Monthly Archives: March 2013

Politics, The Serious People, and Bearded Voodoo Dolls: A Comment

I left this comment in response to a piece by Stephen Collins published in the Irish Times last Saturday, titled ‘Worrying signs that politicians learned nothing from collapse of the Celtic Tiger’

The distinction drawn between so-called ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ politicians is a useful device to invite the heaping of scorn on anyone who opposes the thrust of government and Troika policies, namely, the restoration of the financial and property sectors to profitability and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich [I got these two mixed up in the original comment, amended here].

Luke ‘Ming‘ Flanagan is also a useful device in this regard, a kind of bearded voodoo doll that the political establishment and its political correspondents can attack as a means of demonstrating not only the unreliability of the so-called ‘amateurs’ but the recalcitrant ignorance of the plebs.

However, what the use of such devices reveals is the author’s deep contempt for basic norms in democracy. In democracy, there is no such thing as the ‘professional’ politician, since elected representatives only speak for others based on the understanding that they are the equal of those who elect them to speak on their behalf. Similarly, the idea of the ‘amateur’, of the person ill-equipped to participate in political life, has no place in democratic politics, given the assumption of equality.

Nonetheless it is true that there are things that can frustrate people’s full and informed participation in political life. In today’s Ireland these might include: exclusion from the voting franchise, as with certain categories of migrant; absence of time available to take part in assemblies and debates due to work obligations; and, not least, a media apparatus geared towards producing resignation and passivity, with newspapers and TV and radio channels systematically promoting the idea that politics is first and foremost a management position, something best left to the experts.

The professionals, the insiders, the serious people: men -for it is mostly men, white ones- who, on the whole, wear suits and ties and look no different from other men who work in accountancy firms or investment banks or the ECB or the IMF. It is this group that forms the ‘inside’ of Stephen Collins’s conception of politics. Little is expected from those on the outside, except that they muster up the brainpower to vote for respectability once every four or so years, even when the distinction between respectability and robbery is altogether blurred by the social effects of banking bailouts.

 

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Fee Paying Schools and Democracy: A Comment

This is a comment I left in response to an article on the Irish Times website today (well, I think it was today, but with that site’s new design it’s hard to tell) by Labour TD Aodhan Ó Riordáin titled ‘Reducing State support for fee-paying schools is logical and equitable’.

Though I’m sure Aodhan Ó Riordáin will be portrayed by some as an amalgam of Stalin and Godzilla for calling for a reduction in State subvention in private schools he does not even touch on the fundamental issue here: why should the State be contributing toward private schools at all? The very fact that the State does so, as with similar arrangements in health services, illustrates that the State -despite the fact that it declares itself a democratic state- has no commitment to quality, universal, public-funded education for all, and does not treat education as ‘the great liberator’,  but rather as a commodity.

Most parents think deeply about their children’s education, not just those who send their children to private schools. It is just that for many, a lot of this thought goes toward how they can afford a new pair of school shoes or winter coat. Should they be congratulated for this, as Ó Riordáin suggests?

Meanwhile, Belvedere and other schools get lauded in this article for making access more inclusive, when such inclusivity is nothing more than a warmer, more variegated form of exclusivity, albeit one that helps obscure the icy cold matter of hard cash –who has it? who doesn’t?- that keeps exclusive private education afloat.

So there are different ways in which society can ‘value’ education, as Ó Riordáin puts it. On the one hand it can treat it as a commodity to be bought and sold or, on the other, it can treat it as an essential element of democratic life, in which the abilities and knowledge that people develop serve to address the human needs of their fellow citizens, in the interests of a flourishing life for all. The fact that the current Labour Minister for Education was, before taking office, Chair of the Fund Advisory Committee for  4th Level Ventures, a firm that sought to ‘commercialise the business opportunities that arise from university research’, is a fairly good indicator of what the government’s take is on all of this, and how they really value education.

 

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Youth Without Future: Politics of Exile

This is a translation of an article originally published on Público on 11th March, by Pablo Bustinduy, about the new campaign launched by Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), intended to politicise the phenomenon of emigration.

Politics of exile

Ramonrodriguez

 

Illustration: Ramón Rodríguez

 The first thing the colonised learns is to stay in his place

-Frantz Fanon

Last week, the Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future) collective launched a campaign – #nonosvamosnosechan (we’re not leaving, they’re throwing us out) to denounce the situation of generalised precarity in which the country’s youth are living. The campaign’s web page compiles a series of hair-raising statistics: youth unemployment figures are rocketing, working conditions for those who do have work keep getting worse, and ever more people decide to leave the country to carve out a future somewhere else. There has been much talk of the carnage entailed by the brain drain, and of how the State has used public money to pay for the valuable training of young workers (doctors, researchers, healthcare workers, all kinds of technical experts, engineers, teachers, architects…) who are now being obliged to emigrate. The receiving countries receive these flows of qualified labour as if it were manna fallen from heaven; the German minister for Labour last week said that Spanish immigration was a ‘stroke of luck’.

