Posts Tagged ‘protest

No Free Lunch? No Free Market?

- October 18th, 2011

logo-mr-monopoly

vendetta_07

Monopoly/Fun Guy versus Vendetta/Anonymous Guy — Separated at birth or just separate universes?

Life isn’t fair, trade isn’t fair, justice isn’t fair and the market system certainly isn’t fair.

That doesn’t mean most people want to give up on the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness, justice and some kind of fair, free market system. In fact most of us would like to have more of the above, not less.

The presence of far-left cadres and signs like “Abolish the monetary system” don’t define or even represent a substantial minority view of the vast, multi-layered, bubbling social organism that is the conglomeration of people who support (or at least have some inquisitive good will towards) the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As has been said many, many times already, there is no central agenda for this movement, no central leadership, no single unifying philosophy so far — except one.

The one thing everyone can pretty much agree on is that the system as it exists right now is broken (of course there is no consensus on how much or little breakage there is) and needs to be repaired.

Chicago-train-crash

And that is why the Occupy Wall Street movement is a Good Thing — this sense of positive renewal and the sense that, whether it succeeds or not, the natural human tendencies to fairness and social responsibility can overcome — or at least counterbalance to some degree — the natural human tendencies to cynicism and greed.

As a species, we’ve only been around for 40,000 years or so. Surely we can eke out another century or two. The dinosaurs managed to hang around for more than a million years and they had pea brains. Big teeth but small brains.

(The odds of success aren’t high — never forget the aphorism “Organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy” — but it’s still an exercise worth pursuing and there is bound to be at least some shift in the balance of perspective, if not power. Maybe that in itself is a worthy measure of success.)

And that is why this general public sense that things have gone off track has coalesced around anger at the  huge blob of financial, economic and political control that falls under the collective corporate moniker “Wall Street.”

wall-st

Whether you live in Manhattan or Moosejaw or Milano or Montevideo or Mumbai, you know that “Wall Street” is working for “Wall Street” and its money managers, not for you or the people of the U.S.A. or Canada or Italia or Uruguay or India.

Most people can accept that without too much trouble or resentment. But what people can’t accept — and what is the real driving force behind the anger towards Wall Street — is that Wall Street has hijacked the institutions and mechanisms of democracy and changed the rules to benefit itself at the expense of everyone else.

Hannah-Tan

Apologies to Hannah Tan, but it’s a perspective on the Wall Street bull I like.

That anger isn’t a blanket denunciation of corporations or financial institutions — quite the reverse. People accomplish the most in this world when they work together to achieve a goal. I think that’s one definition of “corporate culture.” I think it’s also an applicable description of the Occupy Wall Street movement.I know honourable people who make a very good living in the corporate world but who are as offended as the St. James Park campers by well-heeled fraudsters and manipulators who cook the books, salt the mine and piss in the communal stewpot, to mix a few metaphors.

It’s got nothing to do with people working hard and making money. Good on ya. It’s got everything to do with people stealing money, pretending like they deserve it and sneering at the people they stole it from.

So the Occupy Wall Street movement really isn’t about seeking some kind of socialist “redistribution of wealth.” It’s OPPOSED to the redistribution of wealth that corporate Wall Street — the so-called 1% — engineered in its own favour over the past half century. The current backlash just wants to level the playing field a little bit. Not claw-backs but no more claw-overs.

Don’t forget that it was Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of World War II and Republican President of the 1950s,  who warned us all in his presidential farewell address against the growing greed and self-serving power of the “military-industrial complex.”

eisenhower-farewell-address

I like Ike: Looks a little like a bald David Letterman … but more relevant.

David-Letterman

The Eisenhower speech is a thing of beauty and courage and wisdom and foresight, perhaps even more relevant today than it was when he delivered it in January 1961. Here’s an online link to the written speech and audio track.

And here’s a link to the full televised speech on YouTube.

Here’s one passage to give you a taste:

“As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

And here’s the closing of the speech:

“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

It all sounds so fanciful and naive today. It’s hard to remember that these words were written (at least co-written) and spoken by a man who saw closeup the worst the 20th Century had to offer mankind; a man who led millions of soldiers through a terrible, devastating war to defeat the evil of Nazism; a man who led the so-called Free World against the terror and tyranny of Soviet Stalinism for the better part of a decade; and a man who represented the Republican Party and the American social, political and economic establishment before the likes of Richard Nixon took over. (Ike, by the way, despised Nixon, the grasping vice-president foist upon him by political fixers.)

Wall Street is now more like the crooked casino that has fixed all the dice, cards and roulette wheels in its favour — and then fixed the laws to make us all play in that casino. You lose.

