“An injury to all”: the class struggle is back in Italy

by Alfredo Mazzamauro on November 24, 2014

Post image for “An injury to all”: the class struggle is back in Italy

As Renzi’s center-left government intensifies the project of neoliberal restructuring, a wave of self-organized class struggle takes off across Italy.

Back in 2006, Warren Buffet, the notorious billionaire speculator, confessed during an interview that: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Since then, that class warfare has been ever tougher in Italy. Since 2000, real wages have been decreasing, registering an even sharper downturn since the beginning of the crisis in 2007-’08. In real terms, wages nowadays are as high as in 1990.

At the same time, unemployment has skyrocketed. The number of unemployed people was registered at 3.23 million in September 2014. Italy’s jobless rate increased to 12.6 percent in the same month, while its youth unemployment rate (aged 15-24) was 42.9 percent. In September 1983, the two rates were respectively 7.5 and 25.9 percent, respectively. The Gini coefficient, the most common measure of economic inequality, has gone back to the same levels of the 1970s. In 2012 it averaged out at 34.9 per cent, a level as high as in 1979.

But probably, since the beginning of the last economic crisis (2007-08), the most evident indicator of the ongoing class war in Italy has been the increasing disposal income of the bourgeoisie and the steadily decreasing income of the working class, which shows to what extent the crisis has been an opportunity for the rich to privatize profits and socialize losses.

A Clear Political Project

The ongoing class war in Italy is not a byproduct of “natural” global economic developments. On the contrary, it is a clear political project carried out by the center-right and center-left governments that have ruled Italy for the last thirty years. The aim of this project has been to consistently deteriorate the improvements in the living and working conditions that the working-class movement obtained during the revolutionary wave of the 1970s, with the goal recreating the bosses’ mirage of cheap and disciplined labor that could attract international capital to Italy.

Particularly, since the beginning of the last economic crisis, the neoliberal project set up by the Italian bourgeoisie along with its European partners in the 2011 memorandum has become the political agenda of the last three governments, led respectively by Monti, Letta and Renzi (none of whom, incidentally, were elected by the Italian people).

The first of the three sections which composed the memorandum has been the enforcement of austerity measures meant to drastically reduce the state’s expenses for local administrations, infrastructure, welfare, schools and healthcare. These measures triggered the fierce resistance of the student movement back in 2008-’11 against the Gelmini school reform, and the outburst of the anti-austerity protests more recently focused on the housing problem.

The second section has consisted in a wave of privatization, which has involved mainly the transport, telecommunication, and post services against which, last winter, tough protests were organized by workers and users — protests that are likely to rise up again very soon.

The third and final section of the memorandum deals with the labor market and aims to entirely deregulate it. At the moment the current government is trying to enforce this labor policy through a package of laws called the Jobs Act. This agenda constitutes the political manifesto of the Italian bourgeoisie — to the extent that the President of the Italian Industrialists Association (Confindustria), Giorgio Squinzi, recently referred to Renzi’s labor policy as “a dream come true.”

A Wave of Mobilization

The effort to pass the Jobs Act in Parliament has triggered a wave of mobilization in the working class all over the country. Even the until-recently innocuous trade union CGIL was forced to step in and call for a huge demonstration in Rome at the end of October and a general strike on December 5. In the meantime, workers are striking and protesting as they have not done for many years, against the Jobs Act and in defense of their jobs.

This violent attack against workers is rightly understood as the next step of a political project aimed to impose precarity as the standard living condition for all the lower classes — “all those who produce and reproduce urban life.” That is why it was possible to unify the struggles which cross society against the school reform and the austerity measures, particularly the right to housing, on November 14.

On that date, along with the general strike called by most of the main rank-and-file unions and by the biggest metalworker union, FIOM, thousands and thousands of people took the streets with the goal of blocking the circulation of goods and people in the main Italian cities. The day of mobilization started early in the morning with blockades at the entrance of several warehouses and working places.

In Pisa, the workers of AVR blocked the entrance to the offices of the subcontracted cleaning company which is seeking to worsen the working conditions and reduce the wages. Later on, the same workers along with local activists joined the workers of GB at the local airport where they had to clash with cops to win the right to protest against the working conditions imposed by a company which is gaining millions of euros out of the management of the airport.

As for the students, lessons were interrupted in many universities, including the Federico II University in Naples. In Rome, the housing action movement occupied the offices of the local water provider, ACEA, to protest against the interruption of water service for users who are insolvent, while other activists along with many families in need of housing squatted a huge empty building, the former headquarters of a big Italian banking group, BNL.

At the same time, in Naples the registry offices were occupied against the Lupi plan which refuses to grant legal residence to those living in squatted houses. The Florentine housing action movement occupied a central junction paralyzing all traffic in the north of the city, the area with the highest percentage of squatted spaces.

In the middle of the morning, rallies and marches took place all over the country. Turin, Milan, Bergamo, Brescia, Genoa, Padua, Verona, Treviso, Venice, Bologna, Rimini, Florence, Pisa, Massa, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Olbia are only some of the many cities which were crossed by thousands of students, workers and activists throughout the country. All the demonstrations marched through the main roads to block the circulation of goods and workers over urban space as much as possible.

