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.

Mining The Future

One way of thinking about debt is spending the future: a debt incurred today must be repaid with future earnings. In planetary terms, mining places us all in biosphere debt. To open a mine is to guarantee further primary extraction, incurring high energy use, new carbon emissions, destruction of the local environment, atmospheric and water pollution. It further sets in motion the commodity production process because new minerals will become new cars or girders or an iPhone. In short, any chance at moving away from neo-liberalism would have to begin with a slowdown or even cessation of mining. At present mining companies are all trying to expand, while also reducing still further their labor costs. It will take a co-ordinated global movement to push back.

Last week the transnational steel giant ArcelorMittal finally closed its Florange steel furnaces in France, having waited out the French elections and the Olympics (where ArcelorMittal was a major sponsor). 700 jobs were lost with the usual knock-on effects that such retrenchment entails. As in 1981, the Socialist administration is discovering that its room for maneuver is far more limited than they expected.

In South Africa yesterday, the Anglo-American Platinum corporation resolved a three-week strike by firing 12,000 workers. The standard pattern sees the company then hire back a fraction of its former staff and reduce output. At present, world platinum prices have recovered from their low-point of August, to 2011 trading highs of about $1700 an ounce, still far below 2008 levels of $2200. More than enough to pay the salary being demanded by the miners which, at 15,000 Rand is ironically about $1700, the price of a single ounce of platinum. Too much for Anglo-American. In a country where people are desperate for work, firing workers that have become militant and replacing them with a totally different workforce is an acceptable option.

Xstrata mining in Australia

Xstrata, the world’s largest extractor of thermal coal, is still trying to merge with a financial company called Glencore in a $32 billion deal. The Glencore-Xstrata merger is unusual in that it brings together financial capital with primary extraction in the same company:

Xstrata is very good at operating mines efficiently and at low cost, without upsetting local communities. Glencore is not.

But it does boast a global network of commodities traders who possess unrivalled intelligence on global demand trends that theoretically allows them to make money at any stage of the commodity cycle.

This will create what corporate-speak calls a “vertically-integrated” company. In fact, it will amount to a dramatic change in philosophy. Xstrata is a greedy, play-it-safe company that works cosy, inside deals in countries that are considered “safe,” meaning pliant to neo-liberal market world views. Glencore, according to business journalist Nils Prately, are altogether more aggressive:

The Glencore thesis is that the best returns come from extending so-called brownfield sites and that the political risk that goes with investing in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo is tolerable.

Translated into English, this means that expansion in under-regulated, low-wage regions is considered worth the risk of political upheaval. This is not to say that Xstrata are not in favor of biosphere devastation.

McArthur River zine mine, Australia

This August they won approval from the Australian government to convert an underground zinc mine into a massive open-cut operation in Northern Territory (above). It’s just that they like governments who can be relied on to jump to the precise height required with no foreseeable risk of change.

Ironically, it’s being held up not by concerns about the disastrous biosphere impact but about the egregious payday (even by Wall Street standards) that Xstrata management lined up for themselves. Merger and retention bonuses (cash for showing up on Monday to do the job you had on Friday) would amount to a whopping $233 million. Shareholders are now getting to vote on the compensation deal but the big investors like Qatar’s sovereign fund are now behind it.

So we can see that neither shareholder activism, as in the Glencore-Xstrata merger, or strikes by workers as in France and South Africa, have been able to restrain multi-national mining.

In Texas beginning on September 24, a group of activists have taken to the trees to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from being completed. This pipeline is being built to bring the “carbon-bomb” of Alberta’s tarsands oil to the Gulf coast. If you look at the clear-cutting and construction going on, it’s hard to imagine that a “decision” seriously remains to be made after this kind of expenditure. After November, whoever wins the elections, this pipeline will be authorized. The Texas activists, like their predecessors in the logging struggles in Washington State, have taken to the trees.

So confident of their future are Big Oil, energy and mining that they’re not even giving that much money to Mitt Romney (relatively speaking). They rank only number nine, way behind the Wall Street firms and banks who have decided that the current docile administration is still far too hostile to them.
Nonetheless, there’s a palpable chance they have overplayed their hand. All the minerals were being mined for China, whose economy appears to be slowing down drastically. There are ongoing strikes in the diamond, iron, chrome, platinum and gold sectors of South Africa’s mining industry. They can’t replace all these people.. By placing their bodies in the way of the neo-liberal machine,  the tree-sitters have made the issues visible. If we want things to change, we have to make a similar effort.

