Move on, no crisis to see here

It seems that there’s a concerted effort at the level of the nation state and the transnational institution to assert that the status quo is assured. The European Central Bank has written a blank check for the Euro, pollsters are predicting a win for Obama and stock markets are back to 2008 levels. The wrinkle comes from Quebec, where forty years of organizing has laid the background for the election of the new Parti Quebecois government, committed to abolishing the tuition hike and the noxious Loi 78.

Mario Draghi, head of the ECB, announced yesterday that it would buy bonds from member nations in unlimited quantities. His action was designed to forestall all rumors that the Eurozone might break up, by restoring liquidity to nation states. For the inflation-shy German central bank this action was held to be

tantamount to financing governments by printing banknotes.

And indeed it is. Against neo-liberal economics, Draghi and other central bankers assume that there will be no inflation because consumer demand and wages alike continue to be depressed.

Across the world we see the reasons why. The US economy added no more than a rounding error of jobs last month. The battered Greek welfare state is about to undergo another $11.5 billion in cuts. Portugal increase its social security tax from 11 to 18%. Like all the other money poured by government into banks, none of this will find its way out to people.

Meanwhile, in the NAFTA-zone, Mexico is set to return to the institutional rule of the PRI and Canada remains under the oil-first government of the Liberals. The 538 blog (now hosted by the New York Times gives Obama a 77% chance of victory, which is good news in terms of preventing further neo-liberal and culture wars insanity by the Republicans. Given the low chance of the Democrats taking the House, it will nonetheless mean the continuance of gridlock, with continued impunity for banksters and no risk to the one per cent.

The exception to all the gloom comes from Quebec. After the narrow election win by the Parti Québécois, they smartly decided they did not want to be saddled with the Liberals’ baggage:

“We had a call from the PQ assuring us they will cancel the tuition increase and Bill 78,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, noting students will also meet with Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois. “They said they will reimburse any students who have already paid.”


CLASSE have indicated that the national demonstration of September 22 will go ahead, in the absence of an actual repeal, and in support of their claim for a student grant increase. It will most likely have the feel of a victory party.

There are no doubt questions as to what happens next in Quebec. For now, let’s note their successul formula so far

  • building a radical community over an extended period of time
  • working in alliances, even with groups with whom you have distinct differences, towards specific goals
  • great messaging and symbolism, together with resolute direct action
  • keeping it local.

These tactics resonate with those used by the horizontal and popular movements in the Southern half of the hemisphere. They did not back down, even in the full force of law, and have made a real difference. There’s really something to see there.

Simple Lessons for S17

In academia, we are discouraged from taking a straightforward view. Perhaps the most popular academic words are “complex,” “complicated” and “more” when attached to one of the first two. The financial crisis does, however, strike me as straightforward: the blatant crimes of the banks culminated three decades of wealth transfer from poorer to richer. As the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street approaches, this should not be forgotten or set aside.

This point was brought home by seeing some charts produced by the Federal Reserve and published on the Business Insider blog. Here to begin with is a chart showing the value of wages in relation to gross domestic product.

Wages expressed as gross domestic product

It’s easy to see that since the 1973 oil crisis in general, and the beginning of  Reaganomics in 1980 in particular, wages have steadily declined until falling off the cliff in 2008, from which there has been no recovery. Unsurprisingly, therefore personal debt has risen in accordance.

Household debt

In 1973, household debt was negligible. It is now over $14 billion. The apparent slight improvement since 2008 is the effect of record numbers of bankruptcies, foreclosures and credit card write-offs. Corporate and government debt rose in parallel. The consequence can be seen below, where debt is the red line and gross domestic product is the blue line.

Clearly, this is not sustainable: or so you would think. Government has concentrated primarily on reducing its own debt, a largely meaningless affair except insofar as it further impoverishes those dependent on state support or using state-financed health care. Isn’t there a problem with financing all this state debt? Actually, as far as the U. S. goes, no, not at all. Liberal Paul Krugman points out the obvious in today’s Times, namely that markets are

buying government debt, even at very low returns, for lack of alternatives. Moreover, by making money available so cheaply, they are in effect begging governments to issue more debt.

Some U. S. government debt is so cheap, it actually costs investors money to get it.

So it’s clear that you could, if you wanted, do many creative and interesting things with what is in effect free money, like abolish personal debt. If you want to see why this isn’t happening, then look at this chart showing corporate profits:

Corporate profits

After a nasty hiccup in 2008, profits are roaring above all post-war levels, with only the Cold War boom even coming close and then only very briefly. This level of return is very desirable for those we have called the one percent and they are willing to do anything to defend it.

And yet, even this wasn’t enough for them. At Barclay’s Bank, center of the LIBOR scandal, yet more criminal activity has been uncovered. Jerry del Missier, the former Chief Operating Officer of the bank during all this crime has even been handed a $13.6 million  farewell package.

