I had dinner with one of my favourite Dutch people last night, a woman who is one of the most interesting people I’ve met so far. We were discussing the economic crisis and she brought up a really interesting point. She said that people have been working non-stop since WW2, literally round the clock, constant working. People’s lives have become about economics, salaries, wages, and their jobs. But still, in 2011, we find ourselves facing a series of major economic crises. So her question was: why haven’t young people realized that the system just doesn’t work? We are all told that if we work work work non-stop, the economy will perform perfectly and everything will be fine. But people have been working, and yet we’re hitting a major crisis.

I thought this was a really interesting point I hadn’t thought of before. Is working this hard the answer? Aside from the mental and physical strain, and the fact that we are basically all slaves to a capitalist neo-colonial system, does it even work??

But have we realized this? If anything we are MORE worried and stressed about finding jobs, networking, forming a career, being “successful.” The rat-race is even more intense than it was 30 years ago, even though the system isn’t really working for the majority of people.

When people see problems as exceptions rather than structural, we naively accept shallow explanations and solutions. The answer to Europe’s problems is not to bail everyone out (although it is necessary in the short-term). The answer is to critically question the economic system that brought these countries to the brink of collapse. The problems appear to be symptomatic and structural, not random or due to human mistakes.

I can feel myself being pulled into the same system. Once I finish my MA life will be about work, survival, success. It will be about being productive, about cultivating shallow social relationships through networking so I can use people to get ahead, and it will be about making money, saving money, spending money. But do we have a choice?

Zizek on the Revolution

I’ve been watching and reading a lot of Slavoj Zizek in the past month, and I really believe he is one of the most influential philosophers of our time.  I just finished an article he wrote about the London riots, in which he mentioned Egypt:

Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists. The contours of the pact between the army (which is Mubarak’s army) and the Islamists (who were marginalised in the early months of the upheaval but are now gaining ground) are increasingly clear: the Islamists will tolerate the army’s material privileges and in exchange will secure ideological hegemony. The losers will be the pro-Western liberals, too weak – in spite of the CIA funding they are getting – to ‘promote democracy’, as well as the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists.

The rapidly worsening economic situation will sooner or later bring the poor, who were largely absent from the spring protests, onto the streets. There is likely to be a new explosion, and the difficult question for Egypt’s political subjects is who will succeed in directing the rage of the poor? Who will translate it into a political programme: the new secular left or the Islamists?

These are very interesting statements.  I definitely agree that the revolution died this summer, mostly because the military managed to mane sure Tahrir lost public support, while it reaffirmed its status as the ultimate Egyptian institution.  This is not to say the revolution can’t be reignited. But for now, I agree that it appears to be dead.

The recent events in Israel seem to benefit both the Israeli government (who have been mercilessly attacking Gaza ever since) and the Egyptian army (who have diverted Egyptian attention away from internal issues to the “Israeli threat” – a tactic often used by Mubarak, who knew how Palestine could always gain the attention of the Egyptian people. However, what is new is the Egyptian decision to withdraw its ambassador from Israeli over accusations of 5 Egyptian soldiers being killed by Israeli forces. This is big. But the announcement was withdrawn from the Egyptian military’s website, so it is unclear what will happen.

I also agree with Zizek that an economic revolution will come soon. People are still hungry (literally and metaphorically) and will not settle for the status quo for much longer. This revolution will be global. We have seen it in London, Spain, and Greece recently. In the Netherlands, as the government cuts more and more, we will also probably (at some point in the far future) see big demonstrations. However, countries like the Netherlands are further away because they have absolute trust in the government and governing institutions (including capitalism) and thus it will take longer for them to question these. This is the impression I get from Dutch people I have spoken to about the issue: they still do not see capitalism and neo-liberalism as the core structural problems. Rather they tend to blame Greece, immigrants, America, or whoever else is currently “causing problems.”

I like the fact that Zizek mentions the “secular left” in Egypt, as opposed to only focusing on the Islamists as the only alternative to the military. This is something I do not see in the majority of European/American articles about the revolution. The secular left can be a very strong force in Egyptian politics, given the chance and time to organize. The Muslim Brotherhood have been around since the 1920s: they are well-organized, well-funded, and know how to deal with the Egyptian state/military. This is not the case for the secular left, or other political groupings in Egypt.

My next post will be on what Zizek said about the London riots – definitely the most insightful comments I’ve read so far.

The financial crisis

I just went to a fascinating talk about the current financial crisis by one of my professors, Howard Nicholas. I think he is one of the most influential professors I’ve had, especially in terms of understanding economics and the global financial system. Some of his main points:

  • We will see a major shift in global power relations in our lifetimes. This will be due to a massive shift of wealth from the advanced countries to the developing ones. Multi-nationals have already started this shift: they are laying off thousands of people in western countries and moving more and more offices and plants to developing ones. In 20 years it is predicted that there will be unemployment rates of 30% in European countries. Phillips, for example, has shifted major parts of its Research & Design sector to Singapore.
  • The power shift is already happening. The US accounts much less of global trade than it did 30 years ago, and its GDP has reduced dramatically in comparison to other countries. Now they comprise 33% of world GDP.
  • One major reason that the west will decline is the fact that it is cutting education budgets. ALL western countries except Germany have made cuts in education, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands didn’t even have to make big cuts, but it chose to do so in education. This means that in 30 years, there will be lower levels of education in the west, as compared to the developing world where there is MASSIVE investment in education now, especially in the private sector. Thus we may see an imbalance in the future, with westerners having to occupy low-level jobs and people from developing countries filling the skilled jobs (I can’t believe I might live to see this day!)
  • Yet another problem for the west is its aging infrastructure. The infrastructure in many western countries is old and thus in need of repair/upgrading. In the US, a proposed budget of $3 trillion would only fix 5% of roads and bridges in the country! The developing world, on the other hand, has relatively new infrastructure.
  • A major problem for the advanced countries today is the amount of debt they have. The US debt, for example, is 1500% of its GDP – that’s the highest it has ever been. Developing countries, on the other hand, have extremely low levels of debt. China is 20%, India is 70%.
  • The roots of the crisis in the US have not been properly addressed. The government has given money to the banks (who are responsible for the crisis), and the banks have started lending again. Consumer debt is startin to rise again, suggesting that many Americans haven’t learnt their lesson or are forced to continue borrowing to survive/pay off previous debt.
  • Before the crisis, banks were making 40% of ALL profit made in the US market. This shows how much power and control they had. Today, AFTER the crisis, they continue to make over 40%!
  • Much of US debt is in the hands of China, and this is significant in terms of global power relations. Although China is also vulnerable and tied to the US, it is in no way as vulnerable as the US is right now.
  • Pure capitalism is only being practiced by countries in East Asia. This comprises of a strong state which controls capitalism, that stifles the financials sector (especially the banks), and that builds infrastructure. Re-distribution (as in Taiwan for example) is also an aspect. The IMF, which has always been against capitalism for developing countries (don’t want any competition for the west) managed to ensure that most developing countries did not apply pure capitalism. This destroyed many of these countries, but they are coming back now (Brazil, Argentina) and they’re pissed (hahaha).
So basically we may see something monumental happening in our lifetimes: the decline of the west and the rise of the developing world. I have to say, this would be simply amazing. Not that the west will decline (after all I doubt they would reach levels that the developing world reached due to colonialism), but that the developing world will rise. After centuries of brutal colonialism and exploitation (usually by the west), the people in the Global South deserve a break.