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Peter Buffett’s “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” op-ed is notable because only rarely do wealthy people admit there’s something deeply morally wrong about accumulating wealth and the widespread existence of poverty:
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
While I’m happy to hear this critique and glad that it’s passed into the mainstream media so that elites are paying attention, I wish there was more of a direction here about where to go next.
What I like about it: Pointing out big problems: the classist misimpression that the wealthy know best about how to improve the lives of the poor, the idea that managerial and capitalist logic can easily be applied to problems that are essentially about public goods, the unwillingness of donors to give up control when they give their money, the notion that unconscionable gathering of wealth can be laundered by “giving back.”
What I worry about, especially among US-based radicals: The idea that simply abandoning or destroying these institutions or the flow of wealth they represent will solve things. This is why I’m resistant to naming this an “industrial complex”—something that must be destroyed.
The reality is that resources are wrongly distributed from the global South to a rich few every day, leaving behind both injustice and unmet needs. We can, and should, attack the injustice head-on, and fight the looting of the world by corporations and their corrupt associates in governments. But, we also need to build an infrastructure that provides public goods, like the eradication of polio, equitable titling of land, ambulances in rural communities, and emergency food assistance. The struggle is not to stop the institutions that distribute resources from northern donors to such ends, but to make them functional and to make them accountable to the people they serve.
Frankly, both liberals and radicals in the US are bad at putting their money where their heart is in challenging third world poverty. When I visited the Zapatistas, I saw desperately needed ambulances funded by Italian squatters. In Bolivia, left parties from Scandinavia run their own alternatives to the official aid system, while US Americans just complain about USAID without building alternatives. Indigenous and small farmer titles under agrarian reform there happened through official development assistance funds paired with a radical government.
Bottom line: change can cost money, and we need to think seriously about how to insist that it flows where its most needed.
Fernando Vargas, president of the Subcentral TIPNIS, speaks alongside Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in Washington, DC. The two leaders were on a five-day trip to draw attention to human rights violations in the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in Cochabamba and Beni departments of Bolivia.
There’s a new tumblr in the lead up to the May Day general strike offering 30 Radical Struggles, Poems, Jams, Speeches, Creative Acts, Heroes, Texts and Reasons to Strike. One coming at you each day of April. Stay tuned at http://daystilmay.tumblr.com/
Like what is soon to be thousands and thousands of people, I’m now in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Cbba is Bolivia’s third-largest metropolis, and fourth-largest city (both of the twins, La Paz and El Alto, are larger along with Santa Cruz). If you’ve heard of Cochabamba before, it’s probably because of the April 2000 Water War. In celebration of that event’s tenth anniversary, water activists are gathering in the 3rd International Water Fair from this past Thursday until Sunday (website). And Bolivia, which played a pivotal role in the December Copenhagen Climate Summit is hosting a global gathering to re-plant the global effort to confront damaging climate change, the World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (website), Monday through Thursday in the Cochabamba suburb of Tiquipaya. So far, there are over 14,000 registrations online for the conference, with representatives of over 60 governments and over 100 countries making the trip.
Since I’ve been passionately involved in climate change issues, but am actually focusing on other matters here in Bolivia, I’ll be channeling this week direct to you here, as well as doing my best with 140 characters at a time via twitter: @CarwilJ. Stay tuned.
Bolivia’s elections are prompting the mainstream press to run a series of profile pieces, such as these: “In Bolivia, a Force for Change Endures,” New York Times; “Bolivia’s Morales favored to win re-election,” Reuters.
There has also been some hyperventilating led by the Heritage Foundation’s claim that “U.S. Should Reject Illegitimate Election Process in Bolivia.” Heritage goes so far as to advocate, “The Obama Administration should … refuse to recognize the new government Morales forms, and call for Bolivia’s expulsion from the Organization of American States (OAS).”
Leaving the election’s legitimacy to the ample contingent of observers, and noting that Heritage writers have managed to trump up Senate President Oscar Ortiz’s statement with uninformed exaggerations throughout the piece, let’s turn to Heritage’s alternate universe account of the first Morales term:
Not only have Morales’s economic policies weakened and further impoverished the already destitute poor of Bolivia, but his win in the December 6 election will empower him to further persecute what little remains of a democratic alternative.
Many of Morales supporters are indigenous Bolivians from the western highlands who have been mired in poverty for generations. Improving these indigenous people’s living conditions is certainly a laudable goal, but Morales’s methodology for realizing such improvement — statist policies and totalitarian control — has been disastrous.
