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Updated: 1 hour 44 min ago

Syriza win – hope for Greece and Europe?

1 hour 59 min ago

Though the challenges they face are immense, Syriza have brought some much needed hope back to Greece - and even to the European Union.

Syriza press HQ during the election. Flickr/Marcos. Some rights reserved.

In his victory speech to jubilant crowds in central Athens on Sunday evening, Syriza's leader Alexis Tsipras called for the sun of 'justice, democracy and dignity' to come back to Greece.

Moving quickly, by Monday morning, Tsipras had done a deal with Panos Kammenos leader of the right wing Independent Greeks to form a government – with Syriza on its own being just short of an overall majority in parliament.

No one doubts the scale of the challenges the new Greek government now faces. But in the face of democratic alienation and loss of trust across Europe, and in the face of perverse and destructive economic policies creating damaged societies and lost generations, it is as Tsipras repeatedly said in his speech a moment of hope – not just for Greece but for all of Europe.

Europe in denial

Greece has probably experienced the most destructive social, economic and political impacts of the euro crisis and the austerity policies introduced in its wake – with unemployment at 25%, youth unemployment at over twice that, and the social fabric tearing ever more deeply over the last five years. Yet across southern Europe through Italy, Spain, Portugal and into France, high levels of youth and general unemployment have been created over the last five to seven years as failed economic policies have been grimly stuck to – in Italy youth unemployment hovers around 44%, in Spain around 56%. Public services and infrastructure, have crumbled in the face of austerity cutbacks; politics has fractured.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other eurozone leaders, have continued despite this to defend the euro tenaciously through these crisis years as the heart of the European project (to the bemusement of British politicians who only ever saw the EU as a trade bloc). Yet the biggest betrayal of the European project and damage to stability, peace and democracy in the EU has surely been the creation of a Europe where young people are denied jobs and hope. Half of a young generation in a whole swathe of countries remain unable to work, earn a living, use their skills, creativity and education.

A Turning Point?

Will the Syriza victory mark a turning point? Greece is a small member state in a large EU where the northern paymasters in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and elsewhere demand total capitulation to their misguided economics as the price for their bailouts. Just over three years ago, in November 2011, Merkel and then French President Nikolas Sarkozy infamously, and with sweeping disregard for democracy and national sovereignty, pressured then Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou into withdrawing his proposed referendum which would have let the Greek people have a say on the austerity measures (although with no alternative offered).

But in the face of a sweeping democratic victory by Syriza, there is now a stand-off – and will certainly be negotiations – over Greece's debt and austerity policies.

One or two politicians, including Finnish leader Alexander Stubb, have hinted at some possible flexibility in extending the maturity of Greece's debt. But allowing Greece's economy and society to breathe and prosper again will need much more than that. Germany has been intransigent in the years of the euro crisis, firmly attached to its neo-liberal policies of balanced budgets and cuts – in total denial in the face of leading economists and politicians (from the right as well as left) pointing out that the eurozone is suffering from a major lack of demand.

Cracks have been showing in the façade of agreement in these economic policies – with the European Central Bank's Mario Draghi belatedly launching a policy of quantitative easing last week, and Commission President Jean Claude Juncker attempting (but inadequately) to kick start €300 billion of investment in the EU. Francois Hollande, struggling with France's own failing economy, has welcomed Tsipras' victory.

But Angela Merkel is not going to change tack now – and her policies are supported by most of the German population – with Germany least damaged by the euro crisis, its public debate almost untouched by the political and economic devastation wreaked across southern Europe. The question is can Merkel completely deride and ignore the sweeping democratic verdict in Greece on the failure of the euro crisis measures? There will at least be talks – but the negotiations over whether, how and how much to change Greece's bailout deal will be tough and the outcome hard to predict.

Greek and European renewal?

Syriza have also been clear that they will not only renegotiate Greece's debt but reverse some of the most damaging austerity measures in Greece. They have also declared they will finally take the battle to Greece's wealthy oligarch elites, who have presided over corruption and economic decay while protecting their own wealth and influence. This will be as hard, if not more so, than negotiating with the EU institutions and the IMF.

Yet for now, Syriza have brought some hope back to Greece, and even to the European Union. It has been striking through the years of the euro crisis that the majority of the public – from Greece to Spain, Portugal and Ireland – have wanted to remain in the euro. The idea of being part of a European space is one that people in most EU countries still subscribe to (if not in the UK, and with eurosceptic movements growing even in Germany). Yet European politics has become much more volatile, with growing political alienation and apathy, with the rise of the far right in Greece, France, Italy and elsewhere, a real warning that failed economic policies have real political consequences.

The EU's most powerful leaders in Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels have ignored the deeply damaging political, social and economic impacts of their failed crisis management on the EU's member states and on the EU itself. Syriza's victory – and the rapid growth of Podemos in Spain, the extraordinarily high turnout in Scotland's recent referendum – all these show that people can and will engage with politics, with hope. If they succeed in shifting Greece's and the EU's path towards one of hope, they will be the ones who will have rescued the EU from itself, and started a return to genuine democracy and sane economic policies.

Europe continues to live in interesting times, but Tsipras, and Syriza, have injected some new hope. The challenge to all the EU's politicians is to build on that not destroy it.

Sideboxes Related stories:  After Syriza’s landslide: five predictions of a much similar future The troika saved banks and creditors – not Greece Country or region:  Greece
Categories: les flux rss

How Israeli high-tech firms are outfitting the US-Mexico border

3 hours 50 min ago

American academic and corporate knowhow and Mexican low-wage manufacturing are to fuse with Israel’s border and homeland security companies.

It was October 2012. Roei Elkabetz, a brigadier general for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was explaining his country’s border policing strategies. In his PowerPoint presentation, a photo of the enclosure wall that isolates the Gaza Strip from Israel clicked onscreen. “We have learned lots from Gaza,” he told the audience. “It’s a great laboratory.”

Elkabetz was speaking at a border technology conference and fair surrounded by a dazzling display of technology–the components of his boundary-building lab. There were surveillance balloons with high-powered cameras floating over a desert-camouflaged armored vehicle made by Lockheed Martin. There were seismic sensor systems used to detect the movement of people and other wonders of the modern border-policing world. Around Elkabetz, you could see vivid examples of where the future of such policing was heading, as imagined not by a dystopian science fiction writer but by some of the top corporate techno-innovators on the planet.

Swimming in a sea of border security, the brigadier general was, however, not surrounded by the Mediterranean but by a parched West Texas landscape. He was in El Paso, a 10-minute walk from the wall that separates the United States from Mexico.

Just a few more minutes on foot and Elkabetz could have watched green-striped US Border Patrol vehicles inching along the trickling Rio Grande in front of Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico’s largest cities filled with US factories and the dead of that country’s drug wars. The Border Patrol agents whom the general might have spotted were then being up-armored with a lethal combination of surveillance technologies, military hardware, assault rifles, helicopters, and drones. This once-peaceful place was being transformed into what Timothy Dunn, in his book The Militarization of the U.S. Mexico Border, terms a state of “low-intensity warfare.”

The border surge

On November 20, 2014, President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration reform. Addressing the American people, he referred to bipartisan immigration legislation passed by the Senate in June 2013 that would, among other things, further up-armor the same landscape in what’s been termed–in language adopted from recent US war zones–a “border surge.” The president bemoaned the fact that the bill had been stalled in the House of Representatives, hailing it as a “compromise” that “reflected common sense.” It would, he pointed out, “have doubled the number of Border Patrol agents, while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.”

In the wake of his announcement, including executive actions that would protect five to six million of those immigrants from future deportation, the national debate was quickly framed as a conflict between Republicans and Democrats. Missed in this partisan war of words was one thing: the initial executive action that Obama announced involved a further militarization of the border supported by both parties.

“First,” the president said, “we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.” Without further elaboration, he then moved on to other matters.

If, however, the United States follows the “common sense” of the border-surge bill, the result could add more than $40 billion dollars worth of agents, advanced technologies, walls, and other barriers to an already unparalleled border enforcement apparatus. And a crucial signal would be sent to the private sector that, as the trade magazine Homeland Security Today puts it, another “treasure trove” of profit is on the way for a border control market already, according to the latest forecasts, in an “unprecedented boom period.”

Like the Gaza Strip for the Israelis, the US borderlands, dubbed a “constitution-free zone” by the ACLU, are becoming a vast open-air laboratory for tech companies. There, almost any form of surveillance and “security” can be developed, tested, and showcased, as if in a militarized shopping mall, for other nations across the planet to consider. In this fashion, border security is becoming a global industry and few corporate complexes can be more pleased by this than the one that has developed in Elkabetz’s Israel.

The Palestine-Mexico border

Consider the IDF brigadier general’s presence in El Paso two years ago an omen. After all, in February 2014, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency in charge of policing our borders, contracted with Israel’s giant private military manufacturer Elbit Systems to build a “virtual wall,” a technological barrier set back from the actual international divide in the Arizona desert. That company, whose US-traded stock shot up by 6% during Israel’s massive military operation against Gaza in the summer of 2014, will bring the same databank of technology used in Israel’s borderlands–Gaza and the West Bank–to Southern Arizona through its subsidiary Elbit Systems of America.

With approximately 12,000 employees and, as it boasts, “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders,” Elbit produces an arsenal of “homeland security systems.” These include surveillance land vehicles, mini-unmanned aerial systems, and “smart fences,” highly fortified steel barriers that have the ability to sense a person’s touch or movement. In its role as lead system integrator for Israel’s border technology plan, the company has already installed smart fences in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

In Arizona, with up to a billion dollars potentially at its disposal, CBP has tasked Elbit with creating a “wall” of “integrated fixed towers” containing the latest in cameras, radar, motion sensors, and control rooms. Construction will start in the rugged, desert canyons around Nogales. Once a DHS evaluation deems that part of the project effective, the rest will be built to monitor the full length of the state’s borderlands with Mexico. Keep in mind, however, that these towers are only one part of a broader operation, the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan. At this stage, it’s essentially a blueprint for an unprecedented infrastructure of high-tech border fortifications that has attracted the attention of many companies. 

This is not the first time Israeli companies have been involved in a US border build-up. In fact, in 2004, Elbit’s Hermes drones were the first unmanned aerial vehicles to take to the skies to patrol the southern border. In 2007, according to Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, the Golan Group, an Israeli consulting company made up of former IDF Special Forces officers, provided an intensive eight-day course for special DHS immigration agents covering “everything from hand-to-hand combat to target practice to ‘getting proactive with their SUV.’” The Israeli company NICE Systems even supplied Arizona’s Joe Arpaio,“America’s toughest sheriff,” with a surveillance system to watch one of his jails.

As such border cooperation intensified, journalist Jimmy Johnson coined the apt phrase “Palestine-Mexico border” to catch what was happening. In 2012, Arizona state legislators, sensing the potential economic benefit of this growing collaboration, declared their desert state and Israel to be natural “trade partners,” adding that it was “a relationship we seek to enhance.”

In this way, the doors were opened to a new world order in which the United States and Israel are to become partners in the “laboratory” that is the US-Mexican borderlands. Its testing grounds are to be in Arizona. There, largely through a program known as Global Advantage, American academic and corporate knowhow and Mexican low-wage manufacturing are to fuse with Israel’s border and homeland security companies.

The border: open for business

No one may frame the budding romance between Israel’s high-tech companies and Arizona better than Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “If you go to Israel and you come to Southern Arizona and close your eyes and spin yourself a few times,” he says, “you might not be able to tell the difference.”

Global Advantage is a business project based on a partnership between the University of Arizona’s Tech Parks Arizona and the Offshore Group, a business advisory and housing firm which offers “nearshore solutions for manufacturers of any size” just across the border in Mexico. Tech Parks Arizona has the lawyers, accountants, and scholars, as well as the technical knowhow, to help any foreign company land softly and set up shop in the state. It will aid that company in addressing legal issues, achieving regulatory compliance, and even finding qualified employees–and through a program it’s called the Israel Business Initiative, Global Advantage has identified its target country.

Think of it as the perfect example of a post-NAFTA world in which companies dedicated to stopping border crossers are ever freer to cross the same borders themselves. In the spirit of free trade that created the NAFTA treaty, the latest border fortification programs are designed to eliminate borders when it comes to letting high-tech companies from across the seas set up in the United States and make use of Mexico’s manufacturing base to create their products. While Israel and Arizona may be separated by thousands of miles, Rothschild assured TomDispatch that in “economics, there are no borders.”

Of course, what the mayor appreciates, above all, is the way new border technology could bring money and jobs into an area with a nearly 23% poverty rate. How those jobs might be created matters far less to him. According to Molly Gilbert, the director of community engagement for the Tech Parks Arizona, “It’s really about development, and we want to create technology jobs in our borderlands.”

So consider it anything but an irony that, in this developing global set of boundary-busting partnerships, the factories that will produce the border fortresses designed by Elbit and other Israeli and US high-tech firms will mainly be located in Mexico. Ill-paid Mexican blue-collar workers will, then, manufacture the very components of a future surveillance regime, which may well help locate, detain, arrest, incarcerate, and expel some of them if they try to cross into the United States.

Think of Global Advantage as a multinational assembly line, a place where homeland security meets NAFTA. Right now there are reportedly 10 to 20 Israeli companies in active discussion about joining the program. Bruce Wright, the CEO of Tech Parks Arizona, tells TomDispatch that his organization has a “nondisclosure” agreement with any companies that sign on and so cannot reveal their names.

Though cautious about officially claiming success for Global Advantage’s Israel Business Initiative, Wright brims with optimism about his organization’s cross-national planning. As he talks in a conference room located on the 1,345-acre park on the southern outskirts of Tucson, it’s apparent that he's buoyed by predictions that the Homeland Security market will grow from a $51 billion annual business in 2012 to $81 billion in the United States alone by 2020, and $544 billion worldwide by 2018.

Wright knows as well that submarkets for border-related products like video surveillance, non-lethal weaponry, and people-screening technologies are all advancing rapidly and that the US market for drones is poised to create 70,000 new jobs by 2016. Partially fueling this growth is what the Associated Press calls an “unheralded shift” to drone surveillance on the US southern divide. More than 10,000 drone flights have been launched into border air space since March 2013, with plans for many more, especially after the Border Patrol doubles its fleet.

When Wright speaks, it’s clear he knows that his park sits atop a twenty-first-century gold mine. As he sees it, Southern Arizona, aided by his tech park, will become the perfect laboratory for the first cluster of border security companies in North America. He’s not only thinking about the 57 southern Arizona companies already identified as working in border security and management, but similar companies nationwide and across the globe, especially in Israel.

In fact, Wright's aim is to follow Israel’s lead, as it is now the number-one place for such groupings. In his case, the Mexican border would simply replace that country’s highly marketed Palestinian testing grounds. The 18,000 linear feet that surround the tech park’s solar panel farm would, for example, be a perfect spot to test out motion sensors. Companies could also deploy, evaluate, and test their products “in the field,” as he likes to say–that is, where real people are crossing real borders–just as Elbit Systems did before CBP gave it the contract.

“If we’re going to be in bed with the border on a day-to-day basis, with all of its problems and issues, and there’s a solution to it,” Wright said in a 2012 interview, “why shouldn’t we be the place where the issue is solved and we get the commercial benefit from it?”

From the battlefield to the border

When Naomi Weiner, project coordinator for the Israel Business Initiative, returned from a trip to that country with University of Arizona researchers in tow, she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the possibilities for collaboration. She arrived back in November, just a day before Obama announced his new executive actions–a promising declaration for those, like her, in the business of bolstering border defenses.

“We’ve chosen areas where Israel is very strong and Southern Arizona is very strong,” Weiner explained to TomDispatch, pointing to the surveillance industry “synergy” between the two places. For example, one firm her team met with in Israel was Brightway Vision, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems. If it decides to set up shop in Arizona, it could use tech park expertise to further develop and refine its thermal imaging cameras and goggles, while exploring ways to repurpose those military products for border surveillance applications. The Offshore Group would then manufacture the cameras and goggles in Mexico.

Arizona, as Weiner puts it, possesses the “complete package” for such Israeli companies. “We’re sitting right on the border, close to Fort Huachuca,” a nearby military base where, among other things, technicians control the drones surveilling the borderlands. “We have the relationship with Customs and Border Protection, so there’s a lot going on here. And we’re also the Center of Excellence on Homeland Security.”

Weiner is referring to the fact that, in 2008, DHS designated the University of Arizona the lead school for the Center of Excellence on Border Security and Immigration. Thanks to that, it has since received millions of dollars in federal grants. Focusing on research and development of border-policing technologies, the center is a place where, among other things, engineers are studying locust wings in order to create miniature drones equipped with cameras that can get into the tiniest of spaces near ground level, while large drones like the Predator B continue to buzz over the borderlands at 30,000 feet (despite the fact that a recent audit by the inspector general of homeland security found them a waste of money).

Although the Arizona-Israeli romance is still in the courtship stage, excitement about its possibilities is growing. Officials from Tech Parks Arizona see Global Advantage as the perfect way to strengthen the US-Israel “special relationship.” There is no other place in the world with a higher concentration of homeland security tech companies than Israel. Six hundred tech start-ups are launched in Tel Aviv alone every year. During the Gaza offensive last summer, Bloomberg reported that investment in such companies had “actually accelerated.” However, despite the periodic military operations in Gaza and the incessant build-up of the Israeli homeland security regime, there are serious limitations to the local market.

The Israeli Ministry of Economy is painfully aware of this. Its officials know that the growth of the Israeli economy is “largely fueled by a steady increase in exports and foreign investment.” The government coddles, cultivates, and supports these start-up tech companies until their products are market-ready. Among them have been innovations like the “skunk,” a liquid with a putrid odor meant to stop unruly crowds in their tracks. The ministry has also been successful in taking such products to market across the globe. In the decade following 9/11, sales of Israeli “security exports” rose from $2 billion to $7 billion annually.

Israeli companies have sold surveillance drones to Latin American countries like Mexico, Chile, and Colombia, and massive security systems to India and Brazil, where an electro-optic surveillance system will be deployed along the country’s borders with Paraguay and Bolivia. They have also been involved in preparations for policing the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The products of Elbit Systems and its subsidiaries are now in use from the Americas and Europe to Australia. Meanwhile, that mammoth security firm is ever more involved in finding “civilian applications” for its war technologies. It is also ever more dedicated to bringing the battlefield to the world’s borderlands, including southern Arizona.

As geographer Joseph Nevins notes, although there are many differences between the political situations of the US and Israel, both Israel-Palestine and Arizona share a focus on keeping out “those deemed permanent outsiders,” whether Palestinians, undocumented Latin Americans, or indigenous people.

Mohyeddin Abdulaziz has seen this “special relationship” from both sides, as a Palestinian refugee whose home and village Israeli military forces destroyed in 1967 and as a long-time resident of the US-Mexico borderlands. A founding member of the Southern Arizona BDS Network, whose goal is to pressure US divestment from Israeli companies, Abdulaziz opposes any program like Global Advantage that will contribute to the further militarization of the border, especially when it also sanitizes Israel’s “violations of human rights and international law.”

Such violations matter little, of course, when there is money to be made, as Brigadier General Elkabetz indicated at that 2012 border technology conference. Given the direction that both the US and Israel are taking when it comes to their borderlands, the deals being brokered at the University of Arizona look increasingly like matches made in heaven (or perhaps hell). As a result, there is truth packed into journalist Dan Cohen’s comment that “Arizona is the Israel of the United States.”

This piece, originally titled "Gaza in Arizona: How Israeli High-Tech Firms Will Up-Armor the U.S.-Mexican Border", is reposted from with that site's permission. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Behind the rise of the private surveillance industry in Central Asia Failure is success: how American intelligence works in the 21st century The creation of a border security state Drones over the world Country or region:  United States Israel Mexico
Categories: les flux rss

Survival Day: reclaiming Australia’s history

4 hours 8 min ago

Why should Australia acknowledge its bloody past on Australia Day? Firstly, this is a fundamental question of dignity.

Marching for recognition. Flickr/Dutytodo. Some rights reserved.“If you want to be legalistic about it, the state of war didn’t exist” – Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, 1998.

It is hard to imagine an American president using such language to describe the violent historical confrontations between white settlers and Native Americans. Yet, this claim was the basis for John Howard’s opposition to recognising Australia’s frontier wars at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra. “I think,” Howard continued, “[the purpose of] the Australian War Memorial is to honour Aboriginal Australians and other Australians who died defending Australia.” That is, white Australia.

