Tag Archives: Matt Taibbi

Give Me Some Truth

I discovered a collection of essays by George Orwell on Project Gutenberg Australia this morning, some familiar and some new to me, so everything else I was planning to do today has pretty much gone out of the window.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what he would make of recent events, when the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee is being called out on a speech which contain more lies than facts, and the same campaign’s pollster can espouse a breezy disregard for those who seek some kind of factual basis for the claims made in political advertisements.

It looks like the era of ‘spin’ is finally over, not with a return to honesty, but because politicians have realised that they don’t have to give much more than a slight appearance of sincerity. Lie with a knowing wink, the loyal base believes whatever matches their own set of values and prejudices, the other side howls and the partisan bun-fight continues for another news cycle.

Forty years go by and you realise how little has changed:

Truth has now become such a debased currency, relative to who is making the claim and who to, that I almost hesitate to recommend an article which takes as its headline ‘The Truth About Mitt Romney and Bain Capital‘. Yet Taibbi’s writing about the antics of Wall Street – before and since what he calls The Great Recession – has been consistent, long after other commentators have ducked out of an examination of what went wrong.

In this latest article, he shows how Wall Street darlings such as Bain Capital operated – with a ruthless sensibility – closing previously healthy businesses, paying huge bonuses despite looming bankruptcy and never being unafraid to take a government bail-out:

A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.

It is the exact opposite to the image the candidate projects and one I doubt many avowed Republicans will be able to stomach, instead preferring to attack the bias of the writer, as evidenced by the comments section below the article. We all hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest, as Paul Simon sang. So it looks as if the short-haired, yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky will be with us for some time to come.

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Kicking the crutch

Bankers, the targets for so much vilification, are not usually noted as great philosophers.  But perhaps they have been judged unfairly if this observation, by former Deutsche Bank CEO Hilmar Kopper, is true:

As a banker, you have no lack of opportunities to look into the human soul.

Although what the bankers see there is unlikely to inspire much compassion for one’s fellow humans, if his next comments – taken from a candid interview with Spiegel International – are anything to go by:

This entire nation, the entire world, is ultimately running after money. The amount of influence money has on people has always fascinated me. You forget almost everything while in its shadow.

Yet chasing money has never seemed so futile as it does once it is revealed how much of it is controlled by so few.  The publication of a study showing that a core of 1,318 companies control 20% of global operating revenues directly, with perhaps another 60% via shares, should make it obvious how stacked the dice have been in this particular casino.  Compared to such power, political influence is puny and easily bought off.  Money and the control of it have become more important than the lives sacrificed on the way to a balancing of the metaphorical books.  This is nothing new, but while times were good we could convince ourselves that all was fine, so long as it wasn’t your head in the vice.

The economic crisis has thrown that complacency out of the window.  Once-great nation states have been reduced to the status of housewives, clucking over their shopping lists while wondering if the grocer will extend enough credit to keep meals on the table until payday arrives.  And while economists bicker over whether we are in or out of recession, whether inflation or deflation or stagnation is the biggest risk and whether too much or not enough austerity is the best cure, the real effects are felt very far away from the boardrooms and treasury offices.  As Thompson writes:

Government borrowing… replaces a lack of private sector spending. It is a crutch. If we kick out the crutch out from under the economy, it’s possible that this patient will learn to walk very, very quickly.

Or it is equally likely that it will fall on its arse.  From Spain to Ireland to Portugal and the UK, the argument that austerity is killing Europe seems unassailable.  Yet adding additional borrowing to the terrifying debt mountains in an attempt to spark more growth brings its own misgivings, not least because it seems like robbing future generations to pay for such essentials as the Olympic Games and bank bailouts.  The UK’s Coalition Government has been quick to seize on these misgivings as justification for their zeal in cutting budgets to ‘make savings’.  These claims have been challenged by a report commissioned by disability activists – nicknamed the ‘Spartacus Report’ – which notes that:

Cuts to DLA [Disability Living Allowance] cannot cut disability, they simply shift the costs elsewhere. One in three disabled people already live in poverty and many feel [the] proposals… can only see this increase.

This demonstrates a move from a metaphorical kicking away of the crutch to an actual one – with even massive public opposition, including that of their own supporters, failing to prick at what remains of the Coalition’s consciences.  Instead, politicians are demonstrating compassion towards the captains at the controls of our current financial tailspin, while stamping down hard on the unfortunate ones with chronic conditions or terminal illnesses.  This will save £94 per week per cancer patient so that the millions can still be handed out in bank bonuses.  It is  little wonder that bankers see chasing money as a futile endeavour, when they can screw everything up so royally and still have it land in their bank accounts!

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Tyrants destroy their own freedom

Seeking to rebalance the world and make the major changes needed to bring about financial justice are laudable aims, but rarely achieved easily.  Those ‘doing quite nicely, thank you’ out of the current system can hardly be expected to hand over the reins of power and, more crucially, the cash, without putting up a fight.  Meanwhile those involved in the Occupy protests are discovering that the police forces of the world have amassed some astounding toys to use against people armed with nothing more threatening than placards and a belief in a brighter future.

This has led to some shocking, but perhaps not surprising, incidents at the sites of protests.  In the States, University of California students were on the end of some particularly vicious police actions.   As Conor Friedersdorf writes:

The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They’re given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they’re sent out in force. If they were in a video game they’d be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We’re used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.

The riot gear itself demands a significant response, whether the situation warrants one or not.  And if the pictures being sent from phones to generate a howl of outrage also convince a few would-be protesters that demonstrating isn’t worth getting a plastic bullet in the head for, then the actions have succeeded, according to Glenn Greenwald:

If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed… many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.