Clashes with riot police occurred in many cities, the harshest in Milan, Pisa and Padua. In several cases, such as Naples and Florence, the demonstrations ended or passed by the offices of the Industrialist Association, which was targeted by the demonstrators. This association has been rightly understood by the class movement as the real enemy which, along with Renzi’s government, is responsible for the current labor policy and precarity in every aspect of the life of the lower classes.

Resistance, Unity, Organization

Three words capture the political agenda that the working class and the social movements are currently trying to put into practice. The first one is resistance. Resistance against the political project that the Italian and European ruling class is enforcing over our lives. The laboring classes need to be faithful in their means of opposition, and not to think that the battle is already lost.

The second one is unity. Unity among those “whose only possession of significant material value is their labor-power.” This is the strong message which comes up from the November 14 day of mobilization, as the decision of the main rank-and-file union of the logistic sector, SiCobas, to march along with the metalworkers in a huge demonstration in Milan clearly shows.

The third is organization. The current enthusiasm cannot be enough to win the battle against Renzi’s government and its policy of enforced precarity. There is a need to organize the action of the subaltern classes in the long run and take advantage of different forms of direct action.

A concrete example of this political counter-project was put in place in Livorno where the recently formed Coordination of Workers of Livorno has been able to mobilize the whole city in support of their struggle against the loss of more than 2.000 jobs in the wider urban area. Last Saturday, notwithstanding the heavy rain, more than 3.000 workers, students, football supporters, housing-action activists and common people took to the street in an outstanding march which crossed the city, while most of the small retailers were closed in solidarity with the workers.

The Coordination in Livorno is a self-organized initiative which brings together hundreds of workers, mostly rank-and-file union representatives, from all over the urban area of Livorno. The concept behind this project is as simple as it is powerful: workers have common interests and their struggles are stronger when they are united regardless of who their employer is and which economic sector they are employed in. Despite the fact that the Coordination is only a few months old, it has already been able to put the labor issue at the forefront of the political agenda of the city.

The Livorno experience has proven that grassroots movements of workers, students and common people can be effective and can become the voice of the majority of the population. However, obstacles and enemies are opposing this possible development. A growing racist anger, which tends to divide migrants from the rest of the class, is growing in the suburbs of the Italian metropolises promoted by fascist groups, such as Casa Pound, and xenophobic parties, such us the Lega Nord, all over Italy, as the recent cases of Bologna and Rome demonstrate.

Nonetheless, the days of mobilization of November 14 and 15 open a path to be followed in the “everyday gray labor” in the working places and in the neighborhoods, and at a national level in the coming days of countrywide struggle — such as the general strike called by the CGIL on December 12. The class struggle is back in Italy and will shake our country for some time to come.

Alfredo Mazzamauro is a PhD researcher in History at the European University Institute in Florence.

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THE DIVINE COMEDY

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poemk, by Domenico di Michelino

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Dante: The Divine Comedy
Inferno: Canto I

While plumbing the depths of my Kindle seeking World War 2 research materials I discovered Dan Brown’s “Inferno” (2013) amongst the German books. I honestly don’t know how it got there.  But I began reading “Inferno” as a break from all the war material and Brown brought me back to the magical time I spent in Florence, Italy and my days as a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature and iconography. I went to Italy to research artistic symbols and images as reflected in literature and Florence was, of course, a major source of material. I even painstakingly translated parts of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” from the Medieval Italian. I miss the person I was back then. My plan was to stay in Florence but life intruded.

Fear and justice in the battle for Mexico’s future

by Petar Stanchev on November 22, 2014

Post image for Fear and justice in the battle for Mexico’s futureAs in 1968, Mexico’s political elites are once again using fear to silence the millions of protesters who demand justice for the Ayotzinapa students.

I woke up in fear, and for the rest of the day it controlled my life the way fear tends to control people’s lives. It dominated my thoughts the way it dominates people’s thoughts and actions, paralyzes them until they are deprived from all hope and the very basic human capacity to change the world around them.

My fear was provoked by a nightmare, not one I saw in my dreams, but rather a nightmare I have been unfortunate enough to observe with my own eyes and come to know intimately. It was the fear of waking up and realizing my friends have disappeared at night; lifted from their beds by men in uniforms, leaving friends and family behind who from that day on can only guess after the fate of their loved ones.

This fear is not imaginary. This is the fear I struggled to understand when talking to my friends and fellow students when I lived and studied in Mexico. It is a fear that is incomprehensible for someone who has not lived in a country where more than 100,000 have been killed and disappeared in less than ten years.

Although I participated in social and political movements in the country and was actively involved in student activist groups, I was still incapable of comprehending the terror that my friends felt when they saw the police or the army on the streets. I used to think it was exaggerated and they should not let themselves be influenced by this strategy of control. One can only understand this feeling when it becomes personal, when you wake up and feel the need to call your friends in order to be sure they are alive and well.

Students under Attack

On Saturday, the night before I woke up in horror, an undercover policeman shot and injured two students on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the biggest public university in Latin America. It is worth mentioning that the UNAM is an autonomous institution and as such it is a police-free territory. Exemptions to this rule can be made only if the police are asked to step in by the high administration of the institution.

This breach of autonomy is not without precedent: in 1968 the President at the time, Diaz Ordaz, ordered a military takeover of the university. The army moved in as journalists were ordered to move out. This happened in the context of the large-scale, countrywide student protests which actively opposed the Olympic Games. To show their opposition against the Games being held in a country characterized by increasing inequality the students took to the streets, shouting slogans like: “We don’t want games, we want revolution.”