This year will mark the centenary of the brutal and tragic Battle of Gallipoli – a defining event in Australian national consciousness and, in the words of the historian Peter Stanley, “a symbol of Australia’s national identity, achievement and existence.” The War Memorial itself commemorates not only Gallipoli, but all Australian involvement in overseas wars – from the

16,000 troops that fought in the Boer War, to an obscure and limited role fighting the Boxer Rebellion in China, which saw six Australians die of sickness and injury – none in battle. On its website, the AWM provides a brief article on the wars that led to the conquest of the country, the dispossession of Indigenous Australians, and the deaths of at least 20,000 Aborigines and 2500 settlers. It does not mention the name of one Aboriginal resistance leader – in keeping with its refusal to formally recognise the fallen First Australians in Canberra, even as further research continually reveals the full extent of the “line of blood” that marked the country’s colonisation.

War and resistance

Though educated in Australia, I heard little of the frontier wars. In the public sphere, we heard the famous apology, in 2008, for the Stolen Generations – long overdue, after the “Bringing Them Home Report” established in 1997 that “between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970.” Kevin Rudd, however – the Prime Minister who issued the apology – refused to grant compensation or reparations to the victims, while later emphasising the importance of “moving beyond” debates about the wars fought for control of the continent itself.

There is ample evidence that the colonisation of Australia led to significant warfare. “Conflict,” writes Henry Reynolds, a leading historian of the wars, “broke out between invading settlers and resident Aborigines within a few weeks of the foundation of Sydney and was apparent on every frontier for the next 140 years.” The duration and intensity of the violence dwarfed that seen, for instance, in New Zealand’s “Maori Wars,” which “lasted 27 years and resulted in 2100 Maori deaths.”

I took two school trips to the Hawkesbury region north of Sydney, a popular destination for fishing, camping and hiking. Only last year did I learn that this was the “first front in Australia’s frontier war” – where the local Darug people sabotaged the crops of settlers who bound and tortured Darug boys, and where the Acting Governor of New South Wales was forced to order a military crackdown in 1795.

Further north, the Hunter Valley provides a popular retreat where Sydneysiders can spend a weekend away from the busy city, go wine tasting and ride in hot air balloons. It is little known that this was a region where, after escalating violence, the Governor warned in 1826 of the possibility that “no longer fearing the Settlers, the Natives will renew their depredations,” leading him to arm the settlers and encourage them to terrorise the Indigenous population into submission.

Examples like this abound across the vast continent. As John Pilger points out, Rottnest Island – “an idyllic retreat” off the coast of Western Australia – was, in fact, a brutal prison for Aborigines from 1838 to 1931, incarcerating over 3700 men and boys. Again, few white Australians know the history of such places – nor, I imagine, would they want to know.

Why does it matter?

Why should Australia acknowledge its bloody past? Firstly, this is a fundamental question of dignity. Paul Keating, one of the rare Prime Ministers to recognise this, put it clearly in his much-celebrated Redfern Speech. “Imagine,” he said to the crowd, “if we had resisted this settlement, suffered and died in defence of our land, and then were told in history books that we had given up without a fight.” These words, spoken in 1992, provided hope for the creation of a truly shared history, and, perhaps a shared nation.

Australia’s current political leaders are less inspiring. Christopher Pyne, the current Education Minister, wrote to Prince William in 2011 requesting assistance finding the lost skull of the great Indigenous resistance leader, Pemulwuy – “a hero for modern day Indigenous Australians and a rare example of recorded Aboriginal resistance.” The request itself is of course welcome, but the added patronising – and historically inaccurate – claim of “a rare example” indicates a continual refusal to accept the realities of the country’s settlement, typical of a minister who has since argued for school curriculums to place more emphasis on “the benefits of western civilisation” and arranged a national education review co-chaired by a commentator known for his attacks on history lessons “uncritically promoting diversity” at the expense of “Judeo-Christian values.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister himself, notwithstanding his claim to be “the Prime Minister for Indigenous Australia,” seemed to forget the existence of Indigenous Australians during his speech in August last year. He stated: “I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or scarcely settled great south land.” Perhaps Mr Abbott still believes in the legal and historical fiction of terra nullius – land belonging to no one – established at the time of British settlement and upheld, embarrassingly, until the High Court struck it down in 1992.

The heroes we forget

How can white Australia expect “reconciliation” when it fails to recognise the history and resistance of the original custodians of the land? “Australia Day,” January 26, lives on as a day of immense national pride and celebration – even though it marks the arrival of an invading British fleet in 1788.

This year, the Gallipoli centenary will likely add a measure of militarism to the events. We will honour the heroes who fell fighting abroad for the British Empire – but not those who fought to defend their land from colonisation, and whose culture has lived on, despite massive upheaval and destruction, and continuing horrors like deaths in custody and a highly intrusive federal government “intervention.”

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, January 26 will mark “Survival Day.” They will not forget the history of what is, after all, their land. It is a disgrace that white Australia has failed to confront its past – that its memorial to national heroes remains obstinate and forgetful; that it fumes at the spectre of “illegal immigration” while living prosperously on land that was stolen, never ceded; and that it hides its historical and current injustices from the world.

No common nationhood can honestly be forged against this backdrop of silence and denial.

Sideboxes Related stories:  WW1 and the battle of the national myth Country or region:  Australia Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government
Categories: les flux rss

Please mind the datachasm

5 hours 50 min ago

They began to interpret things like him leaving the house without his mobile phone as indications that their suspicions were correct. Welcome to one half of the datachasm. Sleep safe.

Überwachungskameras in Berlin. Wikimedia Commons/Autorenkollectiv. Some rights reserved.

It was early morning when the German police stormed the house of Andrej Holm and his family. Armed police searched the home for 15 hours and Holm spent three weeks in pre-trial detention. Andrej Holm is an urban sociologist. His crime? Well, he committed no crime, or no more than the rest of us. He was finally released after public pressure, and the discovery, presumably, that he wasn’t a terrorist after all.

At a time when we are flooded by government demands that social media yield more information to them, that encryption be open to government, when the UK government is increasing the already vast surveillance powers they took under RIPA with dire laws like DRIP, and when the internet is harvesting ever more of our data, this should give us pause for thought.

This is, in a way, a call to more thought, much more thought, than has previously been given to these issues in public discourse. It is shocking to witness the resignation or apathy at the vast amounts of data harvesting revealed by Edward Snowden.

Holm had been noted by the security services, perhaps initially by automatic systems, for using words like ‘marxist-leninist’ and ‘gentrification’. He fitted the profile of some bombers the security services were hunting down. Unknown to him, he and his entire family had been under close scrutiny for a year before the raid took place. The police had gathered large amounts of data on him, put it all together, and come up with an entirely erroneous conclusion: that Holm was a terrorist. The mistake resulted in serious trauma inflicted on himself and his family.

Statisticians will tell you that as a data set gets larger, the likelihood of false correlations appearing rises. The police and security services of most developed countries now collect so much data on their citizens that a vast amount of false correlation is surely bound to occur. But perhaps the really scary aspect of Holm’s story is that it was under intense human-led scrutiny that Holm’s life rendered to the police the picture of a terrorist. They began to interpret things like him leaving the house without his mobile phone as indications that their suspicions were correct. Welcome to one half of the datachasm.

The datachasm is the gulf between us and our data. As available-to-the-state tracking systems grow – Google, Facebook, your phone, paypal, email, credit cards, travelcards, ANPR, facial recognition – we have ever less control of our data. The datachasm has two cliffs to it: the first is the infinite complexity of everyday social life and the embeddedness of humans. Data, as it is managed, can only simplify and individualise. It has to be separated from relationships, which deal in complexity and embeddedness. There is a massive gap between our actual selves and our selves as represented in data. As Holm discovered, the surveillance systems only see a dataself, not you.

The second cliff of the chasm is that you are not in control of your data, nor in control of how people use it. Your data flows from one system to another, often without your knowledge, for purposes you have not sanctioned. The gulf between us and our data, the datachasm, could be said to be a new type of alienation in the world.

Data creep and the real you

The datachasm was not inevitable: it opened up partially through technology, but there are at least two other tendencies that bear some of the blame. One is the tendency in western society to believe in data on the page as truth. The other is the phenomenon of data creep.

I recently stumbled across an excellent illustration of the lack of control we have over our data – or should we say ‘their data’. A Freedom of Information request was made by James Bridle to Transport for London (TfL) about Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) use of their Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) data. It was already known that the police had been asking for data from TfL for ‘national security purposes’, which was the only agreed reason for which they could ask for it; they then used the data to catch ordinary criminals, though their contract with TfL explicitly stated the data could only be used for national security purposes. This is data creep between and within official bodies – which in theory have the strictest rules controlling data. But the scariest bit about the story is not that it happened; it is the correspondence about it. Here is an email from TfL to the Met:

Notwithstanding that, if it came to TfL’s attention that the data was being used for other purposes and that the MPS was, in effect, making section 29 disclosures of the data internally, I do not consider it likely in present circumstances that TfL would seek to enforce the parts of the contract that restrict the use of the data to national security purposes. This reflects that fact that the contract does not, of course, take account of the Mayor’s intention that the MPS and TfL should begin sharing TfL’s ANPR cameras so that the MPS gain routine access to the data for non-national security purposes.

Do you like that ‘if it came to our attention’? Senior officials write all correspondence very aware that it might be subject to an FOI request, which raises the question of what they say in private, and the imbalance of data monitoring between us and them, but that is perhaps a side issue. What this email is saying is that the police ignored the law on sharing of data and use of data, and rather than apologise, they lobbied to get the law changed. Apologise? That would be the last thing they’d do, as an email to TfL by a Detective Superintendent Winterbourne makes abundantly clear:

We request data all the time from numerous bodies both public and private for use in investigating a particular crime. TfL is one of those bodies. Having made countless such requests over my years I don't recall ever having been asked for a legal position around how we intend to use it. These things seem to fall within a corporate and common sense understanding of what Police do on behalf of society.

And if you don’t find that comforting, Winterbourne has a more precise and belligerent explanation of his thinking in responding to particular lines from TfL (in bold):

Firstly, if we had a legal route by which to change the use to which data is put that would be sufficient in this case. That isn't how the MPS sees it. We have a long term plan for using ALL data for Crime.

Do TfL seek clarification of the legal provision by which Police can use data once we have it? This would be like asking for the legal position OF Police to BE Police. We use data and information to solve Crime, that is what we are for. Nobody else seeks reassurance that we have a legal provision to use data once we have it. I think we need to be careful here not to start including massive mission drift away from the real issues - which I would say don't include the legality of Police using data to solve crime once we are in lawful possession of it.

Got that? The police will use any and all data available in their mission to BE POLICE, both once they are in lawful possession of it, and, implicitly given the context of this exchange, when they aren’t. The police know where you drive. They will use that data wisely. Sleep safe.

The email exchange then moves on to talk of changing road signs to make sure drivers will know their data is being collected as they drive around the UK. But much of that data is already collected by the police, and I suspect many people don’t understand what the signs mean.

Are they really meant to? And what would they be able to do about it if they did know? One of the worst aspects of the datachasm is that it can’t be avoided: data will be collected on you, even if you are willing to pay the price of staying off social media, email, mobile phones and so on.

Your data is of course not just available to the state in vast quantities. It is also available to corporations, with Facebook and Google being the most obvious data harvesters. Christian Rudder of dating site OkCupid recently published a book, Dataclysm, based on data the site had collected, with his interpretations of what it all meant. A controversy briefly stirred about the fact no users had given their permission for the data to be used in that way, nor had they given permission to be experimented upon using methods such as fiddling match percentages. OkCupid has been completely unapologetic about this, as was Facebook when they admitted to having experimented with users. The companies aren’t even embarrassed.

It really isn’t your data, it’s theirs. This isn’t just data creep between different organisations or different parts of organisations, it is manipulation of your online self, and it is data creep from personal confessions on the internet into published books.

Rudder’s book brings us full circle back to the first cliff of the Datachasm. The subtitle of the book is Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking). You aren’t your real self in daily life, says Rudder, but your online selves, behind the anonymous usernames, are your real selves. And so he begins to draw conclusions about what people are really like, even though he has not done a single peer-reviewed study, nor had the data replicated or verified. I would urge anyone who thinks that internet personalities are the ‘real person’ to spend a few hours on youtube comments threads, and then imagine all those people in their daily lives. Which is the real person? Philosophers have pondered for centuries about whether there’s any such thing, but Rudder already knows – he has data.

Beyond the vague datacreeps

Any number of academics have, over many decades, attacked the use of statistics and other data as a form of control, particularly as part of what Foucault called ‘biopower’ – the control of populations and their bodies, supposedly for their own good. This confirms that the phenomenon of control-by-data isn’t entirely new, but we are undergoing a huge step change in data collection, due to the reduced cost of storing and processing data, that brings a new urgency to the debate.

This presents us with new challenges and casts old challenges in a new light. For instance, is the British concern about ID cards now a bit…outdated? While I still don’t want the state to demand that I carry a particular bit of plastic everywhere, the reality is that the tracking of my life already dwarfs anything that could be achieved with ID cards. Should we not begin to talk of a new ‘right’ here? Surely we could have the right to control data about us?

But we have not yet developed either the concepts or the public discourse to deal with the datachasm. People have gradually and belatedly become aware that their data is being harvested on a grand scale, but most of us are unsure what it might mean. All we feel so far is a vague unease. The datachasm gives us small moments of fear: adverts for things we hate but recently googled appear on an unrelated website, Facebook suggests links based on a site we visited but wouldn’t talk about publicly. Data creep gives us the datacreeps, but it does not yet give us the real fear.

If we do not develop the language to talk about this, there is no doubt that the gap between us and our data will deliver more of us to big, terrifying moments in the datachasm. As Holm and his family discovered, the datachasm is deep and wide, and grows deeper and wider every day. To have even a hope of closing it, we must have a much broader discussion both about what data means, and who controls it.

Read more from our 'Closely observed citizens' series here.

Sideboxes Related stories:  How generalised suspicion destroys society Privacy, surveillance and the state-corporate symbiosis Diagonal mass surveillance: Gulliver versus the Lilliputians A war of new connections Privacy and security in cyberspace: right of all or luxury of the few? Mass surveillance just doesn’t work The digital freedom risk: too fragile an acknowledgment Country or region:  EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics Internet Science
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How big is the trafficking problem? The mysteries of quantification

9 hours 24 min ago

Wildly different numbers circulate about the number of trafficking victims and modern-day slaves. Victims are hard to count because they are hidden and definitions are ambiguous, yet efforts to quantify them shape what we know and do about trafficking.

A sex worker in Kolkata, India in 2012. Arindam Mukherjee/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Horror stories of innocent young women tricked or sold into prostitution by unfeeling parents, carted across international borders, and thrown into slave-like conditions in brothels have made human trafficking one the hottest topics of the decade. This conception of trafficking has all the trappings of a popular issue: the innocent girl, sexually abused, and the villainous perpetrator, an organized crime boss. It invites a saviour mentality and acts of rescue. The rhetoric of trafficking has been augmented as of late by the concept of slavery, a hot-button idea that generates even more public outrage and donor support. But how accurate is this picture and how widespread is the abuse?

Ethnographic studies of sex workers and trafficked victims show a far more complex picture, one in which migrant smuggling and labour migration blur with what is labelled as trafficking. A young woman may leave her village in search of a job that will support her family or her children, expecting to work in a factory but discovering that sex pays better. Alternatively, she may take a job in a bar only to learn she is expected to do sex work as well. Women may be trafficked by neighbours or relatives as well as by organised crime bosses. Moreover, it appears that the majority of exploited labour do jobs other than sex work, and that they are coerced by a range of factors including poverty, kinship obligations, fear of violence, debt, and even the desire for the trappings of modernity.

The movement into victim status is often a complicated process. Some steps might be made on the basis of consent while others are relatively less free. What makes labour exploitative is similarly diverse and hard to specify. To add to the definitional morass, there are currently efforts to re-frame trafficking victims under new labels such as ‘modern-day slavery.’ The US State Department, for its part, no longer includes the criterion of cross-border mobility in its definition, even though this has long been a core principle of trafficking.

Not only are these definitions vague, overlapping, and even contradictory, but they are changing over time. This creates clear difficulties for determining who should be considered trafficked, yet agencies and advocates continue their attempts to tabulate numbers of victims and traffickers. Some count forced labourers, some sex workers, some cross-border labour migrants, and some a combination of these and other statuses such as involuntary domestic servitude and child marriage. Practical obstacles to finding people in the shadowy, secretive conditions in which such workers exist only exacerbate these problems of definition. Big numbers are necessary to draw attention to the problem, even though they are acknowledged as guesses, and they vary wildly.

For example, the U.S. State Department estimated in its 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders every year, of whom 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the US. Approximately 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. Of these, there are “hundreds of thousands used in prostitution.” In the same year, the International Labour Organization estimated that 2.45 million people are trafficked and 1.05 million are trafficked into sex work from a global population of 12.3 million forced labourers. Meanwhile, Kevin Bales estimated in his 2005 book Disposable People that there are 27 million modern-day slaves.

However, the number of identified victims is a great deal smaller. For example, according to the State Department TIP Reports there were only 30,961 identified victims in 2008, the first year for which this information is provided. By 2012, there were 46,570. As of 2009, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had about 13,500 trafficked persons representing more than 90 countries in its database of registered victims.

Despite this diversity of these numbers, a few of these estimates of trafficking victims circulate widely, gaining credibility through repetition. Some are repeated over and over in various documents until they acquire an aura of truth and are commonly cited simply as, for example, ‘US government’ data. Clearly, this is a hidden population and hard to count. Yet the vast disparity between estimates and counts of actual victims raises questions about how these numbers are produced and how big the problem is. There are undoubtedly some people victimised by the processes defined as trafficking and slavery, but how many is still unknown. The proliferation of large numbers does little to clarify the picture.

Any system of measurement confronts problems in determining how to reduce the buzzing confusion of social life to categories amenable to counting. The many systems employed today to count trafficking victims use different conceptions of trafficking and different measurement protocols. Each has an underlying theory about what the problem is and how it should be solved. Under conditions of uncertainty of this kind, a social phenomenon will ultimately come to be defined by whatever system of measurement prevails. In other words, the act of measurement creates the object of measurement. We may not know what intelligence is, but we do know that there is something that IQ tests measure that we call intelligence. Similarly, concepts such as the rule of law or failed states are broad and multi-faceted, yet are given more specific content by projects that claim to measure them in ways that permit comparisons across countries.

Thus, as scholars, international and national governments, and non-governmental organisations measure trafficking, they define it. The definition of the problem implicitly determines which policy should address it, whether rescues, labour regulations, migrant visas, information flyers at airports, or poverty reduction programmes. How things are counted has clear consequences for understanding what the problem is and what should be done about it.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Miscounting human trafficking and slavery
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From HIV to trafficking: shifting frames for sex work in India

9 hours 24 min ago

The conflation of trafficking and prostitution in antitrafficking discourses not only frames all sex workers as victims in need of rescue, but elides the reasons many include sex work as part of their complex livelihood strategies.

Hijras in a train in Rajasthan in 2012. Giannis Papanikos/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

NGOs focusing specifically on ‘sex work’ and ‘trafficking’ (where ‘trafficking’ is conflated with prostitution) in India have only been around since the mid and late 1990s. There has been a steep rise in their numbers in the last decade. Previously, if organizations addressed the needs of sex workers, they did so within the rubric of HIV/AIDS. Indian HIV/AIDS organizations were spurred into existence by the flow of international aid dollars that increasingly became available to organisations working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the first decade of the AIDS pandemic (1985-1995). Funds for HIV-related work in India came from the European Union, Sweden, Norway, and Canada into then relatively new entities like India’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO). This money provided the infrastructural support for both governmental and nongovernmental efforts to surveil, control, and eventually treat HIV and AIDS. Local organisations also emerged as a result of this new funding to provide HIV-related services to sex workers, men who have sex with men, and hijras (people assigned male sex at birth who live as a ‘third sex’ in the feminine range of the gender spectrum).

By the late 1990s, thanks to feminist debates on pornography and prostitution, an antitrafficking framework—composed of laws, policies, and theories that used prostitution as an allegory for women’s oppression by men—was taking hold within some national governments and segments of the international policy-making community as a primary lens for understanding sexual commerce. This framework now largely dominates the discussion, having become the ‘common sense’ of sexual commerce and even, to a degree, migration among poor and working class people. This is despite the fact that the trafficking framework has been repeatedly criticised for conflating human trafficking with prostitution, and for failing to provide clear parameters for tracking the phenomena it aims to describe. It remains, for the moment, a significant but contested lens on sexual commerce for international policy, especially with respect to interventions crafted for countries in the Global South.

The rise in the explanatory power of the antitrafficking framework for understanding phenomena like migration and the exchange of sex and money in the Global South paralleled an increase in the significance of prostitution in the global image and imaginary of India, usually as the dark foil of India’s buoyant economic growth rates. By 2007, ‘prostitution in India’ had become a categorical focus for charitable organizations, an object of study for filmmakers, a worthy cause for politicians and celebrities, and a Wikipedia entry. This was not due to the discourse on HIV per se, nor was it due to an increase in the proliferation of HIV in India (the national rate of new infections decreased by half between 2000 and 2009). Rather, the increased significance of prostitution to the idea of India itself was linked with the increased global significance of the antitrafficking framework.

