Power Abuses. Refuse.

You may have read today that UBS Bank was the first of the banksters to be finally convicted of fraud. They fought it all the way and only a Japanese subsidiary took the fall. For the New York Times, this indicated once again

a pattern of abuse

If, like me, you’ve spent time in the UK recently that turn of phrase has to give you pause. It used to be said that power corrupts. It’s more accurate to say that power abuses. It abuses the idea of the innocence of children, it abuses the fantasy of the market, it sustains the fantasy that guns don’t kill people. We occupied to refuse all that. I still do and there’s new evidence today that it works.

Abuse. Is that the right word to use in connection with the systematic sexualized exertion of power over children? So much less troubling than, say, rape. You’ll have heard about the extraordinarily widespread allegations against the DJ and TV star Jimmy Savile in the UK over decades. At least eight other men have already been charged, including the former pop star Gary Glitter. That’s rock and roll, it might be, and has been, said. What, then, of third-tier sports commentator and game show host Stuart Hall (no relation at all to the distinguished academic)? The agent for “celebrities” Max Clifford? and other B and C list “stars”?

I think back to when I was at school. There was Mr B., who was suddenly asked to leave. There was Mr P., who I am now told everyone knew had a collection of child porn video tapes in school. There was Mr W., who used to invite boys to lunch in the pub. I remember I only went once and felt left out. On to university! Here it’s Mr K. (no doctorate for him) using a bed-pan in class. Mr. C drinking pints of Guinness. Professor B. appearing for tutorials in a silk dressing-gown and nothing else.

Nothing untoward ever happened to me and my English friends think I am making too much of this. I used to be told that my writing was too “angry” when I was younger. Maybe. And I’m certainly not past anger now. But what I have learned to do is connect this set of abusive practices to a wider context. It’s said that Savile and his ilk are in the past. The BBC TV news editor who dropped the story last November said to the investigation:

In the end I just felt … 40-year-old contestable claims about a dead guy was not a N[ews]N[ight] story and not worth the fuss.

Don’t make a fuss, there’s nothing more English than that. The ludicrous “Lord” Patten who heads the BBC went further, admitting there were problems of management–such as dropping the major child abuse scandal of the past century–but

I don’t think you necessarily address them by just putting heads on spikes.

This is a very English way of saying, “let’s not have a revolution, like those unsavory French did.” No Lords in charge of French media, though, are there?

Not to excuse the French one per cent. Yesterday a French court upheld an investigation into the repellent rapist, sorry, alleged rapist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF, for being part of a

ring that recruited prostitutes for sex parties from Paris to Washington.

Strauss-Kahn claims he didn’t know they were hookers. Perhaps somewhere in his psyche, he really does think that attractive, much younger women are instantly turned on by the very presence of a sixty-year-old banker.

Or not. Perhaps, like the British bankers who dreamt up derivatives and fixing LIBOR, who learned all about abuse at school in the “Savile era”, he knows what it is to abuse. And he knows that power gets him the unchallenged possibility to do so. So that what he did in the daytime to, say, Niger by inflicting disastrous debt repayment structures on the country was qualitatively the same as what he would do to the women at night. The UBS bankers called the men who fixed rates for them “heroes” and sent them Bollinger champagne and a “small bonus.” Mustn’t give away the really good stuff: the money.

So it’s no surprise to me that two countries with some of the longest histories of abuse in all senses are now leading the response, which is refusal. In Spain, the Citizen’s Debt Audit are denouncing the “debt-ocracy” that has replaced their democracy by making public debts private. That is to say, the public debt of the banks has been absorbed by the state so it will end up being repaid by citizens. Those same citizens are dying, literally, of debt. There are debt suicides weekly. The Audit is the first step towards a national refusal.

In Ireland, there has been an undeclared debt refusal movement.18% of mortgages are in default. Banks have claimed to be helping but the Bank of Ireland has “forgiven” only €600,000 to date. The new government has stepped in and passed an insolvency law that aims

to ensure that people were not forced to vacate their homes because they were in mortgage debt. The solutions all involve a “degree of forbearance over a period of time” to debtors, he said. In reality, that will mean debt write-off.

