The Uses of Fear

The 21st century is a frightening place, so frightening in fact, that many of us would be forgiven if we just cowered under the blankets all day and never went anywhere.   Ebola, SARS, swine flu and bird flu, terrorism, ISIS, people traffickers, migrants, financial implosion and the collapse of the eurozone – whatever face we put upon it, doom is haunting us, it seems, like never before.

Well not quite like never before.   Because politically speaking, fear is a powerful and very useful emotion.   In the late nineteenth century governments and police forces on both sides of the Atlantic tormented their populations with the spectre of a global anarchist conspiracy intent on the destruction of bourgeois civilisation.  Stalin’s malignant show trial prosecutor Andre Vyshinsky delighted in getting his already tortured and tormented victims to describe their involvement in demonic conspiracies that were as evil as they were improbable, in order to justify their death sentences and simultaneously terrify the Soviet population.

Joseph McCarthy played a very similar game with less lethal consequences during the high Cold War.  Whatever the particular context, the political instrumentalisation of fear generally has very similar aims: to direct and deflect potential criticism of a particular ruler or political system elsewhere, and to bind the ruled more closely to their rulers and make them more willing to accept policies and decisions that they might otherwise be inclined to question or reject outright.

Politically speaking, fear tends to usher in a whole range of negative states and emotions: passivity, submissiveness, unthinking acceptance of the status quo, hysteria, suspicion and compliance.    Fear has been oiling the wheels of  21st century politics ever since the collapse of the twin towers.   Again and again, democratic governments have warned their populations that the bad things we are witnessing may herald even worse to come; that organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS aren’t just a threat, but an ‘existential threat’; that the world is now uniquely vulnerable to collapse; that the ‘calculus of risk’ has changed to the point that even if there is a ‘one percent’ possibility that our enemies du jour might have nuclear weapons then that state should be attacked.

And since the global financial crisis erupted in 2007/8, fear has also been used quite cynically and systematically to impose the great con-trick called austerity on populations that might otherwise have raised serious questions regarding how the crisis was caused and what alternatives there might be to the remedies that have been proposed.  Again and again Greece has been threatened with the spectre of economic ruin if it didn’t submit to economic ‘reforms’ that will privatize large sections of the Greek economy and keep Greeks in debt for the indefinite future.

Other countries were then told that they should accept a similar model if they didn’t want to ‘end up like Greece.’  Scottish voters were told they would end up bankrupt if they voted yes in the referendum.  British voters during the last election were warned that a Labour victory would threaten ‘stability’ and undermine the recovery.  Now we are seeing the same politics of fear once again in response to the Corbyn surge, as Labour rightwingers and pundits warn that Corbyn’s proposals are ‘fantasy economics’ that would undermine economic growth and plunge the country into recession and chaos.

These warnings invariably use the prospect of even worse to come to browbeat the population into accepting austerity as the least bad option.   Question whether taxpayers should have recapitalized and essentially rewarded banks guilty of malpractice or malfeasance and you are presented with visions of ATM machines running out of cash if we don’t.

Suggest that austerity might be a choice rather than a necessity and spell out another possible way of running the economy, as Corbyn has done, and a posse of Labour ‘big beasts’ and pretty much the entire commentariat from left to right will come after you to describe you and your supporters as hysterics engaging in fantasy politics who are endangering society, economic growth and prosperity, that Labour will never win another election ever etc, etc.

Such warnings has become something of a political reflex in the world of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, whose rulers secretly know that the future they have to offer their electorates is pretty grim, and that they can only maintain support by presenting themselves as the arbiters of the necessary evil. This is how you get people to willingly to inhabit the land of TINA – There Is No Alternative – forever.  It’s how you persuade voters to elect a Tory government knowing that its cuts will inflict unprecedented damage on health and education and other things that these same voters care about.

So in these fearful times, it’s worth remembering that society cannot be changed by people who live in a state of fear, but only by those who have the courage to take the risks that are always involved when you challenge the status quo or seek alternatives to the dire prescriptions that seem to be emanating from so many governments.

It’s worth remembering the Greek Oxi vote, despite Syriza’s capitulation, when the Greek population faced down a barrage of threats and terrifying possibilitiesand said no.  Like Dennis Hopper, in Wim Wenders’s classic take on the Ripley novels, The American Friend, they recognized that ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’.   Elsewhere in Europe, new movements are springing up to challenge the politics of austerity and its brutal consequences, who have reached the same conclusions.