Nonosvamos

But the reality is that many emigrants (qualified and unqualified) have ended up at their destinations with huge difficulties and conditions that are not much better than those they left behind (“precariedad everywhere” is one of the slogans of the campaign). Until relatively recently, those who left the country were those who wanted to try something different. Now those who are leaving are those who cannot stay any longer, and that gives rise to scenes and situations that had been repressed in the depths of our political, family and cultural unconscious. What is more, the irony is painful: in a country that still has internment centres that are opaque to any scrutiny or social oversight, we end up wishing luck to those who go off in search of a better life.

Juventud Sin Futuro has thus adopted an audacious and purposeful tack: to politicise this mass exile. Until now, emigration has been generally experienced as a private phenomenon: the decision to leave is always a personal matter in the final instance, and there are as many different trajectories and situations as people who leave. Everyone knows someone who has left, but rarely are there similarities to be found among these stories beyond the same resigned diagnosis: things are really bad, it’s normal that people should decide to look elsewhere for what they can’t find here. By pointing directly at the causes of this process, however, JSF presents exile as a de-individualised reality, a condition that is shared beyond the private and the singular, the common stem of all the voices and trajectories that are there without being in the country. Or rather, JSF manages to do both things at the same time: the symbolic centre of the campaign is a mapa mundi full of little yellow dots, each one of which represents an individual story with names and surnames; they are all different, but they are also all part of a same fabric that expresses what they have in common. That can be read fon the map: that emigration is not a storm or a plague, nor is it a sum of personal odysseys, but rather an economic and political reality that has causes, authors and alternatives.

But the campaign does something more than simply denounce this reality. Wherever she goes, the emigrant learns to become invisible: her place is that of the person who has left: an empty and voiceless place. Hence politicising exile also means rescuing emigrants from their civil death, from that tragic destiny for whom leaving means abandoning what one leaves behind, giving up on saying anything, losing one’s citizenship conclusively or temporarily along with the link to the political reality of the country. Against this imposition of silence, the campaign makes emigrants present outside (because it allows them to communicate and organise among themselves) and inside at the same time (because the campaign is not limited to those who have left, but rather binds those trajectories to those who have remained, to those who are contemplating leaving but who, independently of what they decide, share with those on the outside the same problems and the same condition). The youth without future is on both sides, inside and outside the country, and that is what the campaign achieves: it makes them present in two places at the same time, giving them a voice and a common name, and gives political form to what was invisible.

Precariedad

At first glance, the political map of exiles looks like a brain or a rhizome, those botanic structures full of roots, shoots and knots that grow horizontally without any centre. Though what is needed for that is something even more important: the tracing of lines between the points, the creating of links between each one of the stories, multiplying their crossings and trajectories. Let us hope ideas and practices circulate in all directions, and this common name becomes a machine for abolishing distances. The youth without future of those who are leaving and those who are staying is paradoxically the best future the country has: it is a subject that, to liberate itself, has the task of abolishing its own present condition. In this endeavour, the young people have nothing to lose, except the precarity and silence that enchains them.

 

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“But now, we’ll pause for the Angelus”: Psychologists, Political Power and the Irish Regime

Marian-finucane

What follows, further down, is a transcript of a segment from the Marian Finucane show, broadcast just before noon on Saturday 9th of March. It is a conversation with Professor Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

When I heard the first 30 seconds or so of the segment, as I was travelling by train towards Dublin on Saturday, I thought about writing a post about it. I’m not an especially keen listener or viewer of RTE, the Irish public broadcaster, but it has often struck me, when tuning in, just how much coverage it devotes to matters of psychology, self-help, and techniques for bringing one’s mind under control so as to manage one’s own personal circumstances. Flourishing author Maureen Gaffney is the example that springs most readily to mind; there is also Tony Bates, who had a Psychology Series on the Marian Finucane show and who frequently appears at public events as the ‘resident psychologist’ for that show. RTE’s afternoon show Drivetime had a regular feature called Mind Time in which the presenter spoke to a clinical psychologist about aspects of personal mental life. An RTE television series titled Not Enough Hours entailed ‘Psychologist and Time Management Expert, Owen Fitzpatrick’ helping families come to terms with the pressures of running a household and holding down a job, or looking for a new job. David Coleman, a clinical psychologist specialising in children, is billed by the RTE’s Tubridy show as ‘Tubridy family psychologist’ is another expert making frequent appearances on both TV and radio. In a blurb for David Coleman’s book, Ryan Tubridy says that For a clear, concise and coherent take on the world of family life, David Coleman is the first man we go to‘. Operation Transformation, a series concerned with weight loss and the consequent transformation of one’s life, uses the services of Dr Eddie Murphy MBA, a Principal Clinical Psychologist with the HSE. He is also a contributor to the Marian Finucane Show, the John Murray Show, and the Ryan Tubridy Show.

As I was listening to the opening remarks, I recalled a survey conducted a couple of years ago, published in the Irish Times, I think, that found that what people surveyed on unemployment lines most wanted to talk about was political solutions to the social and economic crisis in which they found themselves (if anyone can recall this survey, and has a link, please post in the comments below).