Movement Time

I’m revising two pieces that I’ve done about Occupy, one from last October, the other from January. It’s odd how long ago they seem to have been written, while at the same time making me realize how short a moment this really has been. Movement time is like that: it extends the present, makes new pasts available and yet questions the future.

Raqs Media Collective "Strike" (2011)

I began thinking about this when I illustrated the piece about Sarai with the Raqs Media Collective’s work “Strike.” On a sheet of stainless steel is written: “IT IS THE MOMENT TO STRIKE AT TIME.” The slogan seems entirely conventional until the last two words: how do we strike at time? Who are the strikers and who would be their target? There have been many strikes about time, usually time to be worked in exchange for a wage. There are those Spanish Civil War anarchists, evoked by Benjamin, who shot at the clocks that made their alienated labor measurable. Back in the 19th century, people had to be taught how to regulate their lives by the clock, that they could not sleep in “work time,” let alone drink.

Then there’s the steel, shiny enough to be reflective but, at least in the photo, not without distortion. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s a formal resemblance to Anish Kapoor’s work here. It made me think of the complexities of steel as a form of labor. I’ve been following the strike and occupation by steelworkers at the ArcelorMittal in Florange, France. Last Friday, 17 workers from the plant completed a symbolic walk from Florange to the Eiffel Tower, symbol of Paris and modernity, built from Lorraine steel. Everyone knows this is going to end with them being made redundant but officialdom continues to prevaricate until the elections are over. New polls show the National Front winning among young people. Meanwhile, as covered before,  Kapoor is creating a new monument for the 2012 Olympics paid for by Lakshmi Mittal in London, the Eiffel Tower for autoimmune capital.

Raqs also have another piece referencing steel and shipyards. The elegiac image above shows cranes being dismantled in the famous Swan Hunter shipyards of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, prior to being sent to India. The enigmatic title of the seven-screen installation “For the Knots That Bind Are the Knots That Fray” has been proved right recently, when the purchaser of the cranes, Bharati Shipyard in Bangalore itself appeared to face bankruptcy, unable to pay its debts.

Behind such iconic modern forms lies a long history of the strike. On Glasgow’s Clydeside, the steel and shipyards formed the heart of the British labor movement. In a 1917 pamphlet called Industrial Unionism, the Industrial Workers of Great Britain visualized their situation as a battlefront.

The Class Battlefront

The Working Class and Master Class were mirror opposites, as if anticipating the shiny reflection of Strike. The IWGB was a branch of the IWW, and called for the abolition of wages, direct action, rent strikes and eventually in 1926 Red Clydeside was a key player in the General Strike of 1926.

Fast forward to 1971: after fifty years of class struggle, the workers at the Upper Clyde Shipyards on Clydeside faced redundancy as the government sought to close the yards in what can now be seen as the first wave of neo-liberalism. Instead of the expected traditional strike, which would have led to a lockout and acceleration of job losses, the unions occupied the shipyard, did no damage, and in the famous words of Communist shop steward Jimmy Reid, there was “no hooliganism, no vandalism and no bevvying (drinking).”

1971 Glasgow: Upper Clyde Shipyards Occupation

A placard in this photograph prefigures the 1984-5 miners’ strike that would be the turning point of Thatcherism: the “Jobs Not Dole” slogan on the far right clearly anticipates the later “Coal Not Dole.” The shipyard workers staged a march of 80,000 people, gained worldwide support, including that of John Lennon and used public opinion to save thousands of jobs. With the possibility of Scottish independence on the horizon with the referendum of 2014, and as jobs disappear at the behest of the bankers, such histories seem newly meaningful. Yet while two shipyards were saved, the departure of heavy industry from the U. K. and the construction of a permanent underclass was just delayed.

But none of the imagined futures in these strikes against time have quite come to pass. While the 1926 General Strike was repressed, its victors were themselves defeated when the 1945 Labour Government implemented the welfare state. Its creation of free state higher education, for example, lasted over fifty years. Nor do the Indian capitalists who dismantled the Swan Hunter yard look so clever now, a mere two years later.

