Debt Colonialism: A View from Barcelona

I’m in Barcelona for a couple of days, giving talks and interviews and holding discussion for the visual studies program, the Center of Contemporary Culture and with the movement. There’s not much difference between the people involved. It’s distinctly humbling to get up in front of people from 15M and talk about the global justice movement, even as the wheels are turning in the debt crisis.

Yesterday was an election in Catalunya for the state assembly, called by Artur Mas, the head of the CiU nationalist party. His hope was to sweep the board on his nationalist call for independence. Instead he lost ground to a more extreme nationalist group and the left made some small gains. No one seems quite sure what this all means as yet.

Meanwhile from different sides of the world, furious mainstream politicians are starting to use the language of debt colonialism. In Greece, Syriza’s leader Alexis Tspiras named his country a “debt colony.” In Argentina, the finance minister Hernán Lorenzino called the court verdict compelling his country to repay 2002 debts to vulture funds “judicial colonialism.”

In this latter case, speculative debt buyers have engineered a potential collapse of the national (and perhaps international) economy, just as debt buyers of personal debt ruin individual lives in the pursuit of personal profit after the original lenders have settled. There is late speculation that the EU may finally have agreed some kind of deal on Greek debt. But the process makes Tsipras’s point: the discussion was held in Brussels between France, Germany and the IMF.

Here in Barcelona, activists are in several minds. Some feel frustrated with the constant lack of response from their central government, no matter how dynamic or well-attended their actions become. It’s said that attendance at the legendary neighborhood assemblies is notably down. On the other  hand, there are activist banners hanging in hospitals and doctors’ offices protesting the cuts and entire families from school children to grandparents are reported to have participated in the N14 general strike.

You can’t miss the crisis. There are cranes all over but none of them are working, leaving buildings half-complete. Graffiti and posters are everywhere. For a traveler accustomed to being broke in the Eurozone, prices are notably lower than expected. A light lunch for €5, an express bus from the airport to the city for the same. Museums, galleries and cultural centers are all concerned with the crisis. I’ve written about this many times but, as always, it’s different to be here. It just reinforces the respect that I have had for the resilience of the movement. More to follow.


Today the General Strike, Tomorrow the Jubilee!

Today there was a general strike across Europe. From Spain to Portugal, Greece, Italy, Belgium and the UK. Hundreds of thousands rejecting austerity for the attempt to create social control by fiscal policy that it so clearly is. Tomorrow in New York, we declare victory for the Rolling Jubilee. Before we have even begun the event we are in a position to abolish $2,750,000 of debt and that rises every second. Can you feel it?

Amazing scenes, including surely the best banner drop ever, from the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

No one believes the Troika any more. The Spanish government claimed the strike was not being well observed. Here’s the Gran Via in Madrid, like Broadway in New York:

The police tried to distract attention from the issues by provoking violence in their usual way but this cannot be beaten away.

Here’s Charles Dallara, head of the Institute of International Finance,  the policies of austerity in Greece:

It is time to recognize that austerity alone condemns not just Greece but the whole of Europe to the probability of a painful and protracted era of little or no economic growth. This would be a tragedy not just for Greece and for Europe, but for the world.

It’s a global movement now. in Venice protesters draped a bank with banners reading:

You are making money out of our debts

National Theatre of Spain on strike

Currently, extended families support people in Greece.

“But when that dries up, and it will with these latest measures, there will be no reason not to descend en masse onto the streets,” said Kostas Kapetanakis, a young sociologist holding a banner demanding free education, health and welfare system. “There will be a revolt because we will have absolutely nothing to lose.”

We are not as far gone here in New York but tomorrow will be a day of jubilant revolt and mutual aid. You can follow the Telethon live on I hope to be in a condition to report on it for you by Thursday. Tomorrow join hands and hearts and:

Strike Debt!


As predicted, Greece is having its Antigone revolution in refusing to abide by the Law in favor of kinship. For the majority who voted for Syriza and other anti-memorandum parties, mutual aid outweighs obligations to creditors. In the first days of this project, you may recall, I was very taken with a reworking of the Antigone legend in the context of the global social movements by Italian performance group Motus. The proper treatment of the dead body was later visualized by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen. And so when the chant “A-Anti-Anticapitalista” became the subject of a later post, I rewrote it in my head in my geeky way to go “A-Anti-Antigone.” Amazon knows that I am interested in Antigone now and when Ann Carson’s new book Antigonick was published this week, they told me. And this was uncanny because I am known as Nick to my friends.

