Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Austerity Agenda, Part 2: Democracy in Tatters

Earlier this week, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou returned from a meeting with Eurozone members, clutching a deal which was hailed (at the time) as the salvation of Europe. World markets went on a celebratory spending spree at the news, which continued right up until Papandreou announced that he would take deal to the public through a referendum. Papandreou wanted the Greek People to give their assent to the severe austerity measures being requested by the Eurozone. Only a referendum would lend democratic legitimacy to the austerity measures to be implemented, according to Papandreou. Greeks would vote knowing that a rejection of the austerity measures would likely see Greece thrown out of the Eurozone and left to sink or swim on its own (with sinking being the likeliest outcome either way).

And then a truly scary thing happened, and it was this scary thing which has contributed to the dark headspace that I seem to find myself in today, as I indicated in Part 1 of this post. As European markets plunged on the news that Greece was going to hold a referendum, the other Eurozone nations, notably France and Germany (who are going to be on the hook for a significant part of the bail out extended to Greece) demanded that Papandreou not hold the referendum, and institute the austerity measures without going to the Greek People as Papandreou had planned.

In Animal Farm parlance, this can be summed up as: In a democracy, all people are equal. But some people are more equal than others.

Or, if you’d prefer a Star Trek reference (which caused Mr. Spock a headache, due to its complete lack of logic): The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. Sure, things worked out well for Spock, but he had Captain Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, Scotty and Bones in his corner. We've got Suncor, Harper, Obama, BP and Haliburton looking out for our interests.

In Greece’s case, the needs of the Investors outweigh the needs of the People. That’s the message which our international leaders are telling the Greeks today.

What the hell is going on?

The Buckley’s Mixture Approach to Democracy

It’s almost as if the needs of the wealthiest supercede the hopes, dreams, aspirations and desires of everybody else, and that everybody else is being told that we must remain subservient to the will of the rich, for our own good of course. Else those stock markets will tumble, and we’ll all be out of jobs. We’re being told to listen to the rich investors because they know what’s best for us, and that if we’re going to continue to grow our economy, the majority of us are going to have become a little poorer. That’s what Austerity is all about. It’s the only plan that they’ve got, and therefore it’s the only way forward.

Of course, they are right. Right now the only way for the economy to continue to grow is by making the middle class poorer than it is today. These moves will consolidate the growth of wealth even further into the hands of the wealthy, who can then continue to spend and increase the GDP. Jobs will be created along the way, absolutely, because we need workers to exploit those remaining resources in hard-to-get-to places in the ground, like the tar sands. You’re not against creating jobs, are you? That those workers will be earning less pay than they would have years ago doesn’t matter (and “less pay” here may be a relative term, but when you factor inflation into the equation, it will be less pay). Just be happy that you have a job, and don’t rock the boat.

So if the rich are right, why not go along with their scheme? Why not except these austerity measures the way that we drink Buckley’s Mixture? The measures will be painful at first, but if it’s the only way to get out of the crisis, well let’s do it. It tastes horrible, but it works, right?

Reality Intercedes

No, it’s not right at all. Because what’s missing from this point of view is Reality.

Our current economic system, which has functioned generally pretty well these past five or six decades (ok, that’s arguable, but let’s move on), is predicated on a concept which completely ignores the impacts of reality. In order for our current economic system to work, it must continue to grow. That’s why when economists talk about growth, it’s always a good thing, but recession is bad. Depression? Terrible! Don’t you dare go there. While Growth may not need to be continual (a little recession every now and then will bring wages back in line, for example), the overall trend toward Growth must be a constant in our current economic system. Sustained contraction, also known as “negative growth” just won’t work.

But here is where reality comes in: Sustained Economic Growth is no longer possible, and there’s very little that we can do about it. Our economy has encountered barriers to growth which can not be overcome without drastic action of a kind which only the psychopathic would contemplate. Economic Growth has been fuelled by inexpensive energy, and for a number of reasons, we’ve run out of that. And there is no replacing it.

Inheriting the World

We are living in a time of energy austerity, which hasn’t been imposed on us by any government. We find ourselves here because of our selves. We used up significant sources of one-time energy to give ourselves the luxuries of the modern world. But we haven’t paid for those luxuries ourselves. And I tell you this is probably the biggest reason that I find myself in a cold and bleak place today, because I realize that the lifestyle that I inherited from my parents and all of the good things that I’ve had, from gadgets to education to universal health care to economic opportunity, all will be paid for by my children and their children. The world that my daughter is inheriting from me is going to be a crappy, broken place.