While this framework is far from being unequivocally dominant in managing and understanding prostitution, its increased significance in the halls of international policy formulation has helped position prostitution as particularly important to understandings of women in the Global South. This conflation of trafficking and prostitution is contextualised by a number of historical trends, including the ways in which discourses of venereal disease have figured female sex workers as infectious vectors since the nineteenth century. It is also contextualized by the altered conditions for labour migration brought about in the late 1980s and early1990s due to the adoption of neoliberal economic policies in many parts of the world; the well-rehearsed histories of feminist pornography debates in the United States; and the confluence of interests between governments and some segments of women’s movements in seeking to eliminate illegal and undocumented cross-border migration. While migrancy has changed dramatically in the era of neoliberalism, such that economic migrants are vulnerable to wage theft, debt bondage, exploitation, and abuse in new and unprecedented ways, we may ask whether the frame of ‘trafficking’ accurately tracks and addresses these vulnerabilities, or whether it is more effective in protecting states’ interests in securing and monitoring borders?

At worst, the rise in the explanatory power of ‘trafficking’ for prostitution consists of an elision of political economy within discourses of sexuality, contributing to the reproduction of the idea that sexual freedom, autonomy, expression, and even sexual subjectivity are all luxury goods, available only to those whose access to food and shelter is secure. This form of depoliticisation within sexuality politics in the United States and elsewhere has attracted much scholarly and activist attention, as well as criticism from both the mainstream left and the LGBTQ left. In my view, a sustained scholarly engagement with sexual commerce in the Global South would not only offer a way to critique prostitution per se. It would also demonstrate the kind of discussion of sexuality, politics, and power that is possible when sexuality is not primarily or exclusively understood as a form of individuated, innate human expression.

The result of this depoliticisation in understandings of sexual commerce has been the subjection of women and girls selling sexual services to a discourse in which prostitution is a state of being from which they must simply be rescued. In this discursive trajectory, sexual commerce is never figured as a livelihood strategy that is part of a complex set of negotiations for daily survival that include, but cannot be reduced to, violence and precarity. Just as identitarianism marginalises questions of political economy with respect to LGBTQ politics, the conflation of selling sexual services with human trafficking deprioritises and, in some spaces, erases the question of survival with respect to sexual commerce. This individuated frame reinforces and reifies the idea of origins, on the moment in which an individual subject knew, came out, was forced, was called into being, within a fixed subjective matrix.

_Street Corner Secrets _takes up this critique by asking what an analysis of sexual commerce would be if it were to use a framework other than trafficking, one that focuses instead, for example, on the relationship between sexuality and livelihood? How would such an analysis account for violence, without conflating the exchange of sex and money with violence? The book does this by emphasizing the idiosyncratic and extremely local ways in which laws and criminality are interpreted and enforced as part of a larger focus on migration and daily economic survival. This emphasis is able to account for the relationship between sexual commerce and the profoundly uneven and inadequate access to water and land among poor migrants living in Mumbai. Here, the difference between living in a brothel and a slum is, among another things, the relatively higher access to municipal services like water and government-run schools among brothel-based sex workers, compared with those eking out a living in the slums at the edge of the city.

The emphasis in the book on livelihood, economic informality, housing and the liminal legal zones migrants must navigate in the city opens up a number of questions that are subsumed, or unasked, when abolitionism imbricated with trafficking serves as the primary interpretive frame for sexual commerce. What, for example, could a critical examination of sexual commerce reveal about the politics of day wage labour? What would it show about the exercise of state power on the urban street? What could it reveal about economic survival, in the Indian context, or in any other? Addressing these questions brings us closer to discursively repositioning violence, such that we may account for violence as it is meted out in myriad forms by police, housing authorities, and clients against people selling sexual services, while also explaining why sexual commerce endures as a livelihood strategy among people who are extracting survival from an shrinking field of economic options.

Excerpted and condensed from the Preface and Introduction of Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work and Migration in the City of Mumbai, Duke University Press, 2014

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The people’s state of the union: re-imagining U.S. politics

13 hours 54 min ago

Could the U.S. President’s annual address be reconfigured as a playful, reflective and connective civic ritual? Here’s how.

USDAC Cultural Agent Jess Solomon speaking at a public forum hosted by the Mayor’s Office in Washington, D.C., 2014. Credit: Marvin Bowser. All rights reserved.  

When President Obama delivered the 93rd State of the Union address in Washington DC last week he returned to one of his favorite subjects—the straitjacket of partisan politics. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns,” he said, “Imagine if we did something different.”

But how equipped are members of Congress to re-imagine politics in this way? Perhaps they might want to undergo some training with the “U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.”

Known as the USDAC, the Department defines itself as “the nation's newest people-powered department, founded on the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change.” It’s focused at the moment on organizing a People’s State of the Union, a process designed to re-imagine the President’s annual address as a more playful, reflective and connective civic ritual.

Of course it isn’t actually a government department.  A group of artists launched the USDAC in autumn 2013, when the federal government had temporarily shutdown many of its operations because a highly partisan Congress couldn’t agree a spending bill for the next fiscal year.

While there’s clearly an element of satire involved, the new Department aspires to nothing less than a paradigm shift: “from a consumer to a creator culture, from 'me' to 'we', from a society based in fear, isolation, and competition, to one that is based in equity, empathy, and interconnectedness and that invites the creativity, imagination, and collaboration of all people.”

As part of the People’s State of the Union, Citizen Artists are hosting story circles in over 150 sites across the USA from January 23 to 30. ‘We the people’ are invited to share our stories by choosing from one of these three prompts:

* Tell a story about a moment you felt true belonging—or the opposite—in this country or in your community.

  • * Describe an experience that showed you something new or important about the state of our union.

* Share about a time you stood together with people in your community.

Fueled by the content of these stories, a team of poets led by the Minister for Poetry and Language Protection will then create the “Poetic Address to the Nation.” On February 1st, the Address will be performed at the Bowery Poetry club in New York (for tickets, click here) and broadcast live. After the event, everyone is encouraged to perform the poetic address locally in whatever forms they find enlivening.

I recently interviewed five people with formal roles in USDAC to find out more about how a mock government department invented by artists is going to create a cultural paradigm shift and revitalize U.S. democracy.

Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz pointed me to this extract from the Department’s website, which clarifies the USDAC’s rationale:

“In this era of broken systems—from healthcare to energy to education to the way our entire economy is structured—citizens must be empowered to imagine and enact positive alternatives. To cultivate effective co-creators of new systems based in equality, non-discrimination, and sustainability, we must provide universal access to empowering creative experiences that build empathy and social imagination.”

In his interview, Horowitz was eager to emphasize that the Department is an “act of collective imagination,” an invitation for people to channel their basic human impulses for belonging, solidarity and common purpose into creating the “Beloved Community.”

To maximize resources, the USDAC is building bridges between existing local grass-roots community organizing efforts and national policy and action. However, its primary role seems to be as a multi-generational training ground to grow networks of imaginative and conscientious co-creators—nourishing the inner artist in everyone.

Its arts-centered actions like Imaginings—events at which people are encouraged to imagine the future of their communities at a time when USDAC Values are fully embedded in society—are aimed at helping participants to exercise their ‘muscles’ for imagination, empathy, compassion and reflection.

Cultural Agents  hosted the first round of Imaginings in a dozen locations around the USA in 2014. Jess Solomon, who is a Cultural Agent, hosted an event in Washington DC where people ate, imagined, and created art together to express their different visions. It concluded with an established artist drawing from the content of everyone’s contributions to improvise a performance piece.

Unleashing creativity in this way is a risky business. In her interview, Solomon explained to me that she was struck by how uncomfortable the process of imagining can be for people. “Because you have to come to terms with questions like twenty years from now, who am I going to be and what is this going to mean?”  But people did overcome their discomfort and left the event with a spring in their step and a greater confidence in their co-creative powers.  

Influenced by the practices of activist theater makers, the USDAC uses ‘story circles’ to cultivate empathy, compassion and a sense of equality. Each participant has three minutes to tell their story, and everyone else is instructed to listen with full attention—no exceptions. Once everyone has shared, participants are steered away from embellishing or contradicting other people’s stories. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

The Department’s Chief Policy Wonk, Arlene Goldbard, explained that she’s a fan of story circles because she believes “the way to bring people who are different from any of us closer is to have that experience of sharing and listening.” They are “the most amazingly powerful democratic modality” she’s seen. Goldbard described occasions when, for example, corporate executives in their sixties and eleven year old children “were forced into a situation of total equality by the structure of the interaction…Everybody’s expectations were confounded.”

For many people, the scariest aspect of creating a paradigm shift is to acknowledge and confront what lies inside of us. Artists are constantly creating resources for holding up a mirror to the nature of our relationships and the deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that underpin our militaristic, consumer-oriented, planet-destroying culture.  

As with its action call for police demilitarization, USDAC likes to invite people to jump into challenging reflections such as: “Who are we as people? What do we stand for? How would we like to be remembered?”

Makani Themba, the Department’s Minister for Revolutionary Imagination, explained the goal of the process like this: “to disconnect from and uproot assumptions and take on different assumptions that lay a foundation for transformation and radical change.” In particular, Themba wants people to challenge the assumption that human beings are hard-wired for violence, greed, competition, racism and selfishness, and to “re-imagine ourselves as hard-wired for cooperation and caring.”

She illuminated what she means by posing these questions: “Where do you imagine yourself completely free and connected?”  “If love led you to whatever you did, what would that look like, and where would it take you?”

Daniel Banks, USDAC’s Catalyic Agent, is excited by the Department’s arts-based work to expand people’s imagination and reflection. In his interview with me he suggested that “It is not a huge leap of logic to see why it is that as greed and exploitation increase, an attempt to suppress the arts increases. The arts have the power to be the moral or ethical compass of a society.”

If this sounds like weighty work, that’s because it is. Yet, the USDAC involves a huge amount of play. At its most basic level, its playfulness frees people from the conventional formality and constraints of bureaucracy that stifle imagination and creativity—things like dress codes, language, protocols, hierarchy and partisanship all of which can put people off and keep them from participating.   

The Department has pop-up offices that can be opened anywhere, like on a sidewalk. Its cabinet members make up their own titles. And the Deputy Secretary might make a speech while playing the accordion.

Last week, President Obama stood at his podium in the U.S. Capitol and invited members of Congress to “do things differently.”

Next week, when it broadcasts the “Poetic Address to the Nation,” the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture will issue a much more provocative invitation: Why don’t ‘we the people’ come together to co-create the world we really want to inhabit? And, of course, have lots of fun along the way.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Wise fools for love? Arts activism and social transformation Should we fight the system or be the change? American politics: beyond angels and demons Topics:  Culture Democracy and government
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Diagnosing the daily poison

14 hours 13 min ago

We must see the tabloid right as a target in the battle for a better society.

Fostering daily division. Flickr/Gideon. Some rights reserved.As the Charlie Hebdo murders continue to reverberate through the media, it is important not to lose sight of mainstream forms of “freedom of expression” in Britain, and how they can affect everyday lives and families.

My parents are retired Lancashire textile workers. I went to visit them recently, and we ate rag pudding for dinner, meat parceled in suet pastry, traditionally cooked in a cloth in boiling water, hence the “rag”. It’s a white working class food. My parents don’t like curry, but have assimilated mango chutney into their mealtimes via simple supermarket curiosity. Rag pudding with mango chutney is a pretty radical combination, Heston Blumenthal territory. Try it.

After dinner, I noticed the Daily Express headline on the coffee table:

“MIGRANTS FLOOD BACK TO BRITAIN - 100,000 more can claim our benefits from next week”.

This seemed to grate against the hodgepodge hybridity of the meal we had just shared. My father once described a job lifting raw cotton bales from India, as they landed at the bottom of a chute. Back-breaking work, moving objects from another land, with their indecipherable text, which nonetheless fed straight into “local” Lancashire cotton production, and then eventually back out across the globe, as finished goods to be exported. My mother worked in the sewing shops for this part of the process.

It would be lovely to report that my parents have a celebratory attitude to multi-cultural Britain, but I can’t. As soon as I glimpsed the newspaper headline, I remembered the recent arguments with my father, about immigrants ‘taking our jobs and pensions’. His main targets are “Muslims” and “Eastern-Europeans”, although this shaded into anti-Semitism once.

My uncle is worse, an engineer in a global business, he travels abroad regularly, and money from these lucrative international networks flow into his bank accounts, put petrol in his car, feed and clothe his children. Still, he manages to rant about how “the Poles” feed their kids back home with “our money”, usually quoting the Mail or Express. He is an open admirer of Nick Griffin.

For most of the rest of the family, his opinions are “common sense”, he is free to travel internationally to work; “they” do not belong here. An empire unconscious lurks just below the surface in many small provincial English northern towns. Other viewpoints are rarely glimpsed, and so this empire view congeals like jelly around everything.

Sadder still, my father used to be much more tolerant, as a trade union point of contact who worked with Pakistani men in factories. When I was growing up he used to tell me, “they’re just the same as us”, all of which seemed to collapse after the millennium. His changing consumption of tabloid newspapers, and shifts within their editorial discourses, played a very large part in this.

My father buys the Mail and Express because they are cheap, and their price is not just incidental detail. Because he grew up in the aftermath of WW2, he refuses to spend money unless he really has to. There is a price divide we can observe, with the Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and Times at the higher end, and the Mail, Express, Mirror, Sun and Star at the bottom.

It would be wrong to claim that this map of price doubles as a map of mental austerity, although there is a very real dialogue between them. But this is not simply the case that there are “just” bad newspapers and fools who read them. My father thinks about what he reads before reacting to it, but what he reads is very narrowly crafted, although he refuses to see that.

This is about geographical and cultural isolation, people who go to the newsagents each day, to buy the cheapest paper and then process its contents. My father used to do exactly the same with the Daily Mirror when it was a leftwing Labour paper, before it was taken over by Robert Maxwell in 1984. Before then, I remember stories of social justice coming from him, via the same process, not intolerance, what Spinoza called “the sad passions”. I feel lucky to have been born in 1972 to experience that, rather than being born now, to experience what I describe here. I have younger cousins with very right wing views and children.

But the real bottom line, for me, is that I love my father, but I do not love the hate-filled poison he has to vomit back up each day, a substitute poison for the real social and psychic toxins in him, toxins that should have been attended to by the psychotherapy and love he never had in the distant past. These papers provide an easy way to redirect immediate but indefinable hurt onto others. Things so buried they cannot be named, and so are more easily dealt with by being spat out onto unknown, un-encountered others. The village my parents live in is almost entirely white.

I hate the architects of the Mail, the Express, and their like, with a passion that glows as brightly as the love for my family and friends. A complex lava flow of the heart gets me up in the morning. These people don’t just destroy the possibility of inter-community fraternity in Britain, they destroy internal family ties, break people apart, make them addicts, enslave their minds and poison them. They have done this to my family and therefore to me.

In my bleaker moments, if the earth were to be hit by an asteroid tomorrow, the right wing tabloid journalists would get back up again, straighten their ties and continue. In this nightmare, they are the wolves silver bullets cannot halt, and we are the empty-eyed undead who will allow them to feed on us for a thousand years.

News of the Charlie Hebdo murders broke just as I was speaking to Savoy Books in Manchester. Their author David Britton was imprisoned twice in the 1980s for his critical freedom of expression, by another brutal religious fundamentalist, Sir James Anderton. Britton’s book Lord Horror also exaggerated and satirized his persecutors, the Thatcher establishment.

The wider point I want to make here is that brutal, religion-inspired attacks on satire are not the exclusive territory of Islamic fundamentals, and we must resist all of them, but at the same time we must still see the tabloid right as a target in the battle for a better society. The Charlie Hebdo murders should not tempt us to alter course regarding this. When fundamentalist atrocities occur, it is important to see the complexities at play, at the same time as we refuse to surrender our rightly targeted outrage. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Immigration and the politics of resentment Daily Mail forges the 'unforgeable' Media freedom, or regulation? Country or region:  England
Categories: les flux rss

Is the General Power of Competence helping grassroots communities?

14 hours 13 min ago

The Localism Act gives councils a ‘General Power of Competence’ (GPoC) allowing them the same legal powers as private individuals.  But are they using these freedoms in ways that benefit grassroots localities?

The GPoC for Dummies

Part 1 of the Localism Act 2011 gives councils in England a General Power of Competence – GPoC for short. In theory, the GPoC allows them the same legal powers as private individuals. The government argues that councils have previously resisted innovation for fear of legal challenge. In its Plain English Guide to the Localism Act, it says that the legislation has turned this old assumption upside down. It has given councils and certain other public bodies “more freedom to work together with others in new ways to drive down costs” and “increased confidence to do creative, innovative things to meet local people’s needs.”

So far, so good. But placed in the wider context, central government effectively determines what activities fall within the GPoC, and how public bodies should exercise their new freedoms and flexibilities. And, as we’ve seen in previous LocalismWatch pieces, strategic matters like energy, waste, and transport infrastructure are covered by separate legislation, where the Secretary of State can decide almost by decree, without reference to local people.

Doing things differently entails set-up costs, with no guarantee of better or cheaper outcomes.  Council rate-capping is technically a thing of the past. But Communities Secretary Eric Pickles obliges authorities to hold a referendum if they want to increase council tax levels by more than 2% above the previous year. As Brighton and Hove’s Green-led authority discovered, the cost of holding a referendum is likely to cancel out any increased income. Optional measures, like business rate relief and funding support to community bodies aren’t illegal, but must be met by ‘top-slicing’ the budget.

Then there’s the rogue elephant in the room: austerity. Three-quarters of local authority money comes from central government. Due to annual cuts, English councils’ allocations are now less than 80% of pre-Coalition levels. On 18 December last year, local government minister Kris Hopkins announced that these would be further trimmed by an average of 1.8%, with no council losing more than 6.4%. But for one thing, the map of the cuts doesn’t match up with proven local needs. For another, council representatives argue that the average reduction is closer to 8.8%. The National Audit Office has accused the government of failing to assess the likely impact on communities already experiencing financial stress

So it would seem that, despite the rhetoric, the GPoC is really a way for the government to do three inter-related things: concentrate more strategic powers in the centre; offload responsibility—and blame—to public bodies for delivering ‘face-to-face’ services; and widen opportunities for private—not necessarily local—firms to acquire public services and assets. At LocalismWatch, we’ve shown how these factors underscore other measures brought in as part of the Coalition’s localism package, such as combined authorities, elected mayors, community rights and neighbourhood planning.

How, then, are English councils translating the freedoms and flexibilities offered by Localism Act’s GPoC into innovative ways of delivering public services? (An increasingly-used term for this process is “strategic transformation”.) We’ve done an online trawl of recent government announcements, council websites, local newspapers, blogs, and the national media to get a picture of the kinds of services that are, or will shortly be, run differently. What’s the official rationale being offered, what’s been the reaction, and what are the likely medium to long-term implications?

Sharing – but who’s caring?

One approach is for councils to pool staff and other resources. This activity long predates the Localism Act. According to the Local Government Association (LGA), at least 95% of councils in England share services with others, through a total of 383 service arrangements. The LGA says that these deliver £357 million worth of efficiency savings.

Previously, we’ve shown how George Osborne has pressured councils, particularly in England’s large conurbations, to form ‘combined authorities’ with elected mayors. What we're talking about here, though, are relationships that until recently have been service-specific and built around local characteristics. But austerity and the cuts are engineering responses that owe more to financial expediency than local sustainability. Neighbouring councils, whilst geographically close, may well be far apart when it comes to their political alignment or community identities. 

Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex county councils are working to expand the services they already share.  Last November, Suffolk council leader Mark Bee announced a draft £42m package of cuts to its 2015-16 budget: the county was also liaising with health bodies and the police to avoid duplicating services. He said: “This is not a short-term austerity programme. We cannot deal with this through salami-slicing. We have to make structural changes.” However, opposition leader Sandy Martin said they were too severe, citing proposed cuts of £200,000 to the voluntary sector – half on charities providing care services and the rest on cultural grants. He added: “I don’t think the large care providers will be hit, but it could really affect some smaller groups who provide relatively simple services like visiting people and collecting their shopping.”

Other councils are downplaying suggestions that “strategic transformation” carries risks. A recent edition of Law Gazette highlights partnerships created to deliver legal and other ‘back office’ services across local authority boundaries. One involves Buckinghamshire County Council and the Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority. Another is a shared legal service between West Oxfordshire and Cotswold District Councils, which will extend to Forest of Dean District Council and Cheltenham Borough Council later in 2015.