Perhaps with a similar motivation, UK protesters have been caught up in protracted legal battles following arrests.  The case against the ‘Fortnum and Mason 145’ took a year to rule that members of UK Uncut protesting against tax-dodging were guilty of intimidation – for outrages including a game of volleyball – and to fine them £1,000 each towards the cost of a prosecution which can only have run at a loss.

Similarly, UK Uncut protesters in Brighton waited months to learn that they were to be acquitted of criminal damage for gluing themselves to the windows of tax avoiders Top Shop, although five of the group were convicted of recklessly causing criminal damage for knocking over some mannequins.  For such temerity they were fined £200 each, after a two-week trial the costs of which will have run into thousands.  In such trying financial circumstances as the UK finds itself, spending such sums can only be justified for the message it sends to others thinking about involving themselves in dissent.

The title of this post is taken from ‘Killing an Elephant’ by George Orwell, quoted in the Atlantic article above, in which he notes that all this weaponry and repression creates a prison as much for those wielding the power as those being crushed by it:

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

We all have to live in the same society, after all, and even if you have oodles of money in your own bank account, it can only do so much to insulate you from the suffering of your neighbour.  When even the mega-rich can see that things are broken, how long can change be delayed?  As Matt Taibbi observes:

…the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.

All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more – all of this is symbolic of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.

In that case, every baton charge, pepper-spraying and trumped-up arrest brings us closer to the moment when we realise that to live as if money is more important than people, putting our faith in the markets and failing to provide for the many so that the few can live gilded lives behind gated community walls, is beyond stupid.  Those taking such treatment from the police and standing firm are to be applauded and supported in whatever way possible, as for now, they are all that stands between us and what Hunter S. Thompson knew:

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together:

Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely…

If these protests have ‘them’ so riled, they must be doing something right.  How to turn the anger on both sides into a brighter future for the many will be the next, greater challenge.

Artwork by Barney Meeks

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Occupy everything

At first, like Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, some of us could confess to having had mixed feelings about the Occupy movement.  For me, these may have been caused by distance and time difference getting in the way rather than anything more concrete, although other questions have surfaced about what the protesters stand for and what they could likely achieve.  Still, they seem to be annoying the right people, with Mayor Boris Johnson deriding the London wing of the movement as ‘fornicating hippies’ (ironic given the number of notches on his own bedpost).  Add in almost no-one’s favourite Blackshirt-lovers at the Daily Mail winding themselves up into apoplexy at the apparent emptiness of the tents (at 11pm, hardly a point at which your average protester would be tucked up with the cocoa) and it becomes easier to see the Occupiers as A Very Good Thing.

Mail-baiting aside, however, there are more positives to the movement.  Never has a motley collection of tents garnered so much commentary on what it could all mean and what the outcome could be.  Back to Mr Taibbi, who thinks:

This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it.

I think he is right.  This is a generation up to their eyes in debt, not because they bought eighteen-hundred dollar handbags, because often they needed the cash to cover the essentials.  Such fripperies as a roof over your head, a good education – or in America, healthcare – easily become millstones when the economic dice are so loaded.  I see the Occupy movement as an attempt to reimagine life, to try to envisage a world run for the benefit of the many and then bring it about.

Some have decried Occupy for a focus on the economic, when there are other matters of equal importance, however activist Silvia Federici, interviewed on libcom, notes:

…the economic crisis is bringing to light, in a dramatic way, the fact that the capitalist class has nothing to offer to the majority of the population except more misery, more destruction of the environment, and more war.

Occupations, in this context, are sites for the construction of a non-capitalist conception of society…

Sharon Borthwick, writing in The Commune, highlights another important function of the Occupy London site:

There are all manner of signs, some large ones, intricately written with many paragraphs describing their anti-capitalist message. The message is spreading. Londoners are stopping to read these long missives. They are also stopping in the street to talk to each other about how their lives are being run. They are in dire need of these alternative means of information.

The ‘Big Lie’ currently being peddled is that the responsibility for our ongoing economic woes can be laid almost anywhere except where it really should be planted.  The disinformation is spreading that governments or irresponsible borrowers or the welfare system was somehow to blame for banks deciding to follow a financial model more suitable to a casino.  Now overwhelmingly, it is the elderly, the young and the ill who are paying for the failure of that model, as the ones who created it skip off with the proceeds.  Matt Taibbi again:

People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes.

So what could victory look like?  It is difficult to say, since few past movements have even got close.  They have all ended up co-opted, watered down and bought off in the end.  Hopefully this one has a greater chance of success because it is attracting such a broad base, however, that is by no means assured. For now, I think it is enough to have our rulers clearly unsettled by the tents, while they are used to engage in a conversation about what comes next – especially with those who claim not to ‘do politics’ – and to be creating a space where people matter more than money.  To that end, perhaps the message should be moving from that of occupying the individual cities to one of ‘Occupy Everything’.  At this stage, there is little left to lose except our chains.

The other likely ending for any spontaneous movement is, of course, brutal repression.  ten minutes hate will be covering the authorities’ responses to the Occupy sites in another post soon.

Illustration by Barney Meeks

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Get angry

I know, it’s the weekend.  You want to be relaxing, chilling, letting it all go.

But you can’t.

You have to read this.  And then try to find an answer to the question: why is nobody from Wall Street going to jail?

Perhaps someone with superior economics knowledge to mine can explain why pensioners, little kids, the unemployed and disabled people are paying for this crisis with life-supporting services while the architects of the mayhem are pocketing our money,  dancing off with it to the Caymans and setting us up for more of the same the next time they break the casino wheel?

If you weren’t already angry, now is the time to feel the ire.

Films found via @hangbitch

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