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

Obama’s State of Delusion

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22 January 2015

The delusional character of  address on Tuesday—presenting an America of rising living standards and a booming economy, capped by his declaration that the “shadow of crisis has passed”—is perhaps matched only in its presentation by the media and supporters of the Democratic Party.

The general tone was set by the New York Times in its lead editorial on Wednesday, which described the speech as a “simple, dramatic message about economic fairness, about the fact that the well-off—the top earners, the big banks, Silicon Valley—have done just great, while middle and working classes remain dead in the water.”

The attempt to present Obama’s remarks as a clarion call to combat social inequality runs first of all into the inconvenient fact that the individual supposedly making this call has been the head of state for the past six years. The Times writes as if the policies of the Obama administration—the multitrillion-dollar bailout for the banks, the coordinated assault on wages, relentless cuts to social programs and the social counterrevolution in health care known as Obamacare—have nothing to do with the record levels of social inequality that prevail in the United States.

The Times quotes Obama’s question delivered toward the beginning of the speech: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes an effort?”

Anyone listening to the speech with even a passing knowledge of the record of his presidency would immediately respond that, for Obama and for the entire political establishment that he heads, the answer is clearly the former.

As for the proposals themselves—including tuition assistance for community colleges, tax credits for child care and college education, an increase in the minimum wage and paid maternity leave—they consist of insincere and paltry measures, tailored to the interests of big business, that no one, least of all Obama, expects will pass.

The Times itself acknowledges, “Mr. Obama knows his prospects of getting Congress to agree are less than zero.” White House officials freely admitted ahead of the State of the Union that Obama had no expectations that the measures he proposed would be taken up on Capitol Hill. “We will not be limited by what will pass this Congress, because that would be a very boring two years,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the press before the speech.

Previous State of the Union speeches have produced similar wish lists aimed at generating illusions that Obama sought to advance a “progressive” agenda, proposals dropped as soon as the president completed the obligatory tour of photo-ops and speeches at college campuses.

In his 2014 State of the Union, Obama called for ending tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas, investing tens of billions in infrastructure projects to create jobs, making pre-kindergarten available to every four-year-old child, regardless of family income, and enacting equal pay for women. Instead, one million people were cut off food stamps, long-term unemployment remained stubbornly high, poverty increased, and wages stagnated.

On the other hand, every major initiative by Obama in domestic policy—the 2009 stimulus program, the 2010 health care reform legislation, the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul, countless budget deals with the congressional Republicans, right up to the executive order on immigration issued a month ago—was dictated by the needs of corporate America, and, in many cases, drafted by corporate lobbyists.

The consequences for working people—record long-term unemployment, a tidal wave of home foreclosures, the slashing of wages in basic industry, the steady decline in living standards over all—were not accidental. They were the deliberate goal of government policy, for both Democrats and Republicans, because mass suffering by the working class was required to obtain the resources needed to bail out the financial aristocracy.

The main purpose of Obama’s remarks was to give the various publications and organizations that orbit the Democratic Party—the Times, the Nationmagazine (whose columnist John Nichols described the spech as a “serious effort to address income inequality”), the trade unions, and the network of pseudo-left organizations that present themselves as “socialist”—fodder for promoting the Democrats in the 2016 elections.

Thus, Obama’s speech was peppered with references aimed at the upper-middle class practitioners of various forms of identity politics (Time magazine, for example, enthused that Obama “made history Tuesday night” by the inclusion in his speech of one word: “transgender”).

Here is how to paint the Democratic Party in progressive colors, he was telling them. Here is how the Democratic Party will seek to fool the American people as it collaborates with the Republicans in enacting ever more right-wing policies over the next two years, combined with endless war abroad and the assault on democratic rights.

The delusions, self-delusions and lies of Obama and his supporters cannot, however, alter the underlying reality of American political life: the unbridgeable gulf between the entire state apparatus and the vast majority of the population. It is notable that Obama’s speech, delivered less than three months after the midterm elections, made no reference to the debacle that the Democratic Party suffered at the polls—due primarily to the collapse in voter turnout produced by six years of right-wing policies from the “candidate of change.”

Perhaps the most striking delusion of all is the belief by the ruling class and its representatives that it can, through a few honeyed and lying phrases, forestall the tidal wave of social opposition that is on the horizon.

Patrick Martin and Joseph Kishore

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/22/pers-j22.html

Lights of rebellion shine at the Zapatista resistance festival

By Giovanni Cattaruzza On January 19, 2015

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Last month, the Zapatistas organized the first World Festival of Rebellion and Resistance Against Capitalism. One participant shares his impressions.San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

The mountains of Xochicuautla, which are waiting for the snow and for yet another Christmas here in Mexico, don’t know anything about us.

They don’t know anything about the thousands of people from all over the world who climbed up here in the cold.

The mountains of Xochicuautla ignore what democracy looks like, where Palestine or Valle di Susa is, what sort of thing an international airport is, or what so-called “sustainable capitalism” looks like.

They don’t know anything about mega-development projects, highways, garbage dumps, mines, GMO’s, transnational companies, militarization, and progress.

They are only mountains, they speak Nahuatl, and it’s kind of complicated to have a conversation with a mountain.

Rebuilding from below

On December 21, the first World Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism — “Where those from above destroy, those from below rebuild” — organized by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), was inaugurated in the San Francisco Xochicuautla community, municipality of Lerma, in the state of Mexico.

More than 2.000 Mexican activists, 500 international comrades from 48 different countries, and hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous community representatives started their journey throughout the country from these mountains.

The EZLN and the CNI invited all the people of the world here in Mexico in order to travel together to the southern-most point of the country and to discover the histories and struggles of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and the challenges faced by all the political organizations that take the Zapatistas as a point of reference — from the anarchists of the Z.A.D. of Nantes, to the Sem Tierra of Brazil, on to the teachers of Oaxaca.

