A favourite festival

April 30th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

What I love about May-day is the sheer number of meanings, stacked over each other. “Police vs. Punks” has been top of the deck in Berlin since annual riots became a Mayday calendar fixture in the 1980s. Numerically larger but less prominent are the marches of trade unionists and political parties, and a free music festival attempts to divert people’s attention. Below it all are the spring festivities of Beltane, Walpurgisnacht and the like.
The interplay between those meanings isn’t a side-note; it’s what makes the festival. It’s a day for anarchists and trade unionists, hippies and organizers, [spontaneity and organization](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Luxemburg#Dialectic_of_Spontaneity_and_Organisation). Political may-day grew out of the campaign for an 8-hour day, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Organized from above as a limited political protest, it absorbed from below a tangle of quasi-religious meaning, drawn from folk customs and the unfulfilled desire for a workers’ festival. Events could take place under the dual banners “Proletarians of all lands, unite” and “Love one another”; red flags and red flowers were jointly symbols.
By the same token, the idea of a sensible protest being disrupted by a violent minority doesn’t wash. Much of what started the demonstrations was police violence: French police [killed](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourmies,_Nord) eight peaceful protesters on May 1, 1891; five years earlier many had been killed by a bomb at a protest or by the police response in Chicago. The murkiness of the latter is utterly familiar; it’s unclear who threw the bomb, but four anarchists were nonetheless executed for it. I’m no great fan of “playing chicken with pigs” as a form of protest, but it’s no strange hijacking of something otherwise calm.
This year, the German media have spent several months hyping the destructive side of the demonstrations, egging on the car-bombers with their lurid outrage, predicting that the recession will make the whole event bigger and more destructive. Maybe they’re right; hype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Personally I’ll be avoiding the riots and letting my hippie side hang out for a day.
[the historical bits here have largely been yoinked from [Hobsbawm](http://www.ata.boun.edu.tr/asistanlar/hist551/w11/Hobsbawm_Ranger_the%20invention%20of%20tradition.pdf)]

Idioms of protest

April 29th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Somebody [flings a shoe](http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7787792.stm) at George Bush. A [Cambridge](http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5643558.ece) student follows his lead, and misses Wen Jiabao. The idea catches on in [India](http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Now-a-shoe-thrown-at-Chidambaram/articleshow/4369381.cms) and [Ukraine](http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=79054&sectionid=351020606). By now activists are planning target practice (all those misses are pretty embarrassing), the paranoids have started questioning whether Zaidi was a “lone shoeman”, and [shoe-throwing](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe_throwing) has become a recognizable idiom of protest.
It’s not a bad model for how protests take shape. A successful new idea is replicated everywhere, often with more concern for imitation than effectiveness. Over time it becomes increasingly ritualistic and ‘symbolic’, until eventually somebody comes along to cut through the crap. Protest, like the rest of politics, works through analogy and institutional momentum more than through reason.
I’m not complaining. Repetitive protests give the rest of society at least a fighting chance of figuring out what the hell is going on, and even to respect them. If you hesitate to cross a picket line, it’s because you know what a picket line is. It’s a shame when ineffective forms of protest become dominant, but that’s just the price we pay for lack of imagination.
Mainly, I’m intrigued by the history of protest techniques. South Asia, for example, clearly favours some styles which are less common in Europe. Other forms are dictated by the behaviour of the authorities. British protesters can let themselves be arrested, with only a small risk of being mistreated by the police. In Greece or Russia, only the foolhardy play chicken with the cops. Forget the causes they’re advancing; I want to read the story of how protesters make themselves heard.

