Spain's Podemos shows us that we can (but without Labour)

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 8 heures 29 minutes

If the UK is to learn anything from the political changes in Spain, it must be that Podemos was formed out of the failings of the country’s traditional socialist party.

Pablo Iglesis, leader of Podemos. Demotix/Hugo Ortuno. All rights reserved.There is a lot to be learnt from the ongoing political upheaval in Spain and many have already spoken about the need for the left in the UK to take note.

The necessity of adopting a winning mentality, a more accessible vocabulary or a clear policy of programmes and goals as opposed to difficult to conceive rhetoric have all been stressed.

Yet possibly the most important lesson to be learnt from Spain, that which sparked it all off, has been largely missed or ignored.

A new political party had to be formed in Spain before any changes at the political level started to take place and the same must happen in the UK.

Spain’s two main parties had become so similar that they actually came together to change the Spanish constitution and take away Spanish worker’s rights to appease the IMF and meet the Troika’s austerity measures.

Out of this collusion and lack of choice the political party Podemos was formed in January of 2014, going on to win five seats and over a million votes in last year’s European Elections and later being a part of the citizen-led movements which ousted ruling politicians from strongholds such as Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid in May’s regional and municipal elections.

Proposing a simple programme of policies based around making the Spanish political process more democratic and open, Podemos has brought an end to Spain’s two-party system.

In just 18 months the party led by Pablo Iglesias has forced the ruling elite to take notice and implement changes to address the new reality in Spain.

Of course Spain was and still is in a very different social and economic situation than the UK so an exact copy of Podemos could never take place here but the British electorate is already showing signs that it too is looking for an alternative.

Yes The Tories won more seats in May but they only increased their number of votes by 0.8%, hardly an emphatic show of support for a party responsible for the last five years of government.

And despite registering just two seats in the House of Commons, Ukip and the Green Party gained 16.4% of the vote and the 56 seats won by the SNP further confirm the move away from the UK’s established power holders.

The combined total of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservative parties fell from 88.1% in 2010 to just 75.2% this time round, a pretty substantial 12.9% drop and grand fall from grace since 95.6% voted for either the Tories, Labour or the SDP-Liberal Alliance coalition in 1987.

The UK electorate is demanding a change but unfortunately Ukip has been the only party to offer an alternative to the usual diatribe of the established order and look how quickly both Labour and the Tories have been to show they too are tough on immigration.

As we have seen in Scotland with the success of the SNP, if a legitimate alternative is provided the political hegemony of the established parties can be broken.

Labour, once the party of the working class and Britain’s immigrants, has lost the last two elections and has been losing votes since Tony Blair first came into power in 1997.

Seemingly unable to move away from it’s “Blairite” right wing agenda, the party is at risk of losing it’s working class base despite individuals like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott offering an alternative, the party’s current leadership contest is a more accurate indication of where Labour is going.

There are individuals from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and most importantly, individuals currently outside of mainstream politics, who could offer an alternative.

Now with Podemos as a template, the rhetoric and momentum must be redirected to create a new UK party that speaks to the many who have been brutalised by years of austerity, anti-immigrant abuse and isolationist mantra.

Despite Greece being the clearest indication that a policy of fiscal austerity is both socially destructive and economically flawed, Osbourne and the Conservative’s are determined to further dismantle the welfare system and it is sad that no party was able to form a coherent counter-argument to this proposal outside of Scotland.

How is it that the multi-billion pound renewal of Trident was not more openly discussed during the General Election?

Why despite the UK’s long and proud history of immigration and multiculturalism, was there no one speaking up for the country’s BME population is the face of increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, lies and abuse?

And who was there to highlight that despite being in power for five years and implementing a harsh programme of austerity, the Tories have actually increased the country’s debt to GDP ratio from 67.1% to 89.4%, surely an election losing statistic, especially when you consider Osborne claimed he would have eliminated the deficit by now.

The Tory parliamentary majority does not mean that the UK population is inherently conservative or content with the status quo, but rather reflects the awful state of the alternative parties outside of Scotland.

Spain has shown, and continues to show, that people who have never been directly involved in established political parties, and thus never tainted by them, are more than capable of competing against career politicians and winning.

That same voter dissatisfaction is present in the UK and all that is needed now is a coherent platform for the many dissatisfied citizens to converge towards.

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Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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No, sweet no

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 11 heures 21 minutes

The astounding NO vote that swept every part of Greece will take time to digest and understand and its meaning also depends on how the Europeans respond. But here are some immediate reactions.

NO victory celebrations in Syntagma Square. Photo supplied by author.The astounding NO vote that swept every part of Greece will take time to digest and understand and its meaning also depends on how the Europeans respond. But here are some immediate reactions.

The scale of the majority surprised everyone I have spoken to here in Athens as it bust the polls. Its definite, unarguable nature is a relief. This was no close-run majority that the other side could claim is illegitimate. Nor was it a mere party vote as many more supported NO than have backed Syriza.

The spine of the NO vote was the young, not pensioners. This is very important as the young are the most naturally pro-European, the most fluent in foreign languages, the most travelled, of the Greeks. If European leaders want the new generation to believe in them this is a huge wake up alert; an expression of generational sentiment that crosses the continent and is not confined to dependents or pensioners of a small state. Europe’s precariat has said NO.

Why did the Greeks do it? I was surprised by the taxi driver who took me into Athens from the Airport yesterday evening. He is not doing badly, tourists provide business, he is paid in cash (I got an electronic receipt). He found the decision difficult, “My head said YES, my heart said NO”. How did he finally vote, I asked. “I went with my heart”. Why? Because, he said, he wanted Greece to pay its debts but he wanted to know for how long, for ten years, for twenty, for a hundred even but he wanted to know when it would end. His English was faltering, he did not speak of debt restructuring, but he had got the point that the now no longer Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis made so clearly (see my article) that a sustainable – a believable - way out of the crisis had to be found.

Courage. This is what I felt most of all. What the European elite see as foolhardiness and the anti-Europeans see as a desire to leave the Euro, is a simple but intelligent judgement: to stand up and pay whatever the price.

Intimidation. What is exceptional about this courage is that the banks have been closed for a week, than which few things could be more threatening; the media has been relentless in its warning of catastrophe, fear has been encouraged, panics created out of thin air. It has not worked.

Democracy. A good Greek friend who supported a YES vote said, while watching the results come in on the television, "Everyone who is 'anyone' said vote YES". Indeed.  But almost everybody who IS everybody said NO! 

In part it has not worked because catastrophe has already been delivered: incomes savaged, pensions shredded, unemployment especially of the young, skyrocketing. You can’t threaten a prisoner with loss of freedom and you can’t threaten the Greeks with things getting worse. They could get a lot, lot worse, of course. They know this. But it is now so bad here that the threat has worn off.

The European leaders failure to recognize this was fatal. Their indifference to the price Greece has already paid, the idea that they are always asking for more and never changing, utterly undermined their case. Juncker, the President of the EU no less, told the Greeks not to “commit suicide because you are afraid of death”, while the suicide rate has risen by over a third since the crisis. Does he not know? Who is he to talk about how ‘hurt’ he is by the Greek Prime Minister calling a referendum?

The European leaders are now looking at democracy. Viva Greece!

Sideboxes Related stories:  The Greek showdown, what if No means Yes and Yes means No? Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Chile: el agotamiento de la democracia representativa

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 11 heures 49 minutes

Hoy, con una democracia representativa que ha fallado miserablemente, no podemos restringir la voluntad ciudadana a una expresión pasiva de consentimiento o aprobación. Los individuos, nos dice Kant, tenemos la cualidad y el poder de ser la causa y los autores  de nuestro propio drama. Este artículo fue publicado por primera vez en openDemocracy el 3 de junio de 2015. Esta nueva versión actualizada contiene nueva discusión teórica. English

Melissa Sepulveda exigiendo una educación universal y de calidad n Chile. June 2014. Demotix/Andres Bravo.All rights reserved

En las últimas décadas, nuevas formas de participación política han cuestionado una conocida fórmula de organización social que, sin mucho dudarlo, creíamos  como la mejor alternativa posible. Esto es, democracia representativa más libre mercado. La creciente deslegitimación del sistema político, la catástrofe ecológica y la crisis económica desatada en el mundo han introducido amplios sectores de la sociedad, especialmente a los más jóvenes, a nuevas ideas de resistencia y emancipación política. Renovadas formas de militancia ciudadana hemos visto aparecer con los indignados españoles, los aganaktismenoi griegos y el movimiento Occupy Wall Street en los Estados Unidos. Todos ellos han perseguido formas de auto-gobierno que busquen dar cuenta de una democracia más efectiva para la base social.

 En efecto, la creciente negación de jerarquías en el mundo –desde 1994 con el movimiento zapatista en México, hasta las más recientes manifestaciones ciudadanas desatadas con la primavera árabe-  ha puesto en marcha el concepto de horizontalidad como nueva categoría de organización política. Dichas insurgencias, que hoy cuentan con una membrecía social e ideología heterogénea, apuntan al corporativismo del Estado Nacional y al sistema financiero en Occidente como claros responsables de la desproporcionada inequidad que azota a la sociedad. Y como revisaremos en lo que sigue, ha sido también en Chile donde un indisciplinado movimiento ciudadano ha puesto en jaque la capacidad del Estado como comandante de reformas estructurales.

 En el año 2006, durante el primer periodo presidencial de Michelle Bachelet, un amplio cuerpo estudiantil comenzó a desafiar el legado de la dictadura militar encarnado en el Estado Chileno. Estudiantes secundarios comenzarían a plantear demandas por reformas institucionales que dieran cuenta de una real educación pública para el país, esto es, una educación gratuita y de calidad. Organizados a través de un sistema de vocería interno y asambleas estudiantiles, las masivas protestas contarían desde el inicio con un amplio apoyo social que, para el año 2011, alcanzaría un 89% de aprobación nacional. De esta forma, las demandas juveniles comenzaban a reflejar no solo la evidente precariedad del sistema educativo en Chile: aparecían junto a ellos una creciente combinación de actores que subrayaban las profundas desigualdades del actual modelo de desarrollo en el país.  El antagonismo resultaba común para muchos sectores que, aisladamente, se sentían excluidos.

 El rol subsidiario del Estado, su práctica liberal y la estructura anti democrática de su actual constitución política habrían desatado una indignación social que hoy rechaza más que nunca la figura del Estado como comandante de reformas estructurales. Al preguntársele porqué no habría asistido a las urnas en las últimas elecciones presidenciales, Melissa Sepúlveda respondía que “la posibilidad de cambio no está en el congreso” y que “los chilenos estamos desilusionados con la manera de conducir la política desde el retorno a la democracia”. Así, comenzaba a quedar en manifiesto  el desvinculo ciudadano con la manera de ejercer la practica gubernamental.

 Surge hacerse la pregunta: ¿por qué la posibilidad de cambio ya no pareciera estar contenida en el congreso? ¿De qué Estado hablamos cuando hablamos de Estado en Chile? La lectura que aquí propongo toma en cuenta, por una parte, todos los instrumentos ideológicos y coercitivos con los que cuenta el Estado, y por la otra, toda su práctica económica y la centralidad que en ella la ideología neoliberal ha adquirido.  Por consiguiente, esta noción de Estado emerge como un cuerpo burocrático que no solo tiene el monopolio de la fuerza –represión de las protestas- sino que también, como un cuerpo que despliega una amplia red institucional –partidos políticos y elecciones, medios de comunicación, instituciones educacionales, etc.- para socializar a la población en la ideología dominante.

 Las prácticas gubernamentales que, a partir del siglo XVIII, intentan administrar los problemas propios de la población, han sido descritas en detalle por Michel Foucault. En su análisis sobre el arte de gobierno -tomado de El Príncipe de Macchiavello- vemos reaparecer con frescura una vieja noción política mandataria para el renacimiento italiano, esta es: “divide y vencerás”. Y es en esta lectura, si quisiéramos entender cómo el Estado administra a un conjunto de seres vivos, donde el retorno de la economía a la práctica política resulta fundamental. Diríamos que emerge entonces el nacimiento de una biopolitica, la noción de un Estado que opera sobre los individuos con nuevos instrumentos e instituciones, haciendo del sujeto un agente responsable de sus actos. De ahí la centralidad que tuviera el liberalismo en el pensamiento político de Foucault. Liberalismo no ya como una teoría ni como una ideología, sino como una práctica gubernamental, es decir, como una manera de hacer y de gobernar.

 La cuestión del liberalismo emergería durante los años setenta en Chile con la dictadura militar, como una crítica al “gobernar demasiado” de las políticas intervencionistas del gobierno de Salvador Allende. Desde Pinochet en adelante, la razón de Estado se plantearía la siguiente pregunta: ¿Cómo gobernar lo máximo posible con el menor costo posible? Extender una racionalidad de mercado a campos que no son ni exclusiva ni primariamente económicos comenzaría a transformar la práctica de gobierno en un esquema de análisis cuya lógica podríamos llamar instrumental –una de medios y fines-. Este modelo, quizá más que en cualquier otro de la región, presenta hoy claros síntomas de su racionalidad capitalista. El rol subsidiario del Estado Chileno y su constante protección del sector privado, ha demostrado ser sumamente eficiente en la creación de riqueza, aunque igualmente inefectivo en su distribución. Según las estadísticas proporcionadas por la OCDE, mientras Chile cuenta con la tasa de crecimiento económico más alto entre 34 países desarrollados, también cuenta con la tasa de mayor desigualdad. Técnicamente, esto quiere decir que su Coeficiente de Gini no baja del 0,50.

 Otro aspecto de esta práctica de gobierno han sido las estructuras anti democráticas establecidas durante los 17 años del régimen Pinochetista, las cuales hoy siguen presentes en la constitución política del país. Y como si se tratara de un silencioso y progresivo reclamo colectivo, desde el retorno a la democracia en 1990, aquí se propone pensar que la agencia ciudadana ha ejercido su soberanía a través del no-voto. En 1988 el electorado nacional alcanzaba un 89,1%, cifra que disminuiría en el tiempo hasta llegar a un  56,7% en el año 2009. Ya para las últimas elecciones presidenciales del año 2012, con una modificación de la ley que hacía del voto un acto voluntario y de la inscripción su entrada automática, el padrón electoral se reduciría aun mas, llegando a un 51%. En dicha oportunidad, entre aquellos que se abstuvieron para ir a votar, un 60% estimado se encontraría en el grupo etario de 18-34 años de edad –justamente, el principal grupo demográfico del movimiento social-. En el 2015, entre los países con sistema de voto voluntario, Chile alcanza los niveles de abstención más altos, equivalentes a un 56%.  

 Al contrastar este fenómeno de abstención electoral con los elevados niveles de participación ciudadana alcanzados en casi una década de movilizaciones, más que reflejar una generalizada apatía hacia “lo político”, sugiere pensar en la auto-exclusión colectiva como un rechazo al tradicional método de representación que el actual sistema brinda. Decimos Política, y no policía como nos enseña Jacques Rancière: auto-exclusión como el acto de un sujeto colectivo que interrumpe en el proceso para transformarlo, y no adscripción al proceso mediante el cual se organizan los poderes y se distribuyen los lugares y las funciones sociales. Y es que con estos datos en mano ¿quien sigue creyendo en las elecciones? Hoy, con una democracia representativa que ha fallado miserablemente, no podemos restringir la voluntad ciudadana a una expresión pasiva de consentimiento o aprobación. Los individuos, nos dice Kant, tenemos la cualidad y el poder de ser la causa y los autores  de nuestro propio drama.

 Durante las últimas décadas en el país, cada vez que la izquierda ha obtenido cuotas de poder, su energía transformadora se diluye rápidamente. La concertación ha incurrido en tantos compromisos con el sector privado para obtener buenos resultados electorales que a estas alturas, como nos dice Gianni Vattimo, es la propia izquierda quien nos llama a salvar la banca “por el bienestar de los trabajadores”. Entonces, ¿si el socialismo ha fallado en Chile, el capitalismo está globalmente en quiebra y la democracia –como hasta ahora la hemos conocido- ya no parece ser un nombre apropiado para esta explotación ciudadana, que es lo que buscamos? Vattimo ofrece una respuesta: “necesitamos una práctica social indisciplinada que comparta  con el anarquismo el rechazo a formular un sistema acorde con los métodos tradicionales de representación política, como por ejemplo, ganar las elecciones”

 De esta forma, una vez que la acción colectiva se ha opuesto al Estado como garante de justicia e igualdad, vuelven a aparecer los rudimentos de la vieja hipótesis comunista, pues como nos dice Alain Badiou, desde Platón en adelante la única idea política digna de ser pensada por un filósofo ha sido la idea de comunismo. Sin embargo, el fracaso del Estado Comunista en el mundo entero ha corrompido el concepto de manera tal que hoy, en nuestro propio vocabulario,  la palabra ha llegado a significar su opuesto, esto es, total control Estatal de la vida económica, política y social. Por consiguiente, lo que aquí se entiende por comunismo -y que vemos reaparecer con renovada fuerza en Chile- es un proyecto emancipador no ya como ideal, sino como movimiento ciudadano que reacciona frente a los antagonismos sociales contemporáneos –incluidos los grupos ambientalistas, minorías étnicas y sexuales, los trabajadores, los pensionados y los estudiantes. La horizontalidad y auto organización generada por la multiplicidad colectiva nos invita a explorar en nuestro presente, un nuevo imaginario político que ya no se encuentra respaldado en la propiedad privada del capitalismo ni tampoco en la propiedad pública del socialismo, sino que requiere de lo común que hay en el comunismo. Aquí decimos común, sin el ismo.   

