Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cultural power

There was a lot of loose talk about cultural power back when I was in college.  And why not?  After all, we were up against a government armed with nukes—the only response we could muster was changing the culture.  Much of this was just silly—when I consider how much hot air was exchanged over subjects like long hair, I cringe to this day.  Some cultural victories like casual dress were immediately co-opted—dressing like a hippie did not stop the war in Vietnam but it certainly made Levi Strauss and Co. VERY rich.

I tend to look on my infatuation with cultural change as one example of my foolish youth.  After all, we won all the important cultural battles but that did not prevent those hippies from electing some of the more reactionary governments in USA history.  But while culture may be no match for militarism or the naked greed and corruption of finance capitalism, it isn't nothing.  And the established power structure understood this.  This is why they made such a big deal over long hair.  But where they chose to make their cultural stand was their old reliable—religion.  They have been using religion to enhance and legitimize their power for so long, bishops are on the back row of a chess board—right next to the king and queen.

This time, the choice of religion was especially inspired.  Political progressives had abandoned the field.  Sure, the civil rights movement was initially led by the preacher's kids like Martin Luther King.  Malcolm X, who taught that Christianity was the religion of the slavers became a Muslim divine.  Even the traditionally reactionary Roman Catholic Church had the (short-lived) cultural outbreak of Vatican II.  But the overwhelming majority of educated white liberals were aggressively irreligious.

Not only did the various forms of religious fundamentalism receive quite lavish funding during the cultural push-back, other more secular intellectual pursuits became fundamentalist too.  The most obvious example was economics.  Just as the economic profession was declaring itself a science, it became almost as purely religious as it had ever been.  Why just yesterday, Paul Krugman wrote:
Yet austerity maintained and even strengthened its grip on elite opinion. Why?

Part of the answer surely lies in the widespread desire to see economics as a morality play, to make it a tale of excess and its consequences. We lived beyond our means, the story goes, and now we’re paying the inevitable price. Economists can explain ad nauseam that this is wrong, that the reason we have mass unemployment isn’t that we spent too much in the past but that we’re spending too little now, and that this problem can and should be solved. No matter; many people have a visceral sense that we sinned and must seek redemption through suffering — and neither economic argument nor the observation that the people now suffering aren’t at all the same people who sinned during the bubble years makes much of a dent. more
I can think of no better sign that "elite" opinion is seriously questioning the cultural assumptions of finance capitalism than to see some high muckity-muck of the Church of England questioning banking practices.  This is the same institution that once defended the Opium Wars, after all.

Archbishop of Canterbury criticises bankers for 'culture of entitlement'

Justin Welby, member of all-party commission looking into banking standards, throws support behind a new standards body

David Batty, Saturday 27 April 2013

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has accused bankers of having "a culture of entitlement" in a scathing critique of the City's ethical and professional standards.

Welby, a member of the cross-party Banking Standards Commission, said bankers should be required to pass exams in order to raise standards in the industry and restore public trust in the profession.

His comments come as the commission prepares to publish its final report on how to improve behaviour in London's financial centre. George Osborne, the chancellor, has pledged to incorporate its proposals into draft legislation.

Speaking to the Financial Times, the archbishop said: "In banking, in particular, and in the City of London, a culture of entitlement has affected a number of areas – not universally by any means – in which it seemed to disconnect from what people saw as reasonable in the rest of the world."

The former oil industry executive said serious consideration should be given to forming a professional regulatory body, similar to the General Medical Council, to enforce standards.

He said: "Banks are incredibly complicated things. The idea that people can hold hugely responsible positions in them without any kind of formal training seems to a number of us quite surprising."

Welby also echoed the concerns of Sir Mervyn King, outgoing governor of the Bank of England, that some banks were still carrying too much bad debt and could require further taxpayer recapitalisation.

"Part of an ethical approach is transparency and reality about recognising where you are," he said. "The lesson from Japan is if you're going to bit the bullet, it's better to bite it sooner rather than later."

Speaking on Radio 4 on Saturday, the archbishop repeated his warning that Britain is in an economic depression from which it could take a generation to recover.

"We are still significantly below where we were in 2007 in terms of economic activity, of GDP, and that's quite a long time of being below," he told George Parker, the FT's political editor, on Radio 4's The Week in Westminster.