In Greater Manchester, Trafford MBC is poised to outsource a range of services in a bid to reduce future outgoings by up to 20%. This is the most radical service transformation in the conurbation so far. The Manchester Evening News reports that potential bidders include Keir, Amey, Balfour Beatty and Veolia. Veolia, a French-based company which, according to its website ‘leads the circular economy’, already manages Trafford’s waste services. It employs over 340,000 staff in 48 countries, including the ‘illegal’ West Bank settlements – something that has prompted international calls for boycotts.

Increasingly, these partnerships involve the disposal of public assets. Last December, Staffordshire’s County Council and Police and Crime Commissioner signed a joint long-term deal with Bedfordshire-based construction and property services oligopoly Keir to act as their ‘preferred bidder’ for marketing ‘under-used’ land and buildings in their ownership. 586 properties worth £300 million are ‘currently in scope’ for disposal. Keir’s website highlights their ‘extensive experience in the custodial sector’, working with the Ministry of Justice. Clearly, it’s a captive market.

Newcastle City Council has taken the more direct step of auctioning land, industrial units, houses, car parks and offices, hoping to secure £7m to offset next year’s cuts. Lib Dem councillor Greg Stone commented: “The sales will potentially swell the financial reserves for the council but what are they going to spend the money on? I’m not opposed to (the sale), providing they dispose of it in sites that lead to redevelopment and job creation.”

Contracted - or con-tricked?

Another money-saving innovation is to re-negotiate staff contracts. In Plymouth, this has turned sour. Just before Christmas, the council failed to secure the voluntary acceptance of over half its 330 customer services staff on new working conditions. These require staff to work flexible hours, including Saturdays, on identical rates of pay. The council now wants to fire and then rehire them on new contracts, a move that has prompted Unite to ballot its members on industrial action.

“There is no question that the right thing is to move the council to the same standard working practices that are widespread elsewhere,” said deputy council leader Peter Smith.  “What was acceptable 20 years ago is not acceptable now and people expect more flexible opening.  Union representatives seem to have lost sight of what the council is here to do, which is to serve the people of Plymouth.”

Unite’s branch secretary Diana Beal said that she’d taken part in negotiations with the council for over 20 years and this was the first time that a compromise hadn’t been reached. She claimed that it was management, not the unions, who had “walked away from the table”. Tony Dowling, of the GMB, accused Plymouth of taking employment rights “back to the Thatcher-era”. He added: “It’s appalling that a Labour controlled authority is planning an attack on its workers’ rights so close to Christmas and in an election year, on such flimsy rationale”

Re-education, re-education, re-education

Despite radical changes in the labour market, and proven skills shortages across many economic sectors, adult education funding lies in the frontline of cuts and privatisation. Despite considerable local opposition, LB Merton has announced plans to close its 5,000-student adult education centre and outsource the service to a third party through ‘a commissioning model’. Consultations are underway to identify how this should proceed.

Cheshire West and Chester (CWAC), whose track record in ‘lean and efficient’ spending has been hailed in the Tory Bow Group’s 2014 manifesto, has launched a ‘schools traded company’. This is being run in partnership with neighbouring Wirral Council, offering a comprehensive range of services to 300 education establishments across the two areas. It will be both a direct provider and prime contractor of services. CWAC says it will deliver “higher quality, more innovative, tailor-made services for schools whilst benefiting the local economy with the creation of a thriving local business, generating employment.”

In Norfolk, as elsewhere, rural schools are threatened with closure. A recent report to its education committee calls for individual schools to have a minimum of 105 pupils. 127 of the county’s primary schools have an enrolment below that level. But committee chair James Joyce, when asked if he thought those schools would be closed, said: “I don’t think so.” Vice-chair Richard Bearman said: “I don’t see any reason why a site can’t function with fewer than [105 pupils]: perhaps if it was part of a multi-primary group with a common management structure.” Norfolk’s Rural Community Council had earlier asked for the schools strategy to be “rural proofed”.

Residential care

Another service where closures are synonymous with transformation is residential care. Given the sensitive factors involved, decisions are often deferred until the last moment. The future of six of Surrey’s council-owned care homes is currently under review. The authority is exploring four options - leaving things as they are, redeveloping the existing homes, selling or leasing them to another provider or closing the services entirely. But councillors remain divided on which is best, with some querying the accuracy of the costs for each option.  A final decision will be made early this year.

Birmingham City Council, whose troubled children’s services and finances recently led Eric Pickles to impose a final written warning, is to transfer its five remaining children’s homes to an as-yet unidentified outside operator. Specialist homes for disabled children will, however, stay in-house. In 2013, two other council-run homes were closed following Ofsted inspections. Overall there have been 19 closures, mainly for financial reasons, since 2008. Children’s services cabinet member Brigid Jones said that all 107 staff would be transferred: “We want to ensure the quality of these homes.  In the past the council has tried to be the jack of all trades and has ended up the master of none.”

But a spokesman for Unison and the GMB disagrees. “The erosion of our children's homes . . . has led to the vast increase in private homes that provide care for profit,” he said. “Young people in our care, who at one time were supported through independent living programmes, are now experiencing private care homes which only provide a bed and spending money and sadly little else, regardless of their Ofsted rating.” Attempts at shifting to foster care had faltered because it was unsuitable for many clients – particularly those with behavioural, drug and sexual exploitation issues.

Youth services – who cares?

From the picture we’ve been building up, it’s clear that short-term considerations rather than long-term community cohesion predominate when councils embark on ‘strategic transformation’. Youth services are especially vulnerable. Most young people aren’t of voting age, and those in their late teens who are, form the age cohort least likely to vote. 

Last November, Weymouth, Portland and North Dorset merged their services under a single workforce. They hope to extend this partnership to Bournemouth and Poole, in delivering a unified youth offending service from April 2015. The sum saved, however, appears small – in the region of £50,000. But Weymouth cabinet member for children and families, Rebecca Knox, defended the move, saying: “Any money in the youth service is important - £50,000 is a considerable sum considering what we have to address - every penny counts.”

Staffordshire Council formally ended 75 years of youth service provision on 31 December 2014, shedding 180 staff and closing youth clubs that together supported 1,800 young people. In the preceding months, Staffordshire encouraged communities to replace paid staff with volunteers, but with uneven success. A few youth centres have been transferred to other organisations, while those premises still in council ownership will no longer be used for youth purposes. A local Unison representative commented that the “really tragic thing” was that those made redundant were part-time workers who wished to give something back to the community and put in more time than they were paid for. But Staffordshire cabinet member Mark Sutton said: “Three-quarters of young people weren’t using the existing out-of-school leisure activities. They’re already doing a vast amount through sports clubs, voluntary groups, and uniformed organisations. There’s a range of funding available to support community activities.”

Who’s really cleaning up with the GPoC?

Cleansing services are ripe for outsourcing, as they offer clearer profit margins for private contractors. Here too, austerity and the GPoC are accelerating the privatisation drive. LB Barnet is a national forerunner in outsourcing partnerships, the consequences of which have rarely been happy for the public purse or local service quality. This has not stopped the council from seeking to outsource its cleansing services to save money. Labour councillor Alan Scheiderman said: “The current model is successful. The (ruling Tory group) won’t consider the in-house options as a viable option alongside outsourcing. It’s all been done on the back of a fag packet, and councillors need to know what they are being asked to agree. At the moment we don’t.” The proposals are currently under consultation, with the final decision early this year. However, Barnet’s recent history suggests that where outsourcing’s concerned, consultations play a purely ceremonial role.

Birmingham’s failing children’s services, plus its £3.1 bn debt burden, has led the District Auditor to recommend offloading more functions, notably cleansing. However, Birmingham’s outsourcing performance, particularly its relationship with Capita, is a prime contributor to its malaise.  Councillors from all parties are therefore reluctant to outsource further. But the Auditor has reminded them that service delivery is the council’s legal responsibility, and that they must identify the most sustainable funding mechanisms. The impending sale of major council assets, including the iconic NEC, is considered unlikely to solve this problem.

A novel take on library shelving

Another ‘localist’ innovation that sees a public service effectively revert to 19th century governance arrangements is outsourcing library services to volunteers. Since the digital revolution began, councils have spent less on libraries, but the cuts have accelerated the pace of consolidation and closure. The web is awash with news of library restructuring across the country: here’s a representative cross-section.

Leicestershire’s cabinet member for libraries has justified its decision to cut services and outsource some branches to volunteers, saying: “We can’t cut books or computers. We have to cut the people.” Kent wants to transfer its libraries to a charitable trust, because such a body will be exempt from business rates. This is also being considered in Lincolnshire, after a successful legal challenge to the council’s original proposals to transfer some libraries to community groups. There’s a different approach in Peterborough, where opening hours will be reduced and more self-service technology introduced. In Torbay and Devon, where volunteers already run most of the libraries, plans to merge the two authorities’ management structures have been shelved until 2017, as no cost savings were apparent.

Sunderland City Council has hailed the controversial closure of 9 of its 20 libraries in 2013 as a success. An internal report shows that the number of books issued rose from 673,568 in 2013 to 689,683 in 2014. Community activities in libraries, including ‘rhyme times’ and ‘knit and natter groups’, have more than doubled. Since 2013, readers can now borrow books from four times as many locations, including supermarkets, pubs and schools. However, local library campaigner Gary Duncan said: “The council are contradicting their original nonsense. Their argument was that people aren’t using libraries anyway so they won’t mind if they lose them. This is proof that people do want libraries and just need a bit of encouragement. There may be more places with books, but the public have no say in how they are run. They are at the mercy of a free market.”

The art of mutualising

A similar picture is emerging with arts and leisure services. Dorset County Council is outsourcing its service to an employee-owned community interest company, with ‘support by the government’s Cabinet Office Mutualisation Programme’. And CWAC’s leisure contract has gone to its own subsidiary, Brio. Cabinet member Stuart Parker cited what he saw as Brio’s high performance and satisfaction ratings, but opposition members argued that the assessment criteria were not rigorous enough and that it was anomalous for a council subsidiary to have no elected members on its board.

Hull City Council is preparing to hand over its leisure services to an arms’-length subsidiary. It hopes to save over £1m by transferring 800 staff to the new undertaking, which can access tax breaks not available to councils. Unlike Brio, it will be managed by an elected member board.  Councillor Abi Bell said, however: “The concern for me is less about the financial saving, and more about improving the assets and the services. It does not explain how the new company is going to be more competitive in what is already a crowded market.”

Public parks and gardens are harder to re-position within the landscape of ‘strategic transformation’.  For one thing, their maintenance costs cannot easily be recouped through revenue. For another, they may be subject to covenants requiring the land to be held in trust for the benefit of local people. Proposals to transfer part of Staffordshire’s 6,000 acre country estate to private companies and voluntary groups are being delayed, pending resolution of such issues. Meanwhile, Sefton Council’s move to downgrade Southport’s Botanic Gardens, as part of its £55m budget cuts, is being resisted by a “people’s uprising”, led by the area’s MP John Pugh.

The road from A to B by ASDV

Another term to add to your localism phrasebook is ‘alternative service delivery vehicle’ (ASDV).  Cheshire East has just set up one, appropriately, to run its public, home-to-school and social care transport services. Not wishing to let public understanding impede the path of bureauspeak, the council explains that the ASDV will not only “fulfil Cheshire East’s contractual and statutory responsibilities but will also introduce greater freedom to develop new business through a more entrepreneurial approach.” They’re building up an impressive fleet of ASDVs in East Cheshire, as this is the seventh in the series. Council Leader Michael Jones, said: “ASDVs boost enterprise, innovation and value for money. They enable us to improve services and put residents first. They are part of the ongoing revolution in the way we deliver our services.” His words, not ours.

As most readers will know from personal experience, potholes are making our already bumpy ride that bit bumpier. The government has earmarked £168m to address this though a ‘pothole challenge’ fund, requiring councils to pledge themselves to new and better repair methods. This has given localism a whole new slant. Devon has a road repair backlog worth £758m. It’s also the English county council that paid the highest sums of compensation for pothole insurance claims in 2013.  Devon says that it will only repair holes that are more than 40mm deep and greater than 300mm in any horizontal direction. This ruling has prompted discussions over ‘when is a pothole not a pothole.’

A retired builder, Reg Winsor, took matters into his own hands by personally filling in a pothole in Newton Abbot that the council had failed to repair. He has since assembled an army of ‘pothole vigilantes’. Duly impressed, Devon has offered ‘Reg’s Army’ all the tarmac they need to carry out repairs. The county will also train volunteers to undertake work ranging from weed clearance and sign cleaning to grass and hedge cutting, plus small pothole and surface defect repairs.  Mr Winsor sees no difficulty in doing what Devon is paid to do via council taxes: “There is no money to do it, so what we are meant to do, sit on our backsides and do nothing? We are British and most of us Brits want to do something about it.”

In the West Midlands, Walsall MBC and its ‘highways partner’ Lafarge Tarmac are looking for a band of unpaid ‘snow champions’ to keep the borough’s roads clear in winter. They’re offering 250 volunteers and 50 community groups free shovels, salt bags, salt bins and luminous tabards.  Applicants need to be ‘physically fit’ to clear snow and ice off paths and footways and be willing to brave freezing conditions. But there’s no mention of how their fitness will be assessed, or insurance arrangements for what is unquestionably a hazardous activity.

The only way is Burnley?

What could happen if cash-strapped councils in disadvantaged areas are forced to take the Localism Act’s GPoC to the limit? Let’s have a look at Burnley. The local authority needs to trim £3m from its budget by 2016-17 and is progressing outsourcing as part of its Change Programme. Over a third of Burnley’s staff could be privatised under deal that may eventually be worth £118m. Last November, it advertised a 10-year £37million contract in the European Journal to outsource several functions, to achieve savings of 15%. 125 staff in customer services, environmental health, licensing, payroll, IT, revenues, benefits and property management are affected. 

Neighbouring Pendle and Rossendale councils have signed up as potential partners.  200 staff across both boroughs may transfer. It is understood that the deal could have been wider, but for a last-minute decision to keep other functions in-house.  Burnley Council said the primary purpose was “to deliver savings to contribute to future financial pressures”. Local unions, however, hope that the changes will at least be diluted if Labour wins May’s General Election.

Many local services across East Lancashire are already handled by external contractors.  Burnley’s waste and refuse is collected and processed by Veolia. Pendle currently has an outsourcing agreement with Liberata. Currently, Rossendale outsources council tax, housing benefits and customer services. Their partnership with Capita – whose ‘preferential client’ relationships with Barnet and Birmingham have proved troublesome - ends in 2016. Rossendale has also sought joint arrangements with Hyndburn on pest control, emergency planning, waste recycling and transport management.

Earlier in our series, we asked ‘how local is localism?’ and ventured to suggest ‘not very much, and it’s getting less and less with time’. Hopefully, this whirlwind tour of different responses to the GPoC has put some meat on the bones of this hypothesis. New approaches to delivering local services, whether or not they are prompted by a desire to privatise, cut costs or both, all seem to have a common thread. Key management decisions are increasingly being made by people and organisations whose individual and corporate interests – geographically and ideologically - are far removed from grassroots localities. The main beneficiaries of those decisions are certainly not local.  We need only contrast councils facing bankruptcy, voluntary services at breaking point and the shutdown of community facilities with the ever-growing fortunes of offshore investors in outsourced ‘strategic partners’.

Then there’s the language used to explain how the GPoC’s panning out. As we’ve seen from a burgeoning glossary that encompasses ASDVs and the circular economy, it’s become so distant from the everyday that it reeks of obscurantism: deliberately preventing the facts or full details from becoming known. More than that, it patronises localism’s core beneficiaries by bestowing absurd titles on them while at the same time demanding that they undertake unattractive and often hazardous tasks for no pay, and often at their own expense.

Is it really localism’s ultimate aim to make snow champions and pothole vigilantes of us all?


You can read more from the LocalismWatch series here.

Categories: les flux rss

After Syriza’s landslide: five predictions of a much similar future

25. January 2015 - 18:42

In the end though, this will all probably lead mainly to more fragmentation, which will make fundamental change even more unlikely.

Alexis Tsipras delivers Thessaloniki campaign speech, January 20. Athanasios Gioumpasis/Demotix. All rights reserved.After months of speculation and growing hyperbole, Greece will finally have a government dominated by the left-wing populist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza). Exit polls have Syriza at around 36-39 percent of the vote, which might give them a majority of the parliamentary seats. Party leader Alexis Tsipras, who has grown into the pin-up of the western (radical) left in the last years, will be the new prime minister. But what else will change? Despite all the hype of a new Greece and even a new Europe (and European Union), the most likely scenario is that the fundamentals of both systems will stay the same, but there will be some changes at the margins. Here are five predictions:

 (1) The Greek party system will consolidate a new two-party dynamic

Much has been made of the implosion of the Greek party system, which used to be based on a rigid division between the right-wing New Democracy (ND) and the left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). But the change might not be that significant. Greece today is not the same as Italy in the 1990s, when corruption scandals led to a true implosion of the old party system, i.e. of the so-called First Republic, and gave way to a completely new party system, of the so-called Second Republic. Today only the Northern League (LN) has survived, and that party only emerged at the end of the First Republic; all other parties are either completely new (e.g. Forza Italia and Five Star Movement) or constitute significant transformations of previous parties (e.g. Democratic Party).

Instead, in Greece the right-wing poll has hardly changed: it is still occupied by the ND, which merely lost some of its support and has more competition from far right parties like Golden Dawn (XA). And on the left, PASOK has imploded, but is replaced by Syriza. While the voters might not be the same, Syriza will play roughly the same role in the Greek party system as PASOK has done for decades, i.e. provide the populist left-wing alternative to the conservative ND.

(2) Greece will not follow the path of Weimar Germany

European elites are obsessed with Weimar Germany comparisons, i.e. weak democracies being threatened by strong extremist parties. From Russia to Greece alarmist elites warn of a Weimar scenario, i.e. death by elections. But whereas extremists of left and right gained huge pluralities of the votes in Weimar Germany, they are relatively small in contemporary Greece. The neo-Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE) has been reduced to around 5 percent of the vote after the end of the Cold War, whereas the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn seems to also have hit its limits of roughly 7-8 percent, not in the least because of strong state repression, which will undoubtedly increase further under a Syriza government.

Syriza might not be a committed liberal democratic party, built upon the values of pluralism and minority rights, but neither was the left-wing populist PASOK, which governed Greece several times before the economic crisis. Syriza is essentially a democratic party, i.e. supporting popular sovereignty and majority rule, and will come to terms (grudgingly) with accepting pluralism and minority rights. Even if they collaborate with the KKE at times, which seems highly uncertain at this point as KKE considers Syriza members to be bourgeois traitors, they will not do so at the price of fundamental democratic procedures and values. 

(3) Syriza will consolidate into a more traditional party

The official name of Syriza is Coalition of the Radical Left and that accurately describes what the party is: a coalition of small radical (and extreme) left groupuscules. While many of the (old) members of Syriza are still, first and foremost, loyal to their small far left group, which in many cases still exists independently today, the vast majority of voters have their loyalty, or at least have put their hope, in Syriza.

Particularly if it will be able to form a ‘one-party’ government, the internal struggles between Syriza and its constituent parts will be one of its main challenges. Though perhaps not a charismatic leader in the traditional sense, Tsipras is essential to the victory of Syriza, having given one face to a fragmented hope.

But while he has a strong public mandate, his power over the Syriza cadres might be less strong. Much of his team has been drawn from outside the cadres of the groupuscules, including from Greek intellectuals abroad, which could entice the old guards. The pressures of governing a country in crisis, as well as the internal divisions and struggles of the party, will provide Tsipras and his team with strong incentives to build Syriza into a real political party, increasingly independent of the various groups that now make up the Coalition of the Radical Left.

One of the main challenges is to do this without being overrun by opportunistic defectors from PASOK, who might bring some of the necessary expertise, but also potentially the stigma of the old regime.

(4) Europe will not turn to the (far) left

Still not as sexy as the rise of the far right, which has attracted a couple of thousand media articles in 2014 alone, the rise of the far left has become an increasingly popular topic among commentators, either looking for the next big thing or engaging in wishful thinking.

They mainly point to the recent lead in the polls of “We Can” (Podemos) in Spain, simply stated, the party vehicle of the Indignados social movement. But while these two left-wing populist parties have indeed risen largely out of nowhere, as a consequence of the economic crisis, most of their brethren across the continent have not.

In Cyprus, Ireland and Italy left-wing populist parties might grow a bit, but mostly in the form of established forces. This is one of the key things that holds left-wing populism back in most other countries, where there clearly is a growing breeding ground of (far) left anti-establishment politics. The party vehicles of these sentiments are often old and stale, like the Dutch Socialist Party (SP) or the German The Left, including apparatchiks and opportunists who cannot convince their potential electorates to overcome their distrust of previously defeated ideologies. This, perhaps more than competition from the far right, prevents the spread of left-wing populism across the continent.

