Taking What’s Ours – A review of The Squatters’ Movement in Europe

November 12, 2014

Anitra Nelson, author of Life Without Money (Pluto, 2011) has reviewed two new books for the online publication Overland. One of them, The Squatters’ Movement in Europe, was published by Pluto in May this year. You can read the review, as well as some other great content, on Overland - we’ve also reproduced it below.

Anitra Nelson

Kollective T02744In general, the laws of capitalism protect the interests of property owners and big bosses, particularly the one per cent. As capitalism expands and intensifies, the laws multiply. Writers have difficulty claiming copyright and earning their just rewards. Australian federal court judges recently threw out an appeal from Cancer Voices Australia about a decision that DNA and RNA can be patented. Bailiffs turf you out when you stop paying your rent or mortgage off. If the bosses decide, thousands of us can be made redundant – essentially, forced not to work.

But capitalists’ exploitation of nature and people is the subject of increasing resistance, as life on earth is threatened by the climate change caused by capitalism. Two very readable recent books explore anti-capitalist practices: The Squatters’ Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism, written by scholar-activists of the Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK) and edited by Claudio Cattaneo and Miguel Martínez López, and The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox.

The first is a pioneering work on a relatively neglected topic: squatting as a political action and to fulfil otherwise unmet needs for housing. Despite the book’s European focus, some chapters draw on examples from the US, with authors discussing the cultural diversity within squats, their meaning for our urban environmental crises and legal codes.

The observations and experiences are easily transferable, except that Australian squats are neither as extensive nor as visible: see the Australian Museum of Squatting created by squatter enthusiasts Iain McIntyre and Shane McGrath who run 3CR’s SUWA (Squatters and Unwaged Airwaves) show, and the international site Squat!net for SqEK and recent Australian news. Read the rest of this entry »

Ricketty Piketty: The Road to Non-Market Socialism

October 30, 2014

The following article originally appeared in Progress in Political Economy (PPE). Read it in its original context, here.

Thomas PikettyPiketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the diving off point for the opening session of the recent Historical Materialism Australasia 2014 conference in Sydney. Valuably, Piketty exposes increasing economic inequality, highlights the burgeoning filthy rich and argues that deep inequalities are the natural state of any capitalism unfettered by state redistributive and welfare programs. But the panel I led raised a number of concerns about Piketty’s approach. Here I draw from my talk about the vexed issued of inequality for the Left in general and the particular stance of non-market socialists.

The gesture to Marx’s Capital in Piketty’s title is annoying given Piketty engages cursorily with Marx. In a New Republic (5 May 2014) interview he even misrepresents him, saying: ‘In the books of Marx there’s no data.’ Not surprisingly Piketty only offers a narrow statistical analysis of developing inequalities in income and wealth especially recently and mainly in advanced capitalism.

Inequality represents a double-edged sword for the Marxist left. Inequality in owning assets and income levels are living breathing proof of capitalism’s deepest failings. But addressing inequality often slides into reformism. Union demands generally support capitalism unless linked overtly to a revolutionary agenda ending capitalism. Unionisation has fallen since the 1980s. Radical unionism has been decimated. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Told You So’ Is Bitter Sweet: Confessions of an Author

October 29, 2014

Robin Hahnel discusses the down-side to the vindication he felt on completing The ABCs of Political Economy


‘After I wrote the first edition of The ABCs of Political Economy in 2002 came the “rush” of vindication:

  • I warned about the dangerous downside potentials of liberalising the financial system. But did anyone listen? No. And sure enough the world suffered the worst financial crisis in five generations five years later.
  • I explained why insisting on fiscal and monetary austerity in exchange for IMF bailout loans for stricken third world economies only worsened their plight. Only to have the European Commission and European Central Bank impose even more draconian austerity on Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain – the infamous PIGS – driving the Southern European economies into a full blown depression, and the miring the entire Eurozone in a double dip recession, poised to dip once again.
  • I explained why the sensible response to a recessionary slide is expansionary fiscal policy. Only to see the Obama administration change the subject from fiscal stimulus to deficit reduction in the winter of 2010, killing any hope of an early recovery in the US.
  • The simple “corn model” in chapter 3 explained clearly why increasing inequality is the predictable result if wage rates in labor markets, and interest rates in credit markets, are determined by the laws of supply and demand. Only to see center left as well as center right governments in every advanced economy push financial liberalization and labor market “flexibility.”
  • I devised a simple “public good game” to explain the inescapable logic of why actors will predictably fail to voluntarily contribute sufficiently to public good provision. But did anyone apply this logic to international climate negotiations to conclude that voluntary greenhouse gas emission reductions would be woefully insufficient, and only mutually agreed to, mandatory reductions could possibly prevent unacceptable climate change? No. Instead in Copenhagen in 2009 the Obama administration scuttled progress toward mandatory reductions made in the Kyoto protocol, setting international climate negotiations back twenty years just when scientists were telling us that the “climate problem” was much more immanent and acute than they previously believed.

