Saturday, 28 February 2015

End Big Money’s Chokehold on Democracy: Amend the Constitution

(US National Archives & Records Admin/Wikimedia Commons)
by Robert Weissman, Common Dreams: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/26/end-big-moneys-chokehold-democracy-amend-constitution 

NOTE: The same argument can be made for the Australian political system.

The American political system is facing an existential crisis. Do we aim to be a democracy - meaning a system of rule by the people - or do Americans stand down and permit a very narrow elite class to operate a functioning oligarchy?

Our Constitution begins with the powerful words “We the People” and elaborates a political system in which the people are sovereign.

Yet in a series of decisions, of which Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the most notorious, the US Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment of that document so as to erode our democracy. Now it’s time to amend the great document to re-establish democratic principles.

Americans widely perceive - correctly - that the political system is rigged. But even so, few realize how small in number are those doing the rigging.

Occupy Wall Street focused attention on the one percent; but just the top point-oh-one-percent (.01 percent) are responsible for more than 40 percent of all political contributions. Fewer than 200 individuals and their spouses are responsible for almost 60 percent of the more than $1 billion in super PAC spending since 2010, according to a Brennan Center analysis.

We’ll never know which robber barons and giant corporations are fueling the surge in dark money, but it’s almost surely at least as tight a group as the super PAC funders.

Not surprisingly, a politics funded by this tiny class of the super rich and corporations is responsive to their own interests and not to those of the American people. And there is a big difference.

The super rich are not like you and me. More than half of the top one percent “favor cuts in Medicare, education and highways to reduce budget deficits;” only about a quarter of the rest of the population agree.

Eighty-seven percent of the general population agree that “government should spend what is necessary to ensure all children have good public schools;” only 35 percent of the super rich share that sentiment. And while 53 percent of regular people believe that “government should provide jobs to everyone who can’t find one in the private sector,” only eight percent of the super rich agree.

By overwhelming margins, Americans favor raising the minimum wage, reducing wealth and income inequality, stopping any more NAFTA-style trade agreements, breaking up giant banks, investing in infrastructure, taking measures to avert catastrophic climate change, and protecting and expanding Social Security and Medicare. But these strong policy preferences clash with the interests of the corporate class, and the corporate class prevails - thanks in very substantial part to Big Money’s dominance of our politics.

As a matter of basic democratic principle, we need to make clear that We the People have the authority to set the rules for election spending as we see fit. We must overturn the Supreme Court-created doctrines that “money is speech” and “corporations are people.”

Ending Big Money’s dominance - choosing democracy over oligarchy - will require a wide range of solutions. As a first and immediate measure, we need robust disclosure to end the phenomenon of dark money. For local, state and federal elections, we need to replace the super rich-dominated campaign finance system with one that empowers regular people to make a difference with small contributions, backed up by robust public matching funds.

Yet ultimately, reclaiming our democracy will require a constitutional amendment. As a matter of basic democratic principle, we need to make clear that We the People have the authority to set the rules for election spending as we see fit.

We must overturn the Supreme Court-created doctrines that “money is speech” (meaning that election contributions and spending are entitled to the same kinds of robust First Amendment protections as actual speech) and “corporations are people” (meaning that corporations are entitled to the same constitutional protections as living, breathing human beings).

We need the amendment (or a Supreme Court reversal of its campaign finance jurisprudence) as a practical matter, as well. With current Supreme Court jurisprudence in place, we can empower small donors and enable public financing of elections, but we can only impose limited restraints on super-rich contributions to candidates (and even those limits are in jeopardy).

Most important, for as long as we live in the Citizens United era, we can’t impose limits on outside spending by the super rich and giant corporations.

That outside spending has in many ways become the defining feature of our election landscape. Outside groups, such as the US Chamber of Commerce and those controlled by the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove, are spending vast sums. They concentrate their money on close races, where their spending often exceeds that of the candidates themselves. Outside groups focus on negative attack ads, which work, and for which they cannot be held accountable (unlike candidates).

In many races, it is the outside groups that are defining the contours of the campaign. There is no limit on outside spending, nor any limits on what individuals or corporations can contribute to outside spending efforts, so this is the arena that by definition most elevates the corporate class.

If you have any doubt about the decisive importance of this spending, consider this: The Koch Brothers have announced plans to spend, through their network, $889 million on the 2016 elections. That’s more than any political party heretofore.

Winning a constitutional amendment is, by design, incredibly difficult. But that’s no reason to shrink from the project. It’s right on the merits, and we need it as a practical solution. The idea of a constitutional amendment is also hugely energizing and mobilizing, in a way distinct from other reform measures.

People get that the system is rigged, they get that corporations have far too much power, they understand that Big Money is corrupting our democracy in fundamental ways, they passionately believe that super rich ownership of our elections is incompatible with core notions of political equality. People understand how big the problem is, and they want big solutions.

People get that the system is rigged. They passionately believe that super rich ownership of our elections is incompatible with core notions of political equality.

Since Citizens United was handed down five years ago, a powerful movement has risen up across the country. Sixteen states have already passed resolutions or similar measures calling for an amendment, as have nearly 600 cities and towns.

More than five million people have signed petitions. Polling shows overwhelming support for an amendment, including strong majority support among Republicans. People turn out on the street for the amendment - last April, there were more than 150 demonstrations nationwide on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, another ruling designed to enable the super-rich to spend more.

Even if the movement for an amendment does not prevail, the energy around the effort is helping carry forward advocacy around disclosure, small donor financing and other election reform measures. This demonstrated and sustained grassroots demand for an amendment is the best means to nudge the Supreme Court - when someday its composition has changed - to overturn Citizens United and other harmful campaign spending decisions.

But this is not a movement organized around symbolic politics. The effort to win an amendment is gaining ground faster than anyone could have anticipated. In 2010, four US senators supported an amendment. In 2012, the number grew to 26.

