A year of Modi Raj – India in crisis

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 19:29

Middle and upper class Indians might balk at the idea that their country is in crisis but while they are having it good - the media fails to inform them that more than 75% of the population is suffering neglect at best and in far too many instances, massive state violence and terror.

Indian PM Nahrendra Modi, May, 2015. Demotix/ Kshipra Simon. All rights reserved.Almost two years ago, in an article for openDemocracy, this writer made a couple of predictions regarding the outcome of the general elections in 2014 that turned out to be wide of the mark.  The article made other assertions that, after what came to light later in 2013 and early last year, help explain why the predictions went awry.

I had predicted that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, “can hope for a maximum of 25 percent vote share nationally.” In the event his Bharatiya Janata (Indian people’s) Party got 31 percent of the votes polled nationally, resulting (thanks to the first-past-the-post system, as in Britain) in a comfortable majority for the BJP on its own, without having to depend on coalition partners. So the following prediction stood nullified: “Modi will have to make deals with several smaller parties, each claiming bigger pounds of flesh than their strength in terms of seats warrants.”

The article concluded that India’s “central government will keep lurching from crisis to crisis as coalition partners of the bigger parties run rings around them”. A year after he was sworn into office on 26 May 2014, there is no crisis threatening Modi and his government.

But then India and its people – especially the indigenous peoples who live, unfortunately for them,  in mineral-rich forested lands, Dalits (formerly known as “Untouchables”) as well as Muslims, Christians and other marginalised groups –  are in acute crisis, thanks to the pro-corporate and majoritarian Hindu-supremacist policies the Modi regime is pursuing.

This is not to suggest that the crisis in India is merely a year-old: the previous Congress party government, a corporatist and generally supine dispensation, was hardly anything to look back to. Led for ten long years by Manmohan Singh, who not only failed to check massive corruption among his ministers but failed to address massive poverty and destitution on a mass scale while his finance minister and others – especially in the run up to the 2014 general elections – went about dispensing massive largesse to corporate entities, the previous regime disappointed on all counts. Singh, a person of the Sikh faith, went along with the non-prosecution of several members of his party who were engaged in the anti-Sikh pogrom in New Delhi in 1984  that claimed more than 3,000 lives and left thousands of families in dire straits following the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards.

And this is not a crisis discernible to most media-attuned people living in India’s cities – chaotic though they may be with traffic problems, power outages, water shortages and so forth. There are vast swathes of India that the Indian media – much less foreign – rarely ever gets around to covering, including in the cities. Indigenous Indians protesting against illegal evictions by government entities backed by paramilitary forces in order to hand over vast lands to corporations are dubbed Maoists and extreme leftists. It is open season on them. Members of police and other “disciplinary” and armed forces in most if not all parts of the world are trained to be ruthless to any quarry pointed out to them. In India the police, the paramilitary forces and the armed forces used for “counter-insurgency” well within the country’s borders enjoy “special powers” meaning impunity. They have done so under the Congress dispensation as they do now.

Someone who has been very much a part of the establishment in India – grandson of M.K. Gandhi, former civil servant, former Indian ambassador in South Africa and former governor of the state of West Bengal – sees the country as being in a “state of emergency”: Gopalkrishna Gandhi said while delivering a lecture in March in memory of one of India’s foremost dissidents albeit from a privileged caste-class background, Jayaprakash Narayan, “There is no emergency in force in India today. There is no promulgation of the emergency either in the states or in part of the states or in the country ... but let us examine for a few moments the ingredients of authoritarianism which is what the emergency was, an unashamed exercise in authoritarianism and self-assertion,” he said, alluding to the state of Emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi on 25 June 1975 which lasted until March 1977. “In a country which has been through the fires of Emergency, we do not have a state of emergency today but we have in the air the whiffs of the emergency sentiment, we have strains of the emergency doctrine and palpable pulsations of emergency fear."

Gopalkrishna Gandhi went on to say: “Dissent enfeebles the dictator; the absence of dissent enfeebles the common man and woman.” He then turned to the fear gripping the minority communities in India now and said, “in times when there are no riots or riots in real time there has never been a time when fear has been so pronounced in the hearts and minds of the minority communities in India”.

Alluding to the Hindu chauvinist groups’ campaign to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism under the name “Ghar Wapsi” (home-coming), Gandhi said: “the PM has said nothing against Ghar Wapsi but then the PM has said nothing about so many things and they are happy and they are being justified. Conversion and reconversion have been part of our country’s life for centuries but a political payload that has been put into the matter today is unprecedented … this is the first time so sharp a  polarization is sought to be introduced in the trust between communities in India.”

Saturation control over the media

The article two years ago said, “a virtual army of supporters has been working the internet from within India and abroad: there is a sizeable Gujarati and upper caste Indian presence in North America and Europe and good numbers of whom back Modi.” Crucially, the geographical spread and numbers  staffing these call centres in India or elsewhere are difficult to gauge, wrapped as so many of them are in various cloaks of secrecy. However, media had access to one well-run outfit named Citizens for Accountable Governance staffed by hundreds of highly educated and technically qualified individuals and which is credited with masterminding that crucial leap from 25 percent national vote share to 31 percent.

Not with a view to hedging bets, the article pointed to some dangers: “Hindutva (Hinduness) forces are trying to recruit adherents from among the Dalits (formerly untouchables) and even indigenous people of India, selling them the idea that Muslims and Christians are their enemies.”

Where the article – and many others written by numerous astute observers of Indian politics in 2013 and early 2014 – fell short was in gauging the extent of “saturation control over the media” that Modi and his party had come to enjoy by then. And it was only by early to mid-2014 that the realisation began to dawn on media-watchers in India that there were massive monies ranged behind Modi’s campaign. Opinion polls in India have at times proven completely wrong – albeit at others spot on – and thus there was considerable scepticism over survey results that said Modi’s party and coalition would win.

For instance, in the run-up to the general elections photographs began to emerge of Modi campaigning in far off places across the vast expanse of India while flying on jets provided by an Industrialist – Gautam Adani – who has been fattening on Gujarat state largesse. Industrialist Mukesh Ambani now controls significant sections of the media. He and Adani, Ratan Tata as well as numerous other “captains of industry” are now being rewarded for their backing of Modi with tax write-offs, controversial loans and other gestures on a national scale that previously was offered in Gujarat, as Rohini Hensman brilliantly documented in openDemocracy early last year.

Naturally, the government has gone after human rights activists and non-government organisations such as Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation for supporting grassroots activists opposing such government-backed loot of land and resources belonging to the people of India.

One of the Modi government’s most controversial initiatives is a law to make it easier to grab farmers’ land that can then be gifted to the moneybags funding the ruling party. Farmers have been committing suicides in their hundreds (both under the current and the previous Congress regimes).

India’s already low spending on health has been further cut in the current year’s budget and the government has shut several official programmes, including those covering AIDS, child malnutrition and tobacco control, while healthcare is being increasingly privatised. The government has meanwhile allowed pharma companies to raise prices manifold.

Modi’s pre-election claim that he would bring back unaccounted wealth stashed abroad or “black money”, was just a gimmick, the BJP’s current president and the prime minister’s close confidant, Amit Shah, admitted earlier this year.

While Modi has spent much time on foreign travels – accompanied by his favoured business tycoons – his foreign minister and senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj has been sidelined. In fact there are few foreign ministers around the world whose roles have been as eclipsed by the chief executive as hers. And many others among Modi’s other ministers have rarely been heard from, so centralised has been his manner of functioning.

A few ministers and other Hindu supremacist hotheads speaking out of turn and using foul language against the minorities and calling for Muslims to be disenfranchised or to be hounded out of Hindu-dominated housing complexes has gone largely unnoticed by Modi.

Just months after he took office, violence engulfed an area named Trilokpuri in the capital, most likely stoked by Hindu chauvinists. Churches have come under attack in Delhi and elsewhere. That Modi, who presided over an anti-Muslim pogrom in his native Gujarat state in 2002 that left more than 2,000 people dead and thousands homeless, is an unreconstructed Hindu fanatic demagogue and fascist needs hardly any corroboration: There are far too many Youtube links and news links testifying to that fact. 

Trumped up charges of being Maoists

Meanwhile, away from media gaze, a war has been mounted on the indigenous peoples living in the central Indian states of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. Human rights activists say jails are over-flowing with under-trial detainees most of them facing trumped up charges of being Maoists.

Education is being under-funded and the directorship of government bodies overseeing it is being handed over to known Hindu chauvinists, most of whom conflate Hindu mythology with history. Meanwhile, 16-year-olds will henceforth be treated as adults if they are charged with heinous crimes, should a bill passed by the lower house of parliament be approved by the upper house. The government has also allowed children as young as 14 to work in family enterprises and in the audio-visual entertainment industry.

A former minister and ideologue of the prime minister’s party, Arun Shourie, has criticised Modi for poor handling of the economy. Shourie’s criticism is from a right-wing perspective, but reveals that not everyone even within his camp is buying the hyperbole of economic turnaround under Modi.

As he begins his second year in office, there is little hope that Modi will mend his ways. But resistance might be building: a labour group aligned with his party has signalled its impatience with current policies hurting workers and has decided to join a protest to be organised by opposition groups. It is only such resistance from within and without the ruling circles that hold out the hope that India might eventually emerge from the nightmare of Modi Raj.

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Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 16:26

The writer reflects on the role of language, foreign and Arabic, colloquial and classical, in Morocco; and on the appropriation, polarisation, and xenophobia of the Egyptian counter-revolution.

Bavures and shibboleths—language in Morocco

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I am rather preoccupied with the question of language. Both the fushadarija dimension, and the whole question of foreign languages. (And of course the matter of Tamazight.)

To dispense with the first, I have little doubt that the very high levels of illiteracy (a recent op-ed by Abderrahmane Lahlou in L’Economiste quotes Ministry of Education figures for illiteracy as high as 76 percent at primary grade four) are not going to be significantly reduced until the diglossia on which they rest is resolved.

This means some version of the Zakoura Foundation’s proposal to make darija the language of instruction at least in early primary, before converting to fusha when pupils are ready. (Zakoura describes this process as building a passerelle, or footbridge, from the mother tongue to Arabic.) Champions of classical Arabic rest their arguments on Arab or Islamic solidarity, the price of which is widespread illiteracy, and Zakoura’s recommendations have been deliberately misrepresented by many who should know better.

There is no visible evidence that Arabic is well enough taught in Moroccan schools for there to be any hope of its prospering as the universal language of literacy. It is a discussion that needs to be conducted on evidence, but the scenes of emotional and histrionic disorder that break out in parliament whenever it arises suggest that the day of evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived.

Parliament itself is not wholly qualified to handle the evidence: Houda Filali-Ansary wrote in La Vie Eco of the last parliament, “si l’on trouve toujours des élus ayant le niveau d’études primaire, ils sont de moins en moins nombreux, tout comme l’élu totalement analphabète est une espèce en voie de disparition. Certes, dans un certain nombre de cas, il s’agit de députés d’un certain âge.” In other words, a certain number of older MPs can’t read themselves, and others have only primary education. Well, it’s generally the old fellows waving their order papers and shouting.

As for foreign languages, which the King emphasised so strongly in his August 2013 education speech, French is becoming the language of an old elite. Demand for English is growing very fast, and that for French is not.

A senior fonctionnaire said to me a couple of years ago “La francophonie, c’est une prison,” the language of a colonial and post-colonial elite which is of less and less currency in the world of ideas and research, let alone film, music and youth culture. Certainly there is much that is to be treasured in francophone Moroccan literature, and it will always be accessible, but English seems to be becoming the foreign language of choice for the younger generation. Willy-nilly.

As I said in response to a recent argument on Twitter on this subject, we may not like it – but complaining about it is a bit like complaining about the weather. I tweeted a link to an essay I wrote last year, towards the end of my four years in Morocco, called Bavures and Shibboleths: The Changing Ecology of Culture and Language in Morocco, which I think adds something to the discussion, and you can find it here.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in April, 2015.

Ash-sha’ab yurid…what, exactly?

At the beginning of 1973 I spent a few months in Cairo. War with Israel was in the offing, and preparations for it were under way. At the most mundane level, blast walls were built in front of the entrances to blocks of flats, and windows taped; at the Egyptian Museum Tutankhamun’s mask and regalia were protected by a thick emplacement of sand-bags and only visible with a flashlight, through narrow slits.

One day in January or February that year I went to the Cairo Palace cinema off Alfi Bey Street to see Costas Gavras’s splendid film ‘Z’ about régime murder and cover-up under the Greek dictatorship. It was only shown once—the High Court had over-ruled a government ban, and ‘Z’ got just one token outing before the authorities closed the cinema and stopped it being shown again. For that one show, the cinema was surrounded by a cordon of riot police, an irony not lost on the unusually silent audience.

Before the screening of the main film, there was a black-and-white public information short, instructing the audience about how to deal with napalm attacks. Two bored soldiers stood in a slit-trench with their helmets lying on the sand-bagged parapet. Suddenly from off-screen dropped a great blob of what looked like egg-white, or snot, landing on one of the soldier’s helmets.

At once, all was action. The soldiers jumped to, tipping sand over the (still obstinately not-burning) jelly, and the military equipment was vigorously and demonstratively saved from destruction. And that was that. It was an odd enough little vignette to remain in my memory 42 years later, a gloriously inept attempt to enjoin vigilance without too much panic, a paranoia sanitised to the point of meaninglessness.

This week I found on my twitter-feed a story (from Mada Masr) that brought it obliquely back to mind: 

In June 2012, paranoia against foreigners was already at an all-time high when an infomercial aired on both state-owned and private television channels warning people against the spies around them. The 40-second ad featured a blue-eyed man with a suspicious look on his face scanning a café, then sitting with young men and women who start to tell him about Egypt’s problems as he squints and flashes evil smiles. The narrator warns that the spy will blend in and “steal your heart” until you offer him valuable information. The spy in the video exclaims “Really?” in English as the gullible young people divulge information. He then proceeds to send text messages from under the table. The ad ends with the warning, “Every word is valuable, a word can save a nation.”

This ‘infomercial,’ issued just as Morsi took office, comes from the same stable. Foreigners, particularly those with blue eyes and agile texting-fingers—are a Bad Thing, determined to undermine Egypt. A short and delightful visit to Cairo last week reminded me that distrust of the west lies only a little beneath the surface, and that a cultivated paranoia is part of the package by which the government, like all Egyptian governments, seeks to consolidate its support. However, as the man in the old joke said, “I’m not paranoid—it’s just that everyone’s out to get me;” and there really is quite a lot to be worried about in Egypt.

It was certainly a very difficult week, beginning with Revolution Day celebrations in which a blameless teenage girl was shot on Talaat Harb while carrying flowers to a commemoration in Tahrir Square. Another twenty people, some of them considerably less blameless, were killed at demonstrations during that weekend, and a number of bombs exploded. Later in the week there was a devastating rocket attack by terrorists on army positions in the northern Sinai, in which another 30 or so soldiers—plus a number of Islamist expendables—were killed.

It is clear that the Egyptian government and state are under attack, and that there is justified fear and serious concern. The murky nexus of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Daech represented by their myrmidons of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, is behind both domestic and external violence.

But there are no shades of grey in the cosmic war being fought out between the legions of hell and the boys in khaki. One is Right: the other is Wrong—which is which depends on your viewpoint. Accounts of atrocities by the army are regularly discounted on the basis that the only evidence for them is the foreign press which can’t be trusted, because it is sympathetic to the Brotherhood. And the Brotherhood’s infernally cunning operatives are said to fabricate enormous amounts of evidence, placing stories in the press and online to discredit the government. (Probably so, and I imagine the compliment is returned.)

So I was told variously that I shouldn’t necessarily believe the story of mass treason convictions in Minya after a 20-minute trial (despite the newspaper reports); nor that the unfortunate Shaaymah al-Sebbagh was shot by a riot policeman (despite the film of the incident on YouTube).

But what I found most striking was the widespread belief that western governments and the western press support the Muslim Brotherhood. I think the Manichean binarism of chaos and order has become a filter for virtually all information and opinion. It isn’t possible, ultimately, for a western journalist or leader to condemn human rights infractions by the Eyptian army or government, without ‘being’ a supporter of their Islamist nemesis. You’re either with us or against us. All sorts of straws are adduced, meetings at State Department, the toleration of Brotherhood supporters in western capitals. But I found it hard to begin to get my head round the belief that our governments support violent Islamist extremism.

The opposite is true, whatever one may think of the actual policies that shape western actions. The opposite is true, and how could it be otherwise? All the countries of western Europe are struggling with their own blowback from the Syrian-Iraqi wars and are desperate for Arab support in their reactions there. In Egypt, they find an uncompromising military government which is determined to break the Islamist insurgency, and of course they support that.

The problem is one of method and style. At home in Europe we agonise, with endless argument, over how to confront Islamic militancy within a framework of human rights. In the Middle East there are fewer scruples about that framework, and this is a problem for our press and governments. Imprisoned journalists, mass treason convictions, wholesale killings and dead teenagers don’t prevent the west supporting General Sisi—they just make it uncomfortable and embarrassing. Writing in The Guardian this week, Ian Black is closer to the mark:

Sisi did not have to wait long for western approval after he was elected to replace Morsi. In the last year his government has worked hard to burnish his and Egypt’s image. The growing insurgency in Sinai, now linked directly to Islamic State (ISIS) has helped too. Sisi was feted when he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

That the Muslim Brotherhood is a violent organisation bent on overthrowing the Egyptian state (for starters) is quite clear. It is also profoundly dishonest and speaks with a decidedly forked tongue, as this screen-grab of two rather contradictory and simultaneous ‘official’ Brotherhood tweets (assuming it to be genuine) demonstrates: in English (@Ikhwanweb) the writer is all condolence for the dead soldiers’ families and soft soap, “We unequivocally condemn all acts of violence.” In Arabic (@IkhwanwebAr) he talks of “settling accounts for the blood of martyrs and prisoners,” and “the revolutionary reckoning awaiting tyrants.” Odd twittery bedfellows.

But there does seem to be a marked reluctance to let the truth do the heavy lifting and drive out the lies. Peter Greste of Al-Jazeera was released this week after 400 days in prison for reporting the Brotherhood. Part of a foreign—in this case Qatari—plot. His detention did infinitely more damage to Egypt than his ephemeral reporting, which would have been forgotten in 24 hours. I am not clear whether he has blue eyes.

I was pondering all this when I saw the papers at breakfast last Sunday, from which I take the two Brotherhood tweets. Something else was also very striking, the appropriation of the language and discourse of the Tahrir revolution. Al-Bawaba (outside whose Mossadeq Street offices there was reportedly a bomb earlier in the week) headlines in Arabic, against a background of army camouflage-fatigue, KULINA GEISH, ‘we are all Army.’

Quite legitimate (after all, half Europe is Charlie, and most of Jordan is Muadh), but a strange and uncomfortable echo of KULINA KHALED SAID, the website that laid much of the groundwork for the revolution in 2010-11 by focusing national identification with an Egyptian boy beaten to death by police. Perhaps even more amazing is the smaller strapline above, which says ASH-SHA’AB YURID MAGLIS HARB—‘the people want a Council of War.’ Amazing not for its sentiment, but because it picks up the urgent rhythm and words of the chants in Tahrir Square and on marches in Janaury 2011, ASH-SHA’AB YURID ISQAT AN-NIZAM, ‘the people want the fall of the regime.’