 Luego de casi una década de movilizaciones, la agencia democrática del movimiento social en Chile enfrenta por estos días una posibilidad real de transformación social. Después de conocerse una seguidilla de escándalos de corrupción en el país –que vinculara el financiamiento de campañas políticas con importantes grupos económicos-, las protestas ciudadanas han regresado con fuerza para exigir una asamblea constituyente que reforme desde las bases sociales la actual constitución política de Chile. Ese es el derecho fundamental reclamado por el colectivo.  Y si bien en años previos Bachelet ya anunciara un proyecto para modificar la carta magna, dichos mecanismos de reforma nunca incluyeron mayormente a la asamblea ciudadana. Sin embargo, ha sido durante este último periodo -de baja aprobación política para Bachelet por lo demás-  donde nuevos discursos han surgido desde el gobierno. En una reciente conferencia de prensa, el ex vocero de gobierno Álvaro Elizalde, comentaba que desde La Moneda “se han considerado todos los mecanismos democráticos, participativos o institucionales para formar parte de la alternativa en la que finalmente la Presidenta basara su decisión.” 

 La asamblea constitucional vía referéndum sería una valiosa alternativa de integración social y participación ciudadana en Chile. Allí, con una estructura de vocería interna representando la voluntad popular, el poder quedaría siempre en las manos del colectivo y nunca en las de sus representantes. Tal como lo destacara el historiador Gabriel Salazar, la capacidad de auto-organización política generada por este movimiento -con sus constantes proyectos de reforma y tensiones con el Estado-, reflejaría una victoria ciudadana que concretaría su habilidad para manejar demandas sociales de una forma radicalmente democrática, esto es, como una democracia de todos y para todos. Y es que como aquí comenzara argumentando, son justamente estas renovadas formas de militancia ciudadana  las que han estado persiguiendo nuevas alternativas de gobierno que busquen dar cuenta de una democracia más efectiva para la sociedad.  En Chile, la opción de una asamblea constituyente pareciera orientarse a transformar radicalmente el funcionamiento del Estado –quizá como una consecuencia de su excesiva  práctica neoliberal-, al punto de acercarlo lo más posible a sus bases, que somos carne y no mercancía.  Y es que como dijera Marx en El Capital, mientras más funciones del Estado sean ejercitadas por toda la ciudadanía, menos necesario será su poder.

Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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The power of Electric Yerevan

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 12 heures 28 minutes

Strong-arm tactics and cynical compromises are yet to send Yerevan's protesters home. Is this the beginning of the end for the politics of old in Armenia?

 

On 22 June, roughly 2,000 protesters gathered in front of the Opera House at Yerevan’s Freedom Square to protest planned hikes in electricity tariffs. From Freedom Square, they marched towards the presidential residence at 26 Baghramyan Avenue to voice their demands, but were blocked by police. In response, the protesters sat down where they were and remained through the night. The next morning, police forcibly dispersed the protest with water cannons, and detained around 250 people.

The dramatic images of the dispersal and video clips showing plainclothes officers harassing and attacking journalists galvanised the city. Personal anecdotes from protesters on social media describing the use of excessive force were widely circulated. One account in particular was shared widely online and on the street: a girl, around 17 years old, spoke of how she had been attacked by a plainclothes officer. Later, the girl lost consciousness after hitting her head on the asphalt. She ended up in hospital.

The next evening, around twice as many protesters showed up at Baghramyan.

#ElectricYerevan

A few days later, the numbers of protesters peaked at around 20,000. Although the numbers of protesters have abated since then, the barricades on Baghramyan Avenue remain.

The protests have now entered the next stage. Organisers are now trying to implement better management, disseminating protester guidelines (no alcohol, mutual respect, tidiness), and organising a general assembly with broad representation from civic initiatives and thematic working groups open to the public for discussing issues related to the protests.

Although it is predominantly young people that pull all-nighters on Baghramyan Avenue, central Yerevan sees a much broader representation of society at night. This fact, as well as protests in the cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor, further demonstrate Armenian society's wider support for the movement.

Russian Connection

Little covered by international media, evidence of corruption in and gross mismanagement of Armenia’s energy monopoly, the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), owned by Russian Energy Company Inter RAO UES, has been a key grievance of protesters.

ENA has accumulated debt by habitually overpaying suppliers and contractors, as well as renting luxury cars and apartments. Director of the ENA, Yevgeny Bibin, who has publicly admitted his mismanagement of the company, was invited to a meeting by the Armenian Regulatory Commission to explain the proposed tariff hikes and to defend himself against allegations of corruption. The fact that Bibin did not even show up to the meeting only added to people's feelings of injustice and resentment toward the proposed hikes.

The corruption and mismanagement of ENA reflect wider problems of governance and the political environment in Russia. When Russian state-owned companies (in which theft is not the exception but the norm) take over infrastructure in neighbouring countries, this is, in effect, 'exporting corruption'.

This process strengthens Russia’s hand in the region, where the local elite see Moscow both as an administrative model to emulate and the power that guarantees their personal political survival (as long as they are malleable to Russian interests).

Although the Electric Yerevan protests are not anti-Russian in nature, against the backdrop of these geopolitical realities, these demonstrations are nevertheless a display of citizens' dissatisfaction with their leaders' lack of accountability.

Deals offered to Armenia by Russia in quick succession over the past few days belie Moscow’s stake in the matter. In the course of just a few days, Russia offered to hand over Russian soldier Valery Permyakov (who murdered a family of seven in Gyumri earlier this year), to extradite Armenian truck driver Hrachya Harutyunyan (currently serving out a prison sentence in Russia for a traffic accident), and $200 million in arms. If any appeasement was expected for these overtures, it did not happen.

Furthermore, information and analysis coming from Kremlin-aligned information sources demonstrate that Moscow is incapable of understanding civil society in Armenia. Viewed through a Kremlin lens, the Armenian citizenry cannot attempt to hold its own government accountable for corruption and abuses without a hidden hand or greater conspiracy being involved.

Russian state media has largely framed of Electric Yerevan as stemming from 'outside influence'. This response has only further insulted Armenians, denying them their agency and discounting the legitimacy of their grievances.

Anatomy of protest

Electric Yerevan is the latest manifestation of a tradition of dissent and contention against government abuses, which include successful protests against mining projects in Armenia’s north and planned transport fare hikes for Yerevan.

The informal activist networks, established through face-to-face interaction and routines that resulted in solidarity building during those contentious actions, set the stage for Electric Yerevan.

Taking into account this history of contention, as well as the non-democratic nature of the Armenian context, it becomes clear why Electric Yerevan is structured in such a loose, informal way. In non-democratic states such as Armenia, NGOs and social movement organisations seldom constitute the most salient component of civil society when it mobilises. Rather, loose and horizontally structured networks of people forming a more informally organised movement emerge as more significant.

In Armenia, where a 'power vertical' similar to Russia’s exists, there is no straightforward process for movements to make open coalitions with institutions or establish structured channels of interaction with political elites. As the Armenian state is incapable of responding to or channeling dissent in institutionalised ways, repression or cooptation from the state emerge as the main danger to movements.

The loose, horizontal structure of the Electric Yerevan thus presents a significant obstacle to the Armenian state's capability to attack or dismantle it. This structure is both a strength of the movement and a logical adaptation to the realities of the Armenian political arena.

Challenges, advantages

The demands of the protesters are specific: to repeal the electricity tariff hike, to review the current fare, to hold the police accountable for the excessive use of force on 23 June. Chances for the movement to succeed in its demands depend on several factors.

Two major obstacles to the movement exist. First, there are no major elite conflicts within the halls of power that might prompt officials to look for support outside, potentially allowing challengers such as Electric Yerevan a way into the official political arena.

Second, there are no influential elite allies inside the state apparatus that could offer material and symbolic resources to the movement or pressure for movement goals. The local soap opera celebrities and MPs who attempted to form a 'human shield' at the barricades have yet to offer any substantive benefits to the movement beyond a show of moral support. President Serzh Sargsyan's power vertical, where formal mechanisms of policy making are limited to those in or allied with the ruling Republican Party, has assured the exclusion of outsiders to administrative support. The few oppositional MPs who support the movement are themselves largely marginalised and excluded from power.

On the positive side, Armenia’s relative media freedom is as an important resource for the movement. Although a large part of Armenian media remains under the control of official and semi-official Yerevan, alternative media sources, such as Civilnet and smaller independent publications such as Hetq and Epress, speak to movement participants directly, allowing them to represent themselves.

These channels have provided a powerful counter narrative against mainstream media representations of the movement, which remain predominantly negative.

Social media, and Facebook in particular, has also become an important site for disseminating ideas, coordinating action, and drawing in participants. Rather than threatening to replace bodies-in-the-street action, it augments it, offering an important alternative space where participants can circumvent state-controlled media constraints, disseminate information and counter any misinformation.

Online memes poking fun at the Russian media’s extremely politicised 'colour revolution' style coverage and humorous clips of Armenia's thuggish police chief Vova Gasparyan shouting overlaid on well-known movie scenes have enlivened and confronted serious topics. These practices can transcend activist boundaries, creating common ground with wider audiences.

A second advantage of social media has been the way it has attracted international attention and coverage of the protests. In part due to the post-Soviet sphere's history of 'Colour Revolutions', any confrontation in this part of the world automatically attracts the world's scrutiny as the 'next revolution'.

Although much of this attention has encouraged faulty depictions and comparisons of Electric Yerevan to revolutions in Ukraine and elsewhere, it is clear that the international media attention has at least greatly constrained the ability or willingness of the authorities to crack down.

What next?

While the protest's stated goals are limited to a narrow set of aims, the movement is about much more. It involves a much wider range of claim making around social and political issues, all falling under the umbrella of transparency and accountability.

It is not a given that the tariffs will be repealed or reviewed, or that the police will be held accountable. But if judged within a broader framework of bringing cultural and social change, then the movement can be a success. The sustained social interaction and the expressing of values and grievances through these protests have reinforced peoples' identities around values and norms related to contention. This can take the movement through lulls in mobilisation and increase participants' likelihood of future mobilisation when the time comes.

Electric Yerevan's protests have provided a chance to tie individual identities to collective ones through contention – a crucial resource of citizen empowerment in a non-democratic state such as Armenia.

Chants of 'no to plunder' and 'we own this country' heard on Baghramyan speak of common cause: the rejection of exploitative opaque governance and the conscious desire of protesters to reassert their identities as Armenian citizens – with the rights and responsibilities which that entails.

All photographs courtesy of the author.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Armenia's unhappy New Year What Armenians are protesting (and what they’re not) Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Dispatches: how local governments are being fleeced by the banks for £15bn

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 12 heures 56 minutes

Dispatches will tonight report on the latest banking scandal - the kickbacks and dodgy loans surrounding local government financing. So what's going on?

Flickr/ell brown. Some rights reserved.

Debt Resistance UK (DRUK) are initiating a local authority debt audit campaign to demonstrate how the framework of local government finance has been designed to work in the interests of private banks, and not in the interests of taxpaying citizens experiencing harsh austerity cuts, for a banking crisis they did not cause.

Tonight,  Channel 4 Dispatches in “How Councils Blow Your Millions” will present C4's analysis of 12 months of Debt Resistance UK – an issue we hope UK citizens will take up as a campaign issue with their local council.

More than three hundred FOI requests were sent by DRUK to 250 UK local authorities, via What Do They Know? to learn the full extent and unnecessary cost of £15 billion of private bank debt imposed on UK taxpayers via an obscure type of “teaser rate” loan known as Lender Option, Borrower Option (LOBO) loans sold to councils, housing associations and universities.

Inspired by citizen debt audits in Spain (PACD Municipal Debt Audit movement), debt audits in the global south (notably Ecuador 2008), and the public debt ‘truth commission’ in Greece, DRUK have been working on a UK local government debt audit campaign to highlight systemic failures and odious debt in the UK financial system.

Vica Rogers, from Debt Resistance UK explains: “We are initiating Local Authority debt audits to demonstrate how Local Government finance has been co-opted to work in the interests of the private sector, and not in the interests of the people. To be clear, this is not an attack on Local Government, but an attempt to reclaim our democratic institutions and the common resources they manage from the intrusive clutches of financial institutions.”

DRUK do not suggest councils are solely to blame for borrowing from banks via LOBO loans, which many councils could not price, and did not fully understand.

LOBO loans are a symptom of a financial system that no longer serves the interests of society. We need to reclaim our democratic institutions from the powerful clutches of the City of London, and to do this we must understand how the financial system functions, and demand changes to ensure public finance operates in the public interest.

The existing local government financial framework is not fit-for-purpose and results in odious and unnecessary bank debts being imposed on citizens in order to finance council regeneration and housing schemes.

Under the cloak of austerity, odious bank bailout debt was socialised by central government, passed onto local authorities and transferred to households who are least able to bear it – those forced to borrow from private banks and payday lenders to survive.

Local government has borne the brunt of austerity with 40% budget cuts since 2010. It’s absurd that councils are left in a situation where they have little choice but to borrow from private banks (with criminal pedigree) at usurious rates of interest.

Chancellor George Osborne has played an active role in encouraging bank borrowing, by increasing the interest rate on fixed rate Public Works Loan Board loans in 2010, causing a dramatic collapse in council borrowing, and prompting local authorities to take on high-risk LOBO loans from private banks instead.

DRUK plotted the biggest LOBO loan borrowers with bank debts above £50m compiling the following chart:

CLICK TO ENLARGE

What Debt Resistance UK have found is a cabal of private financial firms, banks (RBS, Barclays), brokers (ICAP, RP Martin and Tullet Prebon) and advisors (ICAP and CAPITA) acting in unison to plunder the public purse, costing taxpayers millions.

Brokerage firm Tullet Prebon were found to be paying kickbacks on LOBO loans to CAPITA, when deals were routed through them based on CAPITA advice – payments undisclosed to council clients. Broker ICAP paid kickbacks to subsidiary firm Butlers when council business was exclusively routed via the parent company.

In both cases, kickback payments fundamentally compromise the independence of advice given to council clients – and open potential claims of fraudulent misrepresentation.

Of the UK lenders, whilst Barclays are by far the largest lender (refer chart below via DRUK), RBS has been the worst offender, pushing a toxic LOBO loan known as “inverse floater” LOBO on councils, after it was bailed out. On inverse floater loans, the council is effectively taking a bet on interest rates going up, with the amount of interest the council pays increasing, as interest rate benchmarks decrease. With interest rates at historic lows since 2009, some councils are locked into paying rates of interest as high 8-9% on RBS LOBO loans.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

At the London Borough of Newham, borrowing via LOBO loans is costing ratepayers an extra £13 million in annual interest payments to banks, at a time when the council is passing emergency austerity budgets, and violently evicting the Focus E15 Mums and other social housing tenants to skimp and save mere thousands.

At Kent County Council, the difference between what Kent say their LOBO loans cost and the actual repayment cost is more than the councils annual social welfare budget.

Billions of pounds of risky, variable rate, derivatives-laced bank lending to local authorities has gone on unregulated and unaudited by authorities, and unreported by the UK media.

The LOBO loan scandal could have been prevented, had the financial regulator The Financial Services Authority (FSA) done it’s job and investigated Treasury Management Advisor firms including CAPITA and ICAP in 2009/10 as directed by Government.

Instead, the FSA refused to act, and has questions to answer as to why it failed to take action when presented with evidence of conflicts of interest that lie at the centre of the LOBO loan scandal.

As the debt crisis in Greece intensifies, UK local authority debt audit findings provide a timely reminder that debt problems are by no means isolated to Greece, but a globally systemic problem associated with financialisation and the despotic power of banks.

In particular the UK, with London as the global centre of laissez-faire, deregulated finance capital, must take responsibility for the behaviour of criminal financial institutions operating within its jurisdiction, rather than simply moralising to their victims.

Amidst current talk of local government devolution by UK elites, local authority debt audits send a clear message to decision makers that local government finance should operate in the public interest and be based on the principles of democracy, transparency and public participation, not vested City interests pimping obscure financial products at our collective expense.

Whilst DRUK support recent calls by Clive Betts MP for a Government/ regulatory inquiry into LOBO loans, we have little faith this process will generate the necessary change.

DRUK are calling on citizens to implement local authority debt audits in their local areas to ensure grassroots pressure for transparency and accountability, and are developing resources to support this work.

