The dignity of Greece

Crowds celebrate the

Crowds celebrate the “no” vote in Athens’ Syntagma Square, July 5, 2015. Photo from @socialistworker

It’s important to remember that a lot of people will suffer because of the vote last night. They would have suffered if the vote had gone “yes,” and they will suffer now because the vote went “no.” To imagine otherwise, to think that from here on it gets easy, is to slight the rooted courage of their rejection. Greeks were ready for defiance because they had already suffered for seven years, in the kind of agony rarely inflicted on a developed economy outside a science-fiction movie; but they know that things can get worse, and in the short run, they will. Theirs is the courage of the indignados and the damnés de la terre, those with their backs against the wall, the heroism twined with the knowledge of relentless Fate that Homer might have described had Homer been an economist with tenure:

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ: τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.

Brave and unflinching, Greeks have earned the right to celebrate for a while in Syntagma Square. But the suffering isn’t over. The vicarious victory party now sending the British, or American, or even Spanish left into ecstasy – these revels where you laud starving others for audaciously doing what you didn’t dare to — ought to be tempered by a smidgen of humility and sorrow. After all, these are people who, unlike Greeks, know their ATMs will give them cash in the morning.

The left prides itself on empathy, on getting in the skins of others. Often, though, this means making them your sacrificial victims, singled out by History to play in a Hegelian Hunger Games; stars of your show whose sufferings you can colonize, projecting your emotions onto their hearts and lives. Conservatives never face this problem, since their empathy stops with themselves. For years I’ve thought that the paradigmatic right-wing response to almost anything, elegant in its brisk foreclosure, came from the incomparable racist John Derbyshire, who used to disgrace the pages of the US journal National Review. Reading about what he first took for a cruise ship disaster in the Red Sea, he “learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” By contrast, a leftist response would be to submerge your head in the bathwater, convince yourself you’d drowned, and then send a Tweet about it (#WeAreAllEgyptians). Neither answer helps.

“No” swept almost every regional unit of the country: Map of voting, by the Guardian

We’re not all Greeks. Only a select sodality of wounded societies have undergone what the Greeks did. The figures on Greece’s suffering don’t inform, they numb. Since 2008, the country’s gross domestic product withered by more than a quarter.  Incomes dropped by a third. Pensions were cut 40%, and often not paid at all. One in four Greeks is jobless, six of ten among youth. In Athens, 18,000 are estimated to be homeless – one-tenth of the city’s unemployed, 3% of its people.

Alex Andreou, who has been writing powerfully on the polity and the crisis, tells one story:

Last winter, I stood outside the Opera House in the centre of Athens looking at the posters in the window. I was approached by a well-dressed and immaculately groomed elderly lady. I moved to the side. I thought she wanted to pass. She didn’t. She asked me for a few euros because she was hungry. …

Her name was Magda and she was in her mid-seventies. She had worked as a teacher all her life. Her husband had been a college professor and died “mercifully long before we were reduced to this state,” as she put it. They paid their tax, national insurance and pension contributions straight out of the salary, like most people. They never cheated the state. They never took risks. They saved. …

In the first year of the crisis her widow’s pension top-up stopped. In the second and third her own pension was slashed in half. Downsizing was not an option – house prices had collapsed and there were no buyers. In the third year things got worse. “First, I sold my jewellery. Except this ring,” she said, stroking her wedding ring with her thumb. “Then, I sold the pictures and rugs. Then the good crockery and silver. Then most of the furniture. Now there is nothing left that anyone wants. Last month the super came and removed the radiators from my flat, because I hadn’t paid for communal fuel in so long. I feel so ashamed.”

“No” supporter in Syntagma Square on the night of July 5, 2015. Photo from @Stratosathens

Europe’s magnates say it’s simple: all about debts betrayed, bad faith. The Greeks didn’t keep their promises. But most Greeks did. They paid into the system; they believed the system would keep its promises to them. The system meant the government, their workplaces, even the oligarchs who profited from their labor. For most Greeks, it also meant Europe. From the start of Greece’s odyssey with the EU, even before membership in 1981, Europe had presented itself as guarantor of a level of prosperity that small nation-states could no longer secure on their own. Europe also promised to be the guardian of democracy. Greece’s entry into the EU, like Spain’s was a reward less for economic performance than for political change: for overthrowing, without violence and without vengeance, one of the most vicious dictatorships on the continent. Europe’s standards of governance would protect that freedom, won after a rending and sanguinary century.

And what did Greeks get for their faith? Betrayal. The EU, as the crisis cinched in, deliberately set out to bankrupt them: not just the state but the people, to take away their jobs, their winter fuel, their homes, even their gewgaws and their memories. Before the referendum, in a final indignity, the European Central Bank cut off Greek banks’ cash, to remind depositors of their abjection. As Andreou writes, it

acted to asphyxiate the Greek economy – the ultimate blackmail to force subordination. The money is there, in our accounts, but we cannot have access to it, because the overseers of our own banking system, the very people who some months ago issued guarantees of liquidity, have decided to deny liquidity. We have phantom money, but no real money. …

But Europe also showed its complete contempt for the democracy it promised to defend. “EU Institutions are now openly admitting that their aim is regime change. A coup d’état in everything but name, using banks instead of tanks and a corrupt media as the occupiers’ broadcaster.” The contempt continues tonight; that ballots were actually cast only makes the rulers angrier. Europe’s magnates spit in fury, red-faced on TV, their fat mouths taut with rage as if they’d swallowed tennis balls, chuffing and lobbing out names. They reduce everything to insults and personalities, because they’ve forgotten what it is like to deal with a people and not merely a person or two, to confront a collective will, to contend in a democracy. They think all decisions are made in small rooms by men in suits. “Tsipras and his government are leading the Greek people on a path of bitter abandonment and hopelessness,” said the vice-chancellor and economy minister of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel. He condemned the very act of Tsipras consulting the Greeks as a “rejection of the rules of the euro zone.” This man belongs to a party which still calls itself social democratic: much as Americans name their sports teams for the peoples they killed.

I  don't make the rules, but I can make you sorry: Sigmar Gabriel

I don’t make the rules, but I can make you sorry: Sigmar Gabriel

There are many lessons from the victory tonight. Three I take to heart.