This is the insistent rhythm of the revolution, words chanted across the streets and squares of the Arab World in 2011, but tracing their origins to the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi and the first national anthem of independent Tunisia. It is hard to imagine protest in North Africa without this chant, and its assertive claim to ownership of the Will of the People. As Elliott Colla wrote of its universality a couple of years ago, “The logic of repertoire says nothing about the coherence or truthfulness of these claims – it respects only success. Given the success of popular claim-making, no party to the revolution can afford not to speak in the name of the people, and it is unlikely that this slogan will disappear anytime soon.”

It hasn’t. And it has become a part of the gathering solidarity of Egyptians behind their leader and the struggle against violent disorder. They have seen what that ideologically driven government brings, and they don’t like it. (Nor does any civilised person, anywhere.) One can only sympathise, while hoping that it will gradually become easier to focus a little more exclusively on the bad guys. Kulina geish, indeed.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in February, 2015.

Country or region:  Morocco Topics:  Culture
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How to bid goodbye to Lenin in Ukraine

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 14:27

When talking about present day Ukraine and its new 'historical' laws, we need to think beyond ‘identity’ and ‘history’.


During Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, Ukraine was systematically presented with an ideological choice between two Ts: Tabachnyk (Dmytro) and Tyahnybok (Oleh). That is to say, between Ukrainophobia thinly masked by Soviet nostalgia on the one hand, and parochial ethnic nationalism on the other. The space for a third way of thinking was consciously limited, and society was mechanically divided along linguistic lines and symbols, which were, in turn, routinely instrumentalised during election campaigns. 

In this sense, the discussion about the ‘historical’ laws recently passed by the Verkhovna Rada has given me a strong sense of déjà vu. It’s as if we’re being forced back into this logic of ‘choice without a choice’.

What has the Ukrainian Parliament voted for? 

On 9 April 2015, the Verkhovna Rada voted for four ‘historical’ or ‘de-Communising’ laws: 

1) on recognising members of various Ukrainian political organisations (including members of the war-time and post-war nationalist underground) as ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence’;

2) on celebrating victory over Nazism in the Second World War (1939–1945), establishing 8 May as Day of Memory and Reconciliation, and maintaining 9 May as Victory Day;

3) on creating open access to archives of the Communist regime (1917–1991) and the transfer of all relevant documents to a new archive based at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory;

4) on condemning the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes, banning the propaganda of their symbols (with potential criminal prosecution for preparing and using these symbols; re-naming of towns and streets carrying the names of high-ranking Soviet officials). 

The politics of these new laws is clear: they draw a symbolic dividing line between post-Maidan Ukraine and Putin’s Russia. This division is supposedly drawn not in terms of language or religious identification, but an attitude to the Soviet past – glorified in Russia, condemned in Ukraine.

Goodbye Lenin 

Traditionally, in post-Soviet Ukraine, it is the local authorities who take the lead (and have the appropriate powers) when dealing with questions of history such as erecting (or dismantling) monuments and re-naming streets.

This has led to serious differences in the country’s symbolic landscape. Back in the early 1990s, Lenin monuments and street names were replaced with figures from the national (and nationalistic canon) in eastern Galicia (often mistaken for the entire West Ukraine). The rest of Ukraine experienced much less change in this regard. In the center of Kyiv, one Lenin monument on the Maidan was dismantled in 1991, the other – in front of the Bessarabs’kyi market – survived until 8 December 2013.

Indeed, it was this Lenin monument in Kyiv which became the first victim of the ‘Leninopad’ movement – the destruction of Lenin monuments all over Ukraine (usually perfomed at night by unidentified activists using right-wing symbols).

Slovyansk, Ukraine: this monument to Lenin is covered in the national colours of Ukraine. (c) Olga Ivashchenko / Demotix.

During the ‘Leninopad’, more than 500 monuments to Lenin were dismantled in Ukraine. Seventeen hundred monuments to the leader of the October revolution remain. One could say that the newly adopted laws are designed to legitimise the ongoing process of dismantling Lenin. 

Insurgent army 

With a history including anti-Jewish violence and the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volhynia in 1943, the legal status of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) underground is no less difficult.

The local memory of eastern Galicia, as well as the national historical narrative, concentrates on the struggle of the UPA against Soviet rule (continuing into the 1950s), and the severe Soviet repressions in response. More than once, the Ukrainian parliament has failed to grant the status of war veterans to the nationalist combatants (the last attempt came after EuroMaidan).

One could argue that the newly adopted law proposes a kind of ‘compromise’ by granting UPA veterans the special status of ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence’, but refusing to give them the same social privileges as Soviet veterans.

October 2014: supporters of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) rally in downtown Kyiv. (c) Oleg Pereverzev / Demotix.

Aside from political considerations and historiographic battles, it is hard to overlook numerous legal problems with the adopted laws. In particular, the lack of clarity over the concept of ‘propaganda’ and its potential for abuse; the absence of a clear list of symbols which should be banned; the unjustifiably harsh punishment for preparation and use of banned symbols (up to five years in prison) and so on. 

Legal experts have claimed that these ‘historical’ laws could lead to serious limitations on the freedom of expression. Moreover, they violated the Constitution of Ukraine and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Regardless, President Poroshenko signed all the laws, and then announced their further improvement. 

Déjà vu 

In the debate over the adopted laws, there was a tendency to over-emphasise the dangers of ‘de-Communisation’ in Western publications, and to minimise or even neglect it in the domestic Ukrainian debate. Among historians, two clear camps have formed, and they (to paraphrase Mikhail Zoshchenko) have ‘expressed their ideology to the fullest.'

At times, as people condemn whichever ideological project they see fit depending on party affiliation, the discussion between those who support and those who oppose ‘de-Communisation’ (a term used to mean both the laws passed and a broader – yet indistinct – ideological project) recalls only parallel Komsomol meetings, 

Indeed, there was something oddly familiar in both sides’ approach to this issue: the notion of the historian as doctor who has to prescribe society medicine against Communism or nationalism.

With the ban on the KPU in the background, May Day in Kyiv was tense. (c) Stas Kozlyuk / Demotix.

What’s more, both sides of the ideological barricade depend on one another. They need each other so they can put their opponent into a clearly defined ideological box, using that pigeon-holing as leverage for moral superiority and social capital. 

In Western academia, this can still be accomplished easily by exploiting the stereotypical image of Eastern Europe as a territory riven by political anarchy, economic backwardness and ethnic nationalism. In Ukraine, you can play off a feeling of insufficient empathy on the part of the ‘Western world’ – their numerous prejudices and defensive reactions.

By echoing these sentiments, it is not particularly hard to earn the reputation of a patriot and a person of firm convictions. These two seemingly antagonistic ideological positions co-exist perfectly. By unmasking each other, they mutually support and fuel each other.

For instance, in the heat of the moment, a striking similarity between ‘anti-Donetsk’ or ‘anti-Galician’ logic often goes unnoticed. Both narratives posit a ruined ideal (either European or Orthodox, depending on your ideological position) and a crudely simplified image of the imagined opposing group (‘Galicians’, ‘residents of the Donbas’). Likewise, each group is separated by ‘identity’ or ‘values’, which it supposedly imposes on the rest of Ukraine aggressively, thereby preventing the country from ‘normalising’.

To me, this image of Ukraine seems not only discriminatory and destructive, but unattractive and far removed from social and cultural realities. Asserting that all those who support the ‘rehabilitation of UPA’ or the ‘preservation of Lenin monuments’ share the ideology of integral nationalism or Marxism-Leninism (or at least have a notion of what they are) seriously simplifies the unique pluralism of contemporary Ukraine.

What is even more problematic, though, is that the Ukrainian public sphere still lacks criticism of integral nationalism and its symbolism seen from democratic, pluralistic viewpoints, rather than from the perspective of the ‘Russian world’ or the ‘Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people’.

Ukraine lacks a critique of the Communist narrative, which doesn’t elicit suspicion of the author’s narrowly nationalist outlook. It is crucial for such criticism to refrain from totalitarian ideological connotations. It is no less important, in my opinion, to abstain as historian from coming across as arrogant and to avoid a patronising and self-righteous tone. 


Hence the need for responsible contextualisation. The attempts to deny, minimise, or justify the massacres of Poles in Volhynia (a territory on the current Polish-Ukrainian border) in 1943 is but one painful example of the necessity for good history

The history of the Ukrainian nationalist underground cannot be reduced to Volhynia, but it’s impossible to tell that history responsibly without it. This is all the more true given that the history of this planned ethnic cleansing can (and, in my opinion, should) be analysed not through the categories of ethnic accusations, but in the context of serious research on how situations of violence arise, the dynamics that govern them. 

Not only does reducing the Volhynia question to collective ethnic accusations lack heuristic potential, but it can even lead to political misunderstandings, which are tragicomic at best. 

Take, for example, Vadym Kolesnichenko (a Rada deputy from the Party of Regions). In 2013, Polish kresy [borderlands] organisations awarded a prize to Kolesnichenko after he publicly declared the Volhynian massacre ‘genocide’. It’s unfortunate that, before celebrating this odious figure, the Polish kresy enthusiasts did not ask him about the perpetrators of the Katyń massacre – the organised shooting of Polish officers by the NKVD in 1941. (They would have gotten quite an interesting answer.) 

April 2015: people march in central Warsaw in memory of the Polish officers killed at Katyn. (c) Celestino Arce / Demotix.

We need to realise just how fraught the risks of selective ethnicisation are. This is a phenomenon that is flourishing in the public sphere currently. In the context of the victory over Nazism, the Kremlin emphasises the ‘deciding role’ played by the Russian nation, but when talking about the artificial famine of 1932–33, they point to the ‘multinational’ makeup of the Politburo. 

Selective ethnicisation is by no means the sole prerogative of Vladimir Putin. To take a Ukrainian example: on the one hand, several Ukrainian media outlets have portrayed Ukrainians serving in the Red Army as the liberators of Auschwitz, but, on the other, the very same media identified the Red Army soldiers involved in the mass rapes perpetrated during the war as Russians. 

How to deal with the Soviet past?

Discussing the ‘de-Communisation’ laws presents us all with a truly difficult question: How should we deal with the Soviet past?

In my opinion, we need to come to understand the heterogeneity and inconsistencies of the past – which in no way calls the criminal character of the Soviet regime into question. Here, it’s also important to think about the problem of contemporary ignorance and incomprehension. 

Currently, the question of renaming Dnipropetrovsk (after Grigory Petrovsky, a leading Bolshevik and the head of the Soviet Ukrainian government during the 1930s) is being hotly debated. Much less is being said about Dnipropetrovsk residents’ almost complete ignorance of who Petrovsky was. Is it important to know about Petrovsky in order to condemn Communist crimes? How important is it to know that, by contrast, it was the Soviet authorities who erected a monument to the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko in L’viv and popularised his works, while, on the other hand, censoring Franko and adapting him to the demands of ‘constructing Communism’?

The interconnection of (not) knowing and condemning, the means and methods of disseminating knowledge, the phenomenon of aestheticising political evil and the ‘forbidden fruit’ – this is far from an exhaustive list of subjects, which are practically absent from the current discussion in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in the international discussion, there is much being written about whether ‘history’, ‘memory’ and ‘identity’ are the main causes of Maidan, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. Identity and history are brought up much more frequently than the desire for political freedoms, corruption, economic problems, group pressure, the behavior of local elites, or the makeup of subversive groups.

Are we capable of thinking about Ukraine beyond identity, historical memory and the clash of civilisations? Maidan, among other things, became a way for society as a whole to reject constructed divisions, previously presented to us as insurmountable and primordial. In this sense, Maidan emphasised something far from sensational: in contemporary Ukraine, the language used for everyday communication does not automatically equal ethnic identification and political loyalty.

Nevertheless, instead of looking for appropriate and dynamic methods for analysing the realities of Maidan and the post-Maidan era, a significant number of analysts remained loyal to the familiar, stereotypical paradigms of ‘two Ukraines’ and ‘ethnic zones’. 

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas are still more frequently described using the categories of identity and historical rights rather than through a careful analysis of the behaviour of key actors (above all, local elites and the Russian intervention).

Beyond identity

The persistence of the ideologically coloured language of identity can be felt acutely in the Ukrainian, Russian, English, Polish and German language discussions of Maidan and its consequences. The social, economic, generational, educational and gender-related aspects of Ukrainian society are frequently neglected, and Russian interference is explained through the ‘provocative’,‘imprudent’, or simply ‘nationalist’ policies of Kyiv, in keeping with the logic of ‘blame the victim’. 

At the same time, the Ukrainian public sphere (not without the participation of renowned writers and journalists) continues to revive the discriminatory notions of a ‘hopelessly Sovietised’ Donbas.

Ukraine needs a new analytical language to describe itself and to be described. The existing schemes are too narrow for such a complex society. In our search for this new language, we should remember an important point by Rory Finnin: ‘heterogeneity and contestation are not necessarily a sign of weakness, nor are homogeneity and consensus always a sign of strength.’

Finally, we also need to analyse ‘identity-talk’ by various social actors rather than positing ‘identity’ as the main reason for social action. Proper contextualisation, as well as cross-regional and transnational perspectives, could bring important insights.

Editor’s note: The first version of this piece was originally published by Krytyka.

Sideboxes Sidebox: 


Kresy: Borderland territories formerly part of Poland, now lying in Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. 

Dmytro Tabachnyk: Minister of Education (2010-2014), famous for his sympathy for Russian imperial/Soviet versions of history.

Oleh Tyahnybok: Leader of the far right Svoboda party.

Related stories:  Media serfdom in Ukraine Requiem for EuroMaidan Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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The elephant in the room at Riga

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 12:18

Russia was everywhere and nowhere at the recent Eastern Partnership summit in Riga.


The Eastern Partnership summit, which took place last week in Riga, confirmed the expectation that the EU would not make any new important commitments to its Eastern European partners. Georgia and Ukraine are no doubt disappointed as the summit did not signal that an accession roadmap is on the horizon. While the new central and eastern member states were eager to scale up the EU’s ambitions, Germany took off the table the promise of future membership.

In its relations with the eastern neighbours, traditionally the EU has focused on technocratic co-operation in the areas of democracy, rule of law or economy. However, in Riga, addressing the geopolitical situation in the eastern neighborhood was clearly more important for German chancellor Merkel than upgrading the Eastern Partnership. Even though the EU sent a clear message to its eastern partners that it is committed to helping them, it also stressed that the Eastern Partnership is not a tool for ‘conquering’ the region. Thus, the outcome of the summit was limited to a series of uncontroversial issues, which do not strain even more the already tense relationship with Russia.


The last few months have seen both Russia and the West reverting to Cold War rhetoric. Since the signing of the Minsk agreement in February, fighting has continued in the Donbas region, albeit with lower intensity.

Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Russia earlier this month is a sign that the US is understanding that further isolating Moscow can escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is also recognition of the fact that sanctions have not yet yielded the desired effect – that Russia would change course – and that a conflictual attitude is deepening Putin’s publicly expressed fears whilst fuelling Russian nationalism. Putin’s increasingly cosy friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping has also had an impact on the shift in US foreign policy.

The seemingly appeasing attitude of the EU towards Moscow comes in the context of the US softening its criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. EU sanctions have had a significant impact on the Russian economy but have not managed to constrain Moscow’s engagement in the conflict in Ukraine.

The prospects for maintaining the EU sanctions regime against Russia are also bleak as Moscow will try to use Greece, Cyprus or Hungary as Trojan horses. Hence, the EU is now seeking to establish a nuanced relationship with Russia.

Moscow will try to use Greece, Cyprus or Hungary as Trojan horses.

Conflicts in the EU’s eastern neighborhood

Geopolitical considerations saw the summit visibly adopting a cautious attitude towards the conflicts in the eastern neighborhood, including the annexation of Crimea.

The joint declaration adopted at the summit contains merely symbolic language regarding the need to foster peace and stability in the region. Due to Belarus and Armenia’s reservations, Crimea and Russia appear only once in different parts of the declaration. No criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine or its annexation of Crimea is present in the text.

However, in Riga, EU leaders came to the conclusion that the Eastern Partnership is not an adequate tool for solving the conflicts in the eastern neighborhood. Rather than providing viable solutions, the Eastern Partnership has ignited Russian fears and deepened disagreements between some of the eastern neighbours. For example, in the past, Azerbaijan criticised the EU’s decision to recognise the breach of sovereignty in Crimea and eastern Ukraine but not in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Riga summit did not provide any clear solutions to these concerns but postponed them to a future date.

Two-tier Eastern Partnership

While the summit took off the table the prospect of future membership, it reinforced the idea of differentiation and introduced a two tier approach in the Eastern Partnership. From now on the EU will focus most of its efforts on strengthening the relationship with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus will be secondary priorities.

Geopolitics did not take the stage completely in Riga. The success of the EU’s technocratic approach was praised as the DCFTAs [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area] signed last year with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have led to increased trade. The most important achievement of the summit is the launch of the facility for Small and Medium Enterprises within the DCFTAs. This will provide around two billion euros in investments for the three DCFTA countries.

The issue of corruption, which affects all six eastern partners, was noticeably ignored. In spite of the EU’s financial support during the last years, for strengthening the rule of law, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia are still lagging behind in building effective democratic institutions. The EU’s silence on this issue is a result of the fact that most pro-European leaders in the three countries control corrupt political systems and starkly resist change. In Riga, European leaders underlined that the Eastern Partnership does not aim to interfere with these countries’ choice of political system or ideology.

The issue of corruption, which affects all six eastern partners, was noticeably ignored.

Energy security

The summit recognised Russia’s crucial role in the EU’s energy security. The debate shifted from the hitherto need to diversify EU’s energy suppliers, and help the eastern neighbours to become more independent from Russia. Here, the EU toned down its ambitions and now merely sees itself as a mediator in energy negotiations between Ukraine or Moldova and Russia.

The EU also made it clear that in the present context, its interest in co-operating with Azerbaijan and Armenia centres around their energy reserves. Co-operation with these countries on other issues such as the rule of law or democracy promotion is not a major priority for the EU. 

Geopolitics versus technocratic politics

The emphasis on geopolitics at the Riga summit is a result of the acknowledgment that the EU’s technocratic approach towards Russia and the eastern partners has largely failed. The only measurable success has been in the area of economic co-operation, where the DCFTAs have led to increased trade volumes with Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Yet the softened attitude towards Moscow is unlikely to have a significant impact on the course of events in eastern Ukraine. Even if the EU sought to reassure Russia of its non-hegemonic intentions, the economic models offered by the European Union and the Eurasian integration project are still mutually exclusive. This situation is likely to remain unchanged and create further tensions in the short term.

In order to manage these tensions, and construct a more geopolitical approach that is effective, the EU has to develop new tools and mechanisms. The much awaited revision of the broader ENP will hopefully present the range of tools that allow the EU to manage the complex and tense geopolitical situation in the Eastern neighborhood.