After the shooting last week, students organized and attacked the aggressors. They burned their car and confiscated their documents, proving they were undercover police. The government then sent five hundred riot police to deal with the issue who subsequently clashed with autonomously organized groups of students at the doors of the institution.

These events do not happen in a social vacuum. The repression of the UNAM students comes at a moment when hundreds of protests, direct actions, marches, sit-ins and strikes organized by people from all walks of life and many different backgrounds are organized to demand social and political justice. This new wave of popular dissent was provoked by the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero on September 26 earlier this year.

The students of the rural school in Ayotzinapa protested to condemn the extremely poor conditions of their school and education in Mexico and to protest the neoliberal reforms in education. The police opened fire on them, killing six and arresting 43 of the student-activists. It is now months later and nobody is sure where they are, but the terrifying suspicion, confirmed by various sources, is that they have been brutally killed and some of them probably burned alive.

The political crisis that is shaking the country threatens to evolve into full-scale revolt with students, armed guerrillas, anarchists and indigenous groups raising legitimate demands for the President of the Republic to resign and for policies ensuring the basic social, human, political and ethnic rights of the population.

Bloody Past, Bloody Present

The Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto already has blood on his hands from previous atrocities, such as the one in Atenco in 2006, when he was Governor of the State of Mexico. In this event he ordered the police to take over the city during popular protests, resulting in 207 people subjected to brutal and degrading treatment, 145 arbitrary arrests, the sexual assault of 26 women, and the deportation of five foreigners.

Upon returning to Mexico after a tour of China and Australia, Peña Nieto openly threatened the popular movement that he is going to use of force, if necessary. Translated, this means sending in the army and the newly created national gendarme against the protesters. This, of course, is hardly the only example of extreme violence carried out by the security forces of Mexico during Peña Nieto’s presidency, but it illustrates how decisive he is on cracking down on popular protest with brute force and at any price.

Back in 1968, President Diaz Ordaz stood up in front of Congress and warned that he had been tolerant for too long and that he would have to resort to force to pacify the students. He, as the majority of Mexican Presidents, was a member of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country without interruption between 1920 and 2000. Peña Nieto is also a member of the same party which returned to power in 2012 after Nieto’s electoral victory that year.

Some of the party representatives shocked the country in the previous days with their public declarations. Luis Adrián Ramírez Ortiz, a militant of the PRI’s youth league, compared the protesters to “wild beasts who do not deserve to live” and invoked the spirit of Diaz Ordaz, stating that Mexico needs to be headed by someone like him in order to preserve its image to the world. The ex-Federal Deputy Marili Olguín Cuevas, also a member of the PRI, published a status on Facebook saying “kill them so they don’t reproduce.” Another member and syndicate leader loyal to the PRI stated after the clashes in Mexico City days ago: “And then they wonder why they are burning them. Rednecks.”

Apparently, a significant number of contemporary PRI officials would welcome a return to the days when Diaz Ordaz still ruled the country. Back in 1968 the President answered the popular call for “revolution instead of Games” by mobilizing the country’s security forces against the protesters. On October 2 that year, snipers attacked the mass demonstration at Tlatelolco square, causing an upheaval that legitimized sending army troops and tanks into the square. This day is remembered as the Tletelolco massacre, in which hundreds of students were either shot dead or simply disappeared.

The aftermath of the massacre saw a proliferation of policies that allowed for a total crackdown on social protests, eventually culminating in a dirty war in the state of Guerrero, not unlike the ones that characterized the military regimes in Argentina and Chile. Back then, the resistance in Guerrero was headed by two teachers from the very same school attended by the 43 disappeared students.

They were forced into clandestine resistance and the government could crush the popular support in the state only by leveling entire villages and attacking the civilian population with napalm. During this rebellion, hundreds of local peasants were murdered or disappeared. This is the scenario some PRI party members and officials evoke as desirable if the current protests continue.

Fearless Resistance

Commemorating the horrors of ’68 will not stop them from happening again, on the contrary: they are already happening. It would be an understatement to note that the repression is getting worse. Mass graves are being found all over the country, and evidence of more and more police and army brutality is being made public by victims and relatives who were until now too scared to step forward.

Indigenous groups rise up against five hundred years of genocide, challenging the neoliberal agenda that destroys their land and eradicates their culture. Parents of the disappeared are organizing to demand justice. Migrants march on the capital in order to stop the murders that have taken away the lives of more than 20.000 since 2006. Students and activists raise voices over the brutality and repression that were meant to silence their revolt against market-driven reforms in the education.

Anarchists and activist groups shout in solidarity with comrades who are condemned to life in prison. Women shout “not a single one more!” in reference to the devastating level of femicides in the country. Guerrillas in Guerrero declare their preparation for war against a state that condemns half of the Mexican people to live in poverty. The Zapatistas in Chiapas march in thousands to demand justice for Ayotzinapa and the indigenous groups around the country.

Meanwhile, the only answer all these different groups get from the corrupt and unscrupulous political elite is: “we do not care about you — and if you dare to resist, we will send in the army. We have done it before and got away with it, we will not hesitate to do it again.” These threats arise from a climate of fear which has taken shape in the years of the so-called “War on Drugs,” which was used as a pretext to militarize the society and crack down on any movement for change.