The archbishop also downplayed whether his comments on the state of the economy had annoyed Downing Street. "They haven't said anything here. I mean they probably would have preferred it not said," he said.

"Now, I'm not pointing any fingers at anyone in particular and saying it's so and so's fault or so and so's fault, it's simply a measurable fact coming from the national statistics." more
And for those who thought that sociology might lead the way to a more enlightened future, we have Jean Ziegler, one of the few sociologists who kept the faith over the years—and yes, he is still with us.  What I always liked about Ziegler is that he turned his considerable powers of observation on Switzerland's dirtiest secret—their dirty banks.

Money Mountain: Swiss Banks 'Plundering German Treasury'


Switzerland's banking industry has helped the country achieve one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.  Sociologist and former politician Jean Ziegler has few nice things to say about the banking sector in his native Switzerland. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he argues the Alpine nation is the world capital of dealing in stolen goods, and that Germany has the power to change it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Bayern Munich manager Uli Hoeness deposited money in Switzerland. Does that surprise you?

Ziegler: No. Switzerland has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, the strongest currency and the largest financial center for foreign assets. And we're a small country with no natural resources. Switzerland is the world capital of dealing in stolen goods.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's a harsh accusation. How do you reach that conclusion?

Ziegler: Money comes to Switzerland through three illegal sources: tax evasion in other developed countries, the blood money of dictators and other rulers in the Third World and organized crime.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have criticized the Swiss business model for more than 20 years. Has absolutely nothing changed since then?

Ziegler: No, things have changed. Tax evasion formerly wasn't a crime in Switzerland. That's why in cases like that of former Deutsche Post CEO Klaus Zumwinkel there was no cooperation with German authorities. That has changed under pressure from industrialized countries. But Switzerland still rejects the automatic exchange of bank information.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That was a big sticking point in the planned tax treaty with Germany. Hoeness evidently hoped the deal would pass so he could anonymously legalize his assets. But the plans were blocked by the upper house of parliament in Germany.

Ziegler: Thank God! I don't understand why Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble accepted the treaty. It was the last wise-guy move of the Zurich bankers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do Swiss politicians now see the country's role as a finance center in a more critical light?

Ziegler: Not in the least. The structure of the Swiss ruling class is rock-hard, and unchanged since the time of Napoleon. They sit on their mountains and lecture the world on democracy. It's an unbelievable show of self-satisfaction and arrogance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Come on, some things have changed in Switzerland in recent years.

Ziegler: Yes, but only under pressure. That was the case in the battle over assets owned by Jews that Swiss banks silently held onto after the war. Reparations were first paid out after the United States threatened the banks with a boycott.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ex-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück went so far as to compare the situation to needing a military threat to keep a country under pressure. What did you think of his threat?

Ziegler: It was good. I've never understood why Germany lets itself be duped. The Swiss banks have been plundering the German treasury for decades.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's another very harsh accusation. Is the influence of the banks on the government that strong?

Ziegler: Yes. A lot of Swiss are ashamed of this bank oligarchy. Switzerland has been a multicultural country for 750 years. It's only because of banking secrecy that we haven't joined the EU.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that's slowly being eased up. Is Switzerland getting competition from other tax havens?

Ziegler: Switzerland has no competition. It sits in the middle of Europe, it has the highest technological development, it's legally safe and the political circumstances are never going to change.


Ziegler: Because of the hypocritical European elite. Look at France, even their Socialist ex-Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac had a secret foreign bank account. The hope lies with Germany because it has the political will and the economic power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The recent enormous data leaks are also building up pressure.

Ziegler: That's right. The secrets of offshore companies used to be managed religiously, now they're stored on the computer -- otherwise money can't speed around the world electronically. Then along come foreign employees like Hervé Falciani, who stole tax data from HSBC and handed it over to French authorities. They are the good guys.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But ultimately that's also a form of dealing in stolen goods, which you just accused your home country of.

Ziegler: But it's a venial sin in comparison to what the banks practice with their plundering of allied democracies.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for eight years. In your book "We Let Them Starve," you attack the financial sector. Is it also in part responsible for world hunger?

