Wednesday, April 29, 2009

May Day: To the Folks Who Brought Us the Weekend!

[I wrote this a few years ago for this blog, and now I re-post it every year. If you like it, please digg it or yahoo buzz, etc.]

I used to think "May Day" was a distress signal uniquely reserved for hapless pilots and captains. In fact, it wasn't until graduate school while taking an American rhetorical history course that I learned about the Haymarket Riots/Massacre and that Labor Day for many people around the world (International Workers Day), except for Americans, is May 1, in memory of those who died in Chicago on May 3 and 4, 1886 and in celebration of the humanist accomplishments of the international labor movement.

On May 1, labor unions had organized a strike there for the eight-hour day, better working conditions ("The Jungle" is hard to beat on this), for an ideal of international proportions: that one's labor and the person from whom it issues must be respected. For some people such respect meant that laborers deserved certain rights of negotiation and safety to avoid a new feudalism in the age of mass production.

On May3, they organized a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., where a fight broke out on the picket line; police intervened, killing two workers and wounding several others. Workers across the city were enraged. Anarchists then distributed flyers for a labor rally at Haymarket Square the following day. Reports vary in this highly politicized event, but many note that people listened peacefully to anarchist leader August Spies's address. Then apparently someone threw a bomb over the crowd, which landed on the police line killing a police officer and wounding other policeman who died later. Policeman fired into the crowd killing a number of people (there are no uncontested counts). Eight German immigrants associated with anarchism were rounded up and convicted on no evidence. The motive was that they were anarchists. Seven of them were sentenced to death. One committed suicide. One's sentence was commuted to life in prison. And five were hanged publicly.

The trial produced some of the most eloquent criticisms of American industrial society and its political butresses. Some, such as George Engel's, even provide an explanation/argument for how one came to be a socialist/anarchist. Here is an excerpt from George Englel's address to the jury, which I recommend reading in its entirety by clicking on this link.

[...]On the occasion of my arrival at Philadelphia, on the 8th of January, 1873, my heart swelled with joy in the hope and in the belief that in the future I would live
and in a free country. I made up my mind to become a good citizen of this country, and congratulated myself on having left Germany, and landed in this glorious republic. And I believe my past history will bear witness that I have ever striven to be a good citizen of this country. This is the first occasion of my standing before an American court, and on this occasion it is murder of which I am accused. And for what reasons do I stand here? For what reasons am I accused of murder? The same that caused me to leave Germany-
of the working classes.
And here, too, in this "free republic," in the richest country of the world, there are numerous proletarians for whom no table is set; who, as outcasts of society, stray joylessly through life. I have seen human beings gather their daily food from the garbage heaps of the streets, to quiet therewith their knawing hunger.
I have read of occurrences in the daily papers which proves to me that here, too, in this great "free land," people are doomed to die of starvation. This brought me to reflection, and to the question: What are the peculiar causes that could bring about such a condition of society? I then began to give our political institutions more attention than formerly. [...]

"I came to the opinion that as long as workingmen are economically enslaved they cannot be politically free. [...]
Of what does my crime consist?
That I have labored to bring about a system of society by which it is impossible for one to hoard millions, through the improvements in machinery, while the great masses sink to degradation and misery. As water and air are free to all, so should the inventions of scientific men be applied for the benefit of all. The statute laws we have are
in that they rob the great masses of their rights "to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
I am too much a man of feeling not to battle against the societary conditions of today. Every considerate person must combat a system which makes it possible for the individual to rake and hoard millions in a few years, while, on the other side, thousands become tramps and beggars.
Is it to be wondered at that under such circumstances men arise, who strive and struggle to create other conditions,
over all other considerations? [...]

As this article demonstrates, the radical democratic history of May Day has been coopted in a few places in the world (in an attempt to rob it of its radical history as a resource for current politics), namely the U.S. Like other rights and practices many people hold to be sacred today, the eight-hour day was the result of social struggle and bloodshed (I'm just testifying about it; don't try this at home) by those considered "extremists."

In that same graduate school class where I learned about the history of May Day, a Polish student who had grown up in the last days of the Soviet Empire told an interesting story. Apparently on May Day, a Polish TV news correspondent was sent to Chicago to report on May Day. He went to the site of the Hay Market, where a monument to the police had been constructed then vandalized. (Only in 2004 was one constructed to acknowledge the workers who died there too. The politics of memorializing this event is quite a story in itself--see "Haymarket Square in the Aftermath"). The Polish reporter went around Chicago asking citizens if they knew that May Day was an international holiday in memory of the Haymarket riots and massacre. No one knew what he was talking about. He responded on their Communist state-run TV broadcast, "This is how capitalism perpetuates itself. Citizens here are robbed of their own history and live in a dreamworld." You don't have to like the Soviet Union to find truth in his observation. (and please, neo-liberals, don't be so cynical as to characterize this memorial as an extreme argument for state ownership of property;it's rather about some redistribution for equal opportunity and the basis for participation in civic life, and limitation of the most powerful who set the terms for the labor market)

