Free times are on the way; If you and I agree; To share the world and all it holds. A sane society.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

RSA Animate - Crises of Capitalism

Forget all the hogwash you've read in the papers and heard on the news. In eleven minutes and ten seconds David Harvey, accompanied by the RSA Animate team, illustrate how and why economic crises happen:

Thanks to Stuart Watkins for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, 12 July 2010

"What have I to do with your National Independence?" Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July Speech, 1852

"Your high independence only reveals the immesurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours not mine!"

Thus did an ex-slave and editor of the abolitionist newspaper the North Star blast the hypocracy of American Independence celebrations in 1852. A powerful and moving piece with relevance to today's system of 'wage-slavery'.

Actor Danny Glover reads abolitionist Frederick Douglass's "Fourth of July Speech, 1852" on October 5, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. Part of a reading from Voices of a People's History of the United States (Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.)

Thanks to Arminius for the link.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Disobeying the Banks: An Interview with Enric Duran

On September 17th, 2008, Barcelona-based anticapitalist Enric Duran announced that he had expropriated 492,000 euros. For several years, Duran took out loans that he never intended to pay back and donated all of the money to social movements constructing alternatives to capitalism. This announcement came with the publication of 200,000 free newspapers called Crisi (Catalan for “Crisis”), with an article explaining Duran’s action, and other pieces offering a systemic critique of the current financial and ecological crises. The action got the attention of tens of thousands of everyday people as well as major media outlets, who soon dubbed Duran the “Robin Hood of the Banks.” Duran left the country to avoid prosecution. The group that published the newspapers formed Podem Viure Sense Capitalisme (We Can Live With Out Capitalism) and began region-wide organizing through their website,, bringing together debtors, squatters, alternative economy networks, environmentalists, and everyday people to build a large-scale alternative to capitalism.

Duran returned to Spain six months after the announcement to participate in the release of another publication. On March 17th, 300,000 copies of Podem (We Can) were distributed across Spain in Catalan as well as Spanish. Duran announced the publication during a student protest at the University of Barcelona, and was soon after arrested by the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police on charges of "ongoing fraud” that were brought against Duran by 6 of the 39 financial entities he took money from. He spent two months in jail. He is currently free on bail, having had his passport seized and required to present himself before a judge once a week. None of the charges have been formally brought to trial.

Since then, Duran has been organizing with the We Can campaign. Focused on networking and the distribution of information about alternatives to capitalism, We Can connects with thousands of people participating in alternative economy projects. Many use the group’s website, which includes a “Debtors’ Community” where people get practical advice on how to avoid paying their debts. Duran has published a book, Insumisión a la banca (Disobeying the Banks), the proceeds from which go to We Can, and continues to give talks and participate in national networks on degrowth and alternative currencies.

This interview was taped in Barcelona in December 2009.

The announcement of your action (September 17th, 2008, two days after Lehman Brothers went down) coincided with a dramatic moment during the financial crisis. Was the date chosen for that reason?
That was the goal, to coincide with a moment of ferment in the crises. When the action began at the end of 2005, the crisis hadn’t arrived yet. But the question became when to make it public so it would coincide with an important moment in the crisis. The end of my action was part of the plan, my strategy, by the summer of 2007, when the crisis began in the United States . In the end it was made public in September 2008, coinciding with the breakdown of the international financial order. It was a complete stroke of luck because it wasn’t possible to put an exact date, as we needed a month to prepare the publication and organize people to pass it out. It was really a stroke of luck.

And you planned this action for three years?
Planning, was three years of execution. Between 2005 and 2008 I carried out the various parts of this action. There was a period of research at the beginning, of figuring out how to do it, but very quickly I moved on to practice, because practice is the best way of experimenting and learning.

In your book you mentioned that this technique of taking out loans was inspired by someone you met who falsified pay stubs. But you also mentioned Lucio Urtubia and his action against Citibank. Do you consider your action an expropriation, just as Lucio’s action was?
Yes, the principle examples were expropriations carried out in a non-aggressive way, an intellectual way, such as falsification, or taking out loans and not paying them back, as I did. I don’t know of any precedent involving loans in a political way, but I did have the example of that person who had told me about it before. So I guess the example of Lucio inspired my broader conception of expropriation and direct action, as did the examples of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King in the United States , or those in other countries who showed that public, illegal action can have a major impact on social consciousness.

How did everyday people who received the publications Crisis and later We Can respond to your action?
Well, when Crisis came out there was a lot going on and it was widely read...different types of people had heard on television or radio that a strange publication had appeared, and they wanted to find it. And We Can, well, there weren’t as many people seeking it out, but it enabled the people who were a bit interested to find resources and concrete information to utilize in their daily lives. So it didn’t affect as many people as Crisis although it was distributed across the Iberian peninsula . Its focus was on helping people who wanted to act.

Was there a media strategy for this action? Is there a tension between you receiving so much personal attention while We Can promotes collective action?
Media pressure was a necessity for two reasons. On the one hand, it was indispensable to have a lot of people know about my was my protection from police repression. On the other hand, it was to help create a debate, to arouse people’s curiosity, to get people talking. Afterwards...obviously the media always highlights individual figures more than collective ones, above all in social movements. This is something that always happens, and you have to know how to understand and utilize it. Although it’s lower quality information, people can learn about the social aims behind this person and--in this case--behind this type of action. A lot of people became interested in the movement with the publications, which reached a lot of people.

And the money itself, which you gave to various projects, do you think it’s been successful in promoting these sort of collective projects as a resource for social movements?
Yes; at the moment, mostly on the local level. On the level of groups that get together to form consumer cooperatives, to start exchange networks, to live in a social center, to create an alternative media outlet, to start up a project in the countryside. I believe that I’ve contributed to the proliferation of projects like this and helped them gain more local self-organization. Also, I’ve contributed to the Catalan Degrowth Network and other groups across Spain that have been forming recently. After all this, we’re still lacking the capacity to manage and coordinate these structures at a systemic level in order to break with capitalism. We won’t be able to do this with only small projects. With more coordination, it’s no longer just a matter of the impact of actions and consciousness, but also of our capacity and skill when it’s time to organize ourselves.

In the United States , levels of personal indebtedness are very high--personal credit, student loans, mortgages. What is the situation like here in Spain ?
Right now, the banks and savings banks have an average loan delinquency rate between 3 and 5 percent, which is already pretty serious, and it could always go higher. Before the crisis it was around 1 percent, and it always seemed like people were committed to paying their loans back, but now that respect is deteriorating little by little as people consider not paying them back. So I think this current situation could also accentuate the financial crisis.

Do you see a weakness in the financial system? Do you think that increasing the number of delinquent debtors is a viable strategy for weakening, or even taking down, capitalism?
The weakness of the credit-based financial system is that it depends on people wanting to go into debt and--more importantly--being committed to paying those debts back, which is what keeps the system in control. If we’re able to create an alternative that extends beyond capitalism, people will see that they have the option of a life that doesn’t involve paying their debts back. This mechanism, this defect, could amplify our capacity to construct alternatives. A lot of people could use loans to set up alternatives and then quit paying them back, because it would be possible to live in a way that is “insolvent” for the system, but “solvent” for the people in these alternative ways of living.

Have people been explicitly inspired by your action, taking out loans without the intention of paying them back in order to promote alternatives?
I think so, because people have asked me how, and I’ve told them...also, people can learn about it through my book without asking me. So, I’m pretty sure it’s being done, but it’s most likely that no one is doing it publicly because that’s safer, with less personal risk. And it’s not only people doing it like that; I think what’s even more common is people who at some point took out loans because they wanted to consume, because they wanted to have a mortgage, whatever--and now they see the utility in doing this to change their lives.