In short, writing a new edition of The ABCs of Political Economy in 2014 was not very difficult because the theory and models in the 2002 edition were precisely what one needed to know why our economies were becoming more unstable and unfair, and why the measures governments were taking aggravate rather than ameliorate problems.

But unfortunately my rush of vindication as an author was short lived, and was soon replaced by dismay, followed by anger, followed by despair. Bad economics continued to create new accidents waiting to happen. Bad economics responded to crises with counterproductive policies. Bad economics threatens not only the economic wellbeing of the vast majority, but the health of the planet as well. As the carnage kept mounting the “I told you so” rush of vindication did not feel good for long.

Read the rest of this entry »

Between Truth and Power: Latour’s Political Philosophy

October 28, 2014

by Graham Harman

‘In Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political, I claim that Latour’s approach to political theory poses a strong challenge to reigning paradigms in the discipline. Politics since the French Revolution, whatever the complexities of any given historical moment, has habitually been carved up into “Left” and “Right” orientations. Indeed, this is how all of us instinctively classify each person we meet in political terms. As Emerson famously put it, every nation has its progressives (“The Party of Hope”) and its conservatives (“The Party of Memory”). Bruno Latour has always been difficult to place on this familiar spectrum. Clearly he is not a radical Leftist, having little in common with Jacobin countrymen such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, who are prepared to sacrifice everything in the name of egalitarian principle. In fact, Latour is sometimes tarred by the Left as a “neo-liberal,” though this label is always too vague and too broadly applied to anyone who pulls up short of calling for instant Revolution.

Yet Latour also cannot plausibly be viewed as an adherent of the political Right, despite his unapologetic Catholicism and his famous polemic against modernism. One can hardly imagine Latour signing up for a “Party of Memory,” in view of his fondness for novel hybrid fusions of humans and non-humans: it is not for nothing that cyborg theorist Donna Haraway is an enthusiastic reader of his work. The difference between Left and Right actually has less to do with hope and memory than with the conception of human nature as basically good or basically troubled. In the former case, as for example in the writings of Rousseau or Marx, the innate goodness of humans is alienated or crushed by some external corrupting force— whether agriculture, metallurgy, society, ideology, or capital. In the latter case, as in the works of Hobbes or Carl Schmitt, the human being is viewed as a basically dangerous entity, and hence an iron fist is preferred to the innate corruption and disorder of our natures. These two opposite theories of human nature already show us why Latour is hard to classify as Left or Right: namely, Latour has no theory of human nature. The topic does not seem to interest him much, or at least has little place in his philosophy. What matters for Latour instead is the constant reshuffling of human and nonhuman actors in various networks; as they enter and exit various networks, actors change their character accordingly, including human actors. They do not have some inherent good or evil nature that would be either oppressed or restrained by authority.

Yet there is a different polarity in modern political theory, one that cuts across the Left/Right distinction and is also of far greater relevance to the political theory of Latour. I speak of the difference between what we might call Truth Politics and Power Politics. I have already mentioned Rousseau and Marx as exemplars of the Left version of Truth Politics: the truth is basically already known, but is prevented from becoming reality by various social, economic, or ideological obstructions. Yet there are also Right versions of Truth Politics, as found for instance in the teachings of Leo Strauss. Here Socrates is interpreted not as someone who seeks the truth without finding it, as the name philosophia suggests. Instead, Socrates already knows the truth: that humans are not equal, but are arranged in a permanent hierarchy of types that transcends all historical context. Philosophy is dangerous for the masses, yet philosophers must conceal this fact with coded writing and esoteric signals, convincing the masses that they are normal patriotic and religious citizens in order to avoid the fate of Socrates himself. But this elitism is merely the reverse of the supposed egalitarian truth, since both think the truth is already known to some smaller or larger group. This sort of Truth Politics has nothing at all to do with the thought of Latour, who completely forbids any direct access to a “truth” that might trump the uncertain struggles between competing actors.

Read the rest of this entry »

An introduction to Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine

October 27, 2014

By Ran Greenstein

‘Rumours about the imminent demise of Zionism are premature, but there is little doubt that it is entering a new stage of crisis. Three issues in particular stand out in this respect: a Zionism and its Discontents - Available from Pluto Pressdiplomatic crisis reflecting a rapid decrease in the support given by the global community, a crisis of control reflecting intensification of resistance by Palestinians, and an internal crisis of legitimacy reflecting growing polarisation within Israeli society itself. None of these aspects has reached a point of no return that signals a state of terminal decline, but the direction is clear. Only a radical change of Israeli policies would be able to reverse these trends.

But what precisely do we mean by Zionism? The term has been used both by its adherents and its opponents in various ways to refer to firstly the Jewish settlement project in Palestine since the late 19th century, to the quest for Jewish statehood in the 20th century, to the notion of Jewish self-determination, to Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing and military occupation and finally to expressions of support for the State of Israel as a focus of identification for Jews throughout the world. These definitions are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they do have different implications which have been manifested in Jewish and Israeli politics.