Meeting such a demand would entail a process of dialogue, a process of questioning of fundamental assumptions about how society ought to be run. It would entail asking about what things ought to be prioritised and protected. It would involve widespread participation from citizens, and in particular those most affected by the crisis. No such thing has been facilitated by the public broadcaster. On the contrary, its reliance on experts, on expert opinion over public participation, has served to block any such process.

In the case of the areas addressed by the psychologists listed above, that might entail talking about why there are not enough hours in the day, not at the level of an individual family, and not in terms of how to cope with such an absence of time for pleasurable productive activity, but in terms of how political solutions might be achieved. It might entail asking why people end up overweight, why there is such a stigma attached to weight gain, what social factors make people feel miserable about their weight, and what political changes might need to occur in order to address these problems. It might entail asking why children bully at school, and what the range social factors are, for instance, a culture of bullying in the workplace and other social institutions and how this might replicate itself in parental behaviour, or indeed in the character of the school itself. But no such thing ever happens during the appearances of media mind experts.

In a recent note that sought to outline reasons for the passivity of the majority of society in light of the present social and economic crisis with its processes of impoverishment and degradation, poet, literary translator, moral philosopher and sociologist Jorge Riechmann listed seven factors. Among these were:

          the deepening of capitalist globalisation with its implicit counsel of “don’t confront things, flee and start again somewhere else” (don’t struggle, re-invent yourself);

          the progress of anomic individualisation that inhibits collective action;

          the culture of capitalism in which each human life consists of the exchange of commodities

Instead, the function of psychologists and other experts on mental processes –or rather, their deployment on the public broadcaster as experts- is to forestall political dialogue and social questioning that one might otherwise expect to be generated through radio and television, and to reproduce individualised, atomised ways of thinking about oneself, ways that spurn collective solutions and produce self-regulating, self-disciplining subjects who must manage themselves as if they were their own investment portfolio, who are trained to see every problem as a ‘challenge’ and every challenge –to expertise, to conventional wisdom, to the dominant order of things- as a problem.

If the segment had not gone on to mention Hugo Chávez, I would be finishing the post here. However, it is particularly interesting to see the thoroughly odd and incongruous way in which the deployment by the public broadcaster of an expert in psychology goes about addressing the phenomenon of a society that has undergone a deep process of politicisation over the past decade and a half, and the person who was the democratically elected figurehead of that process, a few days after he died from cancer.

I am not going to get into the matter of the veracity of the claims made about Hugo Chávez –or Fidel Castro: at one point, Marian Finucane appears confused- there are plenty of decent pieces out there where you can judge for yourself, such as here, here, here, here, and here, among other places.

I will, however, make the general point that I made to people the other night: the bits and pieces I’ve happened across here and there in the Irish media haven’t provoked the usual bouts of head-spinning bewilderment I normally experience. Instead, I’ve been hit by a sense of cringing embarrassment at the sheer mediocrity of it all: the historical, political and geographical illiteracy, the automatic identification with the view from Washington, the recourse to ludicrous cliché, the absence of any kind of self-awareness or comparative perspective. The right response to all of this isn’t embarrassment, but laughter.

Chavezrisa

Transcript from Marian Finucane segment with Professor Ian Robertson, Saturday 9 March 2013.

MARIAN FINUCANE: I want to move on now, we’re going to talk about the seven secrets of a healthy brain, how to have a healthy brain, which kind of most people would like to have? And most people would dread the thought of losing it if they currently have one. But, and I’m joined in the studio by the gentleman who’s going to talk to me about that because there’s a research being done in Trinity and I understand that, in the memory research unit, and they are looking for candidates to participate in that, and you’re very welcome indeed Professor Ian Robertson again to studio.

But before that, as we say. Arising from The Winner Effect

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yes

MARIAN FINUCANE: Which you have written. There’s a small little event going to take place today which is

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah, 5 o’clock, yeah

MARIAN FINUCANE: 5 o’clock (laughs)…Lansdowne Road

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah

MARIAN FINUCANE: In Dublin

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah

MARIAN FINUCANE: And you, you take a view on what might -by the way I saw in the paper, I don’t know if it’s true or not, I hope it’s not but anyway, that this may be Brian O’Driscoll’s last match at home. It was just one of the papers, now whether it’s speculation or inside information I don’t know, but it would be, we would miss him dreadfully, but anyway, how do you apply your winner effect

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Well..

MARIAN FINUCANE: ..to them?

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: I was really struck when I saw Paddy Jackson taking, you know, the kick he missed. You could kind of see it in his eyes, he was going to miss it, and generally, you can compare him with Ronan O’Gara, who, obviously, poor old Ronan, who has been dropped this week, but, he..

MARIAN FINUCANE: He was another fine servant it has to be said.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: And he very seldom missed his kick. And what Ronan had was a complete killer instinct. He’s a man with a…

MARIAN FINUCANE: He believed it, didn’t he?