The activism is about changing the way that we imagine ourselves in relation to debt. It means embracing government borrowing at historically low levels to relaunch the economic lives of the 99%–and then making sure neo-liberalism can’t happen again. The outrage, the anger and the sadness comes from the astonishingly brazen theft by corporations and banks for which no-one has yet even shown remorse, let alone be punished.

On September 17, and for the years after it, let’s show that we haven’t forgotten these simple lessons.


1T Day: Waiting for the Debt Jubilee

At the time I began writing this, I should have been at the Occupy Student Debt march to mark 1T Day, the day when student debt crossed the one trillion dollar mark. Instead I was in an airport waiting room, watching cable TV and thinking about the Jubilee. It turned out to be a good place to spend 1T Day after all.

According the Wall Street Journal, a trillion dollars of student debt may have happened as early as February. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York put student debt at $870 billion in December 2011, so it must be close. But no-one really knows.

Instead of participating in this day of action, I was waiting for a delayed plane that was at first said to need “cleaning.” This process went on and on, until United admitted that they could not clean the plane. It became clear that a vast malfunction of the toilet system had, well, covered the plane in shit.

Sitting there with my copy of David Graeber’s Debt, it seemed to me that this plane was a metaphor for the financial crisis itself. This system, in which our duties are to “sit back and relax,” while under the restraint of keeping your “seatbelt securely fastened,” promised to function invisibly, magically shrinking distance at ever-reduced cost. Instead, fossil fuel use has destroyed the atmosphere, corporations cannot successfully manage to privatize what should be a public system, and we have all been literally and metaphorically sprayed with their effluent.

In my waiting room haze, I mused that this spray was given literal form by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, which has recently been shown to be caused by the oil company’s excessive greed for profits, in the just the way that you always knew it had been. The repellent John Brown, former CEO of BP, ordered his staff to

Go to the limit. If we go too far, we can always pull back later.

So that’s all right then. Browne then went on to cover himself in further glory by heading the Browne Review of higher education in the UK, which argued for the end of limits to tuition fees. The result has been that education that was provided to me freely is now being charged for at £9000 a year (about $16,000)–reasonable by some US standards perhaps but the upward acceleration is so dramatic, you have to wonder where it ends. Corporate profligacy is rewarded by the ability to recommend individual austerity. Or simply put, big oil creates student debt.

As I waited, I heard the phrase “student debt” from the TV. CNN was covering Obama speaking today at the University of Iowa. He revealed that he and Michele had only managed to pay off their own student debt in 2004, at the time he became a US Senator. The students cheered wildly, although I’m not sure why: because Obama was therefore like them? Or because they could imagine emerging from their indebtedness to become a Senator or a President? It’s telling that Obama made this speech at a land-grant public university. Until very recently, such institutions would have been low-cost or free, especially for in-state students. The University of Wisconsin, where I was just visiting, had a 5% tuition raise this year as the icing on the cake of another round of serious cuts amounting to $250 million.

Obama gave a good soundbite but the change he is advocating for is trivial. He is calling for interest on Federal Stafford loans to remain at 3.4%, rather than doubling to 6.8% as they are set to do this July. As the money comes from the Federal Reserve, whose prime rate is next to zero, this still represents substantial exploitation of students and their families. Indeed the objection is the “loss” of revenue, entirely notional in any event, which amounts to a rounding error in the Pentagon budget. It’s not going to happen in a Republican-dominated Congress anyway, it’s just a bit of electoral theatre.

As Graber says at the end of his book, what we need is a debt jubilee, meaning a cancellation of debt, as called for by the Bible, which is always right in America, except when it benefits those who need debt. Sitting there in the airport, I reflected that like most airlines, United has been through bankruptcy, as American Airlines currently is doing. Unlike personal bankruptcy, such corporate bankruptcy is very rewarding. The company gets to restructure its debt, reduce its obligations to its workforce, and increase costs for its customers. These bankruptcies brought you things like baggage check charges and no food on planes, while reducing salary, benefits and pensions for airline workers, putting them, no doubt, in debt.

So, like George Costanza, we need to do the opposite: cancel debt for ordinary people. Create more jobs by turning the airlines, subways and railroads into a sustainable, integrated low-cost public transport system. Reduce the retirement age so employers need to hire new staff. All financed by taxes on financial transactions and increasing taxes on capital gains to the same levels as income. Impossible demands? Maybe. But when Occupy Student Debt was established six months ago, we weren’t having a national discussion about reducing student debt and now we are doing. Let’s see where we are in six more months, shall we?

Anniversary Week: Atocha M-11

Yesterday began a key week of anniversaries: on March 11,  2004, known as M-11, the response to the Atocha Station bombing prefigured the indignados. March 17 is the six-month anniversary of OWS. And March 18 is the 142nd anniversary of the Paris Commune, which in some sense began it all. So this week I’ll think about these moments and some conceptual links between them.