(5) European Union will not change fundamentally

Syriza has come to power by offering a third way to the Greek people: not the support for the bailout and austerity policies of the ND-PASOK government and not rejection of the bailout and support for a Greek exit from the EU (Grexit) of the extremist opposition (notably KKE and XA). Instead, they have proposed a bailout without austerity, despite the fact that European elites have consistently rejected this as a non-option.

Over the past years Tsipras has been touring Europe to argue that a new Europe is possible and that a Syriza victory in the 2015 Greek elections would be the beginning of building such a new Europe. European elites, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has reaffirmed her commitment to the EU’s austerity politics and has even stated that a Greek exit from the Eurozone is not problematic.

This game of chicken will soon come to an end, most likely with a ‘compromise’ that is essentially a Syriza defeat. After all, the party has very few weapons to negotiate with. Not only is Greece irrelevant to the EU and Eurozone economy, but the vast majority of Greeks, including undoubtedly most Syriza supporters, want Greece to stay in the Eurozone.

Consequently, the most likely scenario is a softening of EU austerity rhetoric, but to a lesser extent policy, just as happened in the first months after the election of French president Francois Hollande in 2012. Even if Podemos comes to power in Spain later this year, and that is a big if, the majority of European governments will continue to support austerity politics, if only because their political fate is tied to it.

This is not to argue that Syriza’s victory today is irrelevant. It is the first (new) left-wing populist party in the European Union to win a national parliamentary election and to lead a (one-party) government. It will undoubtedly boost the spirits and success of similar parties in Europe, notably Podemos in Spain and Sinn Fein in Ireland. It will further put pressure on the elites of more established radical left parties that have not been able to significantly increase their political fortunes, such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Party in France and Emile Roemer of the Dutch SP.

It will also lead to more left-wing insurgencies within the meddling social democratic parties, which haven’t felt this pressure since the rise of the Green parties reached a halt in the 1990s. Obviously, the rumble on the left will have ramifications for the center-right. In the end though, this will all probably lead mainly to more fragmentation, which will make fundamental change even more unlikely.

Sideboxes Related stories:  “Greece will neither want to leave the euro nor threaten to do so” Whither Europe? The Modest Camp vs the Federalist Austerians Greece’s election: filling Europe’s democratic void The troika saved banks and creditors – not Greece Greek politics: a River runs through it Beyond the eurocrisis - institutional consolidation and social fragility Country or region:  Greece EU Topics:  Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics
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The troika saved banks and creditors – not Greece

25. January 2015 - 17:42

With most of the bailout money going to banks and creditors, the question isn't whether Greece deserves debt relief, but whether it needs it.

Alexis Tsipras’ decision to put the write-off of a large part of the nominal value of Greece’s public debt and a moratorium on the repayment of the remaining part of the debt at the centre of his electoral program has sparked a lively debate on whether Greece ‘deserves’ debt relief or not. This is a mistake. As Paul Krugman has often pointed out, ‘economics is not a morality play… in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished’.

The issue is not – and should never be – whether a country deserves to see its debt forgiven or not, but only whether it needs it or not, as Jeffrey Sachs recently wrote in The Guardian. And as far as Greece is concerned ‘the answer is unequivocal’, says Sachs. ‘Anybody who does the Greek debt arithmetic (and it sometimes seems that in Berlin nobody actually does) knows that it cannot repay its external debts, now around 170% of GDP, without a level of pain that is simply beyond the tolerance of democratic societies’.

There is an almost unanimous consensus among economists regarding this point (with rare exceptions, such as Andrew Watt and Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, whose attempts to prove that Greece’s debt is in fact sustainable are unconvincing in my opinion); see for example Paul De Grauwe, Simon Wren-Lewis, Thomas Piketty, Philippe Legrain, Dani Rodrik and Wolfgang Münchau, just to name a few.

In other words, there is little doubt that from a purely economic standpoint Greece needs debt relief. But unfortunately economics is never just about economics: whether we like it or not, morality and culture shapes people’s attitudes to economic issues, and nowhere is this clearer than with the issue of debt (private or public). It would be fair to say that the common man’s prevailing stand on the issue is that debts incurred have to be repaid, whatever the cost.

This is especially true for Germany, where the word for ‘debt’ – ‘schuld’ – famously also means ‘guilt’. The fact that Germany is the hegemonic power in Europe has meant that its leaders’ deeply moral interpretation of the euro crisis – which pitted the profligate, debt-ridden wrongdoers of the periphery against the virtuous, responsible countries of the core – rapidly became conventional wisdom among European politicians, commentators and bureaucrats.

Politically, this proved very effective for Germany (and the European elites in general), as it provided a powerful ideological and perhaps more importantly moral justification for the brutal austerity policies prescribed to the countries of the periphery (and especially Greece) in recent years.

As David Graeber writes in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years: ‘If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong’.

This means that if we want to challenge the dominant narrative it is not sufficient to put out rational, economically watertight critiques of the current policies; we also have to challenge the ‘morality play’ underpinning those policies (and the public’s response to them). Which in the case of Greece’s debt also means looking at the issue of whether the country ‘deserves’ debt relief or not, regardless of the fact that the point is moot from an economic standpoint.

Now, it is widely believed that Greece’s bailout by the troika, to the tune of 226 billion euros, was mainly aimed at keeping the bankrupt Greek state afloat, maintaining its basic operations and paying the salaries of its overpaid, skiving public workers. Given that the lion’s share of the loans came from the rich countries of the core (first and foremost Germany), one could be forgiven for viewing this as the lender countries extending a helping hand to their troubled brethren, albeit reluctantly; and for understanding Germany’s indignant reaction to Tsipras’ refusal to pay back the debt. But where did the money go? And who really got bailed out, the debtors or the creditors?

A recent study by the Greek economist Yiannis Mouzakis, based on European Commission review documents, IMF evaluation reports and Greek government budget documents, revealed that only 27 billion euros – a meagre 11 per cent of the total funding – were used for the Greek state’s operating needs. Which squares with the fact that the Greek government, as a result of the brutal belt-tightening imposed by the troika, has been running a primary surplus (i.e., its revenues have exceeded expenses) since 2013.

What about the rest of the money? Well, it went to the country’s banks and foreign creditors, mostly French and German banks. In other words, more than 80 per cent of the bailout funds were used to bail out, either directly or indirectly, the financial sector (both Greek and foreign) – not the Greek state. In the process, the overwhelming majority of Greek government debt was shifted from the private sector to the public sector, with other eurozone governments now liable for around 65 per cent of Greece’s debt (and another 20 per cent in the hands of the ECB and IMF).

This is the same conclusion reached by a 2013 Attac Austria report and by a more recent Jubilee Debt Campaign analysis (both worth reading, as is Mouzakis’ article). Interestingly, the same dynamics apply to the other sovereign bailouts as well (see here for an overview of the various cases and here for a in-depth analysis of the Irish case). In this light, the troika bailouts can be seen as ‘phase two’ of the bailout of Europe’s financial sector.

The first, more straightforward stage took place in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crash, when governments stepped in to guarantee bank debts and extend loans to their banks. In the second, more subtle stage, which began in 2010, the EU establishment and core countries stepped in and ‘strongly encouraged’ the periphery countries to take on government loans from the troika rather than consider alternatives such as debt restructuring, which would have ensured that the banks paid some of the price for their excessive lending.

The funds were then, to a large degree, channelled back to the creditor countries. This entailed a double shift in liabilities: from the banks of the periphery to the governments (and citizens) of the periphery; and from the banks of the core to the governments (and citizens) of the eurozone as whole, since most of the troika bailout funds came from EMU countries.

This irrefutably puts to shame the claim that ‘the European taxpayers’ money’ was used to save Greece and the other reckless, profligate countries of the periphery; the truth is that these bailouts amounted effectively to ‘a back-door bailout of reckless German lending’, as an International Financing Review article put it, taking German lenders off the hook while sending the public debt levels of ‘bailed out’ countries through the roof. Philippe Legrain, former advisor to then-European Commission president Barroso, writes that ‘to avoid losses for German and French banks, eurozone policymakers, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel… lent European taxpayers’ money to the insolvent Greek government, ostensibly out of solidarity, but actually to bail out creditors’.

Greece’s reckless borrowing was financed by equally reckless lenders, but ‘the European Union chose to resolve the debt crisis by punishing the Greeks and by saving the Northern banks’, is Paul De Grauwe’s unequivocal conclusion. Interestingly, the same opinion is shared by Peter Böfinger, economic advisor to the German government, who stated in 2011 that the Greek bailouts ‘are first and foremost not about the problem countries but about our own banks, which hold high amounts of credit there’.

Furthermore, to add insult to injury, the troika’s supposed ‘help’ was then used as an excuse to impose on Greece a brutal course of austerity that has further increased the country’s public debt, destroyed a quarter of its economy and spawned an outright social and humanitarian crisis.

Leaked classified documents reveal that even some IMF member states had serious doubts about the real aims of the programme. As the Brazilian representative uncompromisingly stated, the bailout ‘may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions’.

Moreover, the Fund itself had serious misgivings about offering Greece such a huge loan in relation to the size of its economy (in just a few years Greece has taken on loans equivalent to almost 125 per cent of the country’s economic activity in 2014), insisting that it would make Greek public debt – which, according to the report, was still sustainable at the time – ultimately unsustainable.

Ostensibly, the Fund argued for an early write-down of the Greek debt, but the other two members of the troika – the European Commission and the ECB – vigorously opposed any losses for the bondholders. When the European Union and ECB were forced to agree to a haircut in the summer of 2011, the damage was already done. As a result, almost all analysts agree that the Fund’s predictions have come painfully true.

All this points to one simple, unequivocal conclusion: Greece doesn’t just need debt relief, it deserves it.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Greece and the Eurozone: one crisis, two narratives Country or region:  Greece
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Greek politics: a River runs through it

25. January 2015 - 17:03

Stavros Theodorakis, leader of To Potami (The River) - the party which may hold the balance of power in the new Greek government - speaks on politics, reform and the possibility of a coalition with Syriza.

Stavros Theodorakis. Flickr/X-Andra. Some rights reserved.

The following is a transcript of the interview given by Stavros Theodorakis to media on January 21, in Athens.

On the possibility of joining a Syriza coalition

"When we talk to Alexis Tsipras on the 25th or 26th of the month, we will put very specific questions to him. For example, is he about to take unilateral action? We are not prepared to do that. We want to make it very clear, to the Greek people as well, that the European Union is our future. We - To Potami - stand firm so that our country follows a European path. Our country cannot move forward following the course of austerity and nothing else. But we put it in different terms; we will neither walk along head hanging, nor do nothing but threaten.

Mr Dragasakis, like Mr Stathakis, injects common sense in to SYRIZA and their policies. On certain occasions, they have said the right thing. They have also made some statements that seem farfetched - I fear mainly addressed to party audiences. However, often, his way of seeing things is not far removed from our views and not far removed, I think, from a European approach on how an economy functions.

If it comes to discussing forming a government, then this government will need to have a single centre. It must not tilt towards one side, for example to the far-right as happened with the previous government, where people who currently claim to defend progressive ideas accepted the presence of people from the far-right. Why did they accept that? Do you know why? Because they had divided, had carved up that government saying: “I am interested in a deputy presidency and a few deputy ministerial positions, to fix up my party members so that they don’t give me earache”."

On electing a new President

"Why are we holding an election? Because SYRIZA did not want Stavros Dimas. Where is the President supported by SYRIZA? Is there a Russian doll which will eventually be opened up to unveil “who will be President”? We will not be party to the humiliation of the institution of the Presidency. We look for responsibility; we want the President to be elected from the first round with 180 votes."

On To Potami

"We are a new, open movement. 80% of our candidates are new people and they are the river bed from which To Potami flows. The renewal of our political system is of vital importance to us; of course we will make common cause with the people who, in political terms, have been a positive point of reference for Greek society, who have attempted things from different sides of the spectrum, when we were not there; people who had attempted to set things on the right course. 

There are no factions in To Potami. There is not even a Theodorakis faction in To Potami. To Potami is a big, popular movement, with firm principles, and by this I mean firmly held principles that have been set from the beginning; of course they have been enriched at a later stage by the important people who joined us. Spyros Lykoudis, who represents the reform-friendly Left in our country, and has been a positive reference point in the Greek political scene, said “I will also join To Potami so that we do something to change things”. 

It brings shame on New Democracy and PASOK that 18 year olds are not voting in this election. It shows how indifferent they are to young people participating in politics. To Potami proposes that people are given the vote at the age of 16, because it is at 16 that Greeks decide if they will become doctors, lawyers, engineers or farmers.

We are not the ones claiming that To Potami will come in third - the most recent fourteen polls say it! In two of these polls, our third position was disputed by Golden Dawn. I think that, if Golden Dawn were to come in third and be asked to form a government, while in the Korydallos prison, it would damage our democracy. And also bring bad tidings for Europe."

On economic reform

"We want privatisations. But not highway robbery privatisations. Not privatisations where you are dealt a marked hand. I privatise “this” and I have come to terms with “him” who is my friend, who, on the morrow, will bid and win. There is such an issue in Greece, it’s not only been a problem with this government, it forms part of the old political set up. That is how things were done. Projects were awarded to the people closer to power, those who frequented the same hunting grounds.  

I heard a member of SYRIZA say: let’s have state-run ships, state coastal shipping, and state airlines, bring Olympic airways back. Have they asked the people, who have had to pay for Olympic airways seven times over? Seven times over, the figures are absolute and fill citizens and pensioners with concern.

We have to clash with those who consider the country their own back yard. Rules must be set. We do not have “our own group” of businessmen. The banking sector cannot continue supporting “dead” companies… Here, banks would mostly ask “who are you? Who has sent you? Who are you friends with? Who in the Media can support you and support me as well”. We have made it quite clear that To Potami will put a stop to all this. No more special privilege pillaging.

We make common cause with all who want to reintroduce European principles to the economy, to running companies, to providing loans. We are not on the same side with those who want to swap some businessmen or some bankers or some media owners with their own party protégés. We will not move away from such a false position only to opt for a soviet type error, whereby the party and its leader decide business matters, loans, and how the media will function.

We talk about the kind of tax reform which will favour growth. Numerous changes must be introduced; much needs to change with the tax on real estate (ENFIA). From the moment it was announced, we commented that Greeks cannot be made to pay rent on their own home, if it is the only real estate asset they own. It is self-evident that, to ensure equality before the law, those who have no other assets will be exempted from paying tax on their home."

On the election

"Does anyone believe that this country can be governed with a majority of 151 MPs? Can it push things through? We believe in grand majorities. I have said this before, and it is a good occasion to repeat it; even if you belong to the left, you cannot claim an absolute majority which is only achieved because of the electoral system. You have to speak of a social majority, a majority of the people and that absolute majority is at 51% of the electorate, not at 33% with 17% tagged on as a gift from the electoral system.

Certain people call upon SYRIZA to work in coalition with nationalists: people who, as a precondition, ask for statues of Alexander the Great to be put up all over Greece. Is that the course SYRIZA will follow? Is that the framework for a new government? What we say is that, whatever the first party’s majority is, whoever the first party is, it is a matter of principle for this country to move forward and reform everything; here, and in Europe as well.  

As we approach the final stages before the electoral battle on Sunday, people realise it is all about change. Change implemented through a strong player who can impose a new social policy, in Greece and in Europe; but also set us on an unwavering European path and find a modern road for the country to follow."

Sideboxes Related stories:  Greece: how deep does this River run? Country or region:  Greece
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Beyond the eurocrisis - institutional consolidation and social fragility

25. January 2015 - 16:02

Far from endangering European integration, the Eurocrisis has contributed to strengthening EU institutions. Thus, it should be seen as a strategic integrational step, not as a mistake. Nevertheless the social fabric of the emerging European society remains fragile.

Flickr/Gregor Gregoriou Crowe. Some rights reserved.

Devaluation nostalgia

Speaking of a permanent crisis is a contradiction. At least in social sciences crises are understood as constellations in which a set of institutions are facing more problems than they are able to cope with, and in which relevant actors perceive this as a crisis hence the need to solve it in due course. Time pressure is an essential feature of a crisis - think of the hectic rush of meetings during it - but the particular awareness and special political room for maneuvre means that the interpretation of a social constellation that a crisis provides can’t be maintained forever. Crises tend to seep away. Six years after the outbreak of the Eurocrisis one might summarize its results, achievements and remaining problems.

In its history, the process of European integration already went through several crises. But so far not a single one has been so widely perceived and broadly debated as the Eurocrisis. This is a strong sign that by introducing the common European currency, European integration eventually has reached peoples' living conditions, thus forming interests and spuring awareness for European wide mutual dependencies. Even if there is disagreement about causes, costs and solutions of the crisis, there is consent about one central point: From its very beginning it was clear that the project of the commonon currency was built on an imperfect economic basis, for it integrated economies on different levels of productivity hence different levels of competitivness.

The theory of optimal currency areas, which was developed already in the 60s (Mundell 1961), forcasts that such an attempt inevitably causes problems. There is no doubt that this diagnosis is correct. Introducing a common currency means abandoning any possibility of devaluation, hence depriving less competitive economies of any protection against superior external competition. Several scholars stress this point as a crucial fault, hinting at some nation states practice, in earlier decades, modest devaluation in order to regain international competitiveness at least temporarily.

But such devaluation nostalgia (Streeck 2014) is misleading (Vobruba 2013). What is the main important objection? Under the condition of economic globalization in general, and transnational production chains in particular, all attemps to shield a national economy by devaluation are in vain. Given transnational chains of production, devaluation means lower export prices (in terms of the currency of the importing country), but also higher prices for all kinds of imports, in particular energy, raw materials and upstream-products. This consideration leads to a rather ironic conclusion: that of economies with high dependency on imports and a poor autonomuos value creation which need to be shielded against external competition; and in an age of globalization it‘s exactly the same kind of economies where devaluations don’t provide such a shield.

Was it a mistake?

In order to discuss the political implication of the Eurocrisis, another aspect seems to be of even more interest. As I already mentioned, overlooking the heterogeneity within the Euro zone is seen as the great starting mistake of the common currency. A mistake is something that happens against an actors will, it is a non intended effect, primarily caused by a deficit of information about the consequences of one’s own decisions. In the case of the common currency there was no lack of information at all.

Years before the Euro started, many economists issued warnings that there is no sane economic basis for a common currency. Comparative research aimed at highlightening the differences between the USA and the (than) would be Euro zone as common currency areas. In 1990 the Commission issued "an evaluation of the potential benefits and costs of forming an economic and monetary union", stating that "there will be costs as well as benefits" (p. 18), and concerning the costs it reckons with "intensified competitive pressure in due course on national public expenditute and tax systems", and "that unsustainable public deficits and debt cannot be monetized anymore." (p. 23) In other words: It was not overlooking the consequences of economic heterogeneity within one currency but rather accepting it.

All relevant political actors were informed (or: had easy access to information) and obviousely accepted the predicted problems related to the Euro. At the utmost the intensity of the problems were a surprise as the crisis became manifest. Indeed, the severity of the Eurocrisis was not expected. Thus it makes much more sense to think of the common currency as an important element of an integration strategy, than as an integrational accident. And there can by hardly any doubt that this strategy works.

All these turbulences related with the parlamentary elections in Greece in January 2015 don’t prove the opposite: In case the result of these elections cause any serious problems at all it will be problems for Greece, not for the EU. This rather proves institutional progress spurred by the crisis. The argument of "contagion" no longer counts, financial self-destruction of a single member is no longer seen as a threat for the whole Eurozone.

Rational self-binding

The history of European integration shows that integrational progress usually follows this pattern: A step of integration causes problems, these problems can hardly be solved by other measures than by further steps of integration, which in turn, cause new problems and so on. This – by the way – immediately reveals that naming the introduction of the common currency as a case of "over-integration" doesn’t make any sense.

During the whole process of European integration, every integrational push first led to over-integration. One might call this flub as a political method or a superior long-term political strategy. I am inclined to prefer the latter, for one simple reason. Introducing the common European currency in an all-but-optimal currency area was rational in the sense of political self-binding: Making the decision today to give up my decision making capacity for tomorrow, due to the expectation that tomorrow no rational decisions will be possible (Elster 1979). Applying this idea to the case of the common currency is easy. Political originators of the Euro at their time didn‘t put past their successors to continue consequently with the project of European integration. Given this, it was rational to install future political constraints political actors in our time can hardly ignore.

The good of the crisis

You don’t have to be a fan of further European integration to find a silver lining of the crisis. The vicious circle of "system relevant" banks‘ bankrupcies and states‘ insolvencies led to the Europeanisation of bank supervision, to strengthening the rules for equity ratios and created a political climate of pressure to dry out tax-free havens, impede money laundering and slacken bank secrecies (for instance in Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Swizerland, San Marino and the Vatican).

