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Malala

The world is a boiling pot. In Turkey, Brazil and Egypt there are continued demonstrations despite the extreme police violence used to deter protesters. In Greece, anger is simmering beneath the relatively quiet surface.

If there was any doubt of this, the Greek justice system backing down in the face of the imminent death of hunger striker Kostas Sakkas should convince even the most skeptical observer that the Greek government fears a similar uprising. Do not think for a moment that the judges somehow realised their “mistake”, because they knew full well that they were breaking the law when they last extended Sakkas’ incarceration for another six months.

Kostas Sakkas

If Sakkas, unlawfully imprisoned  for 31 months without being convicted, were to die, the backlash would be completely unpredictable. There are people in Greece from every corner of the political spectrum (except the extreme right, of course) who recognize that this case was never a matter of a single anarchist’s prosecution, but a violation of justice, one more link in a long chain of such violations in modern Greece.

The decision to defy death in the struggle to defend one’s rights and freedoms is the ultimate form of courage. Even more so when the one making the stand is just an adolescent girl. A girl making a stand against an entire society’s cultural perceptions.

Malala Yousafzai became a public figure before even the fateful event that almost cost her her life. In the tender age of 11 she was already blogging under a pseudonym on behalf of the BBC about life under the encroaching shadow of the Taliban.

She later actively campaigned for the right of women to receive an education and was honoured by the government of Pakistan and the international community for her efforts, becoming the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last October she was shot in the head and neck in a targeted assassination attempt against her in a school bus full of children. Yesterday, fully recovered, she delivered a moving speech before the United Nations Youth Assembly. On the day of her 16th birthday, wearing a shawl once worn by the murdered Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, the first female leader of a Muslim state.

Malala Yousafzai addresses United Nations Youth Assembly

Malala Yousafzai addresses United Nations Youth Assembly

It is difficult to imagine how a girl of 12 would even dare to openly speak out against oppression in a society which believes in the inferiority of women. It is even harder to fathom that she would find the strength to recover so fast after a near fatal assault, and yet speak of forgiveness.

How can one so young find so much courage?

There is another side to this story, of course. Malala is being used as a poster child by Western powers, spearheaded by Gordon Brown, to widen the growing rift between (developed) Christian and (developing) Muslim countries.

She is being used to showcase how “evil Muslims” oppress women to justify and escalate the War on Terror. Ironically, at the same time the ineffectual austerity measures used to combat the economic crisis, measures which are supported by the majority of Western governments, often have education and healthcare as prime targets.

Even worse the crisis, which shows no signs of improvement, fuels our own Western brand of extremism, in the form of racism and neo-nazism.

Yet Malala did not only speak of education; almost every mention of education was accompanied by the notion of peace. War and conflict are keeping children out of school. And the artificially perpetuated “War on Terror” is no exception. Malala spoke about Martin Luther King and Ghandhi, about non-violence, about togetherness and about forgiving even the Talib who shot her.

The Taliban are not the only ones who fear educated people. Most governments are not much different. Our own, modern, democratic governments, would rather strip education of anything not useful to employment and thus limit our ability to question them. Most states would prefer obedient drones to thinking citizens. Programmed, rather than truly educated.

There is much to be learned by the example of this teenage girl. The courage to stand up for one’s rights against fear and aggression, especially in a peaceful manner, cannot and should not be ignored. Even if greedy politicians would try to use her to justify their own agendas. But we do not need them. Not them, nor their wars.

“Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”

Art by Anastasia Lambrou

Art by Anastasia Lambrou

Dear economists, dear policy makers, dear bankers, dear powers-that-be,

I have a message for you. It is aimed at you, but not really meant for you, rather for the rest of us who are struggling to make sense of this mess you have created.

We are not commodities.

We, the People, vote and elect individuals who are supposed to represent our interests and uphold our ideals for a fair and humane society. Just one glimpse at the news, especially the uncensored/non-sterilized news reports on the Internet, should be enough to convince anyone that we have strayed very, very far from this basic concept of Democracy.

Commodities do not vote. Commodities have no rights or voice. Commodities are bought, sold and utilised as required.

The very moment that our financial system started treating people as commodities, was the moment when democracy started to decline. And now that this very system has come to dominate politics and governance to an absolute degree, what do you suppose has happened to our precious democracy?

Commodification is nothing new. In fact, it is a fairly old concept introduced by Karl Marx. The problem is that many people will dismiss the concept without thinking, just because they might disagree with Marxist theories.

