The Middle East is engulfed by the rage of millions. Its heartening to see so many realise their rights and finally mobilise to oust their dictatorships and demand a better quality of life sans white people, tanks and jets. Western governments are eager to piggyback on this public outrage despite supporting said tyrants for decades. This rage is not isolated.
We are inspired to take every breaking story as self-contained, sensitive to the inner dynamics of the event and the history of the town, city or country. Recent stories, such as the protests in Wisconsin, the 50,000 projected job losses in the NHS here, and the upheaval of ancient regimes in the Middle East are all incredibly different issues, but are they?
I believe there is something more at work here, and to notice as such is considerably dependent on assessing the various strands of history which have led different populations to demand a better quality of life. The working and middle classes have simply had enough, everywhere, and are finally waking up to the possibilities of living in a democracy.
We band the word “democracy” around like its a done deal in the West – like its a product we manufacture and sell to the world with an ambiguous one-glove-fits-all instruction guide. Make no mistake, the democratic deficit in the West (see U.K) is a stark problem we have to address at length for there to be any progressive legislation which tackles gross inequality.
Therefore, we must be careful not to make “the banks” a scapegoat. No doubt, they are grossly dangerous organisations which actively promote inequality and simply reward wealth with wealth, but they, like everything which operates in society, are dependent on legislation which allows them to do what they do. Banks are simply not accountable, governments are.
The recent history in the United States regarding the two major (now homogeneous) political parties is a testament to what has befallen all Western countries to some degree or another regarding this last point. Nowhere in the world has such a metamorphosis taken place in the political arena given the strength and diversity of its culture.
During WW2, taxes were at an all time high in the U.S. During the boom of the 60’s and 70’s, this started to change because of the emergence of a strong pro-business, free market lobby. The Republicans enjoyed the attention of these lobbyists and took it upon themselves to pen friendly legislation. Nothing has changed there. What of the Democratic Party?
Back then, the Democrats relied on a strong labour movement embodied by powerful unions, who, without the vast riches of giant corporations, could still do one thing all political parties valued above all else: organise the electorate. Yet, the labour movement was soon splintered and abandoned by the Democrats.
This was because the activists on the left became disillusioned with lacklustre and unimaginative union leadership. Their usefulness spiralled into oblivion as different bodies of the movement started pulling in other directions, such as the growing anti-war sentiment, or feminism, or the environment. What was a clear mission became blurred by the broad spectrum of interests which emerged from the movement.
For big business and the Republicans, their interest was the singular goal of acquiring wealth, and therefore power – together creating a working relationship to acquire both respectively.
Thus, the cynical leadership of the left saw unions as becoming defunct, inefficient, and unable to do the one thing they wanted them to do – organise behind the party come campaign time.
This snippet of American history is vitally important to understand what happened there next, and what is happening here today.
Big business saw its opportunity to hold both parties in thrall to its financial muscle. The Democratic Party finally towed the line the corporate lobbyists were setting in order to keep pace alongside the Republicans. Taxes have steadily been in decline since the 60’s, and during the last 30 years, the top 1% of the population have been raping the income chart.
This is not to mention corporate tax levels, which have plummeted despite astronomical profits.
Reason? “We create jobs with that money”. Yes, you do, and pay them 185 times less than what you get (if they’re lucky). This is while co-opting the labour market by standardising that low wage amongst fellow CEOs and Gov. officials at the golf course on Sunday. Ahem, back to reasoned assessment…
Charts courtesy of motherjones.com – where you can find many more revolting ones to shake your fist at.
Now, to be in the American government, one has to be rich. Super rich, in fact. Campaign costs are always footed by corporate interests eager to have friends on both sides writing the law. It is a classic business model: dominate the market by controlling all production outlets – Kind of like Starbucks opening two shops on the same road. You win or you win.
The consequence in politics is that you limit choice and freedom.
The second half of the 20th Century can be remembered as the 50 years where the siege against public goods in society swayed in favour of big business. The U.S. has taught us that much, as they serve as something of a blueprint for the current government in the U.K. as it pursues increasing the wealth and prosperity for the blue-blooded upper classes.
