why it is urgent to multiply the expropriation of these spaces. Part of this strategy consists of recovering the distinction between democracy, understood as a popular force of resistance and construction, and elections, as a mere statist mechanism for the selection of leaders. Any option for survival entails democratising elections: demythologising them, removing their normal status, blocking the reproduction of the fiction of representation, thereby opening up the apparatuses of state power to a process of real democratisation. This is not simply a matter of planning to “take power” becaue power is not taken, but rather is always exercised in a complex and sinuous manner, never in a straight line and occurring only once. The institutions cannot appear as a political end in itself, nor as a means to achieve something else afterwards (we already know what the State usually does with these temporal horizons: devour them in mouthfuls like Saturn with his children). But it is becoming more and more clear that denying the need to fight for institutional spaces is to resign oneself to defeat a priori. It is also, paradoxically, to continue on beneath the spell of the cult of the sovereign: in the figure of the beautiful soul who denies it from the outside, the State is kept alive like that other who, just like the ghost in Hamlet, will not stop reappearing.

Is voting the solution to the problem? Of course not. In his renowned treatise on civil disobedience, Thoreau said that “voting for the right is doing nothing for it”. But today this is a false alternative, because the two things have to be built: a real popular power that resists and persists in the task of hegemonising a new democratic grammar, and also an electoral tool that can use this grammar as a battering ram, that can break down the door of the fortress from inside and facilitate the move from resistance to a real and autonomous democratic construction. From Syriza to the CUP, numerous experiments are seeking to show that there are ways of pulling together different planes of articulation, of making them complement each other, even if beforehand one does not have the answers for what is going to happen afterward (and perhaps, precisely because of this). It is possible that some of these experiments may fail, or that right now the tool for extending them to other places does not exist, or that the efforts to achieve it do not give results. But it is a path to follow. Thoreau said in that same essay:

“All machines have their friction (…) but when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.”

Let us not have such a machine any longer. Against the unbearable friction of the sovereign, there are no weapons other than democratic capacity: to struggle in numerous places at the same time, to unite different points in a single line of resistance.

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On ‘Lifting The Burden’ of Zombie Social Partnership

Behold the cover image from the ICTU leaflet to advertise the forthcoming protests on 9th February, against the Irish debt burden, I don't know who made it; I don't know what the decision-making process was behind it; I don't know who approved it; and I don't know if it's part of a series and the image will acquire greater coherence within a range of images.

Publication cover - Feb 9 leaflet

But there are problems with it, from the point of view of anyone who thinks unions ought to form a bulwark of opposition against austerity politics, rather than be complicit in it. Let me outline some them.

First of all, its destructive ambiguity. To whom is the message addressed? Is it supposed to be a message to the Irish government, and through them, to the Council of Ministers to lift the burden off working people? Or, is it supposed to be a message to the people who bear the burden at the moment that they should exert themselves even more? Who is doing the speaking? Is 'Lift the burden' what the faceless silhouettes struggling beneath the weight are saying, or is it a public notice, as with a street sign that reads 'Give Way'?

Through its ambiguity, the message 'Lift The Burden' avoids any kind of political antagonism, whether in institutional or class terms. It could well be saying, along with Enda Kenny and IBEC, that the heroic exertions of the Irish people mean that a 'deal' needs to be done. Enda Kenny could easily stand in front of such a poster and say, as he did last week, that 'Ireland has always paid its way, but it needs to be done in a fair and balanced way for everybody involved'.

So it has nothing to say about the democratic legitimacy of the political institutions that imposed the debt, nor does it have anything to say about who benefits from the imposition of the debt. Indeed, the image of debt as a dead weight with no visible attachments severs the conceptual link to creditors, to the fact that there are people who stand to benefit from the debt relation -whether the creditors themselves, or those who see public debt as the lever for the stripping away of public services and labour rights.

‘Jobs not debt' is a crisp slogan, meaning..what? One way of interpreting it would be as a rejection of current economic policy, which serves to keep unemployment high as a means of driving down labour costs whilst maintaining profitability, whilst at the same time raising taxes and cutting public spending whilst stripping away services in order to lower the budget deficit, thereby depressing economic activity and creating even more joblessness.

But it could just as easily be interpreted as an endorsement of current economic policy. 'Jobs' is the alibi used for a whole range of policies whose object is the immiseration of the working class and the accumulation of profits. An example would be the sale of public assets. Labour Party ministersin the Irish government have spoken approvingly about how the Troika has given thenod to using part -part- of the proceeds of the sell-off of state assets as ajob stimulus.  As Noam Chomsky points out: 'Jobs is a funny word in the English language. It’s a way of pronouncingan unpronounceable word. I’ll spell (that unpronounceable word) .P-R-O-F-I-T-S. You are not allowed to say that word, so the way you pronouncethat is jobs.'

And no-one -no-one- says these days that debt is a good thing. So-called 'deficit hawks', i.e. privateers and kleptocrats, think debt is a very bad thing. So the exertions of the faceless people taken in conjunction with 'jobs not debt' could very well be saying, "behold the heroically diligent Irish people working to shed themselves of their debt burden in order to get the budget deficit down. Let us assist them by selling off state assets to create jobs! Let us incentivise strivers by freeing them from social welfare payments so they can all land jobs!"