This fear is a weapon of control, stronger than any gun, tank or helicopter, stronger than bullets and executions. This fear is the one I woke up with. And I woke up with it, because my friends in Mexico stopped waking up in fear and flooded the streets, rejecting the fear that negates their humanity.

Fear and justice are and will be part of the battle of those fighting for their lives in the streets of Mexico. What is at stake is the question whether the government will be allowed to keep repeating the horrors of 1968. My fear is to wake up and discover that my friends have had the dignity not to accept the threat and sacrificed themselves in the face of a machine of death and destruction — or, as the Zapatistas say, that they have decided to “die in order to live.” Their fear, meanwhile, is that their children will have to repeat the tragedy they are witnessing now, if fear conquers the movement once again.

Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years.

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The One Party Planet: an analysis of the world today

by James Wan on November 19, 2014

Post image for The One Party Planet: an analysis of the world todayHas the time come to revive the radical political pamphlet? /The Rules’ critique of neoliberalism as presented in The One Part Planet proves that it is.

Back when I was at university and feeling particularly idle one night, I had an idea to test my college magazine’s “we-publish-anything” policy and also have a bit of fun. I decided to make up a bunch of absurd ‘facts’ and submit them under the heading Did You Know?. Chuckling to myself, I made-up ‘facts’ such as: “Bhutan has two national flags: one for when it’s sunny, one for when it’s raining”, “In the Malay language, there are 4 words for ‘fridge magnet’ but none for ‘fridge“, and “There are no mice in Nicaragua”.

The whole thing was clearly silly and my intention was that readers might just about believe the first claim − that “pork is a mild aphrodisiac” − and maybe even the first few, but as the facts got increasingly ludicrous, they would realize the exercise had been a hoax all along.

Once the magazine was published the next week then, I was astonished to realize that barely anyone had got the joke. Everyone of course had instantly known that some of the facts were complete nonsense − the scientists, for example, knew full well that iguanas don’t have seven lungs, and I doubt any film buffs really believed the working title for Jaws had been ‘What a Big Shark!’ − but while they all discarded certain specific claims, very few questioned the validity of the list as a whole. The facts they knew to be false, they discarded; the rest they still took at face value.

 

 

 

 

 

I tell this story not just as a cautionary tale to any editors who receive submissions from me late at night, but to highlight one essential cognitive bias. Namely, that it is not particularly difficult to be skeptical towards individual details − the numbered ‘facts’ − but it is rare for that skepticism to broaden out into a questioning of underlying assumptions. In this case, the premise of the list as a whole. Sometimes all those trees just end up obscuring the wood.

It is this tendency that partly accounts for why so few people realized my list of made-up facts was complete bullshit, but which also helps explain one the conundrums of the progressive movement: that despite widespread acknowledgement of huge global injustices and inequalities, the underlying assumptions of the system tend to get an easy ride.

There is plenty of rightful outrage at corruption, endemic poverty and systemic exploitation, yet from most political discussions to mainstream media debates, and from well-meaning ethical consumerist actions to celebrity-sponsored charity campaigns, there appears to be an implicit acceptance that what we’re doing on a broad scale is basically fine. The problem, apparently, is that we need to do it a little better, tweak it here and there, or add something else on top.

It is well-known that workers’ rights in many places are systematically trampled on; that a billion people are chronically malnourished even though we produce enough food to feed the world one and a half times over; that the governments of developing countries lose at least $1 trillion each year through tax havens; that levels of greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating despite an apparent commitment from world leaders to decrease them; that the richest 1% of the world own half of all global wealth; and that, according to World Bank figures, 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10/day while 60% live on less than $5.

All this is acknowledged and provokes anger. But in the same way my college readers were skeptical of the claim that “Pope Benedict used to be a professional arm-wrestler” yet never questioned the integrity of the list as a whole, it is rare that outrage at global injustices translates into doubt at the efficacy of the system itself. It seems that no matter how extreme, numerous or engrained the inequality, poverty or oppression, the idea that large-scale change is necessary is still simply ‘too radical’ for most.

Of course, it is not just our cognitive biases that prevent a greater acceptance of progressive views. Advocates of market liberalism have been hugely successful in painting their ideology as non-ideological common sense. But the question remains: if knowledge of deep global problems is not enough to make people question the wisdom of the status quo, what can?

There are certainly many possible answers to this question, and any struggle of ideas has to be waged at several levels on several fronts. Some strategies will no doubt need to be smart and innovative, drawing on new forms of communication and technology. But at the same time, perhaps we also need to look back to older tried and tested tools: things like the humble political pamphlet for instance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is exactly what the activist organization /The Rules has done with The One Party Planet, a 60-page pamphlet that provides a detailed critique of neoliberalism and the unbridled power of the 1% (or rather 0.01%). We are essentially a “one party planet”, it argues, bringing together several different strands of reasoning and evidence, because the global political and economic elite all essentially hold the same worldview.

From American CEOs to Chinese party officials, and from African presidents to Russian oligarchs, there is an overwhelming consensus that unrestrained selfish competition is not only the best, but the only possible, way to organize society. This is not a conspiracy concocted in dark smoky rooms, and the individuals at the top don’t share some grand master plan. But the internal logic of their actions is one and the same, and this has contributed, the pamphlet argues, to a situation in which an unelected elite wield incredible influence over politics and inequality has reached outlandish levels.