Actually, what the book, a reworked translation of Antigone, is called is open to question. The cover says:

  ANTIGO              NICK

But the inside front page and Library of Congress listing have Antigonick. You won’t notice that at first because you will be admiring the beauty of the book.

The text was hand-inked on the page, in black and red ink [so red in quotes does not now indicate a hyperlink] then photographed–it’s a bit smudgy sometimes but very striking.

Bianca Scott has produced overlay color drawings that intersperse the text on translucent paper. The only book I can remember seeing like this recently was by the artist Cai Guo Qiang and indeed this one was printed in China (no further details are given). Without being unkind, there’s a story about labor, costs and outsourcing there that might interest Antigonick.

Then you notice that this is not at all a literal translation. It begins wonderfully (Carson’s caps):


Carson reminds us that a legend is always a question of how you tell it. And that this is a play, a text to be performed. In the list of characters we find:

Nick  a mute part [always onstage, he measures things.]

We’ll come back to him in a minute. The references to Beckett and Hegel tell us that we can’t hear Antigone as if we were ancient Greeks. This is a modern drama now. Isn’t it just.

                 WELL IF YOU CALL THAT LAW

By the unspoken convention (Nick’s measures), words in red have so far indicated the names of characters. It’s not too much to say that the LAW is a character in Antigone. Or it could also be “just” an emphasis. Or it could be an emphasis on the just, over the law.

Such undecidability is of course contrary to Hegel, who held that

in a drama [spiritual powers] enter in their simple and fundamental character and they oppose one another.

It might be thought that the drama of Oedipus was a (literally) classic example. But it depends. In a review in the New York Review of Books (paywall), Peter Green points out that it was held that Oedipus’s father Laius was attracted to:

Pelops’ son Chrysippus, and carried him off in the first (but by no means the last) homosexual abduction known to Greek myth. Pelops cursed Laius; and the latter’s death at the hands of his son, who then unwittingly married his mother Jocasta, was the working out of this curse.

In this version, the Oedipus complex is more complicated and less decidable than it’s usually allowed to be. Again, as Judith Butler has emphasized, when Antigone talks of her brother, she could be describing Oedipus because they share the same mother. The Oedipus complex was always already queer.

And that LAW thing isn’t just the law of the father. Today Alex Tsiras of Syriza said of Greece “we are going directly to hell,” meaning a living death underground. Which is what happened to Antigone. As Carson reminds us, the myth has power today because it still affects us. She uses words like ANARCHY where the standard translation uses “unruly.” She talks of the “state of exception.” How to measure that?

In the nick. In the nick of time. By Nick.

Eurydike, Creon’s wife, mother of Haimon who Antigone was to marry, has famously few lines in Sophocles. One speech, five lines.

Carson has her speak much longer, with a riff on Virginia Woolf. Then she asks a question about Antigone [the spacing isn’t right in the quote, the lines are alternately indented but WordPress won’t allow that measure, sorry]:

EXCEPTION                                               IS SHE

What indeed? The OED gives us an astonishingly long entry. It refers to a notch, a cut, a groove, whether in a machine, a tool, wood or an animal. It can refer to the vagina, as in various Jacobean dramas cited by OED. Then it is also the precise moment, later the nick of time. It is essential, what is aimed at. You can also go to the nick, a jail or prison, and be beset by Old Nick, the devil.

At the end of the play, NICK still on stage MEASURING. Measuring the collapse of autoimmunity, the collapse of debt’s capital, the capitals of debt.

Like in Beckett, who crops up here, Imagination Dead Imagine:

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit. Till all white in the whiteness the rotunda. No way in, go in, measure. Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault.


Measuring, counting the debt in the living tomb that is the Troika’s Greece, there we find A-Anti-Antigonick. An odd creature.

Why M15 Matters

Indignation is not enough! Build the 99% republic!