The testimony of Engel and others at their fateful trial is also a causal argument about what desperate human beings will do when they suffer political exclusion to work out conflict peacefully. The fact that this event is largely a ghost in American history speaks to how unwilling some people are to look at the ugliness of our history (not that forgetting isn't best in some situations from a certain point of view), the struggles of citizen against citizen because such knowledge is threatening to myths of nation and its tenuous coherence. It's also threatening to those whose interests invested in criminalizing critiques of a consumer society that is killing our planet, not just its people. Part of the reason why it may continue is the suppression of other knowledges of the past and critiques of the present. Just as many wounded laborers were afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested when police opened fire on the crowd on May 4, 1886 (after the bomb exploded) , so today one faces being branded an extremist, a radical, a revolutionary, merely for remembering this past.

Today (yesterday for some people reading this) is May Day. Today, let us remember these people who brought us the weekend.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Economic Crisis and Religious Dictates Against Usury

As I'm preparing a talk on the current economic crisis from the perspective of a history of American popular understandings of democracy and its relationship to economic regulation, I ran across the following article. My own research leaves me amazed at how so many Americans claim to be religious, yet their support of recent economic policies stands in conflict with their religious dictates. The Torah, the Koran, and the Bible all ban usury, and have passages that have been interpreted as obliging redistribution of resources. Why don't people know about their own religions? Certain interests and their selective readings have for various reasons won out recently. Is there chance that will change in the near future?

March 28, 2009

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced sweeping changes in the nation's finance rules, specifically targeting the derivative financial products that led to the credit crisis, mortgage crisis, banking crisis, and the crisis in the American automobile industry.. Predictably, some conservatives have responded that such policies would lead to "socialism," or a similar compromise of the free-enterprise American dream.

In fact, such regulations are as old as the Ten Commandments, and as American as apple pie: they are nothing more than an update of the ancient prohibitions on usury, or the unfair charging of interest. And while today, "usury" has a whiff of the antiquarian about it (or worse, one of antisemitism), if we look closely at what usury laws were meant to do, I think we'll discover that they are much more relevant, and worthy, than we might suppose.

Western civilization's original usury laws are found in the Bible: the Torah contains several prohibitions against lending money at interest, and the New Testament several condemnations of it. Deuteronomy 23:20-21 is representative: "Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother: interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest. Unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon interest; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon interest; that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto, in the land whither thou goest in to possess it."

I will return to the distinction between Israelite and foreigner below, but first, however, I want to explore rationales for the usury prohibition in the first place. In the Deuteronomy passage above, the reason is somewhat generic: interest is forbidden, like many other ritual and ethical acts, "so that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou puttest thy hand unto."

In Leviticus 25:35-37, however, a more specific reason is given: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. Take thou no interest of him or increase; but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon interest, nor give him thy victuals for increase."

Here, at least two reasons are given: first, the ethical value of caring for the poor, and second, "that thy brother may live with thee." If one were to charge interest, the text suggests, the bonds of society would collapse; rich and poor could not live together. Later commentators developed these dual rationales. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that usury is both morally wrong and an improper form of "double-charging," because money is a means of commerce, not a thing in itself.

"That thy brother may live with me," in other words, is a prudential argument, not a moral/ethical one. The concern here is not only that usury is immoral -- it takes advantage of the weak -- but also that civil society itself would be compromised if usury were allowed. This, not ethnocentrism, is why lending to foreigners was allowed; the concern was with the economic health and civil cohesion of Israelite society, which would are not threatened by lending to outsiders. But if usury multiplied risk and magnified inequity within the community of Israel, chaos would result.

Notice, too, that these twin rationales extend the purview of usury law far beyond the narrow contemporary meaning of charging excessive interest. Today, all states have usury statutes that cap the rate of interest for loans. But the Biblical and exegetical usury statutes are broader: they are aimed at the moral turpitude, societal inequity, and economic instability inherent in making money from money.

Translated into today's economic realities, this has indeed come to pass. Wealthy institutions have lured poor people into unsustainable and unstable credit arrangements, and indeed, the basic cords of our society have begun to fray. As we have seen in the excesses of executive compensation, we have lost the moral compass which once tied pay to some notions of actual work and fairness, rather than to the made-up prices of economic bubbles. Indeed, our current crisis is exactly the economic, societal, and ethical chaos which the usury laws sought to prevent.