Such measures together with a limited amnesty for tax evasion (in Italy between 1. 1. and 30. 9. 2015) all ready led to capital flows back to the home countries. Austrian Newspaper "Der Standard" (10. 11. 1. 2015, p. 15) reports the repatriation of capital of Prada, Benetton, Ferrero, Diego della Valle and Exor (Agnelli-Holding) from Luxemburg to Italy. It is estimated that due to this measure an additional volume of 23 billion euros is now subject to Italian taxes.

As national governments revealed themselves hardly able to cope with the Eurocrisis, the European Central Bank grew into the role of crucial crisis managment, acting quickly and convincingly, hence restoring creditors‘ trust.

Guaranties in order to stabilise creditors‘ trust in several Euromembers were given simultanously with strict conditions in order to discipline national public spendings. Such measures should be seen as important steps towards the Europeanization of fiscal policy: On the one hand, they lead to de facto Europeanization of public debts and to reorienting creditors‘ trust towards the Eurozone as a whole (Preunkert, Vobruba 2015). On the other hand, they represent a dramatic shift of political sovereignty from the nation state to the EU. In a next step the economic and social damage caused by disciplining public spending is about to trigger a public investment program of about 315 billion euros, coordinated by the Commission. However social problems like unemployment, youth unemployment and poverty are still subject to national policies, whereas the Europeanization of socio-political awareness and a fortiori a genuine European social policy is still in its infancy.

All in all, the Eurocrisis has triggered a dynamic of institutional integration which started by national crisis management and evolved via European coordination of national policies into a remarkable gain of competencies for European institutions, the Commission, the European Court and in particular the European Central Bank. This is institutional consolidation, not failing integration.

Democracy and Social Policy

Nevertheless, the democratic legitimation of this push of integration remains an open question. In times of crises, quick and affective action is required. In particular as far as financial matters are concerned, efficacy of political measures can only be achieved under the condition that their adressees are not informed in advance. Financial regulations run the risk of leading to bank runs, some kinds of Central Bank policies or devaluations of a currency are cases in point. All these must be unreckonded measures, thus must be implemented quickly and stealthily.

But democratic control is hardly compatible with speed and secrecy. In institutional terms this means that in times of crises political executives tend to elude parlamentary control. One might see this as an necessary evil. But after the crisis politics are obliged to find a way out of its executive-centered mode. It seems to be an open question, whether this will happen. At least there is no theory in sight, which might provide good arguments predicting sufficient transparency and democratic control at the European level. All I can do is collecting some observations, indicating a certain switch towards democratication.

The first observation concerns a recent gain in authority of the European parliament. European elections in May 2014 yielded an increasing reputation for the European parliament. This is due to the personalization during the election campaign focusing at least in some countries on the alternative Jean-Claude Juncker (conservative) or Martin Schulz (social democrat). Significantly, Spitzenkandidaten almost over night became an internationally borrowed word from German. The making of Spitzenkandidaten created public awareness of a link between peoples‘ votes, the parliament and the composition of the Commission, hence at leat a modest step towards parliamentary influence at the EU-level. And not least British Prime Minister David Cameron, who contributed to this gain in reputation, by likewise energetically and unsuccessfully opposing Juncker becoming president of the Commission. (Fox 2014)

The second observation is about the changing constellation in world politics (see also Shishkin 2014). The Ukraine-Russia-EU-conflict represents a clash between two basic concepts of politics. The one concept, emerging in the course of European integration and enlargement, consists of integrating countries on the basis of a generalzed political exchange between the core of the EU and its periphery: participation in material wellbeing and democracy in exchange for providing a stable cordon sanitaire and a buffer function towards outside (Vobruba 2007).

Over decades, the EU expanded in concentric circles. It is often said that by annexing Crimea and trying to force neighbouring countries into the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia suffers a fall back in geopolitics, a concept the EU already has left behind. But this diagnosis lacks precision. The EU's expansionistic dynamic perhaps has not intended geopolitical results, but it can certainly be seen by others as a geopolitical strategy – and indeed Russia perceives it this way. The EU's foreign policy should have been able to anticipate that realistically. So in effect, the Ukraine-Russia-EU-conflict is not a clash between geopolitics versus post-geopolitics, but between attracting or attacking neighbouring countries in order to integrate them.This difference implies an important source of legitimation for the European Union, as it clearly demonstrates the advantages of democratic, non-authoritarian politics.

The Eurocrisis did not interrupt European integration. Quite the contrary: The crisis has contributed to the consolidation of EU-institutions and has widened their room for manoeuvre. But the aftermath of the Eurocrisis consists of two bundles of problems - a growing democratic deficit and enormous social problems within all deficit countries. Integration politics are obliged to cope with these problems, first in the interest of people concerned, and second in order to avoid destructive reciprocal effects between both.

Beyond the Eurocrisis we can see the European Union consolidated in its institutions - but its social fabric remains fragile.


Commission of the European Communities (1990). One market, one money. An evaluation of the potential benefits and costs of forming an economic and monetary union. Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. Brussels.

Elster, Jon 1979. Ulysses and the Sirens. Studies in Rationality and Irrationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fox, Jeremy 2014. Cameron’s Juncker blunker. OpenDemocracy 2. 7. 2014.

Mundell, Robert 1961. A Theory of Optimal Currency Areas. In: American Economic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, pp. 657-665.

Preunkert, Jenny, Georg Vobruba (eds.) 2015. Krise und Integration (Crisis and Integration). Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Shishkin, Mikhail 2014. The Russian myth of Europe. OpenDemocracy 28. 7. 2014.

Streeck, Wolfgang 2014. Bying time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London, New York: Verso Books.

Vobruba, Georg 2007. Die Dynamik Europas. (The Dynamic of Europe) Wiesbaden: VS.

Vobruba, Georg 2013. The Eurozone Crisis: No way back. OpenDemocracy 15. 5. 2013.

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An introduction to Yemen's emergency

25. January 2015 - 12:52

This piece aims to provide the minimum necessary background to understand recent and forthcoming events in a rapidly changing situation in Yemen.

Bab_Al_Yemen. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.The determination of the mass street demonstrations and occupations throughout the country in 2011 were insufficient to firmly exclude the former ruler from future involvement in Yemeni politics. Although Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to abandon the presidency in November 2011 under pressure from the Gulf Cooperation Council  (GCC) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), neither the GCC, the UNSC nor indeed the Yemeni people were able to force him out of the country. He remained in Yemen as a major force subverting the transitional process.

Hadi, the rock and the hard place

His successor, former Vice President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, surprised many by not acting as a mere puppet to Saleh, but was unfortunately unable to manage the political transition towards a new Yemen. While most of the commitments included in the GCC agreement were formally implemented,  in practice the transitional regime was unable to make the fundamental changes which were essential to bring about a ‘new’ Yemen and transfer power away from the previous elite groups. In addition to the points below, this was largely because the GCC/UNSC sponsored deal remained firmly within the confines of neoliberal policies and did not clearly and explicitly support a fundamental transformation and democratization of the country, which would challenge its existing elites.

The Government of National Unity was formed as planned: with a majority of ministers from the  main existing elite factions (Saleh’s GPC and the Islah party[1]), who used their ministries as bases to increase their patronage and income while the ministers from minority parties, women, youth and civil society were unable to affect the situation. This government gained the reputation of being the most ineffective and corrupt in the country’s history. Islah’s influence kept it in power with the aged Prime Minister who was its man till mid-2014, when the party was seriously weakened in fighting with the Huthis.

The old guard infiltrate democratisation

With considerable difficulty but determination, Hadi successfully changed most of the leaders of the main military and security institutions, removing those most closely associated with Saleh; but he was unable to change the middle ranking officers, and the majority of units, particularly the well-trained ones, remained loyal to Saleh. This is one of, if not the main reason why Hadi was unable to respond militarily to the Huthi take-over of Sana’a in September 2014 or effectively fight them in recent days when they took over of the main centres of political power (Radio and TV,  Presidential Palaces,  Council of Ministers, etc.)

The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was intended to bring together all Yemeni political forces, the traditional parties and personalities as well as the new ones emerging from the 2011 popular uprisings, including women, youth and civil society. Although delayed and the selection and representation mechanisms for its membership were somewhat debatable, this was an important political event where young people, women and civil society elements were able to express unorthodox views. Older influential ‘traditional’ leaders were compelled to engage with them as equals, something which some of them probably resented. The NDC produced over 1800 recommendations. Due to fundamental political disagreements, it was unable to agree solutions to the Southern question (discussed below) or decide the number of regions to be included in a federal state.

Who are the Huthis?

Until recently, most people had never heard of them.  The name of their movement is that of their leaders’ family. Originally set up in 1992 by Hussein al Huthi as the ‘Believing Youth’ social and Zaydi revivalist movement, it first operated in alliance with Saleh’s regime[2]. However, Saleh encouraged the establishment of the rival Dar al Hadith Salafi centre in the heart of the Zaydi community. This led in 2004 to the first of a series of wars between the Saleh regime and the Huthi movement. Although Hussein al Huthi was killed in September 2004, the movement increased in strength despite worsening violent repression through 6 wars which killed thousands, displaced more, and destroyed the local economy and infrastructure. A ceasefire was agreed in 2010, and would probably not have held had the 2011 uprisings not taken place.

Ideologically, the Huthis share the social characteristics of other fundamentalist groups, including claims to theological correctness, belief in unquestioning obedience to leaders and a retrograde attitude to women’s rights. Although a Shi’a group, Zaydi theological differences with Sunnis are few and the main distinguishing characteristic is their belief in the innate right of sada [ie descendants of the prophet] to rule.

Rise of the Huthis

In 2011 the Huthis participated in the uprisings against the Saleh regime where, after March, they found themselves on the same side as some of their main enemies: Ali Mohsen al Ahmar (the main military leader fighting them during the wars) and the Islah Party, long-standing rivals in their home areas. Instability throughout the country gave them the opportunity of taking complete control of their home governorate of Sa’ada bordering Saudi Arabia by the end of 2011, and in the following years, of increasing parts of the neighbouring governorates of Hajja, Amran and Jawf.

The NDC ended a year ago, on 25 January 2014, and the ‘implementation of the outcomes of the NDC’ has since then become a slogan used in all official policy statements, including those which completely contradict these outcomes. The year revealed the fundamental weaknesses of the GCC agreement through the slowing down of progress on reforms on the one hand and the worsening security situation on the other. The transition was due to end in February 2014 but extended without a new deadline, largely to allow the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) to carry out its duties and the preparation of a referendum on the constitution and new elections.

The Saleh-Huthi pact

How did the Huthis rise from being a minority regional politico-military movement to taking complete control over the formal state in less than one year? Long suspected by most Yemenis, but ignored by the international community, and denied by both concerned parties, the alliance between the Huthis and Saleh has been the main factor behind their military success. The vast majority of the Huthis’ armed forces are military and security units loyal to Saleh who follow his orders. Moreover even senior Huthi leaders take orders from Saleh, as revealed by a recently leaked telephone conversation[3] between Saleh and Abdul Wahed Abu Ras (Huthi representative at the NDC) where the former orders the latter to coordinate activities with Saleh loyalists, to ensure they control the country’s borders; they even discuss the appointment of the next Prime Minister: Abu Ras meekly acquiesces. Last week, it also emerged that the military refused to obey the Minister of Defence’s order to protect the Presidential Palace and other strategic locations in Sana’a: the only group who fought back were the President’s personal guard, suffering heavy casualties[4].  

Last September, people wondered how the Huthis managed to take control of the capital, Sana’a, without firing a shot; the answer is clearly that the army and security forces made no move to defend the legitimate regime of President Hadi. Many people are looking forward to the moment when the Huthis remember that Saleh insulted their leader. It was also thanks to Saleh’s military forces that the Huthis defeated the al Ahmars and the Islah party in Amran Governorate, where they burned down the houses of the leading shaykhs. In September, their other main enemy, General Ali Mohsen who had led Saleh’s forces against them in the wars escaped to Saudi Arabia,  and the Huthis organized tours of his ‘house’ in Sana’a as well as ransacking those of the absent al Ahmars. 

Allies & enemies: sectarianism, regionalism and tribe

Al Qaida.  The list of Huthi enemies is increasing. They have alienated many segments of the population. Their tactic of blowing up the houses of anyone who disagrees with them in the areas they control, certainly silences opposition but also increases resentment. While they have taken control of many Zaydi areas in the country, in the Shafi’i areas the situation is very different and people are fighting back. This has little, if anything, to do with theological differences or a Sunni/Shi’a split, but is based on issues of social cohesion, including tribal allegiance, power, control and (the absence of) development and social security funding for an increasingly impoverished and suffering population. 

The other major strong fundamentalist armed group in Yemen, Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is certainly using this situation to its advantage, promoting itself as the defender of Sunnis against takeover by Shi’a: for example, in al Bayda governorate, opposition to outsiders and other factors listed above have led local tribes to work alongside AQAP in opposition to the Huthis. The heavily populated governorates of Taizz and Ibb have few Huthis supporters and there are occasional battles between Huthis and others in these areas, and there is strong opposition to them.

The south 

Further south, the Huthis have asserted their commitment to Yemeni Unity which means that the southern separatists have joined their opponents. While deeply divided with almost as many leaders as individual separatists, they are currently clearly unable to manage the former area of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. One leader declared independence (22 January) of the two southern regions (under the proposed federation of 6 regions), thus opening the gates for Hadramaut in the east to separate from the rest of the former PDRY, something which most observers firmly believe they will do in the case of secession. While no less than 16 other separatist ‘organizations’ met to discuss the situation on January 23.

Who supports the Huthis?

At least until recently, they had considerable popular support from a wide range of Yemenis including all those who dislike the Islah Party, a majority of the population in the northern part of the country primarily populated by Zaydis, and  among sada throughout the country. In addition, their populist positions such as opposition to the IMF-supported fuel price rises, claims to support law and order and opposition to corruption have increased the numbers of their supporters. And, of course, many Saleh supporters including military and security troops can be relied upon to participate in carefully staged supposedly ‘popular’ support demonstrations.

The slow coup

The trigger for the events of the past week was, at long last, the presentation of the draft Constitution to the ‘Higher Authority for Monitoring the Implementation of NDC Outcomes’, after ten months of activity by the Constitutional Drafting Committee — much of it spent in luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere. While details of the proposed constitution are not analysed here, the Huthis’ main objection is the proposed federation of 6 regions. The original proposal excluded Hajja governorate with its outlet on the Red Sea from the region which covers most of the Huthi-controlled areas, though the Huthis have tried to control that area for a long time. Whether this was the actual only reason for their ‘slow’ coup may be revealed in coming decades.

By January 22, they had full military control over Sana’a, including all its strategic institutions, something which they could have done months ago. They wanted to keep President Hadi as a puppet president, as they hoped he would be able to ensure acceptance of their coup by the international community, and hence a continuation of financial assistance. However Saudi Arabia, the main financier, has stopped payments for anything other than emergency humanitarian aid since the September take-over. The rest of the international community rejected this illegal takeover and aid, already far too limited, is drying up. Without an acceptable ‘front’, there was no hope of it being resumed. 

The Huthis overplayed their hand by kidnapping the Director of the President’s office[5], then imprisoning the President in his house and the Prime Minister in the Presidential Palace and trying to blackmail them into accepting Huthi nominees as Vice President, Deputy Ministers in most ministries and top officials in senior positions in security and other key institutions. At this point the President and Prime Minister had two options: resign or openly operate as Huthi puppets. They chose the first, and at the very least have retained self-respect and the respect of many Yemenis.

What next?  

Meanwhile, the majority of the population remain demoralised and impoverished, suffering from electricity cuts in the cities (most rural areas where 68% of the population still live don’t have electricity anyway) higher prices everywhere, massive unemployment, floods or drought in agriculture. Most people feel demobilized and are waiting to see what happens next, hoping it won’t be another bomb killing dozens of their youth. The economy is almost non-existent and the country’s groundwater is running out. A sad situation and a grim future. 

The ‘international community’

The ‘international community’ has not intervened effectively.  Despite claiming to support Hadi, in the last 2 years, nothing meaningful was done to strengthen his position. Counter-terrorism took priority, drone strikes reduced Hadi’s limited support base and probably increased support for armed aggressive fundamentalists.

In addition to developing an inclusive democracy, Hadi could have achieved strong and broad support throughout the country with massive development investment linked to effective humanitarian interventions. This would have enabled the millions of increasingly impoverished people to achieve something akin to a reasonable standard of living through agricultural development, other economic development (such as small and medium industries and services) in rural and urban areas, as well as improved social services and basic relevant infrastructure. 

Such a programme would have given hope to millions that a new Yemen is really possible, and would have persuaded many more to come out and demonstrate against the Huthis. It would have retained the energies of the thousands of youth activists from 2011, all hoping for a better life and participation in the country’s future. In recent days, increasingly serious demonstrations are taking place daily throughout the country opposing the Huthis, with many youth and women involved, something of a revival of the spirit of 2011; they are being repressed with beatings and shootings.

As of 24 January, the Huthis are keeping the President and other senior leaders under house arrest.  Formally, the successor to the President has to be the speaker of the Parliament, Yahia Ali al Ra’i, a firm Saleh loyalist who called for a meeting of Parliament for 25 January, a meeting which was then cancelled after southerners refused to attend; this meeting is necessary to accept or reject the President’s resignation. Negotiations are being held, presumably to persuade Hadi to withdraw his resignation. However keeping him incommunicado (his telecoms are monitored/controlled) is hardly likely to persuade him to withdraw it. Meanwhile, the alliance between Huthis and Saleh holds, but this is unlikely to last. Where the balance of power lies within this alliance will determine the future.

For detailed analysis of current developments in Yemen see Helen Lackner ed.  Why Yemen Matters, Saqi books 2014

[1]  The Islah party is a conglomerate of Hashed tribal supporters of the al Ahmar family, now led  mainly  by Sadek and Hamid on the one hand, and Salafi fundamentalists led by Abdul Majid Zindani

[2]  Hussein al Huthi was a member of the Parliament from 1993-97 and one of his brothers followed at the next election

[3]  Leaked to al Jazeera TV on  21 January 2015 though it took place last October

[4]  On Monday 19 January, the only day when there was armed resistance to the coup.

[5]  On 17 January as he was on his way to the formal presentation of the draft constitution to the relevant institution

Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics International politics
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EU and the Arab world: 'cooperation' to fight terror is an excuse

25. January 2015 - 10:47

The EU is following a bizarre logic, where support is given to autocratic regimes who benefit from the rise of extremist groups, instead of seeking reasons for the rise of radicalization among European youth. Why?

Egypt's poor welcome Sisi's presidency, May 2014. Aishah Schwartz/Demotix. All rights reserved.I recently read an announcement by the EU chief of foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, calling for greater cooperation with the Arab world to combat terrorism. It stated, "We need an alliance. We need to strengthen our way of cooperating together."

This statement appears benign on the surface, even helpful in bridging the east/west divide where moderate forces in the Arab world are encouraged to  cooperate with European democracies in the fight against terrorism.

However, I could not help but notice the similarity between this statement and a rant aired on Fox News, mouthpiece of the American right, which called for the west to arm the so-called Muslim “moderates", signalling out Egypt’s Field Marshal – now President – El Sisi, to combat terrorism on behalf of the United States and its allies.

The channel highlighted Sisi’s recent call for a revolution within Islam, and his outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Seems like a plausible strategy? However, to gain a deeper understanding of this seemingly harmless strategy, we need to dissect it a little further. 

It should be noted that in practise this policy of cooperation means cooperation with Arab autocrats, those who hold power in the Arab world and who will use this “new” policy to cement their hold on power by garnering more legitimacy for their repressive rule. These are the so-called “moderates” from a western perspective.

In other words, men like Field Marshal El Sisi will include the repression of his political rivals, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who are already outlawed, in this international policy of combating terrorism. This will also provide legitimacy for the most brutal regimes in the region, such as Iraq and Syria, who are now potential allies in the fight against the common enemy of Islamist, especially Sunni, extremism. Suddenly men like Assad seem more amenable than Sunni extremist violence, which has now been framed as an attack on European values, and as such, western civilization.   

Naturally, this newfound formal support will not affect the repression that is already in the pipelines. This is the repression of all political opponents of the autocrats; Islamist and non-Islamist alike. However, it will give this campaign of repression a new level of international legitimacy, opening up the way for the rehabilitation of men like Assad, as bulwarks against Sunni extremism. It will also conveniently shield other governments, like the sectarian government of Iraq or the military regime in Egypt, from any international scrutiny. In essence, it is the formal support of the European Union for autocrats in the region who have committed the most heinous atrocities in the modern history of the Arab world.

