The Problem of Israel in the Modern World

Can the Unspeakable be Spoken?
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by MICHAEL WELTON

The mood of our uneasy times is incredibly bellicose, dark, apocalyptic and vengeful. The “war on terror” is like a virus that infects everything it touches. And it does seem to touch everything, from our popular television shows, to getting across borders, travelling overseas somewhere. You can’t read the Sunday paper without feeling queasy, a sense of dread tingling our nerves and spoiling our lovely morning coffee. Everyday brings a new jolt. And if terror doesn’t do the trick, fear of global warming, or running out of oil will spoil your day for sure.

I am particularly interested in probing the role that religious belief and mythological systems play in dividing us from one another, fuelling irrationality and hatred of others, and dampening any spirit of radical self-criticism. To illustrate the incendiary nature of religious belief, I will focus attention on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the context of the Middle East. Perhaps no topic–Israel’s fate and role in the Middle East–is itself so incendiary and symptomatic of the failure of our global civilization to act justly.

The horrific Israeli war against Lebanon in 2006, the continuing assault on Palestinians in the Gaza strip, now virtually a prison, and the building of settlements in the West Bank, has revealed to the world the stark inadequacies of the old axiom, that “might is right”. I am fascinated with why Israel, particularly, believes that might is right, that war is the only message the Arabs understand and why Israel refuses to talk with their enemy. What belief system underpins the aggressions of Israel against the Palestinians and its Arab surroundings? Why is it so hard for us to criticize Israel in the west? Are there mythic underpinnings and reasons operating here, too?

September 11, 2001 set me on a pathway to understand what was behind this ghastly act of flying hijacked airplanes into the very heart of the American military-industrial complex. Why was it so easy for George W. Bush on a Sunday afternoon, Sept. 16, 2001, on the south lawn of the White House–to utter these words: “We need to be alert to the fact that these evil doers still exist. We haven’t seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time. No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft–fly US aircraft into buildings full of innocent people–and show no remorse. This is a new kind of-a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take awhile.”

Commentators of the day observed that Bush’s remark about crusade had come in an off-the-cuff comment to a journalist. Actually, he had struggled hard to find the right word. This was the word that came from his gut. It signified the struggle between Good and Evil. On January 29, 2002, Bush announced that: “States like these (Iran, Iraq. N. Korea), and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Unwittingly, Bush was dragged back to the century’s old world of malediction–cursing one’s enemies.

One of the deep reasons why the West is open-hearted to Israel and hard-hearted towards Palestinians (and increasingly all Arabs) is the pre-eminence of “Israel” in the western, Christian imagination. Let me tell a personal story to illustrate my point. The Diary of Anne Frank has taken its place in the western religious imagination from its publication after the war until the present day. I can remember reading an expurgated version of the diary when I was a teenager. The excruciating drama of her hiding from the Gestapo, and her family’s eventual murder, was cut into my youthful memory. I somehow took on her suffering as my own. In my twenties, I read Holocaust narratives by the likes of Elie Wiesel (Night) who captured the horror of trains carrying Jews to the death-camps, Jews who didn’t know what was in store for them as they shuddered down the rails. I read the works of Jewish theologians who taught me that The Holocaust was the most horrific form of human suffering.

When I gradually made the journey from pietistic evangelicalism to liberation theology, like so many others, I read Gustavo Gutierez’s Liberation Theology text with amazement. There, the Exodus narrative was claimed as a paradigm for the liberation struggles of the oppressed everywhere. The spirituals of Black slaves incorporated Old Testament, Jewish imagery as they longed for “Moses” to lead them to the promised land of freedom, away from Pharaoh’s crushing contempt. “Israel” existed as a powerful metaphor–the Jews appeared to be the paradigm of profound suffering. Those suffering from the depredations of South African apartheid, or sugar plantations or the brutality of Latin American dictatorships–could find comfort in the story of the Exodus.

But I didn’t think about the real state of Israel that was forged through violence and terrorism in the 1940s on the historic land of Palestine. Nor did I pay any attention to what actually happened when the ancient Hebrews ventured into the “promised land”, instructed by their tribal sky-god to eliminate the Amalekites. What happened to them? Didn’t Yahweh tell the Israelites to murder, plunder and rape its inhabitants? When I think about Israel now, and the Diary of Anne Frank, I realize the power of Edward Said’s remark that Israel’s “other”, the Palestinians, have never had permission to possess their own narrative. It is not that Anne Frank’s diary ought not to be read. But the fact that we keep telling, and re-telling this story and its variants, leaves little room for other narratives. It contributes to the idea, I think, that Jewish suffering is unique, different from other forms of suffering, mysterious and resistant to rational understanding.

A diary for our time would, perhaps, be entitled The diary of Asthma al-Mugghayr, a 16-year old Palestinian, an account of what happened to his fellow and sister kids and family and community members in and around Rafah. Scribbling among the ruins, would Asthma write of watching his brother, Ahmad, 13 years-old, shot with a single bullet through his head while taking clothes off the drying line and feeding pigeons? Apparently the shot came from a house nearby, which been taken over by Israeli soldiers shortly before. Would he write by candle late at night, amidst the rubble, about the thirteen year old girl who was shot while she was walking to school? What would this teenage boy think about the Israeli commander who emptied his gun into the school girl?

What would Asthma think about the Occupation–a system of military check-points splitting towns and villages into ghettoes, curfews, closures, raids, mass demolition and destruction of houses and land expropriations? How would he characterize daily life, and the grotesque wall, that, when completed will total 400 miles–four times longer than the Berlin wall. Would Asthma write youthful poetry about being caged or displaced? Would this young man be driven mad? Would he confess to a concealed desire to be a suicide bomber?

Maybe Asthma would keep a record of just how many children have been killed. Two-thirds of hundreds of children killed at checkpoints, in the street, on the way to school, in their homes, died from small arms fire, directed in over half of the cases to the head, neck and chest–the sniper’s wound. Would these young men wonder why the Palestinians are always terrorists? Would he have taken his own life?
Why is it almost unspeakable to speak of the suffering of the non-Jew in the west? Why is the suffering of Palestinian people of so little concern and interest to the western mind and politicians? One answer surely is that both Christians and Jews share a common mythology: that Yahweh created the world, that the Jews are a chosen people, that they have been promised a land. Christians and Jews obviously differ regarding the significance of Jesus. But those who embrace him become part of the universal “people of God” who will inherit the earth when the redeemer returns to Zion. Islam has no place in the great purposes of God.

But there is something else. The United States and Israel have fused into a single entity in global politics and world history. Both are uniquely chosen to be redeemer nations, a light unto the nations. They have special status in the cosmic story. Israel is the US, and the US is Israel. The early Puritans were the “new Israel” and America was the Promised Land. America has never forsaken its historical sense of specialness before God, to be a redeemer nation. And, as we will now see, Israel’s imagined destiny was not only to be a homeland for dispossessed Jews. It was to be beacon of civilization in savage Arab lands, a light unto the nations.

We cannot understand the current crisis in the Middle East without understanding the religious mythology and historical circumstances underpinning the creation of the Jewish state of Israel. I can only highlight these. All of us, if asked, probably immediately link The Holocaust perpetrated in Germany with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 in historic Palestine. Getting their own state was Europe’s payment for their suffering in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, they will be safe and less subject to anti-Semitic attacks or assaults. Many of us might even assume, without thinking too much about it, that God gave the land to the Jews. The Palestinians are Amalek. If they will not submit to Jewish rule they must, or will be, destroyed. The basis for this is the Old Testament, the shared sacred text of Christians and Jews. One cannot argue with sacred texts! Indeed, in 1971, Golda Meir told Le Monde that Israel existed as “the fulfilment of promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for is legitimacy.”

Yet those of secular mind might want to ask some questions and probe into history deeply. At the dawn of the twentieth century, historians tell us, Europe’s ‘subject peoples’ (Poles, Czechs, Armenians, Serbs) dreamed of forming their own ‘nation-states’. Places where they might live free from fear. These states privileged particular ethnic groups–defined by language, or religion or antiquity. The Zionist movement originated in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. The land of Zion, the ancient homeland (Israel actually existed for only 60 years in the thousands of years of life in historic Palestine) was an exultant space of hope for some Jews. Zionists dreamed of the restored ‘lost fatherland’. This was a powerful dream that turned into hard fact at the end of World War II.

