German economics minister rushes to exploit business opportunities in Iran

Der SPD-Bundesvorsitzende Sigmar Gabriel sitzt am 17.03.2013 auf dem SPD-Landesparteitag in Salem (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) auf dem Podium. Neben den Neuwahlen des Landesvorstands bereiten die 95 Delegierten bei dem zweitägigen Treffen die Bundestagswahl vor. Foto: Jens Büttner/dpa (Qualitäts-Wiederholung) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

By Johannes Stern
27 July 2015

Rarely in recent years have the foreign travels of a leading German politician caused such a stir as the visit earlier this month to Iran by the German Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel (Social Democratic Party, SPD). With the ink barely dry on the recently-negotiated nuclear program agreement with Iran, Gabriel was already bound for Tehran in the company of a high-level business delegation.

Berlin’s foray into one of the most strategically important and resource-rich countries in the Middle East—Iran has the fourth largest oil and second largest gas reserves in the world—is part of German imperialism’s return to the world stage. Significantly, the visit took place the same week as the federal government enforced a brutal austerity program on Greece and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Cuba with a delegation.

Gabriel’s trip to Iran was so sudden and his related objectives so obvious that even a number of media outlets, which otherwise regularly beat the drum for a more aggressive German participation in world affairs, felt compelled to comment critically on the expedition.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called it “embarrassing” and warned: “Now the impression has been given that Germany is mainly concerned about its business interests. Arriving late is stupid, but sometimes flying off too early is a lot more stupid.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also referred to Gabriel’s trip as “quick off the mark, if not over-hasty.” The paper’s columnist wrote that it might perhaps “help German industry to once again secure a foothold in this market after the long years of sanctions.” It was, however, “an ambiguous signal” in relation to German foreign policy, according to FAZ.

Criticism of Gabriel’s delegation even came from within the government’s own ranks: “I’m worried about the declaration that Iran is one of our friends,” said Roderich Kiesewetter (Christian Democratic Union, CDU), the CDU/Christian Social Union (CSU) alliance representative in the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag (federal parliament). He added that Iran could only be “our friend and a stability factor in the region,” when it “actually recognises Israel’s right to exist.” Former SPD parliamentarian and German-Israeli Society president Reinhold Robbe stated that Gabriel gave the impression “that Germany sets its economic interests above everything else.”

The arrogant bluster of Gabriel certainly helped to confirm this “impression.” Soon after his government plane landed at Mehrabad international airport in Tehran, he told German reporters: “Traditionally we have good relations [with Iran], and many companies want to build on existing contacts. And the chance for this will emerge when the agreement enters into force early next year. It will be the first major step, but there will certainly be many more that will have to be taken.”

The business representatives in his entourage were even less able to restrain their enthusiasm for the new opportunities opening up for the export and commodity-hungry German imperialism. President of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) Eric Schweitzer said, “German industry is highly regarded in Iran,” and continued: “During the reign of the Shah, Iran was Germany’s second most important export market outside Europe. Many want to follow up on that.”

DIHK head of foreign trade Volker Treier proclaimed, “The Iranian economy is geared more towards industry than one might assume. With its 80 million inhabitants and a strong industrial base, the country is predestined to be an export market for German companies.”

The German business press is also enthusiastic about the development. The monthly Manager Magazin gushed that, in addition to “a highly qualified workforce,” there are “a lot of raw materials” available in Iran. The country is seen as “a sleeping giant” that has “substantial pent-up economic demands as a result of sanctions in recent years.”

German imperialism and German capital consider the Iran nuclear agreement, brokered in part through the efforts of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as an opportunity to build on their traditionally close relations with Iran and increase their economic and political influence across the whole region.

Die Welt writes that “the opportunities opening up for German companies in Iran are outstanding.” Relations between businesses from both countries are recognised to have “grown over decades,” and “some German companies have been involved in the heartland of the former Persian empire for more than 100 years.”

According to official sources, some 80 German companies are currently operating directly through branches in Iran, and about 1,000 other enterprises have representatives there. Among the largest German concerns on site are Henkel, Siemens and Bayer. Following the sharp decline in economic relations over recent years, the value of German exports had already increased by almost a third to €2.4 billion (US$2.6 billion) in 2014.

The DIHK now expects a doubling of German exports within the next two years to around €5 billion (US$5.5 billion). The Federation of German Industries (BDI) even assumes that German companies could be exporting goods worth more than €10 billion to Iran in the near future.

Following a joint meeting with Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh on Monday, Gabriel announced that Germany and Iran will resume the operation of a joint economic commission beginning in 2016. Iranian President Hassan Rohani expressed hope that Berlin would play a “positive role” in the development of relations between the two countries and also between Europe and the entire Middle East, “just as it had done in the nuclear program negotiations.”

What Rohani and the Iranian regime describe as “positive” means in fact the complete submission of the country to the plundering of imperialist powers 35 years after the Iranian revolution.

Commenting under the headline “The Great Race,” the Süddeutsche Zeitungsuggested that Germany “is not the only country that wants a careful return to normality.” It pointed out that, although Gabriel was the “first high-ranking western politician in Iran” since the nuclear deal, several other EU foreign ministers had already paid visits to Tehran. France had already sent “a 130-strong business delegation to Iran in February 2014,” in which oil giant Total, plant builder Alstom, the Orange telecommunications group and French automakers were represented.

China is also regarded as an obvious competitor. Anton Börner, head of the BGA foreign trade association, predicts that it will probably be “difficult” for the German business community to “once again become Iran’s largest trading partner.” According to Börner, Chinese companies that have exploited the past years of sanctions “to establish themselves in Iran” would “fight to maintain their position, when the sanctions are withdrawn.”

Commenting on increasing competition from Asian countries, Volker Treier said: “Chinese and Korean companies in Iran have now taken our place in the sun.” He said the Chinese now had “a trade volume of US$50 billion in their business with Iran. We won’t be able to get near such a scale of investment.”

The fact that leading German business representatives are again claiming their right to “a place in the sun” has far-reaching historical implications. When the imperialist forces of the so-called “late emerging German nation” first aspired to achieve “a place in the sun” (words subsequently used in Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow’s address to the German parliament on December 6, 1897), the phrase mainly referred to the possession of colonies in Africa and the Middle East, and the development of a unilateral global policy which twice led to disaster in the 20th century.