The Atocha Statioo, March 11, 2004

To refresh the memory–several trains in or approaching the Atocha train station in Madrid were bombed simultaneously, causing 191 deaths and approximately 1800 injured. The atrocity occurred three days before national elections, in which José María Aznar’s conservative Popular Party were hoping for re-election despite their unpopular involvement of Spain in Iraq. Aznar held the Basque separatist group ETA responsible for the attack. However, it quickly became clear that an al-Qai’da inspired group had in fact carried it out. In the face of mass demonstrations, Aznar was defeated and the “socialist” PSOE were returned to office.

For Amador Fernández-Savater, the events of M-11 represented:

the emergence of a new form of politicisation which, summing up:

– does not necessarily have its meaning in the left/right dichotomy

– does not find its strength in ideology, so much as in first-hand feelings

– does not delegate representation or let others accumulate power at its expense

– thinks with its body and asks questions about meaning

– produces its own knowledge

– makes no attempt at cohesion, but at recreating the communal: an open, all-inclusive and joyful ‘we,

– transforms the map of what is possible

– does not declare another possible world, but fights to stop the destruction of the only one there is (We were all on that train).

The prefiguration of the indignados of 2011 and the related project of Occupy is striking. Equally significant, however, was the strength and speed of the popular refusal of the official explanation, drawing on the long experience of anti-fascism in Spain and the pervasive anxiety post-1975 about the possible return of dictatorship.

In very different vein, the young American writer Ben Lerner recently published his first novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011). A quick plot summary: a latter-day Holden Caulfield wins a literary fellowship to Madrid after leaving Brown, where he seeks literary, sexual and artistic experience without success, despite being present during M-11.

The writing is intensely self-reflexive, doubling back on its every reference. There are extended passages close to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a somewhat redundant interspersal of photographs in the manner of W. G. Sebald, while the political events are kept adjacent to the narrative in the classic manner of Stendhal. Even the title is a reference to a 1962 poem of the same name by John Ashbery that famously resists attempts to give its pictorial style meaning. It’s the kind of book that adapts the author’s own critical essay on Ashbery for several jarring pages.

Unsurprisingly, the narrator Adam Gordon wonders about applying for literature PhD programs: it’s really the other way around, this is a book designed to have dissertations written about it. At the same time, it’s engagingly written and the anti-hero “portrait of the artist as a young man [abroad]” works well in this endlessly referential context.

Without pretending to review the book as a whole, what I was wanting from it was some account of M-11. One of Adam’s love interests, Teresa, was an active participant but he himself spends more time online, taking anti-anxiety medication and sleeping during the decisive days. Here the book wants to have it both ways, like similar “year abroad” first novels such as Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel and Prague (actually about Budapest) by Arthur Phillips.

Each wants to reference major political events, which Lerner ironically calls “History,” while maintaining a suitable distance. Lerner has Adam give a talk in which he says: “No writer is free to renounce his political moment, but literature reflects politics more than it affects it.” It says something about the book that I felt I had to Google the sentence to be sure it was not a quote from somebody else. For all the arch knowingness, it’s a very old-fashioned reflection theory at work here–that “art” reflects “the real” but cannot engage with it directly.

For all that, I came to think that this failure to engage was precisely what we can learn from Lerner (pun intended). That is to say, during the Iraq war so much Anglophone political discourse was centered on the Bush-Blair axis that many of us missed the importance of M-11 as a long-term rethinking of the political. While my own Watching Babylon, finished in May 2004, was revised to take account of the Abu Ghraib photographs released in April of that year, I only referenced the Spanish events. On the one hand, we were too convinced of the importance of the photographs as “evidence” that might convict the entire war project and, on the other, our “context” was still too focused on the Anglophone.

Occupy has, by contrast, repeatedly tried to learn from Argentina, Spain, Greece, Egypt and other forms of planetary resistance to the crisis–imperfectly, no doubt, but as the Spanish example shows, new forms of politics in the widest sense used by Rancière and Fernández-Savater, are built over decades not weeks.

On this anniversary, let us not forget that the crisis continues to intensify in Spain, despite huge swathes of cheap money deluging the banks and bond markets from the European Central Bank. From a recent report by Reuters, here are a few details:

street cleaners, nurses, teachers and job trainers are struggling to get by as cash-strapped local authorities withhold wages….In more than 1.5 million Spanish households, not one family member has a job. Almost half of adults under 25 are unemployed. Close to a third of the 17-nation euro zone’s jobless live in Spain….Spain’s 17 autonomous regions are laden with around 30 billion euros in deficit — 3 percent of the country’s economic output

The Financial Times has called this renewed austerity on top of recession “insanity” in the sense that doing the same failed action over and over again must be insane. Half a million people went to the streets on February 24 to protest this nonsense.

The M-11 and M-15 movements are not done yet. This is an anniversary, not a memorial.