The first is: nations matter. That might seem self-evident. But both in bureaucratic Europe and in the large swatches of the world where weak states prevail, it’s not. After the crisis struck in 2008, Greeks lost faith in the parties and leaders who had made the Republic in their image since 1975: they abandoned as illusive the nation they’d inherited. And they also lost their faith in the trans-national, overarching EU project that had said it would fix whatever the state got wrong. The disenchantment came the way Hemingway said you go bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” Of course, the disenchantment was bankruptcy, pretty much.

When people lose faith that way in the arenas where they used to project their aspirations and play out their plans, it leaves you to ask: what kind of political space can function anymore? When both nation and trans-national institutions look like elaborate schemes to fuck you, what’s left? The anarchist movements so vital in Greece over the last seven years didn’t so much offer answers, as stark and inventive ways of posing the question. How can we act, and where? Are there places in society where we can actually accomplish change, gradual or disruptive, on any scale, maybe the more local and microscopic the better? And what is society anyway, in a catastrophe when it’s being torn apart? The testimonies of anarchists about the protest movements of 2008 and after, many collected by the editors of the excellent anthology Revolt and Crisis in Greece, suggest abysses of questioning that few of the Occupy movements elsewhere plumbed. There was a desire to disrupt the representations that made up existing, illusory political space; to use that rupture to constitute a new beginning; to challenge people to act – but how? Where?

Anarchist graffiti in Athens' Exarchia district depicts a history of state corruption. Photo by Alex Zaitchik at

Anarchist graffiti in Athens’ Exarchia district depicts a history of state corruption. Photo by Alex Zaitchik at

In one 2008 demo,

We interrupt a live state TV news broadcast and silently raise a banner to silence this representation of reality. We call on people to stop being viewers, to step out of their homes, to take to the streets, to resist. The black and white banner that some of us held for eighty seconds articulated no claim, no plan and no certainty. … Against the anxiousness to explain, against the guilt of failing to predict and foretell, to plan and rationalise and fit in, to summarise and nicely narrate violence, we opposed our living thrill of collective and direct action against an absurd but confident reality and said nothing, really.

As with many Situationist-inflected actions, it’s easy to make fun of this – particularly if your ATMs are working. But that’s wrong. The writer expresses exactly the moment when old political space has been sapped of meaning, and when the rupture required to break with it seems (because the exact shape of the new is unknown and unimagined) pointless, undirected, free from the chains of calculation. Novel political spaces were springing up like bubbles in the disruption and decay, but they were both too surprising and too ordinary to be described. The same writer says:

Before December [2008], each one of us lived in one place and worked in another and we were all divided into groups that formed clear networks of representation that ‘vov uld address themselves to other grmlps higher in the hierarchy that would decide when to vote, where to demonstrate, and how schools, workplaces, malls and bars, airports and supermarkets will be distributed around the country…. But once taking to the streets and feeling part of a living community of people, we couldn’t but occupy our cities in a different way. This experience of socialisation could not fit inside our offices and TV screens, coffee shops, shopping avenues, and secured square metres designed for us to live in. Our coming together violently spoiled the facades of all those urban places that actually cancel out our possibility of interaction and chain us to the role of a non-citizen …. [W]e did not transform the spaces given to us, but we created new ones where we could also let ourselves be created. …

Before December, we knew it already — no one was to be trusted, politics was corrupt, things were getting irreversibly worse all the time and there was nothing to do about it. But then we took to the streets, we found each other … Our relating to each other in an equal way and the spaces, words and actions we formed rejected common sense, because they were not just directed against the state; this was a politics of resistance and solidarity that was bluntly stateless.

That this inchoate Utopia culminated, years later, in the comparative banality of a referendum is from one perspective – the pure anarchist one — a story of spontaneity and subjectivity lost, corrupted by the demons of teleology and power. But from another vantage it’s the story of actions that were searching for their proper spaces, and eventually, piecemeal, found them. The loss of spontaneity was also its consummation. Those sudden solidarities stretched out over time and slowly built a new political sphere, a new space for acting.

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

Anarchist graffiti in Exarchia. Photo by Alex Zaitchik

The myriad small arenas of resistance and solidarity that the political collapse created were themselves creative. They came together. They became movements. The narrative of the last seven years – a history which, in its broadening scope and scale, its mounting urgency, truly has been epic – is how those forces have coalesced, negotiated, melded, expanded, till they speak in this crisis with the whole will of the people. And the people, the society, the nation – all those words returned, after all those years when they seemed to empty and befouled for people to use them. By capturing the nation-state, the movements were able to make it the redoubt for fighting back, battling the FührerBefehlen of the market and its enforcers. They repudiated the old, corrupt, discredited nation. But they recuperated the nation as a site of resistance.

How this growth happened in Greece over seven years should be something for coming generations of the left to study, the way our grandparents read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, or – the more humane among them – Victor Serge. But for now the point seems clear. We can still exalt those micro-spaces of anarchic, everyday resistance; or, alternatively, those big international solidarities wrapped like swaddling bands around the globe. But the nation, the people – those clunky, worn-down political imaginaries in between – have a privileged role, and can be regenerated. They serve a use. In their outcries alone lie the moral credibility and the practical power to check, even temporarily, the market’s encroachments.

The second lesson is: democracy matters.

A lot of people think it always matters, that no other kind of government is legitimate. In fact, though, it’s precisely the countries everybody calls democracies, in North America and Europe, that no longer rely on democratic process to give legitimacy to government decisions. Their laws and policies take their warrant from the market, not the deliberations of the governed. It’s the nasty dictatorships that keep pulling out the plebiscites and elections, the faked presidential ballots with the 98% wins, to lend the sheen of mandate and consent. They don’t know voting is irrelevant! They’re hicks stuck in the backwash of the trend. Democracies themselves, maturer and more orderly, have moved beyond democracy.

If you read one writer to help you understand Greece, make it Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck, a sociologist and political theorist, asks: Can democracy and capitalism still coexist? Contemporary capitalism poses this question itself, insisting it is above politics, that democratic decision-making is incompatible with its charm. “Mainstream economics has become obsessed with the ‘irresponsibility’ of opportunistic politicians who cater to an economically uneducated electorate by interfering with otherwise efficient markets, in pursuit of objectives—such as full employment and social justice—that truly free markets would in the long run deliver anyway, but must fail to deliver when distorted by politics.” But this perhaps understates the case, because the credo of capitalism today is that market logic will prevail even despite democratic interference. In Margaret Thatcher’s mantra, There Is No Alternative.

Maggie forecasts the future: Go vote for Hillary, or Bernie, or Carly Fiorina; I don't give a fuck. You'll still get TINA.