In Brief

April 27th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

No time to write a real post today. Instead:
* something cheery: parts of the Aral Sea, which once looked as though it would be wiped out completely by water mismanagement, are [making a comeback](http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav042409.shtml)
* something bizarrely cyberpunk: [Brazilians](http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2009/04/fleetcom?currentPage=all) have been breaking into old US military satellites, and using them as ersatz orbital CB relays
* something thoughtful: [Eliane Glaser](http://newhumanist.org.uk/289) in the New Humanist, arguing that Snow’s ‘two cultures’ (science and the humanities, unable to talk to one another) are outmoded, and now we’re back to science vs. religion

Religion in the slums

April 26th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The case for religion tends to be much more convincing than the case for belief. Mike Davis, author of _Planet of Slums_, plans to discuss Pentecostalism in his next book. Meanwhile, he [says](http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2006/05/interview-with-mike-davis-part-2.html):
>For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.
Far from being an escapist _sigh of the oppressed_, this is religion as a pragmatic way of dealing with the surrounding world. As [Eliza Griswold](http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/nigeria) writes in a piece on religion in Nigeria:
>Pentecostalism has updated Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic for the 21st century. Pentecostals do not drink, gamble, or engage in extramarital sex; so all of that formerly illicit energy can go into either business or education.
Grey as that life may sound, I can’t fault it as a route out of the slums.
It would be nice to have a secular alternative with as much force as religion gets by making up stories, but I can’t see it happening yet. Meanwhile I’ll keep on looking, forlornly, for a godless cult to join.

Protected: Reasons to be cheerful

April 25th, 2009 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

22 years’ jail for breaking Iraq sanctions

April 25th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Life gets pretty unpleasant for people falsely accused of terrorism: once the authorities have publicised somebody as a terrorist, it becomes embarrassing to see them walk free. The lucky ones find [support from the community](http://www.sidalidonations.net/about.php) and grudging government acceptance that they have at least some rights. Others, like Rafil Dhafir, find themselves hounded for anything the authorities can pin on them
Dhafir is an Iraqi-American doctor. He is currently serving 22 years in an American jail, confined to a ‘[communications management unit](http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/communication-management-units-mcgowan/1747/)’ that severely restricts his contact with the outside world. The US government thinks of him as a terrorist, and ‘[counts](http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2005/December/05_opa_641.html)’ his imprisonment as a success in the War on Terror.
But Dhafir has never been so much as charged with terrorism. He was instead convicted of sending money to Iraq, in violation of sanctions. He claims the money was for charitable purposes, and nobody seems to deny this.
[Sanctions on Iraq](http://www.casi.org.uk/) were one of the most bone-headedly counter-productive policies of recent years. Variously intended to contain Iraq, force it to dismantle its WMD programs, or force Saddam from power, they in fact only managed to harm the weakest in Iraq (to the tune of several hundred thousand deaths), while strengthening the regime. But forget that breaking this law is far more honourable than obeying it, and you still bang up against the length of the sentence. 22 years?! When [other sanctions-breaking attempts](http://www.rdrop.com/~/vitwpdx/vitwpdxnews052102.html) went unpunished, and comparable fraud offence rarely carry anything like this sentence? This is a sentence that makes no sense — except on a political level.

Dai Qing

April 24th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

One name mentioned repeatedly, and respectfully, mentioned in China Pop is that of journalist [Dai Qing](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dai_Qing) (戴晴). Dai has written on many topics, including a book on the Three Gorges dam, which got her briefly jailed in the aftermath of Tiananmen. More recently she has criticized the Beijing Olympics, and is one of the signatories of [Charter 08](http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22210)
Trying to track down her work on the internet, I end up with:

  • A blog apparently once here, but now seemingly only available from archive.org
  • A handful of newspaper columns from the start of this decade
  • A profile of Dai from the Wall Street Journal (one of many, but mostly telling the same story so I’ll stick with listing one)

Book: Energy Flash

April 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Simon Reynolds. [Energy Flash](http://energyflashinfohype.blogspot.com/), a journey through rave music and dance culture. 1998.
Reynolds’ history of ‘rave music and dance culture’ attracted me primarily in an anthropological way, as a loving report from an alien subculture. It’s helpful that Reynolds’ sympathies match mine. An intellectual left-liberal, and a believer in spritual and social progress through counter-culture, he drenches raveculture in his own aspirations

‘What the London pirate stations and the free parties conjured up was the sense of rave as a vision quest. Both transformed mundane Britain, its dreary metropolitan thoroughfares and placid country lanes, into a cartography of adventure and forbidden pleasures’ [xviii]

‘While rock relates an experience (autobiographical or imaginary), rave _constructs_ an experience. Bypassing interpretation, the listener is hurled into a vortex of heightened sensations, abstract emotions and artificial energies’ [xix]

Similarly, he shares the natural doubts. Coming into electronic music from years submerged in post-punk, he worries that ecstasy alone can’t save the world:

Is rave simply about the dissipation of utopian energies into the void or does the idealism it catalyses spill over into and transform ordinary life? Can the oceanic, ‘only connect!’ feelings experienced on the dancefloor be integrated into everyday struggles to be ‘better at being human’?