As it turns out, Bolivia’s economic performance is the subject of a newly released report (announcement|pdf|flash) by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (home of Dean Baker, the economist most vocal about the housing crisis before it became headline news). In it we find:
Bolivia’s economic growth in the last four years has been higher than at any time in the last 30 years, averaging 4.9 percent annually since the current administration took office in 2006. Projected GDP growth for 2009 is the highest in the hemisphere. It is worth noting that Bolivia’s growth for 2009 follows its peak growth rate in 2008. As discussed in more detail below, Bolivia’s 2009 growth is all the more remarkable in view of the size and number of negative shocks to the economy. These included falling remittances, declining foreign investment, the United States’ revocation of trade preferences, declining export prices and markets for part of the year and other impacts of the global recession.
In short, Bolivia has ducked the Great Recession’s global impact, something achieved by only a handful of countries. How? Largely by its partial nationalizations of natural resource extraction industries, paying down external debt (including to the World Bank and IMF, with the help of debt cancellation), accumulating currency reserves, and spending them in a stimulus that is relatively larger than ours in the United States. Where has that money gone? Partly to public investment and infrastructure, and partly directly to the poor:
In the last three years the government has begun several programs targeted at the poorest Bolivians. These include payments to poor families to increase school enrollment; an expansion of public pensions to relive extreme poverty among the elderly; and most recently, payments for uninsured mothers to expand prenatal and post-natal care, to reduce infant and child mortality.
More official sources concur in the economic success, notably the International Monetary Fund: “The International Monetary Fund said in October that Bolivia is likely to post Latin America’s strongest economic growth this year at 2.8 percent” (source: Reuters; see also Bolivia’s Gross Domestic Product over time).
Five years ago, Bolivia’s national politics revolved around the future of its national gas resources. Today, none of the candidates is even suggesting a reversal of the partial nationalization that movements demanded and the Morales government has carried out.
Further background on the elections is available from: the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center (1|2|3); Upside Down World (1); Andean Information Network (1|2); InterPress Service (1); Bolivia Transition Project (“Pre-election analysis”).
This past Friday afternoon, my friend and comrade Tristan Anderson was shot in the forehead by Israeli occupation forces at a demonstration against the wall they are building across the West Bank. The International Solidarity Movement reports,
Another resident from Ni’lin was shot in the leg with live ammunition. Four Ni’lin residents have been killed during demonstrations against the confiscation of their land.
Ahmed Mousa (10) was shot in the forehead with live ammunition on 29th July 2008. The following day, Yousef Amira (17) was shot twice with rubber-coated steel bullets, leaving him brain dead. He died a week later on 4 August 2008. Arafat Rateb Khawaje (22), was the third Ni’lin resident to be killed by Israeli forces. He was shot in the back with live ammunition on 28 December 2008. That same day, Mohammed Khawaje (20), was shot in the head with live ammunition, leaving him brain dead. He died three days in a Ramallah hospital.
Residents in the village of Ni’lin have been demonstrating against the construction of the Apartheid Wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Ni’lin will lose approximately 2500 dunums of agricultural land when the construction of the Wall is completed. Ni’lin was 57,000 dunums in 1948, reduced to 33,000 dunums in 1967, currently is 10,000 dunums and will be 7,500 dunums after the construction of the Wall.
The campaign against the construction of an apartheid wall across the West Bank is a crucial part of changing the dynamics of occupation in Palestine. The wall is the greatest manifestation of the policies of confiscating land, turning the occupation into annexation, and maintaining a logic of social separation between Jews and non-Jews in the occupied West Bank. It is also the key place where international law, solidarity from around the world, Palestinian civil society cooperation, and nonviolent direct action are being experimented with as tools for liberation. It does not surprise me, but does make me proud that Tristan placed himself in this crucial location.
Gabrielle Silverman, an activist, eyewitness and Tristan’s girlfriend, described the scene:
We were at a demonstration against the wall, against the Israeli apartheid wall in the West Bank village of Ni’lin, which is about twenty-six kilometers west of Ramallah. I was very close to him when he was shot. I was only a few feet away. The demonstration had been going for several hours. It was wrapping up; it was almost over. Most people had already gone home.
We were standing on some grass nearby a village mosque, and Tristan was taking pictures. He likes to take pictures and post them on Indymedia, sometimes under assumed names. And he was taking pictures, and he was shot in the head with the extended range tear gas canister. He fell to—nothing was happening immediately around us, by the way, I should mention. No one was throwing rocks around us. Nothing was happening. We were standing there.
He fell to the ground, and immediately medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent responded, came running over. And more people came running over. It was very clear that he was—that there was a seriously injured person on the ground. The medics are impossible to mistake. They wear neon uniforms. They have bright yellow stretchers. The medics were working on him, were getting him onto the stretcher, and as we’re doing so, the army continues to tear gas all around us. As we’re carrying him off on the stretcher, there’s tear gas falling, tear gas canister after tear gas canister falling at our feet.