Maggie forecasts the future:
Yeah, vote for Bernie, Hillary, or Carly Fiorina:
I don’t give a bloody fuck. You’ll still get TINA.

The foreclosure of choice is self-fulfilling. States rig their systems to respond to markets, not citizens.

Increasingly capitalists say they can’t work without a framework of institutions completely insulated from the popular will: protection of markets and property rights constitutionally enshrined against discretionary political interference; independent regulatory authorities; central banks, firmly protected from electoral pressures; and international institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Court of Justice, that do not have to worry about popular re-election.

From this Fortress of Solitude, ‘‘the markets’ have begun to dictate in unprecedented ways what presumably sovereign and democratic states may still do for their citizens and what they must refuse them.”

Reification: Georg Lukacs in 1913

Not ready to be reified: Georg Lukács in 1913

Writers from Marx to Karl Polanyi saw a basic contradiction between two visions of justice and law: one in which societies can make shared decisions about goods and values, and one in which markets take over and distribute everything. Markets, their proponents say, should distribute everything because they’re “natural,” hence fair. In fact, they’re human artifacts. But they have the gift of becoming fetishes, of seeming eternal. They infiltrate the mind and don the sacred guise of givens, forces of nature. This ferocious permanence, this mythic immutability, has been constituent to capitalism, and the myth’s authority over imaginations expands as the markets do. Georg Lukács explored this just under a hundred years ago, the way that the seemingly 

“natural laws” of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that – for the first time in history – the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws. This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature.

But the laws are irrational because they lie, pretending to be natural and not manmade. “This incoherence becomes particularly egregious in periods of crisis.”

On closer examination the structure of a crisis is seen to be no more than a heightening of the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society. In its unthinking, mundane reality that life seems firmly held together by “natural laws”; yet it can experience a sudden dislocation because the bonds uniting its various elements and partial systems are a chance affair even at their most normal. So that the pretence that society is regulated by “eternal, iron” laws … is finally revealed for what it is: a pretence.

Democratic capitalism, as it flourished for a few generations in Europe and North America, was an uneasy compromise between market distribution and social control. Its politics allowed people limited power to temper how the market worked. In return, their consent legitimated the market’s basic dominance over society. This held together when things were growing, during the trentes glorieuses of rising graphs and expanding possibility. But in economic crisis the compromise breaks down. Then the elites turn on democracy, demand things from governments that the people won’t give, and look for non-democratic means – new mythologies – to legitimate those expropriations. In the economic shambles of the 1920s and 1930s European leaders fled from democracy like scattered lemmings. In our time European states have a collective structure, so they can abandon democracy together.

In the Greek crisis, the elites redoubled their refrain that there was no alternative to austerity, that society must roll over prone before the jagged juggernaut of the market. Yet the crisis, “heightening the degree and intensity of the daily life of bourgeois society” -– unleashing desperation and cracking open spaces of dissent — was an unmasking. It let ordinary Greeks see behind the curtain, where market logic looked not like law but lunacy. No rational system could demand this. Out of the “sudden dislocation” came a democratic upwelling of autonomy and nay-saying, throughout daily life.

The anarchists of 2008 were quite clear that their first experiences of freedom were moments, impermanent, a “living thrill of collective and direct action” that wouldn’t last. The assertion of popular power in the referendum can’t just be a moment, though; it has to be ready for the long run if it’s going to change things. The democratic will has to ensure that state and society don’t lurch back into habits of apathy and submission, where the vote simply legitimates choices made elsewhere.  It needs to build new democratic institutions, immediate ones, close to and permeating daily life. Democracy has to return to workplaces, to schools, to NGOs. Decision-making needs to diffuse throughout society.

workplace-democracyThis is perhaps the third lesson. More is needed; you always need more. The referendum mobilized the nation to say no. But resting content in the space of the nation-state is not an option. The next move has to be both within — democratizing society more and more deeply, so that people have the experience of more and more choices about their lives — and beyond. 

Syriza and the left mobilized nationalism against the austerity hegemons. But while the nation is necessary to resistance, resistance must transcend it. Greek chauvinism is sordid, pervasive, and easy to exploit. (A Greek human rights activist once told me that “Greece has the most progressive policies on ethnic minorities in Europe” — a patent lie — “which is a great triumph because we have no ethnic minorities; everyone is Greek.”)  If the Greek moment collapses back into defending borders and demonizing outsiders, it will turn on itself. Already, as David Graeber points out, Greece ‘has the largest number of military per­sonnel per capita of any NATO country … and the second highest ratio of police (33 per 10,000, or 1 cop per every 303 people).” Police and army have massacred the people before; they can again.

The balance between local democracy, national action, and cosmopolitan vision is exacting to sustain. A few days before the balloting, the anarchist Antonis Vradis wrote that his “no” vote

will go out to the market, this ubiquitous force we have allowed to permeate even the most intimate of our spaces, even the innermost, the core foundations of our existence. It will go out to the parasite scum in suits and ties, the priests of the banking orthodoxy and their pompous, arrogant belief that they can keep running the show, for ever.

But he added:

It will go out to those fueling nationalism in Europe, it will go out against Syriza’s invocation of a Greek “people.” Is there such a thing as a “people”? Of course not; I am not sure what the idea even means. Where does any such commonality lie?

This is a fake question, though. There is a people. It’s constituted by the act of choosing, by saying Here we are; we decide. The Greek people today didn’t exist in the same form the day before the referendum. To keep their sense of their own commonality vivid, viable — to sustain the identity they achieved by choosing — is indispensable. It’s just not enough. 

Demonstrators spell out

Demonstrators spell out “No” during an anti-austerity rally in Syntagma Square, July 3, 2015. Photo by Reuters

The next move has to be beyond the nation-state, because today the pressure on Greece starts up again in Brussels, Berlin, and Frankfurt. (Last night Syriza claimed its victory in the vote, but this morning the Troika claimed the scalp of Yanis Varoufakis.)  “This is when we start re-imagining our cross-border commonalities and interests,” Vradis writes, “this is when we bring down the facade of the market and national unity.” But imagining new common spaces requires the will of those people in London and Madrid, Berlin and Toronto, who were Tweeting exultantly last night but are going to forget about it by tomorrow. They mustn’t forget. They need to abjure their egos and figure out how to stand by Greece concretely, pressuring their own governments to respect another nation. If they don’t, the Greeks will be, again, betrayed.