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: He believed it, and he has that will to dominate. Someone said, I think it was Kidney said he had ice in his veins, you know? And that’s true about O’Gara, there’s a ruthlessness about him, and that’s what you need to win, and that’s what the Irish, the Scottish team have never really had for years, and the Irish team, rugby team, didn’t used to have it. Now, they had it for a while, they really had that professional will to win that the English team have always had, but they seem to have lost it in the last few weeks. Whether it’s the whole dynamics of the team and the relationship with the coach but it seems to have run its course in the team, so I feel that they’re going to be on the back foot psychologically this afternoon.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Yeah, because you believe that winning gives you the confidence to win.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: That’s right. So something called The Winner Effect, the title of my book..

MARIAN FINUCANE: Yeah

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: is actually a phenomenon that applies across all species. And you win one event, against a weakened opponent, even though it’s a really bad contest, you’re more likely to win against a stronger opponent. So if you beat Italy this week, you’ve got a better chance of beating England the following week.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Mind you, we played rather well, or they played, I didn’t play, rather well in Cardiff

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah

MARIAN FINUCANE: And then it didn’t

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: No, that’s the problem, you see, team dynamics. The Winner Effect is about individual competition. Teams are a whole different kettle of fish. It’s much more complicated than the relationship between the coach and the team bonding, and..remember the France, the world cup in France, the whole team fell apart and there was an appalling performance. So it’s more complicated than teams. You see it particularly when it comes to kicking, you see it in soccer as well.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Such a responsibility. But you’re right, O’Gara used to do it with such confidence, you just knew that it was definitely going to happen. And indeed Johnny Sexton. And indeed hopefully the other two that are named for this week as well. Now, you also say that you can look at Hugo Chávez.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yes

MARIAN FINUCANE: I remember you telling me that I, or anybody else indeed (laughs), couldn’t be a benevolent dictator.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: No.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Because the power, the power changes chemicals nearly, in the brain.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Oh it absolutely changes chemicals. I mean, power acts through the same part of your brain that cocaine does and sex does. There’s only one reward network in the brain. And power has a mainline into it. And so Chávez, I mean, he was a remarkable man. He halved the levels of poverty in Venezuela. And then (laughs) he squandered the wealth. Among the biggest oil reserves in the world, and now mortgaged them to the Chinese. You know, the place has the highest crime rate in the world, it’s a mess, the country.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Why though? Why, why do..

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Well, here’s why, here’s why. So. I can give you the example of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Yeah.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Before the election, he performed really badly. I remember him on the Late Late Show when you thought “my goodness this man’s not fit to be Taoiseach. Since he’s become Taoiseach -and I hold no card for Fine Gael particularly- he has become smarter. He has become really impressive I think. And that’s because having power increases testosterone, the hormone testosterone, that increases dopamine in the brain, and that makes the front part of your brain work better. It makes you smarter. Power makes you smarter. Powerlessness makes you less smart. So for a person like Enda Kenny who I think has a strong ethical and kind of moral background, he is someone who’s unlikely to be corrupted by power but can benefit from its biological effects. It’s like a drug. It’s like a brain-enhancing drug. The trouble is for other people, different personalities, it can tip them over the other side. The brain has..there’s a Goldilocks zone for this dopamine, the chemical messenger – too little and you underfunction, too much and you underfunction. But unconstrained power like dictators have, like Gaddafi or, or, Saddam Hussein, it just tips them into complete madness.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Or Castro?

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Castro..Castro..em..it did, yes, because, I mean, there’s a series of characteristics, absolute power causes, it makes you narcissistic, and it makes you start to see the world as an arena for yourself. It makes you totally concerned with your own image and it gives you a messianic manner and Hugo Chávez..he really started to feel himself to be God-given and that happens to most dictators.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Right.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: And some great businessmen. I mean, who just begin to..this happens to men more than women, Marian, so it’s a vulnerability of men. Margaret Thatcher had it a bit as well.

MARIAN FINUCANE: And tell me, how do you relate, now you were talking about ..if you win, it makes you want to win, it makes you win.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yes. That’s right.

MARIAN FINUCANE: So where would you put Rory McIlroy? We’ve been reading about him all week.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: That’s so interesting you know, because he…he was a man who had..it wasn’t a meltdown a few years ago but a couple of years ago anyway.

MARIAN FINUCANE: In Augusta.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Yeah.  But he, but he’s done really well. And I don’t think it was a coincidence, it was just after he’d signed his Nike deal for $170m that he’d had this uncharacteristic walking off.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Why? Why would you make the connection?

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Well, there is a…I’m only speculating, I cannot know the psychology. It could be he had a sore tooth, it could be that he had girlfriend trouble..heh..it could be that the new clubs were interfering with his swing. I’m just speculating. But all I can tell you is that there’s something called choking. And choking is when you want something, and you’re rewarded too much for something, it can disrupt your fine brain control. So, you know, if you, even an experiment, if you get people chasing, doing a tracking task on the computer, and for some of the time, they get a €5 if they find  the target and for the others you get a €50 reward, you’ll find that many people actually fail to get the €50 reward because they want it too much, it’s too big a reward. And the increased dopamine in their brain interferes with the brain function, and the brain’s such a highly tuned machine that too little of this stuff or too much of this stuff can disrupt its skills. So with Rory McIlroy, here is a young man with a €170m in his bag, and the whole kind of motivation of being the young terrier coming though the ranks and fighting for this..