Austerity is a form of political repression by means of the economy. Across Europe, people have begun to reject the notion that the fiscal crisis caused by the banks should be solved by cuts in social services and redistribution of wealth to the rich, whether that be rich nations or rich individuals. Ireland and Greece have decisions to make in the weeks ahead. Much may turn on whether the protests in Spain and worldwide planned for the anniversary of the May 15 movement continue to give momentum to anti-austerity.

We were told that a Greek election that did not endorse austerity would be a market disaster. In fact, the euro is stable at around $1.29, making it still a strong currency as evidenced by the unrelenting hordes of Franco-German euro-laden shoppers in New York. Stock market traders punished the Greek market, driving it down about 8%, but left global prices only mildly diminished.

Today, European Union figures show that austerity does not work, even as a debt reduction policy. Spain’s budget deficit will actually rise to 6.4% of GDP this year compared with a previous forecast of 5.9%.  The Portuguese deficit will be 4.7% (was 4.5%), while Greece goes from worst to worst with its deficit predicted to be 7.3% (was 7%). Given these self-evident failures, also clear in the US economy, we have to conclude that the stakes in austerity are political: keeping the populations of the EU periphery in deprivation so that the global one percent can continue to flourish without restraint.

Yesterday in New York, OWS activists were pleasantly surprised to see that it was not in fact the usual suspects who turned up for the launch of NYC solidarity actions for the M15 events. A spontaneous orientation about Occupy was held. There are actions all weekend, including a Granny Peace Brigade and a Stroller March for Mother’s Day. Doing exams or stressed out by too many protests? Head to the May 15 rally in Times Square at 6pm, organizers request.

In Spain, unemployment is predicted to rise to over 25% next year. Another bank has had to be bailed out. More banks are in trouble. So every effort at state level goes into restraining popular protest. Events begin tomorrow in Madrid with marches setting out from four cardinal points to their destination in Puerta del Sol.

As you can see from the poster, the plan is to hold assemblies in the squares from May 12 to May 15 on topics ranging from the economy to feminism, health, water and migration. While the camp has been permitted in Barcelona, in Madrid riot police are set to contest the streets. The conservative government does not want its population discussing such matters.

In Greece, the election has failed to produce a pro-austerity coalition and Syriza failed to create an anti-austerity formation. A second round of elections in June now appears likely, with Syriza today predicted to win with 24% over the conservative New Democracy, down to 17%. Greeks appear to have gone on tax strike since the election, according to the Guardian, with public revenues  falling from an average €40m per day to less than €25m. And the E.U. has withheld one billion euros of its “aid” to the bondholders of Europe in order to punish Greek voters for having the temerity to have an opinion about their own lives. Somehow this seems unlikely to swing people to a pro-austerity position.

In Ireland, there is a referendum on March 31 on the fiscal treaty, which is in effect a vote on austerity. While opinion polls in April had a yes vote ahead, 20% were not decided. If anti-austerity continues to grow, Greece and Ireland can take the electoral lead if Spain can push the political agenda. There’s going to be a media downplay of the events in the U.S., so it’s up to us to use social media, blogs, and our presence in the streets to make this known. Go to an action as well: Tome la calle!

Change has a name: anti-austerity

The next time someone asks you the “what has Occupy done?” question, you can answer: changed the global political agenda to anti-austerity. A wave of elections across Europe this week has marked a pronounced shift. While elites continue to assert that there is no alternative to continued clampdown, voters have endorsed a new mood of anti-austerity. The content of such a politics is vague and no-one should expect dramatic transformations without continued pressure from social movements. The anniversary of Spain’s May 15 movement will now be the time to claim that such activist pressure has shifted the discourse and to move ahead to its implementation.

French socialists have that Occupy feeling

What is striking is that voters in the European elite nations France and Germany were as notably for change as in the marginalized Greek periphery. Equally, given the continued power of the bond and currency markets, that change is going to be hard to achieve. The euro has already lost 0.5% value by midnight European time, down to $1.30. Expect a major decline tomorrow morning.

It was in Greece that the strongest anti-austerity statement was made. Those parties that signed the “memorandum,” the agreement to the Troika-dictated bailout, are now in the minority. Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, is at the time of writing close to securing second place overall on 16% with 42% counted, up from only 4.6% of the vote in the last election.

