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 livestream.com/globalrevolution, 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.

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.