Zionism coincided with the period of European imperialist expansion and acquisition of lands in Africa and Asia. Lands, including lands in Canada, were acquired and occupied in the name of a higher power, God, and a higher civilization. There is something very interesting here for our understanding of Israel and the crisis in the Middle East. Zionist ideologues like Moses Hess and Theodor Herzl (as did all Israeli leaders from Ben-Gurion onward) believed that they had a divine right to occupy the land that was plainly occupied by others. If they were soft on ‘divine right’, they simply accepted that they were going to lands that were empty. Not empty of real live people, but empty of civilization and proper cultivation. In other words, those who colonize, or steal, other peoples’ lands (be they in Africa, Asia or in the Nass River Valley in BC) carry ideas in their heads about their right to do so. They, the colonists, will cultivate the untended gardens and settle the savages in orderly, moral communities.

The Zionist project, Edward Said has argued, participated in the “great dispossessing movement of modern European colonialism, and with them all the schemes for redeeming the land, resettling the natives, civilizing them, taming their savage customs…” The natives are, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to begin with! They are inferior and marginal. Herzl admitted in his diary that “both the expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.” He thought that they had to be spirited across the border and denied employment. They existed, but not as full human beings. These inferior beings could be put on reservations, on compounds, on native homelands. They could be taxed, counted and used profitably. Then, the new society could be built in the vacated space. Thus, ‘empty’ actually means ‘uncivilized’. Now we can understand the slogan of Israelis who saw Palestine as a “land without people, for a people without land.”

Those are Ben-Gurion’s words. In 1937 he had argued that “we must expel the Arabs and take their places. He acknowledged the presence of Arabs on the land, but denied the presence of Palestinians. In her famous statement to The Sunday Times in 1969, then Prime Minister Golda Meir said: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people. It is not as if we came and threw them out and took over their country. They didn’t exist.” During that same year, Zionist leader Menachem Begin told Kibbutz members the importance of denying the existence of Palestinians. “My friend, take care. When you recognize the concept of ‘Palestine’, you demolish your right to live in Kibbutz Ein Haboresh. If this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came.”

But the Palestinians were there, weren’t they? At least 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes, and villages were destroyed or pillaged. Israeli propagandists used to push the story that the Palestinians just ran away, saying, “Here, Israel, take our homes, here’s the key, and don’t forget to look after our olive trees.” Contemporary Israeli historians like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe have dispelled this farcical story. The Israeli armies and terror squads expelled the villagers through terror and massacre. This the Palestinians call the Nakba, “the original sin.” The process of ethnic cleansing began in the mid-1940s and has never ceased. Border raids, massacres, settlements, slaughter of 20,000 in Lebanon, expulsions, demolitions, arrests, torture, and assassinations, chicanery and all the tricks of road maps that never materialize. Israel is a big problem in the modern world. Perhaps even an anachronism.

Zionist strategy has always been to seize the moment when they can take-over all of Palestine. In 1947-8, under cover of conflict, 78% of historic Palestine was transformed into “Israel.” In 1967, Israel seized the opportunity to take-over the remaining 22% of Palestine. Israel justified the 1967 war as self-defence; thus they are blameless; just as they are in the recent disproportionate destruction of civilians in Palestine and Lebanon. Israel is the perpetual victim; the little David facing the Arab Goliath. Israel never initiates; it only responds.

There is little historic or contemporary evidence that the Israeli military, which runs the country and shapes its mental outlook, has a shred of commitment to a Palestinian state. Liberal critics who rail against the “occupation” of the West Bank or the Gaza and the settlements and the capture of Jerusalem are correct, but only from the Palestinian point of view. Israel is doing everything in its power, day after day, minute after minute, and one stone at a time, one olive grove, one goat at a time, to destroy the possibility of a Palestinian state. If it did exist, it would be tiny, fragmented, weak–an act of Palestinian surrender and humiliation.

Don’t we see through Israel and US games? Hamas was elected in democratic elections. US-Israel and the EU have done everything possible, short of utter starvation of the people, to destroy Hamas (and Hezbollah). They keep telling Hamas that they have to lay down their arms, and recognize Israel. But what are Israel’s borders to be recognized? Where are they drawn? Hamas might well agree to return to the 1967 borders with all settlements dismantled. This is just a wicked charade being played out on the international scene, and many fall for it, including Canada’s right-wing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

We in the west have a hard time seeing what is before our eyes. Another logical error, which we see committed all the time, is to talk of the “cycle of violence” in the Middle East. From our vantage point in Canada, we imagine both are to blame, tanks and F-16s on one side, suicide bombers on the other. Aren’t human beings violent creatures–we mutter to ourselves: just an endless cycle of violence. But the Israel/Palestine story is not one of moral equivalence. It is a story of brutal dispossession and oppression of one people by another; it is not simply a sort of Greek tragedy. The idea of a cycle of violence leaves Israel once again not guilty. Everyone is not an innocent victim.

At this point, one can see where the idea of enemies talking it out can be premature. You feel my pain, I will feel yours. If only we could listen. I’ve suffered, you’ve suffered. Let’s talk. But it is not true that Palestinians have not heard the Zionist story. They have heard it ad nauseum and have heard enough about Jewish suffering. Both sides do not need to listen. It is Israelis and Jews who need to listen. There is lots of evidence–from Jewish Israeli commentators–that most Israelis scarcely give two hoots about the sight of a white-scarfed women scrubbing through the rubble of a bombed out building for a trace of her child.

Can you imagine both sides in apartheid sitting down to talk and listen to one another? What form would the suffering of the white perpetrator of apartheid take? That’s the point, isn’t it–there is a perpetrator, there is a victim; there is an oppressor; there are the oppressed.

Funerals, observes the great Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti, are an “integral part of the lives of Palestinians wherever they were, in the homeland or in exile, in the days of their calm and the days of their Intifada, in the days of their wars and the days of their peace punctuated by massacres.” Thus, when Yitzhak Rabin spoke so eloquently of Israelis as absolute victims, and the eyes of those in the White House and the whole world grew wet, Barghouti said that he “knew that [he] would forget for a long time his words that day: “ We are victims of war and violence. We have not known a year or month when mothers have not mourned their sons.”

Barghouti says that Rabin “knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli blood, the blood of every Israeli individual without exception. He knew how to demand that the world should respect Israeli tears, and he was able to present Israel as the victim of a crime perpetrated by us. He changed facts, he altered the order of things, he presented us as the initiators of violence in the Middle East and said what he said with eloquence, with clarity and conviction.”

Rabin told his story of soldiers returning from war, covered in blood, and funerals where those in attendance could not look into the eyes of grieving mothers. In a remarkable passage in the brilliant book, I saw Ramallah, Barghouti argues compellingly that it is “easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from “Secondly.” Yes, this is what Rabin did. He simply neglected to speak of what happened first. Start your story with “Secondly,” and the world will be turned upside-down. Start your story with “Secondly”, and the arrows of the Red Indians are the original criminals and the guns of the white men are entirely the victim….You only need to start your story with “Secondly”, and the burned Vietnamese will have wounded the humanity of the napalm, and Victor Jara’s songs will be the shameful thing and not Pinochet’s bullets, which killed so many thousands in the Santiago stadium. It is enough to start the story with “Secondly”, for my grandmother, Umm ‘Ata, to become the criminal and Ariel Sharon her victim” (pp. 177-78).

Zionism has been a beautiful dream for many Jews. But Zionism from the ‘standpoint of the victim’ is not a pretty picture. My conclusions may be troubling and disconcerting. But I think that the cause of global justice and world peace, and particularly peace in the Middle East, demands that we understand that the state of Israel is at the crossroads. Israel, the first modern ‘democracy’ to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, can continue towards an “ethnically cleansed” Greater Israel, or transform into a single, integrated, bi-national, multicultural state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. In my view, the ferocity unleashed in Lebanon and the Gaza—laying sieges, causing electricity blackouts, bombing and shelling, assassinating and imprisoning, killing and wounding children and babies—can only be comprehended in terms of the Zionist project to eradicate any opposition to their goal of total domination in historic Palestine and the surrounding Middle East. Hezbollah was being taught the Zionist’s elementary lesson: we have the right to abduct, you do not.