It remains a fact that political parties don’t care about the electorate. To them, voters are an alien mass of hands and feet which somehow gives them power. What they do value is those who can organise the great unwashed into making a favourable decision at the ballot box. The policy has always been about seeking stability – at home and abroad.
That is, stability in funding for the political party, and the stability of low trade costs for the corporate friends who had bankrolled them into office.
The outrage in the Middle East shines a great fat light on this point. The U.S. and other Western governments have admitted to seeking stability over democracy in this region, and achieving neither (Condoleezza Rice in Cairo, 2005). They will want you to believe this sentiment has changed. It hasn’t.
The West are vocally supporting these uprisings not because they view democracy as an objective good, but as something contingent on the same old fashioned notion of stability. Now, they think Arabs living in oppressive dictatorships will behave better in a democracy. It has nothing to do with democracy as an idea in and of itself – it is still secondary to stability.
This is a microcosm of a larger point. The assault against the public good, as seen with its steady erosion in the U.S, the old/new Conservative ideologues in the the U.K, and flagging kleptocracies in the Middle East, and all the dictators around the world propped up by one foreign element or another – it all comes down to a great and engineered shift in risk.
Public goods are the bedrock of society. Not only do they limit the market with regulations, no access zones and such like, they give citizens a space where they do not have to relentlessly keep competing with each other economically. The key to big business strategy here is destroying all public goods and replacing them with individual and involuntary risk.
The risk element is important to understand, as seen with the recent financial crisis. Banks failed at the roulette table and the taxpayer bailed them out. This embodies the individual paying the cost vs. business undertaking risk. This is also why the wealthiest 1% have enjoyed such a grotesque rise in income over the poor over the last three decades.
When we win, they win bigger. When they lose, we lose bigger. This relationship is a relatively new phenomenon and has only been brought about by legislation enabling corporate entities to have more rights and lower rates of tax than the individual. A bank is liable to pay 1% in corporation tax on profits of £11.6bn. The individual always loses.
And the working individual must lose for big business to succeed in the way it has done. Corporate strategy focuses on keeping people collectively weak and dependent. It is a weird dynamic, because on one hand, new technology is personalising our media and simultaneously bringing people together regardless of government or corporate interests.
Yet, the same corporations depend on our weakness to organise to demand accountability in government, and better conditions in society and the workplace. They want to provide the leadership and the laws, but are creating the conditions with which we can empower ourselves once again.
It is the old capitalist joke: they would invent the only weapon that could destroy themselves if they thought they would be made supremely rich by it.
And they have.
The protests in Wisconsin are a throwback to the dogged labour movement which is steadily awakening once again. The downtrodden workers of the wealthiest country in the world remember the public good wistfully now more than ever. Sometimes when you are at your lowest, you are at your highest.
The people in the Middle East are fed up with their installed dictators, and one by one, by popular will, these dictators will fall on their swords for the public good, for better working conditions, and for a free and democratic vote – something we cannot even do here in the West given the myriad of business interests involved in a modern political campaign.
In the U.K, we are in the middle of it all, and by virtue of that and our history, we can contribute to the cause only by example.
This means not repeating the mistakes of the past by identifying a handful of leaders who will ultimately fail under the combined pressure of the entire corporate lobby with all its instruments of coercion and persuasion.
This means going after those accountable as an organised network emboldened by what democracy is capable of delivering here and everywhere it is championed. The public good is not just the street lamp, or a bench, or a park. It is workers rights, fair wages, health care and the freedom to organise.
The stories are indeed standalone, but the movement is global.
So I have managed to get my hands on an interesting letter from a firm in London which specialises in the “wealth management” of financially comfortable people.
The letter is an invitation to a seminar on how to consolidate capital and lose none of your wealth to the already lenient and sloppy British tax system. Now, the letter bothered me not only because of the nature of the event, but how the company lauded itself as something recognisably mainstream. It may well – I wouldn’t know – but is that even right?
Naively, I was unaware that such companies operated on this kind of level. The recipient of the letter is hardly what I would call well-off, so it was surprising to see how low the bar was on the matter of income. If the country were deprived of the tax generated by those on middle as well as higher incomes, public services would turn into a privatised mess.
Here is the letter:
The key points of the seminar are the ones I have highlighted in the blood of the poor, and are worth repeating.