Once again, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation together with the indigenous communities of Chiapas decided to build a common project in cooperation with the anti-capitalist movements of the planet.

Once again, from the jungles of the south-east of Mexico, they thought globally. Inviting the people from all over the world to Chiapas in order to fight against capitalism together. According to the Zapatistas, global capitalism in the year 2015 reveals itself most clearly through mega-development projects and violent attacks to Mother Nature all over the world.

This journey can be summarized in one line: preguntando caminamos (“asking while walking”), as the Zapatistas say. It is a time to learn and to doubt ourselves.

We walked and dreamed together from Mexico City to the tropical rains of the State of Campeche, on to to the cold altiplano of the Caracol of Oventik, sharing political practices of resistance, knowing that, as Subcomandante Insurgente Moises said:

There is no single answer. There is no manual. There is no dogma. There is no creed. There are many answers, many ways, many forms. And each of us will see what we are able to do and learn from our own struggle and from other struggles.

“We give you 43 embraces”

During the so called “sharings” in Xochicuatla, Monclova and in the University of the Land (CIDECI) in San Cristobal de las Casas, we listened to hundreds of languages and political experiences of resistance, but most importantly we listened to the voices of the families of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa to whom the EZLN gave its own seat during the festival.

We cried together and we embraced each other under the cold rain of Oventik, looking at the members of the Comandancia of the EZLN hugging one by one the fathers and the mothers of the 43, after hearing the voice of Subcomandante Moises pronouncing the following words:

And so, when this day or night comes, your missing ones will give you the same embrace that we Zapatistas now give to you. It is an embrace of caring, respect, and admiration. In addition, we give you 43 embraces, one for each of those who are absent from your lives.

In the next weeks the EZLN will communicate in detail some actions and proposals to the world.

According to the Zapatistas and to the individuals and organizations that attended this first World Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism, there is no more time to waste. The henchmen of global capitalism — big business, national governments and international organizations — are quelling all voices of dissent, attempting to destroy all forms of resistance wherever it pops up. Ayotzinapa is just another example of this mechanism thatkills everyone who chooses to resist, from Turkey and Ferguson to Mexico.

Today is the time for unity of all those who want to fight capitalism and who do not recognize themselves in any political party.

The lights of rebellion and resistance

The night is dark as only the nights in Chiapas can be, here in the Caracol of Oventik. It is December 31, 2014, 21 years after the Zapatista uprising.

Deaths, disappearances, repression and the threat of imprisonment will continue to challenge los de abajo also in the year we are entering. 2015 will be tough for them — but in the extreme darkness of the night, in the black hole of the capital in which we’re living, there are some lights of resistance.

The thousands of people who arrived here, in the mountains of Southeast Mexico, are here to share some of these little lights.

It’s funny to look at these little lights, here in Oventik, where the words of the EZLN — reaching us through the voice of Subcomandante Insurgente Moises — echo in the mountains:

Darkness becomes longer and heavier across the world, touching everyone. We knew it would be like this. We know it will be like this. We spent years, decades, centuries preparing ourselves. Our gaze is not limited to what is close-by. It does not see only today, nor only our own lands. Our gaze extends far in time and geography, and that determines how we think.

Each time something happens, it unites us in pain, but also in rage. Because now, as for some time already, we see lights being lit in many corners. They are lights of rebellion and resistance. Sometimes they are small, like ours. Sometimes they are big. Sometimes they take awhile. Sometimes they are only a spark that quickly goes out. Sometimes they go on and on without losing their glow in our memory.

And in all of these lights there is a bet that tomorrow will be very different.

The night is ours.

Giovanni Cattaruzza lives in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. He collaborates with the Human Rights Center Fray Bartolomè de las Casas-FrayBa and is a graduate of Latin American Studies at Leiden University. A great supporter of Genoa C.F.C, proudly NO-TAV, and in love with the continent of Pancho Villa, he writes articles about the struggles of indigenous communities and social movements in Latin America.

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/zapatista-festival-rebellion-resistance-capitalism/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

More than half of US public school students living in poverty

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By Andre Damon
19 January 2015

For the first time in at least half a century, low-income children make up the majority of students enrolled in American public schools, according to a report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF).

The percentage of public school students who are classified as low-income has risen steadily over the past quarter century, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In 1989, under 32 percent of public school students were classified as low-income, according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) cited by the report. This rose to 38 percent by 2000, 48 percent in 2011, and 51 percent in 2013.

These figures are the result of decades of deindustrialization, stagnating wages and cuts to antipoverty programs. Since the 2008 financial crisis in particular, the US ruling class, with the Obama administration at its head, has waged an unrelenting assault on the social rights of working people, carrying out mass layoffs, driving down wages, and slashing social services during the recession and the “recovery.” The SEF report makes clear that it has been the most vulnerable sections of society, including children, who have been made to bear a disproportionate burden due to these policies.

The study defines low-income students as those qualifying for either free or reduced-price lunches. Students from families making less than 135 percent of the federal poverty threshold are eligible for free lunches, while those making under 185 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for reduced-price lunches.

The report was published last week in the form of an update to a 2007 study, entitled “A New Majority,” which warned that low-income students had for the first time in decades become the majority in the historically impoverished American South, and were well on their way to becoming the majority in the US as a whole. In 2006, the year covered by the report, low-income students constituted 42 percent of students enrolled at public schools. Seven years later, the figure has risen by a shocking nine percentage points.

The 2007 report noted that in 1959, “Historical correlations suggest that close to a majority of the school-age children in the South were in households living below the recently defined American poverty line.” It added, “Somewhere between 1959 and 1967, it is likely that for the first time since public schools were established in the South, low income children no longer constituted a majority of students in the South’s public schools.”

