Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

It’s not just Darwin’s nightmare – it’s ours

March 13, 2009

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I posted the following today in response to a thoughtful article in the Guardian on the Madoff story:

I would say one thing for Madoff and that is that he had the balls to fess up and do the time. There are plenty who haven’t and won’t. We all have our inner capitalists, greed overcoming our inherent decency, that great deal that draws us in. We shouldn’t laugh too loud at either Madoff or his hapless clients.

Last night I watched a DVD called Darwin’s Nightmare, a film about the life of the Tanzanian fishing communities that survive in a society based around the Nile perch, an alien invasive species that has screwed Lake Victoria’s ecology. I’m getting to the point, I promise. The film featured prostitutes paid $10/night for the sometimes deadly job of satisfying the air crews freighting out the processed fish. It featured a security guard paid $1/night to watch over a fish research compound, carrying poison-tipped spears that he’d use to repel anyone trying to raid the place. it had street kids sniffing high from melted polystyrene, scrapping over what food they could get, dodging paedophiles. A real comedy, I tell you. It was, however, a very sympathethically piece which showed great respect and unusual empathy with its subjects. My point is this – the same driver was all pervasive in that film as is evident in the Madoff scandal. That driver is our money-driven global society.

We need to get to the heart of this issue because that’s where our problems are coming from. The way we allow money to be created, and by whom, defines who holds all power over our lives. From there grow our lack of liberty, democracy and justice and the apparent hopelessness of our planet.

These are all useful links talking about money:
http://www.moneyasdebt.net/

Here is a link to a whole series of explainers on the financial crisis:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb_R1-PqRrw

http://www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse

My own, pathetic response to the mayhem we face is to read, watch, talk, and share this stuff. I am staging a free screening of the Darwin’s Nightmare film tonight where I live in SW France. The screenings are a monthly event to which people bring food, eat together, watch and discuss political stuff without killing each other. It’s a great way to understand stuff better, to meet people around about who are as confused and bewildered by it all as I am. And it’s hopeful. We can’t wait for Dan Roberts or anyone else to do it for us.

Details of the screening can be found here

Ooopps, adendum post here:

Object lesson in engaging thoughtful brain before acting withless-than-thoughful fingers on keyboard.

There are some very damning criticisms around the film Darwin’s Nightmare, in French for example here and an English one here. I was going to look them up before tonight’s screening. I should have done so before posting here. Oops, my apologies. What I thought was a searing example of global capitalism is probably more like a rather tawdry example of dishonest film making – not quite such a momentous subject.

The points about money, I would still recommend.

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A quiet revolution

November 14, 2007

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There is progress on globalisation issues if you look for it, though how fast it comes and how far it takes us is a moot point.

Think back to Seattle 1999, and the anti-WTO riots, a landmark moment for global justice campaigners seeking fairer economic treatment for the world’s poor. The power of the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, controlled by richer countries to the great advantage of their larger corporations, appeared massive and unchallengeable at the time. Capitalism claimed to have triumphed over all alternatives, the doctrine of “free” markets held sway. Much less so now.

As the writer Naomi Klein craftfully points out in this Alternet article, it is in Latin America that this change is most evident. These were the countries that most suffered under the hyper-capitalism of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School economics but they are now finding their feet. Though the trend has been clear for some time, Klein’s piece offers a useful synopsis.

Witness, first, the International Monetary Fund’s loss of influence in the region:

In 2005 Latin America made up 80 percent of the IMF’s total lending portfolio; the continent now represents just 1 percent–a sea change in only two years.

And marvel at the fate of its twins during the same short space of time:

When Paul Wolfowitz was forced to resign as president of the World Bank in May, it was clear that the institution needed to take desperate measures to rescue itself from its profound crisis of credibility. In the midst of the Wolfowitz affair, the Financial Times reported that when World Bank managers dispensed advice in the developing world, “they were now laughed at.” Add the collapse of the World Trade Organization talks in 2006 (prompting declarations that “globalization is dead”), and it appears that the three main institutions responsible for imposing the Chicago School ideology under the guise of economic inevitability are at risk of extinction.

My only gripe would be with Klein’s unquestioning trust in the good faith of all the Latin American leaders she names in her piece. While I would give Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez many more marks for democracy than I would his U.S. counterpart, he still makes me nervous. The piece should also have made reference to the zapatistas and their influence not only on the region but also on the entire global justice movement.

Things can’t only get better

October 31, 2007

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"Help me, I can't breathe"

I have spent the best part of the last two months (total blog posts = 2, including this one) renovating my house, a project that is likely to continue into mid next year. In the meantime, writing my book and doing the journalism necessary to support its creation are among the activities that are suffering. I don’t fool myself that that is in the least bit consequential to anything beyond the immediate arena of my family, friends and bank balance but it is personally and professionally frustrating.