Israel is an anachronism in our increasingly cosmopolitan world order in that Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privilege from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded. This is a “separatist project” in a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law. Thus, in the Jewish state, one community, the Jews, is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

The wall being erected between Israel and Palestinian occupied territories is a symbol of the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect. You cannot build pathways towards others if you believe they are inferior beings, or that you, and not they, are superior, chosen ones, with your suffering privileged above and beyond everyone else’s. Israel’s actions in the world towards and against the Palestinians—curfews, check points, bulldozers, public humiliations, home demolition, land seizures, shootings, targeted assassinations, and the separatist fence—indicate a state that appears to have lost is moral centre, and is possible facing its own Nakba.

I believe that the United States’ unconditional support for Israel, and the adoption of an Israeli approach to foreign policy, is undermining the hopes and possibilities for peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world. The US’s catastrophic loss of international political influence and the degradation of its moral image has much to do with their bizarre approval of, and financial support for, Israel’s actions in the Middle East. Israel embraced the “war on terror” when the smoke was still rising from the Towers, immediately identifying the Palestinians as “terrorists” who had to be eliminated. Thus, Israel’s wars, now and in the past, are always presented to the world as wars of necessity, of self-defence.

The compelling question before Israel and the rest of the world is simply this: will Israel reinvent itself and dissolve the exhausted Zionist political project in favour of building a truly bi-national state in historic Palestine for everyone? We have reached a moral crossroads. In the new Middle East defined by the US, only Israel and the US may dominate, only they may be strong, only they may be secure. But in the just world that lies on the other side of the crossroads, this is unacceptable.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/30/the-problem-of-israel-in-the-modern-world/

The fall of Europe: Why the European Union is teetering on the brink

Growth is anemic at best and socio-economic inequality is on the rise. How did the European project go so wrong?

The fall of Europe: Why the European Union is teetering on the brink
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Europe won the Cold War.

Not long after the Berlin Wall fell a quarter of a century ago, the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States squandered its peace dividend in an attempt to maintain global dominance, and Europe quietly became more prosperous, more integrated, and more of a player in international affairs. Between 1989 and 2014, the European Union (EU) practically doubled its membership and catapulted into third place in population behind China and India. It currently boasts the world’s largest economy and also heads the list of global trading powers. In 2012, the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize for transforming Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”

In the competition for “world’s true superpower,” China loses points for still having so many impoverished peasants in its rural hinterlands and a corrupt, illiberal bureaucracy in its cities; the United States, for its crumbling infrastructure and a hypertrophied military-industrial complex that threatens to bankrupt the economy. As the only equitably prosperous, politically sound, and rule-of-law-respecting superpower, Europe comes out on top, even if — or perhaps because — it doesn’t have the military muscle to play global policeman.

And yet, for all this success, the European project is currently teetering on the edge of failure. Growth is anemic at best and socio-economic inequality is on the rise. The countries of Eastern and Central Europe, even relatively successful Poland, have failed to bridge the income gap with the richer half of the continent. And the highly indebted periphery is in revolt.

Politically, the center may not hold and things seem to be falling apart. From the left, parties like Syriza in Greece are challenging the EU’s prescriptions of austerity. From the right, Euroskeptic parties are taking aim at the entire quasi-federal model. Racism and xenophobia are gaining ever more adherents, even in previously placid regions like Scandinavia.



Perhaps the primary social challenge facing Europe at the moment, however, is the surging popularity of Islamophobia, the latest “socialism of fools.” From the killings at the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the recent attacks atCharlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, wars in the Middle East have long inspired proxy battles in Europe. Today, however, the continent finds itself ever more divided between a handful of would-be combatants who claim the mantle of true Islam and an ever-growing contingent who believe Islam — all of Islam — has no place in Europe.

The fracturing European Union of 2015 is not the Europe that political scientist Frances Fukuyama imagined when, in 1989, he so famouslypredicted “the end of history,” as well as the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy and the bureaucracy in Brussels, the EU’s headquarters, that now oversees continental affairs. Nor is it the Europe that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imagined when, in the 1980s, she spoke of the global triumph of TINA (“there is no alternative”) and of her brand of market liberalism. Instead, today’s Europe increasingly harkens back to the period between the two world wars when politicians of the far right and left polarized public debate, economies went into a financial tailspin, anti-Semitism surged out of the sewer, and storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

Another continent-wide war may not be in the offing, but Europe does face the potential for regime collapse: that is, the end of the Eurozone and the unraveling of regional integration. Its possible dystopian future can be glimpsed in what has happened in its eastern borderlands. There, federal structures binding together culturally diverse people have had a lousy track record over the last quarter-century. After all, the Soviet Union imploded in 1991; Czechoslovakia divorced in 1993; and Yugoslavia was torn asunder in a series of wars later in the 1990s.

If its economic, political, and social structures succumb to fractiousness, the European Union could well follow the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia into the waste bin of failed federalisms. Europe as a continent will remain, its nation-states will continue to enjoy varying degrees of prosperity, but Europe as an idea will be over. Worse yet, if, in the end, the EU snatches defeat from the jaws of its Cold War victory, it will have no one to blame but itself.

The Rise and Fall of TINA

The Cold War was an era of alternatives. The United States offered its version of freewheeling capitalism, while the Soviet Union peddled its brand of centralized planning. In the middle, continental Europe offered the compromise of a social market: capitalism with a touch of planning and a deepening concern for the welfare of all members of society.

Cooperation, not competition, was the byword of the European alternative. Americans could have their dog-eat-dog, frontier capitalism. Europeans would instead stress greater coordination between labor and management, and the European Community (the precursor to the EU) would put genuine effort into bringing its new members up to the economic and political level of its core countries.

Then, at a point in the 1980s when the Soviet model had ceased to exert any influence at all globally, along came TINA.

At the time, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan were ramping up their campaigns to shrink government, while what later became known as globalization — knocking down trade walls and opening up new opportunities for the financial sector — began to be felt everywhere. Thatcher summed up this brave new world with her TINA acronym: the planet no longer had any alternative to globalized market democracy.

Not surprisingly, then, in the post-Cold War era, European integration shifted its focus toward removing barriers to the flow of capital. As a result, the expansion of Europe no longer came with an implied guarantee of eventual equality. The deals that Ireland (1973) and Portugal (1986) had received on accession were now, like the post-World War II Marshall Plan, artifacts of another era. The sheer number of potential new members knocking on Europe’s door put a strain on the EU’s coffers, particularly since the economic performance of countries like Romania and Bulgaria was so far below the European average. But even if the EU had been overflowing with funds, it might not have mattered, since the new “neoliberal” spirit of capitalism now animated its headquarters in Brussels where the order of the day had become: cut government, unleash the market.

At the heart of Europe, as well as of this new orthodoxy, lies Germany, the exemplar of continental fiscal rectitude. Yet in the 1990s, that newly reunified nation engaged in enormous deficit spending, even if packaged under a different name, to bring the former East Germany up to the level of the rest of the country. It did not, however, care to apply this “reunification exception” to other former members of the Soviet bloc. Acting as the effective central bank for the European Union, Germany instead demanded balanced budgets and austerity from all newcomers (and some old timers as well) as the only effective answer to debt and fears of a future depression.

The rest of the old Warsaw Pact has had access to some EU funds for infrastructure development, but nothing on the order of the East German deal. As such, they remain in a kind of economic halfway house. The standard of living in Hungary, 25 years after the fall of Communism, remainsapproximately half that of neighboring Austria. Similarly, it took Romania 14 years just to regain the gross national product (GDP) it had in 1989 and it remains stuck at the bottom of the European Union. People who visit only the capital cities of Eastern and Central Europe come away with a distorted view of the economic situation there, since Warsaw and Bratislava are wealthier than Vienna, and Budapest nearly on a par with it, even though Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary all remain economically far behind Austria.