“By 1967, the percentage of low income children in the South and the nation had declined to unmatched levels,” the report continued, but noted that the improvement “came to a halt in 1970 when the percentage of low income children leveled off and remained essentially constant over five years. In 1975 the trend lines for low income students in the South and across the nation began to creep upward. After 1980, the Reagan Administration convinced Congress to enact large federal cutbacks in anti-poverty programs, and the numbers of low income children in the South started to rise sharply.”

The vast historical retrogression exposed by the report is further emphasized in the breakdown by state. The report notes, “In 1989, Mississippi was the only state in the nation with a majority of low income students. It had 59 percent. Louisiana ranked second with 49 percent.”

Low-income students now comprise the majority in 21 states, and between 40 percent and 49 percent of students in 19 others. While all states had significant numbers of low-income students, the share of poor students in the South and West is “extraordinarily high.” It notes that “thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.”

Mississippi has the highest share of low-income students, at a shocking 71 percent, or nearly three out of four, in 2013. Second was New Mexico, where 68 percent of public school students are low-income. These are followed by Louisiana, with 65 percent; Arkansas, with 61 percent; Oklahoma, with 61 percent; and Texas, with 60 percent. California, the country’s most populous state, has 55 percent of its public school students in poverty.

Poor students require far more resources than their affluent peers if they are to keep up. But rather than provide resources according to need, the Bush and Obama administrations, under the “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” programs, have channeled resources away from schools with a high share of students in poverty, which are declared to be “underperforming.”

The SEF report warns, “With huge, stubbornly unchanging gaps in learning, schools in the South and across the nation face the real danger of becoming entrenched, inadequately funded educational systems that enlarge the division in America between haves and have-nots.”

The study is the latest in a series of reports showing the increasingly desperate social conditions facing children in the United States.

In September, the US Department of Education released statistics showing that the number of homeless children increased by eight percent in the 2012-2013 school year, compared to the year before. There were 1.3 million homeless children enrolled in US schools, a figure that is up by 85 percent since the beginning of the recession.

In April, Feeding America reported that 16 million children, or 21.6 percent, live in food insecure households. The share of all people in the United States who are food insecure has increased from 13.4 percent in 2006 to 21.1 percent in 2013.

In April 2013, the United Nations Children’s Fund released a report showing that the US has the fourth-highest child poverty rate among 29 developed countries. Only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania have higher child poverty rates. The US fell behind even Greece, which has been devastated by years of austerity measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/19/pove-j19.html

Portrait of the Artist as a Dying Class

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Scott Timberg argues that we’ve lost the scaffolding of middle-class jobs—record-store clerk, critic, roadie—that made creative scenes thrive. Record store clerks—like Barry (Jack Black) in High Fidelity—are going the way of the dodo. (Getty Images)

BY JOANNA SCUTTS

It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places, that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America.

Though Scott Timberg’s impassioned Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class focuses on the struggles of musicians, writers and designers, it’s not just a story about (the impossibility of) making a living making art in modern America. More urgently, it’s another chapter in America’s central economic story today, of plutocracy versus penury and the evisceration of the middle class.

Timberg lost his job as an arts reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 2008 after real-estate mogul Sam Zell purchased the paper and gutted its staff. But newspapers are experiencing a natural dieoff, right? Wrong, says Timberg. He cites statistics showing that newspaper profits remained fat into the 21st century—peaking at an average of 22.3 percent in 2002—as the industry began slashing staff. The problem isn’t profitability but shareholder greed, and the fact that we’ve ceded so much authority to the gurus of economic efficiency that we’ve failed to check their math.

The story of print journalism’s demise is hardly new, but Timberg’s LA-based perspective brings architecture, film and music into the conversation, exposing the fallacy of the East Coast conviction that Hollywood is the place where all the money is hiding. Movie studios today are as risk-averse and profit-minded as the big New York publishing houses, throwing their muscle behind one or two stars and proven projects (sequels and remakes) rather than nurturing a deep bench of talent.

For aspiring stars to believe that they may yet become the next Kanye or Kardashian is as unrealistic as treating a casino as a viable path to wealth. Not only that, but when all the money and attention cluster around a handful of stars, there’s less variation, less invention, less risk-taking. Timberg notes that the common understanding of the “creative class,” coined by Richard Florida in 2002, encompasses “anyone who works with their mind at a high level,” including doctors, lawyers and software engineers.

But Timberg looks more narrowly at those whose living, both financially and philosophically, depends on creativity, whether or not they are highly educated or technically “white collar.” He includes a host of support staff: technicians and roadies, promoters and bartenders, critics and publishers, and record-store and bookstore autodidacts (he devotes a whole chapter to these passionate, vanishing “clerks.”) People in this class could once survive, not lavishly but respectably, leading a decent middle-class life, with even some upward mobility.

Timberg describes the career of a record-store clerk whose passion eventually led him to jobs as a radio DJ and a music consultant for TV. His retail job offered a “ladder into the industry” that no longer exists. Today, in almost all creative industries, the rungs of that ladder have been replaced with unpaid internships, typically out of reach to all but the children of the bourgeoisie. We were told the Internet would render physical locations unimportant and destroy hierarchies, flinging open the gates to a wider range of players. To an extent that Timberg doesn’t really acknowledge, that has proven somewhat true: Every scene in the world now has numerous points of access, and any misfit can find her tribe online. But it’s one thing to find fellow fans; it’s another to find paying work. It turns out that working as unfettered freelancers—one-man brands with laptops for offices—doesn’t pay the rent, even if we forgo health insurance.