Debt strikes work, in other words. Better to declare them, though.

So the old mantra that went “there is no alternative, so you have to submit” has met its refusal. Saying no may not stop the abuse. Eventually, though, if everyone says no you can derail the system that allows it.

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.

The Revival of British Elitism

When I arrived in Britain, I wrote about feeling certain resonances with past and present struggles here and elsewhere. I have to say that, now I’ve been here longer, those echoes are harder to hear as I get accustomed to the din of the present.

It’s not that things are going so well. The neoliberal government has admitted that its own austerity policy, supposedly designed to reduce state debt, has in fact added £150 billion ($240 bn) to borrowing requirements. As ever, this is advanced as evidence for more cuts in benefits and state institutions.

It seems that the present version of Thatcherism has decided it needs only one of the original two driving forces. Thatcher was devoted to ending the post-1945 settlement, in which redistribution of wealth funded state health, education and retirement programs. The current government is, as Stuart Hall pointed out, far more radical in its ambitions in this area than even the Iron Lady.

The other side to Thatcherism Mark 1 was a resentment from the free-market radicals that they might get into the elite universities or top tier institutions but still not be One of Them. Thatcher cultivated an aggressive cultural politics against such exclusivity, not on the grounds of cultural quality but of free-market access. That has been binned altogether.

The current plump, white, smug and entitled faces of the government are almost parodically upper-class twit of the year, but their palpable sense of entitlement to run the place (into the ground) is just as noticeable.

George Osborne

London is awash with public schoolchildren (meaning private in that UK-way) wearing uniforms and already manifesting the first realization that they are going to get to be in charge.

Last night I went to a panel on the best books of the year organized by the Guardian, in fact actually in the Guardian building, which is just around the corner from the British Library. Both the audience and the panel were white, mostly middle-aged and formidable. Perfectly formed, media-ready paragraphs dropped from each person in turn. Every book was “exquisitely written” and “utterly compelling” but no book of last year apparently had anything at all to say about the political and economic crisis.

One young person did venture to ask a question as to whether e-books–widely disparaged on the panel–did not have the advantage of being cheaper. He has a point. UK books other than mass-market paperbacks are expensive, unless you get them on Amazon–but as the target was the Kindle, what’s the difference? Nonetheless,  he was mown down by the cultural institutions: E-books were “perfectly fine for pornography” (BBC), incompatible with “Literature” (Guardian) and just plain wrong (Independent).

I’m sure all these people are appalled by the government and are personally lovely. Not that I have the slightest interest in a Thatcherite culture of monetary value but to watch the cultural consensus swing into action like that was indicative of how the long-standing hierarchies of class objectified as “taste” have restored themselves.

The top ten per cent, especially in London and the South-East, are pulling away from the rest of the country. They own about 50% of the country’s wealth, a massive 850 times greater than the lowest ten per cent. The professional class, who are mostly losing ground in the US. are part of this overall rise but cannot keep up with the wealthiest. In the very top of top one per cent, according to MP Michael Meacher,

The increase in wealth of this richest 1,000 [households] has been £315bn over the last 15 years

Meanwhile about 10% of the country is using payday loans to get by with effective interest rates of 300%.

The Occupy movement in the UK has had its difficulties. Even the current issue of the excellent Occupied Times sees the movement as “splintered and isolated.” Certainly my British friends and family have been, to put it mildly, skeptical about my involvement. The word “crazy” was liberally used by one colleague last week. Nonetheless, it seems to this outsider that the UK needs a radical movement more than ever. More follows.

Bringing It All Back Home

The old adage says you can’t go home again. Like most such remarks, it’s about half true. I spent a lot of my twenties in the British left-wing world, at the kind of event I was at today. It was called Up The Anti, a discussion of where to go next after Occupy and all that.

The old patterns were very much in evidence: a plethora of small parties and groups claiming allegiance to Trotsky and other revolutionary legacies; a very serious focus on the issues; some under-representation of women and people of color on panels; unco-operatively designed rooms with steep rakes and fixed desks.