From the furtive moments spent browsing the news in its various internet-based forms, I can’t see much in the way of hopeful signs of solutions to our growing global mess.

The coronation of Gordon Brown in place of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister can be fairly encapsulated in this piece from the Observer’s Henry Porter, a neat dissection of Brown’s sleight of hand when it comes to Britons’ rights. Brown’s will-he-won’t-he election shoe shuffle was also illuminating both for its cynicism and for the voluminous media coverage it engendered at the expense of more pressing subjects.

Those subjects would include the global rate of species loss and a welter of other measures of planetary health.

They would also include our near-total immersion in commercial messages, a process identified and attacked by the doughty warriors at adbusters. I at least managed to find the short amount of time required to sign up to their media carta.

Alternet’s summary of some things being done worldwide to try to reverse our environmental self destruction process was also worth the read.

From my rooftop slinging tiles, hunched under a stairwell hacking out old wood or emptying the site’s composting bog, these glints of light are encouraging.

Talking sh**te

August 31, 2007

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Talking about politics is arguably easier than blogging, while both are much easier than doing something concrete. Shame that really. So it proved with Sabbar 2007, the second edition of a political festival of resistance organised in my local village of Montbrun-Bocage here in southwest France.

I have spent quite a bit of time this last year helping with the organisation of this event, going to meetings when I could have been with my family and friends, setting up the site and taking part in the event itself. My hope was that it would help to give concrete form to my thoughts about democracy and journalism and allow me to be involved in something local dealing with those issues. The result? Mixed at best.

On the downside, there weren’t that many people who came, the debates were a bit all over the place and their timing and organisation were pretty messy, many people who took part couldn’t do much more than the jobs they were assigned or chose and so got little out of the event. Given how much I’d hoped would come out of it, the outcome was disappointing.

I say that and then the optimist in me kicks in, I see the couple of debates which did seem to go well, one on alternative media another on alternatives to capitalism, I see the few people that I met that I would hope to work with and stay in touch with over the next year, I see my first internet-generated meeting, with a musical group who contacted me having watched my YouTube films. I hear and see a fantastic rap group from the “Mirail”, one of Toulouse’s rougher suburbs which gets plenty of predictablly negative media coverage. I see these things and think Sabbar wasn’t as rubbish as all that. As a novice activist, I have yet to get used to the ups and downs of all this.

One, small success, hence the headline of this piece – the composting toilets. Last year, the Sabbar bogs were a disaster, a septic tank designed for a village of three inhabitants and their chickens swept away in a sea of crap. This year, composting toilets, the inspiration of a militant plumber friend of mind – the Didier mentioned in the photo above – which worked well, which didn’t smell nearly as bad as I feared and which meant that while we might have been talking some unrecyclable stuff at times… well, you get the idea. Composting bogs as militancy – you be surprised.

Deeds not words, alas for “talking about a revolution”

July 27, 2007

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Stills from “Our daily bread” by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

You might think from the lack of recent entries that my book on democracy and journalism has ground to a halt or certainly slowed to sleepwalking pace. It’s true, if measured by new words on the page but not if, charitably perhaps, you include the evolution of ideas and experiences on the ground. For the latter, that entails my involvement in helping to organise regular film/debate nights and with Sabbar, a festival of political resistance.

The film nights, held on the second Friday of every month in Montbrun-Bocage, have been running for about a year now. Setting a regular date and place, an idea robbed shamelessly from the internet heads and their First Tuesdays, is to get people used to coming out regularly to watch political films, to discuss them and to have a drink together. I have enjoyed the events for the variety of films I’ve been able to watch, for what I’ve learnt politically and for the human contacts and relationships I’ve made and built with the people who live around me. It is a real part of answering the questions: “What do we want and how/when/where do we want it?”

July marked a rough first anniversary of these “deuxième vendredis du mois”, so we killed the fatted calf, which was in fact a goat, and talked about how it had all been going. People brought films to watch, ones on factory-farmed food, on mobile phones and about scratching out a life on the margins of modern society.
Among the 30 or so people there, we decided to watch extracts of each rather than entire works, and to talk about each one in between. It was messy and initially unsatisfying for people like me who wanted to see whole works but also surprisingly fun and instructive in the end.

For the curious, the films were Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Our daily bread”, “Les glaneurs et la glaneuse” by Agnès Varda and “Téléphonie mobile, sommes-nous tous des cobayes?” by Joaquina Ferreira. What I like particularly about the third one is that it is offered for free download.

Practically, finding the films through the year and making sure something took place was a challenge, not least for the promised films that then never materialised and the need for French subtitling. Get-out-of-jails have included my own YouTube contributions and a seven-part YouTube hack of the film “Surplus” about the derangement of mass consumerism.