Timberg points to stats on today’s music business, for instance, which show that even those who are succeeding, with millions of Twitter followers and Spotify plays, can scrape together just a few thousand dollars for months of work. (Timberg is cautiously optimistic about the arrival of Obamacare, which at least might protect people from the kinds of bankrupting medical emergencies that several of his subjects have suffered.).

In addition, Timberg argues that physical institutions help creativity thrive. His opening chapter documents three successful artistic scenes—Boston’s postwar poetry world, LA’s 1960s boom in contemporary art, and Austin’s vibrant 1970s alternative to the Nashville country-music machine. In analyzing what makes them work, he owes much to urban planner Jane Jacobs: It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America. In Austin, the university and the legislature provided day jobs or other support to the freewheeling artists, Timberg notes: “For all its protests of its maverick status, outlaw country was made possible by public funding.”

Today, affordability has gone out the window. As one freelance writer, Chris Ketcham, puts it, “rent is the basis of everything”—and New York and San Francisco, gouging relentlessly away at their middle class, are driving out the very people who built their unique cultures.

Take live music, for example. Without a robust support structure of people working for money, not just love—local writers who chronicle a scene, talented designers and promoters, bars and clubs that can pay the rent—live music is withering. Our minimum wage economy isn’t helping: For the venue and the band to cover their costs, they need curious music-lovers who have the time and money to come out, pay a cover charge, buy a beer or two and maybe an album. That’s a night out that fewer and fewer people can afford. Wealthy gentrifiers, meanwhile, would rather spend their evenings at a hot new restaurant than a grungy rock club. Foodie culture, Timberg suggests, has pushed out what used to nourish us.

Timberg is not a historian but a journalist, and his book is strongest when he allows creative people to speak for themselves. We hear how the struggles of a hip LA architect echo those of music professors and art critics. However, the fact that most of Timberg’s sources are men (and from roughly the same generation as the author), undercuts the book’s claim to universality. Those successful artistic scenes he cites at the beginning, in Boston, LA and Austin, and the mid-century heyday of American culture in general, were hardly welcoming to women and people of color.

It’s much harder to get upset about the decline of an industry that wasn’t going to let you join in the first place. Although Timberg admits this in passing, he doesn’t explore the way that the chipping away of institutional power might in fact have helped to liberate marginalized artists.

But all the liberation in the world counts for little if you can’t get paid, and Timberg’s central claim—that the number of people making a living by making art is rapidly decreasing—is timely and important, as is his argument that unemployed architects deserve our sympathetic attention just as much as unemployed auto workers.

The challenge is to find a way to talk about the essential role of art and creativity that doesn’t fall back on economic value, celebrity endorsement or vague mysticism. It’s far too important for that.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17522/portrait_of_the_dying_creative_class

Welcome to the National Security State of 2015

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Feeling Insecure in 2015

A Self-Perpetuating Machine for American Insecurity

By Tom Engelhardt

As 2015 begins, let’s take a trip down memory lane.  Imagine that it’s January 1963.  For the last three years, the United States has unsuccessfully faced off against a small island in the Caribbean, where a revolutionary named Fidel Castro seized power from a corrupt but U.S.-friendly regime run by Fulgencio Batista.  In the global power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in which much of the planet has chosen sides, Cuba, only 90 miles from the American mainland, finds itself in the eye of the storm.  Having lost Washington’s backing, it has, however, gained the support of distant Moscow, the other nuclear-armed superpower on the planet.

In October 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower instituted an embargo on U.S. trade with the island that would, two years later, be strengthened and made permanent by John F. Kennedy.  On entering the Oval Office, Kennedy also inherited a cockamamie CIA scheme to use Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro.  That led, in April 1961, to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in which, despite major Agency support, the exiles were crushed (after which the CIA would hatch various mad plots to assassinate the new Cuban leader).  What followed in October 1962 was “the most dangerous moment in human history” — the Cuban missile crisis — a brief period when many Americans, my 18-year-old self included, genuinely thought we might soon be nuclear toast.

Now, imagine yourself in January 1963, alive and chastened by a world in which you could be obliterated at any moment.  Imagine as well that someone from our time suddenly invited you into the American future some 52 Januaries hence, when you would, miracle of miracles, still be alive and the planet still more or less in one piece.  Imagine, as a start, being told that the embargo against, and Washington’s hostility toward, Cuba never ended.  That 52 futile years later, with Cuba now run by Fidel’s “younger” brother, 83-year-old Raul, the 11thAmerican president to deal with the “crisis” has finally decided to restore diplomatic relations, ease trade restrictions, and encourage American visitors to the island.

Imagine being told as well that in Congress, more than half a century later, a possible majority of representatives remained nostalgic for a policy that spent 52 years not working.  Imagine that members of the upcoming 2015 Senate were already swearing they wouldn’t hand over a plug nickel to the president or the State Department to establish a diplomatic mission in Havana or confirm an ambassador or ease the embargo or take any other steps to change the situation, and were denouncing the president — who, by the way, is a black man named Barack Obama — as a weakling and an “appeaser-in-chief” for making such a move.

Perhaps that American visitor from 1963 would already feel as if his or her mind were being scrambled like a morning egg and yet we’re only beginning.  After all, our visitor would have to be told that the Soviet Union, that hostile, nuclear-armed communist superpower and partner of Washington in the potential obliteration of the planet, no longer exists; that it unexpectedly imploded in 1991, leaving its Eastern European empire largely free to integrate into the rest of Europe.

One caveat would, however, need to be added to that blockbuster piece of historical news.  Lest our visitor imagine that everything has changed beyond all recognition, it would be important to point out that in 2015 the U.S. still confronts an implacably hostile, nuclear-armed communist state.  Not the USSR, of course, nor even that other communist behemoth, China.  (Its Communist Party took the “capitalist road” in the late 1970s and never looked back as that country rose to become the globe’s largest economy!)