The EU will have to be more upfront about its interests in the post-Soviet space, and not merely disguise them behind the mantra of a technocratic promotion of democracy or rule of law. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  European integration: is it still the dream it once was? Ukraine’s European integration Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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And on the seventh day, Cameron created a 7-day NHS

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 11:55

David Cameron's proposals for a seven day NHS could have unintended consequences.

Image: Wikimedia

“We can become the first country in the world to deliver a truly 7-day NHS”, David Cameron used his ‘first major speech’ of his brand new Conservative majority government to tell us.

It sounds appealing - but does it stand up to scrutiny, or is it just more spin from the former spin doctor?

With 5 years of unconstrained power ahead of him, Cameron will now be expected to deliver on this key Tory manifesto promise.

If Cameron really wants to achieve a 7-day NHS he needs a 7 point plan.

1. Get the 5 days right first.

If the government wants to make the NHS work safely and efficiently 7 days a week, then it might be a good idea to get the 5 days of Monday-Friday working well beforehand. At the moment the NHS is in dire financial straits – and its demoralised doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are leaving or retiring early. What was the adage Cameron likes to use – fix the roof while the sun is shining? Well the sun isn’t shining much in the NHS these days - but you certainly need to fix the roof Mr Cameron, and pretty sharpish.

2. Invest in your NHS staff

Nurses got years of 0% or (at best) 1% pay increases during the coalition years. They effectively ‘donated’ over £1.5bn a year of unpaid overtime to keep the NHS afloat amidst the cuts. They were pilloried for failures that were not of their making. Blamed for scandals that were often due to hospitals chasing Foundation Trust status at all costs, their eye only on the bottom line. Many health professionals are becoming unwell now because they cannot give any more to the job they love. The number of nurses off with stress soared by up to 48% last year.

How are they going to feel now the government tells them that in a 24/7 NHS it will be “archaic” to pay supplements for working “unsocial hours”? Many nurses rely on these payments to boost their stagnating income.

3. Get your workforce planning sorted

Cameron claimed last week that “We are training and hiring many more GPs right now”. But in fact one third of GP training places are empty. And one in three GPs plan to retire in the next 5 years, leading to a workforce time bomb fuelled by 5 years of unpopular NHS policies and huge cuts (known as ‘efficiency savings’).

4. Sort out social care and community healthcare

The huge cuts to local authorities has meant social care being cut to the bone, with budgets being slashed by up to 35%. Many elderly and vulnerable patients are being left alone or with haphazard 10 minute visits from zero-hour contract workers who have to dash from client to client in order to make any sort of living. These patients are becoming increasingly unwell and needing more NHS care. Inadequate community healthcare services (district nurses have been cut by 40% in 5 years) mean they languish in hospital beds, unable to be discharged safely to the community.

5. End the dog eat dog competitive market in the NHS

We are wasting billions annually on administering an unwanted healthcare market where providers fight each other for contracts and NHS managers spend their lives refereeing and sorting this all out. No one (except the private health industry) has asked for this. The money saved from scrapping this market system could fund decent social care for all the elderly and vulnerable people in our society.

6. Make all NHS services available 7 days a week

But tell us – as Cameron has so far refused to – what it would cost. Doing it properly would cost billions. As a GP if I see a patient on a Saturday or a Sunday I need the full range of services available to me in order to treat my patients effectively. I need a fully functioning hospital laboratory with blood collection services twice a day over the weekend. I need access to NHS physiotherapy for my patients with urgent musculoskeletal problems. I need access to health visitors to refer children needing their input. I need access to a fully functioning radiology department offering x-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound and other investigations.

7. Beware of the unintended consequences

Increasing the NHS to a full 7 day service will increase demand – and therefore cost. Cameron’s promised ‘extra’ £8bn would merely plug one small gap in the black hole opening up at the centre of the Department of Health. To stretch already overstretched services more thinly will lead to a poorer service in coming years – and no doubt, the electorate to blame the government for a failing NHS. Cameron may have already said he will be leaving Downing Street before 2020, but is this really the legacy he will want to leave for his successor?

A 7 day NHS service is attractive to patients and attractive to politicians seeking votes. But no other western health economy has managed to provide it, as Cameron said himself. With the NHS already struggling many really doubt this government can do it properly. I hope it won’t be imposed on already beleaguered NHS staff and they are forced to provide the 7 day service against their professional advice.

Be careful of what you wish for Mr Cameron and Mr Hunt. This one could come back and bite you very hard indeed.


Categories: les flux rss

Towards a new municipal agenda in Spain

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 10:56

What the Spanish media ignore about this new generation of activist-politicians is why they became famous enough to put on a ballot in the first place: their roots in prominent local struggles and their willingness to spearhead radical democratic participation.

On Sunday, May 24th, the two parties that have ruled Spain since the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s were dealt yet another substantial blow, this time in regional and municipal elections. Nationwide, the ruling Popular Party saw support fall from the nearly 11 million votes they received in 2011 to just under 6 million this year. But while much has been written about the impact emerging parties like the anti-austerity Podemos or the right-wing Ciudadanos have had on the established parties, what makes Sunday’s results so remarkable is not what those parties did on their own, but what happened between several political actors at the municipal level.

In Barcelona, the prominent anti-evictions activist Ada Colau won the city’s mayoral race. In Madrid, once a stronghold of the Popular Party, the former judge Manuela Carmena also has a chance to govern, depending on whether her platform and the deteriorating Socialist party are willing to strike a deal. In the four largest cities, it is quite possible that the mayor will belong to neither of the two major parties. The same is true in Galicia’s major cities, Santiago and A Corunha. In Cádiz, Spain’s unemployment capital, another new, anti-austerity platform finished a close second.

Much of the right-wing Spanish press is already attributing these spectacular results to a cult of personality around the people leading these platforms, accompanied by the typical references to populism and Venezuela, with an occasional shout-out to North Korea for extra flavour (as if the resort to these arguments weren’t the epitome of populist rhetoric). What they ignore is why those faces became famous enough to put on a ballot in the first place: their roots in prominent local struggles, their independence with respect to the established parties and their willingness to spearhead bottom-up processes seeking a confluence between new or smaller parties, community organisations and political independents around a set of common objectives determined through radical democratic participation.

The Spanish hub of the Doc Next Network’s Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons project has been documenting this process since it began, through video and other media. Below, you can see a helpful infographic that shows just some of the ingredients with which the new municipalist candidacies Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid) and Barcelona En Comù (Barcelona in Common) cooked up their municipal recipes. They include more obvious reference points like the indignados movement, but also feminist struggles, the copyleft movement or the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, among many others.

Radical municipal politics is not an altogether new concept, especially not in Spain. In Catalonia, the Popular Unity Candidacies of the left-wing independence movement have had a notable presence in smaller towns for several years (they also quadrupled their 2011 results on Sunday, for what it’s worth). At the southern end of the country, the Andalusian village of Marinaleda is a well-documented experiment in utopian communism that has been going on for over three decades now.

In fact, the so-called father of libertarian municipalism, social ecologist Murray Bookchin, was strongly inspired by the Spanish municipal politics of the 19th and early twentieth century, as well as the Swiss Grey Leagues and the New England townships, when he wrote his influential “New Municipal Agenda”. While he hardly intended to prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution—especially not in large urban belts and port cities—in the text, Bookchin outlined four main coordinates: a revival of the citizens’ assembly, the need for confederation with other municipalities, grassroots politics as a school of genuine citizenship and the municipalisation of the economy. Underlying all of these coordinates is “a recovery of a new participatory politics structured around free, self-empowered and active citizens”.

All of these coordinates chime with the program and praxis of the new municipalist candidacies. In the newspaper they handed out as part of their campaign, Barcelona En Comù used almost as much space describing their process (30,000 signatures asking them to run for election, 1,000 campaign volunteers, 200 events organised by self-organised neighbourhood assemblies, 100 meetings with various community organisations in just 10 months of existence) and their vision (“a standard-bearer of social justice and democracy”) as they do outlining their program. The program itself includes 600 measures, ranging from modest but much-needed reforms (e.g., opening up more bike lanes, more social housing), to more radical ones (a guaranteed municipal income, coining a municipal currency).

Several questions remain about the conflict between the ambitions of the new municipalist candidacies and the daunting, path-dependent inertia of an institutional reality that threatens to swallow them whole. Many of those questions are addressed by some of the candidates themselves in the film Municipal Recipes, which you can watch below.

In it, they discuss the thought process that led them to make the jump into the electoral arena, how they hope to care for the city, how to make it liveable, the relationship between citizens, social movements and institutions, and the pitfalls of representative democracy, among other key issues. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a remarkable process. Tellingly, one of the most frequently used words in the film is “tension”. As Pablo Carmona of Ahora Madrid puts it, regardless of whether they achieve something like Bookchin’s New Municipal Agenda, they have opened up “a new model of social conflict” in Spain.

Recetas municipales. Una conversación sobre el cuidado de las ciudades from ZEMOS98 on Vimeo.

(Click CC for English subtitles)

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Categories: les flux rss

Happy Independence Day, Georgia!

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 10:52

Since 1991, Georgia has celebrated Independence Day annually on 26 May. But this national holiday only exposes the gap between elites and the people.


As a rule, Georgians love to bring out the alcohol when it comes to celebrating important dates. Religious or civil, Christmas or International Women’s Day, we uncork the chacha and have a grand old time. Surprisingly, though, Georgians hesitate to devote much ‘emotion’ to 26 May, Independence Day. First coined during the short-lived republic of 1918-1921, Independence Day was left uncelebrated during the Soviet period, only to be revived in the early 1990s.

The reason for people’s reluctance is simple: the majority of Georgians are not emotionally attached to Independence Day. They don’t feel it. In fact, they don’t know what independence is or whether they need it or not. Instead, Independence Day in Georgia is the preserve of a select – and elite – few. Time and again, certain classes attempt to promote 26 May as a significant historical date – without much effect. The reason for their failure is clear: what is important for elites is far from what is important for everyone else.

The birth of the first republic

The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused Georgia to announce independence on 26 May 1918 and thus to establish a republic for the first time in Georgian history – a republic led by the social democratic Menshevik party.

The majority of Georgians are not emotionally attached to Independence Day.

During the first three years of independence, 26 May was celebrated by government as a national holiday. Unfortunately, though, the Menshevik government was exiled to France in February 1921, leaving Georgia to become part of the Soviet Union.

However, both independence and democracy became difficult tasks for Georgia to achieve. A poor, agrarian country with little economic growth and low level of education, Georgia did not have the resources necessary for independence.

The Menshevik political class received sovereignty by chance, and the country unexpectedly announced it. Many scholars now talk about the democratic nature of the first Georgian republic. But it is still difficult to argue that it was a democratic state, for just like independence in 1991, Georgia did not have the resources to establish a truly democratic political order in 1918.

Georgian troops deployed in Iraq celebrate Independence Day in Baghdad on 26 May 2006. Photo: CC Jason Dangel

Independence Day was thus lost for 70 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But when Georgia again announced its independence in 1991, 26 May re-emerged in public discourse, prompting new patterns of memory in public life.

Over the past 25 years, 26 May has been used to celebrate not only independence, but, unsurprisingly, nationalism too. And Georgian nationalists have their idiosyncrasies. On the one hand, they glorify 26 May and, on the other, demonise the Social Democratic government – the political group, which announced Georgian independence. They dislike their cosmopolitan views, both in terms of politics and social issues.

Apart from its symbolic dimension (the ‘revival’ of the Georgian nation), 26 May is utilised as a political instrument by nationalists and apologists of liberal nationalism to maintain anti-Russian sentiments in Georgia. Sadly for Georgians, they see independence as a kind of cultural symbol, a tool against the ‘enemy’. There is no perception of independence as a tool for achieving consensually determined social and political goals.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was accompanied by the emergence of a new and independent Georgia ruled by former dissidents. Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, these former dissidents appeared to be unprepared for accepting and understanding sovereignty. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former political prisoner and writer, revived romantic nationalism as our national ideology, where the supremacy of national symbols was more important for Georgian political life than pragmatic ideas, debates or the practice of rational politics.

Romantic nationalism contributed not only to ethnic conflicts, but deeper crises, which made the modern Georgian state even more reluctant to engage in democratic transformation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, 26 May did not mark the beginning of sovereignty and rational political thinking, but was rather just a symbol of romantic nationalism, devoid of pragmatic political significance or aspirations.

Rebirth of the republic

While the revival of Georgian nationalism came to form a constituent part of the Gamsakhurdia era, nationalistic rhetoric and practices were strongly internalised by the political system set up by Mikheil Saakashvili.

Indeed, it was Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement who attempted to reprise the nationalistic discourses popular in the early 1990s. Saakashvili’s nationalism was based principally on the construction of a symbolic enemy (Russia), accompanied by militaristic anti-Abkhazian and anti-Ossetian rhetoric. Independence Day was thus frequently used by Saakashvili to promote a nationalistic politics, potentially divisive in a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state.

Independence Day was used not only to recall the trauma of Georgia’s ‘Sovietisation’ (and hence deepening anti-Russian hysteria), but also to demonstrate Georgia’s ‘military might’ to Abkhazia and South Ossetia through the organisation of military parades. Under Saakashvili, the country held the largest military parade in its history.

But, unfortunately for Georgia, the nationalistic and militaristic rhetoric of Saakashvili (culminating annually on 26 May) not only hampered the process of democratisation, but deepened conflict and misunderstanding with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Is 26 May an important date for Georgians?

In contrast to the Saakashvili administration, the current government is more hesitant to organise military parades, choosing instead to celebrate Independence Day with cultural events.

While this choice may have provoked certain groups of Georgian nationalists to accuse the coalition of being ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘unworthy’, it has only revealed these groups to be a more irrational and violently aggressive part of society than previously thought. 

Misunderstanding independence

But still, the question remains: is 26 May an important date for Georgians? Or is just a historiographical trick, a marker of nationalist ideology?

If Independence Day is an important date, then why don’t people show more emotions, more commitment? Of course, if people are going to really get the meaning of 26 May, then we need more ‘political education’.

A military parade in Tbilisi during Independence Day celebrations. Photo: CC Kober

Regrettably, Georgians, and especially ‘post-Soviet Georgians’, cannot and do not understand the need for independence. Those groups who do talk about 26 May generally have irrational perceptions of independence – the nationalist cultural and political elites, the liberal political class, and a certain strain of young intellectuals. Indeed, these groups frequently link the date to a vision of the past based on victimisation, rather than using it as a tool for future development.

Apart from generating romantic nationalism, remembering traumas and promoting victimisation, Independence Day is also used by the intellectual class to carnavalise the academic sphere. The various academic events, intellectual gatherings or public meetings organised on 26 May witness ritual performances by intellectuals, to promote their political posiyions and strengthen the position of Georgia as a victim of powerful enemies, with particular focus on Russia.

Usually, the majority of such events or activities concentrate on the traumas of the past. Intellectuals at this carnival, display sensitive dedication when it comes to thinking about the past, yet rarely focusing on the present and future challenges of independence.

Similar to many East European societies, it is elites (both political and cultural) who show devotion to the supremacy of symbols. These symbols strengthen the power of dominant elites, rather than amplify the interests of common people. That’s why in Georgia, a country with poor economic growth, elites expend resources on celebrating their domination and power, rather than freedom in general. Independence Day in Georgia is not a day for the people, it is a day when the state displays its power.

This year, the government of Georgia will spend 1,579,000 lari (£450,000) on celebrating 26 May. The country is currently witnessing serious economic failures. A sizeable part of our society lives in poverty and starvation. Many families are on the threshold of physical survival. This is how post-communist populism functions: subsidising symbols instead of the lives of citizens.

Happy Independence Day, Georgia!

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Slave state: how UK immigration controls create ‘slaves’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 10:51

British immigration controls aren’t working and policies stripping rights from large numbers of migrants are creating a ‘slave’ population in the UK.

The term ‘modern slavery’ is used to describe the terrible reality of some people’s lives, but it is used selectively. Stories of slavery today tend to focus on an ‘evil’ perpetrator and often offer fetishistic descriptions of bondage while neglecting the processes that allow one group of people to dominate another. Historically, chattel slavery has meant much more than the simple ownership of one person by another. To get to the heart of slavery, we must move beyond images of chains and frightened faces and look at how people become victimised and stripped of their humanity.

Slaves are institutionally powerless and perpetually dependent in a capricious world. They are obliged to abide by laws that don’t protect or benefit them, existing in a liminal state between a lost social place and new communities and identities. Slaves are ‘marked’ as different and, as people without rights, can lawfully be rejected and abused. They are not free to make their own choices or work towards their own goals. In declaring many migrants in the UK ‘illegal’ and ‘deportable’, refusing them permission to work, to rent or even to marry, the State has declared them ‘unwanted’ and without personal rights.

Migrants who have lost or been refused leave to remain in the UK are liable to detention, destitution and deportation. Many have been living in the UK as students, visitors, workers and members of settled families but have lost their rights for a variety of reasons. Their visas may have run out or policy changes may have re-branded them as undocumented or irregular. Some may have been asylum seekers refused refugee status, or perhaps they have had their temporary protections withdrawn. Some might have been convicted of criminal offences carrying more than a year’s sentence which, since 2008, has meant automatic deportation. Some may have lived in the UK for most of their lives, embedded in communities where they feel, and are accepted as, ‘British’. For all of them, a Home Office decision denying further right to remain means that they become effectively banished to the fringes of society.

Many migrants in the UK today experience the restraints on freedom that academics have linked to slavery. They are not ‘owned’ and they do not necessarily work unrewarded for the gain of others, yet without rights to support themselves legally and with the threat of detention and deportation hanging over them, they are marked as aliens with no chance to belong.

Immigration detention in the UK is administrative—meaning it results from a bureaucratic rather than a judicial procedure—and indefinite. Drawing on many studies, the recent All Party Parliamentary Inquiry described the damage detention can inflict on already vulnerable people. Detention is promoted as a means of facilitating deportation but, despite the rhetoric, recent official figures show that only 53 percent of detainees leave detention for countries of origin.

Many migrants are released from detention into a British community, put under curfew and monitored by electronic tag. They must often live at specified addresses and almost all will have to sign regularly at Immigration Reporting Centres, from where they can be re-detained without warning. If eligible for ‘Section 4 support’ (Immigration Act 1999), they receive no-choice accommodation and an ‘Azure’ card, a cashless, pre-paid card, worth £36.62 per week in designated shops. Through tags and the Azure card, some 5,000 migrants on Section 4 are surveilled and monitored. Reporting requires migrants to submit themselves to further monitoring and also saves the Home Office the trouble of rounding up potential deportees. In other words, detention is not the end of many migrant stories in the UK. It remains a constant threat even after they have been ‘released’ into the community, and some people are detained and released many times before they are removed..

The pain of this contingent situation is evident from the testimony of Said, a Middle Eastern man released after 20 months in detention:

…I’m not allowed to work and I am reporting every 3 months … and believe me when I go I know they can detain me anytime—they can detain me forever … so I will be in the same circle—if this happens again I don’t know … I thought of finishing my life, to end this suffering…

Consider the experience of Abdul, a young Afghan who was in Local Authority Care as an asylum-seeking child and who worked hard to integrate into British life. Refused asylum as an adult, he is not only rejected as ‘one of us’ but subject to clumsy attempts at deportation to a country he knows little about and where he fears persecution and death.