Today's derivatives market, for example, is precisely about "making money from money" -- but taken to new and ludicrous extremes. The credit default swaps which were largely responsible for sinking insurance giant A.I.G. were essentially bets about whether certain debts would be paid or defaulted-upon. Now, as it happened, debtors defaulted in such numbers that they brought down the house. But this derivative security should never have been legal in the first place. It is a bet on making money from money; or rather, a bet on making money from lending money at a near-usurious rate of interest, and thus a usurious attempt to make money from making money from making money. As the Bible itself knew, bubbles pop.

The anti-usury value does not and should not depend on the percentage rate of interest. It is a wider prohibition, both ethical and prudential, against making money from money. Of course, it cannot be taken too literally, either; credit is what makes our economy run, as we have now learned the hard way. But in principle, anti-usury values are fundamental to the American experience, and more needed now than ever.

To ban or heavily regulate usurious derivative securities is not socialism. It's the Bible.

Jay Michaelson --from the Huffington Post

Thursday, April 09, 2009

NATO Protests and Repressive Tolerance: State Containment of Free Speech

The tactics of French police directed by the State to thwart the rights of freedom of expression in Strasbourg this week for NATO meetings are a troubling but sobering sign of a recent trend of ever more repressive tolerance in Western liberal democracies, by which I refer to the phenomenon of increasing state caricature of rights to free speech by cordoning it off, thwarting its circulation, which amounts, in effect, to freedom to speak to the wall.

French police literally shut down the entire city and quarantined the protestors. While 40,000 to 50,000 protestors were expected, according to the AP wire, only about half of that estimate were counted on site. There is evidence that the reduced presence is due to police harassment, detainment, containment and arrests of hundreds of protesters. One wonders what tactics were used to reduce the numbers further. The AP Wire writes,

"On thursday night in Strasbourg police detained at least 300 people and forced demonstrators back into a tent camp on the edge of the city."

Was the city effectively closed by police order to deprive the protestors of an audience and to create less of a media spectacle ? In other words, did the state attempt to stifle free political speech?

While there is also a trend of violence among fringe protestors, it is no wonder that violence broke out in Strasbourg given police provocations and the frustration born of this quarantine.

21 March Le Monde: "The mayor of Strasbourg didn't really have a say in the deployment of security forces in the city [for the NATO summit]. It was the French and German governments, in consultation with NATO and the U.S., which decided on the security measures and put them in place." The article continues, "The inhabitants of Strasbourg have the impression of witnessing their city under seige: no parking, transportation by bicycle encouraged, buses rerouted, and public services temporarily closed." Many businesses closed as the result of the policy.

Another independent account states that all bridges were closed and the protestors had no way out. IN other words, they were brutally, strategically quarantined. Why?

A Le Monde journalist Arnaud Leparmentier spoke of how he was allowed, ironically, to be seated two rows behind Obama for the press conference. Police, the journalist said, tightly blocked entrance to the conference, yet no one ever checked his bag, which he noted could have of course contained a bomb, hypothetically. Why the double standard?

Yesterday, Wednesday July 9 I was approaching the Invalides metro, the common site of a great many protests in Paris, to find Tamils, of which there are estimated to be 60,000 refugees in France," protesting the Sri Lankan governments offensive against Tamil rebels. I was shocked to see hundreds of them boxed in like cattle in an approximately 20x10 yards square area. Many were seated on the ground, while others stood and chanted. I witnessed no violence whatsoever. Some police mocked the protesters, while others attempted to block any contact the protesters could have with an audience of passersby. One man leaned over a makeshift fence to offer leaflets to anyone who wished to have them. Several people including myself approached him out of curiosity. Immediately, the police rushed over and took his leaflets, telling him he could not pass them out. Why, I don't know, unless French foreign policy includes silencing protests such as this.

Outside the 2004 Republican nominating convention in New York, protesters were confined to what was euphemistically called a "free speech zone," which protesters referred to as a cage. What is free about free speech in these situations? Is this what founders of Western constitutions had in mind when they spoke of liberty and equality, sacred rights of political assembly and freedom of expression. These are tactics more akin to fascist control of protest, provoking violence, then meeting it with disproportionate force. But most of all they have media effects.

There are few spectacular media images such as the fire hoses being turned on children in the Civil Rights movement. The spectacular images are of the lunatic black block, precisely the undermining of the protest organizers' strategies. None of the stories I read when I googled "Strasbourg," "NATO," and "protests" attempted to discuss why and what is was protesters were protesting. Instead we got tried and true frames that media business values commonly dictate. Conflict and violence. But this frame was lent by the State attempt to control speech. Why these measures? In the same way that states have learned from their mistakes in control (or lack thereof) in war situations, from Vietnam to Algeria. So they've learned ways to defuse the power of protests.

What this means is that the old strategies for effective change via consciousness raising in marches are largely co opted today. They must find other ways of addressing audiences and circulating messages in the way they intend.

more pictures here