What those countries experienced after 1989 — one course of “shock therapy” after another — became the medicine of choice for all EU members at risk of default following the financial crisis of 2007 and then the sovereign debt crisis of 2009. Forget deficit spending to enable countries to grow their way out of economic crisis. Forget debt renegotiation. The unemployment rate in Greece and Spain now hovers around 25%, with youth unemployment over 50%, and all the EU members subjected to heavy doses of austerity have witnessed a steep rise in the number of people living below the poverty line. The recent European Central Bank announcement of “quantitative easing” — a monetary sleight-of-hand to pump money into the Eurozone — is too little, too late.

The major principle of European integration has been reversed. Instead of Eastern and Central Europe catching up to the rest of the EU, pockets of the “west” have begun to fall behind the “east.” The GDP per capita of Greece, for example, has slipped below that of Slovenia and, when measured in terms of purchasing power, even Slovakia, both former Communist countries.

The Axis of Illiberalism

Europeans are beginning to realize that Margaret Thatcher was wrong and there are alternatives — to liberalism and European integration. The most notorious example of this new illiberalism is Hungary.

On July 26, 2014, in a speech to his party faithful, Prime Minister Viktor Orban confided that he intended a thorough reorganization of the country. The reform model Orban had in mind, however, had nothing to do with the United States, Britain, or France. Rather, he aspired to create what he bluntly called an “illiberal state” in the very heart of Europe, one strong on Christian values and light on the libertine ways of the West. More precisely, what he wanted was to turn Hungary into a mini-Russia or mini-China.

“Societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way,” Orban intoned,“will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they will be able to substantially reform themselves.” He was also eager to reorient to the east, relying ever less on Brussels and ever more on potentially lucrative markets in and investments from Russia, China, and the Middle East.

That July speech represented a truly Oedipal moment, for Orban was eager to drive a stake right through the heart of the ideology that had fathered him. As a young man more than 25 years earlier, he had led the Alliance of Young Democrats — Fidesz — one of the region’s most promising liberal parties. In the intervening years, sensing political opportunity elsewhere on the political spectrum, he had guided Fidesz out of the Liberal International and into the European People’s Party, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Now, however, he was on the move again and his new role model wasn’t Merkel, but Russian President Vladimir Putin and his iron-fisted style of politics. Given the disappointing performance of liberal economic reforms and the stinginess of the EU, it was hardly surprising that Orban had decided to hedge his bets by looking east.

The European Union has responded by harshly criticizing Orban’s government for pushing through a raft of constitutional changes that restrict the media and compromise the independence of the judiciary. Racism and xenophobia are on the uptick in Hungary, particularly anti-Roma sentiment and anti-Semitism. And the state has taken steps to reassert control over the economy and impose controls on foreign investment.

For some, the relationship between Hungary and the rest of Europe is reminiscent of the moment in the 1960s when Albania fled the Soviet bloc and, in an act of transcontinental audacity, aligned itself with Communist China. But Albania was then a marginal player and China still a poor peasant country. Hungary is an important EU member and China’s illiberal development model, which has vaulted it to the top of the global economy, now has increasing international influence. This, in other words, is no Albanian mouse that roared. A new illiberal axis connecting Budapest to Beijing and Moscow would have far-reaching implications.

The Hungarian prime minister, after all, has many European allies in his Euroskeptical project. Far right parties are climbing in the polls across the continent. With 25% of the votes, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, for instance, topped the French elections for the European parliament last May. In local elections in 2014, it also seized 12 mayoralties, and polls show that Le Pen would win the 2017 presidential race if it were held today. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the National Front has been pushing a range of policies from reinstating the death penalty to closing borders that would deliberately challenge the whole European project.

In Denmark, the far-right People’s Party also won the most votes in the European parliamentary elections. In November, it topped opinion polls for the first time. The People’s Party has called for Denmark to slam shut its open-door policy toward refugees and re-introduce border controls. Much as the Green Party did in Germany in the 1970s, groupings like Great Britain’s Independence Party, the Finns Party, and even Sweden’s Democrats are shattering the comfortable conservative-social democratic duopoly that has rotated in power throughout Europe during the Cold War and in its aftermath.

The Islamophobia that has surged in the wake of the murders in France provides an even more potent arrow in the quiver of these parties as they take on the mainstream. The sentiment currently expressed against Islam — at rallies, in the media, and in the occasional criminal act — recalls a Europe of long ago, when armed pilgrims set out on a multiple crusades against Muslim powers, when early nation-states mobilized against the Ottoman Empire, and when European unity was forged not out of economic interest or political agreement but as a “civilizational” response to the infidel.

The Europe of today is, of course, a far more multicultural place and regional integration depends on “unity in diversity,” as the EU’s motto puts it. As a result, rising anti-Islamic sentiment challenges the inclusive nature of the European project. If the EU cannot accommodate Islam, the complex balancing act among all its different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups will be thrown into question.

Euroskepticism doesn’t only come from the right side of the political spectrum. In Greece, the Syriza party has challenged liberalism from the left, as it leads protests against EU and International Monetary Fund austerity programs that have plunged the population into recession and revolt. As elsewhere in Europe, the far right might have taken advantage of this economic crisis, too, had the government not arrested the Golden Dawn leadership on murder and other charges. In parliamentary elections on Sunday, Syriza won an overwhelming victory, coming only a couple seats short of an absolute majority. In a sign of the ongoing realignment of European politics, that party then formed a new government not with the center-left, but with the right-wing Independent Greeks, which is similarly anti-austerity but also skeptical of the EU and in favor of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

European integration continues to be a bipartisan project for the parties that straddle the middle of the political spectrum, but the Euroskeptics are now winning votes with their anti-federalist rhetoric. Though they tend to moderate their more apocalyptic rhetoric about “despotic Brussels” as they get closer to power, by pulling on a loose thread here and another there, they could very well unravel the European tapestry.

When the Virtuous Turn Vicious

For decades, European integration created a virtuous circle — prosperity generating political support for further integration that, in turn, grew the European economy. It was a winning formula in a competitive world. However, as the European model has become associated with austerity, not prosperity, that virtuous circle has turned vicious. A challenge to the Eurozone in one country, a repeal of open borders in another, the reinstitution of the death penalty in a third — it, too, is a process that could feed on itself, potentially sending the EU into a death spiral, even if, at first, no member states take the fateful step of withdrawing.

In Eastern and Central Europe, the growing crew who distrust the EU complain that Brussels has simply taken the place of Moscow in the post-Soviet era. (The Euroskeptics in the former Yugoslavia prefer to cite Belgrade.) Brussels, they insist, establishes the parameters of economic policy that its member states ignore at their peril, while Eurozone members find themselves with ever less control over their finances. Even if the edicts coming from Brussels are construed as economically sensible and possessed of a modicum of democratic legitimacy, to the Euroskeptics they still represent a devastating loss of sovereignty.

In this way, the same resentments that ate away at the Soviet and Yugoslav federations have begun to erode popular support for the European Union. Aside from Poland and Germany, where enthusiasm remains strong, sentiment toward the EU remains lukewarm at best across much of the rest of the continent, despite a post-euro crisis rebound. Its popularity now hovers ataround 50% in many member states and below that in places like Italy and Greece.

The European Union has without question been a remarkable achievement of modern statecraft. It turned a continent that seemed destined to wallow in “ancestral hatreds” into one of the most harmonious regions on the planet. But as with the portmanteau states of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, the complex federal project of the EU has proven fragile in the absence of a strong external threat like the one that the Cold War provided. Another economic shock or a coordinated political challenge could tip it over the edge.

Unity in diversity may be an appealing concept, but the EU needs more than pretty rhetoric and good intentions to stay glued together. If it doesn’t come up with a better recipe for dealing with economic inequality, political extremism, and social intolerance, its opponents will soon have the power to hit the rewind button on European integration. The ensuing regime collapse would not only be a tragedy for Europe, but for all those who hope to overcome the dangerous rivalries of the past and provide shelter from the murderous conflicts of the present.