How to increase your income from your investments in spite of very low interest rates.
A completely legal strategy for paying no tax on your income and protecting your capital from taxation.
Mitigating Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax, and Inheritance Tax without losing control of your capital.
An overview of the current financial environment and the view ahead for 2011.
It has to be said, the first point was a large component of the recent financial crisis.
The second and third points are what have inspired widespread public anger not only amongst grassroots networks such as UKUncut, but normal people around the country.
And the fourth will likely be a baseless assessment of the economy, built on flawed assumptions and an blinkered view of growth and prosperity from the company’s self-interested sales perspective.
This isn’t happening in some far away tax haven either – this is happening under our noses, in buildings we walk passed every day filled with normal people. To add to this, such companies are authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). The problem is more than the greed of a few top businessmen – it is a culture which is plainly accepted.
The company markets its investment “products” as tax avoidance, which is how the small guy can play the money game. Again, this was a large part of the last financial crisis, and will likely precipitate another one in the not too distant future.
In order to win the argument that tax “avoidance” is wrong given the true necessity of preserving public goods such as health and education, we have to acknowledge that many normal people exacerbate the problem, not just multi-millionaires like Philip Green and the Arcadia Group.
So Neil Taylor, your company St James’ Place may have been nominated the best tax dodging strategists in three recent years by the Daily Telegraph (yes, there was actually an award for it issued by a daily national), you will not win the wider argument in the long term. This is boom and bust with a suit and tie.
Well over 100 people were killed by extremists in Baghdad alone during the last month, including over 50 Assyrian Christians on the Black Sunday of 31st October.
Mission accomplished? I don’t think so.
Condemnation by all groups and states was received in the events that followed. The media dribbled out an isolated article here or there. There were murmurings behind closed doors about plight of the “Christians of Iraq”. However, what remains clear is the massive disparity between the anguish felt by the sizeable Assyrian Christian communities in Diaspora around the world and the inaction of their respective governments to put pressure on the Iraqi government to do much more than it is doing to ensure our safety.
A series of demonstrations dubbed the Black Marches were organised around the world in more than 20 locations. Where is this reported? They generated a few whispers, but no on-going coverage, no 24 hour fascination typical of a lecherous around-the-clock media, and no special fieldwork assignments to discover why they were undertaken and what the goals were of the people demonstrating. This is not because the story itself was uninspiring, uncontroversial or timid. It was all of the opposite and more.
Symbolic display of those killed by volunteers in Chicago.
Why? This is my reasoning.
Western culture is increasingly becoming secular in all aspects of its society, be it politics, media, morality and communal society. This is important for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it has to do with this current perception and sentiment: the value of stories which are exclusively concerned with our humanity are more important and vital than other stories which are perceived to deviate from this norm. Its as if anything else would taint it with some nonsensical slant which would undermine its purity.
Take the story of the trapped Chilean miners – one of perseverance and strength of human spirit in a war of attrition with the earth itself. It was a simple isolated story, and it received unabated worldwide coverage with an outpouring of support from all countries. The miners survived, ensuring a happy ending and a victory for our humanity, strength of will and compassion in the face of adversity and improbable odds, all neatly packaged for us to consume. Nice.
Why was this more of a story than the Church massacre in Baghdad? This is a story where over 100 people were taken hostage in what represents an on-going assault on the Christians of Iraq. The dead had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, and children too. Where were their interviews? Where were the messages of support? Where was all of the aid and news coverage? Where was all of the coverage of demonstrations around the world which prompted tens of thousands to take to the streets?
Missing, as usual.
Aftermath of the Church massacre.
All of this greatly troubles me, and I have come to a number of conclusions.
My first conclusion is this: this event is painted as a religious conflict, and religious conflicts are notorious for bigoted opinions and endemic senseless violence. More importantly, religious conflicts are the stuff for savages in far away lands, not concerning us and our limited reserves of compassion we ration out when persistently prodded to by our fickle media. The siege against the Christians of Iraq is usually absorbed by the bigger picture and fuzzy message of “Hey, everyone is suffering. Everything is generally OK though”.