But you don’t need to be a Marxist or a communist, or even a left-wing sympathiser to understand the fundamental truth of this simple statement: people are not commodities.

No amount of reasoning, no financial theory, no argument can be used to change this. In a world which has formally renounced slavery, human labour cannot be thought of as a commodity.

Because when this happens, then the fundamental right to work becomes subject to the principles of the free market and unemployment is suddenly thought of as a financial indicator, instead of a social problem. Even worse, unemployment becomes a useful tool that can be used to force salary costs to lower and work rights to disappear.

It’s all in the name of “rationalisation”, of course. It is “good business”. “Rationalisation” is a very interesting word, used in business circles (and more recently in politics) as a euphemism for salary and job cuts. In psychology, however, it is used to describe a defence mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviours are logically justified.

Or, simply put, “making excuses”.

But we are not commodities and there is no excuse for treating us as such. No one cares what lumber thinks. What matters is that you get the best quality at the lowest price. Iron ore does not need to start a family. All it needs to do is to be good and cheap enough to be used for production.

When you drive the need to optimize production to the extreme, there would be nothing better than a worker that costs nothing, demands nothing and never stops. In other words, a robot. But robots are still pretty expensive to acquire and maintain. Humans remain a better choice for all but the heaviest and most repetitive tasks.

We are now treading on very dangerous ground. A society which places business concerns and interests over that of its own members will naturally push them to become as robot-like as possible. Is this the kind of society that we want?

Is this the crowning achievement of our technological and cultural evolution? Filling up factories and office buildings with human drones and streets with masses of starving, unemployed people?

Somehow, I do not think this is the bright future which we were promised. Somehow, I don’t think that all those billions of people living in democratic countries are voting to become slaves or beggars.

Or things to be exchanged.

Intermission #18

Bulgarian protesters

In Greece the only thing that stirs these days is the occasional ceremonial 24-hour strike or a continuous strike action in a particular sector, which is condemned by everyone (including even a large part of the media-addled population) and put down by the police and the abusive use of law by the state. Meanwhile, in neighboring Bulgaria there are political developments which should be of particular interest to the Greek people.

Assuming that us Greeks still have the ability to see beyond our nose and our TV screen, which bombards us daily with a lengthy “analysis” on the absolute necessity of the Memorandum and the endless austerity measures which support it.

Although Bulgaria has experienced unprecedented economic growth in recent years, the minimum wage remains at 159 Euros, the second lowest in Europe. In the second half of the last decade, it went through a period of intensive privatisation, in accordance with the mandates of the IMF and the principles of modern economy.

Unemployment is low (below 10%) in comparison to that of Greece, but wages are not sufficient, despite the fact that prices are also quite low.

The energy market is in private hands and is completely self-sufficient. Bulgaria produces all of its energy and does not import even a single TW of electricity from another country.

Apparently, these ideal conditions are not sufficient to make market competition work. So, following the recent increases in the price of electricity, people took to the streets en masse to protest, defying even the bitter cold.

The main demand is the re-nationalisation of the energy market. Does that sound backward? Absurd even? Let me tell you what absurdity really is: expecting a pensioner who receives 79 Euros per month  to pay a monthly electricity bill of 89 Euros.

“We are witnessing how the refrigerator overcame TV,” said political scientist and analyst, Arman Bamikian, referring to the fact that television bombards people with the macroeconomic achievements of the government on a daily basis, while at the same time the standard of living is low and fridges are empty.”

Hunger cannot be fooled. Obviously, then, the point where civil unrest is almost assured is the point where basic needs are threatened: electricity, water, food.

The example of Bulgaria shows us that it is not just the austerity policy that is ineffective. Apparently, so is the uncontrolled privatisation of everything. And especially that of basic utilities, such as water and electricity.

Neoliberalism threatens to smother every last bit of common sense left, and make us forget a basic fact. Water and electricity are NOT luxury goods, the distribution of which can be determined by profit.

Unless, of course, we have decided that in the name of “economic growth” the majority of the population must resort to using oil lamps (assuming oil is affordable) and wells (assuming that people are still allowed to dig).

And why not indeed? According to the Greek Minister of Finance, Mr. Stournaras, the recent equation of prices of heating oil with that of diesel was deemed successful. For just a moderate increase in tax revenues, many oil distributors went out of business (since heating oil consumption went down by 70%), smog covers the air of Athens at night from stoves and fireplaces and millions of Greeks went cold.