Dignity” is a term much bandied about, in the headlines on Greece. As usual, it’s mainly rhetoric, more a worn coin than a word with with meaning. Yet in January, after Syriza’s election victory, Alex Andreou wrote about how he voted:

The only promise Tsipras made that truly mattered to me was to “give dignity back to the people.” Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only people can deliver that for themselves. But even mention of that word, “dignity,” in a political context, struck an important chord …

Dignity might be an abstract concept, but its absence is a very real and practical thing. … Spend a day with my mother, who worked two jobs for 45 years, paid every cent of tax and now finds herself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, with no decent health or social provision and a monthly pension of €400 (£300), and she will explain it to you.

What would she explain? It’s still not clear. Certainly it has something to do with being treated with justice for years of labor and love. But it’s not just passive, not just being-done-to. Surely dignity also means the capacity to choose, to set as far as possible the terms of your life. This self-determination is what what the market stripped from individual Greeks as much as from the nation.

Writing about Hitler’s camps, Tzvetan Todorov identified “dignity” not just as a prisoner’s abstract determination to hold her head high, but as a very concrete possession that helped some to survive, and others to be remembered. It meant the ability to make choices about one’s life and to act on them, even at the risk of life itself. “The important thing is to act out the strength of one’s own will, to exert through one’s initiative some influence, however minimal, on one’s surroundings. … It is not enough simply to decide to acquire dignity: that decision must give rise to an act that is visible to others (even if they are not actually there to see it).” To have dignity in this sense meant to make your life your own.

That is how the Greeks asserted dignity, in their homes, on the streets, as a nation. Now others must affirm that dignity by acting also. I don’t know what will come of that choice; nobody does. But it isn’t just up to Brussels and Berlin anymore. It’s up to us; it’s up to you. Victory is not the same as success; it’s not judged by a vulgar triumph. What matters is not what’s chosen, but the act of choosing.

alexandreou_WzAVoBDNote: The lines in the first paragraph are from the Iliad, Book XXI, lines 106-107; Achilles is speaking to the Trojan Lycaon, who begged for mercy after he was overcome in battle. Achilles kills him. The translation is by Robert Fagles.

And another note: If you like Alex Andreou’s remarkable writing on Greece, read more of it here — and give a little something to support it! He’s crowdfunding his work. Go to the page and check out the right-hand column.

Directed democracy, II

Over the weekend, the NY Times put it very discreetly:

The events in Greece and Italy this month raised concerns across the Italian political spectrum about the growing power of financial markets to shake governments. In Italy and elsewhere, a dysfunctional political class has been “impotent” in the face of market dynamics and their impact on people’s lives, the commentator Luigi La Spina wrote Saturday  in the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa.

Was it impotence, or just defeat? To be clear, nobody, even in italy, cared much for Berlusconi toward the end; the “Hallelujah Chorus” that demonstrators sang as he was resigning was an international singalong. But he fell, not because he lost position in the polls or the confidence of voters, but because the markets abandoned him. Louis XVI had to summon the Estates-General in 1789 because he owed the bankers more than he could pay. But it was the poor women of Paris who marched on Versailles, and slid the chocks that started the throne slipping toward oblivion. Today the markets are the revolutionaries, disposing of democratic governments with the ease of putschists taking the Winter Palace. The other revolutionaries, the marchers, the breadless and officeless, the ones in places like Zuccotti Park, are dispensable.

Italy now has a government, not of all the parties, but of no parties: rule by technocrat for the undetermined duration. Italy’s democracy, of course, has always been a messy thing. I found this chart of the history of Italian political parties since 1871:

It makes more sense in this version:

But a party, by definition, is a a means for authority both to mobilize and to answer a constituency in the population. If Italy’s politics is fragmented, it mimics a fragmented polity, feuding and fissiparous constituencies all demanding their own representation and coalescing only uneasily into majorities. And one wants to say: that’s reality, Italian style. Politics should mirror the life of the country. What polity does the government of “technocrats” reflect? To whom do they answer? And why, in an emergency, is bypassing politics now the preferred solution?

The last question, at least, is easy. It’s the dictatorial solution, the argument of Carl Schmitt, the easy-out of Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, the idea that emergencies suspend the normal democratic process by definition. In a different and much more benign-looking form, not brown-shirted but business-suited, it’s back — in contemporary, proudly popularly-governed Europe.

We live in the age of the argument from success. The rightness of surrendering democratic decision-making to the financial markets matters less than whether it works. Last Friday, when it became clear that Berlusconi would really really leave, the markets threw Italy a bone: the yield on the country’s 10-year bonds fell back below 7% (the danger point above which financing debt becomes impossible).   Today they inched back up to 7.1%.  The market giveth and it taketh away. The great surrender has not yet proven it will get results.

Spain’s bond yields today were at 6.36%, frothing up toward the danger zone. France’s yields hit 3.7%, and one analyst said the country “is seeing a full blown run on its debt.” So far, nothing is working. What next?

Livestream from Occupy Wall Street …

… is available at the Nation, here, or at, here. I just heard a report that, despite promises to the protesters that they’d be allowed back in after the park is “cleaned,” a policeman said, “The occupation ends here.”

Occupy Wall Street under occupation

Hundreds of police entered Zuccotti Park in New York around 1 AM and began clearing out Occupy Wall Street protesters, claiming the area would be “cleaned and restored” before anyone would be allowed back in. The NY Times says:

The protesters, about 200 of whom have been staying in the park overnight, resisted with chants of “Whose park? Our park!” as officers began moving in and tearing down tents. The protesters rallied around an area known as the kitchen, near the middle of the park and began building barricades with tables and pieces of scrap wood.

Over the next two hours, dozens of protesters left the park, while a core group of about 100 dug in around the food area. Many locked arms and defied police orders to leave. By 3 a.m., dozens of helmet-clad officers, watched over by Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, closed in on the remaining protesters. They pulled them out one protester at a time and handcuffed them. Most were walked out without incident. The officers had gathered between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges earlier and rode in vans to the one-square-block park. They entered shortly about 1 a.m.

As they did, dozens of protesters linked arms and shouted “No retreat, no surrender,” “This is our home” and “Barricade!” A number of other arrests were reported just outside the park, but details were not immediately available.

The mayor’s office sent out a message on Twitter at 1:19 a.m. saying: “Occupants of Zuccotti should temporarily leave and remove tents and tarps. Protesters can return after the park is cleared.” Fliers handed out by the police at the private park on behalf of the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, and the city, spelled out the same message.