The Athens News website translated the post-election speech of party leader Alexis Tsipras as follows:

He said that Europe’s leadership, especially that of Germany, had to understand that the result was a crushing defeat for austerity policies. He also stressed that voters proved through the ballot box that the path out of the crisis did not pass through bailouts and austerity. He said that Syriza understood that its meteoric rise in this election did not reward a party or particular person but a proposal for a leftist government that would arrest the course of austerity policies and bailouts and promised that Syriza would do everything in its power to bring about a government that would terminate the Memorandum and loan agreements.

He hopes to form a left coalition, despite the pre-election declaration by the Communists that they would not participate. His call has been for a New Deal for Europe, which would totally transform the European Union. Consequently, the parties for the memorandum will do all they can to form a government with US and German help.

Whether that can be achieved will depend greatly on the new President of France, François Hollande. He certainly struck the right note tonight, declaring:

austerity is no longer inevitable.

Nonetheless, Hollande is every inch a member of the traditional French ruling meritocracy, having attended all the required grand écoles and served dutifully in the Socialist Party ranks. While this election of a Socialist is only the second in the Fifth Republic, it does not guarantee that anti-austerity can be delivered. Hollande has promised higher corporate taxes, higher income tax on those making one million euros or more ($1.4 million), and a variety of improved social benefits. Whether these can be achieved will depend greatly on the léglislatives, the parliamentary elections coming up.

In more good news, Hollande’s relatively narrow 4% margin of victory and the 80% turn-out suggests that the National Front strategy of calling for a boycott failed. Marine Le Pen looks like a protest vote candidate once more, rather than a serious alternative.

In Greece, however, abstention was massive, nearly 40% of the turnout. The repellent neo-Nazi Golden Dawn benefited from this to claim its first parliamentary seats, with their leader declaring:

I dedicate this victory to the brave guys with the black shirts.

Unfortunately, in a proportional representation system, abstention can let in the thugs–but if this is the best they can do in such a catastrophic moment, they are still a fringe phenomenon.

In the U.K. only 32% of voters participated in this week’s local elections. In German regional elections, none of the established pro-austerity parties improved their votes, with the Green Party and the new Pirate Party improving their positions quite notably in a country allergic to sharp political change for self-evident historical reasons.

The mood in the over-developed world has shifted to anti-austerity. No one party or political formation seems set to benefit from this, although the center-right that implemented austerity is perhaps the clearest loser. Days of action like May 12 in the U.K. and May 15 globally are vital to reassert the anti-austerity theme.

In the U. S., the implications are interesting. Should Obama continue to use empty slogans like “Forward” without specifying an anti-austerity agenda that has bite beyond his bits and pieces ideas currently on offer, he may well be defeated by the “if nothing else, vote the bums out” rule of thumb.

Movements like Occupy, the Indignados and the social movements in Greece are not electoral formations or political parties. We’ve suggested that another world is possible. It seems that even in the mainstream people are listening, or at least willing to listen.


Other Histories: The Ancient General Strike, for example

In remembering the general strike we also need to remember the historical world-view of the general strike. We have to replace the idea that all progress was modern and Western with a decolonial perspective that reshapes time as well as space. We should set aside the fictitious genealogy that runs from ancient Greece and Rome to Christianity and then modernity, even in thinkers as profound as Foucault, with an awareness of how much more varied and interesting the historical record has been.

So let’s consider the ancient world with this in mind. The oligarchic “democracies” of Western Europe and North American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries first defined themselves as descended from ancient Greek democracy, a rhetoric that is widely deployed today. Against that pose, anarchists and radicals of the period produced a history of the ancient general strike.

Athenian democracy was in any event nothing like our present-day representative system. It was limited to non-slave men of adult age who had completed military service, a minority of approximately 10% of the population of Athenian slave-labor society. Most free Athenians “owned” at least one slave. Within the structures of the Assembly, officials were  selected not by voting but by lot, on the presumption of equality. So while the Assembly proceedings were decided by majority vote, this was a direct democracy of the minority, contrary to the usual representations. A look around any Western capital city will confirm that ancient Greece and Rome nonetheless became the archetypes for the modern imperial capital.