Put simply, Wall Street isn’t playing fair and is so used to not playing fair that it really doesn’t care anymore whether the chumps know it or not, as long as they keep anteing up.

The U.S. financial crisis that kicked off in late 2008 and the current Euro-zone financial crisis are two sides of the same coin and both are representative of the same problem: Yes, the economies of North America and Europe are in trouble, but the “crisis” in both cases is a self-created financial sector crisis — and the banks are being bailed out, not the economies.

The big banks, in both cases, knowingly engaged in dangerous, manipulative lending and investing practices — the dubious Ponzi scheme called the subprime mortgage market in the American case, and the reckless readiness of Northern European banks to buy bonds issued by Southern European countries obviously (to the duly diligent) unable to repay the bond amounts pledged to be redeemed in the future.

Hell, Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs even lent the Greek government billions under the table in 2001 so it could cook the books enough to gain entry to the Euro club. Where’s the censure? Where’s the penalty? Why aren’t Europe’s banks, now stuck with vastly devalued Greek bonds, hounding Goldman Sachs for their money instead of EU countries like Slovakia which had a GDP in 2010 of about $121 billion — only three times  the  revenue, for the entire nation, of Goldman Sachs in the same year — just one year after the American government gave Goldman Sachs the better part of a billion dollars in finacial support?

(Slovakia, by the way, sucked it up years ago and got its financial house in order. No wonder they were resistant to pressure from other EU countries to agree to back an almost limitless pool of Euros to prop up the profligate spending habits of much richer — but much broker — European countries.)

The whole financial sector — from investment banking to venture capitalism — is based on the concept of risk assessment and management. Supposedly the financial institution or corporation uses its expertise to judge the risks involved in any given investment and reaps the rewards or penalties according to the real outcome.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work and that’s the way — more or less, off and on — the system used to work in North America and Europe.

Not any more. For the past decade, big U.S. and European banks made windfall profits by investing in what were rightfully considered “risky” ventures and which thus produced higher returns than “safe” investments.

But when those “risky” investments blew up — subprime mortgages, bad European bonds, etc. — the banks that took those supposedly calculated risks weren’t willing to pay the real price for their reckless practices.

Instead they have gone to the political institutions and organizations in which they have invested heavily to bail them out. Which the U.S. government did in 2009 and which the European Union is going to do (or is it?) in the coming weeks.

According to an investigative team at Bloomberg News, various arms of  the U.S. government in 2009 lent, spent or guaranteed almost $13 TRILLION to prop up the American financial system.

This is (at least in the U.S. and Canada, which use the “short” system) 13 trillion: 13,000,000,000,000.

(If you put a million dollars in a box, it would take 13 million of those boxes to make $13 trillion. It also works out to roughly $40,000 for each man, woman and child in the U.S. — including all the illegal immigrants.)

Here’s a link to a video interview with one member of that Bloomberg investigative team.

When the Euro-zone bailout comes, don’t forget that the money involved is going to end up going to the French, Swiss, German, British and other European banks and financial cartels that don’t want to pay the real price for their greed-induced investment mistakes. (North American investors would suffer too, but the EU doesn’t care about them.)

The billions of Euros involved (a billion in the European “long” system is the same thing as a trillion in the North American “short” system) won’t create a single job or save a single home or small business from foreclosure or bankruptcy.

The government mantra in both cases is that the bailout packages must be put in place to prevent panic, chaos and complete uncontrolled collapse of the worldwide banking system and economy.

Attack-Street-Wall

A Wall Street protest in the 1920s — before the 1929 Crash, by the way.

If the aim was to protect the people, the governments could (in the case of Europe) or could have (in the case of the U.S.) guarantee(d) to protect the rights and property of individual investors while letting the supposedly “free market” take care of punishing the banks that put themselves in the crisis we are now told is our crisis. It would certainly be a lot cheaper than turning on the soylent green tap to the banks.

But it’s not really a free market, the game is rigged, the rules are made and changed by the people who pay the piper and call the tune, and the only free lunch is that eaten by the people who get to ding the taxpayer, either directly or corporately.

BS

Bernie Sanders — BS worth listening to

(According to the admirably independent and cranky  U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Bank of America got a $1 trillion bailout from the U.S. government in 2009, made a $4.4 billion profit in the 2009-10 financial year, paid no federal income tax and actually got a $1.9 billion tax refund for that same fiscal year. What’s wrong with this picture?)

As someone said recently, “I’ll believe that corporations are people (a reference to a hilarious Mitt Romney quote) when the state of Texas executes one.”