In 2014, following the McCutcheon decision, Senate leadership brought the Democracy for All constitutional amendment - establishing that We the People, operating through Congress and the state legislatures, have the authority to regulate campaign spending - to the floor for a vote. Fifty-four senators voted in favor. Not yet enough to prevail - winning a constitutional amendment requires a two thirds vote in each house, followed by ratification in three quarters of the states - but a showing of support that even a year previous was unimaginable.

We know exactly why the amendment came to the floor and why it won so many votes: Senators were responding to the demand from the grassroots. As the movement continues to gain power and support - as we quiet the skeptics and chip away at the established Republican Party opposition to reform - we’ll take the next step forward. The day is not long off when we win the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Corporate Debt to Society: $10,000 Per Household, Per Year

by Paul Buchheit, Common Dreams: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/23/corporate-debt-society-10000-household-year


The Corporate Debt to Society: $10,000 Per Household, Per Year

That estimate is based on facts, not the conservative-style emotion that might deny the responsibility for any debt to the American people. Wealth redistribution to big business has occurred in a variety of ways to be explained below. And there's some precedent for paying Americans for the use of their commonly-held resources. The Alaska Permanent Fund has been in effect, and widely popular, for over thirty years.

The Main Argument: Corporations Have Used Our Money To Build Their Businesses

Over half (57 percent) of basic research is paid for by our tax dollars. Corporations don't want to pay for this. It's easier for them to allow public money to do the startup work, and then, when profit potential is evident, to take over with applied R&D, often with patents that take the rights away from the rest of us.

All the technology in our phones and computers started this way, and continues to the present day. Pharmaceutical companies have depended on the National Institutes of Health. The quadrillion-dollar trading capacity of the financial industry was made possible by government-funded Internet technology, and the big banks survived because of a $7 trillion public bailout.

A particularly outrageous example of a company turning public research into a patent-protected private monopoly is the sordid tale (here) of the drug company Gilead Sciences.

Adding to the Argument: Publicly Funded Technology Is Taking Our Jobs Away 

Despite a continuing growth in productivity in the last 35 years, wages have fallen dramatically, and now it's getting even worse, as technology and new business models have begun to diminish the need for warehouse workers, bank tellers, cashiers, travel agents, and a host of other middle-income positions.

Underemployment and long-term unemployment are on the rise. Jobs involving product delivery, driving, and serving food may be the next to go. We paid for the technology that is reducing us to low-wage workers.

Corporations Owe $5,000 Per Household for the Public Research Bill 

According to the National Science Foundation (Table 4-3), public money pays for about 30 percent of all U.S. research, including basic, applied, and development. 30 percent of over $2 trillion in corporate profits comes to about $5,000 per U.S. household.

Add $2,000 for Pollution and Disaster Relief Costs 

quarter of the fossil fuels produced in the U.S. in 2014 came from public land, much of it by the two biggest oil producers, Exxon and Chevron, neither of which pay much in U.S. taxes, and both of which claim mostly foreign profits despite using mostly U.S. resources.

It is estimated that pollution costs run anywhere from $71 billion to $277 billion per year. The midpoint of $174 billion comes to about $1,500 per U.S. household. It is further estimated that federal and state disaster relief payouts cost every person in the US more than $300, which translates to well over $500 per household.

Add Another $3,000 Per Household for Unpaid Taxes and Corporate Welfare 

Tax avoidance and federal tax subsidies add up to about $3,000 per household, per year. A lot more could be added if the industry-specific costs of excessive bank fees and overpriced medications were factored in.

That's a total of at least $10,000 per household, per year. If the corporations plead poverty, they might be reminded about the 95 percent of S&P 500 profits spent on stock buybacks (which enrich stockowners) and dividend payouts, and the $2 trillion hoarded overseas in tax havens.

The America Permanent Fund 

With an America Permanent Fund (APF), based on Alaska's successful program and further developed by Peter Barnes, all of us - rich and poor alike - would receive a share of our national productivity, as indeed we deserve.

Not only is the APF fair, but it is also good business. Money earned by average Americans stimulates economic activity. A stronger consumer class will generate even more profits for the nation's corporations, if those big profit-makers will support the people who provided most of the labor and resources.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Young People Have the Power to Rally Others to Create Positive Change

(Photo: Light Brigading/flickr/cc)
by David Suzuki, Common Dreams: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/19/young-people-have-power-rally-others-create-positive-change

David Suzuki is a well-known Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist.

When she was just 12 years old, my daughter Severn gave a speech at the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

She spoke with such conviction that delegates were moved to tears. It was one of my proudest moments as a father.

More than 20 years later, Severn is the mother of two young children, and the video of her speech is still making the rounds, inspiring people around the world. Its popularity speaks to the power the young have to affect the world’s most pressing issues.

More than half the world’s population is under 30, a demographic now at the forefront of international decision-making and some of Canada’s most powerful environmental changes.

Across the nation, youth are thinking critically about how we can become better stewards of our vast landscapes and spectacular wildlife and protect the air, water, soil and diversity of nature that keep us healthy and alive. They’re standing up for strong environmental protection and a saner approach to resource management in their own communities.

Take Halifax resident Stephen Thomas, an engineer in his 20s. He’s been recognized as a driving force for our nation’s clean energy future. If You Build It, a project he co-founded, mobilizes volunteers to construct renewable energy projects, including wind turbines and solar-powered generators. He’s also catalyzed large-scale, community-owned wind projects in Nova Scotia and spearheaded Dalhousie University’s student campaign for fossil fuel divestment.

Vanessa Gray, a 22-year-old member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, mobilized other young people to campaign against Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline proposal to transport oilsands bitumen through Sarnia, Ontario, to Montreal for export. She continues to speak out about refinery pollution and host “toxic tours” of Canada’s Chemical Valley, where 63 petrochemical plants surround her community.