By the same token, European and North American radicals identified themselves as the descendants of Roman slaves in ongoing resistance to classicizing aristocrats. So the proles (child or minor) of Rome had engendered the “proletarian” of the industrial revolution. These researches into ancient class struggle were, according to History Workshop scholar Raphael Samuel,

the principal site on which the claims of historical materialism were advanced.

Among the most influential of these publications was a remarkable two-volume opus called The Ancient Lowly (1888) by C. Osbourne Ward, a member of the New York based People’s Party.

The Ancient Lowly

Ward did extensive original research in keeping with the then-latest methods of studying ancient inscriptions. In all other ways, he broke with academic convention. He self-published and later worked with co-ops to get his work out. He described his findings as “news,” like today’s “history of the present.” He called attention to ancient rebels and resistance fighters like Eunus, Achaeus and Cleon, who led what he called “general strikes” against Rome. Cleon, for example, headed an army of 200,000 rebel slaves in Sicily around 140 BCE. Under Eunus the formerly enslaved dominated the entire region for over a decade from 143-133 BCE, defeating numerous Roman armies.

You probably still haven’t heard of these people but you have most likely heard of Spartacus (109-71 BCE),  revolutionary leader of the enslaved. His story was told in the classic movie from 1960, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus.  Now the film is mostly remembered for its camp homoerotics and for the claim by all the captured rebels: “I am Spartacus,” a form of mike check.

There’s a sex-and-sandals TV show about Spartacus out in the wilds of cable-land even today.

These popular culture forms are the cultural echo of the long radical tradition of seeing the ancient period as one of radical class struggle, in which the enslaved often won victories against their oppressors. Indeed, seen in the historical long-run, you might argue that they won outright. Around 600 CE, slavery disappeared from the former Roman Empire in the West. While there are many views as to the cause, the modern radicals would have had no doubt that it was the final victory of a seven hundred year struggle. Against the view that slavery had existed everywhere prior to its European abolition, this argument can point to eight hundred years without slavery from c.600-1492. With such perspectives in mind, early twentieth century radicals recast the Bliblical story of Exodus as the Israelites general strike against dictatorship.

So how do we know that another world is possible? Because people have remade worlds over and again, overturning hierarchies that were supposed to be divine and eternal, first for days and years, then decades and centuries.

I Fought The Law

Today is the seven-month anniversary of OWS. It coincides with a remarkable ratcheting up of pressure on Occupy from authorities of all kinds–personal, police, professional. At the place where these three roads meet is the Law, saying: “enough, time to concede.” The reply is given: “I prefer not to.” But it’s getting much harder.

Now some of my friends  and colleagues give me a look: “Occupy? Still?” As if you had just discovered deconstruction. So, yes, I am a bit obsessed. Since when was that a bad thing in professional life? and it’s been seven months, not years.

Federal Hall. Credit @mollyknefel

By unrelenting hostility and willingness to improvise the terms of the law, the police do now have the upper hand in the streets. The NYPD yesterday determined that you may not have “moveable property” on the sidewalk in New York– and that did apparently include a dog that one of the occupiers had on Wall Street. The primary target of the police is the cardboard sign, now that the tent has been outlawed. The revived “sleepful protest” has  been driven onto the steps of the Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights was first introduced. It is supposed to feel like a last stand. While I don’t think it is, I feel the pressure.

The Federal pen

As mentioned yesterday, the academic left continues to ratchet up its critique of Occupy. Jodi Dean posted a talk on her website yesterday, which is at once supportive of the movement for creating a new political subject, and wants to see it regulated by the Holy Trinity of Badiou, Lacan and Zizek. Here’s her summary:

Bluntly put, some of the ideas that most galvanized people in the fall—those associated with autonomy, horizontality, and leaderlessness—have also come to be faulted for conflicts and disillusionment within the movement.

I haven’t heard this criticism, except in what you might call the academic wing of the movement, but there you hear it all the time.