But the socio-political analysis doesn’t get out of hand: most of the book is filled with descriptions of the music; Reynolds somehow manages powerful and varied descriptions of music, without the ability to fall back to the crutch of describing the lyrics.
My only disappointment was how parochial Reynolds’ approach is. The cover doesn’t make it clear, but this is primarily an exploration of rave culture in the UK. Detroit and Chicago do get a chapter largely to themselves, but there is very little exploration of the european scene. Eurodisco, EBM and the like are more-or-less ignored.

The land grab of 2008

April 22nd, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

[GRAIN](http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=212) reports on what happens when a food crisis meets an economic crisis, and is given a healthy shove by government policies:
>On the one hand, “food insecure” governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated.
They’ve also been obsessively collecting [news clippings](http://farmlandgrab.blogspot.com/) to back up their case.

From the magazines

April 21st, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

I don’t normally like human-interest articles, but occasionally journalists are skillful enough to win over even skeptics like me.
First, [Rebecca Skloot](http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/magazine/04Creatures-t.html) on ‘service animals’
>people often find it hard to believe that the United States government is considering a proposal that would force Edie and many others like her to stop using their service animals. But that’s precisely what’s happening, because a growing number of people believe the world of service animals has gotten out of control: first it was guide dogs for the blind; now it’s monkeys for quadriplegia and agoraphobia, guide miniature horses, a goat for muscular dystrophy, a parrot for psychosis and any number of animals for anxiety, including cats, ferrets, pigs, at least one iguana and a duck.
Then, two from Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post. One is a [recent tear-jerker](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549_pf.html) on children killed by being left in cars:
>”Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.
>Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?
Then – without much deeper meaning, just a great portrait – on children’s entertainer [The Great Zucchini](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/18/AR2006011801434.html):
>The Great Zucchini actually does magic tricks, but they are mostly dime-store novelty gags — false thumbs to hide a handkerchief, magic dust that turns water to gel — accompanied by sleight of hand so primitive your average 8-year-old would suss it out in an instant. That’s one reason he has fashioned himself a specialist in ages 2 to 6. He behaves like no adult in these preschoolers’ world, making himself the dimwitted victim of every gag. He thinks a banana is a telephone, and answers it. He can’t find the birthday boy when the birthday boy is standing right behind him. Every kid in the room is smarter than the Great Zucchini; he gives them that power over their anxieties.

Trotsky and leapfrogging

April 20th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The [Worldchanging](http://www.worldchanging.com) folks often talk about [leapfrogging](http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001743.html), ‘the notion that areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps’. It’s nice to see the same concept in different clothes, in a [book on Trotsky](http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2635#_ednref14) (who naturally had the problem of explaining Communism in Russia):
>In appending new forms the backward society takes not their beginnings, nor the stages of their evolution, but the finished product itself. In fact it goes even further; it copies not the product as it exists in its countries of origin but its ‘ideal type’, and it is able to do so for the very reason that it is in a position to append instead of going through the process of development. This explains why the new forms, in a backward society, appear more perfected than in an advanced society where they are approximations only to the ‘ideal’ for having been arrived at piecemeal and with the framework of historical possibilities.

Can you repeat that?

April 20th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

This report from the British Council talks about how being a native speaker of English isn’t as big an advantage as it might seem. A review says (and my experience agrees entirely):

As English increasingly becomes the language of business, native speakers feel, quite understandably, that they are at an advantage. But discussion often goes more smoothly when the native speakers leave the room – proceedings are not muddied by idioms and intuitive, unthinking use of slang. Conversation among non-native speakers may be more direct and pragmatic – correct, probably, yet stripped down and functional. The people who see themselves as facilitators are, in reality, obstacles. This is increasingly evident to non-native speakers, and it is having an impact on the teaching of English as a foreign language.