Some young leaders are taking up the David Suzuki Foundation’s call to support the right to a healthy environment in their towns. In December, after attending a Foundation Blue Dot Tour event, 10-year-old Victoria resident Rupert Yakelashek led a successful charge to have his city adopt a declaration giving citizens the right to clean air, water and food, and to participate in decisions that affect their environment.

Ta’Kaiya Blaney, a 13-year-old from B.C.’s Tla’Amin First Nation, followed a path similar to my daughter’s, speaking at the UN Rio +20 conference in 2012 when she was just 11. She’s also gaining recognition as the visionary behind the Salish Sea Youth Foundation and for speaking, writing and singing in defense of a healthy future for animals, humans, plants and ecosystems.

She incorporates environmental messages into her songs, as she did on the Blue Dot Tour. “In my culture it’s a fact, and an understanding of life, that everything is connected, and we were put on this earth to be stewards and caretakers of the environment,” she writes.

Young leaders are also at the forefront of Idle No More, one of the largest Indigenous mass movements in Canadian history. What began in 2012 as teach-ins in Saskatchewan to protest parliamentary bills that would erode Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections has changed the social and political landscape of Canada.

These young environmental champions share a commitment to their communities and to the world. They know that young people have the power to rally others to create positive change. And when people gather around a common cause, magic happens.

Although many young leaders aren’t yet old enough to vote, they’ll be left to clean up messes from decisions made today. We owe it to them to think more carefully about the world we want to leave to their generation.

National non-profit The Starfish Canada, co-founded by David Suzuki Foundation public engagement specialist Kyle Empringham, celebrates young people with its Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25 program.

Every year, 25 youth are recognized for their efforts to create environmental change. The group recognized is diverse, from community gardeners and outdoor recreationists to scientists and advocates. Thanks to them, the program continues to showcase positive change across the country.

If you know a young leader who deserves national recognition, nominate him or her for The Starfish Canada’s Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25. It could help inspire others to change the world.

Yanis Varoufakis: How I Became an Erratic Marxist

Yanis Varoufakis
Yanis Varoufakis (Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck)
by , The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/feb/18/yanis-varoufakis-how-i-became-an-erratic-marxist

Before he entered politics, Yanis Varoufakis, the iconoclastic Greek finance minister at the centre of the latest eurozone standoff, wrote this searing account of European capitalism and and how the left can learn from Marx’s mistakes.

In 2008, capitalism had its second global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day.

Europe’s present situation is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.

If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?

To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.

For this view I have been accused, by well-meaning radical voices, of being “defeatist” and of trying to save an indefensible European socioeconomic system. This criticism, I confess, hurts. And it hurts because it contains more than a kernel of truth.

I share the view that this European Union is typified by a large democratic deficit that, in combination with the denial of the faulty architecture of its monetary union, has put Europe’s peoples on a path to permanent recession.

And I also bow to the criticism that I have campaigned on an agenda founded on the assumption that the left was, and remains, squarely defeated. I confess I would much rather be promoting a radical agenda, the raison d’ĂȘtre of which is to replace European capitalism with a different system.

Yet my aim here is to offer a window into my view of a repugnant European capitalism whose implosion, despite its many ills, should be avoided at all costs. It is a confession intended to convince radicals that we have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative. 

Why a Marxist?

When I chose the subject of my doctoral thesis, back in 1982, I deliberately focused on a highly mathematical topic within which Marx’s thought was irrelevant. When, later on, I embarked on an academic career, as a lecturer in mainstream economics departments, the implicit contract between myself and the departments that offered me lectureships was that I would be teaching the type of economic theory that left no room for Marx.

In the late 1980s, I was hired by the University of Sydney’s school of economics in order to keep out a leftwing candidate (although I did not know this at the time).


Yanis Varoufakis: 'Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day.'
Yanis Varoufakis: ‘Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day.’ Photograph: PA
After I returned to Greece in 2000, I threw my lot in with the future prime minister George Papandreou, hoping to help stem the return to power of a resurgent right wing that wanted to push Greece towards xenophobia both domestically and in its foreign policy.
 
As the whole world now knows, Papandreou’s party not only failed to stem xenophobia but, in the end, presided over the most virulent neoliberal macroeconomic policies that spearheaded the eurozone’s so-called bailouts thus, unwittingly, causing the return of Nazis to the streets of Athens.
 
Even though I resigned as Papandreou’s adviser early in 2006, and turned into his government’s staunchest critic during his mishandling of the post-2009 Greek implosion, my public interventions in the debate on Greece and Europe have carried no whiff of Marxism.
 
Given all this, you may be puzzled to hear me call myself a Marxist. But, in truth, Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day. This is not something that I often volunteer to talk about in “polite society” because the very mention of the M-word switches audiences off. But I never deny it either.
 
After a few years of addressing audiences with whom I do not share an ideology, a need has crept up on me to talk about Marx’s imprint on my thinking. To explain why, while an unapologetic Marxist, I think it is important to resist him passionately in a variety of ways. To be, in other words, erratic in one’s Marxism.
 
If my whole academic career largely ignored Marx, and my current policy recommendations are impossible to describe as Marxist, why bring up my Marxism now? The answer is simple: Even my non-Marxist economics was guided by a mindset influenced by Marx.
 
A radical social theorist can challenge the economic mainstream in two different ways, I always thought. One way is by means of immanent criticism. To accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions. To say: “I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them.”
 
This was, indeed, Marx’s method of undermining British political economics. He accepted every axiom by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in order to demonstrate that, in the context of their assumptions, capitalism was a contradictory system. The second avenue that a radical theorist can pursue is, of course, the construction of alternative theories to those of the establishment, hoping that they will be taken seriously.
 
My view on this dilemma has always been that the powers that be are never perturbed by theories that embark from assumptions different to their own. The only thing that can destabilise and genuinely challenge mainstream, neoclassical economists is the demonstration of the internal inconsistency of their own models.

