Category Archives: politics

New Socialism – On Class and Intergenerational Mobility

Class is central to the Marxist view on history but seems to have lost the focus of many socialist and social-democratic policies. Revisionism and liberal fiscal theories dominate even the views of traditional socialist parties, whose policies are often reduced to limiting income disparity and preserving public services.

Class cuts across generations stifling individuals with the inheritance of ownership of capital. The origin of the class conflict of capital interest is the loss of the means of subsistence by the working class and the subsequent accumulation of capital by capitalists. Even in our time, the income gap continuous to grow and the accumulation of capital continues to rise. This law of capitalism resists most efforts to level distribution of capital in revisionist socialist countries. Old Socialism reacts to this inequality by attempts to disown property owners and nationalize wealth, and considered class over individual. Since private property lies at the root of the class conflict between those with and those without, those with should be disowned in order to create a new society where capital ownership is socialized. New Socialism considers class and group identity only as an attribute of the individual, not as an independent entity.

Central to the new socialist debate on class is the intergenerational mobility or persistence of wages. Capitalism despite its promise of individual liberty, traps the individual in their class and intergenerational mobility is the lowest in those societies where capitalism has progressed furthest, in the US (defying the American Dream) and the UK. Many of the public services policies are not aimed to liberate the individual from this capitalist class trap, but only to sooth the disparity stemming from it by lowering access to basic education and healthcare. Revisionism has suffocated the aspiration of the traditional working class to free themselves from the class funnel.

NYTimes – Class Matters: An Overview
A Family Affair: Intergenerational Social Mobility across OECD countries
The Lancet – Child Development in Developing Countries

The Greek Brigands – The Culture of Financial Crisis

“But what about the Greeks? Their national character is based on the idea of the impoverished and downtrodden little man getting the better of the world around him by sheer cunning.”
Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945)

The Greek crisis has exposed existential weaknesses in the Greek economy and revealed shortcomings in the larger European system of financial checks and balances. But the often emotional responses have also proven a cultural polarity between north and south. The German magazine, Focus, captured this antagonism by an image of the Venus of Milo suggestively sticking up the middle finger at Germany. Angered Greeks in return reminded Germans of the Nazi looting of Greek gold reserves and unpaid war retributions.

Beyond this populism in the media, there exists a fundamental rift in policy views between Mediterranean countries on the one side and Atlantic countries on the other side. In his influential book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the German sociologist Max Weber studied already the relationship between culture and economic performance. Weber considered the Protestant working ethic a pivotal element in the development of capitalist modernity. Behind the state of affairs of the Greek crisis lie causes rooted deeper in Greek culture than the immediate problems of government and economic structure. The traces of these historic roots carve an individual psychology and shape social norms that are difficult to change with measures of policy by politicians responding to the market’s wits.

In traditional Greek dances a group of dancers, interlocked arm over shoulder, form a circle and move with a set of prescribed steps. The Greeks do not easily break with their tradition and they do not possess an innate curiosity for the new like Western culture. Greeks depend on the bonds with family and their community. Arms locked, only the leader of the dance improvises, while the rest do not break the line of the circle.

The eyes of the international financial markets are on the fiscal measures announced by George Papandreou, the first citizen of Athens, and the reforms to be implemented by the central government. The response of Greek society and the economic support by the European Union members will be decisive in their success. The question is if the government can enforce the new policies in a country so geographically scattered and with a history of tax evasion as Greece. Historically Greeks dislike central government and have relied primarily on local self-governance, strengthened by the geographic distance of the islands from Athens and the isolation of mountainous villages. Not even the chief-god Zeus could rule the lesser Greek gods from the peaks of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the country. Greek history justifies mistrust in a Greek success. Measures to centralize government and constitute an efficient modern state have always been resisted, from classic times with the Delian League that ended in the Peloponnesian War, the occupation by the Ottoman Empire that gave birth to the palikare, the Greek folk hero, or the rise of the current government for which corruption and tax evasion are emblematic.