John Feffer‘s most recent book is “North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.”

http://www.salon.com/2015/01/30/the_fall_of_europe_why_the_european_union_is_teetering_on_the_brink_partner/?source=newsletter

 

From #Takethesquare to São Paulo’s #FreeYourPark

By Bernardo Gutiérrez On January 29, 2015

Post image for From #Takethesquare to São Paulo’s #FreeYourParkAfter the square occupations of the past years, the Augusta Park actions in São Paulo, Brazil, open a new phase based on a vision of the commons.

There was a time when the occupied square was the city. The initial camp of Spanish 15M Indignados in Puerta del Sol in Madrid became a city per se. In this square-city a kindergarten, libraries, clinics, and cultural spaces emerged.

There was a time when the occupied square was a country. In Tahrir Square talks of dissatisfaction of the mosques of Egypt and Facebook groups like We Are Khaled Said converged, lighting the flame of the revolt. During the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul a map of the Republic of Gezi was even designed. The space occupied by different ethnic, religious or ideological groups appeared in different colors: anarchists, communists, socialists, nationalists, LGBT, environmentalists, Muslims, and football fans. Groups losing their walls of prejudice, talking to each other for the first time.

There was a time when the occupied square was the world. In fact, all occupations were or wanted to be the world. The mind map of Acampada Sol of Madrid drew a planetary dialogue in which groups such as the Zapatistas and Anonymous and events such as Argentina 2001 default and Tiananmen Square fitted together. The Zuccotti Park in New York, taken for weeks by Occupy Wall Street, became a global connection interface. We are the 99% of the square-world, they said.

But many squares forgot to be squares. The occupation created a second skin of commons-oriented practices and self-management. But the petitions of the occupations had more to do with macro-political, social or economic issues. The exception could be the Turkish #DirenGezi explosion, born as resistance against the construction of a mall in Gezi Park. After the outbreak of the riots, the cause of Gezi Park was diluted in an ocean of ailments and requests. The slogan “It is not for a park” opened a multi-faceted revolt. But beyond the conservation of Gezi Park there was no specific demand for self-management. Defending the park as a public good seemed to be the horizon.

Neither public nor private

The occupation of Augusta Park in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, without being as explosive as the Turkish Gezi Park, opens a new breakthrough in the global cycle of occupations: the proposal of a commons-oriented park. The Augusta Park — being city, country and world — wants to be a park. But it wants to be a common, communitarian or collective park, not just a public park.

Many of the contradictions of the global occupations float over the 25,000 square meters of Augusta Park. As Zuccotti Park in New York, the Augusta Park is a private property. Two companies are the owners of the park: Syrela and Setin. Syrela is also responsible for the construction of the golf course in the Olympic area of Rio de Janeiro, where the #OcupaGolfe (#OccupyGolf) movement has emerged. And here comes the dystopian metaphor: a public sector serving the private sector interests. The market sets the pace.

The municipality of São Paulo, after a lot of public pressure, sanctioned the creation of Augusta Park in late 2013. The forest, the last redoubt of Atlantic Forest in São Paulo, has been declared a historical, environmental and cultural heritage. But the city hall council argues that it has no resources to expropriate the park. The owners of the park wanted €21.8 million in September 2013. Now, based on rising housing prices, they want €85.5 million for the park.

The Park Augusta Movement, after months of actions, festivals and small raids into the park, decided to ‘liberate the park.’ They broke the locks. They entered. They camped. The movement argues that they are not occupying: “We are releasing a space that should be open by law,” says Daniel Biral, member of the Advogados Ativistas collective. The freedom of movement of citizens in the Augusta Park is legally guaranteed. But since December 2013, the park is closed. That is why the park was occupied/opened on Saturday 17 January.

The assemblies within the park take place at a dizzying pace. There are yoga classes, shows, an open school, workshops, meetings, and so on. The creative frenzy includes the presence of many of the groups and social actors of the massive June 2013 protests. The occupation of Augusta Park aims to break the logic of the market. One paragraph of the objectives of the Park Augusta Movement stresses that point: “A public park is a common good, belongs to the social network of the city and cannot remain under private and speculative interests. Its social function must be guaranteed.”

The park wants to be a park. The park wants to be a common park.

The process-park

“We do not have a definite plan for the park.” The sentence floated on a screen in one of the initial assemblies after the occupation. Breno Castro, one of the participants, was explaining, one by one, the principles of the movement. First: horizontality. Next: pluralism, public space, permaculture, direct democracy, respect and generosity. Finally, Breno explained the process-park concept, a point which also summarizes the insights of global occupations. It is also linked to the so-called ‘perpetual beta’ state, common in the hacker world: an unfinished shape that collective intelligence can constantly improve. The Process-Park, according to its own site: “Why defining a design that will last for years? The Augusta Park will be multiple and be renewed periodically. We will leave mobile and empty areas, which will enable rebuilding processes.”

The Augusta Park park is city, country and world. It is a park-city: inside there are reading places, recycling areas, tents for political debates. It is also a park-city because it is connected to a network of twelve threatened parks in São Paulo, all of them in a process of resistance. It is a park-country: it has close contact with other urban environmental struggles, such as Fica Ficus (Belo Horizonte), Ocupe Estelita (Recife), the Gong Park (Curitiba), Coco Park (Fortaleza) and #OcupaGolfe (Rio de Janeiro). It is also a park-world: in 2014 they were visited by activists who participated in the occupation of Turkish Gezi Park. Both movements released together the manifesto #Reclaiming our parks. And it is an icon that gains support in several countries, as reflected in a recent BBC article.

But maybe the Augusta Park is something else. Something else than park, city, country and/or world. Paulinho Fluxus, one of the participants in the occupation, sitting on the grass of Augusta Park, remembered his visit to the Santuario dos Pajés, an indigenous land threatened by the housing boom of Brasilia. The sanctuary, for urbanite Paulinho, is the city’s cosmic connection with nature. With the planet. The Augusta Park represents that connection too. It is an urban struggle, but connected to the environmental imaginary of the world.

It is connected to the ancient world-views of the so-called Global South. It is a resistance connected to some commons-ruled natural forests in Europe (as in Galicia, Spain). The Augusta Park is technopolitics, networks and territories. But it is also cosmopolitics. This kind of cosmopolitics, linked to the practices of indigenous people around the commons, is a counterweight to the storytelling of the Western world. The individual Cartesianism succumbs in the collective Amerindian vision. “The other exists, therefore he thinks”, according to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, an influential Brazilian anthropologist.

With a serious hydraulic crisis in Brazil, Paulinho Fluxus’ speech makes even more sense. There is a lack of water in the main Brazilian cities. Many people think that a water revolt is inevitable. Within weeks. Naomi Klein, in her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate puts climate change at the center of politics. There will be riots, she states. Many. Different ones. Against the lack of water. Against the scarcity of green in the cities.

On September 20, People’s Climate Mobilization held protests in 156 countries. “Whether or not climate change is the main reason, (such local movements) deserve to be recognized as the anonymous ‘carbon keepers’, which means that protecting their beloved forests, mountains, rivers and coasts are helping to protect all of us”, writes Klein. It is the water, stupid. It is water. It is the climate. It is the park that resists against capital. OccupyDesign and 99% cross creativity and plan actions to impact the UN Climate Conference COP21, to be held in Paris in late 2015. It will be a classic scene of battles. An old struggle. But now there is the landscape of environmental urgency, indignations are rising, and the global network system is more connected than ever.

Near the entrance of Augusta Park in São Paulo, a painting on a poster ignores the fact that military police already has the legal order for eviction. The Augusta Park can be evicted any day. The painting talks with passersby with a shout that opens doors. A shout that connects the city with other visions. A shout that is an evolution of that of Take the Square of 2011. Black letters, white background. An arrow encouraging new horizons: Free your park.

Bernardo Gutiérrez (@bernardosampa) is a Spanish-Brazilian journalist and writer who researches networked movements, hacker culture and peer-to-peer politics. He is the founder of the network FuturaMedia.net, lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and participates in the Global Revolution Research Network (GRRN).