As in the past, the renewed grandstanding of German imperialism on the world stage will exacerbate tensions with the US. Although not openly discussed in public, the rush of German businesses to stake claims in Iran is driven by an attempt to forestall potential American competition, which will be excluded from the country prior to the US Congress’s vote on the nuclear program agreement. An Iran dominated by German imperialism or German-led European imperialism would also be a direct geo-strategic challenge to US imperialism, which has concluded the nuclear deal primarily in order to defend its own hegemony in the region.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/27/iran-j27.html

Post Capitalism

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Jonathan Taplin on Jul 25

The British journalist Paul Mason published a provocative except from his new book Postcapitalism in the Guardian last week. His theory is that the sharing economy is ushering in a new age.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed — not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies — the giant tech companies — on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world — Wikipedia — is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Since the 1930’s when Lord Keynes worried about a future in which we would have so much leisure time that we might not be able to create enough poets to fill our evening hours. So of course I am skeptical as most of my friends are working longer hours than 10 years ago when their every waking hour wasn’t harried by smartphones chirping.

But I do believe that Mason’s point, about the potential of Open Source technology to break up the “fragile corporate edifice” constructed by the tech monopolies that I have written about, is real. Consider the edifice that was Microsoft’s Windows operating system in 1998 when the Justice Department brought its anti-trust action. Since that time two Open Source software systems, Linux and Apache have made huge inroads into the corporate and Web server business. Both systems were constructed by hundreds of thousands of man hours of free labor contributed by geeks interested in improving the software and sharing their improvements with a large community for free. So in that sense, Mason is right that this is a post capitalist construct.

But here is the current problem with the sharing economy. It tends towards a winner take all economy.

Whether Uber ends up buying Lyft is yet to be determined, but my guess is that market will look like markets dominated by AirBnb, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google. As Susie Cagle recently pointed out:

While technology has provided underlying infrastructure to spark and support new peer-to-peer network behavior, it hasn’t really changed anything about how those networks are built and owned. For example, we now have the tools and ability to disrupt the taxi industry by allowing collectives of drivers to reach customers directly — but instead, we have Lyft and Uber, multibillion dollar companies that neither offer benefits to their drivers, nor truly give them the opportunity to run their own independent businesses.

Likewise, we have the tools and ability to build collectively owned messaging and social platforms — but instead, we have Twitter and Facebook, which mediate what users can see from other users and collect personal data to better tailor advertising sales.

My concerns relate to the media and entertainment industry that we study at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. And in that world the possibility of using the Open Source model to build a new kind of Digital Distribution Cooperative seems very possible.

Ask yourself this question: why should YouTube take 55% of the ad revenue from a Beyonce (or any other artist) video when all they provide is the platform?

They provide no production money, no marketing support and their ad engine runs lights out on algorithms.

Imagine in today’s music business a distribution cooperative that would run something like the coops that farmer’s use (think Sunkist for orange growers). Here is how they are described.

Many marketing cooperatives operate through “pooling.” The member delivers his product to the association, which pools it with products of like grade and quality delivered by other members. After doing whatever processing is necessary, the co-op sells the products at the best price it can get and returns to the members their share of total proceeds, less marketing expenses.

In our model (much like the early days of the United Artists film distribution company formed in the 1920’s by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W.Griffith) the producers of music would upload their new tunes to the coop servers, do their own social marketing and probably end up getting back 85–90% of the revenues rather the 45% they get from YouTube. The coop could rent cloud space from Amazon Web Services just like Netflix and Spotify do.

All of this is possible because in the world of entertainment the artist is the brand. No one ever suggested to you, “let’s go to a Paramount movie tonight.” It is possible that we are entering a post capitalist age, but it cannot exist as long as the sharing economy is dominated by a few monopolists. Perhaps some bold experiments on the part of music artists could point the way towards a truly innovative way of using technology for the good of the artist rather than for her exploitation.

https://medium.com/@jonathantaplin/post-capitalism-f8d687d19c3

Samuel Kassow’s “Who Will Write Our History?”

By Clara Weiss
25 July 2015

Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel Kassow, Indiana University Press 2009, 523 pages.

It is rather unusual for a book to be reviewed several years after its first appearance. However, Samuel Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History?, which first appeared in 2007, is a major work of historical scholarship that should be welcomed by readers of the WSWS. Kassow’s history of the Oyneg Shabes underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto combines remarkable objectivity with a deep compassion for the tragic fate of Warsaw’s Jewry during World War II.

“Who will write our history”, © Indiana University Press

The Oyneg Shabes [Joyful Sabbath] was the largest underground archive in Nazi-occupied Poland. It was set up by a group of Jewish teachers, writers, rabbis and historians under the guidance of the Jewish-Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum. Between the beginning of the war and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, the Oyneg Shabes collected thousands of documents on the Nazi persecution of Polish Jewry. It gathered diaries and essays, conducted thousands of interviews with prisoners of the ghetto and collected several surveys about the composition of the ghetto population. Of the three hidden caches of the archive, only two could be found after the war.

Nevertheless, the 6,000 documents (comprising between 25,000 and 30,000 pieces of paper) to this day remain the single most important documentary basis for any historical study of the annihilation of Polish Jewry. As of yet, very little of it has been published, and most of it only in Hebrew, Polish or Yiddish.

Hersh and Bluma Wasser, surviving members of Oyneg Shabes, with a portion of the secret archive © The Ghetto Fighters Museum Israel

In Who Will Write Our History?, Samuel Kassow, professor of history at Trinity College, Connecticut, presents not only the history of the archive and some of its key documents, but also tries to outline the cultural climate and political convictions of the pre-war period that underlay the heroic efforts of the Oyneg Shabes during the war.

Ringelblum and the Left Poalei Tsiyon

Emanuel Ringelblum was born in 1900 to an impoverished Jewish family in the Galician town of Buchach, then part of the Habsburg Empire (today it forms part of Ukraine). Since Jews in Galicia, unlike in the Russian Empire, enjoyed access to higher education (they were restrained only by their financial means), Galicia was home to a relatively well-educated Jewish intelligentsia that was at the same time fervently nationalistic. After the foundation of the Second Polish Republic, Ringelblum left Galicia for the new Polish capital, Warsaw, to study history.

Emanuel Ringelblum

The Warsaw of the 1920s was a politically tumultuous city and home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Here, Ringelblum emerged as an important figure of working class politics and historiography in inter-war Poland. In a detailed, objective and complex chapter, Kassow describes the left-wing Jewish politics that shaped Ringelblum’s outlook as a historian.

