Pop-Up Neoliberalism

Welcome to the Olympic Park

I went today to see the Orbital, the monument by Anish Kapoor erected at the London Olympic Park. Or rather I didn’t because, as you can see above, people are not allowed in at the moment, while the majority of the site is being demolished and removed. What they suggest is going to the department store John Lewis to have a look from their windows. The whole place looked shabby and sad, leaving the Orbital as a memorial to pop-up neoliberalism.

I’ve been following the ArcelorMittal steel company that paid for the Orbital throughout a long-running strike in France, which has recently led to a recent showdown with the new Socialist government. However, almost all the UK media insisted that the Olympics were a grand triumph of Britishness and any such discussions were considered all but treason.

Get out to Stratford now and it’s not very uplifting. You can only dimly see the park through screens as you leave the station. You then have to walk through a branded shopping mall of the Prada/Hugo Boss variety. I went into one shop to get a pencil and, as I was just about the only person there, I got into a talk with the shop assistants. It turned out that these upscale segments were “pop-ups” and would be kept open only until Christmas Eve, when they would be taken down and all the staff would lose their jobs. Lovely timing, that. A nasty young manager, who obviously had a degree in marketing, came over to silence this unprofitable conversation between human beings. I went out to the back of the fancy shops and, sure enough, they were just jacked up boxes.

Pop up shops

The structure itself will disappear, as the Olympic site across the road already is doing, having ceased to be able to make a profit.

Not a hurricane, the end of the Olympic Park

Denied access to the park, I walked in the cold to try and get to see the Orbital. The architects had clearly thought about how to monetize even a sight of the place because the sidewalks were parapeted with little Berlin walls to prevent you from catching an unauthorized glimpse at 500 metres.

Nothing for you to see here

As you can see, a bit further down, the top of the wall was now lowered so you could see Mr Kapoor’s masterpiece. It’s a odd duck and no mistake.

Orbital by Anish Kapoor

Formally, it’s a mess with the extension from bottom left off into space on the right distracting and breaking the flow of the piece. It looks better from the other side, as I saw later from the train, but I couldn’t photograph through the glass. Even so, what is this? There’s a viewing platform on top of what looks like one of those terrifying circular exits to European car parks. The spectacle is, simply, the spectacle. Or was.

Except now that the tents have literally been folded, the view is of Stratford, an as-yet ungentrified part of the East End. Were you to get up to the top, you would see views like this if you looked east:


Of course, you’re not supposed to look this way. You were to look at the Olympic Stadium next door, smaller than I expected, or best of all towards the skyline of the City of London, home of all the most egregious scams of neoliberalism from CDOs to LIBOR and who knows what else.

Kapoor claimed an affinity with Taitlin’s legendary Monument to the Third International. Hogwash. What it actually looks like is a folded-in combination of the characters for pounds, dollars and euros: £/ $/ €. So I suppose that in a way, it really was the most appropriate monument that there could have been.

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.


Seeds of Democracy and the Smog of Law

Today was the inaugural Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park seed swap and seed library. Just to be sure we got the point, a federal judge rejected a class action lawsuit by organic farmers against Monsanto. Chemical culture got a boost from the UK government who decided that their own Parliamentary recommendations on clean air are too expensive, even though the pollution is acknowledged to kill thousands a year. To adapt Gandhi, we might say that Western democracy would be a very good idea.

Seed swapping at Liberty/Zuccotti today

Occupy the Food Supply’s day of action began outside the Stock Exchange and then marched to Liberty. We heard from David Murphy (below), an Iowa-based activist with Food Democracy Now! about the threat posed by Monsanto’s aggressive patent campaign for its genetically-modified corn. He held up an ear of Oaxaca corn that he had acquired at the recent California seed swap (covered here).

Murphy with indigenous corn

Because it has been decreed by agribusiness that corn is yellow and that other forms are therefore not corn, this green cob is a biological misfire in their view. In fact, Monsanto used the food crisis to push GMO corn into Mexico:

After originally denying authorization for a pilot program to cultivate its GM corn in Sinaloa last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) just gave the company the green light to plant genetically modified yellow corn resistant to the herbicide glyphosate as a part of a pilot program in Tamaulipas’ current agricultural cycle. According to the National Commission for the Use and Understanding of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Tamaulipas is home to 16 of the 59 remaining strains of native corn.

The risk of contamination between the GMO corn and native varietals is clear to everyone except agribusiness and their allies, who don’t care. Nonetheless, Monsanto also aggressively sue farmers who find themselves accidentally growing Monsanto’s patented pesticide-resistant plants because of seed dispersal. That is to say, they not only patent life, they sue it.

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and several other growers and organizations filed a counter-suit against Monsanto to prevent the company from taking such hostile action. Regrettably but unsurprisingly, today we learned that:

U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald, for the Southern District of New York, threw out the case brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and dozens of other plaintiff growers and organizations, criticizing the groups for a “transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”

The hard lesson here is that seed democracy is unlikely to be fostered by a legal system whose prime function is the defense of “property” rights.

Against this grim background, Liberty was filled with would-be urban growers collecting and swapping seeds. The organizers had sensibly brought an extensive collection, which they gave away in packets and then encouraged us to sub-divide amongst ourselves.

Seed distribution

The promise exchanged was that everyone who grew plants should let a portion run to seed and bring them back to the next seed swap, or to create a seed library. On the way downtown, I happened to read an essay by Jeff Sharlet about OWS in which he spoke of the “joyousness” and “beauty” of what he called “the physical democracy” of Zuccotti during the encampment. In the more confrontational atmosphere post-eviction, we sometimes forget what that was like and how good it felt. This event reminded me and gave me hope.

And in case you wondered why we occupied in the first place, a quick look over the Atlantic shows why. In November 2011, a Parliamentary committee reported that air pollution caused over 30,000 death in 2008. EU air quality standards are being flouted wildly in London, whose air is notorious.

Welcome to London

Yet today the appalling heirs to Mrs Thatcher (another quick boo for Meryl Streep here, please) in power in the UK dismissed the issue as generating “disproportionate costs.” Disproportionate to whom? Certainly not to the one in five Londoners whose deaths are attributable to the pollution, a figure the government did not dispute. And, let’s see, who thinks we’ll have a debate about London air quality before the Olympics in the way that we did before the Beijing Olympics?

These two issues are linked biologically as well as conceptually. Aldo Gonzalez, a Zapotec engineer who has led the struggle against GMO corn in Mexico, points out that indigenous varietals evolved over 10,000 years in a great diversity of climates and altitudes. It may very well be literally life-saving to have some of these hardier plants at our disposal once the neo-liberals have had their way with the climate.

Let’s go back to the beginning. When the Occupy movement began, the Very Important People wanted to know what our demands were. When the courts and the representative governments reject basic claims to life–except should one happen to be a foetus–there was and is no point in making demands to them. You have to sow democracy.



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.