… we are not sleeping at night we don’t know what to do with our life ‘cos we haven’t got nothing we can’t work we can’t go to college. What we can do – I’m just going to kill myself (bangs table) its really bad – its really difficult to think about this stuff.

This is the ‘hostile environment’ that Theresa May boasts she has created for ‘illegal’ migrants. Living under threat of detention, destitution and deportation, the migrant is ‘everywhere in chains’—chains represented by Section 4 ‘support’, tagging, reporting, immigration raids, illegal employment and a lack of recourse to the law or protection from abuse.

Excluding a group because of their place of birth and heritage is as unethical as stripping rights from any group without the possibility of reprieve or redemption. The privatisation of the control of migrants and with it reliance on remote methods of surveillance brings further concerns. The same companies that profit from the detention, deportation and warehousing of migrants are bidding to run prisons and other formerly public functions. Not only do they profit from keeping people in the system and by failing to resolve cases, they also distance the British government from the messy end of immigration control. As even citizenship in the UK becomes contingent, we should all fight for the rights of people already defined by their lack of rights and their enslavement by the State.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Servants of capitalism Silencing the challenging voices of the global ‘subalterns’ in anti-trafficking discourse Anti-slavery responses should offer solutions not benevolence
Categories: les flux rss

Birthwrong: meet the pranksters celebrating the Jewish diaspora

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 10:17

Discovering a Jewish history that's about more than oppression and genocide. 

Antifascist graffiti on the walls of Marinaleda, a communist village in Andalusia.

Every summer, young Jewish people from around the world go on a free holiday to Israel. Run by a company called 'Taglit-Birthright', the tours aim to “strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel”.

The 10-day trips are funded by the Israeli government and international donors, and have been criticized for promoting a biased view of Israel, ignoring the state's complex history and ongoing human rights abuses. Several alternative tours now exist, offering trips to the West Bank and meetings with Palestinian activists. 

In early 2015 another contender emerged: 'Birthwrong'. Organised by Jewdas, a bunch of radical left-wing pranksters, political commentators and party planners, Birthwrong is “a trip for anyone who's sick of Israel's stranglehold on Jewish culture… [a] fiesta of the oppressed, marginalized and ridiculously, obscenly hopeful."

Birthwrong is simultaneously a criticism, a parody, and a genuine alternative to Birthright and the many other organizations running similarly uncritical Israel tours. We aimed to celebrate life and history in the Jewish diaspora, particularly in Spain. The key principle of the trip was non-zionism, rather than anti-zionism.

We met up in Seville, Spain on the last weekend of April. 523 years earlier the entire Jewish population of Spain – some 300,000 people – were given three months to leave the country, convert to Catholicism, or die. Before 1492, Seville had boasted one of Spain's largest Jewish communities, with at least 25 synagogues. Today, the community consists of 26 families, and their temple is located in a local government building: a small rectangular room.

The 26 Birthwrong participants came from Spain, France, Israel, Brazil, Germany, the USA, and the Jewish ancestral homeland of North London. Over five days, we visited Jewish museums in Seville and Cordoba, wandered around a communist village, met local Jews, saw the sights, and consumed our fair share of tapas and sangria.

There were moments of sadness. As organizer Kerry Lambeth put it, “Often when you say ‘I'm going to go to the Jewish Museum', what that means is 'I'm going to go read about how people killed lots of Jewish people and the Jews were horribly oppressed.'” But among the inevitable stories of pogroms and forced conversions we discovered a Jewish history that was multifaceted, dynamic, and determined to survive.

We learned about the families known as “cryptojews”, who survived the Spanish Inquisition by practicing Catholicism while secretly maintaining Jewish rituals. Their tenacity and creativity was inspiring and often oddly hilarious. Jews made sure their neighbours saw them eating large amounts of pork and shellfish in public, so that they could get away with keeping kosher at home.

They invented Catholic-style saints’ days for Jewish figures, so that they could celebrate Purim and Passover under the guise of worshipping “St Esther” and “St Moses”. Houses in the old Jewish quarter of Seville were built with narrow slits for windows, to make it more difficult for nosy neighbours or Inquisition spies to spot a family lighting candles on a Friday night. 

Some Spanish Jews turned to piracy and privateering, seeing an opportunity to get rich and to take revenge on the country that had oppressed them. Jewish pirates operated in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, frequently causing trouble for the Spanish state. In 1628, much of the Spanish royal treasury was stolen by a fleet of pirate ships led by a gentleman of fortune named Moses Cohen Henriques.

We also found out about Jewish volunteers in the anti-fascist International Brigades, who travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War of 1936-39. Around 25 percent of the International Brigades were Jews, many of them from Poland, North America and the UK. 

But the trip wasn't all about Jewish history, all the time. We also shared travel stories and family dramas, told activist anecdotes, talked about philosophers Judith Butler and Maimonides, the homoerotic poetry of medieval rabbis, Shakespeare, Clapton football club, gay Jewish weddings, undercover policing, the failures of the British electoral system, ways to destroy capitalism, and the difficulty of finding vegan tapas. Someone proposed filling an entire synagogue with plastic balls in order to create a “ball shul”.

Music was a constant presence on the trip. Participants had brought a guitar, a fiddle, a ukulele, and some truly astounding singing voices. We sang English protest songs, Spanish antifascist marches, Hebrew prayers, Yiddish love songs, a song about pickled cucumbers and something called “Oy Vey, Carmela”.

The organizers of Birthwrong were keen to point out that the key aim of the trip was to celebrate the diaspora, rather than to spend our time discussing Israel and Zionism. Some argued that we should try to avoid talking about Israel at all. But the topic cropped up anyway, sometimes directly, sometimes as an unspoken subtext – for surely it’s impossible to talk about a diaspora without talking about a homeland. 

We discussed the pressure within the Jewish community to toe the line on Israel, and the common assumption that Judaism equals Zionism. Kerry Lambeth “converted to Judaism for religious, feminist reasons,” and found it “baffling” that she was expected to take on Zionism as part of the package: “even aside from what [Israel is] doing as a state… why are we so involved, as a religion, with this separate nation-state that’s not where we live?”

Many Birthwrongers spoke about difficult relationships with pro-Israel family members. “When I went to Palestine,” reflected organizer Annie Cohen, “I felt really betrayed, it was a very big political explosion, and it created tension with people that I love... [I] came back wanting to say ‘oh my God, this is what’s happening there’... and no one really wanted to listen. It really put me off [Jewish life], and I went into a bit of a Jewish hiatus. So for me, Jewdas has been discovering people who feel similarly... there’s an idea that the Palestinians are now the most ‘Jewish’ people, in the understanding of Jews as anybody who is othered, anybody who is persecuted, anybody who is unsettled, doesn’t have a home, exiled... and Jewdas have embodied that.” 

This is the ideal at the heart of Birthwrong’s challenge to Birthright. Birthright says we need Israel, that we are entitled to Israel, that we must support Israel. Birthwrong insists that we celebrate the diaspora, that we focus on social justice, that we show solidarity with all oppressed and dispossessed people. 

Political Zionism tells us that the answer to anti-Semitism is not community self-defence, or education, or activism. We don’t need to make alliances with others oppressed by white supremacy, or build interfaith initiatives to counter the tensions between Jews and Muslims. No – when it all gets too much, we can just move to Israel.

We just need to switch sides, become the majority rather than the minority, the oppressor rather than the oppressed. The homeland is waiting for us! If we have the money to move from one country to another. If we have passports. If we are not of sub-Saharan African descent. Because, we're told, Israel is our Birthright, and Palestinian land is ours to take.

But diaspora Jewish life is not, and never has been, merely a Zionist waiting-room constantly threatened by oppression and death. In spite of anti-Semitism, in spite of violence and exile and repeatedly attempted genocide, in spite of all the many tensions within the Jewish community, we can look back on thousands of years of vibrant diaspora history and look around us to see vibrant diaspora culture in the present. The Jewish diaspora is made up of art, music, literature, food, philosophy, jokes, migration, piracy, socialism, faith, atheism, practicality, self-sacrifice, creativity, social justice. And all these things – possibly excepting piracy – could be found on Birthwrong. 

The one drawback of Birthwrong was its limited size: many people on the trip already knew each other, and held very similar opinions. Political echo chambers are great for building a sense of solidarity and community, but less effective at making change in the outside world.

If Birthwrong is to present a real challenge to Birthright and Zionist tourism, it needs to grow. It needs to advertise on university campuses and be promoted in Jewish community centres. It needs funding. It needs to reach people who do not share its views, and people who are not sure what their views are yet. 

But the very existence of an organization which celebrates and promotes diaspora Jewishness from a left-wing perspective - as Birthright aims to celebrate and promote Israel from a right-wing nationalist perspective - is a game changer. Through organizations like Birthwrong that we can discover and celebrate a Jewish history that isn’t only focused on oppression and genocide.

Through Birthwrong we can reject the idea that Jewish unity and survival depends on violent, racist nationalism. And then we can work together for a Jewish future that is radical, inclusive, and liberating.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Collective memory, collective trauma, collective hatred Why I am an anti-Zionist Jew The flute at the checkpoint: music and confinement in Palestine Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

When internationalization causes more harm than good

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 9:00

Focusing on the practicalities of internationalization neglects a vital and thorny question: is going global really in the interests of all rights groups? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on internationalizing human rights organizations. Français, Españolالعربية

Beyond a small club of human rights elites, identifying the organizations that should and could enlist as part of a global movement—sharing organizational identities, voicing consistent messages, and campaigning through the same channels—is difficult. Why? Because internationalization can often do more harm than good, as the example of India’s human rights arena makes clear.

The case for making human rights advocacy more representative is undeniable, and three models for doing so have emerged from the discussion so far: decentralization (the shift eastwards and southwards); franchising (the creation of local hubs from the ground up); and partnership (linkages between groups at the domestic and international levels). Each approach offers several benefits, and they lend the experience, resources and reach accrued by INGOs to domestic groundswells of activity.

But the call for a global movement of NGOs by NGOs makes the assumption that linking local and international groups arm in arm is unproblematic. Doing so obscures the enormous diversity of the human rights community when, in fact, this heterogeneity is central. The differences reflect carefully considered choices about identity, strategy and reach on the part of rights groups, and these distinctions make clear that internationalization is not for everyone.

In India the press, official reports and academic literature each list a diverse roll call of organizational types, and this plurality is reflected in the ways rights groups identify themselves. The terms used vary from “community group”, “social movement” and “civil-society organization”, to “quasi-governmental body”, “charity”, “research institute” and “grassroots campaign”—to name but a few. These varying labels capture groups championing the full range of causes—from conflict resolution to conservation—and reflect the distinct models, memberships and means of these groups. The process of internationalization, as Johanna Simeant notes, risks burying these differences behind a single organizational logo; a move that would be fatal to the autonomy, independence and freedom of activity that is at the core of many of these outfits.

Internationalization also carries grave risks. “NGO” and “INGO” are categories laden with baggage: in many jurisdictions they are vilified as foreign-interest groups pursuing ideological, financial and professional agendas. However unjust this demonization may be, linking national groups with global movements often exposes local activists to attack. For example, India’s government recently cancelled the licences of 8,975 NGOs because of their failure to properly declare funds received from abroad. India has waged a long and bitter war against civil society groups and the increasingly networked operations of the country’s NGOs, which have established ties with organizations overseas, has incensed a broad coalition of critics—from cynical corporates to hostile governments—into launching renewed clampdowns.

Flickr/Greenpeace India (Some rights reserved)

A Greenpeace India demonstration in Hyderabad. The increasingly networked operations of India's NGOs, which have established ties with organizations overseas, has incensed a broad coalition of critics.

And internationalization can rarely, if ever, be benign. Partnerships are often asymmetrical trades in which established NGOs buy legitimacy and a local presence in exchange for funds and administrative support. Globalization is not a value-free process; local groups risk having their causes relegated or compromised, and the process may even compromise the effectiveness of large NGOs who risk losing their influence and access to donors by shifting overseas. There is not only a fundamental mismatch between the local needs of domestic groups and the global aspirations of INGOs but, also, the rights arena is both hierarchical and competitive. The process of internationalization could just as much increase these inequalities as reduce them.

Most importantly, however, globalization is an exercise in which power is won and lost. In his article on ActionAid’s successful decentralization Adriano Campolina contends that, “giving up power doesn’t mean having less power”. But, often, this is precisely what is at stake. Links to a local campaign group seeking to indict Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—for his alleged complicity in riots in 2002 in which thousands of Muslims were killed—culminated in the Ford Foundation, which boasts a long and fruitful philanthropic record in India, being placed on the country’s national security watch list.

As laudable as the drive to “go global” is, local rights groups are very often the victims of their circumstances. As Stephen Hopgood rightly highlights, national boundaries can often be hermetic, sealing in the scope and ambitions of rights groups. Internationalization will fail wherever states decide to prevent it and, as the Indian case demonstrates, when doing so governments have numerous tools at their disposal.

Going global is readily presented as an unmitigated good, as a panacea that marks the next phase of human rights advocacy. Indeed it is often cast as an evolutionary process: as inevitable, desirable and necessary for the survival of both local and international groups. This is, no doubt, a compelling and tempting narrative. But, for rights actors, the question becomes one of choosing the right battles, and globalization is, for countless groups, one war too many.

This admission does not set rights advocacy back. Instead, it refocuses attention on an older, alternative strategy: one of attrition, on multiple fronts, mounted at the local, regional and international levels. The rights community should not be too quick to dispense with this. After all, it is an approach that has yielded the impressive gains that we now take for granted. Crucially, reverting to this approach where necessary avoids inflicting the very real harm that comes with assuming that a one-size-fits-all internationalization strategy is the only and ideal one.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 


Related stories:  Coming together, or falling apart? Playing both ends against the middle How do we solve structural inequality in global networks? Internationalization is about more than just advocacy A Geneva Spring? Why civil society needs North-South solidarity A time for change? The future of INGOs in international human rights Decentralizing can make global human rights groups stronger Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy
Categories: les flux rss

Connection lost: the crisis of social democracy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 8:00

Labour's only way forward is not as the champion of either business or the working class, but as a neutral referee in the armistice that is social democracy.


I'm not going to claim to have predicted Cameron's success and Labour's defeat in the general election: that would suggest an expertise in psephology that I don't possess, as well as being in poor taste. I will claim though to have expressed a bad feeling about the way things were going for some years before the disaster. For example in reply to a Facebook friend who reposted Paul Krugman's excellent refutation of the case for austerity on April 29th I said this:

"A very good article on economics, as you'd expect from Krugman, but this election is about politics. Austerity is really about punishing 'welfare scroungers' and the immigrants who 'steal our jobs'. The Tories and UKIP are succeeding in selling this story to a large part of the public. Never underestimate the desire to punish. Labour is trapped by this story, as it can't be seen as soft on either scapegoat group. It's not about the real economics at all."

That reply contains the kernel not only of my critique of Labour's recent campaign and policies, but also of my analysis of the crisis of social democracy all over the world. The Tories have managed to sell their rationale for austerity thanks not to a superior grasp of economics, but rather of social psychology: they spotted and capitalised upon a shift of public mindset to which Left ideology has made Labour blind. A standard trope in most recent Left analyses of neoliberalism is that one of its most important effects is the promotion of the economic over the political, the invasion of the social world by market forces and pricing. The conclusion drawn from such an analysis is that the Left needs to assert a more powerful moral position, to mount a Gramscian counterattack which substitutes empathy and social solidarity in place of commerce and competition. This conclusion, that the Left needs to become more moralistic, was a major factor in the recent defeat. A new critique is certainly necessary, and it does indeed need to start from non-economic grounds, but from social psychology rather than morality.

Since World War II, and at an accelerating pace from the 1960s onwards, affluent Western societies shifted from being mostly organised around production (which we've largely outsourced to the East) in favour of services and consumption. This seismic shift created a profound change of mindset, or character if you prefer, among the population. The type of bourgeois individualism preached by Rousseau and analysed by Max Weber placed a high value on work as a source of both identity and virtue, but our post-60s individualism is more hedonistic, even narcissistic. We've lost most of our deference to authority and adopted in its place a prickly sort of confidence that recoils from any kind of political paternalism. Most of us tend to value pleasure and personal autonomy over social solidarity (except towards family), and sentimentality (rebranded as "emotional honesty") over stoicism. And in recent years the advent of social media like Facebook and Twitter have reinforced this shift enormously, especially among the young, bringing us to the cult of the "selfie".

In the UK dwindling faith in organised religion has lead to morality becoming more personal, arbitrary and even contradictory: on the one hand we dislike people being "judgemental" toward us, while on the other we mercilessly refuse forgiveness to transgressors like "love rats" or celebrity paedophiles. The prevalent attitude of "middle England", of the tabloid press, indeed of a narrow majority among most Western populations, it presents many such contradictions which doom to failure any attempt to analyse public opinion in terms of Left versus Right (or, in the USA, Liberal v Conservative). A deep adherence to personal autonomy might lead someone to support gay marriage while opposing immigration, to resent anti-discrimination laws, to support taxes to pay for the NHS but not for foreign aid, and to despise those who depend on welfare. And this unreadability is compounded by a growing generation gap.

The 35 years following the end of WWII saw governments that were in effect social democratic, even when sometimes called plain Democrats (USA), Christian Democrats (Europe) or one-nation Conservatives (UK), who constructed welfare states that guaranteed a high degree of security in employment. By contrast the last 35 years have seen free-market reforms - under both Tories and New Labour - claw back much of the power that organised labour acquired after WWII, resulting in far less secure employment, and with rewards for the lower-paid static or even falling. Over the period we've witnessed the rising power of the mass media and "celebrity culture", accompanied by a divorce of remuneration from productivity among the upper echelons, a phenomenon that Robert Frank and Philip Cook called "The Winner-Take-All Society" and Slavoj Žižek has dubbed the "surplus wage". Top executives, artists, performers, fashion designers and the like behave like self-selecting, invitation-only clubs in which the rewards are orders of magnitude greater than those for normal jobs.

Young folk in their 20s and 30s are faced with debt and uncertainty, only slightly counterbalanced by the small but real possibility of entry - if they're both talented and lucky - into these "creative industries" which might bestow great wealth. Two generations of left-leaning teachers (the ones Michael Gove would have loved to eradicate) have inculcated values of anti-racism and ecological awareness deeply into most of these youngsters, while popular culture adds a topping of sex, drugs and <insert any one of two hundred+ new genres here>. Old folk in their 60s and 70s on the other hand, faced with a similar loss of certainty, security and identity are offered no compensation beyond a free bus pass: they're among those tempted toward UKIP, toward transferring some of their pain onto scapegoats like immigrants and "welfare scroungers". Fundamentally opposed as some of their attitudes are though, these different age cohorts share a profound dislike of ideology, a keen nose for hypocrisy and contempt for politicians, and - as rampant individualists, forced to forge their own character rather than accept those imposed by work and church - an unprecedented sensitivity to tone.