With its large Jewish population—which included not only the most oppressed layers of the working class, but also many different petty-bourgeois layers—Poland became the center of a variety of Jewish political organizations.

Next to the Bund, which split from both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, the most significant Jewish organization was the Poalei Tsiyon. The party was founded in the early 1900s. Its chief ideological influence was the Labor Zionist Ber Borochov. Attacking the Bolsheviks’ position on the Jewish question, Borochov argued that the Jewish proletariat needed its own nation-state in order both to conduct the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and to fight national oppression.

After the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the Bolshevik government for the first time granted full civil rights to a substantial part of Eastern European Jewry. (See also: Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution). In response to these developments, the Poalei Tsiyon split into a left and a right wing in 1920. (Borochov himself had turned against the revolution before his early death in December 1917.) The right wing opposed the Revolution and was oriented toward gathering support from British imperialism for the foundation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In Palestine, the Right Poalei Tsiyon became the basis for David Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity), the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party, which played a major role in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the Left Poalei Tsiyon (LPZ), whose own members in Russia supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, defended the Soviet Union and advocated world revolution. The LPZ’s claim to admission to the Third International (Comintern) was rejected by Lenin, however, as the party refused to break with the ideology of Ber Borochov. The Left Poalei Tsiyon continued to support the foundation of a Jewish nation state in Palestine, albeit on a “socialist basis.” Central to the organization’s political and cultural work was its emphasis on the significance of Yiddish culture, based on the language of the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

Overall, the LPZ stood significantly to the left of the better known and larger Bund, which opposed the seizure of power by the working class in 1917 and continued to work within the Second International. Many members of the LPZ and its youth organization, Yugnt (Youth), defected to the Communist Party of Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s, and both organizations often worked together closely.

Given the extraordinary impoverishment of substantial sections of Jewish workers and intellectuals and the growing anti-Semitism under the regime of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, both left-wing organizations enjoyed significant support. The Bund and the LPZ oversaw impressive networks of newspapers, ran their own schools and were active in numerous self-help organizations and trade unions. As Kassow points out:

For a young person who lived in a cellar in Lodz’s impoverished Balut or Warsaw’s Smocza Street, groups like the Bund and the LPZ were far more than mere political parties. They represented a road to self-respect and human dignity, a way to strive for ‘something better.’ (p. 35)

However, the LPZ politically did not survive the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Kassow only hints at the impact of the changing nationality policies in the Soviet Union; the Moscow Trials; the murder by Moscow of the entire leadership and most of the membership of the Polish Communist Party, whom Stalin suspected of sympathizing with his main political opponent, Leon Trotsky; and then the dissolution of the Polish Communist Party by Stalin in 1938. One could add to this list the anti-Semitism that was used by the Stalinist bureaucracy in its struggle against the Left Opposition from the mid-1920s onward. Facing a deep political and financial crisis that began in the early 1930s, the LPZ rejoined the World Zionist Congress in 1937, on the eve of World War II.

Ringelblum became a member of the Poalei Tsiyon shortly before the party split, and then joined the left faction. He remained within the party until the end of his life. During the 1920s and 30s, Ringelblum played a leading role in the party’s youth organization, Yugnt, and focused much of his work on the education of poor Jewish youth in the LPZ’s Ovnt kursn far arbiter (Evening classes for workers).

As Warsaw was gradually replacing St. Petersburg as the center of Eastern European Jewish scholarship, Ringelblum, along with historians such as Isaac Schiper and Bela Mandelsberg, founded the Yunger Historiker Krayz (Young Historians’ Circle). Influenced by both Marxism and Zionism, these historians emphasized that historical research was a weapon in the national struggle for emancipation of the Jewish people and for combatting the growing anti-Semitism in inter-war Poland.

Emanuel Ringelblum with his son Uri in the 1930s, © Yad Vashem

Ringelblum stressed the significance of zamling (collecting material). In his opinion, the study of history had to be a collective project, engaging as many people as possible. In fact, the Jewish historians were so poor and politically isolated that they relied to a great extent on the Polish-Jewish community in order to continue their work. Ringelblum also worked as a community organizer in collaboration with the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization headquartered in the United States, trying to help impoverished Polish Jews who came under increasing political and economic pressure during the 1930s.

The Oyneg Shabes in the Warsaw Ghetto

Ringelblum’s convictions as a politician and a historian underlay much of his work during the war, when Poland, with its Jewish population of over 3 million, became the main site of the annihilation of European Jewry.

In November 1940, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe. Over 400,000 people (around 30 percent of the city’s population) were crowded into just 1.3 square miles (2.4 percent of the city of Warsaw). The meager food rations (184 calories per day) forced the great majority of the population to starve. Typhus and other diseases spread under conditions of extreme overcrowding and a lack of hygienic facilities. An estimated 80 percent of the many children in the ghetto were poor. By July 1942, before the beginning of the Great Deportation, around 100,000 people had died of hunger and disease.

To ameliorate the deplorable conditions and poverty, numerous political and social activists founded the so-called Aleynhilf (Self-Help). The different political parties that supported the Aleynhilf set up their own soup kitchens, many of which became sites of the ghetto’s underground press. The Aleynhilfsoon also came to play a major role in the house committees that had initially been formed spontaneously. Ringelblum was a leading figure in the Aleynhilfand, under the cover of the self-help organization, established the Oyneg Shabes in early 1941. (The term Oyneg Shabes means Joyful Sabbath in old Hebrew; the name signifies that in the beginning, the staff always met on the Sabbath.)

The Oyneg Shabes consisted of some 60 members with very different professional, political and personal backgrounds. Kassow introduces some of the outstanding representatives of the Oyneg Shabes in brief biographical sketches. They included the important Yiddish writer Gustawa Jarecka (1908–1943); the teacher Abrahm Lewin (1893–1943), like Ringelblum a member of the LPZ; the businessman and Yiddishist Shmuel Winter (1891–1943); Yitzhak Giterman (1889–1943), a left-wing Zionist and head of the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland; the writer and journalist Peretz Opoczynski (d. 1942); as well as the economists Menakhem Linder (1911–1942) and Jerzy Winkler (d. 1942). Only three members of the Oyneg Shabes were to survive the war.