It was for this reason that, from the very beginning, I chose to delve into the guts of neoclassical theory and to spend next to no energy trying to develop alternative, Marxist models of capitalism. My reasons, I submit, were quite Marxist.

When called upon to comment on the world we live in, I had no alternative but to fall back on the Marxist tradition which had shaped my thinking ever since my metallurgist father impressed upon me, when I was still a child, the effect of technological innovation on the historical process. How, for instance, the passage from the bronze age to the iron age sped up history; how the discovery of steel greatly accelerated historical time; and how silicon-based IT technologies are fast-tracking socioeconomic and historical discontinuities.

My first encounter with Marx’s writings came very early in life, as a result of the strange times I grew up in, with Greece exiting the nightmare of the neofascist dictatorship of 1967-74. What caught my eye was Marx’s mesmerising gift for writing a dramatic script for human history, indeed for human damnation, that was also laced with the possibility of salvation and authentic spirituality.

Marx created a narrative populated by workers, capitalists, officials and scientists who were history’s dramatis personae. They struggled to harness reason and science in the context of empowering humanity while, contrary to their intentions, unleashing demonic forces that usurped and subverted their own freedom and humanity.

This dialectical perspective, where everything is pregnant with its opposite, and the eager eye with which Marx discerned the potential for change in what seemed to be the most unchanging of social structures, helped me to grasp the great contradictions of the capitalist era. It dissolved the paradox of an age that generated the most remarkable wealth and, in the same breath, the most conspicuous poverty.

Today, turning to the European crisis, the crisis in the United States and the long-term stagnation of Japanese capitalism, most commentators fail to appreciate the dialectical process under their nose. They recognise the mountain of debts and banking losses but neglect the opposite side of the same coin: the mountain of idle savings that are “frozen” by fear and thus fail to convert into productive investments. A Marxist alertness to binary oppositions might have opened their eyes.

A major reason why established opinion fails to come to terms with contemporary reality is that it never understood the dialectically tense “joint production” of debts and surpluses, of growth and unemployment, of wealth and poverty, indeed of good and evil. Marx’s script alerted us these binary oppositions as the sources of history’s cunning.

From my first steps of thinking like an economist, to this very day, it occurred to me that Marx had made a discovery that must remain at the heart of any useful analysis of capitalism. It was the discovery of another binary opposition deep within human labour.

Between labour’s two quite different natures: i) labour as a value-creating activity that can never be quantified in advance (and is therefore impossible to commodify), and ii) labour as a quantity (eg, numbers of hours worked) that is for sale and comes at a price. That is what distinguishes labour from other productive inputs such as electricity: its twin, contradictory, nature. A differentiation-cum-contradiction that political economics neglected to make before Marx came along and that mainstream economics is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge today.

Both electricity and labour can be thought of as commodities. Indeed, both employers and workers struggle to commodify labour. Employers use all their ingenuity, and that of their HR management minions, to quantify, measure and homogenise labour.

Meanwhile, prospective employees go through the wringer in an anxious attempt to commodify their labour power, to write and rewrite their CVs in order to portray themselves as purveyors of quantifiable labour units. And there’s the rub.

If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish. This is an insight without which capitalism’s tendency to generate crises can never be fully grasped and, also, an insight that no one has access to without some exposure to Marx’s thought. 

Science fiction becomes documentary

In the classic 1953 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien force does not attack us head on, unlike in, say, HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Instead, people are taken over from within, until nothing is left of their human spirit and emotions.

Their bodies are shells that used to contain a free will and which now labour, go through the motions of everyday “life”, and function as human simulacra “liberated” from the unquantifiable essence of human nature. This is something like what would have transpired if human labour had become perfectly reducible to human capital and thus fit for insertion into the vulgar economists’ models.


Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Photograph: SNAP/REX
Every non-Marxist economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value.
 
For a start, a society of dehumanised automata would resemble a mechanical watch full of cogs and springs, each with its own unique function, together producing a “good”: timekeeping. Yet if that society contained nothing but other automata, timekeeping would not be a “good”. It would certainly be an “output” but why a “good”? Without real humans to experience the clock’s function, there can be no such thing as “good” or “bad”.
 
If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value.

Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system.

The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

When Marx was writing that labour is the living, form-giving fire; the transitoriness of things; their temporality; he was making the greatest contribution any economist has ever made to our understanding of the acute contradiction buried inside capitalism’s DNA.

When he portrayed capital as a “… force we must submit to … it develops a cosmopolitan, universal energy which breaks through every limit and every bond and posts itself as the only policy, the only universality the only limit and the only bond”, he was highlighting the reality that labour can be purchased by liquid capital (ie money), in its commodity form, but that it will always carry with it a will hostile to the capitalist buyer.

But Marx was not just making a psychological, philosophical or political statement. He was, rather, supplying a remarkable analysis of why the moment that labour (as an unquantifiable activity) sheds this hostility, it becomes sterile, incapable of producing value.

At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself.

That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp. “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery”, wrote Marx “how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!” 

What has Marx done for us?

Almost all schools of thought, including those of some progressive economists, like to pretend that, though Marx was a powerful figure, very little of his contribution remains relevant today. I beg to differ.

Besides having captured the basic drama of capitalist dynamics, Marx has given me the tools with which to become immune to the toxic propaganda of neoliberalism.

For example, the idea that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation, is easy to succumb to if one has not been exposed first to Marx’s poignant argument that precisely the opposite applies: wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness.

In his recent book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, the historian of economic thought, Philip Mirowski, has highlighted the neoliberals’ success in convincing a large array of people that markets are not just a useful means to an end but also an end in themselves.

According to this view, while collective action and public institutions are never able to “get it right”, the unfettered operations of decentralised private interest are guaranteed to produce not only the right outcomes but also the right desires, character, ethos even.