In fact, it's hard to escape the conclusion, surveying the ambiguous quality of this image, that the intention is for the upcoming mobilisation is to support the position of the Irish government in its travails to secure a 'deal' on banking debt, perhaps in such a way as to mitigate the severity of the demands made of public sector unions as part of renewed negotiations regarding the Croke Park agreement (as a side note, it was a propaganda coup for Ireland's ruling class to have that agreement named after a site that connotes a history of popular movements, national consensus, national independence, harmonious competition and muscular striving), without calling into any question the government's political legitimacy in pursuing the current programme of stripping away Ireland's threadbare welfare state provisions and the worsening of job conditions for those who do have jobs.

And this is not surprising given the number of Labour party members and supporters in the upper echelons of the trade unions, that is, supporters of the party whose ministers are engaged in shrinking the public sector and privatising and outsourcing whatever public services it can, thereby fragmenting and weakening the power of organised labour, and laying the basis for a society where spending on public services will be lower than both the US and the UK by 2017.

So the image does not disturb in any way the interlocking of the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy, and therefore does not disturb the current programme of stripping away of public services and social welfare and the harrassment of benefit recipients, the Labour Party's enthusiastic support for  that programme, and the relation between that programme and the problem of illegitimate public debt.

Now, you may be saying, so what, it's only one image. And yes, it's only one image. One among, well, not too many. But it is an image that has gone through a process of commissioning, conceptualisation, and approval, and the fact it has emerged in such a form tells us quite a lot about what ICTU's current priorities are. It does not seek to enter into any kind of open conflict with political institutions, ruling parties or ruling strata, no matter how vaguely (e.g. 99% vs 1%), and has nothing at all to say about a political and economic system in crisis. It does not seek to link the predicament of working class people in Ireland to that of people in Greece, or Spain, or in Portugal.

And the upshot of this -or at least the message conveyed by the image, though it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to extrapolate from this- is that corporately, ICTU is not interested in defending public services within a framework of defending the democratic gains won by the labour movement during the last century. Rather, it is content to confine itself to mitigating the severity of the anti-democratic austerity regime being imposed, without ever contesting its legitimacy.

In short, it does not take democracy seriously. And that -amid a climate of grim sacrificial inevitability- is a problem that no amount of simply shouting 'traitor!' or 'general strike!' will solve. We need imaginative ways of communicating the conflict, of capturing people’s commitment to a struggle for democratic rights, and of destroying the ambiguity served up by zombie social partnership.

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Translation: ‘We cannot change things with forms of organisation and horizontality that were created for other conjunctures.’

This is a translation of an interview originally published in eldiario.es on 10th of January. It is about networks and political activity and organising. The interviewee is Margarita Padilla, an IT engineer and author of  the book The Kit for Internet Struggle [El kit de lucha en Internet], available for download in Spanish via Traficantes de Sueños here. The interview was conducted by Amador Fernández-Savater and published on the Interferencias blog.

(Translator's note: I have dispensed with the definite article and maintained the original references to 'Internet' instead of translating it as 'the Internet'. There was a temptation to translate it as 'teh internetz', but one I managed to fend off, in the interests of comradely seriousness)

In the book you have just published, you are emphatic in claiming that 'any person or group who struggles for social transformation has an obligation to understand the specific nature of Internet [there is no definite article in the original] in so far as it relates to social processes, since this specific nature spills out from the technical realm and contaminates the social realm'. How do you justify such an 'obligation'?

I believe Internet can inspire a new politics that addresses the complexity of the world we live in. It can allow us to move out of this impasse.

Which impasse are you referring to?

On the one hand, we have the politics of the politicians, which follows the code of government-opposition (with citizens as spectators). This code is not made to solve any of the problems we have as a society. On the contrary. Its objective above all is control and power. The problems are mere pretexts for attacking the other person to get into his place. The complexity and magnitude of the questions we are facing (from the econmic crisis to the environmental crisis) requires the active involvement of the 99%. Not everyone being in agreement or united, but they do have to be active and co-operating. That is impossible in a politics divided into parties that select from reality only what interests them and damages their opponents, in the short term of the four years of a legislature. We need another logic, another political culture.

 

Could it be the politics of social movements?

Not entirely, that's why I say we are at an impasse. In a modest way, I have taken part and continue to take part in social movements, and I see that their forms of organising only work under conditions of simplicity. For example, the assembly. Assemblies work very well when people who share the same values, the same experiences and the same culture organise themselves. It is a very potent form of organisation that emerged from other historical and social conditions and other utopias. Nowadays there is very high complexity. We cannot change things with forms of organisation and horizontality that were created for other conjunctures. We need to take on board a lot of uncertainty to think and prepare for the massive change that we need. And that scares people, me included.

 

Why do you think that Internet can help us get out of the impasse?

Internet provides us with an experience of a large scale network. I try to characterise it with three components: ambiguity, uncontrollability and openness. Internet is ambiguous because it was not designed with any particular use in mind, and as such, it can allow for all uses. It is uncontrollable, because the intelligence and the capacity for action are in each one of the nodes that compose it. And it is open because, on the onehand, anyone who has the knowledge can read its source code and, on the other, anyone who operates like a network can get connected immediately. Ambiguity, uncontrollability and openness are the three characteristics of the network experience. I find them very inspiring in order to think politics beyond the left/right axis, beyond the idea that there always has to be a directing centre and beyond the closed and excluding ideas about community.