I can’t get into a full analysis of this paper because she asks us not to cite it, so you’ll have to read it yourself. In short, she argues that Occupy should accept its own condition of “lack” in relation to the “lack” it has identified in the political system (The Big Other) and thereby set about representing the overlap created. While I’m not fully sure what to make of this, I take it to mean that if Occupy is to create a form of collectivity, it has to respect the laws of kinship or disintegrate. Occupy should thus negate its own negation of the political system. I can’t help but feel that it would no longer be Occupy were that to happen and in considerable part that transformation would come from a reassertion of the traditional authority of the Law, as Lacan would have had it. Not to mention the law as the cops have it. What we could gain by the strategy is opaque to me.

Is this Law unchallengeable? By chance, I’ve been reading Judith Butler’s lectures on Antigone, where she discusses the possibility of a “post-structuralist” form of kinship that would not be dependent on the Law of the Oedipus complex. She notes that in Oedipus at Colonnus, none other than Oedipus himself berates Antigone and her sister for being out of place, even as they take care of him instead of their brothers, “in their place.” Even Oedipus gets to castigate Antigone for asserting a willingness to “live out of doors.” His curse on his children/siblings is the re-assertion of the necessity of staying in place. That is to say, anyone transgressing their alotted role will be punished. The place one must be is the place where three roads meet and Oedipal destiny is enacted.

What if the incest taboo is not the only form of establishing kinship? What if kinship is not destiny? As the results of incest, Antigone and her siblings all embody the failure of the Law and, while they are punished for this, they also claim glory and honor of their own. Butler interestingly footnotes here the enfant terrible of anthropology Pierre Clastres. Like Sahlins, Clastres refused to equate power with kinship. Clastres asserts that the kinship system tells us almost nothing about the social life of a people. He further argued that the Amazonian peoples he studied were determined to prevent the emergence of permanent inequality by means of careful safeguards.

These arguments have been developed by David Graeber, who also notes that Clastres’ romantic over-investment with the Amazon prevented him from discussing the widespread use of sexual violence in these same “egalitarian” societies. He astutely concludes

Perhaps Amazonian men understand what arbitrary, unquestionable power, backed by force, would be like because they themselves wield that power over their wives and daughters.

The point of the Antigone myth and the Amazonian egalitarians is, then, not that we want to be like them, but that these moments show cases where the “universal” Law does not apply, and is therefore not universal at all, but particular and backed by force of various kinds.

That’s why “I Fought The Law” is a counterculture classic: not because it celebrates a victory–the law won–but because it discovers that, unlike Bartleby who negates himself in the end, you can fight the law. And, yes, you can lose.

Self-killing and (the) Depression

The subprime Depression of 2008 to the present has entailed a notable wave of personal depression. At the same time, neoliberal austerity presents itself as a required correction from the superego for the excessive “exuberance,” as Alan Greenspan notoriously called it, of the boom. Yet the formerly exuberant are not the depressed: we are. Depressed about debt, climate change, unemployment, you name it. All efforts to mobilize a political response, even the irreversible step of self-killing, have to be discredited in order to maintain the regime of credit. It is in every sense unsustainable.

A memorial for Dimitris Christoulas

These thoughts were prompted by the observation that the suicide of a 77-year-old man in Syntagma Square on April 4 has now provoked a wave of mitigating journalism. Feeling unable to survive on his austerity-reduced pension, Dimitris Christoulas left a suicide note that was a call to action (I don’t wish to edit this, so the quote is long):

The Tsolakoglou [1940s Nazi-collaborationist] occupation government literally nullified my ability to survive on a decent pension, for which I had already paid (without government aid) for 35 years. I am of an age that prevents me from offering a decent individual response (without of course ruling out the possibility of being the second person to take arms, should one person decide to do so), I find no solution other than a dignified end, before resorting to going through garbage in order to cover my nutritional needs. One day, I believe, the youth with no future will take up arms and hang the national traitors at Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did with Mussolini in 1945 [at Milan’s Piazzale Loreto[.

Not unlike Stéphane Hessel, the former French Resistance activist turned writer, Christoulas saw a parallel between the fascist occupation of Greece in the 1940s and the current decimation of social life by the Troika.

