“The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership is a trade deal between the EU and the US – and is anything but harmless. The deal boosts corporate power and endangers people and the planet.”
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Excerpted from Zeynep Tufekci:
“No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed.
This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now?—?seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.
But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.
Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?
This isn’t about Facebook per se—maybe it will do a good job, maybe not—but the fact that algorithmic filtering, as a layer, controls what you see on the Internet. Net neutrality (or lack thereof) will be yet another layer determining this. This will come on top of existing inequalities in attention, coverage and control.
Twitter was also affected by algorithmic filtering. “Ferguson” did not trend in the US on Twitter but it did trend locally. [I’ve since learned from @gilgul that that it *briefly* trended but mostly trended at localities.] So, there were fewer chances for people not already following the news to see it on their “trending” bar. Why? Almost certainly because there was already national, simmering discussion for many days and Twitter’s trending algorithm (said to be based on a method called “term frequency inverse document frequency”) rewards spikes… So, as people in localities who had not been talking a lot about Ferguson started to mention it, it trended there though the national build-up in the last five days penalized Ferguson.
Algorithms have consequences.
I’m not quite sure that without the neutral side of the Internet—the livestreams whose “packets” were fast as commercial, corporate and moneyed speech that travels on our networks, Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms but my own choices,—we’d be having this conversation.
So, I hope that in the coming days, there will be a lot written about race in America, about militarization of police departments, lack of living wage jobs in large geographic swaths of the country.
But keep in mind, Ferguson is also a net neutrality issue. It’s also an algorithmic filtering issue. How the internet is run, governed and filtered is a human rights issue.
And despite a lot of dismal developments, this fight is far from over, and its enemy is cynicism and dismissal of this reality.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What happens to #Ferguson affects what happens to Ferguson.“
Our friend Nadia EL-Imam, from Edgeryders has alerted us to this important campaign. Please read the article below and add your signature to the petition.
Improve Pirate Bay founder Peter Sunde’s prison conditions immediately
“I am suffering tremendously – socially, physically, as well as psychologically – by the shortcomings of [the prison,] Västervik.” ~ Peter Sunde, aka Brokep
Peter is most famous as Brokep, co-founder and spokesperson of the Pirate Bay. But his impact extends far beyond file-sharing. He also worked tirelessly to support creators through the payment system/social site, Flattr, and is bringing encrypted messaging to the masses through the app, Hemlis.
But now he is suffering in the restrictive conditions of Västervik prison, poorly suited to a non-violent offender accused only of “crimes” related to copyright infringement and fighting for a free and open internet.
Peter requested a transfer to a lower security class prison, specifically Tygelsjö, that would be more appropriate for his situation and would also allow him to be closer to his family, hopefully making his imprisonment more bearable. But weeks later, the Swedish authorities have not made any move to accommodate his request.
Peter has also requested access to food that he can actually eat. Prisons are required by law to provide a diet that respects prisoners’ beliefs, however the prison diet at Västervik is so severely lacking in vegetarian and vegan meals that Peter has lost at least 7 kilos (~15 pounds) in just a few weeks. Healthy vegetables and plant-based meals are a very simple request, but there has been no effort to accommodate his dietary needs. Peter is clearly suffering serious physical and psychological stress because of the lack of nutrition available to him.
This is no way for the prison authorities to treat any person in their care. The excessive restrictions are especially shameful for a non-violent offender like Peter Sunde. The Swedish Ministry of Justice, which oversees the Prison and Probation services, must act immediately to lift the disgraceful conditions he is being kept in and to relieve his suffering by:
- Transferring him to a lower class prison and
- Providing sufficient nutrition for a plant-based diet.
More information, descriptions of prison conditions, and Peter’s request for transfer:
And more on Peter’s other projects:
Hemlis – https://heml.is/
Flattr – https://flattr.com/
Photo Credit: Simon Klose
The three-year occupation of Teatro Valle in Rome is now legendary: a spontaneous response to the failures of conventional government in supporting a venerated public theater, and the conversion of the theater into a commons by countless ordinary citizens. Now the mayor of Rome is threatening to end the occupation, evict the commoners and privatize the management of the facility.
It’s time for the international community of commoners to take a public stand against this very real threat. The mayor has summoned Italian law scholar Ugo Mattei to meet with him on Monday to negotiate a resolution. In advance of that meeting, Mattei and Salvatore Settis, President of the Advisory Board of the Louvre Museum in Paris, have prepared an international petition calling on the mayor to back away from his proposal and to allow this historic experiment in commoning to continue.
Below is a copy of the petition. You can express your support by sending you name and affiliation to Ugo Mattei at matteiu /at/ uchastings.edu.
A number of human rights scholars around the world are keenly interested in Teatro Valle. Noted human rights scholar Anna Grear alerted the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and Environment that “the attempted denial of popular ‘ownership’ of ‘place’ is fundamental to the cultural and material enclosures enacted by privatising and controlling agendas.” She added that “closing down an important, even iconic, example of a fundamentally vernacular, community-based engagement with place (a vibrant, evocative commons) is entirely consistent with the deeper logic visible in moves such as the attempt to control the world seed supplies and breeds, to extend the corporatisation of the social spheres, to privatise urban space in ways that shut ordinary human beings out of them in central and important respects.”
For more on the backstory of Teatro Valle, here is a previous blog post on the occupation from February 2013. Below is the petition now circulating. Sign it!
The commons “Italian Style” must continue their experimentation! An International call to protect the Teatro Valle Foundation from Eviction.
Since June 14 2011, a community of artists and militants has transformed the Teatro Valle, the oldest and most prestigious in Rome, then at high risk of privatization, into the “Teatro Valle Occupato,” one of the most advanced experiments of merger between political struggle and performing arts in the current world. A trust-like legal entity, the “Fondazione Teatro Valle Bene Comune,” was created in the interest of future generations, with a membership of almost 6,000 people by a genuinely new process of cooperation between some well-known jurists and the Assembly of the occupants. While a notary has recognized the Foundation, the Prefect of Rome has denied its moral personality on the assumption that possession was not a sufficient title on the Valle premises.
Nevertheless, in three years the occupation, though formally never authorized, has succeeded in becoming a new institution of the commons, studied by scholars worldwide and the object of many publications. Because no authority in Rome has ever asked the occupants to leave and the municipality has paid the energy bill (roughly 90,000 Euros per year), it would be difficult to deny that the occupation was largely tolerated (even by the previous post-fascist major). Certainly the occupants have taken very good care of the ancient Theater, including paying for small renovations, and have generated three years of exceptionally interesting shows, performances, meeting, educational programs that the population could attend on the basis of a donation system according to the possibilities of each one. The Valle experience has also inspired similar actions to protect theaters and public spaces through Italy; it is promoting a nation-wide experiment of codification of commons institutions involving some twenty of the leading academic lawyers in Italy; it has produced its own shows performed Europe-wide and has attracted to the Valle some of the best-known artists and intellectuals in Europe.
The European Cultural Foundation, among others has granted the prestigious Princess Margritt Award to the Teatro Valle and the ZKM of Karsrhue has devoted to that experience a stand in a recent major International exhibition on social movements worldwide.
After the European Elections last May, possibly as a consequence of an ill-conceived legalistic stance by the new Government, early negotiations to settle the dispute concerning the title to the Theater have been suddenly terminated as the Assessor of Rome responsible for culture in Rome has been removed and not replaced. As a reply to the Foundation request to resume negotiations, the new major of Rome, a member of the ruling Democratic Party and a well-known academic doctor, has released two days ago a statement asking the occupants to leave, threatening police intervention and proposing a public auction to privatize the management of the space.
This cannot happen! The city of Rome, as a cultural center of the world deserves a better solution to the Valle issue. We strongly plea the Italian political authorities to look for a method which facilitates rather than repressing institutional and cultural experiments to run the commons.
Ugo Mattei, Professor, The University of California, Hastings and Università di Torino.
Salvatore Settis, President of the Advisory Board of the Louvre Museum, Paris.
Please sign this international petition with affiliation.