Faced with bad news all around and our powerlessness in the face of it, we naturally ask: “What can I do?” I think regular film screenings and debate are one small part of the answer, with carte blanche for organisers to beg, borrow and steal whatever it takes to get the events going. What helps here is that Montbrun has a small, free venue, run by the village association, allowing screenings at zero cost. The process will continue in some form in September, after the traditional French shutdown for August, though exactly how may depend on discussions at the Sabbar festival.

This takes place for the second year on August 3/4/5 after a relatively anarchic planning process since the last one. There will be films, debates, information tables and music all around the theme of resistance and struggle, where we live and elsewhere around the world. From my perspective, it is a chance to talk about alternative or free media and about the zapatista’s “other campaign”. I have helped cobble together a list of local media activists to come and talk about what they are doing and would like to do, which will gather on August 3 to plan how to cover the event and to take part. This, like the film nights, is a minute part of the process of answering the question of what sort of journalism and politics might help our societies improve.

Some useful climate change material

June 22, 2007

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I was surprised the other day by a good friend who expressed his doubts about carbon dioxide being the cause of climate change, a phenomenon which he accepted as happening but only because of variations in the Earth’s orbit in relation to the Sun.

He believed humankind should plan for climate change but without bothering overmuch about CO2 as such. He’s a smart fellow so I bit my customarily active lip and directed my energy into some web research instead.

This New Scientist piece did for the solar wobble phenomenon, saying it is an influence but not always and never to the extent that would explain global temperature changes through history.

On the subject of climate change, and whether taxes, technology or individual actions will sort things out, this article, from the excellent openDemocracy, explained why none of the above might be our escape route. The solutions themselves, on their own or together, are too entrenched in liberal capitalism and its emphasis on markets and individual choices.

So what might work? As the article says:

More social-science research suggests that collectivist, social-welfare societies are a better incubator of pro-environmental behaviour than individualist ones where welfare is looked on with suspicion.

It suggests a sense of community with others may be as important as concern over the biosphere in generating environmentalism, and adds:

If this is true, then any community that is subjected to a near-thirty-year experiment designed to prove that “there is no such thing as society” – as Britain under successive prime ministers has effectively been since 1979 – will be in poor shape to deal with the pro-social policy demands of a problem like climate change.

Can’t disagree with that.

All that being said, we have to deal with what we’ve got, which is why, as hotairhead, I posted a couple of times on the Guardian’s Comment is free site the other day on the subject of whether Al Gore should run again for the U.S. presidency. I reckon he should.

Parts of the U.S. political world are moving, as evidenced by this week’s Economist.

Finally, while on the subject of climate change, I can’t recommend enough the work of George Monbiot and his latest book “Heat”.

Sabbar – a festival of resistance

June 6, 2007

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Photo credit: Thomas

The following file, sabbar1.pdf, contains an invitation, in French, for political and social activists from anywhere in the world to come to a festival of resistance in SW France on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of August 2007 in Montbrun-Bocage 31, about 45 minutes south of Toulouse.

It’s the second appearance of what we organisers hope will become an annual event intended to bring together people involved in resistance, solidarity or global justice movements in France and from elsewhere around the planet. The intention is to build a network of links between different groups and to explore the need for such movements locally and globally. Each one on its own is unlikely to have much success in calling into question the problems created by the dominant system of economic management and consumption, which is to say capitalism itself and the mirage that is “free” markets.

The problem is too vast, too well rooted globally and too well funded to be manageable by any single movement working on any one small part of it. That is why we think it is essential to work at building links between movements, to share our experiences, good and bad, and to contribute in any way we can to a global vision of what’s at stake and what to do about it.

If you have any doubts about what is at stake, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of “The Corporation”, in book or DVD form, or watch what this man, John Perkins, has to say on Democracy Now! or read this G8 article by the author and activist George Monbiot.

See you in Montbrun maybe, where I hope to be part of a workshop on alternative media.

Footnote: the name “sabbar” comes from the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica; O. tuna-blanca), found throughout the Mediterranean region. Itself a powerful symbol, the plant is also used to mark the boundaries around people’s land or fields. For the Palestinians who fled or were thrown from their homes in 1948, when their houses and villages were also destroyed, the cactus plants often stand as the sole reminder of their place there, a sign the Israel Defense Forces have found impossible to eradicate completely. Even today cactus stands reappear, signalling lands lost.

Watch this film

June 1, 2007

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Interesting looking book, interesting looking film, with screenings around the UK detailed here.

The work gives a series of examples of how ordinary people’s civil liberties have been trampled. They could be you, they could be me.