In response to this, The One Party Planet culminates in a carefully argued call for a global uprising. This might seem like a contradiction − how can you carefully call for an uprising? − but that is perhaps where the power of the political pamphlet, and this one in particular, lies. Unlike books, which can be long and detached; newspaper articles, which can be brief and fleeting; and documentaries, which are received somewhat passively, the political pamphlet speaks directly to the reader with enough time and space to make a clear and detailed argument. It can make the apparently radical seem self-evident.

And perhaps this is one of the greatest weapons the progressive movement has right now. After all, the evidence and statistics about poverty, inequality and corruption are increasingly being understood and accepted − the facts have become mainstream. Maybe what we need first and foremost now then is fairly simple − something that will sit us down, talk us through it, and connect the dots. Something that can make the case that the foremost global problems of our age are not isolated but interconnected, not superficial but structural, and not inevitable but man-made. The One Party Planet does this with impressive depth, humility and conviction.

Download the pamphlet here

James Wan is the Senior Editor of Think Africa Press. His work has featured in a wide range of publications and in 2013 he was shortlisted for The Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. You can follow him on twitter at @jamesjwan

The meme-ification of Ayn Rand

How the grumpy author became an Internet superstar

“Feminist” T-shirts are her latest viral sensation. Why the objectivist’s writings lend themselves to the Web

, The Daily Dot

The meme-ification of Ayn Rand: How the grumpy author became an Internet superstar
Ayn Rand (Credit: WIkimedia)
This article originally appeared on The Daily Dot.

The Daily Dot Ayn Rand is not a feminist icon, but it speaks volumes about the Internet that some are implicitly characterizing her that way, so much so that she’s even become a ubiquitous force on the meme circuit.

Last week, Maureen O’Connor of The Cut wrote a piece about a popular shirt called the Unstoppable Muscle Tee, which features the quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

As The Quote Investigator determined, this was actually a distortion of a well-known passage from one of Rand’s better-known novels, The Fountainhead:

“Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?”

“Yes.”

“My dear fellow, who will let you?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

Ironically, Rand not only isn’t responsible for this trendy girl power mantra, but was actually an avowed enemy of feminism. As The Atlas Society explains in their article about feminism in the philosophy of Objectivism (Rand’s main ideological legacy), Randians may have supported certain political and social freedoms for women—the right to have an abortion, the ability to rise to the head of business based on individual merit—but they subscribed fiercely to cultural gender biases. Referring to herself as a “male chauvinist,” Rand argued that sexually healthy women should feel a sense of “hero worship” for the men in their life, expressed disgust at the idea that any woman would want to be president, and deplored progressive identity-based activist movements as inherently collectivist in nature.



How did Rand get so big on the Internet, which has become a popular place for progressive memory? A Pew Research study from 2005 discovered that: “the percentage of both men and women who go online increases with the amount of household income,” and while both genders are equally likely to engage in heavy Internet use, white men statistically outnumber white women. This is important because Rand, despite iconoclastic eschewing ideological labels herself, is especially popular among libertarians, who are attracted to her pro-business, anti-government, and avowedly individualistic ideology. Self-identified libertarians and libertarian-minded conservatives, in turn, were found by a Pew Research study from 2011 to be disproportionately white, male, and affluent. Indeed, the sub-sect of the conservative movement that Pew determined was most likely to identify with the libertarian label were so-called “Business Conservatives,” who are “the only group in which a majority (67 percent) believes the economic system is fair to most Americans rather than unfairly tilted in favor of the powerful.” They are also very favorably inclined toward the potential presidential candidacy of Rep. Paul Ryan (79 percent), who is well-known within the Beltway as an admirer of Rand’s work (once telling The Weekly Standard that “I give out Atlas Shrugged [by Ayn Rand] as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.”).

Rand’s fans, in other words, are one of the most visible forces on the Internet, and ideally situated to distribute her ideology. Rand’s online popularity is the result of this fortuitous intersection of power and interests among frequent Internet users. If one date can be established as the turning point for the flourishing of Internet libertarianism, it would most likely be May 16, 2007, when footage of former Rep. Ron Paul’s sharp non-interventionist rebuttal to Rudy Giuliani in that night’s Republican presidential debate became a viral hit. Ron Paul’s place in the ideological/cultural milieu that encompasses Randism is undeniable, as evidenced by exposes on their joint influence on college campuses and Paul’s upcoming cameo in the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part 3. During his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Paul attracted considerable attention for his remarkable ability to raise money through the Internet, and to this day he continues to root his cause in cyberspace through a titular online political opinion channel—while his son, Sen. Rand Paul, has made no secret of his hope to tap into his father’s base for his own likely presidential campaign in 2016. Even though the Pauls don’t share Rand’s views on many issues, the self-identified libertarians that infused energy and cash into their national campaigns are part of the same Internet phenomenon as the growth of Randism.

As the Unstoppable Muscle Tee hiccup makes clear, however, Rand’s Internet fashionability isn’t always tied to libertarianism or Objectivism (the name she gave her own ideology). It also has a great deal to do with the psychology of meme culture. In the words of Annalee Newitz, a writer who frequently comments on the cultural effects of science and technology:

To share a story is in part to take ownership of it, especially because you are often able to comment on a story that you are sharing on social media. If you can share a piece of information that’s an absolute truth—whether that’s how to uninstall apps on your phone, or what the NSA is really doing—you too become a truth teller. And that feels good. Just as good as it does to be the person who has the cutest cat picture on the Internet.