Most people are impressively incompetent when it comes to talking with non-native speakers of their language. The exceptions are generally those who have learnt through experience how to talk simply – businesspeople, tour guides or travellers. But it’s a skill which could be taught – it just isn’t.
Teaching of foreign languages in Britain, for good reason, farcical: a basic knowledge of French is pretty useless, when every child in France is learning English to a far higher level. Why not let kids opt out of learning foreign languages, and instead take a course in ‘how to communicate with foreigners’? Give them prose-composition excercises with a thousand-word vocabulary. Mark them down for using slang, or irony, or meaningless pleasantries that confuse the conversation. Have comprehension exercises where children must make sense of Babelfish translations, or letters badly translated from Finnish. Get them onto skype, let them talk to the Chinese kids their age who are learning English. Teach them how to rephrase and repeat, how to pitch their language according to the audience, how to figure out when a listener hasn’t understood them. It’ll be far more use than a few words in French.

Independent Iraqi politics, 2006

April 18th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Reading [Blair Unbound](http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3669345/Tony-Blair-Hat-trick-hero.html), Anthony Seldon’s political biography of Blair since 2001, I’ve been struck by how forcefully it confirms the view much of the outside world had of Number 10 in that time. Namely, that everything was driven by personalities rather than policies, with Blair rarely hearing — let alone listening to — the outside world.
[Naturally](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/the_world/iraq/) I’ve been paying particularly close attention to the treatment of the Iraq war. This was the first political event I was deeply involved in, and re-viewing it as history provides a chance to see what I interpreted correctly and falsely at the time. Generally, the lesson is I was most likely to be right when I was at my most cynical.
A good example of this is the casual way in which Blair and Bush controlled Iraqi politicians — including elected politicians, whose democratic selection was one of the last remaining justifications for their war.
So, when Nouri al-Maliki’s selection as Iraqi Prime Minster in early 2006, replacing Ibrahim Jaafari,
[most reports](http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/mar/16/iraq) treated it as a decision made by Iraqis. Relatively few journalists discussed it as a selection determined by the Americans. [I did](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2006/04/jawad_almaliki.html), correctly cynical for once, mainly because I had been paying attention to [Helena Cobban](http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/election/2006/0405impasse.htm):
>The US and British governments…have been using the power of their countries’ military position inside Iraq to try to subvert the results of the December election by pursuing a determined campaign against the nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari as Prime Minister.
Now it is safely in the past, Seldon is free to show that the cynics had it right:
>[Blair] became convinced that al-Jaafari should, in the interests of Iraq’s future, step down. But how? Al-Jaafari did not want to relinquish office, and so the full weight of the Bush administration would be required to shift his view….Blair told Bush that he had asked Straw to go to Baghdad to ‘bang heads together’ and suggested that Rice join him….Straw and Rice were unable to dislodge al-Jaafari during their visit, but, in making clear that they spoke with the full authority of their bosses, they made their point. Sawers and the NSC’s Megan O’Sullivan remained behind to maintain the pressure. Blair kept in close contact with them, and on 20 April, al-Jaafari eventually stepped down.

