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

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

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

Europe won the Cold War.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

The Rise and Fall of TINA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Axis of Illiberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Virtuous Turn Vicious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Income inequality soars in every US state

By Andre Damon
30 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Economic Policy Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts

By Heathcote Ruthven On January 28, 2015

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

Why the harsh treatment?

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

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

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

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

Europe’s debt colony

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

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

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

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

Roots in years of struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global resonance

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

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

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

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

Follow him on Twitter at @heathcoter.

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/syriza-glezos-tsipras-podemos/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz

memory_45_138

28 January 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Van Auken

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you agree, click here to take action.

Jubilees Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did we get here?

The Rise of Student Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moral – and Practical – Solution

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

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

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

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

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

Going Forward

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

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

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

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

We hope you will join us.

If you agree, click here to take action.

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

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

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

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

 

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

State of emergency declared in eastern Ukraine, as US vows more sanctions against Russia

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By Niles Williamson
27 January 2015

Presaging a further escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Monday declared an official state of emergency in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. He also announced that the rest of the country would be placed on high alert. The eastern Donbass strongholds of separatists opposed to the regime in Kiev that came to power last year after a US- and EU-supported coup have seen renewed hostilities in recent weeks.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, India on Sunday, US President Barack Obama blamed Russia for the renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine and vowed to use all options short of war to escalate political and economic pressure on Moscow.

Obama glibly told reporters that the United States has no interest in weakening Russia or devastating its economy. “We have a profound interest, as I believe every country does, in promoting a core principle, which is, large countries don’t bully smaller countries. They don’t encroach on their territorial integrity. They don’t encroach on their sovereignty. And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine,” he said.

Obama expressed concern over the collapse of a ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in September, accusing the pro-Russia separatists of fighting “with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops.” To date neither the US government nor the regime in Kiev has provided any solid evidence backing up their repeated claims of direct Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.

President Obama vowed to “ratchet up” the pressure on Russia and ominously promised that the US government would consider all options “available to us short of a military confrontation” to resolve the ongoing conflict.

At the same time that Obama denounced supposed Russian interference in Ukraine, he reiterated that Washington would continue to give economic support to the Kiev regime, as well as provide equipment and training for its armed forces.

It was announced last week that the United States Army would be sending a contingent of advisers to western Ukraine in the spring to train four companies of the National Guard of Ukraine. At the end of last year, Obama signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which authorizes the president to deliver a large cache of lethal military equipment to the Ukrainian government and implement a new raft of sanctions against Russia at his discretion. (See: US announces plans to deploy military advisers to Ukraine).

Obama’s remarks were part of a coordinated response to a deadly artillery attack in the city of Mariupol on Saturday that struck a residential area, killing 30 civilians and injuring approximately 100 others. An investigation by members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that Grad and Uragan rockets were fired into the city from rebel-held territory.

After an emergency meeting of NATO and Ukrainian ambassadors on Monday, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg blamed Russia for the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine. “We condemn the sharp escalation of violence along the cease-fire line in eastern Ukraine by Russia-backed separatists. This comes at great human cost to civilians,” he told reporters.

After the shelling in Mariupol, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, called for new sanctions against Russia after an “urgent” phone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The former Polish prime minister bellicosely tweeted, “Once again, appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence. Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions.”

Responding to the new allegations of support for the anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine and threats of escalating sanctions by European and American leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the Ukrainian army of operating as a foreign legion for NATO. Speaking to students in Moscow on Monday, he stated that the operations of the Ukrainian army were tied to the “geopolitical containment of Russia” rather than the “national interests of the Ukrainian people.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the EU and US of using the attack on Mariupol to “whip up anti-Russian hysteria.” He defended the actions of the separatists, saying they were fighting to defend themselves from the Kiev regime’s new offensive. “They started to act…with the goal of destroying Ukrainian army positions being used to shell populated areas,” he told reporters in Moscow.

Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minster of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, denied that the separatists were responsible for the attack on Mariupol. “Kiev decided to shift the blame on us for its erroneous fire from Grad multiple rocket launchers at residential areas,” he told reporters.

The effort by the US and EU to maintain economic sanctions against Russia has been showing signs of strain in recent weeks, with some countries, such as France and Italy, pressing for the improvement of diplomatic and economic relations with Russia. Last week, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini published a paper that outlined possible ways to begin improving diplomatic relations with Moscow.

In the wake of the Mariupol attack, Mogherini has called for an extraordinary session of the EU Foreign Affairs Council. The foreign ministers of the 28 EU member countries will convene in Brussels on Thursday to discuss possible new sanctions against Russia.

Fighting has flared up in the east in the last two weeks in the wake of an assault launched by the Kiev regime on separatist-held areas. The pretext for the new attack was the shelling of a commuter bus that killed 13 people in Volnovakha, a small town on the main highway between Donetsk and Mariupol.

Speaking at a rally in Kiev on January 19, President Petro Poroshenko denounced the attack, which he blamed on the separatists, and vowed that his government would “not give away one scrap of Ukrainian land.” That same day the Ukrainian military was authorized by Poroshenko to launch a “massive assault” on separatist-held positions in the east.

The Kiev regime launched an offensive in an attempt to solidify its control over the Donetsk International Airport. In an embarrassing turn of events, pro-Russian separatists succeeded at the end of last week in repelling the attack and dislodging Ukrainian troops and right-wing militia fighters from the airport’s main terminal. The symbolically and strategically important airport, the site of intense fighting between both sides for the last several months, has been nearly completely destroyed by relentless artillery bombardment.

Shelling in Donetsk on Monday damaged a power station at the Zasyadko mine, temporarily trapping 496 miners underground. Temporary power generators were used to bring the mine’s elevators back online and the miners were gradually evacuated.

Pro-Russian separatists have moved to surround the government-controlled town of Debaltseve, where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers taking part in the renewed offensive have encamped. The town is located on the main highway and rail line connecting the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. At least seven Ukrainian soldiers have been reported killed and 24 wounded in the last day of fighting in the Luhansk region.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/27/ukra-j27.html

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9