My second conclusion is this: the wall of apathy which manifests in light of these mass murders stems of the West’s inability to reach deeper inside this cauldron of supernatural folly (religion) and grasp the human element which lies at the heart of it. This isn’t just“one group of religious people killing another group in the name of religion”, this is one group of people being killed – for whatever reason. This is not simply a religious conflict, it is a human tragedy which is often overshadowed because of the now distasteful religious element.
Its almost as if “looking at the bigger picture” comes first now, with the particulars not even touched upon. This odd kind of relativist principle handicaps any meaningful appraisal of the problem.
The Western media is unable to report and comment effectively on this issue in Iraq. It also seems Western politicians are all too eager to downplay their power and influence when it suits them. If a picture requires a smile, expect everyone to be there. If not, you’re on your own, regardless of whether Western forces illegally invaded and rapidly accelerated the nationwide targeting and subjugation of the Assyrians. Where is the coverage of what these people want? Let us not forget the historical bond between Britain and the Assyrians too.
Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets in Sweden.
This is the reason why a mainstream liberal’s philosophy, as it is now, is bankrupt. This is also why there was (and still is) so much contempt for the Labour Party. All of this inflicts a grievous wound on my present sensibilities. After all, a liberal agenda is supposed to champion the rights of minorities and disadvantaged people. At the moment, these principles are hamstrung by a generalisation of the problem to project some kind of false grander, more worldly view. These problems are localised and considering them to be otherwise is criminal.
Newspapers which used to represent general reading for me like The Guardian have betrayed their own objectives with convenient double standards. An unlikely ally in all of this has been the Conservative base, with their appreciation of the “Christian factor” and its preservation in a hostile environment. However, as mentioned previously, this is a human tragedy. Spitting fire about those abusing Christians will not improve their lives. This energy must return its focus to the needs of the people who are being oppressed.
These “Christians” have names too, a unique culture, a unique language, and a unique history – let us not concede to the Arabisation campaign. As the first inhabitants of ancient Iraq, Assyrians have suffered at the hands of Ottoman Turks, Kurds, Nationalist Arabs and Islamic extremists. However, they are resolute in the face of this long-lived adversity. They have heart and they have spirit. They will not break, and we all must support them to finally alleviate them from the third-class citizenship they experience in their ancestral land.
Northern Iraq, loosely translated: No matter where the hand of evil reaches, we are not guests in this country, we are natives and we will stay.
Anything less would be a grand betrayal, dwarfing even the broken promise made by the Allies after WWII to finally grant their steadfast Assyrian allies a homeland. What is happening now is a threat on the Assyrians’ existence. The scattered Diaspora communities are strong, but nothing is certain without any presence in their place of origin. This highlights the key failing of today’s liberal agenda – it has no grasp, and therefore, empathy of the suffering of persecuted minorities such as the Assyrians of Iraq.
It sadly resembles something of a liberal fascism. Edges are wrongly straightened in an attempt to appear intellectually receptive to larger ideas and longer perspectives. This should not be the case. A liberal should be proud and stalwart in defending the rights of minority groups without feeling they are betraying some abstract holistic principle which has become obscure to the point of contempt. It is a sacrifice made in the mainstream of liberal media and politics. It is a wrong sacrifice to make, for liberty must be defended as well as granted.
The sacrifice is ultimately made because of an unhealthy preoccupation with the guilt only an educated westerner could feel at the colossal mess of oppressive nationalist dictatorships, ruling monarchies, and theocracies which populate the Middle East. Sadly, because this preoccupation originates in shame, great crimes are glossed over and unreported in an attempt to remain impartial. Thus, the line being towed by mainstream liberals is often one of (rightful) anger directed at Bush and Blair and their frankly stupid adventure in the region.
However, focusing the frustration on this issue is favouring the easy option of pointing the finger over actually cleaning up the mess. “Fine, but what else?” must naturally follow. The other side of the coin involves focusing on the extremists and making derogatory comments about Islam itself. This is highly unhelpful and in some cases extremely damaging for the people who have the suffer the consequences of these kind of revenge fantasies. So you have two reactions: first, “damn Bush and Blair”, and second, “damn those bloody Muslims…”.
What’s lost in all of that vitriol? The very people who are subject to the suffering.
So here is some coverage of their torturous plight now:
- There were reportedly 1.4m Assyrians in Iraq 10 years ago, now fewer than 500,000 remain. Genocide? No! “natural immigration”.
