Monthly Archives: March 2013

From the wayback machine, The End of Atomism: a brief critique of the neoliberal agenda – Occupy Times 2011

The following was originally published in the Occupy Times of London on 2 November, 2011:

When I was little, my grandfather took me on his knee and explained the market to me. In theory, it was a way for people to invest in businesses and commodities that they saw had a future in the economy. For a handful of bills, we could own a tiny slice of a business. However, in the last decade this simple act has exploded into complexity. Over-the-counter derivatives, futures contracts, currency speculation, tax credit default swaps… does anyone know what these things even are? And to think these nebulous concepts are being traded nearly at light speed, with incredible profits being made at the blink of an eye.

Market finance became the new Baal worship: What would the market think? What would the market say? Without even knowing why, the common person was suddenly exhorted to care very deeply about how the market “felt” about something. If the market is upset, something so unspeakably terrible would happen! Better to offer up our flesh and blood as sacrifice, cut social spending and our children’s futures short so that the market might be pleased. The high priests of power encourage us to trust them and to simply let them act in our best interest whether or not we understand what is going on.

“Why,” we might ask, “is it so important to develop an understanding of the market and of neoliberal market theory?” There are two answers to this: first, it is not difficult to understand what is going on. There might be very confusing terms thrown about but it boils down to simple concepts. Secondly, because neoliberalism is the cause of this crisis and your reason for being here. This “Occupy ____” movement is, at its heart, a movement that is the sworn enemy of this system. Speaking about the bankers, the traders, the bail-outs, this is all well and good. Yet this is like going to the doctor and complaining of a sore throat, stuffy nose, and chills without simply saying you think you have a cold. We are living in a sick world, and the sickness is what we can safely identify as neoliberalism. In order to cure an illness, we must first diagnose it. Only then will we be able to formulate the proper medication needed to get better.

Neoliberalism is a term that can cause confusion while trying to pinpoint a standard definition. David Harvey defines it as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” To put it simply: the market must be free, without government interference past enforcing private property laws. The confusion sets in when we remember that with all these bailouts, tax cuts, and slaps-on-the-wrist, the market isn’t really free at all! If anything, it is now intimately connected with the state. So, neoliberalism is something that is inherently contradictory to its stated ideology.

Yet if we understand neoliberalism as an ideology that at heart encourages the rich accumulate more and more at the expense of the poor by any means possible – a radical redistribution of social and economic power – then state involvement by way of bail-outs and austerity cuts suddenly seems more reasonable.

Neoliberalism assumes that the state has a new role in our lives. Instead of it being something that is elected by and for the people, it is now an institution that is the protector/enforcer of the market and its whims. In return, the state gains an incredible amount of power. Under the auspices of “protecting private property”, governments now have the legal ability to intrude on your life in ways never before imagined.

Neoliberalism started out by attacking the most vulnerable among us: those who live hand to mouth in the third world, the poor, the mentally ill, the cold, and the hungry. Yet just as capitalism demands more access to markets in order to expand, so too does it demand new populations to bring low.

The United States is a fantastic example. A reckoning for the sins of the father came upon the United States in the form of rotting houses in New Orleans, empty factories in Detroit and homeless veterans from our imperialist wars freezing to death in the streets of New York. The wealth gap grew, as wages started to fall, and as jobs grew scarce, we began to notice that our social safety net had been cut from under us: no health insurance, unemployment compensation at £120 per week, houses being foreclosed on and suddenly empty retirement accounts. As social security and education is hauled up on the chopping block, so too are our futures being consumed by the great monster the United States itself enabled.

Yet the most dangerous part of neoliberalism is that it assumes that society is simply made up of individuals and that these individuals are to participate in a democratic fashion by buying things. This individualization of humankind created not only a vacuous consumer culture, but also ended up isolating us to an astonishing degree. The true miracle of the Occupy movement has been a reclaiming of public space and mass solidarity. When was the last time you stood around and spoke to perfect strangers about how the world should be run? And it is this, this kernel of hope incubated in every human gathering of minds who recognize their sacred (non-monetary) value that terrifies the 1%. This is why skulls get cracked in New York, flash bangs and gas gets thrown in Oakland, and the police parade around with machine guns here in London.

It is the simple act of gathering that the 1% is most afraid of … if it is not around the television and not on Oxford Street, then it is unacceptable to them! If the people have found a way to excuse themselves from their bleak existence by gathering, feeding and caring for each other for free, then this does not fit into a system built on speculative profit.