Fatalities due to use of coal heaters and wood stoves by people without any prior experience are not uncommon.

The macroeconomic picture of our neighboring country is excellent. The IMF is happy with the compliance of the Bulgarian government. Daily reality, however, is completely different. In Greece, although a similar course has been plotted, no one will admit what lies behind the promises of ‘growth’, simply because misery does not appear in the statistics which interest the Troika.

The government of Bulgaria resigned in the face of widespread public protests. Not only that, but their Prime Minister made the following statement regarding police beating of protesters: “Every drop of blood for us is a stain. I can’t look at a Parliament surrounded by barricades, that’s not our goal, neither our approach, if we have to protect ourselves from the people.”

Of course, this statement was made for the sake of keeping up a pretense of decency. But it was made, nonetheless. That is much more than what could be said about the Greek Prime Ministers of the past three years of crisis and escalating police violence. And the Greek Parliament has repeatedly been surrounded by barricades and even, on occasion, by the military.

The Bulgarian minister of finance was forced to resign after the first public demonstrations. And when this proved ineffective, the entire government resigned. In Greece, unreasonable and unpopular fiscal measures are a daily reality. Anger is simmering, but nothing yet stirs. And thus, Greek politicians have nothing to worry about.

It seems that in Bulgaria, where people call their own politicians “mafia”, there is still a little dignity among the “mobsters”.

 

Intermission #18

Nick Cave sings/recites about the modern Greek tragedy.

In Athens all the youths are crying from the gas […] and in the cradle of democracy the pigeons are wearing gas masks […] we are, I say, mostly lost.

“”It is well enough that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system for, if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
-Henry Ford

This quote, attributed to Ford by Charles Binderup, reveals the most fundamental fact of life in the modern world. That it is governed by an economic system that is in no way fair to all parties involved. In fact, it is actually exploiting the majority of the population for the benefit of the few.

That, of course, has been the state of human affairs for most of our known history. However, it was thought that the abolition of monarchy and oligarchy in most modern states of the world, and the gradual adoption of democracy during the previous two centuries, would result in the diminishing of social and financial inequalities.

The struggle for human rights during the 20th century, particularly in its second half, made great progress on every level. Working conditions improved, gender and race discrimination was considerably reduced, freedom of expression and speech was solidified and the future seemed brighter. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, everyone in the developed world believed that we were heading towards a new, more enlightened age of peace and growth.

As we now know, that was very far from the truth. The truth is that while the economy has been globalized to an unprecedented extent, a number of political, legal, national, cultural and religious boundaries and differences have made a comparable progress impossible on an administrative level.

Take the EU for example. The monetary union was achieved before any kind of meaningful consensus could be reached on how the European Union could ever become a single entity politically, socially and, to an extent, culturally.

And since, as we all know, money makes the world go round, there are people and corporations now with the means of small countries who can move freely on a financial level with very little control.

Think of it this way: if the people play the role of a King, then banks, corporations and the rich are the barons. And these barons can now act as they please without really being accountable to the Crown. Because the King depends on them to keep his treasury running and because he has no effective way to control them.

If a King has no real power, then we are no longer talking about a monarchy. And if the “King” is actually the people and the people have no real power, then we are no longer talking about a democracy.

The dawn of the 21st century brought with it the promise of growth, equal opportunities for all, and a wealth of goods and services, all courtesy of the “free market”. Unfortunately, these hopes were quickly dashed by the spectre of a financial crisis with no apparent end.

In fact there is no crisis. Or rather, there would be no crisis if the global financial system was equipped with the proper safeguards against fraud, misuse and exploitation. Or, quite simply, if it was fair and sustainable. But that would entail more governmental control and that term alone is enough to send any economic liberalist screaming.

Because the “free market can regulate itself”. Only that it can’t. It is like thinking that you can put two death row prisoners in a cage to fight for their lives and expect them to play fair. They won’t. They will use any trick in their disposal to beat their opposition, no matter the cost.

Likewise, a corporation will do anything it can get away with in order to increase its advantage over the competition. If its customers or employees are hurt in the process, it’s fine as long as it is never proven or detected. Substandard equipment, processes and materials, abominable working conditions and practices, legal loopholes and tricks, literally anything will be employed in the fight.

Not all of them do it, but when most “players” do, then their competitive advantage either drives the rest out of business or into the same game.

Banks are no exception to this rule. Once considered one of the main structural pillars of any economy, they now operate solely and openly for their own profit, with any thought of promoting sustainable growth taking a back seat or getting kicked out of the car altogether.

