Rise of the technocrats

27 11 2011

‘Plan A’ didn’t work in the eurozone. When the interest rates on Greek, Portuguese and Irish debt reached an unsustainable level, bailouts and tough new rules were imposed. These unruly junior members of the euro project would be taught lessons in fiscal management. The official prediction was that austerity and reform of these economies would bring interest rates down and growth, eventually.

The aim was also to stop the rot, the small countries could be bailed out, if Italy or Spain needed the same treatment the Euro would find itself on a slippery slope. Greece was the first to fail, massive cuts in public spending meant the economy followed the course of economic law rather than the prayers of the men at the European Central Bank.

The bailouts failed again and again leaving Greece staring into the abyss of default. It was said there could never be a ‘Plan B’, but then Greece defaulted on half of its debt. Prime Minister George Papandreou’s government agreed to a new set of measures to deal with the other half, but this time he announced he would go to the people and get their approval in a referendum.

This was too much, for those at the top of Europe do not believe the people have the capacity to choose their own future. Papandreou was forced out and former European Central Bank vice-president Lucas Papademos imposed on the Greeks as a better alternative.

George Papandreou sealed his own fate when he insisted the Greek people should have a say the future direction of their nation.

Then the Italian’s found they couldn’t force through their new austerity drive alongside the theatre spectacle that is Silvio Berlusconi. Europe needed someone who could bring this to Italy, former European commissioner Mario Monti was chosen as a man who could get the job done.

From their lofty offices in Frankfurt and Brussels, the captains of the European project simply don’t believe the people have the ability to make rational decisions. This is not a new development, democracy has long been an obstacle in Europe.

Ireland has a constitution that is the odd one out in Europe. Drafted in 1937 without any idea that the country would be part of a continental block, it requires any international treaty to be ratified by the people.

Twice this has been a problem. In 2001 the Irish rejected the Nice treaty, Brussels said try again, a year later they got the right result. Then in 2005 the French and Dutch rejected a European constitution, undeterred the bureaucrats made a few cosmetic changes and rebranded it a treaty. This time only the Irish electorate stood in the way. Again they rejected it in 2008, so again they were told to go back to the people until they got the right answer.

Campaign posters from the Lisbon Treaty referendum in Ireland.

This is no way to run a ‘democracy’, for a while it can be expected that people will apathetically accept the technocrats thinly veiled claim that only they know best. However, this time their big idea is austerity. When that doesn’t work they say we need more austerity, when it still doesn’t work they say we need austerity for 10 or 20 years.

Eventually the people will realise these people have no clue about how to solve this crisis, only delusions. They created the time bomb of the eurozone, dreamt up a totally inadequate response to the inevitable implosion and then scratched their heads in utter astonishment when their remedies didn’t work.

The problem is that this disillusionment with mainstream politics can manifest itself in ugly ways. Brussels can impose as many technocrats as it wants but at some point elections will have to be held. In the vacuum that is created, nationalism can take over. They once said Greece could never default on it’s debts, now they say it’s inconceivable that the eurozone could end, until it does.


My day at Occupy London

22 11 2011

The makeshift village that sprung up in the most unlikely of places is starting to sprawl out, true to its organic origin. Squeezed between financial offices, high end shops and one of the most iconic cathedrals in the world sits a ragtag collection tents. The makeshift village that sprung up in the most unlikely of places is starting to sprawl out across the city and elsewhere, true to its organic origin. They refuse to move until something changes, but what?

The Occupy movement has sprung up in cities around the world. It’s an intriguing idea that seems to have sprung out of nowhere but no one knows how to react to it, the protesters most of all I found.

The first thing you notice when you walk around the tent village outside St Paul’s cathedral is how many different political circles all sit together. In one corner the Socialist Worker’s Party and the Socialist Party, are busy getting the same message across but in two separate and competing publications. Round the corner you find Buddhists are maintaining a mediative session. Anarchists mingle in the camp while the hippies all strive to keep the village going with a working kitchen, community spaces and even a tent university. It’s like an uninvited Glastonbury.

It all very much feels like a coalition of forces that have been protesting on various issues for years. So while it seems like an unexpected explosion of protest, in reality its more a coming together of campaign weary groups with a new lease of life. From the green movement to the anti-war campaigners to the old socialists, the aftermath of the financial crisis has given them all a common cause with which to rally round.

So what’s the problem and what’s the plan? I decided to take a trip to the latest occupation in the city, the empty UBS offices near Liverpool Street station. It had only been entered and took over a couple of days previously so I expected some kind of police presence. I had been told at St Paul’s that the police would still be manning the street but I could still easily get inside. When I arrived the street was deserted, the police presumably being back at the station having tea and biscuits.