And this sounds like a motive:

The police move came as organizers put out word on their Web site that they planned to “shut down Wall Street” with a demonstration on Thursday to commemorate the completion of two months of the beginning of the encampment, which has spurred similar demonstrations across the country.

Occupy sex

fist the powers that be

Branded deep in Harvard’s institutional psyche is the trauma of the 1969 student strike, when protesters occupied the president’s office and shut the school down. They were calling for an end to the University’s coziness with the US military, a black studies program, and no more expropriations of working-class housing — but beyond that, as the famous poster said, they wanted a different life, demanded “to be more human.”  In the strike’s wake, the University moved the president’s house to a far suburban street to prevent hostage-taking, delved more tunnels between campus buildings to facilitate escape, and formally invited women to join the student body, to keep the radicals distracted. Some distinguished and unnerved professors in the Department of English decided to experiment with thinking the way the demonstrators did. If you wanted to destroy Western civilization, they reasoned, where would you strike next? Naturally, you’d try to burn the card catalog of Widener Library, that comprehensive collection of man’s intellectual accomplishments, to render the lending system impotent and knowledge inaccessible to the race. So they recruited sympathetic colleagues to stand sentinel on our cultural heritage in shifts, and these tweedy, chalk-haired heroes took turns lurking discreetly around the catalogs, on guard lest some filthy longhair slip a Molotov cocktail into a drawer. I often think of this whenever I go to the reading room and see the seamless computerized system doling out books now. Barring a Chinese virus, civilization is safe.

OK, 1% inside, 99% outside. Got it?

This history helps explain the University’s inept, paranoid response to the nascent Occupy Harvard movement, a few hundred protesters demanding an institution more open to the other 99%.  The institution has closed and padlocked the gates of Harvard Yard, stationed police all round as if it were a rather cushy Supermax prison, and barred access to anyone without a Harvard ID. As a public-relations move, this tends to reinforce the demonstrators’ point, that those outside the 1% aren’t welcome there. However, it’s a reminder that the fabled, shared, rich commonality of intellectual life has nothing to do with the University as faux community.  Harvard is private property — it is, in fact, quite literally a corporation, and proudly proclaims it’s the oldest one in the Western Hemisphere.  It can keep anyone off the grass it likes. The only one allowed to occupy Harvard is Harvard itself.

I’ve written here earlier about the “new enclosures,” the increasing privatization of public space: how much of what we might think is open territory in city and suburb is actually owned by somebody. And corporations buying up the commons can then severely circumscribe our ability to speak, protest, and assemble. It’s important to remember, though, that even space that is formally, legally public — streets, sidewalks, squares — usually comes with all manner of restrictions on who is allowed to use it or to appear there. In many cases these limitations are invisible to “respectable” users, whose looks and manners don’t transgress the written or unwritten rules. But for others, they are vivid and brutal. And it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of these boundaries involve sex.

A new report by the Alliance for a Safe & Diverse DC,  “Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington DC,” shows some of these.  The US capital has passed new laws augmenting “an already stringent system of policing and “zero tolerance” for most forms of commercial sex in the city,” by restricting where sex workers can go.

The most high profile measure allows the Chief of Police to declare “prostitution free zones” (PFZs) in which officers have wide-sweeping power to move along or arrest people who police believe to be congregating for the purpose of prostitution. The PFZ concept was framed as an innovative tool to assist law enforcement in its efforts to rid the District of prostitution. In fact, the law simply legitimized previously existing arbitrary and discriminatory police actions directed at people believed to be engaging in sex work.

no girls allowed

This is fairly astonishing. A “prostitution free zone” in the city one of whose streets (K Street, if you’re from another planet) has become a worldwide symbol of corporate bribery and corruption? Shouldn’t members of Congress and similar hustlers be banned from these moral precincts, as well as the working girls? It takes chutzpah.

The inevitable way these laws work is that police arrest anyone they recognize as a sex worker (usually, anybody with a previous arrest) when they’re spotted outside the “safe zone.” One stop from a cop can be enough to restrict your mobility for life. But this is an everyday and widespread way of regulating sex work and keeping the unwanted out of sight. Taiwan, for instance, claims a brand-new law is a liberal triumph that “legalizes” prostitution in certain areas. But in fact it eliminates sex workers’ freedom of movement — and is likely to increase prosecutions.

Taiwan has legalised the creation of red light districts in a bid to regulate the sex industry, but prostitutes themselves say the new law could actually worsen their plight.

Under the law passed by parliament Friday, local governments are allowed to set up special penalty-free sex trade zones, but outside them prostitutes will still be be fined – as, for the first time, will their clients and pimps.

The constitutional court scrapped the previous law punishing only prostitutes on the grounds it was unfair.

But so far no local authority has yet said it will create a legal prostitution area, leaving streetwalkers fearing they face the worst of both worlds.

The desire to set up a segregated sexual geography runs deep. The Dominican Republic is presently debating a proposed law requiring sex workers to carry government-issued cards certifying their health status, at all times. Their work would be confined to so-called “zones of tolerance” — an old but Orwellian term — and they would be restricted to living “in establishments away from residential centers, main avenues of the city and areas that have historical, artistic or cultural significance for the country.” At  a public hearing, a neighborhood association representative bemoaned the “shame” incurred

as a result of the activity of prostitution in the place.  He also considered as embarrassing and decadent the spectacles and misconduct made by women, homosexuals, and transvestites who sell sex.

A Dominican journalist calls the proposal a “mask of hypocrisy,” a breast-beating substitute for “improving the living conditions of the population.”

Part of the political genius of the Occupy movements is that they give physical, immediate, almost sensuous expression to the sense of exclusion so many economically and politically disenfranchised people feel. They sharpen the contrast between private property and common ground, expropriation and community, the high towers of financial privilege and the cold and open street.

It’s vital, then, to bear in memory the other despised and unwanted people who have been shoved out of the commons into the alleys and the prison cells: the sex workers, drug users, cruisers, vagrants, homeless, and the rest, all those whose bodies expose them to the lash of laws that for the rest of us remain invisible and unfelt. It’s critical (even as the right wing tries to deprecate and demonize the movement as a cover for rutting adolescents to make free love like rabbits) to recall that sex is entwined with money and power as a justification for exclusion. Occupy sex!  Own up to it and own it in all its diversity of forms and pleasures. Our bodies and desires need to be reclaimed for a human future too.