In fairness, I must say that the Canadian banking sector is not in the same position that U.S. banks were in two years ago or that European banks are currently in.

And to be even fairer, the Canadian banks themselves can’t claim credit for that. For the past two decades, Canadian banks have been pushing hard to have the rules governing their operations loosened to the same degree that restrictions on U.S. banks were loosened during the same period.

It was, the Canadian banks said, the only way they could compete on a level playing field with the might of the U.S. banking system.

I would love to know why and how the Chretien and Martin governments of the 1990s and early ’00s managed to stave off the influence of the big Canadian banks and forced them to live within the restrictive, fairly rational, ultimately life-saving rules that kept them solvent and secure through the 2008-09 U.S. banking crisis.

Of course, now the Canadian banks brag about how responsible and reliable they are because they weren’t allowed to drive off a cliff a decade ago.

Most people know all this stuff in their gut and that’s why the current protests have tapped into an underlying pool of understanding, if not total agreement. That majority is probably not the 99% the Occupy Wall Street folks like to talk about but perhaps close to the 90% I heard a couple of little kids chanting about in St. James Park the other day.

I really don’t expect any concrete immediate results to come out of the current round of protests and occupations but the overall effect is still profound and hopefully lasting.

The public discussion has changed tone and focus, people are engaged and seem to feel like they actually have a voice and input into a wider political process, the cheats and carpetbaggers have been put on notice that their actions have not gone unseen.

I also see and hear people slagging and mocking the protesters, but it seems more ritualistic than vitriolic. Granted, there is a lot to criticize and mock about the protests but there’s also a lot to appreciate and applaud.

As someone wiser than I said about Occupy Wall Street: It’s an inclusive movement, no one chooses who gets to participate — you have to take the good with the bad.

We all know there’s bad out there but, for me anyway , it’s a positive sign that we’re taking the good too.

Like every other movement in history, this one will fall apart, be corrupted or simply be absorbed into the political mainstream. But no matter what happens in the end, it has already had a real and (hopefully) positive effect — and at an incredibly rapid rate.

At the very least, a lot of people who were feeling alienated, disenfranchised and victimized can now say: “I stood up. I was there. I spoke and was heard. And I feel a little better about the world today.”

adbusters_occupy-wall-street1

Occupy Toronto: A Walk In The Park

- October 15th, 2011

crowd

There’s one thing you can say about Occupy Toronto or Occupy A Park  Nowhere Near Bay Street  or whatever you want to call it — so far it’s been a heck of a lot more fun than Nuit Blanche was.

There were a lot more smiles on people’s faces, more spontaneity, more creativity, more costumes, more music, more festivity, more good old-fashioned joie de vivre. It was a people event, not a corporate event. There were no printed guidebooks.

The march along King Street and the occupation of St. James Park was a lot less expensive and a lot more real than Nuit Blanche.

Maybe Scotiabank should think about changing its sponsorship: No more Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, now it’s … Scotiabank Occupy Toronto …. or maybe … Scotiabank Anti-Capitalist Carnival … sponsored by  Scotiabank, The Bank That Sticks It To The Man.

I guess it’s not such a good fit. Never mind.

BailMEout

Saturday In The City was a good day, fractured, dyslexic, more than a little goofy — but its heart was in the right place and most everyone seemed to be excited about being part of An Important Event. It must have been important — there were so many TV cameras and microphones there, with people desperately trying to look cool while getting THEIR signs on camera.

Astronut

If the cops don’t do something stupid (like trying to eject the squatters too soon), the Occupation of St. James Park will quickly fade into obscurity. There may be a scruffy, ragged squatters camp in the park for months but I’m sure the congregation of St. James Cathedral will be happy to embrace them as a living, breathing, crapping example of the church’s relevance in modern society. (For the record, the St. James congregation has an excellent, long-standing, under-appreciated community outreach programme that  includes everything from providing homes for the homeless to street choirs, but this whole Occupy Toronto thing is a little sexier — for a while.) But the cops on the street were very cool Saturday.

bikecops

The only people who will be truly put out are those with regular window seats at Biagio Ristorante across the street — and I’m not too worried about them.

portapotties

Speaking of crapping, I was surprised how quickly the rows of portable toilets appeared on the scene. Methinks the decision to make St. James Park the tent city site wasn’t quite such a spontaneous, will-of-the-people decision as the un-organizers would have you believe. And it was fairly obvious there had been prior discussion — at some level — with Toronto Police about where the protest march was going.

A few other quick points in passing:

* I’m sure the cops in 52 Divsion, where the protest started, were very, very happy when the marchers crossed Yonge Street and it became apparent that the squatters camp was going to be on the turf of 51 Division to the east.