Endebt and Punish

William Hogarth, "The Rake's Progress"--in the Fleet Prison for debt

Yesterday the M1 student march in New York stopped for personal and institutional histories. On three occasions people I’m working with at undergraduate, MA and PhD level recounted how debt has deformed their lives. I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.

The accounts moved from an angry and articulate sophomore via an MA, who is teaching three adjunct jobs to keep up her payments, to a PhD candidate looking at 30 years of repaying $800-1000 a month. Hearing such stories one after another made it seem structural: the further one advances, the greater the debt and so the greater the pressure to conform.

The graduate students both spoke about wanting to stay in education, while not being sure that they could afford the profession. It’s the contemporary Student’s Progress, which, like a modernization of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, does not so much end in debtor’s prison as begin there–only it’s the “soul” that is imprisoned, not the body.

I started to think that debt was parallel to the transformation of the legal system over time. If Foucault taught us to think of early modern corporal punishment being transformed into modern discipline in the nineteenth century, Angela Davis has supplemented that analysis with her description of the prison-industrial system. Thus the penitentiary was instituted in the aftermath of abolition both to control and contain the free African population and to create lend-lease minimal cost labor to replace chattel slavery. The binary turns out not to be as simple as we had thought.

So we might think to map a parallel and intertwined structure for debt. In the early modern period, common people were hanged or otherwise punished for minor debt and theft. Those of higher social rank might find themselves incarcerated in the Fleet prison–bankrupts and those charged with contempt of the courts of Chancery, Exchequer and common pleas were not the working classes. Violent crime and theft was the province of the Court of the King’s Bench and the Assizes. The Fleet therefore usually contained only about 300 inmates, many of whom were well-known. It was closed in 1844, while imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1869.

This apparently Foucauldian pattern needs complicating. As David Graeber points out in his brilliant Debt, the violent punishments against debt crime were rarely enforced in the late Middle Ages, which is not to say there was no bad feeling:

the criminalization of debt was the criminalization of the very basis of human society. It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both a lender and a borrower….[C]ommunities, much though they are based on love, in fact because they are based on love will also be full of hatred, rivalry and passion.

The innovation of the “market” in the late eighteenth century was to challenge the possibility of such intertwined community by creating a new self-love, to quote the most famous passage of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776):

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love.

Graeber shows that the concept of self-love, or self interest, creates a new hybrid: a singular “self” that owes nothing except to itself; and “interest” that is paid to that self, now registered as “love.”

We might see Bentham’s Panopticon as a machine for the production of such self-interested operatives. For it was intended to function as well for the manufactures, or factories, as it did for the prison or asylum. Writing in the Panopticon Letters (1788) a decade after Smith, Bentham noted of Panoptic surveillance: “Each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time.” If I follow Graeber’s suggestions correctly, we should as much stress the singularity as the permanence: it is the process of breaking up mutually-endebted communities and the subsequent production of self-interested individuals with singular debts.

With the end of the reforming Panopticon around the same time as the resurgence of financialization (c.1975-81) has come a new configuration: the individual is “locked into” debt from the earliest age. If this debt is centered around education, it is more likely to apply to middle and upper-middle class children, who may have college savings plans created for them at birth or before. This debt is now the largest sector of consumer debt in the US economy at about $1 trillion, and it is regarded as highly secure because you cannot declare bankruptcy on student debt and agencies can even garner debtors’ Social Security.

What has further changed is the transformation of the equation of interest and love into what I think we want to call hate. It’s not enough to make sure most graduates have their lives locked into debt before they even graduate. Everyone has to suffer.

When I was in Arizona recently, I heard about a proposal from the Arizona State legislature to require even students who have full scholarships or grants to pay at least $2000 in tuition. Here’s the legalese (in blue block capitals on their site):

each student who is a full‑time student enrolled at a university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents in fiscal year 2012‑2013 shall personally contribute at least two thousand dollars during the academic year for tuition.  A student may not use any other source of public or private funding, including grants, gifts, scholarships or tuition benefits or other types of funding administered by or through a university or an affiliate of a university, to reduce or eliminate that student’s contribution.

What is the motive of this “personal contribution”? Last night I happened to see a production of Brecht’s classic play Galileo. It begins by stressing Galileo’s debt. His need to repay his debt leads him to leave Venice and venture into the monk-controlled regions of Italy. When his decentering astronomical discoveries imply a different social order than the Bible-sanctioned control of the nobles, he recants under the threat of the Inquisition’s torture, ending his days in a physically comfortable prison of the soul. He ends as he begins, locked into a system that only debt can supply.

If debt is a means to teach you to hate yourself, it is also and equally true that the imagination is dangerous. Ideas can overturn social order. The most dangerous idea now might be this: it’s not worth paying for college because there are no jobs anyway and no job that you want would pay you enough to service the debt.