In late 1942, Ringelblum wrote about the staff of the Oyneg Shabes:

Each member of the Oyneg Shabes knew that his effort and pain, his hard work and toil, his taking constant risks with the dangerous work of moving material from one place to another—that this was done in the name of a high ideal.… The Oyneg Shabes was a brotherhood, an order of brothers who wrote on their flag: readiness to sacrifice, mutual loyalty, and service to [Jewish society]. (quoted, p. 145)

Abraham Lewin with his daughter Ora before the war. Both were murdered in early 1943, © Yad Vashem

The staff of the archive collected thousands of documents about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Striving to present as complete a picture of Jewish society in the Ghetto as possible, they investigated, among other things, the role of smuggling for the economy of the ghetto and of Poland. They also organized essay contests to gather material about the destruction of shtetls (traditional small Jewish villages) by the Nazis and on Polish-Jewish relations during the war.

The economist Menakhem Mendel Kon (1881–1943), also a member of the archive, wrote:

I consider it a sacred duty for everyone, whether proficient or not, to write down everything he has seen or heard from others about what the Germans have done.… It must all be recorded without a single fact left out. And when the time comes—as it surely will—let the world read and know what the murderers have done. When the mourners write about this time, this will be their most important material. When those who will avenge us will come to settle accounts, they will be able to rely on [our writings]. (quoted, p. 154)

Another major motif for the work of the archive was to preserve documents of Jewish life and resistance, and the legacy of the Jewish intellectual elite. As Kassow notes:

Only twenty-five years separated the birth of modern secular school systems in Hebrew and Yiddish from the Nazi onslaught. Yet this short period had produced a new intelligentsia of East European Jewish writers, teachers, economists, and journalists—an intelligentsia cut down so quickly, exterminated so totally, that Ringelblum feared that it would be totally forgotten. (p. 366)

Basing himself on the work of the Oyneg Shabes, Kassow paints a complex picture of Ghetto society with its massive social inequality and different political tendencies. He analyzes different positions on the Judenrat (Jewish Councils), as well as the behavior of the Jewish policemen and the population’s attitude toward them.

Kassow also describes the different moods within the ghetto’s population by providing numerous quotations from diaries and other testimonies. Witnessing the stunning brutality and barbarity of the Nazis—whom Abraham Lewin aptly called “twentieth century Huns”—many inhabitants of the Ghetto became deeply demoralized and pessimistic. In light of this unprecedented break-down of civilization, they started questioning the viability of the values and convictions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Ringelblum, too, struggled not to succumb to despair. Like many, failing to understand the impact of Stalinism in the 1920s and 30s, he struggled to comprehend the total collapse of the German working class in the 1930s. However, despite relapses into despair, Ringelblum until the end retained faith in the world revolution and human progress. In a conversation with Hersh Wasser, one of the three survivors of the archive’s staff, Ringelblum stated:

I do not see our work as a separate project, as something that includes only Jews, that is only about Jews, and that will interest only Jews. My whole being rebels against that. I cannot agree with such an approach, as a Jew, as a socialist, or as a historian. Given the daunting complexity of social processes, where everything is interdependent, it would make no sense to see ourselves in isolation. Jewish suffering and Jewish liberation and redemption are part and parcel of the general calamity [umglik] and the universal drive to throw off the hated [Nazi] yoke. We have to regard ourselves as participants in a universal [almenshlekher] attempt to construct a solid structure of objective documentation that will work for the good of mankind. Let us hope that the bricks and cement of our experience and our understanding will be able to provide a foundation. (quoted p. 387)

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Nazi regime escalated its anti-Jewish policies throughout Eastern Europe. In early 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Łódz Ghetto to the death facility Chełmno. Soon, major deportations started in Kraków. Shtetl after shtetl was wiped out and its population murdered. The scale of the Nazi murder of Jews was difficult to comprehend even for Ringelblum, who had access to much information from all across Europe.

On the basis of material forwarded to the Polish underground by the Oyneg Shabes, the BBC broadcasted in late May 1942 one of the first major news accounts of the evolving genocide. Soon thereafter, on July 22, 1942, the Great Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began. Within months, most of the ghetto’s population was rounded up, brought to the notoriousUmschlagplatz and deported to Treblinka, where they were all gassed. The Oyneg Shabes analyzed the impact of the Great Deportation in a break-down of the ghetto’s population by sex and age from November 1942. It found that 99 percent of the children between the ages of one and nine and almost 88 percent of the population over 50 had been murdered. Before the deportation there had been 51,458 children. By November 1942 there were only 498. In total, an estimated 265,000 Warsaw Jews were murdered between July 22 and September 21, 1942.

Warsaw Jews at the Umschlagplatz during the Great Deportation, © Yad Vashem

The archival material hitherto collected was buried in three milk cans in the first weeks of the Great Deportation. Several staff members, including Abraham Lewin and Peretz Opoczynski, nevertheless continued writing their diaries, even as their own families were at least in part sent to their death in Treblinka.

After the deportations, the mood within the ghetto changed dramatically. With almost everyone having lost much of their family, there were not only marked signs of social disintegration but also an increasing determination to offer resistance to the Nazi murderers. Many of the Oyneg Shabes members were involved in the preparations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943. In its Polish and Yiddish bulletins (Wiadomości and Miteylungen) the Oyneg Shabes warned Polish Jewry about its impending annihilation, calling upon the Jews to fight against the occupiers.

In response to the uprising, which was spearheaded by 200 youths, the Nazis set the ghetto on fire and razed it to the ground. Ringelblum and his family managed to escape before the destruction of the ghetto and eventually found refuge in a bunker (Krysia), where a Polish professor Wolski hid them along with over 30 other Jews. In March of 1944, the hide-out was discovered by the Germans (presumably because Wolski’s girlfriend betrayed him). Wolski himself and several of his family members were shot. Ringelblum was most likely tortured by the Gestapo and then taken to the ruins of the Ghetto with his family and other prisoners. When offered a way out of Poland by the Yiddish writer Yekhiel Hirschhaut without his son and wife, he refused. A few days later, Ringelblum was shot together with his family, Hirschhaut and all other prisoners in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.

A patrol of SS men during the uprising marching through the burning Ghetto

Even in the last months of his life, Ringelblum continued his work. Kassow highlights the enormous achievement of Ringelblum’s essay on Polish-Jewish relations. Although written under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, the essay is impressively objective—Ringelblum’s credo was to write “sine ira et studio” (without hate and zealousness)—and remains one of the most important works on this subject. It tackles questions such as the anti-Jewish pogroms by sections of the Polish population that were not to be raised by historians after 1945 for many decades.

