Monday, December 23, 2013

danger: flea markets ahead

Police declared downtown Hamburg a "danger zone," giving them the right to search and detain people without initial suspicion, as they prepared to evict squatters from Rote Flora, a theater complex that has been squatted since 1989, Al Jazeera reports.

Rote Flora, a half-destroyed theater built in 1888, was legally leased by left-wing squatters in 1989 and turned into a cultural center that regularly organizes parties and flea markets.

The police action came after protests sparked by the threat of eviction after the city sold the site to a developer. Residents also demonstrated against forced evictions in the Reeperbahn red-light district and demanded better rights for refugees.

It's amazingly two-faced. Western democracies are outraged when authorities claimp down on freedom of assembly and expression in places like Tahrir Square, but engage in military-style repressive clamp-downs on their home turf

Friday, December 20, 2013

The fault, dear Brutus ...

... is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Grand rhetoric courtesy of William Shakespeare. But not a particularly ringing endorsement of the possibility of social change.

Which is why Roger Cohen's heartfelt column in the international edition of the NYT seems oddly bloodless. He's right in his diagnosis: inequality is a massive problem -- in India and throughout the world. 'When a phrase like “the bottom 90 percent” [or, I might add, 'we are the 99 percent'] rolls off the tongue as if this were a normal state of affairs,' he writes, 'something is amiss.'

But what's his prognosis? Only that nugget from Shakespeare. "Policy change can help," he writes in his last sentence, but the real change "must come from within each of us."

Well, sure. Duties and obligations, as Simone Weil wrote decades ago, come before rights.

Indeed, to look at the full quote from Shakespeare (full text of the play here), reveals that the Bard was not making a plea for inward inquiry but rather one for revolution: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.' Cassius, who speaks this line, wants Brutus to join a bloody plot to oust the current leader, Julius Caesar, and seize power.

Yes, as Cohen notes, the system is rigged and "the common man and woman have been had." But individualism -- a.k.a. the profit motive -- got us into this mess. Individualism -- a.k.a. charity, or, in Cassius's and Brutus's case, the desire for power and fame -- is not what's going to dig us out.

There are lots of things groups can do collectively to promote change and reduce inequality. Here's one place to start: the mass of people -- the squatters and System D merchants who are actually the bedrock of every city in every developing world country -- need to organize and empower themselves. Their self-mobilized, self-governing groupings will lead the way to development that is more democratic and egalitarian.

As Nobel-prize-winner Elinor Ostrom wrote in a paper that's as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1994, "we will all be the poorer if local, self-organized institutions are not a substantial portion of the institutional portfolio of the 21st century." 

tip o' the hat to Jacqueline Novogratz, a.k.a. @jnovogratz, for the link to the Roger Cohen article.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

aid, trade, and criminality

It all sounds super-nefarious: Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based non-profit, reports that developing countries across the globe lost almost $1 trillion from illicit financial flows in 2011. Sub-Saharan Africa--a region that needs all the money it can get--lost $52 billion in 2011, the equivalent of 5.7 percent of total Gross Domestic Product drained from the region's economies. Leading the list of the porous states on the continent: Nigeria, which lost $142.3 billion between 2002 and 2011.

So who are these criminals who are bleeding developing countries dry? It ain't terrorists or criminal cartels. Rather, the criminal enterprises at the root of this are mostly respected multinational corporations.

Though transfers from criminal cartels and terrorist organisations are a problem, the report concluded that the majority of this illegal financial activity stems from misleading and discounted trade invoices filed by international corporations.

And here's an amazing stat: this corporate malfeasance amounted to ten times the total value the developing world received in aid. Think about that the next time you consider the aid vs. trade question.