Therein lies the real threat to the 1% – not health and safety or fire codes or losing tourist money – it is a people who are self-actualized without the help of bankers who know better and the endless cycle of consumption. And therein may lie the cure to the disease of neoliberalism.

link roundup

Joan Smith writes a wonderful article on the Nordic Model in Sweden and how it has developed over the last 13 years to dramatically cut down on trafficking and prostitution in general by arresting and charging johns, not prostituted women.

Michael Behar writes on terrifying “earthquake swarms” caused in Oklahoma, Arkansas by fracking:

I’m not the only one getting rebuffed. There is “a lack of companies cooperating with scientists,” complains seismologist Armbruster. “I was naive and thought companies would work with us. But they are stonewalling us, saying they don’t believe they are causing the quakes.” Admitting guilt could draw lawsuits and lead to new regulation. So it’s no surprise, says Rubinstein, “that industry is going to keep data close to their chest.”

A Wisconsin man faces 5 years in jail and a $250,000 fine for participating in an Anonymous-led DDOS protest against Koch interests. Pulling a face out of the crowd and punishing to deflate protest tactics – if they are pursuing them so vigorously  they must be dangerous.

Woman fired for being homeless.  What else do you say to that?

 

Who’s afraid of Big Bad Data?

The recent brutal crackdown on activist hackers such as Aaron Schwartz, Bradley Manning and dozens of Anonymous activists has run parallel with media praise of private sector ‘Big Data’ initiatives. New, privacy-compromising technologies such as Google Glass are eagerly anticipated while unpaid hacktivists are hounded mercilessly by international police. Information is gathered on us constantly, at all hours of the day, analyzed and made for sale. It’s legal when big companies like Google do it, and illegal when done as protest. The message is clear: privacy breaches are fine when they are hidden away in 38-page user agreements laced with opaque legal reasoning, but not when they are done to challenge business interests or the governments that protect them. Why is this the case?

Marketing companies that know how much money you earn, where you like to shop, or who you are likely to vote for, look like are a natural part of our growing, data-driven economy. Obtaining and publishing tax returns from presidential candidates running for public office, on the other hand, somehow becomes much more ethically fraught. Google Glass might empower people to discreetly take photos of women on the subway – or protesters at a march – and upload them to a social network without consent. Privately owned satellites and mapping cameras take photos of streets corners and the insides of people’s houses. The information you put on Facebook can be plugged into data algorithms and predict whether you are homosexual, a drug user, or if your parents are divorced. If the friendly cars driving around with cameras strapped to the top were branded with Homeland Security seals, or if the familiar interface of social media sites had ‘.gov’ addresses, we would be suspicious and concerned about privacy, and rightly so. Yet, when private interests run these initiatives, we are trusting and compliant, even when the government functionally has access to the same information.

If a hacker uses their computer to release data that is in the public interest, such as information on the Iraq war or academic research paid for with public money, they are treated by the justice system as worse criminals than rapists and murderers. No one has been raped or murdered as a result of Wikileaks, or friends sharing an academic database login, but what happened was widespread embarrassment of governments and corporations. Again, the message is clear: exposing these entities, implicating them in crimes or offering up their inner-workings to public scrutiny is unacceptable – treated worse than rape and murder.

The broad acceptance of this trend in privacy double-think comes from the individualist culture that is central to neoliberalism. Everything is about me. We don’t mind the intrusion from the market because it is done in our own ‘individual interest.’ Customizing your Google and Facebook experiences to your intimate details and consumer choices is sold as tailoring the technology to your personal needs. Offering personal information to the company you are receiving a free service from helps them ‘improve’ while offering you the opportunity to make better consumer choices. However, as a friend said: when you are receiving something for free, then you are actually what’s for sale. Leaking war documents isn’t something that is done for the individual, it is done for the masses. Exposing war crimes is for the sake of millions – it’s hard to put a face on who benefits, which is why any face will do. In the Wikileaks case, it’s alleged that the intended benefactors were Al Qaeda operatives, resuscitating the bloated spectre of Bin Laden. Making information accessible for everyone means it is accessible to the enemy, which, using the perverted legal logic of the prosecution in the Bradley Manning case, means that it was intended for the enemy.