Samuel Kassow deserves great credit for bringing the history of the Oyneg Shabes and several of its towering figures to the attention of a broader, international audience. Meticulously researched and consistently objective in its account, Who Will Write Our History? is an important scholarly achievement.

One of its chief merits consists in the detailed description of the political and intellectual culture in pre-war Poland that shaped Ringelblum’s concern for historical truth. In contrast to the embittered anti-Communism among historians of 20th century Poland in particular, Kassow takes a serious and objective approach toward the politics and ideology of the Left Poalei Tsiyon and its members. If anything, one might object that Kassow’s account puts too little emphasis on the devastating impact of Stalinism on the labor movement in Poland.

While Kassow himself clearly sees Ringelblum’s orientation toward Marxism to be his greatest weakness as a historian, this book shows that it was largely the impact of Marxism and the Russian Revolution that inspired the impressive objectivity, honesty and also the optimism which marked Ringelblum’s work.

That it took more than six decades for the first comprehensive history of the Oyneg Shabes to be written and published says a lot about the political and intellectual climate following the re-stabilization of capitalism after the defeat of the German Reich in 1945. (One might also mention that, to this day, little original research into the Holocaust in Poland has been put forward by non-Jewish German historians.) Emanuel Ringelblum, in particular, has gained far too little attention from scholars and among a broader readership, both in Poland and internationally.

Upon its publication in 2007, the book met with well-deserved critical acclaim. Indiana University Press and its main editor, Janet Rabinowitch, are to be credited with producing a meticulously edited work. By now, it has been translated into several languages, including German and French. Moreover, a film based on the book is currently being planned. The volume’s success shows that the subject matter and the manner of its presentation are striking a deep chord.

Who Will Write Our History? stands out all the more in an ideological climate where, under the impact of post-modernism, the rejection of historical truth and the study of history as a science are all too prevalent.

Asked about the main message of his work, Samuel Kassow stated in a radio interview from 2009:

I think the legacy [of the Oyneg Shabes and Ringelblum] is that in times of disaster one can resist not only with guns but also with paper and with pen. Ringelblum and many other Jews understood that if the Germans would win the war, they would determine how the Jews would be remembered, that they would control the sources, they would control the memory and the image. Jews in the Ghetto, historians in the Ghetto, even if they understood that they would probably not survive … still believed it was important to leave time capsules, to leave sources, so that posterity would remember Polish Jewry, its last chapter, on the basis of Jewish sources. The real message is that history is important. It’s important to conserve documents, it’s important to conserve a record. It’s not just for antiquarians, it’s not just for librarians, but it’s really about the future of an entire people. And on a more general level, it instills a healthy respect for preserving the sense of the past.

It speaks to the great legacy of the Oyneg Shabes that, on the basis of their work, Kassow was able to bring to life in his book political and intellectual traditions and figures that fascism sought to obliterate. On many levels, Who Will Write Our History? is one of the most significant history books of recent years and deserves the broadest possible readership.

An introduction into some of the material from Oyneg Shabes is provided online by Yad Vashem.

Works by Emanuel Ringelblum published in English:

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, Ibooks 2006.
Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, Northwestern University Press 1992.

The diary by the Oyneg Shabes member Abraham Lewin, covering the months April 1942 to January 1943, is also available in English:

A Cup of Tears. A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. by Antony Polonsky, Basic Backwell 1989.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/25/kass-j25.html

 

10 Brutal Ways the American Safety Net Is Being Shredded

FDR’s New Deal is in trouble in 2015.

On the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act of 1935, which established the social security system in the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal is on life support as the American middle class continues to be squeezed and millions of Americans struggle with poverty.

The U.S. desperately needed a New Deal 3.0 after the crash of September 2008 and a program of aggressive reforms. Instead, most of the welfare that followed the Panic of 2008 has been corporate welfare rather than programs to help America’s embattled poor and middle class. Overall, the U.S. has been moving away from the New Deal when it should be reinvigorating it. Below are 10 ways in which the New Deal (and by extension, LBJ’s Great Society) continues to be under attack in the United States.

1. Income Inequality Is Going from Bad to Worse

FDR firmly believed that capitalism cannot function well without a strong middle class, and even auto magnate Henry Ford agreed with him: Ford famously said that American workers needed to be paid a decent wage in order to be able to afford his products. And during the post-FDR America of the 1950s and 1960s, having a robust middle class was great for a variety of businesses. But in 2015—with the gains of the New Deal having been imperiled by everything from union busting to the outsourcing of millions of American jobs—income inequality in the U.S. is a huge problem. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report on income inequality among OECD members and found that the U.S. was among the worst offenders. The U.S., Mexico and Turkey had some of highest income inequality of OECD countries, while Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland and Belgium fared much better. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría commented that “high inequality is bad for growth,” and he’s absolutely right.

2. Republicans Yearn for Social Security Privatization

Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Republican, he supported elements of the New Deal and saw the need for a strong social safety net: in fact, Eisenhower expanded social security, and in 1954, he bluntly asserted that any oligarchs who would “attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor law and farm programs” were “stupid.” But in the 21st century, Republicans have been going after social security with a vengeance. The privatization of social security was proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004, and far-right Republicans, the Tea Party and wingnut lobbying groups like the Club for Growth have been doubling down on the idea of privatizing social security. GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush called for social security privatization at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in June, and he also favors raising the social security retirement age to 69 or 70, which would be especially bad for blue-collar workers who have spent decades in physically demanding jobs.

3. The 1% Continue to Dodge Taxes

FDR had no problem asking the ultra-wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes: the U.S.’ top marginal tax rate rose to 94% in the early 1940s, when the country entered World War II. Taxes for the ultra-rich didn’t go down much under Republican Eisenhower, who lowered the top tax rate to 91% in the 1950s—and after that rate decreased to 28% under President Reagan, it rose to 39.6% under President Clinton and decreased to 35% under President George W. Bush. Looking at the last 80 years of tax history, one sees a clear pattern: the American middle class does much better when the 1% pay their fair share of taxes. And even though the Tea Party tries to paint Barack Obama as a soak-the-rich president, their assertion is laughable because Obama extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t been nearly as forceful as FDR or Eisenhower when it comes to taxing the 1%.