F29: Against Trapezocracy

Yesterday the Dow crossed 13,000 for the first time since the crash of 2008. Things have not gone so well for the 99%. Today was a global day of action against the rule by banks. Rendered into Greek, this becomes “trapezocracy” from “trapeza,” ancient and modern Greek for bank. Rule by and for the “banks,” meaning the transnational neo-liberal financial order is what Occupy makes visible and challenges.

Today’s OWS protest in New York made visible several pillars of trapezocracy. The first stop was Pfizer, key player in Big Pharma, followed by a teach-in and rally outside the Bank of America Tower. The NYPD chimed in helpfully by barricading off the otherwise anonymous glass towers and saturating 42nd St with an overkill presence, including lots of men on motorized scooters. This isolating strategy made the corporate invisibility visible in a way that simple protest would not. The trapezocrats came out of their little cubicles to photograph us, although they might want to consider that cell-phone photos from long range behind glass don’t come out all that well.

The “trapeze” in trapezocracy indicates nicely the wild market swings that neo-liberalism has made its trademark, in which they sell overpriced products like derivatives on the upswing, even as they bet against them with by “shorting” the market (a bet that prices will fall). The new OWS  Plus Brigades, dressed as clowns, superheroes and other circus performers, visualized the comedy of errors very nicely.

Standing across from BoA in the cold rain this morning, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone reminded us that it is a profoundly corrupt institution, surviving only because of enormous tax payer support. Its miserable stock price would have brought any other company into bankruptcy but it survives because markets believe the government will always support it.

Matt Taibbi addresses the crowd at Bryant Park

Some of the details he was impressively able to recall were remarkable: the sub-prime bonds that banks issued against mortgages were ranked as AAA: only four corporations in America have AAA rating. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway with over $20 billion in capital is AAB. But a set of bonds drawn against random people’s mortgages, many of whom were shuffled through the process in the most negligent way, were AAA. One Bank of America employee alone recalled forging 8000 documents a month to facilitate creating more mortgages.

Meanwhile the administration has encouraged BoA to move its corrupted $73 trillion in derivatives from the speculative end of the bank to the federally-insured depository side. Now every taxpayer in America owes for BoA’s speculative bets. But should a student or homeowner ask for rescheduled debt, lower interest or reduced principal, the cry of moral turpitude goes up all around.

Elsewhere in his magazine today, you can read the Wikileaked document from the Department of Homeland Security on OWS:

The continued expansion of these protests also places an increasingly heavy burden on law enforcement and movement organizers to control protesters. As the primary target of the demonstrations, financial services stands the sector most impacted by the OWS protests.

As RS point out, why is the onus on “controlling protestors” as opposed to the criminals in the banks? Good for them–but is anyone else a tad troubled that a music magazine is doing the most incisive reporting on the crisis?
Let’s do a quick review of some other actions against the Trapezocracy:
In Arizona, a small group of protestors shut down a G4S privately-owned detention and deportation “facility” by direct action. As Angela Davis has long reminded us, the prison-industrial complex is the negation of abolition democracy, as well as a highly profitable privatized “enterprise.” By the way, if you are a university employee with a TIAA-CREF pension, you are a shareholder in G4S. The company resorted to cutting down their own fence to get out!

Picket at Acelor Mittal, France

Across the Atlantic, at the occupied Acelor Mittal steel furnace in France, a joint union picket closed all operations down for 24 hours beginning yesterday morning French time, in defense of their jobs. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that turnout for the anti-austerity F29 protest in Paris was higher than expected, about 15,000:

Rally at the Place de la Bastille, Paris F29

And the indignados, who never went away, turned out all over Spain where unemployment is 23% and over 50% among 16-24 year-olds.

Barcelona Student March F29

This student march in Barcelona in defense of the public universities was matched by similar rallies in Madrid, Valencia and across the country.

Finally, the Greek “parliament” today rubber-stamped the demands of the Troika, the very embodiment of Trapezocracy, cutting pensions and the minimum wage for a country deep in Depression. There were only symbolic protests, as people know the sell-out was done. The market responded by putting Greece into default anyway but the European Central Bank saved the Trapezocracy by opening yet another slush fund. This story is not even beginning to be over.

Tomorrow: M1 Occupy Education!



Occupy the Oscars: Our Top Hated Nominations!

I spent the day on a plane from LA to New York reading the papers about the Oscars and watching films in the back of the seat in front. So it seems proper to offer a guide to Occupy The Oscars (OTO) with our top hated nominations! Let’s note: there is going to be an actual Occupy the Oscars action (or so I heard), so I respect their initiative. Also: we hated lots of non-nominated films and didn’t see many of the films released since September because of Occupy.

Here’s the opening monologue: the main reason OTO hates the Oscars is that the Hollywood film industry has somehow managed to generate an entire roster of nominations that makes not even the slightest allusion to the crisis that began in 2008. I don’t expect, or even want, Occupy: The Movie, or more Orientalist films about the Arab Spring.