The best example of this form of neoliberal crassness is, of course, the debate on how to deal with climate change. Neoliberals have rushed in to argue that, if anything is to be done, it must take the form of creating a quasi-market for “bads” (eg an emissions trading scheme), since only markets “know” how to price goods and bads appropriately.

To understand why such a quasi-market solution is bound to fail and, more importantly, where the motivation comes from for such “solutions”, one can do much worse than to become acquainted with the logic of capital accumulation that Marx outlined and the Polish economist Michal Kalecki adapted to a world ruled by networked oligopolies.


Neoliberals have rushed in with quasi-market responses to climate change, such as emissions trading schemes.
Neoliberals have rushed in with quasi-market responses to climate change, such as emissions trading schemes. Photograph: Jon Woo/Reuters
In the 20th century, the two political movements that sought their roots in Marx’s thought were the communist and social democratic parties.
 
Both of them, in addition to their other errors (and, indeed, crimes) failed, to their detriment, to follow Marx’s lead in a crucial regard: instead of embracing liberty and rationality as their rallying cries and organising concepts, they opted for equality and justice, bequeathing the concept of freedom to the neoliberals.
 
Marx was adamant: The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment and even turns capitalists into angst-ridden automata, living in permanent fear that unless they commodify their fellow humans fully so as to serve capital accumulation more efficiently, they will cease to be capitalists.
 
So, if capitalism appears unjust this is because it enslaves everyone; it wastes human and natural resources; the same production line that pumps out remarkable gizmos and untold wealth, also produces deep unhappiness and crises.
 
Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies.

Perhaps the most significant dimension of the neoliberal triumph is what has come to be known as the “democratic deficit”. Rivers of crocodile tears have flowed over the decline of our great democracies during the past three decades of financialisation and globalisation. Marx would have laughed long and hard at those who seem surprised, or upset, by the “democratic deficit”.

What was the great objective behind 19th-century liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter while leaving the economic sphere to capital. It is liberalism’s splendid success in achieving this long-held goal that we are now observing.

Take a look at South Africa today, more than two decades after Nelson Mandela was freed and the political sphere, at long last, embraced the whole population. The ANC’s predicament was that, in order to be allowed to dominate the political sphere, it had to give up power over the economic one. And if you think otherwise, I suggest that you talk to the dozens of miners gunned down by armed guards paid by their employers after they dared demand a wage rise. 

Why erratic?

Having explained why I owe whatever understanding of our social world I may possess largely to Karl Marx, I now want to explain why I remain terribly angry with him. In other words, I shall outline why I am by choice an erratic, inconsistent Marxist.

Marx committed two spectacular mistakes, one of them an error of omission, the other one of commission. Even today, these mistakes still hamper the left’s effectiveness, especially in Europe.

Marx’s first error - the error of omission was that he failed to give sufficient thought to the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. His theory is discursively exceptionally powerful, and Marx had a sense of its power. So how come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, via Marx’s own ideas, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence?

Marx’s second error, the one I ascribe to commission, was worse. It was his assumption that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models. This was the worst disservice he could have delivered to his own theoretical system.

The man who equipped us with human freedom as a first-order economic concept; the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics; he was the same person who ended up toying around with simplistic algebraic models, in which labour units were, naturally, fully quantified, hoping against hope to evince from these equations some additional insights about capitalism.

After his death, Marxist economists wasted long careers indulging a similar type of scholastic mechanism. Fully immersed in irrelevant debates on “the transformation problem” and what to do about it, they eventually became an almost extinct species, as the neoliberal juggernaut crushed all dissent in its path.

How could Marx be so deluded? Why did he not recognise that no truth about capitalism can ever spring out of any mathematical model, however brilliant the modeller may be? Did he not have the intellectual tools to realise that capitalist dynamics spring from the unquantifiable part of human labour; ie from a variable that can never be well-defined mathematically?

Of course he did, since he forged these tools! No, the reason for his error is a little more sinister: just like the vulgar economists that he so brilliantly admonished (and who continue to dominate the departments of economics today), he coveted the power that mathematical “proof” afforded him.

If I am right, Marx knew what he was doing. He understood, or had the capacity to know, that a comprehensive theory of value cannot be accommodated within a mathematical model of a dynamic capitalist economy. He was, I have no doubt, aware that a proper economic theory must respect the idea that the rules of the undetermined are themselves undetermined.

In economic terms this meant a recognition that the market power, and thus the profitability, of capitalists was not necessarily reducible to their capacity to extract labour from employees; that some capitalists can extract more from a given pool of labour or from a given community of consumers for reasons that are external to Marx’s own theory.

Alas, that recognition would be tantamount to accepting that his “laws” were not immutable. He would have to concede to competing voices in the trades union movement that his theory was indeterminate and, therefore, that his pronouncements could not be uniquely and unambiguously correct. That they were permanently provisional.

This determination to have the complete, closed story, or model, the final word, is something I cannot forgive Marx for. It proved, after all, responsible for a great deal of error and, more significantly, authoritarianism. Errors and authoritarianism that are largely responsible for the left’s current impotence as a force of good and as a check on the abuses of reason and liberty that the neoliberal crew are overseeing today. 

Mrs Thatcher’s lesson

I moved to England to attend university in September 1978, six months or so before Margaret Thatcher’s victory changed Britain forever.

Watching the Labour government disintegrate, under the weight of its degenerate social democratic programme, led me to a serious error: to the thought that Thatcher’s victory could be a good thing, delivering to Britain’s working and middle classes the short, sharp shock necessary to reinvigorate progressive politics; to give the left a chance to create a fresh, radical agenda for a new type of effective, progressive politics.

Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled, under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better.”

As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. The hope that the deterioration of public goods, the diminution of the lives of the majority, the spread of deprivation to every corner of the land would, automatically, lead to a renaissance of the left was just that: hope.

