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Occupy the EU, and merry christmas

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TNI-map-of-EU-resistance-2012Let’s look at a few, very few, trifling almost, pieces of evidence. As austerity cuts swept Europe, the numbers of the wealthy in Europe with more than US$1 million (€772,000) in cash rose from 2.6 million in 2008 to 3.2 million people in 2011. Together they were worth US$10.1 trillion (€7.8 trillion) in 2011.

Don’t look away yet. The five biggest banks in Europe made profits of €34 billion in 2011. Executive pay for the CEOs of the 100 largest companies on the London stock exchange rose by 49% in 2010, compared with 2.7% for the average employee.

Yes, I’m coming to the Occupy anthem, but first: there are between 15,000 and 30,000 estimated lobbyists in Brussels – more than in Washington. Some operate as “professional consultants” and under other titles and relatively few have registered with the EC voluntary lobbyist register. 68% of European lobby groups represent business interests. Trade unions make up 1-2%.

This is courtesy the very excellent and incendiary update to the EU Crisis Pocket Guide, first brought out by the Transnational Institute. [The update is in English, and the pocket guide is also available in Italian and in Spanish.)

TNI-EU-banks_bailout-2012TNI’s EU Crisis Pocket Guide tells us: how a private debt crisis was turned into a public debt crisis and an excuse for austerity; the way the rich and bankers benefited while the vast majority lost out; the devastating social consequences of austerity; the European Union’s response to the crisis: more austerity, more privatisation, less democracy; and contains ten alternatives put forward by civil society groups to put people and the environment before corporate greed.

Indeed, as Triple Crisis has warned, the GDP figures published in the Eurostat press release on the 15th of November 2012 for the Economic and Monetary Union (euro area) marked the confirmation of a double-dipped recession (with negative growth in quarters 2 and 3 of 2012). Gross domestic product was 0.6 per cent lower in the third quarter of 2012 compared with 12 months earlier. The return of recession is symbolic of the failure of the austerity programmes, which have been striking down economic activity throughout the EU and EMU. It should give rise to some thoughts as to why the austerity programmes are not working to bring down budget deficits without damaging economic activity.

But back to TNI and the Pocket Guide, which has said that in spite of the crippling costs of bailing out the banks, the EU still has not agreed, let alone put into operation, any major bank reforms. Four years on, only a few new rules to reduce some particularly risky practices by banks and financial markets, exposed by the financial crisis, have become operational.

TNI-occupy_the_EU-2012What’s the remedy? There are a goodly number and here are but a few, as offered by the TNI’s very competent heads: (1) Bring the financial sector back under public control and do this by banning speculative financial instruments like Credit Default Swaps and food speculation, reintroduce rules that separate retail/utility banking from investment banking, impose size limits on banks so none can become “too big to fail”, stop new financial products unless proved safe and socially useful, ban hedge funds and other risky speculators who only make money from money, re-introduce controls on capital flows. (2) Tax the rich, the speculators and the polluters, impose tax on international financial transactions, increase taxes on the rich to at least the same as pre-1980 levels, end subsidies for fossil fuel industries, close down tax havens, establish a maximum pay ceiling and ban bonuses, introduce a Basic Income available to all.

Verso-Crisis_Eurozone_smFor more background, there is the book, ‘Crisis in the Eurozone’ (Verso), and this has described the credit crunch, which led (coaxed or demanded) that governments around the world step in to bail out the banks. “The sequel to that debacle is the sovereign debt crisis, which has hit the eurozone hard. The hour has come to pay the piper, and ordinary citizens across Europe are growing to realize that socialism for the wealthy means punching a few new holes in their already-tightened belts.”

In this book, a leading member of the Research on Money and Finance group, Costas Lapavitsas argues that European austerity is counterproductive. The book shows that cutbacks in public spending will mean a longer, deeper recession, worsen the burden of debt, further imperil banks, and may soon spell the end of monetary union itself.