Image by Acacio Augusto via Twitter: @acacio1871

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/sao-paolo-augusto-park-occupation/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Income inequality soars in every US state

By Andre Damon
30 January 2015

Income inequality has grown in every state in the US in recent decades, according to a new study published this week by the Economic Policy Institute. The report, entitled The Increasingly Unequal States of America, found that, even though states home to major metropolitan financial centers such as New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area had the highest levels of income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in every region of the country.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at Hawaii or West Virginia or New York or California, there has been a dramatic shift in income towards the top,” said Mark Price, an economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and one of the study’s co-authors, in a telephone interview.

Source: Economic Policy Institute
The report noted that between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent of income earners captured 105 percent of all income gains in the United States. This was possible because during this period the average income of the bottom 99 percent shrank, while the average income of the top one percent increased by 36.8 percent.

To varying degrees, this phenomenon was expressed throughout the country. In only two states did the income of the top one percent grow by less than fifteen percent.

The enormous concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent was even further concentrated in the top .01 percent. In New York, for instance, someone had to make $506,051 per year to be counted in the top one percent, but $16 million to be in the top .10 percent. The average income within the top .01 percent in New York was a staggering $69 million.

“Most of what’s driving income growth are executives in the financial sector, as well as top managers throughout major corporations,” said Dr. Price. “Those two together are the commanding heights of income in this economy.”

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Dr. Price and his co-author, Estelle Sommeiller, based their study on the methods of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose widely-cited research analyzed the growth of income inequality for the United States as a whole. Using state-by-state data from the Internal Revenue Service, much of which had to be compiled from paper archives dating back almost a century, Price and Sommeiller were able to make a state-by-state analysis of income inequality since 1917.

Nationwide, the average income of the top one percent of income earners is 29 times higher than the average income of the bottom 99 percent. But in New York and Connecticut, the average income in the top 1 percent is 51.0 and 48.4 percent higher than the average for the rest of earners, respectively.

New York City is the home of Wall Street and boasts more billionaires than any other city in the world. Connecticut is home to many of the largest hedge funds in the world. Ray Dalio, the founder of Westport, Connecticut-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates earned $3 billion in 2011 alone.

While the average income of the bottom 99 percent of income earners in New York state was $44,049, the income of the top one percent was $2,130,743. For the United States as a whole, the top one percent earned on average $1,303,198, compared to the average income of $43,713 for the bottom 99 percent.

In California, the most populous US state, the top one percent received an average income of $1,598,161, which was 34.9 times higher than the average pay of the bottom 99 percent. In 2013, four of the highest-paid CEOs in the United States were employed by technology companies, which are disproportionately located in California. At the top of the list was Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, with a current net worth of $53.4 billion, who made $78 million in pay that year.

The study shows that the average income for the bottom 99 percent of income earners is relatively consistent across states, with no state showing an average income of more than 33 percent above or below the average for the whole country.

The average incomes of the top one percent varied widely, however: from $537,989 for West Virginia to $2.1 million in New York. According to Forbes, the wealthiest resident of West Virginia is coal magnate Jim Justice II, who, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, is the state’s only billionaire. New York City, by contrast, has four residents worth more than $20 billion, including chemical tycoon David Koch, with a net worth of $36 billion; former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with a net worth of $31 billion; and financiers Carl Icahn and George Soros, worth $20 billion apiece.

Yet despite the broad disparity in the relative concentration of the ultra-rich, every single state showed a pronounced and growing chasm between the wealthy few and the great majority of society. In Alaska, which has relatively high wages and few billionaires, the incomes of the top one percent were on average more than fifteen times higher than the bottom 99 percent.

The report noted that exploding CEO pay has set “new norms for top incomes often emulated today by college presidents (as well as college football and basketball coaches), surgeons, lawyers, entertainers, and professional athletes.”

Price added, “As the incomes of CEOs and financiers are rising, you’re starting to see that pull, almost like a gravity starting to pull up other top incomes in the rest of the economy.

“A University president might claim, ‘I run a big institution, you expect me to raise money from some of the wealthiest people in the country, you’ve got to pay me a salary that helps me socialize with them.’”

Price said that, while inequality figures are not available nationwide on the local level, his work on income inequality in the state of Pennsylvania shows that income inequality is growing in counties throughout the state, in both rural and urban centers.

Nationwide, the income share of the top one percent fell by 13.4 percent between 1928-1979, a product of the New Deal and Great Society reforms, as well as higher taxes on top earners. These measures were the outcome of bitter and explosive class struggles. But in subsequent years, that trend has been reversed.

As a result, income inequality in New York State was even higher in 2007 than it was in 1928, during the “roaring 20s” that gave rise to the Great Depression. In the period between 1979 and 2007, every state had the income share of the top 1 percent grow by at least 25 percent.

Citing a previous study by the Economic Policy Institute, the report noted that “between 1979 and 2007, had the income of the middle fifth of households grown at the same rate as overall average household income, it would have been $18,897 higher in 2007—27.0 percent higher than it actually was.”

The enormous growth of social inequality is the result of an unrelenting, decades-long campaign against the jobs and living standards of workers. Under the Obama administration, the redistribution of wealth has escalated sharply, through a combination of bank bailouts and “quantitative easing,” which has inflated the assets of the financial elite.

These policies have been pursued by both parties and the entire political establishment which is squarely under the thumb of the corporate and financial oligarchy that dominates American society.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/30/ineq-j30.html

First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts

By Heathcote Ruthven On January 28, 2015

Post image for First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts
Syriza’s victory — a product of Greece’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics — will resound throughout Europe.
Image: Syriza MEP Manolis Glezos faces off with a riot cop in 2011.
In April 1941, after nearly a year of the Greeks staving off Italian forces, the armies of the Third Reich rolled their tanks into Athens. An Evzoni guarding the Parthenon was ordered to replace the national flag with the fascist ensign. After taking it down, he wrapped himself in the redundant flag and jumped to his death from that democratic theater rock.One evening, barely two months later, Nazi troops were toasting Hitler’s invasion of Crete. Two boys — including the then 18-year-old Manolis Glezos — armed with a knife and lantern, snuck past them, into the Acropolis and captured the billowing Swastika. That evening they tore it to shreds and buried it, keeping rags as souvenirs. Telegrams blazed around the continent, and the action became a call to arms for resistance movements in Greece and beyond.

Why the harsh treatment?

Throughout his life, Glezos has been sentenced to death three times; spent over a decade incarcerated; been memorialized on a Soviet postage stamp; written six books; innovated new systems of flood preventative water irrigation and has been granted honorary professorships in geology, civil engineering, and philosophy. Now 92, he is one of the most prominent members of Syriza — a coalition of radical left parties that has gone from 3% of the national vote in 2004, to 36% today.

Still on the streets in a 2010 Athenian street protest, Glezos was hit in the face by a riot cop and teargassed by another. In 2012, he became a Member of Parliament, and as of 2014 he is representing the party in European Parliament. Bringing an “anti-government, anti-system and anti-Troika” message to Brussels, he campaigns, amongst other things, for reparations from Germany. Here’s an extract of an open letter he penned last year:

Due to bombings, executions, famine, disease, and reduced fertility our country lost 13.4% of its population. The USSR 10%, Poland 8%. Yugoslavia 6%. At the same time it suffered an incredible economic catastrophe: our infrastructure was destroyed, our resources were looted. At the same time our cultural treasures were stolen and taken to Germany.

And yet, 70 years after the end of the occupation our country has not received from Germany any redress, any compensation! When indeed all of the other countries invaded by Germany have received reparations from Germany. All of them except Greece! Why? And furthermore: the loan Greece was forced to make has not been repaid to our country whereas Germany has repaid the equivalent obligatory loans made by Poland and Yugoslavia. Finally the archaeological treasures and priceless works of art which were stolen from Greece have not been returned. Why? What is the reason for this particularly harsh treatment of us?

Europe’s debt colony

‘Harsh treatment’ indeed. In the past four years Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Child poverty is at 40%. A quarter of a million people are without electricity. Unemployment stands at 26%, and most of these people do not receive benefits. For those in work, job security and wages have been cut and 33% of the population has no health insurance. The list goes on.