This diversity of meanings has given way, however, to a much narrower definition in practice. As Antony Lerman recently has put it: “there is only one form of Zionism of any consequence today, either in Israel or in the Jewish diaspora: right-wing, exclusionary, discriminatory ethno-nationalism, inspired by religious messianism”

To be critical of Zionism today, then, means above all to oppose the aggressive, reactionary, ethnocentric policies that have inspired the Israeli regime since 1967, in its quest to take over and settle as much territory with as few indigenous people as possible and, in the process, to suppress any resistance to this expansionist project.

In a sense, that has always been a core aspect of the critique of Zionism. But, as explored in this new book, Zionism And It’s Discontents, historically there were different ways of conceptualising political and cultural alternatives and organising to realise them. The book examines Zionism through the conceptual lenses used by movements that sought to challenge its foundations as well as confront its practices on the ground. These include the bi-nationalist movement of the British Mandate period; the Palestinian Communist Party of the same period; the Palestinian national movement in various permutations and the radical left-wing Matzpen group of the 1960s to 1980s.

Zionist activists and scholars may find it strange to see their movement reflected through the eyes of its critics and opponents. This is an essential operation, however, to avoid the usual writing of history from the perspective of victors, and to provide a counter-view that examines political alternatives as they unfolded in their own time.

Inevitably, we tend to look at historical developments in retrospect, knowing how they turned out at the end and what their outcomes were. Avoiding this approach means looking forward, from the temporal perspective of the direct actors rather than the vantage point of the present. None of these actors managed to achieve their primary goals, but they all made valuable contributions – by way of analysis and practice – which may serve us today in charting a new course of action. Hence, the importance of their stories. In their different ways they provide essential starting points for a critique of the present. This should be of interest to scholars but also to activists who seek to learn the lessons of the past in order to shape their struggles in the present and achieve greater success in the future.

Read the rest of this entry »

Transparency, what transparency?

October 14, 2014

by Justin Schlosberg

In 2011, as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a new era of transparency in the government’s dealings with the media. All meetings between senior government and media figures were to be recorded and published on a quarterly basis and a major public inquiry was launched – partly with a focus on the relationship between press and politicians.

Schlosberg T02658The Leveson hearings that followed cast an unprecedented spotlight on the intimacy of these relations complete with gossip, threats, family get-togethers and texts signed off with ‘lots of love’ and kisses. It had very little to do with the day-to-day interactions between politicians and journalists – both on and off the record – which are an intrinsic part of the political newsgathering process. It revealed instead something over and above those interactions – an exclusive club at the heart of the establishment that seemed to undermine the very fabric of British democracy, and underline the growing public mistrust of both politicians and the media.

Within this dynamic, Leveson was pre-occupied with the flow of influence from media owners to politicians. The founding premise of his inquiry was that press power was out of control, undermining the integrity of government, parliament and the police, whilst severely infringing on the privacy rights of individual citizens. Leveson’s detractors, on the other hand, perceived the gravest threat to democracy as operating in the other direction. It was creeping state control of the press – supposedly heralded by his reform proposals – which threatened to fatally undermine the independence of the fourth estate.  In the intense debate that followed, a fundamental truth was obscured: media and political elites are not rivals but partners in a relationship that works ultimately to promote the shared interests of power. This was vividly demonstrated when Rebecca Brooks – former editor of the News of the World – told Leveson that the Prime Minister had sent her a consoling text during the height of the scandal, apologising for not being able to be more ‘loyal’ to her in public. Read the rest of this entry »

How we should ensure UK arms exports do not help crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

September 30, 2014

Nicholas Gilby, author of Deception in High Places, discusses the latest protests which have broken out in Hong Kong and the role that the UK arms trade is playing in supporting its repression.

On Sunday, serious unrest broke out in Hong Kong and large-scale protests still continue.  A student-driven movement drew tens of thousands on to the streets of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, calling for a truly free election for the Chief Executive of the territory in 2017.  The police used considerable amounts of tear gas on the peaceful protesters, in an attempt to disperse them.  Sadly, it appears that some of the tear gas used in the attempt to crush the pro-democracy protests may have been licensed for export by the UK Government, the former colonial power.

When, after 99 years of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 it was agreed that “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”.  In practice this means the people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) enjoy much greater civil liberties than those in Communist-run China, including, for example, unhindered internet access and freedom of speech.  Further, the rule of law of prevails, and corruption is not nearly as widespread as in mainland China.

The Chinese Government had previously promised that universal suffrage would be used in the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2017 and in the election of all legislators in 2020.  But, in August, the Chinese Government decided that all candidates in the election for Chief Executive had to be approved by Beijing.  In other words, Hong Kong’s citizens will not have a free choice to elect who they want. Read the rest of this entry »


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