Watch Dispatches tonight, 8pm Monday 6th July, for further information, follow @debtresistuk and tweet us using the hashtags #Dispatches #LOBOscam.

For guidance and information on local debt audits, email info@debtresistance.uk   

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Nine months after Ayotzinapa, can a postcard campaign construct democratic spaces?

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 13 heures 38 minutes

Citizen-led campaigns like #YaMeCansé are bringing Mexicans together in a widespread call for more accountability and better democracy. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Human Rights: Mass or Elite Movement?  Español

In a country where violence has become the new normal, the nine months since the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero have been marked by protests from a very discontented public. In less than ten years, there have been more than 23,000 disappearances and 100,000 deaths in the country, but Ayotzinapa tipped the scale. This new social mobilization makes it clear that the people disapprove of the government’s response and want new opportunities and methods for political participation. But which paths should we take in order to build them?

The demand “vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos” (“alive they took them, alive we want them back”) is still ringing strong, even though government institutions would prefer to close the case. Ayotzinapa awoke us to the fact that this was not an isolated case, that corruption at every level has allowed it to happen (reflected online by the phrase #FueElEstado – “It was the State”), and that Mexicans have had it with the impunity and violence that reigns in their country.


Flickr/Por Eso Propongo (All rights reserved)

Por Eso Propongo's call for anti-corruption and civic reform proposals on postcards yielded thousands of results and revealed ten main topics of concern among the Mexican people.

On social media, thousands of voices proclaimed “#YaMeCansé” (“I’ve Had Enough”), echoing the demands of movements such as #YoSoy132 (“I am 132”), created three years ago to protest repression and call for new citizen participation. March marked four years since the start of Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity), which included the slogan ¡Seguimos hasta la madre! (“We’ve had it up to here with this shit!”).

Millions of Mexicans are unsatisfied with a political class that doesn’t allow open dialogue or is accountable to those it represents, while making public their luxurious expenses or discriminatory remarks in a country with so much poverty and inequality. There is even a lack of trust in institutions such as the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) or the Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH), whose strongest ties are supposed to be with the people.

The #Caravana43 headed by parents of the Ayotzinapa student teachers is pushing for a civil revolution, which would consist of popular assemblies to replace the current system of government. Other civil society groups are trying to work within the current institutional context in order to recapture or amplify the spaces that have been opened through decades of democratic construction. But faced with the urgency of what is happening in the country, the solutions often appear to be too slow, not enough, and far out of our reach.

The campaign #YaMeCansé, #PorEsoPropongo (“I’ve Had Enough”, “This is What I Propose”) was created in November of 2014 by Daniela Alatorre and Alexandra Délano and then joined by artists, filmmakers, designers, scholars and activists. In order to make Mexican voices tangible in a visually effective, substantial and creative way, we sent an invitation through social media asking people to send their messages in the form of a printed postcard, using the social action platform Postcard.com. The postcards were addressed to Mexican society and government representatives. The goal was to print and display them in public spaces to push for continued dialogue and participation.

Amidst the hundreds of postcards that turned into thousands in less than a month, we began to notice similarities and boiled them down to ten main topics of concern.

The “Ten Citizens' Battles”, as we called them, are not exhaustive, nor do they represent everyone, but they are a form of expressing the concerns that many of us citizens share and are troubled by, in contrast to a government that is not responding adequately. The ten main proposals in the 8,000 postcards we received are: 1) create a genuinely independent anti-corruption prosecutor; 2) eliminate impunity for government officials (fuero); 3) reduce the salaries and benefits of public servants; 4) reduce public funding for political parties; 5) reform the police forces and rebuild their relationship with the communities they work with; 6) prosecute the crime of enforced disappearance; 7) reduce or eliminate congressional seats assigned by proportional representation; 8) create citizen committees to monitor and regulate public service; 9) improve educational and health services, and give priority to culture and the arts, each with an emphasis on human rights; 10) raise the minimum wage.

 #PorEso-Propongo shows that people are concerned and desire to participate and be heard from spaces that are truly democratic. #PorEsoPropongo shows that people are concerned and desire to participate and be heard from spaces that are truly democratic. But often we don’t know where to start, or we think that those spaces, including organizations that defend human rights and impact decision-making processes, are closed to us. Since the start of this project we have collaborated with Amnesty International and other civil society organizations that have aided us in opening up opportunities for dialogue. The 8,000 proposals made by citizens are a source of inspiration and a reason for all Mexicans (and also for these organizations) to continue to work on the issues that are already being debated and to expand opportunities to channel citizen participation.

Now the challenge for #PorEsoPropongo is to keep the project alive so that these proposals are actually heard and attended to, and for more proposals to emerge. Through purely volunteer effort, with the network that we established in just a few short months, we have already been able to get responses from three political parties, set up meetings with at least eleven senators, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the president of the National Commission of Human Rights, and representatives of all the political parties and the National Institute for Elections. They have all committed to reviewing topics and incorporating them into their agendas. In September, we will take further steps to gain ground with the new legislators and elected officials, in the hopes that they will take up some of these proposals.

But the most important thing is to take these messages to the people that participated. We want to demonstrate that, as citizens, we have the possibility to open new doors for dialogue with our representatives and with the institutions that are ours—as Mauricio Merino insists—and not wait a set number of years to express ourselves through voting. Besides inviting people to add their postcards to all the spaces that have been used to display them, from the Monument to the Revolution, La Casa del Hijo del Ahuizote and their mobile art exhibitor, Ahuizote Ambulante, the Art Festival Constructo, the Caravan 43 in New York, and the Latin American Studies Annual Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, #PorEsoPropongo has already motivated small groups to form their own initiatives, from schools to meetings with local officials. We hope that it inspires many more to continue searching for opportunities to express themselves, showing that there cannot be democracy without real civic participation.

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Related stories:  Mexico’s crisis is a rare opportunity for domestic rights groups No more doble-cara: it’s time for Peña Nieto to practise what he preaches Peña-Nieto, take note: Mexicans are embracing human rights Doing Orwell proud: “human rights” slogans in Mexico Three decades of socialization later, Mexicans view “human rights” as their own More than smoke and mirrors: citizen perceptions of human rights Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico Linking mass emigration, violence and human rights violations in Mexico Neither elites nor masses: protecting human rights in the real world International “naming and shaming” of Mexico won’t suffice without massive domestic mobilization Reforming and transforming: a multi-directional investigation of human rights Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Blockchain versus vulture capitalism

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 14 heures 6 minutes

The Bitcoin revolution offers a glimpse at a better humanity.

Flickr/PerfectHue. Some rights reserved.

The notion of survival of the fittest, coined by English philosopher Herbert Spencer to describe his economic theory promoted a view of man as not much more than claws and teeth. This became a prevailing ideology behind the rise of social Darwinism and was used to justify European colonialism and modern predatory capitalism. 

In current civilization, the tendency toward personal gain and competitive drive continues. The evolution of the species in modern times has turned into a game of survival of the crudest and most rapacious corporations and bankers. Russian novelist Ayn Rand, who became an iconic guru for libertarians, put forward the virtue of self-interest as a pure moral force. Her philosophy of objectivism emphasizes reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth and she condemned feelings of sympathy as inferior. This was used to rationalize poverty and weakness as an outcome of natural selection and support the free market idea of radical deregulation and tax cuts for the rich.

What has become apparent now is that the greed of a small minority in a 'race to the top' has subverted a broader evolutionary force, holding people hostage in a brutal animal-like kingdom of kleptocracy. An elite owner class began setting rules for the rest of the population through their undue influence on governments. Government giveaways in the form of corporate welfare and monopolies stifled true entrepreneurship and innovation. Forces of privatization have trespassed on and are now swallowing the commons. With scarce access to resources and jobs, people are pitted against one another, engaging in a rigged game that just keeps enriching the richest. This has now escalated into an arms race to the bottom, creating resource wars, economic apartheid and environmental catastrophe.

Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love

With the crisis of legitimacy and unprecedented government corruption in recent years, people began looking for solutions outside of electoral politics. The rise of the Occupy Movement was an awakening to the real source of power within to chart a new future. This call for an alternative to the survival of the fittest emerged long ago after Darwin put forward his theory in his first work, The Origin of Species.

Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin reminded us that the riddle of social problems are within us, showing how the narrative of fierce competition for life was only half the story. In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, he responded to the predominant Darwinian interpretation of natural hierarchy and argued for the feeling of solidarity, empathy and cooperation as the ground for human evolution.

This view was held also by Darwin himself. Psychologist and system scientist David Loey in Darwin's Lost Theory of Love debunked the narrow reductionist interpretation of Neo-Darwinians that emphasized the notion of the selfish genes. He showed how most had buried a major contribution Darwin made when he moved beyond pre-human evolution to examine man's moral sensibilities. Loey pointed to how Darwin, in his second work The Descent of Man, had recognized that nurturing, expressed as sympathy for the weak was a primary evolutionary force that drives humans to develop higher agency with the principle of mutuality.

Blockchain Intervention

Now, a new force of evolution came from an unexpected place. An imagination from computer science brought a potential to intervene in the course of humanity, which has been heading down a destructive path. The invention of the blockchain technology offers a way to bridge Darwin’s first and later works, moving beyond the logic of competition and entering into a state of co-existence to realize our innate nature of altruism.

Six years since its inception, more people are beginning to see the powerful political implications that this technology brings. The blockchain is a public asset ledger and Bitcoin as a store of value and unit of account derived from it belongs to everyone who recognizes its utility and freely chooses to use it.

On the surface, the trend of speculators trading Bitcoin and manipulation of exchange rates can resemble gambling, and some see Bitcoin as recapitulating the existing Wall Street casino-style derivative economy. This investment friendly image is strengthened when economists chime in to depict Bitcoin's fixed monetary supply as a currency mimicking assets like gold and criticize this as deflationary and would incentivize hoarding, and perhaps increase wealth inequality.

Contrary to these perceptions, Bitcoin was never meant as a get-rich-quick scheme. While it possesses gold-like characteristics, it is also radically different, as it is highly portable and divisible (Bitcoin can be divided into 8 decimal points and more if consensus is reached). This is a new monetary design that has never existed before. Careful examination reveals how it is an architecture that embodies innate human nature and is designed to uphold our internal governing structures.

Digital Scarcity

Bitcoin is like one big organism that regulates itself through algorithm. With no company, CEO or individuals in control, it maintains a ledger transparent to all. Its ecosystem evolves to manifest a vision encoded in its DNA, through stimulus and active interaction with its environment.

The core of this technology is algorithmic consensus that enables digital scarcity; a way to make an object in the digital world scarce without central control. This solves the problem of the double-spend. Cryptographer Adam Back, whose invention of Hashcash contributed to the creation of Bitcoin's digital scarcity, noted how Bitcoin “constructs a computational irrevocability from proof-of-work and consensus”. This makes permissionless transaction and innovation possible, as well as removing monopolistic control of the production and transfer of money. But more fundamentally, this scarcity offers a key to open society to move beyond the current oligarchical rule of the neo-Darwinian dog-eat-dog world that has now turned into the lions eating the lambs.

The market logic that governs the existing extractive system is that of central control. As a hallmark of the industrial era, capitalism bases its foundation on the idea of land ownership. This places production and distribution into private hands. Scarcity was created through monopolistic control of resources and energy (such as the oil spigot), which has mostly been done in secrecy.

Unlike the managed scarcity of centrally controlled markets, Bitcoin's digital scarcity is created through voluntary agreement of its participants. Its open source protocol grants users power to choose what kind of network they wish to create or be a part of, as codes can be modified by anyone. Combined with game theory that enforces fairness, this scarcity creates a new form of capital, one that is open source and distributed. This brings a radical departure from the current vulture capitalism that promotes cheating and wealth without work by means of usury, rent-seeking and quantitative easing (taxation through inflation).

While central banks use fiat currency as a force of coercion, Bitcoin currency is a token of value that provides an incentive to generate productivity and efficiency of the workers (miners). This pays for the labor required to build a whole new global financial system. In a sense, each Bitcoin mining pool is like a worker-owned cooperative that requires members to both work together and also compete within the network to perform the issuing of monetary units and clearing of transactions. Solidarity generated through collective hashing power maintains the ethos of decentralized consensus.

Distributed Accountability

Bitcoin's self-organizing is not easily understood from outside looking in. It is like a caterpillar in the cocoon before turning into a butterfly. Market manipulation and outright theft within exchanges like Mt. Gox appear to confirm the view of man as selfishly driven. Yet, this is occurring in centralized offshoots and simply a reflection of the greed rampant in the existing system.

If we dig a little deeper into this ecosystem, what is happening within the mining process also appears to affirm the theory of natural selection, where those with powerful computer chips and hashing power can increase the chance of winning the game. Indeed, mining equipment is now highly specialized and is becoming more like a kind of survival of the fittest (where ordinary computers can no longer participate in mining). This brings concern about the potential centralization of mining. Yet, just as Darwin's first work does not complete his full picture of evolution, the mining was also designed to be subservient to the imagination that infused this innovation.

The fierce mining competition fosters efficiency, helping make the relative capacity of the Bitcoin ecosystem significantly less energy intensive than the existing financial system. Tech entrepreneur and author Andreas Antonopoulos explains how it is the most eco-friendly and cost efficiency currency when fully utilized at a global scale. This also helps create a solid foundation upon which a social contract of a truly democratic society can be built.

The creator of this technology, Satoshi Nakamoto found a way to secure the system from the risks of concentrated greed and destructive seeds within our 'selfish genes'. This was done through implementing a particular consensus algorithm that enforces people to show the proof of their work. Rewards here function as a mechanism to keep everyone honest and the equilibrium of supply and demand distributes accountability as a form of self-regulation taken up by those who participate in the mining.

All this has become an engine to build a system that is impervious to internal or external attacks. The mining rings that have now achieved global level security perform a kind of safeguard of real democracy, through which spontaneous forces of We the People can be unleashed. With its feature of infinite divisibility, value created through a peer-to-peer exchange of autonomy and reciprocity can become an abundant flow that nurtures all people, especially those who are made weak and vulnerable by current Western exploitation.

This even makes it possible for the other six billion, the unbanked and under-banked, especially in the Global South, to participate in the world economy on their own terms. This is already starting to happen as investment and interest in transforming the massive remittance market is increasing, while charity and tipping is the fastest growing usage of Bitcoin in the West.

The Ascent of Man

Many of us wish to evolve; to act more freely and extend kindness and compassion to others, but our actions are restricted and controlled by oppressive governments, religious fundamentalism and de-facto corporate dictatorship. As commercial-led globalization expands, the entire globe is shackled to the tyrannical logic of extreme capitalism and cowboy banksters' autocratic control over the flow of money. People with good hearts are forced to adapt to the harsh environment of austerity and rule by the rich. They have to make hard decisions; either to be kind to others or suppress that innate nature of altruism just to survive.

The blockchain removes these obstacles, allowing us to align ourselves with internal forces of evolution. The built-in incentive structure of this game-changing innovation offers humanity a path to divest from the military-industrial complex, war economies, sweat shops and debt slavery as well as Stasi-like surveillance. Instead of supporting oligarchs that print money at will to buy missiles and tanks, people can independently invest in mining gear and channel the selfish and aggressive parts of humanity to serve the larger whole.

Artificial scarcity in centrally planned economies fuels destructive competition among people, dividing all through fear into separated nations, religions and ideologies, and justifies wars and hatred. Now the competitive drive that has been cut off and stagnated can be brought back to its origin of creative power and transformed into one that encourages each to strive for their best in service to all.

With decentralized cryptocurrencies, we can move away from the deterministic future imposed by central banks and divisive political ideologues and build a society that represents who we really are. Those who are ready and want it will find a way to chart a new path. Those in power can choose not to evolve, but they can no longer take the rest of us down with them.

Humans it seems are being degraded into killer apes. As the ideals of distributed consensus enshrined in mathematics are fully developed, they become the killer apps that can help humanity redeem itself. In this new world entered through the blockchain, we can now move beyond struggles for existence and ascend as a species capable of love.

 

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My experience of 'signing on' at the Job Centre

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 14 heures 6 minutes

I am not about to compare the workhouses of the 19th century to the job centres of 21st  century Britain – but there are parallels to be drawn between the stigmatising way in which welfare is administered in our job centres and the ‘poor relief’ of Victorian England.  

Flickr/Max G. Some rights reserved.

As I entered my third week of unemployment after being made redundant from my job as a caseworker and researcher for a former MP and after 2 visits to my local job centre I was defined as eligible for Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

My only prior experience of the job centre came in the form of helping often desperate constituents challenge sanctions and/or make complaints about job centre staff.

Now I am on the other side of the counter and the abstract concepts I used to highlight on behalf of ‘claimants’ – humiliation, shame, stigmatisation and punishment –  have suddenly become very real. I can’t help but question what the function of ‘welfare’ is in Britain today. Why is it administered the way it is? What are the social and emotional dimensions of job seeking? What will my personal experience of welfare be?