Let's break things down. It's hard to understand the potency of what is ambiguous, of what allows for various uses..

Let me explain with an example: Wikileaks. Wikileaks takes a privatised resource -information- and makes it public and abundant. But that only makes sense if other networks make use of it. The cablegates regarding the death of José Couso [Spanish journalist killed as result of tank attack on hotel housing journalists in Baghdad. The Wikileaks cables related to the pressure -or, rather, lack thereof- of the Spanish authorities in pursuing the case with the US government] or the origins of the Sinde Law [law introduced ostensibly to address internet piracy, revealed by Wikileaks to have been at the instigation of the US government] only acquire meaning if you have people to interpret them and use them. Wikileaks launches a tool that can be useful, but does not show solidarity with the platform for Jose Couso or with the struggle against the Sinde Law. And vice versa: the platform for José Couso or the struggle against the Sinde Law can use Wikileaks cables without having Julian Assange as their hero. That is, in Internet you can co-operate with people you don't know or people with whom you differ. It is the logic of P2P: one doesn't know from whom they are downloading the material, what their motivation was in doing so, if the other person is left wing or right wing. Internet educates us in co-operation with strangers and people who are different from us. 

 

In your book, Wikileaks is a key example the whole time. Why?

Wikileaks is very much a network tool: an unfinished device. The meaning of what it does has to be completed by other people. In whatever direction, because Wikileaks allows for different conclusions, even antagonistic ones (different readings of cables, etc). That does not happen very often. What usually happens is the opposite: closing down so as to control. But that's how a network is made. And the network rewards you in return. Wikileaks receives sympathy and solidarity from people with very different experiences. For example, from Anonymous. Anonymous is altogether the opposite of Wikileaks: it has no leaders, it is anonymous and distributed, etc. But it supports Wikileaks against repression. We normally stand in solidarity with whoever thinks the same as us, but in Internet it is different: there are differences, but not blocs.


The network experience teaches us, then, to give up control.

If you agree with freedom of expression, there can be someone there to contradict you. If you take part in a horizontal assembly, perhaps they don't do what you want. But you are contributing to a superior logic and culture. Well the same thing happens with the network: it is a superior logic and culture, even if it can give you back something you don't like. The logic of power and control, which defines the politics of politicians, is what threatens the world with destruction.

Let’s look at the second characteristic of the network experience: uncontrollability.

I'm referring to the fact that the intelligence of a network lies in each of the nodes that compose it. That is why people talk about collective intelligence. To believe in the network means trusting in the intelligence of the nodes, to want their autonomy. Recognising the autonomy and intelligence of what is not you. And that trust that you give comes back to  you, because you live with the confidence that others who are not like you are working to care for and sustain what is common to all. Among all of us we look after everything, it is very different to a few people looking out for the whole.

 

Can you elaborate on the difference.

In a network there is no central place from which you see everything. It is not made so as to see everything. The practices of social movements still function too much with that idea of totality: the assembly perceives itself as a centre of self-organisation, the activist feels in charge of everything, etc. They are very potent practices, but you pay the price of simplification because it only works under conditions of homogeneity. And where there is no complexity there is no life, that's what science teaches. Internet is educating us in another experience, where there is neither a centre nor a whole, neither vanguard nor rearguard. Wikileaks does not go ahead of the platform for José Couso nor behind. It is not a matter of going out in front or behind, but of making a network.

 

And how does one make a network?

Making a network entails clearing the centre and recognising the intelligence and autonomy of the extremes. Making a network is people getting in contact among themselves, collaborating with strangers and people who are different. Making a network means sharing the processes, not the results, and recognising the contributions of others. To make a network, in the final instance, is to be generous, but not just with those of your own stripe, but with the 99%.

 

In Internet there is no centre, but there are important reference points, right?

There are leaderships, yes, and very influential people. But their power is very different from the power of a trade union bureaucracy, for example. It is a power without power. As the Zapatistas say: "they lead by obeying". Let's recall the 'Manifesto for fundamental Internet rights'. It was written by a series of bloggers, it had an enormous repercussion on social networks and Sinde, the minister, called them to talk and negotiate. The people who went to that meeting are people who have a lot of prestige on Internet, but if they hold such prestige it's precisely because they are capable of going to tell the minister what was being said on Internet. That is fine by me, they had my every confidence even though no-one had voted for them. Their discourse was very inclusive, like the 'Manifesto..'. And if one of them had taken a rush of blood to the head and had negotiated who knows what with the minister, the 99% organised on the net would have struck him down in less than 24 hours. In a network there can be representation without a ceding of sovereignty. Completely different to a trade union leadership.