Commentators on the election debacle seem puzzled why the list of Labour manifesto policies - some stolen from the Tories, some sensible and progressive - failed so badly to capture public support. The answer isn't in the policies' content but the tone in which they were delivered. Ed Miliband performed far better than expected on television, and even managed to convey a degree of passion. It was exactly the wrong sort of passion. Agreeing to continue austerity-lite might have been expected to cover both bases, prudence and compassion, but it wasn't believed because it was delivered without the Tories' special spice, punishment. (It's not only "cheats" and "scroungers" that need spanking, but also a little smack bottom for ourselves for running up so much debt during the boom years). Immigration was equally fraught. Every TV interviewer from Jeremy to Krishnan asked rival politicians the question "how many new immigrants is too many?", and of course received no answer because a liberal-minded orthodoxy forbids such a quantitative approach as potentially racist. A sizable proportion of the public think the answer is "not many" but they bitterly resent being accused of racism and so don't express it: instead they allow Nigel Farage to express it for them in his well-rehearsed, cheeky-bar-room-wag manner. This question is pure poison to Labour politicians, from whom it brings out their inner Methodist. The 2015 public hates to be lectured or scolded more profoundly than any before. This mindset - descendant from what David Robins and I called "Cool" in our 2000 book - is not reversible by hectoring or propaganda but is a result of structural changes in the nature of work, and it's wholly at odds with the prevailing voice of the Labour Party.

The same problem affects, or will soon affect, social democratic parties the whole world over as electorates recoil from the collectivist moral tone that's formed the basis of social democratic thinking for a century, which renders them more amenable to libertarian and free-market rhetoric even where that directly threatens their "real" interests. Labour's recent defeat is the culmination of a process that's been more visible than ever since 2008: Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown's prompt action really did save the world's banking system from collapse, but rather than thanks they get blamed for rescuing greedy bankers; the extent of global inequality is widely known and understood, but attacks on the "1%" get brushed off as envy; the crooked bankers, financiers and tax evaders who precipitated the financial crisis and still profit from it today aren't pursued with any great moral outrage, but instead the Tories' wafer-thin excuse that they are the "wealth creators" is swallowed. There's a complete disconnect between economic facts, Labour's analysis of them and the public's perception. It's a Habermasian failure of communication that can't be fixed by quoting Habermas (that only makes it worse). Labour needs more than just a new language: it needs to reorient its whole relationship to civil society and the state if it is to survive, which is by no means guaranteed.

An Armistice 
Social democracy does not mean employing reformist rather than revolutionary means to achieve a state-socialist society. It is not an alternative way of "winning" the class war. Instead social democracy is an armistice in the class struggle, whereby the employed classes agree not to expropriate the employing classes in return for a fair share of the profits, paid not only through wages and salaries but through free or subsidised services like health, education, firefighting, policing and so on, administered by the state and financed by universal progressive taxation. The economy remains resolutely mixed, with publicly-owned utilities operating alongside private firms, and with unions representing the interests of the employed. Social democracy in this sense has been the dominant type of economy throughout most of the Western world for 70 years, even when it doesn't use that name. That least social democratic of nations, the USA, still hasn't repealed every trace of Roosevelt's New Deal, while every UK Conservative government since the war, Thatcher's included, has been forced to live with a large degree of social-democratic compromise. However this compromise is now under attack as never before, and the result may well a complete breach of the armistice.

Since the 1980s many centre-right commentators have been predicting the collapse of social democracy on economic grounds, as a failure of Keynesian economic management, but this is only a small part of the problem. The real problem is a deep structural problem with the second half of its name, "democracy". Social democrats eschew revolutionary violence and authoritarian rule, governing populations who are free to live as they wish, within the constraints of a market somewhat moderated by redistributive welfare measures. Society remains divided into classes, some of who own means of production and others who don't.

Classes aren't biological entities and your class is not encoded in your DNA, though it most definitely is greatly affected by your birth, that is by your parents' position in the hierarchy of ownership. Since class isn't biological it must therefore continually renew itself (humans have a finite lifespan) by sifting and sorting, recruiting and rejecting new members into each class, and two of the most potent class-forming forces in modern Western democracies are housing and education. The deeper crisis of social democracy isn't so much the funding of welfare through taxation (important though that is), but more to do with the movement among the middle classes to segregate themselves from the working classes, both geographically and educationally, thanks to their superior exploitation of their economic freedom. Ideologues of the Right understand these forces as well as, maybe better than, those of the Left, and Conservative governments ever since Thatcher have been devising policies to accentuate this defection and division with an effect that far exceeds their hopes since they're pushing at an open door. The middle classes are tremendously effective and self-organising in their desire to defend higher remuneration and superior social status through housing and school choice. Those countermeasures that social democrats once employed during their successful era, provision of social housing and excellent state education, have ceased to be effective.

Social democracy has been eroded by an interlocking set of sociological vicious-circles. Its very success in expanding the consumer economy after WWII lead to an affluence that increased the confidence of the middle classes, while the high wages achieved by the working classes prompted manufacturers to outsource production to the orient. Politicisation of education combined with a collapse of deference lead to a decline in the quality of state education, drove more and more of the middle classes back to private schooling, and produced a barely-employable underclass of undereducated youth. Loss of deference toward the professions, coupled with a deskilling of many arts through new technologies, lead to growth of a "creative class" and stimulated the aspiration to enter this class, to escape from wage labour into creative, non-manufacturing jobs and bohemian lifestyles: Žižek's "surplus wage" and the zero-hours contract are two sides of the same debased coin.

This being the case, why not just let social democracy die, mutter RIP, and wipe away a small tear? One good reason is that it's indispensable for the survival of the human species. The alternative of state socialism was tested to total destruction by history (and let's waste no more time on all that sectarian bullshit about "actually existing socialism" versus "deformed state capitalism" and the rest). The alternative of totally free markets is about to be tested to destruction right now, but this time the destruction will affect most lifeforms on the planet through increasing ecological catastrophes, through mass migrations, through financial meltdown and universal impoverishment. Social democracy on a world scale is the only imaginable way that the necessary regulation can be applied to steer capitalism back toward sustainable progress, and reverse the defection of a tiny super-rich minority at everyone else's expense. Social democracy really is just an armistice, and the result of breaking it won't be some kind of benign anarchistic cooperation but rather an epidemic of terrible new forms of authoritarianism and mayhem.

If there's any role left for social-democratic parties in this changed world, it can only be as honest referees of the armistice. They can no longer be partisan advocates for either the middle or working classes. A social democratic party needs to re-educate the electorate about the necessity for a mixed, regulated economy, which might not be impossible in the UK given the British public's continued adherence to the NHS. It mustn't be afraid to call itself social democratic and to explain what that label means. It needn't suck up to "business" and finance capital in the lubricious way that New Labour did, but nor must it pander to the public sector and unions uncritically: it must remain a referee. It needs to seek cooperation with other international parties and institutions to pursue tax evading corporations vigorously and plug the revenue leaks that threaten to sink the ship of state. It needs to enforce equitable rules about employment rights, work-place safety and welfare matters, but its job is not to promote the public's aspirations, which are their own business, nor to judge their moral failures (except those that breach the law). In short it needs to step back out of people's personal lives and concentrate on the context and infrastructure that supports those lives. Abandoning PC rhetoric will be as a hard as giving up smoking, but it has to be done.

Starting a new social democratic party from scratch isn't a sensible option and the only party in the UK whose history suggests that it could become such a party again is the Labour Party: the Lib Dems have imploded, while the SNP can't help but be suspected of trying on a social-democratic mask over its nationalism. Whether or not a potential Labour leader exists with the will, charisma and political nous to reforge its broken halves into such a party is something we won't know for at least five years, perhaps a lot longer.


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Categories: les flux rss

The Financial Ombudsman, a fair service?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 8:00

The Ombudsman service (the FOS) is financed by the finance industry. Why do so many people seem to regard its operations with contempt?


The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) is a body that investigates financial complaints about regulated firms and can award compensation of up to £150 000. Yet, it is characterised, at least in the internet, as much by complaints about it, as by those made to it.

The allegations include evidence, laws and facts being ignored, as well as unfair arguments, all of which swing complaints one way or the other. There is evidently also a tendency to reject or support a complaint totally, rather than award in terms of contributory negligence. With many financial complaints, the truth is somewhere between the two extremes, so that partial compensation should be common as well. Additionally, there are frequent claims of incompetence, unintentional or otherwise. The latter refers to “deliberately getting the wrong end of the stick”, as one person expressed it. 

Furthermore, there are allegations that the FOS sometimes uses the same kind of invalid defences as the firms. These include so-called “fishing expeditions”, where some irrelevant investment in the past is passed off as evidence of risk friendliness. Similarly, there is the old “experienced investor” argument, which is used as an all-purpose defence for the firm. 

The main complaints of unfairness are from small investors with large firms and small financial advisors, who many people believe constitute easy targets for the FOS. High profile cases such as on payment protection insurance (PPI), are somewhat different. There is no doubt that the FOS can be fair and reasonable too, but it does rather seem excessively “selective”.

These various criticisms, that can easily be found in the internet in such forums as the Consumer Action Group, Citiwire, assorted private internet sites and newspapers, are often extremely angry and bitter. Those who claim to be victims refer to “FOSstration”, the “Farce” and of a body that is “judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one”.

While the FOS itself seems generally to ignore these complaints or write them off as “sour grapes”, there seem far too many angry people out there over for far too long a period of time for them to be a mere hoard of bad losers.  

Not surprisingly therefore, Queens Council Anthony Speaight gave a talk to the Professional Negligence Bar Association a few years ago, entitled “Ombudsmen Who Are An Affront to the Law”, and he specified that the FOS is precisely this. Speaight laments that there is no appeal process, the FOS even admits “making its own laws” and as a result, the process is “unbalanced in several respects”.

Another commentator confirms: “The FOS takes its own view of what is fair rather than merely following the law.” Clearly, this “own view” opens up the field for all manner of things, including the common allegations of evidence being ignored, firms being defended with illogical arguments that conform neither to the law nor to common sense and so on. The processes themselves are often claimed to be unsound: “The FOS is not obliged to re-visit its rulings even if new evidence turns up, and anecdotal evidence reveals its reluctance to do so.”

An investigative journalist recently commented that “We have a number of other watchdogs here in the UK apart from the FOS, which operate in exactly the same way. They come down very hard on minor offenders and shy away from pursuing the real criminal organisations that have huge bank accounts and the very best legal teams. They never articulate it as such, even in private. That's why it's so hard to uncover”. 

Furthermore, a certain disgruntled Fiona L. sums up a commonly expressed cause of the problem: “The FOS may look  like an official body invented to defend the King’s gullible and unsuspecting customers, but the reality is that it’s funded by the very financial institutions whose knuckles it claims to rap. Moreover, those who receive the most complaints (i.e. the High Street banks) are the ones who contribute the most to the FOS’s funding. It’s a very cosy relationship, to say the least.”

Yet, it seems to be a case of “carry on regardless”. Politicians who are approached to investigate the FOS tend to ignore the request, or make no more than a token effort which soon fades away. HM Treasury sends out an apparently standard email claiming that the FOS is “independent” and effectively cannot be touched. When asked who then is responsible, there is no further response. Approaches to the FOS board, which is specifically mandated to ensure the organisation’s fairness also yield no response, at least not so far, to the best of my knowledge.

Additionally, “independent” reports on the ombudsman service, such as the Hunt Report, seem to avoid the issue of fairness and focus on administrative or legal matters of lesser importance to those who just want fair compensation for financial mismanagement. As for internal controls, the Service Quality Team will only consider so-called “service issues” which specifically exclude fairness and the merits of decisions. The same applies to the “Independent Assessor”.

To all intents and purposes, the FOS also cannot realistically be taken to court by small investors or IFA’s. Neither can the firms in question. And after all, the whole point of the organisation is to assist small investors who cannot afford to sue the firm or advisor.

Let’s take a look at a few of those comments from the internet.  Space limitations enable only tiny fragment to be shown here, but a search in the internet – with the right keywords – reveals an endless number of such comments, and for over a decade. Below is the tip of the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

  • - Let’s start with a comment from inside: “I hate to admit it, but I have worked for the ombudsman on a short term contract. We were trained in about a week. They said they are not biased, yet the focus is totally on rejecting cases. The percentage for rejecting cases is 80%.”
  • - This sentiment is backed by an allegation from an investor of “yet more financial corruption - this time in the very body that is supposed to provide protection from such practices”.
  • - According to our next commentator, “even if the customer is 100% undoubtedly right, they manage to mess up his rights with their delays if not with their pro-bank decision.” 
  • - There is truly no shortage of sentiments like the following one and the degree of consensus is high: “I agree the FOS is a national disgrace... They are not independent, and hide bad practice and bias behind 'opinion', and should be disbanded ASAP.”
  • - The general reason given for all this is that “the banks own the FOS” and indeed, the organization is funded by the industry, which is not exactly conducive to justice.
  • - “These people are set up to support financial institutions, not the consumer; it is just a PR exercise. They have caused me considerable stress and inconvenience and I will never use them again. What’s the point, they are a toothless old dog licking the feet of the institutions”.
  • - “Had a reply, don’t know whether to laugh or cry!!! I've just had the final response from the Ombudsman and surprise surprise, she agrees with the adjudicator!!!”
  • - “No matter what (these) people tell you, and no matter how much praise and blah blah they tell you about the FOS, and how bad and discouraging they describe going to Court, NEVER EVER go with the FOS, not even if you have their own word that your case is 100% complete and you'd definitely get their support. No impartiality, No fairness, and No efficiency in dealing with complaints”.

Of course, the FOS itself presents many cases in which investors are awarded damages. Nonetheless, the following explanation from a complainant may reconcile at least some such awards with the above comments: “Any testimonies where the customer won a case would be minor ones and just there to keep up the belief that this is actually possible.” In fact, there may indeed be large awards to some customers, but can the public really rely on objectivity and consistency? And who exactly was forced to pay up in the tens of thousands?  

So where do we go from here?  Nowhere, it seems. Although there are various mutterings from parliament from time to time, there are still no mechanisms to ensure that justice is done consistently. There is simply no lobby for those who believe that they have been unfairly treated by the FOS. And there does not appear to be anyone in the UK who is both willing and able to take this on, including the mainstream media. One cannot but gain the impression that everyone who could intervene or investigate, either refuses to do so (“correspondence on this matter is closed”) or claims that it is “beyond their remit”. 

One thing above all seems undeniable. It is high time for a comprehensive and truly objective investigation of the various allegations against the FOS, followed by appropriate organisational and institutional changes. Furthermore, proven past injustices can and should be redressed. It is never too late.  

Categories: les flux rss

Why the rise of UKIP is a significant threat to Welsh Labour

Open Democracy News Analysis - 26. May 2015 - 8:00

And they don't yet seem to realise it.


The ghost of 1983 once again haunts Welsh Labour. Thirty two years ago, the Labour vote fell by 9.4% to 37.5% and the party won a dismal 20 seats. Fast forward to 2015 and for the second successive general election in Wales, Labour recorded a lower percentage share of the vote than in 1983 but due to a more even spread of its vote it obtained 25 seats, one fewer than five years ago. Losses to the Conservatives in Vale of Clwyd and Gower (a seat held by Labour for near on 100 years) reflected a general swing away from Labour in marginally held seats and top targets. The Conservatives’ haul of 11 seats is the best performance by the party in Wales since, yes you’ve guessed it, 1983. In the aftermath of the victory, leader of the Labour party in Wales, Carwyn Jones, was quick to accept that the party had under-performed but highlighted that Labour had once again seen off the nationalists. In some respects this is true, Plaid Cymru failed to register any significant increase in votes – Labour have ‘spiked their guns’[1]. But while Welsh Labour maintains a steely focus on the nationalist threat from Plaid, it has taken its eye off the ball elsewhere.

Labour in Wales is at a crossroads. With demographic changes in parts of Wales gradually making some seats equivalent to classic Conservative-Labour marginals in England. Indeed, in its established strongholds it now, perhaps for the first time, faces a credible threat in the form of a different nationalism, as the self-proclaimed ‘Party of Wales’ ended in fourth place in the overall vote by UKIP. The rise of UKIP in the Labour heartlands of south Wales and parts of north east Wales represents a significant threat to Labour’s long term dominance in these areas. In 2015, UKIP polled 13.6% of the overall vote in Wales, but in six constituencies it obtained around 18% or more. It performed particularly well in the south Wales valley seats – Islwyn, Caerphilly, Torfaen, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney – where future voters may now see it as the main threat to Labour. Crucially, it came second in six seats and a close third in a number of others. This is an important step forward. Voters, particularly in the case of third parties, are often reluctant to get behind their preferred party if they feel it has little chance of winning in their constituency.

But how has this happened? The explanation for the rise of UKIP in Labour strongholds is well rehearsed. But in Wales, like elsewhere, the Conservative vote in these Labour seats generally held up, and even Labour in some places recorded a higher share of the vote. Part of the explanation lies in the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in Wales. Within the churn that took place, it seems evident that UKIP gained support from Labour and the Conservatives, with both these parties benefiting from the 2010 unwind of the Liberal Democrat vote. UKIP, in these Labour strongholds, also benefited from the Liberal Democrat collapse – but the origins of these voters are particularly interesting. Many are the ‘left behind’ Labour supporters who gave up on the party in 2005 who economically did not feel the benefits of New Labour and felt that the party no longer represented them. Their journey involved using the Liberal Democrats to voice their anger in 2010. But five years later, unwilling to vote Conservative, they have found a refuge in UKIP. At present this flow of voters to UKIP only represents a stream, but left unchecked it could turn into a river, with the 2016 elections to the National Assembly the first threat.

One furrow which UKIP may find it valuable to plough, but is currently ignored by the parties represented in the National Assembly, is the question of the Assembly itself. UKIP in Wales leader Nathan Gill caused outrage amongst the other party leaders when, asked about devolving further powers to the Assembly, he replied with the metaphor that, when his children asked for more food, he usually tells them to finish what is on their plate first.[2] However, while there may have been horror from those behind the lecterns, such kitchen table rhetoric will undoubtable ring true for many of those watching. Polls show a relatively steady support from around 18% of the Welsh population for scrapping the National Assembly altogether (while by comparison, on the other extreme, support for independence sits in single figures). When those who want ‘fewer Assembly powers’ are added the figures rise to just under 25%. This could provide a pool of dissatisfied voters that UKIP can seek to pick up, as the only party currently rejecting further devolution.

Worryingly for Welsh Labour, it seems that they remain unaware or simply complacent about this impending threat. This is compounded by weakness on the ground. In many areas local constituency parties are a shadow of their former selves with a skeleton of core activists in potential UKIP targets. Rebuilding a strong grassroots party which reaches out and engages with its traditional core support is vital for the longevity of the party in these seats. Labour needs to be more professionalised and campaign savvy with better allocation of election resources,[3] and quickly learn the lessons from Scotland that the loyalty of its voters cannot be taken for granted. It also needs local answers to its voters’ concerns and the party more generally in Wales has to recognise that there are different types of Labour supporters, each of which has grievances and anxieties. Keeping this ever fragmenting group together remains the central challenge facing Welsh Labour.

Back to 1983 and amidst its collapse in Wales, Labour’s Michael Foot in Blaenau Gwent and Ted Rowlands in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney recorded the largest majorities of any party at the election. Thirty two years on and with turnout around 20% lower in these seats, Labour once again triumphed, but the spectre of UKIP looms large there and in other south Wales valley constituencies as a vehicle for the disaffected and disgruntled. Labour should ignore this at its peril.