‘Less eligibility’

Welfare reform under the Conservative-led government has been framed as restoring the balance in favour of the ‘rights’ of taxpayers, who have for too long paid for the shirkers, skivers and the welfare dependent. The ‘work must pay’ mantra! Social protection has been recast as a generous gift from ‘us’ (not me at the minute) – the government and the aspirant tax payers – to ‘them’ – the workless recipients of welfare. It seems that fairness within the politics of welfare is no longer about the rights of those in need of material goods or employment – but rather a justification for strengthening the old principle of ‘less eligibility’.

‘Less eligibility’ was a British government policy passed into law in the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. It stated that conditions in workhouses had to be worse than conditions available outside so that there was deterrence to claiming ‘poor relief’. Hence, ‘less eligibility’ meant not only that the recipient of welfare received less than the very poorest labourer did from her/his wages, but also that she/he received it in such a way (in the workhouse for example) that made pauperism less respectable than work.

I am not about to compare the workhouses of the 19th century to the job centres of 21st  century Britain – but there are significant parallels to be drawn between the stigmatising way in which welfare is administered and received in our job centres and the ‘poor relief’ of Victorian England.    

My first day of ‘signing on’: degradation, humiliation and punishment

It’s my first official ‘signing’ day.  I walk into the job centre feeling suspicious of my surroundings and welfare policy, but optimistic I would at the very least find a supportive and compassionate environment. An island of civility if you like! After being welcomed at the door, I was ushered up to a vast open plan room and seated next to fellow job seekers. A work coach then went around the room and collected our work books one-by-one. There was no explanation for what she was doing or a polite adult greeting, she simply said: “work book please”. It looked and felt like a teacher taking colouring books from a group of children – like she had been instructed to be as paternalistic as possible. It was degrading.

Bad start I thought, things will improve!

Then I see the G4S security guards plodding around the room, I immediately felt ill at ease. Questions whirred around my mind: Who and what are they securing? Are job seekers really perceived as an inherently threatening group of people?

All this got me thinking about the symbolic function of the G4S security guards and the ways in which social policy institutions securitise and shame job seekers in their daily or weekly interactions with welfare. It occurred to me that perhaps the symbolic function of G4S surveilling and monitoring perfectly calm job seekers in the job centre is to marginalise a sense of agency and reinforce a sense of moral deficit and shame within the job seeker.  

Slightly raised voices then alert me to a fellow job seeker – he is in the middle of his work search review and is being interrogated. Two job coaches are standing over him and one of them is quizzing him about why he didn’t attend the previous week. This interaction is of course taking place in full public view due to the layout of the space and everyone can hear the man desperately trying to explain his reasons for not attending. He states that all his young children were really struggling with chickenpox and he contracted the virus too. His work coach challenges him:

“Have you had chickenpox before sir”?

“Yes” he replies…

“You can’t have had it again then sir!  Unfortunately we can’t accept that as a ‘good reason’”…

“I promise you I was poorly! What’s the chickenpox you get when you’re an adult”…

“I think you mean shingles sir, but unfortunately we’re going to have to sanction you”...

A work coach then shouts the sanctioned man’s confidential details – name and full address – across the room to a colleague – his life now an open book from which his eligibility to welfare is determined. I was furious; I wanted to believe that local job centres functioned as supportive and protective islands within a punitive welfare system; unfortunately the lived reality on my first signing day was job centre staff publicly humiliating and punishing a fellow job seeker.

In front of my very eyes, welfare was being administered in a degrading and humiliating way. I saw unsympathetic and disbelieving work coaches’ shame a fellow job seeker by questioning his credibility and subjecting him to unnecessarily public scrutiny. And to what end? It seemed clear to me then that the concept and institutional practice of ‘less eligibility’ was alive and well in my local job centre. So whilst the Government’s analysis of Britain as marked by welfare dependency and worklessness continues to conjure up popularised notions of ‘shirkers’ and ‘skivers’ and helpless dependents –  the ‘undeserving’ and ‘deserving’ – the job centres do the dirty work by creating hostile and shaming environments for all those who find they need social security.  

Deserving and undeserving

That’s not to say that these environments are experienced in the same way by everyone, inevitably a person’s interaction with welfare is intersected by their class, age, gender, ethnicity and religion. And so to my first signing! It’s now around 2:15pm and after pondering the presence of G4S and witnessing a man being publicly humiliated; my job coach is ready for me. We exchange pleasantries and settle down to the nitty-gritty of signing on.

The second I tell her I used to work for an MP and have a post graduate degree… her demeanour changes from slightly suspicious and abrupt to deferential and positive. She beams:

“You’ll be absolutely fine… people like you don’t usually stay with us that long… you’re a professional and will find a job in no time”.

The difference between how I was treated and the way my fellow job seeker (the man inflicted with shingles) was interrogated and disbelieved only moments earlier,  was frightening. I was a worthy professional, believed and deserving – he was a “long-term” claimant who had failed to attend his previous ‘signing’ date and had to be punished.

21st Century Paupers?

The civil servants that run job centres are not intentionally vindictive - they do not set out to shame, stigmatise and/or punish job seekers. Indeed I imagine the majority of those who work in job centres really do care and want to make a difference to people’s lives. However, we must not let the laudable intentions of those who work in job centres obscure the fact that welfare is being administered in such a way that recipients experience shame, stigma and humiliation.

As was the case for ‘paupers’ in the workhouses of Victorian England, life on welfare in 21st century Britain is made far less respectable than life as a working tax payer. Media-fuelled rhetoric about welfare dependency and ‘benefit scroungers’ combined with institutional paternalism within our job centres reinforces the notion that welfare recipients have lost the entitlement to equal social status.  

Sideboxes Related stories:  Who benefits from benefit? Credit where it's due? How to reform and make the most out of Universal Credit The coalition's scorched earth economics is anti-democratic Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Sick and tired: Sri Lankan domestic workers fight back against violence

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 14 heures 25 minutes

As protesters demand justice for isn't it time we all became sick and tired of violence and exploitation in the home?

Union members protesting and collecting signatures. Credit: Sri Lankan Domestic Workers Union.

The Sri Lankan Domestic Workers Union, along with other trade union and women’s groups, has organised a picket for Monday 6th July, outside the Supreme Court in Colombo. The protesters are demanding that action is taken against Justice Sarath Abrew who is alleged to have raped and brutally attacked a domestic worker at his home on or around the 26th June. The woman’s injuries included a fractured skull. She was admitted into hospital as an emergency.  

If an attack like this had been in a public place it would be just as horrific. That violence and degradation can happen in the home and within a working relationship underscores the profound susceptibility of women domestic workers. As The International Labour Organisation has recognised ‘domestic workers, whether working in their home countries or abroad, are vulnerable to many forms of abuse, harassment and violence, in part because of the intimacy and isolation of the workplace’. 

In Sri Lanka, such experiences are tacitly acknowledged but can still be trivialized, in similar ways to how domestic violence was culturally accepted in Britain until the feminist campaigns of the 1970s and 80s . “Sarath Abrew becomes boisterous again” is how one on-line newspaper reported the case last week, referring to Abrew’s ignoble record, “Four such similar assaulting incidents were reported about this judge before. That was against another domestic maid and three police officers.” What is likely to make a difference this time is that the allegations of violence against Abrew have been taken up by the Domestic Workers Union (DWU). The union has been able to mobilise support from fourteen other civil society organisations and trade unions, including the International Domestic Workers Federation and the Women’s Political Academy

As well as organising Monday’s picket, the groups have written to the President, Maithripala Sirisena, demanding financial and therapeutic support for the woman and calling for Abrew’s immediate arrest and sacking. “This brazen attack is an opportunity for the government to send a clear message that violence against domestic workers won’t be tolerated”, a spokeswoman for the DWU said. “Women domestic workers have long been telling us about the abuse they have faced in homes, including sexual violence. There are good stories too, about workers being treated with respect, but we can’t afford to leave it to chance. Only when domestic workers have stronger legal rights will they be safe.”

The vast majority of domestic workers in Sri Lanka are women with low levels of education. The feminization of housework means that domestic work is considered low skilled, not ‘real work’. It is subject to the idiosyncratic standards and whims of each household, where varying degrees of docility and acquiesce are encouraged. I have seen domestic workers in Sri Lankan homes managed through the smallest of gestures – the nod of a head, a glance, the movement of fingertips. 

This whole sector of employment is characterised by paternalistic informality. Contracts for domestic work are mainly verbal and workers have limited legal rights. Domestic work does not come under the parameters of national wage fixing mechanisms and the gaps between local laws and international standards mean that access to social security and maternity benefits are at best tenuous.  A report, ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers’, produced by the independent think tank Verité Research in March this year, recommended a comprehensive overhaul of policy and law to improve the rights and protection of domestic workers in Sri Lanka: an expansive interpretation of existing legislation, amending existing laws and introducing new laws.

For those of us living in the global North it can be relatively easy to feel removed from the seemingly archaic politics of domestic work in places like Sri Lanka. I have only recently become aware of the extent to which the anomalous persistence of domestic work in its diverse forms – whether through the global care chain or through home based cleaning, au pairing or tuition – plays an increasingly vital part in how inequalities are maintained across the globe. 

Union members campaigning. Credit: Domestic Workers' Union.

Using figures from the International Labour Organisation, Verité Research has highlighted a worldwide increase in demand for domestic workers. Verité  estimates that one in every thirteen women in the labour force will be a domestic worker. To use statistically crude imagery, on a packed London double decker bus, which at full capacity takes 84 people, you would be rubbing shoulders with at least six women domestic workers.

The power to capture and consume the time of others is what maintains and fixes modern class differences and the accumulation of status, the sociologist Bev Skeggs has argued recently. Skeggs cites a 2013 survey by the elite estate agent Wetherell that found that there are more domestic workers in the London area than there were 200 years ago. In Mayfair 90 per cent of the 4,500 people who own houses, and 80 per cent of those with flats, had their own domestic worker in 2013. In 1790, 48 servants lived in Mayfair and worked for 1,500 residents. Wetherell observe, “wherever the multiple between the wages of the rich and the poor grows, so does the number of servants.”

The connection that the Domestic Workers Union is making in Sri Lanka between the treatment of domestic workers and the moral health of a society is an important argument. In her rousing Birkbeck Annual Law Lecture in 2013, the scholar Angela Davis suggested that in the twentieth century, the situation of black women domestic workers in North America approximated that found in slavery. For Davis, the “very concept of freedom must have been first imagined by slaves”. Davis believes that domestic workers played a crucial, but historically unrecognised role, in the emergence of the Black Freedom and Civil Rights movements through such actions as the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Davis quotes Fanny Lou Hamer, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, “all my life, I have been sick and tired”, Hamer said, “Now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Isn’t it about time that we all became sick and tired of the exploitation of the vulnerability of all those who live and work in our homes? 

Sideboxes Related stories:  State racism and sexism in post-war Sri Lanka Sri Lanka: women in conflict Domestic violence in Sri Lanka: the power of alternative discourse Our bodies as battlegrounds Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders Life on a knife edge: migrant domestic workers in the UK Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Nothing in politics is an accident

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 15 heures 21 secondes

“More cynically (or realistically) the Hellenes must be kept in the NATO orbit and timely aid is the best guarantor of it.”

Merkel and Hollande at the 17th German-French council of ministers, March, 2015. Demotix/ Jakob Ratz. All rights reserved.With slightly more than half the ballots counted, "óxi" is set to win a decisive victory. Since the first estimates were released, "No" has maintained a 20 point lead over "Yes". With a 65% turnout, Mr. Tsipras has every justification in declaring a tremendous electoral victory for Syriza and for his leadership.

He can thank the IMF for that, ironically enough. Throughout the week, polls indicated that the country was split down the middle. Then on Thursday, the IMF released a report that confirmed what many have been saying for a long time: Greek debt really is unsustainable and a large haircut should be included as part of any deal. That must have been the game-changer; one thing is a suspicion, and another is the senior creditor and Troika member publishing this in a formal report. 

It is hard to believe that the timing is a coincidence, for as Franklin Roosevelt once said: "Nothing in politics is an accident. If something happens, it is because someone meant for it to." That someone can only have been the United States, who has been quietly urging a deal for months now. 

Initial reactions from outside Greece have been decidedly mixed. They show the existence of two camps: ministers from France, Italy, and Belgium have come out saying that negotiations should continue. Ireland might also fall in with the ‘pro-deal’ party. The IMF obviously backs a deal that includes reforms and a haircut; i.e. some sugar and some crow for everyone. 

On the ‘nein’ side are the Germans, the Spanish and some of the eastern European states that have had to put through very tough reform programmes of their own. German comments all have a cheerful ring such as: "the Greeks have burnt their last bridge with Europe." That puts Angela Merkel in a bind; it is clear she would make a deal if one could be found that saved everyone's face. But now she will be likely to have to face a party revolt if she tries to push through a deal with the exultant Greeks.

However, this is not the first time the Germans have said "nein" and then had to eat their words. In fact, the history of the Euro crisis has been Germans protesting loudly and then eventually caving in. It is possible that this will be the case again. What Germany needs is a strong enough force to ‘oblige’ them to cave in, as good Europeans. That is the trick with the Germans, the appeal to their historic responsibility to European peace and solidarity. And no one does that better than the French.

So it is noteworthy that tomorrow's first agenda item will be a meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande of the French Republic. That will undoubtedly be followed by calls from IMF Chair Christine Lagarde, also French. President Obama and Prime Minister Renzi will also surely call and press for a deal. And it is very probable that Mr. Draghi, who has promised to do whatever it takes to save the euro, will once again act on that promise; perhaps by extending ELA support even slightly, as a clear signal of compromise. 

If so, then it is likely that the Greeks will have finally succeeded in their long applied tactic of divide et impera, finding the fault line among the European positions, playing on the Russian fears of the US, and splitting them all asunder. If so, somebody will undoubtedly put up bronze statues to Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis. Greece will stay in the euro; they will receive their desired haircut and probably some slight fiscal easing this year and next. They will have to agree to some ‘hard’ - i.e. face-saving - reforms, but they will win substantially everything because in the end, the nuclear option paid off.

That would be disastrous for Mariano Rajoy's Partido Popular in Spain; and it might very well provide a boost to both Marine Le Pen's National Front and to Tory Eurosceptics in Britain. Fodder for future crises.

On the other hand, if I'm wrong, and the Franco-American pressure proves insufficient; then the Greeks really will have burnt their last bridge with Europe. If that happens, the US should have a contingency plan ready: a Marshall Plan II of humanitarian and financial assistance. The Greeks are our allies and we should help them in a time of need, even if Europe won't - especially if Europe won't. More cynically (or realistically) the Hellenes must be kept in the NATO orbit and such timely aid is the best guarantor of it.

One last possibility: Europe may keep Greece only to lose Germany. If the German conservatives become convinced that Mrs. Merkel will always sign the check when push comes to shove, they may revolt for real. They will not accept an unlimited exposure of German savings and funds to bail out the entire Mediterranean basin, the "Club Med" as they disparagingly say. 

We may be talking about "Ausgang" next year.  As I wrote earlier today, the "Greferendum" was only the closing scene of Act 1. Act 2 in the Euro crisis is imminent.

Country or region:  Greece EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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The sexual and reproductive health issue you’ve probably never heard of….

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 16 heures 6 minutes

Why is one of the most common gynaecological conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, schistosomiasis, misunderstood, under-researched and under-reported?

Throughout Africa approximately 200-220 million people are living with schistosomiasis – also known as bilharzia - and 600 million people are at risk of being infected. Schistosomiasis is a waterborne disease, caused by worms that use aquatic snails as their intermediate hosts, and is particularly common in communities living near freshwater lakes, ponds and streams. Owing to the close association with water for washing, bathing and drinking, infection can be a daily occurrence but it can also occur in seasonal drier environments where people are made more vulnerable through necessary and life giving interactions with infested water.

Urogenital schistosomiasis - also referred to as female or male genital schistosomiasis (FGS and MGS) -  is common, and even universal in some communities. It is thought that between about 100 and 120 million people are suffering from FGS and MGS which is causing damage to their urinary and reproductive systems. Adolescent girls and women with FGS can experience bleeding and stigmatising discharge from the vagina, genital lesions, nodules in the vulva as well as general discomfort and pain during sex. The damage that FGS causes also include sub-fertility, miscarriage and can effect vulnerability to HIV and the Human Papilloma virus. 

Misunderstood, under-researched and under-reported

Peter Hotez estimates that globally there are approximately 67-200 million cases of S. haematobium infection among girls and women. Further estimates that between 33% and 75% of girls and women with S.  haematobium infection also suffer from FGS in their lower genital tract would indicate that between 20 million and 150 million girls are affected, possibly making it one of the most common gynaecological conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. But unfortunately it is misunderstood, under-researched and under-reported to the extent that we have little concrete information on prevalence in different countries, inadequate diagnostic systems, and little guidance on how to prevent, manage and treat it.