Here’s a hint: it fought the U.S. to a draw in a bitter war more than six decades ago and has just been accused of launching a devastating strike against the United States.  Admittedly, it wasn’t aimed at Washington but at Hollywood.  That country — or some group claiming to beworking in its interests — broke into a major movie studio, Sony (oh yes, a Japanese company is now a significant force in Hollywood!), and released gossip about its inner workings as well as the nasty things actors, producers, and corporate executives had to say about one another.  It might (or might not), that is, have launched the planet’s first cyber-gossip bomb.

And yes, you would have to tell our visitor from 1963 that this hostile communist power, North Korea, is also an oppressive, beleaguered, lights-out state and in no way a serious enemy, not in a world in which the U.S. remains the “last superpower.”

You would, of course, have to add that, 52 years later, Vietnam, another implacable communist enemy with whom President Kennedy was escalating a low-level conflict in 1963, is now a de facto U.S. ally — and no, not because it lost its war with us.  That war, once considered the longest in U.S. history, would at its height see more than 500,000 American combat troops dispatched to South Vietnam and, in 1973, end in an unexpectedly bitter defeat for Washington from which America never quite seemed to recover.

2015 and Baying for More

Still, with communism a has-been force and capitalism triumphant everywhere, enemies have been just a tad scarce in the twenty-first century.  Other than the North Koreans, there is the fundamentalist regime of Iran, which ran its Batista, the Shah, out in 1979, and with which, in the 35 years since, the U.S. has never come to terms — though Barack Obama still might — without ever quite going to war either.  And of course there would be another phenomenon of our moment completely unknown to an American of 1963: Islamic extremism, aka jihadism, along with the rise of terrorist organizations and, in 2014, the establishment of the first mini-terror state in the heart of the Middle East.  And oh yes, there was that tiny crew that went by the name of al-Qaeda, 19 of whose box-cutter-wielding militants hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001, and destroyed two soaring towers (not yet built in 1963) in downtown New York City and part of the Pentagon.  In the process, they killed themselves and thousands of civilians, put apocalyptic-looking scenes of destruction on American television screens, and successfully created a sense of a looming, communist-style planetary enemy, when just about no one was there.

Their acts gave a new administration of right-wing fundamentalists in Washington the opportunity to fulfill its wildest dreams of planetary domination by launching, only days later, what was grandiloquently called the Global War on Terror (or the Long War, or World War IV), a superpower crusade against, initially, almost no one.  Its opening salvo would let loose an “all-volunteer” military (no more draft Army as in 1963) universally believed to be uniquely powerful.  It would, they were sure, wipe out al-Qaeda, settle scores with various enemies in the Greater Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and leave the U.S. triumphant in a way no great power had been in history.  In response to a few thousand scattered al-Qaeda members, a Pax Americana would be created on a global scale that would last generations, if not forever and a day.

Washington’s enemies of that moment would have been so unimpressive to Americans of 1963 that, on learning of the future that awaited them, they might well have dropped to their knees and thanked God for the deliverance of the United States of America.  In describing all this to that visitor from another America, you would, however, have to add that the Global War on Terror, in which giant ambitions met the most modest of opponents any great power had faced in hundreds of years, didn’t work out so well.  You would have to point out that the U.S. military, allied intelligence outfits, and a set of warrior corporations (almost unknown in 1963) mobilized to go to war with them struck out big time in a way almost impossible to fathom; that, from September 2001 to January 2015, no war, invasion, occupation, intervention, conflict, or set of operations, no matter how under-armed or insignificant the forces being taken on, succeeded in any lasting or meaningful way.  It was as if Hank Aaron had come to the plate for a more than a decade without ever doing anything but striking out.

For our by now goggle-eyed visitor, you would have to add that, other than invading the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada against no opposition in 1983 and Panama against next to no opposition in 1989, the mightiest power on the planet hasn’t won a war or conflict since World War II.  And after explaining all this, the strangest task would still lie ahead.

Our American beamed in from 1963, who hadn’t even experienced defeat in Vietnam yet, would have to be filled in on the two wars of choice Washington launched with such enthusiasm and confidence in 2001 and 2003 and could never again get out of. I’m talking, of course, about Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries that would barely have registered on an American radar screen 52 years ago, and yet would prove unparalleled quagmires (a Vietnam-era term our observer wouldn’t have yet run across).  We would need to explain how the “lone superpower” of the twenty-first century would transform each of them into competitors for the “longest American war” ever.

Washington’s Iraq War began in 1991, the year the Soviet Union would disappear, and in one form or another essentially never ended.  It has involved the building of major war-making coalitions, invasions, a full-scale occupation, air wars of various sorts, and god knows what else. As 2015 begins, the U.S. is in its third round of war in Iraq, having committed itself to a new and escalating conflict in that country (and Syria), and in all that time it has won nothing at all.  It would be important to remind our visitor from the past that Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 on the promise of getting the U.S. out of Iraq and actually managed to do so for three years before plunging the country back in yet again.

The first American war in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was a CIA Cold War operation that began in 1979 just after the Soviets invaded the country and was meant as payback for Vietnam.  And yes, to confuse that visitor even more, in its first Afghan War, the U.S. actually supported the crew who became al-Qaeda and would later attack New York and Washington to ensure the launching of the second Afghan War, the one in which the U.S. invaded and occupied the country.  That war has been going on ever since.  Despite much talk about winding it down or even ending the mission there 13 years later, the commitment has been renewed for 2015 and beyond.

In both countries, the enemies of choice proved to be lightly armed minority insurgencies.  In both, an initial, almost ecstatic sense of triumph following an invasion slowly morphed into a fear of impending defeat.  To add just a fillip to all this, in 2015 a Republican majority in the Senate as well as in the House — and don’t forget to explain that we’re no longer talking about Eisenhower Republicans here — will be baying for more.