[1] http://www.renewal.org.uk/articles/welsh-labour-in-power-one-wales-vs.-one-nation

[2] http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/general-election-2015-ukips-nathan-9098307

[3] http://www.electionanalysis.uk/uk-election-analysis-2015/section-4-the-nations/wales-plaid-cymru-and-labours-media-message-fails-in-target-seats/

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Categories: les flux rss

Spanish election: analysis of an eathquake

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 21:37

The Spanish regional and local elections have sent shockwaves through the country. What happens now?

Pablo Iglesias lends his support to the Ahora Madrid party in Spain's capital. Demotix/Czuko Williams. Some rights reserved.Spain went to the polls yesterday in municipal and regional elections that are not only important in their own right, but which will heavily influence the general elections later this year. With 99% of the votes counted, the Spanish people have sent a very clear message: against the traditional parties, against the “business as usual” attitude of the political bosses, against government by majority decree, against austerity and the growing marginalization of the poor. It was a good day for democracy overall.

  • Between them, the traditional mainstream parties managed to lose 3 million votes out of 14 million cast. The main loser was the governing Partido Popular, losing 2.3 million votes from their previous performance in 2011. While still the most voted party over all, the Populares have lost their majorities in every community and are positioned to lose a number of key cities and regions, including Madrid metro[1] and Valencia. The Galician PP also suffered defeats to leftist and regionalist parties in what is a personal blow to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is a Galician from Santiago de Compostela.

  • The Socialist Party (PSOE) continues to shed votes, but has perhaps halted its slide to irrelevance, losing 700,000 votes from 2011, which was already a low point, but maintaining itself as the second most voted party in Spain. They Socialists also made important gains in Andalucia (Seville), Asturias and Extremadura. The PSOE is not in any position to be king, but they could be kingmakers in a number of potential leftist coalitions.

Podemos continued to consolidate itself as a viable political alternative on the left. Podemos has not been able to maintain its meteoric performance from last year’s European elections, but their performance in Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza, where Podemos acted as an umbrella organization supporting independent leftists Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau to victory[2]. The party of Pablo Iglesias performed less well at the regional level.

  • The right’s answer to Podemos is Cuidadanos (Citizens’ Party), led by Albert Rivera. From being a purely Catalan party, Cuidadanos has successfully leveraged the dismay of the average conservative voter, who can’t stand the corruption and arrogance of the Populares, but can’t bring themselves to vote for the PSOE or Podemos. Cuidadanos secured a very respectable 1.4 million votes, holds the key to a continuation of Popular rule in a number of cities and regions.

The previous generation of “alternative parties” was crushed by the good performance of their newer competitors. Izquierda Unida (United Left) lost one-third of its support and falls to fourth place overall with no options to govern anywhere. Rosa Diez’s UPyD (Union, Progress and Democracy) essentially ceased to exist, which as the logical outcome of Ms. Diez’s intransigence in the face of her party’s poor performance in the recent elections in Andalucía.

  • In Catalonia, the pro-independence parties CiU, ERC and CUP consolidated their position in the provinces, but lost the critical fight for Barcelona to a Podemos-backed Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common). This will have important implications for the “path to independence” and the proposed early regional elections set for 27 September of this year. On the other hand, the PPC and PSC – the Catalan branches of the Populares and Socialists respectively, practically ceased to exist. 

Analysts and pundits will have a full schedule over the coming weeks in what promises to be a very busy summer for Spanish politics.

Analysis of an earthquake

The May elections included votes for 13 regional parliaments and for cities across every province of Spain. Turnout was somewhat low, higher only than the 2007 elections.

The Partido Popular is sure to make mention of this turnout and claim all 4% of the stay-at-homes as conservative voters, but there is no basis for making this claim and even if true, it would be an indication of disgruntlement with the current leadership that wouldn’t bode well for the upcoming general elections. The 6 million ballots cast for the Populares is a loss of 2.5 million votes and the worst performance for the conservatives in more than two decades.

The Populares remained the most voted party in most of the Spanish communities, remaining the most voted party in 10 of the 13 autonomous regions that held elections. In fact, they only lost their plurality in Extremadura and the Canary Islands. Yet Spain’s proportional system means that the Populares might actual go into opposition in three more regions due to possible coalitions of left-wing parties.

More importantly, the conservatives have lost their absolute majority in over 500 localities in Spain during this election – though still retaining 2,700[3]. Yet among the 500 lost are all of the provincial and regional capitals, including some cities where they have dominated for decades, like Madrid and Valencia. 

The Spanish Socialist party appeared pleased with the result; leader Pedro Sánchez crowed that the socialists had managed to greatly narrow the lead enjoyed by their conservative rivals. That is true: but it is due more to the fact of their collapse than any great merit on the side of the PSOE, which lost an additional 700,000 votes. The best that could be said of Mr. Sánchez’s efforts is that they have stopped the most obvious hemorrhaging, but the patient remains in critical condition.

Neither the conservatives and the socialists are able to decide their own fates, the both depend on coalitions in order to form governments across most regions and cities.

  • The Populares now depend on Ciudadanos to retain control of the autonomous communities of Madrid, Cantabria, La Rioja, Murcia and Castilla y León.
  • The Socialists similarly need to make deals with Podemos to govern in Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha, and Asturias; while in Valencia and Aragón the Socialists would also have to deal with Compromís and the Partido Aragones, respectively.

The Socialists may have the easier time of it. “There are no enemies on the left,” it was once said; and while that is no longer true given the cutting attacks launched by the left-wing parties against each other, it remains certain that they all want to cut the conservatives down to size. They might find it easier to make compromises as well since most of the most visible leaders of the PSOE from the Zapatero days have long ago been sacked; there is much less baggage to carry.

The conservatives, in contrast, are not only carrying all the weight of the corruption charges hanging over them, it is positively strangling them. Although Ciudadanos appears to be ideologically a center-right party, their fundamental plank is transparency in government and the fight against corruption. That will make it very hard for party leader Albert Rivera to cut a deal with the Populares; he has already put a flag in the ground in Andalusia, where he refused to enter into a bargain with the victorious Socialists until they expelled certain members of the local party that were on trial for corruption. Mr. Rivera has said as much already to the Populares: “I’m happy to reach an agreement; but first you must agree to implement our anti-corruption plan.” [4] There isn’t much chance of that: among the key points of the plan are:

  • - The resignation of anyone accused of corruption until their innocence is demonstrated.
  • - Financial responsibility of the party should its officials be convicted of corruption charges.
  • - Reform campaign finance laws to prohibit corporate donations, reduce private donations, and prohibit bank loans to the parties.
  • - Require all political parties to make their accounts completely public.
  • - Election of party delegates through an open primary system.

Mr. Rivera might as well ask the Populares to vote a monument to Karl Marx.

Ada Colau. Demotix/Brais G. Rouco. All rights reserved.

“Catalonia is different”

Catalonia is indeed different, and often out of sync with the rest of Spain, but last night the ruling CiU party suffered many of the same ills as the Partido Popular. CiU Artur Mas had made retaining control of Barcelona the centerpiece of this party’s electoral efforts, but notwithstanding this, the incumbent Xavier Trias lost to the Podemos-backed candidate, Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú.

Barcelona will have a female mayor for the first time in the city’s history, but more importantly, Podemos has demonstrated that it can make major inroads into the “nationalist” territory of Catalonia. Ciudadanos, which was born in Catalonia as a “third way” between nationalism and the existing two-party monopoly in Spain, also did well going from 1.2% of the vote in 2011 to 7.1% yesterday. Thus the “new insurgent” parties have proven that Catalonia is not so out of sync as many might have thought and that Catalan nationalism is not the only way to win votes in that region.

The bad news for Artur Mas continued: although his party did well in the smaller and rural municipalities, it was a very tough night for CiU. They only managed to retain control of one provincial capital (Girona) while their steady erosion of votes continued with the loss of another 110,000 supporters.

CiU finds itself in an uncomfortable position: right in the middle. And it’s electoral room for maneuver is shrinking alarmingly. It is not pro-independence enough, so the most ardent supporters of Catalan independence vote for ERC or CUP, who won to 16.4% and 7.1% of the vote respectively. In fact, ERC + CUP polled 110,000 more votes than CiU, versus just half as many as CiU 4 years ago.

Yet CiU is also too centrist and moderate to gain votes on the left, which explains the debacle in Barcelona with Ada Colau and the shocking growth of CUP[5]. Even the Catalan Socialists managed to win in the capitals of Lleida and Tarragona, though still losing 200,000 votes.

The overwhelming reaction to the electoral results in Catalonia has been to assert that “independence has been dealt a body blow”. It is true that the path to independence looks impossible without Barcelona, and Ada Colau is not pro-independence[6]. Yet the electoral results show that the pro-independence parties (ERC, CUP, ICV-EUIA) gained half a million votes, while the pro-union parties (PSC, PPC, C’s) lost 128,000 votes, despite the strong showing of Ciutadens[7]. Even placing CiU in the pro-independence column, the net gain for the independence parties was 423,000 votes. That hardly sounds like a crisis.

I would venture to draw the following out of the results in Catalonia:

1. There is a crisis, but it is a crisis of CiU, not of the pro-independence parties, which continue to gain supporters in each election. CiU is running out of electoral runway and there is a risk of Mr. Duran i Lleida taking his Unió followers out of the federation. That would probably destroy both Convergència and Unió, to the delight and benefit of ERC, CUP and Ciutadens. That is not a scenario that the Partido Popular ought to relish, as much as they dislike Mr. Mas;

2. The continued desire for independence further shown by the continued slide into irrelevance of the PPC and the PSC. The latter has lost 50% of its supporters since 2003 and finds itself in a similar situation to Mr. Mas’ CiU;

3. “Independence” is not enough: Catalan parties must also govern, and deal with social injustice, unemployment, the housing crisis and other aspects of civil society. Otherwise, Barcelona en Comú will continue to expand its influence;

Although the independence process has not been dealt a death blow – that is merely wishful thinking on the part of Spain’s newspapers – it is nevertheless legitimate to question whether the de facto Catalan referendum in the guise of regional elections should not be delayed until after the general elections. The loss of an absolute majority is almost guaranteed; and a PSOE-Podemos coalition of the left might become a reality if they are able to cooperate and govern at the municipal and provincial levels.

That would change the calculus for CiU radically: Mr. Mas might be able to negotiate and deliver on a degree of decentralization that would satisfy a majority of Catalans and preserve both the unity of the country as well as the CiU’s leadership of the autonomous region.  And in the event of a Partido Popular victory or a coalition with Ciudadanos, what has been lost be a few more months? The disappointment of another conservative legislature might be the boost that independence has needed since its apogee on 9N2014.

Like tales from Cassandra

Cassandra was a Greek girl who was cursed by the gods; she was condemned to have the gift of prophecy and to always speak the truth, but to never be believed.

Like Cassandra, the Partido Popular has been told the truth by the Spanish people: enough is enough. No more corruption, no more business as usual, no more governing for the rich and the Germans. Whether they hear that message, or prefer to remain complacently as the “most voted party”, will largely determine the outcome of the upcoming general election this year. The conservatives still have a large base of supporters, plenty of people who simply will not vote for a party on the left; but they are squandering their loyalty through arrogance and obstinacy.

Given the initial response given by the party’s spokesman this morning, and the press conference this afternoon by Prime Minister Rajoy, it seems that the initial reaction is more of the “head in the sand” politics that has always characterized the Galician’s leadership style. He has declared victory, announced that there will be no reshuffling of his government, and vowed to continue on course – a course the Spanish people have just repudiated. This bodes ill for the PP’s electoral fortunes.

Germany: take notice. You might soon lose Spain as well as Greece.

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Sources and Notes

[1] As opposed to the Province of Madrid, where they may retain the government if they are able to make a pact with Ciudadanos (Citizens).

[2] Judge Manuela Carmena will need support from the Socialist Party to become Mayor of Madrid. The Populares Esperanza Aguirre has one more seat, but her path to a majority coalition is far more difficult than Ms. Carmena’s.

[3] Javier Casquiero, “El PP pierde 500 mayorías absolutas en toda España,” El País, 25 Mayo 2015

[4] Juan José Mateo, “Ciudadanos insiste en que el PP debe de hacer primarias si quiere acuerdos,” El País, 25 Mayo 2015

[5] Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, or Popular Unity Candidates, is a left-wing pro-independence party in Catalonia, very similar ideologically to the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya.

[6] Ms. Colau appears to support the right of the Catalans to decide their own system of government, but is not in favor of secession.

[7] Ciutadens went from 35,000 votes to 230,000 votes.

Sideboxes Related stories:  First we take Barcelona... Spanish voters wake up to new political landscape Country or region:  Spain
Categories: les flux rss

Spanish voters wake up to new political landscape

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 14:56

Yesterday’s Spanish municipal and regional elections confirmed what the opinion polls have shown for the past year: the electorate is in a flux, and the voters punished the old parties and rewarded the new ones.

Pablo Iglesias lends his support to the Ahora Madrid party in Spain's capital. Demotix/Czuko Williams. Some rights reserved.Yesterday’s Spanish municipal and regional elections confirmed what the opinion polls have shown for the past year: the electorate is in a flux, and the voters punished the old parties and rewarded the new ones.

The results of the elections were no big surprise. The conservative Partido Popular (PP) were the biggest losers, dropping from 37% to 27%. They no longer have an outright majority in any of the regions and are forced to enter into alliances and coalitions even in their stronghold Castilla-La Mancha, where it is now up to the socialists (PSOE) and Podemos to form an anti-PP alliance. Likewise in Valencia, the banana republic of Spain, there is now a majority against the PP.

The size of the anti-PP vote, and the turn to the left, is perhaps the biggest story of the elections. Across Spain, the left and the centre-left got more votes and more seats than the right-wing PP. The story that PP have been telling all night is that they came first and are the biggest party. They are indeed still the biggest party, with PSOE just behind at 25% (dropping 2% from the last local elections in 2011). The problem for PP is that they are toxic, and the other parties will be hesitant to prop up local PP administrations. That then leaves the challenge of forming coalitions of the left and the centre-left.

The two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, did not do as well as they have been doing in national opinion polls. Podemos only ran in the biggest cities and in the regions where they are strongest and where they could control the process. They did particularly well in Barcelona and Madrid. In Barcelona, Barcelona en Comú – an electoral platform that includes Podemos – came first. In Madrid, Manuela Carmena from Podemos took on Esperanza Aguirre, the former PP leader of the region of Madrid, and won. While PP came first in Madrid, Carmena is set to become mayor with the help of PSOE, making the Madrid mayoralty the jewel in the crown for Podemos. Barcelona and Madrid are big symbolic victories for Podemos, and they will have to build from these strongholds in order to make a bigger impact in the general elections which are likely to be held in late November.

The centrist Ciudadanos scored 6.5% and became the third largest party nationwide. That is not bad for a party that was, until recently, only a minor party in Catalonia. Although they polled far below their numbers in recent national polls, they are now holding the key to power in many regions and municipalities, sitting in the middle of the political spectrum and being able to go right or left in alliances and coalitions with PP or PSOE.

While Podemos have been eating into the voter base of PSOE, PP were mainly hit by Ciudadanos. Like Podemos, they bang on against corruption, and they present themselves as new in both style and content. Headed by the young and media savvy Albert Rivera, Ciudadanos rightly saw that there was a demand and a space for a centrist party for those voters who are disaffected by the duopoly of PPSOE, but find Podemos a tad too radical. The regional elections in Andalusia in March and yesterday’s local and regional elections proved them right: from 1% in Catalonia in 2011, they are now a national force to be reckoned with.

The two old parties – PP and PSOE – are now confronted by two new parties, with new faces and a fresh style. It is also a change of generations. Podemos and Ciudadanos have self-consciously played up the relative youth of their leaders. And it works: ‘old’ is out, ‘new’ is in. ‘Change’ is the buzzword of the day.

What, then, is the fallout from yesterday’s elections? PP are unlikely to be rocked by the results. They have chosen to stick with their leader, the Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and his refrain that the economy is looking better now than it was. In PSOE, Pedro Sánchez might just get another shot at the general elections in November. While young and a fresh face, he has come across as lightweight and has never quite won over the party, let alone the electorate, since he was elected leader a year ago. Both PP and PSOE will be focused on bringing out their core voters and hoping that, with time, the newcomers – Podemos and Ciudadanos – will implode.

As for Podemos and Ciudadanos, their popularity has come fast, and one is left with the impression that they might implode anytime. There is also the possibility that Podemos will be torn apart by internal divisions after the national election. Cracks are already visible between those (including the leader Pablo Iglesias) who are moving to a more moderate position in order to capture disaffected PSOE voters and those who want to stick to the party’s more radical roots. It is essentially a clash between those who want to go the way of a social-democratic catch-all party and those who see Podemos as a more horizontalist and leftist political movement.

The most likely outcome of these – and the national – elections is a four party system where the parties will have to enter into alliances and coalitions to govern at local, regional and national level. That is uncommon in Spain where the electoral system favours the bigger parties. It is unlikely that the other parties will want to touch the toxic PP, and so we will see more or less stable and workable coalitions of PSOE, Podemos and/or Ciudadanos. The latter two will be wary of entering into any coalitions in order not to be tainted by the reputation of the old parties – after all, their success depends on not being part of the old political caste. This has already been happening in Andalusia: PSOE became the biggest party in the regional elections in March, but have so far been unable to form a government. The other parties are playing hardball, and have wanted to keep their distance until after the local and regional elections.

And then I have not even mentioned the ‘old’ two small parties: the centrist Union Progreso y Democracia (UPyD) and the left wing Izquierda Unida (IU). Both did poorly in yesterday’s elections. For many years these parties raged against the political caste of the PPSOE, but once changed arrived, they too were associated with the old party system. UPyD has been squeezed out by the success of Ciudadanos who are competing for the same kind of voters, and their leader, Rosa Díez, just resigned after a dismal performance in the local elections. Izquierda Unida have suffered in the shadow of the left populist Podemos, but are in a slightly better shape. The national elections in November are likely to be the last chance for UPyD. Izquierda Unida stand in a better chance because they can compete with Podemos from the left.

Both party system and electorate are in a flux. What seemed set in stone, has disintegrated in little more than a year. And although the party system seems to have reached an equilibrium with the current quartet of PP, PPSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos, there is no telling what things will look like in a year.

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Your cyberpunk games are dangerous

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 10:12

How roleplaying games and fantasy fiction confounded the FBI, confronted the law, and led to a more open web.

On January 17, 1980, FBI agents descended on a small business in Wisconsin to investigate a plot against the life of an American business executive in Beirut, Lebanon, named William Weatherby. The tip came to local law enforcement from a concerned citizen who had chanced on a written description of the conspiracy, which the police duly handed over to the FBI.

When investigators arrived at the offices of this company, TSR Hobbies, they learned that William Weatherby did not exist: he was a non-player character in a new espionage role-playing game called Top Secret, which TSR was playtesting. This was easily demonstrated to the satisfaction of all parties, and the whole incident would certainly be forgotten today—except that it inevitably became part of TSR’s promotion for Top Secret. It was a spy game so realistic that even the FBI thought it was real.