We know that FGS is estimated to reduce a woman’s fertility by up to 75%. The links between FGS and HIV are also well established. Stoever and colleagues argue that up to 75% of girls and women infected with FGS develop often irreversible lesions in the vulva, vagina, cervix, and uterus, creating a lasting entry point for HIV. Their appraisal of Eryun Kjetland’s research in Zimbabwe showed that women with FGS had a threefold increased risk of having HIV. In a recent review of the evidence Pamela Mbabazi and colleagues argue that:

“Studies support the hypothesis that urogenital schistosomiasis in women and men constitutes a significant risk factor for HIV acquisition due both to local genital tract and global immunological effects.”

Hotez believes that preventing female genital schistosomiasis in sexually active women throughout many rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa could have a significant effect on HIV transmission.

The situation in Ghana

In Ghana schistosomiasis increased with the development of the Upper Volta Dam. The Ministry of Health’s Neglected Tropical Disease Programme has a mandate to tackle schistosomiasis, which it does through the distribution of the medicine praziquantel through schools, community programmes, and health centres. But detailed clinical research on urogenital schistosomiasis in Ghana is limited. In 2011 a survey conducted by Yirenya-Tawiah et al  to determine the prevalence of FGS in people that live near rivers in the Volta Basin calculated prevalence at 10.6% (42/395). Their study also looked at the problems that women with FGS were experiencing. Vaginal discharge and itching were the most frequently cited reproductive health issue, other symptoms included lower abdominal pain, irregular menstruation, post-coital bleeding, pain during and after sex, miscarriage and infertility.

Why hasn’t more been done?

Given the number of people affected, and its harmful effects, it is astonishing that there hasn’t been more of a focus on this urogenital schistosomiasis before. Diseases that affect the poorest and the most marginalised tend not to be high on the agendas of policy makers. If you couple this with the fact that tackling urogenital schistosomiasis means discussing intimate issues such as sexuality and stigmatised areas of health such as infertility the reluctance to deal with the issue is clearer. Nonetheless such dialogue is needed to determine the full extent of the problem on-the-ground.

In Ghana we can see promising signs that there is an openness to tackling urogenital schistosomiasis. But we can foresee some challenges in taking this work forward. The Neglected Tropical Disease programme receives funding from the government (primarily for salaries), and from donors including USAID (in part via technical support channelled through FHI 360, the Volta River Authority and Sightsavers). This is often linked to donor priorities and as yet no donors are championing FGS. Donor norms sometimes require systematic reviews of the evidence prior to action. In this case the need is arguably great although the evidence – from Ghana at least – is limited. Other major challenges are the up hill task of integrating FGS into the public health system and getting enough praziquantel tablets to cater for all endemic communities. This can range even to the provision of treatment to pre-school-aged children where first signs of FGS can be found.

Health workers at all levels - from district health officers, to front line health workers such as community health workers and volunteers - are often over stretched and juggling multiple responsibilities. FGS and it multiple manifestations is one more ball to keep in the air. Furthermore action in this area would mean that different areas of the health sector would need to work together in a concerted fashion which is currently lacking. A call for greater cross-sectoral action is very clearly needed.

FGS is potentially a sensitive, private, and possibly stigmatising condition and messaging needs to be geared to the realities of women’s gendered experiences. This requires in-depth research to explore the context and community discourse surrounding FGS symptoms and the development of appropriate referral and treatment strategies that are accessible to all women and girls regardless of where they live or how much money or resources they can access. In so doing, strengthening the surveillance and tailored interventions of reproductive health services is something we should all welcome. 

A future agenda for action

In January an International Scientific Workshop on Neglected Tropical Diseases brought together world leaders in the field of schistosomiasis, HIV and paediatrics –with a view to keeping a spotlight on urogenital schistosomiasis in Ghana. This will include:

- Bringing different communities together for action: Engaging all directors of health services, including the Public Health, Family Health (Reproductive Health) and Institutional Care divisions of the Ghana Health Services in the country through presentations and dialogue. Developing joint action so that maternal, sexual and reproductive health and HIV services have the skill set to prevent, diagnose and treat FGS.

- Training: Advocating for the inclusion of FGS in training sessions at national, regional, district and community levels including in in-service training and refresher trainings for health care workers.

- Getting FGS on the radar: Ensuring FGS is on the radar of relevant health staff such as clinicians, public health officers, obstetricians and gynecology consultants, nurses and community health workers.

- Action at the community level: Conducting research to explore how women understand the symptoms of FGS, who they consult and their treatment seeking pathways. Developing appropriate community messaging and engagement strategies through women’s groups, queen mothers, Traditional Birth Attendants and networks of Community Drug Distributors and community health workers to maximise appropriate referral, identification and treatment.

- Starting treatment younger: Periodic and regular treatment with praziquantel from when children are first infected should prevent the development of genital lesions due to urogenital schistosomiasis. But at the moment most praziquantel treatment programmes are focussed on school-aged children and there may be a need to start even earlier than this and make sure people of reproductive age get the care that they need.

- Making available diagnostics, surveillance tools and resources for management of urogenital schistosomiasis: Given how little we know about the illness this will include working with counterparts in other countries to share learning.

- Intensifying multi-sectoral collaboration: For example working with the Ministry of Water Resources, Works and Housing, The Ghana AIDS Commission and the education sector.

We hope that those working on health in other similarly affected countries will take up the challenge, and that donors can be persuaded to investing more in investigating this neglected issue which has the potential to touch many lives.

The following people also contributed to this article: Benjamin Marfo, Mike Yaw Osei-Atweneboano, Kate Hawkins, Sheila Addei, Alexander Adjei, Adriana Opong, Russell Stothard and Samantha Page.

 

 

 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Confronting Ebola in Liberia: the gendered realities Panzi hospital: a critical pulse for justice, peace and health A microbicide success: feminism is essential to good science Feminist Africa: putting Africa’s feminist thinking on the intellectual map Is there a future for women living with HIV? Country or region:  Ghana Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
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Celebrity talk and the problem of inequality

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 22 heures 8 minutes

Do attitudes towards the rich and famous help to legitimize gross disparities in wealth and power?

David Beckham and Michelle Obama at the White House in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1992, social psychologist Michael Billig wrote a book on how ‘ordinary’ people talk about the British Royal family. He argued that through their conversations, people compared their situations with those of royalty in ways that made their own lives come out better—helping them to ignore gross inequalities of wealth and power in the process. This makes action on inequality much less likely.

Could the same be true today for the ways in which young people think about celebrity more broadly, and how celebrity is intertwined with inequality and austerity?

To explore these questions, Laura Harvey, Kim Allen and Heather Mendick from Brunel University in the UK revisited Billig’s work and published their findings in 2015. Their research focused on one apparently simple question: how do young people in England talk about contemporary celebrities, and what difference does this make?  

Inequalities between rich and poor in the UK are much greater now than when Billig published his book. Five years of austerity policies have meant that young people face cuts in education, health and youth services; increased levels of unemployment; and greater costs if they choose to attend university because of huge rises in tuition fees.

In this context, differences in wealth, status and opportunity between celebrities and the rest of the population both illustrate and accentuate the problems of inequality, and provide a space to explore how young people feel about and respond to these increasing disparities.

The Brunel team’s research examines how 148 young people who were interviewed at different locations in England respond to austerity in talking about celebrities. Like Billig, the researchers see talk as a space of social action, a way that people get things done. This doesn’t mean that young people deliberately set out to justify or legitimize inequalities—simply that particular patterns in their conversations end up doing so because they strengthen certain meanings that solidify as ‘common sense.’

By becoming more aware of these patterns it should be possible to call inequality into question, and open it up to a more energetic challenge. Five of these patterns emerged as especially important.

1.      Celebrities do extraordinary things

When young people talk about the extraordinary things that celebrities do, they position them as ‘better’ than ordinary people. Bill Gates was the most popular example of this kind of talk, often featuring in discussions about the ‘ideal celebrity.’ In one case an interviewee asserted that “he was like helping eradicate polio from the world,” and this silenced any criticisms of him and his work. Gates’ extreme wealth is also part of his extraordinariness as a celebrity, and is legitimized by being accompanied by talk of his philanthropic work. So for example, when one respondent said “he’s like a beast, he’s got loads of money,” another countered by saying that “he gives it away for free.”

Extreme wealth was also a feature of how young people talked about the footballer David Beckham. Here, as for Gates, Beckham’s philanthropy and hard work served to justify his wealth. As one interviewee put it, he trained “tirelessly, day in day out, in order to progress from £10 a week to £100k a week.” 

2.      Celebrities are ordinary within extraordinary circumstances

Young people want someone who they can relate to, and are drawn to those celebrities who they feel are ‘ordinary’ and do ‘everyday’ things. But what makes them ‘better’ than other people is that they manage to maintain their ordinariness in the extraordinary circumstances of fame and media scrutiny in which they find themselves. Foremost among such celebrities was Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence.

The respondents referred to her very public fall at the 2013 Oscars, the way in which she laughed at herself, and how she stated that she loved fast food and would never diet. As one interviewee said, “She’s just normal. Like she was on the red carpet, and she was ordering McDonald’s, and I thought she was cool.”

3.      Celebrities cannot do ordinary things in ordinary ways

Other participants in the study spoke of the fact that celebrities are subject to constant media scrutiny, and face press intrusion that they must ‘suffer.’ Echoing Billig’s findings about people who were talking about the royal family, some of the respondents talked about Prince Harry living in the media spotlight. One said that he thought Harry was “just trying to be a normal bloke, he wants to go out and have a good laugh…He just wants to be normal”—to which another  responded that she thought Harry shouldn’t have to “live a life of misery.”

4.      Celebrities are disgusting and inauthentic

By contrast, another pattern from the research described celebrities as ‘fake’ and ‘arrogant’, even ‘disgusting’ and ‘inauthentic.’ When talking about extreme surgery for example, respondents focussed on the likes of Nicki Minaj and Katie Price, speaking of them as ‘too fake’ and saying that “it’s the plastic surgery and stuff that makes me dislike her.” 

In relation to Minaj, one participant asked “How are you going to know if she is good person? She’s hiding behind an image that makes her look like a good person, then she must be a bad person.”

In contrast to the first pattern where ‘ideal’ celebrities were usually identified as white men, these examples were predominantly working-class and ethnic minority women: racism and sexism occur in the everyday processes of analysing which celebrities people feel are ‘real’ and ‘just like us,’ and which are not.

5.      Celebrity lifestyles are risky and vulnerable

In contrast to views of celebrities who have had plastic surgery, young people discussed the risky and vulnerable lifestyles of famous people who become addicted to drugs and alcohol with empathy and sympathy—like Amy Winehouse. As one respondent said, “They grow up like they’re already pressured from when they’re kids because they’re famous and then as they grow up they just give up caring anymore.”

Stories of ‘car-crash’ celebrities like Whitney Houston and Lindsay Lohan circulate as cautionary tales of what might happen if you become famous. Their overdosing on drugs and alcohol, and their risky lifestyles which are constantly reported in the press, make them appear as warnings. Some interviewees felt that celebrities had a greater level of vulnerability to these ‘risky’ lifestyles because of the pressures they faced. In so doing, they presented their own lives as safer and more desirable.

So what have we learned?

Young people discuss celebrity lives critically in relation to success, money, hard work, philanthropy and authenticity. This is a long way from the media stereotype of teenagers who idolise celebrities and want to become just as famous. In fact, their ‘celebrity talk’ is much the same as that of people who are older. Both groups focus more on the downsides of celebrity than the upsides of fame. While this may initially be reassuring, the patterns found in the Brunel research constitute a problem for anyone who wants to challenge social inequalities. Why is that?

In talking about celebrities, young people are also talking about themselves. The claims, criticisms and justifications they make about celebrities operate as evaluations of themselves and the world in which they are growing up. These evaluations matter.

Talk of ‘extraordinary’ celebrities who ‘triumph over adversity’ makes it seem as though such people deserve what they have. Talk of ‘vulnerable’ celebrities makes it appear safer to stay within the realms of anonymity. In these ways, talking about celebrities may serve to legitimize the massive inequalities that young people see between their own lives and those of the rich and famous, at least indirectly.

In addition, by talking about ‘ideal’ celebrities like Bill Gates and David Beckham who are male, white and middle class, and labelling others as ‘disgusting’ like Nicki Minaj who is female, black and working class, inequalities based on gender, class and race are reinforced.

It is especially important to explore the power of such cultural stories in the current context of deepening austerity in the UK and elsewhere. By breaking apart and analysing these stories we can begin to create new narratives to support the transformation of society.

Sideboxes Related stories:  On superheroes: who will save us now? Love, vanity and wealth A year of living generously Topics:  Culture
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The Greek showdown, what if No means Yes and Yes means No?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 5. Juillet 2015 - 0:13

"A strange referendum, then, when both sides want the same thing: a viable agreement with the institutions... that keeps Greece in the Eurozone." Anthony Barnett pursues clarity.

I am a member of a small nationality: the English Europeans. Like any attractive nationality this is one of becoming as well as tradition and allegiance – a patriotism of change, not a hunched, defensive chauvinism. It means looking forward to being more English and more European as my country becomes simultaneously more attractively and less aggressively English and more profoundly and freely European; as, in other words, both sides of my nationality enhance each other to strengthen my liberty and expand my democracy in a globalizing world. 

It is a privileged nationality that has come about thanks to the creation of the EU. It means I can understand and identify with Greeks who at one and the same time want to be both more Greek and more European. Like them I experience myself as belonging to a country and continent harnessed together in a single vehicle. It is not an experience shared by most of my fellow countrymen. They are English-Britains, who even when ‘pro-European’ mostly regard the EU in an instrumental way. They experience their nationality as already fulfilled without further need for definition. For them any European claims on their identity feel like a subtraction of their nationality, more of a threat than an enhancement.

The argument with my own countrymen is not going well. Sorry, that is a classic British understatement: it is going badly. What is going even worse is the EU itself; its policy towards Greece has been atrocious and is turning the Union from a framework that strengthened the nations of Europe into one that threatens them.

Today the Greeks are voting in a referendum on their relationship to the EU. Whatever happens the poor are likely to be punished. I am going to Greece to witness and share in the immediate aftermath. Before setting out to listen to my Greek friends I decided to set down my outsider’s view.

What is the referendum about

The referendum is divisive, incoherent, ill-prepared and may lead to an outcome so close as to be unclear  - dangerous energies in a country whose civil war and military dictatorships are not tucked safely in the seventeenth century but are raw and present. Yet it has brought democracy into the chambers of the European process where I hope its unruly presence stays put. It is easy for me to say so but I welcome its taking the issue to the people. The issue of the referendum being, should the Eurozone be governed in the way it has been, or not.

My answer to this question is NO. This is how I hope the Greeks will vote. My experience of the Scottish referendum leads me to expect a YES.

On the face of it, the NO vote should storm through. The formal question is should Greece say YES to the creditors' terms for continued austerity, cuts to the pensions of the poor and no debt relief that the Troika of the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the IMF put on the table as a “take it or leave it offer”. Or should they say NO so that the better terms the Troika will now offer can be agreed, now that the IMF’s judgment that massive debt relief is essential is openly on the table? And speedily agreed, according to the assurance of Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis.

In this official version of the choice, NO means better terms, an acknowledgement of the wishes of the Greek people, less impoverishment, debt relief and a very hard but potentially sustainable way out of the country’s economic and financial crisis. Whereas YES means embracing the Troika at its worst and carrying on the spiral of economic decomposition.

But if you read the compelling collection of openDemocracy contributors speaking their views in the forum put together by Alex Sakalis, another perspective emerges. Firest, the official one is neatly summed up by Dimitris Boucas:

YES means accepting the current proposal of Greece’s creditors and opening the road to more severe austerity measures with the least possible negotiating power for the Greek government.

NO means rejecting the current proposal and not condemning generations of young people to decades of austerity. It strengthens the government’s negotiating hand towards reaching a better agreement, with debt restructuring, coupled with measures for growth, always within the Eurozone.

Second, the other view is summed up by Iannis Carras (sequence slightly altered)

A NO will lead to a post-Sovietisation of Greek society. The economy will tank, hunger will become widespread, pensioners and the poor will be disproportionately affected. Violence is likely. It is thus with a sense of mourning for the Greece and the EU that are failing us that I will vote YES.

But this YES comes with an addendum: if, after a YES, the EU and the creditors do not provide substantial debt relief in return for structural reforms, thus helping the Greek economy grow, they will bear the ethical responsibility for the inability of the Greek side to live up to impossible obligations.

This view sees a NO as being YES and a YES as being a NO. It is not without plausibility. Far from a NO leading to a more honest acceptable negotiation, the EU leaders have spoken out bluntly warning that if the Greeks say NO the EU will have no alternative but to punish the country.