 

All nodes are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Correct. Internet is not made for equality and that carries risks and problems. I always use the following example: if there is a fire, we can act in different ways. Either we decide via assembly consensus how to organise the evacuation, or every man for himself [sálvese quien pueda]. Internet is an every man for himself. It is assumed that everyone has the intelligence to decide what the best option is for them, and has the autonomy to carry it out. But if there are people in a wheelchair, old people or children, well maybe they die. An 'every man for himself' does not guarantee everyone getting saved. In Internet we are not all equal: there are different degrees of culture, connectivity, time, etc. There are enormous inequalities. Internet is not made so that inequalities no longer exist, let's not ask of it what it cannot give us. But at the same time, we can struggle  against inequalities in Internet, since this produces changes in the distribution of the power that produces inequalities, and we can take advantage of those changes in a liberating direction. That is the paradox.

 

You talk about how the third characterisitic of the network is openness.

Communities that work as a network are not closed and exclusive. You can connect and disconnect. And not only that: you can connect and disconnect from several at a time. I remember the demonstrations of the anti-globalisation movement: you had to choose between going with those who were non-violent and the urban guerrillas. You don't get that on Internet. You can take part in the movement for free culture and also in an action by Anonymous. In Internet there is an abundance, not a scarcity. There is a component of anonymyity that makes it possible: it's easier to have seven identities on Twitter than to go to a demonstration dressed as a clown. It has fewer costs, fewer risks, but it is no less real or useful. That experience can help us imagine forms of political participation that are more open and flexible?

But with these flexible forms of commitment is it possible to construct some type of organisation?

Of course it is. Today you hear people say everywhere: 'you need to organise'. And I agree, but we also have to re-imagine the organisation: a disperse organisation, with many channels and many layers. Internet can provide an inspiration. It helps us to think of organisation in terms of circulation. And linkage in terms of communication. The ublquity and dissidence we were talking about before also build organisation: the arcs between the nodes are the people who circulate. That flexible commitment you mention also makes a contribution, in its own way. For example, you may not have too much commitment on a mailing list, but still send information, uncover it, move it around. The acampadas as an idea of organisation did not emerge from a very smart or very activist group, but from communication.

What do you mean?

How is it possible that in a matter of two or three days dozens of identical acampadas should spread all over the place? That looked like the pods from the invasion of antibodies. Seriously, what happened is incredible and we have still not thought it through nor understood it. How did the idea get copied? We had the image of Tahrir Square, but why did this image catch on and not another. There is something very strongly personal, affective, emotional, unconscious, at work there. A sensitive current of empathy. An unknown and uncontrollable flow of communicaation that creates political dialogue without moving through codified spaces like politicians. From Tahrir to Sol, from Sol to Syntagma, from Syntagma to Zuccotti..an international movement without internationals has been created, it is incredible. But it is not a spontaneous movement. In our day-to-day ideas circulate, we feel part of something common, we recognise each other amid shared horizons, we do not all go on our own way. We are already organised. The thing is, we don't know how. And perhaps it is better that we don't, so that no-one can control it.

Throughout this interview you've used the word 'inspire'. You say that Internet can serve as an 'inspiration'. Why do you use that word?

This is very important. Internet can inspire us, but it cannot be traced because the material world and the immaterial world are physically different. Each with its own laws. A demonstration in the street, for example, is one thing, and a swarming to cyberblock a webpage is something else. In the demonstration there are bodies, the bodies occupy a space, they get tired, they can be harmed. In a demonstration you can lose an eye. Not in a cyberblockade. These are not minor differences. But after having experienced a swarming you may desire another kind of demonstration, where not everything is foreseeable beforehand, where people need to get active without being forced, where the meaning is built among everyone on the ground. That's the kind of inspiration I'm talking about. I remember V de Vivienda [literally, V for Housing, a play on V fof Vendetta] demonstrations that were like that. There is a lot still to be experimented in these hybrid models between the world of bits and the world of atoms.

So social change cannot come solely from Internet?

No, it has to be done with bodies. You have to go onto the street and demonstrate, you have to obtain food for whoever doesn't have any, to stop evictions, to protect undocumented immigrants…and you also have to experience the potency of the physical encounter, as we all discovered in 15-M. That joy…what Internet gives us is another experience of the world. An enjoyable experience of abundance, co-operation, creativity, authorship…I think that experience had an influence in that many people went to the squares and did not see the other person simply as someone who steps on you and bothers you, but as a personal accomplice. The network experience is a bit like LSD in the 1960s: a different experience, unreal but real, which remains in your memory because what you experienced you really did experience it: the capacity to talk to strangers, to cross borders, to self-transform, to create with ease, and so on.

Does Internet have the function that utopia had in the 60s?

The network experience can help us overcome schemas of political thought that no longer work for us today: the government-opposition code of the politics of the politicians, the left/right dichotomy, forms of organisation that only work under high levels of homogeneity. But it is not a utopia, nor is it the automatic solution to every problem. In particular, everything that relates to inequalities is an unresolved challenge. Internet allows us to modify the situation we have now, but it holds other problems that need to be thought through too. It isn't the ideal.

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On The Bright Side


This is a comment I left on a Journal.ie thread, on an article entitled ‘Yes, the media should report bad news, but cynicism mustn’t blind us‘, by Séamus Conboy, a parliamentary assistant to Labour TD Michael Conaghan.

The message of this article should not be lightly discarded; it should be doused in petrol and burnt. The real corrosive cynicism comes from people who seek to dampen political criticism by appealing to the effect of what ‘the markets’ might think, and who seek to present ‘politics’ as something only a cadre of experts can get involved in.