In the days following, pieces from Ireland to Italy, Jakarta and now New York have created a new syntagm “suicide by economic crisis,” traveling from newspaper to newspaper. The verb-less fragment gives agency to the economic crisis as the means of self-killing, just as one might say “suicide by hanging.” In today’s New York Times piece, Christoulas is neither named nor quoted. Instead, the lead goes to a debt-destroyed Italian contractor named Giovanni Schiavon with a more familiar message

Sorry, I cannot take it any more.

This “acceptable” message (for those not acquainted or related to the self-killer) is the regime of truth around depression, bipolar conditions and self-killing: it is an individual “tragedy,” which could and should be prevented by medication.

Yet the self-killing to provoke social change has a long history. It was a resistance to empire, as in the suicides of the enslaved, and also its tool in episodes like the suicidal attacks of the First World War. Recently it has been the weapon of asymmetric warfare, most notably on 9-11,  and the last resort of the oppressed, such as the self-immolation of Mohammed Bou’azizi in Tunisia in December 2010. Christoulas was clearly hoping to provide a similar inspiration to that of Bou’azizi and it remains to be seen what may yet happen in Greece.

Earlier in this project, I thought about Antigone as a figure for resistance. She might be said to have suicided by state, in the same way that people today are said to choose “suicide by cop” when they get shot by the police. For she knew that to bury her brother was to incur death at the hands of Creon, and she welcomes it as a path to what she calls “glory” in Sophocles’ play.

In Judith Butler’s telling analysis, Antigone’s story reveals that the carefully policed distinction between the social and the symbolic cannot hold. In the present crisis, it is notable how Antigone welcomes the grave as a “deep-dug home to be guarded forever,” as if suiciding wards off symbolic and social foreclosure. Butler concludes that what Antigone

draws into crisis is the very representative function itself, the very horizon of intelligibility.

Butler notes that those who disagree that the “law” (here as much the psychoanalytic law of the Oedipus complex as state law) must hold accuse her of “radical anarchy.”

Perhaps it’s time to embrace that anarchy rather than foreclose it. Perhaps the crisis of the representative engenders a new horizon-tal, making intelligible what it would be to live in a sustainable social world of degrowth and chosen kinship. For Antigone’s choice puts pressure on all norms of gender, as she challenges the “manly” place of sovereignty. It is telling that all the people said to be affected by debt and depression in this recent flood of articles are men. It seems that the old binary that men work, while women care is still in circulation.

I do not wish to minimize the actual experience of depression and its cognate diseases. Each year there are said to be 30,000 suicides by bi-polar people in the US and an estimated one million attempts. For Franco “Bifo” Bifardi and others in the radical psychiatry movement known as “schizoanalysis,” these conditions are not random but actively produced by a regime that insists on the pure rationality of a market that is nonetheless out of control. Bifo sees a “bipolar economy” that insists on more and more stimulus, leading to the inevitable crash. Even the Harvard Business Review now accepts that there is no “invisible hand” guiding the market, which does not attain the mythical “general equilibrium.” Now it’s generally on Lithium.

What would be the resolution for those so depressed today? It would be literally to get outside, outside the depression but also into different spaces, as Félix Guattari puts it

to get out of their repetitive impasses and in a certain way to resingularize themselves.

As I said on Friday, being at Occupy makes me less depressed. I am certainly aware that the kind of unmet need that the Occupy encampments did much to reveal is not going to dealt with so easily. However, the statistics on suicide make it just as clear that the psycho-pharmaceutical regime isn’t working any better. The desire not “to be a statistic,” as the euphemism for suicide goes, is suggestive. It expresses a hope for the resingularizing of people as non-normatized individuals with a right to the pursuit of happiness that is not measured in consumption patterns.




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.

Debt Servitude and (Micro)Fascism

IMF leader Lagarde to Greek PM Papademos: "Do something for the poor? that's hilarious!"

The widely-circulated photographs of the Troika laughing it up as they imposed their settlement on Greece reflect their triumph at imposing a neo-liberal colonization of Europe. As Frantz Fanon noted in 1963:

What is fascism but colonialism at the heart of traditionally colonialist countries?

The debt servitude being imposed on mass populations in the interest of transnational capital represents a neo-colonialism, in which the colonial powers like Portugal, Spain and Italy will be recolonized after the long-term Ottoman colony Greece.