- 66 Churches have been bombed or attacked since 2003. Targeting? No! All Iraqis are suffering equally.
- Over 800 Assyrian Christians killed since 2003. Come on, this must be targeting! No! We don’t bother with population statistics and ratio of attacks when it doesn’t suit our hazy argument.
- Thousands of refugees congregate in ghettos in Syria, Jordan and Iran, stricken in poverty, with no help, employment, or voice – positively in Limbo, ready to move again. What about their stories? No! We don’t know what to ask them at this point anyway.
- Thousands more look longingly to the West, most afraid to criticise in fear of being rejected asylum and sent back to their nightmare life without rights, security and a fair shot at life. Refugee crisis? No! Ok maybe, but, er, *rewind* there are other people suffering too.
- Assyrian Christians are said to make up 3-5% of Iraq’s population, yet reports from international NGOs state they represent 40-50% of the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) and refugees in surrounding territories and the West. How about now? Bigot!
Our story is simply lost amid generalisations. Iraq is viewed as a blanket mess not worth sifting through. There is no doubt that all Iraqis are suffering, but none are suffering more than the Assyrian Christian ethno-religious minority, and that must be made clear. More must be done as this is the case. What we get here is a hollow liberal agenda which condescendingly overlooks particularities and complex problems, and a conservatism more often concerned with attacking our persecutors than empowering the very people who are being attacked.
So, who says there is too much bad news? The fact is there isn’t enough.
Didn’t we sack you two days ago…?
So we’ve seen the vision George Osborne and the rest of the Tory party have for this country (the full version can be found here – it isn’t pleasant). We were never in any doubt of the severity of the cuts, but that doesn’t make it any less worse as they go deep into the fabric of our society.
I want to mention three things which our coalition government are adamant about, ignoring, or intentionally following through with. There is the constant reiteration that these particular cuts are “necessary”, contrary advice from world renowned economists, and the consequences these cuts will have for the majority of the public, respectively.
OK, lets break this down. Osborne has said these cuts are “necessary” to correct a deficit the previous government created. Policies are never necessary. There is always a choice. The Tories and Liberal Democrats are pushing an agenda of having no choice to firstly try to mute other solutions, and secondly to relinquish any responsibility they will have for bad outcomes.
By saying there is no choice, they are in the right if the economy magically recovers through random innovation. If it slumps and we enter a double-dip recession, they can argue that, at the time, this was the only option and thus inevitable whatever course of action undertaken. It smacks of irresponsibility and, to put it bluntly, lies.
Basic economic theory suggests that in hard times, one should invest and not cut savagely. To give a simple picture: there are assets, which are profitable entities and contribute to society, taxation, and business. Then there are liabilities, which is the jargon for irretrievable costs paid by the spending entity.
In a recession, heavy investment is needed to drive an economy and fund the very things which will ensure economic growth. Sure, debt will be accumulated, but governments have an incredibly good rate of return for their loans as interest rates for developed nations are low, while the benefits associated with spending the money is relatively high.
The assets acquired by a government which chooses to maintain funding include keeping unemployment low to ensure a decent quality of life and greater tax revenues. The liabilities of cutting deep are horrendous and would entail massive swathes of unemployment, an increased welfare bill for those who are unemployed, and a likely rise in crime levels.
These things are costs which have no return other than “satisfying bond markets” or tentative investors who will be attracted to prices being lowered. The investment relied upon will be mostly foreign, as local investment depends on reluctant banks who aren’t willing to lend to small business due to the risks, and would rather deal with already wealthy clients.
I think George Osborne and his team must be relatively intelligent and thus I am unable to call them incompetent. Additionally, I do not think he now believes himself mistaken about the legislation. This can only mean one thing: this is an ideological position, and one which only presents itself as pure necessity. It is a choice, a policy, and a traditional one of the Tory Party.
“Don’t do it!”
We’re all sitting here and wondering how its going to pan out – it is a gamble after all. We’re not experts, and nor is George Osborne for that matter. However, two experts, who also happen to be Nobel Prize winners – Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz – have both voiced their concerns over proposed austerity plans.
