The Global Debt Resistance


Another day, another enormous resistance to the neo-liberal austerity regime. Today it was Greece, yesterday Spain. before that Portugal. Now a media and governmental meme is emerging in which it is said that “only” the periphery of Europe are in trouble and that the “strong” countries are doing well. It is hinted that Greece can and should leave the Euro. This is all bravado.

In “strong” France, it was announced today that unemployment has passed the three million mark. Despite the socialist victory in the Presidential elections, French activists see a continuity of austerity. I’m translating below a call to action on October 13 issued by the Paris Assembly of Démocratie réelle maintenant, the French equivalent to Spain’s Democracia Real Ya! Anti-debt groups across Europe and in the Americas are now working to co-ordinate a call for O13. Can what we used to call the left finally get its global act together?

Here’s the French call, translated rather literally, to be true to the original, which centers on the “casseroles” used in Montréal, the banging of pots and pans (all emphasis original):

Citizens! Into the Streets and To the Casseroles to Cancel Illegitimate Debt!

Debt is a racket!

Closure of schools and hospitals, reduction or suppression in social services, increased sales tax, absence of affordable housing…Such politics of austerity, applied for years in Latin America and Africa, are now current in the European Union. No population has been or will be spared, with the most precarious being the first affected. The situation is serious: let’s wake up!

Austerity claims to be legitimate because it results from excessive expenditures on benefits…In reality, sovereign debt comes from both the savagery of private banks since the 2008 crisis and the numerous fiscal gifts to the richest and to corporations for decades.

The debt also results from the excessive interest rates that we pay to private banks from whom the State borrows to finance itself, since it can no longer borrow from the Central Bank. The total debt results from compound interest built up over the past forty years!

The public debt is odious when we are told to reimburse the same people who are responsible for the crisis and who have not ceased to enrich themselves since.

The public debt is not legitimate when it impoverishes us, the 99%, in order to sustain private and unwarranted lenders.

To pay the public debt is just to produce… private debt: that of students, those in precarious housing, the sick, workers, the unemployed, farmers, undocumented immigrants, as well as all those who have to pay the individual price of the dismanteling of public services and benefits.

To continue with growth at all costs imposed by the blackmail of debt is also to increase our ecological debt, which, far more than the public debt, is what’s really at stake in the 21st century.

Where is democracy if we cannot say NO to that which is in the interest only of the privileged and when collusion reigns between them and those who govern us? Where is democracy when all future debate and politics is barred by European treaties, the latest of which, known as the Budget Treaty, is even now in the course of ratification by our so-called “representatives”?

The abolition of illegitimate debt must also be extended to other countries: we demand that the French state cease to shake down other nations in the name of odious debt, which they have already largely repaid, while we continue to pillage their wealth. We won’t pay illegitimate debt, not here or elsewhere! The only legitimate debt that we have is to respond to the call of the African [President] Thomas Sankara to create a global front against debt.

October 13 is a global day of action! Paris, rise up, everyone in the streets with your casseroles for a great unity march from Goldman Sachs to the Assemblée Nationale [Parliament/Congress]: stop the European budget treaty, cancel illegitimate debt here and elsewhere.

After the march, we will meet in an assembly to discuss alternative futures and to build common outcomes from the mobilization.

So there are a couple of points to note here. Obviously this is a more substantive and less media-oriented press release than is now common in the Anglophone world. And the focus is at first more on sovereign (or public) debt. The analysis moves into full agreement with global debt campaigns as it highlights how public debt produces private debt at the expense of developing nations and the biosphere. What might just be happening here is the formation of global anti-capitalist movement with a common theme. I find that idea more than a little intriguing.


No pasaran!

Let’s take heart from some remarkable examples of resistance to mafia capitalism from around the world. Long radical traditions have given these movements a capacity to resist. The Occupy project, so young it is not even a year old, can learn and benefit from these experiences and measure the extent of the challenge, even as we are inspired.

In Moscow, where even the mainstream media refer to Putin’s regime as a “mafia state,” the anarchist feminist punk band Pussy Riot responded to the “charges” in their show trial with defiance.

Pussy Riot in court

Wearing the No Pasaran! (they shall not pass) T-shirt with a slogan from the Spanish Civil War in Putin’s KGB courts is a powerful gesture.