And despite all that being true today, the panel organized by the Occupied Times and Strike Debt UK had a familiar energized feel of the beginning of a movement. We began with David Graeber doing his usual, excellent introduction to debt as a political and historical topic. He has a great knack of making you feel smart as you listen to him and he won the audience over to the idea of debt as an activist issue.

I went next and had the simple pleasure of describing all that Strike Debt has been up to from the first debt assemblies via the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual and the direct action days to the Rolling Jubilee. I gave it a lot of “jubilant” energy, plussing it up as we say. So when I announced that the fund has raised enough money to abolish $10 million in debt (ok, almost), I was surprised to be interrupted by applause, very un-English.

I think I benefited from not reading as English to the audience, at least in the sense that I don’t have a place in the complex intra-left debates. I don’t carry any of the baggage of Occupy London, which several people suggested had left some difficult legacies, although I don’t myself know directly about that. And the Jubilee is just a win, and we all need wins from time to time.

There was a great presentation that followed about Third World debt and we went into breakouts. The direct action breakout that I joined was clearly interested in doing a Jubilee in the UK, although some people pointed out differences in the credit laws that make it much more difficult. There were other good ideas about working with community groups, looking ahead to housing benefit cuts and so on. It was all a bit vague and suggested the need for a lot of research.

It was all so familiar from only six months ago, when we decided to do something similar in New York. If people keep coming, talking, researching and doing actions, Strike Debt UK will find its own way to engage the debt system. I got a contact buzz off the activists. It seems that to go home, you have to go differently than when you were first there. Then it works.

Debt: The Next UK Jubilee Won’t Be Royal

So today I tried the debt meme in London at Goldsmiths College. I’m starting to get a feel for how this goes. There’s an academic constituency that sees themselves as representing “theory,” who tend to be skeptical. There’s a cultural studies crowd, who are intrigued but concerned it might be a bit much. And then there are the younger people, who get it, and who want to put it into action, wherever they happen to be.

There’s no doubt that debt is a major unspoken issue in the UK. Even the laissez-faire government has been prompted to rein in payday loans that charged an insane 1700% interest. The charity StepChange reports that 17% of its clients are using payday loans in 2012, nearly doubled in the last three years. UK debt is currently nearly 500% of GDP, despite recession,  if you count personal, company and national debt.

The chart from StepChange’s recently published report shows how much difficulty lower income households in the UK find themselves in.

Large and increasing numbers of people are behind on rent, fuel bills and council tax (the UK version of property tax). Credit card debt is up, with households owing £8000 ($12,000) on average. Step Change show that a lot of people are using “the plastic safety net,” paying bills by credit cards. And students are now looking at £9000 ($13,500) annual tuition bills, up from only £3000 two years ago.

So debt refusal, debt abolition and the Rolling Jubilee were ideas that clearly sparked a lot of interest. It’s a much greater step here than in the US in some ways because people still believe in government and the social contract, even after thirty-five years of neo-liberalism, known here as Thatcherism.

Perhaps the comedy of errors around the media crisis will change some minds. When the tabloids were caught hacking people’s phones, especially that of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler, there was outrage. Wait for the official report, government said. Now the report is out. The Conservative plurality that dominates the government has, in US parlance, punted. Too soon to act, too rash, all the predictable and predicted hogwash.

The crisis is above all a crisis of authority. Media-backed government has rammed through the socio-economic transformation of Thatcherism in a seemingly unchallengeable alliance. If the public start to see the relationship as being as not only corrupt, but blatantly refusing the process of reform, then more radical options will start to seem necessary.

Switching back to debt, is a UK Rolling Jubilee possible? Just as you would expect, there is a secondary debt market but it’s clubby and less open than in the US. Here

impaired loans have either been handled in-house by banks or sold on to specialised debt collection agencies. So-called distressed debt funds have also started to snap up defaulted UK consumer loans, attracted by the country’s relatively stable, transparent and creditor-friendly legal code.

At the same time, there’s also consumer protection and charities like Step Change. But the Financial Times article quoted above worried that the secondary market was getting overextended. Sounds like it’s time for a Jubilee.