“This is the biggest story in the world right now”

Così è, se vi pare!

Forget Obama. The most important politician of our time is Silvio Berlusconi. His career as a leader has been built around two simple principles that are essential, incontrovertible koans of the period:

  • Capitalism is weak and it can’t save itself. It needs to seize control of the state and all its powers, to protect capitalists against their recurrent crises.
  • You don’t need a fascist movement or a coup to do this: how backward-looking, how 1935!  You need to sell appearances to voters, to turn statecraft into a genre of entertainment.

Others, like ex-actor Reagan or Saatchi-&-Saatchi-sculpted Thatcher, may have grasped fragments of the formula ahead of time, but only Berlusconi worked it out with the precision of a logical theorem or a Harvard-MBA business plan, and only Berlusconi put it into practice with his inimitable, retro-ironic garnishes on top, making Italian politics a 3-D, Imax version of The Benny Hill Show.

Unfortunately, it’s over. Berlusconi is stepping down, although with an in-next-week’s-episode waver about exactly when. And, in a minor sideshow to this tragic drama, Italian capitalism is collapsing. The rate for the government’s bonds soared to almost 7.5% today, which means, basically, that the market no longer has the slightest faith in Italy. As Kevin Drum explains, once interest rates climb above 7%

even higher yields aren’t enough to attract buyers, Europe’s main clearinghouse will start to require higher collateral for Italian bonds used in repo trades, and traders will start panic selling, which would send rates spiraling even higher. That kind of panic is self-fueling, and once it starts it can destroy its target within days….

Unless the European Central Bank (ECB) steps in, Italy will be shut out of the bond market very quickly. It will be unable to roll over its debt, and default will follow. This is basically Greece on steroids, since Italy is something like six times bigger than Greece. The eurozone deal announced a couple of weeks ago might have been big enough to handle a Greek collapse—though even that’s not a sure thing—but it’s not even close to being big enough to handle an Italian collapse. … This is the biggest story in the world right now.

Dominic Rushe in the Guardian helpfully offers 10 reasons to be frightened this is the end of the world. I’ll only mention a couple:

The speed at which government bond crises can escalate is startling: in April 2010, 10-year bond yields in Greece hit 7%; within a month they had reached 12%, prompting Greece’s first bailout package. In Ireland, 10-year bond yield hit 7% in November 2010; a month later it had risen above 9%, triggering a bailout. In Portugal, yields hit 7% in November 2010; the bailout came in May. …

“At this point, Italy may be beyond the point of no return,” Barclays Capital said in a gloomy report this week.

The NY Times points out that the spiralling crisis owes a bit to a very Berlusconiesque endeavor in the smoke-and-mirrors department:

Italy is the only country among Europe’s weaker nations that offers investors the opportunity to buy or sell futures contracts tied to Italian bonds. Though the feature was presented initially as a way for investors to hedge their exposures, investors who want to make a negative bet on the euro zone can sell Italian bond futures — which adds to the already significant downward pressure coming from investors who are unloading their bond holdings directly.

I mentioned recently how the market in futures — in purely hypothetical commodities — is driving up food prices to unsustainable levels. Here, the market in hypothetical debt is boosting the price of the real thing. A last game of appearances!

There isn’t enough money in Europe to bail out Italy. Reportedly French and German bankers are murmuring about breaking up the Eurozone, throwing Italy (and Greece, Spain, Portugal) overboard and lashing together a life-raft with the remaining solvent economies. No one knows how this could be done without multiplying the panic tenfold.

In very calm and measured tones (“Unfortunately, the lifeboat-to-passenger ratio is less favorable than it might appear …”), Daniel Gros observes that Italy’s economic woes are mystifying. There’s plenty of capital, technological innovation is chugging along, and structural reforms have already been imposed. What’s the problem? Could it be governance? Could it be that capitalists can seize the state, but only to run it into the ground? In terms of governance, “the three most important indicators for the economy are:  the rule of law; government effectiveness in general; and control of corruption. Italy’s performance on all three indicators has deteriorated dramatically over the last decade.”

Maybe more than appearances matters after all.

the moving finger writes

Meanwhile, Rushe says a bit acidly, “It probably doesn’t help that Berlusconi pretended to fall asleep during key meetings with European leaders.”  How can the show go on when even the showman is bored by it? Alas; the master of the revels has lost interest in the flimflammery. It’s natural for capitalism to collapse like a used condom when the Head Capitalist himself can’t give it his full regard. Even his parting comments to himself suggest a reaching for hootchy melodrama to pepper up the dull technicalities of his exit — an attempt to recapture his own attention. During the vote that spelled the ruin of his government, cameras caught him scribbling on a piece of paper:

“308, – 8 traitors; Government upturn; Vote; Take note; Resignation; Italian President; One solution; Let’s move”

Gnomic as a riddle; crystalline as a haiku! Maybe that’s the epitaph of our era.  As the archaeologists of a future civilization dig through the rubble of this century, the used condoms of our passions, the broken CFL lightbulbs of our great ideas, perhaps they will find in those cryptic words the key to everything, the “Rosebud” to rationalize the great crash and fall, and all their computers will be bent to decipher Berlusconi’s parting sigh.

The new enclosures: Privatizing the commons

Salon tackles the myth that US cities are safe havens for sanity, progressive politics, and public-centered policy. In fact, for the past few decades, they’ve been at the forefront of privatizing goods and services that used to be seen as properly belonging in public hands. Take Chicago:

Lovely Rita is rich: the lowdown on priviatized parking

In recent years, the Windy City has become “the most aggressive city in the United States in the privatization of public infrastructure,” according to the Public Interest Research Group. Citing the city’s budget crisis, officials have sold off highways and parking meters at cut-rate prices — all to pad the profits of corporate investors (the schemes are now being explored by  other  Democratic cities including Pittsburgh and Los Angeles). Despite this, during its once-in-a-generation contested mayoral election in 2010, the city’s voters chose investment banker Rahm Emanuel over other far more economically progressive candidates, and Emanuel quickly filled his administration with corporate consultants eager to accelerate the privatization already under way.

In the UK, a writer laments that “the privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protest“:

One of the most common responses to Occupy London is to question why exactly they are camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. … Shouldn’t they be somewhere else?