When the Persian empire threatened the independence of the Greek city states, Athens and the allied Greek city states formed the Delian League in 487 BCE. Members of the League were obliged to contribute soldiers for the defense of Greek democracies or could alternatively pay taxes to the League. When Athens started to control the League, Athens forced other city states to continue paying taxes to the League solely for its own benefit. When cities refused, they faced the wrath of the Athenian army and were simply annexed by Athens. But when the famous statesman Pericles moved the treasury holding the paid tax contributions, from the island of Delos to Athens, the rest of the Greeks defied. The resistance against dominance by Athens resulted in the Peloponnesian Wars and finally in the defeat and surrender of Athens in 404 BCE. Can Athens ensure a different outcome now?

Already under the Ottoman empire the Greeks resisted taxation, which was a symbol of oppression. From the fifteenth century they suffered heavy taxation by the Ottomans. As Christians under Islamic rule they were obliged to pay a land tax and the jizya, a tax for non-Muslims which was symbolic for subjection to the Ottoman rule. Heavy taxation reduced most Greeks to subsistence farming, while large estates fell into the hands of Ottoman nobles. Resentment against such taxation accumulated over almost five hundred years of occupation. The problems of modern Greece cannot be understood without understanding this Ottoman occupation of Greece and the long struggle for independence that lasted over a century, only ending bitterly for the Greeks in the disastrous defeat of 1922 against the forces of Atatürk’s modern Turkish state. The 1922 defeat meant an end to the Greek megali idea or great idea of a larger Greece that included Asia Minor and Constantinople, current day Istanbul. This defeat of the Greek state in Asia Minor was a failure by the central state with traumatic consequences.

The Museum for the Macedonian Struggle in Thessaloniki is a very small museum but with a deeply significant meaning for Greeks. In a corner mansion behind Aristotle Square, it showcases the history of the Macedonian Struggle, the guerrilla war against the Ottomans from 1900 to 1908, which annexed the Greek populace in Macedonia to the independent Greek territory. In 1821 the Greeks had won independence but it did not extend far beyond the Peloponnesos and Attica. The annexation of Macedonia gave the Greek state a renewed confidence that defined the Greek national identity and placed a claim on all territory in the greater region with Greek populations.

One room in the museum is devoted to Pavlos Melas who fought in the Macedonian Struggle. Behind a vitrine lay on view relics of Melas and part of his former personal belongings, a Smith and Wesson 38 revolver, an invitation card to his wedding, ribbons from his memorial wreaths, and a tin cup. He is a national symbol for the enosi or union of Greece that was hard fought and thereby of the Greek national identity. He is the embodiment of the traditional Greek folk hero, the palikare. As a lieutenant he left the regular service in the new army of the Greek state in order to fight as a brigand or irregular fighter against Ottoman occupation in Northern Greece. Greece was confined largely to the Peloponnese and consisted of a patchwork of people with different dialects. The irregular fighters became folk heroes to the Greeks, where the regular Greek army seemed incapable to protect the occupied Greeks in the north.

The irregular fighters fought in the same tradition as the Greek Klepths. These men had fled to the mountains in the eighteenth century to avoid the rule of the Ottomans and had formed bands of outlaws that later fought in the Greek War of Independence from 1821 to 1829. But also the Ottomans had used irregular forces to control impenetrable mountain areas. They allowed powerful local captains in these lawless areas to rule at will under oversight of distant Ottoman overlords. Even in our time, the use of irregular fighters was widespread during the recent Balkan Wars.

The palikare was in essence not more than a small brigand, who in groups roamed the mountains under the banner of irredentism and liberation of the Greeks. They evaded the rule of law and depended often on captains that exercised local power. The Greek national writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, describes this archetype colorful in his novels. In Freedom and Death the palikare Captain Michales refuses to swallow the occupation of Crete by the Turks, and the unruly Zorba is described in the novel Zorba the Greek, brilliantly enacted by Anthony Quinn in the 1964 film. The mountain freedom fighter, evading authority and growing a beard in defiance, this is the Greek traditional spirit.