The EU crisis pocket guide

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The Transnational Institute has produced a terrific pocket guide on the financial crisis in the European Union, called, not surprisingly, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’. It’s a very handy alternative to reading about 257,000 words of confusing and jargon-heavy tripe authoritative commentary written by hopelessly compromised economist-blokes commentators and observers of the financial scene.

‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ tells you, as straight as a punch to the chin, how a crisis made in Wall Street was made worse by EU policies, how it has enriched the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. It doesn’t stop at that – quite unlike the boring and largely clueless economist blokes who take great delight in pointing out a problem but have little to say about how to solve it, keeping the 99% in mind.

In keeping with the civilised socialist tendency therefore, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ outlines some possible solutions that prioritise people and the environment above corporate profits.

You are well encouraged to download the booklet from these links:
Pocket guide: 12 page (PDF, 403KB) or Pocket guide: 8 page (PDF, 399KB)

What ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ contains: How a private debt crisis was turned into a public debt crisis and an excuse for austerity; The way the rich and bankers benefited while the vast majority lost out; The devastating social consequences of austerity; The European Union’s response to the crisis: more austerity, more privatisation, less democracy; Ten alternatives put forward by civil society groups to put people and the environment before corporate greed; Resources for further information.

I am much obliged to the peerless Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal for calling our attention to this absolute gem of a guidebook. Links, if you didn’t already know, promotes the exchange of information, experience of struggle, theoretical analysis and views of political strategy and tactics within the international left. You are well advised to read it regularly.

Here are some of the eye-openers from this Pocket Guide, things we suspected but which the dibbly-dobbly economist blokes and their corporate sponsors never admitted:

Much of the so-called debt crisis was caused not by states spending too much, but because they bailed out the banks and speculators. European Union government debt had actually fallen from 72% of GDP in 1999 to 67% in 2007. It rose rapidly after they bailed out the banks in 2008. Ireland’s bank bailout cost them 30% of their national output (GDP) and pushed debts to record levels.

As austerity cuts swept Europe, the numbers of the wealthy in Europe with more than $1 million in cash actually rose in 2010 by 7.2% to 3.1 million people. Together they are worth US$10.2 trillion. The five biggest banks in Europe made profits of €28 billion in 2010. There are 15,000 professional lobbyists in Brussels, the vast majority of them representing big business.

European Union’s answers to the problem? More austerity. In the UK, 490,000 public sector jobs are being cut; in Ireland, wages for low paid workers have been reduced; in Lithuania the government plans to cut public spending by 30%. The EU is planning to impose requirements by 2013 that means that no European member state countries can have a budget deficit of more than 3% of GDP or a public debt of more than 60% of GDP which will mean even more austerity.

Alternatives from the 99% – Clearly, there is a strong need to break with the dangerous free market fundamentalism that has created and worsened a social crisis of vast proportions. Here are some proposals for alternatives – put forward by many civil society groups – that could create a fairer and more just world.

Occupy Everywhere

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The Occupy Wall St movement is spreading quickly across the USA. Mother Jones magazine has put together an interactive map on where the protests are spreading to, and at last count there were over 60 locations!

An Occupy Wall Street protester yells at police officers as they make arrests in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. Protesters in suits and T-shirts with union slogans left work early to march with activists who have been camped out in Zuccotti Park for days. Photo: Seth Wenig

The ‘Occupy’ demonstrations are the blowback – long overdue – of the foreign-plus-financial policy of a great power which has for long dampened criticsm and fair a representative politics at home.

The ‘Occupy’ demonstrations express a broader public understanding that the basic source of the crisis facing millions of people lies in the social interests of the sprawling and powerful global financial system – of which Wall St is one symbol; a powerful symbol but nevertheless one amongst many similar symbols.