Originally posted at bollier.org
A few weeks ago, The Guardian ran a profile of Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy who discovered the commons more than two decades ago and never looked back. Steele, a former U.S. Marine and CIA case officer who spent 18 years in US intelligence, is now, improbably, a vigorous advocate of “open source everything” – the title of his latest book. He brings the zeal of a convert to the mission of promoting the commons and open-source alternatives of every stripe.
As The Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed writes, Steele discovered the virtues of open source software in the early 1990s and quickly began proselytizing the “Open Source Intelligence” paradigm to US military and intelligence sources and to US allies in dozens of countries. Steele saw (and sees) open source knowledge as the key to discovering the truth, assuring social legitimacy and moving ahead intelligently:
“Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realise such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth — all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the ‘utopia’ that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”
Suffice it to say, the CIA and its intelligence peers were not persuaded by such views, notwithstanding its embrace in 2005 of its collaborative intelligence version of Wikipedia, Intellipedia. Open source everything is another matter, apparently, because of the democratic accountability it would require.
I don’t know Steele, but I’ve seen his videos and dipped into his writings, and he seems to bring a deep intelligence and big-picture perspective to analyzing our global and civilizational problems. His self-stated goal is to hasten “the transition from top-down secret command and control to a world of bottom-up, consensual, collective decision-making as a means to solve the major crises facing our world today.” That’s a description from his book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust.
Steele is a prolific reviewer of books for Amazon, which may explain why he pestered me several times, as a stranger out of the blue, to re-post on Amazon my positive blog post about historian Peter Linebaugh’s book on the commons and enclosures, Stop, Thief! I did. That’s the kind of energy and zeal that Steele brings to his mission of promoting commons-based solutions in all their variety.
In the words of The Guardian’s Ahmed, Steele provides “an interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach [that] dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.”
Ahmed called Steele’s book “a pragmatic roadmap to a new civilisational paradigm that simultaneously offers a trenchant, unrelenting critique of the prevailing global order. His interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.”
“We are at the end of a five-thousand-year-plus historical process during which human society grew in scale while it abandoned the early indigenous wisdom councils and communal decision-making. Power was centralised in the hands of increasingly specialised ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who not only failed to achieve all they promised but used secrecy and the control of information to deceive the public into allowing them to retain power over community resources that they ultimately looted.”
Today’s capitalism, he tells Ahmed, is inherently predatory and destructive:
“Over the course of the last centuries, the commons was fenced, and everything from agriculture to water was commoditised without regard to the true cost in non-renewable resources. Human beings, who had spent centuries evolving away from slavery, were re-commoditised by the Industrial Era.
“For Steele, the open source revolution is inevitable, simply because the demise of the system presided over by the 1% cannot be stopped – and because the alternatives to reclaiming the commons are too dismal to contemplate. We have no choice but to step up.
“My motto, a play on the CIA motto that is disgraced every day, is ‘the truth at any cost lowers all other costs’”, he tells me [Ahmed]. “Others wiser than I have pointed out that nature bats last. We are at the end of an era in which lies can be used to steal from the public and the commons. We are at the beginning of an era in which truth in public service can restore us all to a state of grace.”
A remarkable story of a singular advocate. Here is a YouTube video of a recent presentation by Steele.
Originally published at bollier.org and featuring additional commentary by Steele.
Posted in Activism, Anti-P2P, Commons, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Media, Open Access, Open Content, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Foundation, Politics | No Comments »
Adam W. Parsons of www.sharing.org, writing for dissidentvoice.org, provides a clear explanation of the encroaching enclosure of the commons and tendency for existing social relationships to become monetized, ironically under the monicker of the ‘sharing economy’, and suggests ways in which true P2P sharing matrices can be strengthened.
Far from promoting communitarian values, providing an answer to overconsumption or increasing social equity, for example, a growing number of critics attest that sharing-oriented business models are taking us in the opposite direction – such as by undercutting unionised labour, benefitting from unfair competition, encouraging de-regulated and precarious employment, and even by robbing cities of vital public money.
In recent years, a new kind of economy based on the age-old practice of sharing is flourishing across North America and Europe, and is now rapidly spreading in popularity throughout the Middle East and other world regions. Human beings may have shared since time immemorial, but information technology and peer-to-peer networks have given rise to an innovative trend in modern societies – the sharing economy, which enables people to ‘share’ various goods and services with their peers in everything from cars and bikes to food, office space, spare rooms, even time and expertise. Countless articles and reports have now evaluated the many social and economic benefits of accessing rather than owning resources, while many proponents of the sharing economy uphold the potential of sharing as a social change strategy and ‘a call to action for environmentalists’. Indeed a growing chorus of pioneers within this self-professed social movement hail it as an approaching transformation of society on a par with the industrial revolution, and ‘the defining economic story of the 21st century’.
Read the rest of this entry »
Over here the situation is very bad, and people abroad are completely disinformed about it. Every day we read nonsense and bullshit on Grillo by people who completely ignore the reactionary, authoritarian nature of his movement. A harsh reality is biting our arses and we need to send a message in a bottle right now.
So begins a fascinating long form essay published by the Italian writers’ collective Wu Ming in their resurrected-for-the-occasion blog. The essay is over a year old but no less relevant now, especially in light of the recent European election results. Beware of easy populism and the misappropriation of the terminology of the commons.
[A week ago a prestigious British magazine asked us for a long piece on Grillismo. We wrote it and submitted it, but there was some misunderstanding, and they edited it too heavily for our own taste. We clarified the matter with them, but at that point we were way beyond the deadline and the issue went to print without our contribution. Too bad, but no grudge held. The piece was too long - almost 5,000 words - to submit it to any other mag or newspaper, let them do all the editing all over again and have it published in a reasonable lapse of time. Over here the situation is very bad, and people abroad are completely disinformed about it. Every day we read nonsense and bullshit on Grillo by people who completely ignore the reactionary, authoritarian nature of his movement. A harsh reality is biting our arses and we need to send a message in a bottle right now. In the end, having no other possibility, we decided to publish the piece on this ugly, obsolete, long neglected blog, which is in bad need of complete reconstruction and a new start, but even in its present form is better than nothing. Of course it isn't as authoritative as that London magazine, and potential circulation is ludicrous in comparison, but what else can we do? Please feel free to copy our analysis and republish it wherever you want. Thanks.]
«Marriage is a bond between a man and a woman. How can you institute marriage between two persons of the same sex? Why not marriage between three persons then? Why not marriage between you and your animal? Some people have a strong relationship with their animal, would you allow them to marry it?»
(Francesco Perra, 5SM candidate at the recent national election, 8 June 2012 )
There is much confusion in other countries about what has been taking place in Italy in the past five years – the era of Late Berlusconism – and what is going on after the latest national election. At the time of writing, nobody knows what government Italy will have. No stable government can be formed without the vote of confidence of the Five Star Movement, the political organisation led by former stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo and web marketing guru Gianroberto Casaleggio. The 5SM, which stood for national election for the first time, gained 25.5% of votes for the Chamber of Deputies and 23.8% for the Senate.
Several Left-wing and progressive commentators tend to look with a certain sympathy to the Five Star Movement. They heard that evenDario Fo, a famously leftist Nobel Prize Winner, endorsed Grillo during the campaign. They think that Grillo’s fiery, pied-piperesque speeches are just a bit of theatre – he used to be a comedian after all.
Indeed, news from Italy are baffling as usual, but in the end, many have the impression that the 5SM is a populist movement oscillating between the progressive and radical quarters of the political spectrum. A movement having features in common with other anti-austerity movements and mobilisations across southern Europe (Portugal, Greece, Spain, Slovenia).
People who make that assumption should – literally – know better.
Trouble is, many Italians should know better too.
Simone Di Stefano: «Are you an antifascist?»
Beppe Grillo: «This question doesn’t concern me. 5SM is an ecumenical movement.»