Ziegler: It shares a great deal of responsibility. Ever since the big banks brought on the financial crisis, they've been increasingly gambling in the food trade. At the same time, 1 billion people are permanently and seriously malnourished. Every five seconds, a child dies.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the gambling alone doesn't explain world hunger. You call the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank "the three horsemen of the Apocalypse" because of their economic policies. How did you arrive at such harsh accusations?

Ziegler: Through my own experience. I recently saw in Peru how mothers in a slum aren't able to afford more than one plastic cup of rice. That's due to the market speculation on food prices, which could be banned tomorrow. But that goes against the neo-liberal, delusional idea that markets should be as unregulated as possible.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you propose?

Ziegler: There's no powerlessness in democracy, and Germany is the liveliest democracy in Europe. The voters could push Schäuble to approve of the complete forgiveness of debt owed by poor countries to the IMF. Chancellor Angela Merkel could put high tariffs on biofuels, because they destroy millions of tons of food. And German lawmakers could change the stock market laws so that speculation on food prices in Germany would be impossible. more
This is an action any 60s cultural warrior will immediately understand—a film director lending his hard-won cultural legitimacy to a movement trying to slow home foreclosures.

Pedro Almodóvar backs wave of Spanish protests over family evictions

Film director gives his support to peaceful demonstrations outside ministers' homes but fears an explosion of violence

Giles Tremlett in Madrid The Observer,  27 April 2013

Pedro Almodóvar, the celebrated Spanish film-maker, has warned of an increasingly violent mood in his recession-hit country as he throws his weight behind a popular movement determined to stop banks evicting vulnerable people who can no longer pay their mortgages.

"I think the country as a whole is worried about social unrest breaking out. I certainly am," he said as Spanish unemployment hit a national record of 27% last week. "Every day that goes by, I get the impression that there is further provocation to make it explode. That doesn't mean I am inciting anyone to violence. It is quite the opposite. I would invite everyone to react, but in the most peaceful way possible," he added.

Almodóvar said be backed a controversial, if peaceful, campaign of protests outside ministers' houses that prime minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative People's party (PP) government has likened to the behaviour of the Nazis.

"The people being thrown out of their homes have children too," said Almodóvar, whose friend, the former Socialist prime minister Felipe González, had called on protesters to respect the family homes of fellow politicians. "And those children see their parents or brothers and sisters dragged down the street by the police."

Almodóvar, who has a new comedy, I'm So Excited!, coming out in Britain this week, says he, like many other Spaniards, is frustrated with a double-dip recession that started four years ago. The crisis has hit young people hard, with unemployment for those aged under 25 running at 57%.

Even Rajoy's government, which claims Spain is on the mend, admits the economy will not grow again until the end of this year at the earliest. Analysts say jobs will begin to be created once the economy achieves 1% growth, but that is not expected until 2016, when the government says unemployment should still be around or above 25%.

With 3 million Spaniards now living in extreme poverty with income of just €3,650 (£3,000) per person per year, Almodóvar says new laws are badly needed to protect the vulnerable. "The period between when the people become aware of what is going on and when laws are passed is a delicate one," he said. "It is a shift that could be violent, though it shouldn't be."

Some 80 families a day are having their homes repossessed in a country where four out of five people live in homes owned by their family. Interest rates on mortgage arrears have been charged at up to 25%, with the European court of justice last month condemning some charges as abusive and illegal.

Although 1.4 million Spaniards signed a petition asking for people to be allowed to cancel mortgages by handing their house keys to the bank, campaigners complain that a new law going through parliament only permits that in rare cases.

Yet some claim that banks are more to blame than mortgage-holders for Spain's crisis. It was their loans to building developers that forced Rajoy's government to ask for a £41bn bailout for them last year.

Almodóvar sees the years of Madrid's party-crazed movida, which coincided with Spain's transition to democracy and saw his start as a film director while working at the state telephone company, as a halcyon time of unfettered freedom and unbounded optimism.

"It has taken me 30 years to realise it, but this country is socially conservative," he says.

Even the former Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is no longer a hero. "It is not just disappointment. His last four years were a monumental disaster," the director says.

Almodóvar's film is partly shot at one of the great symbols of Spain's economic collapse, the new but abandoned airport in his birth region of La Mancha.

"Who wants to fly there?" he asked. "Somehow they convinced my fellow Manchegos that people from across the world would catch flights straight to the heart of La Mancha." more 

No comments:

Post a Comment