Flattered that we have become so important, we are offering up profiles of our behavior and desires to private interests, strengthening a system that has only offered alienation and mass impoverishment. The hacktivists who attempt to throw a wrench into this system using the same methods of gathering and distributing data –albeit for no profit – are immediately set upon by the best justice system money can buy. It is only when this exact behavior is streamlined into acceptable best-practices and wrapped up in page after page of  byzantine privacy agreements does it become something laudable, as opposed to treason.

link roundup

Nicholas Shaxson explores the mostly-empty, most expensive residential address in London, One Hyde Park, and how things came to be this way in London:

Hollingsworth notes in Londongrad that the oligarchs he studies became rich “not by creating new wealth but rather by insider political intrigue and exploiting the weakness of the rule of law.” Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian-Israeli oilman and financier, explained his elite view of accumulating wealth to me in 2005. “With all the regulations, the taxation, the legislation about working conditions, there is no way to make money,” he said. “It is only in countries like Russia, during the period of redistribution of wealth—and it is not yet finished—when you can get a result. . . . How can you make $50 million in France today? How?”

Russia’s former privatization czar Anatoly Chubais put it less delicately: “They steal and steal. They are stealing absolutely everything.”

London real-estate agents confirm that these commodity plutocrats dethroned the financiers some time before the financial crisis hit. “I can’t remember the last time I sold a property to a banker,” says Stephen Lindsay, of the real-estate agency Savills. “It’s been hard for anyone to compete with the Russians, the Kazakhs. They are all in oil, gas—that is what they do. Construction—all that kind of stuff.”

Even the Arab money has taken a backseat to the new buyers, says Hersham. “The wealth of the ex-Soviets is incredible,” he says. “Unless you are talking about [Goldman Sachs C.E.O. Lloyd] Blankfein or [Stephen Schwarzman], the head of Blackstone, or the head of one of the very big banks, there is no driver from the City of London at these levels anymore.”

Greg Palast was on the Chavez beat, and now circles back around for Vice in order to explain why the Comandante was considered so evil.

John Pilger writes quite a good old-man-rant entitled “The New Propaganda is Liberal. The New Slavery is Digital.”  Old man salute, John! From a young woman…

Today’s “message” of grotesque inequality, social injustice and war is the propaganda of liberal democracies. By any measure of human behaviour, this is extremism. When Hugo Chavez challenged it, he was abused in bad faith; and his successor will be subverted by the same zealots of the American Enterprise Institute, Harvard’s Kennedy School and the “human rights” organisations that have appropriated American liberalism and underpin its propaganda. The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism.” He wrote, “All is normality on display. For [Nazi] goose-steppers, substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manque, blithely at work [in the White House], planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.”

Whereas a generation ago, dissent and biting satire were allowed in the “mainstream,” today their counterfeits are acceptable and a fake moral zeitgeist rules. “Identity” is all, mutating feminism and declaring class obsolete. Just as collateral damage covers for mass murder, “austerity” has become an acceptable lie. Beneath the veneer of consumerism, a quarter of Greater Manchester is reported to be living in “extreme poverty.”

 

http://johnpilger.com/articles/the-new-propaganda-is-liberal-the-new-slavery-is-digital

the toxic language of entrepreneurship

What is an entrepreneur? The entrepreneur is an ideal type of market individual – a person who works for “themselves”, whose only boss is the ebb and flow of the market. As an example of this, a comment on Nate Thayer’s piece on the troubles of freelance journalism:

Nate. Sympathies, and dilemma noted. Journalists today are forced to be entrepreneurs, and negotiate business deals. Perhaps, if you offered them a much truncated piece with links back to a site on which you had ads that paid you, or they gave you a venue to sell something from which you made money (books, for example). So, it’s perplexing, yes. But the market is what it is and the challenge is how to sustain yourself while doing quality work.

Meanwhile, talk of entrepreneurism has also proliferated in the NGO/non-profit world, as exemplified by the latest trends in microfinance/microlending and in the language of organizations. For example, again, from Ashoka:

Ashoka is leading a profound transformation in society. In the past three decades, the global citizen sector, led by social entrepreneurs, has grown exponentially. Just as the business sector experienced a tremendous spurt in productivity over the last century, the citizen sector is experiencing a similar revolution, with the number and sophistication of citizen organizations increasing dramatically.

Rather than leaving societal needs for the government or business sectors to address, social entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions, delivering extraordinary results, and improving the lives of millions of people. (Emphasis mine)

Entrepreneurship is another word for “take care of it yourself”. Even at companies where it is clear there is a structure of management, of wage labor, the language of individualism and personal responsibility is found:

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 1.45.21 PMThe offices of LivingSocial, from a Washington Post office exposé 

Worldwide, the idea of taking care of it yourself, of working for yourself, of “personal brands” is gaining traction. What does it do? It destroys camaraderie  as all engage in competition with one another. Microfinance is not the silver bullet it pretends to be – it can tear communities apart. The rise of the independent contractor – the freelancer – correlates with the longest era of wage stagnation/loss in the last 100 years. The language of entrepreneurship also correlates with the plummeting rates of union membership in the United States, in spreading global poverty. Why do we keep hearing about this toxic idea of entrepreneurship, of “standing alone” and “taking responsibility for your own destiny” when we are more vulnerable on our own than ever?