Who, then, is this ‘we’ that the article wants to get back on its feet? Economist Michael Burke recently showed in a Politico article that profits for non-financial firms are close to their 2007 peak. The financial sector has had tens of billions in public money funnelled into it, and Bank of Ireland has just hired the head of banking at the Department of Finance. There are plenty of people who were never off their feet in the first place. What of the rest? The social effects of the bank bailout, of the prioritisation of the health of the financial sector over the health of the population, are proving disastrous. The government is pursuing a macroeconomic policy that seeks to drive wages downward, strips away what threadbare welfare provision Ireland has, and subjects people who depend on benefits to a regime of harassment and suspicion, and people in work to work longer and put up with more for less, for fear of losing their jobs. It writes finance policy in lock step with the same financial institutions that caused the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the mainstream media –which is right-wing in its entirety- supports the broad thrust of government policy: austerity, the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. And contrary to the suggestions made in this article, the IMF predicts that Ireland will spend far less on public services than even the US by 2017. The country is being remade into a starkly miserable place to live for the exploited majority, and a luxurious haven for financiers and privateers.

But here’s the thing: if you believe in a democratic society based on a decent life for all, you are not being ‘negative’ or ‘cynical’ if you point any of this out. If you talk about what the true effects of austerity are, and you resist the constant demands to look on the bright side and leave everything to the politicians and say nothing in case the markets are listening, you are taking a positive step toward a more decent society. Conflict is an essential element of democracy; it just so happens that democracy is something the markets –and politicians who claim to represent people while pursuing policies that destroy their living standards and hopes for the future- can do without.

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Enda Kenny: Following Through In A Fair And Balanced Way For Everybody Else Without A Begging Bowl Mentality

I am posting this video of Enda Kenny responding to Paul Murphy in the European Parliament along with a transcript of Enda Kenny's words. For me, the political figure that Enda Kenny most closely resembles is George W. Bush. He has the same punch-you-on-the-shoulder phony bonhomie,  the same class allegiances.

One of the most compelling myths in circulation about Ireland's current position vis-a-vis bank debt is that the government of Ireland is negotiating with the European authorities on behalf of the people of Ireland, in pursuit of a suitable 'deal'. This, of course, is what the government claims. And no doubt something will get agreed and it will be called a deal and there will be great rejoicing. But as Enda Kenny's words demonstrate, there is no question of such a 'deal' recognising the fundamental illegitimacy of the debt burden placed on the Irish population. Why would it?

There is no question of any such 'deal' altering the drive to turn Ireland into Europe's neo-liberal state par excellence, the poster boy that takes its medicine without grumbling, that sells off its public assets and privatises its public services and protects the health of the financial sector while old people die, huddled together, from poverty and neglect. Why would European elites want anything more than Enda Kenny, a gushing one-trick hedgehog with a strange ability to string just enough of the population along with him while the country gets ransacked?

And where does this strange ability come from? Pierre Bourdieu, in Language and Symbolic Power, warns that 'political idolatry consists precisely in the fact that the value which resides in the political personality, that product of men's brains, appears as a mysterious objective property of the person, a charm, charisma: the ministerium appears as a mysterium.' This takes place within an 'original circle of representation'. When Kenny talks about Ireland and people talk about how awful he is at representing Ireland, there is an additional element to delegation that Bourdieu emphasises: 'the paradox of the situations in which a group can exist only by delegation to an individual person…who can act as a moral person, that is, as a substitute for the group'. 

What this means is that 'in appearance the group creates the man who speaks in its place and in its name [so Enda Kenny is the man the people of Ireland have sent to act on their behalf] whereas in reality it is more or less just as true to say that it is the spokesperson who creates the group. It is because the representative exists, because he represents (symbolic action), that the group that is represented and symbolised exists and that in return it gives existence to its representative of a group'.

And therein lies Enda Kenny's power, I think (though this is not a property that resides within him). By standing up and representing Ireland, with all his dim-witted incoherence, he is giving existence to a group known as Ireland, or the Irish people, which in turn appears just as dim-wittedly incoherent and servile as he is. If it were not as clodhoppingly stupid as he, why would it pick him as its representative? Thus Enda Kenny's disjointed burblings appear as a forceful expression that there is no alternative, because if this is all 'the Irish people' are truly capable of, then this is the only direction that politics may go.

Enda Kenny:

"Non-discrimination we support that, obviously…Mr Murphy raised the question of ah, of ah, of having to come to Europe to, to beg, as he said, for support. I want Mr Murphy to know -he's not actually elected to this parliament- to understand that the Irish governments over the years have not been to Europe with a begging bowl mentality but one that is central to the development of Europe for everybody else. And the fantasy economics of thinking that you can just say "forget your liabilities, forget your responsibilities" is just not valid. We want, Mr Murphy [turns to Paul Murphy], to assure everybody that Ireland has always paid its way, but it needs to be done in a fair and balanced way for everybody involved here. We intend to exit our programme, we discussed with the ECB about re-engineering and restructuring those promissory notes, and at the other end of the spectrum, in respect of the European..the European Council decision on the 29th of June, we follow that, we will follow that through."