(Conversation between Grillo and one of the top leaders of neofascist party CasaPound,11 January 2013 )
Some of you may have Italian friends who used to place themselves to the Left and recently chose to vote for the 5SM, or even become 5SM activists. We bet they didn’t tell you about the more right-wing aspects of the movement, because you’d certainly ask them: «I beg your pardon? You’re doing political work side by side with fascists? You’ve joined a movement that rejects the very notion of antifascism? A movement that wants to abolish trade unions?! You voted for a guy who praises Ron Paul and US-style ‘libertarianism’? Mate, what’s wrong with you?», and they’d have to scramble for self-justifications.
«Before it degenerated, fascism had a sense of national community (which it took directly from socialism), the highest respect for the state and a will to protect the [institution of] family.»
(Roberta Lombardi, 5SM member of Parliament, 21 January 2013 )
Your friends are probably aware of those aspects, but either underestimate them or instantly remove them, because they’re too disquieting. Such is the disgust toward «the old political system» that criticising a «new» movement is deemed as a manifestation of pedantry and intellectual luxury: «First of all, let’s give a shoulder push to the rotten political establishment, then we’ll talk about Grillo’s faults. We can’t afford that now!»
To us, this is a very dangerous approach.
1. How rancour towards «The Caste» helped prevent social conflict
Many factors can explain Grillo’s success. The Zero years were a decade of social devastation, in which social movements encountered thundering defeats, while Late Berlusconism was fostering cultural and moral bankruptcy with the complicity of the long-discredited «centre-left».
Then, at the beginning of the new decade, the Euro crisis hit us between the eyes.
During the summer of 2011, the capitalist class and the European Central Bank decided that Berlusconi’s government was completely dysfunctional and unfit to enforce the «necessary» austerity measures. Despite a vast majority in both branches of Parliament, with a sort of legal coup the «centre-right» government was replaced with a «technical» government led by Mario Monti, a neoliberal economist long associated with Goldman Sachs and the Trilateral Commission.
Monti’s government was supported, albeit grudgingly, by both the centre-right and the centre-left. To tell the truth, the centre-left gave the impression of supporting Monti lessgrudgingly than the centre-right. In the end, the Democratic Party appeared more responsible than Berlusconi for the aggressive austerity measures which worsened the condition of the working class and the lower middle class in 2012. Something similar happened in Greece, where Papandreou’s Socialist Party was more strictly associated with cuts than the right-wing party New Democracy was.
The difference is that Greece witnessed mass demonstrations and general strikes against austerity, the IMF, the European Central Bank and so on, whereas in Italy social discontent was channelled toward a different target: the so-called «Caste».
«The Caste vs. the Honest People» is the most powerful conceptual frame in today’s Italy.
The Caste: How Italian politicians became untouchable is the title of a best-selling book written by two journalists, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. It was published in 2007 and covered the ways in which national and local politicians used taxpayers’ money to become parasitic oligarchs. The book’s title provided the perfect metaphor to frame the debate on politics into a new version of a classic right-wing dichotomy: «ordinary people» are «clean», whereas «politicians» are «dirty». Indeed, they are not only dirty, they’re the biggest problem in the country. Let’s get rid of politicians, and everything will be ok!
The fact that politicians are in office precisely because the good ordinary people repeatedly voted for them is rarely mentioned.
«The Caste vs. the Honest People» proved to be the perfect diversionary narrative. Anger and frustration were channelled toward members of parliament, their salaries, public funding to political parties etc., all of which are real but lesser problems of the system. Meanwhile, austerity measures and eurocratic neoliberal policies were ravaging society, encountering no opposition. Unlike in Greece, Spain and Portugual, there was no mass movement fighting back.
It goes without saying that the real «caste» – the caste of millionaires, top CEOs, financial speculators and the likes – didn’t pay any price for the situation they had created. We even heard such tycoons asFlavio Briatore making anti-Caste statements, slagging off politicians and so on.
To name but one concrete consequence of the «Caste vs. the People» frame, this depoliticising narrative made the idea of a «technical» government acceptable, indeed, even desirable. Public opinion was brought to believe that a government with no politicians would be better than any traditional government. That’s why Mario Monti took advantage of an extended «honeymoon period» and was able to pass draconian acts that impoverished the majority of the population.
The «Caste vs. People» frame was activated in the political debate slightly before the 5SM came into existence, and paved the highway for it.
What Grillo and Casaleggio did on their own was extending the concept of «Caste» to include almost all civil servants, whom the 5SM rhetoric turns into mere parasites. In one of his most infamous blog posts, Grillo demanded that «tens of thousand of public employees [be] laid off». As Rossana Dettori – a leader of CGIL trade union – correctly pointed out, behind the phrases that Grillo uses in an abstract way (eg «public employees») there are hospitals and emergency rooms, firefighters, schools and kindergartens, social services for the elderly and the gravely ill, «as well as democratic institutions which ensure that such services keep working».
Truth is, Italy’s public sector has the highest rate of union enrollment and activity. 78.79% of public employees take part to the election of their workplace union representatives (RSU). Therefore, the real targets of Grillo’s invective against public employees are trade unions. He called for the utter«elimination» of trade unions more than once.
2. Mock «anti-austerity», mock radicalism
Not that Grillo doesn’t mention capitalism, the faults of bankers etc. He does it. However, there’s no peculiarity in that part of his discourse, he simply revives all the cliches of European right-wing populisms. The issue is framed in a simplistic neo-nationalist way: «real» capitalism (ie productive capitalism) is described as good because it is rooted in the territory, whereas financial economy is degenerate because it’s in the hands of evil transnational cliques and lobbie groups. Since the Euro is the main cause of the present crisis, if Italy leaves the Eurozoneand gets rid of politicians and kicks «tens of thousands» of (unionised) employees out of the public sector, then we’ll have the conditions for entering a new golden age.
We all know that there’s often an antisemitic streak underlying this kind of talk about «nationless» enemies. Is it a coincidence that antisemitic tirades and insults are frequent in the below-the-line section of Grillo’s blog? In November 2012 a guest-blogger on beppegrillo.it attacked Gad Lerner, a Jewish journalist who dared criticise Grillo, by calling him «Gad Vermer».Verme is italian for «worm», a classic insult in the antisemitic repertoire.
The most important thing to say about Grillo’s «anti-austerity» and anti-financial stance is that it’s just a façade. It’s a joke. At the end of the day Grillo is a multi-millionaire, for Christ’s sake!
Whenever a conservative populist movement is voted in office or takes over, their «anticapitalist», anti-finance rhetoric evaporates very soon and they end up administering the present state of things, financial capitalism included.
Maybe that’s why Jim O’Neill, the retiring chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, recently wrote:
«I find the [Italian Election] outcome quite exciting because it seems to me for a country whose GDP has basically not changed since EMU started in 1999, something big needs to change. Maybe this election outcome and the peculiar mass appeal of the Five Star movement could signal the start of something new?»
Did we say «Goldman Sachs»? A few days ago, Grillo stated that the 5SM parliamentary groups were willing to vote for a new «technical» government including no politicians, because they would never vote confidence in any political government. They were even willing to support a «Monti Bis», a second Monti government, albeit with a limited mandate and strictly controlled by the new parliament. After months spent calling the premier «Rigor Montis», Grillo implicitly said that the former international advisor for Goldman Sachs is the «lesser evil» compared to political parties.
It was just a fleeting glimpse of naked truth, then the former comedian changed position one more time. Now he’s saying that he wants to conquer «100% of parliament» so «citizens become the state» and the movement «will no longer need to exist», which of course doesn’t mean anything but is good for causing a sensation.
[N.B. The last political leader to conquer 100% of Italian parliament and overlap his movement with the state ended up hanging upside down in a Milan square. It happened twenty-six years too late, but nowadays things happen faster, you know, there's the Internet and so on. Jokes apart, Grillo should study the history of his country before making such provocative statements, they aren't known to bring good luck to anyone.]
In case you still cling to your prior impression that Grillo’s movement is anti-austerity and radical, or at least a force for concrete change, why not take a look at what 5SM has been doing in the towns and cities they administer? For example, let’s look at what mayor Federico Pizzarotti did in Parma.