For people from the U.S. , can you explain how the financial crisis has affected Spain ? Besides We Can, how have social movements responded?
There is a long standing, broad-based movement based on communist and Trotskyist ideas centered around making demands, putting pressure on power, and taking power. Facing a crisis, and in other mobilizations, it focuses on organizing what we can call “revolutionary subjects” and getting into the streets, building mass movements...that’s what they’re always trying to do. I think this is relatively limited and doesn’t have the capacity to extend itself, as more and more people get tired of being pulled along by mass movements as just a number. I think there’s more success in proposals that take the route of personal change, changing values, coherence between ways of thinking and ways of living, constructing alternatives in distinct parts of one’s life, and other ways of living. This was going on earlier as a result of the antiglobalization movement, but now that the crisis has worsened it’s attracting a lot more people and more projects are developing. Another interesting thing to point out is that debtors, especially people with mortgages, are facing a problem without a solution and are organizing to put pressure on the banks. We try to support them, not only to pressure the banks, but to take advantage of this situation to leave capitalism. But for people without a previous commitment to social movements, it’s more attractive to pressure, mobilize, and find a solution that’s not so radical...your normal life stays how it was.

What’s is the current extent of social democracy (health care, welfare) in Spain ? How do these state programs interact with the goals of self-management and autonomy?
Let’s see, what’s free? Health care is free for citizens, including the unemployed. Education and textbooks are free or inexpensive. Transportation is expensive although it’s public. There is public media, and a few other things. Grants generally have the effect of limiting the freedom of projects attempting to construct alternatives, so groups truly interested in social transformation try to avoid them. In Barcelona or in other large cities there are a lot of groups that function without grants, although perhaps in smaller towns there are more. So you could say that there is a large autonomous movement here, outside of the administration of the state and the market.

Moving on to your current efforts, what is the group We Can?
We Can Live Without Capitalism is a platform that started as a campaign to help everyone who wants to take their first steps, or next steps, in taking capitalism out of their lives. This is done by distributing information about experiences that can function as examples, and by putting people in contact with projects or people who want to participate in projects. We have to make a path out of capitalism collectively. Basically, we dedicate ourselves to compiling information in publications, distributing them, organizing meetings so people can meet one another, and organizing campaigns such as the bank users’ strike, or others that make people’s local work easier.

We Can works in a lot of different areas--alternative food systems, the bank users’ strike, the neo-rural movement--what do you consider to be the most important?
Let’s see...numerically, I’d say that it would be the work around banks, since a lot of people can participate on an individual level. Alternative economy projects are clearly important for social transformation, because the alternative economy cuts across all of the other alternatives and is the way to create alternatives in daily life. Lately, work on re-population [moving from cities to live and/or squat in rural areas] has been attracting a lot of people because it’s a way of organizing people to the countryside. It’s also connected to work around the cession of lands [“right to use” agreements recently legalized by the Catalan regional government] for agricultural production.

And what’s been the most successful?’s still early to say. As I was saying, what we have success with is the self-organization of people; We Can doesn't have a lot of projects of its own, but we’ve helped in creating a lot of projects, in assisting people to start their own...I think this is an important project. At one time the bank users’ strike was successful, above all in getting money deposited in ethical banks. Like I mentioned, there have been a lot of local projects: alternative economy projects, consumer cooperatives, exchange markets, re-population projects....

What are the historical and theoretical inspirations for We Can?
Historical...well, a reference that’s very present here is the attempt at an anarchist revolution, and everything that came before the Spanish Civil War, which was a process of challenging the system at that time, producing ever-increasing levels self-management, self-organization, and life outside of capitalism. But later there is a second reference, the squatter movement and the whole movement for the self-management of daily life that came out of the 1980s and 1990s on a small scale. I think that the current decade has seen a boom in these movements in a lot places, but especially here in Barcelona . So sometimes We Can feels like the creation of a new theory, one that has a lot of references in other projects that are going on locally, but less in earlier history, which is unknown to a lot of people.

How are decisions made within We Can?
Well We Can is, above all, a space for coordination that facilitates work in networks among people and groups, so our tasks are very practical. Then there are responsibilities to carry out for the distinct areas of work, mostly putting people in contact and providing tools. It functions with a lot of autonomy: there are very small work groups that have meetings among themselves, but there are few large meetings except for the occasional autonomous assembly to draw up a plan for what we want to work on and how we want to do it. After that, there’s a lot of trust in people finding one another, day in and day’s a very decentralized way of doing things.

While it’s difficult to avoid speaking in demographic terms, what parts of the population does We Can work with?
It’s a diverse group of people; generally people in the large cities tend to be young, and in smaller towns we work with older people, middle-aged people as well. Often it’s neo-rural people, or people who expressly moved to the countryside and stayed in touch with social movements. Also, there’s the specific experience of our work with debtors and people affected by banks, so we interact with people who don’t have any relationship to social movements, people of all ages, which is distinct from the people active in other parts of We Can.

How many people are involved in alternative economic networks, if not with We Can specifically?
It’s hard to say. Out of 6.5 million inhabitants in Catalonia there are probably 100,000 or 150,000, but that’s just a guess. It’s hard to know because we’re only scratching the surface...some of the people we’re in touch with have other relationships, but others don’t. We have about 4,000 or 5,000 direct contacts.

How has We Can extended outwards? Or, put another way, why is it concentrated in Catalonia ?
Well, it’s been progressive. Before We Can there was the Degrowth Network that we started in Barcelona and then extended to all of Catalonia . Later, with the We Can Live Without Capitalism publication we started to work pretty much continually with people across the Iberian peninsula as well as with people from across the world. This is “spiral politics,” where there are more ties at the local level, and it extends progressively outwards with less and less ties. So the reason that it’s happened here is perhaps because Catalonia --within Europe or within the Iberian peninsula --has a lot of social movements, but we don’t pretend to be connected with all of them.

A lot of organizing is done through your participatory website. How many people use it? Is We Can explicitly informed by Web 2.0 or network organizing, in technical terms?
Yeah, we use the website as a space for working in networks, a space for debate, for making some decisions among people working together on a project. The online forms especially have made it easier for people to get their information to us, and we’ve been able to put people in contact based on that. We also receive a lot of email: generally 10 to 20 different people write us directly each week with questions, ideas, doubts. Compared with the number of projects we’re organizing directly, that’s a lot.

Is We Can criticized by other social movements?
There’s a lot of criticism here, but little of it is made public. The concept of degrowth--and consequentially We Can is criticized by some, such as Marxists and insurrectionists who criticize the theoretical foundation of degrowth in France . But they’re criticizing something distinct from what’s happening in Catalonia . And, in terms of concrete critiques...well, there are some internal debates, and criticism toward everything, but few are made public.

What is degrowth?
Degrowth is a current of ideas coming out of France since the beginning of the decade that’s been clearly influenced by the international ecology movement, as well as the critique of developmentalism and the West’s colonization of the world, of pensée unique. It criticizes economic growth for growth’s sake and exponential growth. Taking into account that continued growth is impossible, it proposes a “welcomed degrowth” or a “pleasant degrowth.” That is, a transition to a more locally oriented society, a society with more community, less impact on the environment, less consumption, less work, more free time, and a set of values that encourage social redistribution and balance with the planet.

What does the degrowth movement do in Spain ?
The degrowth movement tries to create practices related to these ideas, and tries to encourage and support the practices that already happen spontaneously and autonomously. A lot of the work is coordination among movements, among political currents, and trying to build a focus on a comprehensive transition so it’s not each issue related to alternatives to capitalism being worked out in isolation. We don’t focus on grand theoretical alternatives, but rather on spaces for coordinating practical alternatives to capitalism that will have to come together day in, day out, so that we can take steps to free ourselves from the current system.

Is the degrowth movement concentrated in big cities, or is it a neo-rural, back-to-the-land movement, or both?
There’s this interesting coexistence between important activities happening in rural areas, especially among neo-rural people, and activities in urban areas--mostly encouraging debate, but also promoting alternatives in cities. There’s a rich exchange, a complementary exchange, between what’s happening in rural areas and urban areas.

In your opinion, what does the discourse of degrowth contribute to social movements, especially those that have come from the Left tradition that has always demanded more? What does it mean, in a way, to demand less?
Looking beyond degrowth, and taking a perspective that’s pragmatic and trusting of the capacity for self-organization, I’d say that in Spain--and above all in Catalonia with the Degrowth Network and We Can--we forget to take a pragmatic perspective on autonomy and leaving capitalism. In this sense degrowth contributes a constructive perspective, one of coordinating many alternatives without abandoning demands, above all demands that lead to a transition to another society, such as controlling land and public transportation, and having renewable energy. Any number of demands can be made--not in a reformist way, but rather so that things can be recovered and collectivized for the people. So up to this point, the construction of alternatives is what’s being advanced. There’s still a long way to go in constructing systematic alternative economies, but when the movement is stronger, it will be able to have an impact on the common resources that will need to be recovered for society.