It’s worth rehearsing the breath-taking Treaty-of-Versailles-style conditions imposed on Greece. According to the Guardian:

the European commission will present proposals for “an enhanced and permanent presence” of debt inspectors in Athens later…Greeks have already suffered a 30% cut in wages and can look forward to steep cuts in the minimum wage as well as pensions…Eurozone finance ministers have demanded that the Greek Constitution be revised to give debt payments top priority in government spending.

The money for the bond markets will be placed in a charmingly named “segregation account,” as if to remind everyone of the fascist neo-colonialism that has been created.

There was an alternative: an 2001 Argentina-style default, with a relaunched currency. From this crisis emerged the practice of horizontalidad that has been so influential across the Occupy movement. In Occupy!#3, Marina Sitrin quotes Neka from the unemployed workers movement near Buenos Aires:

it was a sort of waking up to a knowledge that was collective…It was like each day is a horizon that opens before us

This “horizonism” is the direct opposite of debt servitude.

Towers of Debt at NYU

Today I was reminded that such servitude is local as well as global, a microfascism to match the global neo-colonial project. At my institution, NYU, there is currently a plan to build 6 million square feet of new office and residential space in a series of skyscrapers. As well as destroying the character of Greenwich Village, and making Washington Square a building site for 20 years, this plan will cost $6 billion.

When asked where this money would come from an official replied: “NYU is not afraid of debt.” Given the enormity of the sum–twice the entire endowment of the university–and the crisis of debt worldwide, you wonder why. I asked a friend who works at Credit Suisse–in the compliance department that makes banks abide by regulation–and she replied “Money is cheap.” Which is to say, the interest rates on the bonds will be so low that the investment makes perfect sense to a Board of Trustees filled with people from JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Paulson, Met Life and so on.

Who will repay the money? According to NYU4OWS and the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, the only possible answer is students–via their tuition fees, financed in turn by student debt. Student debt is about to surpass one trillion dollars and is the largest single sector of consumer debt, even exceeding credit cards. NYU is already top of the league for student debt per capita. What is especially heinous about this exchange is that money borrowed at less than one per cent interest is likely to be repaid by loans carrying interest in the range of eight to ten per cent. Student debt cannot be liquidated, meaning that even people who are bankrupt, or on social security have to repay it. As a powerful essay in the Village Voice last year showed, many NYU grads have to abandon ideas of careers serving the public good for corporate positions in order to make their payments.

What can be done about this servitude? Horizontalism insists that there is no point in applying for redress to leaders–as you can see above, the very idea makes them laugh. Yesterday at an event in New York City, David Graeber argued that one of the most critical developments of 2011 was a transformation of the imagination. In other words, it began to become possible to visualize a world in which the economic was not the dominant value.

In terms of debt, this would mean refusing the demand that debt repayment is the highest form of morality. When debts are imposed or exacerbated beyond any realistic possibility of repayment, the ethical approach is to move beyond the horizons of money. You can pledge to refuse to repay your loan if one million other people do so here: and decide whether you’re actually going to do that when it gets into the high 900,000s–for now it’s about pressuring for change. For faculty supporting debtors, pledge here and for family and others supporting debtors pledge here: this is important to show that the community supports debt refusal, but demands little more than a few clicks for now.

In terms of the horizontal imagination, imagine what was once the case: a public education from pre-K to PhD that is entirely free. This long-time position of abolition democracy needs to be insisted upon not in terms of accounting–that people need degrees to get jobs and so on–but in terms of democracy: a direct democracy needs citizens who are critical, knowledgeable, resourceful and autonomous.

That won’t happen overnight but here’s what we can do now: stop using economic metaphors for the critical projects that we engage in. Stop asking “how’s your work going?”, or using metaphors and scales of productivity, or otherwise commodifying the common intellect. In work using digital technologies in particular, leave aside notions of “rich” data, “robust” platforms and all the other quasi-market metaphors.

Stop thinking like a market. A market likes an investment (a beginning), a time of production (the middle) and, above all, profit, aka the end. This is why Occupy insists on the primacy of the everyday because it needs doing every day, like child care, sustenance, farming and other forms of sustaining.

Try it. It’s fun.