But would it be too much to ask that the dominant culture industry–and one of the dominant industries period–in the US make some acknowledgement of the Depression? The one that’s happening now, that is, not the one in the 1930s? Or are we set for a repeat of the Tinseltown movies of the post-1929 crash in which everyone is just about to play tennis before heading off to the Copacabana? The mythology of liberal Hollywood turns out to be a slight preference for the left of centre, unwilling even to acknowledge one of the great social events of its time. So misty-eyed and nostalgic are the Oscars this year that they even brought back Billy Chrystal and, yes, I’m afraid he’s going to sing.

Which brings us to the first OTO most hated nomination: The Artist! Not because it’s much-touted photography is in fact mediocre; or even because the vamping and mugging that passes for silent-screen acting is such a bore. But because the afore-mentioned 1929 crash is reduced to a bit part in the predictable character development of Valentin, with a few picturesque Skid Row types thrown in as background color (I am also going to hate when he accepts the Oscar with a silent performance). So even the displacement of the Depression into the past cannot be fully acknowledged.

It’s traditional to have a few minor nominations next, so let’s note the OTO hated all the original scores and best songs as usual. And even the industry has noticed that the documentaries and foreign films categories are a joke–although one spot of non-hate is The Separation.

Next up: OTO hated Midnight in Paris! Although not hated as much as some of the other top hated nominations, the silly romanticization of a Paris where there are never any African diaspora people, let alone any hint of the radical politics of 1920s Paris made us tired. Mostly we hate Woody Allen movies these days because of his sad lusting after actresses like Scarlett Johansenn–it’s very bad for the Jews.

Moving on: OTO really hated War Horse! Here we can’t abide the way that all the lush photography, hyper-realistic period detail and swelling music renders aesthetic the obscenity of the First World War that the film is supposedly criticizing. This is not the trivial point that it may seem. The militarization of US culture throughout the military-industrial complex has depended on what Fanon called “an aesthetic of respect for the status quo.” This aesthetic is not directly about beauty so much as a sense that things are right, or as they should be, epitomized and embodied by the military trappings of uniform, flags and drill. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was also nominated in this category for perpetuating the 9-11 mythologies.

Next category: movies that OTO wished had thought it through a little better. First in this category: The Descendants! As much as I quite liked the film, the central drama of whether or not to sell the family land for a resort is far less compelling post-2008 than when Kaui Hart Hemmings novel was published in 2007. Present-day Hawai’i has seen a major decline in tourism following the recession, as well as a resurgence of the Native Sovereignty Movement. Also nominated here: Moneyball! This film wants to tell a story about small-town grit triumphing over the Big City but it doesn’t hang together. Billy Beane applies Ivy League neo-liberal economics to baseball to middling effect: it gets him out of the baseball basement but not into the World Series. In exactly the same way, a tech company (say) might rise quickly but to become hegemonic, it needs a deal with Google or Facebook.

And now: the moment you’ve all been waiting for: OTO‘s most-hated nomination of all: once again, in a cake walk, the nomination of Meryl Streep for best actress in The Iron Lady for playing Margaret Thatcher!! Maximum hate on all levels!!! Thatcher is portrayed by Streep as a modified feminist hero, battling against evil men, as if there had never been women in British politics before–let’s just remember Tony Benn’s mantra: The Diggers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. Worse yet, the film airbrushes precisely the form of ruthless neo-liberal politics that have generated the present crisis. OTO did of course refuse to see this film but sat through the apparently endless trailer and is unanimous in awarding La Streep the most hated nomination of 2012!!

All opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily the opinion of Occupy Wall Street. If you experience anger or rage while reading them, please consult your bartender.

Please turn off the Oscars and watch almost anything else except Downtown bloody Abbey.


Why there will be a Greek Revolution this year

The cut-up XtraNormal video says it all–the “deal” is a mess and is not going to work. The details of what ordinary Greeks can expect were revealed late yesterday:

The measures include nearly €400 million ($530 million) in cuts to already depleted pensions. Health and education spending will be reduced by more than €170 million ($225 million), subsidies to the state health care system will be cut by €500 million ($661 million), and health care spending on medicine will fall by €570 million ($754 million). And some €400 million ($529 million) will be lopped off defense spending — three quarters of which will come from purchases.

And no one expects this disaster to work:

The draft law also drastically revises the 2012 budget, changing the government deficit target to 6.7 percent of gross domestic product from an initial forecast of 5.4 percent. Even worse, plans for a modest primary surplus — which excludes debt servicing costs — have been scrapped and Greece will instead post a primary deficit of nearly €500 million ($661 million), or 0.2 percent of GDP.

If you wonder whether people might not just feel they have to accept this, here’s Ilias Iliopoulos, general secretary of the Greek civil servants’ union Adedy, not one of the more radical groups as you might expect: “I don’t rule out a popular revolt.”