The story is a familiar one. The Greek state was lent huge amounts by the IMF and Eurozone countries — it is 175% of it’s GDP in debt — in exchange for brutal austerity conditions to be imposed. Syriza want to stop all of this. The newFinance Minister described the bailout deals, with characteristic Greek flair, as “fiscal waterboarding policies that have turned Greece into a debt colony.” He is now aiming to negotiate 50% of their debt to be wiped off (such a thing has happened many times before, including to Germany in 1953).

Syriza now lead the only anti-austerity government in Europe, with the 40-year-old former communist student leader Alexis Tsipras at the helm. Their emphasis on negotiating with their creditors has drawn criticism from the left, with many accusing them of tempering their views or never really having been that radical in the first place.

Syriza seems to understand the fundamental antagonism of its relationship with the Troika: debtor doesn’t want to pay, lender wants its money back. Along with Spain, Italy, and Ireland, they may have a certain ability to bargain collectively. “We both want us to be in the euro. We’re not going to pay though. Kick us out? Then we’ll all leave and your EU is finished,” so to speak.

Roots in years of struggle

No matter how ideologically brilliant this “formidable coterie of academics, human rights advocates, mavericks and visionaries” may be, there have been two prongs of anarchist practice that have made demands for radical change realistic:

  1. The alternatives: the citizen-run health clinics, food centers, public kitchens, legal aid centers, and various forms of mutual aid co-operatives necessitated by the poverty of recent years;
  2. The critique: riots, hunger strikes against incarceration, occupied factories, strikes, the molotovs. Paul Mason describes the Exarcheia district of Athens — “the last of the great bohemias” — as resisting gentrification by “night after night of barricade fighting and random attacks on TV news crews.”

It is only possible for Syriza to exist because of the country’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics. They are the result of years of struggle. To talk about party politics without talking of these networks is entirely illiterate.

What happened in Greece is deeply intertwined with social movements around the world. Syriza would mean nothing without, for example, Spain’s Podemos — a one-year old radical leftist party set to win the 2015 elections. Their victory would put an end to the two-party system that has reigned since Franco. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, took to a stage with Tsipras a few days before the election. Side by side, punching their fists in the air, they looked like two cute drunk IT-workers as they sang along to Leonard Cohen’s classic:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

The ‘contagion effect’ of this far left victory will resound throughout Europe, boosting support for a range of left parties: Sinn Féin in Ireland, the Greens in United Kingdom, Die Linke in Germany, Parti de Gauche in France, and also in Greece’s historic nemesis Turkey, where marginalized leftist and Kurdish groups such as the HDP have found an ally in Syriza.

The specifics of these groups are unremarkable enough, but the widespread rejection of traditional political parties, and the breakdown of a parliamentary consensus on debt is something new.

Global resonance

There is a feedback loop. Each of these anti-austerity parties is a product of mass social movements. They were created by these social movements, and in turn, the success of these parties will (hopefully) facilitate those movements to progress in creating non-state, non-market networks.

It reaches far beyond Europe. Since 2011, in South America, North Africa, East Asia, and beyond, prefigurative politics have come to the fore in a previously unimaginable way. Around the world, there is a change in common sense about what constitutes democracy, and how to practice it. These behaviors are the murmurs laying ground for our post-capitalist future.

Stepping down from utopia for a moment. The most important reason for thinking outside Europe is simple and ignored: reparations. There is an absence of discussions about what Syriza’s potential successes here could herald. If Germany would repay Greece for the misery it has been in since WWII, it will resound through the (post-)colonized world, and embolden the cries for historical justice long written off as ‘unrealistic.’

Heathcote Ruthven studies Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote his dissertation on the relationship artists and musicians have with capitalism in Iceland.

Follow him on Twitter at @heathcoter.

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The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

memory_45_138

28 January 2015

On Tuesday, a public ceremony was held at Auschwitz to mark the 70th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation by elements of the Soviet Union’s Red Army on January 27, 1945. The very name of this Nazi death camp in southern Poland is synonymous with the greatest crimes and horrors of the 20th century, a byword for capitalist barbarism in its most extreme form.

Between early 1942 and late 1945, transport trains delivered Jews from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe to the gates of Auschwitz, which bore the infamous slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes [you] free”). Over 1.1 million people were put to death at Auschwitz, hundreds of thousands of them sent immediately to gas chambers, others exterminated through starvation, overwork, disease or the hideous medical experiments carried out by the likes of Josef Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death.”

While 90 percent of those murdered in the camp were Jews, 150,000 Poles, including political prisoners, 23,000 Romani and Sinti (Gypsies), 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and other national minorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals were imprisoned and exterminated there.

The Nazi regime’s “final solution of the Jewish question,” was part of a wider “General Plan for the East,” which envisioned the reduction of the population of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by some 30 million through starvation and mass deportations. The plan included the demolition of cities and the turning over of the land to German colonists. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had lost 14 percent of its population, some 27 million people, while Poland lost some 5.8 million, 16 percent of its population.

Auschwitz and all of the associated crimes of the Nazis were carried out by a regime brought to power with the support of Germany’s capitalist ruling class for the purpose of smashing the country’s socialist workers movement and overcoming the crisis of German capitalism by means of militarist aggression and conquest.

The observance of the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation this year was attended by just a few hundred of the dwindling number of survivors of the death camp, most of them in their nineties. Many made statements of urgency and poignancy, conscious that they would not likely be present at the next major anniversary.

“People forget what Auschwitz was, and it terrifies me, because I know to what kind of hell it leads,” said Roman Kent, 85. He concluded his remarks at the ceremony by stating, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future.”

These words resonated all the more because the ceremony was overshadowed by a new drive toward world war and the threat of historic crimes to come, horrors that are being consciously prepared through the falsification of history. This was evident in the deliberate attempts to turn the anniversary into a vehicle for whipping up anti-Russian sentiment in Europe and promoting the US-led “war on terror.”

On the eve of the event, the Polish government went out of its way to snub the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin, while inviting the head of the NATO-backed regime in Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko, as an honored guest. Asked by a Polish radio station whether Warsaw’s attitude toward Putin wasn’t petty, Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna replied that the Russian president’s presence was superfluous because Auschwitz had been liberated by “the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians.”

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the history of Auschwitz knows that it was liberated by a unit of the Soviet Union’s Red Army. More than 200 Soviet troops died in the battle to liberate Auschwitz and the adjacent Polish town. The so-called “Ukrainian Front” was named not for the national composition of its troops, but for the location where it had last fought in driving back the German occupiers.

This grotesque historical revisionism is of a piece with the statement made earlier this month by Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on German television in which he condemned the “Soviet invasion of Ukraine and Germany” in World War II.

As for the present Ukrainian regime, given a place of honor at the ceremony, it was brought to power nearly a year ago through a US- and German-orchestrated coup spearheaded by the fascist bands of Svoboda and the Right Sector, which venerate the legacy of Hitler’s SS and of the Ukrainian fascist units that participated in the Holocaust.

Among the heads of state attending the ceremony was France’s President François Hollande, who in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris invited to the presidential palace Marine Le Pen. Her National Front party is the political heir of the French Nazi collaborators of the Vichy regime. Hollande’s gesture marked yet another step in the drive by European governments to legitimize and rehabilitate fascism.

Also present was German President Joachim Gauck, who has served as the standard bearer for the revival of German militarism and a return to the great power imperialist politics that led to the catastrophes of World War I and World War II.

As an essential part of this process, German academics are revising history, downplaying the central responsibility of the German state for the previous world wars, and even relativizing the crimes of the Third Reich. The chief representative of this tendency in German historiography, Ernst Nolte, is being feted as a great historian. And in February 2014, the Berlin-based historian Jörg Baberowski — an ardent defender of Nolte — told Der Spiegel magazine: “Hitler was no psychopath, and he wasn’t vicious. He didn’t want people to talk about the extermination of the Jews at his table.”

While much was written about Putin’s absence from the ceremony Tuesday, little was made in the media of US President Barack Obama’s decision to send the relatively unknown treasury secretary, Jack Lew, to represent Washington, while he and top US military and intelligence officials flew to Saudi Arabia to discuss Middle East war plans with the monarchical regime in the wake of Saudi King Abdullah’s demise.