MARIAN FINUCANE: Number one goal

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: Big number one goal..and suddenly he’s kind of there, there’s a problem of motivation here now, of what am I doing this for? I’ve got my $170m, so, motivation and maybe a combination of the new clubs can really..it’s going to take a while for his brain to realign to a completely different psychological and biological environment. So I cannot answer the Rory McIlroy question, because it would be speculation, but all I’m saying is, give anyone a $170m for the rest of their life and the risk is you sap some of the meaning from their life

MARIAN FINUCANE: OK, right

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: and you get that from lottery winners often.

MARIAN FINUCANE: Yep. I’m just coming up to 12 and we’ll have to go to the Angelus, but just before I go, what advice would you give to our rugby team today? I’ve forgotten to ask you that.

PROFESSOR IAN ROBERTSON: I would say remember past victories you have had, great victories you have had against France and don’t let the worries and the doubts about O’Gara being dropped and the conflict that can happen in a team, just remember the victories and believe you can do that again.

MARIAN FINUCANE: OK, listen Ian, thank you very very much indeed for that, now we will be talking about the new project in Trinity on 7 ways to improve your memory and to keep your memory and all that bit of you nice, or memory and brain, people are interested in these things, anyway, we’ll come back to that after we have the Angelus, the news, and maybe a short trip to Rome to see what’s happening there. But now, we’ll pause for the Angelus.

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I am Chávez (or why this time he won’t be leaving altogether either)

This is a tranlsation of a piece by Iñigo Errejon, first published on March 6th in Público and originally translated on harasmivoluntad.

I am Chávez (or why this time he won’t be leaving altogether either)

Chavez-lluvia-580x254

Caracas is a rumbustious city, but yesterday, Tuesday 5th of March, it was shot through with a hard and contagious silence. Not only in the working class neighbourhoods, but also, for different reasons, in the more comfortable zones of the city, where during recent weeks they had celebrated the bad news on the health of the President. The announcement from Vice-President Nicolás Maduro established an advance wake, which was then confirmed by his appearance in the afternoon. From then on, Venezuela began to sink into a serene lament, those workers who had not already done so finished up at work, the informal vendors were closing early, the cars, in the traffic jams, sounded their horns less, and everyday people began to gather in the Bolívar squares of each municipality.

The pained but serene atmosphere of the gatherings contrasts with the gabbling of “experts” from the Spanish media oligopoly –the range of media concentrated in a few firms that liberalism calls freedom of expression- who, in complete agreement, could scarcely contain their excitement in imagining transitions and blank slates in Venezuela. The old colonial pretension of giving lessons in democracy, however, is becoming ever more implausible. The Spanish population is currently undergoing a veritable social drama, and the fracture in its political and economic elites, as well as the social, economic and territorial unviability of the historic national project of its domestic lumpen-oligarchy, is starting to open up considerable breaches in the regime that was born out of the Constitution of 1978. A highly discredited Government, which was elected with less than half of the popular support received by the one in Venezuela, is undertaking an aggressive adjustment programme that punishes middle and working class sectors, one that was not in its electoral programme and which it is executing on the orders of economic powers that were not elected by the citizens, and which they are moreover placing beyond any public debate. The protests from the impoverished social majority are dealt with by getting the police to beat and arrest hundreds of people, and the mass media is practically closed off from the real country, whilst functioning as a permanent loudspeaker for the values, language and interpretations of the ruling elites. It does not look like a CV that would allow one to give too many lessons in democracy.

And yet, it is still surprising to witness the feeling of superiority that permits particularly mediocre elites to denigrate the Venezuelan political process. Let us examine some of their arguments. Since they are unable to impugn the democratic legitimacy of the political system with any seriousness, they turn to a tool that the powerful, significantly, use with increasing frequency in Europe: Chávez is a ‘populist’ leader. It does not matter that none of those who use the term are able to supply a convincing definition for it – the power of the term lies precisely in its viscosity.

The problem is that its overuse can start to reveal the stitching in the political conception that lies behind it, a conviction of liberal and not democratic origins that maintains democracy can be abused if there is an excitement of the ‘base passions’ that afflict the masses due to their nature but never the privileged minority sectors. This argument, according to which the irruption of the plebs into politics can threaten democracy, is based on a reasoning that can lead to censitary suffrage (to prevent the ‘demagoguery’ that excites the poor) or to the low intensity democracies of the West in which the principal decisions and institutions that govern social life (the economy, the media, judicial power, the armed forces etc) are kept safely beyond the reach of popular sovereignty, and remain de facto spaces reserved for privileged minorities.