Dogged by debt and haunted by ever newer forms of deprivation, the American protesters have ‘taken’ Wall St to call and end to the reign of the giant banks that dominate the US and world economy. Their politics is determined not by the popular will, but by the interests of a cunning financial aristocracy ruthlessly absorbed with defending its wealth by impoverishing the majority of their fellow citizens.

The answer – Occupy Everywhere!

Mother Jones has provided a very useful timeline of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Observer has 50 portraits of people who have been in on the action in New York City. The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell is blogging “Occupy USA” developments daily. The Guardian is also producing ongoing coverage.

How the Occupy Wall Street movement uses social media:

  • Live footage of Zuccotti Park can be found at the protest epicenter’s viral webstream, Global Revolution.
  • The #occupywallstreet hashtag (as well as #ows and #occupywallst) has been the main engine on Twitter.
  • OccupyTogether.org supplies a range of DIY downloadable posters.
  • There is an Occupy Wall Street social app called The Vibe, which allows demonstrators to communicate anonymously.
  • An Occupy Wall Street publication was launched on Kickstarter, originally asking for $12,000 in seed money to get the publication rolling. The project surpassed its funding goal and has now raised over $40,000.
  • A Tumblr account, We Are the 99%, allows users to post personal anecdotes and stories about why they consider themselves part of the economically disaffected majority.

Occupying Wall Street

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The immediate area around the New York Stock Exchange, “Wall Street,” has been closed to the public and protestors who are encamped at a nearby park, chanting, singing and dancing along with marching and bugling on surrounding streets accompanied by phalanxes of cops and motor scooters, to cheers and thumbs-up from tour buses and hand shakes from passersby and street workers.

There has been no sign of the commercial media. Mainstream media in the Asia-Pacific region have ignored the historic occupation entirely, not because of their failure to see the beginning of an American democratic awakening, but because the channels of cross-holding and control are now well-established.

These mercantile cables are tightly wound around the “emerging economies” and their growing middle class populations whose consumption patterns are seen as replacing those to be lost by social movements such as this in the West.

“On the 17th of September, we want to see 20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”

According to their website, the mission of the leaderless resistance movement is to flood thousands of people into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months in order to persuade President Barack Obama to establish a commission to end “the influence money has over representatives in Washington.” Demonstrators gathered to call for the occupation of Wall Street, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in New York.

Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. The original call for this occupation was published by Adbusters in July; since then, many individuals across the country have stepped up to organize this event, such as the people of the NYC General Assembly and US Day of Rage. There’ll also be similar occupations in the near future such as October2011 in Freedom Plaza, Washington D.C.

This is from their statement:
“We agree that we need to see election reform. However, the election reform proposed ignores the causes which allowed such a system to happen. Some will readily blame the federal reserve, but the political system has been beholden to political machinations of the wealthy well before its founding. We need to address the core facts: these corporations, even if they were unable to compete in the electoral arena, would still remain control of society. They would retain economic control, which would allow them to retain political control. Term limits would, again, not solve this, as many in the political class already leave politics to find themselves as part of the corporate elites. We need to retake the freedom that has been stolen from the people, altogether.”

India’s Reserve Bank puts the ‘micro’ back into microfinance

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Protesters participate in Khammam, Andhra Pradesh, against microfinance. The MFIs have not been successful in staying the operation of the ordinance but the A.P. High Court has allowed them to continue with their business after registering themselves. Photo: The Hindu/G.N. Rao

Protesters participate in Khammam, Andhra Pradesh, against microfinance. The MFIs have not been successful in staying the operation of the ordinance but the A.P. High Court has allowed them to continue with their business after registering themselves. Photo: The Hindu/G.N. Rao

From 2010 September, the microfinance sector in India and South Asia has been questioning the basis of ‘growth’ in the sector and suggesting (at times strenuously) that the fundamentals be re-examined. India-based social business advisory firms such as Intellecap had analysed the build-up to the microfinance crisis in Andhra Pradesh, India. Microfinance companies have had to balance their commercial interests with the social and moral expectations of a wide variety of stakeholders.