If there is one quality in Rand’s writing that was evident even to her early critics, it was the tone of absolute certainty that dripped from her prose, which manifests itself in the quotes appearing in memes such as “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” or  “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others” and “The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity.” Another Rand meme revolves around the popular quote: “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on Earth is the individual).”

What’s particularly noteworthy about these observations, aside from their definitiveness, is the fact that virtually no one adhering to a mainstream Western political ideology would disagree with them. Could you conceive of anyone on the left, right, or middle arguing that they’d accept being forced to live for another’s sake or want another to live solely for their own? Or that their ambitions are not driven by a desire to beat others? Or that they don’t think success comes from seizing on opportunities? Or that they think majorities should be able to vote away the rights of minorities?

These statements are platitudes, compellingly worded rhetorical catch-alls with inspiring messages that are unlikely to be contested when taken solely at face value. Like the erroneously attributed “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me,” they can mean whatever the user wishes for them to mean. Conservatives can and will be found who claim that only they adhere to those values while liberals do not, many liberals will say the same thing about conservatives, and, of course, Rand wrote each of these statements with her own distinctly Objectivist contexts in mind. Because each one contains a generally accepted “absolute truth” (at least insofar as the strict text itself is concerned), they are perfect fodder for those who spread memes through pictures, GIFs, and online merchandise—people who wish to be “truth tellers.”

Future historians may marvel at the perfect storm of cultural conditions that allowed this Rand boom to take place. After all, there is nothing about the rise of Internet libertarianism that automatically guarantees the rise of meming as a trend, or vice versa. In retrospect, however, the fact that both libertarianism and meming are distinct products of the Internet age—one for demographic reasons, the other for psychological ones—made the explosion of Randisms virtually inevitable. Even if they’re destined to be used by movements with which she’d want no part, Ayn Rand isn’t going to fade away from cyberspace anytime soon.

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/18/how_ayn_rand_became_an_internet_superstar_partner/?source=newsletter

President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson: Social Welfare Benefits the Free Market

by Big Think Editors

November 13, 2014, 12:00 PM
Olafur-grimsson-bg2-yt

Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson recently visited Big Think to discuss a number of the successes and challenges relevant to his small island nation. These are issues both resonant in the present day as well as looking ahead toward the future. A few weeks ago, Grímsson tackled climate change, obviously a challenge moving forward rather than a success (at least, not yet). As for today, the topic is one that has contributed to the progress and prosperity of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland.

Each of those nations, says Grímsson, has a competitive free market economy augmented by a robust social welfare system. These programs ensure that “everybody, irrespective of their income and class, gets the same right to education, to healthcare, and to equal treatment in an economic way.” In countries like the United States, social welfare and economic progress are sometimes seen as opposing goals. As Grímsson explains, social welfare in the Nordic states is integral to economic progress:

“This coexistence of a social welfare society, with a right to education and healthcare equally distributed throughout society, is one of the pillars of our economic and business success. So you cannot find any business organization in any of the Nordic countries, which is advocating that we should decrease this social welfare system. On the contrary, the prominent business leaders of our countries realize that the evolution of this social welfare system in terms of education and healthcare is one of the major reasons why the Nordic businesses have been globally so successful and why our market economies have grown so aggressively.”

Grímsson tells how an established system dedicated to caring for the sick and educating every child allows the business community to focus on what they do best — business.

“The Nordic formula, not just the Icelandic one, but also from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, has created what The Economist, the preeminent weekly economic newspaper in the world, deemed a few months ago perhaps the most successful economic model in the last few decades.”

Finally, Grímsson notes that his American friends who decry the Nordic system and employ words like “socialist” as pejorative terms are completely missing the point. All you have to do is look at Iceland’s economic record, as well as the economies of the other Nordic states, to realize that the rewards of this particular social framework transcend all outdated and myopic biases.

“The evidence is absolutely clear that to provide everybody with a right to education and healthcare is a formula for economic and business success.”

For more on social welfare’s role in the successful Nordic free market economy, watch the following clip from President Grímsson’s Big Think interview:

President Grímsson’s is co-founder of Arctic Circle, a non-profit, non-partisan open assembly focused on Arctic issues.

http://bigthink.com/think-tank/president-of-iceland-olafur-ragnar-grimsson-social-welfare-is-good-for-the-free-market

The Interregnum: Why the Future is so chaotic

The Interregnum:

Why the Future is so chaotic

“The old is dying,and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a diversity of morbid symptoms”-Antonio Gramsci

The morbid symptoms began to appear in the spring of 2003. The Department of Homeland Security was officially formed and despite the street protests of millions around the world, the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext of capturing Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction”. By summer it was obvious that there were no such weapons and that we had been tricked into a war from which there was no easy exit. Pollsters began to notice that a majority of American’s felt we were “on the wrong track” and the distrust of our leadership has gotten worse every year.