Book: China Pop

April 17th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Despite the column-yards given over to news from China, I often feel that the only stories I read from that country are ones about money. There are other, less business-oriented voices around — how could there not be, given the number of people constantly travelling to and from China — but you have to go and hunt them down rather than waiting for them to arrive on the front page.
So [on Cosma’s recommendation](http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notebooks/china-today.html) I bought myself a copy of [Zha Jianying](http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/23/070423fa_fact_zha?currentPage=all)’s book [China Pop](http://www.nytimes.com/1995/08/02/books/books-of-the-times-now-china-has-its-soaps-and-celebrity-authors.html).
Written in 1995, this is a a tour of the Chinese culture industry – books, film, television, art and the press. Zha wisely avoids the temptation to cover everything. Instead she focuses mainly on her Beijing-intellectual friends, people she understands and who will be willing to talk with her. So we get telling pen-portraits of a handful of successful artists. There is the team behind TV melodrama Yearning (ke wang), a mix of highbrow writers such as Zheng Wanglong, who devoted their energies to building a chinese equivalent to Mexican soaps. Or there isChan Koon-Chung, one of the breed of ambitious Hong Kong media entrepreneurs trying to expand onto the mainland.
Many of Zha’s subjects are intellectuals who have consciously abandoned an inward-looking and elitist ‘avant-garde’ in favour of the mass market. It all sounds strikingly like Yeltsin-era Russia, where some professors become millionaire wheeler-dealers, while many of their colleagues end up bewildered and impoverished, unable to find a position for themselves inside a new world. Even as she focusses on the success stories, Zha does manage to point out the number who have lost their way.
What’s truly striking, though, is how dated the book feels. She writes of the fledgling contemporary art scene in Beijing; now, [artfacts](http://www.artfacts.net) lists 149 galleries there, and Chinese influence on the international world is growing exponentially. Equally, much of the media – the press, music, even porn – has been transformed beyond recognition by the internet. I’d love to see Zha write a similar book now, and capture what has changed in the past 15 years. Unfortunately her [latest book](http://new.artzinechina.com/display_vol_aid247_en.html) won’t help: she’s devoted it entirely to the 1980s.

Dubai: Hari, plus Mike Davis

April 16th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

There’s much to be said for Johann Hari, whatever [uncertainties](http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Johann_Hari#Challenges_to_his_credibility.2C_and_Hari.27s_responses) you may have about his reliability. He’s one of the few reliably left-liberal voices in the British media, and he’s an excellent writer. His long [piece on Dubai](http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html) in last week’s Independent deservedly ruffled a lot of feathers. In it, he describes the life of the labourers imported to build Dubai’s skyscrapers, kept without chance of escape in what amounts to slavery:
>Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.
>Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means “City of Gold”. In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.
The reaction was immense, and consisted of that odd mix of “you’re making it up” and “that’s old news” which is generally a sure sign that you’ve hit a nerve.
But in the interests of not relying on Hari alone, here’s a somewhat similar [account of Dubai](http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2635), by [Planet of Slums](http://www.amazon.com/Planet-Slums-Mike-Davis/dp/1844671607/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239803062&sr=8-1) author Mike Davis:
>Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ILO labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’
Back to Hari for the last word:
>Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.

Georgia: rebels without a programme

April 15th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

In Georgia, the [protests](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2009/04/georgia_protests_friday.html) continue: [small rallies](http://georgiandaily.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11123&Itemid=133), alongside attempts to blockade the streets outside parliament and other official buildings. Day in, day out, there are still several thousand people involved in the protests, an impressive show of strength.
The problem is the leadership; as [Paul Rimple](http://tbilisiblues.blogspot.com/2009/04/salome-ii-pure-genius.html) writes:
>I’d really like to sympathize with the opposition, but these people must understand what a grave responsibility they bear when talking to thousands of tired and angry people. If you are a leader, people depend on you to guide them. If you don’t know what you are leading them towards you have no reason to be sitting in the chair.
They have genuine grievances. Problem is, they won’t allow any avenue to resolve them, short of toppling the government. They’ve rejected out of hand suggestions of directly elected mayors, and of a coalition government. They aren’t putting forward demands of their own, except for the unachievable one of complete power.
And if, somehow, they did manage to oust Saakashvili? The new president would instantly be beseiged by the same crowd of disaffected politicos, and there’s no reason to expect any better behaviour from the protest leaders than from Saakashvili. My instinct is usually to support protesters, but in this debacle I don’t see much to admire anywhere.
By the way, [here](http://kosmyryk.typepad.com/) are [some](http://caucasusreports.wordpress.com/) [blogs](http://tbilisiblues.blogspot.com/) following the protests.
ETA: Judging by the [Global Voices roundup](http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/04/14/concerns-emerge-over-protest/), more or less every other blog has the same view. Doesn’t mean we’re right, of course.