The palikare is a symbol of the current Greek financial crisis, reflected in a popular sentiment that rejects the centralized modern state and commends the outlaw. The Greeks do not identify with the politics of central government, despite the fact that one out of every four Greeks is a public servant and is directly dependent on the government for their income. The central government is considered wasteful and corrupt, from which it is justified to extort money. While the citizen rejects subjection to the rule of the central state, the central state is a corrupt body that accommodates a game of lies in order to accumulate monetary gain.

The Greeks cunningly receive an income from government, while evading taxes and participating in the informal economy, defrauding the central state. This lack of loyalty extends to the even more remote European Union. Greeks gladly accept the EU subsidies paying lip services to its demands, but resent any interference in their lives. This practice goes back to the times of the Ottoman state, where Greek subjects evaded being taxed but sent representatives to Constantinople to request fiscal favors. While Ottoman rule had instituted local self-governance as the means for tax-assessment and tax-collection, the system developed local councils that were dominated by powerful local captains and wealthy families with a patron-client dependence.

Since its independence in 1821 the modern Greek state that emerged out of the Ottoman system has not been able to eradicate this local patron-client system which depends on counter dealings and favoritism. On the contrary, it could only emerge and survive by favoring such interests of the powerful local patrons or captains in return for their support, in a similar process as the centralized power of the European Union only is advanced by returning political favors.

Prime-minister George Papandreou understands the Atlantic European perspective and sensitivities. Like many Greeks who worked in Germany or America for the best part of their lives, he lived and studied in America and in Sweden during the formative years in his life. But although George Papandreou calms European suspicions by vocalizing a firm though nothing but verbal promise of reform, he himself is a vested representative of those powerful families that are symbolic of the centuries-old formalized corruption. Papandreou’s grandfather was three times prime-minister of Greece, his father founded the social-democratic party PASOK and also served as prime-minister, while the Nea Democratia party has been dominated by the patrons of the Karamanlis family.

Greek promises and measures of reform have pacified international markets and appeased European political leaders for the time being. Since Greece’s accession to the EU, however, Greek promises and assurances have been provided continuously under very similar scandals, and there has been little assurance from recent developments in Greece that this time will be different. The cotton-growers of Thessaly are perhaps exemplary for the problems of the Greek economy which is simply not compatible on the international market and for Greek fraud. Cotton growers depend heavily on subsidies for profitability, not shunning fraud and corruption, like wetting the cotton crop with water to increase the weight of the cotton. In 1992, for instance Greek farmers invented one fifth of its cotton crop in order to claim extra EU subsidies, and in Greece cotton farmers recently blocked most of the highways in Northern Greece, demanding payments from the government to offset loss of income from falling cotton prices on the international markets, while having resisted agricultural reforms for decades.

And even while prime-minister George Papandreou was on a credibility-building tour around European capitals, among other speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos to calm unrest on the financial markets and restore political credibility, his own Minister of Agriculture Katerina Batzeli reached an agreement with protesting farmers to provide financial compensation. Among the key measures was the injection of five and a half billion Euro by the Greek state to boost incomes and liquidity, promising little change in policies at home. And ask a Greek for an analysis of the current crisis, they will without exception point at the corruption of remote politicians, only admitting to some blame themselves in a delayed sub-clause.

But Europe has always been blinded by its love for Greece and one must fear that this will not change overnight. It has always admired Greece as the ideological and cultural foundation of European values. We learn from Greece the principles of Athenian democracy and copy Greek architecture, our secular thinkers study Heraclitus and Parmenides, our Christian moralists study Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, we learn the mathematics of Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes, our intellectuals learn by heart the Iliad and the Odyssey, even European cynics and stoics cling to the Greek. But this impression of Greece is overly romantic and Byronic, and one must hope that it is soon replaced by a more northern sense for Real-Politics.