This misunderstanding arose only five months after TSR obtained widespread notoriety in a similar confusion surrounding the disappearance of college student James Dallas Egbert III in East Lansing, Michigan. A private detective hired to find Egbert had learned that the young man played TSR’s role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons—at the time virtually unknown to mainstream America—and hypothesized that Egbert had come to believe the game was real. Famously, this led to calls for a search of the college steam tunnels, where presumably Egbert would be found wandering in a deluded stupor, questing for monsters and treasure.

Actually, Egbert had run away to Louisiana for unrelated reasons, but a seed was then planted in the American popular imagination. Role-playing games were dangerous: they warped fragile young minds, breaking down the barriers between the real and the imaginary. The irony is that it was the authorities, not the players, who couldn’t tell a game from reality.

A decade later, on the first of March, 1990, the Secret Service raided Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, and confiscated the manuscript of a product in development. One of the agents serving the warrant grumbled, in Steve Jackson’s presence, that his company was producing a “manual for computer crime.” In addition to the draft of the game, Jackson reported that the Secret Service also seized “the two office computers the manuscript was on” and “thousands of dollars’ worth of associated hardware and software.” This time, the misunderstanding admitted of no simple resolution.

When the FBI visited TSR in 1980, they found no Berettas, no exploding pens, no tuxedoed spies—so no assassination appeared imminent. The Secret Service came to Steve Jackson Games a decade later in an investigation into computer hacking, which everyone knew required only a cocky teenager, an inexpensive personal computer, and forbidden knowledge.

The 1983 film WarGames had recently taught America how such a computer hobbyist might unwittingly destroy the world. The film’s young protagonist attempts to hack into a game company, but mistakenly accesses a military computer instead, and instructs the system to begin a “game” of global thermonuclear war. The hacker is at first entirely oblivious to the real-world ramifications. After a gradual dawning of awareness, he asks the computer, “Is this a game… or is it real?” With the aplomb of a delusional college student wandering the steam tunnels, imaginary sword in hand, the computer replies, “What’s the difference?”

In hindsight, it's difficult to explain how esoteric computers appeared to the mainstream in the 1980s. The Internet existed—but even in 1990, few had any inkling of the prominence it would soon attain. It was just one of several communications networks, largely confined to university environments and overshadowed by closed monolithic information services like CompuServe.

The web as such didn't exist either, and even functions like email and newsgroups depended on a patchwork of interconnected systems with limited standardization. The promise of an open, global network for commerce, entertainment, and personal communications remained in the realm of science fiction.

Science fiction, however, had furnished visions of that future. The most salient was William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which imagined an immersive, ubiquitous computer network called the Matrix, famously characterized by Gibson’s coinage of the term “cyberspace.” Naturally, science fiction and computers shared an overlapping fan base in the 1980s.

To many disaffected computer-literate youths, Gibson’s world of technology, drugs, and intrigue read like a prophecy of a glamorous, if dark, future. The promise of cyberspace felt not entirely out of reach; it was a vision so compelling fans didn’t just want to read about, they wanted to experience it.

But in 1990, the territory where these stories played out remained imaginary: the Internet lingered on the cusp of becoming habitable. Only a marginal community of hobbyists spent any significant fraction of their lives online, in various bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat services where they communicated with like-minded explorers of the electronic frontier. Perhaps the closest you could get at that time to an experience of Gibson’s future was in the role-playing games that tried to capture the flavor of that world, known by the genre label “cyberpunk.”

Loyd Blankenship lost his job as a software engineer for a graphics company in Austin, Texas, on Valentine’s Day of 1989. As a long-time fan of the role-playing game GURPS (the Generic Universal RolePlaying System), Blankenship knew well that Austin was home to its publisher, Steve Jackson Games.

Blankenship at the time explained, “I wrote up a nice proposal explaining to Steve what a great opportunity this was for him and the company, and Steve (being a very wise man) saw that this was true. Some four weeks later, I was in.” Blankenship joined the company as Managing Editor, quickly going to work on the GURPS product line.

What special qualifications did Blankenship possess that recommended him to Steve Jackson Games? In addition to his enthusiasm for games, and expertise with software engineering, Blankenship had the unusual distinction of holding a prominent place in the computer culture of the 1980s. As a long-time member of the storied hacker collective called the Legion of Doom, Blankenship had written an article called “The Conscience of a Hacker” (sometimes known as the “Hacker Manifesto”) under his alias The Mentor.

Blankenship’s piece, inspired by his hacking arrest in the mid-1980s, famously insists that “my crime is that of curiosity” and that “you may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all.” His experiences made him uniquely qualified to take on a forthcoming Steve Jackson Games project: GURPS Cyberpunk, slated for a March 1990 release.

Steve Jackson Games had a progressive attitude towards technology, for a company that published tabletop games rather than electronic ones. The company operated a dial-in bulletin board called Illuminati, named for a 1982 card game published by Steve Jackson which parodied a variety of conspiracy theories, following the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Later, this computer system would evolve into the famous Illuminati Online, which for two decades resided at io.com.

Users logging in to Illuminati would read, “Greetings, Mortal! You have entered the secret computer system of the Illuminati, the on-line home of the world's oldest and largest secret conspiracy.” The bulletin board joked that it was merely “fronted by Steve Jackson Games,” but that might not protect it from certain suspicions.

Blankenship became an administrator of Illuminati; his considerable experience with bulletin boards included another Austin dial-in, the Phoenix Project, which he ran jointly with fellow Legion of Doom member Chris Goggans. The membership of these two bulletin boards overlapped some amount: Blankenship was far from the only computer enthusiast who played games or read cyberpunk science fiction. But investigators saw no boundary where the games stopped and reality began. This association brought the Secret Service to the doors of Steve Jackson Games.

Shortly after the Secret Service raid in March 1990, in an account written in the next issue of Jackson’s in-house magazine Roleplayer, Jackson reported that “we have since been told that neither SJ Games nor the GURPS Cyberpunk manuscript was the object of the raids.” Indeed, he further reports that “the home of the GURPS Cyberpunk writer was also raided, and his own computer taken.” Blankenship, for his part, remembered waking up at gunpoint as the Secret Service confiscated his personal computers and related paraphernalia.

The affidavit submitted for a warrant by the Secret Service on February 28 unambiguously identifies Blankenship himself as the target of the raid. The violations it alleges are attributed to Blankenship and Goggans. It maintains that they had received “a stolen or fraudulently obtained computerized text file worth approximately $79,000.00.” This referred to issue #24 of the online newsletter Phrack, which republished a Bell South document detailing internal practices of its 911 emergency calling system.

Another member of the Legion of Doom, Robert Riggs, had downloaded the document from an unsecured Bell South system a year earlier. Both Phrack editor Craig Neidorf and Riggs had already been indicted in connection with this document, which, the government insisted, “could be used to gain unauthorized access to emergency 911 computer systems in the United States and thereby disrupt or halt 911 service in portions of the United States.”

The affidavit notes the availability of Phrack #24 on the Phoenix Project bulletin board, and speculates that after the seizure it would be found either there or on the Illuminati server at Steve Jackson Games, or perhaps at both locations.

The raid couldn’t have come at a worse time for Steve Jackson Games. Already in debt, the company depended heavily on new releases for cash flow, and the confiscation of the GURPS Cyberpunk manuscript would significantly delay the book’s release. On March 9, the company let go eight people from its staff of seventeen. Since the Secret Service did not immediately return the manuscript, the team frantically reconstructed it from earlier draft materials and hurried it into print.

Ultimately, however, it turned out that the Secret Service had been chasing something no more real than William Weatherby.

The seizure itself had its share of procedural defects, but behind them loomed another, weightier issue: how valuable, and potentially damaging, the 911 document truly was. Bell South had reported the intrusion into its computer network to the Secret Service in July 1989, and claimed that its 911 “program” was engineered at a cost of $79,449—the Secret Service affidavit conflates cost of the program with that of the text file reprinted by Phrack. This fed a certain hysteria in the media, which faithfully parroted the government’s exaggerations.

But as far as forbidden knowledge goes, the actual document contained only the most cursory overview of the bureaucracy surrounding the 911 system, without any code nor any actionable information which could threaten the stability of emergency calling in the United States. Moreover, equating copying an electronic document with theft raised a host of untested legal questions.

And could GURPS Cyberpunk, a casualty of collateral damage, serve as a “manual for computer crime”? J. Eric Townsend reviewed a copy for the early computer security zine RISKS in June 1990. He lists sixteen things therein you might glean if you were wholly ignorant of computer hacking, none of which offer any significant advantage over common sense; tips along the lines of, “Passwords can be really obvious, or hard to remember text strings.”

Townsend perhaps overlooks tokens of “realism” sprinkled throughout the text: for example, GURPS Cyberpunk mentions real-world hacker hangouts such as Altgers and tchh, albeit without explaining how such systems might practically be accessed.

While real-world hacking experience informed the speculative future of GURPS Cyberpunk, it bestowed only the sort of realism that games have. It could no more turn a reader into a computer hacker than Top Secret might turn its players into James Bond. But people who believed that the forbidden knowledge in the 911 document posed a threat to public safety could conceivably deem the realistic flourishes in GURPS Cyberpunk practical and specific information. It is easy to put yourself in the hysterical script of the movie WarGames when you lack the technical expertise to distinguish a game about hacking from reality.

For the first half of 1990, no one knew the true object of the Secret Service raid. On May 8, they announced, to great fanfare, a widespread crackdown on computer crime under the code name Operation Sundevil. At the time, when the affidavits and investigations remained under wraps, the raid on Steve Jackson Games quickly became conflated with this operation in the popular press.

The published edition of GURPS Cyberpunk understandably milked the controversy for all it was worth, given the company’s cash flow problems. The cover, in a conspiratorial eye-in-the-pyramid graphic, advertised the work as “the book that was seized by the U.S. Secret Service!” The Secret Service is also thanked on the title page for “unsolicited comments,” directly after the credit to the Legion of Doom as “hacking consultants.”

But Jackson also saw the larger context of his predicament. At the end of his introduction to the book, he notes that “now it seems that anybody with any computer knowledge at all is suspect,” and thus the “maybe the cyberpunk future is closer, and darker, than we think.”

Jackson had good reason for pessimism, but it turned out his example inspired a historic reaction against that dystopia. By June, Jackson’s case had come to the attention of John Perry Barlow. A veteran of 1960s counterculture who collaborated with the Grateful Dead, Barlow had been active in computer circles since he joined the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) in the mid-1980s. Moreover, Barlow had himself already been questioned as part of a law enforcement investigation into the unauthorized distribution of Apple source code, which convinced him that the government’s ignorance of emerging technology posed a fundamental problem for online civil liberties.

That spring, Barlow wrote up Jackson’s story in an article called “Crime and Puzzlement,” arguing that the Secret Service, “in over-reaching as extravagantly as they did… have provided us with a devil…. In the presence of a devil, it’s always easier to figure out where you stand.” Together with some powerful Silicon Valley allies, Barlow decided to do something about it.

When Barlow and Mitch Kapor announced the foundation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on July 10, 1990, Jackson joined them in person. The EFF provided him a lawyer to help recover both computer equipment still held by the Secret Service and some of the costs the raid had incurred. The legal backing of the EFF also persuaded the government to abandon its case against Craig Neidorf.

One particularly damning revelation in the trial regarding the $79,000 911 document,as The New York Times reported, showed “that Bell South included the same document in a booklet that was sold to the public for $13.” In the end, the government finally saw it was lost in its own labyrinth, imaginary sword in hand, questing after a beast only it could see.

A quarter century has now passed since these events, which were immortalized in cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown. The computer enthusiasts who could only dream of an open, global network in 1990 would go on to staff the dot-coms of the next decade. The closed networks that once guarded forbidden knowledge quickly fell by the wayside, and curiosity about computers could no longer be imagined a crime.

Our cyberspace today has its share of problems, but it is no dystopia—and for that, we must acknowledge the key part played by the messy collision of table-top games, computer hacking, law enforcement overreach and cyberpunk science fiction in 1990.

This article was first published on Boing Boing Offworld on 8 May 2015 under Creative Commons.

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Special deal, root and branch reform or Brexit? Cameron’s EU-policy - a sceptical view from Germany

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 9:34

The concessions which Britain will be granted today in negotiations with Brussels and Berlin may well turn out to be self defeating in the long run, because they will marginalise Britain. 

Wellington and Blucher meet during Battle of Waterloo, 1815. Wikicommons/ artist William Heath, 1819. Some rights reserved. With Cameron’s somewhat surprising victory in the general election, the prospect of Britain leaving the EU is no longer a distant possibility; on the contrary if Cameron has nothing to show for his efforts in negotiating a new deal for Britain over the next year or so and is unable to prove that Britain will be able to safeguard her sovereignty against further interference from Brussels in the future the majority of voters in the UK may well vote for leaving the EU altogether in a referendum which Cameron has promised to hold.

For Germany this would be a major nightmare. Although Britain has never been an easy partner for Berlin at the EU negotiating table, a Europe without the United Kingdom would be dominated ever more by governments which are sceptical about free trade, want to fight globalisation by protectionism and which believe in creating economic growth by state intervention and by paying out generous subsidies to potentially non-profitable industries, subsidies for which the German taxpayer would eventually have to foot the bill, or so Berlin fears.

On the other hand a major treaty change to accommodate British wishes is fraught with enormous problems and would allow impoverished southern countries which rightly or wrongly want more financial support from Brussels or Berlin to blackmail the German government, because without their assent such changes would be impossible to implement. 

This is a complicated situation and it is made even more complicated by the fact that nobody quite knows what Cameron really wants. A curb on unrestricted immigration and on what is somewhat polemically called ‘benefit tourism’ is certainly high on the agenda, but the Tories clearly also want some sort of guarantee against further interference from Brussels in general. The EU is to abandon the objective of creating an ever closer union – at least as far as Britain and other non-Euro states are concerned -  and of transforming the European nation states ultimately into mere provinces of a centralised political entity governed from Brussels. The British position can perhaps be summed up in the words, ‘the power of Brussels has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished’ to quote a famous motion tabled in the House of Commons in 1780 – referring, of course, at the time to the influence of the crown, not that of some far away super state.

In theory this is at present probably a sentiment shared in a vague way by many voters throughout Europe, not just in countries such as France which have often defended their sovereignty against Brussels, but also for example in the Netherlands which used to be much more EU-friendly in the past.

However as bad luck will have it there is one man in Europe who is passionately opposed to abandoning the ideal of an ever closer union as a guiding principle for European politics. This is Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful German minister of finance who will be one of the most important negotiating partners for the British government. Schäuble seems to be genuinely convinced like a number of other politicians from his party, the CDU, that only a United Europe with all the powers of a genuine state can hold its own in the fierce global competition with countries such as China or the US.

Furthermore like many Germans of his generation he believes that it is Germany’s real historical mission to vanish as a nation and be submerged in a yet to be created United States of Europe. Of course Schäuble still hopes that the future homo Europaeus – the ideal European citizen - who no longer identifies strongly with any individual nation will think and behave in many ways like a typical German at least as far as economic matters are concerned. This is Schäuble’s hope not because he is such a strong nationalist, the opposite is true at least by any conventional standards, but because he is  - somewhat naively -  convinced that the German economic model just happens to be the best and most perfect in Europe.

Whatever one may think about this European vision, if there is one country in Europe where it is definitely rejected by most people (at least south of the Tweed) it is Britain, both in its pro-European and its more specifically Germanic aspects.

So how can there be common ground between Osborne and Cameron on the one side and Schäuble and Merkel (who mostly backs her finance minister in these matters not having any strong political ideas of her own unless her survival is at stake)?

Compromise in the offing?

However, a compromise may not be as difficult to achieve as one would be tempted to assume. If one believes media reports Schäuble is prepared to grant Britain even more generous opt out clauses on all sorts of issues than the UK enjoys at the moment. European markets for services might also be liberalised and deregulated more than they are now, something Westminster has insisted on for a long time. At the same time Schäuble hopes for a more stable fiscal union among Euro Zone members which for him essentially means tighter budget controls and the need for individual countries to co-ordinate their economic and welfare policies with Brussels.

Countries like France and Italy and even more so Spain, Portugal and Greece would probably demand in return more financial support - to be financed out of a special budget for the Eurozone -  for their economy and the vast number of unemployed seeking work.

Theoretically such an arrangement, more money for the deficit countries, more supervision of spendthrift governments and more sovereignty for non-Euro countries could keep everybody happy. So where is the snag? For Germany the great drawback would be that governments in Paris and Rome could as they have done in the past, starting with the Maastricht treaty, sign any number of agreements but would not be very likely in a moment of real crisis to stick to the stipulations of such treaties. Their voters would not allow them to do so and why should they pay more than fleeting respect to mere pieces of papers anyhow? There is no power within the EU which could force the greater European states - smaller countries such as Greece or Portugal are an entirely different matter - to impose unpopular budget cuts on their populations for example, apart perhaps from the ECB where, however, the influence Germany and the other northern countries enjoy is very limited indeed these days. So Germany would make concessions without really getting anything in return as it did when the legal framework for the Euro was first designed in the early 1990s.

Think twice, Cameron

That of course should be of no concern to Cameron, on the contrary. But nevertheless such a compromise may not be as beneficial to Britain as it may seem at first glance. If the Eurozone continues to follow the path leading to an ever closer union, and this is what Schäuble and other politicians who truly believe in monetary union want, then Britain will become ever more the odd man out within the EU.

True enough, other smaller countries such as Denmark and Sweden may follow Westminster in their approach to politics in Brussels: try to preserve the advantages of the single market and free trade but avoid all other commitments which might lead to a (further) loss of sovereignty. 

But if such an approach is successful, Britain will be perceived by the members of the Eurozone ever more as a country which just wants a free ride; this will inevitably diminish British influence in Brussels, a process which has already gained a considerable momentum of its own since the beginning of the Euro crisis.

One might say, given the fact that all Britain wants from Europe is free access to European markets, this does not matter all that much. If that were true relations between Switzerland and Brussels would not be as complicated and marked by conflict as they are at the moment. If the Eurozone continues to become more integrated, more like a true state, raising for example taxes of its own on financial transactions (plans for such a tax are discussed from time to time in Brussels), Britain will be affected by such measures for better or worse, and no agreement on British privileges drawn up now can entirely safeguard the UK against further European legislation (difficult to anticipate in its details anyhow today) designed to impose a framework of unitary rules on individual states and demanding ever more power sharing among them.

In the end Brussels will say: if you want access to our markets you have to play by the rules regardless of what privileges you may have obtained in the past. That is the situation facing Switzerland now regarding immigration, which Swiss citizens want to limit once and for all.

Analysts aware of this problem, such as the think tank Open Europe, advocate a root and branch reform of EU institutions, which would give for example national parliaments much more influence on European decisions and would make it much easier for a minority among European governments to stop legislation which at the moment can be pushed through by the Commission provided a qualified majority of member states supports such measures.  However, such wideranging reforms would probably require a treaty change which can easily be blocked by any member state and is therefore difficult to achieve, as has already been emphasized.