What is a counterhegemonic economy?
This is a term we’ve created to describe an economy that’s not only an alternative to capitalism, but rather an economy that starts out coexisting with capitalism, then tries to organize itself to take advantage of capitalism in order to leave it. It’s a transition economy that starts out without hegemony, but has the goal of achieving hegemony--it’s something very small that’s transformed into a large impact. So it isn’t organized as if capitalism didn’t exist, but rather it takes what it can from capitalism in order to construct something else.

Do you think that counterhegemonic economies are the best revolutionary strategy?
I don’t know if it’s the best strategy, but I think it’s necessary. Any strategy for transformation has to include the capacity to construct ways of living outside of capitalism before any revolution. That’s to say: We have to live how we think, we have to live how we believe, we have to construct experiences and micro-societies that demonstrate in practice that our ideas are viable. From there we can go on to collectively convince an important part of the population. It’s clear that there might be a conflict at some point--it’s more than likely that it will be necessary at the end--but we can only win this conflict if we’ve already constructed wide-reaching ways of living that are different. Because if we haven’t, if we win in a so-called “elite revolution,” then life will still be capitalist and ego-driven because people will not have changed their values. This is the first step we have to take, and it’s a fundamental strategy for social change.

How can these spaces of life outside of capitalism, of non-capitalist life, transmit the best of these experiences to people who still have lives dictated by work and rent?
By showing that people can live better lives this way, that these projects really solve people’s problems. Showing that it’s easier to find work in the alternative economy than in the official economy, that it’s easier to find housing in the alternative economy than in the official economy. When these are solutions, a lot of people will sign up. One real, practical example is worth more than a thousand words. That’s the idea...

Are there contemporary examples anywhere in the world of an economy that’s not alternative, but counterhegemonic?
Well, there are examples that incorporate parts of that, especially in Latin American countries, such as the Zapatistas or the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil . They’re mostly in rural areas, with indigenous people and campesinos participating. There are fewer alternatives in urban environments, and I think that it’s fundamental to construct examples of alternatives that function in cities, project that show that this transition can happen in large cities. This is a priority for us now.

Finally, any suggestions for social movements in the U.S. ?
Well, work together in networks and organize yourselves...and don’t think of only your small group or project, because you can go a lot further if you coordinate and communicate with other groups. If you work in a network, many people can apply what one person or group has learned. And if you have a serious commitment to social change, it’s really important to dedicate part--or all--of your time to working in a network with lots of other groups.

Scott Pierpont is a translator and alternative-media enthusiast based in Philadelphia , PA. He can be reached at

Many thanks to Antonio Pagliarone for the link.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Lost Pyramids of Caral

Have all civilisations been born out of conflict, blood and war? Historians have long believed that this is the common factor in the rise of all known civilisations across the globe. Could the discovery of a 5,000 year old city of pyramids in the Peruvian desert change all that?

This fascinating film is well worth a view and under an hour in length.

"Caral dates from 2,600 BC making it one of the earliest known civilisations on Earth The magnificent ancient city of pyramids at Caral in Peru hit the headlines in 2001. The site is a thousand years older than the earliest known civilisation in the Americas and, at 2,627 BC, is as old as the pyramids of Egypt. Many now believe it is the fabled missing link of archaeology - a 'mother city'. If so, then these extraordinary findings could finally answer one of the great questions of archaeology: why did humans become civilised?

The mother of all cities

For over a century, archaeologists have been searching for what they call a mother city. Civilisation began in only six areas of the world: Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Peru and Central America. In each of these regions people moved from small family units to build cities of thousands of people. They crossed the historic divide, one of the great moments in human history. Why? To find the answer archaeologists needed to find a mother city - the first stage of city-building.

Civilisation through conflict

They couldn't find one anywhere. Everywhere this first stage seemed destroyed or built over. And so, instead, scientists developed a number of theories. Some said it was because of the development of trade, others that it was irrigation. Some even today believe it was all because of aliens. Gradually an uneasy consensus emerged. The key force common to all civilisations was warfare.

The theory was that only the fear of war could motivate people to give up the simple life and form complex societies. To prove it, archaeologists still had to find a city from that very first stage of civilisation. If it showed signs of warfare, then the theory had to be true.

Peruvian archaeologist, Ruth Shady

When archaeologist Ruth Shady discovered her 5,000 year old city of pyramids in the Peruvian desert, all eyes were on the New World. Ruth's extraordinary city, known as Caral, is so much older than anything else in South America that it is a clear candidate to be the mother city. It also is in pristine condition. Nothing has been built on it at all. Instead laid out before the world is an elaborate complex of pyramids, temples, an amphitheatre and ordinary houses.

Make love not war

Crucially, there is not the faintest trace of warfare at Caral; no battlements, no weapons, no mutilated bodies. Instead, Ruth's findings suggest it was a gentle society, built on commerce and pleasure. In one of the pyramids they uncovered beautiful flutes made from condor and pelican bones. They have also found evidence of a culture that took drugs and perhaps aphrodisiacs. Most stunning of all, they have found the remains of a baby, lovingly wrapped and buried with a precious necklace made of stone beads."

Thanks to arminius at Spaces of Hope for the links.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Counted? A documentary-play about British democracy


New play depicts the politics of voting
By Channel 4 News 2nd April 2010

British politics has become "dull" and "dominated by a self-referential elite" says the academic behind a new play on the public's feelings about voting.

Stephen Coleman, a professor at Leeds University, has researched people's views on voting – their memories and experiences – for a new documentary-play called Counted.

Audiences will hear people's stories, word-for-word, in the play about what it means to feel counted.

It opens at the former debating chamber at London's County Hall later this month, just weeks before the general election.

Prof Coleman told Channel 4 News: "I wanted to find out what it (voting) meant to them, not how they voted, but did it matter to them? Did it feel like something that was important to them?

"I wanted to talk to as many different types of people as possible, to try and get a feel for voting as an experience."

Prof Coleman visited various places including: prisons, community centres and golf clubs – in Leeds and Bradford – to gauge their opinions.

Some prisoners serving life sentences told of how losing the right to vote brought home to them how much freedom they had lost, while one woman said she could not vote for fear of being traced by her estranged family – but longed for the day she could put herself on a voting register again.

Prof Coleman added: "Older people presented us with a very paradoxical view, a strong duty to vote but almost all felt it would not change anything.

"With younger people that sense of duty wasn't usually there. They weren't saying they did not want to vote, just that they felt under-informed, or they don't understand the whole process, and don't understand what it's all about.

"My research is an interesting sample but I wouldn't necessarily say it was a representative one.

"I think we have become very complacent about our democracy. We celebrated the winning of the vote but we have allowed it to become dull.

"We have allowed the commentary about politics to become dominated by a self-referential elite, who do most of the talking in their own language.

"I think life can be injected into anything. Who would have thought that a revamped Opportunity Knocks – that everyone thought was dull – would come back and be watched by millions on TV in the UK in the 21st century?"

Thanks to Adam Buick for the link

"Mayday Mayday - Power to the People's Assemblies"

"On International Worker's Day, Saturday 1st May 2010, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will take to the streets again at the head of four Mayday Carnival Parades

All four Parades will converge on Parliament Square at 2:30pm, and the carcasses of the four party leaders will be hung, drawn and quartered, or guillotined in accordance with the wishes of the assembled multitudes in a Mayday Carnival.

A People's Assembly will convene on the green, where people can meet as equals to decide what we really want.

Election Meltdown has been invited by the Peace Camp at Parliament Square to set up a Democracy Camp from Mayday, Sat May 1st, till the so-called election on Thursday May 6th.

If you are satisfied that you are being represented in this election by politicians of honesty and integrity who put yours and the planet's interests before theirs, then you need do nothing but select between such morally upstanding indivduals.

Otherwise, if you are furious about the continued onslaught in Afghanistan, about more and more money being poured into bankers gambling debts while ordinary people's jobs go to the wall, and about the complete and utter silence among the party leaders on Climate Change while relying on a volcano to save the planet...come and join the camp!