Some nuggets suggest why:

  • Greek bank shares are down 10% this morning.
  • The “Socialist” party that brought in the crisis is running at 12% in the polls.
  • Greek debt was cut from CCC to C by the Fitch agency, which equals default.
  • As the New York Times speculated this morning, that would mean Credit Default Swaps start to be activated: do banks have the money to cover them? What do you think?

Unsurprisingly, what the Times does not mention is that the left is resurgent:

Left-wing parties that oppose the next round of cuts the coalition government is promising are meanwhile surging. A relatively new party, the Democratic Left, is nipping at Pasok’s heels, with 12 per cent, twice as much support as it had in December. Another, the Coalition of the Left, has 8.5 per cent support, and the communist party, KKE, has 9.5 per cent.

In the event that these parties were able to form a Popular Front against the Troika, they would win an election, as the Conservative Party that the Times claims is “heading” for an election win is polling at 19%. Even a coalition without the dogmatic Communists would win on these numbers.

The defense cuts might make us nervous about a military coup: which brought to mind Costa Gavras’s classic film Z (1969) about the repression that led to the Greek dictatorship of the colonels (1967-74). The title of the film is not explained until the very end. It is not a letter: it stands for zei (he/she/it lives).

In the context of the film, this is taken to refer to the lead character, who has been assassinated by the secret police. His identity is clearly that of the Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, killed in 1963. The list of those things to be banned include zei, which we might now want to read as “it lives,” that which was supposed to be long dead, interred and forgotten–the revolution.

Greece, Slavery and the General Strike

Today the Greek parliament met to approve the deliberately humiliating terms of the German-backed bond rescue plan (aka the bailout). In the streets, it is more precisely defined as slavery. The response is, as it has long been, to organize the general strike. For globalized neo-liberalism this is the moment to bring an “end” to 2011, a year after their man in Egypt, Mubarak, had to step down.

Estimates suggest 50,000 people in the street in Athens, perhaps as many as 100,000 with thousands more elsewhere, and many buildings occupied. The inevitable riot police and tear gas have been deployed. Exarchia, the radical district resounded to explosions. As fires burned, allegations circulated that the police had started them or ignored them. (Watch on Livestream here.)

Athens 2 12 12

The scenes were extraordinary–Starbucks on fire, smoke bombs, riot police–with the word “chaos” on every Greek website.

General Strike in Greece

The troika-installed Prime Minister Papademos–whose name seems to evoke a patriarchal “father of the people”–pushed the market line about debt refusal:

It would create conditions of uncontrolled economic chaos and social explosion. The country would be drawn into a vortex of recession, instability, unemployment and protracted misery.

Such remarks fly in the face of existing reality, in which those are already the prevailing conditions. Official unemployment exceeds 20%. Reports have suggested people returning to family farms in the countryside and islands from the cities in order to survive. The Church feeds 250,000 people a day in a country of 11 million people. Homelessness has increased by 25% (although the absolute numbers are low by U. S. standards. The official EU statistics agency Eurostat reports that one-third of the country is living in poverty. And yet Papademos called for more “sacrifice.”

Nonetheless, even this is not enough for the one percent: “The promises from Greece aren’t enough for us any more,” the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, said in an interview published in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. When the vote is passed, the minimum wage will be cut by over 20%, pensions will be reduced and the already ruined state will cut back still further. The graffiti in the streets calls this slavery.

"We Should Not Live as Slaves"

“We should not live as slaves,” it reads [Na men zesoume san douloi]. Evocatively, the word “doulos” is used for “slave,” the same term used by Aristotle in his Politics to approve the institution of slavery. His meditation on slavery is in fact one of governance, which manifests itself as the necessity of dominance. I’m going to quote at some length because it is the inability to “reason” according the “logic” of the markets that is being used to justify Greek slavery today. It’s also important to read this to realize how thoroughgoing and long-lasting the Western commitment to slavery has been.It is also a passage that contains within it so many of today’s critical concerns from the human/nonhuman, to the “soul at work” (Bifo), governmentality, Rancière’s division of the sensible, and the persistence of slavery. Let us note this is not a coincidence:

for that some should govern, and others be governed, is not only necessary but useful, and from the hour of their birth some are marked out for those purposes, and others for the other, and there are many species of both sorts….Those men therefore who are as much inferior to others as the body is to the soul, are to be thus disposed of, as the proper use of them is their bodies, in which their excellence consists; … they are slaves by nature, and it is advantageous to them to be always under government. He then is by nature formed a slave who is qualified to become the chattel of another person, and on that account is so, and who has just reason enough to know that there is such a faculty, without being indued with the use of it; for other animals have no perception of reason, but are entirely guided by appetite, and indeed they vary very little in their use from each other; for the advantage which we receive, both from slaves and tame animals, arises from their bodily strength administering to our necessities; for it is the intention of nature to make the bodies of slaves and freemen different from each other {1254b-1255a}

The present rhetoric of the “lazy” Greeks, shiftlessly avoiding tax payments and demanding state support defines people driven entirely by appetite. They must therefore become the chattel of the troika, despite the likelihood that the cuts will still worsen the economy and necessitate yet more support for the external bond markets. What matters is that the Greeks be made an example: “Can’t pay! Won’t pay!” is reworked into “Can’t pay? Become a slave.”