Muted before the crisis, the allegations became loud and threatening during – of coercive practices, lack of transparency, and usurious interest rates which had led to suicides by borrowers in Andhra Pradesh. The sector had advised against knee-jerk ordinances in response to the crisis as being more damaging to borrowers than punitive to irresponsible or criminal lenders. The solutions they sought are stronger ethical practices, reporting and compliance rules and transparency.

The new Reserve Bank of India measures – now heavily reported and commented on – are the first step towards those solutions. India’s Reserve Bank has released a report to study the issues and concerns in the microfinance sector, which has gone through a major crisis in 2010. The Report of the RBI Sub-Committee of its Central Board of Directors to study issues and concerns in the micro finance institutions (MFI) Sector is summarised here [pdf].

Victims of MFIs display their daily payment cards in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The Reserve Bank of India has appointed a sub-committee to look at governance issues. Photo: The Hindu/C.V. Subrahmanyam

Victims of MFIs display their daily payment cards in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The Reserve Bank of India has appointed a sub-committee to look at governance issues. Photo: The Hindu/C.V. Subrahmanyam

The RBI said: “Credit Support to Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs). The Reserve Bank of India had held discussions with select banks on December 22, 2010 to get an assessment regarding the ground level situation in the microfinance sector in Andhra Pradesh and other States and the need for any interim measures. The banks informed that collections by MFIs in Andhra Pradesh had deteriorated considerably and there were some incipient signs of contagion spreading to other States. Subsequently, IBA based on the feedback received by them from banks had come up with a proposal that there is a need for extending certain relaxations in the restructuring guidelines of RBI for the MFI sector.” The Sub-Committee statement is here [pdf] and RBI’s credit statement is here [pdf].

The financial press has reported the RBI’s intervention extensively.

“S. Bhanu, 48, who runs a tiny textile business in Godavarikhani village in the Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, doesn’t know much about the crisis that has gripped India’s `20,000 crore micro-lending industry,” reported The Mint. “But Bhanu can tell you about how much more she owes the local moneylender in the past two months.”

“India’s central bank Wednesday allowed a special relaxation to banks in restructuring loans to microlenders, a move that will give lenders temporary flexibility in providing credit support to the cash-strapped institutions,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has asked banks to go easy on microfinance institutions (MFIs) by relaxing certain norms regarding loan restructuring. Banks can now restructure loans extended to MFIs even if they are not fully secured, Business Standard reported.

The Economic Times reported that under the new rules, restructured loans to the microfinance sector, can be classified by banks as standard assets, even though such loans are typically unsecured. The temporary relaxation of asset classification rules for bank loans to the microfinance sector is a move that it said will allow them to continue lending to the industry.

The Hindu reported that to revive the crisis- ridden micro finance sector, a Reserve Bank of India Committee on Wednesday suggested that micro finance institutions (MFIs) be allowed to charge a maximum interest of 24 per cent on small loans which cannot exceed Rs.25,000.

Members of All India Democratic Womens' Association protest against MFIs in front of the Reserve Bank of India office in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: The Hindu/G.Krishnaswamy

Members of All India Democratic Womens' Association protest against MFIs in front of the Reserve Bank of India office in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: The Hindu/G.Krishnaswamy

A year ago, in his study ‘Microfinance India: State of the Sector Report 2009′ (published by Sage Publications India, 2009), N Srinivasan of Access Development Services, wrote: “Micro finance sector seems to grow and with no full stop in sight. The sector performed creditably in a year that experienced a widespread liquidity crunch. The Self Help Group (SHG)–bank linkage programme made remarkable progress during the year; provisional data2 indicates that credit to more than 1.716 million SHGs would have been made available during the year. The outstanding SHG loan accounts were 4.14 million representing an estimated membership of 54 million.”