I remember being young and watching the first space shuttle take off from Cape Kennedy, with its solid rocket boosters painted white. I wasn’t yet 10 years old, but I remember hearing the adults talking about how this space shuttle will lead us back to the moon, which will be a staging ground for a mission to Mars. From there, the asteroid belt beckoned, and who knows? The moons of Jupiter perhaps? When the movie “2010” came out a few years later, I was enthralled by the mystery and majesty of Jupiter, and I imagined visiting its moons one day, just as those astronauts and cosmonauts in the movie did. After all, the year “2010” wasn’t that far away, right? Surely we had ample time to get our act together as a species to explore our own solar system.

Those dreams of my childhood seem so wasteful now. It’s not that we chose to ignore space travel, it’s that we chose to ignore developing the new technologies necessary to build a better society. It’s past 2010, and we’ve yet to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, even though we’ve known all along that they weren’t going to last. Sure, there’s still a lot of oil in the ground, and we can squeeze more out of the bitumen in the tar sands. But the oil in the ground is heavy and dirty and perhaps most importantly – expensive to get out of the ground. And the tar sands? Well, the energy invested to make a barrel of tar sands oil is close to half that barrel of oil. So sure, there’s a net energy profit to be made there, but look at the cost!

Humanity won’t be going to Jupiter in my lifetime. We probably won’t even make it back to the moon, and if we do, it will be for show, and not to establish a base of operations for a Mars mission. Over the past several decades, we had the opportunity to invest our public dollars in sustainable energy solutions, but instead we did the exact opposite: we invested in wasteful energy solutions, such as car-dependent suburban neighbourhoods fuelled by cheaply made goods sold in big-box stores at the end of energy-intensive supply chains. We paved over our farmland and decided it was better to import salads from California and Chile. We built bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger everything, all requiring more fuel to run, more energy to heat.

Waking Up the World: The Occupy Movement

Author and futurist James Howard Kuntsler, who coined the term “The Long Emergency”, referred to “suburbia” as being, “the greatest misallocation of resources of all time” a number of years ago. Most people who heard him make that remark scoffed at him, and pointed out all of the great things suburbia has brought us. Of course, most people never heard the remark in the first place, because very few were paying attention. Even today, the biggest news-making items in Canada have more to do with Justin Bieber’s supposed love-child than the Long Emergency in which we now find ourselves in.

What will it take for people to start paying attention? I’m sure that’s a question which those occupying Wall Street were asking themselves back in September when the occupation of Zuccotti Park began in New York City. After severakl weeks of being ignored, the mainstream media finally woke up to the fact that there was a protest going on, and maybe it was newsworthy. Things went from “silence” to “circus” pretty quickly. The media is sure to lose interest at some point, but today at the beginning of November, it’s something that we are still talking about. For me, that’s a very positive sign.

Occupy Wall Street led to a larger, international movement, now known as “Occupy Together”. Media pundits have provided mixed reviews on the protest. Some have suggested that since there are no demands and no leaders, the protest is destined to fail. Indeed, the Occupy protests do seem to defy the conventions of what it means to have a successful social campaign which leads to real change. Any marketing expert can tell you that having a small number of defined goals, and a time-limited campaign fully mapped out is the only way forward. Success must be measurable, surely!

Other pundits have been more critical, and have largely been spouting propaganda for their corporatist interests. As an aside, it saddens me that so many Canadians don’t understand that today’s mainstream media has transformed into an organ of propaganda for corporate interests. That’s why the same old, predictable neo-liberal lines are present throughout all media, and even those organizations which might want to challenge the neo-liberal way of thinking can only go so far, or else they risk being silenced through lost jobs. Eric Margolis, who refused to tote Sun Media’s party line on the Middle East, was ousted a few years back, and his platform for challenging our thinking and attitudes about international affairs was diminished as a result. Sure, he’s still online, but how many people today turn to online sources for their news?

Waking Up Youth: The First Step

Well, actually an increasing number of us do. But for the most part, alternative media is still in its infancy, and the mainstream media continues to rule the roost, even online. Alternative media remains largely in the purview of young technocrats, who, because of their numbers worldwide are only just now waking up to the notion that they can have real influence on existing power structures. Whether Tahrir Square was the first Twitter Revolution or not, it was an overthrow of an old, entrenched, corrupt power by a youthful, largely peaceful movement which captured the dreams, hopes and aspirations of young Egyptians throughout the world. But here in North America, the young remain under the thumb of the Baby Boomers, and although youth are finding out about issues on Twitter and Facebook, and watching first hand accounts of violence against the poor posted from cellphones onto YouTube, for the most part North American youth (like the rest of us) remain unengaged in what’s going on in the world around them. When just getting by is a struggle, it’s hard to worry about current events.