It was a slogan against Franco’s fascists, made famous by Dolores Ibárurri, La Pasionaria, during the 1936 defense of Madrid (above). It became the chorus to a song with music by Hans Eisler.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, wearing the shirt, said to the “court”

This is a trial of the whole government system of Russia, which so likes to show its harshness toward the individual, its indifference to his honour and dignity…Even though we are behind bars, we are freer than those people.

By “those people,” Tolokonnikova was referring to the prosecutors and other functionaries who are, like latter-day Stalinists, totally dependent on the good will of the all-powerful leader. What’s particularly courageous about these statements is that Putin has been signaling a wish for leniency. If that now happens, Pussy Riot win a total victory. If it compels the regime to imprison the women for what they rightly describe as “opposition art,” then Putin loses again from the storm of negative publicity.

From the other side of the world come images of the on-going student resistance in Chile. Remember that Chile was the first test-case for neo-liberalism, imposed by the military after toppling the democratic left government of Salvador Allende in a US-backed coup in 1973. General Pinochet implemented Chicago-school neo-liberalism to the letter and it was the disaster we have come to expect. One of the areas least changed since those days is education, where fees are routinely charged across the system, even for the poorest.

After months of resistance, the students still have great energy. Today, according to the Santiago Times,

A group of high school students briefly occupied the central offices of the far-right Independent Democratic Union Party (UDI) in Santiago on Tuesday morning, accusing the party of being “complicit in the robbery of municipal money that should go to education.”

This action carries a possible three-year jail sentence under the Hinzpeter law, criminalizing occupying private or public property. There were widespread clashes with police during the demonstration continuing the call for free public higher education. Here are some photographs taken by Julia Antivilo, feminist performance artist, Mapuche Indian activist and artist. Remember these are high school students.

Water cannon in the streets, Santiago. Credit: Julia Antivilo

The water cannon were not just deployed for effect.

Credit: Julia Antivilo

In this picture, you can see how young these demonstrators are but the government has responded with stern law-and-order threats.

The combination of principle from young people met with violence by the state is bringing the population as a whole to support their cause. From the popular assemblies in Montréal comes this statement:

As Popular Autonomous Neighbourhood Assemblies (French: Assemblées populaires autonomes de quartiers) formed after the imposition of emergency legislation, we openly give our support to student associations who decide to continue to strike in opposition to the increase to tuition fees, and who continue to disobey this emergency law.  To force students back to class, as is supposed to happen starting August 13, is nothing more than an attack on students’ right to collectively organize.  For this reason, we offer our support to students on strike: we will organize demonstrations and we will be present on picket lines.

From all this we learn that repression works at first, but if people organize, the resistance becomes stronger and wider. Next, look at the historical perspective. In post-Soviet Russia, Pussy Riot cite the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. Quebec has been militant in regards to separatism and public services since the 1970s. Chile’s democratic revolution ran from 1970-73 and that repression is still being undone.

We’ve barely even begun this. Look at the kids. No pasaran!

Anti-Capitalism and the Great Extinction

How should we think of the past year? One way is to realize that in that time, any possibility of making serious changes to the global deterioration of the biosphere has dramatically receded. Whether you’re an environmental activist, a “that’s so terrible” headshaker, or an “it’s all about capitalism” person has become irrelevant. Short of major collapse, disaster or unforeseen events, we’re past the point of being able to do anything about this. What might get your attention is that the signs are that what worked for the climate issue is now being applied to capitalism–denial, displacement and legal enforcement.

The last surviving Pinta tortoise, Lonesome George, died in the Galapagos on Sunday. The species is now extinct.

If you have not been paying much attention, you may even not be aware that the UN Rio+20 environmental summit came and went last week. Rio was supposed to make good the promises of the earlier Earth summit and lead towards more sustainable development. The inevitable communiqué was dismissed as “283 paragraphs of fluff” by Greenpeace. Occupy activists did interrupt the closing ceremony to make a statement but were soon silenced. There was minimal media coverage and relatively little awareness in Occupy. When the COP17 Climate Change conference in South Africa collapsed in similar fashion early last December, there was a day of action at Zuccotti Park. Last week, as wildfires devastated Colorado, Arctic ice levels fell to record lows, and an early tropical storm flooded Florida, no comparable action took place.