Bring tents and sleeping bags, besiege Parliament and join the People's Assembly!"

Ian Bone's podcast of his radio interview on the subject is here:

And more info and to register attendance here:

If you've nothing planned for Mayday then this sounds like an excellent piece of street theatre with full people-participation.

These people are looking for a change. Who knows, maybe the people's assembly will provide an opportunity to talk about a real alternative to the charade that has become known as democracy in capitalist society. Why stop at people's assemblies at events like this? Why not run the whole of society that way?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Co-operation makes sense

Are you a sucker? Do you cheat? Or are you one to bear a grudge? For biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1978), such questions impinge on a subject of great importance: what is the most effective behavioural strategy to ensure survival in evolutionary terms?

By the title of his book, it seems that, for Dawkins, it was a foregone conclusion that natural selection would tend to favour, above all, behaviour that was nasty and ruthlessly competitive. As he says himself:

The selfish gene view follows logically from the accepted assumptions of neo-Darwinism. It is easy to misunderstand but, once understood, it is hard to doubt its fundamental truth. Most of the organisms that have ever lived failed to become ancestors We that exist are, without exception, descended from that minority within every earlier generation that were successful in becoming ancestors. Since all we animals inherit our genes from ancestors rather than from non-ancestors, we tend to possess the qualities that make for success in becoming an ancestor rather than the qualities that make for failure. Successful qualities are such things as fleetness of foot, sharpness of eye, perfection of camouflage, and—there seems no getting away from it—ruthless selfishness. Nice guys don't become ancestors. Therefore living organisms don't inherit the qualities of nice guys (The Listener, 17 April 1986).

Yet Dawkins is at pains to disassociate himself from the rather pessimistic implications of such views for society. Interestingly, in the Horizon programme on television (on which the above article is based) called Nice Guys Finish First he related how, after the publication of his book, he was wooed by various people of right wing persuasion who saw his book as a vindication of their belief in a system of cut-throat competition. Conversely, he found himself under attack from the left, one critic going so far as to suggest that the impact of The Selfish Gene was partly to blame for the subsequent election of the Thatcher government.

But Dawkins insists that both sides had misunderstood the point he was trying to make. Paradoxically, the pursuit of self interest is not necessarily incompatible with being "nice"—that is, co-operative. This is what is confusingly referred to in socio-biological circles as "reciprocal altruism". Since altruism implies the genuinely intended sacrifice of one's interests, it is difficult to see how this fits in with the idea conveyed by the term "reciprocal altruism", that if you scratch my back I will scratch yours and both will benefit as a result. It would be more accurate to call this "enlightened self interest" no "sacrifice" is involved.

Nevertheless, to show how this might operate, Dawkins refers to game theory—in particular a game called The Prisoner's Dilemma:

In the simplest version of this game, two players have each to choose between two moves, Co-operate and Defect (hereafter C and D). Unlike in chess or ping pong, the players don't move alternately but simultaneously, in ignorance of the other's simultaneous move. If you and I both play C we get more (say $3) than if we both play D (say $2). If one of us plays C and simultaneously the other plays D, the D player gets the highest possible score (say $4) and the C player gets the "sucker's payoff" (say $1). So, from my point of view, the best outcome is that I play D and you play C. But if I calculate this, and play D accordingly, you are just as capable of working out the same thing and playing D yourself In this case we both only get the low payoff. If only we'd both played C, we'd both have got the comparatively high payoff of $3. But, if I work this out and play C you do even better if you choose D. Therefore, rational players will always play D and will always obtain the low payoff of $2. But—here is the paradox and maddening dilemma—each rational player simultaneously knows that, if only he and his opponent could somehow manage to enter into a binding contract to play C, both would do better (ibid).

Here Dawkins provides an example of how this situation could arise in real life. Take a group of friends who like to eat out at a restaurant and split the cost of the meal equally between them. There will always be the temptation for any one of them to order a little more than the others, knowing that the extra cost will be equally shared. Conversely, any one of them will realise that if they do not order as much as the others they will be subsidising their friends. Therefore, there will be a built-in tendency for each of them to order as much as they can get away with.

The worst that can happen in such a situation is that some of them will benefit at the expense of the others and perhaps as a consequence they will fall out with each other. Come what may, there will be both winners and losers. But it is possible to imagine a situation—even to point to real life examples such as the destruction of the herring industry through over-fishing in the early part of this century—in which this same competitive logic can result in everyone losing out.

In such a situation, no-one actually intends that as a consequence of each of them competing against one another they should eventually all lose out. Yet they are obliged, even in full knowledge of the fate that could await them, to continue with the very actions that will make that fate a reality.

This situation has been described by the American biologist, Garrett Hardin, as the Tragedy of the Commons (Science vol 162, 13 December 1968). As he puts it:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in the commons bring ruin to all.

Hardin's solution to this tragedy of the commons is "mutual coercion". An appeal to conscience, he argues, is altogether futile. Mutual coercion can be effected through, as it were, enclosing the commons and instituting a system of private property which will enforce a sense of responsibility among herdsmen as to the appropriate number of cattle their land can provide for without resulting in overgrazing. Since they cannot encroach on land owned by other herdsmen, the consequences of keeping too many cattle will be exclusively borne by them. This knowledge will therefore deter them from acting irresponsibly in the first place.

The problem here is that Hardin has quite obviously got hold of the wrong end of the stick. It is not the "inherent logic of the commons" which "remorselessly generates tragedy". The "commons" simply provides the setting in which this tragedy is played out. It does not embody the cause of the tragedy itself—that is, the overgrazing of the land by too many cattle.

That cause lies elsewhere, in the dynamism of competition which compels each herdsman to increase his herd beyond the carrying capacity of the land since his own livelihood is directly dependent on the number of cattle at his disposal. Had the cattle, like the land, been the communal possession of the herdsmen then it would have been possible to make a rational decision about the total number of cattle. In that case, the livelihood of each herdsman would be directly dependent on their collective wellbeing, which in turn would rest on securing an optimum ratio of cattle to land. As it was, each was obliged to make what was the only rational decision open to him within an irrational framework of decision-making, with inevitably tragic consequences. So much for the view expounded by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations that the individual who "intends only his own gain" is "led by an invisible hand to promote the public interest".

"In a reverse way", argues Hardin, "the tragedy of the commons re-appears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons but of putting something in". Just as in the case of the herdsman, a factory owner will be "locked into a system" that will ensure that the commons are treated as a convenient cesspool for the disposal of waste products. The owner will see that it will pay to avoid the costs of purifying the pollutants by simply dumping them in the environment because the saving this represents far exceeds the environmental cost the factory may have to bear though others bear it as well. Rational self interest will therefore demand pollution.

Following Hardin's suggestion let us assume that the commons have been enclosed. In theory, this would mean that anyone could prevent their neighbour from polluting their land just as the herdsmen could prevent their neighbour's cattle from straying onto their land. Anyone who chose not to purify their pollutants would be obliged to contain them within their own property and bear the total costs such pollution entailed. But what sounds fine in theory will prove quite unworkable in practice since what we mean by the "commons" embraces not just the land but the air and water surrounding us. These, as Hardin concedes, "cannot readily be fenced".

A simple example will make this clearer. Suppose my neighbour decided to build a factory alongside a stream into which were pumped the factory's effluents. Suppose I delighted in fishing but now with all the fish killed I could no longer pursue my interest. What could I then do? I could of course purchase the right of ownership of that section of the stream that flowed past my back door but my neighbour, upstream of me, could do the same and argue plausibly for the right to use that section of the stream as they chose. Of course, the consequence of my neighbour's decision to site a factory on their property need not be confined to this. Its visual impact on the neighbourhood could depress the price of residential properties all around. The constant noise might disturb my sleep. The lorries carrying the raw materials it processed may congest the roads making commuting to work a hazardous slog.

If I were to grant my neighbour the absolute right to dispose of their property as they chose, it would be inconsistent of me to complain of the consequences. If, on the other hand, I sought to restrict the ways in which my neighbour could use their property then I would be asserting the need to retain the "commons" as an entity in one or other respect—the tranquility of the neighbourhood or the right to fish in an unpolluted stream. We cannot live in a cocoon. Even capitalism itself, the most competitive and atomistic form of society that has ever evolved, cannot afford not to make some concession to this stark fact.