The reality was, however, painfully different. With every turn of the recession’s screw, the left became more introverted, less capable of producing a convincing progressive agenda and, meanwhile, the working class was being divided between those who dropped out of society and those co-opted into the neoliberal mindset.

My hope that Thatcher would inadvertently bring about a new political revolution was well and truly bogus. All that sprang out of Thatcherism were extreme financialisation, the triumph of the shopping mall over the corner store, the fetishisation of housing and Tony Blair.


Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative party conference in 1982.
Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative party conference in 1982. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features
Instead of radicalising British society, the recession that Thatcher’s government so carefully engineered, as part of its class war against organised labour and against the public institutions of social security and redistribution that had been established after the war, permanently destroyed the very possibility of radical, progressive politics in Britain. Indeed, it rendered impossible the very notion of values that transcended what the market determined as the “right” price.

The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a long‑lasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis. It is, indeed, the most important determinant of my stance in relation to the crisis.

It is the reason I am happy to confess to the sin I am accused of by some of my critics on the left: the sin of choosing not to propose radical political programs that seek to exploit the crisis as an opportunity to overthrow European capitalism, to dismantle the awful eurozone, and to undermine the European Union of the cartels and the bankrupt bankers.

Yes, I would love to put forward such a radical agenda. But, no, I am not prepared to commit the same error twice.

What good did we achieve in Britain in the early 1980s by promoting an agenda of socialist change that British society scorned while falling headlong into Thatcher’s neoliberal trap? Precisely none. What good will it do today to call for a dismantling of the eurozone, of the European Union itself, when European capitalism is doing its utmost to undermine the eurozone, the European Union, indeed itself?

A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation.

Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone.

I, for one, am not prepared to blow fresh wind into the sails of this postmodern version of the 1930s. If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis. 

What should Marxists do?

Europe’s elites are behaving today as if they understand neither the nature of the crisis that they are presiding over, nor its implications for the future of European civilisation. Atavistically, they are choosing to plunder the diminishing stocks of the weak and the dispossessed in order to plug the gaping holes of the financial sector, refusing to come to terms with the unsustainability of the task.

Yet with Europe’s elites deep in denial and disarray, the left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system.

Our task should then be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe - for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, reinforces only the bigots.

Let me now conclude with two confessions. First, while I am happy to defend as genuinely radical the pursuit of a modest agenda for stabilising a system that I criticise, I shall not pretend to be enthusiastic about it. This may be what we must do, under the present circumstances, but I am sad that I shall probably not be around to see a more radical agenda being adopted.

My final confession is of a highly personal nature: I know that I run the risk of, surreptitiously, lessening the sadness from ditching any hope of replacing capitalism in my lifetime by indulging a feeling of having become agreeable to the circles of polite society. The sense of self-satisfaction from being feted by the high and mighty did begin, on occasion, to creep up on me. And what a non-radical, ugly, corruptive and corrosive sense it was.

My personal nadir came at an airport. Some moneyed outfit had invited me to give a keynote speech on the European crisis and had forked out the ludicrous sum necessary to buy me a first-class ticket.

On my way back home, tired and with several flights under my belt, I was making my way past the long queue of economy passengers, to get to my gate. Suddenly I noticed, with horror, how easy it was for my mind to be infected with the sense that I was entitled to bypass the hoi polloi.

I realised how readily I could forget that which my leftwing mind had always known: that nothing succeeds in reproducing itself better than a false sense of entitlement. Forging alliances with reactionary forces, as I think we should do to stabilise Europe today, brings us up against the risk of becoming co-opted, of shedding our radicalism through the warm glow of having “arrived” in the corridors of power.

Radical confessions, like the one I have attempted here, are perhaps the only programmatic antidote to ideological slippage that threatens to turn us into cogs of the machine. If we are to forge alliances with our political adversaries we must avoid becoming like the socialists who failed to change the world but succeeded in improving their private circumstances.

The trick is to avoid the revolutionary maximalism that, in the end, helps the neoliberals bypass all opposition to their self-defeating policies and to retain in our sights capitalism’s inherent failures while trying to save it, for strategic purposes, from itself.

This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb in 2013

Follow the Long Read on Twitter: @gdnlongread

Crumbling Pillars of Global Capitalist Political Economy: Reflections from Eric Aarons

by Eric Aarons, Left Focus: http://leftfocus.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/crumbling-pillars-of-global-capitalist.html 

In the following reflections, former Australian communist leader Eric Aarons considers the moral and practical shortcomings of capitalist political economy and its attendant Ideology; including the Ideology underpinning 'Austrian Economics' and the thought of Friedrich Hayek. 

The pillars of a building, a narrative, a culture or theoretical edifice are those parts of the whole  that keep the other parts  in their designated places. 

The many books Friedrich Hayek wrote outlining his economic, social and philosophical views, of and for humanity, eventually prevailed over other theories and became dominant. I therefore re-examine its major beliefs and assertions - the pillars - that sustain the capitalist system he championed, and which are daily crumbling before our eyes. 

The first pillar is money 

Hayek asserts that: ‘Most people are still reluctant to accept the fact that it should be the disdained ‘cash nexus’ which holds the Great Society together, [and] that the great ideal of the unity of mankind should in the last resort depend on [it]’ (LLL, 2, 112). 

Money is of course essential in a commodity-based society; but are its possession and use uniformly  equitable and honest? Why could Oxfam, unchallenged, reveal that: ‘Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population [and] the bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world?’ (Jan. 2014).

Moreover, compared with earlier stages of the capitalist system, honesty today is very much wanting. For examples of top-organised fraud, recall the laundering of billions of dollars of Mexican drug money by HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), and the Libor scandal.

Libor referred to the internationally used and trusted benchmark, the ‘London Inter-bank Offered Rate’ set daily by experts. On a day when the person in charge was an employee of Barclays Bank which was suffering survival difficulties in the developing Great Financial Crisis, he skewed the benchmark rate to favour his bank over others.