A financial crisis reading list

April 14th, 2009 § 1 comment § permalink

[warning: a mainly-for-my-own-benefit big-list-of-links post]
Despite the left’s [general](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2009/04/german_left.html) [crapness](http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/04/07/what-is-the-lefts-approach-to-the-financial-crisis/) in responding to the economic crisis, they must have _some_ ideas, somewhere. I just can’t find them. The obvious solution – ploughing through a big pile of documents, and hoping to find something insightful buried within it. Here’s the pile – makeshift, incomplete, and poorly-arranged, likely to grow and mutate over time, but (hopefully) containing something worthwhile. My [delicious](http://delicious.com/perspectivelute/gfc) has even less-sorted links. Categories are very vague.

From the left

* [Mat Taibbi](http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/26793903/the_big_takeover/print) in _Rolling Stone_
* [The crash – a view from the left](http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/crash.html), a collection of articles co-edited by Jon Cruddas. [Direct link to pdf](http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/crash.html)
* [Rowenna Davis’ LC post](http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/04/07/what-is-the-lefts-approach-to-the-financial-crisis/#comments) bemoaning the lack of action on the left
* Fabians: [pamphlet on green economics](http://fabians.org.uk/publications/publications-news/cheap-energy-harman-independent), [speech by Sunder Katwala](http://www.fabians.org.uk/general-news/general-news/katwala-finance-downturn-risks), [focus-grouped views on bonuses &c](http://www.fabians.org.uk/images/stories/Fabian_Review_Winter_Fabian_Essay.pdf)
* ATTAC: [new docs from France](http://www.france.attac.org/spip.php?page=nouveautes)
* [Casino Crash](http://casinocrash.org/): “Critical thinking on the financial and economic crisis”
* Prospect: [After Capitalism](http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10680)
* The Nation: [Reimagining Socialism](http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090323/ehrenreich_fletcher?rel=hp_picks)
* Demos: [Lessons from the global financial crisis](http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/aftertheapocalypse)
* IPPR: [Towards an accountable capitalism](http://www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=652), [commentary on the G20](http://www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=655), and (getting tenuous now) [green jobs](http://www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/publication.asp?id=658)
* [Amartya Sen](http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22490) on ‘Capitalism Beyond the Crisis’
* [The quiet coup](http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice) – Atlantic article on the IMF, by Simon Johnson of baseline scenario

From the centre

* [Planet Money](http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/), a blog and tri-weekly (?) podcast from NPR. The team also made an [hour-long introduction](http://thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1242)
* [Obama’s latest speech](http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=04&year=2009&base_name=obamas_speech_1) on the economy, giving an overview of what he’s been up to
* [The Turner Review](http://www.fsa.gov.uk/pages/Library/Corporate/turner/index.shtml). [Guardian summary](http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/18/banking-regulators). [Direct pdf link](http://www.fsa.gov.uk/pubs/other/turner_review.pdf)
* G20 London summit: [Communiqué](http://www.londonsummit.gov.uk/en/summit-aims/summit-communique/), [official site](http://www.londonsummit.gov.uk/en/), [unofficial information collection](http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/g20/)
* Esprit issues devoted to the financial crisis, [November](http://www.eurozine.com/journals/esprit/issue/2008-11-10.html) and [December](http://www.eurozine.com/journals/esprit/issue/2008-12-11.html)
* Economics blogs/pundits: [Paul Krugman](http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/), [Tyler Cowen](http://www.marginalrevolution.com/), [Brad DeLong](http://delong.typepad.com/), [The Baseline Scenario](http://baselinescenario.com/), FT [Economists’ Forum](http://blogs.ft.com/economistsforum/), [Nouriel Roubini](http://www.rgemonitor.com/blog/roubini), [naked capitalism](http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/)


* Max Otte’s book [Der Crash kommt](http://www.amazon.de/Crash-kommt-Max-Otte/dp/3430200016) has been hanging around on German bestseller lists for months. But I haven’t seen it mentioned in the English-speaking world, and there doesn’t seem even to be an English translation
* Charles Morris, the trillion dollar meltdown
* Robert Shiller, [the subprime solution](http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8714.html)
* Nassim Taleb, [The Black Swan](http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2007/04/nassim_talebs_t.html)
* Charles Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes. [First Chapter](http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/46/04714671/0471467146.pdf)
* Friedman, The great contraction. [First Chapter](http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s8754.html)
* [Books listed in the Turner Review](http://labourandcapital.blogspot.com/2009/03/fsa-reading-list.html)
* Martin Wolf’s book [Fixing global finance](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixing_Global_Finance)

Renting vs. buying, Sofia-style

April 13th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

Bulgarian anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev has some interesting articles up at Eurozine. He’s good on migrant workers; he’s downright brilliant when justifying my prejudices against home ownership.