And this summer, as the reaction to Jeremy Corbyn rises to new levels of hysteria and dire warnings of the consequences of a shift to the left in or out of the Labour Party,  we should remember that many of these prophets of doom are themselves afraid that one day the people they seek to terrify into submission or grudging acceptance of the unacceptable may decide that austerity is not inevitable or tolerable, and conclude that even a modest step towards a different kind of future might just be a risk worth taking after all.

 

Greece Says No

Yesterday’s astonishing referendum vote in Greece has left elite jaws dropping across the continent.  In the face of universal opposition from the powers-that-be across the continent and dire warnings that essentially amounted to ‘ do what we say or else’ Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected the Troika’s latest bailout package.

Well, technically they didn’t reject the package exactly, because in the confused circumstances that followed Syriza’s referendum decision last week, the Troika declared its latest bailout offer to be null and void, and Alex Tsipras appeared to have accepted it, albeit with preconditions.

Never mind, because Greeks knew what they were voting for and so did their creditors, who had made it plain that they weren’t happy with the Syriza government and wanted Greeks to dissolve it and elect another.  Everyone knew that if the referendum vote had gone the other way then Syriza would have resigned, and this was clearly the outcome Europe’s financial and political elites wanted, which was why they turned their backs on Tsipras’s last minute acceptance of their latest package.

Ever since Syriza was elected, the Troika has been determined to exact complete and unconditional surrender from Tsipras’s government because it fears that anything less would encourage other countries to question the disaster capitalism in drag that goes by the name of austerity.

Greece’s creditors may not have wanted a referendum, but their behavior last week made it clear that they also saw it as a potential opportunity to ditch Syriza and get a compliant technocratic government in power that would do their bidding without fuss.   To press the point home, Greeks were presented with the same dread prospect of empty banks and ATM machines that were once used to justify the recapitalization of the banking system when the global financial crisis first broke.

Yet astonishingly, even in these fearful and ultra-conservative times, when electorates across the continent prefer to cling onto the boot that kicks them because they are terrified that the alternative would be worse, Greece refused to acquiesce in the face of shamefully undemocratic blackmail.

Told effectively to change your government or face bankruptcy, economic collapse, and expulsion from Europe, the Greeks voted no by an overwhelming margin.  And they were last night, dancing in the streets and public squares even as they stared down into what remains a very dark tunnel.   Why did they do this?  Are they mad, these southern Europeans,  in rejecting the ‘common sense’ imposed upon them by their sober northern creditors and the sour-faced disciples of TINA (There Is No Alternative)?  Are they suffering from an attack of mass psychosis?

Well no.  They were dancing because they had stood up to the blinkered financial thuggery that has ripped their society to shreds.   They were dancing because they had reached the conclusion that sometimes collective defiance – regardless of the risks – is preferable to endless humiliation, despair and ruin.   They were dancing because they had demonstrated a level of real political courage that has been so sorely lacking in so many countries during these grim years, and brave decisions are always more invigorating than fear and submission.

They were dancing because they had asserted their democratic right to choose a government that represented what they saw as their best interests rather than a government that recommended the interests of the Troika and the promoters of the disaster-capitalism-in-drag that we call austerity.

Of course this victory opens the way to all kinds of unforeseen possibilities.   The resignation of Yanis Varoufakis already demonstrates that Syriza’s own defiance has its limits.  The Troika may now accept Syriza’s conditions or Tsipras might demand more.   Greece may be cast adrift and expelled from the eurozone, or simply allowed to drift away from it.  If that happens, Greece may face a crisis even more severe than the one that has already wrought such havoc if it reintroduces the drachma, at least in the short-term.

As of this morning, no one knows how any of this will pan out.   But yesterday, the Greek people found itself and spoke with its own voice.   And now, faced with the refusal of the Greeks to dissolve its government, the powers–that-be can only either try and dissolve the Greek people itself, as Brecht once put it in a different context, or they can engage in open confrontation with a broad national consensus that is no longer restricted to the ‘far left’ government that the Troika tried to humiliate.

No wonder the Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijssebloem has described the result as ‘very regrettable for the future of Greece.’  German Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel yesterday accused the Tsipras government of taking Greece down a path of ‘bitter abandonment and hopelessness.’