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Foods of Convenience

This is what women get to eat in one of Dublin’s maternity hospitals:

coombe

Given that this is the European Year of the Citizen, and the Irish government currently has Presidency of the European Union, it does not seem unreasonable that any catering laid on for EU functions ought to be provided to precisely the same standards enjoyed at the Coombe Hospital. If it is good enough for a woman who has just given birth, it is therefore good enough for Herman von Rompuy.

You are what you eat, goes the common refrain. This photo shows what women really are, in the eyes of political society.

On a related matter, and also related to the news that horse DNA (yes, but how many different horses?) has been located in Tesco beef products (Tesco being one of those multinationals that will supposedly desert the country if it gets its taxes raised, despite famously referring to Ireland as ‘Treasure Island’), below is a translation of a piece that appeared in Público today, by Esther Vivas. Food is a class issue.

And food policy is determined by revolving doors between legislatures and agri-food businesses. The fact that the brother of Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, is the Chief Executive of Greencore, a producer of convenience foods, is entirely irrelevant in this regard, and it would be better to focus on horse jokes. 

Also irrelevant is the fact that last year Simon Coveney appointed the Chief Executive of Greencore USA as a special adviser, breaking the recommended salary cap limits for special advisers.

We could say more about how the appointment of special advisers by politicians used to loyalty-based relationships within a party apparatus undermines the public service, through its public expression of disdain and distrust for public servants, but that’s a topic for another post.

Photo: Best event of The Gathering so far...

Junk Food Addicts

What happens to you if you spend a month feeding yourself on Big Macs, cheeseburgers, strawberry milkshake, McNuggets…? The result: eleven kilo weight gain, swollen liver, headaches, depression and sky-high cholesterol. Director Morgan Spurlock tells the story with his own body in his film Super Size Me (2004), which portrays the consequences of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner daily in McDonalds. But the problem about fast food outlets isn’t that it makes us sick, but that they turns us into their addicts.

“We don’t want you to come, we want you to come back”, says the latest McDonald’s advert. Never a truer word spoken. Junk food becomes essential to those who frequent its establishments. This is how research carried out by The Scripps Research Institute in the US puts it, as published in 2010 in Nature Neuroscience. Its conclusions leave no room for doubt: the intake of junk food develops the same molecular brain mechanisms that drug addiction fosters, and as a consequence its consumption is especially addictive. Perhaps we ought to suggest to the health authorities that they should advise consumers that eating in McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts…’can seriously damage your health’.

Though there is no need to go into a fast food establishment to eat poor quality food products. Most of the food we buy is produced with high doses of synthetic chemical additives such as colourings, preservatives, antioxidants, thickening agents, flavour enhancers, acidity regulators, modified starches, etc. which alter food in accordance with the interests of industry. This is how the product gets a nicer colour, or looks freshly made, or has an intense taste. The goal: to sell more.

But what are the consequences for our health? Numerous investigations highlight the negative impact how regular consumption of some of these additives can have upon the incidence of illnesses such as allergies, child hyperactivity, obesity.., which have risen in recent years. This was detailed in research carried out by the University of Southampton in 2007, on the request of the Food Standards Agency in Great Britain, and published in The Lancet, which demonstrated the link between the consumption of particular additives by children and the development of hyperactivity. The solution consists of replacing these artificial additives with natural ones, but the latter cost more and the food industry discounts them. Money talks.

The French journalist Marie Monique Robin documented this in detail in her penultimate work, the title of which leaves no room for doubt: ‘Our daily poison’, where she investigated the consequences on our body of an agriculture addicted to pesticides and a food industry hooked on chemical additives. The consequences, according to the documentary, are clear: a rise in illnesses such as cancer, sterility, brain tumours, Parkinson’s…the result, among others, of an agricultural and dietary model subordinate to the interests of capital. Were this not the case, how is it possible –as the film highlights- that the agri-food industry, for example, continues to use a zero calorie sweetener such as aspartame in products labelled as light, 0.0%, sugar free, when numerous experiments have shown that continued consumption of said substance can be carcinogenic?

Some will say that these studies, reports and investigations are alarmists and that all chemical additives used in the European Union are monitored in advance by an independent agency: the European Food Safety Authority. Months ago Corporate European Observatory published a report in which it highlighted the close links of the EFSA to the biotechnology and agri-food industry, as well as the dynamic of revolving doors between the two. The conflict of interests between those who legislate and the sector’s firms is clear. Something that undoubtedly, and regrettably, not only affects this sphere but many others.

The agri-food industry, in its drive to reduce costs and produce the maximum profit, has consigned the quality of what we eat to secondary importance. Food scandals such as mad cow disease, avian flu, chickens with dioxins, e-coli..are but the tip of the iceberg in an agricultural and dietary model that puts the desire for profit on the part of a few firms that monopolise the sector ahead of people’s dietary needs.

We are what we eat. And if we consume products made with high doses of pesticides, GM crops, sweeteners, colourings and substances that turn us into junk food addicts, this will end up sooner or later having consequences for our health. Perhaps it is time to tell Ronald McDonald and his friends: I’m NOT lovin’ it.