As in the rest of the country, nine out of ten people in Sofia own the home they live in (unlike in the former GDR, for example, home ownership in Bulgaria was as high during communism as it is today). A similar proportion consider it self-evident to keep the same flat for life and see their children inherit it; to sell property is considered somehow to be an evil.

The real-estate market, abolished under communism in 1948, has been slow to come into motion. People find excuses not to sell: they waited for prices to go up first with Nato accession (2004), then with EU accession (2007). Well, prices did go up, but there was no property boom. Typically, elderly persons would live in extreme poverty, turning off the central heating in all but the bedroom, and obstinately refusing to sell their bigger flat and buy a smaller one.

This means that even after 15 years of “transition”, the spatial expression of new social inequalities has been slow to take shape. In the same block of flats, one finds growing differences in income, culture, and expectations; rarely is it possible to convince all owners to pay for the re-plastering of the façade (making much of the city look as if it had been subject to air raids). From the outside, it is possible to single out the rich owner who has covered his floor with a strip of brand-new stucco; it is said that burglars identify their targets according to the estimated price of the window frames.

The British and American faith in home ownership as a free-market idol confuses me. In personal terms, investing 300% of your wealth in one asset seems like dubious personal finance. In market terms, apartment blocks are like enclosures: more efficient than strip farming, and they free the serfs to seek their fortune in another city.
Seems to me, Britain isn’t far from Bulgaria on this. Some of the reasons for owning homes are exactly comparable: faith in ever-rising prices, and the desire to pass on a family home through the generations, despite the low likelihood of your children wanting to live in the same place.
Most of our other reasons are historical, cultural and social, conservative rather than pro-market. Renting meant government ownership, hence unresponsive management. It also often meant blocks of flats, hence New Brutalist concrete, product of cheap postwar reconstruction and a bone-headed architectural fad. Thatcher’s sale of council homes was a way to turn the richer workers into loyal Conservative voters. Pillaging public assets to subsidise this, she made buying into a genuinely good deal for anybody rich enough to afford it. Since then, we’ve convinced ourselves that house prices always rise, so anybody who rents is either a fool, or too poor to get rich. Plus, there’s that unpleasant “Englishman’s home is his castle” thing.
Despite this, we talk about home ownership primarily in economic terms. Why?


April 12th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

[John Gray](http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22556) likes Margaret Atwood’s new (non-fiction) book on debt:

Atwood’s project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness. Beliefs about debt are not shadows cast by processes of market exchange. They are presupposed throughout much of human activity. Economic life invokes a sense of order in human affairs, widely dispersed throughout society.

German left

April 12th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

The [weakness](http://ohuiginn.net/mt/2009/04/market_socialism.html) of the left’s response to the financial crisis is also noticeable here in Germany. Left-wing parties are somehow managing to lose popularity, even as capitalism collapses around them. Even Attac — the group campaigning for a [Tobin Tax](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobin_tax), and generally among the better-informed critics of unfettered free markets — have failed to make a dent in the debate. [Der Spiegel](http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/0,1518,618304,00.html) nails one reason – the left’s certainty of itself, regardless of the rest of the world:
>Those who know they are always right can deal less with a specific moment than with their principles. So they miss the forward-pass from history, the breath of the moment.
>Thus the clear weakness of the left is not least their inability to react adequately to this unique historical moment, which is for many as confusing as it is threatening.
>That has always been the power of a successful protest movement: vocalising the situation in order to change it. Tangibly, surprisingly. It happened in 1968. It happened in the 1970s, with the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. It happened in 1989, as the wall fell. Always the expression of suppressed or displaced feelings played a decisive role – wit, verve, impudence, passion and a touch of genius, brought together for a ‘concrete utopia’ [all very loosely translated]

Where am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for April, 2009 at Dan O'Huiginn.