Well if yesterday’s celebrations were what bitterness and hopelessness look like, then there are many other people in Europe who might want some of it too.   And they might even conclude, like the Greeks, that sometimes a leap into the unknown is preferable to a fearful, debt-enforced future of endless austerity,  and that sometimes, if you stand up to the powerful, you can actually win.

 

Two Days, One Night

I’ve just seen the Dardenne brothers’ brilliant Two Days, One Night (2014)  It’s a film I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a long time, and it didn’t disappoint.   The premise is deceptively simple: Sandra Byas, played by Marion Cotillard,  is a worker in a Belgian solar panel factory who has just returned to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, only to find that her boss has offered her colleagues a bonus of 1,000 euros a month if they agree to make her redundant.

From the management’s point of view this is the cheaper option for a small company operating in a globalised market against Asian competition, and also because in Sandra’s  absence her co-workers have been able to cover her shifts by working overtime.

Sandra finds all this out on a Friday, by which time one of her colleagues has managed to persuade the boss to hold a secret ballot amongst the workforce on Monday morning to decide her fate.   Her only hope of keeping her job is to persuade nine of her colleagues to vote against accepting the bonus and for keeping her on instead.

This is what she tries to do in the course of the ‘two days and one night’ of the title.  As Sandra visits her co-workers one by one she is forced, essentially, to beg them to vote in her favour and vote against their own interests, because if she needs a job,  it is equally clear that all of them are struggling economically and need the bonus. At the same time there is another choice that each of these workers must make: whether to accept the divide-and-rule arrangements imposed by management or act out of solidarity and ordinary humanity to help a fellow-worker in difficulty.

This story is told through a series of beautifully low-key and convincingly uncinematic performances, with Cotillard absolutely outstanding as a fragile young woman forced into a humiliating attempt to assert herself while struggling against depression and her own lack of self-worth.   I won’t say how it all ends, in case you haven’t seen it.  Suffice to say that this is a quiet masterpiece, which the dim careerists who are competing for the Labour leadership by paying homage to ‘business’ and ‘wealth creators’ would do especially well to see.

Because if Two Days and One Night is a film about solidarity in the face of adversity, it’s also a film about work and working lives, and the human consequences of what employers like to call ‘flexibility’ and which some economists have more accurately labelled ‘precarity.’  Sandra is one of those ‘hard-working people’ who politicians claim to love, but her life and the life of her family is threatened by a decision made on purely financial considerations.   In order to compete successfully in the global market, her company needs the ability to lay people off and take them on at will.

Flexibility for the management translates into constant insecurity for the workforce, and   Sandra’s breakdown and depression gives management a lever than can be used against her, since her line manager Jean-Marc tries to sway her colleagues by telling them that she isn’t working well as a result of her illness. Jean-Marc is an invisible presence for much of the film, but he is the one who reports to his superiors and influences their decisions, and therefore exerts an unseen power over the workforce, such as the welder on a fixed-term contract whose renewal depends on what Jean-Marc tells management.

One of the reasons why Jean-Marc is so powerful is because there is no union to counter-balance him.   As far as we can tell, the secret ballot to decide Sandra’s job appears to be an ad hoc and idiosyncratic arrangement between the staff and management.   As a result the workforce is entirely dependent on the vagaries of the global economy and the largesse of their employers.

Sandra’s attempts to persuade her colleagues to vote in her favour are made even more difficult by her painful awareness that all of them need their bonus, because the money they make is not enough to make ends meet.

This, in short, is true precarity: low wages, powerlessness and permanent insecurity in the workplace, and the constant prospect of unemployment and the dole.   It’s a situation that millions of men and women find themselves in to some degree or other across the world, and which has become something of a desired ideal for governments like ours.

Even though the words ‘trade union’ are never mentioned in the film,  Two Days and One Night is a powerful reminder of why we need unions, and what workers lose when they don’t have them.  In this country in particular, we have been taught for many years by Tory governments and the Tory press to regard unions as a historical anachronism and a reactionary obstacle to ‘reform’.    With their new strike laws, Lord Snooty and His Pals are plotting to strip trade unions of the most powerful tool that workers have to defend their pay and conditions and protect their interests.

I wouldn’t recommend a showing of Two Days and Nights at Downing Street: His Lordship wouldn’t be interested.   But  Burnham, Kendall, Cooper et al really ought to see it.   It won’t do much for their careers, but they might learn something about what 21st century working lives are really like, and it might even remind them of what their own party was once supposed to stand for.