Though big fines were imposed, the practice spread worldwide, and even years later new instances of benchmark corruption keep cropping up while new scams are continually invented.

To believe that ‘cash’ in these circumstances can unify rather than divide humanity is among the greatest of follies, especially considering the next pillar which is rotten from the start. 

In essence, this means that creating more and bigger capitalist organisations which, with globalisation, today embody the worldwide domination of possessors of ever-larger slabs of capital, and general wealth.

What else can this lead to but the conditions reported by Oxfam, that signify the increased concentration of wealth in the form of capital, which has reached a stage where capital is such a large proportion of the total wealth created, that governments cannot now provide, as they formerly did,  services, such as health and higher education, let alone the sums needed to ease the burdens of the disabled, or the facilities for learning, and character development, now socially essential.

It is called austerity. 

Giving to those who already have 

This is a second pillar of the existing capitalist system, stated by Hayek in these words: ‘… such a system gives to those who already have. But this is its merit rather than its defect, because it is this feature which makes it worthwhile for everybody to direct his efforts not only towards immediate results but also to the future increase of his capacity of rendering services to others. It is the possibility of acquisition for the purpose of improving the capacity for future acquisition which engenders a continual overall process in which we do not at every moment have to start from scratch, but can begin with equipment which is the result of past efforts in order to make as large as possible the earnings from the means we control’ (LLL, vol. 2, pp. 123-4).

Who is it that does the giving?  Consumers of course and waged employees. But here we are talking about economic theory which purports to show that economic processes involving markets are objective because individuals, as such, and by and large, cannot alter what the larger forces of the markets have proclaimed. 

This is not fully true due to monopolies and cartels - especially in these days of globalisation, where the stated aims of many multinational corporations are to make these forms of economic plunder almost routine, as illustrated in the oil and gas areas today.

Even on a smaller scale Hayek, addressing capitalist organisations in 1961, put their moral case just as pertinently: ‘We (capitalists) can decide whether the material reward others are prepared to pay for our services makes it worthwhile to render them.’ (The Moral element in Free Enterprise, pages 229 – 236 of Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, 1966).

Compare this with his contention that market processes are impersonal (The Constitution of Liberty, page 45). 

Neo-Liberalism claims that human beings are (basically) rule-following animals 

This is a claim without substance, and differs from every serious account of human nature that I have read. For instance, I recently reviewed a very useful and interesting book (The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert) which had a brief description of the human race:

‘The members of the species are not particularly swift or strong or fertile. They are, however, singularly resourceful. Gradually they push into regions with different climates, different predators and different prey. None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them. They cross rivers, plateaus, mountain ranges. In coastal regions, they gather shellfish; further inland they hunt mammals. Everywhere they settle, they adapt and innovate. On reaching Europe, they encounter creatures very much like themselves, but stockier and probably heavier, who have been living on the continent longer. They interbreed with these creatures and then, by one means or another, kill them off. 

The current system is beyond human control 

In Hayek’s theory, this is because capitalism is not a system formed by humans, but an entity that spontaneously formed itself. This is so singular (so idiosyncratic) a view that, unless grasped, it renders much of his early writing in The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty almost illogical. At least I found it so. 

Conclusion: The pillars of the present system are crumbling; it is rickety (liable to break or fail) as Thomas Piketty so thoroughly exposed. It requires major restructuring.

VIDEO: Japan’s Underground Automated Bike Parking is Something Every Country Should Have

by Inigo del Castillo, Lost at E Minor: http://www.lostateminor.com/2015/02/20/japans-underground-automated-bike-parking-something-every-country/ 



While the rest of us struggle with bike chains and bike theft, the Japanese have already solved these problems with underground bike parking-lots managed by robots!

In the video above, a bike is placed onto an elevator and gets sucked into a shaft full of bicycle holders. A contraption neatly parks it until the owner comes back. Convenient, right?

Designed by engineering company Giken Seisakusho, the underground bike parking lots can store up to 204 standard bicycles and can park one in just 13 seconds. Cyclists can use the facility using a rental card that costs 1,800 yen per month (around $15).

The innovative technology has been in main cities like Tokyo and Osaka for a few years, but it’s only now that we get to see how this awesome system actually works.

Via Design Boom

Japan’s underground automated bike parking is something every country should have

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Japan’s underground automated bike parking is something every country should have

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Japan’s underground automated bike parking is something every country should have

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Japan’s underground automated bike parking is something every country should have

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About the Author

Inigo is a writer and graphic designer from Manila, Philippines. He is a soldier of love who will carry you on his strong back of awesomeness when the zombie apocalypse arrives.

Friday, 20 February 2015

What Books Could Be Used to Rebuild Civilization?: Lists by Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly & Other Forward-Thinking Minds

by , Open Culture: http://www.openculture.com/2015/02/what-books-could-be-used-to-rebuild-civilization-lists-by-brian-eno-stewart-brand-kevin-kelly-other-forward-thinking-minds.html 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness



One particularly distressing hallmark of late modernity can be characterized as a cultural loss of the future.

Where we once delighted in imagining the turns civilization would take hundreds and even thousands of years ahead - projecting radical designs, innovative solutions, great explorations, and peculiar evolutionary developments - we now find the mode of forecasting has grown apocalyptic, as climate change and other catastrophic, man-made global phenomena make it difficult to avoid some very dire conclusions about humanity’s impending fate. We can add to this assessment the loss of what we may call the “long view” in our day-to-day lives.

As the Long Now Foundation co-founder Stewart Brand describes it, “civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span,” driven by “the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking.”