Instead of coming to the deal that Varoufakis promises, from which some pride and relief can be extracted, a NO vote will plunge the country into unimagined austerity as the Germans decide that Greece has to leave the Euro – the fact that there are no rules that allow this being irrelevant. What happens will happen. The ECB can decline to switch on the Greek banks, Greece will have to default and then start to print its own currency. But there will be no easy write-off that might permit the economy to bounce back with a cheap currency, in case this inspires other Euro members to think for themselves. It is a NO vote that will mean long-term subordination to a vengeful Europe intent on depressing the Greek economy, undermining, bribing and despising its officials in the process.

A YES vote, on the other hand, will defenestrate Tsipras and Varoufakis. They will be replaced, at least this is what the Eurocrats hope, with a Greek simulacrum of themselves who wear ties. Germany and Brussels cannot but then offer decent terms in gratitude to the Greek people’s act of loyalty. In particular they can’t go back on the moderate concessions they conceded to Syriza but will in addition agree the debt relief they refused the Greek leftists. Furthermore, only a YES will end the isolation from Europe that many Greeks now fear.  As Kalypso Nicolaïdis, and Othon Anastasakis put it,

“we are ready to make a leap of faith and say yes to Europe, however flawed that Europe is. We are ready to trust the other Europeans that if we vote yes today, they will take it as sign that we want to trust them again and ask them to trust us”. It is an argument that seeks to turn the table on the rhetoric of the NO voters, by claiming dignity and self-determination belong to those who say YES,

A YES with dignity can in this way be the best path to regaining our credibility lost in the rest of Europe and the world, by telling the creditors: you may be responsible for the dreadful economic recipes of the last 5 years and the current mess, you may be insensitive about our terrible economic depression, we may detest your moralising tone about who we are, but our Europe does not belong to you. Europe belongs to all of us. With our YES to Europe, we ask to become again actors of our own destiny.

On Thursday July 2, three days before the referendum, the IMF released a draft document on debt sustainability that had been drawn up the week before, on June 26. This states that a huge write down of the Greek debt is essential, precisely what the Syriza government have been arguing but which the Troika refused to concede. There was an intense debate between the IMF, the EU and the ECB over whether the report should be published, as Paul Taylor of Reuters reported the next day,

"It wasn't an easy decision," an IMF source involved in the debate over publication said. "We are not living in an ivory tower here. But the EU has to understand that not everything can be decided based on their own imperatives."

The board had considered all arguments, including the risk that the document would be politicized, but the prevailing view was that all the evidence and figures should be laid out transparently before the referendum.

In other words, they agreed it would be politicized. On the face of it, it seems to support the NO side, who have claimed all along that the debt question must be dealt with and confirms that it will have to be if there is a NO. But it probably reassures the YES side even more. Its supporters can now be absolutely confident that better terms are indeed on the table for them because debt sustainability will now be part of the negotiations.

There is a comparison here with the Scottish referendum in September last year. As the vote approached Scottish opinion started to swing towards supporting independence thanks both to the energy and spirit of the YES to independence campaign, and the lethargy of the NO campaign that backed the status quo and Scotland staying in the United Kingdom. The NO side played on all the financial and political risks - including expulsion from the European Union. But were offering nothing positive. At the last minute a “Vow” was extracted from all the main Westminster parties to deliver considerably more domestic powers of self-government to Scotland. In effect the NO campaign turned itself into a call for change! Its final leaflet delivered through front doors across Scotland headlined: “A vote for no is a vote for change” and “When change is coming it’s not worth the risk”.           

In a similar way the argument in Greece against Syriza’s call for a NO is becoming a claim that it is a YES that will achieve the new and better terms, but without the risks of polarisation and awkward left-wingers in control. A strange referendum, then, when both sides want the same thing: a viable agreement with 'the institutions', to use the polite name for the troika, that keeps Greece in the Eurozone.

The government says that by endorsing its rejection of an unacceptable ‘final offer’ and saying NO, an acceptable one will be agreed rapidly, with the Greeks able to hold their heads up high, dignity renewed, despite the pain that will surely follow. The opposition, including most business interests and the media, say only the political defeat of the government thanks to a YES will secure Greece the self-same negotiated outcome with the EU and the pain that will surely follow.

But if both sides have the same aim it means the real issue that divides them is who will decide. And this could prove very divisive and have significant political consequences. A left-wing victory would be magnificently against the odds.

Who is to blame

How did we (that's my European "we")  get into this situation and who's to blame? It is hard not to conclude from the public evidence that the breakdown in negotiations that led to the referendum was precipitated by the EU. Of course they have better access to the media and are spinning it as caused by unreliable Greeks.  But it does not seem that way to me. Without getting caught up in the details, or even claiming to understand them all, here are the highlights as I see them.

On 14 June the Chief Economist of the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, set out the IMF position in a short statement headed Greece: A Credible Deal Will Require Difficult Decisions By All Sides. Referring to changes in the situation, he wrote:

The offer made to the Greek government last week reflected these considerations and these trade offs.  It proposed to lower the medium term primary budget surplus target from 4.5% of GDP to 3.5%, and give Greece two more years to achieve that target—so the target for this year was reduced to 1%—and it asked for a more limited set of reforms.

The primary surplus is money raised and taken out of the economy by the government to be used to pay back its loans. What is not invested back into the economy weakens growth and lowers incomes and goes by the name of ‘austerity’. The argument against it is simple: that what both Greece and its creditors need is growth, therefore extracting a primary surplus which shrinks an economy is counter-productive especially when it has shrunk so much. Blanchard shows that to some degree the IMF took this point on board by lessening its demands. Blanchard continues,

For a deal along these lines to be effective and credible however, two conditions must be satisfied.

On the one hand, the Greek government has to offer truly credible measures to reach the lower target budget surplus, and it has to show its commitment to the more limited set of reforms. 

He then sets out the need for “comprehensive reform of the value-added tax (VAT)… and a further adjustment of pensions”.  He explains why they need to “insist on pensions” saying that the changes they want can protect “the poorest pensioners” and adds, “We are open to alternative ways for designing both the VAT and the pension reforms, but these alternatives have to add up and deliver the required fiscal adjustment”. Blanchard then makes a crucial further stipulation,

On the other hand, the European creditors would have to agree to significant additional financing, and to debt relief sufficient to maintain debt sustainability.

In other words there has also to be debt restructuring or reduction (a haircut) or both, as well, otherwise the tough package will not lead to a sustainable route out of the mess. Hence the words in the title: “difficult decisions by both sides”.

The Syriza government' s response was to come up with alternative ways to achieve a budget acceptable to the creditors. For the argument over pensions see the document presented by Varoufakis to the Eurogroup, posted on his blog and published in openDemocracy. But the critical point is that the Greek government accepted in principle the terms set out by the IMF for the creditors. As the Financial Times reported on 26 June this can be seen in the eight-page Greek government document leaked to them that was presented to the creditors on the 22 June. This opens with a commitment by the Greek government to, “A new fiscal path... premised on a primary surplus target of 1, 2, 3, and 3.5 per cent of GDP in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018”. This is as close to capitulation as you could want and signals an agreement by Syriza to continue with austerity - an abandonment of its central electoral appeal, that it could persuade the Europeans to stop squeezing money out of them until they achieved growth.

According to a careful analysis of the negotiations by Landon Thomas in the New York Times the initial response to the Greek document was positive. In Brussels “The Greek team was elated. For the first time, the Greek numbers were adding up”. The next day their optimism evaporated, it was returned covered in red re-writes especially on pensions. They would have to compromise further. But Tspiras and Varoufakis concluded that,  “Their only chance… was to push Europe hard for some flexibility on debt relief because without that, their plan had no chance of making it through the Greek parliament”. And not just the parliament. There was no point in such an agreement without a parallel one to reconfigure the country’s un-repayable debt. Unless this became sustainable there would be no large scale investment, no growth and no escape from their economic disaster.

Thomas’ account of the meeting is gripping. The Europeans recoil in distaste from the Greek Finance Minister’s requests to consider the deb question. In what seems to have been a cross between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and an audience with the Red Queen, Europe tells the Greeks to shut their eyes and believe in impossible things. They resisted, here is how the Times report concludes,

Mr. Varoufakis persisted on the issue of Greece’s staggering debt load [and turned to] Christine Lagarde, the French director of the I.M.F….  “I have a question for Christine, Mr. Varoufakis said to the packed hall: Can the I.M.F. formally state in this meeting that this proposal we are being asked to sign will make the Greek debt sustainable?”

“Yanis has a point”, Ms. Lagarde responded — “the question of the debt needs to be addressed”. But before she could explain, she was interrupted by Mr. Dijsselbloem. “It’s a take it or leave it offer, Yanis”, the Dutch official said, peering at him through rimless spectacles.

In the end, Greece would leave it.

What else could Greece do? For at the same time that Lagarde avoided the question and Dijsselbloem closed down the exchange, she knew that her own IMF draft report on the sustainability of Greek debt, which was finalized and sent to her that same day (if it was not already in her phone) spelt out the need for massive debt relief of over €50 billion. They all knew in principle anyway. For it had been signaled by the IMF's Chief Economist in his warning that there had to be difficult decisions by both sides.

Paul Mason got an excellent, 15 minute, robust interview with Varoufakis. He put it to him that they had effectively agreed to the creditors' terms and no one could understand why they walked out and called the referendum when the differences were so minor. Varoufakis finds it hard to accept how far they had capitulated but is clear about the decisive issue of difference which determined the breakdown, “Two words: debt restructuring”. He even emphasises the point that Syriza are not themselves asking for a haircut on the lines the IMF recommend, simply restructuring so that the debt becomes sustainable – without which he convincingly shows the country cannot grow.

The European leaders thought they had trapped the Greek leftists. They had extracted a serious programme (at least on paper) of institutional reform and modernisation; they had gained agreement to continued austerity via an annually rising primary surplus; they had successfully insisted on painful pension reductions. Then they refused to offer any debt relief, which would have made the package one Syriza could advocate as creating a sustainable outcome. And not just advocate. Without it the package made no sense and simply stored up further disaster. It would have been reckless and rotten to have signed it. It was shameful for the Europeans to have advocated it without the debt relief that could make it work. The Greeks should be proud that their government did not bend or break, Instead, they spring the trap, and they called the referendum.

Who should take responsibility

If the Europeans are responsible for the breakdown, thanks to their irrational and dishonest refusal to countenance debt restructuring as part of the package, thus undermining its credibility, who is responsible for this European policy?

The answer seems to be Angela Merkel. Before Tsipras decided to go for the referendum he “had asked Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany about including debt relief with a deal, only to be rebuffed again”, according to the New York Times. This was it seems after Varoufakis had been told to take it or leave it without debt restructuring.

I have always liked Angela Merkel for not being like Thatcher. She is not bossy or self-righteous in public, takes her time and seeks consensus and as a result seemed to build a self-confident country rather than a hysterical one puffed up by Westminster bluster. But after reading Der Spiegal writers' Peter Müller and René Pfister devastating critique of Merkel’s infectiveness, capacity for drift and evasion, I am not so sure. They write,

She could have offered Greece a safe and supported path out of the euro zone. That is the course of action that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has supported internally for years. She could also have offered Greece a debt haircut. Had she done so at the right moment, she could at least have prevented the radicalization of Greek politics. None of these options would have been free of risk. They would have required courage and money, and they would have opened up Merkel to attack. And that is something she didn't want. So she hid behind the troika, behind the hated technocrats, thereby accelerating the rise of Syriza. Indeed, Tsipras is, to a certain extent, a product of Merkel's vacillating leadership style.

The result has been to divide Greece, open up internal European policy to the United States, and in the end divide Europe itself. Last Monday, according to the Spiegel team, “Merkel stood in front of a blue screen in the lobby of the Chancellery and uttered a sentence that typifies her European policy. She was discussing the question of whether a "no" vote by the Greeks to the creditors' reform program was tantamount to a "no" to the euro. Instead of saying "yes" or "no," she said: "I will say quite openly: I am divided on this issue." If she does not know, how are the Greeks to be expected to know the answer to a question that has a huge impact on how they vote?

There is also the element of German indifference to their own responsibility for the deeper causes of the Greek crisis. They not only helped to permit it, they actively exploited the weak, clientelist corruption of the Greek state they now rile against. “Once, during a flight”, Spiegel reports of Merkel, “she was suddenly gripped by a laughing fit. She said that the Greek government was refusing to pay the bill for German submarines it had purchased. Their justification was that the subs were crooked. "Crooked!" Merkel said as tears of hilarity rolled down her cheeks”. But what is so funny? A well known, very experienced international financier once told me, “Germans think corruption is taking bribes not giving bribes”. This is the real joke. The irritation that the European leaders feel as they bridle at the ‘undiplomatic’ language of the Syriza negotiators and the claims that their style has isolated Greece from Europe goes back to Merkel; somebody who has been so powerful and whose country is so rich can't be wrong? No one in the EU is going to support the Greeks against Germany by blaming Berlin. If Merkel finds you difficult this suddenly turns into your isolating yourself from Europe. It is surely German childishness (in terms of willing the end but not the means), procrastination and profiteering, that bears the greatest responsibility for the emiseration of Greece.    

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“We have already voted NO”

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. Juillet 2015 - 17:16

Personally it took me a while to feel more hopeful about this referendum and to overcome my own anxieties and fear.

Doctors and hospital staff protest against closing hospitals and lay-offs, 2013. Demotix/Thanashs Kambyshs. All rights reserved.Various articles have been written in the last few days over why Greeks should vote No. The restoration of hope and dignity are of course topping the agenda, as my friends Antonis Vradis and Hara Kouki explain in this platform and elsewhere. But I would argue there is another, less obvious reason why we should vote No.

We have already voted No. Since 2009, we have been facing brutal neoliberal reforms and yet we resisted becoming neoliberal subjects. We refused to judge people by their falling spending power and commodity value. We came together in local assemblies and public squares, formed solidarity trading networks and alternative economies as well as self-managed health centres, education centres and time banks that catered for all - independent of class, race, age and gender. It was all about solidarity across difference and distance, the struggle to retain human dignity, and our collective capacity to overcome fear.

This is why in a sense, we have already voted No. We are simply called to deliver at a more structural, macro-economic level what we have already delivered at the micro-level of everyday life and social struggles. We have to say NO before our solidarity structures fail, before we become subaltern in an increasingly dystopian Europe.

Personally it took me a while to feel more hopeful about this referendum and to overcome my own anxieties and fear. Contrary to Antonis Vradis’ article I thought this was a lose-lose scenario for Syriza and by and large, for the Greek antagonist movement too. I could not see how a No could take on the ‘market’ or the ‘criminal gang-in-suits’ in the streets of Brussels. I was afraid that a No would only serve to remove responsibility away from the elites of Europe and onto our shoulders, the corrupt, lazy and irrational subjects that lacked “adult-like” qualities as Christine Lagarde recently put it. 

Put differently, a No could be the final jigsaw piece in a prevailing quasi-Orientalist narrative that portrays Greeks as morally inferior subjects worthy of their own fate. This is after all what many of our Northern Europeans neighbours still believe. As far as this narrative goes, a narrative that foregrounds individual “choice” and blameworthiness, we are now asked to decide ourselves whether we want to leave Europe. It is not about the socio-historic conditions of our existence, conditions that have largely been imposed in Brussels.

I am now less pessimistic, not least because the terms of the debate have started shifting. The IMF, for instance, is now accepting (at least) some responsibility, its own “childishness” and “irrationality” in this ongoing political drama. No matter the outcome, this seems to be a critical juncture capable of bringing about radical upheavals. It is time to say NO via this voting platform too.   

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What happens after the Greek vote

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. Juillet 2015 - 17:15

If YES wins, Tsipras could lose everything; if NO wins Tsipras could gain nothing. But, in the longer term, YES would prolong the agony of the country, while NO would show that some democracy is left in Europe.

A 'NO' demonstration in Athens. Demotix/Alexandros Michailidis. All rights reserved.In Greece, on Sunday evening, the referendum called by the government of Alexis Tsipras could deliver a success of the "yes" vote.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis announced last Thursday that he would resign; he could not sign a memorandum - a revised version of the one on which negotiations broke last week - which would bring austerity back to the country and would not address debt restructuring.

It would be difficult for the Tsipras government to survive such a result; the new proposals from Berlin and Brussels would make life impossible for the coalition between Syriza and Anel; many members of parliament would not be prepared to vote for a surrender. A change of government in Athens is what European powers have pursued in all these months; now they are close to success and are using all available means to destabilize the country and push the Greeks to a "yes" vote. Once a new government - obedient to the troika – is in place, new proposals from Berlin and Brussels could give the country some breathing space.

In addition to the media campaign, the ultimate weapon used against Greece was the closing down by the ECB of the flow of liquidity towards the Greek economy, which led the Tsipras government to close banks for a week and put in place capital controls.

There is nothing like a bank panic to unleash a demand for order in countries that have experienced well-being. Mario Draghi had tried to push European authorities to take responsibility for their political choices on Greece, but the measures he has taken have strangled the country. It is reasonable to think that Draghi used all his power to prevent Athens from freezing capital movements in previous months. In the name of common rules, hundreds of billions of Euros have fled Greece: the rich and the corporations are now safe with their cash abroad, not waiting in line at banks’ ATMs.