The opening of the ‘Bank of Ideas’ inside a disused UBS bank office

The building has been set up as an area of discussion, the so called ‘Bank of Ideas’. A steady trickle of people was filing in and out of the building that had obviously not been used for years. Listening into the conversations going on I was quickly surprised how the civil these recent strangers were with one another. I had no idea about the sign language that has spread along with the spirit of Occupy, at first I thought a large number of wacky kids TV presenters must have been involved in the movement. Eventually I worked out that waving hands up is to agree, down to disagree and putting your hand (like in school) means give me the floor.

On the first floor one group were discussing tips on how to occupy (or squat) in other buildings within the confines of the law, another on how to co-ordinate the protest movements throughout Britain and Ireland. Very much a practical ‘how to’ guide on protest.

Downstairs another discussion centered on what happens when the occupations are forced out. This was too much for one woman who complained it was too negative and drifted off eventually to question a documentary filmmaker on whether he was there on behalf of the police.

By this time I started to worry about the lack of discussion on exactly what the issues at stake were. All of them were there with grievances about some part of the economic system, but not once all day did I hear the word ‘economics’.

Every discussion I heard centered on growing and keeping the protest movement rolling forward, an admirable aim but to what end? A great day of action was mentioned a couple of times with the belief that the government would have to listen if there were enough numbers. Inevitably somebody brought up the one million strong anti-war demonstration before the Iraq war that had zero effect.

Perhaps avoiding discussion of exactly what is wrong with current economic policy is the best way of not getting bogged down in debate, especially with so many diverse groups of people involved. However, in its place a vacuum is created that reverts to type, repeated demonstrations and occupations with a them and us downbeat tone.

Thats not to say that the Occupy movement can be dismissed. It’s messy, divided and unorganised but then it’s only a few weeks old. In that short time it has attracted a lot of publicity and solidarity from people who believe there is something rotten in the world, but they cannot say exactly what. It has a genuine warmth and goodwill around it, but still feels a long way from influencing the levers of power.

This is an effort to change the dynamics of one of the most abstract academic studies there is. Economics is not a sexy medium. But without talking about it in radical ways, any movement is setting itself up to be pigeon holed as just another hopelessly naive spasm of discontent.

Taking the politics out of war

12 11 2011

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has just passed. That is the moment in 1918 when the German surrender was received and over four years of slaughter finally came to an end. It became known as Armistice Day.

The day became a remembrance day for the thousands of men who went to war and never came back. A day to remember why all the young men had disappeared and also the needless horror of it all.

The Battle of the Somme, where it became routine for tens of thousands of men to die in a single day.

However, the day has changed in its meaning over the years. After World War II the date became a remembrance day for all those you went to fight for their nation and died. It became the central way for society to acknowledge the cost of war.

Today, far from the terrible wars in Europe, the western world is enjoying one of its most peaceful times in recent history. The last veteran from World War I died earlier this year and the veterans from the second world war are fast disappearing, along with those who lived through that horrific episode of history.

These wars are fading from personal memory into history books. The next generation are not going to have the opportunity as I did to have their granddad give them a first hand account of that moment in history.

Nevertheless Armistice Day is still given huge publicity in todays world but not in the way it used to be. We all rightly remember the history behind the date and some of us observe the traditional two minutes silence for the dead. However, something fundamental about the day has changed though. It is no longer just about remembering a terrible slaughter, today patriotism has entered the mix and a useful tool it has become.

Without our tangible connections to the great wars of the twentieth century we now remember the deaths from our more recent military escapades. Celebrities pose on billboards to show their support for the troops. To appear on British television without a poppy is seen as snub to all those who perished. The world football governing body tried to stop the English national team from wearing an embroidered poppy on their shirt as they said this was a political statement, to howls of indignation from David Cameron.

Actress Helen Mirren lends her support to the British Legion charity.

But here is the distinction, we all want to believe that those who died in war, died for a reason, that their sacrifice meant something to our modern way of life. In effect, the belief that all war is necessary, but it’s not. A soldier who died on the beaches of Normandy had a part to play in the downfall of a vicious dictatorship. Can the same be said of the millions who were cut down by machine gun fire in Flanders fields so that ‘Field Marshall Haig could move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin’ as it is put in the excellent Blackadder Goes Forth comedy.

Are we remembering that these men are sent to their deaths in either Belgium or Afghanistan by ignorant politicians and generals more interested in national prestige than the lives of their own young men. Or are we showing solidarity with the difficult job todays troops have in our modern wars.

The meaning of the poppy is becoming politicised and for the politicians this is a triumph. For to question the war is to question those who serve their country on the battlefield. A large part of this problem is that the armed forces today do not feel valued because nobody cares about Afghanistan, the war is of no consequence to us at home. Only our politicians and generals who do not want to be ones to admit defeat in a stupid and unwinnable war, believe this is a fight worth having.

So we need a day like Armistice Day, where the military gets acknowledgment from society for their actions. Then we move on to thinking about Christmas and the shockingly low salaries our “heroes” is again overlooked. The unemployed veterans who after leaving the military can’t find work in our depressed economies is ignored and those who commit suicide after their return from the front, never to be included as a casualty of war, is barely recognised.