The National Security State as a Self-Perpetuating Machine

So far, America’s future, looked at from more than half a century ago, has been little short of phantasmagoric.  To sum up: in an almost enemy-less world in which the American economic system was triumphant and the U.S. possessed by far the strongest military on the planet, nothing seems to have gone as planned or faintly right.  And yet, you wouldn’t want to leave that observer from 1963 with the wrong impression.  However much the national security state may have seemed like an amalgam of the Three Stooges on a global stage, not everything worked out badly.

In fact, in these years the national security state triumphed in the nation’s capital in a way that the U.S. military and allied intelligence outfits were incapable of doing anywhere else on Earth.  Fifty-three years after the world might have ended, on a planet lacking a Soviet-like power — though the U.S. was by now involved in “Cold War 2.0” in eastern Ukraine on the border of the rump energy state the Soviet Union left behind — the worlds of national security and surveillance had grown to a size that beggared their own enormous selves in the Cold War era.  They had been engorged by literally trillions of taxpayer dollars.  A new domestic version of the Pentagon called the Department of Homeland Security had been set up in 2002.  An “intelligence community” made up of 17 major agencies and outfits, bolstered byhundreds of thousands of private security contractors, had expanded endlessly and in the process created a global surveillance state that went beyond the wildest imaginings of the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century.

In the process, the national security state enveloped itself in a penumbra of secrecy that left the American people theoretically “safe” and remarkably ignorant of what was being done in their name.  Its officials increasingly existed in a crime-free zone, beyond the reach of accountability, the law, courts, or jail.  Homeland security and intelligence complexes grew up around the national security state in the way that the military-industrial complex had once grown up around the Pentagon and similarly engorged themselves.  In these years, Washington filled with newly constructed billion-dollar intelligence headquarters andbuilding complexes dedicated to secret work — and that only begins to tell the tale of how twenty-first-century “security” triumphed.

This vast investment of American treasure has been used to construct an edifice dedicated in a passionate way to dealing with a single danger to Americans, one that would have been unknown in 1963: Islamic terrorism.  Despite the several thousand Americans who died on September 11, 2001, the dangers of terrorism rate above shark attacks but not much else in American life.  Even more remarkably, the national security state has been built on a foundation of almost total failure.  Think of failure, in fact, as the spark that repeatedly sets the further expansion of its apparatus in motion, funds it, and allows it to thrive.

It works something like this: start with the fact that, on September 10, 2001, global jihadism was a microscopic movement on this planet.  Since 9/11, under the pressure of American military power, it has exploded geographically, while the number of jihadist organizations has multiplied, and the number of people joining such groups has regularly and repeatedlyincreased, a growth rate that seems to correlate with the efforts of Washington to destroy terrorism and its infrastructure.  In other words, the Global War on Terror has been and remains a global war for the production of terror.  And terror groups know it.

It was Osama bin Laden’s greatest insight and is now a commonplace that drawing Washington into military action against you increases your credibility in the world that matters to you and so makes recruiting easier.  At the same time, American actions, from invasions to drone strikes, and their “collateral damage,” create pools of people desperate for revenge.  If you want to thrive and grow, in other words, you need the U.S. as an enemy.

Via taunting acts like the beheading videos of the Islamic State, the new “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, such movements bait Washington into action.  And each new terrorist crew, each “lone wolf” terrorist undiscovered until too late by a state structure that has cost Americans trillions of dollars, each plot not foiled, each failure, works to bolster both terrorist outfits and the national security state itself.  This has, in other words, proved to be a deeply symbiotic and mutually profitable relationship.

From the point of view of the national security state, each failure, each little disaster, acts as another shot of fear in the American body politic, and the response to failure is predictable: never less of what doesn’t work, but more.  More money, more bodies hired, more new outfits formed, more elaborate defenses, more offensive weaponry.  Each failure with its accompanying jolt of fear (and often hysteria) predictably results in further funding for the national security state to develop newer, even more elaborate versions of what it’s been doing these last 13 years.  Failure, in other words, is the key to success.

In this sense, think of Washington’s national security structure as a self-perpetuating machine that works like a dream, since those who oversee its continued expansion are never penalized for its inability to accomplish any of its goals.  On the contrary, they are invariably promoted, honored, and assured of a golden-parachute-style retirement or — far more likely — a golden journey through one of Washington’s revolving doors onto some corporate board or into some cushy post in one complex or another where they can essentially lobby their former colleagues for private warrior corporations, rent-a-gun outfits, weapons makers, and the like.  And there is nothing either in Washington or in American life that seems likely to change any of this in the near future.

An Inheritance From Hell

In the meantime, a “war on terror” mentality slowly seeps into the rest of society as the warriors, weapons, and gadgetry come home from our distant battle zones.  That’s especially obvious when it comes to the police nationwide.  It can be seen in the expanding numbers ofSWAT teams filled with special ops vets, the piles of Pentagon weaponry from those wars being transferred to local police forces at home, and the way they are taking on the look of forces of occupation in an alien land, operating increasingly with a mentality of “wartime policing.”  Since the events of Ferguson, all of this has finally become far more evident to Americans (as it would, with some explanation, to our visitor from 1963).  It was no anomaly, for example, that Justice Department investigators found a banner hanging in a Cleveland police station that identified the place sardonically as a “forward operating base,” a term the military uses, as the New York Times put it, “for heavily guarded wartime outposts inside insurgent-held territory.”

In the wake of Ferguson, the “reforms” being proposed — essentially better training in the more effective use of the new battlefield-style gear the police are acquiring — will only militarize them further.  This same mentality, with its accompanying gadgetry, has been moving heavily into America’s border areas and into schools and other institutions as well, including an enormous increase in surveillance systems geared to streets, public places, and even the home.