The case against Chávez continues with two arguments directly related to the previous one. On the one hand, they criticise the leadership relation whilst at the same time they denigrate as a ‘clown’ a President who had the audacity to resemble those who elected him. That is why Spain is governed by a land registrar, whilst in Venezuela, the likely next president, if the Venezuelans place their trust in him, will be a former urban bus driver. European societies also seem to be tiring of serious and grey tie-wearing gentlemen who govern according to the dictates of the richest, whilst Latin America is filling up with tie-less presidents, workers, former guerrillas, peasants, Indians and mestizos. There are those who do not yet grasp that this is not simply rotation, but represents a change of epoch. This criticism of leadership, shared by certain sectors of the left, forgets that every relation of leadership is one of representation, and as such carries with it a sense of negotiation and tension: in democratic contexts, a person will lead in so far as he or she embodies and satisfies the longings of the social whole, and ceases to do so when the latter withdraws its support. In the case of Chávez, this support came from those sectors that were poorest and racialised as inferior –blacks, mestizos- which, by virtue of a new social contract, obtained an unprecedented expansion of social rights, of their sovereignty, of their inclusion. From the material conquests to the symbolic ones, which are no less important: “When I was a child at school I was ashamed of my nose, because it was a black girl’s nose, until Chávez came along”, a friend told me the other day. These are the sectors that today make up the hegemonic majority identity in Venezuela: Chavism, which has managed to move the country’s axis of gravity toward the left and in the favour of the popular sectors. Those who do not understand this forget, either by will or ignorance, that political identities are forged across the most diverse of references. In Venezuela, after a radical dislocation of the traditional meanings of belonging, a massive popular realignment took place that has crystallised around the name of Chávez.

On the other hand, the prevailing liberal discourse tends to adduce that in Venezuela there exists a major ‘polarisation’. Oddly, such criticisms could not be read when Venezuela’s poverty rate in 1999 stood at 49.7% (it is now 27.8%, the country with the third lowest poverty rate in the continent), and extreme poverty at 25%, now 7% of the population, according to CEPAL data. Was the country of 1999 less polarised than the one today? Hence polarisation does not occur in a country when a minority lives in luxury whilst the majority goes hungry, but rather whenever two or more political options stand for opposing models of how a country should be run. This would be a democratic absurdity unless we add the key ingredient: there is always polarisation whenever there is a defeat for the political options linked to the economic oligarchy, endangered by the redistribution of wealth and recovery of national and popular sovereignty over wealth and natural resources. Imagine if to this we add the oil that no longer swells bank accounts in the United States or Panama and instead funds medicines, pensions, universities and homes. Absolute polarisation. And demagoguery. The Venezuelan example is an insult for the elites; those at the bottom can put together a majority identity, constitute themselves as a people and identify the interests of the country with their own, in order to govern themselves. And resist a lockout, the bullying of imperial powers, and a coup d’état. It is important to note that all of this would have been impossible without massive popular support, without an overwhelming political enthusiasm, but also, due to no lack of painful experiences, the support of the majority of the Armed Forces, which are characterised by a plebeian and progressive composition. Without them, Chávez would have been another Salvador Allende, more ‘aesthetic’ for certain left forces, but of less use to his people.

And now, what is going to happen in Venezuela? Unfortunately for the apologists of chaos, the road is laid out by the Constitution and the popular will. It is worth remembering: there are no transitions in democratic systems. There will be elections in the short term and political power will once again reflect democratic preferences that have been freely expressed. As has been the case in 14 years with 17 electoral processes and the practice of direct democracy in local and labour institutions. The problem is that the privileged may not like the verdict.

There remain, of course, many tasks to be completed and mistakes to be corrected in Venezuela. It is only imaginary political processes that are exempt from problems, limits, ugliness. Of course, in exchange for this, they only ever exist as wishes. However, as the Uruguayan president José Mujica says, those who aspire to change things have to be able to improve the life of ordinary people whilst they try to change everything. Anything else is bar-stool revolutions.

The Venezuelan political process, which many of its people call revolution, has confronted many tasks simultaneously: the conquest of national sovereignty, transforming the inherited oligarchic state and building a machine of inclusion and production of a new order, of new public policies for the social majority, immediately redistributing wealth and defeating misery, breaking with the dependency on primary exports and widening the economic base, changing a popular culture that is consumerist and individualist and generating a new imaginary to accompany social transformations, etc. All of this in a context of a democratic accountability more intense and more frequent than in any European country, with not always peaceful disputes of political power, and tough resistance from receding oligarchs. That is why they are processes with holes, incomplete and insufficient. But they are alive, in the hands of their peoples. Expanding social justice, decommodifying necessities, producing a new country, of people who are more equal and hence more free.

That is why those who trust in death, to fulfil their hopes of winning what they never could by seducing the majority, are wrong. His loss is painful, all the more so after having listened to him, admired him, written to him and touched him. But he dies having sown himself: Chávez has changed Venezuela and Latin America, first of all in the imaginary of its peoples. When in the streets of Caracas hundreds of thousands shout “I am Chávez’ or “Chávez is a people” they are not engaged in rhetoric; they are celebrating that this name is now common to all, that it designates a popular bloc that today is driving the State and opening up a new political time that is more just and more democratic.