The answer of course is that they should; they wanted to; and would be if they could. The original plan was to occupy, not St Paul’s, but the London Stock Exchange based next door in Paternoster Square. … [But] Paternoster Square, despite appearances, is not a public square. It is a private development that is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company …  When the protesters came along Mitsubishi Estate Company, as is their right, decided to close the square indefinitely …

Occupy London then found themselves with nowhere to Occupy. Since St Paul’s Churchyard is one of the biggest truly public spaces left in the City, it’s as good a place as any to set up camp.

Their options are just as curtailed further afield, as well. Canary Wharf, which is almost as big a centre for finance as the City is, has a lovely big park in the centre of it. Unfortunately, that park, as with 99 per cent of the land in Canary Wharf, is owned by the Canary Wharf Group. …

Boris Johnson – and Ken Livingstone before him – has been instrumental in making London the home of international finance. Want to camp outside City Hall? Unfortunately, More London Estates is unlikely to allow that. …

All of these areas were once public land and therefore the public were free (within reason) to protest on them. A private company on private land can deny any person access at any time for almost any reason. That is fine if that private land is, for example, a shop or an office block. But when it is a street, square or park, and when it is indistinguishable from the private land around it, it creates problems.

don't dream of doing it: sign at Zuccotti Park

(In New York, Zuccotti Park of course remains privately owned as well.) Ironically, as the writer points out, plenty of capitalist developers call their shopping malls things like “town hall” or “village green” — exploiting a widespread if buried nostalgia for the commons and the capacity to enjoy public space together, but mocking the lost reality.

Someone writes in the comments, “It’s the Enclosure Acts all over again.” He means the welter of laws passed in Britain since the time of the Tudors, but most steadily in the 18th and 19th centuries, that fenced off land where communities had once had collective rights of access, excised the people’s liberties to graze or farm or hunt on them, and turned the whole country into a regularized grid of private property. The result — some historians would say the goal — was to tear people forcibly from the land and make a mobile, malleable working class.

Cage built for protesters at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Boston

What’s the aim of the present privatizations? Not mobility, surely. Rather, they aim to eliminate unpredictable solidarities by starving them of space, defend the centers of capital against the unworking and unwanted, and create a cowed and penned citizenry with no room to speak or to assemble. It’s the enclosure of the common voice.

Let them eat oil: Food prices and the capitalist emergency

At the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, they used to wash the floors with gasoline, because in Iraq it came cheaper than water. Similarly, the nice man in the video, in Saudi Arabia of all places, likes to drink motor oil.  He says it is a “natural energizer,” good as food, which may be true if you are a motor, but is an unusual perspective for a man.  Apparently considerations of consumer cost don’t enter into the substitution for him, unlike the Mesopotamian hotel staff. But that may change.

Credit; UN Food and Agricultural Organization

The world is in the middle of an ongoing food crisis. In 2007-2008, food prices rose massively, fuelling protest and unrest from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso. Prices fell again sharply as the 2008 economic collapse struck, but soared again late last year, reaching a peak in February slightly higher than before. The difference is that by this year food stockpiles had been prudently built up, giving countries a cushion against the impact.

World population, and hence food demand, is burgeoning (welcome, Baby 7 Billion!) — but that’s not the sole or maybe even major problem.  In recent years, growth in food production has slightly exceeded population growth.

Two reports launched last month pointed to other causes. The 2011 Global Hunger Index (or GHI, an annual project of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Welthungerhilfe, and Concern Worldwide) rates the level of hunger in countries by three indicators: the proportion of undernourished people, the proportion of children under five who are underweight, and child mortality figures. It showed 26 countries confronting grave hunger crises, with prices powering deprivation. The document named two culprits. One, the growing expropriation of food supplies to make biofuels (up to one-twentieth of global food production is being diverted, by some accounts) is fairly well-known. Less widely advertised, though, is the role of growing commodities futures speculation in global food markets. A UN report on “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011” largely agreed with this diagnosis.

On the subject of speculation, Stanley Pearlstein Friday published a devastating analysis of the commodities bubble in food:

Silly you. …

You thought food was meant to be eaten, oil and gas to be turned into energy, and metals to be turned into cars, bridges and downspouts.

You weren’t sophisticated enough to realize that these really are just different “asset classes” meant to give investors around the world something to speculate in and to diversify their portfolios.

Even worse, you actually believed all that stuff about prices being set based on market fundamentals. Little did you know that it’s no longer the supply and demand for companies, houses, office buildings, natural gas or wheat that sets prices. More likely it’s the supply and demand for the futures, swaps and other derivative instruments linked to those things.

The more food becomes manna for investors, the more it dematerializes. It fills wallets, not stomachs. It turns into the chimerical stuff of financial speculation: “hundreds of billions of dollars have flooded into the market.”

Today, because of a sudden desire to earn higher returns and diversify investment portfolios, there are more people wanting to invest in corn and copper and oil than there is corn and copper and natural gas produced and consumed. But no problem. The financial wizards on Wall Street have magically conjured up synthetic corn and copper and West Texas oil so that speculators can provide hedging opportunities for other speculators. …

The strong demand for commodities futures [puts] upward pressure on the actual prices paid for those commodities by real producers and consumers, if for no other reason than many private sales contracts are settled at a price linked directly or indirectly to futures prices.

In other words, speculators’ demand for nonexistent future corn drives up the price of the real corn hungry people want today.

masters of the universe: into the wild blue yonder

Pearlstein worries that commodities are an investment bubble that will explode in time, as the housing market did, to disastrous effect. The more immediate cause of concern is that as stockpiles run low, people starve.

The credit collapse did nothing to disrupt the hallucinatory speculative energies of capitalism, which mortgage the future to keep the present going, and make the present into a fiction in the process. We live in a reality tottering on the edge of evanescence, in an economy on financial LSD. But humans cannot live by hallucinogens alone.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood — dreaded by well-fed liberals and secularists — is campaigning for parliamentary elections in a couple of weeks in the most concrete way possible: by selling discounted food. 


If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any democracy! How can you have any democracy if you don’t eat yer meat?

the moneychangers ARE the temple

False alarm, nothing to see here, move along. Greek premier Papandreou cancelled the referendum on the bailout and austerity plan. Probably the tongue-lashing he got from Merkel and Sarkozy at the G-20 summit played its part; a split in his party did too; but now he claims it was just a coy ploy from the start, a way of blackmailing the opposition for support.