We see this in the way conventional thinking approaches the problem of pollution. Hardin himself points out that while (according to him), "our particular concept of private property deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth" it actually "favours pollution". The solution which he and many others suggest is the direct intervention of the state in the form of legislation to temper the excesses of competition committed by private citizens. "Mutual coercion", apparently, will not suffice.

The weaknesses in this approach are twofold. It does not strike at the root cause of the problem—at the competitive advantage to be gained by minimising costs—in this case, the costs of purifying and disposing of pollutants in an ecologically acceptable manner—incurred by capitalist enterprises. It blandly assumes that the state is a more or less autonomous institution which presides over society and legislates in the interests of the whole community. But in fact the state is a class institution, financed through taxation by the very enterprises whose activities it seeks to regulate. Legislation is a matter of finely balancing the losses and gains that accrue to the capitalists themselves. Too lenient an approach might be politically unacceptable and excessively ruinous to the health of the workers who create the profits for the businesses that employ them. Too punitive an approach, on the other hand, can erode profit margins and drive investment into other parts of the world where regulations are more lax. And all the time, the dividing line between what is acceptable and what is not shifts as the economic climate itself changes the more desperate the plight of business, the more lenient does the law become.

This brings us back to Richard Dawkins. What does he think is the way forward? Political scientists tend to see so much of life as a Prisoner's Dilemma. Many would argue that we therefore need to have some authority to take more of the decisions out of our hands rather like the way the state supposedly denies the option to a capitalist enterprise to release its toxic wastes into the environment by declaring this illegal. But as we have seen things don't happen that way. The state, too, is enmeshed in the irrational framework that is capitalist competition.

Dawkins would set rather more store by the Law of the Jungle than the Law of the State as a model for encouraging co-operative behaviour. Suggesting that we have a lot to learn from the animal world around us, he gives the example of gulls which need to groom themselves in order to remove parasitic ticks. The difficulty arises in grooming their heads; which requires the co-operation of another gull. Gulls that cheated on other gulls would soon drive the suckers into extinction. But cheats themselves would eventually follow the suckers since there would be no gulls left willing to groom them.

What are the implications of this for society? Dawkins argues that we saw evidence of a tit-for-tat strategy developing in the trenches of the First World War. Soldiers would deliberately fire above the heads of their "enemies" to signal their desire to cooperate in minimising the mutual damage they could inflict upon one another. Their alleged enemies would respond in kind. Such was the extent to which the "disease of peace" took hold that after two years of this, the generals were eventually forced to completely re-write their battle plans turning instead to surprise tactics which served to destroy the unspoken trust that had been built up on both sides.

Though the insights that game theory has to offer are valuable, their possible application in the sort of society we have today—as the above example makes clear—is limited. We live in a world in which the means of living are monopolised by a small minority. Just as the hierarchical structure of an army invests a general with the power to command his troops so capitalist society itself can only ever be run in the interests of that capitalist minority. But the great majority of the population, the working people, whose interests are constantly thwarted by the dictates of capital, cannot do much to redress the balance within a social system which requires that we remain compelled to prostitute our working abilities for capitalist exploitation.

Real co-operation can only flourish on the foundations of social equality. Until then, for the great majority at least, we remain suckers with good reason to bear a grudge.

From the world socialist movement website.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Anarchist Accountability

An interesting article by Thomas(Miami Autonomy & Solidarity (MAS)) about accountability and democracy in the anarchist movement and in an anarchist society. It has implications for the whole non-market, non-state socialist sector.

"This disease of disorganization has invaded the organism of the anarchist movement like yellow fever and has plagued it for decades…There can be no doubt, however, that this disorganization has its roots in a number of defects of theory, notably in the distorted interpretation of the principle of individuality in anarchism, that principle being too often mistaken for the absence of all accountability. " –Delo Truda Group[1]

"…[O]rganization, far from creating authority, is the only cure for it and the only means whereby each one of us will get used to taking an active and conscious part in the collective work, and cease being passive instruments in the hands of leaders." – Errico Malatesta[2]

The assessment of the Delo Truda Group from 1926 is as true today as it was 84 years ago. But if that's the case; and if, as Malatesta suggested, organization is the only cure for authority, how do we as anarchists differ from others in how we view organization? Or more specifically, how does our view of individuality differ from the common misconception of anarchism as the "absence of all accountability" . Perhaps it's best summed up by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt in their exhaustive account of the history of anarchist ideas, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. They explain:

"…[G]enuine individual freedom and individuality could only exist in a free society. The anarchists did not therefore identify freedom with the right of everybody to do exactly what one pleased but with a social order in which collective effort and responsibilities- that is to say, obligations- would provide the material basis and social nexus in which individual freedom could exist."[3]

This essay will describe anarchist accountability and how it differs from the types of accountability we're trying to replace. Implementing accountability in all of our practices is fundamental to our effectiveness now in our practice and how it prefigures the kind of society that we want to replace the existing society.

The first form of accountability that we as anarchists are attempting to combat most of the time is top-down, hierarchical forms of accountability. Since we are against all forms of domination and oppression, it's only natural that we'd be opposed to formal and informal forms of accountability to our employers, landlords, elites or other relations defined by domination. Although certain forms of top-down accountability may be considered legitimate, such as the accountability of a young child to their parent giving loving and reasonable child-rearing directives, the discussion surrounding opposing most other forms of top-down accountability is only a question of strategy and tactics. A key anarchist insight in opposing top-down accountability is that to address the root of the problem the top-down structure and relation must be changed, not the person or group holding it. So unlike some Marxists or other radicals, we don't believe, for example, that a "proletarian" dictatorship, a matriarchy or a people of color ruling elite will address any of the fundamental issues with class oppression, patriarchy or racism. Anarchists believe that it's the structures and relations of hierarchical domination and oppression themselves that must be destroyed and replaced with egalitarian and horizontal structures and relations.

This brings us to anarchist accountability. Horizontal and egalitarian forms of accountability are based in the notion of free association. Free association must be mutual between all its participants if it's to be truly free for each. It would hardly be free if members of an association were forced to be in an association or collective with people they didn't want to associate with. Within a freely associated grouping of people, horizontal and egalitarian forms of decision-making would involve each member having an equal say- no more and no less- than any other member. Some decisions might need consensus; others might be a simple majority according to the type of decision being made and the practices of the group. However, societal influences from oppressive socialization such as racism and sexism to personality differences such as being shy or being talkative are likely to create informal hierarchies that reintroduce domination and hierarchy within the group if clear, explicit, collectively- established democratic practices are not established and followed. Jo Freeman has a variety of useful suggestions in setting up democratic and accountable structures within any grouping in her classic piece The Tyranny of Structurelessness. [4]

Once democratic structures and organizational practices are developed and utilized, then anarchist accountability demands that decisions made collectively must be respected and collectively implemented. If there's disagreement within the organization over a collective decision, there are a few options. Georges Fontenis outlines the basic framework for this in his essay Manifesto of Libertarian Communism[5] :

1) Do Nothing/ Delay It: Decide that there's too much disagreement to come to a decision at this time and either drop it or discuss it further at another time. For example, a group might decide not to have an official position on whether capitalism is comprised of two or three main classes until more research is done; or might decide just not to have a position as a group at this time.

2) Accept More Than One: Decide- if it's possible depending on the type of decision needed to be made- to allow for more than one of the proposed options to be accepted as the group decision with more or less emphasis on either. For example, a group might decide that although the majority might think that trying to build a militant minority network within their respective workplaces is the best workplace strategy, they also find it acceptable that some members of their group are pursuing a dual unionist strategy with the independent union at their workplace.

3) Accept the Majority View: Depending on the group practice this might be a simple majority vote or a super-majority. The minority view would be rejected for collective practice; but the minority could continue to argue for their view internally within the organization. For example, the majority of the group might want to organize a May Day event even though a minority of the group feels that it's taking away time and resources from the anti-eviction organizing the group is working on. But since the majority of the group feels that it would be beneficial to organize a May Day event, the group would do the event.