The key point of Pizzarotti’s campaign was opposition to the construction of a big incinerator whose impact on the environment and the health of citizens was considered catastrophic. In June 2012 Grillo himself stated: «They will never build that incinerator, if they want to build it they will have to step on the mayor’s dead body!». When journalistMarco Travaglio asked Grillo about the penalties the city would have to pay to contractors and subcontractors, he gave this answer: «Let’s not be silly: If paying the penalties is obligatory, we’ll find a way to pay them.» Well, the incinerator was turned on on 3 March 2013. The city couldn’t pay the penalties. Nobody had to step on Pizzarotti’s corpse.
During his campaign, Pizzarotti also promised that he wouldn’t raise the house tax and the boarding charge for public kindergartens. After he was elected, he raised both and explained: «We couldn’t do anything else». Like any other politician.
Now he’s planning to cut the salaries of city employees.
3. Right-wing influences on the Five Star Movement
Grillo’s rhetoric is chock-full of elements that can be traced back to different right-wing traditions, which he and Casaleggio meddle into a toxic jumble.
The most recognizable tradition is that of European conservative populism. In France this approach is known aspoujadisme, after its main 20th century promoter Pierre Poujade. In Italy, we usually call it qualunquismo [which we could translate as 'anyoneism'], after a mass petty bourgeiois movement founded by playwright Guglielmo Giannini in 1946.
Another tradition is US «libertarianism» / «anarcho-capitalism»: Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, that kind of stuff. This influence is detectable in several parts of the 5SM programme. One of the movement’s most known representatives, Vittorio Bertola, explicitly stated «I like Ron Paul».
Of course, in Grillo’s rants we can also find the usual set of Thatcherite tropes and cliches which have become commonplace all over the West.
All these traditions have some basic features in common, one of which is hatred for trade unions and, generally, for the workers’ collective organisation and conquests, like national contracts etc. This hostility permeates all of Grillo’s speeches.
The reason why it is such an ungrateful task to expose the right-wing elements of Grillo’s rhetoric, is that confusionism is an intentional strategy. Grillo repeatedly screams that «there are no Left and Right anymore!». Meanwhile, he and Casaleggio skillfully intersperse the right-wing elements with left-wing ones, reproposing buzzwords, concepts and claims they hijacked from the previous social movements. These concepts are reprocessed, they receive a treatment that strips all articulations and leaves them void of all content. The most striking example is «direct democracy».
4. Direct democracy, Führerprinzip and character assassination
Despite all the talk about direct democracy or online liquid feedback, the 5SM is a top-down organisation with no intermediate bodies between Grillo and Casaleggio and the populace of fans/activists. Every major decision is taken by those two wealthy sixty-somethings, and «direct democracy» only amounts to calling on the base to approve it in a tele-plebiscitarian way.
In the 2011-2012 period, the 5SM of Emilia-Romagna (the region whose capital is Bologna, the city in which we live) was stormed by a wave of expulsions. «Dissidents» like Giovanni Favia, Valentino Tavolazzi, Federica Salsi and many others dared question the absence of internal democracy. As a consequence, they were kicked out and exposed to angry online mobs. Expulsions were decided by Grillo and Casaleggio and communicated to the world by short posts on beppegrillo.it.
Local activists expressed solidarity with the expelled and organised meetings in which the majority voted in favour of readmission, but their vote was completely overruled by the two bosses.
The final step was the use of the Internet to slander the expelled in all possible ways. «Loyal» grillini devoted their time and efforts to disrupting all online conversations in which anyone defended the «traitors» and criticised Grillo and Casaleggio for their clearly autocratic behaviour.
5SM local leaders seem to have no hesitation in using «lynching» as a positive concept. On 2 March 2013Andrea Defranceschi, 5SM representative at the Emilia-Romagna council, stated: «If some of us betray the movement, the Internet will lynch them.»
By «lynching», of course, Defranceschi means the character assassination of dissidents. If anyone dares disagree with Grillo and Casaleggio, their reputation must be destroyed, and this destruction shall continue long after the expulsion. These people cannot be simply left alone, their blog or Facebook page must be bombarded with derogatory comments every day. In a matter of few months, local councillor Giovanni Favia shifted from being revered as the very incarnation of 5SM values to being described as the vilest traitor. And if the dissident is a woman, sexist insults will rain on her: «whore», «bitch» and the rest of the repertoire. That’s what happened to Federica Salsi.
This is a clear manifestation of cult mentality and, in fact, the 5SM is often described as a cult. It is often compared to Scientology. Scientology rejected the comparison.
You may ask: how can Grillo and Casaleggio get away with all that?
Well, it’s all written in the movement’s «Non-Statute».
The «Non-Statute» is a very short text which, for years, has been the only written document regulating the movement’s internal life. It mainly says that the 5SM’s name and logo arethe sole property of Beppe Grillo and that the movement’s «headquarters» are located on Grillo’s weblog, beppegrillo.it.
If you already think that the 5SM notion of «online direct democracy» is bizarre to say the least, well, wait, you haven’t seen anything yet! We suggest you to watch a sort of video-manifesto which Casaleggio authored and produced in 2007. It’s entitled Gaia: The Future of Politics. «Creepy» is the right adjective for the anarcho-capitalist future Casaleggio enthusiastically envisions.
How do pro-Grillo leftists or former leftists react when someone points out these serious problems?
5. Fascists in Grillo’s (and Berlusconi’s) Fatherland
Before answering that question, it is necessary to make clear that the vast majority of both 5SM activists and sympathisers do not come from the radical Left. Most of them are quite young and have no previous political experience (or even position); others come from the right and even the radical right.
In several areas of the country, the backbone of consent for the 5SM is formed by people who previously supported Berlusconi, the xenophobic Northern League, and in some cases utterly neofascist parties such as New Force and Tricolour Flame. In 2012, when the 5SM won the election in Parma and managed to elect Federico Pizzarotti as mayor of the city, the biggest chunk of votes (25.9%) came from people who had previously chosen the Northern League.
After all, Grillo’s and the 5SM position on immigration and minorities is very close to that of the NL. We quote from one of his blog posts , its title was «The Desacred Borders» and was published on beppegrillo.it in october 2007:
«A country cannot PASS THE BUCK TO ITS CITIZENS in dealing with the problems caused by tens of thousands of Roma gypsies coming to Italy from Romania. Prodi’s objection is always the same: Romania is in Europe. But what does ‘Europe’ means? SAVAGE MIGRATIONS of jobless persons from one country to another? Without knowing the language, with nowhere to put them up? Every day I receive hundreds of letters on Roma gypsies, it’s a volcano, A TIME BOMB, and it must be defused… What is a government that doesn’t guarantee the safety of its citizens good for?… The borders of the fatherland used to be sacred, politicians have desacred them.»
Last but not least, Casaleggio himself is a former sympathiser of the Northern League.
According to attorney Vincenzo Forte - an ex-leader of the neofascist Italian Social Movement and now a supporter of Grillo – three of the new 5SM MPs and one 5SM senator (all four elected in Lombardy) have a radical neofascist background. Forte didn’t reveal their names but added:
«These are not isolated cases, it’s a much more vast, deep-rooted phenonemon, a carefully organised strategy to penetrate Grillo’s movement. This strategy is being carried out with maximum discretion by local neofascist groups. »
The 5SM has no ethical or theoretical defence against this, because Grillo and Casaleggio have staunchly refused to adopt antifascism as a differentiating value. Grillo wants the movement to be «ecumenical» and antifascism «doesn’t concern him».
It is far from incomprehensible that many fascists, berlusconesand leghisti are now looking to Grillo. Not only they like many of the things he says, but he also embodies their idealtype of the Strong Man mesmering enthusiastic crowds. To these people, Berlusconi and Bossi were no longer strong/fascinating enough, for they became too compromised with «old politics« and «the Caste». That’s why these angry petty bourgeois are making an emotional investment on someone they see as a new leader.
Moreover, there are deep similarities between Berlusconi and Grillo. They are both living testimonies of how the 1980s entertainment and television industry reshaped Italy’s national life. Journalist Giuliano Santoro wrote a very interesting book about this, it is entitled Un Grillo qualunque: Il populismo digitale nella crisi dei partiti italiani [A Grillo whatsoever: Digital populism in the crisis of Italian parties].