The decision not to stop capital flights has bled the country's economy. In return, €89 billion in emergency liquidity funds (ELA) have reached Greek banks; the flow stopped after the breakdown of negotiations, resulting in the forced closure of banks until next Tuesday.

But even before the failure to pay the debt to the IMF, the ECB had tightened up the requirements of collateral for loans to Greek banks, reducing credit (and increasing its cost) to the country. In addition, according to its rules the ECB cannot lend money to insolvent banks; but Greek banks’ balance sheets contain a lot of government bonds that are not accepted at their full value; as a result, several major banks are now at "almost default" according to rating agencies: no credit is now available for them, even in private capital markets. In short, the senseless rules of the Monetary Union are making increasingly difficult to supply the cash needed to keep the Greek economy going. On Monday the ECB will decide – taking into account the result of the vote – whether to supply liquidity and avoid the collapse of the country’s economy.

But on Sunday the referendum could deliver a success of the "no" vote, a rejection of austerity and of the humiliation imposed on Greece. The policies imposed by Europe have cost Greece a quarter of its domestic product in five years; with a "yes" vote, spending cuts and depression would continue. The Tsipras government has made clear that with a "no" it would have a stronger mandate to negotiate, and that there is no possibility of Greece leaving the euro. But with whom will Tsipras negotiate? On the basis of which proposals? A complex game would then start; Germany’s intransigence may stay, but the blame game against Greece would not work anymore. If Europe’s  politics had any democratic content, we would have the resignation not of Tsipras, but of the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker, who has asked the Greeks to vote "yes" and was incapable to cope with the crisis.

The agenda for the new negotiations would then be very different from the decimal points of the primary surplus in the government budget or the VAT tax rates discussed so far. A rethinking of how we behave and make decisions in Europe and the Eurozone would be on the table. It would be a perfect timing to convene a major conference on European debt, to introduce the "mutualisation" on which the Italian economic minister Pier Carlo Padoan is so optimistic.

A common responsibility of the Eurozone on public debt could be introduced, immediately bringing to zero current spreads - as they had been between the introduction of the euro and the crisis of 2008. Part of the outstanding debt could be transformed in perpetual bonds with zero yield, left in the balance sheets of the ECB and European funds. Actions that would be acceptable for international finance. And that would allow the whole European economy to come out – at last - from the depression that began in 2008. With a great sigh of relief – by the way – from the White House in the United States.

The political conditions for such a wide-ranging rethinking are yet to be built: the Socialists and Democrats (and the Greens) would have to clash with the Christian Democrats and Conservatives; France and Italy would have to clash with Berlin; Merkel would have to clash with Schauble; the real economy would have to reverse the power of finance. These are the stakes in the vote of the Greek referendum, and this is a battle that is fought throughout Europe.

The vote in Athens is a turning point. If the "yes" wins, Tsipras could lose everything; if the "no" wins Tsipras could gain nothing. But, in the longer term, the "yes" would prolong the agony of the country, and would give a free hand to the disastrous inability of Germany to govern Europe.  A "no" would show that some democracy is left in Europe, and that political change is not impossible.

An Italian version of this article has been published on Friday 3 July in Sbilanciamoci.info and in the daily Il Manifesto.

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SYRIZA crash-lands against the euro

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. Juillet 2015 - 16:29

Tsipras’ room for manoeuvre is completely circumscribed by the euro.

Alexis Tsipras addresses the Greek people after the elections, January, 2015. Demotix/Nikolaus Georgiou. All rights reserved.A man goes to the tailor to pick up a custom-made suit. He puts it on, and notices that the sleeves are too long. When he complains, the tailor says: ‘just bend your arms a little’. ‘But the collar is too low!’ ‘Just raise your back a little’ says the tailor. ‘But the trousers are too long!’ ‘Just stand on your toes’ says the tailor. The man goes out into the street and can barely walk in his new suit. Everyone says: ‘poor guy’. ‘Yes, but great suit!’

This joke represents the structure of entanglement of working class Greeks with the euro over the past five years. Unemployment presently stands at 27 per cent. Millions have been plunged into poverty and homelessness. The country has seen the biggest increase in inequality and xenophobia in Europe since the 1930s. But hey, at least we’ve got the euro!

The referendum announced by the Greek government on Sunday is its last-ditch attempt to get some leverage against the latest round of blackmail by the troika of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, however, the chances that SYRIZA will be able to orchestrate an economic recovery with Greece in the Eurozone are still virtually nought. Let me explain.

During last week’s negotiations, the Greek government and its creditors failed to reach agreement on a new bail-out. Part of the reason was IMF’s insistence that the revenue-raising measures proposed by the government, amounting to some €8bn, involved too many taxes on the rich. They were therefore likely to choke off the chances of economic recovery. The IMF effectively said: if you don’t cut taxes on the rich—while cutting back on everything else—there isn’t going to be more private investment. For greater investment requires greater net profit, and greater net profit only accrues when taxes on the rich are low. Such is the inexorable logic of capital accumulation in the neoliberal era.

The irony of all this is that, even if SYRIZA reaches an agreement to cut a ‘mere’ 8bn from an already depressed economy, it will, eventually, have to follow IMF advice. For how else will it get the Greek economy out of depression while committed to the euro? How, in other words, is Greece to reduce its massive reserve army of the unemployed without cutting taxes for the rich, thus raising profits and eventually investment in the private sector?

The standard Keynesian response to this question is: by raising public spending and employment. But this avenue is not open to straitjacketed Greece. If the country had its own currency, then it could print its way out of the recession. But this cannot be done while it is dependent on the ECB for liquidity and interest rate policy. On the one hand, the ECB’s liquidity programmes, disseminated as they are through the national central banks—and governed by a colonial ideology worthy of Montague Norman—offer a pittance compared to the country’s spending needs. On the other hand, Greece cannot engage in deficit spending due to prior Eurozone commitments, including the Growth and Stability Pact. For these reasons, Greece cannot fund a recovery by resorting to deficit spending or the printing press. It follows that even in SYRIZA’s best case scenario—where Greece stays in the euro and the government gets the deal it wants—it cannot both reduce unemployment and tax the rich. For Greece there is no such thing as a labour-friendly recovery: the Eurozone is a one-way street to labour emasculation. The implication is that there is no way for SYRIZA to implement its programme, or even rudiments thereof.

These important but neglected facts have ramifications for Greece’s immediate future. If the Greek people vote ‘no’ on Sunday, then the Greek government might be able to extract some minor concessions from its creditors and reach a new bailout agreement within the week—that is, assuming that the ECB does not force a Grexit. It will then have to enforce further austerity in order to revive the economy. This is likely to destroy SYRIZA electorally, by bringing about its pasokification and eventual demise. This is the message of the previous paragraph: no Grexit, no labour-friendly recovery.

If, on the other hand, the Greek people vote ‘yes’, then the plot thickens further. Say the government does not declare an election. Then it will have to enforce the same kind of austerity that has decimated the country over the past five years. The Greek Left will be all but eradicated for a generation. Say the government does declare an election. It will then have to give in to the creditors’ threats until such time as the election takes place—or worse, enforce austerity on the event of its reelection! The opposition from the Right will naturally blame austerity on SYRIZA’s ‘capitulation’, on its negotiating ‘ineptitude’, and similar gimmicks. Whatever happens, Tsipras’ room for manoeuvre is completely circumscribed by the euro; and you can’t really conduct an orchestra in a straitjacket.

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The Greek burden: confronting neoliberal authoritarianism on July 5

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. Juillet 2015 - 16:25

Much like the mythical Atlas, Greece must carry the struggle against austerity on its shoulders as punishment for its government challenging the neo-liberal European consensus in Europe.

Atlas. Flickr/H M Cotterill. Some rights reserved.In Greek mythology Atlas is a titan condemned to the task of supporting the world on his shoulders. We could not find a better metaphor for the task before the Greek electorate on Sunday 5 July.

To understand why the outcome of the referendum vote affects people far beyond Greece, even beyond Europe, I must dispel the many misrepresentations and mendacities that the mainstream media and most politicians use to distort and discredit this exercise in democratic decision making.

The forces of neoliberal reaction have challenged the referendum on procedural and administrative grounds in the Greek high court (challenge was rejected). More surprising and quite disappointing is the statement by the Council of Europe that "the vote falls short of international standards, because the poll was called at short notice and the questions asked are not clear".

Both arguments, that the referendum comes too quickly and that the question is not clear, are nonsense. Council of Europe's non-binding guidelines call for two weeks notice, and the Hellenic Parliament approved the referendum to be held in eight days. The allegation that six days constitutes a violation of democracy would seem rather bureaucratic in the most favourable interpretation.

I find it difficult not to characterise as duplicitous the "short notice" argument. At the end of June the "institutions" (aka Troika, IMF, European Central Bank and euro group of finance ministers) presented the Greek government with a proposal that it had to accept or reject by midnight 30 June when the existing funding programme would expire.

By accepting the Troika proposal the Greek government would violate its campaign pledge to end austerity. By rejecting the proposal the government might have set in motion a process leading to an exit of the euro zone, which it had also promised not to do.

A critic of the Syriza government could charge that it should have not promised an end to austerity and to stay in the euro zone. Be that as it may, the Syriza government had made that combined promise. Therefore, the Syriza government faced a dilemma; either choice resulted in doing what it promised never to do.

The referendum represented the only democratic way to escape this dilemma, and the ultimatum laid down by the Troika required that the date for it be extremely soon. Thus, if the Council of Europe finds fault in the timing of the referendum, it should take its compliant to Washington, Brussels and Berlin, not Athens.

The second objection, that the text for the referendum is too vague, unclear and/or complex for an informed vote, is so absurd as to be laughable. The two documents that the electorate is asked to accept or reject have been publicly debated in Greece for at least six months. The documents state the well-known austerity conditions demanded by the Troika.

These are essentially unchanged from what the Samaras government accepted in December 2014, and that confronted finance minister Yanis Varoufakis when he attended his first euro group meeting in February of this year. Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister of Germany, has repeatedly stressed the unchanging character of the "bailout conditions", that "Greece will receive no special treatment" (see my previous openDemocracy article).

Neo-colonialism in Southeast Europe

There is a strong scent of neo-colonial condescension in the "unclear" and "complex" criticisms of the referendum text. They suggest a simplicity and innocence among the Greek electorate that makes the Troika the better judge of its interests. This is exactly the argument used by a member of the euro group to disparage the referendum (and the Greek people), which was compounded by the paternalistic assurance from the president of the euro group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, that he was motivated in his support of austerity by the "best interests" of Greek people.

Though the outcome is very uncertain, Greeks are only too aware of what they will vote for or against. That is what causes the anxiety in Brussels, Berlin and Washington. Several media outlets have criticized, even ridiculed, the text of the Greek referendum, asking the apparently killer question, "could you understand this text?" The fact that "it is all Greek" (apologies requested) to the BBC and The Telegraph is hardly surprising -- the documents in question are unknown in the UK but common knowledge in Greece.

Another Council of Europe objection is that because of the short notice it (the Council) could not send observers. This represents nonsense squared. If the Council cannot bring together a few observers with a week's notice to observe a major event in modern European history, it is in serious need of reform.

To my knowledge the Council of Europe will not be monitoring the UK referendum on membership in the European Union to be held next year (and I doubt that it will send observers to the next German election). Why does it consider Greece a suitable case for democratic monitoring? Again, the scent of neo-colonialism is strong.

What the Referendum is not

The near hysteria of the EU leaders in anticipation of the democratic vote in Greece on 5 July manifests itself in quite clumsy and extraordinary attempts to influence the outcome. The attempts are not without their comic aspects, such as the offer by the German president of the EU parliament to go to Greece and campaign for a yes vote -- yes a German politician proposing to campaign in Greece! I suspect that Alexis Tsipras would gladly pay his airfare.

Not in the least humorous is the misrepresentation of the vote as in/out of the euro zone. The referendum wording is absolutely clear to Greeks (who will do the voting, not the BBC, The Telegraph or Forbes), reject or accept the continuation of the austerity measures that have destroyed the economy and generated social conflict for four years.

In a ludicrous attempt to make the austerity vote appear a euro vote -- and simultaneously discredit the referendum -- the euro group (read "Wolfgang Schäuble") and the head of the IMF has announced that the "offer" that Greeks will vote on is "no longer on the table", rending the vote pointless. In the league of simplistic idiocies this takes first place.

Every Greek, whether a "yes" or a "no" voter, knows what will happen if a new Troika programme begins. It will be close to what Samaras accepted last December, and likely to be much more draconic as punishment for Syriza's challenge to the EU neoliberal order.

What the Referendum is

The referendum is the only substantial challenge in Europe to austerity orthodoxy. It is only a slight stretch to write that it is the only substantial challenge in much of the world to this right wing ideology. The leadership of the Scottish National Party pledges to oppose austerity. But the party currently lacks the power to change UK policy, though a Scottish independence referendum could give it that power in Scotland.

The Greek referendum may unambiguously commit the country's government to end the austerity policies coming from Berlin, Brussels and Washington, and thus to launch an alternative fraught with uncertainty but creating the possibility of economic recovery.

Atlas carries the world on his shoulders as punishment for siding with the titans in the war against the Olympians. The Greek electorate carries the Europe-wide struggle against austerity on its shoulders as punishment for its government asserting the country's policy independence. It is a heavy burden for the people of a small country to bear, and through no fault of its own.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe

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The last couple of days in Athens and in solidarity

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4. Juillet 2015 - 15:30

Tribute to the Greek left from a fellow European who won’t forget the run-up to the historic Greek referendum.

Today, if the result is ‘Oxi’, the Syriza government will have a mandate to enter a more radical phase of government. A defeat for Syriza would, at least for the moment, extinguish the only left government and much of the credibility that its existence has lent to its counterpart movements all over Europe. More importantly, it would force any Podemos government in Spain to fight, as Syriza has had to, alone.

For Greeks, the impact of the vote will be existential and personal.  Last night, at the gigantic ‘Oxi’ rally in Syntagma Square – reportedly the largest demonstration in Greece since the fall of the dictatorship – tension was brimming over. What felt like hundreds of thousands of Athenians sang songs and chanted slogans, some new and some decades old.

Many may have known the words because of Greece’s much larger and more serious left political traditions. But the passion of the demonstration had nothing to do with any essentialist tropes about the Greeks, and everything to do with the now desperate social situation, which, as many accept, may well deteriorate regardless of the outcome tomorrow, at least in the immediate term.  

Thursday rally, Athens. Michael Chessum. In the middle of the crowd, a woman grabbed my attention: “do you know how many people have committed suicide over the past few years?” After we’d spoken, she added: “We need your support”. Some of the biggest cheers at the rally were also for announcements of solidarity demonstrations taking place abroad, but, for all that, the outcome of the vote will now be determined by the voters of Greece – supposedly.

March, Athens, Thursday. Author's pic.Many commentaries on the situation in Greece have described the referendum as a test of national sovereignty – but in reality, any notion that Greece is a truly independent state has already been swept aside by the events of the past few weeks. The Eurozone creditors have made it plain that what they really desire in Greece is not debt repayment (which, as the IMF now admits, needs a long holiday) but regime change, and they have used their financial muscle in the days running up to the referendum in order to deprive the Greek banks of cash. The capital controls that this has incurred are cited by almost everyone as the number one reason for the narrowing of the polls and the growth of the Yes vote.  This strategy has willing domestic participants, in the form of every stripe of the old Greek establishment – including some ‘soft left’ figures (take Athens’s mayor for instance) – and the oligarchs who own almost all of the media.

What the referendum will really test is the ability of Greece’s left, through its popular support and its sheer grit and willpower, to win in spite of the overwhelming efforts of both Greece’s creditors and the old Greek establishment. Across the country, a ground war has been waged by thousands upon thousands of activists – outside metro stations, in workplaces, on pavements and in local communities.

Friday, rally, Athens. Author's pic.‘Hard-working’ doesn’t really cover the attitude of the Greek left. The picture that one gets from spending time around it is one of constant leafleting, demonstrations and rallies. Then there are the workplace struggles, the constant critical engagement and discussion that so many leftwing activists have about the strategy of the government, and for some the community projects supporting those without access to food and basic amenities – not to mention the task of coping personally effects of austerity. Being in eight places at once isn’t possible, but sleeping four hours a night and taking a lot of vitamins is. This is the movement with which the Troika is now at war.

The contrast between the Nai (Yes) and Oxi (No) campaigns is visible on every street corner in Athens. The Nai campaign puts large glossy posters on lamp-posts and takes out bus station adverts, usually with the same design. Oxi posters, stickers and graffiti – coming in a hundred different designs and from a hundred different groups – are fly-posted on walls, sprayed on pavements and tied to lamp-posts all over the city.