Once again, as in the period that led to the rise of fascism in Europe and the outbreak of the Second World War, world capitalism is gripped by a deep and systemic crisis that drives the rival imperialist powers to seek their salvation through militarist aggression abroad and the destruction of the social and democratic rights of the working class at home.

Seventy years after its liberation, Auschwitz stands not as some abstract symbol of the human potential for “evil,” but rather as a grim and urgent warning of the crimes and catastrophes that capitalism in crisis is capable of inflicting upon humanity.

Once again, the world working class is confronted with the stark alternatives of socialism or barbarism, in which even the crimes of the Nazis can be eclipsed in a nuclear Third World War.

Bill Van Auken

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/28/pers-j28.html

A Student Jubilee! Liberate 41 Million Americans From Crushing Loan Debt

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‘It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free,’ write the authors. ‘We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt.’ (Image: via youtube)

President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college education, and the broader discussion which it has inspired, confirms our belief that it is time for a comprehensive solution to a $1.3 trillion problem: student debt in the United States.

We strongly support the concept of tuition-free public higher education, and are encouraged by renewed arguments in its favor. But we must also confront what has been done to the last several generations of students. They have been forced to take on debt that is crippling to them, to our economy and our society.

A student debt “jubilee” would reflect both the values upon which this nation was founded, and the economic principles which have sustained it through its greatest periods of growth and prosperity.

It is time for a truly transformative idea:  Let’s Abolish All Student Loan Debt in America.

If you agree, click here to take action.

Jubilees Then and Now

The Liberty Bell represents our nation’s core values, combining personal freedom with community action. The words inscribed on the Bell – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof” – are from the Book of Leviticus and refer to a Biblical “Year of Jubilee,” when all debts were periodically forgiven by the nation’s rulers.

Those Jubilee years – proclaimed at 49 year intervals for over 4,000 years – were both moral and practical in nature. On one hand, they were an acknowledgement that prolonged and excessive debt was an unconscionable burden. That morality is woven into the ethical foundation of Western civilization, which accepts the notion of fair debt but rejects indebtedness which is usurious or impinges on human freedom.

But they were also an economic necessity, preserving social harmony while ensuring uninterrupted production. The practical value of debt forgiveness has been explored by scholars who note that it reinforces social cohesion and prevents large groups of people from falling into poverty or oppression.

These goals remain as important today as they were in ancient times. A vibrant middle class is the engine of a functioning economy. A sustainable future is impractical without it.

While “Jubilee Years” were created long ago, the concept lives on today in different forms. Most modern Western societies have drawn on similar moral and practical arguments to end usury, indentured servitude, and slavery. Bankruptcy laws extend a kind of individualized “jubilee” to people who are over-burdened with debt. (Ironically, student debt is exempted from most forms of bankruptcy relief.)

Now we face a new moral challenge.  We need a new and transformative movement, one which echoes the struggles of recent history while drawing its inspiration from ancient traditions. Our massive student debt burden is a moral and ethical challenge. This debt draws upon the as-yet unearned wealth of each new generation, mortgaging tomorrow’s wealth and inhibiting the prosperity of the future.

How did we get here?

The Rise of Student Debt

There was a time in living memory when many Americans could obtain public higher education at little or no tuition cost. Today a college degree has become prohibitively expensive for many, while millions of others are required to borrow extensively in order to meet its soaring costs.

Rather than address the cost of education, the root cause of the problem, the government became the primary lender for student debt,  a move which contributed to runaway costs and crippling indebtedness. As a result, student debt is now the second-largest form of personal debt in this country, exceeding credit card debt and trailing only home mortgages.

Student debt is a dark betrayal at the heart of the American promise, and it must come to an end.

The statistics paint a clear picture: Student debt has soared, and continues to rise. The total amount owed is now $1.3 trillion. Approximately 41 million Americans now carry student debt, a figure which rose 40 percent between 2004 and 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average amount owed for each graduating borrower has risen from less than $10,000 in 1993 to more than $30,000 in 2014 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). This debt has disproportionately affected lower-income Americans, but has affected households at all but the very highest income levels.

It gets worse. Unscrupulous “educators” and loan servicers in the private sector have exploited unwary students and their families. For the last six years, debt-burdened college students have entered the worst employment environment for young people and graduates in modern history. Politicians who have been too timid to tax hedge fund billionaires the same way they tax their personal assistants are ironically using the money from debt-burdened students and their families to offset the loss.

Social factors make the burden even greater.  Upward social mobility is at record lows for the United States, and continues to fall. We pride ourselves on being a nation where “anyone who wants to work hard can get ahead,” but the statistics belie that statement. Education seems to be the last avenue of advancement for lower- and middle-class American young people, many of whom are faced with a terrible choice: either accept their economically disadvantaged lot in life, or assume a crushing debt on the hope that tomorrow’s earnings will eventually offset today’s burden.

This is not a moral system. It is our nation’s Faustian bargain with the future, forcing students and their families to mortgage their hopes and dreams because society is no longer willing to provide them with an education. That is a moral abdication and it has led to a form of indentured servitude for young college graduates, many of whom entered the worst job market in decades.

A Moral – and Practical – Solution

Student debt doesn’t just represent a breakdown in our social conscience. It also reflects a loss in our longstanding economic judgment. The entire society benefits from well-educated citizens, who provide it with better employees, brighter visionaries and leaders, artistic enrichment, and wiser participants in a collaborative democracy.

It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free. We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt. Here’s how it can work:  Most student loan debt (approximately 86 percent) is held by the Federal government. That means it is actually owned by the very people who owe the debt.  That debt will can be forgiven by government action. The remainder is held by private lenders and will be the subject of future proposals.

Many people’s first reaction will be: We can’t afford it. While we will provide more detail on the funding process soon, the answer is a simple one:  Yes, we can.

First, let’s reflect on our priorities. The Jubilee would cost less than the 2001 tax cuts, which  primarily benefited the wealthiest among us – and is only slightly more than the ten-year cost of offshore tax loopholes for corporate America.  For another perspective, astudy published 18 months ago showed that the costs of the war in Iraq had already exceeded $2 trillion.

We realize that a “student debt jubilee” will cost money. But it will also stimulate economic growth, by injecting more money into the overall economy, and that growth will provide more tax revenue for the government.  There will also be a major expansionary effect, as young Americans liberated from debt are able to buy homes, start businesses and pursue their dreams. And in the future our economy will benefit from a better-educated population.

Going Forward

As we address today’s student debt, we must also ensure that tomorrow’s college students aren’t forced into excessive debt. We must therefore see to it that residents of every state have access to tuition-free public higher education. This is not a radical notion, or even a new one.  President Obama’s plan for free community college stands on firm footing.  The University of California was tuition-free until the 1960s, for example, and free higher education was available in New York City for well over a century.  Germany has just joined the growing list of nations which offer their citizens a cost-free college education.

We are pleased that the President’s community-college proposal has sparked a new debate about four-year education as well. But tomorrow’s free tuition, should we achieve that goal, will not relieve the crushing debt burden of the past.

We are not naive. We know that this idea will meet with bitter resistance from those who argue that it “rewards the undeserving” or encourages irresponsible borrowing. (Paradoxically, many of those who will make those arguments remained silent as Wall Street was rescued and tax breaks were offered to undeserving financial speculators.) There are those who will argue that the idea is fiscally irresponsible, despite the fact that it will have a positive economic impact in the long-term.

We also know that, while the concept is simple, it will require more thought and discussion. That’s why we will continue to explore and expand upon this proposal until we have reached our goal. This is a new idea to most people. It represents a fundamental shift in our moral universe, just as other such struggles – for workplace rights, women’s rights, and civil rights – have in the past. It is an idea whose time has come.  But these shifts don’t come easily. They take time, and debate – and an organized movement.

We hope you will join us.

If you agree, click here to take action.

“Public sentiment is everything.  With public sentiment, nothing can fail.  Without it, nothing can succeed.”  — Abraham Lincoln

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.

Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at  Harvard University and co-founder of the National Student Debt Jubilee Project.

Steven Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder and President Emeritus of the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

 

http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/27/student-jubilee-liberate-41-million-americans-crushing-loan-debt