Along with many others, I’ve been pushing this issue throughout this project to little effect. We did hold an Occupy Theory Assembly on climate. It started well but became becalmed in demands that we endorse a long submission to the Rio conference. Proposals for direct action against the fossil fuel industry were more promising. However, the idea of lying down in front of coal trains was a little daunting. It was not that people did not see the urgency of the issue but that they could not see how to make headway with it.

And here’s why. Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals in DC ruled against a suit attempting to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating green house gases. The judgment scathingly noted against the so-called climate skeptics:

This is how science works….The E.P.A. is not required to reprove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question.

However, the Republican attorney general of Virginia gave notice that he will appeal the ruling. Any guesses as to how the Supremes will rule on this?

On the same day, we learned that, despite the disaster in the Gulf, Shell Oil will get off-shore drilling permits for Alaska. What’s so tawdry about this transparent election-year vote grubbing from the Obama Administration is that not a single Republican or Independent that wasn’t going to vote Democrat will do so as a result of this move. But one of the few remaining pristine landscapes will be ruined and yet more animals will die.

Humans are now causing what is known as the Sixth Great Extinction, a mass slaughter comparable to whatever it was that killed the dinosaurs, except that we’re doing it on purpose and we know we are. About 30,000 species a year are becoming extinct from megafauna like the Pinta tortoise to frogs. Insects are thriving and will inherit the planet.

Leave the disasters, extinctions, floods and fires to one side: we’ve got used to grey smog as the permanent condition in all the global cities, to a hole in the ozone layer, to holes in the floor of the ocean leaking oil, to the disappearance of drinking water, the spread of deserts and once-tropical diseases. If we’re ok with all this, do we expect debt and unemployment to generate a mass anti-capitalist movement?

For capitalism, this is all business-as-usual, what they like to call “creative destruction.” It’s also a new way to profit, as the wave of green-washing ads from oil companies makes clear. For anti-capitalists of all stripes, from the mildest reformist to the most wild-eyed revolutionary, our collective failure to develop anything other than rhetorical purchase on the survival of life is devastating. Not just to the biosphere, human and non-human life, but to the chances of pushing back neo-liberal capitalism.


Occupy the Global (Cold War) Imaginary

One of the most resistant spaces to the global Occupy movement is the global imaginary, by which I mean the way in which we imagine the planet. While the push-back against financial inequality has been very successful, with the 99% vs. one per cent divide now part of the global political vocabulary, we have not succeeded in framing an alternative means of visualizing the planet. That space remains occupied by the Cold War imaginary of binary divides between hostile camps, all underpinned by the threat of nuclear war.

The Nagasaki bomb, 1945

What sets the Occupy way of visualizing against neoliberal financial globalization is its willingness to bring issues together, to embrace complexity and to see patterns of relation. Yet in the case of the largest system of all, Earth, we have failed to shift attention towards the reckless destruction of liveable space in the name of profit. Strikingly, any effort to discuss the degradation of the Earth-system is designated even by radicals as a depressing subject–this from people who love nothing more than to read long essays describing how capitalism is collapsing, poverty increasing, employment disappearing.

So it’s not the depressing nature of the subject as such. It’s the sense that this subject is itself, as it were, futile because the imagined destruction of the planet is already occupied by nuclear weapons and the world they have produced. In this view, the military are the indispensable key to continued safety and it has been an article of neoliberal faith to maintain massive military budgets, while cutting all other areas of government. Thus we imagine we are “safe.” We have to expose this old idea for the peculiar hodgepodge of 1950s militarism and 1980s economics that it is, while espousing the new synthesis of science, anti-poverty, pro-diversity that has emerged in the past decade as a path to a real security that does not depend on world-ending weapons.

The Cold War spectres continue to haunt the earth. Consider how Romney has cited Russia as the greatest enemy of the U. S. More saliently, reflect how overwhelming the transnational governing consensus that Iran must not be “allowed” to acquire nuclear weapons has remained. This is old-fashioned Cold War doctrine: nuclear proliferation is bad, not because nuclear weapons are bad, but because it undermines the deterrence of the superpowers. In short, if “small” nuclear powers might actually use their weapons, then the deterrence of massive arsenals counts for nothing. How that works in the post-Soviet era no one seems to have tried to work out.