So while the citizens exhibit historical levels of anger with the country’s drift, neither the political nor the economic leaders have put forth an alternative vision of our future. We are in an Interregnum: the often painful uprooting of old traditions and the hard-fought emergence of the new. The traditional notion of an interregnum refers to the time when a king died and a new king had not been coronated. But for our purposes, the notion of interregnum refers to those hinges in time when the old order is dead, but the new direction has not been determined. Quite often, the general populace does not understand that the transition is taking place and so a great deal of tumult arises as the birth pangs of a new social and political order. We are in such a time in America.

For those of us who work in the field of media and communications the signs of the Interregnum are everywhere. Internet services decimate the traditional businesses of music and journalism. For individual journalists or musicians, the old order is clearly dying, but a new way to make a living cannot seem to be birthed. Those who work in the fields of film and television can only hope a similar fate does not await their careers. In the world of politics a similar dynamic is destroying traditional political parties and the insurgent bottom up, networked campaigns pioneered by Barack Obama now become the standard. And yet we realize that for all it’s insurgency, the Obama campaign really did not usher in a new era. It is clear that there is an American Establishment that seems to stay in power no matter which party controls The White House. And the recent election only makes this more obvious. But this top-down establishment order is clearly dying, but it clings to it privileges and the networked, bottom-up society is not yet empowered.

Since 1953 when two senior partners of a Wall Street law firm, the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles began running American foreign (and often domestic) policy, an establishment view, through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike, has been the norm. As Stephen Kinzer (in his book The Brothers)has written about the Dulles brothers, “Their life’s work was turning American money and power into global money and power. They deeply believed, or made themselves believe, that what benefited them and their clients would benefit everyone.” They created a world in which the Wall Street elites at first set our foreign policy and eventually (under Ronald Reagan) came to dominate domestic and tax policy — all to the benefit of themselves and their clients.

In 1969 the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a ”Great Stagnation”, bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy. The notion that what benefited the establishment would benefit everyone, had been thoroughly discredited.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Kinzer writes of the Dulles brothers, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.” From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined and drive us deeper in debt. The second principle of the establishment was, “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the efforts of Clinton’s Treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks, to see that the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise that Obama then appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused?

So when we observe politicians as diverse as Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul railing against the twin poles of establishment orthodoxy, can we really be surprised? Is there not a new consensus that the era of America as global policeman is over? Is there not agreement from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street that the domination of domestic policy by financial elites is over? But here is our Interregnum dilemma. It is one thing to forecast a kind of liberal-libertarian coalition around the issues of defense spending, corporate welfare and even the privacy rights of citizens in a national security state. It is a much more intractable problem to find consensus on the causes and cures of the Great Stagnation. It does seem like we need to understand the nature of the current stagnation by looking back to the late sixties when the economy was very different than it is today. In 1966, net investment as a percentage of GDP peaked at 14% and it has been on a steady decline ever since, despite the computer revolution which was only getting started in the early 1970’s.

Economic growth only comes from three sources: consumption, investment or foreign earnings from trade (the Current Account). We have been living so long with a negative current account balance and falling investment that economic growth is almost totally dependent on the third leg of the stool, consumer spending. But with the average worker unable to get a raise since 1969, consumption can only come from loosened credit standards. As long as the average family could use their home equity as an ATM, the party could continue, driven by the increasing sophistication of advertising and “branded entertainment” to induce mall fever to a strapped consumer. And by the late 1990’s consumer preferences began to drive a winner take all digital economy where one to three firms dominated each sector: Apple and Google; Verizon and AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable; Disney, Fox, Viacom and NBC Universal; Facebook and Twitter. All of this was unloosed by the establishment meme of deregulation — a world in which anti-trust regulators had little influence and laissez-faire ruled. These oligopolies began making so much money they didn’t have enough places to invest so corporate cash as a percentage of assets rose to an all time high.

Here is my fear. That our current version of capitalism is not working. Apple holds on to $158 billion in cash because it can’t find a profitable investment. And because U.S. worker participation rates are only 64%, a huge number of people can never afford an I Phone and so domestic demand is flat (though very profitable) and the real growth in the digital economy will be in Asia, Africa and South America. There is not much the Fed lowering interest rates can do to alter this picture. What is needed is not more easy money loans; it more decent jobs.

But unlike our left-right consensus on military spending, there is a fierce debate raging between economists about the causes and solutions to this stagnation. Though both left and right agree the economy has stagnated, there are huge differences in the prospects for emerging from this condition. On the right, the political economist Tyler Cowen’s new book is called Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. Here is how Cowen sees the next twenty years.

The rise of intelligent machines will spawn new ideologies along with the new economy it is creating. Think of it as a kind of digital social Darwinism, with clear winners and losers: Those with the talent and skills to work seamlessly with technology and compete in the global marketplace are increasingly rewarded, while those whose jobs can just as easily be done by foreigners, robots or a few thousand lines of code suffer accordingly. This split is already evident in the data: The median male salary in the United States was higher in 1969 than it is today. Middle-class manufacturing jobs have been going away due to a mix of automation and trade, and they are not being replaced. The most lucrative college majors are in the technical fields, such as engineering. The winners are doing much better than ever before, but many others are standing still or even seeing wage declines.

On the left, Paul Krugman is not so sure we can emerge from this stagnation.

But what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades?…In fact, the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers. Yes, that Larry Summers.