So if the victory of the “Master Class” is shorter now, there’s also a longer rhythm at play, in which the anarcho-syndicalist demands of the IWGB for the abolition of the wage-system by direct action once again feels right. The proper lesson, then, is the future will be seen as the future precisely when something happens that we don’t expect or anticipate. To that extent, the future is always ours, not theirs, because the way it happens now is how they feel it always ought to be.

Order? Or Chaos? Love Rosa

Rosa Luxemburg as Cindy Sherman

Today is the birthday of (radical, disabled, Jewish) Rosa Luxemburg. She’s 141. Her idea for the mass (or general) strike is going strong. In 1906 she wrote:

The overthrow of absolutism is a long, continuous social process, and its solution demands a complete undermining of the soil of society; the uppermost part be placed lowest and the lowermost part placed highest; the apparent “order” must be changed to a “chaos,” and the apparently anarchistic chaos must be changed into a new order.

It was expressions like that which once got her expelled from the canon of orthodoxy but make her seem all the more relevant today. Substitute “globalization” for “absolutism” and it reads like something from an Occupy pamphlet.

Let’s once again try and make visible the chaos of financial globalization that undermines its own substrate, the oceans by which it delivers its goods in steel containers. Their purported order is creating natural and social chaos.

Design for the Olympic monument: the AcelorMittal "Orbit" by Anish Kapoor

The monument above is Anish Kapoor’s “Orbit,” designed to be the symbol of the London 2012 Olympics. It is being financed by ArcelorMittal and their chair Lakshmi Mittal, held to be the wealthiest man in Britain at about $23 billion or so. Readers of O2012 will remember this firm as one whose blast furnaces in France are currently under occupation by a threatened workforce.

Kapoor’s peculiar construct appears to be a capitalized deformation of Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, designed in 1919, the very year of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder at the hands of the forces of “order.” For Tatlin, steel was a modern material, forging a new way to see and understand the international.

Tatlin "Monument for the Third International" 1919

For Kapoor, it appears now to be a means to visualize planetary networks, as if seen from orbit, but rendered as a perhaps unintentionally revealing chaos. The point perhaps is to show how steel, the epitome of “strength,” can also be rendered flexible, neo-liberalism’s favorite word. “Flexible” means lower wages, higher profits, lower corporate taxes, longer hours and lower benefits.

And it also means flexible interpretations of data and what, in a naive way, one might call the truth. In this form of flexibility, steel furnaces are renewable energy now, once again at the behest of our friends ArcelorMittal:

AK Steel of Middletown wants to build a $310 million power plant that would use the foul gases from its blast furnace as a fuel rather than a waste gas that it must by law now flare. ArcelorMittal in Cleveland is interested in the technology, said a spokeswoman. AK Steel has already won a $30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for this first-of-its-kind U.S. power generator…The proposal also has the blessing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because it would produce something of value from a dangerous waste gas. The company therefore has asked lawmakers to amend Ohio’s green energy law and classify the electricity generated with blast furnace gases as “renewable energy,” even though the blast furnace itself is fueled with coke, a substance made from coal.

Coke by-products are now “renewable energy,” steel companies are getting “green” grants and their order is chaos.

Today a review essay in Science examines the dramatic acidification of the ocean as a result of the continued acceleration of CO2 emissions like, say, blast furnace waste gases. The process they describe is literally chaotic in the scientific sense of multiply interacting strands of causation. It’s visualized like this:

Diagram of Occean acidification

To follow the diagram: black is reduced carbon. Yellow represents reduced alkalinity. whereas blue is increases in alkanization offsetting acidification. Red is increased acidity. Simply put, the vastly increased CO2 in the air overwhelms all the feedback loops and acidifies the sea to a dramatic extent.

Their conclusions are clear:

the current rate of (mainly fossil fuel) CO2 release stands out as capable of driving a combination and magnitude of ocean geochemical changes potentially unparalleled in at least the last ~300 My [ie 300 million years] of Earth history, raising the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.

That means a system in which the change cannot be predicted by anything that has happened for three hundred million years. Or so. Their order is creating insane chaos.

What can we learn from Rosa in response to this chaos? Let’s refuse to get depressed: that’s what Big Pharma exists for, to medicate us with its happy pills. Luxemburg wants us to act–through the act comes real education, she says.