Many Tories in Britain have therefore already given up on any overall reform of the EU and prefer a mere special deal for Britain, a wholesale opt out arrangement on most contentious issues. Others, including a sizeable minority of the parliamentary party and even some cabinet ministers such as – possibly -  Sajid Javid, support a Brexit. Their attitude to the Eurozone in particular can be summed up in the words ‘let them go to hell in their own way’ (as long as we don’t have to join them), a mixture of tolerance and contempt, which is perhaps in line with the traditional attitude of Englishmen and –women when confronted by the strange and outlandish customs of exotic tribes and the uncouth and barbaric manners of foreign rulers and potentates.

However such a mixture of disdain and complacency can be dangerous – unless one assumes a Brexit to be desirable or at least inevitable anyhow. If Britain really wants to remain part of the EU but prevent further encroachments on her sovereignty, there is no alternative to a structural reform of the EU.

The relentless drive for ‘enlightened reform’ imposed from above within the EU, eroding national legal and constitutional systems and the power of national parliaments to solve problems on their own, needs to be stopped.

One would need to take seriously the principle of subsidiarity, which at the moment is a mere face-saving device utterly ignored in practice by the Commission and the Parliament. The Commission and even more so the MEPs but also the European Court of Justice - forever favouring centralising policies in its judgements - would need to change their long term objectives.

At the moment despite all the problems, ill thought out and hastily implemented measures for making the EU more homogeneous are still under way having been created from the early 1990s onwards. The spirit and ethos of the major European institutions is still the same as 20 or 30 years ago. Everything that creates more unity and erodes national autonomy is good in itself and very rarely questioned by the majority of MEPs or by the members of the Commission, although the latter are appointed by their home countries. Most go native very soon once they are in Brussels.

National governments sometimes take a different line of course and are very reluctant to accept the Brussels’ line whenever this means that they have to shoulder greater financial burdens or sell policies to their voters which are blatantly unpopular, like for example accepting more refugees instead of sending them to other European countries.

But on other issues where voters are less touchy or less likely to notice that real power is increasingly being moved to Brussels, national governments are more likely to support the unifying policies of the Commission and the EU Parliament, in particular when this allows them to implement on the sly policies for which they can not easily find a majority among their own voters under normal circumstances.

At the national level it can be a great advantage if you are able to say: we have no choice, Brussels has made a decision which we cannot question, much as we regret it, thus passing the buck to the unpopular Eurocrats who cannot be voted out of office. That after all is what the post-democratic regime of decision making in Brussels is about. That’s the beauty of it, and for professional politicians it would be foolhardy to sacrifice all that is most attractive about Brussels.

Among citizens, however, who take a dim view of the entire idea of European unification as such because they take pride in their own national constitutional traditions and liberties or because they are just not cosmopolitan and enlightened enough (depending on what perspective you favour)  – and there are very many such unenlightened sceptics in England – the EU seems ever more like a vast Golem smashing its way relentlessly through the maze of national traditions, replacing diversity by the rules which the higher wisdom of MEPs and Eurocrats thinks fit to impose on European subjects.

To stop this Golem – if we accept this vision for a moment -  one would need to remove the parchment with God’s name from its mouth in a manner of speaking. But that is easier said than done and it is questionable whether Cameron will find many allies in the EU should he really attempt to block the project of an ever closer union, not just in so far as it concerns Britain but also Europe as a whole.

Looking for such allies in Germany may be a particularly arduous task, as sceptical discussions of the EU and its objectives (unless they take place behind closed doors) are still frowned upon in the Federal Republic despite or perhaps because of the on-going Euro crisis.

German politicians mostly follow the line as far as the EU is concerned: Don’t touch it, it could fall apart, fragile as it is. Whoever dares to break this taboo is immediately attacked as a chauvinist, a man of the past and as somebody who favours ‘Kleinstaaterei’ (a Europe of quaint old fashioned micro-states and petty political fiefdoms which would be unable to survive on their own).

And conveniently for politicians like Schäuble the only party really sceptical about the cause of an ever closer European union in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland is just about to tear itself apart, having chosen the path of self destructive internal conflict for reasons which are difficult to fathom. It is quite uncertain whether it will survive its present crisis. So wherever Cameron will find allies for a major retrenchment of EU powers, Germany is not a place where he is likely to be very lucky in his search.

Nevertheless a fundamental reform of the EU transforming the inherent ethos of the European institutions would be the only policy which would allow the UK to participate in future European policy discussions on equal terms with other countries which are part of the Euro zone and do not enjoy the benefit of the generous opt out clauses which Britain has obtained in the past and hopes to obtain now on an even larger scale.

Otherwise the concessions which Britain will be granted today in negotiations with Brussels and Berlin may well turn out to be self defeating in the long run, because they will marginalise Britain within a political system which in its spirit and design is so alien to everything the British or perhaps rather the English political and constitutional tradition stands for. After all Britain is one of the few countries in Europe which never enjoyed the blessings of enlightened absolutism which was so similar in spirit to the world the European elites in Brussels want to create, to liberate their uncivilised hidebound subjects from their irrational convictions and antiquated national loyalties.

Fudged compromise

The most likely outcome of Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels is of course another fudged compromise, something the EU has always been good at, in fact such arrangements are the EU’s real strong suit. Compromises of this kind, laboriously stitched together but nevertheless often remaining incoherent and contradictory, tend to fall apart or to have thoroughly nefarious effects after a couple of years. The Euro is the best example for this. But who cares? After all in the long run we are all dead, as Keynes once famously put it, an insight which has many fervent supporters in Brussels.

It is a pity that in all likelihood there is no really satisfactory solution on the table, because despite the massive problems the United Kingdom is facing herself at the moment – one only needs to look at the fragile state of the Union between England and Scotland – British political culture with its more pragmatic, empirical and anti-utopian approach to politics could act as an important corrective to the haughty self confidence of the pro-European elites on the continent who still think – after the disastrous turmoil of the Euro crisis which is far from over -  that they can create a better world by wiping out Europe’s diversity.

It has been attempted before, though in more violent ways than by the softly softly approach favoured by the unobtrusive and seemingly harmless men and women peopling the corridors of power in Brussels, and so far it has never been a great success. This is something one should remember in the year marked by the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo which put an end to one such attempt at creating a modern and rationally organised European empire.

In 1815 the Prussians saved Wellington and his thin red line from defeat, but it is unlikely that there will be a repeat performance a hundred years later. Cameron will have to look for allies elsewhere, Schäuble ist no Blücher, unfortunately.

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Closing the doors of justice? The South African Constitutional Court’s approach to direct access

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 9:00

Legal interventions can help improve poverty and inequality, but in South Africa the poor don’t have sufficient access to courts. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on economic and social rights.

While there is some debate on the extent to which the law can improve implementation of economic and social rights, this much is clear: if the law is going to help at all, the poor must have access to courts. Across the developing world, and particularly in Latin America, one of the mechanisms adopted to facilitate this access is enabling people to directly petition the highest court to defend their rights (rather than only arriving there, perhaps, after many appeals through lower courts). Recognising how powerful this can be for disadvantaged populations, the South African Constitution allows direct access to the Constitutional Court when it is in the interests of justice.

Yet, in stark contrast to the highest courts in countries such as Colombia, Costa Rica and India, which regularly and generously grant direct access, the South African Constitutional Court only granted direct access in 18 cases in its first twenty years of operation (1994-2014). In comparison, the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica hears approximately 17,000 direct access applications each year (called amparos) and the Colombian Constitutional Court hears about 450 direct access applications each year (called tutelas).

The South African Constitutional Court has failed to utilise the direct access mechanism to proactively select deserving direct access cases from socio-economically disadvantaged groups. As the highest courts in other countries have realised, direct access is the mechanism over which judges have the most direct power to widen the doors of access to justice, particularly to disempowered applicants. But the South African Constitutional Court has failed to utilise the direct access mechanism to proactively select—not to mention to proactively seek out—deserving direct access cases from socio-economically disadvantaged groups. This failure has meant that, outside criminal cases in which there is legal representation at state expense, the Court’s roll is dominated by cases brought by empowered groups—groups with the funds to litigate through the various required stages to reach the Constitutional Court.   

South Africa’s narrow approach has undermined the Constitutional Court’s ability to act as an institutional voice for the poor. Indeed, this dominance of empowered over disempowered litigants, especially in a Court that hears a relatively low number of cases each year, has two worrying implications for the transformative potential of the Constitutional Court. First, regardless of how “pro-poor” any Constitutional Court judge may be, if s/he hears only or mainly cases involving empowered litigants, s/he is likely to lose touch with the disadvantaged. As a result, the Court is likely to become increasingly elite.

Second, this resulting detachment from the lives of most South Africans limits the ability of the Court to foster the development of constitutionalism. Without a transformative direct access function, the Court’s ability to endenger public faith in the supremancy of the Constitution across the socio-economic divides will remain stunted.

Examining the details of the 18 cases reveals interesting insights into the Court’s restrictive approach. First, half of these applications were not authentic direct access cases in the sense that the issues had already been aired in another court, as opposed to being an original application.

Flickr/Harvey Barrison (Some rights reserved)

Can the South African Constitutional Court better serve South Africans by hearing more direct-access cases?

Second, it is striking that all but two of the remaining nine “authentic” direct access cases relate to classic civil and political rights rather than socio-economic rights. This is noteworthy because in South Africa socio-economic rights cases are invariably brought by impoverished applicants who, arguably, have a stronger claim to direct access based on the interests of justice (because without direct access to the highest court they might not otherwise access justice). Indeed, in most of the 18 cases the litigant was the government; and only one case, Gundwana, was a case of a poor person who—without being granted direct access—would probably not have been able to litigate his case through the usual court hierarchy.

Third, almost all of the 18 cases were brought by government agencies and revolve around maintaining the institutional coherence of government, whether in terms of the court system, including the administration of the justice department and courts, the criminal justice system including correctional services, the electoral system, inter-governmental relations, or a combination of these factors. This suggests that the Court’s main aim in advancing direct access is to resolve political rather than socio-economic questions.  

Recent events, such as the fatal shooting of Andries Tatane by the police during a protest over the right to water, suggest that it is more critical than ever for constitutional litigation to be a serious avenue for contesting the lived reality of poverty and extreme inequality via the resolution of socio-economic questions (as well as political questions). This is all the more important given current perceptions, including by many in the government, that the Constitution is an elite document and that the Constitutional Court serves mainly elite interests. If the Constitutional Court were to embrace a more substantively pro-poor role including by advancing direct access, this could contribute greatly not only to material change and social justice, but also to the consolidation of democracy in South Africa.  

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UK border agents in the house of God

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 7:12

Immigration officers are now being placed in religious institutions.  It may not be too farfetched to ask: how long before we’re forced to wear our immigration status on our sleeves?

Just as we thought that immigration officers had every aspect of our daily lives covered - needing the right passport for getting married or getting work or medical treatment or a roof over our heads – their renamed body HOIE (Home Office Immigration Enforcement), woke up to the fact that it had failed to intervene in our relationship with God. I don’t happen to have one (since you ask, I ended it) but religiosity is high among immigrant communities and it was one area of their lives that had blossomed from the lack of surveillance until border agents were placed in Gurdwaras, Hindu temples and any religious institutions gullible or misguided or downright antagonistic to their own congregations to take them. Rita Chadha of RAMFEL (Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London) has described this as ‘the last bastion of the immigrant invaded’.

Activists became aware of this development when a six-month pilot programme, Operation Skybreaker which targeted employers, faith groups and registry offices in five London boroughs – Brent, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Ealing and Greenwich – was set up in July 2014. However, on further investigation, the Home Office press office said that the first ‘voluntary returns surgery’ in a place of worship was set up in 2009. Although the spokesperson was not able to give exact numbers, he stressed that this was only a London wide phenomenon. The Brent Anti-Racism Project made contact with local places of worship in order to alert them to their rights. They found that those faith groups which co-operated were less likely to suffer raids by immigration. One of the mosques had been raided and were reluctant to host HOIE clinics although the Hindu temple appeared to have happily welcomed their presence.

Southall Balck Sisters UK Border agency demonstration I visited the ‘surgery’ at that temple which has been running for over a year. The administrator thought the scheme was a great success because 20-24 people had been sent back in the first six months with most returning to Ahmedabad in India. When the temple was initially approached by the Home Office, they wanted reassurances about how the scheme was run because ‘people are fearful of immigration officers, especially people in uniforms. We don’t want people to be scared, this is a temple’. Sure enough, there were no uniforms, no signs of officialdom except for a discreet lanyard inscribed with the words ‘Home Office Immigration Enforcement’ that hung around the neck of one of the two young Asian women running the session. The desk itself was placed in the corner of a large hall at the back of the temple misleadingly signposted as ‘Toilets’. Or perhaps not so misleading.

I said I had come on behalf of a neighbour who was living with her relatives who were making her work day and night in return for board and lodging; she had come originally to the UK on a spousal visa and had been kicked out of her house by her husband. She wanted to go back because her mother was ill but didn’t speak the language and was afraid to come herself. ‘We’re here to help people who want to go back’ was the well-polished response of people trained to hide an iron fist inside a velvet glove although there was some fudging of the question I most wanted answered. What if she changed her mind after coming to see them? If her mother died, she may not want to go back. Would she be forcibly deported? They said they wouldn’t send anyone to her address, that in fact they had no way of knowing if someone’s address was genuine. But once they gave their name and date of birth, they would be in the system and anyone here illegally would be sent back. ‘We don’t want no time wasters’ said one of them. She must come only if she’s sure, she won’t be allowed to stay just because her mother died. Knowing that women who have faced domestic violence can make a case for the right to remain, I asked what if the husband was abusive. ‘Won’t make a difference. It’s his word against hers,’ came the pat reply. Whilst it is technically true that evidence of violence has to be provided, the way in which the advice was dished out would make anyone ignorant of the law believe that this was not an option. In fact, if this fictional woman was to give a statement to an experienced caseworker in a woman’s centre, a supportive report from the centre could be evidence enough.

The immigration officials could not explain how someone could be arrested if they did not verify or visit the addresses of potential returnees. This question was also fudged by the Home Office press officer who said, ‘The clinics themselves are unrelated to enforced removal’ but ‘We endeavour to help and persuade people with no leave to remain to voluntarily leave the UK, but where this option is declined we will take steps to enforce their removal.’  The administrator at the temple also didn’t know what would happen to people who changed their minds after they had passed on their personal information to the immigration officers but she was obviously worried enough about the consequences because she said she advised people to come forward only if they were 100 per cent sure that they wanted to return.

At a recent meeting on immigration organised by Southall Black Sisters, one of the speakers, Rita Chadha alluded to the Gurdwara in East London that hosts these clinics. Sikh temples are particularly known for their tradition of ‘langar’, providing meals for anyone who visits. Among the homeless and the poor who come for langar, there are people with uncertain immigration status. For immigration officers to be situated in places like that, however discreetly, can be unsettling for both settled and new migrants. The Sikh Council accepted £60,000 in grants in 2013 to run a voluntary return scheme.

Initiatives like these are inherently divisive, and encourage communities to spy on each other. Like the benefit fraud helpline, a regular presence of border agents makes it easy for neighbours and friends to report someone with whom they have fallen out. Compared to the sledgehammer approach of the ‘Go Home Vans’ in Operation Vaken in 2013 which led to the departure of only 11 people, this ‘softly, softly’ approach is also damaging because all migrants feel targeted. The Southall Black Sisters T-shirt, worn by protesters at their various anti-immigration laws demos, has the words, ‘Do I look like an illegal immigrant?’ boldly printed on them; it articulates perfectly the injustice of racial profiling involved in these enforcement measures.

While migrants feel hunted down at street level, there is a kind of pincer movement in operation: at the macro level, there have been calls, particularly by the Italian government, to move EU borders to Africa: setting up reception centres in countries like Niger, Tunisia and Sudan to screen potential refugees before they set foot in Europe. In the UK, the Queen’s speech promises a new immigration bill which will allow the police to seize the pitiful wages of ‘illegal’ immigrants. The whole weight of the new Conservative government will bear down on those least able to withstand it. We are all familiar with the dangerous consequences of racial profiling. It may not be too farfetched to ask: how long before we’re forced to wear our immigration status on our sleeves?


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Families in detention

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. May 2015 - 7:02

The United States uses the detention of families and unaccompanied minors as a method of deterring immigration. This must stop.

President Barack Obama heckled while speaking on immigration in Chicago in 2014. Jacek Boczarski/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

A recent report from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Women’s Refugee Commission tells the story of twenty-eight year old Rosa, who fled the gang violence in Honduras with her seven-year-old daughter Ana. They were arrested in New Mexico and put into a family detention centre there for three months. Around this same time, mothers held with their children at another family detention centre in Texas went on a five-day hunger strike the week before Easter 2015. The stories of these women and their children are among the many stories that have resulted from the United States’ renewed practice of detaining immigrant families.

The number of individuals detained in the United States for immigration reasons has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and especially under the Obama administration. This situation stems from the intensified border control efforts and immigration policies whose aim has ostensibly been to reduce mobility along the southern border of the United States. The policies have utterly failed to do so and have, rather, increased the vulnerability of those who cross. Amongst the numerous situations of detention that highlight the inhumanity of the current system is the issue of family detention.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) utilises a network of over 300 detention centres nationwide, many of them owned and operated by private corporations. In December of 2014 the largest family detention centre for immigrants opened in Dilley, Texas. At the facility’s inauguration, Jeh Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary, said ominously that with the added detention capability, “It’ll now be more likely that you’ll be detained and sent back.” The centre is a former camp for oilfield workers located 100 miles north of the US–Mexico border, between Laredo and San Antonio. It is designed to hold about 2400 detainees, most of whom will be women and children. The 50-acre site will be managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest for-profit prison corporation in the United States. CCA describes its mission in Dilley as being “to provide an open, safe environment with residential housing as well as educational opportunities for women and children who are awaiting their due process.” Others have described the site as “standing on a dirt road lined with cabins in a barren compound enclosed by fencing.”

The event(s) precipitating the recent uptick in what has been referred to as “Obama’s family deportation mill” was the arrival of the ‘border kids’ during the summer of 2014. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras crossed the Mexican border into the United States. While these unaccompanied minors received most of the media attention, there was also a significant increase in the numbers of women and children crossing for the same reasons, namely violence in their home countries. The US government apprehended 68,334 family members at the US’s southwest border between October 2013 and September 2014. This represents a 361 percent increase from the previous year, according to the report mentioned in the first paragraph.

Prior to the summer of 2014, ICE maintained only one family detention centre: the 96-bed Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, which opened in 2001. From 2006-2009 CAA, under contract with ICE,  managed a family detention centre in in Taylor, Texas, however it was shut down after scathing publicity about conditions at the centre led to a human rights investigation and a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Two other centres, one in Artesia, New Mexico and one in Karnes County, Texas were opened temporarily to hold families. Prior to opening the new centre in Dilley, Texas family detention, which was a very controversial aspect of the immigrant detention system, had been on the decline. 

Etienne Balibar has written of a “topography of cruelty” in which asylum and migration are central aspects. Borders, key features of this topography, today work as instruments of security control, segregation and “unequal access to the means of existence”. Surely, the detention of families, many with very young children, constitutes an extreme form of cruelty? Confining children in compounds behind razor wire is inherently inhumane. The average age of the children held at the Artesia, New Mexico detention centre was six years old. Mental health professional and immigration lawyers speak of the damage that prolonged detention does to mothers and their children, most of whom have already experienced devastating forms of violence. Surely the United States can do better.

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