4) Split Based on Differing Views: If the issue is fundamental and either the majority or the minority find it unacceptable to do nothing, accept more than one view on the issue or to accept the majority view on the issue. For example, if the group decides as the basis of their group that structural racism is something that they'd like to combat as an organization, but one or two members feel that it's a waste of time to confront structural racism because they believe it doesn't exist anymore now that Barrack Obama was elected president, there would have to be a split in the organization since having such contradictory views on a fundamental group strategy would give them no room to work together as a group. However, this doesn't mean that they couldn't work together on other issues where the have agreement or continue to try to dialogue between each other on issues where they disagree.

Fundamental to all of this is that when a decision is made, it should be respected and carried out until a decision is made to overturn it, an exception considered or a member quits- or in extreme cases is expelled- out of disagreement.

Holding each other accountable also means getting used to letting each other know- in a comradely way- when commitments and obligations aren't being fulfilled. This is a practice that must be built through an organizational culture where comradely honesty and constructive criticism replaces competitive and individualistic passive-aggressiven ess or talking behind people's backs. The flip side of giving comradely feedback is learning how to receive it, using it to help you and your organization grow and becoming more self-disciplined. This is difficult sometimes since the vast majority of the times we're being called to task for something, it is coming from top-down relations; but the practice of holding others accountable and being held accountable is fundamental to learn, practice and promote if we want to destroy and replace these top-down relations with horizontal and egalitarian relations. And of course, ideally these practices would increase self-discipline in carrying out tasks that group members commit to. When holding each other accountable it's important to come from a place of love and respect that avoids being patronizing, competitive, egotistical or dishonest in any way. And when being held accountable it's similarly important to cultivate an appreciation for comradely criticism and renew our commitment to self-discipline. However, that doesn't mean we should allow our dignity to be trampled on or ourselves to be disrespected. When criticism isn't comradely, we should defend ourselves and demand respect as an equal even when we've failed to fulfill our obligations. But it is essential that comradely anarchist accountability and self-discipline as a practice needs to be developed, encouraged and cultivated within our organizations. Without self-discipline and horizontal accountability, groups revert back to dominating and oppressive top-down relations and/or involve stagnation, demoralization and ineffectiveness.

What about delegates? Anarchists argue that delegates should replace any necessary functions usually carried out by representatives. Delegates differ from representatives because delegates are mandated with specific views and tasks that are to mirror as close as possible the views of the group that the delegate has been mandated by. Representatives are top-down because they make decisions on behalf of groups that then must obey these decisions; anarchist delegates are bottom-up because they are mandated to bring the views, as expressed, of the organization to the grouping of delegates they've been sent to. Sometimes the group may give delegates some flexibility, but the accountability is always from the bottom-up, not the top-down. Delegates can be over-ruled and recalled at anytime and have no power over the group that they're the delegate for. When compromises between delegates need to be hashed out or new items come up at delegate meetings that are value-laden decisions rather than logistical decisions, the delegate usually has to bring back the compromise to the group before it's finally approved unless the group already mandated the delegate with certain ranges of flexibility on the issue. However there's a difference between, logistical decisions and value-laded decisions. For logistical decisions, a group might mandate a delegate to carry out logistical tasks -such as checking and responding to the group e-mail account- with greater flexibility to act as they see fit. But they still might ask for transparency and regular report backs and the person mandated with the task can always be directed by the group to carry it out in a particular way since it's the group that the delegate is accountable to, not the other way around. In addition, the concepts logistical and value-laden are open for interpretation; so they are more accurately understood as two sides of along a spectrum, rather than easily differentiated, clear-cut concepts.

In conclusion, this essay tried to clarify how anarchist accountability proposes horizontal and egalitarian or bottom-up forms of accountability to replace top-down forms of accountability. Capitalism, the state, imperialism, racism, patriarchy, and all forms of exploitation, domination and oppression aren't going to go away without a fight and without something to replace it. Creating the organizational structure, practice and culture that encourages and takes seriously comradely horizontal accountability, self-discipline and bottom-up mandated delegation is fundamental to the effectiveness of our organizations in building towards and prefiguring the type of society we want to replace the current one. Whether, when and how we implement, develop, encourage and promote these concepts and practices is the responsibility of us all…
[1] Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad (The "Delo Truda" group). The Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists. 1926. http://www.nestorma english/newplatf orm/introduction .htm

[2] Malatesta, Errico. Anarchy and Organization. 1897. http://www.spunk. org/texts/ writers/malatest /sp001864. html

[3] Schmidt, Michael and van der Walt, Lucien. Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Counter-Power. Volume 1. AK Press. 2009. P. 48

[4] Freeman, Jo. The Tyranny of Structurelessness. 1970. http://flag. blackened. net/revolt/ hist_texts/ structurelessnes s.html

[5] Fontenis, Georges. Manifesto of Libertarian Communism. 1953. http://flag. blackened. net/daver/ anarchism/ mlc/mlc1. html

http://miamiautonom yandsolidarity. wordpress. com/2010/ 03/16/anarchist- accountability/ #more-168

Thanks to Arminius at worldincommon for the link.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Future Visions - The 2010 Socialist Party Summer School

This year's weekend of talks and discussion looks to the future. But what kind of future? For centuries, people have imagined utopias where advances in technology and attitudes create freedom for all. Or, they have described dystopias, where society turns into a nightmare. Back in the real world, how will capitalism survive and adapt to ongoing economic and environmental concerns? And what kind of socialist society can we aim for as an antidote to this?

The talks for this year's 'Future Visions' Summer School are as follows:

Socialism And Singularity - Bill Martin

Confounding Catastrophism - Andy P Davies
(the above two talks are discussing possible future trends in capitalism)

The Curse of Looking Backwards - Simon Wigley

Dystopias: A Pessimist's Guide To The Future - Mike Foster

Imagining A Socialist Society - Janet Surman

Friday, 23 July 2010 at 15:00 to
Sunday, 25 July 2010 at 15:00
Location: Fircroft College Birmingham

For further information and to make a booking please visit The Socialist Party of Great Britain website:

You can also find us on facebook:

Monday, 5 April 2010

Sceptic challenges guru to kill him live on TV

By Jeremy Page (Delhi) in the The Times 19th March 2010

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

Mr Edamaruku had been invited to the same talk show as head of the Indian Rationalists’ Association — the country’s self-appointed sceptic-in-chief. At first the holy man, Pandit Surender Sharma, was reluctant, but eventually he agreed to perform a series of rituals designed to kill Mr Edamaruku live on television. Millions tuned in as the channel cancelled scheduled programming to continue broadcasting the showdown, which can still be viewed on YouTube.

First, the master chanted mantras, then he sprinkled water on his intended victim. He brandished a knife, ruffled the sceptic’s hair and pressed his temples. But after several hours of similar antics, Mr Edamaruku was still very much alive — smiling for the cameras and taunting the furious holy man.

“He was over, finished, completely destroyed!” Mr Edamaruku chuckles triumphantly as he concludes the tale in the Rationalist Centre, his second-floor office in the town of Noida, just outside Delhi.

Rationalising India has never been easy. Given the country’s vast population, its pervasive poverty and its dizzying array of ethnic groups, languages and religions, many deem it impossible.

Nevertheless, Mr Edamaruku has dedicated his life to exposing the charlatans — from levitating village fakirs to televangelist yoga masters — who he says are obstructing an Indian Enlightenment. He has had a busy month, with one guru arrested over prostitution, another caught in a sex-tape scandal, a third kidnapping a female follower and a fourth allegedly causing a stampede that killed 63 people.

This week India’s most popular yoga master, Baba Ramdev, announced plans to launch a political party, promising to cleanse India of corruption and introduce the death penalty for slaughtering cows. Then, on Wednesday, police arrested a couple in Maharashtra state on suspicion of killing five boys on the advice of a tantric master who said their sacrifice would help the childless couple to conceive.

“The immediate goal I have is to stop these fraudulent babas and gurus,” says Mr Edamaruku, 55, a part-time journalist and publisher from the southern state of Kerala. “I want people to make their own decisions. They should not be guided by ignorance, but by knowledge.

“I’d like to see a post-religious society — that would be an ideal dream, but I don’t know how long it would take.”

His organisation traces its origins to the 1930s when the “Thinker’s Library” series of books, published by Britain’s Rationalist Press Association, were first imported to India. They included works by Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin and H.G. Wells; among the early subscribers was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.