If a prosperous country like Iceland can be effectively ruined financially by its own banks, then one easily understands how this could happen to any country in the world. All this happened with the government and the central bank of Iceland turning a blind eye to the incredibly irresponsible dealings of a handful of people.

Nevertheless, the first order of the day was not to arrest the persons responsible, but to hand the bill to the people of Iceland, as if they were somehow accountable for this mess.

The exact same thing is happening in most countries of the developed world right now. The people are asked to take the brunt of the cost for gross mismanagement on the part of bankers and corrupt politicians, even from other countries, all in the name of avoiding the deepening of a crisis which, by all accounts, is a bottomless pit.

The crisis will never end because we are trying to treat the symptoms, while the root causes remain unaddressed. The majority of people will see their incomes steadily decreasing, there will be steadily fewer and fewer jobs; work rights, which have been paid for in blood, will vanish.

This has been happening for two and a half years in Greece and in the poorer countries of Europe. Greece is on the verge of total collapse, socially and financially, the neo-Nazi party is on a meteoric rise and the troika is still demanding for more cuts and “reforms” which will be nothing short of disastrous.

But it will not end with Greece.

This system which kicks people out of their homes, jobs and deprives them of a future, which sends young people abroad as immigrants and which has replaced constitutional rights with violently enforced austerity measures will spread. Once the people of Greece and the other “PIGS” countries have been forced to work for wages comparable to those of China or starve, where do you think that most major corporations in Europe will move their manufacturing to?

And what will happen to their own workforce at home?

Fascism now wears a respectable face, a suit and carries a tablet. You may call it “austerity”, “reform”, “free market”, “economic rationalization” or however else you wish. I call it Finanscism.

I’m waiting. The clock ticks the seconds away. Ruthlessly. Ceaselessly. Relentlessly. I’m still waiting. What should I write about? About our hospitalized government? About the troika, lurking around the corner like a predator? Days passed in the green. We kept ourselves busy with the Euro Championship and not the euro currency. A bad thing? Not necessarily so. An essential thing? Definitely not. However the Euro Championship will continue to be after the year is through. I wouldn’t bet my life on the euro achieving the same feat, though.

Weeks pass like a river flowing into the sea. The sea that carries monstrous carrier ships. Towards faraway Syria. Perhaps not far enough from us here in Greece. The West is knocking on the gates of Persia and those gates lie in the land which Assad has been painting red. For months. But he is not the only one. Nor the first to do so. The difference between a dictatorship and a “legitimate government” in “these” countries lies in the colour of the ruling dictator’s underwear. If it bears the stars and stripes, then it’s fine.

Unless, of course, politicians and their puppeteers decide otherwise.

I read about horrifying things in the news. Robberies, murders, suicides. Infanticides. Cannibalism. Like a daily, macabre litany. In the sidebars I can see the windy upskirts, the failed plastic surgeries and the wet bathing suits of the famous. The contrast  is surreal, hideous. Inexplicable.

I read everything. Financial analyses. Political analyses. Social analyses. Football analyses. I even read about prophecies from holy men. Unserious, one would say. Droll, even. However, I just can’t shake the impression that some of them are beginning to look dangerously plausible. Even more than all these analyses.

The days have turned from football green to sandy gold and sea blue. For some. For a little while. Most of us, however, will just go back to gray. Others, many more than normally acceptable (?) never left the black. Nor will they, unless they shut the door behind them. But I hope they won’t. Perhaps things will change. Perhaps we will hit rock bottom before starting to climb again. But those who “leave” will never find out.

Please don’t shut the door.

Chaos? War? Some mock the Mayas and their prophecies. Forget about meteors, sun flares, earthquakes and volcanoes. We are safe from those, as a race. But do not forget man. He is the worst threat of all. The Mayas did not foresee disaster. They implied that the end of an era will come, a great change of some kind. Such things rarely come peacefully, however.

And everything seems so peaceful right now. Like the quiet before the  storm. In Greece and abroad. Unpredictable. Torrential. Unending scenarios. No certainty at all.

Months pass slowly. Falling, like rain drops. Blood or oil. Or, perhaps, both. I don’t know what to write about. I’m waiting. I am no prophet.

 Intermission #14

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm

I was touched by the sensitivity of Mme. Lagarde. You know, that eloquent, chic lady lawyer, ex minister of France and now Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. With her stylish suits and her serious hairstyle.

During her interview by The Guardian she stated that she thinks about “the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education.”