As a matter of fact, one cannot fully understand Grillo if s/he didn’t understand Berlusconi. Three years ago, in a piece for theLondon Review of Books, we easily predicted that after the fall of Berlusconi there would be a Berlusconism-without-Berlusconi. Nowadays things are even worse, because Berlusconi «fell» but is still around and 29.1% of voters have chosen him for the umpteenth time. As a result, we have both old, classic berlusconism-with-Berlusconi, and a new kind of berlusconism without him. Giuliano Santoro wrote that «Grillo is the continuation of Berlusconi by other means.»
6. TINA, TITA and the 5SM’ «neitherism»
Now let’s focus on those leftists and ex-leftists who are – critically or uncritically – giving their trust to 5SM. We want to focus on them for two reasons:
First, it is important to understand what consequences the Left’s absence or bankruptcy can have during a crisis like the current one;
Secondly, we have noticed that the representation of Grillo’s movement among radicals and progressives abroad is more or less a synthesis of the two typical discourses uttered by Italian pro-Grillo radicals – only with much less information available.
We call these discourses «5SM TINA» and «5SM TITA».
These days, each time we talk with veterans of yesterday’s struggles who voted for the 5SM, and try to reason with them, the most likely words we manage to extract from their mouths is:
«Yes, I do know it’s an ambiguous movement. I’m not at ease with everything they say and do. Yeees, yes, their agenda is partly neoliberal. Their statements on migrants are unacceptable. I don’t like the blend of populism and corporate jargon either. I’m suspicious of the personality cult surrounding Grillo, and the role played by Casaleggio isn’t clear. I agree with you, there’s more than a little bit of fanaticism within the movement. I did see pro-5SM trolls in action on the Internet. I agree with you, those mass expulsions make me think of 1937 stalinist purges. Do you think I’m blind? Of course I see that fascists are also joining… And yet some of the 5SM claims and proposals are exactly the same that we’ve been making for years! Their program includes the «citizens’ income», the defence of commons, ecology… I know many decent people who’ve become 5SM activists. Maybe we can tactically use the 5SM in order to smash the old political system, they’re doing that, aren’t they? Nobody managed to do that before. Why not try and see what happens after the shoulder push? There Is No Alternative anyway. The left is dead.»
This is what we call the Five-Starred Leftist «There Is No Alternative» Discourse. It is based on a classical Yes/But device: people say they agree on all the critical issues, which are many, then they say something like «but» or «and yet», and even if the adversative is sustained only by wishful thinking, it wipes out everything they just acknowledged.
In short: they understand that the 5SM is a confusionist movement with a dominant right-wing approach to many key issues, but the movement’s success and the fact that some proposals have Left-wing origins make them hope this is a good opportunity to «do something».
To us, «doing something» is not necessarily a good line of conduct. It depends on what you do. Sometimes it’s better not to do anything than doing something stupid. Mistaking a right-wing movement for a left-leaning one is definitely stupid.
Other former leftists are buying whatever story Grillo and the 5SM tell them. They utter another discourse, the Five-Starred Ex-Leftist «This Is The Alternative» Discourse:
«What you’re saying is false. You believed the vicious lies that the Caste spreads around. There are certainly some racists, because the movement is open to everyone, but they’re minorities. The majority are people like you and me who want to fight the system. We’ll keep racists in check. Those who were kicked out of the movement were opportunists and infiltrators sent by the old parties. They violated the Non-Statute. Grillo is not a leader, he’s nothing other than a megaphone. The fact that he legally owns the movement’s name and logo is only a guarantee that local sections will respect the Non-Statute. I trust him. When the movement is strong enough, Grillo will step aside. Casaleggio only suggests communication strategies, there’s nothing dark or ambiguous about that. This Is The Alternative, at last! I’ve been waiting for something like this for years, don’t ruin everything with your usual criticism!»
Notice the classic faith in a «two-stage» process: in the current situation Grillo has necessarily to play a major role; later on, he will surely step aside.
In the history of communist movements, all personality cults were invariably described as merely «transitional».
In 1958 Mao Zedong famously argued that there is nothing wrong in personality cult in and of itself. It depends whether that personality represents revolutionary truth or not.
Eighty-seven year old Dario Fo, to mention but one name, was very close to maoism during the 1970s.
This mindset facilitated the conversion of former communists to Grillismo. In this way, we think they ended up on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
When did such a thing happen last time?
It happened in the early Twenties.
The 5SM’s catch-all programme cannot but remind us of early fascism’s Programme of San Sepolcro (1919). In those days, fascism was still a «neitherist» movement («neither left nor right») launching «revolutionary» slogans in every direction.
In 2011, when we started citing that historical precedent, many people sneered at us. Then, on 5 March 2013, Roberta Lombardi – fresh president of the 5SM group at the Chamber of Deputies – made an explicitly positive reference to the Programme of San Sepolcro in order to explain the unacceptable statement we used as one of the epigraphs of this article.
Are we arguing that, when all is said and done, the 5SM is a fascist movement?
The answer is: no.
For sure there are fascists in there, and certainly the right-wing elements of the programme are more relevant than the left-wing ones. However, the 5SM is indebted with different right-wing traditions, a part of its constituency is still on the left, and labelling the movement as merely fascist would be too simplistic.
What we’re trying to say is that, especially in Italy, confusionist «neitherism» always thrives on economic and political crisis, and a part of the Left is tempted to listen to that siren song. Those who don’t resist the temptation invariably end up on the Right, be they aware of it or not.
7. Now what?
Why aren’t foreign correspondents living in Italy saying these things? They write about Grillo every day, but they rarely provide insights on the movement’s inner contradictions. Maybe these contradictions are less visibile if one doesn’t have a deep knowledge of our national history? And yet racist, homophobic or aynrandesque statements should be recognizable in all contexts. We don’t have a clear answer for such questions.
What’s going to happen now?
As far as «change» (that empty word) is concerned, probably much less than everyone expects. As we tried to demonstrate above, the 5SM is far from being a radical force and its programme is full of «solutions» that are actually part of the problem. Even on the very day of the election, while many commentators were jumping on Grillo’s bandwagon, we wrote that, despite its incendiary slogans, the 5SM acts as a diversionary movement and prevents social conflict from erupting. Grillo says that himself, although of course he calls conflict «violence»: «If violence doesn’t start here, it’s because of the movement».
As often happens with populist movements, Grillo’s movement will apparently destabilise national politics, but it will only ripple the surface, and in doing so it will stabilise the system. That’s why pro-Grillo excitement can be found in such an unlikely place as Goldman Sachs.
We hope that progressives and radicals who joined the 5SM, or sympathise with 5SM, or at least voted for it, understand that the tiresome «neither left nor right» stance can no longer hide all the contradictions we highlighted.
We recently wrote that «we’ll side with rebellion inside the 5SM». What does that mean?
It means that we expect these contradictions to get ever sharper, to intensify until they explode. The movement’s «Left» must overcome TINA and TITA, manifest itself in a clear way and reject both the agenda of the «Right» and Grillo’s blank, confusionist rhetoric. Internal conflict is not an implausible outcome of this phase. We must look at that process with great attention, and be there when some of the energies that Grillo and Casaleggio captured will manage to get free from that grip. Those energies can be invested into a more consistent, unambiguous, radical movement. That’s why we tifiamo rivolta, we «cheer for a riot» inside the 5SM.
The ongoing Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance have all sorts of implications for the rule of law, constitutional democracy, geopolitical alignments, human rights and much else. The disclosures deserve our closest attention for these reasons alone. But what do these revelations have to do with the commons?
If we regard the act of commoning as a genre of citizenship – acts of voluntary association and action that are critical to human freedom and democracy – we can see that snooping by both the NSA and its corporate brethren are profoundly hostile to the future of the commons. They violate some fundamental notions of human rights, civil freedoms and the ability of individuals to protect their privacy and thus their sovereignty.