The whole event is a gigantic exercise in mass, bottom-up persuasion. Local Oxi rallies, like one which we attended in the east end of Athens on Thursday night, march noisily around residential areas, drawing fist-pumps and cheers, as well as the odd bucket of water, from balconies. For the Oxi campaign, building a sense of social solidarity, and counteracting the sense of isolation and fear that many wavering voters may be feeling in the wake of the economic gloom, is just as important as convincing people that the Troika’s demands are unreasonable.

In a rapidly polarising atmosphere, both sides are throwing everything they have at the campaign. For the Oxi campaign, this means mass mobilisation. For Nai, it means a fusion of mobilisation and mass organised blackmail. The bias of the mainstream media has been well-reported: one of the favourite anecdotes of our contacts in Syriza Youth was that one of the main stations had just tweeted, from its main account: “Do you want access to medicines on Monday? Yes or no”.

But beyond the media, the old Greek ruling class is running at full throttle: whole companies have gone on lock-out. Some employers have reportedly threatened their employees with non-payment if they fail to attend Nai rallies, and with mass redundancy if Oxi wins. The Ministry of Labour has responded with a declaration stating that these practices are illegal, and that it will back workers in this position. Leftwing activists are showing up at workplaces with the declaration in hand, but how effective this proves remains to be seen.

If the Yes campaign is being conducted in a language of fear, the No campaign is described just as much in terms of dignity as it is in terms of hope. Nonetheless, a victory for Oxi and for Syriza would give hope to millions across Europe. It would represent the victory of a mass movement of the left over the forces of press barons and the old neoliberal political order – in Berlin, Brussels and the richer side of Athens – which seems intent on making a debt colony of Greece.  

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Drawing the line between free speech and online radicalisation

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. Juillet 2015 - 21:15

Two court rulings in Denmark and Sweden reveal the contradictions at the heart of the European debate on free speech versus incitement to terrorism.

People commemorate the victims of the Copenhagen shootings at a gathering in Århus. Demotix/Gonzales Photo. All rights reserved.

The global spate of terrorist attacks has brought the phenomenon of online radicalisation to the forefront. Governments and intelligence services warn that extremist groups use social media to recruit new adherents and potential terrorists. From the perspective of human rights, this raises a question – where should the line be drawn between protecting free speech and criminalising “extremist speech” related to terrorism?

Last week that question was answered very differently in two similar cases by Norwegian and Danish appeal courts. Both cases dealt with radical Islamists who had uploaded comments, photos and videos with vocal support of terrorism and violent jihad on their respective Facebook accounts. In the Danish case the defendant had also sent a number of e-mails to a list-serve, and had edited and distributed a number of books on jihad.

In the Norwegian case the defendant was charged for public incitement to murder with terrorist intent, whereas the Danish case included charges for both “otherwise advanc[ing] the activities of another person, group or association, committing or intending to commit” terrorism, “incitement” to terrorism and “publicly condoning” terrorism. While there are important differences between the relevant provisions in the Danish and Norwegian criminal codes, both have been amended to take into account the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention of Terrorism (CPT), which includes an obligation to criminalise the “public provocation to commit a terrorist offence", which means “the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, where such conduct, whether or not directly advocating terrorist offences, causes a danger that one or more such offences may be committed”. 

However, the convention also states that such prohibitions must be implemented “while respecting human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion” as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The statements in the Norwegian case included the following comments on a news story about hostages killed by Islamists in Algeria: “May Allah swt reward our brothers with the biggest and best [of] paradise and expel the enemies of Islam from our country and destroy them”.

After the Boston bombing in 2013 the defendant wrote “To hell with Boston and may Allah destroy America!! Our prayers and tears go to our loved ones in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Yemen, Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Bosnia and to all the Muslim Ummah” as well as “REAL LIONS!!! May Allah reward them!!! Amiiin!” accompanied by two pictures of the Boston bombers. He wrote similar updates praising the killers of a British solder beheaded by Islamists in London and the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

The Danish case involved more than 40 comments on Facebook, e-mails sent to a list serve and a number of books. While some of the comments explicitly called for violent jihad other statements were more ambiguous. For instance a photo of the World Trade Center in flames and a manipulated 7-11 logo, reading “9-11 made by Qaeda”, a picture of horsemen with raised swords and black flags with the following Quranic verse: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you”, a picture of water and rock formations with the following quotation from a Danish Islamist killed in Syria: “Paradise has one hundred degrees and between each two degrees is a distance like that between the heaven and the earth, and Allah has reserved these degrees for the Mujahedeen who fight for his cause”, and these quotes also from a known Al-Qaeda member: “any person, who calls for Islam and fights for it, will be persecuted as were the prophets. Every prophet was persecuted due to his calling, so it doesn’t surprise me, but rather it pleases us, since we follow in the footsteps of the prophets”.

While The Danish appeal court did distinguish between the above statements and simple quotations from the Quran, the judges had no reservations about treating explicit calls for jihad and the more ambiguous and abstract statements identically and found that all of these comments “advanced” and “publicly condoned” terrorism. The court summarily and with no balancing of competing interests, dismissed the argument that article 10 of the ECHR, protecting freedom of expression, could lead to another result. Perhaps even more controversially, the appeal court also found that by editing and distributing three books that included theoretic, mystical and theological discussions and justifications for jihad, the defendant had “advanced” and “condoned” terrorism.

In stark contrast with the Danish case, the Norwegian courts handed down a detailed and meticulous judgment that did not merely pay lip service to the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of expression. At the first instance, charges of “glorification of terrorism” were dismissed as inapplicable since “glorification of already committed acts are not punishable”. Accordingly, in the context of the statements cited above, the appeal court only had to decide whether the defendant was guilty of incitement to murder with a terrorist intent.

The appeals court took great care in emphasising that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of great importance. The court scolded Parliament for not having drafted the provision with sufficient clarity and found that the legal uncertainty created by such vague criminal provisions had to benefit the defendant and thus interpreted “incitement” as requiring a “degree of concretisation” and “strength” to be met. The court also confirmed previous Supreme Court case law determining that no one should risk criminal liability for expressions based on inferred interpretation rather than explicit statements. Accordingly, the court found that the statements in question constituted “mere” glorification of already committed terrorist acts, rather than “incitement” to commit new ones and thus acquitted the defendant (who was also acquitted for racist hate speech but convicted for threats in relation to a number of other statements). 

It is arguable that both the Danish and the Norwegian decision are in line with the CPT as well as the ECHR, since the CPT provides very little guidance on how to reconcile the requirement of criminalising terrorist speech while respecting freedom of expression. Moreover, the most authoritative guide to reconciling these competing interests, the European Court of Human Rights, has delivered a number of judgements that set a low threshold for cases where terrorist speech, including glorification, may be restricted. In the Leroy case, a French cartoonist was convicted for “glorification of terrorism” for having made a cartoon of a plane crashing in to two towers with the caption “We all dreamt about it – Hamas did it” days after the attacks on 9/11, which the court found in accordance with article 10. On the other hand the Norwegian approach seems more in line with Security Council Resolution 1624, which calls upon member states to “Prohibit by law incitement to commit a terrorist act or acts”. The threshold may also well be higher under Article 19 of the ICCPR, than under the ECHR, though there seems to be little case law from the Human Rights Committee.

Regardless of whether the restrictive Danish approach is consistent with CPT and the ECHR, from the point of view of the rule of law and human rights, the decision of the Norwegian appeals court offers a much more convincing and robust framework for determining where to draw the line between permissible free speech and unlawful statements in support of terrorism. Mere glorification of terrorist attacks that have already occurred (however morally reprehensible) should not be criminalised, and convictions of incitement to terrorism should be based on clear and unambiguous calls for terrorism, rather than inferred interpretations that attribute meaning to words that may or may not be an accurate reflection of what the author intended. While it may be tempting for governments to crack down on extremist speech in order to send a clear signal, the consequences of such a draconian response should not only be measured in the erosion of basic freedoms but also includes social costs.

With more than 100 prosecutions for glorification of terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo attack, including for comments that constituted nothing more than poor taste and lack of moral character, it is inevitable that the idea of freedom of expression as a truly fundamental value, is rejected as hypocrisy among communities affected by such spikes in prosecutions.

Moreover, the focus on terrorist speech also creates an unacceptable level of arbitrariness and selectiveness. For instance under Danish law it would be legal to glorify and praise Assad’s gassing of children and slaughter of civilians, the Holocaust and Stalin’s mass murder of millions, whereas people have been convicted for praising the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015.

At any rate it is surely naïve to think that overcoming the very real and increasing threat from terrorism can be achieved through cracking down on speech (especially on social media, where identities can be hidden and new accounts can be created at the click of a button). Apart from traditional approaches, including intelligence operations and policing, open societies must be engaging in a battle of ideas with the people who create, share and become attracted to the extremist narrative. That can only be achieved in a setting where the right to freedom of expression is robustly protected.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Scope-creep in Denmark To curtail mass surveillance, you have to be pragmatic: an interview with Jacob Mchangama How generalised suspicion destroys society Democracy and terrorism: when definitions stifle free speech Will the democratic debate over counterrorism gain the edge in battle? Has the west given up on democracy? PODCAST: Defending human rights in a digital age In privileged white man land, freedom of speech is always under attack What freedom of speech? Of foxes, chickens, and #JeSuisCharlie Country or region:  Denmark Sweden Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Catégories: les flux rss

Drawing the line between free speech and online radicalisation

Open Democracy News Analysis - 3. Juillet 2015 - 21:15

Two court rulings in Denmark and Sweden reveal the contradictions at the heart of the European debate on free speech versus incitement to terrorism.

People commemorate the victims of the Copenhagen shootings at a gathering in Århus. Demotix/Gonzales Photo. All rights reserved.

The global spate of terrorist attacks has brought the phenomenon of online radicalisation to the forefront. Governments and intelligence services warn that extremist groups use social media to recruit new adherents and potential terrorists. From the perspective of human rights, this raises a question – where should the line be drawn between protecting free speech and criminalising “extremist speech” related to terrorism?

Last week that question was answered very differently in two similar cases by Norwegian and Danish appeal courts. Both cases dealt with radical Islamists who had uploaded comments, photos and videos with vocal support of terrorism and violent jihad on their respective Facebook accounts. In the Danish case the defendant had also sent a number of e-mails to a list-serve, and had edited and distributed a number of books on jihad.

In the Norwegian case the defendant was charged for public incitement to murder with terrorist intent, whereas the Danish case included charges for both “otherwise advanc[ing] the activities of another person, group or association, committing or intending to commit” terrorism, “incitement” to terrorism and “publicly condoning” terrorism. While there are important differences between the relevant provisions in the Danish and Norwegian criminal codes, both have been amended to take into account the Council of Europe’s Convention on Prevention of Terrorism (CPT), which includes an obligation to criminalise the “public provocation to commit a terrorist offence", which means “the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite the commission of a terrorist offence, where such conduct, whether or not directly advocating terrorist offences, causes a danger that one or more such offences may be committed”. 

However, the convention also states that such prohibitions must be implemented “while respecting human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion” as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The statements in the Norwegian case included the following comments on a news story about hostages killed by Islamists in Algeria: “May Allah swt reward our brothers with the biggest and best [of] paradise and expel the enemies of Islam from our country and destroy them”.

After the Boston bombing in 2013 the defendant wrote “To hell with Boston and may Allah destroy America!! Our prayers and tears go to our loved ones in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Yemen, Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Bosnia and to all the Muslim Ummah” as well as “REAL LIONS!!! May Allah reward them!!! Amiiin!” accompanied by two pictures of the Boston bombers. He wrote similar updates praising the killers of a British solder beheaded by Islamists in London and the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against the Westgate mall in Nairobi.

The Danish case involved more than 40 comments on Facebook, e-mails sent to a list serve and a number of books. While some of the comments explicitly called for violent jihad other statements were more ambiguous. For instance a photo of the World Trade Center in flames and a manipulated 7-11 logo, reading “9-11 made by Qaeda”, a picture of horsemen with raised swords and black flags with the following Quranic verse: “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you”, a picture of water and rock formations with the following quotation from a Danish Islamist killed in Syria: “Paradise has one hundred degrees and between each two degrees is a distance like that between the heaven and the earth, and Allah has reserved these degrees for the Mujahedeen who fight for his cause”, and these quotes also from a known Al-Qaeda member: “any person, who calls for Islam and fights for it, will be persecuted as were the prophets. Every prophet was persecuted due to his calling, so it doesn’t surprise me, but rather it pleases us, since we follow in the footsteps of the prophets”.

While The Danish appeal court did distinguish between the above statements and simple quotations from the Quran, the judges had no reservations about treating explicit calls for jihad and the more ambiguous and abstract statements identically and found that all of these comments “advanced” and “publicly condoned” terrorism. The court summarily and with no balancing of competing interests, dismissed the argument that article 10 of the ECHR, protecting freedom of expression, could lead to another result. Perhaps even more controversially, the appeal court also found that by editing and distributing three books that included theoretic, mystical and theological discussions and justifications for jihad, the defendant had “advanced” and “condoned” terrorism.

In stark contrast with the Danish case, the Norwegian courts handed down a detailed and meticulous judgment that did not merely pay lip service to the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of expression. At the first instance, charges of “glorification of terrorism” were dismissed as inapplicable since “glorification of already committed acts are not punishable”. Accordingly, in the context of the statements cited above, the appeal court only had to decide whether the defendant was guilty of incitement to murder with a terrorist intent.

The appeals court took great care in emphasising that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of great importance. The court scolded Parliament for not having drafted the provision with sufficient clarity and found that the legal uncertainty created by such vague criminal provisions had to benefit the defendant and thus interpreted “incitement” as requiring a “degree of concretisation” and “strength” to be met. The court also confirmed previous Supreme Court case law determining that no one should risk criminal liability for expressions based on inferred interpretation rather than explicit statements. Accordingly, the court found that the statements in question constituted “mere” glorification of already committed terrorist acts, rather than “incitement” to commit new ones and thus acquitted the defendant (who was also acquitted for racist hate speech but convicted for threats in relation to a number of other statements). 

It is arguable that both the Danish and the Norwegian decision are in line with the CPT as well as the ECHR, since the CPT provides very little guidance on how to reconcile the requirement of criminalising terrorist speech while respecting freedom of expression. Moreover, the most authoritative guide to reconciling these competing interests, the European Court of Human Rights, has delivered a number of judgements that set a low threshold for cases where terrorist speech, including glorification, may be restricted. In the Leroy case, a French cartoonist was convicted for “glorification of terrorism” for having made a cartoon of a plane crashing in to two towers with the caption “We all dreamt about it – Hamas did it” days after the attacks on 9/11, which the court found in accordance with article 10. On the other hand the Norwegian approach seems more in line with Security Council Resolution 1624, which calls upon member states to “Prohibit by law incitement to commit a terrorist act or acts”. The threshold may also well be higher under Article 19 of the ICCPR, than under the ECHR, though there seems to be little case law from the Human Rights Committee.

Regardless of whether the restrictive Danish approach is consistent with CPT and the ECHR, from the point of view of the rule of law and human rights, the decision of the Norwegian appeals court offers a much more convincing and robust framework for determining where to draw the line between permissible free speech and unlawful statements in support of terrorism. Mere glorification of terrorist attacks that have already occurred (however morally reprehensible) should not be criminalised, and convictions of incitement to terrorism should be based on clear and unambiguous calls for terrorism, rather than inferred interpretations that attribute meaning to words that may or may not be an accurate reflection of what the author intended. While it may be tempting for governments to crack down on extremist speech in order to send a clear signal, the consequences of such a draconian response should not only be measured in the erosion of basic freedoms but also includes social costs.

With more than 100 prosecutions for glorification of terrorism after the Charlie Hebdo attack, including for comments that constituted nothing more than poor taste and lack of moral character, it is inevitable that the idea of freedom of expression as a truly fundamental value, is rejected as hypocrisy among communities affected by such spikes in prosecutions.

Moreover, the focus on terrorist speech also creates an unacceptable level of arbitrariness and selectiveness. For instance under Danish law it would be legal to glorify and praise Assad’s gassing of children and slaughter of civilians, the Holocaust and Stalin’s mass murder of millions, whereas people have been convicted for praising the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015.

At any rate it is surely naïve to think that overcoming the very real and increasing threat from terrorism can be achieved through cracking down on speech (especially on social media, where identities can be hidden and new accounts can be created at the click of a button). Apart from traditional approaches, including intelligence operations and policing, open societies must be engaging in a battle of ideas with the people who create, share and become attracted to the extremist narrative. That can only be achieved in a setting where the right to freedom of expression is robustly protected.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Scope-creep in Denmark To curtail mass surveillance, you have to be pragmatic: an interview with Jacob Mchangama How generalised suspicion destroys society Democracy and terrorism: when definitions stifle free speech Will the democratic debate over counterrorism gain the edge in battle? Has the west given up on democracy? PODCAST: Defending human rights in a digital age In privileged white man land, freedom of speech is always under attack What freedom of speech? Of foxes, chickens, and #JeSuisCharlie Country or region:  Denmark Sweden Rights:  CC by NC 4.0
Catégories: les flux rss

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