* Why, exactly, did the dis-organizers of the Occupation decide to set up camp the better part of a kilometre away from the heart of Toronto’s financial district?

* The funniest chant I heard all day was “The people united will never be defeated.” This protest represents a genuine sense of anger, disgust and rejection of the way the Lords of Wall Street have screwed up the world, the environment and the economy for personal greed and short-term corporate gain. But it doesn’t have one agenda — it’s got hundreds, it’s got as many agendas as people in the park on any given day — so the people will never really be united, ergo …

* I saw a few genuine nutbars — guys who usually parade their end-of-the-world proclamations at Yonge and Dundas: They weren’t even noticeable, just blended into the crowd. The guy wearing a sheet covered in environmental slogans who stood on King Street waving at cars and streetcars just seemed like Mr. Normal.

sheetman

* A drum circle of American (I think) women was the big hit of the afternoon, drawing far more attention, enthusiasm and interaction than any of the amateur speechifiers at the other corner of the park. A rant against flouride in drinking water just can’t compete with a good beat. (And there were some interesting ad-lib chants developed by the crowd to go with the drumming).

drumcircle

happyfaces

* Amid all the clamour to save the environment, a hillside garden of flowering plants was trampled by people trying to get a better look.

tramplegarden

* As they marched along King Street, protesters heckled a man on the sidewalk wearing a suit, white shirt and tie: “Take it off, man. Be real.” Actually he was being real — he was a waiter on his way to work. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the oppressor and the oppressed apart.

* My favourite chant of the day was: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” It has absolutely no relevance to the Canadian banking situation (only because Canadian banks weren’t allowed to go on the bender the American banks went on for the first decade of the 21st Century) but in the grand scheme of things it has a resonance.

KarlMarx

* My least favourite sign was one attributing the quote “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” to Karl Marx. It’s a pretty good bumper sticker that everyone from Tea Partiers to Communists can go with. But, to the best of my knowledge, old Karl never said it so let that be a lesson to you, kids: Don’t attribute a quote if you’re too lazy to confirm its origin yourself.

karl-marx-in-shades

(NOTE: I don’t know the origin of this Photoshopped — I think — pic of Marx, so I may be as guilty as those people I’m nagging.)

° And here are a couple of other signs I liked:

WoodyOccupiesToronto

407sign

dreamBIG

My German Anti-Nuke Protest

- April 26th, 2011

SOMEWHERE NORTH OF HAMBURG — I took part in a German anti-nuclear protest yesterday.

Not that I was planning to, of course.

What I was planning to do was take a leisurely toodle on a sunny Easter Monday afternoon around the neighbouring countryside on the ancient, eccentric motor scooter which putt-putts me through Schleswig-Holstein when I am here.

I was stopped at what passes for the main road in this neck of the woods (if there were woods of any substance in this neck) when the flashing blue light of a police car (Polizeiwagen) hove into view — slowly.

It was followed by a procession of eight buses and a scattering of private cars sprouting a variety of yellow, red and black flags. At the end of the convoy, two other police cars with flashing lights nipped at the heels of the buses like sheep dogs.

At first I thought it might be an especially large horticultural club on tour, but that was unlikely since there wasn´t a garden gnome in sight and the passengers staring out the bus windows had on their best Very Serious Faces (VSFs) — something the  Germans do perhaps better than any other nationality in the world.

The purpose of the VSF is to indicate to observers that the body attached to the VSF is engaged in Very Important Business (VIB), which said observers are encouraged — nay, impelled — to expedidate/facilitate/assist/abet/admire. Usually the VIB can better be described as VSIB (Very Self-Important Business).

Ach so,  eight buses full of VSFs escorted by police sheep dogs. The clues were piling up, but the dead giveaway to the group´s identity was the banners waving from the cars with the buses. Most were a nitrous-oxide yellow  colour with a smiley red sun in the middle encircled by black words:

ATOMKRAFT? NEIN DANKE

(NUCLEAR POWER? NO THANKS)

atomkraft

Ooooo, one of the German anti-nuke protests I had heard so much about.

So, as the rearguard Polizeiwagen trundled by, I decided to tag along. At best, I would see a Deutsche eco-political action in action or, at worst, I would be led on a jaunt into unexplored territory.

Somewhere in the middle of possibilities was the opportunity to find out where the nearest nuclear plant was. It had to be close or why else would the convoy of VSFs come through my rustic, off-the-beaten-track area.

(I´m sorry to say I had neglected to take a camera with me, so there´s no photo travelogue to go with these words, although I might try to add in some images from the Internet later.)