4. The Minimum Wage Is Much Too Low

One of the important elements of the New Deal was FDR’s strong belief in a national minimum wage. FDR began to push for a federal minimum wage after taking office in January 1933, saying, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean the wages of a decent living.” And Congress enacted one in 1938, when the U.S.’ first federal minimum wage was set at 25 cents per hour. But in recent years, the federal minimum wage (which was raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009) has not kept up with inflation. Economist Robert Reich has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which he sees as a crucial part of economic recovery. And in some cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle, city councils have raised their local minimum wages to that amount. But at the federal level, an increase to even $10.10 an hour (President Obama’s proposal) is a steep uphill climb when both houses of Congress are dominated by far-right Republicans who hate the poor with a passion.

5. Infrastructure Continues to Deteriorate

The New Deal was great for the U.S.’ infrastructure thanks to programs that built or strengthened everything from roads to water and electric systems to municipal power plants. But in recent years, the American infrastructure has been seriously decaying—and a major wake-up call came on May 12, when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia and eight passengers were killed. But the nation’s railways are only one of the ways in which the U.S.’ infrastructure has deteriorated. According to Ray LaHood (former secretary of transportation for the Obama Administration), 70,000 bridges in the U.S. are now structurally deficient. That is in addition to all the roads that are in desperate need of repair. And when it comes to high-speed rail travel, the U.S. lags way behind Europe (where one can get from London to Brussels in just under two hours or from Madrid to Barcelona in less than three hours).

6. Union Representation Has Reached Historic Lows 

One of the most important pieces of New Deal-era legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a.k.a. the Wagner Act, which did a lot to advance labor unions in the U.S.: by the mid-1950s, around 35% of America’s labor force was unionized. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a mere 11.1% of salaried U.S. workers (factoring in both the public and private sectors) were union members in 2014. Among private-sector workers, the number was a paltry 6.6%. And the decline of unions has been encouraged bad working conditions: according to the Economic Policy Institute, executives at large companies earned, on average, 296 times as much as their average workers in 2013 compared to only 20 times as much in 1965. But as much as labor unions have declined in the U.S., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (a GOP presidential hopeful for 2016) and his fellow Republicans would like to see them decline even more. Walker recently set a disturbing precedent in that state when he supported anti-union legislation that prohibits private-sector unions from requiring members to pay union dues; Walker has, in essence, made Wisconsin a northern “right to work” state. And it’s safe to say that Walker, based on his actions in Wisconsin, would be among the most anti-union presidents in U.S. history.

7. “Too Big to Fail” Is Bigger Than Ever

Unlike many of today’s extreme-right Republicans and neoliberal corporatist Democrats, FDR was not afraid of offending the banking sector. FDR said of the banksters of the 1930s, “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” One of the New Deal achievements that banksters detested was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which mandated a strict separation of commercial and investment banking and was designed to prevent another major Wall Street calamity like the crash of 1929. Glass-Steagall served the U.S. well for many years: although there were some tough recessions in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s, none of them cut as deep as the Great Depression. But the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a major blow to the New Deal and paved the way for the crash of September 2008, clearly the most devastating financial event in the U.S. since 1929. Unfortunately, there was no real banking reform after the 2008 calamity, and as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are now “80% larger” than they were in 2007. Critics of the banking sector propose bringing back Glass-Steagall, including Reich (who warns that another major Wall Street crash “is not unlikely”) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And Sanders has proposed New Deal-like legislation that would break up the U.S.’ largest banks.

8. Medicare, An Expansion of the New Deal, Is a Major GOP Target

Medicare, which established a single-payer health care system for Americans 65 and older, was not part of the New Deal per se: Medicare came into being in 1965 as part of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (which was very much an extension of the New Deal). And the program proved to be so popular that even Republican President Richard Nixon (who was considered an arch-conservative in his day) expanded Medicare in both 1969 and 1972. But these days, far-right GOP wingnuts in the House of Representatives—especially Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee—have repeatedly called for drastic Medicare cuts and for replacing traditional Medicare with a privatized voucher program. In June, a variety of pro-Medicare groups (including the Alliance for Retired Americans and the Medicare Rights Center) sent a joint letter to the House criticizing representatives who wanted to cut $700 million from the Medicare program.

9. Home Ownership Is Becoming Increasingly Difficult for Many Americans, and the Rent Is Too Damn High

Before the New Deal, five-year or 10-year mortgages were the norm in the U.S., and were unaffordable for most Americans. But FDR saw home ownership as a crucial part of building a strong middle class: between the Federal Housing Administration, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the introduction of 30-year fixed-rate mortgages—all of which came about under FDR—home ownership in the U.S. gradually increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, home ownership in the U.S. went from 45% in 1920 and 47% in 1930 to 55% in 1950, 61% in 1960 and 62% in 1970. But the Crash of 2008 has been terrible for American homeowners, resulting in countless foreclosures, and banksters have been allowed to acquire and rent out many foreclosed homes. The private equity firm Blackstone Group had, as of late 2013, bought almost 40,000 homes in the U.S. in order to rent them. To make matters worse, all those post-2008 foreclosures have caused rents to skyrocket all over the country. And the more one pays in rent, the harder it is to save for a down payment on a home. To quote Jimmy McMillan, the rent is too damn high.

10. Wingnut Attacks on Food Stamps Never End

The American food stamps program started on a pilot basis under FDR’s secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, in 1939 but became permanent when LBJ signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law as part of his Great Society. In recent years, the U.S.’ economic decline has been so painful that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans poor enough to quality for food stamps was 46.2 million in 2014 compared to only 17 million in 2000. Food stamps, as envisioned under the New Deal and the Great Society, are designed to be a stepping stone for the poor—and the benefits (which presently average $127.91 per month per person, according to USDA figures) are hardly lavish. But that has not prevented Republicans in Congress from repeatedly proposing dramatic food stamp cuts during the Great Recession. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has been trying to punish and shame food stamp recipients by subjecting them to drug-testing.

Alex Henderson’s work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/10-brutal-ways-american-safety-net-being-shredded?akid=13331.265072.iZeSe-&rd=1&src=newsletter1039872&t=1

How to make $7 billion in 45 minutes

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite personal devices, in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

25 July 2015

On Thursday, Amazon, the online retail giant, announced that, contrary to analysts’ predictions and after months of financial losses, it had turned a profit in the second quarter.