 

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Profitable Poverty in Extremadura: Bailing out banks, evicting poor people

This is a translation of a piece written by Manuel Cañada, a militant in Trastienda, a social rights collective. It was originally published in Rebelión on 30th June last year. A friend from #AcampadaMérida (manifesto here) suggested I translate it as it helps provide the context to the situation in Extremadura. However it has universal resonance, particularly so in countries living in the wake of burst property bubbles.

The discourse of social Darwinism and the ‘the kingdom of the plasma screen TVs’ cited in this translated text on evictions in Extremadura ought to be particularly relevant to Irish readers. This morning, the head of the Department of Finance has declared that it ‘is not necessarily appropriate that banks should be using taxpayers’ money to subsidise people living in accommodation, even if it is a family home, that is beyond their means’, citing an ‘unnaturally low’ level of repossessions (as if there were anything ‘natural’ about a neo-liberal state that protects the financial sector at all costs!). Meanwhile, Michael Noonan the Minister for Finance has cited, on the public broadcaster, the problem of satellite TV subscriptions taking priority over mortgage repayments.

Bailing out banks, evicting poor people

by Manuel Cañada

Desahucios

I ask of the political economists, of the moralists, whether they have calculated the number of individuals it is necessary to condemn to misery, to undue labour, to demoralisation, to infancy, to crapulous ignorance, to unconquerable misfortune, to absolute penury, so as to produce a rich person.

-Almeida Garret

12th of June 2012, in Mérida’s Juan Canet neighbourhood. It is not yet nine in the morning and a group of riot police, armed with plastic bullet rifles, oversee the rapid removal of furniture from a council house. It is one of 16 such evictions carried out in Extremadura in the last month and a half. Expectant rifle sights scan the doors and cots scattered in the middle of the street. A woman, until now a resident of the flat, begs unsuccessfully to be allowed in to her home to pick up the bottle so she can feed her son. No, these neighbourhoods are not reached by the psalms that speak of the greater interest of the child, nor is there room in the suburbs for affectations of compassion. “They treat us like terrorists”, says an older woman, consumed by rage. For some time now we have ceased to be surprised by the presence of riot police and special operations teams in these slums of misery. It is the silent war, the war of the rich against the poor, the coming social war.

One eviction every three days. The Extremaduran regional government (in Spanish, la Junta de Extremadura), a weatherproof homeowner and judge, has let eviction be the guide of its housing policy. 764 eviction cases are open, and of these, we are told, 90 are to be carried out imminently. This is happening in a region with near 150,000 people who are unemployed, with more than 60,000 in receipt of no benefits whatsoever, and when the number of people seeking assistance from Cáritas food programmes keeps multiplying. A tsunami of marginalisation and misery is advancing with its mouth wide open and, while this is going on, the Extremaduran government starts spinning the roulette wheel of eviction. “I only get €436 euro in unemployment benefit and I have to pay €143 in rent. How do they expect me to pay another late payment bill”, says one of the women threatened with expulsion. “They don’t want to apply the rent reductions to me because they say I have previous debts”, another neighbour complains. “Can you believe they have the right to threaten you with getting thrown out on the street for a debt of €800?”. The stories of uncertainty and fear pile up. The regional government, the property owner, mobilises police and judges to frighten poor people, but it does not seem to show the same diligence or energy in fulfilling its obligations as landlord. The lifts stopped working a long time ago in many blocks and the neighbourhoods are filling up with cockroaches, but the exemplary government of Extremadura can only think about making money, and, especially, in that most profitable of investments: fear. The vineyard of the powers that be, always sprinkled with fear.

This institutional abomination of eviction as a political tool occurs in a country that has more than 4 million empty dwellings and, nearly a million of them in hands of banks as a consequence of the mortgage shakedown. Spain, European champion of people without homes and, at the same time, homes without people. The same country where, whilst sharks like Rodrigo Rato or Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez get off scot-free after leaving behind swindles of €23bn euro (Bankia) or financial black holes of more than €100bn (Spanish banking sector), families are turfed onto the street for the serious crime of having ‘illegally occupied’ the dwelling that was in the name of the grandmother of one of the co-habitants. In the autonomous region in which the biggest businessman, Alfonso Gallardo, has still not given back the €10 million he was advanced for the failed monster refinery and where each passenger through the phantom airport of Badajoz costs public funds 37 euro, they still extort people who have nothing so that they pay  insignificant arrears, or they cut off the water supply to families with small children.

“No-one is going to sleep in the street”, say the civil servant-politicians from the Extremadura government. And it’s true. In spite of them, beyond the logic of bureaucracy, there exists the humanity of the families who will take them in even though, to do so, 15 people might have to cram in to a dwelling of 90 square metres, as has happened in one of the cases in the Bellavista slum.