What followed was a 20-km serpentine journey through the flat, fertile moorlands of Schleswig-Holstein as the lead Polizeiwagen sought out every secondary farm road and one-lane cowpath in the district. I´m sure the official reason for the circuitous route was to keep the main arteries from being clogged up with similar congregating convoys of protesters, but I think there must also have been a bit of officious power-tripping involved too: “See what I can make you do? Now jump through this hoop and you will be allowed to express yourself.”

We had twisted and turned so often I had no idea where we were. I actually thought we were heading vaguely north when, in fact, we were headed south from my starting point.

Our parade crested a bridge over a bigger, busier road and we left the farmlands behind for a Gewerbegebiet (or something to that effect), an industrial zone of  recycling plants and the like.

At this point, my convoy of buses was swallowed up in a flock of other arriving buses and I lost track of my VSFs.

But there was plenty of other activity to follow. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were walking down the road from their parked cars and other hundreds and thousands were swarming in on bicycles. (And, of course, there were the lazy ones who parked their cars and unhitched  bikes from their car racks to pedal in the last kilometre or two.)

And a fine gaggle of Germans it was too: Frosty-haired grandparents who were probably veterans of the early 1970s German anti-nuclear movement, middle-aged folks — some hippie-esque, others nip-tuck tidy and proper — who might have come on board in the aftermath of 1986´s Chornoblyl (or Chernobyl or Tschernobyl, take your pick) disaster, plenty of earnest 20-somethings with eco-consciences newly awakened by Fukushima, and large numbers of teens and children — the ones who seemed to be having the most fun on this beautiful sunny afternoon and who had not yet been fitted for their personal VSFs.

Many of the congregants carried flags and wore costumes. The flags were predominantly the standard ATOMKRAFT? NEIN DANKE standard and the principal costumes were variations of yellow helmets, facemasks and plastic jumpsuits supposed to put one in mind of nuclear decontamination outfits — a poor, sweaty choice of costume, to my mind, for a hot, sunny day when T-shirts, halter tops and shorts would have conveyed a more positive and realistic message.

But who am I to criticize? Really. I was here as a curious gawker — a Nosey Parker — not to express my personal outrage and opposition to nuclear power in general and the Brunsbüttel AKW (AtomKraftWerk — nuclear power plant) in particular.

AKWbrunsbuttel

For the outskirts of Brunsbüttel was, indeed, where my bus convey had led me. I stopped to check a map and discovered I was down by the mouth of the Elbe River, the complete opposite direction from which I thought I had been travelling.

(A short aside on büttels: The world “büttel” essentially means the same thing as the English word “borough” — a medieval seat of local government. So Scarborough, for example, would be Scarbüttel — a rather fitting description in my jaundiced opinion. There are many büttels in northern Germany — Nienbüttel, Ottenbüttel, Westerbüttel, Oldenbüttel, Tensbüttel and so on, not to mention my favourite, Aasbüttel. Next door to Brunsbüttel there´s even a small town called simply Büttel — which is pretty much like naming a town “the Town of Town” or calling a cat “Cat” … showing either a serious lack of imagination or an excess of literal-mindedness.)

But Brunsbüttel was where we were, Germans in their hundreds and thousands parading down a tree-lined road toward a nuclear plant while I did my best to weave among them on my putt-putting, fume-spewing (but at least non-nuke-powered) mo-fa, as motor scooters and mo-peds are known here.

Lage_des_AKW_Brunsbüttel

North Germans have been congregating at AKW Brunsbüttel for decades, ever since it started operating in 1976, to protest against nuclear power. The fact that the Brunsbüttel operation was taken out of service 2007 has not seemed to dampen its attraction as a protest site.

Local authorities estimated the number of people at this protest as 6,000, but I wouldn´t know for sure: When I arrived at a polizei checkpoint that would not admit my mo-fa, I declined to carry my partcipation in the protest march/ride further. But I do think the number of protesters there was probably much higher than 6,000: I had counted about 300 people in my small bus convoy alone and there were many more bus convoys as well as the thousands upon thousands of people I had seen arriving by car and bicycle (and mo-fa).

aktionstag_banner_04

But I had decided to forego the ensuing speeches and other boring impedia of over-organized protest. I embarked on a demonstration of my own, a demonstration of the power and goodness of the sun, as best appreciated on a sheltered deck with a frothy cappucino at hand.

But I am remembering Chornobyl today, on the 25th anniversary of the start of that disaster, and wondering what we will think of Fukushima 25 years from now, a time when all nuclear power plants  are supposed to be gone from Germany. Gone but not forgotten, methinks.