“The MFIs too have recorded an impressive increase of about 8.5 million clients during the year registering a growth of 60 per cent over the previous year. The data collected from 230 MFIs by Sa-Dhan reveals that despite liquidity constraints faced by some MFIs, expansion in client outreach and loan portfolio was vigorous. The MFIs reported a total client base of 22.6 million as at the end of March 2009. The overall coverage of the sector as narrowly defined (outstanding accounts of members of SHGs and clients of MFIs) is estimated to have reached 76.6 million against 59 million last year.”

There’s more on the RBI statements and longer extracts from the reportage here.

How the World Bank is leveraging the new food crisis

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Soon after the FAO’s Committee on Food Security (CFS) meeetings, the World Bank has said that it is “reactivating” its Food Fund (called the Global Food Crisis Response Program) “to run through June 2011”. What does this mean? In short it means that the World Bank is leveraging the food supply and food price rises for staple cereals of 2010 in much the same way it did in 2008, during the earlier food crisis.

The Global Food Crisis Response Program list

“In response to the severity of the food crisis and the need for prompt action, the World Bank Group set up the Global Food Crisis Response Program (GFRP) in May 2008 to provide immediate relief to countries hard hit by food high prices” is how the Bank puts it. There’s a lot of cross-referencing in order to legitimise its actions, such as “The Bank response has been articulated in coordination with the United Nations’ High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on food security. Through its response, the Bank is supporting the implementation of the joint Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA)”.

According to the Bank, the GFRP has approved US$1,238.2 million in 35 countries as of 09 September 2010. The Bank says that “grant funding has also been made available through several external-funded trust funds in support of the full range of interventions available under the GFRP”. There’s more cross-referncing to make it all sound happily multi-national: a “Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF) has received contributions” of AUD 50 million from the Australian government, €80 million from the government of Spain, 3 billion Korean Won from the Republic of Korea, CAD 30 million from the government of Canada, and $0.15 million from International Finance Corporation (IFC).

The point is, how are governments of small countriess with populations vulnerable to the price volatility of global food market being pressurised by the Bank? Take the case of Honduras, one of the 35 countries. The Bank calls it “Honduras – Food Prices Crisis Supplemental Financing to the First Programmatic Financial Sector Development Policy Credit”. US$10 million in “development assistance” for “budget support”.

From the project document for this assistance, here is the objective: “2. Proposed objective(s). The proposed SDR [XXX] million (US$10 million equivalent) operation would support the Government’s commitment to maintain macroeconomic stability and persevere in its Financial Sector DPC’s (development policy credit) development objectives and allow the government to respond to the food price crisis. As such, the supplement will be processed under GFRP procedures.”

World Food Day 2010

16 October is World Food Day 2010

We’re seeing two objectives here: (1) macroeconomic stability and (2) response to food price crisis. Nowhere in the project documentation (there’s only one document publicly available) is there an explanation of why the World Bank thinks the macroeconomic stability of Honduras is threatened by the rise in prices of food staples, and nowhere is there mention of the Honduran government’s own response.

A new objective appears soon after: “Honduras is committed to a reform program aimed at strengthening the financial sector so as to ensure that it contributes to long-term growth and poverty reduction. The authorities have expressed their intention to continue the implementation of the financial sector reform program and more specifically their intention to strengthen supervisory activities, keeping updated the database of related parties, and further strengthening banking resolution including through fully capitalizing the recently created bank capitalization fund.”

This has to do with rising food prices? Any government can make any number of commitments to ‘growth’ and ‘poverty reduction’, but what’s the financial sector reform doing in a Global Food Crisis Response Program? The Bank doesn’t say.

The Honduras project document continues in its two track logic: “This commitment is particularly important because of the new challenges that the food crisis is creating for the financial sector, as higher food prices negatively affect the portfolio of consumer loans and the country’s macroeconomic stability.” If there is a connection between consumer loans being affected by rising food prices (repayments?) how much over how long from how many?) there’s no explanation) and ‘macroeconomic stability’ (which has to do with a variety of other factors), the Bank has not bothered to explain them.