And of course, since young people overwhelmingly do not vote, our political parties pay only lip service to issues which might be important to them. Youth in Canada are kind of like an Occupy protest, only with much less clarity of purpose. While we can put our hopes into youth to be the ones to wake up, given that they will be feeling the impacts of the austerity agenda much more significantly than any other demographic, we really should expect nothing more from our youth than we would expect from ourselves. After all, which age demographic do you think is making Justin Bieber and Grand Theft Auto the top trending story on Twitter today? And which age demographic is CNN catering too when it brings you live coverage of the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial? We are all equally implicated.

Occupy Sudbury

The Occupy Sudbury protest taking place in Memorial Park has been receiving balanced press from our local media, which doesn’t surprise me, as we seem to have some of the fairest local media outlets in Canada here in Sudbury. I’ve been down to the Park a number of times now since the occupation began, and I’ve had the chance to listen to a number of the people down there who are either like myself, just visiting, or have chosen to sleep in the cold and the rain in order to make the occupation a success. After all, you can’t occupy a space unless you have people committed to being there.

I’ve been overwhelmed by some of the personal stories of hardship that I’ve heard, and I have a better understanding of what it is which motivates the occupiers. The media will have you believe that the Occupy Movement is about protesting corporate greed (best case scenario) or about lazy young people, welfare bums and anarchists looking for handouts from banks through some kind of communist wealth redistribution scheme. Lately, in Canada, an anti-First Nations tone has started to creep into media discourse, as ultra-right wing pundits like Ezra Levant have started suggesting that the Occupations could turn into a Caledonia-style armed conflict in the midst of our communities because First Nations people are involved. This, of course, is racism at its worst, but it’s great for stoking fears in the middle classes whose support will be key in moving ahead with Phase 2 of the movement, whatever that might be.

While the Movement might have been predicated on the notion of the need to do something about growing income disparity and the economic inequalities which are promoted by our current system, let me tell you that it’s actually much more than that. Of course those are some of the very real issues which bring people down to Memorial Park and other public spaces throughout Canada, North America and the world as part of the global protest. Other issues are also frequently brought up by protesters: climate change; taxation; a lack of government responsiveness; homelessness and poverty. And the coming economic austerity measures which will need to be imposed on us in order to continue fuelling Economic Growth.

Every time that I’ve visited Occupy Sudbury, I’ve been amazed at how happy the protesters are. Not that they’re truly happy mind you, but given the personal hardships which they have previously faced, and the ones which they are going through now to keep the occupation moving forward, I just don’t understand how it is that they’ve managed to maintain such positivity. I mean, here I am in my personal dark space, yet I’ve had to sacrifice so little. Both the occupiers and me understand where our society is heading, yet they embrace hope and optimism and, most importantly, action. They believe that they can change the world as a result of what they are doing. And I’m tempted to believe along with them, although I realize that what’s happening right now in our public spaces is only a beginning.

But as far as a beginning goes, the Occupy Together Movement has been wildly successful. That it may yet end in violence and despair as the powers that be may choose to wage aggression on a peaceful protest saddens me (although I don’t think that will be the outcome in Sudbury, given the wisdom continually displayed by our local municipal leaders and Police Services to remain largely uninvolved). Mainstream media pundits have already declared that the Movement has failed, because it either hasn’t articulated its demands for an end-game, or invigorated the public into larger support. That’s the kind of short-sighted thinking that I’ve come to expect from the media, however, which seems to be caught up in a constant sense of wonder every time a new story breaks, forgetting of course that there is history behind everything.

The Occupy Movement just didn’t suddenly coalesce from nothingness. Dissent has been building throughout the world for some time now, decades even. Those who have tried to peer into the future and who have witnessed the cluster of ill omens headed our way have largely been dismissed as Cassandras on the wall of Thebes. But guess what? Cassandra was proven right in the end, but that didn’t save the Thebans or herself.

No, the Occupy Movement has not been a failure. It’s been an absolute success, an unbridled success, and I suspect that’s why the occupiers in Memorial Park seem to be happier than I would have expected them to be. They know that they have initiated a dialogue with governments, corporations, banks, the media and the public about the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us. Where others have failed in the past have tried to break through the barriers of conversation to bring these issues to the general attention of the public, the Occupy Movement has finally succeeded. Talk about income disparity is suddenly mainstream. And that genie won’t be going back into its bottle.

(...continued in Part 3)

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

1 comment:

saskboy said...

It would be possible to rename the Green Party, the Reality Party, because as you say, the world is missing Reality, and needs it.