The Philhellenic idea of a pastoral Greece in perfect harmony with nature disputes the complex reality of a twenty first century Greece. The sentiment of betrayal felt in Europe is as much a self-betrayal by a European Byronic complex. As Greece struggles to reconcile Western austerity with its Orthodox Byzantine generosity.

So, the Greek suitors have feasted and the time for reckoning has come. The return of order must be considered without sentimental attachments or unreasonable demands, while Europe must not be blinded by Greek cunning and abuse. The Greeks must decide to either be part of Europe and respect its fiscal rules or return to the Drachma as a political currency and loose its place at the European table.

“I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.”
Homer, Iliad IX, 312-13

Sacrificing to the Minotaur

In the current economic crisis people are tempted to fall back to conservative ideologies affirming the existing capitalist system. With the fall of the Stalinism any ideological alternative has evaded people’s imagination. People suffered the consequences from the greatest economic crisis since World War II, in which global banks, the flag ships of world capitalism, collapsed and governments had to intervene with unprecedented measures using public funds to prevent a total economic downfall. And as people fear the threats of economic downfall, politicians within the social-economic status quo advertise two responses. The first Keynesian reflex is to spend money and stabilize the turning of the economic wheels, preventing them from further slow-down. The second response is a reflex to the former and advocates a fiscal conservative policy of cutting budget deficits resulting from the Keynesian reflex. Within the economic wisdom of the existing system these are both established outcomes.

The political debate surrounding the state of the economy has one central question: how much will be cut where? Not even socialists, not christian-democrats or social nationalists, not liberal capitalists doubt the economic necessity of budget cuts. Any person however should be confused, because while everyone made the right analysis of the financial crisis within the status quo of the existing capitalist system, no one is suggesting or considering even any alternative.

The blame points according to all and without doubt at the American investors who sold subprime mortgages with the expectation that their value would continue to rise in the future. The European banks, pension funds and private investors saw rainbows at the horizon and chased after the pots of gold, lured by the same American investors who had invented the subprime mortgages. Following, American investors started speculating on a failure of the mortgage packages by buying default swaps against the same products they were now selling to their own customers. Problems started years ago with the process of globalization of corporations and the relentless expansions that were necessary and financed by loans. Some of these loans were directly at the costs of employees’ pension funds, which were depleted and collapsed when financing fell short. But the crisis exploded only full scale with the financial crisis in 2009.

And what else could government, this servant of their electorate, do than intervene? In Amerika it was said that the banks were ‘Too Big to Fail’. In this process, governments bought the shares of banks against a generous price that lay above their real value, and in order to keep the all but in name bankrupt banks alive the worthless risky loans were sold with risk guarantees to investors (the same investor that had invented, speculated, sold and undermined those packages), while an injection of capital was considered necessary to supply the emptied banks with new cash. All this was unavoidable, finance ministers told the people. This scenario was followed alike in all countries within the American sphere of influence.

In reality, this necessity was also an invention of American capitalism, which was believed without scrutiny by the rest of the western world, perhaps overwhelmed by shame for being taken in, blinded by fear of cataclysmic events, perhaps driven by bad intention, or perhaps out of simple stupidity. The investors who are to be blamed for the crisis (those who enriched themselves by this pyramid game of selfish greed ravishing future increase of value) only accumulated more wealth in the process. They speculated on the failure of subprime mortgages, and turned those failures into huge profits. In the meantime, governments intervened and sold underpriced risky loans to private equity firms without risk with underlying risk guarantees, and injected further tax payers’ cash into fallen and stumbling banks. But instead of passing on these cash reserves to companies and private households in order to keep current accounts at the root of economic activities funded, these banks kept cash in house to increase interest rates by limiting supply. Again capital earned more capital with the higher interest rates, pushing profits ever higher and higher in a speculative spiral in which the rest of the world economy was sucked down. Governments ended up short of capital as interest on capital increased. In response, governments issued new bonds to pay short term expenses, all adding continuously to the profits of investors.