The Indian Rationalist Association was founded officially in Madras in 1949 with the encouragement of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who sent a long letter of congratulations. For the next three decades it had no more than 300 members and focused on publishing pamphlets and debating within the country’s intellectual elite.

But since Mr Edamaruku took over in 1985, it has grown into a grass-roots organisation of more than 100,000 members — mainly young professionals, teachers and students — covering most of India. Members now spend much of their time investigating and reverse-engineering “miracles” performed by self-styled holy men who often claim millions of followers and amass huge wealth from donations.

One common trick they expose is levitation, usually done using an accomplice who lies on the ground under a blanket and then raises his upper body while holding out two hockey sticks under the blanket to make it look like his feet are also rising. “It’s quite easy really,” said Mr Edamaruku, who teaches members to perform the tricks in villages and then explains how they are done, or demonstrates them at press conferences.

Other simple tricks include walking on hot coals (the skin does not burn if you walk fast enough) and lying on a bed of nails (your weight is spread evenly across the bed). The “weeping statue” trick is usually done by melting a thin layer of wax covering a small deposit of water.

Some tricks require closer scrutiny. One guru in the state of Andhra Pradesh used to boil a pot of tea using a small fire on his head. The secret was to place a non-conductive pad made of compacted wheat flour between his head and the fire. “I was so excited when I exposed him. I should have been more reasonable but sometimes you get so angry,” he said. “I cried: ‘Look, even I can do this and I’m not a baba — I’m a rationalist!’.”

Another swami — who conducted funeral rites for Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1984 — used to appear to create fire by pouring ghee, clarified butter, on to ash and then staring at the mixture until it burst into flames. The “ghee” was glycerine and the “ash” was potassium permanganate, two chemicals that spontaneously combust within about two minutes of being mixed together.

Exposing such tricks can be risky. A guru called Balti (Bucket) Baba once smashed a burning hot clay pot in Mr Edamaruku’s face after he revealed that the holy man was using a heat resistant pad to pick it up.

The chief rationalist was almost arrested by the government of Kerala for revealing that it was behind an annual apparition of flames in the night sky — in fact, several state officials lighting bonfires on a nearby hill — which attracted millions of pilgrims. Despite his efforts, he admits that people still go to the festival and continue to revere self-styled holy men.

One reason is that Indian politicians nurture and shelter gurus to give them spiritual credibility, use their followers as vote banks, or to mask sexual or criminal activity. That explains why India’s Parliament has never tightened the 1954 Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, under which the maximum punishment is two months in prison and a 2,000 rupee (£29) fine.

Another reason is that educated, middle-class Indians are feeling increasingly alienated from mainstream religion but still in need of spiritual sustenance. “When traditional religion collapses people still need spirituality,” he says. “So they usually go one of two directions: towards extremism and fundamentalism or to these kinds of people.”

Since richer, urban Indians have little time for long pilgrimages or pujas (prayer ceremonies), they are often attracted by holy men who offer instant gratification — for a fee. The development of the Indian media over the past decade has also allowed some holy men to reach ever larger audiences via television and the internet. “Small ones have gone out of business while the big ones have become like corporations,” says Mr Edamaruku.

But the media revolution has also helped Mr Edamaruku, who made 225 appearances on television last year, and gets up to 70 inquiries about membership daily. Thanks to his confrontation in 2008 with the tantric master, the rationalist is now a national celebrity, too.

When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.

The men agreed to go to an outdoor studio that night — all to no avail. At midnight, the anchor declared the contest over. Reason had prevailed.

You can also see the guru's exploits on youtube. Unfortunately without subtitles.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Anarchist is Hailed as Saviour by Obscure Sect

I'm not the messiah, says food activist – but his many worshippers do not believe him.

Members of religious group believe London-born author has come to save the world

By Bobbie Johnson at Friday 19 March

The trouble started when Raj Patel appeared on American TV to plug his latest book, an analysis of the financial crisis called The Value of Nothing.

The London-born author, 37, thought his slot on comedy talkshow The Colbert Report went well enough: the host made a few jokes, Patel talked a little about his work and then, job done, he went back to his home in San Francisco.

Shortly afterwards, however, things took a strange turn. Over the course of a couple of days, cryptic messages started filling his inbox.

"I started getting emails saying 'have you heard of Benjamin Creme?' and 'are you the world teacher?'" he said. "Then all of a sudden it wasn't just random internet folk, but also friends saying, 'Have you seen this?'"

What he had written off as gobbledygook suddenly turned into something altogether more bizarre: he was being lauded by members of an obscure religious group who had decided that Patel – a food activist who grew up in a corner shop in Golders Green in north-west London – was, in fact, the messiah.

Their reasoning? Patel's background and work coincidentally matched a series of prophecies made by an 87-year-old Scottish mystic called Benjamin Creme, the leader of a little-known religious group known as Share International. Because he matched the profile, hundreds of people around the world believed that Patel was the living embodiment of a figure they called Maitreya, the Christ or "the world teacher".

His job? To save the world, and everyone on it.

"It was just really weird," he said. "Clearly a case of mistaken identity and clearly a case of people on the internet getting things wrong."

What started as an oddity kept snowballing until suddenly, in the middle of his book tour and awaiting the arrival of his first child, Patel was inundated by questions, messages of support and even threats. The influx was so heavy, in fact, that he put up a statement on his website referencing Monty Python's Life of Brian and categorically stating that he was not Maitreya.

Instead of settling the issue, however, his denial merely fanned the flames for some believers. In a twist ripped straight from the script of the comedy classic, they said that this disavowal, too, had been prophesied. It seemed like there was nothing to convince them.

"It's the kind of paradox that's inescapable," he said, with a grim humour. "There's very little chance or point trying to dig out of it."

There are many elements of his life that tick the prophetic checklist of his worshippers: a flight from India to the UK as a child, growing up in London, a slight stutter, and appearances on TV. But it is his work that puts him most directly in the frame and causes him the most anguish – the very things the followers of Share believe will indicate that their new messiah has arrived.

Patel's career – spent at Oxford, LSE, the World Bank and with thinktank Food First – has been spent trying to understand the inequalities and problems caused by free market economics, particularly as it relates to the developing world.

His first book, Stuffed and Starved, rips through the problems in global food production and examines how the free market has worked to keep millions hungry (Naomi Klein called it dazzling, while the Guardian's Felicity Lawrence said it was "an impassioned call to action"). The Value of Nothing, meanwhile, draws on the economic collapse to look at how we might fix the system and improve life for billions of people around the globe.

While his goal appears to match Share's vision of worldwide harmony, he says the underlying assumptions it makes are wrong – and possibly even dangerous.

"What I'm arguing in the book is precisely the opposite of the Maitreya: what we need is various kinds of rebellion and transformations about how private property works," he said.

"I don't think a messiah figure is going to be a terribly good launching point for the kinds of politics I'm talking about – for someone who has very strong anarchist sympathies, this has some fairly deep contradictions in it."

To say Patel – with his academic air, stammer and grey-flecked hair – is a reluctant saviour is an understatement. In fact, he rejects the entire notion of saviours. If there is one thing he has learned from his work as an activist in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is that there are no easy answers.

"People are very ready to abdicate responsibility and have it shovelled on to someone else's shoulders," he said. "You saw that with Obama most spectacularly, but whenever there's going to be someone who's just going to fix it for you, it's a very attractive story. It's in every mythological structure."

Unravelling exactly what it is that Share International's followers believe, however, is tricky.

The group is an offshoot of the Victorian Theosophy movement founded by Madame Blavatsky that developed a belief system out of an amalgam of various religions, spiritualism and metaphysics.

Creme – who joined a UFO cult in the 1950s before starting Share – has added a cosmic take to the whole concept: he says that Maitreya represents a group of beings from Venus called the Space Brothers.

This 18m-year-old saviour, he says, has been resting somewhere in the Himalayas for 2,000 years and – as a figure who combines messianism for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims alike – is due to return any time now, uniting humanity and making life better for everybody on earth.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Creme refuses to categorically state whether or not he believes that Patel and Maitreya are one and the same. He suggests that it is not up to him to rule either way, instead blaming media coverage, rather than his own mystical predictions, for making people "hysterical".