At a time when the state and capital offer labor less than ever in terms of protection, security or even basic living essentials, we are encouraged to become stronger individuals and take care of ourselves – to blame only ourselves if things go wrong.

east flatbush

Sixteen year-old Kimani Gray was murdered last Sunday, shot 11 times by two undercover police officers. The police claimed that Gray was armed and threatening them with deadly force. Neighbors say they heard him plead for his life. Eleven times is a lot of times to shoot somebody.

Accordingly, East Flatbush has exploded with anger. There might be plenty who just hang from their windows, or wave from the doorways, but the idea that a group of vulnerable young people – the most targeted members of this neighborhood – would go through the streets articulating some serious rage means that it’s already boiled over. There have been nearly 50 arrests so far, and the protests continue.

Despite the majority of the media coverage and spin to this is that it’s the case of a bunch of outsiders there to do damage, there are people from all walks of life at this protest. True, many travel from different parts of New York, but they travel from the Bronx. They travel from Harlem. They travel over an hour by train or longer by bus to get there and hold solidarity with East Flatbush. There are white people and there are Hispanics, students and the unemployed, the formerly incarcerated and those who have never been touched by a cop. There are still more from the neighborhood. Everyone is furious.

The NYPD killed 21 people last year. They have dragged unarmed young women into the streets by their hair and killed them. Even if there are a million excuses and reasons, dismissed hearings and slaps on the wrist, these children gunned down in East Flatbush were murdered. They were murdered from the moment they were born. By chance of birth they were born into a system that condemned them to death or jail – sometimes both. The young men of East Flatbush are regularly stopped on the street and frisked by the NYPD. The parents are tired of losing their children – either to death or to lost opportunity.

For sure, I spoke with a man on the subway tonight who told me he was without power for a month after the hurricane. His life was swept away from him on the Far Rockaways by Sandy. Bloomberg showed his face there and was heckled away by the crowd. It was sort of a joke when Manhattan was without power – people moved uptown and checked into hotels or went to stay with friends. It was an inconvienance at best. But in the Far Rockaways people’s whole lives were wrecked by a Category 1 hurricane, which is not a very powerful hurricane. The foundations their lives were built on were those of poverty.

It is the same in East Flatbush. I’ve had people tell me that you need at least $40,000 to live a year in this city, but there are those in places like these that live off of $9,000 a year. The disconnect is remarkable.

So for the time being, rage builds in East Flatbush. The police presence is overwhelming. They won’t let the crowd to within a block of the police precinct and have cops on horseback. They have arrested nearly 50 people thus far and they are serious about cracking down. Kimani Gray’s sister was arrested for crossing the street. In response, the cops are going to the hospital with wounds from thrown bricks and bottles. The stakes are rising.

Kimani Gray’s family asked for there to be no protesting two days after they lost their son. The protesters proceeded. To the organizers, this was not just about Kimani Gray. It was about the structures that brutally oppress them. It is and isn’t about the cops – for sure, they are responsible for the shooting more directly, but they representative of what protects the system that keeps people in Red Hook and the Far Rockaways without power a month after the storm has passed. The system that creates teen mothers and the system that kills and imprisons their children. The system that has 1.8 million New Yorkers on food stamps and 21,000 children homeless. People came from all over New York because they are tired of it. They are calling for the end of it in the streets of East Flatbush. They are protesting against racism, brutality, capitalism, poverty and the senseless killing of children.

an awkward aside

I had the most interesting interaction today. While checking out at a local place of business, I asked the ten-year-old taking my money what his name was. His father had been speaking Arabic, so I was curious. “It’s Omri,” he said. I asked where it came from and he said “Morroco and Israel”. Omri means “my life” in Arabic (maybe also Hebrew?), which is quite a sweet name for a little boy. I asked if he spoke Arabic and he said no, not even Hebrew. He proceeded to tell me how the Jews and Muslims had been embroiled in war for many years. His father nervously cut in: “That’s because they’re cousins!” I honestly could not parse the background of this exchange, especially since I’m in Brooklyn. Amazing how weirdly complex things can get in such a basic conversation about a little boy’s name.