The film’s website urges people to take action and also asks these three questions:

How can we get the government to sit up and take notice?
What can we do to get our voices heard?
What can we do to make people realise what is going on in front of own own eyes?

These are good questions.

In answer to the first, I would say: “Don’t kid yourself or waste your time, conventional politics is a farce.” We must start exploring and learning about real democracy instead, with a view to spreading it widely from the ground upwards.

For the second, films like this undoubtedly help but we need to go further by, for example, learning from the likes of the zapatistas in Mexico and from countless other movements in Latin America in particular. Though I haven’t yet read the book or seen the film, I wonder how well the human examples used illustrate their root cause, which is the poverty of our political system, as represented by the conventional right and left alike and as captured by big capital and capitalism. And no, the answer is not to resort to extremes on either side but to promote and practice deep democracy.

In answer to the third, I would suggest that we cease trying to follow the mainstream politicians and their daily PR shows, Sky News can cover the live events for all they’re worth to anyone. (Witness Blair’s day long I’m finally saying when I’ll leave announcement). We should direct our journalism towards alternatives to conventional government, towards people stepping outside the mainstream. Not just to victims of the state, as described in this film, but also to activists who are trying to do something outside the state and in spite of it.

It’s great to see films like this being made though. Good luck to it, with the minor caveat that I haven’t yet done more than watch the trailer and read the website details of the individual cases covered.

Football? Beer? Sex? Nope, a UK constitution

May 25, 2007

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The title may help non-traditional audiences to find their ways to this fine article on UK constitutional reform written by Neal Ascherson. For the many talkingaboutarevolution regulars, both of you, please excuse the puerile foolishness.

The article is part of openDemocracy’s launch of a conversation about Britain’s destiny, which sounds stuffily grand but which certainly interests me.

Ascherson mentions how difficult it will be for any real progress to be made towards anything approaching a real constitution for the UK or parts thereof, despite what our new Dear-Leader-in-waiting Gordon Brown might say. Silly headlines like the one above probably don’t help much.

This was the nub of my response:

My appreciation of this article is more for the clarity of its information and historical context than for the quality of its conclusions. I share more sympathy with the brief postings of jdoucette5522 and douglas jones than with the author’s views. We’re talking re-arranging the roof terrace furniture on a very tall building here – our systems of power themselves are at fault, as are the economic environments in which they operate.

All of our democracies are miles away from anything approaching true popular rule, which would require much more transparency, accountability, and, let’s face it, time invested by ordinary people to make the systems work. That time is unlikely to be forthcoming unless there is the promise of some satisfaction through influence. Hmmm.

In the meantime, the most satisfying alternative is to explore local systems of exchange and politics rooted outside the mainstream.

You can join the debate here.

Reut…eurgh

May 4, 2007

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Well, well, my former employer Reuters is showing a jaunty garter to its Canadian information-provision rival Thomson Corporation. How are the mighty fallen, or bought rather.

There is no better time to see what price gives for the Reuters claim to “independence, impartiality, integrity and freedom from bias”, one of the more preposterous lines in media land when seen from the perspective of a majority of the world’s people.

I swallowed this line somewhat uncritically during the early part of my 11 years there before realising that the demands of Reuters’s core clients for timely business and uncritical market intelligence would win out every time over any fluffy journalism ideals that you might care to mention.

One small example. I have verbatim shorthand notes of a conversation I had with a senior Reuters editor in 2004 about my proposal to morph the world trade correspondent post in Geneva into one giving a broader, deeper take on globalisation in all its bitterly contested glory. I was told nice idea, fat chance, by someone whom I actually rather liked. That person said the Reuters editorial budget for the year could stretch to the creation of a half-post for additional foreign exchange market reporting in Tokyo.

That same budget did stretch, albeit a couple of years later, to the creation of an online news bureau correspondent in Second Life, the rather absurd online game. Thankfully, that was after I had leapt on the chance of voluntary redundancy, though the verb “to leap” may not be strong enough.

There are some great journalists at Reuters, in print, video and pictures, and some great former ones who got killed in pursuit of their work. They are, or were, far better journalists than I could ever hope to be. Their organisation, however, is not the unblemished force for good that it likes to project as its image. It fails miserably to bring the independence, impartiality, integrity and freedom from bias that is needed to throw clear light on the world’s problems. That, in the very least, would demand unrelenting analysis and criticism of the issues presented by global capitalism and the holders of capital, most of whom are Reuters clients past or present. It can claim to do a better job than many other media organisations but that’s hardly difficult.

I will not join the mourning party if Reuters falls to the Canadians, reserving my journalistic condolences instead for The New Standard, which closed last Friday. Brian Dominick, one of the five members of the TNS collective, talks here about the reasons for their demise on Pacifica Radio’s uprising programme.