It’s fascinating, really, how widespread was the condemnation of a proposal that (in the words of a rare pro-vote pundit) “though a long shot gamble, was a possible way out — registering a national consensus, giving Mr. Papandreou a mandate for reform, and sending a message to Europe to stop squeezing a stone.” But hold on. Europe didn’t want a national consensus. The bankers didn’t want a mandate. They wanted action, and this messy talk of mandates and messages and ballots got in the way. So the plan goes forward, and the tear gas keeps the rioters at bay, and the commentators tut-tut that “modern states are far too large and complex for direct democracy,” even if the only alternative is “corrupt, complacent and long-lasting oligarchies,” because at least you know how to get the corrupt, complacent oligarchies on the phone when you need something done.

Modern Greek democracy, a very imperfect thing, has been good at spawning corrupt oligarchies. The polity never really recovered from the wrenching civil war that followed World War II; that bloody strife between Communists and rightists killed more than 50,000 and left the nation polarized, fearful, and resentful. Conservative paranoia about the left led to the colonels’ coup in 1967, and a seven-year nightmare of torture, xenophobia, and endless martial music. The democracy rebuilt after the junta’s ignominious exit was based on an uneasy parity between the two great factions; the parties agreed to the alternation of power, but doled massive patronage to their supporters as long as they held the reins. Corruption eased the sting for politicians who knew they could occasionally be voted out of office, but would take a tidy sum out the door.

The system, in other words, sucked. It lacked transparency or real accountability. Successive governments from both sides simply lied through their teeth about the debt they were accumulating.

Still, a true liberal — a true democrat — would insist: the fix for such a massive #FAIL of democratic process is more democracy. You repair the system by giving the people the power to clean it up, to build new mechanisms malleable to their real demands and desires.

By this standard, there are no true liberals or democrats anymore. The expert solution to the Greek crisis is: less democracy. Mistakes have been made, and the people have to pay. The less say, the better.  Too many cooks clutter the kitchen. Citizens have to settle for the recipe they’re served — or served in, as the case may be.

How did this mess start?

Greece was allowed in the European Union in 1981. As with Spain and Portugal five years later, it was a reward for a smooth transition to democracy. The EU saw itself (as it still does) as the democrats’ club.  When Greece joined the Euro in 2000, however, it meant — mixed with the many advantages — loss of democratic control over economic decisions.

The advantages were vivid. The euro brought unified interest rates across the whole currency zone. This made it easier for governments with weaker economies to borrow; the strong economies of Germany and France pressed their fingers on the scale, and tilted the overall interest rate downward.  Money poured into Greece and Portugal and Spain, from lenders confident the Eurozone would safeguard all its members’ debts. “Bonds issued by southern European nations were taken to be as safe as German ones. ”

The disadvantages came home when the world economy shrivelled. Greece’s lenders started wanting their money. The Socialist government found out its conservative predecessor had covered up the true amount of the deficit (as the Socialist government before that had too.) And the problem was that two of the three courses governments usually take in such situations were now out of their hands. Greece couldn’t devalue its currency — print more money to pay for its debts and stimulate its economy — because it didn’t have its own currency. That decision had to be made by the European Central Bank. And it couldn’t lower interest rates to get its strangled economy growing. That decision had to be made by the European Central Bank. Only the third response remained under its control: to cut spending to the bone, and devote the money to settling debt.

Governments rarely choose that strategy alone without some version of the other two, because they’d lose all legitimacy by inflicting pure unadulterated pain on the population. But as long as it remained in the Eurozone, Greece’s economy was in the hands of Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Tremble, puny politicians! The bankers are in charge.

The irony is that its entry into the EU, which came as a recognition of democratic success, launched a process that snatched power over the economy from the country’s democratic leaders. Now Greeks are told they have to eat the spoiled meat of the austerity plan, and only after that can they vote on it. How can you have your vote before you eat your rotten meat?

When democracy can no longer decide the issues closest to people, people lose faith in democracy. The Guardian sees an ambiguously hopeful anarchism in this:

Greek people are realising they are left with what they had at the outset – that is, absolutely nothing to hope for from the mainstream political scene.

Thousands of workers are to be put on reduced pay schemes across the country and hundreds are being fired on a daily basis. The government has raised already existing taxes and introduced a variety of new ones across the board, while slashing salaries and pensions in both the public and private sector. Official unemployment rose by more than 35% year-to-year and now stands at just under 20%; homelessness is on an enormous increase across the country, while tax on food consumption has shot up from 13 to 23%. At the same time, public transport is being dismantled and hospitals across the country barely function. …

Yet at this very moment – when it is not only the rules of the game that are challenged but the game itself – they seem to feel empowered to act in ways that would not have appeared feasible in the past: they physically attack politicians, mock and cancel military-inspired national public parades and humiliate army officials attending them, participate in neighbourhood assemblies and mass demonstrations (irrespective of the amount of tear gas thrown against them by the police), create grassroots trade unions to demand their labour rights, occupy workplaces, disrupt public services and protest in violent, impulsive, unpredictable ways. In these peculiar times, when there is nothing to lose for so many, everything becomes possible.

But of course, when people lose faith in democracy, there are darker options.

There have been democratic success stories in confronting the financial and human crisis — Iceland is one — but far too many democratic governments have failed. Some, like Greece, found to their paralyzed surprise they had lost authority over the economy altogether. The UK let an antiquated electoral system create a hodgepodge government hellbent on an austerity program that few feel they voted for, and that will likely make the depression worse. In the US, the polarization of an angrily divided public reinforces the deadlock of separated powers, and makes the government look like a terrified wiseguy with his feet in concrete, about to be taught to swim.

In the late ’20s and ’30s, a wave of revulsion at democratic impotence swept much of the (non-colonial) world. By 1936, democracy was wizened and waning across Europe, and casting ballots was outmoded as dancing the gavotte. It’s hard to recapture now how much Franklin D. Roosevelt was adulated by Europe’s remaining liberals as the man who saved democracy, proving it could confront the crisis with compassion and strength. Thomas Mann modeled the hero of his Joseph novels (which I used to call the only great liberal fiction of the 20th century, the only one to show a complex character in full harmony with his society) explicitly on Roosevelt, whom he hailed as the redeemer of civilization.

Hope and change aside, we don’t have a Roosevelt on hand. The bankers are throwing the ideals and methods of democracy in the trash. For the out-of-work, the rejected, the uncertain, the abolished and redundant and afraid, where are the alternatives? How many will invent new forms of solidarity to sustain them, and offer a pattern for another kind of society? How many are learning to listen and to work together? How many are learning to hate?