 

 

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Translation: The Atheists pray for Chávez

This is a translation of a piece published by John Brown, Friday 11th January 2013.

The Atheists pray for Chávez

“Le Prince étant défini uniquement, exclusivement, par la fonction qu’il doit accomplir, c’est à dire par le vide historique qu’il doit remplir, est une forme vide, un pur possible-impossible aléatoire” (Being uniquely and exclusively defined by the function he must perform – that is to say, by the historical vacuum he must fill- the Prince is a pure aleatory possibility-impossibility)

Photo

Yesterday I had the opportunity to take part in a rather emotional event. It was a gathering organised by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in solidarity with its president Hugo Chávez who was unable to swear in to his role as re-elected president due to the state of his health. Solidarity with the person who is president spread throughout the entire Bolivarian revolutionary process. The gathering was made up of members of the Latin American community in Brussels and of other people who support the Bolivarian process and, in general, the transformative wave that is radically changing a large part of Latin America. The attendees, including the members of the ALBA diplomatic corps, were all everyday people, politicised and concerned. Live images appeared on screen of the huge demonstration in Caracas, where the population itself, in Hugo Chávez’s absence, took up the role of president. It was a thrilling scene: against an ‘opposition’ which was letting off fireworks weeks ago when it thought the president was dead, and which even today relies more on cancer than on its own electoral power to put an end to the Bolivarian process, there was a colourful –but also very red- tide, made up of people of all kinds and ages, surrounding the Miraflores palace to defend democracy, their democracy. Against putschism. Against death. Today, even we atheists pray for Chávez to that God whom we know does not exist.

There is a lot at stake in this difficult situation marked by Chávez’s health. The opposition is trying to take advantage of this moment in order to destabilise the country, by generating, among other things, food shortages, chaos and uncertainty. For the moment, their tactics do not seem to be working. On the contrary,  a vast majority of the population, greater even than the one that re-elected him, according to surveys, wishes for president Chávez to return to his position and continue the process that was begun with him. Chávez is not only the president of the Republic, but something else: the living symbol of a social change that has brought forth, into political and social existence, millions of Venezuelans who previously did not ‘exist’ and who lacked any kind of rights. Venezuela today is a country where the social policies of the Bolivarian government have reduced poverty enormously, where access to free education for all, and not merely to primary and secondary level but to university level, is guaranteed. Of 27 million Venezuelans, 300,000 were university students before the revolution; now there are more than two million. The same can be said of health and culture. One of the objectives of the Venezuelan government is for 2 million children to gain access to musical literacy, that is, they know about music and are able to play an instrument, provided to them freely by the State. Theatres and concert halls are no longer the sole preserve of the oligarchy. The social change is tangible with regard to development of public services and wealth distribution, and also in terms of politicisation and the involvement of the population. This is Chávez’s greatest strength and the basis of the legitimacy of the process. As the Venezuelans say, “Chávez gave us a Patria”, in other words, he made them become effective members of a political community and have access to the commons of a country whose great wealth was previously reserved for only a few.

These achievements are indisputable, but the very problem created by Chavez’s illness highlights a characteristic of the process that can be at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is, in effect, the very close relation between the process and Chávez’s person, expressed in slogans such as “Chávez is the people”, “Chávez, heart of the people” or “Chávez is all of us”. Beyond the relation of affection that large sectors of the Venezuelan population may feel towards the leader of the Bolivarian revolution, this imagined relation is inevitably framed within the political tradition of sovereignty. In this tradition whose classical thinker is Thomas Hobbes, the sovereign is who unifies the people. He unifies it in so far as he represents it and he represents it in so far as the individuals who compose the multitude that becomes the people renounce through a contract any right of their own in favour of the absolute right of the sovereign. For Hobbes, this is the only way of overcoming the mortal dangers entailed by the war of all against all that characterises the state of nature. In this way, the people and each one of the individuals who compose it act through their representative, through the sovereign, and, as a consequence, each subject must consider the action of the sovereign as his own. From a graphical point of view, Hobbes on the cover of Leviathan represented this foundational fact of sovereignty through the image of an Artificial Man made up of little natural men who transfer to the sovereign their own right, their own potency. Thus, Hobbes can claim that in a monarchy “The King is the People”.

Chávez’s leadership has often been described as ‘populist’. In the majority of cases, this is by his detractors, who consider that a political leadership that is not in the hands of “those who know”, of the social elites, can only be irrational and tyrannical. There is, in effect, a great antipathy in western political tradition to the power of the people. This same political tradition that today denounces Chávez’s populism is the one that until the beginning of the 20th century considered ‘democracy’ negatively and did so for the same reasons. There is, however, another current of thought that assumes ‘populism’ as something positive and considers, as Ernesto Laclau does, that populism is the other name for politics in the face of other conceptions of politics that neutralise it by reducing it to the mere management of society by presumed experts. Politics thus neutralised becomes, in the terms of French philosopher Jacques Rancière, mere ‘police’, or management of consolidated differences and hierarchies. Only ‘populism’, the importing of the demands of the part that is not represented and perhaps never totally representable can revive antagonism and with it politics proper, which coincides with democracy. This is something that Chávez has done magisterially.