When confronted by the grim reality of Greece, where the national healthcare system and the pension funds are falling apart, threatening to send thousands to an early grave, she said that the little kids in Niger need more help.

Let’s not talk about Greece any more. It has become tedious. Let us talk about Niger instead. Niger is a landlocked, extremely poor African country. Since 2004, it has been plagued by locusts, drought and famine.

Niger has the misfortune of being directly below the Sahara and actually a large part of the famous desert falls within its borders. That is not a good thing for a country which is forced to rely on agriculture and livestock to support its starving population and struggling economy.

Without access to the sea and fishing, which is the only salvation from starvation for many other African countries, Niger is literally at the mercy of the subsaharan tropical climate. One can imagine that there is little mercy to be found there.

Mme. Lagarde’s comment was unfortunate, to say the least. You see, those children in Niger who actually make it to school are the lucky ones. According to the Save the Children organization, Niger has the highest mortality rate in the world for children below the age of 4.

Sophisticared Mme. Lagarde thinks of them all the time. I do too, madam. But I can do nothing for these children. You, however, who support the international financial system and all those who participate in it, what have you done about Niger, which seems to weigh so heavily in your thoughts?  Pretty much what you’ve done about Somalia and so many other poor countries of the so-called “Third World”.

The Third World which is constantly expanding instead of shrinking and is now slowly taking over Europe. Do you think that Bulgaria, which according to the troika is an economy competitive to that of Greece, is in a much better state? Have you considered that Greece with close to 1.5 million unemployed citizens and God-knows-how-many unpaid employees is rapidly heading the same way, thanks to your wonderful bailout plan?

You could say that Greece has not adopted your proposed reforms. And you would be mostly right. Apart from imposing even more taxes on those who cannot evade them, few measures have been applied by our esteemed governments. Yet Niger has adopted the IMF suggestions. The end result was that gas prices were driven through the roof, food prices skyrocketed and now the poor simply cannot afford to buy what food there is.

The civilized West thinks a lot about the Third World. It has dedicated most of that thinking to finding new ways to exploit it and deny it the means to develop properly. As if the millions of slaves which were moved to America and Europe during the 19th century were not enough, or the exploitation of natural resources, mineral wealth and oil, we have now reached the point of stealing even their fish!

Pardon my plural, I must accustom myself to the idea that Greece is no longer a part of the prosperous West, but belongs to the lazy, poor South and the hapless Near East. I forgot that the caring international financial system is doing its level best to turn Greece into a genuine Third World country, so that it can think of us too without feeling guilty in the future.

Besides, those responsible for the starving children in Greece, according to Mme. Lagarde, are their tax evading parents. I wonder, how do the unemployed and the underpaid manage to evade taxation? Those who are responsible for the lion’s share of unpaid taxes are also those whose children will NOT starve, madam. So, they don’t give a damn, nor for the children in Niger, nor for those of their neighbour.

Or perhaps the director of the IMF believes that reduced tax revenue is due to increased tax evasion. Yet even a child can understand that when businesses go bankrupt and unemployment is increasing every day, tax revenue will decrease. Is the former Trade Minister and Economic Affairs Minster of France truly unable to understand this basic fact?

Rather, Mme. Lagarde is unwilling to acknowledge that, becase by doing so she would have to admit that the financial model she is supporting is simply not working. The very same model is letting multinational corporations move their factories to China, where people work for almost nothing under extremely poor and dangerous conditions in order to produce high tech products for the West. Inevitably, this will force the competition to lower wages and working conditions in the rest of the world.

Competition, supposedly the driving force behind the economy, is driving companies who “lose” the game to bankruptcy, takeovers and mergers. The logic of competition is now being applied to countries too. The IMF and the troika tell us that we need to lower our wages to the levels of our competing countries. They neglect to mention, however, what will happen to the countries who “lose” the game.

Because someone has to lose. This is the way of modern economics. So, what will it be? Bankruptcy, takeover or merger?

I think about the little kids everywhere. For they are the losers in a game they never even played.

Intermission #12

We had high hopes about this world when we were little kids ourselves…

Pink Floyd – High Hopes

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun

Along the long road and on down to the causeway
Do they still MEET there by the cut

There was a ragged band that followed in our footsteps
Running before time took our dreams away
Leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground
To a life consumed by slow decay

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
With friends surrounded
The nights of wonder

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide

At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights OF that dreamed of world

****

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
The taste was sweeter
The nights of wonder
With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river

Forever and ever