If the market/state apparatus can digitally monitor our reading habits and telephone calls, email correspondence and purchases, physical movements and much else, then it has effectively snuffed out the sovereignty of a free people. The barrage of the successive Snowden disclosures has been followed by a relentless government propaganda war, cable TV denunciations and even attacks on Greenwald by the liberal nomenklatura (Michael Kinsley, George Packer). It’s as if “respectable opinion” did not care to note or defend the elemental human freedoms that a functioning democracy requires.
It was such a pleasure therefore to (belatedly) encounter a series of four lectures delivered last fall by Eben Moglen, a law scholar and historian at Columbia Law School, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center, and former general counsel of the Free Software Foundation. The four talks – “Snowden and the Future” – offer one of the most eloquent and historically informed critiques of the Snowden revelations and their implications for freedom, democracy and – I would add – the capacity of people to common.
The lectures address the following themes:
- What has Edward Snowden done to change the course of human history?
- How does the evolution of surveillance since World War II threaten democracy?
- What does it mean that information can be both so powerful and so easily spread? In a network embracing all of humanity, how does democracy survive our desire for security?
On this blog, I try to avoid venturing into topics that veer off-topic such as, say, national security politics or election campaigns. But I make an exception in this case because the rise of state surveillance in collaboration with the corporate digital giants has enormous ramifications for the commons movement. The NSA’s routine and sweeping surveillance not only affects our potential to think and act as commoners by installing fear and self-censorship; it seeks to structurally and permanently lock in such profound unfreedom. It makes any bottom-up citizen initiative or commons subject to absolute government control, as enabled by absolute top-down control of the Internet and all communications infrastructures: a totalitarian growth upon a nation that has fought and died for freedom.
Free software champions have long pointed out the enormous importance of free/libre/open source software – and digital commons more generally – as guarantors of basic human rights and freedoms. Now the reality of these assertions has been vividly confirmed.
It is a treat to see a law scholar who clerked by Justice Thurgood Marshall and has defended legal software encryption, address the meaning of the Snowden disclosures. I will not attempt to summarize Moglen’s incisive, powerful commentary, but I will offer this excerpt as a taste, and encourage you to read the entire four lectures. It’s a long read, but well worth it:
The power of that Roman Empire rested in its control of communications. The Mediterranean Sea, which was the transit hub of every western civilization, was their lake. And across their European empire, from Scotland to Syria, they pushed the roads—roads that fifteen centuries later were still primary arteries of European transportation. Down those roads which, as Gibbon says, rendered every corner of the Empire pervious to Roman power, the Emperor marched his armies. But up those roads he gathered his intelligence. Augustus invented the posts: first for signals intelligence, to move couriers and messages at the fastest possible speeds; and then for human intelligence. He created the post-chaises, so that, as Gibbon says, those who were present when dispatches were written could be questioned by the Emperor. Using that infrastructure for control of communications, with respect to everything that involved the administration of power, the Emperor of the Romans made himself the best informed human being in the history of the world.
That power eradicated human freedom. “Remember,” says Cicero to Marcellus in exile, “wherever you are, you are equally within of the power of conqueror.”
Because of Mr. Snowden, we now know that the listeners, in their aggressive effort to maintain the security of the United States by breaking anything that stands in the way of listening, undertook to do what they repeatedly promised respectable opinion in the trade they would never do.
Systematically, they attempted what they had once and for all promised many a time in the discreetest but most credible fashion to respectable opinion, which then carried their water for them throughout our world. They always said they would not attempt breaking the crypto which secures the global financial system.
That was false.
When, on September 6th, the New York Times re-entered the pursuit of journalism in this area so triumphantly, by revealing the existence of Bull Run, publishing Mr. Snowden’s various disclosures concerning both the substance of Bull Run and the National Security Agency’s discussions of it, we learned that the United States listeners had been systematically and deliberately trying to subvert the crypto that holds the international financial system together, for years. And we learned a good deal more—which we shall spend more time upon on another evening, considering carefully what we learned in this respect—we learned that their efforts had been so far only partially successful.
Within hours they had forfeited respectable opinion around the world, which had stood solidly in their corner all the way along. The recklessness of what they had done, and the danger to which it put the people in the world who don’t accept danger from the United States Government, was breathtaking.
When the morality of freedom is so thoroughly thrown away, it isn’t only the “little people” of the world who suffer, but they do.
The empire of the United States, the one that secured itself by listening to everything, was the empire of exported liberty. What we had to offer all around the world was freedom—after colonization, after European theft, after the forms of twentieth-century horror we haven’t even talked about yet—we offered liberty; we offered freedom.
In the twentieth century we were prepared to sacrifice many of the world’s great cities, and to accept the sacrifice of tens of millions of human lives, in order to secure our selves against forms of government we called “totalitarianism,” in which the State grew so powerful and so invasive that it recognized no longer any border of private life, and brought itself into everything that its subjects did. Where the State listened to every telephone conversation, and kept a list of everybody every troublemaker knew.
So let us unfortunately tell the truth as it appeared to the people who worked in the system: When the morality of freedom was withdrawn, our State began fastening the procedures of totalitarianism on the substance of democratic society.
There is no historical precedent for the proposition that the procedures of totalitarianism are compatible with the system of enlightened, individual, democratic self-governance. No one has ever previously in the history of the human race evolved an argument—and as I will show next time no argument can be evolved—that would give us any confidence in the ability of the procedures of totalitarianism to coexist with those of constitutional democratic self-governance. It is enough to say for now that omnipresent invasive listening creates fear. And I need not be Justice Brandeis to tell you that fear is the enemy of reasoned, ordered liberty.
Here are the four parts of the Moglen lectures, available in video, audio and print formats:
Continuing our serialization of Penny Nelson’s interview with Douglas Rushkoff for HiLobrow magazine, this week the conversation turns to the emotional components of debt, the inherent structures of corporations and why men must be kept busy with the front lawn. We recommend that you read the first part if you haven’t already, to get some context. Please, check back on Friday for the third and final installment.
4. Let’s All Be Independent Together
[Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, dir. Kizo Nagashima, Larry Roemer, 1974]
PN: How does idea of the individual fit into these other developments?
DR: Corporatism, with its promotion of competition between individuals over scarce resources and money, laid the ground for individualism and for a heightened concept of the self. I’m a media ecologist, I look at media and society as an ecology in which changes in one area reflect changes in another. The notion of the individual was invented, re-invented, in the Renaissance. This is part of why it was a re-naissance, a re-birth of old ideas, the rebirth of Greek ideals. The the Greek notion of the individual, which was always “the individual in relationship to the state,” the citizen, was recast as “the individual.”
The first individual in Renaissance literature was Dr. Faustus, who represented the extreme limits of greed. This was the new man, not a citizen of the city-state but an individual who has his own perspective on the world. We get perspective painting in the Renaissance, which meant the individual was a self-sufficient being whose point of view is important; we get reading in the Renaissance, which meant that a man can sit alone in his study and have his own relationship to the Bible, instead of gathering in the town square or the church, having the Bible read to him by a priest, as part of a congregation. So on the one hand it was this beautiful celebration of individual consciousness and perspective, but on the other it was all in the context of a new economy, one in which individuals were in competition against one another for scarce jobs, scarce resources, scarce land, and scarce money.
PN: OK, I’ll ask: but what about the artists?
DR: Historians say that one of the great things about the Renaissance were the patrons who could patronize a great artist. But before the Renaissance you didn’t need a “patron” in order to be an artist! You could actually live in a town and do some stuff and be a great artist. The Renaissance model of commerce and arts was not a pre-existing condition of the universe. Yes, the Vatican could commission some basilica to be painted, but . . . I’d be interested to see what Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo would have been like had they not been part of a centralized bureaucracy, but instead been independent little homespun artist guys. They might have been better artists . . . you never know.
PN: So now we have individuals and corporations as we know them.
DR: The king’s currency, centralized currency, is monopoly currency; demurrage currencies were declared illegal by the king. Why? First, centralized currency is easier to tax. Second, the king could remove gold from the currency whenever he wanted, he could basically suck the value out of it at will. And finally, because this is a currency based in scarcity, everyone has to compete for it. It’s a way to help people who have money be powerful just for having money — not because of what they can spend, but because of what they can hold.