 

 

Come on let’s kick the poor (like we did last summer)

The Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us, and as long as they are around there will always be politicians willing to punish them for their poverty.   It might be the Wisconsin State Assembly, which has just approved legislation banning food stamp recipients from eating junk food and also ‘luxury foods’ such as ‘crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish.’   Or Hackney Council, which has just launched a ‘Public Space Protection Order’ (PSPO), which will enable police to impose £100 on-the-spot fines for homeless people sleeping in doorways – a fine that can rise to £1,000 in court.

Hackney Council’s punitive response to homelessness is not original.  In America 31 cities have introduced restrictions preventing individuals and organizations from sharing food to the homeless.   Others have made it illegal for homeless people to possess personal items in public, or banned the homeless from city centers.  In 2013 the Budapest city council made it illegal for homeless people to occupy parks, underpasses, playgrounds and other public spaces, and threatened violators with fines and imprisonment.

State-sanctioned attacks on the homelessness are one component of a broad swathe of punitive and persecutory measures introduced by national and regional governments and municipalities in some of the richest countries in the world, that include cuts in benefits, means tests, sanctions, increasingly draconian conditions for state assistance,  fines for begging, and forced unpaid work placements.

These persecutory tendencies are both new and old.   In the Middle Ages vagrants or the ‘wandering poor’ were regarded as dangerous outsiders, and likely to be excluded from the parish or city states or arrested if they didn’t have a begging license or permission to be where they were.   In sixteenth century Spain, vagrancy was a criminal offence in many cities. During the Great Depression, homeless ‘bums’ who rode the railroads in the United States in search of work were hounded and beaten by police.

Even when the poor received charity or relief they are often regarded with suspicion and contempt.  In 1834 the Poor Law Commission recommended that no able-bodied person was to receive money or any other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse, that workhouses were to be built in every parish, where ‘conditions were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help.’

You don’t have to be a sociologist or historian to find explanations for such behavior: societies that accept an unequal distribution of wealth as the natural order of things do not like to be reminded of the negative consequences of such acceptance.     Hungry people, beggars, and vagrants are persistent evidence of social failure and often gross injustice.  Rather than analyse or seek to change the social and economic structures that create poverty, it is far more convenient to blame the poor themselves for their condition.  For this reason the poor are regarded again and again in different historical epochs as feckless, idle, and unwilling to improve their situation.

At best they are regarded as a burden that the rest of society must carry – if only out of self-interest.   At worst the poor are depicted as parasites, criminals, as a potentially destabilising force or as an aesthetically unpleasing and deviant intrusion into our daily lives.  Such hostility can often be more visceral in societies characterized by brazen injustice and inequality.

In Renaissance Spain, much of the population lived close to starvation, while a small elite of aristocrats who paid no taxes engaged in conspicuous and ostentatious consumption.   In the early 21st century we have witnessed a massive transfer of wealth to the rich and the super-rich in the UK and the United States and many other countries, that has accelerated during the financial crisis.

In these circumstances, the punitive and vindictive response to 21st century poverty is not surprising.   It will always make the wealthy feel better about their own wealth if they can blame the homeless and the jobless for their predicament, and politicians whose political futures are dependent on the wealthy and the powerful are only too willing to engage in the same stigmatisation.  Unfortunately too many people who are not rich prefer to kick down – particularly when they are bombarded on almost daily basis with fake rhetoric about ‘hard-working families’ that presents the ‘taxpayer’ as a victim of the parasitic ‘welfare scrounger’.

After all, poverty is discomforting and disturbing and even upsetting, particularly when you see it with your own eyes, and who wants to be made to feel uncomfortable when you’re just going about your business?  The homeless are the most visible expression of a phenomenon that would otherwise remain hidden and unseen, and which many people would prefer remained unseen.   This is the context in which Hackney – a Labour council – has included homelessness amongst its attempts to eliminate ‘persistent antisocial behavior’.

Some might think that punishing homeless people for being homeless itself constitutes antisocial behavior, and that such a response is yet another turn of the screw and another manifestation of institutionalized callousness and inhumanity.   But maybe I’m wrong.   After all, it’s extremely unlikely people sleeping in the street are going to be able to pay these fines, so they may end up going to jail for non-payment.

So maybe Hackney Council is not really trying to criminalise homelessness – it’s merely trying to house the homeless by a more circuitous route that won’t cause the same political offense that might occur if ‘the taxpayer’ provided them with social housing.

Maybe, but I really doubt it.