In the meantime, while a national security state mentality has been infiltrating American society, the planners of that state have been rewriting the global rules of the road for years when it comes to torture, kidnapping, drone assassination campaigns, global surveillance, national sovereignty, the launching of cyberwars, and the like — none of which will, in the end, contribute to American security, and all of which has already made the planet a less secure, more chaotic, more fragmented place.  In these last years, in other words, in its search for “security,” the U.S. has actually become a force for destabilization — that is, insecurity — across significant swaths of the planet.

Perhaps one of these days, Americans will decide to consider more seriously what “security,” as presently defined by the powers that be in Washington, even means in our world.  There can, as a start, be no question that the national security state does offer genuine security of a very specific sort: to its own officials and employees.  Nothing they do, no matter how dumb, immoral, or downright criminal, ever seems to stand in the way of their own upward mobility within its structure.

As an example — and it’s only one in an era filled with them — not a single CIA official was dismissed, demoted, or even reprimanded in response to the recent release of the redacted executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report.  It hardly mattered that the report included actual criminal behavior (even by the degraded “enhanced interrogation” standards green-lighted by the Bush administration) and the grimmest kinds of abuse of prisoners, some quite innocent of anything.  In an America in which, economically speaking, security has not exactly been the gold standard of the twenty-first century, it is hard to imagine any group that is more secure.

As for the rest of us, insecurity will surely be the story of our lives for the rest of the twenty-first century (as it was, of course, in 1963).  After all, on August 6, 1945, when we consciously entered the age of the apocalyptic possibility at Hiroshima, we had no way of knowing that we had already done so perhaps 200 years earlier as the industrial revolution, based on the burning of fossil fuels, took off.  Nor almost 20 years later, did that American of 1963 know this.  By 1979, however, the science adviser for the president of the United States was well aware of global warming.  When Jimmy Carter gave his infamous “malaise” speech promoting a massive commitment to alternative energy research (and got laughed out of the White House), he already knew that climate change — not yet called that — was a reality that needed to be dealt with.

Now, the rest of us know, or at least should know, and so — with what is likely to be thehottest year on record just ended — would be obliged to offer our visitor from 1963 a graphic account of the coming dangers of a globally warming world.  There has always been a certain sense of insecurity to any human life, but until 1945 not to all human life.  And yet we now know with something approaching certainty that, even if another nuclear weapon never goes off (and across the planet nuclear powers are upgrading their arsenals), chaos, acidifying oceans, melting ice formations, rising seas, flooding coastal areas, mass migrations of desperate people, food production problems, devastating droughts, and monster storms are all in a future that will be the definition of human-caused insecurity — not that the national security state gives much of a damn.

Admittedly, since at least 2001, the Pentagon and the U.S. Intelligence Community have been engaged in blue-skies thinking about how to give good war in a globally warming world.  The national security state as a whole, however, has been set up at a cost of trillions of dollars (and allowed to spend trillions more) to deal with only one kind of insecurity — terrorism and the ever-larger line up of enemies that go with it.  Such groups do, of course, represent a genuine danger, but not of an existential kind.  Thought about another way, thetrue terrorists on our planet may be the people running the Big Energy corporations and about them the national security state could care less.  They are more than free to ply their trade, pull any level of fossil fuel reserves from the ground, and generally pursue mega-profits while preparing the way for global destruction, aided and abetted by Washington.

Try now to imagine yourself in the shoes of that visitor from 1963 absorbing such a future, bizarre almost beyond imagining: all those trillions of dollars going into a system that essentially promotes the one danger it was set up to eradicate or at least bring under control.  In the meantime, the part of the state dedicated to national security conveniently looking the other way when it comes to the leading candidate for giving insecurity a new meaning in a future that is almost upon us.  Official Washington has, that is, invented a system so dumb, so extreme, so fundamentalist, and so deeply entrenched in our world that changing it will surely prove a stunningly difficult task.

Welcome to the new world of American insecurity and to the nightmarish inheritance we are preparing for our children and grandchildren.

 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World(Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt

 

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Gag Law: Spain’s government tries to push back the tide

By Guillem Murcia On January 3, 2015

Post image for Gag Law: Spain’s government tries to push back the tide
The intention behind Spain’s draconian new anti-protest law is clear: the government simply wants citizens to keep their mouths shut and stay at home.Spain is one of the European countries that has suffered the most under the effects of the Great Recession. As of October 2014, unemployment rates stood at 24% for the general population, and a whopping 53.8% for people under 25 years of age. Timid signs of economic growth appear now and then, only to eventually collapse amongst the general feeling that Spain is one of the sick countries of Europe — or as the offensive acronym goes, part of the PIGS: a peripheral country gasping for air and incapable of recovering from the financial crash.

The public response to the crisis, besides a mild Keynesian initiative by the center-left PSOE government during its early years, has followed the neoliberal mantra: labor legislation reforms to weaken collective bargaining and limit workers’ rights, an austerity agenda and cuts on social services. Public spending is frowned upon and is severely limited by a reform of the Constitution in 2011, passed by both the Socialist and the right-wing Popular Party, which imposed a fiscal straitjacket on the Spanish budget, forcing it to comply with what would later become the European Fiscal Compact. These are only some ingredients in a mix that includes a constant stream of corruption scandals involving the Spanish elite, from top politicians to businessmen, bankers and even the royal family.

Many Spaniards are understandably angry. Amnesty International reported45.000 demonstrations during 2012. In 2013, 4.500 took place in Madrid alone. Most demonstrations have been peaceful. Whether they involved unions and workers defending their rights, PAH activists exercising civil disobedience to stop evictions, pro-independence Catalans claiming their right to self-determination, or regular citizens demanding accountability and an end to corruption, Spaniards have fought back against injustice mainly by voicing their discontent. The Popular Party government, however, is not happy with this growing unrest.