PN: So money becomes a resource.
DR: It becomes a resource in itself. Actually it’s a resource once-removed, literally a derivative, the first derivative. Centralizing turns money from a representation of something real into a derivative asset class. We live in this derivatives-based economy today, it has trickled down to us in the form of central banking. Now most people believe that the way to fuel an economy is for a bank to inject money, and the way to start a business is by borrowing from the bank. The way that money comes into existence is it is literally lent into existence. But for every dollar that is lent into existence, for every dollar you earn, there’s a negative on the balance sheet somewhere.
PN: There’s debt right at the beginning?
DR: It is debt, the money we have is debt. Here’s how it works. You start a business by borrowing $100K from the bank. This means that you’re going to have to pay back say, $200K or $300K to the bank in 10 years when your loan is up. Where does the other $200K come from? It comes from someone else who’s borrowed $100K from the bank. And where are they going to get that? Either they go bankrupt, because they can’t pay it back, or they borrow another $200K from the bank. And then that has to be paid back, plus interest. So now they’ve borrowed $300K total and might have $900K to pay back.
The money supply has to grow as a function of interest. The rate at which we do business and make profit is actually driven and determined by the debt structure of the company rather than supply and demand. This is what Adam Smith was actually talking about. Adam Smith was not a free market libertarian, he was not a corporate industrialist the way the Economist or the Wall Street Journal likes to paint him. Smith said that economies only work in scale, they only work locally. He was living in a world where everyone was a farmer, and he hated corporations as much as he hated central government, because he knew that an interest-based economy does not ultimately work. And that is because debt is not actually a product. There’s nothing there.Nothing. Yet that’s what it was made for. The debt-based economy was invented so that people with money could get richer by having money, that’s what it’s for. I’m not saying it’s evil, it was an idea. But, it doesn’t actually work. If the number of people who want to make money by having money gets so big that there are more people existing that way than actually producing anything, eventually the economy will collapse.
PN: It sounds like a big Ponzi scheme.
DR: It is a Ponzi scheme! None of the companies we’re looking at as companies are what they are, they’re all just the names on debt. GM is a name on debt, Sony’s a name on debt.
PN: The New York Times . . .
DR: . . . is a name on debt. They’re all publically-listed, traded companies with these P/E ratios; there are the issued shares, and then there’s the actual business: those two things aren’t the same. The shares are actually more a drag on the system than they are an investment in the company. There’s all this debt to pay back.
5. Corporations R Us
PN: Debt has an emotional component as well, in the sense of, you’re going to owe me, and you’re going to owe me forever. So, better get to work, no slacking.
DR: Slowly over time, as corporations attempted to extract more and more value from people, both as workers and as consumers and ultimately as shareholders and investors in our own 401k plans, we all basically outsourced our lives. I outsource my job to a company. I outsource my consumption to a company, I go to Wal-Mart, I go to Costco. I outsource my investing and savings to companies, I give it to Citibank, instead of the local banker or my credit union or my restaurant or my children or my cathedral. All of our interactions have been mediated by corporations — you don’t work for me and I don’t work for you.
PN: Let’s talk about different kinds of value. Right now we have money, we measure everything by the little green metric. But there are other kinds, we all know that, there are personal relationships, there are other ways of measuring value . . .
DR: We have different ways of experiencing value, but it’s really hard to measure those. I feel that in the current environment, what people could or should be valuing makes them nervous, makes them anxious.
PN: What kind of ways?
DR: Sitting with a friend . . . OK, I’ll sit with a friend as long as I have my Paxil or something, because it’s almost like we’ve been acculturated to be desocialized. I can spend time with you because we’re working, right?
PN: Right, it’s productive.
DR: Productive — and we can measure it on the tape! Is it still turning?
PN: You’re saying money is not value-neutral.
DR: Not only is money not value-neutral, but our money is not money-neutral. Our currency is not the only money. There are other kinds of money, just like there are different kinds of media out there, and they all encourage different behaviors. Computers encourage certain kinds of behavior, television encourages certain kinds of behavior. A gold-based money encourages certain kinds of behavior, a centralized currency encourages certain kinds of behavior, and a demurrage local grain-based currency encourages certain other kinds of behavior. The kind of behavior that our money encourages, intentionally, by design, is: hoarding. This is currency that earns interest over time so you want to hoard it and not spend it. And that’s OK if you need that tool.
PN: But maybe that shouldn’t be the only thing in the toolbox?
DR: It’s like we only have a hammer and it’s really hard to put in screws. Centralized currency is really, really good for competition, it’s really, really good for big companies. Wal-Mart and Citibank can get money more cheaply; the bigger you are, the closer you are to the storehouse. And the big guys don’t want local currencies, they don’t want bottom-up value creation, work-based money, money that is worked into existence instead of borrowed into existence, because that reduces their monopoly over the means of exchange.
PN: The problem with defining ourselves by our jobs or socialism or by economic class is that we’re not just our economics, we’re not just our money.
DR: Right, I create value, but the value I create for my community is not just say, as a baker. It’s not just as a tailor. It’s also as the guy who brings those funny jokes to the party, the guy who has that beautiful daughter . . .
PN: And it’s not just ONE thing and it’s not measurable in just one way.
6. Home Sweet Home Depot
DR: From the 1920s to the 1970s an iconography was developed that turned corporations into our heroes. Instead of me buying stuff from people I know, I actually trust the Quaker Oat Man more than you. This is the result of public relations campaigns, and the development of public relations as a profession.
PN: Did the rise of PR just happen, or did they have to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control?
DR: They had to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control. The significant points in the development of public relations were all at crisis moments. For example, labor movements; it’s not just that labor was revolting but that people were seeing that labor was revolting. There was a need to re-fashion the stories so that people would think that labor activists were bad scary people, so that people would think they should move to the suburbs and insulate themselves from these throngs of laborers, from “the masses.” Or to return to the Quaker Oats example, people used to look at long-distance-shipped factory products with distrust. Here’s a plain brown box, it’s being shipped from far away, why am I supposed to buy this instead of something from a person I’ve known all my life? A mass media is necessary to make you distrust your neighbor and transfer your trust to an abstract entity, the corporation, and believe it will usher in a better tomorrow and all that.
It got the most crafty after WWII when all the soldiers were coming home. FDR was in cahoots with the PR people. Traumatized vets were coming back from WWII, and everyone knew these guys were freaked out and fucked up. We had enough psychology and psychiatry by then to know that these guys were badly off, they knew how to use weapons, and — this was bad! If the vets came back into the same labor movement that they left before WWII, it would have been all over. So the idea was that we should provide houses for these guys, make them feel good, and we get the creation of Levittown and other carefully planned developments designed with psychologists and social scientists. Let’s put these vets in a house, let’s celebrate the nuclear family.
PN: So home becomes a thing, rather than a series of relationships?
DR: The definition of home as people use the word now means “my house,” rather than what it had been previously, which was “where I’m from.’” My home’s New York, what’s your home?
PN: Right, my town.
DR: Where are you from? Not that “structure.” But they had to redefine home, and they used a lot of government money to do it. They created houses in neighborhoods specifically designed to isolate people from one another, and prevent men in particular from congregating and organizing — there are no social halls, no beer halls in these developments. They wanted men to be busy with their front lawns, with three fruit trees in every garden, with home fix-it-up projects; for the women, the kitchen will be in the back where they can see the kids playing in the back yard.
PN: So you don’t see the neighbors going by. No front porch.
DR: Everything’s got to be individual, this was all planned! Any man that has a mortgage to pay is not going to be a revolutionary. With that amount to pay back, he’s got a stake in the system. True, he’s on the short end of the stick of the interest economy, but in 30 years he could own his own home.
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Penny Nelson interviewed Douglas Rushkoff for HiLobrow magazine at a particularly sweet spot in time: a month and a half after the beginning of the occupation of Wall Street. Much like OWS and its global precursors and offshoots in 2011, we feel that the issues raised are just as, if not more, relevant today. We’ll be presenting the full interview in three parts. Today we kick off with the intro, the origin of the chartered corporation, the gross mis-characterization of the late Middle Ages, and the God that lives inside money. In a couple of days, tune in for more.