"It is not my place," Creme told the writer Scott James, a friend of Patel, recently. "People are looking to Mr Patel because they are looking for the fulfilment of a story which I've been making around the world for the last 35 years."

It is not the first time that Creme, an inscrutable guru with a mop of curly white hair, has courted publicity with his wild pronouncements of a messiah. In 1985 he made another prophecy: that Maitreya would reveal himself to the press in London.

A gaggle of journalists gathered in a Brick Lane curry house for the main event. In the end, the promised saviour failed to materialise. (One candidate, "a man in old robes and a faraway look in his eye", turned out to be a tramp begging for cigarettes, our correspondent wrote at the time).

Patel's rejection of his status as a deity does not seem to have killed off interest from Share's members. Indeed, the situation has invaded his everyday life, such as when two devotees travelled from Detroit – some 2,400 miles away – just to hear him give a short public talk.

"They were really nice people, not in your face, really straightforward – these people do not look like fanatics," he says. "I gave the talk, and they hung around at the end and we had a chat."

It was only then that the pair revealed that they were followers of Creme's teachings.

Patel said: "They said they thought I was the Maitreya … they also said I had appeared in their dreams. I said: 'I'm really flattered that you came all the way here, but it breaks my heart that you came all this way and spent all this money to meet someone who isn't who you think he is.'

"It made me really depressed, actually. That evening I was really down."

While he struggles to cope with this unwanted anointment, his friends and family are more tickled by the situation.

"They think it's hilarious," he said. "My parents came to visit recently, and they brought clothes that said 'he's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy'. To them, it's just amusing."

There have been similar cases in the past, including Steve Cooper, an unemployed man from Tooting, south London, who was identified by a Hindu sect as the reincarnation of a goddess and now lives in a temple in Gujurat with scores of followers.

Unlike some who have the greatness thrust upon them, though, Patel's greatest hope is that Share will leave him alone so that he can get back to normal life.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Zeitgeist Movement: Envisioning A Sustainable Future

This by Travis Walter Donovan in the Huffington Post (16th March) on the Zeitgeist Movement's Zday

"It takes a different value system if you wish to change the world," Jacque Fresco said to a sold out crowd of over 800 in New York City's Upper West Side. Though he may not need to convince these people, many his ardent followers, it will indeed take a restructuring of the mind for those unfamiliar with Fresco's work to realistically accept the ideas he proposes of a new global society that has given up money and property in favor of a shared, sustainable, technology-driven community. The caustic skepticism can already be heard, critics crying out with pointed fingers, decreeing communism, socialism, insanity! But as Fresco himself will tell you, communism is still just another system with banks and social stratification. The kind of world he imagines for the future is much different. To ease the transition, The Zeitgeist Movement provides a wealth of dizzying information detailing why a new global system is not only preferred, but necessary, and just how we can get there.

March 13th, 2010 was the second annual celebration of ZDay. Coordinated by The Zeitgeist Movement, ZDay is an educational event geared toward raising awareness of the movement. While 337 sympathetic events occurred in over 70 countries worldwide, NYC was home to the main event, a 6-hour live web cast presentation with lectures from the movement's key figures, and 30 different countries represented in the audience.

So what exactly is The Zeitgeist Movement? Not even two years old, the movement declares itself as the activist arm of The Venus Project, an organization started in the 1970s by Fresco and his partner, Roxanne Meadows. The Venus Project distributes resources promoting Fresco's vision of an improved society, with the main component being a resource-based economy, rather than a monetary-based one. In Fresco's resource-based economy, the world's resources would be considered as the equal inheritance of all the world's peoples, and would be managed as efficiently and carefully as possible through focusing on the technological potential of sustainable development. It is toward this idea that The Zeitgeist Movement works to educate and inform people.

The movement's founder, Peter Joseph, came to notoriety with his 2007 internet film sensation, Zeitgeist, and it's 2008 successor, Zeitgeist: Addendum. While many people may find it hard to digest the idea of a world without currency, Joseph's argument that our economic system is the source of our greatest social problems was supported with valuable evidence.

Describing how the margin between upper and lower classes is growing larger every day, Joseph cited that 20% of the American population controls 85% of the money. Also mentioning that the Walton family (of Wal-Mart) owns $90 billion while the lower 40% of America own $95 billion. The most startling revelations he divulged, however, were found when he graphed the amount of specific social issues in the world's richest countries against those countries' level of income inequality. The results were astounding, showing that America, a wealthy country but with a vast gap between its rich and poor, is plagued with higher homicide rates, drug use, obesity, mental illness, teenage pregnancy, infant mortality, and imprisonment. On the other hand, countries with much more equal income levels, such as Japan, have better educational scores, longer life expectancies, and higher levels of trust among their populations. The strong correlation is difficult to ignore: the higher a country's income inequality, the more social problems that degrade it, regardless of its GDP.

Joseph seemed well prepared for all the naysayers. For those who argue that the free market is an open system where anyone can achieve wealth, he displayed figures showing that America is one of the most socially immobile countries in the world, meaning that those born poor are likely to stay poor, and those born rich are likely to stay rich. For the argument that the competitive nature of capitalism produces more innovation, Joseph showed statistics that the countries with higher income equality filed more patents per million people each year than the United States and similar countries of larger income gaps.

This is aside from the obvious impact on the climate that a capitalist system creates. In a monetary society, Joseph points out, obsolescence is encouraged, as the shorter lifespan a product has, the more profit it generates in the long-term. Excess waste is built into the system, which flourishes from disposability and inefficiency. In a monetary system, Joseph says, change, abundance, sustainability, and efficiency are the enemies of profit. He goes on to add, "Corporations are not in competition with other corporations but with progress itself."

The plights of today are plainly evident, but how do we solve them? Getting rid of money, ownership and even government might sound like a ludicrous fantasy, but to the over 386,000 registered members of the fast-growing Zeitgeist Movement, it is not an option, but the only chance we have at creating a peaceful society, in harmony with nature, that provides a high-standard of living for everyone. Joseph made the focus clear in his presentation: resource preservation is equal to human survival, and all the social ideologies that currently exist are inadequate because they don't address resources as a part of their fundamental principals.

Joseph emphasized that the solution begins with a remodeling of our social values, starting with education based on sustainability. The ideal society, proposed by the project, would have a worldwide automated computer system actively monitoring the levels of the world's surveyed resources and ranking them according to factors such as their potential, renewability, and pollution. This computer would intelligently make objective decisions as to the uses of these resources based on empirical fact, not biased legislation. Automated labor would be perfected on a mass scale, something frowned upon in capitalism because it is equated with job loss and unemployment. Fresco insists eliminating all mundane jobs that insult human capacity when they can instead be relegated to machines that will act more precisely and productively.

From the maximization of resources and efficiency of automated labor, Fresco imagines a world of abundance, where everything is available to everyone. As idealistic as this may sound, keep in mind that there is currently enough food to feed everyone in the world, but not enough money to pay for it. One billion people (one-sixth of the world) are starving, yet American's throw out approximately 40% of their purchased food. Fresco says that in a world where everything is supplied, the majority of today's crimes would be non-existent, as they are primarily related to obtaining money and property, or born of social inequality. The crimes that still exist would be considered symptomatic of mental aberration, and these people would be given treatment and help, not punished, as no prisons would exist. People would be rewarded with an incentive system for contributions based on social relevance.

Celebrating his 94th birthday, Fresco was lively and animated as he guided the audience through a visual presentation of his conceptual ideas and models for sustainable technology. Wowing the crowd with images that seemed of science fiction, the audience was assured that nothing was unrealistic about his designs, and if science and technology were focused on progress instead of consumption, they would all be easily realized.

The members of The Zeitgeist Movement seem to face an intimidating wall of those who decree their goals as unattainable. But with 250 international chapters forming in just one year and the membership count rapidly growing, it's undeniable that many easily identify with the message. The evidence shows that our current system is leading us on a collision course; our present model of society cannot sustain itself. While some deny this, others ignore it, and there are those who still try to profit off of it. The Zeitgeist Movement highlights that there are individuals who believe in a sustainable future where humanity is not united by religious or political ideology, but by the scientific method, venerated as the savior that can develop a system of human equality, thriving from the cooperation and balance of technology and nature.

Also see this from the February 2010 Socialist Standard on the Zeitgeist Movement.