The stock market responded with euphoria. Amazon’s share price surged by 18 percent in a single day, adding $40 billion to the company’s market capitalization. With 154,000 employees, Amazon overnight became the world’s largest retailer by market capitalization, surpassing Wal-Mart, with 2.2 million employees.

The market response was conditioned by the fact that stocks have been registering significant losses in the US in the past week, with earnings reports of major companies falling short of expectations amidst growing signs of slump in the United States and internationally.

These include a continuing sharp fall in the prices of commodities such as oil and iron ore, along with declining growth rates in China and a number of emerging markets, and ongoing stagnation in Europe. The International Monetary Fund earlier this month predicted the worst year for global growth since 2009, and last week the US Federal Reserve Board, in its semiannual Monetary Policy Report, painted a grim picture of the state of the US economy.

The signs are mounting—the stock panic in China, extreme volatility on US markets—that the disconnect between a stagnant real economy and a booming stock market, which has prevailed in the US since the beginning of the stock market recovery in the spring of 2009, may well be setting the stage for a new financial meltdown even greater than that of 2008.

In the meantime, multibillionaires such as Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos continue to milk the economy. For Bezos, Thursday’s trading was, to put it mildly, lucrative. He made $7 billion in 45 minutes.

Now the seventh-richest man in the world, Bezos saw his wealth surge to $43 billion. For all the hype surrounding the company he founded 20 years ago, Bezos got his billions by sweating his workers, monopolizing the market and capitalizing on a decades-long financial bubble.

Employees in Amazon’s fulfillment centers are paid $11-12 per hour. They are subject to grueling and humiliating conditions. They are regularly searched and foremen record how many times they use the restroom.

A 2011 report in a Pennsylvania newspaper noted that the company would not open the doors to ventilate one of its warehouses even when temperatures reached 110 degrees, for fear of theft. When workers started passing out, the company stationed ambulances outside for them.

Amazon now accounts for a bigger share of online sales than the next dozen competitors. It has used its enormous market power to strong-arm small publishers and authors, recently announcing unilaterally that it will start paying authors of e-books by the page view, instead of by the download, resulting in sharply reduced commissions. Bezos purchased the Washington Post with $250 million of his personal funds in 2013.

It is worth making some comparisons. The amount of money Bezos made Thursday is:

* Equivalent to what 300,000 US workers earning the median income earn in an entire year.

* Forty-seven times larger than the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

* Three hundred and eighteen times the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s deficit, which is being addressed by shutting off water to tens of thousands of households.

* More than two-thirds of the annual funding of America’s free and reduced-price school lunch program.

* Enough to provide every one of America’s 15.8 million hungry children $450 per year in food assistance.

The accumulation of such personal wealth amid the vast social misery that prevails in the United States can only be called obscene. But such an assessment would be news to the US media, which salutes every milestone hit by the Dow or NASDAQ with rapture and depicts the members of America’s billionaire oligarchy as geniuses and innovators.

There is something deeply dysfunctional about an economic system in which the announcement of a $92 million profit—the first-ever quarterly profit reported by Amazon—triggers $40 billion in share purchases in a matter of minutes.

The continual diversion of vast amounts of money into the stock market is a symptom of an underlying economic crisis of immense proportions. Every dollar that goes into speculating on a stock like Amazon, with a price-to-earnings ratio of nearly 1,000, is a dollar not used for productive investment.

While the real economy in the US has grown by only 13 percent since the depth of the recession in 2009, all three major American stock indexes have more than tripled. This year, NASDAQ for the first time surpassed the heights it reached just before the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000.

Meanwhile, the US economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. The falloff in economic activity was led by a collapse in business fixed investment, which fell by 2 percent. Investment in nonresidential structures fell by 18 percent.

The sharp fall in investment came despite the fact that US corporations are hoarding some $1.4 trillion in cash and similar assets, the largest such figure on record, amassed as a result of years of record profits amid falling wages and an influx of cheap money from the world’s central banks.

Instead of using this cash to hire workers and build factories, corporations are diverting it to raise dividends, buy back shares, hike executive pay and carry out mergers and acquisitions, all at record levels. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that major US corporations in 2013 spent 36 percent of their operating cash to buy back their own shares, more than double the rate a decade before.

This speculative frenzy has been driven by six years of near-zero interest rates and money printing by the Federal Reserve, whose policies underlie the enormous overvaluation of companies such as Amazon.

The performance of the US stock market has decoupled from economic growth to such an extent that any indication of genuine recovery in the real economy generally prompts a market sell-off, while signs of economic slump tend to send the markets higher.

This state of affairs is an expression of the crisis and decline of American capitalism, which has for nearly four decades responded to declining profit margins in manufacturing by turning ever more decisively to financial parasitism.

The US ruling class and the capitalist system over which it presides have no answers to the social crisis in America. For every problem, they have the same solution: impoverish workers and use the money to gamble on the stock market. If workers don’t like it, there are always the police to keep them in line.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/25/pers-j25.html

The PAH: defending the right to housing in Spain

By Timothy Ginty On July 23, 2015

Post image for The PAH: defending the right to housing in SpainIn Spain, where the government bails out banks, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) bails out families and defends their right to housing.

In February 2009, after the Spanish government had shown itself incapable of enforcing Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution — declaring that “all Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing” — a citizens’ assembly was held in Barcelona to establish the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or the PAH (Spanish: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), a social movement which would wait for neither government action nor market corrections for this right to be enforced.

The PAH’s immediate aims are simple — the prevention of the systematic eviction of tens of thousands of debtors across Spain — but its larger dream is bolder: the achievement of the socio-economic conditions in which the human right to housing may be secure.

It is the ceaseless energy of this grassroots platform, its repertoire of organizing tactics, and its ability to bring disaffected and disadvantaged people together that has made it so popular amongst Spain’s mass of indignados and so feared by its minority class of bankers, developers and investors whose interests are secured by the casta suits of the governing PP and the opposition PSOE — or the PPSOE, as one PAH organizer put it.

It is this movement of people which we in the international left should look to for both inspiration and instruction in the fight against austerity. And it is for this reason that this article has been written: to paint us a portrait of the PAH and to give us a glimpse at how it operates — how it feels, how it looks, how it speaks — in its oldest branch of Barcelona.