Chávez’s leadership is utterly anomalous. Chávez is neither a political professional nor an expert, but a man of the people. This means that the majority of the population excluded from power and from the distribution of wealth identifies with him. Chávez is, for those at the bottom, in that State rooted in colonialism and oligarchy that Venezuela has been until the day before yesterday, a person who does not belong either to the class or the race that has ‘always’ ruled the country. He is, moreover, a person has who has –almost- never abandoned ‘common decency’, that immediate moral sense, based in the equality and dignity of all people that Orwell attributed to the popular classes and of which the vast majority of rulers are destitute. Not only that, president Chávez remains president not only for his undoubted personal courage, nor for having been re-elected for the last 14 years by a wide majority, but above all because the Venezuelan people rescued him from his captors and reinstalled him in the presidency by thwarting an oligarchic coup d’état. In a sense that is entirely opposite to the aforementioned phrase of Hobbes, ‘Chávez is the people’, since the multitude of those at the bottom is what sustained and sustains one of their own in that position of political responsibility that was not made for them.

Thus there exists, in populism and its particular chavista expression a dual aspect: on the one hand, it adopts the forms of classical sovereignty, since it affirms the representation of the people in and by the Leader, but on the other hand, the multitude and only the multitude has proven able to sustain simultaneously the Leader and the Bolivarian revolutionary process. Against the putchist oligarchs and even against illness; against the cancer that constitutes the sad and sordid hope of the ‘squalid ones’ (‘los escuálidos’), it is the Venezuelan multitude that gives content to the action of the leader and gives it potency at every moment through an uninterrupted dialogue. The political theology of a Hobbesian matrix made the sovereign into a mortal God who transcends the people upon which he bases his power and reduces the multitude to One. Chavismo is a new heretical political theology, messianic and materialist, in which the multitude maintains itself as such and as a free multitude determines in large measure the course of the political process. In this context the sovereign ceases to be a substance, and absolute, and is a relation internal to the multitude, of which the person of Chávez, as the defender of the common material resources and common decency, the dignity of all, is a mere expression. The sovereign is not the one who de-activates the multitude, but the figure who emerges from the intense politicisation of the population and can only be sustained through it. Hugo Chávez aboard the slave ship steered by mutineers that is Bolivarian Venezuela is a similar character to Melville’s Benito Cereno, but here it is a different Benito Cereno: a black man dressed as captain who assumes his function with enthusiasm.

Chávez is indeed a prince, but not the shining prince from the fairy tales who appears only once and then disappears never to return unless a near impossible condition is met, but rather an authentic Machiavellian prince. He is the prince who founds a new republic and a democracy out of the initial monarchical moment. Althusser recalled in his essay Machiavelli and us, a text from Machiavelli’s Prince: “although one man alone should organize a State, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many.”. Thus there are, as Althusser comments on Machiavelli’s text, two moments in the foundation of a new principality: 1) a moment of the prince’s solitude, that of the ‘absolute beginning’ that is necessarily the deed of one man alone, a single individual, but ‘this moment is itself unstable, for ultimately it can as readily tip more into tyranny than an authentic State’ and 2) a second moment, that of duration, which can be ensured only by a double process: the settlement of laws and emergence from solitude – that is to say, the end of the absolute power of a single individual. Indeed, as we have seen, the absolute power of a single individual is a theoretical fiction that aids in thinking the rupture with the past, with the previous order. In the case of Chávez, from the moment of his ‘decision’ to break with the oligarchic regime through the different phases of the Bolivarian revolution, he has always counted on the support of important social movements that tend towards a majority. His revolution can only be compared to the creation of the new Machiavellian principality to a certain point. Machiavelli is thinking about the creation of a modern, bourgeois State, about a system of class domination, intelligent and capable of negotiating with “those at the bottom” to be sure, since the Prince must ‘retain the friendship of the people’, but what is at stake today in Venezuela is in fact the liquidation of class society, the creation of a real democracy, socialism as a transition to a society of the commons. This prevents the two moments from being clearly distinguished, although, without a doubt, the decision by Chávez to rebel against the oligarchic regime was at that moment the catalyst that was at once both necessary and utterly unforeseeable which allowed the whole process to take shape and set it in train.

A prince who founds a democracy is a vanishing mediator, a mediator whose very action prevents him staying on as an absolute sovereign. Chávez is thus indispensable, but at the same time, replaceable. He himself has said on numerous occasions that the objective of the Bolivarian project is to do away with the bourgeois State and its institutions in order to establish a democracy in keeping with new postcapitalist social relations. In the presentation of the electoral programme for the last presidential elections, Hugo Chávez said that: “to advance towards socialism, we need a popular power that is able to dismantle the frames of oppression, exploitation and domination that persist in Venezuelan society, able to configure a new sociality out of everyday life where fraternity and solidarity run alongside the permanent emergence of new ways of planning and producing the material life of our people. This entails pulverising completely the bourgeois State form that we have inherited, which still reproduces itself through its old and disastrous practices, and by giving continuity to the invention of new forms of political administration.” Many of us here in Europe, in Latin America and other parts of the world, hope that the Bolivarian president returns soon and implements this programme that is so necessary in order for the new republic born of revolution to take root, and to exit once and for all from the Hobbesian imaginary of the bourgeois State.

 

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