Back before social networks and the latest technological gadgets were widespread, the media oligopoly guaranteed that protests deemed undesirable could be controlled to a certain point: those supporting them could be framed as radicals, violent rioters or nihilist thugs. Isolated incidents could be presented as the norm, or as the true intention of the protesters. But newer technologies have made this more difficult, and it is now common to see people recording the police to monitor their actions. Videos of unlawful actions often go viral a few days after the protest.

Both factors, the growing unrest and introduction of new technologies, are among the reasons underlying the Spanish government’s latest initiative to restrict citizen’s rights and scare them into submission: the Citizen Safety Bill, or as those who oppose its introduction call it, the “Gag Law”.

What is the Gag Law?

The main objectives of the Gag Law are two:

  1. To establish several “administrative infractions” that warrant fines for those who would commit them. Several of these new administrative infractions used to be faltas, or misdemeanors, under the old Spanish criminal law.
  2. To create an “administrative infraction registry” for those citizens who commit said infractions.

The first fundamental flaw of the Gag Law is related to what jurists call “undefined legal concepts.” These are legal concepts that depend on subjective assessment or otherwise non-objective measurements: when a law calls for a “reasonable” use of force, bans “affronts to national dignity” and so on, it is making use of an undefined legal concept. It is sometimes necessary to use them in laws, as not everything can be quantified and specified to the level of detail that is necessary in day-to-day life. However, these concepts are intended to be used with considerable caution in laws that limit rights and liberties of citizens, since they entrust authorities with considerable discretion. The Gag Law is full of these concepts when describing acts that are considered “administrative infractions.”

This is a bigger concern when one considers that some of these concepts are supposed to be evaluated by authorities under stressful situations in which calm, rational judgments are difficult to make. For instance, a police officer in the midst of a demonstration might not be in the best setting to assess whether the words uttered by a protester constitute an “affront to national dignity” or if they are merely an expression of his freedom of speech before deciding to arrest him. The introduction of undefined legal concepts in the law creates the basis for legal loopholes and abuses of power against citizens.

The second flaw is related to the creation of the new “administrative infractions” themselves, which often entail disproportionate fines of up to 30.000 euros for people exercising such fundamental rights as that of protest (in this case, when this is done without an authorization issued by the public authorities). The government claims to be doing this based on the criteria established by criminal law experts. And it is true that many criminal law jurists advise that their discipline be used as the final answer to social problems, thus adhering to what is usually called the “principle of last resort,” that is, that criminal law should always be the last answer to a social problem. While we might disagree with the effectiveness of criminal law in modern societies, it is reasonable to admit that following such a principle is better than an authoritarian government that tries to impose a certain vision of social behavior by establishing thousands of new crimes.

The problem is that the Spanish government has twisted this principle and is following it in a warped way. The Gag Law incorporates several “administrative infractions” because, unlike crimes (which are to be ruled by a judge in a court), these infractions can be imposed by an administrative authority, such as a police officer. This leaves citizens with fewer legal guarantees to defend themselves against the accusation of having committed one. If people wish to prove themselves innocent of an “administrative infraction,” they must stand before an administrative court. And these, under the recent reforms of the Spanish legal system, charge citizens taxes, which criminal courts do not.

Thus, these new administrative infractions become de facto “quick fines.” You either pay them or you go to court, paying taxes in order to do so, and risk losing the whole process, thus paying even more money in the end. The effect that the government hopes the law will have on most people is clear: that they stay at home and don’t risk having to pay ridiculous amounts of money in fines for attending an unauthorized demonstration. Even when the protest is authorized and stays closely within the boundaries of the law, as I mentioned above, those boundaries are so subjective and depend so much on undefined legal concepts that you might still be fined because a Spanish equivalent of Judge Dredd (“I am the law”) will assess your “infraction,” decide you are guilty and sentence you all in the same act. The moral of the story is: stay at home and keep your mouth shut, citizen.

The third flaw of the Gag Law is the creation of an Administrative Infraction Registry that will compile all infractions committed by a citizen in a personal file. Its purpose, according to the bill, is to “note recidivism and assess it in order to issue administrative authorizations that will affect citizen safety.” This bizarre registry, something akin to a “light” criminal record, has been criticized by several Spanish jurists, who consider it to be a list of “bad citizens” and a step back towards darker times.

Beyond the Gag Law

The Gag Law is one step in the process of transforming a liberal democracy into an authoritarian one with less margin for dissent and protest. Paradoxically, one might think that it is a good sign to see the government react in such a blunt way to unrest in the streets and its loss of credibility. It is kind of an old-school reaction: their “velvet glove” does not do the job, so they must resort to the “iron fist,” as a well-known Italian thinker once said. This is, in a way, a sign of how much momentum the alternatives to the current system are gaining.

But this should not lead us to forget that the Gag Law can have disastrous effects on the people caught in its trap. It can ruin lives with its disproportionate fines, or with the social stigma and fear it can cause in people. And it is in these cases that mutual aid will be needed and solidarity networks will have to work hard.

Still, although these are real risks we must bear in mind, it is quite doubtful that the Gag Law will extinguish the climate of social unrest in Spain. While laws are extremely important and have real effects on the day-to-day lives of real people, the government cannot simply overturn social and political shifts overnight through the imposition of individual fines. Complex social dynamics can be as strong as a tide, and too powerful to be to be stopped by a single law. The question is: is the tide turning in Spain? As Galileo famously said, “Eppur si muove.” And yet it moves.

Guillem Murcia is a political scientist and jurist from Valencia, Spain. He is an editor and contributor to Rotekeil.

 

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