How did we get to where we are now, with Wall Street occupied by a mini-tent city while financial instruments increasingly funnel funds towards the already-wealthy? How did we get to a state where corporations seem to have more legal (and financial) access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than the average citizen? How did we get to a point where money is invisible and computerized, yet distributed ever more unevenly?
One thing is certain: we didn’t get here overnight. In his book, Life Inc., author and media ecologist Douglas Rushkoff traces the rise and rise of the corporation, from its beginnings in the late Middle Ages, through its adolescence in the Industrial Revolution, to its present global and virtualized maturity. Life Inc. remains as relevant as when it was first published in 2009, as the public debate over the economy becomes more widespread, and the need for an accurate long view intensifies.
In this #longreads interview, Rushkoff locates the roots of the corporation in the Renaissance, explains how the corporation has made us over into its own image, reveals why there’s a God on the money, and warns what we’re really buying into when we buy that mortgage. But it’s not all talk. In addition to looking back, Rushkoff looks forward to offer some practical — and provocative — ideas on how to unincorporate, and better occupy, our lives.
1. Vaal Is Hungry, We Must Feed Vaal
Peggy Nelson: The corporation is not a recent phenomenon; it goes back hundreds of years. What is the origin story of the corporation? Where did it come from, and what is it, exactly?
Douglas Rushkoff: The corporation is the result of two innovations: the creation of centralized currency, and the creation of the chartered monopoly. In the late 1300s the upper classes — the aristocrats, the people who had been feudal lords — were becoming less wealthy relative to real people. As the merchant class and people in towns were producing and doing, the relative wealth of the aristocracy was going down, and this was a problem; the aristocrats wanted to continue the system that had been working for them for the last 500 years wherein they didn’t have to “do” anything to be rich. So they hit upon the idea of passively investing in other people’s industries.
Suppose I am the monarch. I want to make money through your shipping company; how do I get you to let me invest? Well, I use what power I have as a monarch to write up a charter, which means I give you a monopoly in a certain area, and you give me 30% of the shares in the company. The chosen merchant avoids competition and gains protection from bankruptcy, while the king receives loyalty, because the merchants’ monopolies are based on keeping him in power. He doesn’t mind if a few of the merchant class are as rich as he is, as long as he is able to get still richer as a result.
But this was not the promotion of free-market capitalism. It was the promotion of monopoly, non-market capitalism. It was locking into place a set of players and a set of systems that had nothing to do with the free market. And it changed the bias of these merchants away from innovation; in other words, from “how do I innovate and maintain my competitive edge” to “how do I extract wealth from the realm that I now control?”
PN: Then they’ll tend to be conservative because they’ll want to maintain what they have and not risk losing it.
DR: Conservative in that sense, but rapacious in another. Say I’m now in charge of the Colonies. What I want to do is extract their wealth; I want to prevent the people who live in the Colonies from creating any value for themselves. If the colonists are going to grow cotton, that’s fine, but they’re going to use my seeds, my agricultural tools, they’re going to use everything from me. If you are a farmer you’re allowed to grow the cotton but you have to sell it to me at my prices. You’re not allowed to make fabric out of that cotton! Fabricating is creating value. And then you’re going to — what? You’re going to make it into clothes? Those are clothes you could have bought from me! No, no, no, you must give all the cotton to me, I’ll put it on my ship and bring it back to England, then the king’s other chartered monopoly, the clothes manufacturer, will make it into clothes, and then I’ll ship them back and sell them to you — at a profit.
PN: So it’s all export crops?
DR: Right. And anything else I will shoot you for.
PN: And they did!
DR: And they did.
2. Single-handedly Rehabilitating the Middle Ages
DR: So for about three centuries, the middle and merchant classes were doing really well. Towns that had been in shambles since the fall of the Roman Empire and had lived under strict feudalism were finally coming into their own. This all hinged on the use of local currencies — grain receipts — through which people transacted. They were what we would now call “demurrage” currencies that were earned into existence. Towns ended up creating more value than they knew what to do with. They started investing in their infrastructure and their windmills and their water wheels; and also in their future in the form of cathedrals and other tourist attractions.
PN: They didn’t get money from Rome to fund their cathedrals?
DR: They did not. The Vatican and central Rome did not build the cathedrals. The funds came from local currency, which was very different than money as we use it now. It was based on grain, which lost value over time. The grain would slowly rot or get eaten by rats or cost money to store, so the money needed to be spent as quickly as possible before it became devalued. And when people spend and spend and spend a lot of money, you end up with an economy that grows very quickly.
Now unlike a capitalist economy where money is hoarded, with local currency, money is moving. The same dollar can end up being the salary for three people rather than just one. There was so much money circulating that they had to figure out what to do with it, how to reinvest it. Saving money was not an option, you couldn’t just stick it in the bank and have it grow because it would not grow there, it would shrink. So they paid the workers really well and they shortened the work week to four and in some cases three days per week. And they invested in the future by way of infrastructure — they started to build cathedrals. They couldn’t build them all at once, but they took the long view — with three generations of investment they could build an entire cathedral, and their great-grandchildren could live in a rich town! That’s how the great cathedrals were built, like Chartres. Some historians actually term the late Middle Ages “The Age of Cathedrals.”
They were the best-fed people in the history of Europe; women in England were taller than they are today, and men were taller than they have been at any point in time until the 1970s or 80s (with the recent growth spurt largely the result of hormones in the food supply). Life expectancy of course was still lower; they lacked modern medicine, but people were actually healthier and stronger and better back then, in ways that we don’t admit.
That was right before the corporation and the original chartered monopolies were created, before central currency was created and local currencies were outlawed. When everything gets moved into the center, things began to change.
PN: It seems like the Dark Ages were not perhaps so “dark.”
DR: Yes, I think that’s disinformation. I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist about these things, but I think the reason why we celebrate the Renaissance as a high point of western culture is really a marketing campaign. It was a way for Renaissance monarchs and nation-states, and the industrial age powers that followed, to recast the end of one of the most vibrant human civilizations we’ve had, as a dark, plague-ridden, horrible time.
Historically, the plague arrived after the invention of the chartered corporation, and after central currency was mandated. Central currency became law, and 40 years later you get the plague. People got that poor that quickly. They were no longer allowed to use the land. It shifted from an abundance model to a scarcity model; from an economy based on annual grain production to one based on gold released by the king.
That’s a totally different way of understanding money. Land was no longer a thing the peasants could grow stuff on, land became an investment, land became an asset class for the wealthy. Once it became an asset class they started Partitioning and Enclosure, which meant people weren’t allowed to grow stuff on it, so subsistence farming was no longer a viable lifestyle. If you can’t do subsistence farming you must find a job, so then you go into the city and volunteer to do unskilled labor in a proto-factory for some guy who wants the least-skilled, cheapest labor possible. You move your whole family to where the work is, into the squalor, where conditions are overcrowded and impoverished — the perfect breeding ground for plague and death.
3. There Is A God, And He’s On All The Money
PN: The money that the king was releasing, what was that based on? The other currency was based on grain, it’s a direct relationship to how much grain there is, and as the grain degrades, the currency degrades . . .
DR: The king’s currency? It was actually not even gold: king’s currency was based in the king’s imprimatur. It was coin of the realm because his face was stamped on it.
PN: That’s fairly abstract.
DR: It is. And because people don’t believe in that abstraction, because they’re used to grain receipts being based in something real, precious metal was required for the king’s currency — silver, gold; they had to use something that was considered valuable so people would believe.
Fast-forward to the 1970s. After four or five centuries of people believing it, Nixon realized that people now do believe, so the currency can be taken off the central metal and just be based on belief. That’s when they started putting “In God We Trust” on paper money, when it was taken off the gold standard.
PN: That phrase hadn’t always been on there?
DR: No, it was on coins, but it wasn’t on bills. Because finally, belief is all that’s left.
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