Cowen forecasts a dystopian world where 10% of the population do very well and “the rest of the country will have stagnant or maybe even falling wages in dollar terms, but they will also have a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and cheap education.” That’s real comforting. He predicts the 90% will put up with this inequality for two reasons. First, the country is aging: “remember that riots and protests are typically the endeavors of young hotheads, not sage (or tired) senior citizens.” And second, because of the proliferation of social networks, “envy is local…Right now, the biggest medium for envy in the United States is probably Facebook, not the big yachts or other trophies of the rich and famous.”

Although Cowen cites statistics about the fall in street crime to back up the notion that the majority of citizens are passively accepting gross inequality, I think he completely misunderstands the nature of anti-social pathologies in the Internet Age of Stagnation. Take the example of the Web Site Silk Road.

Silk Road already stands as a tabloid monument to old-fashioned vice and new-fashioned technology. Until the website was shut down last month, it was the place to score, say, a brick of cocaine with a few anonymous strokes on a computer keyboard. According to the authorities, it greased $1.2 billion in drug deals and other crimes, including murder for hire.

From Lulzsec to Pirate Bay to Silk Road, the coming anarchy of a Bladerunner like society are far more vicious than a few street thugs in our major cities. The rise of virtual currencies that can’t be traced like Bitcoin only make the possibilities for a huge crime wave on the Dark Net more imminent—one which IBM estimates already costs the economy $400 billion annually.

So while both Cowen and Krugman agree that stagnation is causing the labor force participation rate to fall, they disagree as to whether anything can be done to remedy the problem.

In the early 1970’s the participation rate began to climb as more and more women entered the workforce. It peaked when George Bush entered office and has been on the decline ever since. As the Time’s David Leonhardt has pointed out, this has very little to do with Baby Boomer retirement. The economist Daniel Alpert has argued in his new book, The Age of Oversupply, that “the central challenge facing the global economy is an oversupply of labor, productive capacity and capital relative to the demand for all three.”

Viewed through this lens, neither the policy prescriptions of Republicans nor Democrats are capable of changing the dynamic brought about by the entrance of three billion new workers into the global economy in the last 20 years. Republican fears that U.S. deficits will lead to Weimar-like hyper-inflation ring hollow in a country where only 63% of the able bodied are working. Democrats hectoring for The Fed and the banks to loan more to business to stimulate the economy are equally nonsensical when American corporations are sitting on $2.4 trillion in cash.

But there is a way out of this deflationary trap we are in. First the Republicans have got to acknowledge the obvious: America’s corporations are not going to invest in vast amounts of new capacity when there is a glut in almost every sector worldwide. Secondly, that overcapacity is not going to get absorbed until more people go back to work and start buying the goods from the factories. This was the same problem our country faced in the great depression and the way we got out of it was by putting people to work rebuilding the infrastructure of this country. Did it ever occur to the politicians in Washington that the reason so many bridges, water and electrical systems are failing is because most of them were built 80 years ago, during the great depression? For Republicans to insist that more austerity will bring back the “confidence fairy”is exactly the wrong policy prescription for an age of oversupply. But equally destructive, as Paul Krugman points out are Democratic voices like Erskine Bowles, shouting from any venue that will pay him, that the debt apocalypse is upon us.

But the Democrats are also going to have to give up some long held beliefs that all good solutions come from Washington. If the Healthcare.gov website debacle has taught us anything, it is that devolving power from Washington to the states is the answer to the complexity of modern governance. While California’s healthcare website performed admirably, the notion of trying to create a centralized system to service 50 different state systems was a fool’s errand. So what is needed is a federalist solution for investment in the infrastructure of the next economy. This is the way out of The Interregnum. Investors buying tax-free municipal bonds to rebuild ancient water systems and bridges as well as solar and wind plants will finance much of it. But just as President Eisenhower understood that a national interstate highway system built in the 1950’s would lead to huge productivity gains in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Federal tax dollars will have to play a large part in rebuilding America. As we wind down our trillion dollar commitments to wars in the Middle East, we must engage in an Economic Conversion Strategy from permanent war to peaceful innovation that both liberals and libertarians could embrace.

The way to overcome the partisan gridlock on infrastructure spending would be for Obama to commit to a totally federalist solution to us getting out of our problems. The Federal Government would use every dollar saved from getting out of Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other defense commitments in block innovation grants to the states. Lets say the first grant is for $100 Billion. It will be given directly to the states on a per capita basis to be used to foster local economic growth. No strings or Federal Bureaucracy attached to the grants except that the states have to publish a yearly accounting of the money in an easily readable form. And then let the press follow the money and see which states come up with the most imaginative solutions. Some states might use the grants to lower the cost of state university tuition. Others might spend the money on high-speed rail lines or municipal fiber broadband and wifi. As we have found in the corporate sector, pushing power to the edges of an organization helps foster innovation. As former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano told his colleagues, “we have to lower the center of gravity of this organization”.

If it worked, then slowly more money could be transferred to the states in these bureaucracy free block grants. Gradually the bureaucracies of the Federal government would shrink as more and more responsibility was shifted to local supervision of education, health, welfare and infrastructure.

In the midst of our current Washington quagmire this vision of a growing American middle class may seem like a distant mirage. But it is clear that the establishment consensus on foreign policy, defense spending, domestic spying and corporate welfare has died in the last 12 months. The old top-down establishment order is clearly dying, but just how we build the new order based on a bottom-up, networked society that works for the 90%, not just the establishment is the question of our age.