Paul Krugman states:
In short: the demand for immediate austerity is based on the assertion that markets will demand such austerity in the future, even though they shouldn’t, and show no sign of making any such demand now; and that if markets do lose faith in us, self-flagellation would restore that faith, even though that hasn’t actually worked anywhere else.
And it hasn’t, as Joseph Stiglitz here recalls:
Thanks to the IMF [International Monetary Fund], multiple experiments have been conducted – for instance, in east Asia in 1997-98 and a little later in Argentina – and almost all come to the same conclusion: the Keynesian prescription works. Austerity converts downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions. The confidence fairy that the austerity advocates claim will appear never does, partly perhaps because the downturns mean that the deficit reductions are always smaller than was hoped.
Austerity and methods suggested by organisations such as the IMF have proven to be detrimental to the recovery of an economy in dire straits. In East Asia, countries such as Malaysia, who greatly ignored the economic advice the IMF gave them, proved far more successful at maintaining its market integrity and ensuring recovery after the crisis.
Other countries like Thailand, who followed and implemented IMF programs almost perfectly, had the most disastrous time. More than three years after the East Asian crisis began, it was still in recession with a GDP roughly 2.3% below the pre-crisis level. This makes logical sense if you rightly consider a recovery meaning a good employment rate and fairer wages.
Of course, the IMF doesn’t care about employment or quality of life. Its interests are dictated by the Washington Consensus, which among other questionable policies, promotes free market fundamentalism and intensive (and immediate) trade liberalisation to suit the business interests of Western corporations who want the best possible return for their investments.
Our government has done its best to weave this false web of necessity regarding austerity while ignoring not only contrary advice from economists who have dedicated their career to mapping economic activity and analysing consequences, but hard evidence which makes a strong case against fiscal austerity as a response to economic crises and a high deficit.
“We’re all in this together.”
This is the mantra of our current government. It is however nothing more than a vacuous soundbite repeated over and over in a rather Orwellian way. The key to this statement is recognising that it is trying to project fairness onto the policy rather than actually letting it emanate from the policy itself. I shouldn’t have to be persuaded it is fair.
Lets look at the details. Who suffers the most? George Osborne states that within this “progressive” spending review, the richest will suffer the most. However, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (you know, the group the Tories love quoting when it suits them, and don’t when it doesn’t), specifically state that it is the poorest who will suffer the most.
Students too will have to endure market forces as young as 18 when it comes determining their life choices with the imminent removal of the tuition fee cap. The government continue to say they are doing this so the next generation does not have to suffer because of the errors of this generation, but their policies are much to the contrary.
The whole spending review was undertaken already with the intention of making wholesale cuts to public services and investment. This effectively rebrands the “review” as merely a dossier expounding an ideology which has time and time again failed the majority of people wherever it is put into effect.
What really happens? Why do it if its destined to bring about mass unemployment, poorer wages and regional impoverishment? Again, it is to serve the elites in the long run. Business can be even more selective about their workforce, and will have an excuse to pay less, offer fewer benefits, and finally, try and shape education to suit their needs.
The very value of having a job increases as they become scarce. By ensuring this, more people will be open to exploitation by companies invoking the “bad times” card we’re being dealt by irresponsible media, political cronies and the very businesses themselves. More people will not speak up about dissatisfaction, slave hours, poor pay and poor conditions.
Austerity is a mechanism for private interests to engineer our society by making it more desperate for what they offer us, more receptive of a particular political agenda, and more understanding of their greed by “looking at the bigger picture” – you know, the picture they draw for us too, not the actual one.
It maintains the status quo, further destroys social mobility, concentrates investment to low-risk already affluent areas, shapes education, and maintains the influence of business interests in public life. We can afford to maintain investment to facilitate growth. What we cannot afford are the austerity measures we will be made to feel in the years to come.
I’ll end with another quote from Krugman: The Myths of Fiscal Austerity:
So the next time you hear serious-sounding people explaining the need for fiscal austerity, try to parse their argument. Almost surely, you’ll discover that what sounds like hardheaded realism actually rests on a foundation of fantasy, on the belief that invisible vigilantes will punish us if we’re bad and the confidence fairy will reward us if we’re good. And real-world policy, policy that will blight the lives of millions of working families, is being built on that foundation.