“We are not going to stop the evictions, in any shape or form. Furthermore we are being congratulated for it”, says a jubilant Víctor del Moral, the Housing Manager for the Extremaduran government. It is here, in this disturbing argument, where the key to this wave of evictions is to be found. An entire populist discourse which speaks of the most downtrodden slums as the kingdom of the plasma screen TVs and designer furniture, and which grindingly repeats terms such as anti-social behaviour, ending up presenting as a problem of public order what is instead a radical expression of social injustice. Here also, behind the absurdity of collective evictions we can locate the “ancient conflict between rich and poor over the right to the city” (Mike Davis).

In 2005, the revolt of the Parisian banlieues was exploding and Sarkozy was resuscitating the old classist-hygienist argument: “we need a big hose to power blast the scum”. The scum, the trash, the dregs, the lazy and the malingerers, yesterday’s gypos and today’s chavs, the fear of the dark suburb, summoned time and again. And joining the ancient criminalisation of poverty is social Darwinism, imported from the United States and administered by injection during recent decades. There are no longer any poor people, only failures. The marginalised disappeared: in the language of the capitalist jungle only losers and social misfits remain.

A thick complicit silence accompanies the evictions. And the comment threads of newspapers suppurate with hatred for the poor. “It’s the only good thing that the PP has done since it came to power in Extremadura”, says an anonymous dispenser of justice. “Come on, hurry up and kick out the scum, they’ll still be around come winter at this rate”, adds another brave mystery figure. They are the lumpen and anything goes. Those in power are well aware of the fear of proletarianisation among the middle classes and they feed off the anxiety of those who sense the end of the great fantasy ride of consumerism and property-owning individualism. Enríque de Castro, the parish priest of Entrevías, has been speaking for years of a new concept, that of profitable poverty. Since the 90s, many people began to live off poverty in the powerful “industry of the social”. Today it is even more obvious to see the usefulness that power accords poverty as an instrument for cohesion and disciplining citizens.

In Novecento, the beautiful Bertolucci film that narrates the history of the 20th century in Italy, we see the story of the eviction of Orestes, a peasant whom the padrones kick out of his home disregarding the contract. On the arrival of the ‘devils on horseback’, the name given by workers to the police of the era, the peasant men and women take up sticks and spread themselves across the ground to support their comrade and resist the expulsion. “They want to throw us out, come down quick, we need you”, plead the most conscious peasants. From the river, one of the small landholders, out hunting ducks, urges the police to intervene against the protesters: “Get out of here, villains. Boys, you have to teach them that property is untouchable, property is inviolable”. The story of the eviction in the film serves to explain the origin of fascism in Italy. Observing the brutality and inhumanity of the mass evictions happening today and the systematic liquidation of social rights, it seems the belly that bore that bestial thing is still fertile.

 

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The Regime: A (Censored) Reply to the Irish Times

I left this comment, now removed, on the Irish Times ‘analysis’ of Hugo Chávez’s death with its references to the ‘regime’ (of course I am very much in favour of the use of the word ‘regime’, but this is a term customarily used in English language journalism to refer solely to regimes of a supposedly authoritarian character) and its ‘Boligarchs’. I am not in the habit of linking to articles from the Irish Times, given that it requests you seek permission to do so, but given the fact that they removed my comment, here is the link so you can see the context of my comment. On other threads, Hugo Chávez is being compared to Hitler and criticised for his ‘heavy dictatorial tendencies’, without censorship. UPDATE: The admins put it back after it was brought to their attention.

‘The CIA -yes, the CIA, the intelligence services of the North American oligarchic regime- says Venezuela’s budget deficit is 4.9%.

That is substantially lower than the budget deficits run by the French regime in recent years. It is hard to describe Nicolas Sarkozy’s regime as characterised by ‘give-away populism’.

In fact, it’s curious that the author speaks of public indebtedness as a particular problem for Venezuela when, as the CEPR noted last quarter, Venezuela’s public debt is substantially lower than that of the European Union regime, another regime not particularly known for its ‘largess’ (sic). That study went on to note that ‘Even if the country’s central government internal debt/GDP ratio were to double, to 22 percent of GDP, this would still be a low level of internal public debt’. But perhaps the Venezuelan economy has nosedived dramatically in the last few months. If it has, it would have been nice of the author to mention it.

Then there is the ‘authoritarian’ charge. You see, given that this article was written in a newspaper under the European Union regime, there is a certain irony here. You see, it wasn’t Hugo Chávez who, after suffering a referendum defeat, said “answer the right way next time – or else!” He isn’t a former Goldman Sachs bigwig, installed at the behest of international banking confreres to impose their will on the population. He didn’t threaten people with destitution unless they changed the constitution to make neo-liberal ideology the substance of everyday life. He didn’t prioritise the repayment of banker debt over the funding of hospital treatment, or education, or social assistance payments. When rampaging fascists target immigrants in a country ransacked by big European banks, it wasn’t Hugo Chávez whose rule they sought to uphold as its ultimate guarantors. No, the people involved in those cases were the ‘democratic’ leaders of the European regime.

So it is not as if those of us who live under the Irish oligarchic regime are in any position to lecture any other people about how their political or economic system ought to be run, or to prescribe remedies for ‘reform’ that curiously enough require public spending cuts that mirror the policy of the European regime.

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