Such is the texture of modern existence, and though we may run our hands over it daily, remarking on how tightly woven the fabric is, we seem to have few-to-no mechanisms for unweaving - or even loosening - the threads. Enter the Long Now Foundation and its proposal of “both a mechanism and a myth” as a means encouraging “the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility.”


libraryfar
Image courtesy of Because We Can
















Inspired by computer scientist Daniel Hill’s idea for a Stonehenge-sized clock that “ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium,” the foundation proposes a number of projects and guidelines for restoring long-term thinking, including “minding mythic depth,” “rewarding patience,” and “allying with competition.”

The clock, initially a thought experiment, is becoming a reality, as you can see in the short video above, with a massive, “monument scale” version under construction in West Texas and scale prototypes in London and the Long Now Foundation’s San Francisco headquarters.

Largely a symbolic gesture, the “10,000 year clock,” as it’s called, has been joined with another, eminently practical undertaking reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica - a “library of the deep future.”

One wing of this library, the Manual for Civilization, aims to compile a collection of 3,500 books in the Foundation’s physical space - books deemed most likely to “sustain or rebuild civilization.” To begin the project, various future-minded contributors have been asked to make their own lists of books to add.

The first list comes from musician/composer/producer/musical futurist and founding board member Brian Eno, who named the foundation. Other notable contributors include Long Now Foundation president Stewart Brand and board member and co-founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly.

Below, see the first ten titles from each of these futurist’s lists, and further down, links to the full list of contributors’ selections so far. As you scan the titles below, and browse through each contributor’s list, consider why and how each of these books would help humanity rebuild civilization, and suggest books of your own in the comments.

10 Titles from Brian Eno’s Manual for Civilization list
10 Titles from Stewart Brand’s Manual for Civilization list
10 Titles from Kevin Kelly’s Manual for Civilization list
Once again, these are only excerpts from longer lists by these three futuristic thinkers. For their complete selections, click on their lists below, as well as those from such cultural figures as sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson and Brain Pickings’ editor Maria Popova.

And please let us know: Which books would you include in the “Manual for Civilization” library project, and why? You can also add your own suggestions for the growing library at the Long Now Foundation’s website.

From ‘Demos’ to ‘Podemos’: Popular Uprisings in Greece and Spain

Tsipras and Iglesias (Photo: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis)
by Amy Goodman, Common Dreams: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/19/demos-podemos-popular-uprisings-greece-and-spain

In ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, power derived from “demos,” the people. Well, the people of contemporary Greece have been reeling under austerity for five years, and have voted to put an end to it.

In January, the anti-austerity Syriza Party was swept to power in national elections. Greece is a member of the so-called eurozone, the nations that joined together with a common currency back in 1999. Following the economic crash of 2009, the Greek economy was in shambles.

In 2012, I interviewed economist and Syriza member Yanis Varoufakis, who is now Greece’s minister of finance, and is at the center of the current crisis in the eurozone.

“Greece is going through its Great Depression, something akin to what the United States went through in the 1930s,” he told me. “This is not just a change of government. It’s a social economy that has entered into a deep coma. It’s a country that is effectively verging to the status of a failed state.”

In order to stabilize the Greek economy, a bailout package was proposed, delivered by three institutions reviled in Greece as “The Troika”: the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In exchange for the bailout of more than $100 billion euros, Greece would have to impose strict austerity measures, including mass layoffs of public-sector workers and the sale of public resources, like government-owned port facilities.

For years, the main political parties in Greece accepted the demands of the Troika, repressing the resulting protests with police violence. The new party in power, “Syriza,” is an acronym meaning “Coalition of the Radical Left,” and Varoufakis, along with his colleague Alexis Tsipras as prime minister, wasted no time challenging the austerity measures.

Paul Mason, economics editor at Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom, has been doing some of the best reporting in English on the Greek crisis.

On the “Democracy Now!” news hour, I asked him to explain austerity: “Austerity in Greece means something like a 50 percent measurable increase in male suicides. It means real wages fell by 25 percent in five years ... you’ve got the 300,000 families who can’t afford electricity.”

Interviewed in Der Spiegel, Varoufakis called austerity “fiscal waterboarding.” Greeks, as well, have not forgotten that Germany, under the Nazis, brutally occupied their nation for four years during World War II. Syriza’s representative in the European Parliament, 92-year-old Manolis Glezos, was imprisoned by the Nazis after he tore a swastika flag off of the Acropolis.

“The German political class just can’t get their head around the idea,” Mason explained, “that a party has been elected that wants to do something so radically different, that they can’t do it without breaking the rules that the eurozone has been formed around. So it’s becoming cultural.”

Spain also has been wracked by the global recession, with 50 percent unemployment among young people. Bank foreclosures on homes are rampant, leaving people homeless but still required to pay the entire mortgage, leading to many suicides.

In the midst of this financial ruin, a grass-roots movement grew, called by some “the Indignados,” the Indignant Ones. Thousands occupied a main square in Madrid, the Puerta del Sol, Gate of the Sun, demanding real democracy. Out of this grass-roots movement a political party was founded last May called “Podemos,” Spanish for “We Can.”

Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old former political-science professor, is the secretary-general of Podemos. He came to New York City this week. I asked him about the crisis in Spain, and what Podemos is doing about it: “My country has three big problems: inequality, unemployment and debt,” he explained.

“After six years, the situation is worse than before. So, we think that in democracy, if something doesn’t work, you can change ... we want to organize another way to improve the situation.”

Two months after Podemos was formed, the party received 1.2 million votes and sent Iglesias and four other Podemos members to the European Parliament.

One poll suggests Podemos could win the national election next November. If Podemos does win, Iglesias could well be Spain’s next prime minister. If elected, he promises to stop the evictions, restructure the debt and reform taxes, which, he says, burden the poor and middle class much more than the rich.

The future of Europe is in flux, as popular movements in Greece and Spain gain power and challenge traditional economic and political systems. The global economic crisis created enormous suffering for billions around the world. But it also created an opening, allowing people to reassess the rules under which they live and work, to challenge those in power, and to demonstrate that another world is possible.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.