In Black Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois insisted that the enslaved had ended chattel slavery themselves by mass migration from South to North at the beginning of the Civil War, long before the Emancipation Proclamation:

This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people.

The result of the strike was an abolition democracy, whose participatory process centered on education and the capacity to be self-sustaining. The measures have passed. The occupations have been ended. It’s up to us to keep this present, to remain in the moment, to be present.


Pathologizing and Privatizing Occupy

This week we’ve seen a very public attempt to pathologize Occupy and purported violence within the movement, even as I happened to see a very private closure of an Occupy in Pittsburgh. I’ve been reading Elisabeth Roudinesco’s history of the committed French intellectual, Philosophy in Troubled Times. She begins with Georges Canguilhem, Foucault’s adviser and the author of the classic The Normal and the Pathological. Canguilhem had to abandon the pacifism he adopted in the aftermath of World War 1 when confronted with fascism. In 1943, he defended his thesis defining the modern formation of the normal as that which was not pathological, while active in the Resistance. My point is not that these were real choices compared to ours but that it was every bit as difficult to make them, even though they now seem so clear.

In Pittsburgh, there was a privatized eviction of Occupy Pittsburgh by BNY Mellon. In New York, the NYPD cleared Zuccotti for Brookfield who now place rent-a-cops in the space. In Pittsburgh, the bank did it. Here’s the sign they posted:

Evicting Occupy Pittsburgh

It is now the bank that occupies the park and anyone else who might remain is a trespasser. As befits this activism, BNY Mellon has a Political Action Committee:

Our PAC makes contributions to U.S. federal candidates, a limited number of state and local candidates, and campaign committees and other PACs. When making specific contribution decisions, the PAC considers a number of factors, including the candidates’ positions on issues related to our business, their leadership positions, legislative committees and communities they represent.

According to their filing with the Federal Elections Commission, BNY Mellon raised about $112,000 in the second half of 2011. None was spent on any specific election and will presumably be used this year, for which data is not yet available. Any wild guesses as to how it might be spent? All such information is, under current law, private.

In public, some leading figures in Occupy have decided to attack each other rather than engage with these or similar actions. Financial journalist Chris Hedges, who might have been able to shed light on the matter, this week decided instead to pronounce that the so-called “black bloc” are a “cancer in the Occupy movement.”  Hedges, who has covered Occupy widely, published a long, rather rambling attack on the anarchist “black bloc” as being a direct attack on the “organized left.”

For Hedges, the  “criminal…hypermasculinity…[and] inchoate rage” of the black bloc are linked to the violence of the First World War via Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 classic All Quiet on the Western Front. It would be just a few years after the novel was published that Canguilhem set aside his pacifism in response to the rise of the Nazis. I’m not saying we face a rise of Nazism now: I’m worried that the parallel is not helpful.

David Graeber has written a detailed reply to Hedges that makes the violence inherent in referring to people as “cancer” very clear. In Canguilhem’s terms, a cancer is the pathology of all pathologies. We cut it out, bombard it with radiation, saturate it with toxic chemicals. Very often it wins anyway. Like many people, I know this at first hand. You don’t do this, or make a verbal parallel, because people engage in the “shouting of insulting messages to the police,” as Hedges has it. That would have made all of ACT UP part of the Black Bloc, as Jodi Dean points out. To be exact, it makes almost everyone I know part of the Black Bloc.

It is no doubt not worth worrying about this too much at the level of its logic, except that it looks very much like a high-profile supporter preparing to abandon the movement. There was also an attempt this week to create concern that the Direct Action working group of OWS were abandoning non-violence. It was a bad misreading of their proposal to the General Assembly but it suggests that a range of people are ready to end their involvement with Occupy.

What we’re finding is that the state may be succeeding in turning Occupy into an occupation. In the Occupied Territories, it is always, in the joint view of the U.S-Israel government, the responsibility of the occupied to renounce all violence in all its forms. The precise nature of the violence to be renounced can be modified to meet given needs. Now that Israel has decided that there must be a “zone of immunity” in Iran, for instance, the US is scrambling to respond. Using the logics of counterinsurgent biopolitics, such discourse renders the body politic of Israel “normal” and that of Iran “pathological.” Only a zone of immunity–which has no meaning–can protect the good normal body from the pathological one. The immune system has exteriorized itself in this image into a wall of separation.

If part of Occupy is a cancer, then the “organized left” will need to declare a “zone of immunity.” It will heed the (meaningless) claim of the Oakland police that activists used “Improvised Explosive Devices,” the signature weapon of asymmetric insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “normal” will have to extirpate the pathological in order to survive. Let’s not go there.