The Bank then says: “In particular, strong supervisory activities and a well capitalized bank capitalization fund are crucial stabilizing factors for the financial system, because they signal to the market that the authorities would be able to respond to banks in difficulties and avoid a systemic crisis.” Here the Bank trots out the typical systemic crisis bogey, implying that without its intervention, in the name of Food Crisis Response, Honduras would be in serious trouble. How easily one crisis of external making get translated into another of deliberate design.

The ‘Religion of Capital’ revisited

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“We need religion to curb the masses. But what religion? It must be a new religion. Now, then, the only religion that answers the requirements of our days is the Religion of Capital. Capital is the true, only and omnipotent God.”

Those were the words, prophetic and terrible, uttered by the “notorious” Statistician Mallock, in Paul Lafargue’s remarkable satirical work, ‘Religion of Capital‘. Mallock has just risen from a “group of capitalists” – Vanderbilts, Goulds, Rothschilds among them – and lets loose with brutal simplicity to stop short the wranglings between the theologians, free-thinkers and philosophers. This is what he went on to say:

Cover of Religion of Capital, by Paul Lafargue (1916)

Cover of Religion of Capital, by Paul Lafargue (1916)

“He manifests Himself in everything. He is found in glittering gold and in stinking guano; in a herd of cattle and in a cargo of coffee; in brilliant stores that offer sacred literature for sale and in obscure booths of lewd pictures: in gigantic machines, made of hardest steel, and in elegant rubber goods. He is everywhere. Capital is the God whom the whole world knows, sees, smells, tastes. He is sensible to all our senses. He is the only God that has not yet run against an atheist.”

Lafargue tells us how the group of Capitalists rejoiced at hearing this, how they cheered and applauded loud and long at this clear and cold definition of the new creed.

“When Capital visits a country, it is as if a hurricane had broken loose, that tears down and destroys everything that stands in His way — men, animals, the quick and the dead. Capital seizes upon free and healthy, strong and happy people and immures them by the hundreds of thousands in the mills, the factories and the mines. There He pumps out their blood; when He lets them go again, they are prematurely old, scrofulous, anaemic, consumptive. The imagination of man has never yet been able to conceive a more fearful, cruel and pitiless God when enraged.”

Lafargue goes on to describe the Catechism of the new religion as an interrogation of a humble worker.

Q. What is your name?
A. Wageworker.
Q. Who are thy parents?
A. My father was called Wageworker; my mother’s name is Poverty.
Q. Where wast thou born?
A. In a garret under the roof of a tenement house which my father and his comrades built.
Q. What is thy religion?
A. The Religion of Capital.

It is a catechism whose tremendous power is found now (Lafargue would no doubt observe, were he amongst us today) in the financial skulduggery that has entrapped millions of families in the North and South alike and driven them to penury. His Statistician Mallock has made tens of thousands of converts in the banking system of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Q. What does thy religion order thee to do with thy savings ?
A. To entrust them to the savings banks and such other institutions that have been established by philanthropic financiers, to the end that they may loan them out to our bosses. We are commanded to place our earnings at all times at the disposal of our masters.
Q. Does thy religion allow thee to touch thy savings?
A. As rarely as possible; but it recommends to us not to insist too strongly upon receiving our funds back; we are told we should patiently submit to our fate if the philanthropic financiers are unable to meet our demands, and inform us that our savings have gone up in smoke.

Who was Paul Lafargue? Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Lafargue (1841-1911) was a leading member of the French socialist movement and played an important rôle in the development of the Spanish socialist movement. A close friend of Friedrich Engels in his later years, he wrote and spoke from a fairly orthodox Marxist perspective on a wide-range of topics including women’s rights, anthropology, ethnology, reformism and economics.