The evocation of the nuclear activates a form of pre-emptive dread, in which many of us have literally been schooled. It has been visualized many times but perhaps the 1964 “Daisy” ad for President Johnson did it best.

“Daisy” reminds us of “s/he loves me, s/he loves me not” and all the other binary games that you can play like this. The choice here is simple: to die or not to die. The ad mobilizes a fantasy that by voting we can affect our own destiny in the geopolitics of nuclear weapons. For many, the current crisis in the Earth-system lacks such a vision of solution and so it’s “depressing.” Now the International Council for Science has issued a “State of the Planet Declaration” that allows for us to imagine a different geo-politics. Here are its opening three clauses:

1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises…
2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions… required for a truly sustainable planet.
3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

“Saving civilization” can now be presented as practical the task of ending poverty and the conceptual work of thinking human and non-human systems as being so intertwined as to form one co-dependent network.

You can’t vote for this. You can’t expect the United Nations to enact it. You have to perform this set of changes and it begins very simply by refusing the global and imagining the Earth-system.

Why We Refuse What We Resist

At Left Forum over the weekend the debates could be summarized as follows: is the current system a new form of capitalism or not? What was striking was those from Occupy all agreed that this was a new formation, while many others, who wanted to see a continuity with existing forms of analysis and organizing, did not.

As it happens, I’ve been here before. In the late 1970s and early 80s, cultural studies intellectuals and activists began to identify Thatcherism as a distinctly new phenomenon that cut across existing class lines. Although New Left Review and others later came around to accepting this analysis, at the time it was greeted with howls of outrage. So both past and present experience lead me to side with the sense that we are again experiencing a new intensity of capitalism, creating divides and antagonisms that did not previously exist.

This divide is what I call “autoimmune capitalism,” a capitalism that destroys its own hosts, human and non-human life, whether by intent or by accident. Food poisoned by pesticides, a climate increasingly inhospitable to life, the ongoing great extinction of non-human species, one billion people worldwide hungry and the massive failure of overdeveloped nations to sustain employment within neo-liberal economies are all symptoms of this syndrome.

Like AIDS–Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome–this autoimmune capitalism is a syndrome not a disease. There is no single cure or response. By the same token, it can only be stabilized by introducing a radically different “economy,” in the sense of a balanced regimen.

Anarchist meeting in Union Square May 1, 1914.

It makes sense, then, that the compelling new “Spring back” from Occupy centers around refusal. The May Day action is a set of negatives–no work, no school, no chores, no banking. no shopping. But even “on holiday,” how many of us have lived a day like that, except as privileged children? The May Day from 1914 (above) is amazing both for the fact that you could fill Union Square with anarchists and that they are all (apparently) white men in hats. There is an echo but it’s not a repetition.

For the interface of autoimmunity is with autonomy, self-rule. To claim that “self” requires a certain kind of refusal: abolition. I’m going to use a perhaps unexpected example to make this point: the Haitian Constitution of 1805. I do so in part because for the first time, a copy of that Constitution, the only one known to survive, is on display in New York at the New-York Historical Society. I like to think that it’s abolition energy is spreading around the city.

Printed version of the Haitian Declaration of Independence

Having fought for independence from France for fourteen years, the new nation declared:

Slavery is forever abolished.

In four words, the sentence encompasses past, present and future (abolished/is/forever). It provides no authority for the abolition, even the tautology of holding it to be “self-evident.” Because those “truths held to be self-evident” did not include abolition. That short sentence is a world-historical revolution.

Having abolished the primary political distinction between “free” and “slave,” Haiti then made itself into the scandal of modernity by decreeing in Article 12:

No whiteman of whatever nation he may be, shall put his foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor, neither shall he in future acquire any property therein.

This clause undid colonialism, neo-colonialism and segregation. If the rest of the document reinscribed other masters and proprietors, it nonetheless insisted, against the highly complicated racial hierarchy of miscegenation created by slavery, that all such persons were to “be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks.”