Ironically, these so-called “moderate” Arab regimes have followed policies that have led to the growth of terrorist organizations within their own borders, which they are now unable or unwilling to stop. Unable, considering the loss of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq as well as the active insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Unwilling, since these regimes have consistently used the rise of Islamist extremism as a tool for the repression of their opponents, in an attempt to solidify their decaying base of support and to fasten their allies to them, in what has become a struggle for life or death in places like Syria and Iraq.

The EU is following an extremely bizarre logic, where support is given to regimes that are the direct beneficiaries of the rise of extremist groups, and who have actively promoted their proliferation in order to provide a basis for their own legitimacy.

Examples of this abound, in Syria the Assad regime used extreme force as well as sectarian tactics, including tacit cooperation with ISIS, to radicalize and sectarianize what was essentially a peaceful protest movement.

In Egypt, the military committed the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history to polarize the political system and create a dichotomy between what it constructed as "terrorism" and civility, after which terror attacks reached an unprecedented level. In essence, EU policy is supporting the main drivers of radicalism in the region, which could lead to an endless cycle of violence.

In the same meeting, the EU foreign policy chief stated that she would appeal the European court verdict to remove Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations. This statement seems to have come out of context, as Hamas has confined its operation to its armed struggle with Israel, and has never engaged in a struggle against the EU. If anything, Hamas has attempted to moderate its position as much as possible in the hope that it would be considered a legitimate political party and gain international recognition. In essence, the connection seemed bizarre and artificial.

However, coupled with the recent Palestinian move to ask the ICC to investigate possible war crimes in Gaza, and the attempts made by the Israeli Prime Minister to create a connection between the Paris attacks and the right of the “States of the Jews” to defend the Jews, the narrative becomes clearer.

The EU is using the current climate to heap more pressure on the Palestinian unity government, which includes Hamas, by threatening to re-label Hamas as a terrorist organization, knowing very well that a direct reaction to this move would be very difficult to explain to European public opinion. This move would allow the EU once again to apply financial as well as diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian unity government on behalf of Israel, while appeasing European public opinion, which has been whipped into a state of alarm over the fear of Islamic extremism.    

Thus, in essence, the EU is using the Paris attacks to achieve a number of objectives. First, to provide support for Arab autocrats by providing them with an additional measure of international legitimacy. Second, applying direct pressure on the Palestinian unity government to demonstrate the possible costs of using the ICC against Israel.   

Third, the EU is treating the issue as if it were a foreign import, like a virus, with immigrants from those countries infecting the European polity. The EU is treating the causes of radicalism as inherently external, in other words rooted in the war in Syria or Iraq, implicitly exonerating European society, and most importantly, European elites.

This is, to say the least, grossly misleading. Rather than look at the perpetrators of the Paris attack as Frenchmen that happen to be Muslim, they are treated as Muslims who happen to be French.

The issue of the radicalization of young Europeans needs to be examined in a much more objective manner, acknowledging the roles that racism and marginalization play in this process. There is an absolutely necessary process of soul searching that European society needs to go through.

Rather than support autocrats in the Arab world, the EU should attempt to de-securitize its discourse and to understand the reason for this radicalization, treating the issue as first and foremost a societal rather than security problem. The EU has decided to create boogiemen to chase, and monsters to slay. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Arab dictators: between tactical brilliance and strategic stupidity Charlie Hebdo – one week later On Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, terrorism, and the value of lives The Egyptian lesson: how to strengthen student opposition Turkish PM in conversation, part 4: The Arab Spring and Turkey’s future Charlie Hebdo and western denial On Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, terrorism, and the value of lives Where is the outrage? Charlie Hebdo: the Prophet does not want to be avenged Country or region:  Egypt Syria Iraq EU Topics:  Democracy and government International politics
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The Coptic Church: mixing politics with religion

25. January 2015 - 10:20

To morn the unjustly massacred and raise your voice against oppressors is unwelcome in the Coptic Church, but to interrupt prayers and let politicians speak during a mass is welcome and appropriate.

Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, Christmas mass, 2014. Abanoub Ramsis/Demotix. All rights reserved.My joy at Pope Tawadros’ statement “If religion mixes with politics, it will become corrupted” in April of 2012 has almost faded from memory. All the enthusiasm I entertained for the newly ordained Pope and high hopes of him starting his reign on a clean slate with regard to the church’s role in society, have been crushed. All I feel now is disappointment, distress, to the point of pain at times.

Following numerous political statements made by the pope, on the morning of Christmas Eve (January 6),I promised myself not to watch the mass at the cathedral on television, as usual, but to attend mass in my local church.

This decision was made after the last statement the Pope released about the Maspero massacre, which took place in October 2011, in which he accused the Muslim Brotherhood of “luring” Coptic youth to clash with the army - contrary to what we witnessed three years ago.

Unfortunately, as I was checking my twitter feed on Christmas Eve, I read the news that President Sisi had visited the cathedral during the mass to wish the Pope and the Coptic community a merry Christmas. This visit was welcomed because apparently it was the first of its kind in modern Egyptian history. But what happened after is the reason I spent the whole evening completely disconnected from the mass.

After Sisi’s entrance, prayers in the cathedral were stopped and he was given the pulpit to deliver his speech in front of the altar. His speech was 'sweet talk' about how “we (Muslims and Christians) are going to build our country together” and that “we will love each other”. As if it were as simple as that. He didn’t attend the mass; it was a quick grand arrival and rapid departure. However, Sisi’s gesture, of course, was met with applause and loud cheers of “we love you Sisi” by the attendees.

Reactions to the incident varied, some warmly welcomed it, others felt dismayed by the interruption of the service. As for me, throughout the whole night I couldn’t help but contrast two parallel images in my mind.

The first was of the families and friends of the Maspero victims being hushed for screaming and shouting in grief against military rule back in 2011, while they were mourning their beloved during the funeral and the following Christmas mass (some were even kicked out of the church for doing so). And the other was of what had just happened in the very same cathedral.

I was exhausted by the comparison. To mourn the unjustly massacred and raise your voice against oppressors is unwelcome in the church and considered inappropriate in the house of God. But to interrupt prayers and let politicians speak during a mass is deemed very appropriate.

This is quite ironic considering that this very same politician is part of a ruling power that is responsible for the numerous injustices we have witnessed over these past four years and are still witnessing today, including injustices towards the Coptic community itself.

However, what took place at the cathedral on Christmas Eve was not the only shock for me. In a phone interview Bishop Paula of Tanta, a member of the 50-strong committee that drafted the 2013 constitution, referred to Sisi: “As the angel appeared proclaiming the birth of Christ, we see Christ (Sisi) appears in church on the day of the birth of Christ”.

In another interview Makary Younan, a renowned priest known for performing exorcism, claimed that the bible has prophesied Sisi. He told the interviewer: “I said on air that President Sisi is sent from heaven…We have a prophecy in the book of Isaiah that says God, in their (Egyptians) distress, sent them a protector and a savior”, he added referring to Isaiah 19:20. The protector and savior according to him here is, of course, President Sisi.

Not only is the Coptic Church doing what Islamists were formerly blamed for: mixing politics with religion, it is also asking the youth to turn a blind eye. A few days after Christmas, the official Facebook page of the Coptic Youth Bishopric posted a photo questioning the intentions of those critical to the clergy and whether their posts were really for “the salvation of the reader” or just for “stumbling others”. The post also hints that no one should criticize the pope, bishops or priests and vilifies such actions as mistakes. So instead of holding the wrongdoers accountable, the church is asking everyone to remain silent under the pretense that criticism would “stumble” others. Ironically, the comments were mostly critical of the post itself.

I ask myself repeatedly: shouldn’t the church always stand by the oppressed, the poor, the tortured and the wronged? Shouldn’t “the people of God (who is love, according to biblical teachings)" be outspoken defenders of human rights, social justice and dignity (the values of the Egyptian revolution) for His creation? Isn’t this the true meaning of love Christians are obliged to present for everyone, regardless of what repercussions they might encounter for the sake of holding onto these principles? It is sad that we see the Coptic Church stand in opposition to all these values; choosing the oppressor over the oppressed. 

For the time being, the dream of a Coptic Church that stands for human rights, denounces injustice and engages in spreading the values of equality and freedom has been deferred. But outside the walls of the Coptic Church there are others that will set examples for the role of a living church: the church of Moses, who stood up for his people against tyranny and humiliation;

The church of Matta El Meskeen, the Coptic hermit who warned against the proximity of the church to the authorities; the church of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran bishop who struggled peacefully along with his oppressed people against a military dictatorship and paid for it with his life.

Only after I remembered the existence of such churches, did I start to enjoy Christmas again.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Three years on and the Copts' plight continues Copts in El Sisi's Egypt Egypt: church and state Country or region:  Egypt
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Greece’s election: filling Europe’s democratic void

24. January 2015 - 16:18

The election is vital because at stake are two broader EU problems: the absence of a right to organise substantive opposition, and the de-democratisation of political decision-making.

Eleftheria Arvanitaki sings in protest at public broadcaster shutdown. Panayis Chrysovergis/Demotix. All rights reserved.During Greece’s struggle for self-determination its motto rallied democrats across Europe to its cause: ‘Eleftheria!’ – ‘Freedom!’

Almost two hundred years later, Europe’s eyes are once again turned to Greece. However, where once the cause was liberty from the Ottoman Empire, the issue at stake in Sunday’s election is whether Greece will elect a government willing and able to renegotiate its debt package and in doing so allow it to reclaim a greater degree of economic and political control over its future.

For in their attempts to save the euro, European policy-makers have progressively overridden the national democracies of the debtor states of the Eurozone and imposed macroeconomic policies upon them without democratic legitimacy. The election is vital then, not just for its economic implications, but because the issues at stake reflect two broader problems with the EU’s institutional design: the absence of a right to organise substantive opposition within the European polity and the de-democratisation of political decision-making processes, felt most acutely in southern Europe.  Without addressing them, the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ will remain entrenched.

Of course, as the EU has evolved and expanded in both its size and competencies, it has added representative and participatory trappings in an attempt to democratically legitimate its growing authority. The directly elected European Parliament now has the power of co-decision over EU legislation. Similarly, though it cannot generate an executive, arguably the newly adopted ‘Spitzenkanditaten’ system points in that direction. Meanwhile, there are national channels for democracy in the EU, albeit indirectly. For example, the elected heads of state or government of the EU's member states form the majority of the European Council, which in turn defines the EU's general political direction and priorities. Clearly then, there remains room for national discretion within the EU’s decision-making structures.

Yet a democratic void remains at its centre; decision-making processes within the EU are still only very weakly accountable to European electorates and many of its institutions are deliberately insulated from democratic pressures. One of the most striking yet little stressed examples of this – and unique among polities claiming to be democratic - is the inability to organise a fundamental aspect of democratic life: opposition.

As Peter Mair has argued, ‘we are afforded the right to be represented in Europe, even if it is sometimes difficult to work out when and how this representative link functions; but we are not afforded the right to organise opposition within the European polity.’ 

For example, as the EU is presently organised, presenting an alternative policy agenda from that pursued by the Council or Commission is not realistically possible. Voters cannot directly choose between opposing candidates at the executive level, nor between alternative policy agendas for the future direction of the EU. Opposition to the existence of the EU itself is of course possible and regularly reflected in the results of European Parliament elections; substantive and constructive opposition to the policy direction of the EU is not, with no government-opposition nexus existing. This is important, for an absence of opposition means a loss of voice, with democratic contest hollowed out and EU governance substantively de-democratised in the process. Opposition to the existence of the EU itself is of course possible and regularly reflected in the results of European Parliament elections; substantive and constructive opposition to the policy direction of the EU is not.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament – supposedly the principle vehicle for the democratisation of the EU – exemplifies the limits of EU democracy in its current form. It is of course directly elected, though it is a so-called ‘second order’ election across Europe, as reflected in its low participation rates.

However, the Parliament only has powers of co-decision; it can amend but not propose, and ultimate decisions rest with the Council and the Commission. Furthermore, the Commission and the Council dominate the policy process throughout, with Parliament rarely inhibiting the legislative process.  For example, a majority of EU legislation is still passed under the consultation procedure, for which the European Parliament has only minimal powers of delay.

Similarly, on the EU budget, it can only amend lines that are categorized as ‘non-compulsory expenditure’. The divorce between electoral input into the EU through the Parliament and the EU’s policy output therefore is weak, with the preferences of European citizens offering little formal constraint or mandate for the decisions of the EU. The result is a worrying democratic void, the weakening of the EU’s legitimacy and, contributing in part, surging populism across the continent.

Debtor states

The most striking example of the de-democratising effect of the EU is, of course, found in the debtor states of the Eurozone. In an effort to sustain the Euro and convince ‘the markets’ of its solvency, it has erected a political economy regime that has progressively neutralised nation-state democracies across southern Europe.  The European Semester System (2010), the Euro Plus Pact (2011) and the Fiscal Compact (2012) have steadily eroded the ability of debtor nations within the Eurozone to control their tax and spend decisions, the very stuff of democratic government. 

To oversee this, the Commission has been granted comprehensive powers of economic surveillance and enforcement through EU legislation, particularly the Six Pack (2011) and the Two Pack (2013). Through these measures, national economic sovereignty has been sacrificed on the altar of the Euro in southern Europe, and with it, very substantially, their democracies. Of course, joining a monetary union necessarily involves losing some form of sovereignty. However, crucially there has not been a corresponding growth in formal forms of democratic accountability within the Eurozone’s structures, with subsequently little opportunity to contest its policy direction.

The economic and distributional implication of the new euro regime for these countries is severe. To be sure, national governments retain some discretion over the macroeconomic direction of their country and the EU is clearly not the only force that inhibits the capacity of nation-states to pursue particular agendas. Nonetheless, as Fritz Scharpf has recently expertly articulated, the implications of recent EU decision-making is clear for debtor states in the Eurozone: it requires a policy of constant downward pressures on wages and public spending, both to support export-led growth in economic downswings, and conversely to limit the growth of external deficits during upswings.

As is evident across southern Europe, such a regime institutionalises a destructive cycle of competitive internal devaluation, that in turn prompts further wage and fiscal restraint as a response. The result: the Eurozone is locked in a deflationary spiral, both economic and democratic, with power gravitating further away from democratic institutions and the labour force and towards de-politicised governance structures and capital holders. As Claus Offe argues, then, ‘the euro has rendered European democratic capitalism more capitalist and less democratic.’ (Offe, 2015)

Why the Greek election is such an opportunity  

The Greek election offers an opportunity to begin breaking out of this iron cage. In seeking to renegotiate its debt package, Syriza and others are searching for greater fiscal and economic breathing space, which would lessen the damaging cycle of Greek austerity and potentially allow Greece out of its deflationary spiral. 

However, even if successful, such a renegotiation would not change the terms of the broader post-crisis settlement – the Compact and the Six Pack in particular – as these are not the terms of an individual national bailout. More broadly then, the EU and the political economy of the Eurozone require further reform to allow for more substantive forms of opposition within its governance structures and greater democratic control over the continent’s economic institutions.  the EU and the political economy of the Eurozone require further reform to allow for more substantive forms of opposition within its governance structures and greater democratic control over the continent’s economic institutions. 

This is critical for Europe’s future. Coordinated decision-making within the European sphere is clearly set to advance in the future; what is less clear is whether that process will be accompanied by more substantive forms of European democracy and accountability.

The traditional responses to the democratic weaknesses of Europe – further committing ourselves towards the Habermasian goal of constructing a genuine European demos – is simply unfeasible and not an answer to this trend. Nor will a retreat to populist nationalism or unaccountable technocratic federalism provide a sustainable answer.

As Thomas Piketty and Pierre Rosanvallon among others have argued, a revived and democratised EU remains vital if we are to ‘regain control of and effectively regulate 21st century globalised financial capitalism.’ Working out how to revive the democratic right to oppose within the EU’s governing structures amidst a Europe of divergent nations, beginning in Greece this Sunday, might be an effective start to that revival. 

Country or region:  Greece EU Topics:  Democracy and government Ideas International politics
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Argentina in shock

24. January 2015 - 13:27

A mysterious death in Buenos Aires raises questions about the true sources of power inside Argentina's state.  

A federal prosecutor in a democratic state accuses the elected president of a major cover-up. Alberto Nisman is scheduled to explain the cover-up in Argentina's congress when, hours before testifying, he mysteriously dies in his apartment. What kind of democracy allows this to happen? In the context of such events, what will be the fate of this democracy? As a result of Alberto Nisman's death, Argentina is facing a traumatic shock, one without precedent in the last two decades of its young democracy.

Nisman’s sudden death on 18 January 2015 represents a challenge to Argentines to push for a bigger separation of powers - and especially the longstanding links between presidency, justice system, and security and intelligence agencies. Argentina's history is full of examples of the presidency being a willing participant in the manipulation and harassment of investigating judges and prosecutors. Whatever the exact circumstances in this case, Argentina's government must decisively halt this pattern.

The prosecutor’s accusations concerned a terrible incident on 18 July 1994, when a van filled with explosives was blown up outside the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, killing eighty-five people and injuring hundreds more. The AMIA bombing was one of the most lethal anti-Jewish attacks since the Holocaust. From the beginning, Iran and its ally Hizbollah have been regarded as the main suspects, though no one has been convicted for the atrocity. The latest twist in the story may seem to belong to the generic script of a Hollywood thriller, but sadly it belongs to the new history of Argentina - and, as with the original event, there are no guarantees that the tale will end well.

The federal prosecutor was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment at the very moment he was preparing to offer the full evidence he had collected on a crucial aspect of his investigation: the supposed attempt by the Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to stop the prosecution of Iranian and Hizbollah agents who Nisman alleged had planned the AMIA attack.

Was Alberto Nisman the victim of a plot against the president? Was he led to his death by having challenged the government that first asked him to investigate the bombing? Is Iran still involved? What will happen now to his very serious accusation against the president?

The president, via her facebook page, has evaded these widespread concerns and the profound political implications of the death. Instead, she first stressed that the prosecutor committed suicide and blamed this on a conspiracy between media (specifically, the newspaper Clarín), some elements of the judiciary, and rogue sectors of the intelligence services. She even charged the deceased prosecutor as having been a participant in this conspiracy. Yet just a a day later - in a long letter also published on facebook - the president switched gears and suggested that the prosecutor was killed by her own enemies.

President Kirchner speaks of “a really long history, a heavy and hard story and a very sordid one” - words that echo among many Argentines. But this formulation truly refers not only to Nisman's tragic end but also to the Argentine state that she, as president, is responsible for. The reality she needs to acknowledge is that this is a state where security and intelligence forces, born out of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina until 1983, operate in the dark - both with the government, and also often against the government.

A state in shadow

The Kirchner administration will be leaving power in October 2015 (when the next elections are due) with the security state unchanged from the moment it entered office. A key question that needs to be answered properly is whether the administration was not willing to disarm it, or simply did not know how to. In this context, Nisman’s denunciation - an Argentina “j’accuse!” of the present day - is at once both epitaph and testament for the future. This raises the possibility that it could also become a mandate for the times to come.

After the brutal dictatorship of 1976-83, Argentina developed one of the strongest Latin American democracies - yet also one where the executive sees the judiciary as an instrument, and more recently (and increasingly) as a potential enemy. Alberto Nisman had even stated that the president offered to international terrorists impunity from justice in exchange for oil; that Iran was granted a judicial cover-up ("the manufacturing of innocence”) so that the authors of the terrorist attack would go free.

Nisman had previously indicted Iranian officials for the terrorist crimes. At a time of global rejection of terrorism, the Argentine administration explored the road of appeasement. Nisman said days before he died that he had wiretapping and other evidence to show the reasons behind the Cristina Kirchner administration's softness towards the Iranian government. Today, few Argentines believe that the judicial investigations will continue.

Nisman was the sole prosecutor charged with investigating the bombing. Over the years he carried alone the immense responsibility of finding its causes. He also tried to understand why different Argentine administrations - from Carlos Menem in the 1990s to Cristina Kirchner in the present - were not truly involved in helping the cause of justice. Once again, global geopolitics and local gangsterism are mixed in Argentina.

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Free speech in the French Republic

24. January 2015 - 12:23

Since the touchstone of a free speech regime is in how well it protects speech that most find revolting, its defenders have to be willing to speak also for those whose opinions they don’t find respectable.

French comedian, Dieudonne with fans, 2014. Vincent Emery/Demotix. All rights reserved.The week before last saw France’s most deadly terrorist attack in decades, but by no means the first. In fact, events that took place in France more than a century ago may have contributed more than any to defining what terrorism has come to mean. In March 1892, François Ravachol bombed the Parisian apartments of a judge and a prosecutor who had sought and pronounced hefty sentences against a group of anarchist workers a few months earlier. Ravachol received his death sentence to the cry of “vive l’anarchie,” and was guillotined in July 1892. While his actions made him a controversial figure among anarchists, his death made him a martyr. “Propaganda by the deed,” as he called it, inspired followers. In December 1893, August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. No one died, except Vaillant himself who was guillotined early in 1894.