No more corporate “order” visualized as giant, phallic monuments. Time for some anarchic “chaos,” from the chaos of the biosphere to those of lived relations. MayDay is coming, Rosa’s day:

 a festival [that] may naturally be raised to a position of honor as the first great demonstration under the aegis of mass struggle.


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 France, Occupy Global Steel?

One conspicuous absentee from the Occupy movement has been France, despite its long radical heritage. At a meeting in November 2011 in New York, French intellectuals expressed disdain for the ideas of consensus and the indignés as being insufficiently rigorous. Now French steelworkers have occupied their plant and put up tents.

French steel unions occupy

A coalition of French unions has set in motion an occupation at the ArcelorMittal plant in the north-eastern town of Florange in the Moselle, following a decision taken at a general assembly of workers. The plant employs about 5000 people and several hundred workers have set up in the offices to prevent management from permanently shutting down the plant. They hope for a government intervention as the last hope of saving their jobs.

ArcelorMittal is the self-declared leading global integrated mining and steel production company with revenues of over $94 billion in 2011 and outlets in 60 countries. However, the firm has recently shut down plants in Belgium and Madrid, leading the workforce to distrust assurances that this will be just a temporary shutdown. Perhaps the fact that CEO Lakshmi Mittal is on the board of Goldman Sachs fails to inspire confidence in the workforce?

Their strategy is to maintain political pressure on the government with actions on at least a weekly basis until the end of the French presidential elections in May. In the last election, Sarkozy promised to keep a neighboring steel plant at Garange in production but has failed. In fact, over 350,000 industrial jobs have been lost in France in the last four years. However, the leader of the Left Front,  Jean-Luc Mélenchon, reasserted today that “democracy is not a matter of consensus,” in the context of his entirely appropriate opposition to the fascist National Front. Mélenchon might want to think about a form of modified consensus as a means to mobilize anti-fascist unity, but his statement seems more like a form of political maneuver for percentage points in the election than a strategy.

The industries of primary extraction and manufacture–coal, oil, gas, steel, etc.–seem to recur far more often in the narrative of Occupy than one might have expected in a movement concerned with the financial crisis. We are often told that “old” industries of this kind are irrelevant in today’s post-industrial economy. Yet as the expansion of other Indian-led deunionized steel firms like Jindal Steel has shown, the primary motivation is reducing costs not ending production. The French unions point out that global steel production surpassed 1.5 billion tons last year for the first time, hardly a sign of lack of demand.

In their classic Empire (2000), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued that Marx’s theory of the “primitive accumulation” of capital via “looting, enslavement and murder” was not a once-and-for-all moment. Rather, this primitive accumulation stage is inherent to all capitalist development. Their stress on “immaterial” accumulation needs to be supplemented with these accumulations of basic extraction. Lost within the many takeovers of Mittal Steel, for example, is the remnants of Bethlehem Steel, one of the former great industrial powers of the U.S. The spatial relations of inside and outside mapped by primitive accumulation now seem still more complex. Mittal Steel was founded in India in 1976 and became Ispat International, based in Sumatra, in 1989. When this group absorbed the US steel remnants in 2004, Mittal was formed only to merge with Arcelor in 2006. Their accountants are Deloitte, mentioned earlier this week.

The French steelworkers believe that the company is directed from London. In corporate terms it is headquartered in Luxemburg but has industrial presence on every continent. It works in the tightly orchestrated pattern of globalized finance networks that are directed by firms like Goldman Sachs and Deloitte. As Hardt and Negri put it:

Informational accumulation destroys or at least destructures the previously existing productive processes, but it immediately integrates those productive processes into its own networks and generates across the different realms of production the highest levels of productivity.

Inside and outside reverse and re-reverse at such speed that it is hard to keep the process in sight. A supposedly powerful nation state like France is no more able to constrain this process than weakened locations, such as Greece. The French workers have tried to make this network visible to themselves and to others by means of their occupation. Occupy asserts a presence in space that the networks of accumulation seek to render invisible and irrelevant.

It remains to be seen if this step will produce an Occupy theory of political economy in France or if it was merely a move in the political theatre of the election. In any event, bienvenue chez Occupy, Français et Françaises!