The point here is that abolition and refusal are in fact creative tactics by which we can make a different social order and it has been done in the past. More recently, the refusal of Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus, supported by a non-violent direct action group, transformed the United States to such an extent that she has had to be reimagined as a solitary heroine of American exceptionalism. In Ireland, people are refusing the new tax put in place as part of the Troika-inspired austerity.

85% support refusing to pay the new tax in Ireland

However, the full diversity of what we are now refusing cannot be simply legislated out of existence. As with AIDS, we need a diversity of tactics to oppose the new capitalism including direct action on the ACT UP model; a “cocktail” of curative measures to begin addressing the damage done to human and non-human bodies; and the elaboration of a regime of prevention. The first step in prevention–just say no.





A-Anti-Anticapitalista! Welcome to the Resistance

In people’s comments about M17, the six-month anniversary of OWS, you can see a broad agreement that there’s a new feel to the movement. It’s epitomized by the gradual shift in chant preference from “We Are the 99 Per Cent!” to “A-Anti-Anti-Capitalista!” The former is a statement. The latter expresses the new resistance.

AAAC–as we’ll call it–is also inherently danceable with a 1-2 2-2-3 rhythm built in. It helps that it’s in Spanish, it feels global and properly hemispheric. Not that anyone has consciously thought this out I suspect. On Saturday at Liberty, when hundreds were celebrating what felt like the re-occupation by singing AAAC, a young woman leaned over towards me and asked “What does it mean?” When I told her she smiled in a way that indicated both pleasure and relief–it was what she thought it was and that felt good.

At the General Strike panel at Left Forum, Mike Andrews–one of the leading figures in the May Day planning group–told a similar story. He described how he had seen a group of teenagers jumping up and down shouting “General Strike!” As he said, it’s unlikely that any of the events remembered by left archivists, whether Seattle in 1919 or Britain in 1926 were in their minds. It’s possible that they didn’t even really know what general strikes have been in the past. Right now, as Mike put it, it means for them: “Fuck my shitty job”–and the desire for something better. Some were clearly surprised by this choice of words but it rang true to this precarious generation.

Natasha Lennard, writing for Salon, also turned to this theme:

There’s no adequate explanation for why, for example, on Saturday, it was beautiful to go back to one of the dreariest slabs of concrete that lower Manhattan has to offer and find nearly a thousand other bodies — dancing, chanting “a-anti-anti-capitalista,” catching up and dashing off into spontaneous street marches.

It’s that “magic” feel of Occupy, the sense of making something different, something resistant to commodification that is the distinguishing factor here, especially from the shouting soap-box orators of the traditional left.

To add my own story, a couple of weeks ago I was in Arizona to give a talk at Arizona State, a place where the University President is aggressively neo-liberal and has hiked tuition dramatically. My hosts were very nervous about the attendance, expecting they said perhaps 12, maybe 20. Much to their surprise, about 150 people showed up for the talk because the word “Occupy” was in the title. After the traditional academic introduction, I looked at this group and said, “Hi, my name is Nick and I’m part of Occupy Wall Street.” The whole room smiled–not for me, of course, but for the idea of Occupy. So we consensed to occupy the room for the next hour and a half.

What you can feel here is the pleasure of resistance, not simply refusing to move on, but claiming the right to look at what there is to see here. Look back at September 2011 and there was of course plenty of outrage at the banks and at Wall Street–which is why, after all, it was Occupy Wall Street and not Occupy Lincoln Center. Some of the ideas being floated back then by Adbusters and others included reintroducing the Glass-Steagall Act, creating a one per cent tax on financial transactions and so on. You don’t hear much about those kind of ideas now, although they would have been sensible reforms.

In China Miéville’s photo-essay London’s Overthrow [by the way, the New York Times excerpt cut out all the politics, big surprise, read it online}, he writes

The lion looks out from its apocalypse at the scrag-end of 2011. London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.

Pre-figuring is going on all day, all week. Here’s the logo from Occupy the Movie, currently being advertised online:

Occupy The Movie

The parody of Emmanuel Leutze’s corny Washington Crossing the Delaware was well-timed. This morning the Metropolitan Museum of Art used the painting for a full-page ad in the New York Times celebrating their corporate sponsors, including all the usual criminals from Goldman to Citibank and Bank of America.

They don’t get it. Do you? Do you feel the change?