On the heels of Vaillant’s attack, French Deputies rallied to vote in their Patriot Act. The laws of 11 and 18 December 1893 were meant to prevent future attacks and preserve public safety. Laws to prosecute and punish propaganda by the deed, of course, already existed. Henceforth, however, propaganda by the word too became a crime. Because many supporters of the Republican cause had been censored and imprisoned in the 1850s and 1860s for violating the Second Empire’s repressive press laws, the Third Republic’s press laws, voted in 1881, were among the most liberal in the world. In just a few days late in 1893, these hard-fought freedoms were undone. Anarchists were censored and imprisoned just as Republicans had been when they opposed the regime in place.

To little avail, it seems, since new terror attacks took place. In February 1894, Emile Henry bombed a Parisian Café. In July of the same year an Italian baker, Sante Geronimo Caserio, stabbed France’s president to death. The lois scélérates (“villanous laws”), as these restrictions on the freedom of the press came to be known, were extended to any expression of support for revolutionary or anarchistic convictions. Newspapers were shut down and people were brought to trial who had no involvement whatever in violent action. Disrespect to the French government or military sufficed to mete out prison sentences.

These late-nineteenth century events prefigured what is now referred to as ‘terrorism’ not merely because of the nature of the attacks, carried out by small radical groups against unsuspecting civilians, but also because of their consequences. Ever since – and not just in France – terror attacks have been followed by outbursts of nationalism, the silencing of dissent, the curtailing of civil liberties, and further discriminations against vulnerable groups. As such, I feel doubly affected by last week’s events—horrified by the many deaths, no doubt, but also troubled by their likely consequences. French elected officials are already calling on the government to adopt a new French Patriot Act, with explicit (and seemingly approving) reference to the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11.

The Dieudonné case

There are reasons for concern beyond historical precedents, whether in the 1890s or early 2000s. As the case of comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala illustrates, the French government under its current socialist president has proved even more willing to limit the freedom of speech than it did under Hollande’s far-right predecessor. (And France typically ranks far lower than most of its European neighbours on press freedom indexes to begin with.)

Dieudonné, born to a Cameroonian father and a French mother, was a powerful voice in anti-racist struggles in France during the 1990s. He became famous on stage, exploring and exposing racial stereotypes in his popular duo with Jewish comedian, Elie Simoun. Off stage, he became involved in political activism against the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In subsequent years, his support for the Palestinian cause gradually turned into obsessive rants, not just against Israel, but against Jews generally, to the point of allying with Le Pen and other Holocaust deniers he used to oppose.

As a result, he faced wide criticism in the French press and lost much (though far from all) of his following, but his troubles didn’t stop at that. He was repeatedly indicted and convicted for hate speech, including in 2008 for dismissing Holocaust commemoration as “memorial pornography.” Before becoming France’s prime minister, Interior Minister Manuel Valls declared that Dieudonné was no longer a comedian, but an anti-Semite, and the government, supported by the courts, took steps to have all his shows banned as “threats to public order.”

In a recent Facebook message, Dieudonné wrote that he “felt like Charlie Coulibaly,” deriding the “I am Charlie” rallying cry of that day’s demonstrations by attaching to it the surname of one of the gunmen of Thursday’s attacks. According to the explanations he gave in the face of the outcry elicited by his post, he was suggesting that even though, like Charlie, he exercises his right to shock and provoke through caricature and satire, authorities treat him rather like Coulibaly, an enemy of the Republic. The authorities, it seemed, were unconvinced. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve ordered an investigation. Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised severity in his speech before Parliament on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Dieudonné was arrested at his home and charged with “apology for terrorism.”

Does Dieudonné have a point? According to its defenders, Charlie Hebdo was squarely within an old and respectable Voltairian tradition that sees all religions as webs of superstition that justify arbitrary rule and maintain political submission. Within this tradition, dominant in the French Left (but largely alien to US conceptions of civil liberties), the struggle for freedom cannot be separated from a struggle against established churches. Charlie Hebdo’s militant secularism defiled sacred figures and symbols across the board. But it is also fair to say that, in recent years, Muslims have received a disproportionate share of those satirical attentions. In one respect at least (though not the one that Dieudonné meant), Dieudonné and Charlie Hebdo can be compared: the magazine’s satire of Islamism devolved into islamophobia, just as Dieudonné’s critique of Israel had morphed into anti-Semitism.

Dieudonné does not deserve to be defended, but neither does the French government in its obstinate efforts to silence him. Hate speech might be a fair description of Dieudonné’s humor of late, but hateful speech is widespread in France, particularly against Muslims. The government never questioned Charlie Hebdo’s right to offensive speech. Neither does it question Eric Zemmour’s, for instance, a rabid islamophobe who can be heard on the radio or seen on television on a weekly basis, and who published a recent bestseller in which the Vichy Regime is commended for its efforts protecting French Jews during World War II. The government’s selectiveness is giving Dieudonné’s audiences, less white and privileged on average than Zemmour’s or Charlie Hebdo’s, legitimate reasons to feel singled out.

In the name of the Republic

In France, authoritarian restrictions on civil freedoms are always justified in the name of the Republic. ‘Republic’—always with a capital R—is one of these magically ambivalent words—a name for democratic and revolutionary ideals as well as for the regime in place, which falls so far short of them. Its magic, which no one uses to greater effect than our prime minister, Manuel Valls, transforms those who oppose or criticize the regime in the name of democratic values into enemies of democracy. The word, which has come to mean essentially the same thing as public order, is now ritualistically invoked before the passage of any legislation curtailing civil liberties.

Thus even though four million descended in France’s streets on Sunday to defend the freedom of expression, hardly anyone has spoken against the special measures taken against Dieudonné. These measures have received unanimous support in the mainstream media. Few have pointed out that, once the government decides who gets to enjoy its protections, the right to free speech has effectively been suppressed. Since the touchstone of a free speech regime is in how well it protects speech that most find revolting, its defenders have to be willing to speak also for those whose opinions they don’t find respectable.

Time and again, states of exception have served to justify exceptionally repressive measures. The national unity that follows times of crises makes dissent more difficult, but also more necessary. Several prison sentences have already been meted out for “apology for terrorism.” New “villainous laws” are being proposed, though no one wants to call them that. Meanwhile, dozens of French Muslims, Muslim businesses, and mosques, denied the protections of the 10,000 troops deployed to secure vulnerable sites in the aftermath of the attacks, have been assaulted or vandalized. As Manuel Valls declares a new war on terror, let us remember that the ongoing war on terror has made more innocent victims and perhaps more damage to our civil liberties than terror itself.

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Redefining laïcité: French integration and the radical right

24. January 2015 - 11:38

Perhaps it is not the Muslim communities of France that must change, so much as the notion of laïcité.

The Grand Mosque, Paris, France. Ramadan, 2010. Tom Craig/Demotix. All rights reserved.Laïcité is a concept that enjoys acceptance by all factions of the French political sphere; it is considered a cornerstone of the Republic. Loosely interpreted, this concept concerns the secular nature of the state and the elimination of public religious expression to preserve ‘French identity’. Recent debates invoking laïcité have concentrated on integrating predominately Muslim migrants into French society. Interestingly, despite its universal support, laïcité lacks a formal definition. This paper will argue that the vague nature of laïcité creates confusion – a confusion exploited by the far right, which has permitted inconsistencies and double standards inhibiting Muslim populations from situating themselves within French political culture. It will call for a reevaluation of this concept for the sake of creating a society concurrent with French realities.  

The history of an ideology unquestioned       

By the end of the nineteenth century, the French Republic was the embodiment of modernity: a democratic, secular, and progressive polity. For Republicans, laïcité was a touchstone, indisputable proof of French identity, and to question the nature of laïcité, or its application in society, ran counter to Republican tradition. Laïcité carried a certain ‘French exception’ with it, attributable to the state’s ability to cultivate a common character retaining historical value and cultural heritage.

The first revolutionary Republicans of 1790 were committed to ridding France of any monarchical, and especially clerical, influence, and laïcité as a concept emerged over a century ago, out of debates concerning the Catholic control of French schools. The Church argued for ‘freedom of teaching,’ whereas defenders of laïcité countered that what mattered was the ‘teaching of freedom’. The Republican state, they insisted, had to intervene through the schooling system to safeguard freedom.

So, in 1905, a law separating church and state was introduced, prohibiting public funding or official recognition of religious communities. Here, laïcité worked to construct a certain type of modernity, dependent on the elimination of religious authorities from any prominence within the state while (confusingly) still guaranteeing a space for dialogue between those with and without faith.

The first official citing of laïcité was in the constitutional document that crafted the Fourth Republic in 1947. It was repeated in the constitution of the Fifth Republic. A neo-republicanism began to emerge in which the principle of laïcité bound individuals together in a collective endeavor, carrying a certain social interventionism with it and equating laïcité with a proactive political action. Philosopher and politician Régis Debray spoke of laïcité as something that had to be legislated for, ‘it can never be produced spontaneously’. However, legislation gets into difficulty when laïcité lacks a clear definition, and this difficulty is illustrated in the divergence of opinions that currently surround the term. 

No consensus

There is no consensus on laïcité; this is illustrated in the ways that the term was employed during the headscarf debate of 2003-4:

Journalist Christian Bourepaux: ‘Laïcité is the principle of a balance between the public sphere and the private sphere’


Feminists Anne Vigerie and Anne Zelensky: ‘Laïcité is based on a neutral public sphere, one free of all religious belief’


Former President Jacques Chirac: ‘Laïcité expresses our wish to live together in respect, dialogue and toleration’


Former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: ‘Laïcité is an emancipatory process which started almost a hundred years ago…It is a light to women imprisoned by obscurantism, it is hope for oppressed minorities’


Council of Christian Churches in France: ‘Laïcité’s aim is not to create spaces which are emptied of all religious presence, but to present a space where all, believers and nonbelievers, can debate…’


None of these statements make reference to exterior authorities, or reference to the actual practices of the French state. How can laïcité be applied and institutionalized if there is no coordinated national unity over the term? How can it serve as the touchstone of a Republic, when widely divergent impressions of laïcité dominate the legislative conversation? Curiously, while there is unity among all major French political parties in proclaiming the need to protect laïcité, there is very little consensus on what the concept even embodies. This confusing discourse has undoubtedly aided the emergence of the radical right in France’s political arena.

Laïcité and immigration

The highest number of Muslims immigrated to France during the contemporary era, in the wake of the colonial wars of independence. A good portion of this population was officially recruited for labor. The government ended large-scale labor migration from North Africa during the 1970s oil crisis and global economic downturn. From that point, the reunification of families became a continuing source of migration from the former French colonies.

In accordance with laïcité, the French Republic considers ethnic and religious affiliation a private matter and therefore keeps no official statistics on citizens of immigrant origin. The absence of official figures has produced a wide range of estimates of Muslim immigrants in France. These estimates are often politically motivated, with the highest approximations being propagated by the extreme right.

Today, there are roughly five million Muslims living in France. The age distribution of this group is relatively young, with half of this population under the age of 24. France’s largest Muslim populations are on the outskirts of Paris, Lyon, and Marseille in neighborhoods known as cités or banlieues. Traditionally, these areas are subject to higher rates of poverty and crime. Islam is the identifier by which North African immigrant populations are categorized.

The politicization of immigration in France has been associated with the rise of the far right Front National (FN), formed in 1972. The FN has exploited confusion surrounding laïcité to acquire electoral support by painting a picture of the Republic as being outmaneuvered by an international schema of highly organized Islamist militants. This strategy has been hugely successful in bringing the issue of immigration to the forefront of public concern.

In 1986 the FN broke through at the national level, gaining seats in the National Assembly after the introduction of proportional representation in parliamentary elections. This allowed the party to intensify its discriminatory rhetoric portraying non-Europeans immigrants as threats to French national identity and security. The FN’s pivotal point came in 2002, when its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen surprisingly garnered enough votes to make it through the first round of the presidential election to face popular RPR (Rally for the Republic) candidate, President Chirac. 

The historical relationship between France and Islam is complicated by a violent colonial past. Recalling the issues left unresolved from French colonialism, France’s growing Muslim population is framed as a revenge for empire. The history of Algerian colonialism left French people with commonly circulating images by which to understand Muslim populations; lessons drawn from colonialism taught the French to see Islam as an enemy force, backward in its values and violent in its methods. These sentiments undoubtedly shape the FN’s xenophobic discourse on immigration.

In the aftermath of the 2002 election, centre right President Chirac was prepared to turn the threat posed by the FN into an opportunity by adopting a hardline position on immigration. During the election, immigration was increasingly framed as a question of law and order, issues of major importance for 58% of far right voters. The 2002 election indicated that the centre right’s immigration policy was perceived by vital sectors of the electorate as too soft. Chirac’s Minister of the Interior, Nicholas Sarkozy, introduced two key pieces of legislation dealing with nationality, immigration control, and integration. First, there was a 2003 law aimed to restrict illegal immigration, and justified on the grounds that more repressive immigration control would facilitate the integration of immigrants already in France. The criticism continued. Sarkozy’s tough stance on immigration was balanced by an integration policy considered un-republican, and thus in opposition to laïcité. It included supporting positive discrimination, foreigners’ right to vote in local elections, the financing of mosques in France and, most notably, the creation of the French Council of the Muslim Religion (CFCM). This Council gave Islam an official voice in France. These measures were ardently opposed by a majority of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) that put Sarkozy at odds with Chirac. While Sarkozy took pains to operate within the ‘limits’ of laïcité by delegating any organizational activity of the CFCM to an independent law association run by Muslim leaders, the visible hand of the state in Muslim affairs frustrated purist defenders of laïcité. They claimed that the CFCM violated laïcité by blurring the dividing line between church and state.

Integration – another problematic concept

The term ‘integration’ has become a mantra of politicians in the discussion over France’s immigration model. The term is problematic for several reasons. First, similar to laïcité, it lacks a widely accepted definition, making it a useless metric for evaluating communities. There is no true standard by which politicians can rate the success of their ‘integration’ policies. Further, some beurs, second-generation Arab immigrants, reject ‘integration’ as a matter of principle. They do not see why they should transform themselves or reach out to a society that already ought to consider them full members. The desire to integrate becomes a double paradox: most beurs have resided in France their entire lives, but because of discrimination, many have been denied the opportunities—jobs and social services—that would help them to ‘integrate’. A study conducted by SOS Racisme, a French antiracism organization, found that those with ‘non-European’ first names were one and a half times less likely to be employed than the general population. This situation reinforces a vicious cycle of failure and exclusion, which culminated in the 2005 cité riots.

So, while immigration policies deal with the admission of migrants into France, integration policies focus on altering the appearances and values of those admitted into France, to conform to a singular French historical narrative.

In response to criticisms coming from the centre and far right, Sarkozy’s second bill was a 2006 law that dealt with integration in stricter terms. The primary emphasis of this legislation shifted it from dealing with ‘imposed’ immigration to ‘selective’ immigration. By stressing ‘selective immigration’ which is tailored to France’s economic needs, at the expense of ‘imposed migration’, Sarkozy went to the heart of France’s prevailing pattern of immigration. As previously noted, family reunification had continued to drive North African migrants to France. ‘Imposed immigration’ necessarily carried more cultural weight than selective immigration. Families are the social units through which cultural traditions get passed down from generation to generation.

The donning of religious veils was rapidly becoming deemed a threat to laïcité and impediments to French integration, with this 2006 law regarded as the government’s response to the breakdown of ‘integration’, which had produced the paradoxical situation where ‘the children and grandchildren of the first generation of immigrants feel less French than their parents and grandparents’. ‘Selective immigration’, it was argued, avoids this situation. It involves the positive selection of predominately young, single, skilled workers who have come to France to fill a particular employment niche. These immigrants are effectively removed from their cultural hubs, and more easily adapt to the environments in which they work. They are the ones that become integrated as ‘ideal’ French citizens. Ironically, Sarkozy went so far as to insist that in countries where selective immigration is practiced, xenophobia and the far right were weaker than in France. His assertion was that ‘selective immigration’ would defend France against racism and reduce the incidences of ‘squats, ghettos, and rioting’.

Sarkozy’s France

The 2007 presidential election results validated Sarkozy’s decision to target the far right electorate. Leading up to the election, his discourse hardened. Speaking to the UMP in 2006, Sarkozy echoed Le Pen’s old slogan ‘Love France or leave it’ by avowing that, ‘If there are people who are not comfortable in France, they should feel free to leave a country which they do not love’. He captured a portion of FN first-round voters with his rhetoric, leading some to conclude that party political considerations had been a major factor in Sarkozy’s immigration strategy.

The growth of France’s Muslim population confronts laïcité with new challenges. To understand the current frustration with this visibly growing presence, the Jewish assimilationist model can be compared. Historically, the political-culture of French Jews adhered to an assimilationist creed. A unique approach to religious identity in the Republic evolved among French Jews by the end of the nineteenth century; they were ‘Jews indoor, French citizens outside,’ a view entirely in line with laïcité.

The increasingly public presence of Islam within France is seen by many to pose a direct threat to French republicanism, presenting policymakers with a dilemma. They are hesitant to adopt policies explicitly designed to ‘level the playing field’, because granting legal status based on group identity perpetuates the very multiculturalism laïcité protects against. Nonetheless, French citizenship has not brought about the kind of social advancement and political integration of Muslim immigrants that had been accomplished by French Jews in the previous century. Compounded by the growing discontent among the Muslim population within the banlieues, one would be hard-pressed to contend that Sarkozy’s integration strategy has been effective.

Back to laïcité

There is a larger issue at hand. Each generation of immigrants, notably those from southern European, was at one point deemed ‘unable to integrate’. This claim, as applied to Muslims however, has been accompanied by a new set of arguments that emphasize the non-European and non-Christian heritage of recent migrants).

While proponents of laïcité call for the elimination of all religious influence on the state, Muslim culture and heritage is seen as qualitatively different from those of previous migrants. And this response relies on the vagueness of laïcité itself. The very invocation of the term suggests a cultural contrast with other identities, as it speaks to an indefinable and intangible sense of ‘French-ness’ in a way that makes the accommodation of Muslims singularly difficult.  That ‘French-ness’ requires the continuation of a particular background, one that is European and Christian. In persisting to identify a group as ‘Muslim’ and therefore ‘Other,’ France has become a nation that is willing to integrate immigrants yet unwilling to acknowledge their respective historical narratives.

In order to integrate, immigrants must internalize the values of the French Republic, including the concept of laïcité. However, laïcité has been employed in contradictory ways to defend an inexplicable ideal of what it means to be French. Politicians have reacted to this impasse by tightening immigration policy. The radical right has benefited off the ambiguity surrounding laïcité by blaming the peril of failed integration on Islam. The Front National’s vehement opposition to multiculturalism and its policy of ‘national preference,’ giving priority to French nationals in the areas of housing and employment, has succeeded in catering to a growing xenophobic electorate. Centre right politicians, Chirac and Sarkozy, have tapped into this electorate by hardening their stances on immigration and adopting some of the extremist rhetoric of the FN. It is a vicious downward spiral. Some point to the way France’s integration policies have ‘become an adjunct to anti-terrorist law’. Others argue that the perpetuation of a strict immigration strategy has only served to isolate France’s Muslims even further in the realm of political representation and in the forgotten outskirts of France’s major cities.

Perhaps it is not the Muslim communities of France that must change first, so much as the notion of laïcité. The reality is that France contains the largest Muslim population in Europe, one that is only growing, and that has been progressively pushed to the periphery of public life through a procrustean idea of what it means to be ‘French.’

A formal definition of laïcité must be made if France is to ever tackle current socio-economic, political, and religio-cultural tensions occurring within her borders. Currently, as Sharif Gemie put it in his book, French Muslims (2010) -  laïcité is a cultural ideal that is ‘unsuitable for a world that is increasingly marked by the rapid international transfer of goods, services, ideas, and people’. This reevaluation must take these realities into consideration, not just to construct a more attainable ‘ideal citizen,’ but to preserve the very nature of the French Republic.

Read on:

Gemie, Sharif. French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010. Internet resource.

Gordner, Matthew. "Challenging The French Exception: ‘Islam’ and Laïcité." In-Spire Journal of Law, Politics and Societies 3.2 (2008): 72-87. In-Spire, 2008. Web.

Laurence, Jonathan, and Justin Vaïsse. Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2006. Internet resource.

Marthaler, S. "Nicolas Sarkozy and the Politics of French Immigration Policy." Journal of European Public Policy. 15.3 (2008): 382-397. Print.

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