Finally, we get him to the ambulance. The ambulance is very good. The Palestinian medics were excellent. And we get into the ambulance. We drive in the ambulance to the checkpoint at the beginning of town, and we are stopped there at the checkpoint for about fifteen minutes. For about fifteen minutes, the army, the Israeli army, refuses to let us through, even though we have a critically injured person in the ambulance. And the reason why is because under no circumstances are Palestinian ambulances ever allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank. And so, with Tristan being critically injured and getting worse and worse and worse and worse and falling deeper into this abyss, the soldiers are holding us up and waiting—we had to wait there for an Israeli ambulance to come from who knows where and then transfer him into that ambulance. All of this is taking precious time.
Finally, we drive to the hospital in Tel Aviv. I should add also, once the Israeli ambulance did finally show up, there was a soldier who stood in the doorway smirking and wouldn’t move and wouldn’t let the ambulance through until finally another international activist grabbed this soldier and we slammed the door shut, and then the ambulance was first able to start moving towards the hospital. When he got to the hospital, they started doing surgeries on him. (Democracy Now!, March 16)
Solidarity demonstrations have been held in London and San Francisco. A demonstration will be held in New York on Friday. It will be at the Israeli consulate, 800 2nd Ave, 4:00pm – 6:00pm. More than 4,000 people have joined “Solidarity with Tristan Anderson” on Facebook.
Tristan has been transferred to intensive care and his condition remains serious.
Tristan is unconscious, anesthetized and artificially respirated, has
sustained life-threatening injuries to his brain (as well as to his
right eye), and is expected to undergo several operations in the
The Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation turned out to be the right action at the right time. It attracted solidarity from Jobs with Justice, congresspeople, President Elect Obama, and from the New York City IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a longstanding union built on anarchist principles). The NYC solidarity action visited 3 Bank of America offices:
The net result…
The 240 workers who had occupied the factory since its abrupt closing Dec. 5 voted unanimously Wednesday night to accept a deal to pay them severance, vacation time, and temporary health care benefits. The $1.75 million agreement was negotiated over three days with the workers’ union, Republic owners and lender Bank of America.
Union negotiators were unable to obtain a commitment from the parties to reopen the Goose Island plant, said United Electrical Workers organizer Mark Meinster. So the union has decided to forge ahead to find someone new to run the plant, he said, using some of the money donated from around the world during the sit-in. (Chicago Tribune)
The settlement, happily coming on my birthday, includes the following:
The settlement totals $1.75million. It will provide the workers with:
- Eight weeks of pay [workers] are owed under the federal WARN Act;
- Two months of continued health coverage, and;
- Pay for all accrued and unused vacation.
JPMorgan Chase will provide $400,000 of the settlement, with the balance coming from Bank of America. Although the money will be provided as a loan to Republic Windows and Doors, it will go directly into a third-party fund whose sole purpose is to pay the workers what is owed them. In addition, the UE has started the “Window of Opportunity Fund” dedicated to re-opening the plant. (Jobs with Justice)
Of course, larger success will come (or not come) as these tactics are taken up across the country, as they change agenda and form of contest, and if they make workers (and, yes, that’s us) think of themselves as owning the economy instead of just working for it.
For now the threat alone may have an impact as well, as U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) put it, “This Republic Windows saga, I’m sure, is reverberating throughout boardrooms in America.”
Bitch, Ph.D. notes insightfully:
The last time American workers resisted mass layoffs this way, we ended up with a middle class.And that’s change you can believe in.
Okay. No one can claim that the vortex of disappearing money is not confusing. Those of us who spend our days buying mere things with services thrown in for a bonus, are bound to be confused by the array of ways in which money, currencies, debt are bought, repackaged and sold. Not to mention the ways in which the possibility of any of those “things” fluctuating in value is then remade into a commodity in and of itself.
So, I’m assembling here (stay tuned to this post) as much background as I can on how this happened…
First up, is This American Life‘s collaboration with NPR on The Giant Pool of Money, an hour-long radio documentary on how excess cash begat a housing boom, a mortgage collapse, and the credit crunch. Ignore the bit from early this summer when they speculate that everything will only get as bad as the 1970s. As Lehman Brother’s understated last dispatch declares:
This episode of financial crisis appears to be much deeper and more serious than we and most observers thought it likely to be. And it is by no means clear that it is over.
The New York Times, which has had to start a blog called Freakonomics (after a book, but imagine the great grey paper running that title in stabler times), offers summaries of the crisis by David Leonhardt, “Bubblenomics,” and John Steele Gordon, “Greed, Stupidity, Delusion — and Some More Greed.”