Those same investors started to speculate now on credit default swaps against those governments from which they had bought bonds in order to stimulate government spending, helping to dig their own holes, in which public money was thrown deeper and deeper. Thus they continued a perpetual speculative game of buying, packaging, selling, insuring and undercutting. It is hard for voters to imagine the numbers, the size and the speed by which financial products are created, bought, sold, in every second, every minute, fictive hundreds of millions shoot like electric currents via bank accounts and computers all over the world, allowing only the profits to be skimmed by a small fraction of the population, and en-debt the others in economic bondage.

Greek socialists are a rare bulwark of resistance in Europe, still prepared to literally fight and revolt against the greedy influence of world capital, the institutions that it controls and which accumulates ever more capital and power, leaving less choice and freedom to the lower and middle classes. The ordinary Greek is one of the few European citizens that is not fooled, even if it goes at the cost of the other Europeans, but now the Greeks too are pushed into the fangs of the American IMF, and Europe is selling itself short to the American financial imperium. The unique feature about the current decapitalization of the majority of the people is that it is not the labor classes that are the target of world capitalism, but it is the middle class that is pulled into submission to the influence and power of world capitalism. While in the 1980s the middle management and middle segments of the economy were pushed out of the economic center of power, now it are the middle classes who are voided of economic and political interest in shaping and directing the existing system.

The accumulation of capital no longer takes place mainly or especially by the classic Marxist method of replacing manual labor with machines, the automation of production processes with computers or robots, or by relocating production to low wage countries. This accumulation mainly occurs by borrowing from the future, by speculating on the value of future increase of value, the borrowing from future generations, and shifting the costs of payments to the tax payers. The ‘Verelendung’ or impoverishment of the laborer and accumulation of capital is paid with public money that has been extorted from the employees and independent small entrepreneurs, causing enormous public deficits that are left to be paid by low and middle incomes. The capitalists want us to believe that there is only one single remedy against the threat of this crisis: cutting back public services! Everyone and all have to cut back, these after all are just the laws of the market. Wages, health care, education and social services, all will be cut, while jobs will be relocated to low wage countries, because the hunger of the capitalist minotaur must be fed. There is always something bigger to be feared than these sacrifices, always a bigger doom hanging over us, to make these sacrifices inevitable.

Regardless how clever you think you are, how self righteous you can feel, how much confidence you take from your career, no matter if you are on top of the markets managing your portfolio of petty capital, if you are afraid to lose your new car or to lose your first home, what you should really fear is to be owned by the scale of world capital. It is in this water that you swim: the larger processes of the long term, controlled by the currents and waves that are caused by speculators and private equity firms that sluice money through invisible channels back and forth to and from barely regulated businesses, minority shares, internationally operating companies that only exist on paper and dodge taxes through shell-companies in profit tax paradises like the Netherlands.

What people should fear is not to loose the little they have, but contributing to a system that serves largely the super rich who evade their obligations in return, who launder money via postal addresses on tropical islands or Swiss bank accounts, and who pull the strings of the docile common citizen in their grand stage plays. People with light shoulders carry the heavy burden that the whole system depends on, while those with the most means enjoy the greatest pleasures. What you should fear however, is that you no longer see an alternative, that you believe there is simply no other choice than to bow under the weight. You should fear to lack the courage to strike back, to say enough is enough, and not to live your life as the little man trampling the grapes for the banquets of your lords. If you are only allowed to play another man’s game, you should not continue to gamble for small gain. Retirees have seen their pension savings being annihilated, their pensions frozen or cut back with increasing inflation, young workers have seen future debt accumulating while the perspective of opportunities have disappeared to countries with less worker protection, where workers bow even deeper for the power of world capitalism, disrupting existing economical and social structures, to break the capacity for alternatives.

The power of the status quo lies not in the enforcement against people’s will of an economic system that serves the interest of a small class of the people. The real power lies in the ability to void people of the capacity to think of alternatives. The criticism in the media has been directed at the perverted psychologies of individuals like Nick Leeson or Bernard Madoff. But the root of their perversion lies not in the individual behavior, but in the system that provokes it, tolerates it and promotes it. When the system permits a consistent and continuous stream of faults, the system itself is at fault. While the leaks in the system that allow the occasional outpouring are patched, the system itself that exercises the high pressure on the fragile casing of ethics that surrounds it, remains intact.