No one left behind

Most people’s first encounter with the PAH will be through its weekly welcome assemblies held in Barcelona’s tightly-knit barrio of Hostafrancs, where upon entry you’ll be greeted with a friendly smile and, if you’re a first-timer to the meetings, you’ll be given a paper rose made with a Catalan flag tied to its stem. As you adjust to the sweaty heat generated from the  80 or so people squashed into the PAH headquarters, all waving their hand-held fans to keep the heat at bay, you might notice that a good deal of the participants and a large majority of the organizers are women.

On a letter printed and placed onto the doors of the assembly hall, a PAH participant thanks her new friends for providing the warmth and love that only a mother knows, for helping her to help herself and then to help others, for bringing dignity and hope back into her life. These are the elements — dignity, respect, mutual-aid — which define a welcoming assembly, and are seen by the PAH to be absolutely integral to the participants’ struggle to reclaim their right to housing.

Tears are not uncommon in these assemblies, especially when the veterans are invited to stand up to tell the newer participants of a recent victory they’ve had: their stories are always moving, the responses always touching, and you see that the PAH really is a family, a place where the pain and gain of one is felt by all.

For those most in need of emotional support there is a smaller closed assembly where people may come to tell their story in an open environment of mutual respect and listening, where people may come to see that others are experiencing and feeling the very same as they do, where they can see that the guilt is not theirs, that they can still hold their heads high.

If the heart of the PAH is the welcoming assembly, then the head must be its actions and coordinating assembly, which meets once a week to keep the gears of the movement oiled. But before this assembly even begins to discuss the host of actions the movement has in gestation, it must decide on the day-to-day responsibilities of the attendees. Everyone present is asked to contribute to one small but essential part of the PAH — one pair to help out with cleaning, another to update the calendar, someone else to record minutes, another to keep track of time while someone else moderates — and all are rotated every week.

For anyone schooled in more bureaucratic forms of social and political groups, this process — which is as true of the more routine tasks as those duties with more responsibility — may seem tedious and unimportant, but it is of course the process which matters here; the process of participation, of mutual support and of self-organization which define the PAH as an organization where everyone has a role to play, where everybody leads and none are left behind.

Tom Joad’s inheritors

Once into gear the assembly can cover much ground, and within a couple of hours of one particular meeting the group had already discussed three major campaigns. First was the Citizens’ Legislative Initiative, or the ILP, a major joint campaign between the Barcelona PAH, the Alliance Against Energy Poverty and the Observatory for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has gathered around 140,000 signatures in Catalonia calling for emergency measures to combat the social crisis created by mortgage evictions and utilities cut-offs.

The ILP draws on a mechanism allowing citizens’ proposals to be voted on by Catalan parliament, requiring 50,000 signatures to be effective, meaning that the Barcelona ILP has nearly tripled the required amount of petitioners. The ILP, which will be voted on today, July 23, proposed five measures which could stem the flow of around 50 families per day from their houses to the streets or to precarious housing. They demand that any remaining debt of the evictees be liquidated, allowing them a second chance to rebuild their lives.

They furthermore demand that empty apartments held by banks be used as emergency housing for evictees, while for those facing eviction they demand the right to a ‘social rent’, which means that indebted homeowners may pay only what they can pay, and that cut-offs of water, gas and electricity must end immediately, with the state stepping in to assure access if the companies cannot respect the rights of their customers. If the ILP passes parliament this July, the PAH and its social partners will have scored a truly enormous victory for thousands and thousands of families across Catalonia.

It will be an important victory because the PAH knows that their fight is one which must also confront the myriad of factors that compound Spain’s housing crisis, including the squeeze of rising energy bills arriving in the mail from private utility companies (‘monstrous’ organizations, as one PAH organizer described them) and the cuts in healthcare and education that have accompanied previous cuts in wages and benefits. Meanwhile, the explosion of ‘flexible’ contracts means that credit is impossible to get by for many, endangering people’s ability to pay their monthly rents or mortgage payments on time.

What’s more, this crisis exists in a global context where international investment and financial companies like Blackstone (see the video #BlackstoneEvicts) and Goldman Sachs buy up tens of thousands of empty apartments at heavily discounted prices from banks. One of the largest deals secured by Blackstone involved some 40,000 apartments in Catalonia alone, with a real value somewhere near 6.4 billion euros, which were purchased for the sum of 3.6 billion euros: if the banks can give Blackstone a discount, the PAH asks, then why can’t they give the people one?

This is why the PAH has begun organizing alliances with similar movements in the UK, the US and soon perhaps in Brazil, where the Movement of Workers without Roofs is facing the same investment banking foes as its counterparts in Spain. The fight being fought from Barcelona’s barrios, from London’s New Era Estate, from the US boroughs, from anywhere where “there’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Tom Joad’s inheritors will be there.

The PAH’s Obra Social

But far away from the negotiations with the banks, from the political labyrinth of the Catalan parliament, from the long hard work of building national and international alliances, the bread and butter of the PAH remains the prevention of eviction and homelessness.

When all efforts of the debtor fail, when all negotiations and offers are rejected, after lies are told and myths are spread to scare people into making strangling payments (that, for example, the debt may be paid by the children; that, for instance, a migrant might be forced to return to their home country for a failed mortgage), then the PAH’s Obra Social (Social Work) will step in to ensure that the family will not end up on the street — sleeping, perhaps like so many thousands of others in Barcelona, in the ATM vestibules of the very banks that evicted them.

The Obra Social is the body which — when the bank is not prepared to find alternative housing for the tenant, when there is no room at anyone’s inn — will help the evicted family occupy one of the thousands of empty apartments owned by the banks. But to say that the banks actually ‘own’ these empty flats is, as one PAH organizer put it, entirely misleading, for it was the Spanish people who bailed out these banks during the crisis, and it is therefore the Spanish people who own these properties.

The PAH has a simple slogan: the government bails out banks, our platform bails out people. Here the shibboleth of private property becomes particularly naked and grotesque when, as in Spain, you have one of Europe’s greatest number of empty apartments and its greatest rate of evictions. Can we still imagine a world where this does not occur, where human rights finally come to trump contractual rights? The members of the PAH certainly can.

Timothy Ginty is a freelance writer completing a master’s degree in World History at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. You can read his blog, Lives and Times, here.

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To learn more about the PAH, the documentary Seven Days with the PAH (Siete Días en la PAH), is available (with English subtitles) here, and you can download the book Vidas Hipotecadas (in Spanish) here.

 

 

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