See also: Agenda 2010: Life in the Endtimes according to Slavoj Zizek, Slavoj Zizek in VPRO Tegenlicht.

Hollandic centricism, fear of Islam and the Limburgic Renaissance

In 1992, the Dutch government and other European governments signed the Treaty of Maastricht, which concluded the transfer of many policy responsibilities from the national European governments to the centralized institutions of the European Union. There was a minority of intellectual skepticism against this centralization of national autonomy but a much broader popular sentiment feared the loss of national cultural identity. Fifteen years later in 2007, this popular sentiment culminated in the rejection of the European Constitution in a referendum by the Dutch voters. But we can also conclude that although the Treaty of Maastricht did weaken national governments, it strengthened the popular awareness of regional identity at the cost of national identities that have been promoted especially in the nineteenth century. At the same time, a more abstract European identity also emerged, and this is paradoxically used against new cultural influences from recent Muslim immigration. In the Netherlands, these anti-Muslim sentiments are vocalized by the flamboyant neo-right politician Geert Wilders. Wilders was born and raised in Limburg, the most southern province in the Netherlands, and it is his political heartland. Wilders’ party the PVV won twice as many votes in Limburg as the national average, 11% versus 5.8%. What are the underlying historic roots beneath this Limburgic phenomenon? Continue reading

Bag the Flag

“Must the citizen even for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.”
Henry David Thoreau

When I went running at McCarren Park this morning the zone behind the goal on the west side was occupied by a company of cadets. These fresh bodies still have minds and remnants of independent critical thought, a vague sign of a free citizen. However, all wore the same uniform dress already, shiny marine training pants, some in red t-shirts with yellow text circled on their chests, others in gray army t-shirts with stout black ARMY capitals and an amputated Adidas logo on their backs, symbol for their enslavement to the commercial interests of the government. At least they were to look ready for compliance.

McCarren Park is a public park of course, so everyone is allowed, although to hold military exercises in the heart of Williamsburg, is obviously a provocation by the Imperial Army. For the group of cadets it is of course a day of low-pressure training, but to plant the company’s flag in the park’s black soil, militarizing the public space by uniforms, is just another step of this standing army to occupy the public mind. The credo to “Support our Troops” is to the shallow thinker a very sympathetic slogan, but it assumes the relief of the citizen who joins the standing army of his moral duty and the release from the obligation of consciousness that the free individual serves. But at no point, can an individual citizen be relieved of his own judgment at all times, and the contractual obligation of duty to a government at no time overrides the call of freedom. No man can be denied to refuse an order by an equal man at any time.

When Henry David Thoreau wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” in 1849, shortly after the war of aggression against Mexico Continue reading

The metamorphoses of American leadership in the 20th century

The Wilson Vision
On 8 January 1918 the American president Woodrow Wilson before a joint session of US Congress outlines his famous Fourteen Points as a basis for a lasting peace in Europe. At the heart of this speech was the idea of the self-determination of all people. The principle of self-determination could not stand on its own, and to guarantee a framework for such balance of powers Wilson added restrictions on armament, that were designed for national security a priori. Not even 90 years later, the Republican president George W. Bush formulates his policy of pre-emptive strikes in the aftermath of 9/11 which allowed the US to strike first and ‘pre-emptively’. There could hardly be a greater world apart between the principle of self-determination and the policy of pre-emptive strikes. The question that should be asked is if this development from one to the other is a historic evolution or a sudden, drastic shift in policy under influence of dramatic contemporary events?

The Truman Conditions
In 1944/45 the Americans liberated the world from fascism and established democratic regimes. The years of the Cold War, were in retrospect perhaps the zenith of American power. Never before, were countries around the world indebted to the US as during the Cold War. Continue reading